Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

27 March, 2013

Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living In: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I was about half way through Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian before I started making comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. And this wasn't a good thing.

The story begins in 1972 with our nameless 16-year old narrator briefly introducing herself to us. Her mother died when she was very young and her father Paul, a former historian, now works for what I presume is an NGO called the Center for Peace and Democracy that he founded. One day the girl is looking through her father's extensive library when she comes across a very old book with a woodcut print of a dragon on the cover that held in its claws a banner which read "DRAKULYA". It is stuffed with papers and letters, the first of which includes the mysterious greeting, "My dear and unfortunate successor".

Slowly she begins to tease the story behind the eldritch tome from her father. It turned up one evening when he was a graduate student studying in a university library. Intrigued, he approaches his mentor Professor Bartholomew Rossi for help only to have Rossi reveal that he too had received a book just like it under very similar circumstances. Rossi spent a not inconsiderable amount of time tracing the origins of the book and became obsessed with the historical figure who became of the basis of Dracula, Vlad Ţepeş, a.k.a. – Vlad the Impaler, the 14th century Wallachian prince. Not long after this, Rossi disappears, his office stained with blood.

Our narrator proceeds to tell us of Paul's adventure in seeking out his mentor. He meets a beautiful young woman named Helen Rossi who not only has a keen interest in Dracula, but is also the professor's estranged daughter. Together they scour Eastern Europe piecing together the life and death of Vlad Ţepeş as they find clues pointing to Rossi's whereabouts and this is where The Historian begins to feel like The Da Vinci Code.

Thinking that Rossi was kidnapped and taken to Vlad's tomb, the pair begin by going to Istanbul to search the archives of the sultan who ruled during the prince's day. There they meet Turgut Bora, a professor who is knowledgeable about the archives and Vlad as well as just all-around helpful. Then it's off to Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. The first two unsurprisingly are home to professors who provide more info what Helen's mother lives in Romania and her folks tales about Dracula add even more helpful information to the mix.

This pattern of heading to another location and always finding someone who has the contacts and just the right information Paul and Helen need to take the next step in their investigation got tiresome. Someone can always ensure that two Americans can travel around behind the Iron Curtain unimpeded and someone always has just the right tidbit of legend, lore, or history to get our heroes moving again to another destination and goes on great, long discourses about it. This approach seemed all so cookie cutter.

On the other hand, Kostova has woven a good yarn. The mystery is intriguing. What happened to Vlad's body? What is up with these people being attacked and having their necks bitten? The story also includes a lot of history and detail here which help keep the book interesting even when in Dan Brown mode. (I assume that the history is largely accurate.) Paul and Helen discover a letter describing a trek made by monks with a mysterious cargo just after Vlad's death. Could they have been transporting his corpse? Even an academic paper on this subject is reproduced in full here.

Kostova can build some good dramatic tension but, unfortunately, certain elements get lost in the exposition. For instance, the threat of what we assume is a vampire on the loose going around sucking blood is used to chilling effect but then the menace disappears because Paul and Helen have to catch a train for Hungary.

The Historian has a fine mystery at its core but it gets bogged down in the repetition of the characters going from one place to another and having felicitous meetings with history professors who lecture the reader. This would have been more acceptable in a book of 900+ pages had Kostova liberally sprinkled some distractions but they are far and few between here with Paul and Helen's growing mutual affections being the only one applied consistently.

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25 March, 2013

Will Customers Flee Fordem/Sherman Avenue Businesses?

Isthmus reports today that Gumbogate has been resolved. As was reported last week, John Roussos, owner of New Orleans Take Out on Fordem Avenue, decided to ban Alderwoman Marsha Rummel from his establishment because she voted in favor of a plan "to add bicycle lanes, pedestrian islands and a center left-turn lane to North Sherman Avenue, turning it from a four-lane street to two lanes."

Roussos along with the Northside Business Association argued that the resulting traffic jams would repel customers. So, who are these people that would stop frequenting businesses on Sherman?

When I read about the plan, the first thing I thought was good for those bicyclists, including a friend of mine who lives on the north side. Here are some things that I didn't think:

"Well, I guess I'll never go to that Frugal Muse again."

"Well, I guess I'll never go to New Orleans Take Out again."

"Well, I guess I'll never go to Cafe La Bellitalia again."

"Well, I guess I'll never go to Warner Park again."

It's not like the changes will eliminate parking. I think the people who will avoid Sherman are the ones who drive 45MPH down it now to get to Northport Drive and they'll just be moving over to Packers Avenue where they belong. The idea that eliminating a lane in a residential/commercial area will drive away customers seems to assume that potential customers have a really small town attitude - as if it's not worth going anywhere unless the traffic is the same as it is in Lone Rock. Madison is a city of around 240,000 built around lakes. Traffic is just a way of life. Deal with it.

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Leinenkugel Tries Its Hand at a Kölsch

Leine's new midwinter/spring/summer seasonal is Canoe Paddler, a Kölsch-style brew with rye. This is the third rye Kölsch I know of from Wisconsin with House of Brews and Woodman already having brewed the style. Canoe Paddler is a "Kölsch-style" beer because Kölsch is a trademarked appellation. The Kölsch Convention says that a Kölsch isn't a Kölsch unless (the whole issue of rye being set aside) it's brewed in its "area of origin" which it defines as "municipal Cologne plus all the breweries outside municipal Cologne which acquired their vested right with the term Kölsch before this code of competition came into effect." Basically, if it doesn't come from the Cologne metro area, it can only be a "Kölsch-style" beer. The convention also dictates that a Kölsch be Reinheitsgebot complaint and I would guess that the rye adjunct isn't.

Kölsch is, in German brewing parlance, an Obergäriges Lagerbier, i.e. - a top-fermenting lagerbier. To my mind, if it's not lagered it's not a Kölsch nor a Kölsch-style. If that bad boy hasn't been sitting around in low temperatures for a spell then you've got a golden ale brewed with Kölsch yeast. Apparently Cologne had laws that banned bottom-fermenting beers and the Kölsch grew out of that brewing environment.

My photo this time isn't too horrible though I've got to go for a lower angle shot the next go round. Canoe Paddler is straw colored and very clear. I got a nice foamy head on my pour which stuck around for a while but was low in the Schaumhaftvermoegen department. And there are bubbles. Lots of bubbles. The stange is a fine glass in which to show this fine looking beer off. Giving it a whiff, I found that it smelled like crackers with a hint of pear fruitiness. Perfect. So far, so good.

The first thing I noticed when I took a sip was how effervescent Canoe Paddler is. It was like drinking champagne. Once the bubbles had done their work, I could then taste the malt. Rather than having a clean, cracker kind of flavor that the aroma hinted at, it had more of a gentle, squishy bread dough taste. Never having been to Köln, I have to admit I don't know what a true Kölsch tastes like fresh from the teat. From the imports I've had, I will cop to a preference for Reissdorf over Sunner und Gaffel. Canoe Paddler tastes like the latter two. I like Reissdorf because it has a smooth cracker-like flavor. This beer has a much chewier mouthfeel. (Is this because of the fermentation temperature?) There's enough malt/bread flavor here but my tongue was kept waiting for a bit of sweetness that never came. I think part of the problem was that Canoe Paddler is over carbonated and that mellow dryness interfered with my tongue's ability to enjoy those flavors. It finished well, though, with a dry crispness that has a little hop bitterness and some spiciness from the rye.

Junk food pairing: I paired my Canoe Paddler with some Bold Chex Mix and it was just jimdandy.

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Madison Craft Beer Week and Schell's Summer Line-Up Gets More Interesting

We've got labels.

Is Central Waters getting a new look? It's nice to see Leines doing a Helles though it would appear that it's a going to be an IPA masquerading as one which is a bummer.

Our neighbors to the west at Schell are not only releasing a Berliner Weiss this summer, but are also doubling up on lesser known German bier styles by brewing this:

Goosetown is a gose, a sour wheat ale with coriander and salt. If all goes well, it could be one of my go-to beers for the summer. I reviewed Leipziger Gose previously.

Madison Craft Beer Week events have been posted. It looks like most, if not all, of the events are there. Some highlights for me:

Common Thread Biere de Garde debut at Vintage. Find out just what 10+ Wisconsin craft brewers came up with.

German Day at The Old Fashioned. Uerige Alt, Reissdorf, and Fritz Briem Grodziskie are all slated to be on tap. So is Sunner's Kellerbier although Beer Advocate's profile of the brewery doesn't list one. We'll see, I guess. An altbier from Düsseldorf, a Kölsch from Cologne, and a grodziskie/gratzer from Gräfelfing or Freising or wherever it's brewed - a must drink occasion. Hey Essen Haus - how come you never have altbiers, Kölsches, gratzer, or kellerNo asbiers on tap?

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22 March, 2013

Where Does the Flavor Go?

My co-workers and I went to Wando's for lunch today and I proceeded to order a chicken sandwich. It had a chicken breast which was tender, juicy, and utterly tasteless. The slice of tomato was bland and the bun was essentially Wonder Bread which means the sandwich had virtually zero flavor.

I understand that white chicken meat is not exactly exploding with gustatory goodness. It has little fat, ergo little taste. But this breast had all the flavor of a stick of chalk. I felt the texture on my tongue but couldn't actually taste any chicken. How does Tyson do this?

While I'm on the subject of taste, I was shopping for horseradish not too long ago and was going to buy Silver Springs as it's made in Wisconsin but noticed that it, along with most of the brands on offer, had artificial flavor. I ended up buying a brand from Detroit (see, I'm supporting your hometown's economy, Joe) which had no added anything.

I had to ponder exactly what kind of artificial flavor you would add to horseradish. Not knowing, I asked a friend of mine who was a food scientist in a former life and here's what he said:

Horseradish can vary widely in flavor and intensity so many producers will try to keep a base level profile and may need to kick it up a notch or two hence the addition of natural (concentrates) or artificial flavors (isoprene of some sort).



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18 March, 2013

Doctor Who Returns Soon

Doctor Who returns on the 30th and the Beeb has trailers. Here's one for English audiences.

The new Ice Warriors look pretty bad ass.

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Mmm...cream filling...

This was in a window of a Polish bakery in Chicago.

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Avast Ye IPA Drinkers!

A couple new labels from Capital.

Lake House is their new summer seasonal and I believe it is a pre-Prohibition style brew. Capsized is to be the next entry in the Capital Square bomber series. It's a double IPA with 90 IBUs and weighs in at 9.2% ABV.

A new era has dawned at Capital now that it has ceded its destiny to the whims of the Beer Advocate crowd. Their Mutiny IPA has apparently been released early as I saw it on store shelves this past weekend. I bought a sixer and, although I have consumed a bottle by myself, I did have a couple swigs.

I figured Mutiny would be a C-hop lover's wet dream but I am pleased to have been wrong. Hop-wise, Mutiny begins with a very floral flavor but finishes on a grassy/herbal note. I detected no citrus/grapefruit at all. The best part, though, is that Mutiny isn't hop water as you can actually taste a malt backbone that just about every pale ale/IPA claims to have but doesn't.

If Capital is hell bent on IPAs, then I think Brian Destree should add some rye to the equation and call it Drivelswigger Rye IPA.

On a completely different note, take a look at this motley crew. A bunch of brewers got together to brew this year's Common Thread beer over the weekend. How'd you get in there, Joe? And I think my friend Scott Manning had had a few before he was interviewed: "...to elevate our state’s brewing culture beyond its gilded history, into a future of relevance leadership, and prestige." Where did this come from? I wonder if he was reading cue cards.

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13 March, 2013

An Obsolete Word for Wisconsin

Earlier I found this list of obsolete words. It's got classics like "pussyvan" and "wonder-wench" but the best is surely this one:

Tyromancy: Divining by the coagulation of cheese

I can just imagine some Romanian grandma back in the day up in Fond du Lac huddled over a vat trying to divine whether the Acme Packers will beat the Decatur Staleys on Sunday.

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Baumkuchen Failure

I tried to make baumkuchen bars over the weekend but failed. Not an epic failure, though. Baumkuchen means "tree cake" and is traditionally made by pouring batter on a dowel or spit that rotates next to a heat source. After one layer has been baked, you put on another layer. At the end of the process you have this cake log that you slice along the diameter which reveals the layers or rings.

I was doing bars where the idea is to put a thin layer of batter in a baking dish, bake it, and then add another layer. Repeat until fertig. Boy did I fuck up. So I ended up with kuchen aber kein baum.

While there were no layers, it was still highly edible. Indeed, it was rather tasty.

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You'll Take My Beer But I'll Take Yours Too

A couple new labels:

Too bad Lucette doesn't distribute down here as that weissbier sounds tasty.

Iron Maiden has a beer - Trooper.

Trooper is a premium British beer inspired by Iron Maiden and handcrafted at Robinsons brewery. Being a real ale enthusiast, vocalist Bruce Dickinson has developed a beer which has true depth of character. Malt flavours and citric notes from a unique blend of Bobec, Goldings and Cascade hops dominate this deep golden ale with a subtle hint of lemon.

After AC/DC and Motorhead came out with brews, it was only a matter of time before Eddie appeared on a label. What NWOBHM band is next? Def Leppard with Bock of Ages?

Bruce introduces 'Trooper' from Trooper on Vimeo.

Robin Shepard of Isthmus recently caught up with Kirby Nelson. He's been formulating brews for the new Wisconsin Brewing Company including an amber lager with Willamette hops that will be on tap at The Great Dane later this month.

Keith Symonds' Next Door Brewing Company is looking at 2439 Atwood Avenue for a home. There's a neighborhood meeting on the subject this Saturday.

Lastly, I just have to say this to Chris Drosner, a.k.a. The Beer Baron at 77 Square: This Beer Bracket thing - lame. Why can't you just review beer and report on the craft brew industry instead of hosting a frat boy tourney? Craft beer is not a sport. Please stop trying to make it into the zymurgilogical equivalent of a hophead circle jerk.

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