Friday, September 29, 2017

And Now For A Very "Special" Tucson Homeskillet

I woke up one morning particularly hazy. 

The night before I imbibed in a new found obsession, mesquite smoked whiskey. Dear lord it is so good. Imagine drinking bacon wrapped in a campfire, one that hits all senses making for a heady discourse of whimsy once the coal rapture gullet burn subsides a bit. 

On top of that, I was also drinking my usual, a vodka soda, a cocktail the wife and I began to embrace when we realized that we enjoyed booze but hated the weight it keeps on our aging bodies. "What do skinny people drink?" Clear alcohol and sugar free mixers. Done. 

I was about two cocktails in when I ordered a sipper glass of the whiskey. To say the least I was feeling very good. Luckily I had the next day off so sleeping in was an option. It always was. Even with my day job, showing up bleary does not prevent me from getting work done. It's a a pretty easy job. It's county work. Being slightly hungover actually makes for a more enjoyable work day. That sounded a bit sad didn't it?

Anyway, as we were getting ready to leave some friends showed up at the bar. We decided to stay a little bit longer. Actually we stayed longer than usual. Us old married folk are normally in our jammers by 9pm, deep into some movie or show we are currently obsessed with and either cooking or eating dinner. One more drink, one more shot. I was at that stage where I was nervous to drive home. Fortunately it is a quick straight shot from our hangout and on very familiar territory so I knew how to juggle the current stage of wobble. 

When we finally got home we had a few more drinks. A show we really love (okay, it's goddam 'Game of Thrones', jeesh) was premiering that night and we were in full celebratory mode. The wife didn't have to get up till 10am so if we were asleep by 2am that's a full 8 hours. Thing is she likes to sleep a minimum of 10 hours so when midnight rolled around and we were well over our limit she went straight to bed. 

Me? I was amped up. After taking a shower, with a drink to boot, I got out, fit in some earbuds and started listening to some music. This went on for another hour or so. Another drink. I was okay, pretty drunk, but cognizant. Time to put on a familiar movie. I opted for "Meatballs", this late '70s summer camp comedy starring a very young Bill Murray. Another drink. I was halfway through the movie and still going. Another drink. I was wasted. I finally finished the movie around 3am, slammed a big glass of water and passed out. 

The alarm went off at 10am, apparently, but I was so fuzzy and still drunk that I thought it was all part of some strained dream my liquored brain was attempting. The wife kissed me goodbye, which shook me awake, said I smelled like booze and wished me a fine day of sleeping it off. Then darkness. I awoke again way past noon and remembered that I had an appointment for an upcoming article I had scheduled for the publication I write for. I was so knackered and nauseous that I emailed my contact with some bullshit excuse saying my camera was on the fritz and we'd have to reschedule. The response was part annoyance, part understanding and I told them I'd visit in a few days. 

Eventually I got up, drank some water - a lot of water - choked down some leftover Indian food and decided to go out to the garden and check in on some herbs that were starting to sprout. The late spring sun was out in full force and the current condition my 46 year old body was going through made it feel as if I was in a surreal sweat lodge and I realized that I wasn't feeling too great. Not at all. 

Deciding to power through it, telling myself over and over that "Well, you did this to yourself", I carried on with my amateur gardening duties. As I leaned down to remove some leaves from a bed of up and coming arugula I began to throw up. The Indian food was one factor in taste and texture of the bile but I also got hints of smoked whiskey as well. The yellowish brown belly spew splashed down on a dirt space between the arugula and a succulent plant my wife plucked from a recent visit to San Diego. It just kept coming out. Towards the end I began to retch, enough where I hoped that a neighbor could not hear me. Or perhaps the opposite: If they heard my strained anguish of booze purge perhaps they would come over and help me and by help I mean hit me with a shovel and take me out for good. Once it was all out I started to feel 'better' but I also felt worse than I have in a long time. 

I lay there on the couch, head spinning and body shaking. I then realized that this isn't even that uncommon of a day for me. I did not want to label myself as an alcoholic. But that is what I have somehow spun into. Which began to scare me. 

It was right then and there that I knew something had to be done. 

The chug king in full action

Growing up in the 70s and 80s when a popular TV show, especially comedies, advertised that next week's episode is going to be a 'very special' one, it usually meant that the subject was going to be heavy - like one of the main characters smokes weed or is touched inappropriately by a bicycle shop owner or the kid next door is abused...stuff like that. The Homeskillet is notoriously not heavy, except for the Metal, which is why I decided to call this post 'special'.

Because its a little heavy.

Me admitting to an alcohol dependency, or at least regular habit, is not easy for me. But it has to be said. I need to type this out and get it out there, even if it only hits a few readers...I don't care. This is for me and helping me halt my drinking to at least a manageable level. I don't want to quit, not right now, because my food writing job keeps me tasting beer, wine and spirits on a fairly regular basis. Heck, I just got tagged to judge an upcoming margarita competition. But I do want it to get down to a very dull roar.

If you know me and the history of this blog, I restarted and refurbished the Homeskillet after a very sad and very trying year to help me cope. In 2014 my step dad (my dad's husband) died from complications of Alzheimer's, then a month later my real dad died, literally from a broken heart, soon after She-Ra's grandmother passed a month or so before we had to put our dog down which was almost immediately followed by our cat getting eaten by coyotes.


2014 sucked.

* * *

The first time I got drunk I was almost 22. I started pretty late, comparatively, because of my self professed 'straight edge' lifestyle I embraced in my teens. Doing drugs, getting wasted and smoking cigarettes just seemed dumb to me. A lot of straight edge kids even abstain from sex but...screw that. All I ever wanted to do was hook up with girls and when I lost my virginity at 16 my straight edge-ness only referred to chemical use.

It was a girl, funny enough, that drove me to try booze for the first time and a close friend that had been dabbling in weekly drunk fests with other small town derelicts. When she broke up with me, seemingly out of the blue, I was seriously bummed. My friend suggested getting a bunch of beer and cheap champagne to try to cheer me up and get her off my mind. It sort of worked. As the night progressed other people joined in and before long it turned into a party. A few hours into it most of the visitors either passed out or just left. Not me. I was wide awake. I stayed up all night finishing the beer and champagne listening to hardcore records and punk EPs. I felt great and was having way too much fun. The sun came up and I drove home but not before grabbing some breakfast. I was wasted but I was young and could handle it.

A little more than 20 years later and my body can not handle that kind of abuse.

In 2014 my casual drinking increased ten fold. I couldn't deal with the sadness; it seemed that every other month a family member was dying. I was barely at work that year and when I was I was distant, not including being totally hungover. My booze fog could always be blamed on the fact that someone else had just passed but in 2015 I had had enough and needed a new outlet.

I contacted a popular food website asking if they needed a writer. They said sure. I turned in 3 articles before realizing our styles just didn't match up and we parted amicably. That same week I turned the old funky Homeskillet blog into the website you see today...which is still a blog but, man, the old style was pretty hokey and amateurish. My goal was to post a full article each week; minimum of 1,000 words and at least 10 pictures. This helped me a lot. And when I got hired in 2016 by a big weekly newspaper my food blogging career really took off.

But the drinking? It remained.

I would try things such as 'one drink per hour' or 'no shots on a school night' but that would fall to crap if I had to cover some culinary event or be at a restaurant opening. And if you're drunk one night and feel like poo the next day well, heck, the only way to feel better is to have some more drinks! Sure I felt like garbage most days, my gut had become this bulbous extremity and I was getting absolutely no personal work done but, hey!, that's just how it goes right?

How many mornings did I say to myself in the bathroom "Someday I'll feel good"? Too many. So when the day came and losing donuts in your garden on a beautiful spring afternoon I knew that I had reached my limit.

So to speak.

Just can't get enough, so good when it hits your lips

So far the cutting back in the drinking has proved totally awesome.

We drink enough, like 2-3 cocktails (if that), to relax and get a buzz but then if we start to feel a bit woozy we stop, take a big drink of water and read until we fall sleep. Sounds boring but when you reach a certain age and you've been doing it for a while, and quite furiously, it's nice to just be an old dullard.

Because of my full time day job, part time food writing and having a wife and life I realized that I haven't actually finished a book in over a year. That's dumb for a guy that prides himself on being a bit of a bookworm and, well, a writer, but my new found 'sobriety' has cured that.

My sleep state dreams have gotten back to being full on epic again now that I am not passing out at night. Which I love. If there is anything that I am really addicted to it'd be dreaming. Some mornings I would find myself sleeping way past my normal 8 hours because the more I sleep the crazier my dreams become. And speaking of sleeping, when I wake up now I am not nauseous or murky and when I go check on the garden I do not have the inclination to vomit in it. Which is always a plus.

And this is a big one for me: my morning appetite is back! I haven't made myself a proper breakfast before work in, like...forever. We're talking eggs, toast, maybe a heaping bowl of good oatmeal, a bagel with veggies and cream cheese. It has been a red hot minute since that has happened. And I like breakfast. Nope, scratch that: I fxxking love breakfast!

I find myself to be in a better mood throughout the day and, you know, I always prided myself on being a fairly pleasant person. I'm more focused on my writing and articles and projects get done with clarity and aplomb. Which is great. Plus another positive factor is that I am a cheaper date these days. It doesn't take a flagon of hooch to get me where I need to be. Just a couple here and there and, boom, I'm done. It's honestly not that hard. I just have to keep reminding myself on the days I would wake up and wish that I were dead because I was still drunk or the hangover was seriously settling in. It's just not fun anymore.

All of my friends that I used to get tanked with are all grown up, moved on, married with kids. I'm pretty sure they have quelled the alcohol beast because they have more important things to tend to. Like raising a frikkin' human. The only difference between us and them is that the wife and I do not want kids...and that is probably a factor for our debauchery; its just us. Just us and a cat. The cat doesn't care if we get faced as long as her bowl is full and her litter box is clean. After that she's just "Whatever whatever you want. Idiots."

On top of feeling generally better my stomach feels decidedly less bloated. Sure its still there and firmly middle aged firm but I can at least suck in the gut when I need to and sort of see my rib cage.

Sort of.

Now that the weather is getting less surface of the sun hot I plan on using my trainers to go on nightly walk/runs and even found an online workout program for guys my age and condition. I'm starting to feel good again. All I had to do was just tone it down a bit, show some restraint and grow up just a little more.

It's been too long and I just want to get back to the fairly sane and sober person that I have always been. Sane meaning not blitzed out of his head most nights - it takes a certain self obsessed maniac to want to type furiously about your life and how you feel about food - so I got that going for me. I just like feeling like the old Mark again and this is something I can really get used to.

Although I do crave that mesquite smoked whiskey now and then. But I'll have to save that for a special occasion. And definitely not on a school night. For sure.

Thanks for reading...

This happy kid, many years before taking his first drink

Telling it like it is
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
First Week of Autumn, 2017

Metal Influence:

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

I (heart) GUT

When I got jumped into the GUT collective I really had no idea what was in store for me.

First off, it made me feel real cool. After running the Homeskillet for a few years and doing it slightly under the radar and for my own good benefit, it was fun to get some love and recognition once I started contributing to the Weekly as their food writer.

And it's fun to feel cool.

Second I just thought it'd introduce me to some new and interesting people, which it has, or get me on a list for a food event here and there, which it also has, but rubbing elbows with southern Arizona's culinary elite and getting invites for near impossible to get into pop-ups has been quite the shake up with my middle aged, geeky ego. It is both humbling and really awesome.

Being part of GUT has definitely made me feel cool.

One of the best things that GUT (Gastronomic Union of Tucson) does is put on a multi coursed dinner that is created and supervised by what some have called the 'Justice League of Tucson chefs'. This is open to the public, that is if they want to shell out a good $80 to be a part of the culinary experience. Which they totally should.

It all takes place at the Carriage House downtown and the first one was held on Sunday June 25th. I can't tell you how excited I was when I got my invite.

And I can't tell you how bummed I was when I had to back out.

The mid-summer stomach bug caught up with me and I kept having to text Carriage House executive chef and GUT dinner organizer Devon Sanner with the bad news. He, along with a few other chefs that were involved that night, kept asking me to "fight it", "pull through" and "just get over it already"...but the struggle was too real and I stayed home going back and forth from the couch to the toilet.

The next one was on Sunday July 30th and this one I definitely attended. I told Devon and various others that I would be there "even if things were coming out both ends". Luckily for me I was fine and dandy and was stoked to be fed by such amazing talent as CJ Hamm of Saguaro Corners, Janet Jones on loan from Hacienda del Lago, Jason, Buddy and Matt from Ermanos and, of course, Ben Forbes, Tucson's premiere butcher and owner of Forbes Meat Company.

The food was on point and inventive, taking us all on a tour through Japan, India, China and, yes, Tucson. I had such a blast and it made me look forward to the next and last GUT dinner that was to take place Sunday August 27th.

Luckily this time I took a bunch of photos for the "GUT #3: El Tour de Tastebuds", a rollicking journey through the many levels that our tongue and senses can handle on just one plate.

Here is what went down:

Like eating and drinking electric pop rocks

The Carriage House is located in a sort of alleyway, S. Arizona Ave, between Broadway and E. 12th. It started as the brainchild of both Devon Sanner and James beard award winning chef Janos Wilder as a place to hold demonstrations, cooking classes, weddings and events, such as the GUT dinners. It's a really cool space, wide open with a pass kitchen, theater lights and a sound system. I heard they do dim sum there on occasion. Haven't been invited to that yet. Guess that's a next level GUT entry...

Since this was the last GUT dinner of 2017 the place was packed. My wife and I were given a seating assignment then handed a cocktail. It was a bright yellow lemongrass citrus mezcal creation and they paired it with some kind of puffy stem flower called a 'buzz button'. The fuzzy bud created a numbing and tingling sensation, which was quite the surprise. Paired with the boozy drink, the overall experience was both alluring and almost off putting...but in a fun way.

As we chatted with folk, servers brought around a selection of hors d' oeuvres which included a pork crepinette (which basically means it was flattened), finished with a Szechuan spicy pickled peanut sauce. My favorite was the dry rubbed, pecan smoked ribs with micro greens. This was really good on so many levels. My wife loved the crostini with a pork offal schmear, black garlic oil and crispy kale. I liked that one too. I just preferred the ribs.

But that's just me.

Before long everyone began taking their seats because the dinner was about to start.

Course 1: Bitter

Devon Sanner took center stage, thanked everybody for coming and introduced us to the chefs that created each dish. Tonight they would include Izaak Morhaim of Jackson Bar + Eatery, David Solorzano of Cielos at Lodge on the Desert, Sam Krajnak from Pasco, Mat Cable of Fresco Pizza, Nohemi Montoya from Lowes Ventana Resort and Travis Peters (who recently took the title of Tucson Iron Chef) of The Parish among a slew of other very talented chefs. Like I said, the Justice League of Tucson culinary heavy hitters.

First up was the "Bitter" course which boasted a petite pork osso bucco, charred dandelion greens, a pomegranate gastrique (a sweet and sour sauce deglazed in vinegar), grapefruit espuma (foam) and tripas (tripe) cracklings.

This was interesting. Bitter came in many formats here; the dandelion greens, the grapefruit foam and the pomegranate gastrique.  The pork osso bucco was tender and a lot of fun to eat. It was small, just a bite or two and if this was a proper "meal" sized dish it would kill in any restaurant as a main dish.

We were off and running, taste buds glowing from bits of pungent buds, strong drink, pork nasty bits and tart crispiness.

This is going to be fun.

Course 2: Sour

Course #2 would be the "Sour" element.

Here we were treated to a sous-vide of pork neck (which apparently does not exist but butcher Ben Forbes said he had to push meat up from the shoulders to get a fatty effect on the neck), a tart apple demiglace (or 'half glaze', a sauce that is basically used for other sauces), sour grape and tomatillo escabeche (a Mediterranean dish, usually fish, that is cooked in an acidic mixture), mustard green chips, carrots, turnips and a blackberry croquant ('crisp').

This was the standout for me. All of it came together with each bite to create that perfect mouth feel and flavor and the "sour" invitation lived up to its name. It was playful, jovial and above all really yummy. Cheers to all that came together on this one.

Okay. Lets keep this hit machine on track.

Course 3: Umami

Umami is usually described as a category of flavor beyond the bitter, sweet, sour and salty that our taste buds can handle. Some say brothy or meaty. Quite the challenge for this course.

For this one, chefs offered up hog trotter and barbecue devilfish (usually a manta ray, here it was smoked octopus), chicken fried headcheese, mudbug (crawfish/crayfish depending on where you are from) dashi (Japanese cooking stock) grits, smoked roe, chicory, enoki (long thin white Asian mushroom) and some mayo.


Complex only begins to describe what was happening here. The devilfish was rousing as I was not really used to that kind of texture or flavor, one that reminded me of a loose pate of sorts brimming with porky elements and a distinct barbecue finish. The chicken fried headcheese just made me smile as I know that was the product of chef Travis from The Parish who is no stranger to twisting traditional southern flavors and making them his subservient. The presentation reminded me of some Medieval map in which after crossing the dark sea of the devilfish you must solve the puzzle of the mysterious enoki before conquering the tower of chicken fried headcheese topped with smoked roe.

Probably because at this point the food high was beginning to seriously rear its delicious head.

Just one more course to contend with.

Dessert Course: Sweet (duh)

Sweet relief came in the form of a triage of dessert:

1) A chocolate ganache (a glaze or filling made from rich chocolate and cream) cake with cardamom cream
2) Prickly pear limoncello granita (basically an Italian icee)
3) Donut with pork floss cotton candy, bacon and ancho caramel

This was the perfect way to end an extraordinary meal.

The chocolate cake was really rich but not too sweet. If you are going to live in Tucson be prepared to love prickly pear...everything. That granita melted in your mouth and cooled the pork heavy supper down a notch. They explained why the pork floss was bright green but all I could hear was "Mmmm" echoing through my ears and brain. I'm sure there was a reason behind it.

To the chef that created it...get back to me. It looks like the mossy glen to which the headcheese tower casts shadows over, next to the perilous devilfish sea, a donut-y respite from solving the riddle of the enoki.

Is that what it is?

I hope so.

All the chefs making all the food

As we sipped on a really hearty yet subtly sweet port wine, Devon and the rest of the chefs thanked everybody involved and gave a big hand to us, the ones that attended and were privy to such an honor to be fed by the hands of Tucson's culinary Avengers.

We left, not only full, but a bit sad that this was the last in the first series of GUT least for the summer. Since it was so busy with people, the two of us exited into the warm evening outside without saying personal 'thank yous' and 'goodbyes'.

So let this here blog post say it for me/us:

Thank you chefs for not only creating GUT but for cooking memorable meals and allowing a dork like me to be part of your fold.

All I can say about that is:


Thank you GUT!

Camera, Typing & Eating
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Last Sunday in August, 2017

Metal Influence: