Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Very Schuster Thanksgiving Special

(Sorry no photos, folks. When I get the scanner. I'll add Dave and Carlotta to the top of the post). 

I remember few Thanksgivings prior to 1989, and no, it's not the whisky. It's just that is the year that what has become our annual tradition truly took shape. It was my freshman term at NYU and it snowed. My two best pals, Allan (my future ex-husband) and Jason (my then pseudo boyfriend and now brother-once-removed) made the trek out to CT, where my family lived at the time. Our good friends Chris and John, as well as a couple of my father's graduate students (my dad is a chemistry professor) who had arrived earlier in the day also joined us, as did family friends Paul and Nesren Salkin and their son David, who is my age. Grandma Nina lived with us; Grandma Cele drove out from Long Island. I picked Allan, Jason, Chris and John up at the train station. They had all somehow met and sat together on the huge train, not realizing till halfway through the trip they were going to the same place, and were already joking together like they'd known each other forever. When we arrived at the house, ascending our long winding driveway, the lawn, the trees, the roof, the glow of the interior, were an idyllic New England early winter wonderland setting. Everyone caught their breath at the same moment.

Which is good, because my dad decided to greet everyone at the door by shoving our 18 year old, long, gray-haired cat, Mabel, belly-up in their faces. "Look. Smell her. Smell my cat. Doesn't she smell like talcum powder? Doesn't she smell like a baby?" WHAT? I was mortified. But just as I contemplated running for the hills, Jason nearly fell over laughing. "Smell my cat! Doesn't she smell like a baby, like talcum powder?" my dad repeated to everyone over and over, thrusting all six pounds of poor defenseless Mabel right under people's noses. My dad's student George said, "Dave. Only you would greet Amanda's new boyfriend at the door asking him to smell your pussy." And thus, 20 years later, Jason's love of my family is entrenched.

Then the meal, Mom's chestnut soup, the family recipe turkey, corn pudding and all the sides, my pumpkin pie with pecan brittle, everything all came together. Paul was horribly allergic to cats and asked that Mabel be kept out of the dining room while we ate. "Has the cat been removed?" He asked in a oddly James Bond villain manner. Throughout the evening we kept erupting in waves of laughter at any little thing, especially when my mother slapped her shoulder, which she does any time someone says something peculiar. Like, say, "My cat smells like talcum powder." The grandmothers just shook their heads and chuckled as they held court on their end. Our fun lasted well into the night when Chris sat at the piano (at the time he was the saloon talent at Windows on the World) and the boys and I stood around and sang Monty Python's "Lumber Jack Song." Then we went outside and made snow angels on the lawn and got into a snow ball fight. The next morning, Jason and Allan, who slept on the foldout couch in the office, were greeted by my dad knocking on the door, "Rise and shine, boys." And Allan let out a very audible fart on cue. 10 year relationship, people.

In years to come, we repeated various elements of that night. It was a revolving group of students, but Allan (now my boyfriend, still my future ex-husband), Jason (it would never have worked), Chris and John had become our regular crew. The cat was dead, but the Salkins decided to do things at home from then on. For some reason, for three consecutive years, we kept having little natural catastrophes that would always occur On. That. Day. One year the Koehler faucet in the kitchen broke and my mother declared a "state of E-German-cy" when we had to keep washing and schlepping everything to and from the downstairs utility sink. Another year my dad made a fire and forgot to open the flue, so the house filled with smoke. Jason said it gave the term "flame retardant" a whole new meaning. (Double shoulder slap). Each house in that town had its own well which was electrically pumped. Wouldn't ya know it, the next year, the pump went on the fritz and there was absolutely no running water for 3 days. We managed anyway, using a lot of jugged water and flushing toilets with pool water. No one stayed over.

While dinner was cooking, we would sit around the large living room by the fire (it was only that one time), drinking cocktails and grazing on snacks. We used to play games like "Dictionary" where we agree on a word no one knows and come up with our own definitions. My favorite was John's for "repoussage," which is of course what happens when someone is assaulted using a jar of French mustard.

My grandmothers both died within a few months of each other, between 2000 and 2001, which was also the year my marriage to Allan finally choked on its own vomit. But we managed to get the rest of the group together, plus a new cat. My dad provided the running gag of the evening as he tried to work out his new digital meat thermometer that kept chiming even though the turkey wasn't close to being done. And luckily for Bruce the cat, he doesn't smell anything like talcum powder. Though it was hard for me to ignore two of those empty places. A toast to you two great dames.

My parents finally sold the house in 2005 and permanently moved to a duplex in Manhattan. The first couple of years in that apartment, they had Korean neighbors who occupied the top two floors. My folks kept complaining that the doorbell would ring at all hours. In 2007, our friend Malvina said this van drove up to the apartment as she was leaving. She heard someone say, "Yep, this is the place," and then drove off. By Christmas Eve, the neighbors were all arrested in a prostitution bust. Yep, happy ending massage parlor right above my parents! When my dad greeted me at the door the next day, oh, how I wish I'd had a camera. The ideal Kodak moment, police tape emblazoned with "PROSTITUTION" covering the door leading upstairs. Their landlord was cleaning out the place. By Christmas night's end, the sidewalk was strewn with used mattresses, satin sheets and a lot of clocks.

This year it's nearly a whole new crew. John still joins us, but Chris has to go to Maryland to be with his ailing mother. Jason is spending the holiday with work friends but has already checked in. Malvina, a wonderful lady who gave up a cushy career to become a Bronx public school history teacher will be there. The new upstairs neighbors, Padma and Oskar, who are my age, (They're bankers. For real. Nary a satin sheet up there as far as we know) will be coming downstairs for the festivities. Over the years we got another John, my now ex-boyfriend. So we have gay John and English John. And get this, English John's other ex-girlfriend, Anastasia (we bonded) will be here visiting from Seattle, and her lovely 22 year old daughter Liza visiting from Moscow, and her friend Vanessa (no idea where she comes from) will all be present. English John has to work at the Harefield Road in Williamsburg and will be missed. Yes if I could, I'd draw you all a chart.

What am I thankful for this year? Well, it definitely was one of the worst ones of my life, have to say. But there is no way I'd come out of it OK without my crazy parents and all the love, support and patience they have shown me and the people around me. No way. No way at all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009



Just as Thanksgiving comes upon us every fourth Thursday of November, WhiskyFest, the triathlon of booze trade shows, open to both the trade and public, is the first Tuesday. I apologize in advance for lack of other images, as I was a tad, busy, as you will read.

Getting a ticket this year was a real nail-biter, seeing as my liquor peeps don't have as much to gain by my attendance as in years past when I was a spirits buyer. But one did thankfully come through, perhaps mostly due to my Patron Saint of Brown Spirits. Unfortunately, this was not a VIP ticket, which meant losing out on the first hour of the event, when all the high end drams are available to taste. The anchor was cast with my friends Stephanie and Leo at P.J. Clarke's (my first trip there, and I WILL be back!) for steak and fries right before the event. But once we arrived, I had to wave goodbye to my friends as I stood outside the ropes in the cattle pen, pathetically watching them enter the room like a Kindergartner abandoned by its parents on the first day. I vow next year to buy my own if no one gets me one in time.

I was furious to see that some people had gotten in at that time, only to take advantage of the outside bouffet table!! People, you could be tasting Trace Vintage Collection! Michter's 25 Year! Highland Park 30 Year! Dalmore King Alexander, Papy Van Winkle 23 Yr and countless other gems I am salivating to try and may not get to because they will be hidden from me in an hour. But no, you eat. Way to live up stereotype. You know who you are.

But my time finally did come. Registration. Wrist band. Let the bulls run!

What to drink first? So much build up, so much expectation. I was immediately greeted by my pal Dan Fisher, who had just purchased a VIP dram of Highland Park 1964 and was generous enough to offer a sip. A beautiful way to start. My favorite scotch flavors: a little briny, sea-salty, kelpy, then dark chocolate and yeast. Chocolate covered pretzels with smoke. Love at first sip. Next, my new tasting buddy, Rob (via Twitterati) and I headed to the Heaven Hill table. Met the man, Parker Beam again, he seemed to remember me, unless he was just being polite, which I'll take. I shook his weathered hand and was given a glass of the new Parker's Heritage release. Sharp pie spices, brown sugar, tempered by nuts and sherry. Gets better by the year, I say. Rob had the Evan Williams 2000, which I decided was the dram of the night. Yeasty, a bit like a sweet mash, cinnamon buns, balanced by salt and leather. Mmmmm. We then met up with Stephanie and off to Wild Turkey! Managed to elbow our way in and try the last drops of Tradition, which was also glorious. Pecan brittle, but not too sweet or syrupy, heather and hay.

From there it starts to get fuzzy. I know we made it to Michter's, where my pal Kenny informed me he had been holding a taste of the 25 Yr for me, but couldn't find me and let it go!!! Quel disappointment! Yep, gotta be a VIP next year. The Dalmore table yielded a taste of the King Alexander from Jura distiller Willie Tait. Gloriously mellow, but flavorful, nutty and deep. The 15 Year was pretty awesome too. I could spot my friend Dave, an excited, curious first timer who bought his ticket early on my suggestion. He weaved toward me and said, "You didn't warn me about the pacing!" He luckily had a couple more tastes in him and I steered him toward Andrew Gray of Bruichladdich (pronounced "Brook-lahddy") to taste some of the new finishes, and made sure he went to Wild Turkey. A very quick visit to the Maker's table, with John Henry making cocktails. I got a Mark and Stormy. Nice idea. But I needed this like Liberace needs a sequin.

It was time for Pappy. Pappy, ohhhh, my Pappy! Hello to Julian and right to the 20 Year. But hold on, Dave from Buffalo Trace is here. Would I like to taste the Vintage Collection I missed during VIP hour? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Ok, give me your glass. With half a dram of Pappy 20 left in it. Dave dives under the table. I take a long sip, tip the glass over the bucket, closed my eyes and let go. The shame. Where did my life take a turn that I dump a precious Pappy 20 to taste something else? But my palate and what was left of my sobriety thanked me. Rare, wheated William La Rue Weller softly kissed my throat and hot, tangy Sazerac 18 Year rye jolted me back. Oh yes.

My favorite moment of the night, among many, I spot Macallan master distiller John Ramsey, whom I had just met for the first time the day before at a special tasting at Astor. Wave hello and he warmly greets me and says my name without anyone prompting him! 

The room is steaming, no air anywhere, but we keep going. A quick bite at the bouffet and suddenly it's 9:30. Last call! Scrambling for a final dram, I want to end on a high, sweet note. Highland Park is in its dregs and brand ambassador Martin is elsewhere. Glenrothes already packing up. Yamazaki too crowded. But score back at Heaven Hill! My own pour of Evan Williams 2000. As good as the beginning. A righteous way to end. A final gathering of various Twitter folks and friends. So good to meet you. So good to see you again. Lynnette with her Irish handcuffs, holding two early birthday drams in each fist. Most of us are surprisingly in command of our faculties. Maybe it was the steak. The descent down the escalator and in minutes Steph and I are back on the C train to Brooklyn. Another year gone by. My sticky souvenir glass for 2009 will be washed tomorrow, joining 2007 and 8 in my cabinet like long lost family. Thank you John Hansell and Malt Advocate for just being you.

Crap! Forgot to taste the Jefferson's Reserve!