Thursday, July 14, 2011

N.O., N.O., N.O., and 4 Bottles of Rum

If you’ve ever read the lyrics of “Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Rum,” you know that that rum can prove perilous.  

With rum, one runs the risk of pirates run riot.  (Try saying that 3 times fast after you’ve had a shot or so.)

After much reading and re-reading of lyrics, and a little vocabulary acquisition (A “boozy ken” is not Barbie’s boyfriend after he’s had a few, but rather a 19th century alehouse.  And a “plucky jade” is my new favorite word for floozy), I’ve determined that this is what the song is about: 

Some sailors come across a pirate ship where the whole crew of 15 has murdered each other in the most gross-out, gory ways possible.  Really, it’s Shakespearean in scale, this mass murder, only more creative.

How did the pirates go?  Well, the bosum was “brained with a marlinspike,” someone strangled the “cookey . . . with fingers ten,” the skipper “lay with his nob in gore,” because “the scullion’s axe his cheek had shore” (ouch.) and the scullion, apparently, got “stabbed four times.”  (And you thought The Raft of the Medusa was bad . . . ) I’ve never read Treasure Island, the book where the lyrics originated, but from the song alone it’s never clear what caused all the hubbub.

Is the brawl about booty? 

(“But which booty?” my friend Leah asked as we puzzled over the lyrics.  “Are they fighting over the dead man’s chest full of Spanish gold or the plucky jade on the bunker cot?”)

“Ohh!  I know what the problem was!”  I volunteer, all Nancy Drew-like. 

“So, counting the plucky jade, they had sixteen people . . .

And only one bottle of rum.” 

It’s the kind of poor planning that could cause a mutiny. 

Especially if their liquor tasted anywhere near as good as the kind my roommie and I sampled on our last trip to New Orleans.

A couple of weeks ago, the two of us had the pleasure of visiting Old New Orleans Louisiana Rum, the only rum distillery in the Southeast.  And, having suffered through many brewery tours in a few different countries for the sake of a free beer, I have to say that regardless of your opinion on rum, this is a treat. 

Bienvenue . . .

My favorable opinion began a few hours before the tour when I learned that the distillery offers a pick-up service from two locations in the quarter.  Logical, right?  Why have tourists taxi out to Gentilly, when you can genteely offer them a lift?  Or why risk tipsily trekking homeward, when a bus can deliver you back to a place where you can take public transit?

The second thing that distinguished the Old New Orleans Rum visit from any other form of alcohol-inspired tourism I’ve tried was that our tour guide offered us something to sip as soon as we arrived.  A few minutes in, we were sampling a glass of Cajun Sweet Tea (spiked, of course).  So, immediately, it felt like we were being hospitably shown around someone’s home while leisurely having a drink.  

Cheers!  In the winter, you get something warm.

Often, on tours, I realize about halfway through, that as much as I enjoy a glass of wine or a pint of beer or a flute of champagne or a shot of whisky, I’m less interested in its past life in a cave or vat or barrel.  Then, I get the fidgets like some kid.  I wonder how much more education I’ll have to endure before they break out the booze.  Not so, on this tour.

 While we learned about the science of rum-making, the emphasis is more on artistry and improvisation, which makes since given that the owner, James Michalopoulos, is an artist who (enviably) divides his time between Paris and New Orleans.  Roommie and I look at each other and nod.  This Michalopoulas knows what’s up. 

Imagine molasses.  That's the aroma of this pirate's potion.

 That was the first reason to like Michalopoulos, despite having never met him.  The second reason was that he could paint an old truck in a way that captured all its noble romance.  I turn to Roomie after we stare at one canvas in the lobby for a minute.  “Wanna pool our student loans and get this one for the living room?” The third reason to appreciate Michalopoulos was the names of his paintings, which all attest to an affinity for assonance and alliteration.  And wordplay, more generally. 

Examples: An image of the river sloshing against a boat, then sliding back toward the shore is called “Lap Dance.”  A night light vision of a saltwater-taffy shaded balcony houses is “Moon Swoon.” A giraffe against a swirled sky is “Starry Safari.”  And another I liked, though I’ve only half-decoded its double entendre title, is a close up of a cow’s called “Vashmont Beau.” 

In French, vachement colloquially means “very,” a hipper version of très.  Though literally, it translates to something like cow-ly.  It was the first slang word I learned after arriving in France.  So, is Vashmont, the town where the cow’s found?  The name of the pasture’s owner?  The beast, itself? 

Our tour guide, Bob Songy, was a Louisiana native and had the kind of sonorous southern accent and teacher’s talent for storytelling that made me want to sit up and take notes.  

Our tour director, Bob Songy, showing up the watermark for the flooding during Katrina.  Note the change in color on the beam.

In fact, I took so many that he started getting curious about all the jottings in my little book.  “Send me a copy!” he said and handed me his vertical business card that resembles a replica of the distillery’s door in miniature (which matches the label of their award-winning spiced rum).  Down to the smallest details, there’s artistry in everything there.  I tuck it into my journal.

“The joke around here is that Bacardi spills more on the floor than we make in a year,” he said.  Right now, Old New Orleans Rum makes 55,000 bottles annually, though within the next few years that sum will double. 

Still Life in Primary Colors

Here’s another detail I loved: The neck of each special-edition bottles is hand-dipped in a crock-pot of blue wax, which runs down the sides differently on each one.  

Post-dipping, they’re stamped with Louisiana’s signature fleur de lys, which also marks all of the barrels. 

Oak barrels that held bourbon before they came here.

“What is it with you people and the fleur de lys?” Songy quoted all the out-of-towners asking. 

Fleurdelisé is a French word that means covered in fleurs de lys, and it’s the perfect adjective for New Orleans.  It was the symbol of the Bourbon dynasty when France owned Louisiana and it has stuck, since.  You can purchase cookie cutters in its shape, have it tattooed on your arm, even buy fleur de lys diapers, Songy notes.  (Where else, besides New Orleans, could a football team get away with having a flower as their symbol?)

My favorite part of the tour was seeing the rows of labels and varied bottle types Michalopoulos designed.  Eventually, Songy said, they told the artist he’d need to settle on something and stick with it for the purposes of product identification. 

In case you're wondering, 29/90 is the longitude and latitude of New Orleans.

The winning design.  Print inside.

We concluded the tour with a dégustation of four types of rum:

1) A light Crystal, with a sparkly vanilla taste
2) A blended Amber, aged three years and caramel coated
3) A Cajun Spice, a cayenne peppery potpourri of perfection
4) A 10 Year Special Edition, aged in oak, ripe and reddish, and “steeped in the tropical heat of New Orleans,” to cite the phrasing on the place page

Know what rhymes with rum?  Yum.

They even poured a few extras, in case we were still thirsty. 

Unlike on the pirate ship, there was enough to go around.

Cutting up, after the tour.

**Thanks to Roommie, who contributed much of the photo documentation.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The One That Got Away

"There are no ordinary cats." -Colette

Then one day, she went.  From sunning herself on the sill where I’d lifted the window—she: peaceful, plump, and nodding off in the June humidity, me: post-coffee and pre-yoga, admiring her stillness as I scrambled to make it out of the door on time—to sliding through the tear in the screen, nudging wider in the wire mesh the hole that seemed gaping when I found it hours later. 

I imagine a breeze ruffling her fur first, towards her tail where the open spot was.  Then (I imagine) her, eyes wide, jerking her head in that direction.  Seeing in the ripped slit of the screen a portal to a different existence.

A three-feet leap to the ground. A cat’s gallop across the lawn.  Not seen since.

B . . .

I admired her entitlement.   The way she bounded onto a freshly-made bed, linens still warm from the dryer, to sprawl in the center.  The way she could “sleep 20 hours/ a day/ without hesitation/ or remorse,” to reference a poem by Bukowski, another cat lover.  But I also admired her ability to be perfectly low maintenance, to nap just as comfortably on a crooked pile of books and papers.

She had a streak of the savage.  She cooed like a tropical bird when pawing at moths.  She annihilated cockroachs, leaving the litter of their limbs for me to find later.

She intently watched the acrobatics of the squirrels in the tree outside the windows of my old house, rushing along the ledges in pursuit as the squirrels leapt between branches. 

A kittenhood injury had left her right leg weaker, so she extended it when seated upright, dangling it over the edges of beds and bookshelves like a lounge singer.

It impressed me that she intuited whom I should trust, and whom I shouldn’t, often before I did.

She had many meows and loved hiding and pretending to be invisible.

“Losing this cat is making me act kinda weird,” I wrote to a friend a week later. 

I wander around the neighborhood calling her name.  I crawl under the houses of people I don’t know with a flashlight.  Then, when they catch me, with cobwebs in my ponytail and grass imprinted on my knees, I say things like, “This cat was like my family,” or “I wanted us to grow old together and retire to the Riviera.”   

I leave bowls of water and food by each entrance to the house.  When I hear rustling, I rush down the stairs and throw upon the door and watch as a stray scuttles off.  

I mention buying a cat trap then wonder aloud to my housemate if I’ll just end up with rabies from the strays.  Then she says, a little more earnestly than one would expect, “Well, maybe you need to go ahead and catch rabies so you can be sure you’ve done everything you could do.  I’ll give you the shots afterwards.  There aren’t as many now as there used to be.”

A few days later, I’m talking to a gardener who thinks he spotted her, after seeing my LOST CAT ad taped to the stop sign.

“So, the cat had never been outside?”
“No.  Well, sometimes she’d dart out for a second till I grabbed her.  But . . . no.”
“And the cat’s five years old?”

He shook his head. 

“You can’t do that.  Not with people, not with cats.  A cat’s a wild thing.  Free spirit.  Same as you.  Don’t like to be closed up.  Maybe she just wanted to go on a little walk around the neighborhood.  Who’s to say she’s even LOST?” he said, his voice faintly echoing the alarmist font of the flyer.  “She could know exactly where she is.” 

Could I blame her? 

For wanting to dirty up her coat and hunt something bigger than a bug and sharpen her claws on bark and play cache-cache with the other cats and sleep in the shade of a banana plant.

Maybe this wasn’t the vision she had for her life.  Sitting on the desk, watching me plod and peck at my thesis. 

I’d type in something Homi K. Bhabha said, then she’d yawn, stand up, walk across the keyboard in response: ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;; mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm000gggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggj77777777777777777777oo’/taaaqaqau9ds Ut-----l[yµ?

“I know, B,” I’d cheerily corroborate.  “That’s what I think, too, but we may have to phrase it differently.”

Then, she’d leap off the desk and onto the bed for a nap, irritated that I was always dismissing her contributions.

“Don’t look like that,” said the gardener, “You’re gonna get me crying.  I've cried over a horse, a chicken, a goat, a dog . . . But I think it's pretty bad when you cry over a plant.
And I laugh a little, because I think it's hypothetical.  Then I remember that he's a gardener.

I glance back at the house where I see the plant in the window where B used to sit.  Think of its browning leaves.  When I had asked the man at the nursery around the corner about indoor plants, he commented, “It’s already a lot to ask of any plant for it to live inside, but it can survive fine, with enough light and water.”

"I know someone musta poured something in that plant. I KNOW it . . . I took such good care of it," said the gardener.  His eyes go glassy.

And I think . . . it always feels the same.  Being separated from something you love.

Plant. Goat. Cat.
The funny injustice of loss, that leaves you, fifteen years later, in a different part of the country, saying to a woman you just met, "But I watered it every day."