Friday, May 29, 2009

Modesto Graffiti

There's a tendency in the Bay Area to forget that the California Central Valley exists, and to many people it's like an annoying obstacle between home and the Sierra Nevada. I've always had an appreciation for the Valley, and I love driving all of the old mostly forgotten farm roads that crisscross the state. For some reason, I've spent more time exploring the backroads than I have poking around the towns of the Central Valley. Before this weekend, Modesto was just the place I would stop to grab a drink on the way to Yosemite, and I had never given it much more thought — it's just another one of those old Valley farm towns that's mostly mini-malls now, right?

Modesto does have its fair share of malls and a depressed old downtown, and actually consistently ranks as one of the worst places to live in the US, but any town that has a minor league baseball team called the Modesto Nuts clearly has more to it than meets the eye. One thing they certainly have is a snappy rhyming motto, "Water Wealth Contentment Health", which puts nearby Turlock's mildly punny "The Key to the Valley" to shame, and they have a beautiful old arch proclaiming the motto to the world.

The arch is nice, but in my world there's really one over-arching reason to visit Modesto: A&W. The very first A&W was in Lodi, California, not far to the north of Modesto and the place where John Fogerty seemed to get stuck at least twice, but Modesto has one of the few remaining A&W drive-ins, complete with carhops on roller skates.

Initial signs upon pulling into the parking lot are promising:

Elvis on the fender of an old truck below an old-fashioned A&W sign

A Packard bearing the old A&W logo and the license plate "MR ANW"

I was expecting something flashy in that 50s space age Cadillac tail-fin way, with big neon signs and sparkly naugahyde booths, but the Modesto A&W Drive-In is very unassuming, and arguably better: it's not trying to be campy or pseudo-retro, it's just a simple working drive-in that has managed to survive.

It's not entirely without flash, and I might describe it a bit differently on a Saturday night when the Marilyn Monroe look-alike shows up and they hold Elvis karaoke on the back of an old truck. Okay, so there's a little camp, but could you possibly resist if you ran a place like this?

A certain Modesto native named George Lucas also loved the A&W Drive-In it seems, and it served as his inspiration for American Graffiti, set in Modesto (although filmed elsewhere in Northern California). Naturally, the walls inside are covered with American Graffiti memorabilia to play up the connection.

Graffiti memoribilia

One of the best roller skating bear murals I've seen

And there are in fact carhops on roller skates

Hooray for good junk food

I had printed a coupon off of the A&W website for a free small root beer float with purchase. That one in front in the picture above, that's the small. You gotta love US portion sizes. It's not that we don't understand the concept of moderation, we choose to ignore it in favor of more soda and deep-fried cheese.

If you look carefully, you can just make out frozen edges in the root beer float

As we were sitting down to our amazing looking junk food meal, I heard someone on the other side of the room say "Well, we're not being heart-healthy...but, oh well" - my sentiments exactly. It's junk food: don't eat it every day, but enjoy yourself once in a while and don't expect to feel like frolicking in the sunshine afterward.

Not heart-healthy, but so tasty

Maggie summed it up perfectly in the middle of the meal when she said, "This is the real thing, dude." [Slight pause] "I'm getting a little queasy from the real thing." Queasy or no she had another onion ring.

Mr. Heart-Healthy across the room was then heard to say, "So once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine," probably when he ganked a golden onion ring from his friend. Anyone who can recite a Belloq quote from Raiders of the Lost Ark verbatim deserves an onion ring.

This could buy me craploads of onion rings

After sitting for awhile in Moose Park along the Tuolumne River chomping on Altoids and attempting to digest the week's worth of calories and sodium we'd just consumed, we ventured out to see a bit more of the town. Modesto is proud of their George Lucas connection, and remarkably managed to retain this pride through Howard the Duck. In fact they even named a small corner park George Lucas Plaza complete with American Graffiti statue.

Is this Shirley and Opie in bronze?

Some might find it a bit crazy to drive a little over an hour away for junk food, but it was well worth it to me, plus we got to explore Modesto and we took a few beautiful backroads (Maze Rd. across the Valley, Corral Hollow Rd. into Livermore) on the way back to the Bay Area. If you're hankering for a burger and a root beer float at the Modesto A&W Drive-In, you can find it at 1404 G St. at the corner of of 14th St. Marilyn and Elvis show up on Saturday nights. George Lucas Plaza and the American Graffiti statue are at the corner of Downey Ave. and 17th St.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Martinez, Martinis, and Muir

If you were to ask someone from Martinez, California what makes the town notable, they would probably say (a) Joe DiMaggio was born and raised in Martinez, and (b) the Martini was invented in Martinez. While the first part is undeniably true, the origin of the Martini is more controversial and a bit harder to believe.

"Tell me that story about the Martini again, Joe."

I actually want the story to be true, but it's just a bit too tall of a tale. The Martinez Martini creation myth goes as follows: a miner struck it rich in the 1849 Gold Rush. While returning to San Francisco flush with new wealth, he stopped in Julio Richelieu's saloon in Martinez (on Ferry St. where the disappointingly unhistoric J T LaBeau's stands today) to celebrate with some champagne. The bartender, not having any champagne, told the miner that he had something much better called the "Martinez Special" made with 3 parts gin, 1 part dry vermouth (or sauternes in some versions of the story), and a dash of orange bitters, stirred with ice and garnished with an olive. The miner liked the drink so much that he tried to order it in a bar in San Francisco, but the bartender hadn't heard of the drink so the miner had to show him how it was made. The bartender liked the drink so much that he started serving it, and over time it caught on and eventually became known as the Martini.

Even Martini-girl doesn't know the truth

Whether this contains even a scrap of truth or not, it's a good story. What surprised me was that the name has nothing to do with Martini & Rossi, noted makers of vermouth, but the Martini clearly predates the time when Martini & Rossi started making and exporting dry white vermouth. Because obscure cocktails are currently en vogue, a drink called "The Martinez" made from gin, vermouth, bitters, maraschino liqueur, and a twist of lemon has been making a recent comeback in bars (I think I'll try it if they leave out the maraschino liqueur).

Beyond Joltin' Joe and the Martini, a local who remembers their school field trips might also mention that Martinez was the long-time home of one of the most famous and influential figures in American history: John Muir.

"Nae, Mr. Roosevelt, ye won't find me using any maraschino liqueur."

There are several ironies here that probably cause old John to turn over in his grave on a daily basis: the founder of the Sierra Club and the father of modern environmentalism lived in a city mostly known today for its ginormous oil refineries; the Muir-Strenzel property is now neatly bisected by CA Highway 4; and a statue in his honor at the corner of Alhambra Ave. and Alhambra Valley Rd. has a plaque which reads:
John Muir, 1838-1914. 'I care to live only to entice people to look at nature's loveliness'. A gift to the community of Martinez from Shell Oil Company to commemorate its 75 years in Martinez. December 6, 1990.
Speaking of John Muir's grave, this too is in Martinez (not far from the bizarre Shell Oil tribute to him), although chances are you wouldn't know it even if you grew up in the area. The John Muir National Historic Site oversees the Muir house and property, the adjacent Mt. Wanda (across Highway 4), and a small property along Alhambra Creek that contains an old pear orchard and the Muir-Strenzel private cemetery.

Blue oak woodland on Mt. Wanda

Cream sacs in bloom on Mt. Wanda

Given that there's no mention of the Muir-Strenzel cemetery on the National Historic Site's website (at least none that I can find), I have the distinct impression that the National Park Service would be happy if visitors kept to Mt. Wanda and the Muir house property and stayed away from the cemetery, probably to keep the neighbors happy. So if you go, please respect the neighbors, park a few blocks away and walk in, and be quiet and responsible so the NPS doesn't decide to close off the area.

To find John Muir’s grave:
From CA Hwy 4: Exit Alhambra Rd., turn left on Alhambra Rd., turn right onto Alhambra Valley Rd., turn left on Sheridan Rd. and park along the first (and only) block of Sheridan Rd. Walk to the end of Sheridan Rd., turn right on Strenzel Rd., and turn left into the short gravel drive leading to an open orchard. Walk across the orchard towards Alhambra Creek. The Muir-Strenzel Cemetery is hidden in a grove of tall trees just on the edge of the creek. In the map below, the red pin is the Muir grave, the blue pin is the Muir statue.

View Muir Grave & Statue in a larger map

Entrance to the Muir orchard - cemetery is hidden in the tall trees straight ahead

The Muir-Strenzel Cemetery backing onto Alhambra Creek

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Root Beer Floats: A Quest for Perfection, Part II

In the previous post I dealt with two of the most significant variables in the creation of the perfect root beer float (RBF): the ice cream and the root beer. In this post I will be covering the remaining variables: the ratio of ice cream to root beer, the proper vessel and utensils, the process, and the elusive but essential ineffable elements that go into the perfect RBF experience.

3. The Ratio
Before dealing directly with the proper ratio of ice cream to root beer, let me address one fundamental issue. The perfect RBF has two ingredients: ice cream and root beer. If it has anything else in it, it ceases to be an RBF in my mind. If you want to put your own personal cocktailian spin on it and add a dash of Cointreau, a ribbon of lime zest, or a cube of sugar soaked in absinthe, go right ahead — just call it something else, and for god's sake don't serve it to anyone without ample warning.

The perfect RBF is an excellent example of what is known as the Goldilocks Principle. Remember the story of the thieving little girl that broke into an innocent bear family's house, stole their food, and slept in their beds, all the while complaining that their food was either too hot or too cold, their beds too soft or too hard, until she found one that was just right? The Goldilocks Principle applies to scenarios in which there is a range of acceptable states between two extremes. As with the purloined bear food, there is a "just right" or Goldilocks equilibrium state between two extremes of the ice cream to root beer ratio in RBFs.

So it's true that there is a range of ratios in which you'll be safe - a little bit one way or another and you'll survive. However, there is a point of maximal perfection which can be achieved by having 1 unit of ice cream for every 1.6 units of root beer by volume. The middle image above shows a mug that is just over half full of ice cream, but keep in mind that the root beer should be added in stages (see below under "The Process"). By odd coincidence, or perhaps some odd sort of divine providence, this ratio happens to be the golden ratio, often held to be the most aesthetically pleasing ratio in the arts.

Leonardo Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," from the Latin vitrus, meaning "glass-bearing man" - a classic artistic example of the golden ratio

4. The Vessel and Utensils
The proper vessel for an RBF is a mug, specifically a frosty glass mug. As a backup you can use a fountain glass (i.e. a shake glass), or in times of desperation a pint glass.

The proper vessel frosted from a brief rest in the freezer. A&W logo and Snoopy are not required, but certainly don't hurt.

Temperature is extremely important for RBFs. Using anything less that fully chilled root beer is a risky proposition; warm root beer will result in quickly melting ice cream and a milky mess. Chilling the mug is a key step in keeping the RBF cold and promoting the formation of “frozen edges”. What are frozen edges you ask? When conditions are just right (cold mug, cold root beer, cold ice cream) you get a situation wherein the thermal boundary layer between the root beer and the ice cream freezes creating a thin crispy layer of creamy root beer ice. Frozen edges are a bonus: not only do you get root beer and ice cream, you also get small chips of root beer popsicle that break away from the boundary layer.

After the mug, you need two additional items: a straw (preferably bendy), and an iced tea spoon. The iced tea spoon is key: without the additional length you'll find your spoon slipping into the chilly depths of your RBF. If you happen to be a proponent of the old-timey paper straws, feel free to use those, but keep about 4 on hand for every float as they tend to collapse in a soggy mess every few minutes.

Iced tea spoon and plastic bendy straw

5. The Process
Some restaurants will serve an RBF pre-mixed. This is very wrong. An RBF should be served as follows:
  • One frosty mug containing the correct volume of ice cream, one straw and one iced tea spoon
  • One bottle/can of root beer on the side.
It is very important to be able to control the addition of root beer to your liking. Personally I like to add the root beer in small increments: pour the root beer over the ice cream until it foams to the top of the mug, stop, slurp a little root beer, eat a little ice cream, and repeat.

6. The Ineffable
Perhaps the most important "ingredient" in making the perfect RBF is a combination of ineffable factors that you can neither control nor fully account for. You could put all of the right ingredients together at the perfect temperature and ratio and yet still not fully enjoy yourself because of the setting, your mood, the time of year, etc. Similarly, you can occasionally get an RBF that isn't well made, but it hits the spot like nothing else beacuse it's 100° out and you just hiked 15 miles.

The best RBF I ever had in a restaurant was in Taos, New Mexico at The Bent Street Deli. They used two local ingredients: Blue Sky root beer (which I like, but isn't a particularly good RBF root beer) and Taos Cow vanilla bean ice cream (very, very good). The mug wasn't chilled, in fact it was a shake glass not a mug, and they were a little skimpy with the ice cream. But I had just had a really amazing morning, the weather was gorgeous, I think Maggie and I had just been giggling at the Peruvian pan flute band outside that seems to follow us everywhere around the world, and at that moment the RBF was just perfection. We went back a few years later, and the RBF was the same but somehow not as good as that first time.

So that about wraps it up: good vanilla ice cream, a balanced fully chilled root beer, the golden ratio, a frosty glass mug, a plastic bendy straw, an iced tea spoon, and the right time and place. Put all of these together and you will have achieved the perfect RBF. If you're already an RBF fan, hopefully this has given you renewed confidence to make one at home; if you're a root beer hater (or suspect you might be), I hope this will convince you to give it a shot - it's worth it. Enjoy!