Dale DeGroff earned the title "King of Cocktails" while working as the head bartender for New York's fabled Rainbow Room. Tony Abou-Ganim, a.k.a. "The Modern Mixologist," leap-frogged to national acclaim more recently as chief of libations for Las Vegas' Bellagio Resort.
Together the two are widely considered the greatest standard-bearers of their industry. Think of them as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs with a twist. Where the computer icons embrace technology, DeGroff and Abou-Ganim often scorn its influence especially when it comes to the craft of making cocktails.
Last week the duo breezed into the Clayton Ritz-Carlton to put on a demonstration sponsored by Finlandia. In attendance were dozens of area bartenders looking to purloin some pointers from the pros. Unreal snuck into the event on an invite from erstwhile Fox & Hounds barkeep Mark Pollman, who claims he hadn't sipped vodka since draining 15 martinis in a single sitting 25 years ago.
"The problem is I can't stop," Pollman explained as he bellied up to a table lined with dozens of vodka samples. "I get sloppy. Then I get horny. But I'm too sloppy to do anything about being horny, so I get mean. It's best that I just don't touch the stuff."
But even a vodkaphobe like Pollman couldn't resist the concoctions spilling forth from DeGroff and Abou-Ganim's magical cocktail shakers. The bartenders pride themselves on using only the freshest fruits and herbs for their beverages. The advent of pre-mixes, in their opinion, is the single worst disaster to hit their profession since Prohibition.
The mixologists served up drinks inspired by red currants, spearmint leaves, homemade simple syrups and freshly squeezed grapes. Unreal's favorite consisted of vodka, cinnamon syrup, ginger beer and lemon, garnished with thin slices of cameo apples.
Considering that the freshest item behind the counter at many St. Louis taverns is a Budweiser with born-on-date date from this millennium, is it really fair to expect similar creative spirits from area barkeeps?
The answer is "yes," says Abou-Ganim, who lets on that he's currently in talks with Anheuser-Busch regarding the development of beer-inspired cocktails. "The key to making a great cocktail be it vodka, whiskey or beer is not to limit yourself."
Heeding that sage advice, we helped ourselves to our sixth cocktail of the day.
Chubby Is As Chubby Does
If Mayor Slay's still looking to blow a hole in surveys such the one last year that found St. Louis to be the most dangerous city in America, he'd do well to introduce into evidence the January/February issue of Cooking Light magazine. In it, editors ranked America's healthiest cities, and St. Louis placed a shockingly respectable 14th, besting both New York City and Austin, Texas. Turns out the spare tire surrounding St. Louis' midsection is in our imagination, says Cooking Light features editor Philip Rhodes.
"The folks in Milwaukee were surprised, too," laughs Rhodes, citing our northern cousin's eighth-place finish, "but when you broaden the categories, you start to see that it's not always the same five cities" that rank the highest. Yes, the top spots are, predictably, Seattle and Portland, Oregon; but from there the rankings turn surreal, with Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Tucson all placing in the top ten.
Unreal's still skeptical, but Rhodes assures us the survey is legit. He explains that Cooking Light examined seventeen different categories, including number of farmers' markets, Zagat restaurant guide ratings, James Beard awards, Centers for Disease Control stats, and parks and recreation info.
Rhodes, who has never seen a St. Louis beer belly firsthand, says we ranked high in per-capita farmers' markets and did well when it came to chefs' wages. "Another surprise was the percent who have been told by their doctors that they have diabetes," says Rhodes. "In the most recent data from the CDC, St. Louis comes in with 5.5 percent. And when you compare that with other cities where that percentage is closer to 10 percent, you start to see why a place that might seem like a surprising choice really isn't."
We urge Rhodes to take a stroll through the Schnucks at Grand and Gravois and then tell us St. Louis is a healthy city. "You could come to Birmingham (Alabama, Cooking Light's home base) and go to Woodlawn and see the same thing. And I don't know where it is, but I bet Seattle has that place, too."
Perhaps, but it's surely not as rotund and dimply as ours.
Ever pick up one of those bridal magazines, the kind that weigh ten pounds and have names like Weddings with Style and InStyle Weddings? Neither has Un "Playa 4 Life" Real, so we weren't aware that their pages glamorize white weddings. And not the Billy Idol kind, either.
Unreal: So, you analyzed 57 bridal magazines published between 2000 and 2004 and found that the brides were almost always white.
Cynthia Frisby, professor of advertising at the University of Missouri's journalism school: We had to do a lot of interlibrary loans. A couple of the librarians said, "You're trying to do what?" They don't anticipate that somebody would want to back-order them.
Does this have anything to do with those articles about how middle-class black women can't find a decent black man to marry?
That's not why I started the study. I do a lot of research on multicultural issues. It really just started when Oprah put herself on the front cover of a magazine simply because she was tired of not seeing "black folk," as she called it, on front covers.
Few brides in these magazines were old ladies, men or animals. Does that speak to ageism, sexism and anthropomorphism?
It probably does, but it might convey the subtle message that black women aren't interested in getting married. We found that black women not only come in at the same rate to get wedding dresses, but their wedding parties are larger, and they definitely are reading those magazines. Dogs don't get married that's not realistic.
Why is it that white women go to tanning booths to try to look black, black women straighten their hair to try to look white, and men pluck their eyebrows to look like women?
I did a study two months ago that showed that everybody, black or white, has a preference for a certain skin color, a baseline. The tan, the medium brown.
Why do women at bachelorette parties always wear plastic penises on their heads?
Ahhh! I don't know, I've never seen that. I'll have to come to [Laclede's Landing] and check it out.
Somebody Buy My Crap
Item: Christmas Story Leg Lamp
Issue: January 8
Unreal: OK, so with TBS running 24 hours of Christmas Story each year, the movie has become something of a holiday tradition. But aren't you a month late in selling your lamp?
Dave: Yeah. This is the slow time of the year. We usually sell them on eBay, but my wife thought the "Bargain Box" might be a good way to get rid of extras.
You make these lamps?
It all started four years ago. My son is a huge fan of the movie, so we decided to get him one of the lamps for Christmas. We went online and came across someone selling six mannequin legs. I thought, ‘Shoot, I can make these myself.' We made my son a lamp and sold the other five on the Internet.
Is it a lucrative business?
Well, it pays. The next year I ordered 120 legs, 60 pairs of patent-leather shoes, 60 pairs of fishnet stockings and enough fringed lampshades for all. It was like Santa's workshop over here. I was exhausted.
Do you still get a thrill putting on the stockings?
Oh, no, my wife does that. She's sort of like one of Santa's chief elves. Actually she's bigger than that. She's the boss of this outfit.
What's you're favorite scene in the movie or do you just hate it by now?
Of course, I enjoy the scene when the lamp arrives. I send my lamps out in a box marked "Fragile" just like the movie. I also like when the boy gets his tongue frozen to the metal pole.
Any plans to add metal poles to your list of wares next year?
No. But that's not a bad idea. They sure would be a lot easier to make.
From time to time Unreal trolls the St. Louis Post-Dispatch classified section's "Bargain Box." We cannot guarantee any item remains available for purchase at press time.