Drinking My Way Through Transylvania

What is it that makes people want to take you on a tour of their house? You’re there for a party or something and the next thing you know they’re ushering you around as if you’re looking to buy the place. It’s rude to decline, so you go along.

This was different in Romania, where I was genuinely curious to see people’s homes — and every tour always included an inspection of the still.

The locals are very enthusiastic about making their own hooch. Where we were travelling, in Transylvania, the people are largely ethnic Hungarians. Their the drink of choice is palincă, a type of brandy made from fruit.

They make a fermented mash — usually from plums, but you can use other fruits — which is distilled down to a clear or amber-colored elixir. Is it strong? You bet! This stuff typically clocks in at anywhere between 35 and 85 percent alcohol by volume — or 70 to 170 proof.

Not everyone is very scientific in their approach and the results are sometimes unpredictable. There’s a Hungarian word for the more robust batches: kerítésszaggató, loosely translated as “fence-ripper.”

I’m glad to say that visits to the still also included a little sampling. Like house tours, it would be terribly rude to decline — and just as the the roads we drove during our visit, some were smooth going, others an adventure.

The Black Socks Scandal of 2011

Generations of men have walked down North Pearl Street during lunch to buy socks at B. Lodge. I joined their ranks this week. Even Garrison Keillor, visiting Albany 20 years ago, hit Lodge’s for a pair of socks. Red of course — and naturally, he talked about it on the radio.

We have a sock crisis in our household. It seems that black socks have been mysteriously vanishing. My guess is that the boys are helping themselves to whatever they can find, declaring the socks communal property. Calling it stealing would be too harsh.

Some cite the old axiom that the washing machine is eating them, but I know better. So I plopped a dozen pairs of black socks on the counter.

The man at Lodge’s has seen it all. He claimed he had this problem once and solved it by getting black socks with a red stripe on them. “My sons wouldn’t take them because they didn’t look cool.”

Maybe I’ll try that. I’m way past worrying about looking cool — and besides, a guy who spends too much time thinking about his socks has bigger issues.

Worst. Song. Ever.

Want me out of your house? Play Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

I will go running into the street screaming, holding my hands over my ears.

It seems that a remake of “The Bodyguard” is on tap; hopefully, the offensive tune will not be included.

Some people say Houston’s rendition of the Dolly Parton song was a virtuoso turn, a ground-breaking recording that’s among the best vocal performances ever. It was described as a magnificent tour-de-force. I’d rather listen to tapes of paint being scraped from the hull of a ship.

Much has been made of the use of music as a torture device. Play “I Will Always Love You” and I’m breaking. Immediately. What do you want to know? Please just make it stop.

I decided to only include a link to the song rather than embed the video. This is so it does not accidentally begin playing while you are viewing this website. No need to thank me.

I am including Dolly Parton’s version of the song, which is very is beautiful — and X fans might like to listen to John Doe’s rendition, which is playing on the jukebox in the movie.

In Praise of Cheap Red Wine

He probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, but the guy at the liquor store makes a face when I buy this wine. The expression says, “Ugh… that stuff is crap. Enjoy the rotgut, chump.”

Yes, it would be quite an ego stroke to be congratulated by the clerk for picking out something extraordinary — but I don’t want that, I just want a glass of wine while cooking dinner. I’m not buying the $50 bottle of 2007 Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon.

He can’t help it; most people (me included) don’t know much about wine. A good liquor store clerk helps the customer not make a mistake — especially if it’s for a special occasion or they’re presenting it as a gift. You don’t want them walking away with something awful.

But wine in America has been elevated to the rarefied strata of class and sophistication — at the expense of ordinary table wine. The Europeans seem to understand this better, that you have the everyday wine and the special wine.

No, I wouldn’t bring a 1.5 liter bottle of Yellow Tail that cost $11 as a housewarming gift, but I’ll certainly quaff it while chopping up garlic.

On the other hand, it’s always worth spending a few extra bucks for good beer. And I wouldn’t look down on somebody with a case of Keystone in their shopping cart, just someone who puts ice in it.

Take Your Coat Off and Stay Awile

Imagine if you invited a bunch people to your house for a celebration and most of them left their coats on? Now you know how Jesus must feel.

I’ve noticed that maybe 70 percent of the people at my church don’t shed their outerwear during mass. It can’t be that they’re cold, because the temperature during heating season is always comfortable. Summer’s a different story; the parish’s lack of air conditioning is worth its own blog post.

Over the years, the Catholic Mass has not really been about comfort, what with all the annoying kneeling and standing. I was told as a child that this is so you don’t fall asleep. But what’s with wearing the coats? All I can figure is that people do not feel welcome. Or perhaps they’re just waiting to be asked to take them off.

Jesus was not a guy to stand on ceremony. If he could see today’s church, with all of its formal adornment, ring kissing, and Papal palaces he wouldn’t be happy. He was not about fancy schmantzy nonsense, but was more of a down to earth guy.

If Jesus saw you in church with your coat on, he’d suggest you take it off. Then, one of the apostles would write about it and it would be scripture — and nobody would ever leave their coat on.

Respect Your Dog’s Feelings

Dogs can experience humiliation. Not all dogs, mind you. Many pooches will go merrily along with whatever you want, allowing you to subject them to all sorts of undignified things. Other dogs, particularly smarter breeds, know when they should be ashamed. It shows on their faces.

For example, you don’t have to go far these days to find crazy things for you dog to wear. Just have a look at the Doctors Foster and Smith website.

Sometimes this is a practical matter like keeping a short-haired dog warm or providing protection. But some owners just want to see their dogs dressed up in something weird — and that’s when your dog gets that look that says, “WTF? Why are you doing this to me?”

It’s a problem.

I read about a recent study that claims dogs empathize with their human companions. The story said, “When the animals are confronted with a human displaying strong feelings, they themselves produce a similar emotional response.”

If only it were the other way around.

Predator

Gary Mercure used his position as a Catholic priest to gain the trust of young boys. And then he raped them. Now he’s going to prison, where he belongs.

What makes this worse is the shadowy involvement of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany who, it may be argued, did not do enough when they first heard allegations of Mercure’s crimes. Don’t know about you, but I’m not satisfied with their explanation.

So to prison he goes. Some will say he’s getting off easy.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is an unconstitutional punishment for child rapists. Me? I tend to agree with President Obama, as cited in this 2008 NY Times story:

Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said, “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances, that the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that does not violate our Constitution.” He added that the Supreme Court should have set conditions for imposing the death penalty for the crime, “but it basically had a blanket prohibition, and I disagree with the decision.”

It’s tempting to compare Gary Mercure to an animal, a dangerous creature who deserves to be treated like a rabid dog. That would be wrong. A rabid dog does not understand the consequences of its actions.

Nuts to You, China

Cook’s Illustrated is, far and away, the best food magazine around. It’s a no frills (and no advertising) read that doesn’t just offer recipes, but studies how to cook something. For example, they’ll bake fifty gingerbread cakes just to discover the best ingredients and technique. Maybe you’ve see their TV show, America’s Test Kitchen.

I was reading recently in the magazine of a scourge called pine mouth. It seems that some people experience a bitter, metallic taste in the days after eating the nuts that can last up to two weeks.

The cause of this has been a tough nut to crack (HA!), but now researchers believe that it’s from an inferior strain of pine nuts being imported from China. The Chinese, the report says, are mixing these with the good nuts.

China. That figures.

I’ve grown wary of the label Made in China. Is my coffee mug giving me a dose of lead along with the caffeine? Is that furry dog toy made from a dog? Is this hand sanitizer contaminating my hands?

So, what to do? Cook’s Illustrated says:

“Until the true source of pine mouth is understood, we recommend purchasing Middle-Eastern or European grown (and more expensive) pine nuts and refrigerating or freezing them in a well-sealed container to stave off rancidity.”

Easier said than done, as you’ll see from the label on this bottle of pine nuts in my pantry. Oh, well. Anyone for pesto?

Segue Fever: No Rock Please, We’re French

There are many good things that come from France. Rock and roll is not one of them.

Times Union blogger Chuck Miller tried to convince me I was wrong, and even posted a bunch of examples of French rock on his blog. Thank you for proving my point, Mr. Miller, thank you.

Anyway, the only good French language rock song is “Ça Plane Pour Moi” — and that doesn’t actually count as French, because it’s from Belgium. Bands like Sonic Youth and Vampire Weekend have also taken a swing at it, making it the only rock song in French anyone’s ever bothered covering. We won’t get into the whole  “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” thing here.

In what has to be the world’s most obvious segue, the best accompaniment for this song is Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.” Taken together it’s a pogofest!

iKnow What iWant

Hey, look -- I'm on an iPad!I got this up morning and there was an iPad sitting on the table. Woo-hoo! An iPad! Rather than the the usual routine of emptying the dishwasher and making sandwiches, I couldn’t keep my hands off the iPad. Oh, gorgeous and sleek iPad! I love you…

Ours was to be just a brief encounter; turns out my wife borrowed it from work for a client meeting. But, oh it was so… perfect. And then the stupidity of Motorola’s Super Bowl commercial struck me hard.

Yeah, I’m old enough to remember Apple’s 1984 spot. And I get what Motorola is trying to say, that we are all mindless sheep who bleat “Apple.” But there’s a flaw here: Apple products are genuinely good. I don’t want an iPad because it has an Apple logo, I want it because it’s well made.

Instead of just focusing on what the Xoom does well, Motorola couldn’t resit taking a shot at Apple. Sorry Motorola. I just don’t believe that the iPad sucks — or that everyone has one. Or that the people who use them are lemmings.

Don’t agree with me? Then imagine how absurd it would be if Microsoft made the same commercial, except for their Zune music player. Funny, right? You’ve never used a Zune — or for that matter, you’ve probably never even seen one or known anyone who uses one. And you’d never dream of buying one.

I rest my case.