Monday, April 22, 2013

Puke and Causality

As I slither into the bathroom to dry heave for the third time this morning, I cannot help but concede that this is the most poetic way I could start the day.

Last night at Erin Smith and David Leftwich’s birthday party, I was lecturing John Letoto about the virtues of getting completely wasted, every once in a while. The minimum number I threw out was once a year. John wouldn’t have it, and it makes sense. John, who pours latte art with the intensity and precision of a brain surgeon, would never want to compromise his killer instinct. He would never allow himself to overindulge, and wield his thermo-pen with a shaky hand the next day. But I continue to make the case and spit in the face of karma:

It’s a fun challenge to warp your perception with alcohol and keep your cool. I suppose that’s the same mentality that people use with hallucinogens, but you know what I mean. Let’s be adults and admit it: we like the way alcohol makes us feel. It’s a fun thing to remind people of when I find myself locked into a wine monologue:

“So this is like fino sherry but its French, specifically from the Jura. Vin Jaune is 100% savagnin that ages in cask for 6 years under a ‘voile’ of yeasts. The production process is similar, but it’s important to note that Vin Jaune is unfortified. Where fino is meant to be consumed as fresh as possible, Vin Jaune can age almost indefinitely. It’s really complex and elegant, pairs wonderfully with umami-driven food, oh and I almost forgot! It contains alcohol! So as you drink it, you will notice that everything will get exponentially more awesome. Your chances of doing something thrilling, newsworthy, or dangerous will increase markedly. Please enjoy several bottles of it with a wedge of briny Comte cheese, then get arrested for having sex in an aquarium that you broke into.”

Even hangovers are wonderful so long as they’re infrequent. You experience all sensory input as if it was your first time feeling sunlight, or smelling cut grass. It’s jarring, like if you could actually remember the first time you drew breath. You stumble through the day seeing normal things, but you hear the roar of a leaf blower or a car commercial on the radio, and there is something fantastical about it. So while your senses feel realer than ever, the things you actually see seem absurd. Maybe I like being hungover because it simultaneously affirms and negates reality.

Wouldn’t it be clever of the universe if I got super drunk immediately after going into this sermon? Well, that’s what happened. I drank about 2/3rds of a bottle of Redbreast 12, for classified reasons. I live around the corner, so I just stumbled back home, quickly realizing I overdid it, and I was about to get my ass handed to me.

In my romantic defense of drinking too much and being hungover, I forgot how unpleasant vomiting is (I’ve now puked 5 times in the past hour). At every point in life, I am trying to dig deeper and find something interesting. I’ve long since given up everything in my stomach except bile. Which leads me to the question: Why couldn’t bile taste good? Why does it have to be so foul? Then I realize making bile delicious would create a biological imperative for bulimia. Animals in the wild would be finding creative ways to trigger their gag reflexes to taste the ambrosia of their own bile.

Can you picture the forest? With all the adorable animals sticking their paws down their throats so they can puke their guts out and taste their yummy bile? Can you see it? CAN. YOU. SEE. IT.

Even worse, now I’m asking myself, isn’t there a beverage that actually tastes like this? Then I remember: gueuze. “Gastric acid” is a common tasting note on the funkier stuff. Then I remember: I need to go puke again. I’m way past the point where I can defend vomiting as some kind of catharsis: I drank way too much, too fast, and now I am weeping hydrochloric acid into a dirty toilet, for the 6th time.

I will tell you this though, I still love gueuze, and I will not give up on it because it has a slightly barfy flavor. People who stop drinking something because they “had a bad experience with it” are the jerks who put a dog up for adoption because it craps on the carpet once. Did you burn out on Tequila shotz in college? Think of tequila as a sad puppy being put in a cage because you don’t love it any more. Look at those sad eyes- you are an asshole.

I’m wiping puke off my cellphone, which is telling me I have a chateau Musar lecture to be at tomorrow. Rad.

Now that I’ve reached the point where I can retain liquids, I am reminded of another thing I enjoy about being brutally hungover: nursing myself back to health.

Enter the Mexican coke. Apply one 500ml bottle to the affected area. Drink it slowly, and as cold as humanly possible. Coke will never look more pornographically cold and refreshing than when you just poisoned yourself with whiskey. Protip: put it in the freezer when you start puking, so when you’re done its perfectly cold, glistening with condensation. I am a hard skeptic when it comes to the superiority of Mexican (sugar cane) coke over normal (corn syrup) coke. I have seen many experts fail that pepsi challenge. But when I’m super hungover, I’m not above tricking myself with placebos.

More than anything, the act of getting drunk, having fun, and being hungover the next day is evidence of causality in the universe. I had too much fun, and now that the sun has risen, I must suffer. A hangover is an exhilarating and punishing mathematical constant. It is a helpful reminder that the universe is still governed by some form of rules.

Thank goodness. Going to try eating food. I love you, gang.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

My Life in Sabers

Somehow, many years ago while studying at the UC underground at UofH, I came across an article, describing a certain type of knife. A knife that exist for the sole purpose of decapitating champagne bottles. A special knife didn't seem particularly crazy on first glance, we have knives for cutting all different kinds of things. But I thought about it again, and immediately forgot what I was studying because

This knife is for cutting open champagne bottles. Exclusively.

Enter that tingly feeling where your purpose, your calling can be faintly heard in the distance. I'm not talking about being a sommelier. I'm talking about making a giant scene with something that is burdened with too much pretension, having fun, and risking my life in the process. 

I took my Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 introductory course at the University of Houston. During the service lecture, I raised my hand. 

"What kind of Champagne Saber do you recommend using during service? And is there an established protocol for sabering?"

The MS was very cordial, but was smirking slightly, as to imply I had asked a silly question.

"I do not recommend saberage in general. There is no protocol for it, because really you should never do it, especially in a dining room. It's a safety hazard, and really good champagne should be handled gently."

I thanked him for being candid, and slumped back in my seat, feeling slightly defeated. It was then that Glenn Cordua leaned over and whispered, "A machete works just fine." He was grinning like the devil, and my faith in madness was renewed.

Before you go any further in this bleag post, it is imperative that you understand sabering champagne is an incredibly dangerous trick. Even if done "correctly", it still has the potential to blind people with flying shards of glass, and can severely damage your hand if the bottle blows up. I have had at least 5 bottles explode erratically, which would probably stop a normal person from ever doing the act again. I am not that person. I have little respect for my own safety or well being- which is why I work in restaurants heyooooo.

I'm not even going to explain how to saber here. Standby for detailed instruction at a later date.

Now seems like as good a time as any to talk about all the Champagne Sabers I've ever owned in my life and what they meant to me.

SABER #1: Lawnmower Blade

After doing a pinch of research, I settled on a lawnmower blade that I purchased from a Wal-Mart at about 5 in the morning. I was trying to study French, and decided I needed to start practicing Sabering. That my life could not possibly move forward if I didn't figure out how to reliably chop the top off of sparkling wine bottles. I was 21 at the time.

The advantages of a lawnmower blade are numerous. It's fairly heavy, which makes generating enough force to propagate a crack that much easier. It has a reliably hard edge, that comes to a 90 degree angle, perfect for sabering. It resists deformation on impact, as I often favored sabering with the cage on the bottle. The hole in the center of the blade was perfect for inserting an index finger and getting better control of the blade. The hole in the center also made it perfect for spinning. After smashing open a bottle of sparkling wine, spinning the lawnmower blade around is almost impossible to deny oneself. It just felt right.

One slight disadvantage of sabering with a lawnmower blade is that is scares people. Nobody expects much in the way of sanity from the guy shouting "GET BEHIND ME", waving a lawnmower blade and holding a bottle of bubbles. It still worked out in my favor most of the time.

I lost this saber in a move. It will always be an icon of my honest, slightly goofy and unprofessional obsession with wine. It represented something wholesome to me. Maybe because it made people interested in sparkling wine when they saw me gambling with my life just to open bubbles in a fancy way. Maybe I liked it because I paid 8 dollars for it, and I loved the notion of using such a crude, humble tool to do something so highfalutin'. I cannot recommend a lawnmower blade emphatically enough as one's first saber.

SABER #2: Laguiole Champagne Saber (pronounced lay-ull)

I asked for this saber from a wine distributor while I was working at Central Market. It haunts me to this day as the only time I have ever asked for and/or taken a kickback for buying a product I wouldn't otherwise buy. It was given to me for free, but it's retail value is approximately 200 dollars.

I think the way the conversation went was like this "Hey [wine rep], I think I'd like a champagne saber! I've been a wine buyer for a while, and I haven't used my influence to ask for so much as a keychain. What do I have to do to get one?"

His response was immediate. Buyers ask these questions, and he was well versed in the script.

"If you pick up ten more cases of [unremarkable champagne that I didn't want to buy ten *extra cases of] we can make that happen."

I agreed, and within 12 hours, I received the text from another rep "Hey Justin I have a saber for you!"

Immediately when I held the laguiole in my hands the first thing I missed about the lawnmower blade was the weight. By comparison this new saber was light as a feather. Although I had to admit, it was stunning.

Advantages: Pretty. Cost of zero dollars.

Disadvantages: shoddy construction. After moderate usage, the bolster came loose, and the "blade" dented significantly after each strike. Technically you're supposed to use the back side of the blade, even though a laguiole doesn't have a sharpened edge. Perhaps this is good practice, using the back of every knife to saber with (you will severly damage a sharpened edge of a "real" knife by using it to saber). Here I preferred my lawnmower blade again, because instead of using the back as is traditional, I struck with the "blade".

This real disadvantage to this saber was the blow it dealt to my integrity. I don't think less of my reps for carrying out my sleazy request- that's how a lot of business gets done. But my first boss in the wine industry - Dave at Vic & Anthony's - instilled a healthy disgust in me for taking favors or handouts from distributors in exchange for placements. Perhaps I backslid because I was bored, or because I wanted to say I did it at least once. As soon as it was in my hands, I knew I would have to pay a karmic price for this indiscretion.

6 months into Oxheart, my car was broken into. The thief stole ten drycleaned shirts, and my Laguiole saber. I was upset that I lost the shirts, but I couldn't help but feel relieved that fate took my "corporate saber" from me. I joke that I'm constantly stalking the streets for a hobo in a crisp shirt with a champagne saber. 

What really mattered was that the thief didn't get my current saber. The one I guard closely, usually within arms reach while I'm sleeping. He missed my Serenity Knives Saber. The one you see at the top of this blog instead of a title.

SABER #3: Serenity Knives Custom

I would tag along with Chef as he met with a lot of our people who made all our stuff. The one that caught my attention the most was Russell Montgomery. Chef came to Russell to have him make a set of custom steak knives for Oxheart. For over a year, an idea had been fermenting in my head. That I could combine everything I loved about sabering with a lawnmower blade, and make it slightly more formalized. That I could find the right person to forge me a saber that could smash the overwrought Laguiole saber into pieces. We visited Russell at his house, and I think we had made up our minds immediately when we saw the dirt floored workshop and forge he had made. Russell trained under Murray Carter, but definitely had his own distinct style.

I felt bad giving Russell such specific instructions, he had some pretty grandiose initial plans. Indeed, from a distance it might seem like a waste to have a skilled knifemaker craft a blade that essentially has no edge, but this was something I had wanted for a while. Even as I was unemployed waiting for Ox to open, I gladly forked over hundreds of dollars for this knife that somehow had come to define me. 

In the first few days of Oxheart, I didn't have an apartment. I was sleeping on David & Ecky's couch. On more than one occasion, during my allotted 6 hours of sleep a night, I woke up to find myself holding the saber the same way a child might hold a stuffed animal. Or I would use the blunted tip to push their pitbull, Rambo, away from me when he decided we needed to snuggle at 4am. 

Photo by Bethany Quillin

Where to begin?

Of the 3 listed, this saber is the heaviest, weighing in at about 4 pounds, easily generating enough force to cleanly lop off the top of a bottle of champagne.

Or cut down a tree.
Or smash through a car windshield.
Or cut a birthday cake for a supermodel.
Or crush the skull of a zombie.

Please take note of the hole for your index finger. Perfect for recklessly twirling all two feet of heat-treated, high carbon 1084 steel. I don't remember the type of wood he used for the handle. Whenever anyone asks, I say it's wood from the true cross of Christ, which would make this saber fit to destroy vampires, demons, and other supernatural enemies.

This metal is highly resistant to deformation, knicks and scratches, but has rapidly developed a patina that suggest constant, adventure-heavy use. I strike with the blade, because I refuse to saber with the back of a knife that wasn't designed for this singular, moderately insane purpose. Life is short, saber accordingly.

Of course I didn't stop there. I summoned our leatherworker Kyle Kubin (who made our kickass aprons) to make the sheath, and requested he add a small pocket to contain an Augustus Rag. Augustus Rag makes pocket squares out of classy fabrics in Houston. They are perfect for wiping champagne and / or blood off of the saber after a particularly rowdy bingo match.

The only disadvantage of this saber is that it was not cheap, and is irreplaceable. But that's the case with all legendary weapons I suppose. Beatrix Kiddo had her Hanzo Katana, Thor had Mjollnir, Aragorn had Andúril.

A saber without a name is simply bad luck. My saber is named Excelsior.

As I stare into the blinding sun of an uncertain future, I feel a sense of calm wash over me to feel the weight of my saber in my hands. It is my totem, my lodestone. The title of this blog is Battlesong, but I think a picture of my saber communicates the same message. 

Excelsior, and all of its accessories were made by actual craftsmen here in Houston Texas. And that is where it is going to stay.