Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve Bonfires

           The French, Spanish, German, Haitian, West African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups that have settled Louisiana in the past three hundred plus years have fused together to create a culture unique to Louisiana. In honor of the Christmas season, let's talk about a Louisiana tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires. 

             On Christmas Eve, and more generally in the month of December, residents of Louisiana who live along the Mississippi river, especially between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, construct bonfires on the earthen levees that surround the river. Most of the time, the levees protect the surrounding homes from flood waters. These areas of high ground also make them prime locations for the construction of bonfires. Tradition holds that the bonfires are intended to help Santa Claus—or as the Cajuns call him Papa Noel, because of course the Cajuns have their own name—find his way to the homes of residents of Southern Louisiana. Louisianans construct wooden pyramid like structures, with smaller support logs that give them the appearance of fences. This is the typical appearance for one of these structures, but over the years people have become more artistic in their creations. Many pay homage to Louisiana’s culture, taking the shape of famous plantation homes, paddleboats, or even the ubiquitous crawfish. St. James Parish, located about 30-40 miles upriver from New Orleans, has the heaviest concentration of bonfires, especially in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. Lutcher even hosts the annual Festival of the Bonfires at Lutcher Recreational Park where they feature live entertainment, food, local crafts, and of course, bonfires. 

            The origins of the Christmas Eve bonfires are not entirely clear. French and German immigrants settled in St. James Parish in the early 18th century. One theory holds that these settlers continued European traditions of holding bonfires on or around the winter and summer solstices after they established themselves in Louisiana. These original pagan practices were incorporated into Christian beliefs as a way of smoothing the way for conversion. The historical record, however, does not support the claim of a widespread practice of bonfires until the 1920s and 1930s. Groups of young men formed bonfire clubs, where they cut down trees, stripped them of their branches, and dragged them to the levees. After constructing the pyramid-like structures, people filled with rubber tires and other flammable materials. After World War 2, the bonfires grew in popularity due to the development of St. James and the surrounding river parishes. And in a rare victory for environmentalism in Louisiana, local governments banned the burning of rubber tires and other toxins—recognizing that they were bad for people’s health. Now these events serve as important cultural and communal events. As with many of Louisiana’s great traditions, they provide an opportunity to listen to music, eat delicious food, and for people to come together as a community and celebrate the holiday season.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Christmas at the Roosevelt

The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans is known for many things--the famous Sazerac Bar, Domenica, the hotel's pizza and Italian restaurant, among others.

At Christmas time, the Roosevelt becomes a winter wonderland in the heart of New Orleans. Take a look at the video below to see the hotel transform itself.

Watch this video to see the Roosevelt in all its Christmas glory.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Christmas at the Gaylord Texan

            The Gaylord Texan is a mammoth all-inclusive resort located in Grapevine, Texas, just outside of Dallas. Its amenities include a 25,000 sq ft spa, indoor and outdoor pools, five acres of gardens, a seasonal water park, a convention center, four restaurants, a bar, an on-site night club, and a café. The Gaylord has over 1,600 guest rooms and 152 suites. The Texas themed atrium includes a replica of the San Antonio Riverwalk. 

            At Christmas time, the Gaylord offers a host of holiday activities for families. The highlights begin with ICE! a holiday ice exhibit carved from 2 million pounds of ice. Kept at a chilly 9 degrees, the 14,000-square-foot exhibit hall features scenes from Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Carved over the course of several months by more than 40 ice sculptors, ICE! also features ice slides for participants to slide down. It also includes one-and-a-half million twinkling lights, 12,000 ornaments, a 52-foot-tall rotating Christmas tree, and a life-sized gingerbread house. 

            ICE!, however, is just one part of the Christmas experience at the Gaylord. There’s also the Lone Star Christmas featuring stilt walkers, singing cowboys, Santa and Mrs. Claus, balloon artists, snow-tubing, snowball making, ice skating, a Christmas carousel, Build-A-Bear, and a gingerbread decorating corner. The video below shows the Gaylord Texan at peak Christmas.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Celebration in the Oaks

            New Orleans City Park is known for its collection of live oak trees, Botanical Garden, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The live oaks are perhaps the most famous part of the park. Some are over six hundred years old and predate the European settlement of Louisiana. The park grounds themselves have a rich and diverse history. The area started out as a dueling ground where male residents of New Orleans could settle their disputes outside of the watchful eyes of city authorities. In the 1850s, a district court created the park out of land left to the city by a deceased plantation owner. By the end of the 19thcentury, the City Park Improvement Association was founded to begin transforming the land into the park that we know today. It was not until the 1980s, however, that one of the park’s most popular and beloved traditions came into existence: Celebration in the Oaks

            In 1984, the Botanical Garden was in need of a new fundraising campaign to fuel the organization’s growth. Mary Rodgers, the chair of the Park’s PR Committee, wanted to drape lights in the Park’s oak trees. However, the idea was too expensive for the time and instead the director of the Botanical Garden, Paul Soniat created a program called “A Tribute to a Christmas Tree” where local artists decorated Christmas Trees. They were displayed in a tent at the Garden. 

            The idea of decorating the oak trees in lights never went away. For a few years, there were small light displays around the Garden. Those in charge of the park believed that a larger light display would be popular, but it took several years for a plan to come into place. In 1987, the oaks at the front of the Park finally were covered in lights. A local energy company designed a way of powering the lights and underwrote the cost of the electricity. By installing the lights at the entrance to the Park, park management had created a whole other way for visitors to experience the lights—in their cars. Before visitors had to walk around the Botanical Garden to view the displays. Now with the lights spread out through the park, guests never had to leave their cars. This meant that many more people could see the lights at any given time. More lights and more people naturally meant growing the size and scope of the event. So Charles Foti, a local sheriff, organized the construction and installation of holiday exhibits including a “Cajun Christmas Village.”       

            By 1991, the Celebration in the Oaks received over 350,000 visitors. The popularity of the event led to the creation of additional garden areas and child’s play areas. Over the years, the Park has added a charity walk/run, guided tours, a miniature train, floats, and a host of other attractions. Like the rest of the city, City Park was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but the organizers of Celebration in the Oaks managed to pull off an abbreviated version in 2005 and as the city recovered from the storm, the celebration grew once again in scope. 

            Currently, the Celebration features nearly 600,000 lights, attracting over 165,000 people per year. The fundraiser provides 13% of City Park’s yearly operating budget. It opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving and closes on January 3. It’s a New Orleans holiday tradition that is not to be missed. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Simpsons: New Orleans Food Montage

Last week, we highlighted when The Simpsons angered some residents of New Orleans with a satirical song describing the Crescent City as full of “Tacky, overpriced souvenir stores. If you wanna go to hell you should take that trip to the Sodom and Gomorrah on the "Mississippi" New Orleans!”

Later in the show’s life, in the season 29 episode “Lisa Gets the Blues,” the Simpson family makes an unexpected detour to New Orleans. It’s a typical 2000s Simpsons entry, there’s just enough to remind you why you liked The Simpsons in the first place, but it pales in comparison to the show’s heyday. Bart buys some voodoo dolls to ward off bullies, Lisa rediscovers her love of jazz thanks to the city and a talking statue of Louis Armstrong(?), and most importantly, Homer discovers the city’s culinary landscape.

As he tells Lisa during a walk through the French Quarter, “Did you know that a man can fall in love with a city? It happens slowly at first. Then when you develop a crush, you find your love just grows and grows.” What follows is a food orgy featuring over two dozen New Orleans restaurants. Can you spot them all?


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Simpsons vs. New Orleans

           In its earliest years on television, The Simpsons generated a lot of controversy from a myriad of figures, but mostly those on the political right. Educators claimed the character of Bart, the young child who dislikes school, set a bad example for young children. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush declared, “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” Bush’s comment was remarkable in that a sitting president of the United States attacked a cartoon family for its lack of moral values. The show weathered these early criticisms and became the defining comedy of the 1990s. In the ensuing years, the show still flirted with controversy, especially in the season 4 episode “A Streetcar Named Marge” with a satirical song attacking New Orleans.

            First, some context. In the episode, Marge, wanting to expand her horizons, auditions for the role of Blanche DuBois in a community theater production of A Streetcar of Desire. Her audition for the new musical version of the famed Tennessee Williams play goes poorly. The director, Llewellyn Sinclair, does not think Marge can portray the constantly put-upon Blanche until he witnesses a beaten-down Marge take a phone call from Homer. Seeing her world-weariness, he casts her in the part. Marge, struggling with a scene where she smashes a bottle and threatens the character of Stanley Kowalski (played by Ned Flanders), learns to channel her anger at Homer, who has not been supportive of her endeavors, into her performance. The episode also contains an extended tribute to the 1963 movie The Great Escape as baby Maggie orchestrates an escape from the tyrannical Ayn Rand School for Tots, where the family has dumped her while Marge pursues her theatrical dreams. 

            The episode is a pitch-perfect satire of both community and Broadway theater. Sinclair declares “I've directed three plays in my career and I've had three heart attacks. That's how much I care, I'm planning for a fourth.” He also points to a review of one of his earlier plays titled, "Play enjoyed by all." At one point, Marge is swinging around the theater on ropes as smoke fills the stage accompanied by a laser show. Lisa suggests that the scene is meant to show “Blanche’s descent into madness.”  

            Controversially, the episode also contained a song from the musical about the city of New Orleans. The lyrics are below: 

Long before the Superdome, where the Saints of football play, 
lived a city that the damned call home, hear their hellish Rondelet. New Orleans! 
Home of pirates, drunks and whores. New Orleans! 
Tacky, overpriced souvenir stores. 
If you wanna go to hell you should take that trip to the Sodom and Gomorrah on the "Mississippi". New Orleans! 
Stinking, rotten "vomity" vile. New Orleans! 
Putrid, brackish, maggoty, foul. New Orleans! 
Crummy, lousy, rancid and rank. New Orleans!

The song parodies the song “No Place like London” from the musical Sweeney Todd that described London as “a hole in the world like a great black pit/ And the vermin of the world inhabit it/ And its morals aren’t worth what a pig would spit/ And it goes by the name of London.”  

            A New Orleans TV critic who received the episode before it aired did not see the song as satire, however. He published the lyrics, sans context, in a newspaper the day the episode aired, prompting complaints from New Orleanians. The complaints prompted the president of Fox to release a statement saying, “It has come to our attention that a comedic song about New Orleans in tonight's episode of "The Simpsons" has offended some city residents and officials. Viewers who watch the episode will realize that the song is in fact a parody of the opening numbers of countless Broadway musicals, which are designed to set the stage for the story that follows. That is the only purpose of this song. We regret that the song, taken out of context, has caused offense. This was certainly not the intention of "The Simpsons" production staff or Fox Broadcasting Company.”

            The Simpsons, for their part, threw together a chalkboard gag for the very next episode declaring “I will not defame New Orleans.” As Simpsons producer Al Jean said, “We didn’t realize people would get so mad. It was the best apology we could come up with in eight words or less.” 

The controversy blew over rather quickly, especially after Bart Simpson served as the Grand Marshal of the Krewe of Tucks during Mardi Gras in 1993. Now "A Streetcar Named Marge" ranks amongst the best episodes the show ever produced, thanks to cleverness, satire, and willingness to skewer "rancid and rank" New Orleans.          

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

New NOLA Airport Terminal Open

            After years of delays and four opening days later, the new terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport has finally opened. And if the interior photos and restauranteurs who have set up inside the airport give any indication, then the Crescent City finally has an airport that welcomes rather than underwhelms visitors. 

            The old airport terminal was 50 years of hodgepodge planning. Terminals were added, upgraded, closed, upgraded again, and renovated. With multiple security checkpoints, scattershot parking, and lackluster food options, there was little positive to say about the old airport terminal. 

            In the old terminal, you were lucky if you could find hot food, mixed in amongst the Hudson Newses, in any given concourse. The food options were so bad that Eater, instead of having an airport food guide like they did for other airports, just recommended visitors eat at restaurants near the airport. In the new terminal, promising options from local chefs abound. First, there are the national chains like Shake Shack and Chick-fil-A. Then there’s local spots like Folse Market from chef John Folse, Emeril’s Table from Emeril Lagasse, a MoPho outpost from Michael Gulatta, Mondo from Susan Spicer, as well as a Café du Monde so you can get your beignet fix at the airport. And good beignets, not whatever the ones they had at the old terminal were. There is also a large mural honoring the late Leah Chase inside Leah’s Kitchen.  

            The layout of the new terminal is much more streamlined. Instead of individual security checkpoints for each concourse, there will now be one large security checkpoint with many more lanes. There will be three concourses, A, B, and C with 6, 14, and 15 gates respectively. Like at the old terminal, there will be short term and long term parking garages adjacent to the new terminal. Additionally, there will be a separate area for taxis and rideshares to stage while waiting for fares.

            Even with the new terminal opening, traffic will be a problem for the foreseeable future. Currently, there are flyovers from Interstate-10 to the old terminal. There are no such flyovers currently in place. The state did not allocate the funds to build them until well after construction on the terminal had begun. So they will not be completed until 2023. So passengers arriving on I-10 from New Orleans will have to make their way through three traffic lights on the heavily congested Loyola Drive. Passengers coming from Baton Rouge will have to navigate two stoplights and an already congested off-ramp. So while the new terminal will be a boon to New Orleans, it’s going to take longer to navigate  in the short-term. At least now, there’s good beignets to soothe the souls of stressed travelers. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Saints Half-Season Check-In


           Now that the Saints are enjoying their well-deserved bye week, we thought it would be a good time to check in and see how their season has gone so far. In short, it’s gone pretty damned well. 

            According to Football Outsiders playoff odds, New Orleans has a 96.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. Additionally, they have a 91.6 percent chance of winning the NFC South. In FO’s simulations, they win an average of 12.4 games and have a 62.9 percent chance of earning a first round bye. Additionally, FO gives the Saints a 12.7 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl. 538 is similarly optimistic about the Saints’ chances, projecting them to finish 13-3 and giving them an 18% chance to win the Super Bowl, second to the New England Patriots. 

            What is more remarkable is that the Saints have taken a 7-1 record into their bye week after losing quarterback Drew Brees for five weeks due to a broken thumb. Under backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Saints won 5 straight games against a mixture of good (Dallas and Seattle) and bad (Jacksonville, Chicago, and Tampa Bay) teams. While Bridgewater has gotten most of the press for filling in for Brees, a closer look at the Saints reveals how the defense and special teams have helped carry the team to the precipice of the playoffs. 

Once again, Michael Thomas is one of the best WRs in the NFL 


            Currently, the Saints rank 7th in Football Outsiders DVOA, just behind the Green Bay Packers. Even without Brees, New Orleans is 6th in offensive DVOA. Part of that is due to Bridgewater, who given his first significant playing time in years, has done everything the Saints have asked him to. He has a completion percentage of 67.7%, right in line with his expected completion percentage of 67.3. Bridgewater has also held onto the ball, throwing only two interceptions in seven games while completing nine touchdown passes. 

            Bridgewater, however, has had a lot of help. Wide receiver Michael Thomas currently ranks second in FO’s DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement). Despite missing several games due to injury, running back Alvin Kamara is 9th in running back DYAR. The Saints have also benefitted from not turning the ball over, ranking 3rd in turnovers per drive. They have similarly benefitted from excellent starting field position, 2nd best in the league. Having elite offensive players, a shorter field, and not turning the ball over have helped the Saints weather the loss of Brees. 

Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen


            Last year, the New Orleans defense finished 11th in DVOA. This was a remarkable turnaround from years past when the Saints routinely had the worst or second worst defense in the league. Thanks to the team investing significant draft capital in defensive players and the defensive acumen of coordinator Dennis Allen, New Orleans currently sits 6th in defensive DVOA, halfway through 2019. The Saints are 8th in opposing points per drive and 6th in plays per drive. They have been similarly balanced in stopping the run and passing games. They rank 11th against the pass and 7th against the run. 

            In two of the five games without Brees, the defense held its opponents to 10 points or fewer. Additionally, garbage time touchdowns by the Bears and Buccaneers inflated the Saints points allowed per game numbers. 


 Special Teams 

            The real surprise for the Saints has been the special teams. In recent years, New Orleans special teams, similar to their defense, languished near the bottom of the league. Under new special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, the Saints rank 12th in special teams DVOA.  Kicker Wil Lutz has been just above average this season (0.9 expected points added), as has punter Thomas Morstead (1.1 points) but the real standout has been the punt return team with 6.5 expected points added, best in the league. The kickoff coverage has been especially disappointing, however, costing the Saints -6.7 points. 

            So while Bridgewater and Saints head coach Sean Payton have received much of the credit for the Saints ability to withstand the loss of Brees, the defense and special teams have held up their end of the bargain as well.        

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Who Funded the Rebel Alliance?

         To understand the scope of the challenge the Rebel Alliance faced, we need to first look at their opposition: the Galactic Empire. The Empire had the funding and resources available to construct two Death Stars, build and maintain a massive fleet of star destroyers, thousands of TIE fighters, and feed and cloth countless snow, scout, and stormtroopers. It had innumerable bases and research facilities across the galaxy. The bureaucracy and infrastructure required to keep the Empire functioning is truly mindboggling. 

         But when we look at it more closely, we can see how the Empire maintained this massive military industrial complex. There were thousands of star systems under its control, providing access to nearly unlimited raw materials. Mustafar, the volcano planet from Revenge of the Sith, had extensive mining facilities to extract minerals from the planet’s lava supply. The planet of Kamino was known for its cloning facilities, providing thousands of clone and later storm troopers to fill the ranks of the Empire’s armies. Coruscant, the Imperial capital, came to take over an entire planet, devoted to maintaining the Imperial bureaucracy. Emperor Palpatine kept the local systems in line by maintaining the apparatus of the Galactic Republic when he came to power. After all, why destroy an entire governing system when you can just shift its priorities a bit? 

         In order to defeat the Empire, the Alliance needed a similarly large and complex organization. The beginning of the original trilogy undersells the size and scope of the Rebellion. In A New Hope, they are a relatively small force both in numbers and ships. They send maybe 30 attack fighters against the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin. Luke Skywalker is there for about 10 minutes before they put him in an X-Wing and send him off to die. The Empire Strikes Back features a stronger Rebellion, armed with  numerous transport ships, an ion cannon capable of disabling a star destroyer, and a larger stable of fighters. While Rogue Group battles the invading Imperials, another group of pilots escorts the transports off of Hoth. They even have a medical frigate. Return of the Jedi finally reveals the full power of the Alliance. Leia speaks of the Alliance assembling for its attack on the Second Death Star, suggesting they operate in a more fragmented structure than we have previously seen. They gather the full power of their fleet that, despite Admiral Ackbar’s protestations, proves capable of holding its own against Imperial Star Destroyers. 

Ships don't come cheap 

Now how did they pay for all of it? A fleet of star ships requires repairs and equipment. Soldiers need food and weapons. While it is conceivable that the Rebel troops are eschewing pay, they still have to have supplies. Getting those supplies becomes a lot easier when you can pay for them in cash rather than vague promises of Galactic equality. Perhaps they stole from the Imperials and others? Stealing from the Empire makes sense, but as a rebellion to restore peace and justice to the Galaxy, stealing from suppliers is bad in both the short term—those people are going to want their stuff back—and long term—they’ll shoot you the next time they see you. 

Spies and other collaborators don’t work for free, so they need compensation. And not just any kind of compensation, but cold hard cash. You can preach all of the high minded idealism about freeing the Galaxy from tyranny that you want, but if you want some Bothan spies to risk their necks (do Bothans have necks?) you need to fork over the dough. And as we’ve seen the Rebellion has plenty of cash on hand. As Han Solo readies to leave Yavin 4 in A New Hope he’s packing up his 17,000 credits—not including any bonuses for rescuing Princess Leia and providing the Alliance with the plans to the Death Star. Rebellions are a cash-only business. 

 Likely the Rebellion relied on several different sources of funding. First, the Alliance has some very wealthy benefactors. Princess Leia’s family, the Organas, was the ruling family of Alderaan, with the ample access to wealth that royalty provides. Additionally the Rebellion drew much of its leadership from the nobles of Alderaan and sympathetic senators (themselves quite rich). Their prosperous positions gave the Rebels access to large revenue streams. While these people contributed their time and effort to the struggle against the Empire, they likely opened their wallets as well. This well of funding, however, may well have dried up after the destruction of Alderaan. With so many supporters and leaders killed, including Leia’s father, a significant amount of the Rebellion’s financial backing probably died in the holocaust that enveloped the planet—access codes and passwords to hidden bank accounts crying out in terror. 

Perhaps the Alliance managed to survive this catastrophe with smart financial planning. Maybe they diversified their assets and kept them in banks and other repositories where they could have easy access, even if the account holder died, or her planet was blown up by an angry Imperial administrator. Even if they didn’t keep all their money hidden under their space mattresses, Alderaan’s destruction likely put a dent in the Rebellion’s finances. 

Bye-bye to the source of rebel funding 

According to Wookiepedia, the Rebels also sold “Alliance War Bonds.” Wookiepedia describes them as low yield, long term bonds issued by the Rebels. Investors could buy bonds from the Rebellion in exchange for repayment five to twenty five years after the conclusion of the Galactic Civil War. They, however, promised investors only a small profit on their return. These bonds made for a lousy investment and likely the only people who purchased them were either taken in by their smooth-talking neighborhood Alliance salesman or their sympathies for the Rebels. Surely the Galactic stock exchange offered better and more profitable alternatives.

Wookiepedia also tells us that the Alliance issued its own form of credits (the galactic currency) that could be swapped at a 25-1 exchange rate for Imperial credits. Such a high exchange rate shows how little the rest of the Galaxy valued Alliance currency. Additionally the Rebellion likely never issued enough credits to circulate and become a viable alternative means of exchange. The money is only as good as those who issue it. Which currency had the better long term future: the Galactic Empire or the Rebel Alliance?  

The last and most viable option for the Rebels would have been to borrow from the InterGalactic Banking Clan (IGBC). The Clan had already shown its willingness to support rebel causes by allying itself with Count Dooku and the Separatist movement during the Clone Wars. They had helped fund the creation of a droid army that pushed the Republic to the brink of defeat. They had also earned the scorn of the Emperor. Palpatine had the banking clan’s chairman killed by Darth Vader on Mustafar at the end of the Clone Wars. The IGBC and the Alliance seem like natural allies. 

The IGBC could get revenge on the Emperor by loaning money to the Rebels. They could also charge some exorbitantly high interest rates (rebellions aren’t known for paying back their debts) and make a profit, regardless of the outcome. If the Rebels triumphed over the Empire, then the IGBC had financed the winning side. If the Alliance lost, the IGBC could just take their profits and move on. This deal also makes sense from the Alliance’s perspective as well. Who better to go to for cash than a banking clan with a grudge against the Empire and a history of fomenting rebellion? 

So there you have it, the answer answer to the question that has plagued precisely no one regarding the funding of the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Sazerac House

            When talking Sazerac in New Orleans, things can get a little confusing. First, there’s the Sazerac cocktail, comprised of a combination of cognac or whiskey, absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters, and sugar. Then there’s Sazerac, the rye-whiskey brand. And finally, there’s the Sazerac Company, makers of the Sazerac rye-whiskey. The Sazerac Company, for its part, doesn't just own Sazerac whiskey. Rather it is one of the largest spirits companies in the United States. Currently it owns nine distilleries including Buffalo Trace Distillery, W.L. Weller bourbon, Southern Comfort and a number of other brands. They also produce Pappy Van Winkle and Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon. In total, the company owns or produces over 300 different types of spirits.  

            The company was founded after Thomas H. Handy bought a bar called the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans in 1869. The bar had been named after the Sazerac cocktail, created in the mid-1800s by Antoine Amedee Peychaud, an immigrant from Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti). Peychaud sold Sazeracs out of his pharmacy on Royal Street in the French Quarter in 1838. Peychaud had created his own bitters—an alcoholic liquid flavored with herbs or other botanical products to add bitterness to cocktails—that are now an essential part of the Sazerac cocktail.  

            At the beginning of October, the Sazerac Company opened the Sazerac House in a formerly dilapidated building on the corner of Canal and Magazine Streets.  The multi-level museum, located just blocks away from the original Sazerac Coffee House, is more than just a bar. The first floor houses a 500 gallon still, five feet across, that makes a barrel of Sazerac whiskey a day. The second floor has digital bartenders and demonstrations about how to properly make a Sazerac cocktail. The third floor features the history of the cocktail in New Orleans. With walls covered in cityscapes of early 20th century New Orleans, visitors see the entire process of cocktail production—from the port of New Orleans all the way to the glasses of bar patrons across the city. 

If you want to make your own Sazerac at home, Sazerac House has a recipe for you.

  • 1.5 oz Sazerac Rye Whiskey
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
  • .25 oz Herbsaint
  • Lemon twist


Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice. In a second Old-Fashioned glass, place a sugar cube and add three dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters to it. Crush the sugar cube. Add 1.5 oz Sazerac Rye Whiskey to the glass with the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar. Add ice and stir. Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with .25 oz Herbsaint. Discard the remaining Herbsaint. Strain the whiskey / bitters / sugar mixture from the glass into the Herbsaint coated glass and garnish with a lemon peel.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Tragic Hero of Ghostbusters

         The movie Ghostbusters epitomizes three central features of Reagan era America: greed, the benefits of trickle-down economics, and disdain for government regulation. The film begins with our three intrepid scientists, Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) being kicked out of a prestigious university for failing to produce any meaningful research. The dean informs Venkman that “Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable. You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!” Dr. Venkman, however, is the perfect 1980s businessman. 

         With their university grant gone, the three "scientists" decide to establish “the indispensable defense science of the next decade; professional paranormal investigations and eliminations.” In order to do so, Stantz agrees to take out a third mortgage on his house at 19% interest. Venkman eases his conscience by pointing out “everyone has three mortgages nowadays.” Spengler notes that his interest rate payments in the first five years will total $95,000. Here is our first example of the excesses of the Reagan years. The bank hands out a predatory loan to three men who should have never received one in the first place. But if they fail to pay, then the bank will recoup its money by seizing Ray's house. 

         Next the Ghostbusters purchase a dilapidated firehouse for their headquarters. Ever the voice of wisdom, Spengler details how the building has, “serious metal fatigue in all the load-bearing members, the wiring is substandard, it's completely inadequate for our power needs, and the neighborhood is like a demilitarized zone.” Stantz, meanwhile, is impressed by the fire pole and demands they buy the place immediately. Here, the force of greed at work is the real estate agent, sensing the Ghostbusters’ desperate need for a place of business. She seizes the opportunity to unload an undesirable property. By the time, the Ghostbusters business fails, she’ll have collected her fees and someone else will have to deal with the fallout.  

         Once they open their doors, the Ghostbusters become as predatory and greedy as the bank and real estate agent. They charge the manager of the Sedgwick Hotel five thousand dollars for trapping and storing the establishment’s pesky poltergeist. This price does not include the thousands of dollars of damage the Ghostbusters caused to the 12th floor of the hotel and the main ballroom (not to mention the loss of the future business of Mrs. Van Hoffman whose event was ruined by their actions). As their fame soars, the Ghostbusters dart around Manhattan battling supernatural forces and dancing the night away in famous clubs. They grace the covers of magazines, appear on television, and become celebrities in their own right. The exploited have become the exploiters. 

         As the Ghostbusters fame and workload grow, we see trickle-down economics in action. They hire the film’s only African-American character, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson)—he’s also the first man to come through the door. When asked by the company secretary if he believes in the paranormal, Zeddmore replies, “Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.” As an African American seeking employment from an all-white firm in the 1980s, Zeddmore knows that if he wants the job, he needs to keep his mouth shut. The Ghostbusters are, according to the principles of Reaganomics, letting their success trickle down. They hire from the local community. Zeddmore, once unemployed, now has a job. He will soon have money in his pocket to inject back into the economy. As the Ghostbusters profit, so will he. As the company expands, they can hire more local residents. The resulting rising tide will lift everyone’s boat. Little did Winston know that he was proof of the genius of Reaganomics. 

         Ghostbusters also highlights the Reagan administration’s hatred of regulation. While Gozer the Gozerian is the film’s ostensible film, Walter Peck of the Environmental Protection Agency is a close second. Peck arrives at the Ghostbusters headquarters and asks to view the containment facility for the ghosts. Since the Ghostbusters only trap the ghosts, Peck wants to see where they are held. Venkman denies him entry. Venkman, now a successful self-interested businessman and capitalist, recognizes that Peck represents a threat to the Ghostbusters’ growing and profitable business. So he throws Peck out. 

         Peck’s subsequent attempts to interfere in the Ghostbusters’ business offers further proof the dangers of regulation. When Peck expresses skepticism about the company’s methods and shuts off power to their storage facility, his actions have unintentionally disastrous consequences. Turning off the protection grid releases all the ghosts who then go and terrorize Manhattan. Peck then confronts the Ghostbusters in the office of the Mayor of New York. The Mayor, however, like any callous politician, acts in own self-interest. He believes that the Ghostbusters plan of fighting the impending arrival of Gozer the Gozerian will lead to his own re-election. Now that the Mayor has hired the fox to guard the henhouse, Peck is left to wander the streets of New York City. He witnesses the destructive rampage of a gigantic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (conjured from the imagination of Ray Stantz). Peck suffers a final indignity for attempting regulate big business. After the destruction of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, through some dubious luck of crossing the streams and the door swinging both ways, Peck is buried in a cavalcade of marshmallow. The Ghostbusters, due to dumb luck and their own exploitative actions, receive all the credit for saving the city. Meanwhile the man who tried to protect the public, Walter Peck, receives nothing but scorn and derision.

         So the next time you watch Ghostbusters don’t think of it as the classic comedy that you know and love, but rather as the paean to Reaganomics that it truly is.         

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Back to Future

        The Back to the Future movies are a staple of 1980s. Millions of millennials grew up watching and quoting the films. Doc Brown and Marty McFly have become enduring lexicons in pop culture. Revisiting the films today, they reflect the era in which they were made and also remain supremely entertaining. 

         The plot of each film has a similar structure. At the beginning of Back to the Future Part 1, Marty McFly listens to his mother, Lorraine, explain how she met George, her husband, an event that Marty interferes with shortly thereafter. In Part 2, Marty and Doc head into the future, but then must travel into the past to fix the broken timeline. As soon as Doc Brown mentions his affinity for the Old West he winds up living there. The films also share similar touchstones; chase scenes, Marty getting knocked out, and a member of the evil Tannen family covered in manure. Each successive scene echoes the previous ones but are never carbon copies of one another. 

Back to the Future offers clearly defined villains who always pay for their crimes. Biff Tannen and his relatives, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (his great-grandfather) and Griff (his grandson) harass the McFlys across generations. Biff is first shown bullying George after crashing George’s car. Biff exclaims, “I can’t believe you loaned me a car and didn’t tell me it had a blind spot!” After George knocks Biff out in the new 1955, Biff cowers around George, but flashes his anger at others. The alternate 1985 shows Biff operating with impunity. He admits to Marty that he murdered George in order to marry Lorraine and reminds him, “Kid, I own the police!” 

         In 2015, Griff and his gang terrorize the downtown of Hill Valley while attempting to kill Marty. Only after Griff and gang crash into the courthouse do the police attempt to interfere. 

         Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, featured in Back to the Future Part 3, is similarly violent. He’s quick to anger, attempting to kill Marty after being called “Mad Dog.” He’s dumb, forgetting how to count to ten. The Tannens, however, always seem to get their cosmic reward, landing in a pile of excrement and screaming, “I hate manure!” 

Biff Tannen 

         The product placement and depictions of future technology within the trilogy reflect the cultural values and concerns of the 1980s. The films present consumerism as quintessentially American. Marty McFly always orders (and receives) a nice cold Pepsi. Texaco will fill your car with gasoline in 1955 and havoline in 2015. A fresh Pizza Hut pizza—hydrate level 4 please—is only seconds away in your Black & Decker food hydrator. Mattel skateboards and hoverboards keep the youth of America entertained. Marty sports stylish Nikes, communicates via AT&T, and his son relaxes by watching six channels at once. In 2015, Marty works for a Japanese firm, typifying the 1980s concern about Asian economic supremacy. Marty hangs out in the Café 80s, a nostalgia driven restaurant. There are fax machines in every room. The people may change, but American brands endure.  

         The trilogy’s treatment of Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, is also problematic. Jennifer appears in the beginning of Back to the Future Part 1 in the role of supportive high school girlfriend. At the end of the film, Doc demands Marty and Jennifer come with him to the future. Jennifer naturally has a lot of questions about her future, although most are stereotypical and demeaning towards women. She wants to see her wedding dress! Her house! Her kids! Immediately annoyed by Jennifer, Doc Brown drugs her and leaves her in an alley so he and Marty can get to the business at hand—saving Marty’s son. 

         Doc insists that Jennifer will be fine, as anyone left unattended in a strange alley would be. Doc then disappears to intercept Marty Jr. and then goes to pick up his dog, Einstein. So why couldn’t he keep Jennifer in the car? After thwarting Griff, Doc and Marty have to go rescue Jennifer after she’s discovered by some 2015 policewomen. They naturally assume she might be in need of aid—after all she’s been drugged and left passed out amongst a pile of garbage. Marty then returns her to 1985 and she remains out of sight until Marty returns from the Old West. 

All the product placement 

         In Part 1, Marty’s plan to reunite his parents involves him making unwanted sexual advances towards his own mother. After interfering in the original meeting between George and Lorraine, Marty is now the object of his mother’s desires. He agrees to take her to the “Enchantment Under the Sea Dance” where she and George kissed for the first time. To make sure that George will take his rightful place as Lorraine’s love interest, Marty proposes to become sexually aggressive with her, allowing George to interfere and play the hero. This entire plot also reveals Lorraine’s total lack of agency in deciding her own future. She is apparently fickle enough to fall in love with just about anybody (except for Biff). Even though the plan is his idea, Marty recognizes that there’s something deeply disturbing about putting the moves on his own mother. Biff Tannen, however, interrupts their liaison and  has no qualms about attempting to rape Lorraine. George, however, arrives and knocks Biff out, rescuing her.  

In an ordinary world, Dr. Emmett Brown would raise red flag after red flag. First, in order to power his time machine, he steals plutonium from a group of Libyan nationalists, who had hired him to build them a nuclear bomb. How Brown came into contact with a terrorist group certainly raises some questions. Why he thought that stealing their plutonium was a good idea is even more troubling. The Libyans demonstrate their willingness to kill anyone who double crosses them, gunning down Doc in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall. 

After Marty purchased Gray’s Sports Almanac to win some money on the side, Doc chides him about using the time machine for personal gain. Yet the entire premise of coming to 2015 was for Marty’s personal gain—preventing his son from going to jail.  Only after Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer runs into her future self, Doc decides that he needs to destroy the time machine. In all the years of constructing a time machine Doc never considered its implications. He notes that “The risk is just too great as this incident proves. And I was behaving responsibly! Just imagine the danger if the time machine were to fall in the wrong hands!” Worse than a scientist who collaborates with terrorists and uses time travel to fix the family of his teenage best friend? To top off his temporal irresponsibility, after swearing off time travel forever, Doc builds a second time machine to return to 1985. His purpose? To give Marty a picture and to pick up his dog. In the alternate 1985 Doc Brown had been institutionalized, maybe the real 1985 should have been too.  

         After returning with a note from the future, Jennifer asks Doc why it’s been erased. He implausibly, but persuasively states the thesis of the entire series. He tells Jennifer that “Your future hasn’t been written yet, no one’s has. So make it a good one.” 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Infinite Jest

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. 
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!
(Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1) 

        The genius of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is in its understanding and sympathy for human beings. It is deeply human and humane, exploring the significance of emotional connections and what happens when those connections break down. It is somehow also fitting that the text is incredibly frustrating, like our attempts to forge emotion connections, to read as Wallace intentionally interrupts the text with numerous digressions. 

         Infinite Jest—the title is taken from Hamlet’s eulogy of Yorick quoted aboverevolves around three main groups of characters and a host of ancillary and memorable ones. The first is the Incandenza family: deceased patriarch, James, a man who made a fortune in optics before becoming a filmmaker and founding the Enfield Tennis Academy outside of Boston; matriarch Avril, who runs the academy along with her sometime lover and step-brother Charles Travis; sons Orin, an NFL punter with a penchant for sleeping with young mothers; Mario, born with a deformity and a budding filmmaker; and finally, Hal, a burgeoning tennis prodigy with an intellect rivaling that of his father. 

         Next, there are the various councilors and drug addicts at the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. Finally, there are a group of wheelchair bound Quebecois separatist assassins searching for a copy of James’s last (and legally banned) film, Infinite Jest. Infamously, any person who watches the film only yearns to keep watching it until they die. The Quebecois seek the film as a weapon against O.N.A.N. (the Organization of North American Nations). After O.N.A.N., a merger between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, turned a section of the Northeastern United States into the Great Concavity, a gigantic hazardous waste dump, and forced it upon Canada. 

         Wallace’s ability to depict human psychology is the greatest strength of Infinite Jest. As he bounces back and forth between drug addicts, adolescent teenage tennis players, wheelchair bound terrorists, Wallace describes shame cycles, teenage anxieties, love, and depression in frighteningly realistic terms, coming across as intimately and deeply real to anyone who has experienced these things for themselves. His description of depression is particularly evocative:

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self's most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. Itis an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible. (695-696) 

While most of the characters in the novel explore their feelings, Hal Incandenza does not. He may be brilliant and a gifted tennis player, but he is unable to feel emotion of any kind. Hal, Wallace writes, “hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny” (694). The causes of his malady range from his damaged upbringing in the Incandenza household to eating mold as a child to his marijuana addiction. The novel suggests that James, the only person to recognize Hal’s emotional emptiness, made the film Infinite Jest  to emotionally draw out his son out. As Aaron Swartz wrote, “Hal moves outwardly but doesn’t feel inside; victims of the Entertainment feel—something—inside but don’t move outwardly.” In a novel about emotions, the protagonist is someone searching for the ability to feel, making it the characteristic that most clearly defines our humanity. 

Wallace also uses dark humor to highlight the search for emotional connection. James Incandenza, Hal’s father, commits suicide by sticking his head in a microwave. Hal relates the discovery of James’s body in darkly humorous way that highlights his emotional emptiness. When describing where James killed himself, Hal tells his brother Orin, “The microwave, O. The rotisserie microwave over next to the fridge, on the freezer side, on the counter, under the cabinet with the plates and bowls to the left of the fridge, as you face the fridge” (248). 

One of the funniest and most memorable scenes in the book is when the tennis players at Enfield play an intricately complex game called Eschaton. Played on the school’s tennis courts with tennis balls serving as nuclear warheads, Eschaton, involving complex linear regressions and game theory, simulates the realpolitik of international diplomacy. The game, under the supervision of game master Otis Lord or O. Lord, however, quickly devolves into childishness with hilarious results. Wallace seems to suggest that despite our best efforts to bring order and rules to the world, we are all just children on a playground. 

Infinite Jest is also a deeply frustrating and, at times, difficult read. Wallace packs the book with 388 endnotes consisting of 96 pages of additional text. Some of the endnotes have footnotes in them as well. Apart from an occasionally funny joke—the best was a description of James’s movies—they’re mostly a place for Wallace to show off his knowledge of pharmaceuticals or indulge in asides or further conversations he left out of the main text. They often interrupt the flow of the narrative and frustrate the reader. 

Infinite Jest is a mammoth text, a testament to Wallace’s prodigious talent and his keen understanding of the human psyche.