Home Brewed

Home Brewed

Home Brewed

For the mere price of one dollar, how could anyone pass up a used book with such an enticing title? For a money-challenged graduate student, How to Make Cheap Wine was a roadmap to a continuous flow of low-cost nectar of the gods. How hard could it be? After all, Neolithic man made wine, without the aid of a recipe from a second-hand book. With a little study and preparation, I might be able to produce the same results as illiterate, ancient cave-dwellers.
I read the book twice. A “C” in high school chemistry reinforced the need for a careful understanding of the process. By the end of the second reading, I had convinced myself that this wine-making stuff paled in comparison to understanding Avogadro’s number, a method for measuring the number of molecules in gases. Why would this Avogadro guy care about knowing that anyway? He lived in Turin, Italy, one of the great wine-making regions of the world. His time would’ve been better spent drinking a Barolo or an Asti instead of messing with the heads of high school chemistry students. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste.
The first part of my plan focused on assessing the cost of the project. Although suffering from eternal optimism, I wasn’t naïve. The book listed a variety of fruits and vegetables from which one could make wine. Grapes were one of many choices. That was a red flag. Better check the price of grapes.
A trip to the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles proved a sobering experience. With book in hand, I reviewed the recipe for grape wine and checked the price of grapes. The quantity I needed raised the cost above what my meager budget could spare.
I made my way through the market, flipping through the recipes and making notes on the cost of a variety of fruit. The lowly lemon, a final choice far removed from my hopeful expectations, had one overriding, winning quality—a nickel a pound price tag.
Water, sugar, and yeast came from my kitchen cupboard. I invested in a new plastic bucket and a piece of cheesecloth. I was ready to launch.
The initial stage required squeezing the lemons, combining the juice with water and sugar and simmering on the range top. When the liquid reached the optimum temperature for yeast to grow, I added the granules, stirred, and poured the mixture into the plastic bucket, covering it with the cheesecloth.
The bubbling, frothy brew required several weeks to calm down. The smell of yeast and alcohol permeated the apartment.
The next step, secondary fermentation, called for a one-gallon glass container with a narrow neck, like an empty water jug. No problem. I had one.
A picture in the book showed a device called a fermentation lock. It looked like it could have been plucked from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. An accompanying explanation described how the convoluted plastic tube allowed carbon dioxide to escape from the container while blocking entry to unwanted microbes that would ruin the wine. One end of the tube fit through a rubber stopper inserted in the jug’s top. The other end had a small reservoir for water. Gas bubbles pushed their way through a water barrier on the way out, but microbes weren’t able to get in. Ingenious!
I poured the yellow liquid into the jug, leaving sediment behind, and then affixed the fermentation lock.
Now, the hardest part began—waiting six months. Although tempted to sample the wine before then, deferred gratification prevailed over impatience.
When the day for tasting came, I called my brother-in-law, Bob, who lived a few blocks away. A fun-loving guy who was up for almost anything, he happily volunteered to judge the product.
I set two shot-glasses on the living room coffee table. When he arrived, I removed the fermentation lock from the gallon jug. The strong odor of alcohol assaulted our noses. This wine could be high octane. Since the container’s size made it unwieldy, I poured a pint into a smaller bottle before filling the glasses.
Bob already had his hand around the glass, lifting it to his lips. “Wow! It tastes like lemon.”
“Do you think it’s too strong?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll take another taste.” He finished off the glassful.
I drank half-a-glass. My body felt the immediate effect of the alcohol. “I think we should stop, Bob. I’ll put the rest back in the jug and let it develop for another six months.”
“I’ll take another shot.”
“That may not be a good idea.”
He held up the empty glass.
“Okay. I’m glad you’re walking home.”
He finished his second round and left.
Fifteen minutes later, my sister called. “What did you do to my husband?”
“He only had two shot glasses of my new lemon wine.”
The explanation failed to soothe her irritation.
I replaced the fermentation lock and let the brew sit for another six months. The wine mellowed and assumed the character of a cordial with a vibrant lemon flavor. At the end of one year, the spirits were fit for polite society.
The outcome of the great lemon wine experiment didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for home production. I found joy in using anything but grapes.
In my second effort, I used grapefruit which, when squeezed, produced an abundant amount of juice. However, I discovered that the unusual flavor wasn’t well-received when offered to guests. “You have to develop a taste for it,” I said. “It appeals to the sophisticated palate.”
For my third batch, I used carrots. You need to juice a lot of carrots
to make a modest amount of wine. What intrigued me about the recipe was the addition of wheat midway through the fermentation. The grain fortified the wine, creating a marvelous beverage.
When I set the wine out for guests, I asked them to taste it and tell me what they thought it was. They said it was sherry, a very good sherry.
Gleefully, I said, “It’s carrot!”
“You’re kidding,” was the universal response.
“I’m not. It’s carrot fortified with wheat.”
Oh, what a feeling. I had produced a wine equal in flavor to a fine sherry coming from the fields of Jerez, Spain, wines having a three- thousand-year-old tradition. I was at the peak of my wine-making glory, fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Ernest and Julio Gallo.
The lesson was clear: even a graduate student who could only afford inexpensive produce, a plastic pail, and a water jug―someone who received a “C” in high school chemistry―can rise above his station to compare with the giants of the winemaking world. Hallelujah! Life can be so wonderful.

Work – a tale of perfomance.

Shredding Agave - ©Howard FeigenbaumWork – and how performance tells a tale.

photo of shredding agave – Manta, Ecuador

The job doesn’t matter. It’s how the character performs the work that tells a tale.

I love professional waiters. They make the dining experience worthwhile. Knowledge of food and drink is important. Knowledge of people is even more important. For me, excellence deserves respect. Mediocrity does not. We all have our opinions about how people behave. I think most of us would usually agree on issues of good and bad. When words describe the behavior, we can share the vision.

I had the pleasure of visiting Montecristi, Ecuador, the home of the Panama hat. The manufacturing process is low tech. Leaves of the agave plant are shredded to get the fibers for weaving the hats. The quality of the fibers determines the quality of the hat. The people who made the hat I bought were proud of their product. I think of the hat’s beauty every time I wear it. And, in the third volume in the Benny Golfarb series, when I relate the adventure in Ecuador, the hat and the native people in the mountains above Manta, will shape the writing.

Food – “Tell me what you eat…”

Snack Stand - © Howard FeigenbaumFood - what the locals are eating.

photo of picarones cart in Mira Flores, Lima, Peru

“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” Frenchman Brillat-Savarin believed that food had its own story to tell. I agree. Writing, travel and food come together in providing a snapshot of a culture. Eating what the locals eat is the first step in appreciating who they are.

Benny Goldfarb, Private “I” has descriptions of what characters are eating in Colombia. My colleagues often tease me about a chapter making them hungry. That is an unfortunate side effect. I believe that by sharing the same cuisine, I move toward greater cultural appreciation. Speaking the same language also has a similar result. There are concepts couched in speech that have cultural nuances.

What might a citizen of Lima feel on a weekend afternoon in Kennedy Park when enjoying freshly-made picarones, a doughnut-like treat? There’s one way to find out—get in the line at the kiosk, and wait your turn. You will know what generations of Peruvian parents and children have relished.

Inside a Book’s Main Character: A Jewish Detective.

Mezzuzah-Rhodes synagogue built 1577 - Jewish detective mysteries - Howard FeigenbaumLooking Inside a Book’s Main Character.

Is Benny Goldfarb, the protagonist in Benny Goldfarb, Private “I”, a Jewish character or a character who happens to be Jewish? He is a man with a moral sensibility and an appreciation of how that happened.

In writing, characters demonstrate who they are through behavior and their reaction to events. In general, we don’t know the religion of the protagonists in the books we read. However, when someone has a name like Benny Goldfarb, an assumption occurs. If the reader makes that assumption, why not satisfy the curiosity—not as the focus of the work but as an interesting detail.

Why should the majority of detective/action/adventure characters have Anglo-Saxon or French names? In this case, Benny Goldfarb is an American who works as a private investigator. In truth, he cannot escape the perception of his ethnicity. In the story, his thoughts and feelings are shaped by his tradition and religious beliefs.

A visit to the Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena, Colombia transforms Rosa Zuleca, the main female character, when she confronts the effects of the Spanish Inquisition on her family. Although this theme is a subplot, it adds depth to the story by introducing a setting where history, injustice and an individual’s identity meet.

When a horse is not a horse.

Chalan leads Paso Fino and rider, Peru - © Howard FeigenbaumHistory and Tradition – photo of Paso Fino

When is a horse not a horse? When it’s a Paso Fino. Peruvian respect is profound for a breed of horse unique to the nation. The small, sturdy, smooth-gaited horse improved travel over long distances in mountainous terrain. Hacienda owners loved the Paso Fino. Why is this notable to me as a writer? The animal is a physical representation of social class. If I write about Peruvians, I should consider where someone fits in the power and economic structures of the country. The issue is part of the realistic detail that benefits the believability of fiction.

James Michener, in Hawaii, does that very thing. The development of his characters occurs within the context of where they fit in a tribal society meeting the modern era. The writer can show who characters are, not only by what they say and feel, but also by their social position.

Experience – the effect of Cape Horn.

Cape Horn - © Howard FeigenbaumExperience - photo of Cape Horn

What’s it like to round the Horn? For me, the experience was extreme. In the space of two hours, there was rain, hail, high winds, snow and sunshine. How did this affect me as a writer? I understand why the Bounty’s crew mutinied. In the movie, Captain Bligh informs the crew that he is taking them back to England by way of Cape Horn. The crew protests, “No, not the Horn!” Shortly after, they seize the ship and turn back to Tahiti. After experiencing the Horn, I would have joined them. Who wouldn’t? Half the ships rounding the horn foundered on the rocks. Their descendants inhabit southern Chile.

Nordhoff and Hall, the authors of Mutiny on the Bounty, traveled to Tahiti. The story benefited from their experience. Their research included perusing Captain Bligh’s journals, the ship’s log and historical accounts. The rich detail in a work of fiction is a thing of beauty.

The Geography of writing.

photo of Ecuador - © Howard Feigenbaum, Author, cetective mystery novel, "Benny Goldfarb, Private 'I'"Geography – photo of Ecuador

Everyone has to be somewhere. Is that too obvious? Not to me as a writer. I feel an obligation to help the reader imagine the setting. The geography affects the ease or difficulty of movement. The flora, fauna and weather contribute to a sense of environment.

The Andes shape the use of South American countries. They are a barrier running down the interior of the nation. If you are wealthy, the range is something to be flown over. If you are not-so-rich, the bus trip can take days, or longer if landslides block the road. The isolation of the Incas and other native groups helped them evade the Spanish conquest. Native cultures still flourish at high altitudes. In Benny Goldfarb, Private “I”, the protagonists travel into the interior of Colombia. The detail of the story almost demanded the inclusion of a native group. In this case, the Paez tribe provides another point of view in Colombian society.