The Chuck Cowdery Blog 2005

December 15, 2005

Of the 450,000 New Orleans residents who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, only about 100,000 have returned to the city. To lure back more, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is touting a "holy trinity of recovery." Its three parts are new levees, new housing and new economic incentives to spur commercial and industrial redevelopment.

Today, the Bush administration asked Congress for an additional $1.5 billion to help the city rebuild its flood defenses, bringing the total amount allocated for that purpose to $3.1 billion.

The funding request was announced by Donald Powell, the federal official overseeing Gulf Coast reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He promised that the rebuilt levee system, "will be better and safer than it's ever been before."

Powell continued, "What we're saying is that we are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure we have stronger and better levee systems than we've ever had. The federal government is committed to building the best levee system known in the world."

On August 31 in this space, I compared the storm defense system in place around New Orleans to that of The Netherlands. The Dutch system uses levees (they call them dikes) in conjunction with other kinds of protection, in particular massive surge barriers. So it struck me when the federal government spokesperson talked strictly of levee reconstruction. He pointedly talked about "levee" systems, not "flood defense" or "storm protection" systems.

I imagine the following dialogue taking place at a high policy level within the administration.

"What will it take to protect New Orleans against a category 5 storm?"

"About $30 billion."

"Whoa, okay. Maybe that's overkill. Katrina was a category 4 storm, right? What will it take to protect New Orleans from 'the next Katrina'?"

"About $15 billion."

"Jesus. Of course, a Katrina doesn't come around that often. Maybe if we just put it back the way it was? What did they have there before Katrina?"

"We thought they had good protection through category 3, but we know now that they didn't. It's hard to state exactly what they had before, but it wasn't even category 3-level protection."

"So what would it cost to get to category 3."

"About $3 billion."

"Now we're talking! That will make them better than they were before?"

"Much better, yes."

"For $3 billion we'll be able to say it's better and safer than ever?"


"We'll be able to say we're building the best storm protection system known in the world."

"For $3 billion you get better levees. There's more to a storm protection system than levees. Levees can only do so much. To get higher levels of protection, you need things like surge barriers."

"But then we have to spend $30 billion?"

"Right. At least."

"Can we say we're building the best levee system known in the world?"

"They will be state-of-the-art levees. Sure. Why not?"

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December 9, 2005

Certain right wing rabble rousers have invented a "War on Christmas," fomented by "Secularists." The complaint is that more and more official seasonal expressions have been converted from "Christmas" to "holiday" (e.g., the White House "holiday" card). Campaigns to "Keep the Christ in Christmas" have been a staple among all Christian denominations forever, but now the word "Christmas" itself is threatened. In addition to government, businesses such as Wal-Mart have been accused of replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays."

"Happy Holidays", you see, is a fill-in-the-blanks greeting. I say "Happy Holidays" and you fill in the particular suite of year-end holidays you observe. Some people consider this a slighting of Christmas. They want "Merry Christmas" back in the town square.

The irony here is that the way the argument has been framed is almost perfectly backwards. Rather than threatening the government's ability to fund or sanction Christmas observances, this modification actually preserves that ability. By declaring a universal, non-denominational, non-religious year-end holiday "season," government entities can continue to use imagery everyone associates with Christmas, except presumably the nativity scene, without any church/state repercussions. Imagery such as evergreen trees, colored lights, candles, candy canes, even stars and angels, and of course "Saint Nick," I mean, "Santa Claus," can continue to decorate schools and other government buildings, and December 25 can continue to be a legal holiday. The use of "Happy Holidays" is a kind of inoculation against pesky complaints by Christmas foes.

By any other name, the big end-of-the-year holiday is Christmas, a celebration of the day (Christians believe) that God took human form. The other holidays incorporated into a generic "holiday" greeting are Thanksgiving, New Year's, Chanukkah, and Kwanza. Of these, only New Year's is truly universal and secular, at least to all adherents of the Gregorian Calendar. Thanksgiving is secular but peculiarly American. Kwanza, while secular, would have to be described as ethnically-exclusive. Christmas and Chanukkah, of course, are religious.

This year, Virgin Mobile came up with Chrismahanukwanzakah. Funny, but Chanukkah and Kwanza are tiny hangers-on to the main event. Many Jews regret the corruption of Chanukkah into a "Jewish Christmas." It's an uncomfortable season for many Jews, as much for the ways they observe Christmas as for the ways they don't. Most people consider the conceit that we're not celebrating Christmas a joke, which is why the Virgin Mobile gag works.

If this universal, non-denominational, non-religious year-end holiday "season" is supposed to incorporate all of the religions observed by Americans, it misses a few. Ramadan moves around and has lately been falling in mid-autumn, but it's a stretch to say there is something in this holiday for our Islamic brothers, likewise Hindus, Confucians, and everyone else.

Meanwhile, the "Save Christmas" crowd is screwing up the holiday by making it seem exclusive, shrill and petty. Ho ho ho.

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December 7, 2005

Note to self: If you're ever traveling by air with someone who is bi-polar, make sure he takes his meds.

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December 6, 2005

At this time of year, the combination of holiday spirit and year-end tax planning leads to a lot of charitable giving and appeals for same. One tradition that goes back centuries is providing food for the needy. Some people even incorporate food drives into other holiday activities, such as making a staple food item donation the price of admission to a holiday party.

While giving food to a food pantry is superficially logical and viscerally satisfying, it actually is a very bad use of your charitable contribution dollar. I might even call it a scam perpetrated by grocers. The point is a simple one. Your dollar, spent at retail, buys much less food for the hungry than your dollar, given to the pantry and spent at wholesale.

Certainly if you find yourself with excess food for some reason, giving it to a pantry is a good idea, and supporting your local pantry is a very good idea, but your money will feed many more hungry people than your can of expired pickled okra will.

Pantries typically won't tell you this because they can use the donated staples and would rather get food than nothing, but given a choice they would rather get money. They can't very well tell you that, lest they risk a headline: "Food Pantry Refuses Food." But realistically, it's like buying interferon at Walgreens and donating it to the American Cancer Society. Thank you, but we'd rather have the cash.

I don't want this to sound Scrooge-like. Giving food to the hungry is good. No argument there.

But is your donation going as far as it could?

The pantry with which I am most familiar is Lakeview here in Chicago and while they are always happy to receive food, I know they would much rather receive money. Their year-end appeal came today and it asks for money, not food. Lakeview, like most of the pantries in the Chicago area, gets most of its food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD). According to GCFD, every dollar donated provides four meals. Go to Jewel and try to buy a "meal" for 25 cents.

The food GCFD distributes to neighborhood pantries such as Lakeview comes from various sources. Much of it is donated by area food manufacturers, grocery stores, caterers, company cafeterias and restaurant chains. Some comes from government agencies and national charities such as Second Harvest. Some is purchased.

GCFD encourages and will facilitate food drives. They ask food drive sponsors to collect both money and food. The food has to be in boxes, cans or plastic jars and bottles; no glass. What they want most are items high in protein, such as canned meats, beef stew, chili and peanut butter. Also good are canned vegetables and fruits, rice, pasta and cereal.

With money, a pantry can purchase food in quantities, at the wholesale price or better. They can acquire exactly what they (meaning, their clients) need. They can get the preferred sizes/quantities, they can even get what fits best on their shelves. They can take advantage of special promotions and they can pay necessary but less sexy expenses such as gas and electric.

It has been surprising to me how much trouble I have had making this point with some people, so powerful are childhood memories of "food drives" at church or school. Such food drives only make sense because they are viscerally satisfying, so they get some people to give something where they normally would give nothing, so charity is served. That's fine. If you want to give food, give food, but I can assure you that any proper hunger charity would much rather have the cash, simply because they can feed more people with that money than you can. If they can't for some reason, then you need to find a better-managed charity.

Once upon a time, the food collected by food drives came directly from the farms or mills of the donors, but that is the exception today. Most of it is purchased at retail stores, along with the family groceries. Some people who are really into food drives make an effort to get more for their money by shopping at Sam's Club or Costco. Fine, but any respectable hunger charity can still do it better.

Buying staples at your neighborhood supermarket, transporting them somewhere, from which place they have to be transported someplace else, then sorted so they can be redistributed to hungry people, that approach is long on symbolism but short on sense.

In much the same way that starches fill the stomach and provide calories without providing much nutrition, giving a bag full of groceries feels generous, probably more generous than the $20 it represents.

While I do not mean to suggest there is some grand conspiracy among food retailers, you can't deny that food producers and retailers have everything to gain by encouraging people to buy food at the full retail mark-up and give it to the needy. That's just more sales for them. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

My sole point is that the practice of buying food at retail to donate it to a pantry or other hunger charity is simply wasteful.

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November 15, 2005

I feel sorry for people who need fear of damnation to motivate themselves to live reasonably and responsibily. However, since there are such people, I am glad there is fear of damnation to motivate them.

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November 8, 2005 The 2005 Nickel

Our money is rude to guests.

When in Europe, I find it very handy that all denominations of Euro currency-including coins-have large, friendly numerals on them. United States coins are not so accommodating. There are no numerals of any kind, only words in small type and inconsistent, archaic formulations: one cent, five cents, one dime, quarter dollar, half dollar.

If someone gives me a nickel and I don't already know what it is, finding out takes a little work. I know because that happened to me today.

If you live in the United States or visit here often, you easily learn how to identify our coins the way we natives do, by size, basic design, and in the case of pennies, color. We know what they are because we know what they are. We don't read them.

I don't leave the U.S. a lot. I can't recognize the Euro coins by size, basic design and color. I have to read the denomination. So when I go to Europe I appreciate those big, consistent numerals, especially the 5,10, 20 and 50. They are big enough for me to read without my glasses, which allows me to count change without the tell-tale fumbling of the tourist. U.S. coins would be better if they had big, friendly numerals on them too.

This came up for me today because I got my first Lewis & Clark nickel, didn't know what it was, and it took me a minute to find out. It was the right size and color to be a U.S. nickel, but it might be Canadian, or not even a coin at all. It was the one with the trees and water on it, by the way, not the Buffalo. I couldn't make out any of the words without my glasses. To be positive it was a nickel (it had been given to me in change), I had to find a pair of reading glasses, put them on, and read all of the words on both sides. Finally, I found the words "five cents" and determined it was a U.S. nickel, which I immediately verified at

In defense of American coins versus Euro ones, there are only four U.S. coins in common circulation, they are easily distinguished from each other, and they aren't worth very much so mistakes aren't expensive. The Euro has twice as many coins and three of them are worth more than the American "quarter dollar," the biggest coin most Americans have in their pockets.

The Euro coin denominations are: the one Euro cent, two Euro cent, five Euro cent, ten Euro cent, twenty Euro cent, fifty Euro cent, one Euro, and two Euro. Today, one Euro is worth $1.18.

It is not as if U.S. coin designs are sacrosanct. The United States Mint has been messing around with the quarter for years now, and with the nickel since 2004. A sensible improvement in their design would have been the addition of large, friendly numerals.

I know people collect coins and they are a vocal constituency when it comes to coin designs. I know our coins and coin designs are part of our national historical fabric. Yes, I know coins are works of art. All of that is true. But coins first and foremost must be functional, and our coins fail one obvious functionality test. You cannot tell how much an individual coin is worth at a glance.

You might argue that very few people would be benefited by this change, relative to the total number of people who use U.S. currency, but who would be harmed or inconvenienced by it? Is there a cost? Not if we're changing the designs anyway, as we are.

This is not the only way America is not nearly as hospitable to foreign visitors as the Eurozone countries are.

I live in Chicago, which I am sure receives as many foreign visitors as do the major cities of Europe, but I don't see nearly as many alternative language signs here in common, public situations. There is a fair amount of Spanish, but not much else besides English. Most smaller American cities are worse. There are explanations for this, some more persuasive than others, but the net effect is that it is harder for a non-English speaker to visit here than it is for a non-French speaker to visit France, for example.

I chose France as the example because a common rap on the French is that, "most of them know English but they refuse to speak it and won't let on that they understand it." This is part of the "rude French" stereotype, but we are much more rude about that than the French or most other Europeans. Our inconvenient coins are just one example of it.

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October 29, 2005

There is a symbolic significance to the site chosen for the official Sox victory rally on Friday.

You start the parade at the ball park, obviously, wind through the South Side, take the traditional LaSalle Street route north, across the loop at its western boundary. Then you stop, right there, where downtown ends and the North Side begins, at the river. You go as far north as you can without entering the North Side. Don't cross the river onto North Sider territory, but celebrate within sight of it and within sight, symbolically, of the whole North Side. "Here is what it looks like to win a World Series," it seems to say. "Here, we'll share it with you this far, we'll come this far, to honor this feeling that we're all Chicago fans now. But the actual celebration stays south of the Chicago River. We came right to your border, but it would be disrespectful to you and to ourselves to come any further."

They came right up to the border, had a big party, and then went home.

You can't celebrate a White Sox World Championship north of the Chicago River. Maybe the Johnny-come-lately Sox fans can, but not the team, and not the real fans. Did anyone think of that consciously? Maybe not, but there are a few Sox fans at City Hall, and no South Sider would allow a celebration like this to include the northern bank of the Chicago River. It's unthinkable.

And they're right, the party should stay south of the river. It wouldn't be seemly to come any further north. It's not our team. Yes, we can be happy for them, we are, but it's the difference between your cousin's wedding and your sister's wedding.

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October 28, 2005

I like price-fixed or fixed-price meals in restaurants, which are much more common in Europe than they are here. In Spain under Franco, I know, the menu del dia was required by law.

In the US, only Chinese restaurants offer them routinely. In most restaurants here they are relegated to 'early bird specials' targeted to seniors, to the children's menu, and to fast food 'value meals.'

The fixed-price meal can take many forms, but typically it is a 'complete' multiple-course meal for a certain price.

One variation is whether or not a beverage is included. In Spain, wine or wine mixed 50/50 with sparkling water is usually included or you can have coffee or something else. In Paris, the beverage usually is not included. Bread is usually included everywhere.

Although sometimes the menu is 'chef's choice,' it usually is a one-from-column-A, one-from-column B format, with anywhere from three to more than a dozen choices in each category. Another variation is how many categories, i.e., courses, are included. The most common format probably is starter-main course-dessert.

To be a menu it has to include at least two courses. Three courses appears to be the most common number, but you can find them with four, five, or more.

I like price-fixed meals primarily because they let me concentrate on what dishes most appeal to me without also making a financial evaluation, and somehow balancing what I want with how much I'm willing to spend. With the menu I decide how much I'm going to pay first, then decide what I want entirely based on what sounds good to me.

When traveling, the menu has the additional benefit of showing me how people there normally eat. Sure, the most costly dishes the restaurant offers won't be on the menu, but it still tends to feature the most popular dishes. It also helps ease any language barrier.

For the budget-conscious, the menu is usually, but not always, a good value. It may be possible to fashion a meal from the menu that can be had more cheaply a la carte, but most combinations favor the menu.

My experience in Europe is that most of the dishes the restaurant offers are available as part of a menu, as is true in most US Chinese restaurants. This seems to me like the best approach. Most other US restaurants are more limited, with 'meals'--if they offer them at all--being treated purely as a value proposition. I wish more American restaurants would follow the European practice with regard to fixed-price meals.

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September 21, 2005

Thirty years ago, I began my career making TV and radio advertising for department stores. I worked for an agency in Columbus, Ohio, and my main client was Lazarus, the local Federated store. At the time, Federated was based in Cincinnati, where its local outlet was Shillito's, but the company was controlled by the Lazarus family. Their store in Dayton was called Rikes. All had been independent at one time. In New York, they had Bloomingdales and something else, I want to say Levy Brothers, but I might be wrong. Macy's was not part of Federated at that time. The long trail of consolidation and name changing between then and now is more than my feeble memory can manage, and not of much consequence. All of the stores in Ohio eventually took the Lazarus name, and now are all Macy's.

It's a tough business. Thirty years ago we recognized that the full line department store was a dying breed. It is amazing to me that it has hung on as long as it has. It still offers some convenience, especially for someone shopping for a whole family, and the shopping experience is still more pleasant than at Target or, God help us, Wal Mart.

This stroll down Memory Lane was prompted by the announcement that Marshall Fields, a Chicago institution since 1852, will be taking the Macy's name as well. Fields was sold to Dayton Hudson in 1990. In 2001 the Dayton's (Minneapolis) and Hudson's (Detroit) names were retired in favor of Marshall Fields. Dayton Hudson changed its corporate name to Target and unloaded the Fields chain to May Company, which along with Federated was the last of the big conglomerations of old major market department stores. Earlier this year, they merged under the Federated name. Subsequently, Federated announced it would retain only the Macy's and Bloomingdale's names.

The reality is that Marshall Fields was a name and nothing more. What made the store distinctive--especially its exceptional service--went away a long time ago. I had a dismal experience with them earlier this year which led me to wish they would finally put that once proud name out of its misery. My wish has come true.

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September 12, 2005

John Roberts has been nominated by President Bush to succeed William Rehnquist as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He is widely characterized as a Conservative. Many on the left are opposing him reflexively. I haven't seen anything about him that looks so bad.

In the law, words are everything. We expect politicians to lie and we get cynical about what anyone says in the political sphere, but at the same time words are all we have. If we catch someone in an outright lie, that counts. For that reason, politicians usually hedge what they say. Their lips move and words come out, but they usually say nothing at all.

The Senate hearings on Roberts began today. As is customary, he began his appearance before the panel with a prepared statement. As I said, in the law words are everything, so we should pay close attention to what someone like Roberts says, especially when he is weighing his words carefully, as he surely is today.

I read the statement and found it persuasive and moving. This is exactly what I want a Supreme Court nominee to say (and believe and do) and I think it is what we all should expect from a Supreme Court Justice, no more and no less. As far as I'm concerned, nothing else needs to be said. (Fat chance of that.)

Here is part of what Roberts said this morning:

"Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them.

"The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.

"But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.

"Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent, shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath.

"And judges have to have the modesty to be open in the decisional process to the considered views of their colleagues on the bench.

"Mr. Chairman, when I worked in the Department of Justice, in the office of the solicitor general, it was my job to argue cases for the United States before the Supreme court.

"I always found it very moving to stand before the justices and say, 'I speak for my country.'

"But it was after I left the department and began arguing cases against the United States that I fully appreciated the importance of the Supreme Court and our constitutional system.

"Here was the United States, the most powerful entity in the world, aligned against my client. And yet, all I had to do was convince the court that I was right on the law and the government was wrong and all that power and might would recede in deference to the rule of law.

"That is a remarkable thing.

"It is what we mean when we say that we are a government of laws and not of men. It is that rule of law that protects the rights and liberties of all Americans. It is the envy of the world. Because without the rule of law, any rights are meaningless.

"I have no agenda, but I do have a commitment. If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind. I will fully and fairly analyze the legal arguments that are presented. I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

"If I am confirmed, I will be vigilant to protect the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court, and I will work to ensure that it upholds the rule of law and safeguards those liberties that make this land one of endless possibilities for all Americans."

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September 9, 2005

refugee. One that flees to a place of safety; esp: one who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution in his own country or habitual residence because of his race, religion or political beliefs.

Websters Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.

We got somethin' we both know it
We don't talk too much about it
Yeah it ain't no real big secret all the same
Somehow we get around it
Listen it don't really matter to me baby
You believe what you want to believe
You see you don't have to live like a refugee

Somewhere, somehow somebody
Must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you wanna lay there
And revel in your abandon
Listen it don't make no difference to me baby
Everybody's had to fight to be free
You see you don't have to live like a refugee
Now baby you don't have to live like a refugee

"Refugee" by Tom Petty

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September 8, 2005

Whenever I hear someone in their 60s referred to as "middle-aged" I think, and sometimes say, "Who lives to be 120?"

Terms like "young," "middle-aged" and "elderly" have no fixed definitions but if you are going to use them, you should at least use them consistently. I propose the following structure.

Let's say the average life expectancy is 80. It isn't, but let's say it is for the sake of big, round numbers. Now let's also say that "childhood" is the first 20 years of life. Again, debatable, but let's stay with big numbers that divide easily. That leaves us with sixty years of adulthood. Since we have this term "middle-aged," let's assign that term to the center half of that span, i.e., the thirty years from age 36 to age 65. That makes the ages 21 to 35 "young adult," the ages 36 to 65 "middle-aged," and 66 and up "elderly" or just plain "old."

All that seems fair enough, but that's because I'm 54 now. Let's see how I feel about it a decade from now.

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September 7, 2005

Ann Richards, former governor of Texas and the best stand-up comedian in politics, once said of the first President Bush that he "was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Now the current president's mother, Barbara, has shown that she is second to no one in politically tone-deaf gaffes. Yesterday she toured the Astrodome in Houston, where she lives with the former president, and spoke to some of the hurricane victims sheltered there. Then she gave an interview to the American Public Media program "Marketplace." Here is what she said:

"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

While the Bush family's commitment to public service seems sincere, members of that clan seem also to have enjoyed so much privilege that they are oblivious to how the rest of the world lives. That probably is a bad combination.

Speaking of politicians, I often say that I would make a terrible one, because I hold so many unpopular opinions. Here is an example.

High fuel prices are a good thing and I hope they go higher.

How can I make such a statement? Consider this. In most of Europe, gasoline is three times more expensive than it is here. Not coincidentally, people there drive smaller cars and use more alternative forms of transportation, from bicycles to electric trams.

In the United States, our leaders have subsidized the oil industry and used other tricks to keep fuel prices artificially low because low fuel prices are politically popular, despite the fact that we react by wasting fuel (in the form of obnoxious SUVs and other large vehicles). While subsidies for public transportation are often attacked (from Amtrak to our own Chicago Transit Authority), the subsidies for oil producers and the tax money spent on roads and other infrastructure for oil-fueled vehicles is rarely questioned.

Critics of ethanol fuels say such fuels aren't cost effective. Maybe they will be if gasoline is $10 a gallon. Twenty years ago I worked on a project about extracting oil from shale. At the time, when oil was at $18 a barrel, experts said shale processing would be competitive if oil got to $35 a barrel. Today it is close to $70, so maybe I should dust off that research.

Cheap labor manufacturers in countries such as Sri Lanka and China, and mega retailers such as Wal-Mart, who are blamed for so many job losses here, depend for their success in part on low transportation costs. The price of something manufactured in China includes the cost of getting it here. Wal-mart gets good prices from suppliers by buying in huge quantities and shipping merchandise around the country on its own trucks from mammoth distribution centers. If transportation costs go up, local manufacturing becomes more cost effective. Put another way, higher transportation costs make local, i.e., American, labor less expensive.

For example, the United States is one of the world's top cotton producers and Americans are major consumers of cotton products (i.e., clothing, sheets, towels), yet more and more of these products are made overseas. Why? Because of cheap labor augmented by cheap transportation. Maybe we can't do anything about the labor cost differential, but if higher oil prices make transportation more expensive, the effect is the same. It becomes more cost effective to keep the manufacturing close to both the raw materials and markets.

Sure, rising fuel prices cause temporary hardships for some people, but adjustment is possible and it is arguable that the likely long term results are more good than bad.

For more about this unpopular opinion of mine, see my blog entry for April 7, 2005.

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September 1, 2005

Yesterday, at the distillery outside Versailles, Kentucky, Woodford Reserve unveiled its long awaited four grain bourbon.

Typically, bourbon is made mostly from corn, with a little bit of malted barley, and either wheat or rye. This contains all four.

The full name of this new product is Woodford Reserve Masters Collection Four Grain Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The concept of the Masters Collection is that it will be occasional and very limited releases of unique 100 percent copper pot still whiskey made at the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Four Grain is the first. Only 250 cases of it will be released, at $80 a bottle. It will be 92° proof.

The gimmick at yesterday’s event was that they had five whiskey writers (me, Gary Regan, Jim Murray, John Hansell and Lew Bryson) and a writer from the Wall Street Journal taste samples from 14 different barrels then, by our votes, we eliminated two. The twelve barrels remaining are what they are going to bottle so we helped "make" the whiskey. All of this whiskey was distilled in the Spring of 1999.

Master Distiller Chris Morris would not reveal the exact mash bill, but did admit that the malted barley component is the Brown Forman "standard" of ten percent. Since it is bourbon it must be at least 51 percent corn, so that leaves us with 39 percent of the recipe still to pry out of him.

Chris said their recipe was inspired by one they found from 1903. They can't say when a four grain bourbon was last produced, but most likely it was before Prohibition. At the event, they also made a lot of hay about their warehouse cycling (artificially creating a hot-cold aging cycle during the winter) and their "designer" barrels (BF is the only distiller that also owns a cooperage). The four grain formula includes a proprietary yeast strain not used for any of BF’s other whiskeys.

Probably the biggest attraction of this product, more so even than the four grain mash bill, is the fact that, unlike standard Woodford Reserve, this whiskey is 100 percent from the copper pot stills. That also is the most prominent characteristic of the taste. You can taste copper. The grain signature I would call muddy, as in confused. A more positive way to say it would be complex. It definitely has a unique flavor, unlike any other bourbon including Woodford itself (which contains no wheat). I don't think it will produce much demand for a mass market four grain bourbon, but in terms of showing us another possibility within the context of bourbon, it's a wonderful thing.

I have been told by other distillers in the past that one of the obstacles to making four grain bourbon is the fact that distilleries are built with three grain mills over the cooker. As Chris pointed out, all they have to do is put the wheat and rye together into the small grains bin in the appropriate quantities.

Although it's not supposed to be in stores until October, I expect there will be some four grain at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival next month, probably at the gala if nowhere else.

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August 31, 2005

Inevitably the question will be asked, could the disaster that is still unfolding in New Orleans have been prevented?

Obviously, you can't stop hurricanes nor perfectly protect people and property from their effects. Probably nothing better could have been done to protect the greater Gulf Coast area from the impact of Katrina, but New Orleans is a special case. It is a large city with most of its land area below sea level and its location and large population makes evacuation almost impossible. Experts had long predicted that a direct hit on New Orleans by a major hurricane would be catastrophic. There have been many close calls and even Katrina was not as bad as it might have been, but it was bad enough.

So, could New Orleans have been better protected? It is a question worth asking, ideally without looking for partisan scapegoats, but that likely is too much to expect. The fact that the people left behind to fend for themselves as the storm approached were mostly poor and African-American is obvious, and probably should be discussed. But, first, let's simply ask the practical question. Could New Orleans have been better protected?

One problem we have here in America is a tendency to think we have the best of everything, so if we don't have an answer to a particular problem, it probably doesn't exist. We are slow to look at how people in other places have solved similar problems. We also tend to think our problems are unique and, therefore, those other solutions are irrelevant.

But the Netherlands has a lot to teach us about many things, including flood control. More than half of that country's land area is below sea level and sixty percent of its 16 million people live in those low-lying areas.

The Netherlands got serious about its own flood protection after a disaster more than 50 years ago. On January 31, 1953, a combination of heavy spring rains and strong storms over the North Sea caused floods that cost 1,795 lives. More than 300,000 people lost everything they owned.

The ancient dike system that had long protected the country from the sea collapsed. There were about 30 miles of burst dikes, damaged beyond repair, and another 86 miles worth of heavily damaged dikes.

To prevent such disasters in the future, something called the Delta Plan was initiated. Under this plan, the four great estuaries in the south-western Netherlands would be closed with dams. To close them without disrupting shipping or fishing, the Deltawerken, or Deltaworks, had to be a very complicated collection of locks, sluices, channels, bridges, slides and gates, all working together.

For example, the Eastern Scheldt basin was closed off by means of a storm surge barrier which is over 3,200 meters long, made up of piers between which steel gates are suspended. Under normal conditions the gates remain open and permit the sea to flow in and out of the Eastern Scheldt. In stormy weather they are lowered to protect the estuary from high water levels. This method was chosen to conserve the shellfish in the Eastern Scheldt, which depend on tidal movement to survive.

One of the latest improvements is a storm surge barrier near Hoek van Holland, built in 1997. It consists of two enormous doors mounted on swing arms that can close the estuary if storms and high water threaten.

Implementing similar safeguards along the Gulf Coast would have been enormously expensive, but almost certainly less than the cost of recovering from Katrina. Unfortunately, the Dutch example also shows that it takes a major disaster to make approval of such expensive public works politically feasible. Let's hope Katrina does at least have that effect.

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August 30, 2005

What most people know about the Holy Roman Empire is limited to the Mike Myers "Saturday Night Live" joke. "The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Discuss."

The best part of the joke is that it is historically accurate. The Holy Roman Empire was always more political than religious, it was German not Roman, and only when the Hapsburgs superimposed it onto their own did it become an actual empire. Before that it was, at best, a loose confederation of independent German principalities.

Although no one is talking about it, a case can be made that this more than one-thousand year old dream of the German people finally has been realized.

A superb survey of German history is Kurt Reinhardt's Germany: 2000 Years. At 769 pages, it's a bruiser, and it ends in 1934, with Hitler's rise but before World War II. Like most Americans, I was taught an Anglo-centric view of European history. Reinhardt's view from mid-continent is very different.

As he tells it, Charlemagne (Charles the Great) established the Carolingian Empire with the conquest of Lombardy in 774. His mission as king of the Franks, a Germanic tribe, was to unite all of the Western nations "under the dome of a Christian-Germanic civilization." Reinhardt continues, "For although Charles received the imperial crown from the Pope, the Church in Germany retained many of its Frankish-national features, and Charles was ambitious enough to include the papacy in his far-reaching schemes."

Charlemagne's empire did not last long, but as Reinhardt explains, "The Carolingian ideal of a universal Christian empire under the leadership of emperor and pope survived." It was reasserted under the Saxon dynasty of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Writes Reinhardt: "The Saxon emperors were destined to symbolize the vital cultural and social energies and ambitions of an ecclesiastically colored civilization, to resurrect the Roman Empire of the Frankish Nation in the more imposing structure of the 'Roman Empire of the German Nation.'"

In 962, the Saxon king Otto the Great was invited by Pope John XII to invade Italy and "restore law and order." He married Adelaide, heiress to the crown of Lombardy, and pronounced himself king of Italy. The Pope then gave him the imperial crown, thereby creating the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," although that term would not come into common usage until the fifteenth century. Under Otto's grandson, Otto III, Rome became the capital of the Empire.

According to Reinhardt, this mission to restore the Roman Empire under Christianity and German leadership has permeated German political and cultural thought up to the present day. In Reinhardt's case, 'present day' was 70 years ago, but is there any reason to believe it has changed?

Running through this story, of course, is the fact that every German leader from Charles to Otto to Hitler has fallen short of completing this holy mission until, perhaps, now. In 2005, Europe under German and French (i.e., Frankish) leadership continues its march to closer political union (despite recent setbacks with the Constitution), and the first German pope, Benedict XVI, has ascended to the papacy. Although no one is calling it that, it appears that the long German dream of "The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" finally has been achieved.

No joke.

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August 25, 2005

I just returned from a short trip to Louisville and tried a restaurant there that was previously unknown to me called Club Grotto. It was started about 13 years ago by a young chef who died a few years later. His parents took over management and hired one of their son's assistants as chef. The new chef (whose name happens to be New) has gradually retired some of the original dishes and added his own.

My companion had the house salad, which includes mango, artichoke, chick peas and roasted red peppers. I had the Caesar, which was good except the romaine was a little bitter. One nice touch was the single anchovy filet on top.

My entrée was one of the specials, a 12 oz. grilled veal chop with smashed potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, grilled haricot verte and grilled tomato slices. The chop was cooked perfectly and enjoyed thoroughly. Everything was very flavorful, although to my taste the vegetables were slightly over-seasoned.

My dining companion had a regular menu item, the Teriyaki-glazed salmon with sautéed red onions and sugared pecans on a bed of creamy grits. The highlight here was the grits. "Creamed" rather than "creamy" might have been a better description. They were virtually the same consistency as my potatoes and used the same way, as a base for the fish and sop for the sauce.

The presentation is formal without being too fussy. Service was very good except that the fine art of providing thorough and attentive service inconspicuously has not been fully realized.

We had a surprisingly excellent Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that was also a good value. The winery is Elk Cove and we found it at Liquor Barn the next day for $19.99.

Overall, great place and a great experience. Highly recommended if you are down that way.

I'm also happy to report that Cunningham's, burned out of its original location after 131 years, has settled into new digs with few changes to either the menu or atmosphere. The fried fish sandwich is the main attraction. Also turtle soup.

Club Grotto
2116 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY

Cunningham's Restaurant
630 S 4th St
Louisville, KY

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August 12, 2005

Last night I saw "The Pain and the Itch" on the main stage at Steppenwolf. It is one of the best plays I have ever seen. First, it is quintessential theater. Maybe it could be transformed into a film, but it really works superbly on stage. Second, although it has something profound to say, it doesn't hit you over the head with a message. Instead the point crawls inside you, insidiously.

Playwright Bruce Norris knows his audience. His main characters--brothers Clay and Cash, their mother, Carol, and Clay's wife Kelly--are the Steppenwolf audience--urbane, affluent, well-educated, socially liberal--and, more generally, the audience for serious theater anywhere in the western world. Norris lures us in with some gentle laughing-at-ourselves, then clobbers us with our more serious lapses and offenses.

I have been a regular at Steppenwolf for about half of its 30 year history. I never have seen a production there that was not first rate. If I am ever disappointed it is with the material. There was nothing to disappoint me this time. The script is masterful on many levels; as social satire, as domestic drama, as metaphor and as laugh-out-loud entertainment.

Norris, director Anna Shapiro, and the cast take a lot of chances. The play has many opportunities to go careening out of control but it never does. One device that sounds too precious when you describe it but works perfectly is the flashback structure, in which the character of Mr. Hadid (James Vincent Meredith) remains on stage throughout. Even though he, as an African immigrant cab driver, is the character with whom the audience has the least in common, we are asked--ultimately forced--by his constant presence to see the action through his eyes.

Another chance Norris takes is piling on information, most of which remains out of context until the play's final minutes. As an internet reviewer, John Olson, puts it, "Each bit of information we've been given has a significance greater than we thought, and the understanding of it all hits like a ton of bricks."

The play runs through August 28 at Steppenwolf but there should be many more productions of it. It's that good. See it when you can.

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July 25, 2005

On June 3 I wrote here about my visit the previous night to one of my favorite restaurants here in Chicago; Genesee Depot. I've been a regular there for about sixteen years. Little did I know that visit would be my last.

Everything that night was normal, nothing seemed amiss. Then about a month later I went back and--surprise--it was gone. Not just closed but cleaned out, with a sheriff's eviction notice on the door.

I came to learn that the owner/chef, who had been in that location for about 25 years, decided last fall that he wanted to do something else with his life. He tried to sell the business but was unsuccessful because he didn't have a liquor license (it was popular among BYOB fans) or a lease. He stopped paying his rent, hoping to settle up after he sold the business, hence the eviction.

Since the closing I have heard from other Genesee Depot fans, so I started a Genesee Depot Guest Book where you can post your memories or other comments about this wonderful little neighborhood restaurant.

(Note that I have no official relationship with the restaurant and am not in contact with the former owner. I'm simply a patron saddened by the loss of a favorite place to eat.)

Click here to read the Genesee Depot guestbook.

Click here to write something in the Genesee Depot guestbook.

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July 6, 2005

I have the following quote framed and hanging on my wall. I look at it often.

"We are not an assimilative, homogeneous society, but a facilitative, pluralistic one, in which we must be willing to abide someone else's unfamiliar or even repellent practice because the same tolerant impulse protects our own idiosyncrasies. In a community such as ours, 'liberty' must include the freedom not to conform."

Those words were written by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William J. Brennan. They are from his dissent in Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 U.S. 110 (1989).

President Bush has taken to justifying every action of his administration in the name of "liberty" and "freedom," yet he uses both terms abstractly, as if they are streets on a Monopoly board. If liberty is not as Justice Brennan described it, then what is it?

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June 28, 2005

What is so important about the internet?

Most major news media now have some kind of "blog watch," a segment that reports what stories are "hot" on the internet, by which they mean among the bloggers. It occurred to me just now, as I heard CCN promo theirs, that blogs are still largely derivative and reporting on them is a form of navel gazing. People who only know about blogs from CNN may be getting a very distorted impression.

That was followed by the thought that we always probably care too much about the medium. Contrary to what Marshall McLuhan wrote, are the medium and the message really inseparable? Maybe they are in some ways but not in others. In the case of television, one can on television observe events directly (or, at least, that is the illusion) rather than having them described to you. In that sense television is fundamentally different from newspapers and radio. Is the internet that different from everything that came before it?

In one sense, no. It is more like a culmination. Written matter on the internet, like most blogs, is still writing. You read it just like you read a newspaper. Maybe not exactly the same, but reading is reading regardless of what you are reading. Likewise, video on the web isn't fundamentally different from video on television, at least not in terms of how you consume and process it, and how it "works" on you as a form of communication.

What is different about the internet is its leveling effect and its immediacy. So far, at least, the internet is a nearly level playing field, in terms of access for content producers. You need certain skills and knowledge, but not much in the way of technological or financial resources. Couple this with its immediacy and, at least in theory, the internet makes it possible for almost anyone to make a message available to almost everyone almost instantly. That is what is unique about it. That says nothing one way or the other about the quality, veracity or significance of the content.

Perhaps we need to talk in terms of content media and delivery media, with writing and video being forms of content media (as are painting, photography, sculpture, theater, music, etc.) and television, newspapers and the internet being forms of delivery media. What I am calling "content media" has also been called "forms of expression." The internet, per se, is not a form of expression.

While it is true that the internet combines forms of expression, so do other media. Most printed media combines words and pictures. Music often includes words. Film, theater and television combine words, music and pictures with the ability to observe events directly. The internet simply combines all of these into one package.

In the future I suspect we may become fixated on screen size. Media created specifically for the tiny screens of cell phones will differ from media created for 73-inch home theaters, and those differences may tell us something about being stationary versus mobile, in a public versus private space, using the medium for periods of time measured in seconds versus hours.

So what is a "blog watch" segment on CNN or somewhere else? Someone reads some blogs and writes their own blog entry about what they found and read, but instead of being posted to a blog it is read on CNN.

In what way is a daily newspaper column different from a blog? Most newspaper columns follow certain conventions (more-or-less uniform length, essay-style, professionally polished, single subjects, one entry per day) that most blogs do not, but they could. I, for example, never make more than one entry per day, prefer to polish my writing before I publish it, and tend toward most of those other conventions as well. Deviations like flexible length are not so much a function of the medium as of the fact that most bloggers are, shall we say, self-employed, whereas most newspaper columnists have bosses.

What I am saying is this: the blog is not the message, the message is the message.

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June 24, 2005

I have written before in this space and elsewhere about the threatened destruction of two historic (and adjacent) Kentucky distilleries, Old Taylor and Old Crow. I am happy to see that the story has been picked up by Preservation Online, the Online Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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June 20, 2005

Top 20 Distilled Spirits Brands in Iowa
according to the Iowa Department of Alcoholic Beverages

  1. Black Velvet Canadian Whisky
  2. Hawkeye Vodka
  3. Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum
  4. Bacardi Light Dry Rum
  5. Five O'Clock Vodka
  6. Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whisky (black label)
  7. Barton Vodka
  8. McCormick Vodka
  9. Jagermeister
  10. Seagrams 7 Crown American Blended Whiskey
  11. Smirnoff Vodka
  12. Paramount White Rum
  13. Cuervo Especial Tequila
  14. Jim Beam Bourbon
  15. Canadian LTD Canadian Whisky
  16. Phillips Vodka
  17. Popov Vodka
  18. Cuervo Lime Margarita
  19. Kessler American Blended Whiskey
  20. Seagram's Crown Royal Canadian Whisky

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June 8, 2005

"Lactivists" took to the streets today after Barbara Walters said on her TV show that it made her "uncomfortable" to see a woman breastfeeding her baby on an airplane. Just as when women burned their bras in the 60s as a symbol of feminism, to many it is just a story about naked breasts. Whether or not that is something of which you approve, you have to agree it always makes headlines.

Given a choice, I would just as soon not see women nursing their babies in public, but there are a lot of things I would just as soon not see in public. I don't really care to see people changing their babies in public either. Teenagers making out or otherwise canoodling in public is on my things-I-could-do-without-seeing list. Also most Cadillacs, especially the Escalade SUV, and most suburban American architecture. Also anything involving dead bodies, human or otherwise, excepting small sections of cows that have been cooked medium rare. I also hope the authorities will resist any trends in the direction of public urination or defecation. The subways smell bad enough as it is.

Although there is a small percentage of the human race whose naked breasts are a pleasure to see, I would gladly forgo that pleasure if I could be assured of never, ever having to see anyone of either sex shirtless again as long as I live. They should keep their pants on too. Okay, there it is, I don't want to see naked people or dead people or dead naked people, thank you very much, and I'm not setting foot in the Museum of Science and Industry again until they're all gone.

On the other hand and in defense of nursing mothers, feeding a baby is something that needs to be done when it needs to be done and there isn't always a clean, comfortable and safe place they can go to do it discretely. I would guess that most nursing mothers would prefer to be discrete, unless the people who make "Girls Gone Wild" are right and women everywhere just can't wait to expose themselves.

I also agree with nursing mothers who reject the public bathroom solution. Feeding babies (or anyone else) is fundamentally incompatible with the function of public bathrooms. Would you want to eat in a bathroom?

Society probably does need to make an accommodation of some kind for nursing mothers, but I hope there is a solution in between public restrooms and the seat next to me on the bus.

But when, as they did today, nursing mothers demand to be able to nurse their babies wherever they choose as a matter of right, because babies have to eat and breasts are for feeding them, a part of me rejects the "it takes a village" ethos at work. This villager isn't buying. You don't have any claim on me, on my time, or on my personal space because you have chosen to bear children. Survival of the species aside, having children is mostly a selfish, narcissistic act. If you having kids benefits me at all, it is in knowing that there will be someone willing to change my diapers for $7.50 an hour in a few years. Other than that, your kids--though occasionally entertaining--are mostly a nuisance to me, whether they have breasts attached to their mouths or not.

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June 7, 2005

I think I got a spider bite overnight. At least that’s what I usually blame when I wake up with a sore, red spot on an odd part of my body. This one is between the first two fingers on my left hand. The tip of my left finger is tender too, but that started yesterday.

Generally, I like spiders. They are clean and only eat other bugs, so they’re handy that way. If you are otherwise bug-free and there is nothing for them to eat, they'll leave.

I assume the bites are accidents. I've never had one bite me when I was awake. I only kill them if they do something that really pisses me off. I’ve never had a spider bite (or what I believe to be a spider bite) cause me a serious problem. Nor, sadly, have I ever had one give me super powers.

Another possibility with this thing on my hand is that it’s a sweat blister rather than a spider bite. I've had those before, but not recently. It’s uncomfortable but I wouldn’t call it painful.

Watch this space for breaking news about the tender red spot between the first two fingers on my left hand.

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June 3, 2005

One of my favorite Chicago restaurants is Genesee Depot. It has been described--accurately, I think--as "Eclectic American cuisine served in a casual country atmosphere." It is BYOB. It is my neighborhood "go to" place and neither I nor anyone I have taken there has ever been disappointed.

What I like about Genessee Depot is real attention to the food. Good recipes, good selection of ingredients, thoughtful combination of dishes to make a balanced meal, and incredible prices. I could characterize it as gourmet dining at diner prices. "Gourmet" may be too strong, but it is a cut above ordinary fare. As for the prices, a dinner with salad or soup, bread, entree, and two sides is $18 to $24.

There is nothing exotic about Genesee Deport. Last night I had what is probably the most exotic meal on the menu, Seafood Gruyere. It is shrimp, scallops and crab cooked with carrots and shitake mushrooms, served over rice and topped with a lightly browned Gruyere cheese sauce. My companion had salmon, an off-menu special. It was topped with champagne caper sauce and served with asparagus and angel hair pasta.

We both had house salads (included) of mixed greens with shredded red cabbage, tomato wedges and cucumber slices, topped with a white French dressing. The bread is a light brown bread that also appears to be made there. The soups and desserts, which vary, are also made there.

Another personal favorite of mine is the veal dumpling, which is a thin slice of veal wrapped around a ham-flavored bread stuffing, topped with a sweet sauce and served with spaetzle and red cabbage. There is another similar dish prepared with chicken instead of veal. There are several beef choices, including beef stroganoff.

Genesee Depot
3736 North Broadway

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May 20, 2005

Penang in Chicago's Chinatown bills itself as Malaysian which, like Malaysia itself, means there's some of everything. I took some friends there earlier this evening.

I keep going back for the Pasembur, an entree-size appetizer of shredded cucumber, jicama and bean sprouts with tofu, sliced hard boiled eggs and the "chef’s special seafood sauce." It looks like something they swept up off the floor but it is awesomely delicious. Best use of tofu ever.

I'm also partial to the Buddhist Yam Pot, a bowl of fried taro filled with shrimp, chicken and vegetables.

Tonight we also had the fried red snapper topped with black bean sauce. The fish was served whole and covered with a rich sauce that reminded me of molé. I liked the sauce better than the fish.

Service tonight was a little erratic and on the slow side, but usually it is good. The wait staff is typically excellent but the servers can be uneven, as they were tonight.

Because of the variety, Penang is a good choice when you aren't sure how far your companions are willing to go, or when you're jonesing for some Pasembur.

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May 17, 2005

Hecky Powell operates two small but popular barbeque restaurants in Evanston and Chicago. Like his father before him, he is a philanthropist and prominent community leader, a model citizen. In a recent email, Hecky announced that he is reviving a controversial former menu item at his restaurant: the Mutt Special, a sampler that includes chicken, rib tips and hot links.

Hecky raised some hackles two years ago when, as a member of the Evanston School Board, he asked why Evanston wanted to add "bi-racial" as a category on a school form. Commenting that he himself is of African, Louisiana Creole and American Indian heritage, he didn't see why the new category was needed. "I'm a mutt, we're all mutts," he said.

Believe it or not, from that comment, all hell broke loose, both within and outside of the school board. The term was described as "insensitive" and "offensive" to, of course, the children. There were calls for his resignation.

Hecky apologized, then introduced the Mutt Special at his restaurant, which stirred things up again, so he dropped it. Now, since he has completed his school board term, the Mutt Special is back.

If you want to read more about it, go to Hecky's web site. (Look for "articles" under "about.")

I'm not exactly sure why Hecky apologized, since he clearly didn't believe he had done anything wrong. He probably just wanted to quiet the controversy so the school board could be about its real business.

I'm with Hecky on this.

I have read the articles, which include statements made by people who claimed to be offended. I just don't buy it. Certainly there are offensive words out there, but a word becomes offensive primarily because it is intended to be offensive. No word is offensive in and of itself. It becomes offensive through its intentional use as a term of derision. I won't bother citing any of the common racial or ethnic slurs. You know what they are, and common sense tells you they were all popularized by people who intended them to be offensive, who deliberately used them to put and keep members of the despised racial or ethnic group "in their place."

Is mutt such a word? Not from my experience. The primary definition of "mutt" is "a mongrel dog," i.e., a mixed breed dog, usually of indeterminate stock. There is also an old slang use of the word, almost unknown today, of "idiot" or "dolt." Some dictionaries do describe mongrel dogs as "inferior," but as Hecky pointed out in his initial rebuttal, mutts in fact tend to make the best pets, socialize well, are less prone to genetic abnormalities, and usually live longer and are healthier than pure breeds.

How many times have you asked someone, "what kind of dog is that?" and received the answer, "just a mutt." Is it usually said with shame or affection?

All well and good. The main question, though, is whether or not the word "mutt" in common usage as applied to humans is a put-down. If your choices are "pure bred" and "mutt," how many of us would really make the argument that "pure bred" is superior and how many of us, given that choice, would consider ourselves to be "mutts"?

As a kid, if I asked my parents "what am I?" my mom would identify her side of the family as "German." My father would say that his mother was Irish but his father's side, according to grandpa, was "a little bit of everything, we're good American mutts." As it turns out they were mostly English, but I can tell you he said what he said with pride, not shame. I say it with pride, and so does Hecky.

As a writer, I care about words and their effect on people, but equally I believe we can't allow one person or a small group of people to declare certain words objectionable when they really aren't. In Orwell's 1984, the process by which newspeak was created was a gradual banning of words deemed to be objectionable for one reason or another until the acceptable vocabulary became so limited that thought itself was suppressed. This is why well-meaning but wrong-headed attempts to stigmatize words such as "mutt" have to be actively resisted.

I don't believe anyone was genuinely offended by Hecky's use of "mutt" in that gut-punch way truly offensive words make the targeted group feel. They developed an intellectual objection to it which, I think, went too far.

In fact, I think the people who have labeled "mutt" a term of derision are doing exactly what they are trying to avoid. If we mutts aren't allowed to call ourselves mutts, does that mean we should be ashamed of being mutts? What other meaning should we take?

So this proud mutt looks forward to enjoying a Mutt Special at Hecky's soon and I encourage all of my fellow mutts to do the same.

(Hecky's is at 1902 Green Bay Road in Evanston and 1234 N. Halsted Street in Chicago.)

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May 16, 2005

A couple of dining notes from my recent New York trip about two fairly new and high visibility--one might say touristy--places, and one neighborhood joint.

The first is Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, the "night club" venue at the new Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. I put "night club" in parens because it is more like a small theater with tables and a bar. Rather than a curtain or wall, the backdrop for the stage is a picture window overlooking Central Park. It seats about 150. The sound and sightlines are great.

The bar has a nice selection of bourbons and single malts, not exhaustive but good. Prices are New York high but with no additional premium. Same with the dinner menu. The fare is standard American, but nicely prepared and presented. I had a beef and veal meatloaf that was very moist and flavorful, topped with a brown sauce and both sauteed and fried onions, with mashed potatoes and julienne squash and zucchini on the side. My dining companions had a hamburger and a chopped salad (with shrimp) respectively. The verdict was that the food was better than it had to be.

With the cover charge, drinks, dinner and tip, we got out for about $80 per person. The performer was Marian McPartland with her trio. A very fine evening.

The second place of note is The Modern, the "fine dining" restaurant at the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art. The restaurant actually has two spaces, the dining room and the bar room, with completely different menus. We lunched in the bar room.

Although the resaturant advertises itself as French-American, there is a definite Asian influence too, in the decor as well as the dishes. The room, of course, is a paragon of modern design. I had the lunch special, a duck confit with a hot mustard glaze. It was served with a sweet sauce I would characterize as a chutney (I don't think they called it that) flavored with ginger, and fried potato wedges. The duck and its sauce were quite good, the potatoes pretty ordinary. One of my dining companions had a scallop dish. I don't recall what the other one had, but all seemed to have some Asian inspiration. A nice selection of wines by the glass is available. I had a local (Brooklyn) lager that was very good.

The Modern is on the ground floor and has its own entrance on 53rd Street, as it is open when the museum is not. It's still new and pretty booked up. We did not have reservations but as we were visiting the museum anyway, we were happy to be seated at about 3 PM, which is when a few empty seats finally started to appear.

Last, the people I was visiting are locals and when I visit them we usually eat in neighborhood places, just like we do here in Chicago, not the fancy famous places downtown. One that deserves a mention is their favorite neighborhood Italian joint, Pesce Pasta, on Columbus near 95th. As the name suggests, they feature fish but offer pretty much anything else you would expect at an Italian restaurant. I had striped bass with capers and leaks that was quite good. One of my dining companions had thin veal slices topped with equally thin slices of eggplant and just the right amount of cheese. The other had cannelloni stuffed with a superb pesto filling.

Although we didn't partake, the antipasti bar was very impressive.

These aren't the only places we ate but these three were noteworthy because each, in its own way, was significantly better than it needed to be, which is always a pleasant surprise.

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May 14, 2005

Summer means festivals in Chicago. My favorite is the Chicago Blues Festival. That link is to an article I wrote about the Blues Festival for a web-zine called The Cultured Traveler.

The biggest of Chicago's summer festivals is Taste of Chicago. Some of us call it Waste of Chicago. One thing I don’t like about it is that it is always so mobbed. The crowds are unbelievable. It’s also usually during the hottest part of the summer. The point of Taste is that dozens of Chicago restaurants have booths and offer a sampling of their fare. There is also live music and other entertainment. It's always around the 4th of July. Taste is great for people from out-of-town and from the suburbs, since they can sample food from a bunch of different city restaurants in a few hours, but if you live here you can easily just go to the restaurants, so for people who actually live in the city it’s not that appealing.

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May 12, 2005

I just returned from a short trip to New York City, hence my absence from this page. The trip was a little business, mostly pleasure, and even the business part was fun. It was a very good trip. The weather, among other things, was absolutely perfect.

One thing I was curious to see on this trip was the part of lower Manhattan depicted in the movie "Gangs of New York." I knew there was nothing left there from that era, but wondered if it was possible to even go to the actual location and get any sense of what it had been like. As it turned out, there was a walking tour being given that covered the area in question. It took several hours and was very interesting. Alfred Pommer, our tour guide, is a great character in his own right. His tour covered the "Five Points," which is the "Gangs" area, as well as the adjacent Little Italy and Chinatown neighborhoods. Its subtitle was "Irish and Italian Heritage on the Lower East Side."

I photographed this sign because I thought it was funny. It was along the way, above John Lovino's Gun Shop at 183 Grand Street. It is not really relevant to the rest of this story as we had no need for defensive sprays.

sign on a New York City gun shop.

In addition to seeing the movie, I also read the Herbert Asbury book that gave "Gangs" its title and some of its characters (though little of its story). The book mentions the "bend" in Mott Street that was a favorite location for ambushing rival gangsters. That bend is still clearly there, as is a parallel one on Mulberry Street.

The Five Points was so named because it was an intersection with five corners, i.e., two streets crossed and one street ended there. Today it is the intersection of Worth Street and Baxter Street. To the north and east is Chinatown, then Little Italy. To the south and west is a complex of huge government buildings: federal, state and municipal, including police headquarters and the courthouse you always see on "Law and Order." The courthouse built by Boss Tweed, who manipulated the residents of the Five Points for his own corrupt political purposes, is nearby on Chambers Street. The graft involved in building that courthouse was so extreme it led to Tweed's downfall.

There is still a park there, roughly on the site of Paradise Square. One thing that is still very evident is the reason for the neighborhood itself, the area was the site of a pond that had been inexpertly drained and filled. The steep hill down one-block Mosco Street between Mott and Mulberry, just past the original St. Thomas Church, makes that apparent. The neighborhood was originally middle class but its buildings deteriorated quickly due to the poor landfill and the area stank due to poor drainage, so it became inhabited by the poorest New Yorkers, mostly recent Irish immigrants and free blacks.

"Paradise Square" was a name given by the original developers, in about 1812, to a small commons and its surrounding neighborhood, in order to entice middle class home buyers into the area. When the neighborhood deteriorated it became suitably ironic.

One interesting point Mr. Pommer made was that the "Gangs" book was based on newspaper accounts of gang activities, some of which were largely fictional, ala Jayson Blair. Some reporters were afraid to go into the Five Points area, others found it foul and unpleasant, while others were just lazy. Instead of going in and talking to participants or witnesses, they interviewed "sources" at a safe distance, or simply made things up. As a consequence the newspapers, book and ultimately the Scorsese movie all talk about a gang called the Dead Rabbits that Pommer claims never existed. Instead, he says, "dead rabbit" was slang for any kind of low-life individual.

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May 3, 2005

I went down to Maxwell Street last week. The reconstruction is almost complete. Two of the buildings to be rehabilitated haven't been started yet (which makes me nervous) but the ones that are finished look good and so do the remounted facades and brick pavers on Maxwell itself between Halsted and Union.

Seeing it this way is bittersweet, but I guess that's better than just plain bitter.

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May 2, 2005

I have been watching the bidding for Allied Domecq with a lot of interest. The alliance of Pernod Ricard and Fortune Brands looked like the natural suitor, and still seems to have the best chance. Other, less suitable companies have been sniffing around the deal too.

Now comes the big dog, Diageo. Since Diageo is far and away the largest drinks company in the world already, regulators will not let it devour Allied whole. Its objective seems to be to make trouble for everyone else, by running the price up, with the ultimate goal of picking off a few gems for itself.

At the top of Diageo's list are Maker's Mark bourbon and Courvoisier cognac. Both are minor enough to avoid regulatory resistance, highly profitable, and Maker's is fast-growing. Diageo may now feel it made a tactical error five years ago when it sold all but two of its many American whiskey brands, George Dickel and I. W. Harper. It partially rectified that mistake when with its then-partner Pernod it acquired the Seagram's drinks portfolio and retained for itself Bulleit bourbon, a small brand but one with attributes that make it a possible player in the market segment that Maker's Mark rules.

But now Diageo has a chance to get the real deal and, if it does, look for corporate support of Bulleit to quickly wither.

Maker's Mark was an independent, family-owned company until 1981 and the founder's son, Bill Samuels Jr., is still the brand's front man. If Pernod and Fortune succeed, Maker's will go to Fortune's Jim Beam division, which already has a chubby portfolio of American whiskies, including Knob Creek, a direct Maker's Mark competitor. Largely left alone by UK scotch company Allied, Samuels would undoubtedly prefer UK scotch company Diageo as his new sugar daddy, instead of USA bourbon company Jim Beam.

None of this is a done deal, of course, so stay tuned.

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May 1, 2005

I was reading today about the growing power and influence of China and that being America's greatest foreign policy challenge of the 21st century. It occurs to me that it took we humans until the middle of the 20th century, and under the threat of nuclear annihilation, to learn that two countries can be enemies without necessarily shooting at each other all the time. Perhaps in the 21st century, we can learn that two countries can be rivals without necessarily being enemies.

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April 27, 2005

Careful readers of this page will notice I am not entirely consistent in my political views. Without overanalyzing it, let's just say I try to keep an open mind about complex and dynamic issues.

In the past, I have offered the opinion here that perhaps 20 percent of Americans occupy the extreme right fringe while an approximately equal number are similarly extreme on the left, leaving the large majority in the middle politically centrist.

But maybe I'm wrong.

A contrary argument begins with the observation that advances in communication technology have made it possible for audiences to hear exactly the messages they want from any messengers they like. This suggests that the role of "elites" of any political stripe in controlling messages has been diminished and political discourse is now almost perfectly democratic. The most read, viewed or listened-to commentators are the ones who are saying what most Americans believe and want to hear. These commentators are not so much influential opinion-makers as they are paid spokespeople for sufficiently large, affluent and coherent constituencies.

In other words, commentators such as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, James Dobson and, for that matter, Al Franken, John Stewart and Michael Moore are not so much leading their audiences in a particular direction as they are being led by them. All of the people I mentioned are essentially popular entertainers whose incomes are directly proportionate to the size and enthusiasm of their audiences. To remain at the pinnacles they have achieved, these commentators must continue to say what their audiences want to hear. While this always has been true to some extent, the dynamic nature of today's communications marketplace makes it possible for a suddenly unpopular voice to disappear overnight and a newly resonant one to appear just as quickly.

The conclusion this leads one to is that the body politic is, in fact, highly polarized and the dominant ideology right now is conservative extremism. I am not completely sure this is true, nor if it is do I think it will necessarily last, but if I am even partially correct those of us whose views lean in the other direction may be in for a very bumpy ride.

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April 26, 2005

I am 53 and have been using reading glasses for about 12 years. I never have gotten used to them, not entirely. I frequently forget to take a pair to restaurants and have to ask my dining companion to help me order. Since I keep a pair in my briefcase, business situations are pretty well covered. I also keep a pair in the car for reading maps and such. Part of my problem is that I don't otherwise need classes. I know many myopes hate getting bifocals at around age 40, but at least they are used to wearing glasses.

Just about everybody needs reading glasses around age 40. It is called presbyopia and is believed to result from a hardening of the eye's lens over time. The first symptom is the need to hold reading material further and further away. "There's nothing wrong with my eyes, my arms are just too short," is one of the many jokes we presbyopes tell on ourselves.

Not surprisingly, since all of the baby boom generation is now past 40, someone has tried to combine our need for vision magnification with our compulsion to remain youthfully fashionable. The product is called CliC Readers. The gimmick seems to be a headband that keeps the glasses in place while you are reading. To remove them, you separate the lenses at the bridge, where they are held together by magnets. In addition, CliC Readers come in cool colors and sleek designs.

I have not tried this product but I have been looking at the website, trying to figure out why I should. I have developed some preferences in terms of reading glasses in the past decade but I don't really see how CliC's features will improve my reading glasses experience or solve my remaining problems. They say it is convenient to be able to disconnect the glasses at the bridge and let them dangle from your neck until you need them again. They say this is superior to using a cord of some sort on conventional reading glasses (which they characterize pejoratively as a "granny chain"), but I don't see why. The real advantage seems merely to be that they are different, so baby boomers can regard them as cool and, most importantly, as not something our parents would have used.

"Still not our parents" seems to be the mantra of my generation in its late middle age.

Baby boomers, I'm afraid, are not going to grow old gracefully. (Have you seen Meg Ryan or Farrah Fawcett recently?)

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April 23, 2005

My ex-father-in-law was a professional musician in his youth, in the 1940s. He played clarinet in various outfits in and around Columbus, Ohio. His big break came with an offer to tour in Lawrence Welk's orchestra. It was either that or start a family. He chose the latter, a decision for which his three daughters, I'm sure, are grateful, despite the incalculable loss to music.

He always threatened to write an autobiographical account of his playing days. He had a great title for it, Music in Upholstered Sewers.

Regardless of type, the best live music usually can be found in the diveiest places. The legendary Chicago blues bar Theresa's was, I'm told, a tiny basement space with a low ceiling and few amenities. Rosa's, my favorite present day Chicago blues bar, was modeled on Theresa's, though by all accounts it is a tad nicer.

People may be surprised that the best blues bar in the best blues city in America is so unprepossessing, but that is how a blues bar should be. A few strings of Christmas lights, a large and easily accessible bar, bare wood floors, good sightlines, a good sound system, cold beer and cheap whiskey. What else do you need? Rosa's actually is nicely decorated, mostly with photographs of family and friends. By "family" I mean Rosa, her son, Tony, and the blues musicians who have graced its stage over the past 21 years.

The full name of Rosa's is "Rosa's Blues Lounge." Other places call themselves clubs or night clubs, but the blues belongs in a bar, a joint, a divey dump. There used to be a place on Belmont called B.L.U.E.S. Etc. It always was a little too big, so much so that they partitioned it off on weeknights. A few years ago it closed, then reopened with four or five new pool tables, shiny brass railings, polished wood paneling, and gilded mirrors on the walls. Mirrors! What were they thinking? No one in a blues bar wants to risk seeing his own face reflected back at him in a mirror.

The place closed permanently a few months later.

Rosa's isn't fancy but the cover and drinks are cheap, the music is always first rate, and even the smallest audiences are astute and appreciative. The thing that gets me is this. With that combination, why are there ever small audiences? My feelings about that are mixed, of course, I wouldn't mind it if more people came, as long as I can always get a seat.

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April 20, 2005

I used to sing. I wasn't very good. As a teenager, I expressed myself in just about every way I could. My paintings weren't very good either. I played the guitar and sang popular songs of the day. Tonight I heard one of them: "America," by Simon and Garfunkel. I noticed the line "Kathy, I'm lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping. I'm empty and aching and I don't know why." Looking back on it now, I'm pretty sure I wasn't really empty or aching, but I know I wanted to be.

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April 19, 2005

All of this pope stuff recently has made me realize how not-Catholic I have become. It wasn't always this way. I was baptized at St. Peter's, not the one in Rome but the one in Mansfield, Ohio. It is a beautiful, old church, built in 1911 by immigrant craftsmen.

St. Peter's Catholic Church, Mansfield, Ohio

My primary and secondary education was gotten at the parish school. In grade school we went to mass daily and some of that was pre-Vatican II, so I remember very well the prayers all in Latin and the priest facing the altar, not the congregation. I remember fasting before communion. It must have made life a little easier on our mothers. They didn't have to feed us breakfast before school in the morning. After mass we went down to the church basement (truly just a basement, but it functioned as the church's social hall) for a breakfast of graham cracker and peanut butter sandwiches, with milk when the weather was warm and hot chocolate when it was cold.

When I was old enough I sang in the choir and became an altar boy. My choir career was short-lived, in part for misbehavior and in part for poor singing. My altar boy career was more auspicious, even though it had a shaky start. I had trouble learning a certain prayer (they were all in Latin, remember) so I paid the older boy who was supposed to teach me a nickel to pass me anyway. There were usually several of us officiating and when you didn't know a particular prayer, or part of it, you mumbled. On this particular prayer I could start and finish strong, but mumbled the middle. I only got caught once.

Other than the kids in my neighborhood and the pool where we swam in the summer, our entire social life was at the church and school. My boy scout troop was sponsored by the parish. Our school dances were held in the church basement.

I can't say I was ever particularly devout but Catholicism was all I knew. As I got older, I got a kick out of some of the more magical ceremonies, especially the services around Easter. I dug the incense and the elaborate vestments. By comparison, Protestant denominations seemed a bit too austere.

Ironically, considering John Paul II and the book on his successor, I grew up in a politically conservative household and got most of my liberal ideas from the Church. The liberalizing Second Vatican Council began in 1962 (when I was 11) and closed in 1965 (when I was 14), so I remember very well what the Church was like before, during and after that event. Many say John Paul II's reign was a repudiation of Vatican II, returning the Church to a more conservative and traditional stance on many issues, social and theological.

For me, personally, I'm not sure any of it really mattered. I stopped going to mass as soon as I could after high school graduation. I never had a crisis of faith, I never have been hostile to the Church. I just lost interest. I did then and still do go to weddings and funerals without hesitation, although I don't take communion. It just doesn't mean anything to me and today I'm not sure it ever did. As a joke, I used to say I was a recovering Catholic, but if there was any recovering to do, it's done. Now I say I'm a secular Catholic. It's still my cultural touchstone, I feel I understand it even if I don't believe in it. I remember my Catholic childhood fondly. If I bear any scars they have long since healed.

When I sat down to write this I thought it might be a couple of sentences, about how I grew up Catholic but now have no interest in the Church and its new leader. As you can tell by the above, my Catholic heritage is a big part of who I am, which doesn't change the fact that I have had almost no interest in the news of the last few weeks, except for the nostalgia it elicited.

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April 18, 2005

In his excellent seminar at WhiskeyFest Chicago this past Wednesday, Dave Pickerell of Maker's Mark brought forth the term "modern bourbons," which he defined as every new bourbon brand introduced since Maker's Mark was launched in 1958. Although the term is somewhat self-serving, I find it useful and may adopt it. I have been using terms such as "super-premium," "luxury" and "small batch" to describe the same thing, but "super-premium" and "luxury" are problematic because some of brands aren't particularly pricey, and "small batch" has the problem of being a Jim Beam creation, being very vaguely defined, and like "super-premium" it doesn't really describe some brands, such as Maker's and even one of the original small batchers, Knob Creek. I also have used the term "new bourbons," but I included Maker's in that set and it is nearly 50 years old. Blanton's and the Beam small batchers are nearly 20 years old. So "modern" seems better than "new."

The significance of giving the segment a name is that for the last nearly two decades, the "modern bourbons" segment has been growing at a double-digit clip (admittedly from a very small base) while the "traditional bourbons" segment has been flat or shrinking, leaving the overall American whiskey category flat or shrinking. Now, however, the "modern bourbons" segment has grown to the point where it is lifting the category and for the last couple of years, American whiskey has been up slightly but consistently.

Here are the eight "new bourbons" I described in an article as "the new face of American whiskey." I don't mean this list to be complete, but I think it represents the segment's leaders. Not coincidentally, each comes from a different company, noted in parens.

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April 17, 2005

Pappy Van Winkle, among others, made the distinction between "practical" distillers and "scientific" distillers. The distinction primarily has to do with yeast.

Practical distillers use, essentially, wild yeast. They create a medium of grains, water, hops, sulfur and other ingredients of personal preference, set it outside or--in the case of Jim Beam, out on the screened back porch of his house in Bardstown--and wait for nature to do its thing. Once a yeast has been captured in this way and begins to propagate, the yeast maker watches it, smells it and otherwise monitors it to determine if it will be good for making whiskey. If he thinks it will be, he continues to propagate it, then takes it to the distillery and tries it out.

Conversely, if he doesn't like the results, he pitches it and tries again.

A scientific distiller uses a pure strain yeast produced by a yeast company and propagates it in such a way as to avoid "infection" by wild yeast or other microorganisms.

The bridge between the two, of course, is that a yeast created originally by a practical distiller and proven to be good for whiskey making can be scientifically reproduced as a pure strain. I don't know which distilleries have done this but I am sure some of them have. Seagrams, for example, was proud of having created something like 5,000 different strains of yeast. These are called proprietary yeasts and are, I presume, patented or legally protected in some other way.

A wild yeast propagated in the traditional way is not equivalent to a pure strain because it mutates naturally and can express some variations. At some level this is acceptable but managing it is where the skills of the yeast maker come into play. The practical distiller takes steps of a traditional nature to prevent infection and excessive mutation. The most common and most effective of these, which is used by practical and scientific distillers alike, is the sour mash process.

A pure strain yeast is easier to manage and the skills are scientific, whereas the practical distiller uses legerdemain and lore passed from father to son. It is questionable how many people still living have this particular skill. I have asked some veteran distillers if they think they could produce a good whiskey yeast from scratch and the best I have gotten is "maybe."

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April 16, 2005

When I started researching the American whiskey industry in 1991, I also started to look for a Chicago bar with a good bourbon selection. Somebody told me about "Bucket of Suds," at Cicero and Barry. The owner was a one-of-a-kind guy named Joe Danno.

In those days, maybe always, Joe's joint was only open Wednesday through Saturday, after seven o'clock. There was a sign but no lights and the door was locked. If you knocked and, I guess, looked alright, somebody would let you in. Almost like a speakeasy.

There was nothing fancy about the Bucket, but Joe knew his American whiskey. If you ordered whiskey, he didn't ask how you wanted it. What you got was a free pour in a jumbo shot glass. You got water back only if you asked. Joe's favorite pour then was Very Very Old Fitzgerald, a 12-year-old wheated bourbon from the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville. Joe said he bought all he could before the Japanese cornered the market.

Joe's back bar featured bourbons that were even then long dead, like Belle of Nelson and James E. Pepper. I finished off some Henry McKenna that was badly oxidized. After that, I merely admired the almost-empty bottles but stuck to the VVOF. I remember Joe's sister, Fina, bringing around a tray of deviled eggs one night. No charge. The kitchen (i.e., Fina) had been slow and this was her way of making amends. The Bucket was a unique experience.

Mike Miller at Delilah's told me this story about Joe. It seems that Joe had cornered the market on some defunct bourbon highly prized by country and western musicians. He had the only supply and it was finite, so as it dwindled he kept raising the price, until it reached $100 a bottle. Even at that price these guys (the rich ones, anyway) still bought it.

Joe also created more than 80 proprietary liqueurs. Two of his grandsons have formed a company called BOS Distilling to market his creations.

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April 15, 2005

Most shorthand descriptions of how whiskey is made explain fermentation, distillation and aging. Before any of these steps can occur, there is mashing. Mashing is the preparation of grain for fermenting. Since yeast can't do anything with starch, the purpose of mashing is to convert grain starch into sugar so the yeast can ferment it into alcohol.

Grain (corn, rye, wheat, malted barley) arrives at the distillery clean and dry, free of all husks, stems and foreign matter. The distillery grinds the grain into a meal, cooks it with water to liquefy the starch, then the enzyme produced by malting converts the starch into sugar. Sometimes additional enzymes are added.

Mashing at Herbst Distilling, Kentucky

Today this is all done in a big pot with a motorized stirring paddle and heating coils, but as recently as 1905, when this picture was taken (at Herbst Distilling in Kentucky), it was a hand process. Separately, water was boiled and the boiling water was poured into the mash tub until it was about half full. Then one man would gradually add grain meal while the other three stirred. Without constant stirring, the mixture would congeal. In the background of the picture you can see one of the stirring tools, a pole with half a dozen or so dowels perpendicular to it on each side.

Corn was added first. Then, as the mixture cooled, rye or wheat was added, and finally malt. Additional water would be added as necessary. I am not sure how they determined when it was ready. Possibly by taste or smell, or by how it looked. Just as likely it was "done" when the men were too exhausted to stir it any more. You will notice that the mash tub is on a wheeled cart, for ease in transporting it to the fermenters.

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April 13, 2005

Fans of American whiskey and friends of America's whiskey heritage need to be aware that two historic distilleries in Woodford County, Kentucky, are facing destruction. They are the Old Crow Distillery and the adjacent Old Taylor Distillery, both on Glenns Creek Road.

Old Taylor 'castle'

Amy Bennett, a graduate student in Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky, brought this to my attention. Amy is researching the Old Taylor Distillery for her Master's Thesis.

During her interviews and research, Amy learned that an Alabama company interested in demolishing both sites for salvage is in the process of acquiring them. Old Crow is currently owned by James Beam Brands Company. Old Taylor is owned by local, private individuals who originally hoped to reopen it as a distillery. Both properties are in a severe state of disrepair from years of neglect. Neither property currently has any protection from private development.

Sources at Jim Beam have told us that the sale of Crow is nearly complete and demolition will begin before the end of the year. Beam has been cooperative with efforts to document the site as much as possible before it is destroyed.

Old Crow was one of the first nationally-known whiskey brands and one of the first nationally-marketed brand name products of any kind. It originated in the 1840s with Dr. James C. Crow at the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, on the current site of the Woodford Reserve Distillery. The facility that is currently threatened dates from 1878. The Old Taylor Distillery, adjacent to Old Crow, was built by E. H. Taylor, Jr., in about 1887. Most of the current structures there date from the first decade of the 20th century. Taylor was a prominent leader in the Kentucky whiskey industry. He was also the longtime mayor of Frankfort, and a state representative and senator. He built Old Taylor to be a showplace and most of the pergolas, reflecting pools, stone bridges, gazebos and the castle-like main building with which he adorned the property are still intact.

The whiskey industry is a unique part of Kentucky's history but little of the industry's historic fabric remains. In addition to that significance, both sites could provide insights generally into 19th century industrial architecture, technology and practices.

Historic preservation frequently is a quixotic quest. I have a personal soft spot for 19th century industrial architecture, but it is an affection not widely shared. Even if efforts to save either or both plants are unsuccessful, there is value in making people aware of these types of situations, so that maybe a consensus will develop for preserving more, rather than fewer, physical embodiments of historical memory. (Old Taylor photo courtesy of Linn Spencer.)

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April 12, 2005

Recently, there have been a number of news stories about pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraceptives, ordinary birth control pills and morning-after pills, on the grounds that such products are against their religious beliefs. I wonder if a Christian Scientist could become a pharmacist and then refuse to dispense anything?

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April 11, 2005

During National Prohibition in the USA (1921-1933), the only way you could buy alcohol legally was from a drug store, with a doctor's prescription. This was tightly controlled by the U.S. Treasury Department, which was in charge of all Prohibition enforcement. The prescriptions looked like this:

Medicinal Whiskey Prescription

The so-called "medicinal whiskey" you could get with this prescription was regular whiskey. The familiar pre-Prohibition brand names were still sold in this way. Medicinal whiskey was sold exclusively in one-pint bottles, further enclosed in cardboard boxes.

For more about the history of the American whiskey industry, see my book, BOURBON, STRAIGHT: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey.

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April 8, 2005

I am increasingly bothered by conservative attacks on the judiciary and I have wondered about the true motives for these attacks. I also wonder why vicious attacks on courts seem to resonate so effectively with conservative audiences. It is one thing to attack specific decisions with which one disagrees, such as Roe v. Wade, the recent Roper v. Simmons decision prohibiting execution of minors, or any of the many church/state decisions religious conservatives hate so much. Recently, though, the attacks have been on courts in general, that they are undemocratic, elitist and much too powerful. Phrases such as, "the tyranny of the unelected judicial elite," have become increasing popular.

As religious and social conservatives attack courts from that direction, business Republicans clamor for "tort reform." Is the Right trying to destroy, or fundamentally alter, the judicial system? If so, why?

I worry about this because I fear these general attacks undermine respect for courts across the board, including criminal courts (which are accused of coddling criminals) and courts that settle civil disputes (which are accused of hobbling businesses with frivolous class action suits). In other words, the entire system of courts, that serve all sorts of indispensable functions in a democratic society, is being attacked and undermined. As we keep telling countries such as Iraq, Iran, Russia and China, an uncorrupt, independent judiciary is an essential arbiter of the rule of law, and thus an essential institution for a stable democratic society. Yet otherwise patriotic Americans have been swatting at our courts like they're a piñata. Why?

And what will happen if a large percentage of the population decides that the entire judicial system is illegitimate?

Blogger Nathan Newman makes the argument that "courts uniquely alienate social conservatives." He believes social conservatives consider courts anti-democratic, which, according to Newman, "frustrates them and leaves them feeling powerless, a recipe for encouraging conspiracy theories and populist agitation." It also riles them that courts not only rule against them on morality issues but tell them, "their religious motives are illegitimate." Unconstitutional, in fact, and you know how much conservatives love that Constitution.

One of the original tenets of Protestantism, in its separation from Catholicism, was the principle of individual or personal interpretation of scripture. That may be fine for a religion (Catholics still disagree), but for a society based on laws commonly and fairly interpreted it is a disaster. Yet many conservatives seem to believe that if individual interpretation is good enough for the Bible it is good enough for the Constitution. Contrary to an unbroken line of cases going back to Marbury v. Madison (1803), many conservatives question the Supreme Court's authority as the final word on Constitutional interpretation. Attacking such a fundamental legal principle strikes me as fundamentally anti-American, but there it is.

Combating "the tyranny of the unelected judicial elite" is a favorite cause of James Dobson, who has succeeded Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as the primary spokesman for the religious Right. Dobson's ministry is called "Focus on the Family." He publishes books and magazines, his weekly newspaper column is carried by more than 500 newspapers, and his radio show has about seven million listeners. He describes the judicial tyranny threat this way: "The liberal elite and the judges at the highest level and some members of the media are determined to remove every evidence of faith in God from this entire culture. They are determined to control more and more of our private lives. They want to redefine us as a nation and deny the spiritual heritage that brought us to this point."

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? In an earlier era, the same attack would have been directed at "Communists." Now it's the "liberal elite," whose most notable members are judges and the media, who are doing all these bad things. It is they who are screwing everything up for the Christians.

Blogger Mark Alexander is another conservative commentator who isn't just attacking unpopular decisions, but undermining respect for the Supreme Court and the judiciary in general. In his commentary about Roper v. Simmons, he refers to justices he doesn't like as "leftists" and "court jesters," and mockingly dubs the whole court "The Supremacists." He is just one of many who not only attack court decisions, but belittle the courts in general and question their basic legitimacy.

The framers of the Constitution created a system of checks and balances embodied in the principle of three coequal branches of government. Some have argued that, because the judicial branch is not elected, the framers intended it to be weaker than and subordinate to the political branches. Yet that theory is fundamentally inconsistent with the word "coequal," as well as with the actual way in which the three branches have operated in relationship to each other for the past 200 years. You don't need to be a Constitutional scholar to realize that a subordinate branch can't provide very much in the way of "checks and balances."

There are models for different systems and they aren't heinous. In Great Britain, for example, the courts, as well as the executive, are subordinate to the legislature. That is a perfectly legitimate way for a free society to organize itself, it just is not the American way.

So let's say this continues and conservative opinion makers succeed in undermining the legitimacy of courts in general in the minds of a substantial number of Americans. We already have a substantial body of citizens who despise the courts. We call them "criminals." While the thought of social and religious conservatives making common cause with the criminal classes may seem delightfully twisted on some level, it also raises concerns in my mind about anarchy and chaos.

Disagreement with specific court decisions is one thing but fundamentally undermining the legitimacy of the judicial system itself is playing with fire. This is something we should all be worried about and cooler-headed conservatives should think about backing their more volatile brethren off of this particular ledge.

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April 7, 2005

I live in Chicago, in the city, close to the lake, what you might call the "high rent district." Everything is a little more expensive here. Gas at the neighborhood BP station is about $2.50 a gallon. I know, because I just got gas about 20 minutes ago.

Everybody, it seems, is freaking out about and commenting on the high cost of gasoline, perhaps because it is that rare "issue of the day" that actually affects us directly. The most common reaction is outrage and that reaction seems to be universal, no matter where you fall along the political spectrum.

While I don't suggest that anyone should be delighted about paying $2.50 a gallon for gasoline, I will suggest that cheap gasoline should not be a liberal cause. I can accept the political pragmatism that says we should blame it on Bush because he and the Republicans are in power, but otherwise I am tempted to take a contrary view.

When Chuck Schumer (D-NY, in February, 2005) demanded that President Bush tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, merely because gas had topped $2 a gallon, I cringed. The broader view is that many things progressives claim to support are more likely to occur if the price of fuel keeps going up, rather than if it is kept artificially low.

Like what? How about alternative fuel development, cleaner air, fewer SUVs, more public transportation. One could even argue that higher fuel costs will lead to the revitalization of many domestic industries, and the accompanying jobs and local economic infrastructure, when it becomes more cost effective to manufacture products close to markets, rather than making them close to the raw materials or cheapest labor and transporting them to markets.

My suggestion is that people should be open to the idea that higher fuel costs are not necessarily a bad thing.

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April 6, 2005

The theme today is overstatement. I seem to be seeing a lot of examples of it lately. Yesterday's Chicago Tribune headline about Peter Jennings' lung cancer referred to anchormen Jennings, Brokaw and Rather as "larger-than-life figures." Are they/were they really? They were guys who read the news to us every night for a long time. Does that really make them larger-than-life?

It has struck me lately that no matter how genuinely big or good something is, someone is bound to overstate its significance. Perhaps in keeping with the competition theme begun in the flag waving thread, this also is a competition. Everyone from paid commentators to average citizens is racing to be the first to bestow epochal significance on some current personality or event.

Take the pope. He had been an unusual choice when elected, a priest from a country officially hostile to religion, coming after a long line of safe and predictable Italians. He was a modern man (vigorous, smart, educated, multi-lingual, well-traveled, personable, funny) but a conservative theologian. In the nature of the way the Catholic Church is organized, every pope is a significant figure to the church faithful and this pope probably was more important than many, but some commentators have called him one of the most significant figures of the 20th century and others, not to be outdone, have called him one of the most significant figures in all of human history. Really?

Then there is the University of Illinois basketball team. There is no denying that this team enjoyed greater success than any previous U of I team and that they made this season fun for their fans, but before Monday night's defeat in the championship game, Chicago sports talk radio had fans calling them the best college basketball team ever and one local columnist even opined that they could have beaten the great John Wooden UCLA teams of the 1960s and 70s.

I have spent most of my working life in advertising so exaggeration is my stock-in-trade, but in advertising exaggeration has to be believable to be effective. Yet even that hallowed principle seems to have been weakened in recent years, as people apparently are more gullible than we ever suspected. Someone is buying those penis enlargement pills, after all, or the manufacturers wouldn't keep advertising them.

Perhaps I'm just more circumspect in my old age, less prone to make or accept exaggerated claims. When I read the "larger-than-life" headlines about Jenning-Brokaw-Rather, my first thought was, "now Walter Cronkite, he was larger than life." But even in the Cronkite era, we thought him but a pale shadow of Edward R. Murrow, the real broadcast journalism legend. So I will concede that each generation gets to create its own legends from the stuff of its own experience, and trust that someone will sort it all out in the fullness of time.

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April 3, 2005

In the new issue of The Atlantic (May, 2005), there is an article entitled "In the Footsteps of Tocqueville," by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. His first observation upon his arrival in Rhode Island is about the ubiquity of the American flag. He contrasts its use here with the near invisibility of the tri-color in France. He notes that flag display here increased after 9/11 and wonders what it symbolizes now, more than three years after the attack. He pretty much ends his observation there and goes on to other matters, no explanation offered.

What Lévy apparently does not understand is that the American display of the American flag is a competition. The more flags you display on your home, vehicle, business and person, the more you love America. If you display ten flags, you love America twice as much as someone who displays only five, ten times more than someone who displays only one. How much more you love America than the person who displays no flags is incalculable. (Note: flag math has different rules than regular math.)

In the aftermath of 9/11, Fox News ran a regular feature in which it showed photographs, sent in by viewers, of imaginative flag displays. Fox was either oblivious to or felt the purity of its motives transcended flag etiquette when it showed babies and puppies posed cutely, sitting on artfully draped flags. Although contact with the rear ends of puppies and babies does not appear to have been contemplated by the framers of the Flag Rules and Regulations, Section 8b does say, "The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise" and section 8g says, "The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature." "Baby butt" would seem to go without saying.

Crate and Barrel sold American flag welcome mats and paper napkins, among other things, after 9/11. One would think they wouldn't even need Section 8i to tell them that encouraging people to wipe their shoes and mouths with the flag is a little disrespectful.

Many business people think they show their patriotism by featuring the flag in advertising for their business, despite Section 8i of the Flag Rules, which reads, "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever." Tonight when you are watching television, count the number of times that rule is violated.

Yet let Kid Rock wear a flag poncho (clearly prohibitted by 8d) at the 2004 Super Bowl and everyone goes ballistic.

And McDonalds caught flak when it ordered its restaurants to lower its American flags to half staff after the company president died last year. It could have ordered its own McDonalds flags lowered, but not the American flag. See Section 7m.

It seems, then, that in the sport of competitive flag-waving, the most zealously patriotic Americans are also the worst flag abusers. What does that prove? Maybe only that when it comes to patriotic symbolism, flagophiliac Americans are not deep thinkers. Or maybe, just maybe, that the competitive "I'm more American than you are" undercurrent of flag display itself needs to be questioned.

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April 2, 2005

Things I am tired of watching people do on television:

And an honorable mention goes to the only thing more boring than watching people play golf on television, watching people on television talk about playing golf.

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April 1, 2005

The success of super premium vodka is a great and terrible mystery.

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March 31, 2005

Terri Schiavo died today and people have even tried to spin that, asserting that she actually died in 1990. Her death is, at least, a milestone in the controversy, although it changes nothing. The story probably will fade now and that is unfortunate in at least one way. I can think of no story, no event in recent years, that has compelled so many people and institutions to show themselves for what they really are, and it would be good for that to continue.

Although I think this has been true of all parties, I'm especially struck by the extremism of some self-described "culture of life" advocates who, in their zeal to impose their personal religious beliefs on the entire society, resemble no one so much as radical Islamists. The specific theology is irrelevant. Christian, Muslim or Hindu, extreme fundamentalists who are so convinced of their righteousness that they would force their beliefs on everyone else are a great threat to peace and liberty throughout the world, including here in America where our Taliban call themselves Christian.

Much was made by some commentators about the lack of documentation regarding Terri Schiavo's wishes. However, this was irrelevant to her parents, the Schindlers, who indicated that they would have done everything in their power to keep her alive regardless of her wishes. Many if not most of their supporters hold the same belief, which is contrary to the law and contrary to the beliefs of most Americans.

Just as it is often written that radical Islamists are not really good Muslims but are instead political extremists cynically using religion to advance their nihilist cause, so many of the Schindlers supporters are not really good Christians or good Americans, when they show their willingness to break laws, defy and belittle courts, and viciously defame, abuse and harass innocent people like Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband. Despite the constant bashing he took from them, no one could explain how her death would benefit him. He had already gone on with his life in every meaningful sense. The most reasonable explanation for his position is the one he claims, that he owed it to her to honor her wishes.

The politicians who stuck their noses into this, in particular the brothers Bush, also showed their true colors. Where were the conservative principles of keeping the federal government out of state matters, honoring family values and defending individual rights against government coercion? Out the window, apparently. Both Bushes made statements after Schiavo's death, talking about "learning lessons from this tragedy," without saying specifically what they thought those lessons might be. Politicians first, they now realize they miscalculated and are backpedaling as fast as they can.

When pressed for an opinion, very few people indicate a desire to be kept alive "by any and all available means" if they become as incapacitated as Schiavo was. It is not, however, something most people want to think about or do anything about. That includes me. I don't have a living will or durable power of attorney for health care, but this sure has me thinking about executing one.

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March 24, 2005

It was announced today that Pax World Funds has dropped Starbucks from its investment portfolio, blaming the coffee company’s launch of a new coffee-flavored liqueur, which is being made and distributed by Jim Beam. Pax World invests only in businesses that it deems socially responsible. Therefore, it avoids companies involved in defense or weapons, tobacco, liquor or gambling. Pax sold 375,000 Starbucks shares worth around $23.4 million on Wednesday.

People who think of me as a bleeding heart liberal might be surprised to hear me say a pox on Pax. I have no tolerance for this kind of thing. I think it is just plain phony.

Like charging $3 for a cup of coffee is "socially responsible" but making liquor is not.

The Wall Street Journal reported that socially irresponsible investors snapped up the shares and drove Starbucks up to close 2 percent higher on the day.

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© 2005, Charles Kendrick Cowdery, All Rights Reserved.

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