Democracy Inaction

Rotgut responses to questions from the discard pile

Politicians have it easy.

Television "journalists" such as Larry King and Katie Couric toss them softball questions, and no one expects an accurate response. Radicals like Rush and G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North dominate the supposedly liberal airwaves, limiting discourse to grunts of approval or disdain. Where 30 years ago the public required an airtight cover-up, now voters put up with obvious smoke screens.

We're jealous and perhaps a bit annoyed by this turn of events. You see, Burning Question crew members are not politicians. We refuse to obfuscate, misinform or waste vast amounts of cash--depending, of course, on your definition of "waste."

A column such as this relies on reader input and our unflagging will to respond. Sometimes, however, the suggested topics require only a brief answer. Other times our editor considers a question "too risky," which basically means he'd end up forking over bail money if he allowed the Burning Question crew to pursue a particular story at length. (Editor's note: Like we'd ever post Dave's bail. Hah!) And he has cause for concern. In the past, we've--allegedly--knocked him out with a bottle of Blue Nun (not by whacking him on the head, although that was an option, but by pouring the notorious lightweight a few glasses of the stuff), "borrowed" from his petty cash drawer and sold his collection of '70s soft-rock albums.

So this week's Burning Question seeks to square things by addressing at least some of the issues that less upstanding types advised us to dodge.

Drinking so much is wrong. Why don't you write about more wholesome topics?

For your information, hard drinking and loathsome behavior played key roles in the foundation of this great nation. Ben Franklin, for example, advised married men to select older women as mistresses. Sam Adams was a gang leader at best; his mob even burned the governor's house. And George Washington ran a still, producing more than 11,000 gallons of rotgut each year. He sold to elite families, tradesmen and anyone else who fancied a stiff drink. The Great Man also pounded shots of whiskey, guzzled pints of beer and sloshed fortified wine all over his breeches. So our thinking is this: If it was good enough for George Washington, it's good enough for the Burning Question crew and every patriotic American.

What the hell is grappa?

Liquor expresses much about a culture. Vodka, for example, reflects a rough but energetic people. Sake speaks of tradition and refinement. Bourbon is weathered, indomitable, with brutal fists.

In that sense, then, grappa may be considered the distilled spirit of the Italian people. "Grappa is the last press of the grape, the bottom of the barrel, the byproduct of the finer things," says Judd Fruia, general manager of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. "It's that Old World mentality that you don't waste anything because you never know what will happen tomorrow."

It's distilled from the sediment left behind after pressing grapes to produce wine, and it tastes of skin and stems. They call it a "pomace brandy"--a deceptive phrase akin to "compassionate conservative" or "student athlete." Pomace is merely a more elegant way to say "mutilated grape skins and other unidentifiable foliage." "In the beginning it was the drink of the poor," admits Christiano Conte of Arcodoro and Pomodoro. The harsh taste and lowly origins still shape our understanding of grappa. Chris Michael, bartender at Nikita, speaks in awe of those who drink the stuff. "There's something sinister about someone who orders grappa that's difficult to articulate," he says. "When you order it, one of two things happens," Fruia explains. "It's either, 'What does he know that I don't?' or, 'He's a man's man.'"

Yet grappa, like bourbon or vodka, has become a more sophisticated liquor, with distilleries producing aged versions. Pappas Bros. carries six varieties for those wishing to taste a range of grappas. Arcodoro stocks 11--for tasters who don't mind a little jail time.

Why don't bars carry mezcal?

Like any other drink of the masses, mezcal suffers from image problems. People consider it harsh and crude, worthy only of fraternity parties. "When I think of mezcal, I think of a whorehouse in Mexico," Nikita's Michael says.

Because of this general belief, few bars waste shelf space on mezcal.

"We've had a few people ask for it," says Justin Miller, bartender at Enchilada's in Addison, "but not enough for us to carry it." Thus an establishment listing 25 or more different tequilas will rarely trot out even one mezcal, even though the latter resembles tequila in taste and texture.

By Mexican...and we're trying not to giggle...law, tequila must be distilled from the fermented juice of blue agave plants grown in Jalisco and a few other designated areas. It gained popularity north of the border thanks to the margarita and Bing Crosby, a tequila buff. Mezcal, on the other hand, is produced throughout Mexico from many different species of agave. Most Americans encounter mezcal only when challenged to "eat the worm."

Despite the origin and reputation of mezcal, several decent (and wormless) brands exist. Mattito's on Routh Street actually stocks 22 mezcals, and they pour with a free hand.

We suggest you start there. The Burning Question crew finished our research for both the grappa and mezcal portions of this column at Mattito's on a Sunday afternoon. We finally sobered up on Tuesday--in time to renounce the testimony we apparently made at the Billy Graham event.

What's the difference between cigarette, cigar and pipe tobacco?

Robert Wilson of Addison Cigar & Tobacco Co. quickly rephrases this question in more general terms. "What's the difference between a rose, a tulip and a forget-me-not?" he asks. "They're all flowers, but the similarity ends there."

Much of the tobacco rolled into fine cigars grows in Cuba or in Central America from Cuban seed. It requires tremendous skill to create cigars, blending aged leaves for flavor and even burn. Region, weather and curing methods affect the taste of cigar tobacco, and planters further influence the end product through selective use of sun or shade. Virginia produces a significant percentage of America's pipe tobacco, which is often flavored with everything from fruit to liquor in order to sweeten the taste and scent of the weed. "Generally, because it's flavored, pipe tobacco doesn't have to have innate regional characteristics," explains Javad Taherzadeh of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. "The flavoring will overpower anything inherent to the tobacco." Cigars, in other words, ride on the strengths and weaknesses of the leaf itself, while the quality of pipe tobacco depends more on the flavoring. Cigarettes, by comparison, are artless, mass-produced commodities. "The leaves are harvested, dried and chopped up," Wilson says. "That's basically it."

"With cigarettes, literally you're buying the lowest quality of tobacco there is," Taherzadeh adds.

Who is the Burning Question crew?

Names are the least substantive measure of identity, so it would be unfair to list in a concrete and concise format all those who serve alongside me as crew members. We are the sum of that which we've accomplished and those whom we choose to admire. For instance, we've read Moby Dick, eaten the worm, danced with Miss Nude Detroit, memorized the poems of Wilfred Owen and stood on the sidelines at Penn State games. We admire Zonker Harris, Johnny Rotten, Ernie Irvan and "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell.

That pretty much sums it up.

Oh, except that we all enjoy alcohol to excess and occasionally wake up in places like...well, Dayton.

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