Saturday, August 27, 2011

“Cole Porter: A Biography” – Book Review



Recently, I finished reading “Cole Porter: A Biography” by William McBrien (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998 [ISBN: 0394582357]; 459 p.; illustrated).

As a long-time fan of Frank Sinatra, I have always had great admiration for the talents of songwriter Cole Porter; Sinatra recorded many of Porter’s songs – some, multiple times, often with different arrangements.  Like many people, I respect Porter for his ability to write meaningful, witty lyrics that can be insightful – many of which frequently contained clever rhymes.  Hearing stories over the years about interesting aspects of the man’s life, I became increasingly curious, so I sought out a book on his life in order to answer many of my questions.  Based on the result of reading a review in The New York Times, I wound up settling on McBrien’s book.

The book covers Porter’s life from his childhood in Peru, Indiana up to his death at the age of 73 on October 15, 1964.  By many accounts, Porter was quite generous, showing his appreciation of people by not only lavishing them with gifts but also by socializing and inviting them to a great number of parties he was known to throw – quite a few attended by show business celebrities and members from the upper crust of society in those days.  At the same time, however, he developed quite a reputation for being cruel and abrupt with people due to his impatience for lateness and strict adherence to formality. 

Unable to completely deny his homosexuality, Porter insisted on continuing a great many affairs, long after he married a divorced socialite, Linda Lee Thomas.  From the outset, it would seem that the marriage was one of an arrangement – Thomas had suffered from an abusive first marriage and was merely looking for a male companion to see her through her many social engagements.  Porter, on the other hand, needed to use her as a “beard” for the purposes of career advancement; in the meantime, however, he would arrange a great many parties in her absence that were attended by his gay friends and their guests while she would either remain at home due to various illnesses or travel, if her heath condition permitted.

Arguably, the turning point in Porter’s life was when he suffered a horseback riding accident near his Long Island mansion.  With bones crushed in both of his legs when a spooked horse fell on him, Porter underwent dozens of surgeries over a period of decades, suffering a great deal of physical pain and psychological depression all the while.  Needless to say, this experience had both a personal and professional impact on him.  After years of discomfort and countless infections, he ultimately wound up with one of his legs getting amputated towards the end of his life. 

I found the book to be extremely well researched and definitely recommend it to not only any Cole Porter fan, but also, to anyone who loves classic Broadway musicals or to any aficionado of tunes from The Great American Songbook of the 20th Century.  Clearly, the author read volumes of books and articles about his subject but also, interviewed people from that era and included a great many quotes from correspondence between Porter and his wife to their friends.  A gifted yet troubled – and, at times, tormented – man, Porter’s life is a fascinating tale well-told by McBrien in this lovingly crafted book. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Aperitifs & Appetizers




Just as an appetizer is a small snack you eat before your entrée in order to whet your appetite, an aperitif is a cocktail specially designed to drink prior to a meal for the very same reason. Recently, I took a course at The Astor Center in New York City where we combined different aperitifs with a variety of appetizers to experiment with an array of flavors that paired well together.



Above are the appetizers that were paired with the cocktails we made this evening, which we tasted in order, from left to right: prosciutto and melon; fried chickpeas; olive tapenade on baguette; and salumi e formaggi .

We started the evening by making an Aperol Spritz:

  • 2 ½ ounces Prosecco
  • ¾ ounce of Aperol
  • Splash of soda water,sparkling water or club soda

Combine the ingredients in a rocks glass, top with a couple of ice cubes and garnish with an orange wheel. Serve with melon and prosciutto.

Second was something called Bamboo:

  • 1 ½ ounce dry amontillado sherry
  • 1 ½ ounce Noilly Prat dry vermouth
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • Twist of lemon

Stir ingredients with ice until chilled and diluted. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Serve with fried chickpeas.

Next was La Bête Verte:

  • ¾ ounce Absinthe
  • ¾ fresh lime
  • ¾ simple syrup
  • 3 ½ parts soda water
  • 4 wheels thinly sliced English cucumbers

Muddle cucumber and simple syrup in your pint glass; add absinthe, lime juice and ice and shake until chilled and diluted. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice and top with soda water. Serve with olive tapenade on baguette.

Finally, we ended the evening with an old standard, The Negroni:

  • 1 ounce Gin
  • 1 ounce Campari
  • 1 ounce Sweet Vermouth

Stir the ingredients in an ice filled mixing glass, then strain into a cocktail (martini) glass and serve with salumi e formaggi.


While I was familiar with both the Aperol Spritz and The Negroni, the Bamboo and La Bête Verte were new to me. Although I enjoyed the Bamboo, I’d probably be more inclined to want to try making La Bête Verte at home because I like absinthe-based cocktails quite a good deal. Of all the cocktails, I found the Negroni to be the one that stimulated my appetite the most – I’m guessing this was probably because of the bitterness of the Campari.

As far as the appetizers were concerned, they were all quite good, but I would probably be less inclined to fry the chickpeas if I was going to try making one of these at home. So, because I’m lazy, I’d probably want to go with either the melon and prosciutto or the salumi e formaggi; with the latter, however, I would likely be inclined to go with sopressata for the meat.

Have you ever tried any of these appetizers or aperitifs? How did you like them? What did you pair them with (if anything)? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Monday, August 08, 2011

“Mozart’s Sister” – Movie Review



This weekend in my movie class, we had a bonus screening of the French drama “Mozart’s Sister”. 



When Wolfgang Mozart gains a reputation throughout Europe as a child musical prodigy in the 1700’s, his fame begins to outshine his talented older sister – but will she be able to carve out her own niche as a musician?



Leopold Mozart was blessed with two musically gifted children – his daughter Maria-Anna (nicknamed Nannerl) and his son Wolfgang.  Under his tutelage, both children exhibited amazing talents early on, to the point that Leopold would pack up his family and drag them all around Europe to entertain various heads of state in the hope that it would bring them fame and wealth.  Nannerl was a singer, violinist and harpsichord player; her younger brother played the violin and also composed music – his first composition coming at the age of five, earning him the title of prodigy. 

Wolfgang’s notoriety is building at the expense of Nannerl, who is now being overshadowed by her younger brother.  With aspirations to play the violin and compose like her sibling, Nannerl’s abilities are being slowly smothered by her own father, who believes that his time is best spent promoting his son.  In addition, Leopold thinks that women should neither play the violin nor compose music because this is a male-dominated domain.  With a burning ambition that only increases the more she plays music with Wolfgang, Nannerl becomes frustrated and sets out on her own. 

Opportunities for Nannerl are few and far between because she had the misfortune of being born the wrong sex during the 1700’s – in fact, she can’t even apply to study in the music academy because they don’t accept female students.  Eventually, she becomes resigned to her fate and returns to the family to serve as her younger brother’s accompanist.  However, the desire to compose and perform her own compositions still exist, despite the obstacles and rejection she encounters.  Will Nannerl be able to achieve her professional goals or will she be forever destined to take a backseat to Wolfgang?



First off, this is by no means intended to be an historically accurate portrayal of Nannerl’s life – according to the production notes that our instructor shared with us, none of her music survives, so it is impossible to compare her compositions to those of her famous younger brother.  The movie was written, so the story goes, by piecing together what did remain from her time, the letters she wrote to friends and family and those that were written to her.  From there, the filmmakers were able to craft a dramatic story to tell people about a little-known musical talent that was unfortunately lost to our culture centuries ago. 

One would think that after the hit stage play and award winning movie “Amadeus” that the life of Wolfgang Mozart had pretty much been covered.  Little did anyone know exactly how rich his life was for dramatic content.  “Mozart’s Sister” will certainly appeal to women partly because of the feminist angle, but also due to the music, the ornate sets and costumes, which are lavish; there is also a romantic angle to the story, but in all likelihood, it was probably just a dramatic conceit rather than a true event.  There are, however, aspects that may appeal to men as well; the movie gives you an insight into the internecine political squabbling that went on with royalty that is reminiscent of how many businesses may be run even to this day. 

Ultimately, I’ll recommend this movie, but with a few small caveats.  To begin with, the main story takes a while to get going because there is a long set up at the outset of the film; fortunately, the viewers are rewarded because this all winds up paying itself off later on in the movie.  The movie is around two hours in length, but I was surprised how quickly the time went, once the rather long opening set up had completed.  Also, this film is a French production, so both the dialog and, of course, the credits, are in French; the movie makes use of white subtitles to translate the dialog into English, but they are mostly fairly easy to read because they are superimposed over dark backgrounds. 



Tuesday, August 02, 2011

“Everyday Drinking” – Book Review


Recently, I finished reading a book that would be a great read for almost any fan of regular adult beverage intake, so I decided to share it with you in this week’s blog post. The book is called “Everyday Drinking” by Kingsley Amis. It is basically a compilation of both newspaper and magazine articles Amis has written over the years on wide-ranging topics related to drinking – whether it’s the current state of pubs, the proper way to mix a cocktail or how best to either prevent a hangover or treat one after the fact.

The book opens with a sensational introduction by gadfly and controversial author Christopher Hitchens; if you are familiar with his work (I became aware of him around 15 years ago through his guest commentary on news shows rather than through his writing), you will know that this alone would justify the cost of the book. Amis was British and primarily a novelist; perhaps his most famous book was titled, “Lucky Jim” (which also happens to be the name of a cocktail he invented).

“Everyday Drinking” is divided into three main sections: “On Drink”, “Everyday Drinking” and “How’s Your Glass?”. While the rather learned author is most astute on his topic, he is also quite funny, in a snarky kind of way; as a result, you wind up learning quite a good deal as well as being thoroughly entertained – in that regard, you might want to think of him as the British equivalent of Zane Lamprey.

Perhaps the most fun portion of the book is the final section, which is comprised of a series of quizzes on various drinking-related topics that include wine, beer, spirits and mixology; answers to all questions are provided in a subsequent chapter. One warning about the quizzes is that some of them are broken into simple, intermediary and advanced; I personally found that many of the questions in the simple quizzes to be rather difficult, but then again, maybe you’ll have better luck than I. Don’t be fooled as I was: The Cotton Gin was definitely NOT some kind of cocktail based on a certain juniper-infused spirit! Hey, who knew?

Additionally, the book includes a number of cocktail recipes, some of which you may wish to try yourself – depending on how adventurous you are. I add that caveat only because a few of these can be challenging either because they’re somewhat difficult to make or because an occasional ingredient or two you may encounter trouble locating. Nevertheless, they make a fun read, especially when the author discusses their history. Some of the recipes are for cocktails the author himself invented, others are of classic drinks that have been forgotten over the years for one reason or another.

A glossary is included early on and you’d better read it or at least bookmark it because you’ll certainly need to refer to it later on as you proceed through the book. It contains a collection of words and phrases that were rather unfamiliar to me, either because of the fact that they were British terminology or esoteric argot particular to the liquor industry.