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How to make a Moscow Mule

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The fiber swam—viscous, milky, sexual—on the other side of the amber glass. I pressed my eye as closely as I dared. My heart felt precious little shame as I thought, “That must be what it looks like in the moment before human conception.”

It was a Friday night, and I had shoved the inverted bottle of ginger beer into the handle of my oven. It was the only place I could find to hold the bottle upside down while I hand-rolled and cut my limes. A lime pressed and rolled against a hard surface is easier to juice, but that really wasn’t the point. The sediment was the thing, and it was distracting me from the limes.

Not enough has been written about the subject of sediment distribution vis a vis cocktail excellence, but in the twilight of that Friday night I knew I was doing it right. I was a voyeur, a Tom, peeping though the glass at the silky ginger fiber. It loitered with purpose in the middle of the bottle.

I was preparing to make my second Moscow Mule of the night, and the only thing delaying my progress was shameless sensory arousal. I breathed slowly as the ginger made its erotic journey around its 12-ounce, lightly carbonated womb.

Mule time

On March 26, 2012, I received an email from a friend. His nom de degenerate is Grange95, a pseudonym he uses to protect his identity in a world where drinking and gambling are common but preaching their gospels is sometimes a sackable offense. The subject line of the e-mail read: “The Definitive Moscow Mule Recipe.”

I knew the e-mail was coming. It was the fire to the delivery smoke that clouded my doorstep days earlier. The first box contained four copper mugs. The second was a case of ginger beer. I opened both and then stepped away, afraid that the ensuing alchemy would erupt before I had the opportunity to put on protective equipment.

The greeting of the email got right to business and avoided any pleasantries.

Grange (who had sent the boxes special delivery in advance of his email) wrote, “I trust your resourcefulness as an uber-faller and professional citrus-tosser will allow you to procure a supply of vodka and limes.”

(There’s a certain Inside Baseball code embedded in those words you might not be able to decipher if you haven’t been a longtime reader here. Suffice it to say, I know my cocktails, and I can hit a small space with a smaller lime at 30 yards and do so in a condition that would be considered dangerous for most people. Or, put another way, I’m no rookie. Let’s leave it there.)

The e-mail also came with a warning: “Fourteen Mules make you think you can play piano in a fancy martini bar, even without having taken piano lessons. Fifteen Mules make you fall off piano benches. My personal recommendation is to stop somewhere in the 11-12 range.”

The first time my wife had two Moscow Mules in a row, she kicked me in the eye during a romantic moment.

We needed practice.

With love and ginger, Grange

I let my right hand hang out the window. It surfed the air like a child’s fingers on a station wagon road trip. My friend Lori pulled into a dark parking lot off West Sahara. Herbs and Rye looked like a dive. It was my only free night in Las Vegas, and this was the only place I wanted to be.

When I find something I like, I evangelize. Shamelessly. In 1999, Yahoo unveiled its LAUNCHcast product, a precursor to today’s Pandora-style streaming radio. In 2005, I discovered ECCO shoes. When I fell in love with both, I spent hours convincing others to experiment with me and join my travels on a new road to enlightenment.

So, over the four months since Grange’s e-mail, I had experimented, shared, and evangelized to almost everyone I knew. It was such a simple cocktail, and yet so very refreshing. I felt everyone needed to know about it.

To make the drinkable portion of a Moscow Mule, you need vodka, ice, a lime, and ginger beer. To serve it, you need a copper cup. These are the essential elements, but they in no way begin to tell this story the way it needs to be told. Finding the essence and finding perfection are two different things. One can take months. The other can take a lifetime.

The search for the perfect Moscow Mule is an evangelistic road similar to my ECCO shoes quest, but on this one I often need a designated driver. So, after countless Moscow Mules with my wife/guinea pig, that DD on that night four months later was a friend named Lori. She’d scouted Herbs and Rye and spotted the elusive Mule in the wild.

A giant man with a Thor-like hammer stood on the other side of the bar. He stuffed ice into a canvas sack (I’d learn later it’s called a “Lewis Bag”), put it on the edge of his bar, and beat it with his giant wooden mallet. It was simultaneously violent, artful, and erotic. I’d never been so turned on by a sweating 300-pound man in a black vest.

Thor and the Moscow Mule

Thor went to work in a way I had never seen. It was at once robotic and fluid, like a wax museum bartender animated into a performance artist. By the time Thor finished, I had in front of me what amounted to a Moscow Mule sno-cone made with Fever Tree Ginger Beer and garnished with a paper-thin piece of lime peel.

And it was wonderful. I had two.

While I drank, I perused the Herbs and Rye menu. It listed its offerings by era, starting with the pre-Prohibition years and working its way up to the 1960s. I let my finger slide down to the Moscow Mule description where the menu read: “Was a marketing ploy by John G. Martin of Heublein Inc. as East Coast distributor of food and spirits.”

It was dark in the bar, and I hoped my barmates didn’t see me blanche.

A marketing ploy?

A marketing ploy?

I’d been led to the perfect dark off–Strip bar in Las Vegas to drink what I considered to be the world’s best cocktail. In a moment, the drink I’d come to think of as my signature cocktail was no more than a marketing ploy? I felt cheated and somehow wronged (and yet, still, very refreshed). Fortunately, the Mule and conversation had kicked in, and my lament lasted only as long as it took to order the second drink.

Thank heavens for deeper research. Later (after something called Corpse Reviver) I went deeper into the story of the Mule Marketing Ploy and discovered the phrase on the menu was not only ripped off from a web page, but also failed to tell the full and amazing story of the Moscow Mule.

John G. Martin worked for the same company that made A-1 Steak Sauce. During his time at the company, he came upon what he thought was a golden opportunity, the kind of once-in-a-lifetime lark at which people of my ilk would jump: he had the chance to buy the Smirnoff vodka distillery.

Think on that for a moment. You work for a company that makes steak sauce, a substance based entirely on mitigating the offense of a badly-cooked piece of meat, and you are presented with an opportunity to buy a Russian vodka distillery…a substance that can exist on its own in a shimmering, radiant pool of 80-proof perfection. It looked like kismet.

What you might not know, and what Martin failed to predict, is that Americans didn’t really like vodka in the post-Word War II era. It was a drink for the savage Russians. Nobody was buying what the A-1 vodka-hawker was selling. Hence, Martin’s vodka distillery purchase became known as Martin’s Folly.

Martin traveled the country. He ended up having dinner at the L.A. Sunset Strip’s famous Cock ‘n’ Bull, a place with a surplus of ginger beer (the owner had been brewing it, but failing miserably at selling it). In what could only be described as very refreshing serendipity, the restaurant’s owner had a friend who had inherited a copper factory.

You see where this is going, right? Three hustlers have a bunch of stuff they can’t sell and combine it to create one of the most refreshing cocktails ever made. It was like the chocolate and peanut butter people running into each other in the office hallway, but with a much better, much more intoxicating payoff.

That, friends, is how a man from a steak sauce company came to create the Moscow Mule.

Further research suggested to me that the tale might be a bit on the apocryphal side, but it’s no doubt close enough to convince a man well into his second Mule. Or to put a finer point on it…I believe it.

I sat on that Las Vegas barstool thinking of steak sauce and vodka, and just before I closed the Herbs and Rye menu, I couldn’t help but notice the place offered a 60-ounce ribeye. Old John Martin would’ve had a heyday in that joint.

Meanwhile, Lori, who had inspired, encouraged, and facilitated my trip to Herbs and Rye, ordered a Kentucky Mule—a bastard cocktail made with bourbon instead of vodka.

The big man behind the bar didn’t even deign to look in Lori’s eye when he said, “We don’t alter the classics.”


If you have come this far (a place I can promise you is nearing the halfway point of this tale) you might need some further enlightenment exactly what makes a Moscow Mule.

For that, let’s turn back to Grange’s definitive recipe. It’s reprinted here with his permission.

The Definitive Moscow Mule Recipe

Mis En Place:

Gather the following items, arrange in a semi-circle on a semi-clean, acid resistant counter top.

  • Four (4) 10 oz. copper mugs (NO SUBSTITUTES. Seriously, put down the high ball glass.)
  • One (1) 1.5L bottle or two (2) 750ml bottles of quality vodka
  • Six (6) large limes, cut into wedges (cut each lime in half, then quarter each half) (NOTE: One large lime will make approx. 2-3 drinks; if smaller limes are purchased, buy more of them.)
  • Six (6) bottles of quality ginger beer (NOTE: If desperate, ginger ale can be substituted, but it’s like replacing steak with tofu.)
  • Ice cubes—must be 2 cm per side, made from water drawn during a new moon from the Ogallala aquifer (PRO TIP: Any ice from the closest freezer will work fine.)
  • Mint sprigs and simple syrup—Some people add these to Moscow Mules. Those people are morons. However, they (the ingredients, not your moron friends) are useful for making a round of mojitos for those in your group with a more, ahem, delicate disposition.
  • Assembly:

    1) Fill each mug approx. 1/2 full of ice cubes.
    2) Pour 3 oz. (2 shots) vodka over ice (NOTE: the daring and the drunk can just eyeball it at 1/3 full).
    3) Squeeze juice of three or four lime wedges into vodka; drop in wedge if you require a “garnish” (PRO TIP: if you really like lime or have scurvy, add a fifth wedge; use four or five wedges if using smaller limes).
    4) Top off mug with ginger beer.
    5) Stir gently.
    6) Drink.
    7) Repeat (CAUTION: Stand up at your own risk. The Mule can kick.).

    Makes approx. 12 beverages (counting can be difficult after three Moscow Mules).

    Print that part out and keep it with you at all times. I’m not even half-kidding.

    ...And serve

    “There it is!” my wife said. Her finger stabbed at the bar menu so hard she almost put a hole through the page. She let loose a sound that was undeniably, shamelessly, “Woot woot!”

    “Ryan said it would be there,” I said.

    I had already seen the Moscow Mule in the wild, but I’d not yet spotted a feral Mule in my own habitat. A friend had tipped me that we might find one at a new bar in Greenville’s West End.

    A blonde bartender–her shirt cut low, her hair pulled back–leaned in.

    “Which drink?” she said.

    “The Moscow Mule,” my wife said. Her giddiness mirrored mine.

    “I thought that might be it,” the bartender said. Before long, I realized why. Within minutes of our Mules arriving, three women at the far end of the bar ordered a round for themselves. Ten minutes later, a man who couldn’t find a seat along the rail, stood behind us.

    “I’ll have one of those Mules,” he said. Word was getting out.

    Stacey Wingate arrived in Greenville, South Carolina in June of 1999. He’s lived in this city for almost exactly as long as I have. It’s home, and a place where he recently stepped into the position of bar manager at one of the newest restaurants in town, Breakwater. He’s the type of bar manager who memorizes his customers’ names and drinks. He creates cocktails and infuses vodka by the gallon. The night we arrived, he had cucumber-mint martinis and watermelon Manhattans.

    Wingate makes his Mules with Russian Standard vodka, Goslings ginger beer, and cubed ice. Like any man I respect, he doesn’t like to serve a Mule outside of a copper cup. He keeps them high on a shelf over his cash register.

    “People steal them,” he said. “They are not easy to get. People get a little more brave after a couple.” (Note: there is no piano to take over like Grange’s martini bar, so people have to do something when they get deep into a Mule ride.)

    It's very refreshing

    Wingate’s vodka distributor brings him a couple copper cups at a time, just enough to keep up with the lime-sticky fingers and their attachment to Breakwater’s vessels.

    “I have my own copper cups,” I said, hoping to allay any of Wingate’s fears about me thieving one of his.

    “It’s a good drink…” Wingate began before stopping to think. “Well, it’s a good drink any time, but it’s especially good in the summer time.”

    And then he said the words that forever endeared me to him.

    “It’s…refreshing,” he said.

    Moscow Mules in the wild at Breakwater in Greenville, SC

    On the night I shoved the bottle upside down into the oven handle, I recalled a conversation I’d had over the phone just a few hours earlier.

    “You’re looking for a bottle with sediment,” I’d told my younger brother. And I meant it.

    Finding ginger beer in the wild isn’t an easy task to begin with. You’re probably not going to find it in your local Safeway. Once you do find ginger beer, you still may be a long way from finding the best. I’ve sampled more than half a dozen ginger beers since this journey began six months ago. Before we get to what kind you should be picking, I need to reinforce a very important point.

    If you’re going to travel the Mule road, you don’t want to take the first step without this knowledge: ginger ale and ginger beer are not brothers. They are barely cousins. Ginger ale is Pat Boone to ginger beer’s Little Richard. Mass-market ginger ale is the best-selling soda water flavored with ginger. Ginger beer is brewed—fermented!—with ginger. You’ll never see a bottle of Schweppes with milky ginger root sediment in the bottom. As Grange said, serving a Moscow Mule with ginger ale is like serving tofu and calling it steak. That stuff won’t fly in Herbs and Rye, I guarantee you that.

    My brother had called from halfway across the country seeking advice on the best ginger beer for his new copper mugs. That’s when I started talking about sediment.

    There are many ginger beers on the market. They’re all fine for making a Mule, but few have sediment, that viscous, fibrous floating ginger root that, to me, defines a Moscow Mule’s essence. I’ve found only two ginger beers that meet my full approval. The best is Fever Tree. If you can find it and afford it, make your Mules with nothing else. In lieu of that, I recommend the ginger beer made by The Ginger People brand (sometimes found at Whole Foods). I’m sure (I hope) there are others with the right amount of sediment, but I’ve not found them yet.

    Fever Tree, the professional Mule drinker's choice in ginger beer

    But that’s not entirely the point, either. The point was that my brother—with whom I speak over the phone only when it’s required that we articulate a point very clearly—had called to ask advice on the proper ginger beer to top his Mule. That, like the sediment, was the thing.

    The day Grange introduced me to the Moscow Mule was the day I began sharing it with other people. Chief among those people was my wife. For reasons I can’t fully explain, the Moscow Mule gave us a new reason to sit outside, a reason to sit and watch the fireflies, and, at the risk of getting a little corny, a new romance (remember, she kicked me in the eye). I’ve never felt closer to my wife than I do today, and I’d be blaspheming the Mule if I didn’t give it some credit for that.

    His and her's Moscow Mules

    Even beyond my schoolboy romance with my wife, the Mule has become a thing among my friends. We’ve named a poker game after it. We’ve angled for which four people get to consume the next round (I only have four cups right now, and there will be none served in a glass). What’s more, friends all over North America have seen the chatter and bought their own copper mugs. This weekend I traveled to another city and brought my copper cups with me. When I got home yesterday I re-named my fantasy football team the Moscow Mules.

    It’s ridiculous in the best possible way. I even have two dear friends who avoid alcohol. Both of them—at different times—have surprised me by asking for a sip…just to see what it was like.

    Moscow Mule poker game

    There is no art without conflict, and in the case of my education in the art of the Moscow Mule, it came down to the ice.

    Recall, when Grange sent me his recipe, this was his note on ice:

    “Must be 2 cm per side, made from water drawn during a new moon from the Ogallala aquifer.”

    He followed that quickly with this: “PRO TIP: Any ice from the closest freezer will work fine.”

    That ambiguity set me on a path toward a bastardization of everything my mentor considered pure. Beginning in March 2012, I made my Moscow Mules with crushed ice. Today, I make my Moscow Mules with crushed ice. As far as Grange is concerned, I’m playing Kenny G. on a kazoo.

    There is a chance he will comment here and explain himself fully, but if I can presume to assert his position, it’s this: crushed ice waters down a drink where cubed ice does not. It’s that simple.

    I can’t disagree with him. I like to drink good single malt scotch, and I drink it neat. Not even a drop of water. When somebody has worked very hard to perfect a flavor of a liquor, I want to appreciate that flavor.

    But I’m also a man who appreciates an aesthetic. In my head—no, in my heart—crushed ice represents refreshment. Cubed ice is structured, uncomfortable, and noisy.

    And, so, it’s on this position that the student drifts away from the teacher. Yet, despite this, there is a mutual trust and respect that we maintain. After all, we’re not in this entirely for refreshment. It’s all part of a greater effort to fight the scourge known as scurvy. Thank goodness limes come four for a dollar.

    Fight scurvy

    People ask why, and I can only think of those bastards Bartles and Jaymes. If you’re not from America, or if you were born too late, you may not remember the ad campaign that supported a line of so-called wine coolers. From the time I was in fourth grade until the time I was a junior in high school, two old fake men sat on a porch and convinced America that the process of making a good drink was something that could be reduced to bringing home a four-pack of bottles. They capped it all off with what became the iconic, “and thank you for your support.”

    So, yes, people ask why, and I think of those two old men and how disconnected we have become from everything we put in and on our bodies. I’m just as guilty as everyone else. We’re busy. We’re in a hurry. We’d rather do something other than take time to actually make a drink. Why waste five minutes mixing when you can open a bottle and pour?

    For me, it’s the like chicken. I can buy a roasted bird just about anywhere, or I can spend a couple of hours roasting my own, making stock from the bones, and making chicken salad from the leftovers.

    Or it’s like my dear friend who refuses to shave like most men. Instead, he creates foam with a badger-hair-bristled brush and applies the cream to his face before shaving. Like the chicken and me, it’s a matter of feeling an integral part of the things you do to and put in your body.

    What might have started out as a marketing ploy became something bigger in the lives the people it’s touched over the past 60 years. Bartles and Jaymes made pre-mixed drinks part of our too-busy culture. It made turning a bottle cap the most involved you’ll ever be with your drink. But John Martin’s Mule marketing ploy is something else. The cocktail requires time to make. It requires a search for the perfect ginger beer. It requires a copper cup. It’s more than a drink. It’s an event. It’s a quest.

    And, for me, it’s about a process. I like being involved. There is a certain comfort in making something for myself and others. It’s process of creating something better than the sum of its parts. It’s a matter of not just falling in love with a drink, but falling in love over and over again with the people with whom you share that drink. It’s something very simple that solves—even only temporarily—a lot of the complex problems a day can bring.

    Also, it’s very, very refreshing.

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    Margarita shrimp tacos recipe

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    The kitchen was a little short on supplies this evening when I went in to make dinner. I ended up experimenting a little bit with what I had and came up with this. There is nothing particularly special about the meal, except for the sauce which I found to be something I hadn’t tried before.

    Try it out. Tinker with it. Let me know what you come up with.

    Margarita Shrimp Tacos

    1lb. peeled and deveined shrimp
    Corn tortillas
    1/4 cup heavy cream
    1 cup shredded jack/cheddar cheese
    3/4 cup Patron tequila
    2 oz. Grand Marnier
    1/4 cup rice wine vinegar or lime juice
    1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
    2 tablespoons of fresh chopped ginger or 1 tsp. ground ginger
    3 tablespoons olive oil
    1/2 tsp onion powder
    1/2 tsp garlic powder
    1/2 tsp. chile powder
    1 red pepper
    1 green pepper
    Shredded lettuce
    Chopped tomato
    Salt and pepper or Montreal steak seasoning
    Additional olive oil

    Mix tequila, Grad Marnier, soy sauce, ginger, oil, onion, and garlic powders together well. Pour over shrimp and toss. Let sit in fridge for 20-30 minutes.

    While waiting, set over broiler on high with broiler pan inside. Slice peppers intro strips, toss with additional olive oil and salt/pepper (or Montreal steak seasoning),and then arrange in one layer on hot broiler pan. Let sit under broiler for 4-5 minutes. Remove to tin foil.

    Remove shrimp from marinade and arrange on broiler pan. Dust with chile powder. Cook for 2-3 minutes on one side, turn, cook for 1-2 minutes more.

    Meanwhile, move marinade to a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Once the mixture has boiled for 30 seconds to a minute, reduce heat to a simmer, temper the cream with a tablespoon of the hot mixture, and then whisk slowly into the sauce pan. Once the cream has mixed with the sauce, stir in the shredded cheese Once the cheese melts, the sauce should stick to the spoon and be the consistency of a thin alfredo or cream sauce.

    Serve shrimp on steamed corn tortillas. Drizzle sauce generously over the tacos with shredded lettuce, slice jalapeno, roasted peppers, and tomato. Squirt with a fresh lime.


    That’s how I did it tonight on the fly. In the future, I will probably work the sauce a little differently (start with a cream sauce and whisk in the cooked-down marinade) and try to work up some sort of tangy cabbage slaw to replace the lettuce. Also…cilantro. Lots and lots of cilantro. In any case, was a nice little quick meal.

    Categories : Cooking, Food and Drink
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    Otis and the Pisco Sour

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    The woman walked toward me with a plate of green balls.

    No story should begin that way. It’s the type of lead that conjures nightmares, or at the very least, pornographic guilt. And yet, this was my path.

    I am in Lima, Peru, a place unlike any I have been before. It’s one of the top 20 most populous cities in the world. A city of eight million people, the denizens of Lima are squeezed into blocks of nearly 8,000 people per square mile. It’s a multicultural place, made up of Mestizos, Caucasians of Spanish and Italian descent, and just about every other kind of person you could imagine seeing.

    “Do you speak German?” the man asked me in English.

    “I speak English,” I said.

    “I am from Germany,” he said. “I took a shuttle from the airport, and I lost all my luggage. Can you help me?”

    He was homeless, maybe German, and looking for a handout. He probably had more worth in his hands than many of the native people of Peru. Things are so bad for some folks here, they literally try to catch the ubiquitous winter fog with big nets so they have clean drinking water. They know little of the big green balls, ad this is where it’s evident I’m more fortunate than I should be.

    A news conference had just finished and the waiters (yes, there are waiters at the news conferences I attend now) were handing out Cusquena beer and some sort of purple squid mousse. And big green balls.

    I told myself that I would try one of everything here in Peru. I’ve been many a place and tried many a thing, but in just my first 20 hours here, I’d run across a multitude of things I’d never tried. Before it was all said and done, I’d quaffed spicy green balls, purple squid mousse, and some odd combination of fish and hominy that I intend to replicate with a South Carolina flair some day. It was all fairly exotic for a guy who gets off on ribs and beans.

    While the waiters were plying us with the green balls, the drink guys brought around a tray of green cocktails with orange dots on the top. I was hoping my partner Shamus would try one for me. I forgot he doesn’t drink. When the waiter told us what it was, I heard “whiskey sour.” Well, I thought, I’ve tried one of those. No need to add it to the list of everything else I’m trying.

    A couple of hours later, we went to a party where grown men breakdanced with giant musical scissors in their hands and Mestizos with trays offered an array of things I’d never had before. Sure, there was your typical ceviche and fish on a stick that you’ll find in any South American coastal town. There were empanadas and the like. But then there were those whiskey sours that the Peruvians seems to hold with so much pride. Finally, I stood closer to one of the waiters and truly heard.

    Pisco sour.

    I had two or three at the party, each time thinking it tasted like a combination of a whiskey sour and a margarita. By the time I felt like leaving (shortly after the guys with the scissors disappointingly ended their dance without slicing each other up), I knew that my first Google search upon my return would be to learn what I’d been drinking.

    It turns out, a pisco sour is comprised of pisco, citrus juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and bitters. All of that made sense, except for the fact that I’d never heard of pisco either. I learned it’s a South American liquor made of grapes. Not all that exciting, eh?

    Well, it wouldn’t be except for the fact that the pisco sour is one of the more controversial drinks of South America. See, the Peruvians and Chileans (both fantastic people in my estimation) aren’t each other’s biggest fans. What’s more, they both claim the pisco sour as their drink. Here in Peru, they actually have a Pisco Sour Day. They play the Peruvian national anthem, and it’s disrespectful to not finish your drink before the song ends. The Chileans, meanwhile, take some umbrage at the fact their nemesis nation claims their drink. It could probably get really ugly. Even Anthony Bourdain, one of my personal heroes, stepped in it pretty deeply a while back when he essentially declared the Chilean pisco sour to be inferior to the Peruvian version. One wikipedia tale was even better.

    Adal Ramones, a Mexican television show host and comedian, made a reference to the Pisco Sour when he expressed his opinion in regards to the 2009 Chile-Peru espionage scandal: “What do the Chileans want to spy from Peru? How to make a good Pisco Sour?”

    I have now been in Peru for 24 hours and I’ve now tried at least five things I’d never had before. Most of them were pretty good (although the cocktail con leche wasn’t really my speed). Tonight as I get ready to get some rest before four hard days of work, I’m struck by the fact that my dalliances with the green balls and pisco sours are the reason I dig my job so much. Sure, I love the people I’m around, and I enjoy the action and adrenaline of high stakes poker. The real joy of it, though, is being in a place I’ve never been, a place most people I know will never see, under skies that look different than they do at home. It’s the ability to have absolutely no idea what I’m eating and enjoy it for the pure mystery that it is.

    This is how I know I’m lucky. Like most of you, I work in a relatively thankless job, work long hours, and sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. Unlike most people, though, I get the opportunity to experience the absolute unknown on a regular basis. I’m not relegated to a world of Pizza Hut and Bud Light. I’ve been very lucky that my life has put me in a place that my job picks me up out of South Carolina and drops me on South America’s Pacific coast or some other weird and exotic place. It’s never for long enough, but it’s more than I ever expected to experience.

    Oh, sure, maybe it’s the pisco sours talking. Here in about nine hours, I’ll be wishing I was sitting in my easy chair at home and getting ready to take my boy to the pool. For now, though, I feel fortunate that life remains interesting. If it stays this way, things won’t end up too bad.

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    Pine Nut Mouth

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    I blamed the banana, and I blamed it in a number of four-letter ways that would’ve made my mom wash my mouth out with brands of soap only familiar to Russian intelligence agencies and the Mossad. I cursed every banana republic I could think of and made up a few (Sonofabitchiti being the most the most colorful) just for good measure. I accused the banana of having sexual intercourse with its mother. I was unhappy with the banana.

    Then I blamed the whole organic industry. We eat a lot of the organic stuff and bananas are no exception. I try to eat healthy, you see, and so when it came time for a mid-afternoon snack, the banana seemed to be the best bet.

    Since I ate the last bite of that damned piece of fruit, nothing has tasted right. In fact, no matter what I put in my mouth, it all tastes like I took a piece of orange rind and chewed it up something fierce. My taste buds refuse to register sweet, salt, sour, or the fabled umami. I am, in a word, nothing but bitter.

    That night, I ate roasted chicken, sweet corn, and couscous. Bitter, bitter, bitter.

    Before bed, I had some sunflower seeds and a diet 7-Up. Bitter, bitter-up.

    Breaksfast: Kashi and a mimosa. Healthy, boozy bitter.

    I could go on through the rest of that day, but it’s the same thing time and again.

    So, I thought I was dying, of course. I figured myself for a brain tumor or that mouth cancer that adults have been warning me about since grade school. I figured my tongue was one big malignant mass of death. I told no one for a while, figuring it would be best to suffer in silence and then fake my death in some honorable way that would allow my sons to say, “Daddy died in the failed rescue of six nuns and six school children” instead of “Dad had a dirty mouth and died without a tongue.”

    Finally, I told my wife. She deserved to know. She’s been a good woman and a good wife. The truth, no matter how bitter, was something she should hear.

    “Everything taste bitter,” I said over dinner.

    “It tastes fine to me,” she said.

    No, I explained. Everything. Everything tasted like the rind of a citrus fruit. I was going to die of some rare illness carried by organic bananas. She thought I had started dipping into the sherry again.

    It’s hard to explain how frustrating this is. When infected with the dreaded bitter mouth, you tend to forget for an hour or two that you have a problem. Then you pop an almond or goldfish cracker in your mouth and you want to spit out your tongue. It takes you by surprise, much like I expect it is when your cellmate crawls into your bunk beside you at night. It’s very unpleasant and always surprising, but you grow painfully used to it after a while.

    The sad thing is, my sense of taste is something I take very seriously. Some of the greater pleasures I get in life are the ones that land on my tongue. I tried to imagine living the rest of my life without being disgusted by everything I ate. Apart from being a great weight loss program, it was going to be one miserable way to go through life.

    I thought about crying, but decided I would consult Google before I went off in search of a burning Catholic school house. Within two minutes, I happened across this article.

    Holy banana republic. It wasn’t the banana’s fault.

    Just a few days back, I made a nice little dinner. It was rare for me to put pine nuts in anything. This night, I toasted some my wife brought home and mixed them with the couscous. Three days later: Bitter.

    Apparently certain people (read: me) are affected by certain kinds of pine nuts (read: those sitting in my kitchen). The effect is this: 2-3 days after consumption, sufferers find everything they eat bitter.

    It lasts up to ten days.

    Ten days.

    Ten days.

    That’s how it’s echoed in my head every time I have taken a bite of anything.

    The good news is, I’m not dying. I will probably lose some weight. The bad news is…ten days.

    Pine nut mouth.

    Who knew?

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    The peanut butter conundrum

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    I was in my mid-teens before I realized that most people did not put peanut butter on their pancakes. Or waffles. Or French toast.

    This fact, mundane as it may seem, was eventually cause for some amount of embarrassment. Later in life, people would look at me as if I’d suggested putting red hots on caviar or a condom on a cucumber.

    “Your family did some weird things with food,” my wife said today as I messed with some leftover sun sundried tomato meatloaf.

    I stood there with the bottle of yellow mustard in my hand and thought back on one moment in food on her side of the family. It involved a potato salad that no doubt moonlighted as spackle. I held my tongue and squirted the mustard on the leftovers. While my wife didn’t have much room to talk, she was right.

    I come from comfort foodies. My mom’s side of the family produced some fairly inspired and fantastic home cooking. Grandma and my mom could whip most home cooks like a cast iron skillet to the side of the head. To this day, much of my cooking foundation comes from the things I learned in those kitchens. What’s more, both of my parents come from relative poverty and–mostly my dad–developed some odd make-do-with-what-we’ve-got tastes.

    I came away as a guy who can eat a $200 tasting menu one night and peanut butter pancakes the next morning.

    It wasn’t just the peanut butter, although I’ve come to define many of my food eccentricities by the memory of smearing Peter Pan on the top of mom’s flapjacks. Here are a few other things that happened around our table that I’ve either never seen or seen in very few places:

  • Cold meatloaf, white bread, mustard sandwiches
  • Salt on watermelon
  • Black pepper on cantaloupe
  • Miracle Whip and back pepper in half an avocado
  • Country gravy on tomato slices
  • Ketchup as a condiment in chili
  • I’ve found it interesting which of the above I still find tasty. I gave up the peanut butter several years ago (preferring to actually taste the pancake). The only time ketchup ever enters my chili is if it is in my boy’s bowl and I’m trying to make it palatable for him. I eat avocado plain or in guacamole. I have never liked tomatoes. But the cold meatloaf, salted watermelon, and peppered cantaloupe, those are all still friendly reminders of what it was like to be a kid.

    My family ate well, no matter that we weren’t that well off when I was young. We sometimes ate weird, but we ate well. I was blessed with a couple of matriarchs with kitchen talent. That the family passed on some strange eating habits makes me appreciate it all even more.

    The way I see it, a family should have a tradition in food. I feel sorry for people who don’t look back on their childhood and remember what it was like to eat. Nearly every night I’m home, I sit around the dinner table with my family and we eat together. Every night at bedtime, I remind my kids that I was happy I got a chance to have dinner together.

    For what it’s worth, my kid puts regular butter on his pancakes.

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    Upon my return from Connecticut

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    Mystic Pizza is a real place.

    This probably comes as no surprise to people who are big fans of the movie. It probably comes as even less a surprise to people who didn’t know the movie exists. My problem was I was surrounded by the latter. My job for the past week was to cover a poker tournament full of people who were either in diapers or hadn’t been born when the Julia Roberts flick came out 23 years ago. It’s hard to explain to these people the significance of driving up on Mystic Pizza. It’s harder when I’ve never seen the movie myself. In any case, the pastrami, onion, and mustard pie (pictured here) was pretty good. Julia Roberts wasn’t there, but somebody said to me this week, “After seeing Pretty Woman, I was inspired to try and find that hooker with the heart of gold. Boy, did I try. I never found her, though.”

    Unlike a trip across South America or one faced with a loosely-official Mexican federale shakedown, a work trip to southeastern Connecticut isn’t one in which I’m going to learn much about myself or the world. Connecticut is a beautiful place, but it left me with more questions that answers.

    Why does nearly every countryside property surround itself with four-foot rock walls?

    Is there a lot of pride in being the submarine capital of the world?

    Who puts pastrami and mustard on pizza? (It was very good).

    How does a casino survive when the blue laws require last call at 12:30am five days a week?

    If I was left with any permanent impression, it was of how distinct the people of the region are from almost every place I’ve ever visited. I haven’t been able to fully pinpoint what it is yet, but I think it has something to do with a guy named Tony.

    “You like pasta fazool?” he asked to me on my first morning there and handed a giant bowl of it toward me.

    It was his lunch. I don’t think he was actually offering it to me, but within five minutes of chatting, I knew Tony was good people. He was a 50-something shuttle driver with a thick Italian-American accent. It was easy for an over-imaginative mind to picture Tony as a retired wheel man for a crew out of Providence, or something sexy like that. In fact, he was just a friendly guy who would stand and talk for a few minutes before shuttling drunks back and forth between his hotel and the casino.

    A guy like Tony is probably a dime a dozen to the people of New England, but for a kid from Missouri, Tony was different. You don’t meet people like Tony in Willard, Jackson, or Greenville. His accent was distinct, his attitude perfect, and his friendliness a credit to the people of the region. What’s more, he compensated for the legions of Massholes (perhaps the most perfect and fitting phrase ever invented) that invade on the weekends.

    I’m home now and happy to be here. Connecticut was great, the Mohegan Sun a very cool casino, and people a great deal friendlier than I expected. I’ve got a few weeks of homebound work before I head off for Peru. My guess is that the people there will be different.

    Categories : Food and Drink, Poker, Travel
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    Spring and savory

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    Last week was a busy one. No time for shopping, planning, or menu-creation. Everything was on the fly.

    The wife went to Whole Foods to pick up our locally grown order and shot me a text. “Two pounds of shrimp. Anything else?”

    I was busy, and simply responded “I can work with shrimp.”

    “Sides?” she sent back.

    I was distracted and in a big hurry. So, I quickly typed out, “Cilantro, fresh ginger, cabbage, pineapple, peaches.”

    I had no plan, but I did have a few other things on hand, including nearly a gallon of frozen homemade stock. Here are the two exceedingly simple sides I ended up with. They’re nothing special. In fact, they’re almost not worth mentioning, but for the fact the wife gave me sexy eyes when I served them.

    Pornographic Risotto

    1.5 cups of arborio rice
    1.5 tablespoons unsalted butter
    1 tablespoon diced fresh ginger
    1/4 cup white wine
    4 cups homemade chicken stock
    1/2 large chopped peach
    1/4 cup chopped fresh pineapple
    3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
    1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
    Salt and pepper

    1. Melt butter on medium to medium high heat. When melted, sauté ginger and 1/2 of peaches until soft. Add rice and brown slightly.
    2. When rice is brown and butter has been absorbed, add wine and stir until absorbed.
    3. Warm stock and then add 3/4-1 cup at a time until nearly absorbed.
    4. When stock has been almost entirely absorbed into rice and rice is soft, add remainder of peaches, pineapple, cilantro, and Parmesan cheese.
    5. Salt and pepper to taste

    Nasty, naughty cabbage

    1/3 head red cabbage, julienned
    1/4 cup chopped onion
    1 clove garlic, diced
    1 tablespoon fresh ginger, diced
    1 tablespoon sesame oil
    2 tablespoons peanut oil
    1/2 tablespoon toasted black sesame seeds
    1/2 large peach, chopped
    1/2 cup chopped pineapple
    3 tablespoons soy sauce
    2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

    1. Heat oils together in skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot, add onion and ginger. Cook for two minutes, then add garlic.
    2. When garlic is beginning to brown, add cabbage. Cook for 4-5 minutes or until it’s soft but still has a bit of a crisp to it.
    3. Add remainder of ingredients and cook for 3-4 minutes. Serve immediately.

    Categories : Cooking, Food and Drink
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    Mastodon Weekend deconstructed

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    “He probably has a whole generation of writers getting drunk and wondering why they can’t write like that.” –Roger Ebert on Charles Bukowski.

    In sitcoms the sound of a screeching phonograph needle has taken on an iconic responsibility. It signifies the point at which a person who simply doesn’t belong walks through the front door of an establishment. It’s that funny moment when everyone in the joint stops, looks, and pulls the switch on an innate xenophobia.

    “This person isn’t from here,” the hive mind mumbles. “He doesn’t belong here.”

    And, so cue the moment when 20 people stumble into a fancy steakhouse in Greenville, South Carolina. They stink of booze and jalapeños. They are muttering things about people with names like “Otis” and “BadBlood” and “Iggy.” A few of them have hair past their shoulders. One man is wearing a long trench coat. There is no doubt the blue-haired lady at Table 2 is afraid she is about to be flashed.

    Worse than any of it for the people in the $500 shirts and $800 shoes? That loathsome lot at the front door has a reservation for the best table in the restaurant, courtesy of some guy named Mark who people keep referring to as The Mark. It’s off-putting and there are a lot of nonplussed people who are forced to watch that group through a little zoo-like window into the wine room.

    Four servers, a sommelier, and the executive chef tend to the miscreants. The tab—which is buttressed by a tip to end all tips—is nothing that is discussed in too much detail. In a wash of sorbet, 18 year-old scotch, and bloody red meat, the group disappears out the front door.

    It probably wasn’t real, except for the fact that it was.

    Photo by Tim Whims

    You shouldn’t mistake these people for losers, although at first blush you could be forgiven. Most of these cretins live and work in polite society. They are the people who make your computers pop. They make your banks run, the legal system survive, and your body operate the way it should. They are hedonists, many of whom prefer to spend their cash now than on a gold casket when they die. We don’t talk about each other’s rolls, but if there isn’t a millionaire in the group yet, there probably will be in a few years.

    Money doesn’t matter though, because the reason they all came in town has nothing to do with cash. While poker might have been the reason the core group started massaging each other’s egos, the game is now more an afterthought than raison d’être. Moreover, many of us are actually competitors in the same market. We have been competing for the same dollar for the past five or six years. The money that one of us makes can make the other have to work harder.

    None of that will explain why two unknown girls started kissing in an Irish bar Saturday night at BG’s mere unspoken and mental suggestion, but it’s a start, and as much as I’m going to tell you for now.

    Photo by Tim Whims

    “I’m not going to fawn over you this trip,” I said to one friend.

    “I don’t want you to,” he said.

    The problem is that this is a mutual admiration society. Where in other realms this group of people might be ignored—or, worse—shunned—in this little microcosm, they are celebrated. By the time we get done telling each other how much we love what the other is doing, we’ve killed an hour of time we could be plotting to conquer the world, or, better yet, take over a small island. And it’s no real exaggeration to suggest that there are some people capable of just that.

    If there is one flaw this ragtag group shares is that, often, the traits for which they are best known, are often not what they really represent. The collective warmth, talent, foresight, courage, and ability is something that is not just hidden—it’s usually consciously, strategically hidden. Or, put another way, the dwarf really isn’t a dwarf.

    “We should be better friends,” the friend said three days later after we lapsed into half an hour of inevitable fawning.

    “Yes, we should be,” I said.

    Then I admitted to him that there was a period of time I suspected him of murder.

    Photo by Tim Whims

    Somewhere in St. Louis there are about 20 homeless folks walking around in baseball shirts with the word “mastodon” misspelled on the front. This is not my fault, but I bear some responsibility, because I know Chilly.

    Chilly is an instigator by reputation. He likes to start debates and will be known to steal the occasional shot of alcohol from in front of a thirsty person. He is a teddy bear at heart. He had souvenir shirts made for everyone who came to visit last weekend. The first time through, the screen printer spelled “mastodon” with an “a.”

    I don’t feel so bad about the homeless man who will be wearing the #4 “Otis” shirt, but the poor dude walking around in the #420 “Dr. Pauly” shirt is going to spend a lot of time getting hassled by the heat.

    Photo by Tim Whims

    Why do it?

    I don’t know, really.

    I guess I just like the idea that–even if they have to come in from two countries and a dozen different states–it’s nice to know there a really good people in the world. It’s nice to know that if I needed something or someone, I have folks all over the place who would stop everything and help me take care of it.

    That is, you can’t have enough good people in your life. We have scant few years to breathe and I want to spend that time with people who bring me joy.

    * * *
    I could count recount last weekend’s events moment by moment, but others do it better than me. Just search around the blogs, Twitter, and Facebook for “mastodon weekend” and you’ll see more than I’d ever hoped you would. I would still be remiss if I didn’t thank Mark (yes, The Mark) and all of his associates for their time and efforts to make the weekend so good. Also, many thanks to Bustout Poker Apparel for sponsoring our little event and making sure we were well fed, clothed, and paid. To the owners and staff of Azia, Rick Erwins, and every bar in the downtown area (except that one that has never been any good), thanks for putting up with us and treating us like the kings we pretend we are. A big thanks to my co-hosts BadBlood, The Mark, and G-Rob (who helped in a lot of the planning despite being sick in bed the whole weekend) for all your efforts.


    2010 Mastodon Weekend

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    This morning I awoke to a text from Al.

    “Bad beat,” he wrote. “Room won’t be ready until 3pm.”

    He’d been on the road all night and hadn’t slept. The hotel at which he had a reservation wasn’t ready for him. He had nowhere to crash.

    I rallied out of bed and started exploring options. By the time I had a solution figured out, Al was overlooking the Reedy River falls from one of the nicest hotel suites in Greenville.

    “Any price for comfort,” he said.

    To look at Al or any of the other 25 people with whom I’ll be associating over the next few days, you wouldn’t guess that we have a room block at Greenville, SC’s best hotel. You wouldn’t guess we’re world travelers or enjoy the finer things in life. We are collectively long-hairs, wild-eyed maniacs, professional drinkers, and other things that can’t be written about in this forum. In our private lives, we are lawyers, writers, entrepreneurs, medical professionals, and executives. If you were to see us this weekend, you might wonder if the circus is in town or there was a jailbreak.

    G-Rob named it “Mastodon Weekend” last year, an homage to the mastodon’s inability to evolve. It was simply an excuse for a few buddies to get together and cause some trouble. This year, it’s grown. Now somewhere between two and three dozen people are coming in from out of town for no other reason than it seems sort of fun. We are people who are either unable or loathe to evolve.

    Out of town means more than “Big Pirate is driving up from Columbia” (which he is, by the way). By early Friday, we will have people on the ground from L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., St. Louis, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Asheville. That does not include the two people who are driving down from north of Toronto.

    Yes, Canada.

    I know, none of it makes any sense. Hell, we ended up with a benefactor for part of this year’s events. Thanks to Bustout Poker Apparel (website launching this weekend) for its support.

    Last year, we had no plan and ended up seeing Motley Crue for no other reason than they were playing down the street.

    We found ourselves racing rickshaws (for money) around downtown Greenville. After an accident, Shep had to be told, “If it still hurts in a week, get an x-ray.”

    We went to a dive bar in which my brother remarked (after returning two shots of Grand Mar with dead bugs floating in them), “I’m pretty sure the smell of Pine Sol is being used to cover up the smell of murder.”

    And then a bunch of stuff happened that will never be written about.

    Now, Mastodon Weekend 2010 is about to kick off. If you happen to be the type to frequent downtown Greenville, you might want to make other plans for the next few days.

    Or, better yet, join us.

    Categories : Drinking, Friends, Gambling, Poker
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    The juice connoisseur

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    “So what comes with the quesadilla?” he asked the waitress.

    It was after midnight and the dude was getting his food comped by the poker room.

    “Vegetables and cheese,” the server. She was patient.

    “Can you have them put extra vegetables in it?” he asked and received a nod. “And light on the cheese?”

    I sat sipping on a cheap beer and didn’t say, “Sir, if you take the cheese out of a quesadilla and add more vegetables, what you have is a vegetable sandwich, and one that’s not going to stick together very well.”

    He ate what the server brought, and did so like a dog enjoys its food. He lowered his nose to the plate and scooped huge chunks of guacamole and vegetables into his face. It probably helped him that he was good looking, sort of rugged, and had the chiseled jaw of a guy that always went light on the cheese. Still, he looked like an animal, and I had a hard time liking him.

    Later, he ordered a cranberry juice and then chastised himself. “I should’ve ordered pomegranate juice,” he said ruefully.

    I was annoyed that he was drinking juice at all.

    When his drink came, he took one sip and screwed up his face.

    “This is not cranberry juice,” he said “It’s sweet. It’s like fruit punch.”

    “Probably cranapple or something like that,” I suggested.

    “It’s not cranapple,” he said, like I’d suggested that maybe his bottle of Mad Dog was a fine wine. “I know cranapple. This is like fruit punch.”

    “Then maybe it’s fruit punch,” I said and drank my beer.

    The guy literally stood up from the table, held the glass between his thumb and forefinger, and carried it to a table ten feet away. He came back. It was as if he was physically offended by the drink’s presence.

    “That was not real cranberry juice,” he said. And then he spoke passionately about how he always receives real cranberry juice, how he couldn’t believe they would bring him something that tasted like fruit punch. If this sounds repetitive, it’s because it was.

    The server reappeared and looked as if she wanted to show him what real cranberry juice tasted like. “Could I have a pomegranate juice?” he asked. When she said yes, he stopped, her, “What was that you brought me before?”

    “Cranberry juice,” she said.

    “That was not cranberry juice,” he said. “It tasted like fruit punch.”

    This went on for some time, long enough for me to think the guy probably had a childhood issue in which his mom brought him fake cranberry juice just before she left to run off with that guy she met at Weight Watchers.

    I know other people like this. They are people who go to a restaurant and order the house white because they have no idea how to choose a wine, and then–invariably–send the wine back because “it’s terrible.” They are people who angle to find one thing wrong with their meal–baked potato undercooked, vegetables overcooked, fingerprint on a fork–so they have an excuse to call the manager and get the meal for free.

    There are few places in the world where you should expect everything to be perfect, and if you are dining at a place that has commercials on during reruns of the Amazing Race, you are not at one of those perfect places. That is, you are somewhere where you should expect the cranberry juice to suck.

    See, me, I like the finer things in life. I love a five-star meal, a 25-year-old scotch, an international business class flight. I am fortunate that I get to enjoy these things from time to time. And perhaps it’s because I do have access to the occasional luxury that I don’t expect much from the normal things in life, the goods and services I receive the other 98% of the time. If the cranberry juice is from concentrate, I probably expected it, and if it’s real juice, then I’m happy to be getting better than I expected.

    That’s what life is about, if you don’t mind me using an idiot I sat next to at a poker table as a soapbox. We have to manage our expectations. Most things–really, most things–suck. We live in a country where–even if they are thankful for the work–no one is really happy to be working the job they are working. We live in a country where two or three major corporations control what kind of food we put in our bodies. We are part of a generation that grew up believing homogeneity was a virtue, and hence we expect–no–demand a sameness in our life that, when denied, leaves us feeling slighted.

    Not me. I expect things to suck, and when they don’t, I am happy about it. I expect things to be boring and the same and I celebrate when they are not. It takes just one trip to K-Mart to know Target is a much better store. It takes just one bite of an Olive Garden meal to know it will never compare to Tito’s Ziti Bolognese. Happiness, I think, comes in knowing we can’t expect everything to be good, and better, and perfect. Moreover, when we expect things to be routinely the same, we are bound to be disappointed.

    Maybe that’s a defeatist attitude. Maybe my attitude perpetuates mediocrity and makes those people with high expectations suffer. Maybe it’s my fault. But, damned if I didn’t smile when the server brought the guy his pomegranate juice.

    “I can’t believe they watered this down,” he said. “I just can’t believe it.”

    Categories : Culture, Food and Drink
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