Those elusive French!

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When the French Tried to Colonize Florida

A half-century before settling along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, French colonists (mostly Huguenots) tried to establish a colony in Florida, near present-day Jacksonville. It did not go well. Partly because of inept administration, partly because of Spanish meddlesomeness, partly because of the "Catholic wind" that destroyed their fleet. Their most lasting contribution: they provoked the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, the longest lasting European settlement in North America, which is celebrating its 450th anniversary this year.

Then there's this: no sign of the colony has ever been found, nor of the ships that sought to resupply it. This is unusual, given that a manifest of one of the wrecked shipped showed that it was laden with tons of iron, which should be fairly easy to find with modern technology. 

There's lots more. Read on in American Archeology. 

New Orleans at 10

Neutral Ground
(Jan-Aug 2015)

From January through August, I wrote a series of weekly columns about New Orleans for The American Scholar’s website. I contributed a total of 38 columns at about 800 words per column, or about 30,000 words, or about half a book. Yet, I just scratched the surface — the writing was for me a way to explore things that intrigued me about New Orleans and seemed to invite more digging and consideration.

The column was designed to finish up a few days after the tenth anniversary of Katrina. But I didn’t want this to be a series of Katrina columns, although mentions were unavoidable. We didn’t live in the city before the storm — we lost nothing, we had nothing at risk. Yet Katrina shaped the timing of when we moved to New Orleans, and where we ended up settling. I’d been in the city the week before Katrina, when I’d started looking at neighborhoods we might live in. Then I returned six months after the flood waters had been pumped out, when traffic lights were still out, flood-ruined cars were piled up under the Claiborne Expressway, and I still still saw junked refrigerators everywhere. We closed on our house (unflooded, on high ground) about a year after Katrina has passed through, and even though I never lifted a hammer, I felt like we were contributing to the rebuilding. Every dollar we spent locally seemed to help bring back the city. Everywhere we turned, we found a sense of comity and unity.

The tenth anniversary celebrations, with a few exceptions, in quiet ways feels like it’s created the opposite — it divided the city. First off, events were relentless — articles about the city’s recovery (and failures) and then many panels and concerts and speeches of every stripe leading up to the day of the event. Those who were here before the storm seemed slightly resentful of those who came later, and the commemorations bifurcated somewhat. Small debates erupted over who could speak for the city.

I sought to be up front and announced in my first column I would speak as a newcomer. But it still felt odd, writing about New Orleans from the inside, although I’m still an outsider in most ways. So I didn’t write The Big 10th Anniversary Katrina Story. The city had enough stories of that sort and didn’t need to peg another to an arbitrary calendar. 

Instead, I tried to keep my head down, keep writing, and keep in mind that stories that are intriguing today about the city’s ongoing evolution should be the same that fascinate a decade or two hence.

If you’ve just got time for a couple, try: Why The World's Best Cocktail is from New Orleans, or this one about Mardi Gras, A Day of Disbelief


Changing drink culture

"We Should Lower the Drinking Age"
POLITICO (Dec 4, 2014)

Sexual violence on campus has been front and center in the press the past few months, with the consensus being that campus culture has to change. That's seismic change — one that might take a generation or so, or at least a a four-year student cycle or two. What might be done  more immediately to improve the situation? In my first piece for Politico, I argue that lowering the drinking age back to 18 (or 19) would swiftly move campus drinking out of the shadows of basements and frat houses and into safer spaces.

Drinking & flying don't mix

"Your Airport's Bartender Problem"

This story took root at a Tales of the Cocktail seminar in 2013, led by Jacob Briars and Charlotte Voisey. I thought a seminar on airport bars would essentially be an amusing performance piece, starring two great presenters, but it ended up informative and touched on a lot of intriguing issues faced at airport bars. Unfortunately, 800 words in the column allows only a few bank shots off these issues.

But I had a great follow-up phone call with Jacob earlier this year, and he loaded me up with a bunch of information that I couldn't fit in, some of it updated from his seminar. This includes a list of reliable airport bar drinks: Michelada, Champagne Cocktail, Manhattan, Tom Collins, Stone Fence, St. Germain Cocktail, Bloody Mary, Negroni, and irish Coffee (most airport bars are geared up to do it).

Also, a list of other worthy airport bars, in addition to One Flew South, mentioned in the piece: The Buena Vista Cafe (SFO), Little Ludlow (MEL), Bronco (PHX — (“really surprising”); 5280 (DEN), Icon (CPH — "aquavit and schnaps"), and Virgin Clubhouse (LHR — a private airline lounge, actually).

The Martini is Dead...

"The Martini is Dead"
PUNCH (Nov 13, 2014)

... Long live the Martini! This piece for Punch began with a fact and a question. Fact: the Martini had been badly debased in the 1990s by so-called "Martini bars" that cropped up everywhere, putting all manner of nastiness into V-shaped glasses and adding "-tini" to the end.  It's as if it changed out of Fred Astaire's tuxedo and into Stanley Kowalski''s wife-beater. So, the question: What replaced the Martini as a symbol of swank.

I called around and talked to people who think about these things. (Read: bartenders.) And it turned out to be more complicated than my simple fact and question. The Martini had survived in its tux, but had gone somewhat feral, and was now returning to polite society. But it now has company — other cocktails that show one's sense of sophistication when ordered.

And there's been a shift in dynamic. At the start of the craft cocktail renaissance, bartenders were proselytizers, preaching to a captive congregation about the merits of little known liquors and house-made bitters. “Now it’s their turn,” says New Orleans bartender Kimberly Patton-Bragg of her customers who research obscurity all on their own now.

Andrew Volk at the Portland (Maine) Hunt & Alpine Club echoes this: “With the boom of craft bars, that status drink has evolved into a ‘I know more than you’ show-off kind of drink,” he says. “[It's] the guy who walks in with a handful of friends, orders a Brown Derby or a Hoffman House or De La Louisiane, and then turns to his friends and explains the history of the drink.”

The New Orleans Demimonde

"The Big Uneasy"
AMERICAN SCHOLAR (Autumn 2014) Subscription only

Gary Krist's new book, Empire of Sin, reads like a book-length top-ten list of New Orleans history, 1890-1920. It's got the shooting by (and shooting of) Robert Charles, a 34-year-old bowler-wearing black man from Mississippi who was deeply troubled by the injustice of merely being black in New Orleans. It has the assassination of Police Chief David C. Hennessy and the ugly lynchings that followed. It has Plessy v. Ferguson, the red-light district of Storyville, and Louis Armstrong. And it has dapper Tom Anderson, the "mayor" of Storyville, who anchors much of the tale.

In the end, I wasn't fully convinced that the narrative came together — the series of unresolved murders that open and close the book are intriguing but scattershot. But if read as a series of free-standing episodes, the book offers an initriguing view of the city's demimonde when it was at its peak.

My review is in the print edition of American Scholar, available in bookstores and libraries. It's also online, but like all good demimondes, it's hidden behind a paywall.   

A stop at the end of the walk


"The Last Walk"
THE SMART SET (Sept 15, 2014)

"The car won, and we as a culture have let the long walk go extinct. It’s no longer part of our physical vocabulary. The idea of walking four or five miles instead of driving seems seems more something you’d do in protest or for performance art than a normal part of one’s day. “Walking is what you do when you park your car,” says Tom Vanderbilt, historian of driving and traffic. "As transportation, walking has becoming an endangered form."

This is from my 20th and final "Walking Tour" column for The Smart Set. My thanks to editors Jason Wilson and Shelby Vittek for letting me talk the walk.

Kahiki, you are missed

"The rise and fall of the tropical dream at the Kahiki"
IMBIBE (Sept/Oct 2014)

In the Sept/Oct issue of Imbibe, my Behind the Bar column is about the Kahiki, the late, great tiki bar of Columbus, Ohio. The first and only time I visited was just a few weeks before it was demolished in 2001. At the time, I was a contributing editor at Preservation magazine, the official publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I was fascinated by the fact that the Kahiki was the only tiki bar on the federal National Register of Historic Places, a designation that unfortunately did nothing to help save it.

I ended up pitching a story to The Atlantic magazine, which was then called The Atlantic Monthly. I’d been pitching The Atlantic for about 12 years, and had a nice collection of rejection letters for my pains. (Yes, typed letters, which dates me.) But the tiki story got the green light, and was my first piece to appear in the magazine. You can read it here. (The formatting is very Web 1.0.) I believe my next “Drinks’ column will mark the 50th story I’ve had in the magazine. But you never forget your first.

The Imbibe story isn’t online — at least not yet. But if you’re curious about the place, above are a few photos I took when I stopped by just ahead of the wrecking ball. Click to cycle through.

Bartender for life

Going the Distance
IMBIBE (Sept/Oct 2014)

The stamina of career bartenders has always fascinated me, so when Paul Clarke at Imbibe suggested I do a story about it, I was happy to pick up the phone and call bartenders and ask a lot of questions. Bartenders have always seemed rather heroic to me — I don’t know how they do what they do night in and night out. And so many do it with such aplomb, and make it seem like it’s nothing. They never mention dealing with bathroom plumbing issues at 1am, or having to come in early to do inventory.

Chefs get to practice their artistry in the back, away from view, and can be as cranky and unpleasant as the job makes them. Bartenders do what they do just a few feet from their customers, and have to remain reasonably agreeable if they want to stay in the game. (Paul Gustings excepted.) And they do this while being undistracted by some dude waving a $20 bill at the end of the bar yelling “Hey, bro, how about some love over here?”

I talked to a lot of bartenders about their experiences and strategies for long-term survival. As is often the case, not all the bartenders nor their comments made it into the piece. I had a whole section on dealing with perception of bartending and self-respect that didn’t make it in. Some bartenders I spoke to said they've had to face down those doubts — parents who had hoped they’d go into law, and friends who figured that they’d grow out of bartending after a few years, and wouldn’t make a career out of it.

My brother long worked as a bartender in California, and his investment banker college friends would fly in to visit him every year. “This is great,” they told him. “We love coming to drink with you. But you know what? If you’re still doing this when you 30, you’re a bum.” (He’s still in the business 20 years later, although he’s been manager for most of those.)

But that perception is changing, like so much else in the craft cocktail world. Steve Yamada, a friend and New Orleans bartender who’s about to open Lattitude 29 with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his wife, Annene, talked about that with me.  “It’s a weird thing,” he said. “At my ten-year high school reunion I was freaking out because these people had become investment bankers, and who am I? But it turned out they were more interested in talking about what I was doing than about what they were doing.”

Rye returns


"How Rye Came Back: The Unexpected Source of a Craft Whiskey Boom"
THE ATLANTIC (Sept 2014)

The secret's is out, of course. Many of the "craft spirits" on the shelf are made by the same large industrial manufacturer. The greybeard cocktail writer Eric Felten explored this in a Daily Beast story in late July. I scratched a bit further in my September column in The Atlantic, and found out that this rye is actually outstanding — whiskey dude Jay Erisman told me this some of “the best rye in the history of rye.”  How did it get that way? Have a read.

Thinking with your feet

"The Speed of Inspiration: In need of a burst of creativity? Go for a walk."
THE SMART SET (Aug 21, 2014)

How did Dickens write so much and so well? With his feet. Herein I look at how walking and creativity are linked. it's not just anecdotes from a long list of historic practitioners of creative walking (Tchaikovsky, Rousseau, Dickens, Mahler, Thoreau, Kant). Modern science also agrees, offering evidence that the breadth of our thinking is lined to the numbers of our steps.

Fernet & urbanism go together like Benedictine & brandy

How Zappos and Fernet Saved Downtown Vegas
PUNCH (August 5. 2014)

This piece for Punch was a spin-off. I was sent to Las Vegas a couple of years ago by Sunset magazine, to write this story about the reinvention of downtown Las Vegas. While I was there, all this stuff about Fernet and drinking kept cropping up, and for mysterious reasons Sunset’s editors didn’t find this germane to the topic I’d been sent to write about.

I thought that urbanism and drinking were linked, and that some of the folks that I’d met while there got this. So I wrote up this short piece for Punch, in part so I could sort it out in my own mind.

The picture above shows the Fermet dispenser I saw in CEO Tony Hseih’s private rumpus room, in one of three condo units he joined together in a downtown tower. It’s a repurposed Jägermiester dispenser crafted by his staff and given to him as a present. I do not know of any other CEOs of $2 billion companies that have ready access to chilled Fernet. If you do, please let me know. Maybe it’s a thing, and I’m just not in the loop.