The M Word

    With full awareness and in possession of all my faculties, and despite the danger of sounding dogmatic or, worse,  finding myself stricken from future invitations, I wish to spend the last few hundred words of the year meditating upon moderation.  The principle of restricting consumption is familiar enough, but what rankles most is the lack of further guidance.  When asked how I stay fit, or keep a well-edited wardrobe, or any number of other similar questions, and I answer with the m word, it seems affected, like some mystic riddle Yoda would annoyingly burble.  That’s not my intention; I just have faith in the unadorned principle of moderation.

    In the simplest sense, Beaujolais is good, but too much of it, very bad.  This is most obvious because young wines stain the lips and teeth and make for unpleasant mornings when drunk to excess.  Roughly the same applies to Champagne (without the astringent purpling of things), beer, and spirits generally.  In all these cases, the actual -OH functional group is as responsible for the ill effects as the other stuff; too much spicy tomato juice or sugar or any of the other compounds that create flavor and color are as offensive to the system as alcohol is toxic.  I won’t—I cannot—suggest volumes, but I can say that resisting that additional glass is a terrific strategy.  It’s easy to recognize why too much adult beverage rather quickly ruins lunch, a good dinner, a weekend, the month or, in the longer term, an otherwise pleasant life.

    Applied to other comestibles, the waters muddy.  The most obnoxious sentiment a physically fit person can muster is the familiar proclamation of calories in, calories out.  Is there truth to the this simple economy?  Sure, but it smugly circumvents the matters of desire and pleasure.  I am not a two-stroke motor, but if I were I would be rather particular about my oil and gas and the ratio in which I should receive either.  The food I eat might, indeed, fuel my body, but choices are governed more by what looks good than by the energy contained within.  This is why most branded diets are unsustainable: the substitution of science for common sense strips away any earnest effort to satisfy desire.  I realize the value in studying human nutrition, but I heartily object to the manic way in which fad diets bloom each time a smallish study reveals some unforeseen result.  Call me cynical, but the words data suggests have the same ring to my ears as step right up folks…  I have a much more sensible suggestion: whatever the desire—a well prepared steak, shards of dark chocolate—take pleasure in it.  Just not too much and not too often.

    Advocating moderation as pertains to material objects draws the advocate as near to unwelcome preachiness as the principle permits.  I will parse my words.  The difference between want and need is much finer than most admit.  This is best illustrated by considering something like shoes, of which multiple pairs are considered necessary.  A modest collection might be: two pairs for dressed occasions, three pairs for casual occasions and two for activewear.  The owner of this wardrobe might notice premature wear on some of these, and in an effort to prolong life, add one more pair in each category.  This is precisely how a good intention is slyly used to masque the slide from need to want, and functional numbers of things balloon into closets that bulge with unfamiliar inventory.  Ownership of anything is a burden, but ownership of vast quantities of things is an embarrassment.  Testing my thoughts on moderation, a friend the other day pointed out that I sounded like George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air, a cool-hearted modern man who speaks to auditoriums full of people about unpacking their self-imposed burdens, only to realize he, himself is unmoored entirely.  I must not have made my points clear enough: Moderation is not a purgative; it prevents the acquisition of excess from the start.

    Championing moderation attracts the most skepticism when applied to exercise.  How can one keep too fit?  If on these pages diction has ever really mattered, I think it is here: fitness is a state relative to the individual, whereas exercise is a particular activity.   The problem, as I’ve observed, is when exercise loses its place as a means to fitness, becoming, instead a preoccupation.  Signs that the shift has taken place are usually conspicuous:  specialized gear, the refusal to miss a workout, the insistence on particular regimens, the use of spreadsheets.  These things and behaviors aren’t inherently bad—just unnecessary for the gaining and maintaining of general fitness.  For that worthy goal only discipline and some basic knowledge is required.  Moderation, in this sense, keeps exercise loyal to the goal of fitness.  

    Unhappily, there are two problems, made worse in that they contradict.  Firstly, all this moderation only really works when practiced in concert.  One can’t pick and choose; moderation must be misted over the entirety of the human experience, preventing any one aspect from becoming cheap from overuse.   But the real wrench in the works is that strict moderation in everything is an obvious violation of its own principle.  Put another way, moderation itself should be practiced with some degree of moderation.  I realize so confounding a conclusion might undermine the premise (and purpose) of the essay.  But if thought of as a dynamic and restless approach rather than a set of commandments chiseled in granite, moderation might be difficult, but it is also a more realistic philosophy.


    The problem with resolutions is they begin with a fuzzy recognition of a shortcoming rather than a stark admission of a failing.  I mustn’t eat so much, as if the overindulgence is an affliction of environment rather than an individual weakness.  The promise to exercise is my favorite, as it inevitably leads to giving oneself gifts: a gadget, a trainer, a wardrobe of the latest technical gear—these all seem to appear long before a single pushup or jumping jack.  The promise to exercise should begin, right there and then, with real exercise.

    But if we are going to reward ourselves for our failures, then I say do it properly.  I, for instance, have callously neglected my shirt wardrobe in pursuit of tweed and worsted, shoes and silk.  This is an egregious mistake; what should all the rest hang upon if not an honest shirt?  What good is a dark double breasted, as refined as it is louche, without a pressed white shirt?  And how cruel to deny tweed its choice of tattersalls, or a foulard a complementing dress stripe?  

    The problem is one of categorization.  Shirts are, historically and practically, underwear.  This is an honest and crucial role in the male wardrobe, protecting our greater investments in tailored clothing from the indelicate fact of sweat and dirt.  We launder these barriers, hopefully with common sense, and expect the cycle be repeated in perpetuity.  But shirts have also been elevated from their working station in recent years, becoming solo items of fashion.  I don’t deny the beauty of a good shirt, nor begrudge the impulse to make a handsome one the centerpiece, but we ignore a shirt’s original role at the peril of the group: a handful of expensive, coddled shirts will perish prematurely in grayed over and fraying ignominy.  

    Shirts, then, must be plentiful, not too wild in color or pattern, and of a cut and design that causes no hesitation when running a quarter of an hour behind.  There is vast choice, which is itself a pitfall.  Whether buying off-the-rack or having them made, a man must be resolute throughout the process, avoiding frivolity, continuously circling back to what works.  For me these are: a few french cuffed white and cream; bales of barrel-cuffed blues; dress stripes, bengal stripes, and awning stripes; subtle checks and frightening tattersalls.  

    But planning new shirts for the year is not just a chore.  Within the tension between choice and resolute vision is an opportunity to fine-tune personal style.  Perhaps last year’s chambrays proved less useful than anticipated, or maybe a row of solids, though sober and classic, made for rather dull wearing.  This is the time to reflect not just on shirts, but on the very underpinnings of one’s motivation to be well dressed.  There is no better metaphor for beginning anew then planning a fistful of fresh shirts.  New year, new shirts.

The Oddest Jacket

    When said aloud, the problem sounds trifling: I don’t have an odd jacket that performs well in the heat.  But who hasn’t wilted through some jacket-wearing event, sorely tempted to ditch the offending top layer at the first hint of relaxed formality?  I was at a garden party last summer where jacketless-ness spread like a fast-moving flu.  I resisted, and was ostracized by the damp-shirted other men who looked upon me as if, instead of tobacco linen on my back, I wore a scarlet A upon my breast.  Why the hostility?  Misery, or in this case steps taken to lessen it, likes company.

    At the core of the matter is an existential problem for the garment in question: why try and beat the heat with a jacket, when its absence is more effective?  And yet the garment endures, relevance be damned, in a suspended state of compromise.  Whatever other people’s motivation in wearing one, mine is split sixty/forty utility/propriety.  Utility gets the edge because I simply do not know what else to do with a phone, handkerchief and keys.  Introduce sunglasses, or, if leisure is the goal, a cigar and lighter, and one approaches tote territory.  The social expectation to wear a jacket, when not required to wear a suit, is less concrete.  Some men persist out of habit, others are obstinate traditionalists; some begrudgingly comply, still others embrace the vanishing requirements without giving the matter another look.  I suppose I fall somewhere between the first and second fellow, but propriety still accounts for only forty percent of my motivation.  I will say this though: even at the more extreme ends of the temperature spectrum, when a jacket seems correct, it always is.

    So what makes a good candidate?  A whispy navy blazer?  Crisp linen in cream?  A rumpled madras, as unserious as it is unstructured?  I’m inclined to say a single jacket won’t, in the long term, suffice.  But I wonder if, in a garment category predicated upon compromise, an amalgamation of the above examples is not possible.  The most promising cloth for the job that I have encountered draws the desirable characteristics of several fibers into a blend, creating something greater than its parts.  Wool gives body and resilience; linen, coolness and texture; silk, luster and durability.  All the big cloth makers and merchants offer cloth in varying mixtures, and I have often seen ready-to-wear jackets in similar compositions.

    But another possibility lurks—lightweight worsted merino, which, through the miracle of modern weaving technology, achieves resistance to wrinkles, breathability and durability despite its weight.  I can almost hear the collective arching of eyebrows as I suggest modern worsteds on these pages as I have always preferred more traditional and heavier cloths.  But so goes innovation (when done well), and I would hardly be alone amongst other lovers of heavy cloth in admiring the handle of these lightweight wonders.  In a variegated navy, perhaps with a modest shadow pattern and bone-colored buttons, a summer odd jacket might not seem so odd after all.

A Gentle Reminder

Amidst the balled paper and mountainous haul, hold tightly the permanent gift of imagination.   


Fwozen Gwapes

One June morning, at a quarter to eight,
Owen sprung from bed, not a moment late.
He zipped up the shutters; the weather was fine,

And splashing his face, thought: “The day is mine!”

Down the long banister he slid at speed,
When his tummy grumbled; what did he need?  
Breakfast, of course, to fuel a lovely day;
A boy must eat if he’s expected to play!

Into the kitchen he charged like a bull,
With hopes of a feast—a buffet in full.
But there on the counter, for goodness’ sakes,
Quivered, quite massively, a plate of grapes!

“Chop! Chop!” said his mother, giving a pat,
“We are off in ten, and that is quite that!”
Owen objected: “How ‘bout jam and toast?”

“No time” replied mother: “grapes at the most!”

Mother told Owen of the day ahead:
Shopping for new dresses, flowers and bread,
At three sharp, tea with Lady Munikins;
“Then home,” said she, “and dinner begins.”

“Ick’ said Owen; then “ugh” and “hum-drum!”
“I’ve lost my day to errands and boredom!
Dresses... flowers... bread and tea...” He mumbled,
Worse, it occurred, his tummy still grumbled!

Owen eyeballed the grapes on the platter
Popped one in his mouth, chomping it flatter.
It was warm and squishy, quite unpleasant,
Before one more decided he daren’t.

But mother was circling, ready to leave;
He must be swift, giving fruit the old heave.
The trash wouldn’t do; neither the window.
“Finish your grapes,” said Mother, “we must go!”

Solemnly considering his pants,
Owen spied his moment, his only chance.
Mother, quite clumsily, dropped the house keys:
The ice box! He thought, time for a freeze!

Grapes in hand he darted, quick as a shot,
Opening the freezer, he made the drop.
Mother, keys recovered, said “What was that?”
So Owen replied: “Must have been the cat.”  

Mother marched to the car, none the wiser,
And Owen followed two steps behind her.
They motored along, an hour for sure,
And though hungry and bored, Owen endured.

“Ick’ said Owen; then “ugh” and “hum-drum!”
“I’ve lost my day to errands and boredom!
Dresses... flowers... bread and tea...” He mumbled,
Worse, it occurred, his tummy still grumbled!

The dress shop was packed, from floor to ceiling,
And suddenly Owen had a feeling:
It was a jungle, in need of exploring.
An hour on, it wasn’t so boring.

The drive to the florist took forever,
But once through the door, Owen felt clever.
Now he was a scientist far from home,
And these rare plants he’d discovered alone.

“Back to the car once again” Mother said
And Owen followed, with familiar dread.
The little bakery would be worst of all
I need a plan thought Owen, I must stall

Before he knew it they had joined in line,
Where the cakes shone like jewels lost in time.
And who discovered this dark hidden lair? 
Owen, the gem-hunter extraordinaire!

Tea with Lady Munikins, what a bore!
Then Owen saw what he was there for.
A big Alsatian with manners quite ceased:
Good thing Owen was a trainer of beasts!

“Ick’ said Owen; then “ugh” and “hum-drum.”
“I’ve lost my day to errands and boredom!
Dresses... flowers... bread and tea...” He mumbled,
Worse, it occurred, his tummy still grumbled!

Finally Mother turned into their lane,
“Hooray!” Said Owen, “it’s time for my games!”
But Mother replied: “No sir, not so fast!”
“I need your help: Dinner is at half past!”

From the car to the house Owen hauled,
When Mother loudly from the kitchen called:

“Watch my flowers, be careful with the bread,
See the dresses lay flat, do mind your head.”

Next Owen helped Mother stir and saute,
The table, he knew, he still must lay.
Mother declared: “We need ice for pudding!

Owen! Chop! Chop! No time for slow-footing!”

To the freezer for ice Owen now raced, 
But instead of cubes were grapes that he faced!
Frosted over and all powdery white,

Bravely, boldly, Owen took his first bite.

It was cold and crispy, and strangely sweet,
No doubt about it, a magical treat.
A trainer? Scientist? Born to explore?
Now it was clear: Owen the inventor!

A jingle of keys, meant Papa returned,
And Owen ran to reveal what he’d learned.
“Hello Owen--anything to report?

What’s the good word? Go on, tell me old sport...”

But the grapes made speaking a tricky task.
Papa raised a brow and thought he might ask:
“What are you cramming in by the dozen?”

“Gwapes, Papa, dewectable when fwozen!”

The Convergence

   At the pinnacle of foods that gain something grand by being wrapped in pastry is probably Beef Wellington.  I like a good Wellington, especially if someone talented has made it for me; making the dish is involved and enervating, which should make the reward of gentle filet and tender flake that much richer, but leaves me, instead, craving a humble sandwich.  Coulibiac, the Russian dish of salmon, rice, mushrooms, greens and dill is unquestionably grand.  I can’t help thinking it has something Hot Pocket about it though—an all in one entree as convenient as it is clever.  

    No; the best dishes are those that are ordinary in a bowl but elevated to magnificence when ensconced in pastry.  At the top of that short list is beef pie, as honest as it is deep.  I suppose it is no coincidence that making a proper one requires the marshaling of my favorite cooking disciplines—those fundamentals that separate cooks from weekend hobbyists.  But I’m just as drawn to its versatility.  A beef pie, even a cold one, is a terrific lunch.  Hot from the oven, though, it can be as grand as a goose.  In fact grander: beef pie is my Christmas dish of choice.

Make a rich stock from beef bones and vegetables.  Braise several pounds of beef cut from rump, shin and shoulder in mirepoix, red wine and stock.  Chill.  Make a few pounds of pastry.  Line a dish or dishes with pastry, chill.  Put braised beef in pastry-lined dish(es).  Roll out lids and cover, crimping layers together.  Cut steam holes on top.  Bake in three hundred and fifty degree oven until hot throughout and golden. 

Punching Up

The guilty urn, retired along with Madame Bovary, to a shelf where it holds nothing more potent than old corks.  

The guilty urn, retired along with Madame Bovary, to a shelf where it holds nothing more potent than old corks.  

    The first Christmas my wife and I spent married we had the idea of starting, from the thinnest winter air, a tradition: we would host a party.  Three weeks before the appointed date scores of friends received our invitations, printed, remarkably, on fragrant, cedar veneer.  Replies flew back.  The house was decorated with swags of laurel, holy, mistletoe, garlands of fir and football-sized pine-cones.   I knew a cheese monger at the time, and he organized for me a quarter wheel of Gruyere, a Stilton, an imposing hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a Tête de Moine, the pungent Swiss cheese that, when shaved on a special device, resembles a tonsured monks head.  I displayed them on a pane of tempered glass the size of a porch door.  A friend in the wine business made some modest selections, and a DJ we knew created a tasteful playlist.  

    Despite the effort, we felt something missing the day before the party.  And then it struck me: Punch!  Nothing, I imagined, filled the holiday hollow with genuine spirit—spritzed the chilly scrooge with gemütlich—quite like a shimmering pool of communal drink.  I pawed at my small collection of bar-tending books; the options seemed elaborate, or too obscure and all of them rather too sweet.  I eventually settled upon an idea suggested in a mercurial addendum: macerating pineapple in spirit—gin, in this case—to be syphoned off and used to mix cocktails with seltzer or tonic.  This was ideal, as I had a large urn that would prettily display the pineapple, and the spigot at the base would make dispensing the drams a cinch.  I imagined myself a benevolent friar, administering the elixir with a wink and a nod, holding merry court over the glistening and pungent banquet.  And so, in addition to four coarsely chopped pineapples, in went three liters of gin.

    It was a hit, although an hour into the party I noticed my guests drinking full glasses of the stuff without much in the way of a mixer.  I was surprised to see a particularly close friend tapping the liquid dregs with the slurred exclamation, the punch runneth dry!  It becomes fuzzy about the edges from this point forward, but I recall several otherwise restrained guests fighting over the gin-sodden hunks of pineapple, each a jigger worth of spirit.  One fellow fell asleep in the stilton.  The following morning I awoke in my robe on our deck, rather chilly.  The uncovered cheese beaded sweat, as did my brow as I surveyed the carnage. The tasteful playlist dumbly played to an audience of  upturned glasses, walnuts shells and wilting holly.  I’ve tried since to forget the event, but many dear friends still refer to the pineapple incident with some mixture of humor and nausea.  

    There are at least half a dozen lessons in this anecdote, but one in particular has stayed with me.  Traditions cannot be started anymore than can solar eclipses.  They emerge, instead, already equipped with debated meaning and foggy purpose.  Our intentions might have been innocent, but we nevertheless had been reckless with definitions.  Like a tradition, punch is a fixed entity that resists encroachment at the risk of biting back.  Don’t misunderstand me: the ingredients and preparations might vary considerably within the genre, but the premise is always the same: wine, fortified wine, a dash of spirit, fruit and ice.  The careful reader will notice vast quantities of gin and tropical fruit play no role whatsoever.  There is good reason; punch is a social mixture with just enough, well, punch.

Claret Cup

One bottle of mediocre Bordeaux
One cup of Amontillado Sherry
Two jiggers, Grand Marnier
One cup of fine sugar
Two cups seltzer
Orange rind

Stir all ingredients gently in a large stainless bowl.  Let sit for thirty minutes, covered in refrigerator.  Add one very large block of clear ice.  Serve in tea cups with a ladle.

Enigma Machine

Though inspiration often exceeds...

Though inspiration often exceeds...

    The scenario is familiar: in the coldest, most desolate months a slip arrives requesting the  preservation of some distant date.  Weeks pass and a fatter effort fills the mail slot.  The recipient admires its creamy heft and chiseled lettering, as dignified as a sanskrit tablet.  Somewhere near the bottom is a more enigmatic phrase—a scrap of code dressed in tradition but fractured through a modern prism.  Black Tie, it reads with particular gravitas, licked by italics.  Or: Formal, jauntily punctuated by a fleur-de-lis.  A veteran guest might make assumptions, but he might as well be reading tea leaves.  Or entrails.

    I even have inside information on our next wedding.  The groom is a close friend.  The location, New Orleans, is familiar.  He and his brother will be in tuxedoes; I know this because I was consulted on the configuration of the groom’s.  Experience tells me that several men outside of the wedding party will also wear tuxedoes while the majority will wear suits.  Barring climatic anomaly, it will be hot, and knowing several of the guests, the party will stretch to dawn.  But I also am certain of this: no intelligence, no matter the quality of its supplier, can prepare the conscientious man for the reality on the ground.  And the stakes are particularly high for those that must plan many months in advance.  

...reality, decisions must still be made.  

...reality, decisions must still be made.  

    Having clothing made requires a bald prediction of the future.  It might sound silly, or morbid, but in the broadest sense, believing that a tailored garment will still be needed in four-to-six months is itself an act of faith.  (Tailor’s basements are haunted by scores of host-less suits, I'm told).  A man must  assume he will still have all his limbs, or be roughly the same size.  He must contend with the less important (and more pragmatic) as well; will his ideas of cut and style stand up?  And will the cloth he has selected meet expectations?  I can vouch for that last one; swatches range from unhelpful to misleading.  A bolt of cloth is better, but is still alarmingly unlike a finished garment of the same.  And then there is color, which is like an abyss with a million false bottoms.  A suit, even a light-weight navy one, is a leap.*

    As accurately predicting the future is at the moment impossible, I operate instead by a fairly dry series of questions—an algorithmic gauntlet that determines whether a project begins or not.   Admittedly, it sounds joyless.  But I have weighed the misery of paying for something that hangs unused against whatever romance might be missing from my equation and determined the former a worser fate.   Besides, what’s wrong with identifying the philosophical underpinnings of one’s motivation?  Mine is as follows:


Does the proposal meet constraints of time and budget?

Does the proposal satisfy both need and want?

Does the proposal make me happy?  

Is the proposal practical?

Am I being honest?


*At the moment I am testing the idea of a tropical weight navy suit, something that would be worn to my friend’s New Orleans wedding but would still neatly fit in the broader context of an evolving wardrobe.

A Scrooge Gets Dressed

Red and green toned down.  

Red and green toned down.  

    It’s tempting to pose the question baldly: why do otherwise conservatively dressed people slip into costume around the holidays?  But doing so gives the impression of a fusty wraith, passing silent judgement from the shadows of a canapé display.  I’m not that ghost of Christmas present; I don’t so much mind the silly sweaters and un-entitled tartan.  Red socks have never once given me indigestion.  Of course, like everything else, I often wonder if most efforts wouldn’t benefit from a few sensible parameters.  

    I recently heard an interview with horror film director Wes Craven in which he discussed the creation of Freddy Kreuger, who wears a red and green striped sweater.  Apparently he chose the two colors after himself hearing a neurologist describe the combination as the most jarring and discordant for the human brain to process.  I’m happy to finally learn I’m not alone.  Primary red and secondary green are oil and water, and when mixed, protest loudly.  Strangely, the instant an additional color is introduced things improve, and all is well once either (or preferably both) are darkened to, say, burgundy and olive.  In fact, dark red and green, along with vibrant navy, yellow, white and black are the principle shades used in the most familiar tartans, and who would argue with that sort of lineage?

    Speaking of tartan, it’s best in small doses.  We’ve all passed holiday store windows that groan beneath heaps of contrasting tartan, the mannequins within either too sozzled on claret punch or too consumed in their own layers of velvet and plaid to notice.  The truth is, outside of those rose-tinted displays and exposed to the harsh winter light, tartan reveals itself for what it is: distinctive cloth designed for ceremony.  That’s not to say a well-deployed waistcoat or wool tie isn’t in good taste; it can be, as long as the wearer is: a. aware of what it is he is wearing and b. not inclined to its overindulgence.  A true Scotsman, entitled to a tartan, might wonder what marketing distortion has lead to his becoming associated with the American holiday season, but I will leave that up to the unhappy wearer who encounters said fellow (and his dirk).

All bets are off when relaxing at home.  

All bets are off when relaxing at home.  

    Finally, figures.  I suppose the fair isle sweater, a personal favorite, is to blame.  So intricate are the traditional patterns of these colorful knits that one could be forgiven for mistaking some fragment for a jaunty snowflake.  But doing so opens the floodgates to the literal figure and it doesn’t take long before reindeers and St. Nick, all rubicund and knowing, begin appearing on ties and scarves Thanksgiving through Boxing Day.  Like Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s sensible valet, I draw my personal line at literal figures.  And not just outside of the holiday season; pheasants, grouse, venison and bunnies all look better well-roasted on a platter than they do on accessories.  Bah, as the saying goes, humbug.

What, the merry reader might ask, am I afraid of?  I will call it the Victorian Effect, named after a recent outing for afternoon tea in a well meaning hotel that, in an effort to enhance holiday cheer, hired a group of carolers.  They were excellent, with one small exception: all five of them wore period costumes of pleated velvet capes, brocade waistcoats and stovepipe hats.  I might be alone in thinking it, but Christmas is somehow cheapened when we indulge cliches as a way of wringing out every half ounce of cheer.  I think the same applies to how we dress for the social events of the season.  Anyway, what’s the matter with moderation?

Worked into a Lather

Part three of three:

    If the romance of a cutthroat or the precise engineering of a safety razor is the bait that lures the curious shaver away from disposables, then the joy of a traditional lather is the hook.  It was, at least, for me.  After years of hacking off teenage stubble with a disposable razor buffered by cheap aerosol foam, I stumbled into a tube of cream and an inexpensive shaving brush.  Despite amateur technique the effect was immediate; the razor tracked smoothly through whiskers and glided over those trickier spots around the jawline and neck.  The next shave was better, and the one after that better still. 

    This cycle of improvement is the true benefit of quality products and equipment.  The reason is two pronged: the obvious source is the product itself, which makes a far richer lather, with soap bubbles many times smaller and more densely packed than what squirts from a can.  The latter more resembles defatted commercial whipped cream—insubstantial and incapable of properly coating anything, let alone a face preparing to be razored.  The other source is the user, who, in possession of a high quality wet shave product, slows the process down, paying greater attention to technique and comfort.  The beard thanks its owner by cooperating; inside of a month of wet shaves using the right stuff, razor burn and ingrown whiskers will vanish, stubble will grow more evenly, and the skin seem softer and more conditioned.  

    Results will likely vary, but my preferred routine is straightforward.  Following a hot shower, I soak a badger brush (Simpsons, Chubby No. 2) in warm water.  I wet the face and neck with the brush, and using rapid little lateral passes over a cake of tallow-based soap set in a wooden bowl (D.R. Harris, Windsor) build a rich lather until the brush itself is loaded with lather.  Using moderate pressure and beginning with the neck, I apply the lather, making certain of uniform and complete cover.  I shave.  Touchups are occasionally necessary, which is why I don’t rinse the brush of its lather until satisfied with the shave.  I follow with several dashes of aftershave (D.R. Harris, Windsor) which I allow to evaporate completely while I dress.  If necessary, as it often is, I follow with a pea-sized puddle of a light moisturizing balm (D.R. Harris, Aftershave Milk).  Each of these products have the same clean, powdery, unobtrusive fragrance that clings to the shaven face for several hours, making further perfumes unnecessary.

    I’m fortunate in that my beard is cooperative.  Others have much more difficult beards that require all manner of additional steps, from soaks with pre-shave oil to second or even third passes with a razor.  In fact, I have the above routine down to an efficient five or six minutes—just long enough to ensure a clean and comfortable shave without too much fuss.  Pity, really; I could easily spend a quarter hour each morning with my kit.

The Give

    Most gifts that are given during the holiday season tend to fall, rather neatly, into three categories.  They are: 1. Those that satisfy the requests from a pre-arranged list, 2. Those that, on account of being something a recipient has not requested, surprise, and 3. Those that have been commissioned by the giver specifically for the recipient.  Each approach has its advantages, which can be weighed against another’s.  The disadvantages are rather more subjective.

    Ticking things from a list is an economically sound solution because the chances of failure are all but eliminated.  The risk of spending real money on something that will prove to be less a gift than a burden is removed entirely, even if the request seems to everyone else ludicrous.  If a man asks for a specific tie, and receives said tie only to realize some months later that mustard is not, in fact, his color, he has only himself to blame.  Offloading a mustard tie is impossible, so it is best to hang it among his more sensible ones as a solemn reminder of his folly.  The problem with this gifting method, however, is it carries the whiff of order fulfillment: two pairs of lisle socks; one merino knit; three linen handkerchiefs, white; one terry cloth robe…  The holidays should be full of hush and wonder, not the orderliness of basic training.

    Conversely, the surprise gift is the gambler’s option.  The net is cast wide, and the fruits of the dredge may or may not dazzle.  A watch-less fob chain?  A reptilian journal?  A dagger for close combat?  A dusty volume of verse?  A kitchen gadget?  I’ve received these and countless others and can vouch, if for nothing else, for the surprise aspect of the equation.  Most givers attempt to tighten their cast by trying to determine their mark’s interests.  I always feel this strategy is inherently flawed though: won’t the enthusiast have a far more nuanced understanding of the desirable attributes of the item in question?  I would never, for instance, seek a snuff box for a snuff box collector for fear of purchasing and gifting the wrong artifact—a blemish that the poor recipient will now have to surreptitiously shift into pride-of-place within his vitrine each time I materialize for tea.  The scenario is just too fraught—too Mrs. Bucket for me.  

    The most confident giver might circumvent the risk of giving the wrong thing by enlisting the help of an expert.  The apotheosis of this strategy is to have something made for the recipient, which is as consistently impressive as gifting things gets, but requires the cleverness of a conman to do correctly.  For instance, if one wishes to have a hat made for someone special, a measurement must be taken.  I accomplished just this at a dinner party once by fabricating an elaborate story about a study I had read concerning forearm length and cranial circumference.  With a tape measure and notepad, my wife and I went around the table taking measurements of noggin and appendage until we arrived at my mark—my father—whose skull we made certain to measure with extra attention.  Of course I then had to field questions about my findings for the remainder of the evening.  He got his hat though.  The wiser option is to have something made that requires no measurement, like a set of dress studs and links featuring some sentimental design or material.

    My wife’s family practices a far more exciting gifting tradition—a sort of Machiavellian secret Santa.  It goes like this: a group is given a modest budget to buy various gifts, some of which might be genuine, others intentionally humorous or even obviously undesirable.  The gifts are anonymously wrapped.  On the appointed evening, after dinner and when spirits are high, a hat is passed containing scraps of paper, numbered one through however many people are present.  Number one has first whack at the pile of booty, followed by number two, three and so on.  This all sounds quaint, but there is a wrinkle.  Each person, after unwrapping his or her selection, has the option to keep it or swap it for something else that has already been opened.  The other party has no choice but to forfeit whatever it is they decided to keep in exchange for what the stealing scoundrel is offering.  My first year, not familiar with the strategy involved, I left with a car jack, a pen that functions in outer space and one of those beaded seat covers popular amongst cab drivers.  We laughed and sang by the fire well past midnight.  Some gifts are priceless.


One, Please

The scant aromatics for a small stew.

The scant aromatics for a small stew.

    I was sixteen and returning with my parents from visiting family in Switzerland when, on somewhat of a whim, it was decided that I should join a friend who was spending the summer in Paris under the pretense of having an internship.  The two of us caromed wide-eyed for a week or so between the obvious sights and the less trod.   On our last evening we found what I recall as a decent, if typical restaurant somewhere near the Place de la Bastille.  I faced my friend at a small table, and we ate three courses of solid bistro food washed down with cheap Beaujolais—which might sound hopelessly banal if, for a moment, one forgets how green in matters of food and drink the average teenager is.  Directly behind my friend, facing me, was a gentleman neatly dressed in odd jacket and neckerchief.  He ate alone, though ate is hardly the best verb in this instance.  He considered his progression of dishes—none of which had been offered us—as one would semi-precious stones.  He swirled and sniffed at his wine, tumbling half ounce increments in his mouth until his demi was finished.  When his digestif arrived, he held it to the light before hovering a quivering eye over the rim, testing, one can only imagine, the rate at which the volatiles escaped.  

    I might not be able to say with certainty what my friend and I did during our time in Paris, the events since muddied by subsequent visits.  But I will never forget that magnificent man, his great, watery eyeball, or the bloom of satisfaction that grew in place of the contemplation that had rippled across his face until the end.  He was savoring things, I would come to understand, and he meant to do it alone.

    But to eat alone requires rehearsal, as diving into a public, wine-complemented meal might confound rather than edify.  An unadorned ham sandwich is a good place to begin, as it serves to divine preferences.  Permit the sandwich to make itself; nine out of ten times, mine manifest as shaved rosemary ham on day-old baguette.  The tenth might appear as jamon serrano on toasted pullman, if not for variety, then to calibrate expectations.  What if I had been wrong about the first nine sandwiches?   

    Baseline established, venture out.  Few share my enthusiasm for salad, and so I often prepare ambitious ones full of nuggets of bacon and brioche when I eat alone.  A chicken is meant to share, but duck confit is ideal for the individual.  I have a secret passion for overcooked steaks and chops, where the flesh is less about succulence than the pleasure of correctly using both incisor and molar.  Also, hot English mustard seems less criminal than it would slathered on painstakingly cooked morsels.  Tough joints, richly braised, are terrific for feeding groups, but a few scraps of stew meat in broth and mirepoix is a fine solitary meal.  Here the small effort and long cooking period feels particularly rewarding.  Where a crowd might want starchy potatoes or noodles for the braising sauce, I’m happiest with day-old bread; any staleness just means greater capacity for drawing in sauce.  A solitary meal permits those sybaritic tendencies.

A solitary meal.

A solitary meal.

    The same self-indulgent spirit should be extended to what gets drunk.  I’m reminded of Bertie Wooster who often pesters Jeeves for half a bot of something to accompany his late night omelette or plate of sandwiches, in that I have respect for the classic pairings, but as long as I am not in danger of breaching someone’s cemented expectations, I serve myself what I please, or, as is often the case, what’s on hand.  If the latter, scraps of red and white often haunt my fridge, and what doesn’t go in a pot for a sauce  gets unceremoniously poured in a jam jar alongside dinner.  If the former—drinking whatever I fancy—I am usually led to something bubbly.  Champagne is unique amongst other wine, as it accompanies no food perfectly, but everything else so well.  Would eyebrows be raised at the sight of pink Champagne next to a small beef daube?  I can’t say, as I’m always alone when it occurs.

    Of course the instant an additional set of preferences is introduced, the possibility for perfect indulgence is compromised.  My wife would be sorely disappointed if nothing more exciting than semi-stale bread came with her stew.  She doesn’t tolerate salad, and, while it is remarkable that we have successfully formed any sort of union whatsoever considering the egregious position, she won’t touch Champagne for fear of heartburn.  Some things, it seems, really are best practiced alone.  

    Dining out alone is doctorate level, and if arrived at, does not require explanation.  I will say this, though.  I spent a pleasant (if unreliable) three years reviewing restaurants in Chicago for major print and online media.  I was given significant budgets and always instructed to exhaust them, a task that never posed difficulty.  Friends gladly joined, which maximized the dishes that could be tasted, and I’m certain the gig played a significant role in meeting and keeping the woman who would become my wife.  There was a problem though: through all the companionship and budding romance, intelligently tasting anything was a challenge, and the restaurants I was assigned deserved (and editors demanded) more than cursory treatments.  And so I often returned, on my own dime, alone.  Only then did the discordant clove reveal itself despite the squab being so ideally roasted.  Today, even without a looming deadline, the same holds true: eating alone amplifies the senses.

Wet Blanket


    At its worst, fear of caring for luxury knits can dissuade a person from straying from ordinary merino.  Which is strange, really, as the only major problems I’ve encountered washing knits seem to have been with merino (it wants to shrink).  Cashmere, vicuna, camelhair—the cost of these fibers might suggest expensive maintenance, but the opposite is true.  I wash my best knits at home, and it is a refreshingly undramatic event.

    In fact the expense involved in manufacturing luxury knits is what makes them so amenable to home maintenance.  Only the longest and thinnest individual fibers are selected from the naturally shed underbelly fur of the cashmere goat for the premium end of the market.   Once twisted into yarn and knit to shape, the result is not just soft and light, but strong, smooth and less prone to pilling because of the long initial fiber length.  The cheaper end of the market is another matter entirely, made primarily by blending the remaining underbelly fleece with ordinary wool, both of which have shorter and thicker individual strand lengths which pill, lose shape and fuzz more readily.  

    It is refreshing to actually get what you pay for, something that is rare in a retail environment in which marketing often muddies the question of quality.  And it is in washing luxury knits that the layers of quality can most clearly be seen.  Cheap cashmere acts like wool, resisting the process like a feral cat.  Whereas high quality knits, having been gently washed, slowly dried and carefully reshaped, emerge reborn as plusher, more refined versions of their prior selves.  I’m reminded of the Medieval trial by ordeal during which the accused is bound and thrown in a lake; the guilty barely survive the ordeal to their later detriment while the innocent succumb—difficult to witness, but ultimately worthy of admiration.  Either way, things are getting wet.

    The other option, the craftily named dry option, is to fork your valuable knits over to a stranger behind a counter.  I suppose there is some comfort in thinking of a dry cleaner as a professional;  within that word there is the promise of expertise.  But it pays to be curious about just why dry-cleaning is thought better.  The cleaning agent is typically a petrochemical, only a few carbon molecules away from gasoline, and effectively removes dirt and oil.  Of course knits are made of natural fibers which rely upon oil (lanolin) to remain conditioned, and this too is stripped during dry-cleaning.  The results are luxury knits that lose some luxury, eventually becoming course, dry and brittle.  

    But there is another, more sinister level to the prevalence of dry-cleaning.  The manufacturers of low-quality knits are quite brazenly shifting the responsibility for their shoddy wares to the cleaners.  Ask yourself honestly: if an inexpensive cashmere cardigan disintegrates at the cleaner who is to blame?  Does that party change if the same damage occurs while washing it at home?  Of course it does.  Sewing a Dry-Clean Only tag into something functions as a free pass for both the manufacturer and the customer; if something goes wrong, as is inevitable at the bottom end of the market, the world-weary cleaner will usually just pay for the garment.

Happily, washing luxury knits at home is straightforward if the following steps are taken:

Sort knits according to fiber and color, turn inside-out

Load into machine and set to coldest, gentlest setting, typically Hand Wash, Cold

Add a small amount of delicate laundry powder; Forever New is a favorite

Say a few solemn words; begin cycle

Close and lock (or actively guard) laundry room door

Immediately upon a finished cycle, remove knits

Arrange knits to dry flat in an unheated, well-ventilated and clean space*

When thoroughly dry, carefully reshape each using clean, dry hands

Fold and store


*A room dedicated to this purpose, complete with custom shaped wire racks and a de-mumidifier would be ideal.  Wire-backed chairs or a towel-covered table will do.


    Amidst pumpkin pralines and toffee tiramisus, curiosity has a way of temporarily luring me from my general mistrust of sweets and desserts.  I don’t feel shame when I indulge; rather, only moments following the second or third exploratory bite, I retreat to the comfortable notion that I’m happier with a beef pie.  I’ve been called smug, and shrugged in semi-agreement.  

    But there is one member of the dessert world that consistently appeals—pound cake.  I like how it exists, uncertainly straddling genres while remaining fundamental.  It is cake, as is anything made of butter, flour, sugar and eggs.  This point is made especially well with a bundt pan, which surely produces the most festive cake shape.  But done in an ordinary rectangular pan, pound cake resembles the humble pullman loaf—a utilitarian shape for passing slices and convenient storage.  It might be my imagination, but a slice of pound cake from a pullman pan feels austere compared to the same from a bundt pan.  

    Pound cake is also a pillar of basic baking technique, stripped bare of ornament and pomp.  Creaming sugar with butter is how so many sweet recipes begin that it often seems a purely ceremonial step, like the clockwise rotation of a chawan during a Japanese tea ceremony.  But creaming is essential to a pound cake, as is beating the eggs; without raising agents, the dense batter would merely stiffen if not for all the incorporated air.  Density is also why a pound cake does best started in a cool oven, which allows ample time for the batter to warm up before setting shape.   

    A word on flavorings.  Nutmeg, or its lacy covering, mace, is traditional, as is vanilla and brandy.  These all work well together in a muted way.  Lemon peel doesn’t seem much of an affront either, although its use might embolden festive experimentation with candied fruit, nuts, or chocolate, but folding them into a pound cake ruins its elemental balance.

One pound of butter
One pound of sugar
One pound of eggs
One pound of flour
Dash of brandy
Vanilla extract
Scant nutmeg
Pinch of salt

Cream the butter and sugar and then continue beating until pale and well aerated.  In a separate bowl, beat eggs until frothy.  Add flour and egg mixture to whipped butter in alternating stages until all in incorporated.  Mix for an additional minute.  Incorporate well remaining flavorings.  Pour batter into either a pullman loaf pan or a bundt pan that has been well greased with butter and dusted with flour.  Put in a cool oven and set to bake at two hundred and seventy five to three hundred degrees (f) for between seventy and one hundred and ten minutes.  Some experimentation is likely required to get time and temperature correct.  A toothpick, plunged into the thickest portion, should emerge cleanly when cooked through.  Let cool on a wire rack.

The Missing Middle

Four ply camel hair; as good as down.

Four ply camel hair; as good as down.

    Menswear experts often fall into two camps—those romantics who revel in traditional heavy-weight tweeds and full-bodied worsteds, and those who, recognizing that the modern world is full of innovation not the least of which is climate control, find the heavy stuff largely irrelevant and instead seek the super-duperest of gossamer cloths.  Members of the first group usually make better drinking company.  But those that embrace innovation have the advantage of science, which supports the notion that if we are to spend most our time pattering around the comfortably conditioned indoors, we might as well do it in as pajama-like a state as possible.  As the business robe has not yet been invented, cloths for tailored garments have increasingly moved towards the soft, light and breathable.  But I’d like to introduce an inconvenient truth: many of these same advocates of modern cloth are quite happy to recommend heavy knits for casual wear.  Surely this is a chink in the logic.  

    I was invited not so long ago to take a tour of what I suspect is the future of high-end ready-to-wear: a high-profile membership retailer.  These operations work by enticing potential customers with warmer, friendlier shopping environs and merchandise not usually found at some of the bigger names in retail.  I was plied with cold beer and told by numerous attractive saleswomen how good I would look in one thing or another.  I must admit, it was a heady experience, particularly once ensconced in a rich chesterfield while samples of cloth and accessories were paraded before me.  But something rankled; the cloth for suits and jackets was no more substantial than velum, but the casual knits were as lofty and heavy as attic insulation.  Why no balance?  What about some singly ply merino to slip beneath a dense flannel jacket?  What about some practical tweed, say around fourteen ounces?

Guernsey: so densely constructed, it resists any attempts to artfully arrange.  

Guernsey: so densely constructed, it resists any attempts to artfully arrange.  

    That said, I am not anti-heavy knit.  In fact I have a small but loved collection of the heaviest specimens.  My favorite is perhaps a four-ply camelhair cardigan with leather buttons and a shawl collar that stands four inches off the neck and is warmer than most outerwear.  Fairisles—wiry wool sweaters knitted in involved patterns on the minuscule and remote Scottish island of the same name—are a favorite, despite being rather difficult to wear.  For me they are purely for those outdoor occasions when layers are called for, like caroling.  Serving in a similar capacity is another classic: the Guernsey.  Mine is heavy with lanolin, virtually waterproof and about as heavy as a shirt of mail.  I’m also in pursuit of an Aran, the familiar Irish equivalent of hardy, sea-worthy knitwear that features unique knitting patterns said—and this is awful—to be one way the wives of washed-ashore dead fisherman could be identified.  Morbid, but warm.

    I suppose warmth is why the fashion angle irks me.  How can the desire to have it go in and out of style from one F/W collection to the next?  Surely being cold in skimpy clothes is never in fashion, so why would the necessary articles for staying truly warm be in flux?  Actually, the larger question is why is retail fashion continuously polarizing itself into the extremes of lightweight ventilation and stifling loft?   Though increasingly hard to come by, I can vouch for the middle.

Niche Interest

Gasp!  Belts and braces commingling.  

Gasp!  Belts and braces commingling.  

   The professional organizer, like the etiquette expert, lives off the poor habits of other people.  They seem to range from the genuinely helpful to the loony: I was recently made aware of Marie Kondo, a Japanese decluttering expert who communes with her socks.  She is highly in demand, which is perhaps a reflection of the level of desperation the public suffers beneath when confronted by great heaps of personal possessions.  I don’t speak to my socks, but I endorse any organizing that begins with consolidating one's wardrobe.  But that’s where the agreement ends, I’m afraid; the professionals I’ve met would have major problems with some of my more cherished habits.

    When I recently had an armoire made, I envisioned  specialized hanging options for ties, belts and braces, all in complimenting solid brass.  The problem with these purpose-built solutions, though, is that if the collections grows, or seasons or preferences change, the hanging options remain static.  I eventually settled upon the simplest configuration: four identical twenty-peg brass plates.  These provide ample spots for ties, and multiple ways of hanging or wedging belts and braces.  This universal multi-storage solution works well for me, but I understand that a professional organizer might be disappointed to learn that sometimes belts make it into the braces section and that I have, on occasion, appropriated a peg or two from the tie section to accommodate a scarf.  

Hands off my trees.

Hands off my trees.

    Making organization mobile presents further challenges.  When space is limited, the professional organizer begins recommending a number of crafty methods for cramming more into less.  The most common of these, which, on account of being universally known, has lost its thin glaze of cleverness: stuffing socks and underpants into shoes is just not that revelatory.  I also seriously question just how much space is really saved; underwear laid flat doesn't consume much space, and I’ve never known a few pairs of lightweight hose to bust a zipper.  Also—and this really seals it for me—I travel with shoe trees, a notion that would unhinge most organizers I’ve met.  Do they add weight?  Yes, but they also keep my shoes from warping while traveling, something that becomes critical when rotating no more than two pairs—which is my personal limit for any trip under ten days.

One fully occupied plate of pegs.  

One fully occupied plate of pegs.  

    My final violation of the professional organizer’s code is somewhat philosophical.  Whereas the common principle would be to build storage around the size (or expected size) of a given wardrobe, I build my wardrobe to the size of my available storage.  I realize this sounds like little more than a clever chiasmus, but I’m serious about enforcing limitations.  I have precisely thirty-six pegs for ties, after which point I will initiate a one-in one-out policy.  I’m guessing I can fit a dozen suits or odd jackets in the upper section of my armoire before lapels become flattened, and I have no more than twelve spaces for shoes.  This, more than any other principle of organization, requires discipline.

    The humorous subplot to this supposed discipline is that while many people might think twelve pairs of shoes and three dozen neckties plenty, these volumes are rather scant for the clothes enthusiast.  But I imagine even those who can count ties on one hand have, in some other category, plenty of fat to cut.  In my experience, t-shirt hoarders and athletic gear junkies have nothing to be smug about; when I say twelve shoes, I’m including those for exercise.

Outside Advantage

A shirt, line-dried in an afternoon’s breeze, is a dependable source of pleasure.

Regardless of varietal, wine drunk outdoors takes on wild and strange flavors.

Tweed might look nice inside by the fire, but it only performs when outdoors.

Even mediocre coffee (or brandy) tastes good in the brisk morning air.

The outdoors makes relevant the heaviest sweaters.  

Bacon approaches perfection when eaten outside.

Proper exercise occurs outside.

The outdoors invented jeans.

When it rains: umbrellas.


The Singularity

    Handmade tailored clothes—what might correctly be called bespoke had that term not been hijacked and diluted by scores of mediocre, machine-made startups—are not immune to trends.  Presumably, some creative soul, bored with harmonizing linings, one day conceived of lining his suits with exuberant silk, the trickle down effect of which is plainly evident in the increasingly garish innards of much of today’s ready-to-wear market.  The same could be said of contrasting buttonhole thread, or clever under-collar felt.  And what about the regional whims of Italian artisans?  Should we at all be surprised to see details like pick-stitching and spalla camicia (shirt shoulder), however clumsily executed, right down to the level of fast-fashion?  There is an irony buried deeply within all that scarlet lining and turquoise thread—a hilarious, cosmic joke between the whims of the bespoke client and the received desires of the ordinary consumer.

    Conversely, I have discovered, the greatest pleasure in conceiving of and having made a garment is in eliminating the gimmicks and reducing the special effects.  The hallmarks that I have grown to appreciate in the truly handmade are equal opportunity; one might have knowledge of tailoring or none whatsoever—either way the appeal is one of balance and shape in motion rather than flash.  These are clothes that are not just jacket- or trouser-shaped, but purposeful garments the shapes of which are dictated equally by beauty and necessity.  But the truest, lightest mark of the handmade garment is found in deriving the former from the latter.  

    This is especially the case with a bold pattern.  My loudest garment to date is a large glen plaid jacket in rusty brown, cream and slate-blue tweed.  The scale is almost double that of any other pattern I own.  While I am always fascinated by the transformation of flat cloth into three-dimensional form, I was especially impressed with how Chris Despos fashioned this jacket.  One might think of a bold pattern as something like elevation for the master chef; the ordinary cook might not give the matter much thought, but in the pursuit of excellence, every variable must be expertly considered and accounted for.   

    But Despos’ work is not mere pattern-matching.  Today’s best computerized machines can approximate some matching with simple stripes and checks, but would likely spark and catch fire if programmed to execute the miracle that has been achieved with this cloth.  The patch pockets are virtually invisible; the boldest part of the check is centered to the millimeter on the lapels; the shoulders join at an ideal pitch; darts through the front body of the jacket barely warp the check, like a singularity invisibly bends the fabric of space to the naked eye.  My jacket fits, but it does so without disrupting even for a moment the spirit of the pattern—the effect of which is a bold cloth made more wearable by the minimizing of the points at which the pattern fractures.

    Nevertheless, wearing a larger pattern presents some challenges.  Bold shirts are out, and, as of this writing, I can only envision a solid or textured tie.  This is perhaps why bolder jackets and suits have largely been ignored by the ready-to-wear market; they limit the ability of the retailer to sell complimentary accessories.  As of late, though, I have noticed louder offerings.  I wonder: like the bright linings and flash details of the past, are bold patterns slowly being drawn into the wider market?

The Correct Roux

Part two of two.    

Roux, about where it should be.  

Roux, about where it should be.  

    Preparing Brussels sprouts, peeling potatoes, washing produce and other odd jobs as the cook sees fit are fine to dole out to friends and family.  Roux is a solitary business though.  The reason should be obvious; any task that looks simple but requires careful attention is best done without supervision, particularly from well-meaning but ultimately untrustworthy aunts.  If necessary, employ a diversion: why, are those potatoes browning too quickly?  If a dear aunt still won’t budge, have faith in the making of roux itself: stirring flour into butter really is as mundane as it sounds.  

    But it is also one of those skills the subtlety of which is easily lost on the observer.  The person making roux might as well be painting a shed, an activity that has never attracted an audience.  But if the cook loses concentration, overdoing a roux is easily done, as is undercooking one.  The former introduces a nutty and deep taste that is occasionally called for, but can be a distraction.  The latter leaves a gummy paste tasting of raw flour.  A medium roux—a dirty blonde, one might say (not around the aunt though)—is ideal.  Achieving the correct level takes patience, but an equal measure of restraint as well.

Gravy: molten blanket.

Gravy: molten blanket.

    A well-flavored stock, no matter how carefully made, is never a sauce.  A few moments after it has been ladled into a proper roux, however, the purest, humblest of sauces begins taking shape.  But its name—gravy—is as loaded with connotation as a good one is with flavor.  Poor ones are gelatinous or mealy and taste remotely savory, although few could say what the animal origin is.  Others are doctored with all manner of spices and seasonings so as to obscure either lousy stock or meat.  These mistakes are particularly regrettable once the real thing is tasted.  A good one is velvety, mouth-coating and obviously from the animal it adorns—a harmonious blanket both for the food and the palette.

Roux:  Melt a quantity of unsalted butter in a sauce pan, taking care not to scald or brown.  Stir in slightly less all-purpose flour than butter until smooth.  Continue stirring until the color of straw and redolent of freshly baked brioche.  The roux should be flowing but viscous.  Do not taste—it will scald badly.  

Gravy:  Once the roux is ideal, begin ladling in hot stock, stirring constantly with a whisk to maintain a smooth, lump-free consistency.  Brandy may be added in small quantities along with the stock, but resist any urge to further season with spices or herbs.  Season well with salt.  Boil hard for a minute, reduce to a simmer, and continue simmering until desired thickness has been achieved.  Strain through a Chinoise or cheese cloth if necessary.  Gravy is best served in a pitcher rather than a gravy boat.

Turkey, a lean bird, is an excellent candidate for gravy. 

Turkey, a lean bird, is an excellent candidate for gravy. 

Taking Stock

Part one of two.

   Common wisdom regarding the American holiday season is, usually, of the hard-boiled sort.  Where restraint is not encouraged, abstinence usually is.  The common theme might be to just let it go, where the it could as easily be the contentious politics of a ginned-up uncle, or, as they too are prevalent during this time of year, a ham.  But the marathon between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is a long time to maintain so implacable a charade.  Which is why I do the cooking; when done correctly, food preparation is full of levity.

    But here too I must preach some restraint.  Regardless of cultural background, and however fine the intentions, elaborate meals have a way of submarining even the most congenial families.  Those more fractious nuclei, my own dear family very much included, depend upon the digestible and familiar to maintain its delicate equilibrium.  Even a single exotic tart might set the orbits wobbling; the friction from an ambitious fish dish would be terrible.  Curry—even mentioned, let alone present in the air—would sunder electrons.

    But simple meals of roasted meat or fowl and buttered vegetables need not be bland.  I should say, they need not be, as long as the home cook masters the making of stock, roux, and, the union of both in that most venerable lubricant of the holiday season: gravy.

Stock: Ingredients

Several Pounds of bones, preferably of the same species as the accompanying roast

Three to five white or yellow onions, quartered but with skin and paper left intact

Two or three large carrots, split and peeled

Two or three large stake of celery, cleaned

A small bunch of parsley

Two or three bay leaves

Several sprigs of thyme

Several peppercorns

Cold Water


In a large roasting tray put bones and vegetables and put into a preheated oven to roast until well browned (but not burned).  Transfer to a large stock pot.  Deglaze the roasting pan with some of the water and add to the pot.  Add the remainder of the water to within two inches of brim.  Add the herbs and peppercorns.  Make certain everything is covered by water, but resist the temptation to stir.  Put the pot on a rear hob and bring up to a boil.  Skim the scum that accumulates on the surface.  Reduce to a true simmer.  Simmer and occasionally skim for three to four hours.  Carefully drain through a colander or chinoise into another, smaller stock pot.  Wrap carefully and immediately refrigerate for later use. 

Safety First

A vintage Star in a Gillette box.  Gillette, of course, no longer make delicately dove-tail-joined boxes for their wares.  

A vintage Star in a Gillette box.  Gillette, of course, no longer make delicately dove-tail-joined boxes for their wares.  

Part two of three.    

  In one way, the introduction of any disposable element represents the first step away from the purity of the cutthroat.  Another viewpoint is this: shaving with and maintaining a straight razor is, to put it lightly, a terrific reason to grow a beard.  So did the disposable razor initiate a decline down a perfumed and gel-slicked slope towards expensive, gimmicky cartridges?  Or are safety razors one of those few innovations that has both improved the user experience while dispensing with the need to further innovate?  In my experience a good safety razor really is the first and last word in wet-shaving.  

    To understand why, one must first honestly assess wet-shaving today.  Who needs it anyway?  Facial hair is not just acceptable, but popular, and for those who wish for a smooth-ish mug there are very capable electric razors that decently eliminate ordinary stubble in half the time of a wet shave, and without all the high-drama of risking a nick.  The wet-shaver, then, is a particular sort of man who wishes closer, lasting results.  He might also experience a certain frisson as the blade tracks smoothly through a fragrant and favorite soap, but recognizes that more than a few minutes indulging his preference seems ludicrous given how unnecessary a ritual it is.  To maintain loyalty, then, the big names in wet shaving have organized their offerings around a core principle: innovation as a means to speed and comfort.

    This doesn’t sound so bad until one considers the casualty: common sense.  No wet shaver I’ve met can convincingly explain why more blades are better, or what that strip of jelly does (or is), or, heaven forbid, why a vibrating handle represents an improvement.  It doesn’t matter.  What does is that innovation has taken place—that a change has occurred that now makes an old or competing cartridge seem embarrassingly outdated.  That the cost of these cartridges climbs incrementally with each improvement is less shocking than the impression that there is no alternative—that the modern wet-shaver is betrothed to a handful of restless options.  This is innovation run wild, uncivilized mass delusion.  

A Japanese Feather safety razor, perhaps the pinnacle of the genre.  

A Japanese Feather safety razor, perhaps the pinnacle of the genre.  

    The original safety razor is refreshingly simple.  A disposable razor blade is held snugly in an easily operable device.  The angle of attack seems intuitive, the movement made confident by a well-balanced, knurled handle.  The economic argument is strong; a package of thirty razors costs a fraction of what the same number of high-tech cartridges do.  There are intangibles as well: a good safety razor sings a metallic monotone as it tracks through thick stubble.  It looks nice on a shelf too.

    So, can a safety razor evolve the right way?  Absolutely.  The highest quality examples today are machined to extraordinary tolerances, making examples from fifty years ago seem rudimentary by comparison.  The disposable razors themselves are far sharper but more durable than ever before too.  But it must not be ignored that these are material improvements upon a largely unchanged straightforward design of a single, angled blade at the end of a sturdy handle.  Rather than arms-race style innovation, the goal is precision within sensible parameters.  Comparatively civilized, no?