Friday, November 30, 2012

Pappy Just Keeps Getting Harder to Find

The Most Wanted Man
in New York City
About a year ago, I wrote a story on the recent boom in high-end bourbons and highlighted Pappy Van Winkle as the patron saint of the genre. I wondered at the time how long bourbon's vogue would last.

So far, it seems to be just getting stronger. Over on the Atlantic Wire, Jen Doll has a short piece on the scarcity of Pappy Van Winkle in New York City, where a bottle of the 23-year-old stuff can run $250 and customers are harassing liquor store owners to try to get a spot on waiting lists that are already nine-pages deep.

In my bourbon boom piece, I shared what was then the insider's trick for getting a jump on the competition in the hunt for a rare bottle. Watch the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery's Facebook site, I advised, where they announce when each state's allocation ships, and "you can start staking out your local liquor store and hounding the owner for your bottle."

Turns out a lot of people took just that tactic. This fall, the Van Winkles are no longer posting the ship dates for states allocations because, "we had big backlash from retailers and wholesalers who were bombarded with phone calls as soon as we posted that shipments had gone out, even though we would suggest giving it a couple of weeks for inventory to arrive."

So, don't expect to just walk into a liquor store near you and pick up a bottle of Pappy any time soon. And please, let's take it easy on our poor liquor store proprietors. It ain't their fault.

Friday, November 23, 2012

In Case You Just Can't Get Enough Middlebrow

Earlier this week, in the guise of reflecting on Pete Wells's New York Times dope-slap review of Guy Fieri's American Grill and Bar, I managed to sneak an essay on middlebrow culture past the editors at the City Paper.  As is usually the case, my first draft was considerably longer, and I had to chop out a lot to keep from putting the paper's entire readership asleep.

Originally, I had more material musing on the high-, middle-, and low-brow split and why being middlebrow was so contemptible. Here's just a little of it:
Ever heard of the novelist James Gould Cozzens? You might have if his much-anticipated 1957 novel By Love Possessed hadn’t been labeled by Commentary’s Dwight MacDonald as “the latest episode in The Middlebrow Counter-Revolution”, sinking him without a trace from the American literary canon. Cozzens, MacDonald charged, was writing the kind of pseudo-intellectual garbage that made upper-middle-class insurance salesmen feel like they were reading great literature, and off course no self-respecting high-brow would want to come anywhere near that.  
Of course, the vacuity of middlebrows has long been ridiculed in literature and film, from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt to that one damning word in The Graduate, “plastics”, which sends poor Benjamin Braddock plunging to the bottom of a swimming pool. (Am I the only one who thinks that was actually sensible career advice for a young man?) 
There’s always the question of bias when critics take on the middlebrow, as Mr. Wells can bear witness. Are they lashing out at the thing itself, or do they just not like what the thing represents or the kind of people who like it? Highbrows rarely show disdain for the low, but, of course, the lowbrow poses little threat. The lines are murkier between middle and high. Those booboisee a critic is mocking may well be the exact sort of people the critic came from they came from and desperately needs to separate ones. One's parents from Des Moines might think a night at Guy's American Grill and Bar quite delightful, especially after seeing the matinee of The Jersey Boys and shopping at the Disney Store
To me, that's what makes wading into the waters of reviewing middlebrow restaurants so perilous. Can one step back and ask, am I slamming this thing because I simply don’t like the food and the experience? Or, is it because I don’t like the whole concept of the restaurant? Because I don’t want to be associated with the type of people who like this type of thing? It's a hard line to navigate, but I think it can be done and should be done.

So there it is. And I'm sure all you highbrows out there appreciate it. Not appreciating it would be so, well, middlebrow.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Breaking Out the "Company" China

My Pho
One Thanksgiving a good decade or more ago, my younger brother brought his then-fiance and now-wife to meet his extended family for the first time. This is an experience that, though they don't realize it until years later when they've had a chance to  compare notes and commiserate with their fellow family-by-marriage inlaws, is something akin to a gang initiation or high-school sorority hazing ritual, except that my family has no idea that there's anything painful or even out of the ordinary going on.

So, we were in my now-departed grandmother's house, and my now-sister-in-law Margaret wanted a glass of wine. My brother started to open the china cabinet to get her a wine-glass. "Oh, no, Jim," my grandmother declared, deeply shocked, as if he had begun to micturate on her rug. "That crystal is for company!" Poor Margaret had to make do sipping her wine from a clear plastic tumbler.

I couldn't help wondering something: if my grandmother's future granddaughter-in-law, whom she had never even met before, didn't rank as "company," well, then, who the heck would? Perhaps she was expecting a visit from the Secretary of State or perhaps a Nobel Prize laureate in the next day or two, and we just hadn't heard about it yet.

This whole Thanksgiving memory was sparked by the fact that none of the commenters on my recent review of Mì Xào, Mt. Pleasant's new Vietnamese take-out joint pointed out a slight issue with the photographs.

I clearly indicate in the review itself that, when I ate there at least, everything was served in take-out containers except the pho (a.k.a. London broil soup), which came in a plain white ceramic bowl. The photographs illustrating the review? Elegant blue and white china with ornate wood chopsticks, absolutely beautiful and (unless I managed to catch them on two bad days) nothing like what is actually served to patrons.

This is not at all a complaint, mind you. The food at Mì Xào is delicious and it doesn't need fancy china to improve it. I just found it amusing (and a reminder of why we do these review anonymously) that there's good china socked away somewhere in the back room, waiting for someone super important--like a newspaper photographer--to show up.

But, if you drop in for a bowl of pho and it comes out in a plain white bowl, don't be offended. You may not rank as "company", but I bet you'll still enjoy the meal.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and Nate Silver

I somehow managed to spend way much time this morning reading about the recent flap over the New York Times blogger and poll-geek Nate Silver's prediction that Obama has a 77.4 percent chance of winning the election on Tuesday. This, predictably, has raised the ire of numerous commentators (mostly those in the Romney camp) who called into question the validity of the number. And that, in turn, has raised the ire of Silver defenders, who have taken pot shots back at the pot shot takers and accused them of many egregious things, such as not being good at math.

Paul F. Campos's piece in Slate is a good example of the "learn your math, dummy" counter-reaction, and he closes it by raising the spectre of the Monty Hall Problem, an old counter-intuitive chestnut. I hardly think this is fair, since the Monty Hall Problem is a sort of optical illusion of logic that fools all sorts of smart people the first time they tackle it, and it's hardly a good litmus test of someone's basic statistical literacy. The statistical concept here is a much more fundamental one.

It's a fun sort of thing to while away a Sunday morning pondering, but in the end, does Silver's prediction even really matter? Should Romney supporters take a look at the numbers and, disheartened, fold up the tent?

Of course not. What Silver's model is saying is, based upon the way the poll numbers look right now and past performance of those polls, if you ran 100 elections, Obama would win 77 of them. But that also means Romney would win 23, so hope is by no means lost. If your favorite football team was down one touchdown going into the 4th quarter and you knew in similar situations the trailing team lost 77% of the time, would you leave the stadium and quit cheering? Of course you wouldn't.

And, what's more, those polls can still continue to change over the last few days leading up to the election. How much of a move in the polls themselves does it take to adjust that 77.4% likelihood down to 65%? To 55%? To a coin flip?

To my mind, Silver's predictions shouldn't change the behavior of Obama or Romney supporters one way or another. If you are in the Obama camp, you wouldn't want to take the foot off the gas, any more than either of those football teams wants to slack off in the 4th quarter. If you're in the Obama camp, it means this election is by no means a sure thing. Better buckle down and get that number close to 100%. If you're in the Romney camp, it means it isn't over yet. One strong last minute drive and those numbers can totally change around . . .

Hmm . . . I just checked back at Nate Silver's blog. The morning he updated Obama's chances to 85.1%. Not looking too good for the trailing team . . .

In any event, come Tuesday, I predict I am 100% likely to be glad the whole thing's over.


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