Reality: A Survival Guide

It can happen when you least expect it. You’re washing the dishes, or staring idly through your neighbour’s window, or curled up in a ball, thumb in mouth, in your car’s footwell… Your mind is open and empty, no threat on the horizon, and then the ground at your feet starts to rumble. A crack appears, the sky darkens, and then a crumbling spewing fetid chasm opens up before you; the screams and moans of lost souls escape from its depths. What you have here is reality, and haven’t I warned you about messing with that? I’m sure it’s fine in normal times to work towards what enlightened celebrities refer to as “mindfulness,” or being “present,” but in late 2020 that’s just asking for trouble. I’m convinced that these times demand the opposite: a sort of wilful mindlessness. Remain unaware: reality may be closer than it appears.

 My piano is strategically placed within easy rolling distance of the bed. When I’ve had enough staring at the ceiling, contemplating my nameless dread, I drag myself over to the old Yamaha and plunk out a couple of tunes. This seems to awaken the more imaginative regions of my brain pan, which sing along, drowning out the awareness that the world is careening rudderless; that here in America we have a man-baby refusing to leave the big office, and a squirming scrum of despicable cowards at his feet. That the city around me is changed forever, unrecognisable as the one I dreamed of for so long. And that nobody’s in charge. It’s all a charade. Nobody knows what’s happening…. Quick! Play! Ahhhh….

 Every morning brings a fresh dose of uncertainty and outrage. I combat the morning fear with an emboldening breakfast of my own devising: spicy chorizo, scrambled eggs, crumbly queso fresco, chilli-loaded pico de gallo, all hefted onto a giant tortilla. Don’t fuck with me after that. It’s the only solution I’ve found: vigorous exercise, explosively spicy food, books and music erupting with guts and beauty. Intense experiences, the tangible defeats the abstract. There’s no one looking after you, but Duke Ellington understands. Ineffectual scurrying politicians desperately pretending they have a purpose may not really exist, but a bowl full of face-numbing Sichuan food is undeniable.

 The real monsters come out during daylight hours. Dressed in human skin they smile for the camera, while their teams of bloodless scoundrels sign contracts and paw each other. Sensitive types are advised to hibernate during these times, safely cocooned from the news cycle until the sun goes down. After dark, things look better. I can feel in my blood that the flunkies and deceit merchants are winding down their efforts for the day, and bureaucrats are afraid of the dark. In the black outside my window the crickets and the wind, snuffling raccoons, yowling foxes are running things, and it’s safe to breathe and drink and sing again.

 Martinis will eventually turn me ugly, but now they’re a rebuke. I pace back and forth in front of the record player: maybe Mingus if I need company in my feverish agitation; some nights it’s Lester Young, siphoning all of humanity’s melancholy through his horn. Tonight I’ve retreated to the kitchen with a rack of lamb. The blood-stained ribs assure me that this was once a living breathing bleating animal, and eating it will connect me to ancestors who were too busy hunting and fighting to have time for puny existential dread. Ray Charles sings the blues from inside the speaker on my kitchen table, and Portuguese red wine sings through my veins. Garlic, rosemary, salt, and a hefty cast iron skillet are all that’s needed to bring this together. I’m aware that I’m not solving anything– the powers and their perverse value systems are way beyond the reach of some obscure sax guy– this is an act of self-preservation, but one anyone can use. I tear the last fatty morsels off salty bones, and drain my glass. Courage is restored and I take a midnight stroll around the neighbourhood, stopping to chat with cats and possums– maybe a wise gnarled tree– they’re good listeners; and back home, merciful sleep hits fast. Tomorrow will be better.


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Escape from New York

The sun hangs high over lower Manhattan and blinds; you should put on sunscreen but the thought doesn’t stay in your head long enough to produce action. Gusts of wind snatch floppy hats, pull at clothes and hair; a shocking blast of sea spray to the face chastens. A seagull effortlessly keeps pace, flapping languorously – we’re no longer weird, he sees this every day. Wave back at a group of conspicuously tanned middle-aged yachters lolling on their deck. “Remember when we used to take public transport, Brian?” 

I grew up in easy reach of the Pacific Ocean. Though never the outdoor type, I liked knowing I was never more than an hour’s drive away. In fact I always prefer being close to land’s edge– I start to get anxious when I get too far from the coast– I’ve been told that’s not unusual for Australians. And the Pacific was the only ocean I knew. But after nearly 20 years in the northern hemisphere, my allegiance has shifted. In my mind, the Pacific is clear and sunny and friendly, made for happy beautiful people. The North Atlantic is dark and deep, mysterious and brooding, and infinitely more interesting. A couple of times every summer I grudgingly agree to spend a day at the beach– it’s not that I particularly dislike it there, it’s just that grudgingly is how I do things. It’s kind of my “brand.” Until few years ago, a trip to Rockaway beach meant 45 minutes on the A train, which possibly sounds romantic to non-New Yorkers, but it is decidedly not. But in 2017 the Rockaway ferry was launched, and it changed everything. For the price of a subway ride, the ferry takes you from Wall Street, south around the bottom of Brooklyn, under the stately Verrazzano bridge, and back up the other side, past Coney Island with its ancient creaking fairground rides, and into lovely Jamaica Bay. If you’re lucky, or pushy, you might grab a seat on the top deck, but I usually settle for leaning over the back railing and watching the city disappear.

Entry to Rockaway is rough. The free shuttle to the beach is too horrific to consider: small, clapped-out vans with no suspension, torn broken seats, airless and stinking; on their last tour of duty before the knackery. I opt for the walk across the peninsula– it’s only ten minutes, but it’s an adventure though an almost cinematically rundown industrial horrorscape. Under crumbling rail bridges, past abandoned lots, burnt out cars; the gangs of beach-bound teenage girls in flip flops huddle tightly together, tote bags clutched nervously. But mixed with the stink of exhaust and urine, the ocean air holds a promise; and the rumble of the Atlantic infiltrates the sounds of traffic and wailing winos. 

Finally up the ramp to the boardwalk, and the sea breeze immediately blows the city off you. The pimps and hustlers make a final desperate grab for your pockets as they’re blown back into the shadows. Now it’s safe to stop and look around– the beach and the boardwalk stretch forever. The water is inviting, but food and drink are the priority– the promise of eating good food with my feet in the sand is really what gets me out here. This summer only half the stalls are open– I dearly miss my ceviche place– that was dynamite. But a new favourite is the Caracas Arepa bar, dishing out Venezuelan flat patties made from corn flour, split and filled with delicious things: sweet fried plantains, fresh cheese, homemade hot sauce. Take a couple down to the wide wooden steps leading down to the beach, plant your feet in the sand, cold beer at your side, and inhale. If you tire of the ocean vista, swivel around and watch the parade of weirdos sliding along the boardwalk, reminding you that while you’re in another world, you’re inescapably still in New York City.


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Everyone goes to Rockaway. It’s free, easily accessible, very egalitarian. Be careful posting on Instagram that you’re there– you’re bound to get a message from someone you don’t want to see who’s just down the beach. Pegging a spot in the sand can be a challenge– I recommend parking your towel where there are lots of women, singly or in pairs– they’ll generally be reading or chatting quietly, and your day will be peaceful. Try not to get stuck near a gang of young single dudes– they’ve had a meeting and decided that the mating rituals of the animal kingdom carry the best chance of success with the ladies– they’ll be barking and preening and putting on overt displays of strength and athleticism and competitive stupidity. It’s these fellows who also seem fond of blasting Hot97 to cover up the annoying sounds of gently lapping waves and laughing children. Shouts of “Cerveza! Pina Colada! Nutcrackers!” announce the arrival of the drinks guy dragging his cooler of booze through the sand. He’s got beers and premixed cocktails, the nutcracker being a homemade NYC specialty of liquor and juice- sugary and powerful. It’s all presumably illegal, but the cops turn a blind eye. 

Loaded up on sugar and booze, it’s time for a dip. I will never understand Americans at the beach– maybe 10 percent go in the water– but it just means more water for me. Your aquatic experience depends on the mood of the Atlantic– she may be serene and relaxed, tolerantly allowing you to float on the gentlest of undulations; or she may be in a foul mood, sucking you under and spitting you out for having the impudence to leave the boardwalk. Either way, as a city dweller, a dunk in some salt water is one of the most revitalising experiences still available; it’s an immediate connection with the unknowable forces of the universe. I find it reassuring to put myself at the mercy of something that immense and powerful and mysterious, and the salt makes my hair look cool.

Dry off in the sun, stroll back to the food stalls for some fried clams and just one more beer. When it’s time to call it a day, try to time the return ferry for sunset (in high summer, you can’t beat the 7:15). It’s a very different experience to the ride out– everyone’s exhausted and sunburned, and the beer buzz is wearing off– in the old days the grubby subway ride back to the city would just make you want to cry. But on the back deck of the ferry, sun going down over the bay, head filled with salt air, splashing wake, and engine rumble, it’s about the gentlest reentry into reality you could hope for. 


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Snoozin’ on the Street of Dreams

The other evening, while idly scrolling my news feed, I happened upon a headline which didn’t directly relate to the ongoing collapse of the world around me. I clicked eagerly, and was soon learning about the subject of Rojo-ne, a fun trend where Japanese men get smashed and fall asleep in the middle of the road. This outrageously dangerous practice seems to take place exclusively on the island of Okinawa, where the weather is lovely and the rice wine is strong. Believing, as I do, that having one sherry too many and taking a siesta in the out-of-doors is one of life’s great pleasures, I felt an immediate affinity.

In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t quite live the sober, disciplined, almost monastic, lifestyle I do today. My first share house after leaving home was a filthy little cottage beside the railroad tracks in inner Sydney where I lived with two other aspiring jazz musicians. As young anarchists we all quite rightly refused to do any maintenance of the house or yard, and as a result the place was slowly being reclaimed by nature. Evenings were spent guzzling whatever bathtub booze we could afford, watching late-night informercials, and fighting over the one chair that wasn’t occupied by the tv; until at some point I’d hoist myself up, stagger through the kitchen into the yard, and collapse into the waist-high grass like a crumbling ice shelf. Before turning in, my house mates would look out at me motionless among the weeds, shake their heads and chuckle tolerantly before locking me out, with the assumption I was still alive.

 Eight months in that fermenting flat was all we could stand, so a couple of us signed up for a stint on the MV Kareliya- my first of several awful cruise ship experiences. This was surely the most low-rent tub on the oceans, and we were certainly the worst band the cruise industry had ever seen. Unrehearsed, late, scruffy, insubordinate, we did our best to get kicked off. I even got so sidetracked on a port day I missed an entire two-week cruise (they say the band never sounded better.) But as bad as ship life got, there was always the crew bar. Deep in the guts of the boat, far away from the prying eyes of paying customers, the crew bar offered cheap and free-pouring drinks and an air of desperate bloodthirsty abandon- for a band of young lunatic musicians, it was like a beautiful dream. And at 6am, the early rising passengers taking their morning constitutional around the deck could often be seen stepping gingerly over the prone and snoring form of the band’s saxophonist. The sea air, the gently lapping water- what better place to snooze when you’ve had a skinful? 

But as skewed as my perspective got, I always chose my campsites carefully. At sea I didn’t drop off wrapped around the anchor; back home I didn’t fall asleep dangling from the rotary clothesline; and I never once took a nap in the middle of the road. Of literally all the places… My brothers in rojo-ne should heed the words of karate master, sage, and native Okinawan, Mr Miyagi, from the movie Karate Kid: “Walk on road, hm? Walk right side: safe. Walk left side: safe. Walk middle: sooner or later get squished just like grape.” Sadly my days of al fresco siestas are behind me now, but for those of you who still rojo-ne, I salute you; but remember that sleeping in the middle of the road impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems. Please nap responsibly. 


 

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New York City: Signs of Life in the Smoking Ruins

The host eyed us with disdain. “You’re with the band…?” Having been on both sides of this equation, I know the drill. Musicians, particularly jazz musicians, are the bane of the restaurant industry. Anthony Bourdain knew: “I need more jazz musicians in my restaurant? They’re fucking deadbeats!” Thinking quickly, we stammered, “but we’re going to spend money, honest!” The bar is called Fiddlesticks, which annoys me for some reason. Imagine taking a date there, falling in love, and having to tell your grandkids that you realised she was your destiny, all your heart desired, as you held hands under the table at Fiddlesticks. Honestly. Anyway, perched on tiny stools over the Greenwich Avenue subway grate, C and I obediently ordered our state-mandated snack, allowing us to drink to our hearts’ content. Every seven minutes we’d lean sideways to avoid the plume of stale corpse-breath erupting from beneath our feet as the A train rumbled by. A restaurant down the block fired up the barbecue, sending wafts of sweet, meaty smoke along the street, as masked pedestrians shuffled by, eyeing us suspiciously. And crammed into a doorway, the band swung like nothing had changed, Jerry Weldon’s towering tenor sound bouncing from one side of the Avenue to the other, only a few residents hip enough to keep their windows open. The atmosphere was claustrophobic but jubilant–  we can drink and listen to music– it’s better than it was.

At an old favourite, 1803 in TriBeCa, we sat in the ruins of our city and ate grilled oysters, while a band of our friends and heroes played their hearts out, their music echoing through the deserted neighbourhood; intently ignoring the iceberg out the porthole and the water lapping around their shins. —The word “parklet” is an unwelcome addition to the lexicon: outside hundreds of foundering restaurants across the city, one lane of roadway is abducted, swallowed by the sidewalk, overlaid with wooden decking and outfitted with tables and chairs, sometimes clear plastic dividers so our neighbours don’t infect us. We laugh and drink and bask in the cheerful hubbub and try not to look over at the abandoned apartment buildings all around— Musician friends, some we rarely saw in normal life, dropped by to bump elbows. Mask on, mask off. On a warm August evening this was possibly the only live music in New York City, and those of us still here don’t want to pass up an opportunity. In the end we took our masks off and blew. There’s no alternative. Nobody knows what the fuck to do. The rules go too far and not far enough. But at the end of each tune, the small crowd erupted, glasses raised, shouts of encouragement. Uncertainty reigns, but music and wine helps. 

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The High Line snakes along 22 blocks of Manhattan’s west side. A disused elevated railway line, it was revived and reopened as a public park about ten years ago and was, until recently, a major attraction for infuriatingly slow-walking tourists. On Saturday night, beneath the park, in the walled-in courtyard of the Guardian Angel church, it was muggy and airless. Bus-stop-style benches seemed to sink into the rubber matted floor. The band and I poured sweat as we attempted to reach a masked and clearly sober audience of wide eyed young people who seemed unsure how they got there; peering down from the rooftop, more bemused faces, but these folks had sensibly paid more to be further away from us. At band level, hands started reaching into shopping bags containing wine, beer, champagne, even the occasional cocktail shaker– this was entirely appropriate: if there’s one thing I know about church, it’s always BYOB– and by set two things were loosening up. Jerry Weldon arrived to help us out on tenor as pizza deliveries started showing up, and by 10pm the squares were stomping their feet and making out extravagantly with people they’d just met. There was no bar, no pictures of jazz legends on the wall, no surly doorman; but for a few hours, the place was a jazz club.

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Sunday, and I dragged my feet along a path I know well. Every week for months I’d planned to visit Smalls, and of course nothing ever came up to stop me, but still I hesitated. They now put on a live-streamed concert every evening but the idea of descending that legendary staircase after so many months of lockdown felt like volunteering to spend a night in a haunted house. I know so many of its secrets. I’ll delve more into this someday, but the promise of some swinging music from my buddy, and fellow club manager, Carlos Abadie, finally got me down there. And in a way it was as eerie as I expected. The club will reopen the first day it’s allowed, but for now dust hangs in the air; the chairs are stacked, the walls are bare, the bar shelves and fridges are empty, and of course there’s almost nobody there. I wiped off a bar stool and slouched up the back of the club, feeling guilty but I don’t know why. The cats breathed air into the vacuum, vibrations making the air shimmer, dust billowing; a glint of possibility. Strangely the music hasn’t changed, hasn’t become suddenly sad and uncertain, it’s just become incongruous with its surroundings. New York City still has a faint pulse but you have to know where to look. 


 

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South Brooklyn Badlands and a Bar with No Name

I’m standing at a bar, pushing my luck. I’ve got a beer in my hand and I’m wearing out my welcome. Currently in New York City, I’m allowed to order a drink at the bar, but not drink it there. Mask on, distance observed, I’m supposed to order and pay, then take my drink and get the hell out. But I want to sit here. I want to lean back in a rickety stool, eavesdrop on neighbours’ conversations, maybe pass an eye over some sport I don’t care about on the TV in the corner, spin a beer mat between my fingers, and order another one. That’s what neighbourhood bars were invented for.

  I arrived in Sunset Park uncharacteristically early, to give myself time to poke around. It’s a fair hike from my part of town— a good 30 minutes on the N train over the Manhattan bridge, down through swanky Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, past the cemetery, and into South Brooklyn— so I’ve only made it out here a handful of times. For a very hot minute I even had a steady, if soul-crushing, gig at a Chinese restaurant, playing jazz standards in the face of requests for something “popular.” But every time I visit I’m delighted— this neighbourhood is a trip. Like most of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, demographics have shifted gradually but surely over the years: Irish, Polish, Italians, Norwegians moving in and out. Midway through the 20th Century, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans moved in; and in the 80s Sunset Park became home to Brooklyn’s first Chinatown.

 Last time I was here, maybe a year ago, 8th Avenue was heaving with shoppers and workers, a chaotic, noisy, shouting, jostling tangle of humanity. It felt like Saturday morning in Hong Kong, but also unmistakably New York— this is what streets all around this city used to feel like before they were taken over by beautiful people taking photos of themselves. Wide open storefronts with vendors out front bellowing the day’s specials, shoppers running a skeptical eye over the precarious piles of fruit and veg, the jaw dropping array of flapping, wriggling seafood; clothing, electronics, restaurants, food carts; all relentlessly bustling. And hardly anyone who looked like me. It seemed like every corner was home to a vegetable or fish market; spiky stinky durian in string bags dangling from the awnings, frogs and crabs leaping to freedom from plastic buckets. 

 Somehow I was expecting the same this time as I surfaced from the subway. Had I forgotten about the virus? Despite the news, I somehow get so used to the bleak reality directly around me, I think it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Surely if I make the trek to another country, another city, even another borough it’ll all be different. And of course in Chinatown, the opposite is devastatingly true. I remember before we had any idea of the spread of the virus, it was still a Chinese problem; I heard reports that people were boycotting Chinese restaurants around the world, using the pandemic to excuse their racism. So of course, now Sunset Park is a wind blown, dusty, tumbleweed ghost town. Store fronts are shuttered, many never to return; twisted strands of tinsel hang forlorn from power lines, maybe left over from January New Year festivities. Walking past the overflowing trash cans and piles of empty boxes, some of the smells still linger– it would take decades for the smell of the fish markets to blow away; and from the small, neat homes, a waft of incense and Chinese medicinal herbs remind me of the time an old girlfriend convinced me to travel every week to Flushing (ironically for a stomach complaint) to poke out my tongue and receive a bag of twigs and desiccated spiders.

 I cross 60th street and stop. In front of me is the glorious S——- Tavern, the end point of this sentimental journey, and I want to take it in for a moment. It’s not a beautiful facade, but unpretentious if nothing else. A squat little building; a cranky tired face of exposed red brick, neon shamrocks in its eyes, its name stamped on its forehead like a drunken prank. American, Irish, and Norwegian flags hang listlessly over the closed green door; and the ubiquitous sign: “no mask, no entry.”

 I push in. Waiting at the bar is my attorney, chatting to a bartender whose mask portrays a grotesque broken-toothed leer, the rest of him not pretty enough for this to be convincingly ironic. A beer and a whiskey appear in front of me— the only reasonable order in a bar like this— and I breathe it all in: the old beer smell that even four months out of business can’t erase, the dusty Irish knick knacks, Chinese guys playing darts, Irish at the bar (Tuesday morning is for the Norwegians); muted classic rock from the ancient jukebox, elbow grooves in the dinged up old wooden bar. There’s wood everywhere, but not the artfully distressed beams and lavish polished oak you see at the Irish behemoths in the city; just old lumber, worn smooth by years of human occupation. The S——- Tavern is a joyously friendly mutt where a shared love of booze and darts leads to a harmony the world outside the green door struggles with. My attorney chats with another local about their favourite local places, now gone, like the Chino-Latino restaurant unluckily named Corona– shuttered within the first week. They saw the writing on the wall. Our masked bartender, after casually revealing that his day job is addiction counselling, brings me another round.

I complain often and lustily about the dearth of good bars in NYC, but as usual my outlook is blinkered  and I forget to look beyond Manhattan and my own little yuppified hood. Out in the real world, they still exist, and South Brooklyn has some standouts. We’ll do a tour one day soon.

 We settle our tab and tell our man we might be back later- who knows how this night will play out. We pour out onto 8th avenue and head south- we’ve got an appointment at a Yemeni restaurant a mile or so away. But at 61st street we’re almost physically yanked around the corner by the smell coming from a battered old food cart. It’s Chinese barbecue. Smoke pours from the chimney, from the service window, from cracks in the corners of the roof; it’s sweet and thick, and immediately transports us back to tours of duty playing Cantonese pop in Hong Kong. We join the line of intent, hungry locals, and eventually score a bag of good stuff to fuel the next leg of the adventure. Charred squid, whole mackerel on a stick, chicken wings— smoky, intense and delicious. They’re all sent down to meet the beer sloshing around downstairs, and we roll off into the night.


 

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Quarantine Dreams pt 2

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m standing in front of my open fridge, staring mindlessly at the same sad selection of wilting food I stared at yesterday and the day before. But you’d be wrong. I’m actually edging my way through the crowds at the Old Airport Road Hawker Centre in Geylang, Singapore. It’s a squat, two level concrete pile, open to the elements on all sides; it feels a little like a converted parking garage. Round metal tables are bolted to the floor, surrounded by similarly affixed stools, all of them occupied. I’m never going to find a seat. 

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 Hawker Centres are where everyone goes to eat in Singapore. The streets of this tiny island used to be crowded with food vendors until authorities started cracking down in the 60s, eventually corralling them all inside easily controlled and inspected buildings. So now it’s row upon row of individual stalls selling a brain melting array of delicious things, each vendor usually specialising in one thing; and despite the apparent chaos, like everything in Singapore, the joint is spotless and organised. 

 I’m starving, but I’m not ordering anything until I’ve made a complete lap of the place. The din is overwhelming– hawkers shouting their specials, customers calling to friends to hold a table or bring more spoons– a cheerful, musical hubbub bouncing around the brutal concrete walls. Traffic pouring along the Old Airport Road makes itself known, the steady rumble of workday traffic providing a static bass line to the cacophony. The humidity is extraordinary; giant industrial fans do their best, but it makes little difference. It’s a baking wet heat but no one really notices– it’s like this every day.

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 I wander the aisles, trying not to run into people, tables, carts loaded with dirty dishes. I feel conspicuous– the tall white guy stands out around here– but nobody seems to care. As long as I don’t get in the way, I’m as welcome as anyone. The food here is mostly Chinese and Malay: Satay, Laksa, barbecued chicken, noodles, curry puffs, the famous Hainan Chicken Rice, Sambal Stingray, frog porridge, fish curry… My strategy here is to find the longest queue and get on it. I try not to come here with a meal in mind, I want to try what’s good, what’s got the locals lining up. Honestly though, I’m hoping it’s the sticky, fatty, char-siew from those princes of barbecued pork at Roast Paradise… 

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  Appearances can be deceiving. It looks like I’m sitting on the couch, watching travel documentaries, nursing my 18th cup of tea for the day– but I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a plastic stool in an open air bar in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Technically I’m inside, but there’s no front wall, so I’m effectively on the street. At 5 o’clock every evening, all around the city, the shutters go up on corner bars and folks start piling in. It’s called Bia Hoi- either the type of bar or the daily routine, I’ve never been sure which, but either way, it translates to a sort of Happy Hour. The joint is already loud and raucous, working men (it’s mostly men) getting loose and boisterous.

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 All the surfaces are shiny white tile, the floor already stained with spilled beer and fish sauce, cigarette butts, clumps of cilantro. I gaze out at the heaving street just metres away, the roiling waves of roaring motorbikes and brave cyclists flanked by rows of stained crumbling colonial houses. Banyan trees lean precariously over the melee, the hanging vines waiting for the right moment to grab a distracted rider. The thunder of gunning engines choking on cheap gasoline is pushed to every corner of my bar by a single overworked ceiling fan. Cooking smells are everywhere in the Old Quarter, and here the unmistakable waft from a deep fryer melds with the beer, petrol fumes, end-of-work-day humanity. The place is getting busy, office workers are getting rowdier, waitresses are sliding between tables, dropping off beers and small plates of drinking food. And over in the corner, quietly watching, a young bloke sits alone beside a keg of beer, his thumb over the attached length of garden hose, ready for the next order.

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 Here’s how it works. Find an empty stool and sit on it. Within seconds a small glass of beer will appear on the plastic table in front of you. Drink it. It doesn’t have a lot of flavour, maybe because it was brewed this morning, but it’s ice cold and refreshing. Put down your empty glass and it will be replaced with a full one. Drink this too. Repeat. They’ll bring you beer until you tell them to stop. I’ve had three or four, and I’m getting peckish. I see the old guys at the next table eating something, but there are no menus, so I get the waitress’ attention and make the img_7997-1universal mime for eating, then point to what they’ve got. She disappears, and minutes later I’ve got fish cakes! Intensely flavoured, deep fried discs of deliciousness, accompanied by the ubiquitous Nuoc Cham- salty, limey, sweet, spicy dipping sauce. I polish them off, down another beer and stop. The chili, the lime, the oily crunchy fish, the icy beer, the blistering heat, the roaring traffic, the happy drunken voices shouting in a language I can’t begin to decipher; they all wage some epic battle in my brain, while I sit there, blissed out, on top of the world.

 

Lately these fantasies have been hijacking my scattered mind more and more. With no chance to realise them in the near future, I’ve taken refuge in the kitchen, trying desperately and  inexpertly to recreate the flavours and aromas I remember from the tours I made in a previous life. I’ve cooked up a mean Pho from scratch, causing raised eyebrows from the assistants at the butcher’s with my orders of pig’s feet and cow knees; simmering them for hours to make a broth so gelatinous I had to fight it to get my wooden spoon back. I fill my entire apartment with thick smoke as I stirfy prawns that have been marinating in fish sauce, lime juice and sugar- the holy trinity of South East Asian flavours. Fiery green curries, a disastrous laksa, grilled pork belly and meatballs for Bun Cha, washing it all down with Thai beer– I’m giving it my best shot. But so much of any experience comes down to context. Even if I could somehow recreate exactly that plate of grilled prawns my brother and I shared on our first night in Bangkok years ago, it wouldn’t taste anything the same. The utilitarian metal-topped table, the box of tissues in its cheap pink plastic holder, the crinkled plastic-covered menu, the droning fans, the smell from the fish tanks, the gasping humidity, the rumble and shriek of drunken humanity, the jaw dropping, brain melting weirdness of it all – all these things went into making those prawns taste the way they did, at that moment, on those rickety stools, in that crowded restaurant. My efforts at recreation are doomed to be pale washed-out facsimiles. But after a few more of these Thai beers, they might be close enough.


 

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Riding the Path of Righteousness (Making a Quick Stop at Convenience)

I drop the wrench with a clang, wipe the sweat from my brow and take a long pull from my can of beer. American beer. I glance over and wink at my girl, who’s polishing her nails and smoking a cigarette, while chewing extravagantly on a wad of gum. Producing an impressive pink bubble, she looks appreciatively at my grease stained muscles as I casually crush the beer can against my forehead. A gang of guys from the neighbourhood crowd around and admire my handiwork, awed by my almost instinctive mechanical expertise. Wiping the crankshaft oil from my hands onto my dungarees, I snap my fingers, and the sea of admirers parts to reveal: the cute new basket on my pushbike. Sit on it, Potsie! (Don’t actually sit on it– it’s a snap-on.)

  Ah how I used to jet around the globe, zipping between continents without a second thought. I’ve taken a train through the Swiss Alps, a hair-raising tuk-tuk ride through the streets of Bangkok, an overnight ferry from Spain to mystical Morocco. Now I ride my bike to the local park. It’s not the same, but for the foreseeable future, my touring is pedal powered.

 I’m lucky to live only a mile from New Jersey’s splendid Liberty State Park– hectares of wide open space, protected marshland, wildlife habitat, all nuzzling up to New York Harbour. Most days when the weather cooperates I take a ride, telling myself it’s good exercise, but really I have to keep the pace down so I don’t spill my martini. When I first started coming here, reaching the park meant picking my way around the syringes and dead bodies, and when I made it inside, I more or less had the place to myself. Now I’m ushered in via a charming little footbridge, and once inside it’s manicured lawns and hundreds of painfully fit people in lycra having a horrible time. Within the cyclists, I find myself about in the middle of the pack– somewhere between the couples in jeans spluttering as they trundle along on their rented Citibikes; and the hardcore racing bikers with tight faces and Vaseline’d nipples (I’m sure they have other attributes, but to me that defines them). 

 I coast easily along the smoothly paved pathway, a rolling meadow on my right, Audrey Zapp Drive on the left (Audrey Zapp was New Jersey’s only superhero. Her super power was kicking people in the ribs when they were already on the ground.) Sunlight dapples through the locust trees, and flocks of fat geese pick through the grass, making my mouth water. Surely they wouldn’t miss one… I drive the delicious thought from my mind and take a right at the old train yards. These are brilliant. Left virtually untouched, they go back to the late 1800s and connected cargo and passengers from across the country to Manhattan-bound ferries; and when the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened up, the huddled masses would disembark and be herded onto trains to be dispersed throughout their weird new home. Not much is made of the significance of these ancient ruins, but I think they’re fascinating; and best of all, there’s a den of red foxes in there. The girl and I saw one trot in front of us the other day– she was so surprised she dropped her switchblade.

Liberty-State-Park-New-Jersey-City-Untapped-Cities9-1

From here I swing around onto the absurdly named Liberty Walkway for the most energetic portion of the outing. They love an abstract noun in these parts– you can gaze across the river at Freedom Tower from your spot in the Perseverance Parking Lot. Anyway, stupid name, lovely walkway. It curves elegantly along the water’s edge, wide and welcoming, wooden benches and stately lampposts on both sides, and a railing the perfect height for leaning. I try to build up some steam here, the riding is flat and easy, and it feels good to get the sludge in my veins moving. Seagulls wheel overhead, confident in their place in the sky; but every now and then a mighty red-tailed hawk ascends to float majestically on the spring zephyr and the gulls scramble desperately to exit stage left. The theatre becomes his, and it’s impossible not to stop and stare.

 I push past the saltmarsh– protected habitat for migrating birds which I admire but couldn’t identify if you paid me. On the harbour side, fishermen nurse their rods while they chat and drink, and presumably hope they forgot to bait their hooks. The waters of New York harbour are infinitely cleaner than they used to be, but there are a lot of belching tankers out there– I’m not sure I’d be eating what I caught. I coast past the Ellis Island bridge, and hit the final stretch; swamps give way to parkland, and dead ahead, the always pause-worthy Statue of Liberty. You know the one. You can view her through one of the many coin-operated Telescopes of Equality.

liberty-state-park-jersey-city

Florid from exertion, I dribble to a halt at the southernmost tip of the park, the questionably named Black Tom Island. Now incorporated into the park, the island was the site of a massive explosion during WW1 committed by a pair of German spies. It’s a cracking story, but aside from a small faded plaque near the picnic area, it seems largely forgotten. I like to pause here and absorb for a few minutes. Also, by this point I’ve remembered that exercising is stupid and standing still is fantastic. From this vantage point, I can take in the Big Lady, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the stately Verrazzano bridge, beyond which is the deep and mysterious Atlantic Ocean. The gulls caw, the odd pleasure boat chugs by, the fresh salty air invades my stunned lungs; if I’ve got the place to myself, and I don’t look back at the evil city, I can believe it’s still an island, as disconnected from reality as me.

 I could happily spend all day out here, but I tear myself away. Things to do. I take the scenic route home, past the old rail yard waiting rooms (the bathroom floor is still intact, as if to commemorate the immigrant families and their pee), and the surprisingly tasteful 9/11 monument; at this point you can look directly over to Manhattan– it feels like you could swim over, or at least float back after a big night. And at last, the marina. The going is slow along here– the path is a chaotic mess of gaping ditches and treacherous hillocks– but it’s worth it to gaze at the boats and dream. In my imagination, I’m a salty old sea dog on the deck of one of the weather-beaten fishing boats, resting between rum-running sorties to Havana; or maybe engaging in high stakes drug deals on one of the ostentatiously hulking cabin cruisers. 

SUN-Liberty-Landing-32

I try to hold onto these fantasies as I wheel across the footbridge back into blinding reality, but they unwind from my mind like a silk scarf in the breeze, floating back towards the park and disintegrating, leaving me with only a yearning for rum and drugs. But on the bright side, I know a guy, and I’ve got just the basket to carry them. 

 


 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, there are a few things you can do… Enter your email below, or at the top right of the home page so the next one goes straight to your inbox! Share it with your friends on your social media (share buttons are below– don’t forget to tag me @ NickHemptonBand)! Or even throw a few bucks in the tip jar! https://paypal.me/nickhempton  Cheers, Nick

The Lockdown Diary: A View from the Stoop

I’m outside, I’m unmasked, I’m ungloved, and I’m loving it. Go ahead, @ me all you like. I’m breathing my particles into the sweet spring air, and there’s nothing you squares can do to stop me! Ok let me explain. I live in a cramped ground-floor studio apartment in picturesque Jersey City, New Jersey. Walled in on all sides by hideous apartment blocks, my flat gets no natural light, which suits my vampiric lifestyle perfectly. But I’m starting to think this perpetual shadow dwelling might not be great for my health. I just Googled the symptoms of rickets. So I’ve drawn an imaginary line out front of my building, I’m keeping my distance, and I’m spending the afternoon on the stoop.

It’s a classic Northeast spring day, the street feels alive and almost relaxed; quarantine couples stroll arm in arm, the weeks of imprisonment-bickering momentarily forgotten, the sudden warmth melting worry lines from foreheads. An old fellow straddling a giant shiny pushbike, Puerto Rican flags flying off the back, cruises by; salsa blasting from a handlebar-mounted speaker. I’ve got everything I need- book, sunnies, ridiculous hat; and arrayed about me, an absurdly lavish picnic. There’s a pate de foie gras and arugula sandwich, a coffee mug of pickles (toe-curling full-sours from the pickle man at the farmers market), a leg and thigh from last night’s roast chicken (a Thomas Keller recipe absolutely worth the three-day process), a dozen mushy cloves of roasted garlic from the same, to be sucked from their skins between courses; a wax paper parcel barely containing a giant collapsing slab of gooey French stink-cheese, and some kind of salad which will just go back in the fridge. And of course a bottle of Portuguese red in a paper bag (for convention’s sake), and a big plastic cup (I ran out of straws.)

The city came by last week and uprooted the old trees from out front. They seemed pretty healthy to me, and we were old mates, so I’m sad to see them go, but the quivering saplings just planted in their place seem to be settling in well, despite every dog on the block joyfully unloading on them while their owners stare at their phones. They each have a blue tag attached to a lower branch with their latin names; I’m sure we’ll be friends, although Syringa Reticulata is a tad standoffish. I’ve renamed him Rudyard Sapling for no good reason.

 My annoying neighbour comes out and looks pointedly at my lunch- ooh, what do we have here? He’s not a bad guy, but he’s really chatty, and I’m enjoying my book. I know he’s a vegetarian because he tells me every time he sees me, so I lie. “Stewed pig’s foot, tripe sandwich, camel hump carpaccio, glass of beef jus– cheers!” Appalled, he backs away and scuttles off. I feel mildly guilty, but am thinking more about how good that camel hump sounds. How moist would it be!?

The air in these parts is always pretty clear- the Atlantic’s not far and the sea breeze seems to sweep much of the pollution away- but these days, with so few cars on the road, you can really smell the ocean in the air. Actually, that might be pickle brine. Spring is short around here- in a few weeks it’ll be revoltingly humid and gritty- you really have to grab it while you can. My mate Zet passes by, we break the rules and fist bump, talk jazz and food for a minute. Zet is a fellow saxophonist and an enthusiastic cook, and crucially, lives across from our local, very popular, butcher. If I text him before I head over, he’ll poke his head out the window and see how long the line is. I must remember to introduce myself to the folks who live opposite the wine shop.

I score a “what’s up buddy?” from the imposingly proportioned supermarket bouncer as a delivery truck grunts and belches to a halt outside the store two doors down. He’s there to let folks in one at a time– supermarkets are the new nightclubs. Suddenly it’s all action. The store’s been open every day throughout the lockdown and some of the guys haven’t taken a day off. They’re all out front now, masked up, calling directions, encouragement, insults to each other in Spanish as they stack pallets on the sidewalk. I hope they understand that while it looks like I’m lazing in the sun, licking foie gras off my fingers and washing it down with cheap plonk, while half-reading Somerset Maugham, I’m actually doing research for a very important blog post, and my work is just as strenuous as theirs. Solidarity, my brothers! Cheers! This wine’s tasting better and better.

Don’t look now but the new girl from upstairs has just rounded the corner. She’s going to love this. I don’t know if it’s the saxophone practice, the hysterical 3am laughter (that’s Simpsons time), the smoke alarm I set off whenever I stirfry, or the flaming bags of dog poo I leave outside her door every night, but she doesn’t like me one bit; and nothing seems to infuriate her like seeing me soaking up some rays on the stoop. Yep she’s spotted me and her carefree sashay has morphed into a self-righteous clomp; her hair swings in violent umbrage; the eyes above her daisy-print face-mask a pair of angry raisins. With my trademark timing, as she’s mounting the bottom step, I’m inserting a large sweaty oozing pile of cheese into my mouth. I foolishly attempt a smile and a neighbourly greeting, which comes out more as a thick gurgle. Her response as she sweeps by is muffled by the daisies, but I think she mentioned the foie. 

At this point, I feel my work here is done. Time is marching on, and that nap’s not going to take itself. I collect my things and retreat, a trifle unsteadily (too much sun I suppose), back into the enveloping gloom of my hovel. A shot of virgin’s blood then back in the coffin. Night night.


 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, there are a few things you can do… Enter your email below, or at the top right of the home page so the next one goes straight to your inbox! Share it with your friends on your social media (share buttons are below– don’t forget to tag me @ NickHemptonBand)! Or even throw a few bucks in the tip jar! https://paypal.me/nickhempton  Cheers, Nick

Discovering Wild Food– Lights Out, Blinds Drawn

This post first appeared on the short-lived “A Hare After Midnight

 

I’m not a weirdo. Honest I’m not. But we all have those moments of weakness, don’t we? It’s late, you’re tired and hungry, sitting in the dark, scouring the internet for some kind of solace, when you see an ad. Normally you’d give a derisive snort and scroll right by, but tonight you’re vulnerable, and you think, “why not?” And before you know it, you’ve clicked on an ad for Freshly Plucked Young Quails In Your Area. And you’re back on the D’Artagnan website.

I never understood the appeal of window shopping- gazing at stuff you can’t afford and wouldn’t know what to do with- until I discovered this wondrous website with its seductive pictures of trussed pigeons and tumid French garlic sausages. I’ve spent hours drooling over photos of pheasants, descriptions of duck fat, pictures of partridges; intrigued but intimidated, and too nervous to make the first move. After tolerating this victual voyeurism for weeks, my patient and long-suffering better-half exploded, “just order the phucking pheasants!”

img_7165 They arrived on my stoop in a styrofoam box: two small red parcels of gamey goodness, practically begging me not to screw them up. I’d done a bit of Googling to get some ideas for preparation- I wanted to keep it simple so I could really taste the thing- and decided to base my attempt on this recipe from Hank Shaw’s excellent blog: https://honest-food.net/roast-pheasant-recipe/. 

First step was brining: soaking the birds in salty water, ostensibly to flavour and tenderise the meat. I’ve heard of this- usually in reference to the Thanksgiving turkey- and I’ve always dismissed it as time-wasting chef-wankery. Because I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Brining is in fact amazing and you should do it whenever you can. Leave some time for this- boiling the water and spices is quick, but bringing it back to room temperature takes a while- and you’ll need some kind of bucketimg_7166 big enough to float your birds. (I’ll discuss the pathetic paucity of pots and pans in my kitchen in a future post, but it’s sufficient to say that if a recipe calls for specific implement or utensil, I’m almost certain not to have it. But this time, miraculously, the perfect plastic pail was languishing anonymously in the back corner of a cabinet. It’s small victories like this that get me out of bed in the afternoon.) Then it’s essentially treating your pheasants to a sort of sensory deprivation therapy, clearing their minds of stress and worry before they’re bundled into a blazing oven and eaten. While this is happening, amuse yourself and others by watching the rosy little birds bobbing around and singing the theme song to Pinky and the Brine. Hilarious.

img_7167 My second new experience was trussing. This I’ve never considered before because it looks impossibly fiddly, and honestly I’m still not convinced of its impact on the final product. But it’s kind of fun, and makes you feel like a pro. I recommend putting on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack and giving in to your disciplinarian urges: that pheasant has been very naughty, and deserves to be tied up. Slip on some leather chaps if it helps.

Here are a couple of helpful instructional videos:

https://youtu.be/x3bieEEYEAk

https://youtu.be/VxlcSzMOG9o

 At this point, it was 1 AM,  preparation was complete, and it was time to pour a cocktail and pump up some music. In our kitchen the choice was martinis and Count Basie. You might prefer a Manhattan and Mahler. But if you’re stuck (and you dig the jazz), I’ve assembled a Spotify playlist for you- it’s down the bottom. The drink is up to you.

 From here on in, if you’ve roasted a chicken before, this is plain sailing. I liked Hank’s use of high and low temperatures, but I don’t think I cooked it as long as he suggested. Like it’s an elderly neighbour, just check on it from time to time and jab it with a thermometer. But remember it’s not a chicken- cook it fully and it’ll be dry- you want your birds medium rare and blushing coquettishly.

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 Mere days before they ended up on our plates, these guys had been flapping happily over the Scottish moors, gorging themselves on berries and, I don’t know…heather? Whatever, this high-flying lifestyle must have a real impact because these pheasants were freaking delicious. This was my first foray into the world of wild food, and it’s going to be tough going back to those flabby miserable cage-raised, drug-pumped, soy-fed supermarket birds. Anyway, I hear a key in the door- gotta go clear my browser history…

 Have you pheasanted? Going to try it? Leave any thoughts or questions down there in the comments! More soon…

Music for Roasting Pheasants:
https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/nickhemptonband/playlist/4qB4neUDpjjqF9inYyXzzV

Countless Ways to Pummel Your Soul (You Won’t Believe #382!)

The “content providers” are having their moment. It’s their day in the sun. We’re all stuck inside, getting fat and depressed, drinking every night as though the last presidential election results just came in, because they’re coming in every day. Our bodies are complaining, joints voicing their displeasure as we creakily retrieve that slice of pizza from the floor; our minds are getting soft and mushy, dull but for the occasional spark of anger or indignation, lit by a poorly worded tweet or another manipulative news item. “Get In Shape At Home!” “15 Exercises You Can Do Without Leaving The Couch!” “Build Muscle While You Bake!” Articles promising to show you how to cook with what you have, cook cheap, keep your kids occupied so you don’t cook them; maybe some addressing your mental health: solutions for anxiety, insomnia, realism. The lifestyle editors know your guilt and fear, and in these difficult times, they’re here to help. They know what’s best for you, body and mind. But what about your poor battered, forsaken little soul?

 As a young man I scoffed at the concept of a soul. I was a cold hearted nihilist on a mission of self destruction. It was tremendous fun. On reflection, however, it occurs to me that my soul might have taken a look at my life choices and buggered off to the Bahamas for a few years. Judging by recent dreams, I have a suspicion it inhabited the body of a handsome young bartender who got all the girls thanks to the sweet yet heartbreaking poetry he could spout on request. That was MY action! But now, in 2020, having returned to the folds of my crumbling carcass I bet it’s looking around and questioning its own decisions.

 It seems we’ve adapted to our current predicament surprisingly well. We’re inside all the time, we’re keeping our distance; the everyday things we could never imagine living without, we’re living without. But one consequence that isn’t getting much airtime is that my soul hurts and so does yours. It’s almost like this virus was designed to stop humans connecting with each other in every way. We can’t see each other, we can’t touch each other, we can’t even get close enough to hear each other. Stifled by our masks of sorrow, even something as seemingly insignificant but enormously reassuring as seeing another person smile, has been taken away. (And far worse than smelling someone else’s fetid breath, we’re now constantly confronted with our own.) Who knows when we’ll have a shared experience again. The little things: rumours and gossip we heard at the bar, complete with visual footnotes– a raised eyebrow, a sardonic twist of the lips, gesticulations, inflections; a story that concluded with genuine laughter– laughter you could actually feel in your body, which can’t be replicated by a tear-streaming emoji. A drunken confession to a stranger at 3am; an argument about the state of the world or a minor difference of opinion– voices raised, barstools scraping, the physical feeling of fist on bar; then the resolution, a laugh and a round of drinks as we recognised our shared human ridiculousness.

  Even my heretofore steadfast misanthropy is wavering, causing me to latch on to the smallest human interaction. The other day I spent a very pleasurable 10 minutes on the stoop, trying to explain live streaming to my 80 year old neighbour Eddie. He’s a sharp old bloke who digs jazz, and had heard that this is how musicians are doing gigs nowadays. He puffed thoughtfully on his cigar as I did my level best to untangle some technological wizardry I don’t really understand myself, and at the end his expression was a dubious “thanks for trying.” But we ended on a joke, and my spirits were lifted. And I won’t get into the feelings I have for the strapping young hero who now delivers my wine, but he’s lucky I’m adhering to the distancing rules.

Many people seem to assume that digital interaction is the next best thing, and I have to admit to seeking occasional solace in the shadier corners of the internet, where French fowl providers pimp their wares– young wild birds with firm breasts and freshly plucked thighs (I like ‘em tied up– I have trussed issues). The screen is the easiest distraction, but it might not be the most helpful: I rarely feel better after watching a movie, just two hours older; and the little parts of my brain where bitterness and resentment are supposed to be quietly suffocating suddenly light up with outraged enthusiasm whenever I open up Twitter. As for zoom, I’m happy for you if you like it, but it’s all my anxiety triggers in one handy app. I feel like I’m at a dinner party, but when I discreetly try to ask my neighbour where the WC is located, the whole table goes silent and listens.  

So what to do? We’ve all seen videos of Italians singing to each other from their balconies, but let’s face it, Italians are just better at that kind of thing. Sitting on the stoop and blowing kisses to passing strangers rarely gets the warm reception you might hope for. So if I can’t have humans, I’ll take humanity. Connecting with mankind via the things that have sustained us through the millennia. Today I plan to cook beans in cast iron for breakfast, bake some dark bread, listen to Bach and Louis, loudly recite Byron, maybe make some fire water out of whatever it is that’s already fermenting in the back of the fridge. And tonight I’ll dress myself in a loin cloth (make one out of a bandana- instructions on the web), reach out the window, grab a squirrel, and cook it on an open fire on the kitchen floor. Feel free to join me, wherever you are. And if you want to compete the ritual by sacrificing one of the kids’ teddybears to the gods, that’s your call.


 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, there are a few things you can do… Enter your email below, or at the top right of the home page so the next one goes straight to your inbox! Share it with your friends on your social media (share buttons are below– don’t forget to tag me @ NickHemptonBand)! Or even throw a few bucks in the tip jar! https://paypal.me/nickhempton  Cheers, Nick