The Brain Cell

About a week ago I found a truly excellent photo online of Walter the Muppet and the Great Gonzo posing for a selfie at Epcot Center. If you are unsure who Walter and Gonzo are, just know that they are extremely cool to nerdy Muppet enthusiasts.

I saved the picture to a file on my computer, not entirely sure what I would do with it. I have a habit of doing this; I have a collection of hundreds of funny, strange or just interesting pictures to attach to emails or use in presentations. I never know when one of them might come in handy, so I keep them around, just in case. Yes, I suppose this is hoarding, but it’s digital hoarding, so at least I can still navigate my living room.

After an hour or so, I thought, “You know who would love this picture? The Artist.” Our only child is a freshman at art school in Chicago, and this might make a nice surprise.

So I uploaded the photo to a drug store to be printed. Later that afternoon I picked up my prints, then went to an art supply store and bought a frame. I had to juggle a couple of cards and my cellphone at the register while I tried to find a coupon for the frame, and ended up throwing everything into my bag as I left the store, because I didn’t want to hold up the line behind me.

When I mailed the framed Muppet photo to The Artist, I used the art supply store bag as cushioning, to protect the glass in the frame, and long story short, I’m pretty sure I mailed my debit card to Chicago.

I’ve dedicated this week’s cocktail to my lone remaining brain cell.

The Brain Cell

  • 1 ounce Ol’ Major Bacon Bourbon
  • 1 ounce Howler Head Banana Bourbon
  • 1 ounce Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey
  • 1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 1 ounce ginger beer – not ginger ale; this drink needs the extra bit of ginger
  • 4 drops Tabasco sauce

Combine all three whiskeys, the lime juice, and the Tabasco over ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake to chill.

Add the ginger beer and stir gently.

Strain over fresh ice in a rocks or coupé glass.

Sip, while listening to “Yalili Ya Aini,” by Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart. It’s a strange and beautiful song that will match your — OK, my — mental state.

This can be a slightly befuddling cocktail, even before you make it. The list of its ingredients are surprising, perhaps even intimidating. Bourbon, bacon, banana and peanut butter don’t seem to make a lot of sense together. And yet the combination works.

Many people are familiar with an “Elvis Sandwich” — peanut butter and banana. It seems pleasantly wacky, but the sweetness of the banana complements the proteiny solidity of the peanut butter. What most people don’t know is that the sandwich Elvis Presley actually loved was a grilled peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich. There’s a common thread there of saltiness, sweetness and umami. (Clearly, my own exhausted brain cells have a strange priority in what they are dedicated to.)

So there’s our drink’s whiskey taken care of. We know that bourbon pairs well with sweet tastes, and certainly with other whiskeys. But won’t that leave this drink too sweet? It would, if not for the lime juice, which brings everything back in line. Its acidity and fruitiness pair well with the peanut butter and banana flavors.

The ginger beer and the Tabasco give a little bit of a bite to the operation, and the ginger beer also adds a slight tingle of effervescence.

This is one of those cocktails that comes at you in waves. The bacon and peanut butter hit you first, followed by fruity, tingly aftertaste. You’ll know that you like it, as soon as you taste it, but you will probably drink at least two of these, trying to wrap your head around it.

Without having to go to Chicago.

Featured photo: The Brain Cell. Photo by John Fladd.

Rubber Ducky

On Jan. 10, 1992, the Greek container ship Ever Laurel ran into rough weather in the North Pacific, a couple of days out from Tacoma. At some point a stack of six shipping containers snapped its chains and plunged overboard into the Pacific Ocean.

This kind of accident isn’t common but it’s also not unheard of. On average around 1,500 shipping containers are lost at sea each year. This is a tiny percentage of the estimated 500 million containers in use, but also nothing to shrug at.

What made this particular accident noteworthy is that one of the containers was filled with 28,000 bath toys, including 7,200 yellow rubber duckies.

Over the next several years the toys were carried north by ocean currents, eventually traveling through the Northwest Passage north of Canada, and dispersed by other currents around the world. Even now some of these toys are still washing up in unexpected places. They have been found as far away as the United Kingdom, Australia and Chile. Now that there is less Arctic sea ice than ever, some plastic ducks, turtles and beavers are being released to a new generation of beach-combers.

As I’m sure you’re aware, National Rubber Ducky Day is this weekend. You are probably still in the process of getting rid of other holiday ornaments, and haven’t had time to shop for rubber ducks, but if you’re feeling a little spent, gray and empty with the start of a new year, it’s probably worth raising a glass to our plastic yellow friends and reflecting on the fact that things could always be worse. You could spend 30 years, bobbing and smiling, through Arctic Sea ice.

Rubber Ducky Cocktail

  • 1½ ounces Midori melon liqueur
  • 1½ ounces 99 Peaches peach schnapps
  • 2½ ounces fresh watermelon juice (see below)
  • ¾ ounce fresh squeezed lime juice

Open your laptop, and place it on the counter next to you.

Open YouTube, and search for Hampenberg DuckToy Vocal Club Mix.

Turn your volume up to an unconscionable level and press play. This will be the perfect background music for mixing this drink. You’re ready now.

Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker.

Shake enthusiastically.

Pour, including ice, into a rocks glass.

Sip, vibing seamlessly — or, if you are like me, shuffling awkwardly — to the rubber ducky club mix playing on your computer.

This is a shockingly fun cocktail. The melon juice and the melon liqueur obviously go well together. The peach schnapps provides a floral fruitiness. By itself watermelon juice is surprisingly flat, but the acid from a jolt of lime juice brings it to life. This doesn’t exactly taste like bubble gum, but it also doesn’t not taste like gum of some sort. At first glance this might seem flighty and low-octane — and that may be true of the Midori — but the 99 Peaches actually clocks in at 99 proof, so this is not a drink to take for granted. Like a rubber ducky lost at sea, it might take you to unexpected places.

Watermelon Juice

Buy a one-quart container of pre-cubed watermelon at your supermarket. You aren’t going to be laying this out on a fruit plate or pairing with a nice prosciutto, so it’s OK to cut a corner during this process.

Pour the contents of the container into your blender and blend thoroughly. If you notice a seed or two, don’t panic; your blender will take care of things. If you have an over-powered, overly enthusiastic blender like mine, he will probably look on any seeds as a challenge.

Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain off the watermelon pulp. Leave everything in the strainer for half an hour or so, to let the components say goodbye to each other.

This should net you about 12 ounces of juice. If you want to drink it as juice, add the juice of half a lime to de-flatten it (see above).

Featured photo: Rubber Ducky Cocktail. Photo by John Fladd.

West 75th

New Year’s Eve is supposed to be a romantic holiday. In my experience, it’s a little over-hyped. The best New Year’s Eve I ever had was when I was 8 years old. I was being babysat by an older cousin. At midnight we went outside and honked the horn of my uncle’s car, then went back inside and ate buttered noodles.

I might be jaded about New Year’s, because I’ve never been invited to a swanky party.

Be that as it may, when it comes to romance, nothing holds a candle to NASA.

The Mars rover Opportunity was launched in June 1993 and landed on the surface of Mars seven months later. It was one of a pair of rovers sent on that mission; its twin, Spirit, was sent to the opposite side of the planet. The two rovers took geological samples and surveys, made measurements and took photographs.

The mission was supposed to last 90 days, but through a combination of superb engineering and mind-bogglingly good luck the two probes kept working long past the point anyone had dreamed they could. After five years Spirit got mired in dust and couldn’t move anymore, but Opportunity kept going month after month, for a staggering 14 years.

Eventually, after operating for 57 times its designed lifespan, Opportunity wound down. Before the ground team at NASA ended its mission in 2018, they broadcast one final message to Opportunity.

They played Billie Holiday’s 1944 recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You”.

It’s the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever heard of. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.

Does this have anything to do with New Year’s Eve?

Not particularly, except that much like Opportunity, most of us have lasted much longer than we’ve had any right to expect. And as we look back over the past year and wonder if we’ve accomplished anything or not, the mere fact that we are still here is a little miracle, and if we’re very lucky, some of us have someone to play Billie Holiday for us.

And whether we’re at a swanky party or eating buttered noodles, it’s a good occasion for a fancy New Year’s cocktail.

West 75th Cocktail

  • 1 ounce apple brandy – I like Laird’s Applejack
  • ½ ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • ½ ounce Chambord raspberry liqueur
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • 3 ounces Lambrusco, chilled – Lambrusco is a sparkling Italian red or blush wine. It’s a little sweet, so many wine enthusiasts can be a bit sniffy about it, but I like it, and it was made for this cocktail

Combine the brandy, Chambord, lemon juice and bitters with ice in a cocktail shaker. Swirl and shake to chill.

Strain into a Champagne flute.

Top with Lambrusco.

If you are alone, sip, while listening to “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It’s OK to cry. If you are at a party, sip, while playing “Tiny Bubbles” by Don Ho. The other guests will be confused but incredibly impressed when you sing the chorus in Hawaiian.

Lambrusco leans toward the fruity side of sparkling wine, which pairs well with the apple brandy. The apple brandy might make this drink a little too boozy-tasting, but the Chambord pulls it back to berry notes. That might make it a tiny bit too sweet, but the lemon juice and bitters pull everything back into line. This cocktail is a balancing act that succeeds like a pretty girl on a tightrope juggling knives.\

It’s a very small miracle, like Billie Holiday, buttered noodles, or a happy, sleeping space robot.

Featured photo: West 75th. Photo by John Fladd.

Raspberry-Rose Rickey

It’s a pretty good party.

There is good jazz playing in the background — Louis Armstrong, and Tony Bennet, and Nina Simone, with a sprinkling of Sinatra. Good stuff, but not distracting, nothing that anyone will have a deep attachment to from high school. Nobody’s going to shout, “Hey! Crank that up!” and derail the vibe.

There’s a nice blend of guests — obligatory family members, and actual friends you want to spend time with. Interestingly, your college roommate has struck up a friendship with your Uncle Charley with the conspiracy theories. They’re both smiling and gesturing wildly, so they seem to have found some common ground.

You don’t have a fireplace, but there’s a Yule log burning on the TV screen, which also keeps your cousin from switching on the game.

Everyone has brought something for the Yankee swap. You’ve got a good feeling about this year. You spent all year combing flea markets and yard sales and finally scored a brass sculpture of an exotic dancer with a clock in her belly. She’s wrapped inconspicuously in plain brown paper with a tag that says, “Open me. Or not. It’s no skin off my nose either way.”

Dinner went well — tacos, so everybody got a little bit of what they wanted. There’s tres leches cake for dessert. It took a couple of years to convince the family to try it, but now it’s become a tradition. A couple of years ago a slightly inebriated cousin spent 15 minutes enthusiastically explaining tres leches to your friend Maria, who grew up in Chiapas.

“It’s like CAKE, but it’s uh, um —,” he said for the third time.

“Wet?” Maria suggested, with a small smile on her face.

“YES! It’s CAKE but it’s WET!” he half-shouted enthusiastically.

“And cold?” Maria suggested again.

“AND COLD!!!” he agreed, beaming at Maria, filled with goodwill and Budweiser, then staggered off to find a couch.

You have three or four children at the party this year and they are so full of tacos and cake that if it weren’t for the promise of presents they’d have fallen asleep by now.

Your mother and her sister are getting along tonight. It’s always a toss-up whether they will get along, or end up looking at old family photos, which will remind them of some half-forgotten grudge from the 1970s, and releasing the Drama Kraken.

All in all, it’s a pretty good evening, as long as you keep topping off everyone’s glass. That’s why it’s a good idea to make batches of drinks ahead of time.

For instance:

  • Raspberry-Rose Rickey
  • 1 12-ounce package frozen raspberries
  • 1 cup floral gin – I used Uncle Van’s and was very pleased
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup fresh squeezed lime juice – about 4 limes
  • ¼ teaspoon rose water
  • plain seltzer

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Stir to combine, and leave, covered, for an hour at room temperature.

Mash the contents with a potato masher, re-cover, and leave for another hour.

Stir, then strain with a fine-mesh strainer. You will not believe how many seeds raspberries have in them.

In a rocks glass with ice or crushed ice, fill with the raspberry-gin mixture, then top with seltzer. Stir.

Roses and berries have a natural affinity for each other. In this case, the background flavor of roses should add a woody/floral note that will meld with the floral gin. In turn, gin and lime are a classic combination, as are lime and raspberries. The four main ingredients chase each other around and around, tickling your palate.

This is a fairly low-octane, not-too-sweet drink that even your most suspicious relatives will accept. Your actual friends will probably love it.

It’s like RASPBERRIES, but WET, with ROSES dunked in it!

It’s time to find somewhere to sit.

Featured photo: Raspberry-Rose Rickey. Photo by John Fladd.

Character Reference

I’m not certain what’s been going on with my dreams lately.

I’m generally a heavy dreamer — most nights will have two or three — but I tend to have a particular menu:

• The one where I’m late for something and it takes me a distressingly long time to pack my suitcase. The longer I look, the more laundry is spread across the floor, most of it mismatched socks.

• The one where I break into the house of somebody I used to know 20 years ago and look for someplace to take a nap.

• The restaurant with a dishwashing area the size of a warehouse, and they start turning the lights off before I’m done with the dishes.

• The one in the world’s largest hotel, with a fantastic view of the ocean.

But for the past week or so, I’ve been having a whopper at some point during the night that is unusually crisp and to the point. It’s almost like one of those TV shows where people accidentally have each other’s dreams.

Last Wednesday, apparently Dream Me got blackout drunk and behaved very badly. The whole dream was different friends and acquaintances filling me in on how much I had disgraced myself. Interestingly, my Dream Friends were not much more responsible than I was:

“You let me DRIVE!!?”

“Well, we weren’t going to miss this!”

Normally I would probably be bothered by this and wonder what was going on with my subconscious, but the night before, I had led a revolution in Polynesia against a supernatural regime, armed with a bar of soap. Soap might not seem like a very effective tool for social change, but my followers were very inspired by it.

Last night, I was involved in a competition between superhero colleges. Students from competing schools kept asking what my superpower was. I’d tell them to slap me as hard as they could, and they’d start to, but something huge and distracting would happen. Finally, one of the other students put together that my superpower was Dodging Fate.

Which is to say, the more I try to figure out what message my brain is trying to send me, the more I need a drink.

Here is a seasonal one that is delicious and fairly straightforward. I wrote a story a few years ago about a girl who was trying to scam her way into a Cranberry Queen beauty pageant. It is called:

The Character Reference

As we all know, character references are, by their nature, deceptive. So is this drink.

  • 2 ounces vodka – this is a good job for Tito’s
  • 1½ ounces triple sec
  • 3 ounces unsweetened cranberry juice
  • seltzer to top, ~3 ounces

Shake the vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice with ice, and strain into a tall glass.

Top with seltzer, and stir gently.

Garnish with an orange wedge and a straw.

This is a lovely, light-tasting highball that, like most character references, neglects to tell you its whole story. Cranberry and orange are another classic combination. The vodka plays its part behind the scenes and will look over its shoulder saying, “Who? Me?” if you go looking for it. Keep in mind, though, that this has three and a half ounces of alcohol in it.

This is an excellent holiday party drink — it looks so lovely that other party guests are likely to ask for a sip, then ask for one of their own. After several people have had several of these, the conversations will get significantly more interesting.

As will your dreams

Featured photo: Character reference. Photo by John Fladd.

El Diablo

This is a classic tequila drink.

This time, I’ve substituted mezcal for tequila, because I have a really nice bottle of Siete Misterios that is making me very happy. Mezcal is in the same family as tequila and works nicely in this particular cocktail. In place of the traditional crème de cassis, I’ve used sloe gin. All of this is slightly beside the point, because the star player here, the lynchpin that holds everything together and keeps it from dissolving into a puddle of entropy, is the ginger beer.

If you are new to the world of ginger beer, you could be forgiven for supposing that it is more or less the same as ginger ale. “Beer/ale,” you might say to yourself, “Tomato/tomahto.”

This would be a mistake.

Ginger ale is what your mom brought you when you were sick, to help calm your stomach. It’s what you drink when you want a soda that doesn’t make any demands on you. It might be lovely, but it will always be mild and unassuming. That’s sort of its whole point.

A good ginger beer, on the other hand, is anything but mild. If you ever popped open a bottle of ginger beer thinking it was ginger ale and took a big gulp of it to cure your hiccups, you’d definitely get rid of them, and maybe make your heart seize up for a second.

Ginger beer is all about the ginger.

“OK,” I hear you say, “I like ginger snaps and gingerbread; I really don’t think this is a big deal.”

All right, the next time you go to a juice bar, ask the juice barista (or whatever the technical name for a juice jockey is) to give you a straight shot of ginger juice. She will raise her eyebrow but will do her thing behind the counter and hand you a shot glass with a milky, beige liquid in it. Don’t sip it. Throw that baby down your throat.

It will change your point of view so profoundly that you might quit your job and become a matador. (It’s delicious and very spicy.)

Really good Caribbean ginger beers will often add a little cayenne to intensify the experience a little bit. Do yourself a favor and go to a bodega and pick up a couple bottles of the good stuff for this drink. You’ll be glad you did.

1½ ounces good tequila or mezcal – right now I’m really enjoying Siete Misterios

½ ounce sloe gin

½ ounce fresh squeezed lime juice

3 to 4 ounces excellent ginger beer

Mix the mezcal, lime juice and sloe gin in a cocktail shaker with ice.

Shake for about 30 seconds, then strain into a Collins glass, over fresh ice.

Top off with excellent, just opened ginger beer. Stir with a chopstick.

The ginger beer really is the star of this show, with the mezcal or tequila playing a strong supporting role. The spiciness of the ginger stands up to the smokiness and bite of the tequila. The lime juice brings the acidity that this combination needs. The sloe gin adds color and the faintest hint of fruitiness.

This is the drink that you would be drinking all the time, if you had made some different life choices at a couple of critical times in your youth.

John Fladd is a veteran Hippo writer, a father, writer and cocktail enthusiast, living in New Hampshire.

Featured photo: El Diablo. Photo by John Fladd.

November Sunset

A year or so ago, I splurged on some fancy party-wear — a burgundy velvet smoking jacket, a silk ascot and a fez. I couldn’t tell you why. I just wanted something fancy to wear if I ever got invited to a fancy party, or threw a fancy party.

There would be jazz music and cocktails and elegant women, who smelled like roses, in caftans, and I would be ready for it in a smoking jacket, ascot and fez. A woman in pearls and elbow-length gloves would make excuses to talk to me and ask for tips about how to start a houseplant from an avocado pit.

A British man with a pipe, and patches on the elbows of his jacket, would raise his eyebrows and mutter, “Well, played, old man.”

A bow-tied waitress would bring me an amuse bouche on a silver tray and say, “A little something from the chef, sir.”

There would be antique rugs on the floor, and goldfish in the fountain, and a bookcase full of 100-year-old travel guides with old, yellowing photographs for bookmarks.

I wouldn’t be better dressed than the other Very Fancy People, but I would fit right in.

I haven’t been to this party yet, and my smoking jacket remains securely in the back of my closet, but I live in hope. No matter how casual and down-to-earth any of us are, every once in a while we all feel the call of fanciness.

A Fancy Cocktail – The November Sunset

This is a fancy cocktail that requires a bit of preparation, but it is the time of the year when we start to make our peace with fanciness. In this case we need to caramelize some oranges.

Caramelized Oranges

  • 2 large ripe oranges, cut into ¼-inch slices
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons hot honey
  • ½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
  • fresh rosemary

Preheat your oven to 500º, with the top rack 6 inches from the top of the oven.

In a large bowl, toss the orange slices with the olive oil and honey.

Lay the orange slices out on a piece of parchment paper or a silicon baking sheet, and sprinkle with salt.

Caramelize the oranges in the oven, until they turn dark and moody-looking. This might take 20 minutes or so, but keep a sharp eye on them after 15, to make sure they don’t burn.

Sprinkle the orange slices with rosemary, then roast for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cool.

The Fancy Cocktail

  • 3 caramelized orange slices
  • 2 ounces dry gin
  • 2 ounces unsweetened cranberry juice
  • 5 to 6 ounces tonic water
  • sprig of rosemary
  • ice

Muddle three slices of the caramelized orange in the bottom of a Collins glass.

Add ice, then gin and cranberry juice. Stir to combine.

Top with tonic water, almost to the top of the glass.

Stir again. Make sure you bring the orange slices up to the side of the glass, where they can be seen, so everyone knows that this is a fancy drink.

Garnish with the rosemary sprig.

Sip while listening to Cole Porter and — as my grandfather often expressed — wonder aloud what the poor people are doing tonight.

This is one of those drinks where if you concentrate hard enough you can taste each individual element. The roasted orange tastes a little smoky and bitter but also very fruity and floral. The gin hides very discreetly in the background but is there if you look hard enough for it. The cranberry juice plays beautifully with the bitterness of the tonic water.

All in all, it tastes a lot like a fancy party.

John Fladd is a veteran Hippo writer, a father, writer and cocktail enthusiast, living in New Hampshire.

Featured photo: The November Sunset. Photo by John Fladd.

Carrot Pie

Carrot Pie. Photo by John Fladd.

In the 1920s there seems to have been a vibrant analog online community of housewives in the Boston Globe’s cooking section. At first glance, it seems as if it was a simple exchange of recipes, but there was clearly a lot more than that going on under the surface. In this column, Winding Trails starts by thanking her virtual friend for a recipe, then offers one of her own. It seems straightforward enough. The last line is somewhat arresting, though; she doesn’t so much close out her small letter politely as plead for some form of human contact.

This was the 1920s. It had not been so many years since politicians and ministers had blasted an evil new invention, the bicycle. Without a (male) chaperone, they ranted, who knew what sorts of deviant mischief women could get up to, traveling all over the countryside? It’s easy to imagine Mrs. Trails almost trapped in an apartment in Southie or a triple-decker in Nashua, surrounded by crying children and dirty dishes, desperate for some form of adult companionship.

Some more research reveals that Skin Hincks (and wow, do I want to know the story behind her name) was a frequent, almost obsessive correspondent to the Globe’s cooking pages. It’s very easy to see her modern counterpart having a very active social media presence. There might be a very credible master’s or Ph.D. thesis comparing the two communities.

But for now, let’s look at Mrs. Trail’s Carrot Pie:

Carrot Pie

  • The purée of two large carrots – about 1½ cups, or 300 grams
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup (99 grams) sugar
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 1½ cups (1 can) evaporated milk
  • zest of 1 large orange
  • 1 pie crust

Preheat the oven to 450º F.

Whisk all ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl.

Pour into the pie crust. Much as with a pumpkin pie, the crust does not need to be blind-baked.

Bake at 450º for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325º and bake for a further 50 to 55 minutes, or until the blade of a knife comes out more or less clean.

At first glance, this seems like a bright orange pumpkin pie, and the taste is not completely dissimilar, but the sweetness of the carrot and the brightness of the orange zest lift the flavor to something different. The spices are more subdued than in a pumpkin pie, and the custard is not so much sweeter as fruitier. Carrots and ginger are a classic pairing, and the orange zest adds a zing that makes this more of a “Yes, please, another slice would be delightful” experience.

This is a good pie to eat with a cup of tea, while hand-writing a letter to an old friend.

John Fladd is a veteran Hippo writer, a father, writer and cocktail enthusiast, living in New Hampshire.

Featured photo: Carrot Pie. Photo by John Fladd.

Gin Punch

We’ve all done it. We’ve all planned our ideal dinner party — what we’d serve, how we’d dress, and most importantly, who we’d invite.

The guest list is the most intriguing part of this mental exercise.

We’d have to limit the guest list to eight people — four men and four women. Fewer than that, and you can’t fit in all your “must-invites”; more than that, and there won’t be one conversation, there will be four or five. All must be alive, as of this week, and no family members are allowed. It’s like a wedding — by the time you invite all the people you should invite, there isn’t room for the people you really want to invite.

So here’s my provisional list.

The Men

Me – I know I said no relatives, but I think I can make an exception for myself.

Robert Krulwich – Science reporter and former host of RadioLab. A charming guy.

Cheech Marin – Comedian and well-respected art collector. Brilliant and allegedly very nice.

Carlos Santana – Genius guitarist. He makes a point of collaborating with radically different artists.

The Women

Naziyah Mahmood – Martial artist model and astrophysicist. I imagine everything she says, down to her morning coffee order, is fascinating.

Lucy Worsley – British historian and famously nice lady.

Esperanza Spalding – Jazz genius, and probably the best bassist alive today.

Salima Ikram – Archaeologist and Egyptologist. Again, staggeringly fascinating.

So far, so good. All but one of these people are brilliant. They are all personable and fascinating.

But is that enough?

A good dinner party guest should have interesting things to say, but the very best ones are also excellent, dynamic listeners. How well do they play with others?

I have the feeling that Robert Krulwich would be fascinated by Naziyah Mahmood, who would charm Esperanza Spalding. She, in turn, would have Cheech Marin hypnotized by her beauty and, well, hipness. I would love to hear the conversation that he would have with Salima Ikram. I would just try very hard not to embarrass myself.

The point being, it’s not about who is brilliant on their own as much as it is what kind of chemistry they have together.

Which brings us to gin punch.

A good punch is supposed to be made of fantastic ingredients — also eight, in this case — that each add something to the whole but don’t dominate it. A fantasy dinner party of a cocktail, if you will.

Gin Punch

  • Peel of half a lemon – just the outside yellow part, not the bitter white part underneath.
  • Large teaspoonful of your favorite jam. Raspberry is a popular choice, but I like rose.
  • 2½ ounces dry gin
  • ¼ ounce triple sec
  • ¼ ounce ginger brandy
  • ½ ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • ¼ ounce grenadine or simple syrup, depending on how pink you want this punch to be.
  • Dash of celery bitters

Muddle the lemon peel thoroughly in the bottom of a cocktail shaker.

Add the jam and muddle it again.

Add the rest of the ingredients, then use the muddler to stir everything, thereby rinsing the last of the jam off the muddler.

Add ice, and shake until very cold.

Strain over fresh ice in a coupe glass. Sip while listening to Esperanza Spalding; you won’t be sorry.

As with our imaginary dinner party, this punch is greater than its parts. The gin and lemon juice give it authority and keep it from becoming too sweet. The ginger is just barely detectable, as are the celery bitters. The jam doesn’t dominate the conversation but has something nice to say about your shoes.

This might actually be a good drink to serve at your next dinner party.

John Fladd is a veteran Hippo writer, a father, writer and cocktail enthusiast, living in New Hampshire.

Featured photo: Parmentier. Photo by John Fladd.

Chocolate spider

With Halloween around the corner and a host of sports moms and PTA dads waiting to humble-brag about the amazing handcrafted costumes and treats they’ve whipped up in their copious spare time, here is a bonus food-craft-y idea. It has the candy hat-trick of (1) looking very impressive, (2) being actually extremely easy to make, and (3) really showing up those snooty car-pool parents.

chocolate chips
pretzel sticks
chocolate sprinkles (optional)

wax paper
small paintbrush (You don’t actually need-need this, but it might make it easier to work on small details)
tweezers (ditto)

Fill a small microwave-safe bowl halfway with chocolate chips.
Heat for 20 seconds, then stir with a spoon or a craft stick.
Heat again for 10 seconds at a time, until the stirred chocolate is melted.

Dip the mini-pretzel sticks in chocolate, and lay them out on wax paper.

Use the melted chocolate to glue the Whoppers together to make a body, then glue the legs together and then to the body with more chocolate. If it still looks too much like pretzels glued to Whoppers, drizzle some more chocolate onto your choco-spider. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you could sprinkle some chocolate sprinkles onto the body to look like hair.

The good news about this project is that the rougher your spider looks, the creepier it looks. If you completely mess up and it looks really bad, pretend one of your children made it and brag like heck about it, which makes you look like a better parent than that dad who always wins the Pinewood Derby. This’ll show him. And Sharon from ballet class will eat. her. heart. out.

John Fladd is a veteran Hippo writer, a father, writer and cocktail enthusiast, living in New Hampshire.

Featured photo: Chocolate spider. Photo courtesy of John Fladd.

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