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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Searching for the Hungary I Loved in the Budapest of Today

Mar.31.17

Searching for the Hungary I Loved in the Budapest of Today

by Ryan Andrej Lough

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Pálinka in Magyarország

Budapest. Late March, early evening. I return to the circus of the U.S. tomorrow. I spent most of the day on an industrial island of post-Soviet ruin, soaking up the rays on the sandy shores of the Danube. It’s been unseasonably warm, but that’s become common in our epoch. The warm sun pairs well with cold beer when you’re trying to slow time. As the sun began to dip, a sense of natural progression leads to a bar.

I’m in the city’s 13th kerület, or district, recounting the last week here over a tall, cool Pésci and a side of meggy pálinka, a sour cherry brandy. We’re at a dingy basement haunt I know well, Dongó. The two libations combined are still under 800 Hungarian forint at this joint. That’s less than five bucks for a half-liter of beer and a shot; an upside to Budapest that always brings a little joy.

Except for the prices, this basement haunt has changed considerably since I last visited, in August 2015. For many years, Dongó had been a haven: for the city’s literary types, socialist thinkers, musicians of the more classical ilk, and all those who sought refuge from a confusing world over a few fairly cold beers. Now, however, that intellectual and quasi-socialist spirit seems to have left. In 2017, the outspoken nationalist and nativist-leaning conversations of Dongó’s clientele fill the air, and there is a slight sense of unease. Throughout my last week in Hungary, I’ve noticed this shift, most pronounced within the confines of drinking and eating establishments, which, in my opinion, is where you find the beating heart of most societies.

I lived in Budapest for several months in 2015 while working on a film. I fell in love with the city, and the country, for all that it was, and is: a territory that has been consistently reshaped, physically and culturally, by several different empires and influences over the span of millennia. I tried to obtain a residency permit to stay. It was a 90-day process, but two weeks before it was finalized and I could call Budapest home, my visa processing was suspended indefinitely. Not because of my status, but because in August 2015, the flow of incoming refugees was seen as a crisis by the Hungarian government, and so anyone attempting to enter Hungary was denied official entry unless the person was of Hungarian origin. I was forced to leave immediately, as I had overstayed my time in the Schengen Area in order to complete the residency permit process.

I had the good fortune of having a country to return to at that time. Many others—the refugees that were attempting to enter the country, many from Syria—did not have this good fortune. As I was departing Budapest during the thick of the migrant influx in Europe, I witnessed the physical quarantine of refugees and migrants that the government had been rounding up. These humans, these families, were left to bake in the heat without water on the hot August asphalt near the central train station. This was the first time I really took notice of the current Hungarian administration’s policies.

Hungary has long been a battleground between eastern and western ideologies, and in many ways it still is. The monumental ruins, structures, and façades of empires past, grayed and cracked from time, give a sense of where Budapest, Pécs, and the other great Hungarian cities once stood within the world’s societal pecking order. Soviet monuments litter the country, in villages and urban centers, reminding many of the transitional and turbulent occupation during the Cold War. Despite the tumult, the Hungarian spirit persists. It’s a tough, resilient core, coated by a sour, humorously pessimistic shell, motivated by a need to retain a sense of cultural identity in a land that always seems to be shrinking. This uniquely Hungarian persona is charming, and it’s hard not to fall in love with an underdog. However, the party in power, Fidesz, and the current (and only) rival party, the ultra far-right Jobbik, have shamelessly used this need for a cohesive cultural identity while exploiting chinks in the social armor, and have ruled for the last several years with autocratic policies under the guise of making Hungary great again.

I asked several Hungarian citizens what they thought of the current political climate, both young, progressive intellectuals, and the more nationalist, nativist types that prefer a conservative approach. Many people from across the spectrum told me that they are worried about the influx of Muslim migrants because they don’t share Hungary’s western cultural values, specifically gender equality and gay rights. Others stated that unless Hungary focuses on helping Hungarians, the country’s economic and cultural influence will be perpetually stymied by outside influence and manipulation. But many other responses to my inquiries were barely responses at all: nothing to offer, or no interest in the details. How has an intellectual center of Europe become so willingly disassociated and ambivalent to their government’s actions? Even as the Hungarian government is setting up border prisons and rounding up “illegals” in a Gestapo-like manner, many citizens seem unaware or uninterested. As I prodded deeper, it became clear that a disproportionate percentage of Hungarians are unaware of what their government is doing.

Throughout the week, I traveled out of the city to neighboring towns. From the window of trains, as the concrete turned to foliage, I noticed a society crumbling into economic despair, a market slowly crumbling since the fall of Communism. I saw ramshackle villages and rusted out and abandoned industrial zones. Nationalism was fervent in these areas. Roma people are ghettoized as outsiders on the fringes of the cities and towns, and the “native citizens” commonly fly the flag of the old Hungarian Empire as a show of support for Hungarian Unity. Some municipal signage in these villages outside of city centers is written in the old runic Magyar language, legible only to Hungarians who proudly and actively support far-right nationalist traditions. One thing was clear to me in these towns: this rural population either does not know of or is not concerned by the allegations of autocracy being lobbied at the current government, or the criticism levelled at the nation’s reactionary response to the refugee crisis.

Over the last few years, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government and his political party, Fidesz, has absorbed or gained control of all Hungarian media. And the Hungarian media reports only propaganda that benefits the Fidesz government. There is no Hungarian coverage on the border camps, the immigrant beatings, the human rights atrocities, or the other authoritarian actions committed and enacted by the government. Several publications from around the globe cover these stories, when they can gain access or find a trusted lead, but that is becoming rare in a time where the Orbán government and its allies have strangled the media with an iron fist. These stories covered by large, reputable publications can be found as front-page news throughout the world, but not in Hungary. While I’ve been in Hungary, as the news of the border camps and the inhumane treatment and reports of tortuous methods employed by the guards within these camps are leaking out, I couldn’t find any information without searching five or six pages deep in Google search, and that only when using carefully selected key words. When using a Hungarian internet connection, typing “current news in Hungary” or something similar into any search engine produces only saccharin, weightless, feel-good blurbs and Hungarian national unity puff-pieces. There is absolutely no coverage from external sources if the stories casts any question about the policies of the current administration. Orbán, for a time, has succeeded in controlling the media and creating an uninformed and confused society.

There is a rising political and cultural counterbalance. Another political party, Momentum, has sprung up in Hungary in recent months. Momentum is a grassroots political party, started in a dingy basement by young activists weary of the authoritarian practices that have dominated the Hungarian parliament since the Soviet era. Their policies and agenda are an obvious rebuke to the Orbán regime, and they have gained a considerable following in the last few months throughout the country. Given the tight control of the media by Fidesz, Momentum spreads their information through social media: Facebook, Twitter, and smaller alternative news sites like the Budapest Beacon. For many in Budapest, and the whole of Hungary, Momentum brings hope. The wariness that most Hungarians carry as a badge of honor, however, doesn’t allow this hope to rapidly foment into rabid fervor. Instead, it’s a slow build. Something to keep an eye on. Additionally, assistance-related and fact-based sites, like Migszol, have begun popping up in Hungary in recent months, attempting to bring attention to the authoritarian practices of the Orbán regime, and providing information to a population that may be unaware of what’s happening behind the scenes, a common occurrence in areas outside large urban centers.

Things change, obviously, and we’re all a part of that change. This basement tavern isn’t as interesting to me as it once was. Maybe I was a bit foolish to expect that this place would’ve retained the same charm and character after nearly two years away. I’m going to head over to the outer neighborhood of the 8th kerület, known for its large population of Roma people, lower-income creative types, and young thinkers, and an exceptional café known as Csiga. My former neighborhood. It’s a dear friend’s birthday tonight, and we’re due to have a few more drinks in good company before I leave this confusing, pessimistic, wondrous, and beautiful city again. But certainly not for the last time.

Tri-Tip Sandwiches and Disappointment in Wine Country

Dec.11.17

Tri-Tip Sandwiches and Disappointment in Wine Country

by Jason Avant

Wine in Santa Barbara

It had been a few years since I’d gone wine-tasting in the hills above Santa Barbara. I had good memories: meandering country roads that led to decent wines and excellent tri-tip sandwiches. I’d gone through a divorce and gotten remarried, coming out the other side fitter and happier. Kelli, my new person, and I were both looking forward to going back to the Santa Barbara wine country; she had spent time there in her previous life and we were keen on making new memories. The Santa Barbara wine country, meanwhile, had gone through Sideways.

I left the wines to Kelli. My task and purpose: find a good tri-tip sandwich. Tri-tip is the great mystery meat of Central California, a particular cut of sirloin that most non-Californians have never heard of. I knew just the place. R Country Market, a tiny grocery store located on the edge of the town of Los Olivos. I’d been there on previous trips; my memories were of huge slabs of beef slowly roasting over a wood fire to still-bloody perfection, then sliced and served atop delicate French rolls. I remembered the sandwich costing five bucks; if memory served, that was also what the wineries charged for tastings, if they charged you at all. The plan was to grab a couple of sandwiches and eat them over a tasting at the Zaca Mesa winery.

My first clue that things had gone, well, sideways: the big grill outside of the R Country Market was unlit. Walking past it, it looked like it hadn’t been fired up in a while. We ordered two tri-tip sandwiches at the counter at $12 a piece, and they were handed to us, foil-wrapped, from beneath a warming light. “Maybe they were carved just before we got here,” I said to Kelli. I also noticed lots of people wandering up and down the streets of Los Olivos. It was a Sunday. Shouldn’t they be at home?

The Zaca Mesa winery had a bit of a crowd as well, people who weren’t there to merely taste, but to drink—open bottles were at every occupied table. The tastings were $15 a person. Inflation and Hollywood, I thought. We unwrapped our sandwiches. The meat inside was cooked to the greyish color favored by hospital kitchen cooks and the current President of the United States. It was served on what appeared to be slices of grocery store garlic bread. My fond memory had become production-line food, tourist grub. At least the wine was decent. I sipped at it, trying to stretch those 15 dollars. As we left, a guy from one of the crowded tables yelled out “I’m NOT drinking fucking Merlot!”, to the delight of his companions. It was the fifth time I’d heard Paul Giamatti’s signature line that day, and happy hour was still two hours away.

A Brief Introduction to the Basque Houses of the American West

Dec.05.17

A Brief Introduction to the Basque Houses of the American West

by Fil Corbitt

Picon Punch in Nevada

Anna Lekumberry pours barely a drop of grenadine over ice in a small highball glass. Her dad and aunt own the place. The high ceiling is covered entirely in dollar bills. On the walls, there are mostly old cowboy hats signed with Basque last names—some from people who died decades ago, some from people still grazing cattle and raising sheep in this corner of northern Nevada.

The JT Basque bar and restaurant is on the edge of the high desert, at the base of the usually snowcapped Sierra Nevada. Lekumberry pulls the next ingredient from behind the bar—an aperitif called Torani Amer—and explains (as most bartenders making a Picon Punch might) that this isn’t the real stuff. You can’t get the main ingredient, Amer Picon, in the U.S. anymore.

The replacement for the bitter, citrusy, French liqueur is made by a syrup company in San Francisco, and it takes up about half of the small glass. Though it’s a substitute, Torani Amer has been adopted by most Basque-American bars since the 80s or 90s or 50s, depending on who you ask.

The Picon Punch is not a measured cocktail. In whichever Basque house or bar you pick in the Great Basin (or parts of Northern California) the drink will taste different, and since the recipe is passed down by word-of-mouth, it tends to take on the personality of the bar in which it’s made.

They say the Picon in Winnemucca is friendlier and smoother. One in Reno might be simultaneously rough and a little flashy. The Picon here in Gardnerville swaps the traditional stemmed glass for a short highball glass, which either means it’s more down-to-earth, or that it’s a couple inches closer to falling asleep on the bar.

Basque houses are a staple of the high desert, and since the early 20th century have been hotels, restaurants, bars, and community centers for both immigrants from the Basque country and for their descendants, whose culture is entirely woven into the West. Striking up a conversation in one Basque house, it’s not rare to find someone who has tried a Picon in every other Basque house in Nevada.

After the Amer, Anna adds a squirt of club soda. The Star in Elko, NV, on the eastern side of the state, is famous for skipping the club soda. That makes for a harsher, more bitter drink, says Marie Lekumberry, co-owner of the JT and Anna’s aunt. “When you think of Elko, you’re a little more isolated out there, it’s a little tougher.”

After a stir, Anna adds a float of brandy. From the lacquered bar wood up through the grenadine, Amer and brandy, there’s a rich gradient of browns. Right before sliding it across, she adds a touch of yellow in the form of a lemon twist.

Despite the variations across the Great Basin, there’s an atmosphere that ties them all together. The high desert is harsh and bitter, burning and sweet. And looking closely enough, there’s depth and nuance in the shades of brown.

The Democratizing Effect of a Collective, Punishing Headache Caused by Strong AF Spirits

Nov.29.17

The Democratizing Effect of a Collective, Punishing Headache Caused by Strong AF Spirits

by Kaspar Loftin

Pitu in Recife

The first time I was offered Pitu (pronounced ‘Peetoo’) was at one of Recife’s many outdoor events: a protest party in downtown Boa Vista. As the tropical rain fell on the northeastern Brazilian city, I gazed around the crowd, catching the eye of one of Recife’s many drink-vendors. These guys pull large polystyrene ice chests of alcohol around the city, somehow always managing to find their way to cultural happenings no matter how remote or late at night. The vendor shouted to me and, smiling, waved a can in my direction. “Nao!” I responded.

I had heard stories of this lethal drink: a cachaça with more than 40 percent ABV, popular with heavy drinkers and rumored to be the undoing of a famous local street poet. At only US$2 a can, the drink is so cheap that for the price of a beer you could end up under the table. Pitu seemed like Pernambuco’s answer to White Lightning, a strong, budget cider found in my native England. Pitu’s slogan, ‘Mania do Brasilero’ (Brasilian mania), plays on the drink’s infamy. Even the brand’s logo looks deadly. Its colors—black, red, and yellow—are the same as the poisonous coral snake, indigenous to Brazil.

The experience at the protest party was early on in my stay in the northeast, long before I realized Pitu’s wild popularity. This liquor transcends social boundaries. Outside of the region, Brazil’s first-choice cachaça is the famous 51. However, most people in Pernambuco embrace Pitu. The state is one of the poorest in the country and its people have a history of hostility towards outsider interference, and this seems to extend to their taste in cachaça. In Recife, the capital, the iconic red shrimp of the Pitu brand adorns T-shirts, baseball caps, shop fronts, and bar walls.

At noon at the hectic and colorful Casa Amarela market, fruitsellers share a can of Pitu under the hot, blue tarpaulins. Later in the day at one of the beachfront kiosks in wealthy Boa Viagem, an exhausted street-cleaner drinks from a large plastic cup with a big wedge of lime, and the barman pours from a can with frivolity—Pitu. At night in the trendy bars of downtown Recife, Pitu is mixed with fruit, ice, sugar, and condensed milk to create a delicious cocktail enjoyed by middle-class partygoers.

In the morning, they all wake up with the same punishing headache.

Pale Ale and the Indiana Banana, Together At Last

Nov.28.17

Pale Ale and the Indiana Banana, Together At Last

by Laura Marie

Pale Ale in Kentucky

Taking a break from a long interstate journey for a small libation, we walked into Ethereal Brewing Company in Lexington, KY. The building is an old distillery that went under. Now, the industrial décor fills a brick-walled space and a big chalkboard announced the typical offerings: some IPAs, some stouts, a pilsner or two.

I found a collaboration beer between two local breweries, Ethereal and West Sixth, called Paw Paw Pale Ale. When it arrived, it was shockingly yellow; less the goldenrod of a typical light-colored beer and more like the color of a banana peel. It had a rich soapy foam on top, and was cloudy with wheat.

The first sip was beer-forward, tasting of Motueka and Citra hops. Then, notes of melon and mango and a general tartness came out. I had to look up what in the world a paw paw was, because for some reason I had thought it was a nut. I’d had nutty brown ales, but no nutty pale ales, and as it turned out, paw paws aren’t nuts at all.

Paw Paws are a soft and squishy native fruit that grows throughout the middle of the United States, but has rarely been cultivated and commercialized. Now that some farms are producing more of the fruit and breeding it to be hearty, beautiful, and delicious, craft breweries have quietly purchased the pulp to add to their fermenters. After all, yeast will eat many kinds of sugars, not just the grain-based ones.

The Paw Paw is one of the only tropical-flavored fruits to grow so far north. With hints of banana and mango, it has its own flavor but seems to fall in more with the fruits of the equator. (It is not the same as a papaya.) While limited quantities are available commercially and at very specific farmer’s markets, the most common way to get them is to forage in the woods of Indiana, Michigan, and other deciduous forests; that was how it became known colloquially as the Indiana banana.

As I sniffed my own beer to try to identify what made it different, I even got a whiff of grapefruit and custard, as well a bread-like must of wheat and yeast. I was happy that the beer was mostly hoppy, rather than a Paw Paw beer that was more fruit than beer, but with each swig of the foamy drink I noticed more of a sweet finishing aftertaste.

I basked in the unseasonably warm November air, and took in the refreshing twist on my craft beer preference of a good hoppy pint. It wasn’t a bad way to take a break from driving across multiple states in a single day.

Local Beer Over Questionable Tapas Is Always An Easy Choice

Nov.21.17

Local Beer Over Questionable Tapas Is Always An Easy Choice

by Lauren Cocking

Tzotzil in Chiapas

We hadn’t done much in San Cristobal de las Casas, the cultural capital and tourist darling of Chiapas. It’s a city with a remarkably measured pace of life.

It’s also flush with travelers, at the heart of a poor state with a reputation for individualism and political rebellion. In the city center, there are no guerillas anymore, just harem pants-wearing tourists mingling with locals.

On San Cris’ central pedestrian walkway, Real de Guadalupe, international drinking options abound, coffee shop culture dominates the center, and tapas bars, for some reason, are all the rage.

One of the most popular tapas bars on the main strip, Viña de Bacco, pumps out tempranillo for 20 pesos and gives free tapas with every drink (which is nothing to write home about, as it goes; think tomato sauce smeared on untoasted bread with a soggy slice of ham slapped on top).

Crowds spill out onto the pavement, huddled over barrels-turned-tables, perched precariously on stools as they enjoy their imported wine, while locals walk past selling handicrafts.

Given the ebb and flow of activity surrounding the place, we were naturally sucked in, and opted to sit in the doorway when the mezzanine appeared off-limits. As it turns out, we’d picked the perfect spot to people-watch.

We declined the tempranillo and instead ordered a Tzotzil beer. Named for the indigenous Tzotzil people of Chiapas, the beer is produced by a Tuxtla Gutierrez-based brewery, allowing for an added layer of ‘craft beer’ smugness when ordering, not to mention far more flavor than many commercial alternatives.

It was delicious. Better than a glass of tempranillo any day. We’d only split one, but after trying it we wished we’d ordered another. In the heart of a city notorious for being overrun with travelers, the Tzotzil was a pleasant reminder that San Cristobal and Chiapas are still there underneath it all. Even if the beer doesn’t come with free tapas.

Photo by: Tjeerd Wiersma

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