Saturday, October 14, 2017

Puzzling Appreciations - Apothecary Part VII

“Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination.” – William Shakespeare

Perhaps.  Although I’d much prefer a puzzle for that purpose, than the musky secretions of a wild cat.  Nonetheless, the role of the ancient apothecary is clear here, a purveyor of potions to aid the body, mind and soul.  Robert Yarger is a modern day puzzle box apothecary, producing the equivalent of such enrichment in wood.  This assessment is not as far-fetched as it may sound.  The Stickman logo which is branded or drawn onto each limited edition piece Rob creates, was originally created from an amalgamation of ancient alchemy symbols.  The final installment of the Apothecary Chest series is about the chest itself, the chassis which keeps all the individual puzzle box drawers in place, which Rob designed and created to hold all of those fine ingredients.  It’s also a tribute to this talented apothecary.

The Apothecary Chest by Robert Yarger et al.

The Apothecary Chest project was launched in late 2009 as a collaborative celebration of some of the best puzzle box artists in the world at that time.  Robert Yarger and all of these craftsmen had been working with each other, relying on each other, and supporting one another during this heyday of puzzle box development.  He envisioned a tribute to his friends which would literally bring everyone together in a single, epic creation.  Over the next four years, he eventually saw the project to completion, producing fifteen copies of the chest and nearly going bankrupt in the process.  Most of the chests are now held by the artists who contributed the puzzle box drawers, and a few have found their way into the hands of private collectors.  The Apothecary Chest Series published on these pages over the past many weeks owes a debt of thanks to Robert Yarger himself, whose personal chest has been featured in all of the photographs.

There were very few restrictions or instructions that Rob gave to the contributors.  Each puzzle box “drawer” had to conform to the 3”x3”x4” dimensions of the cavity planned to house them, but other than that, the craftsmen were given free reign and encouraged to create something which exemplified their unique style and personality.  This is why for example, according to Rob, he allowed Stephen Chin to include a cylindrical puzzle which was wrapped up in a sock, although he did make Stephen put it inside an actual box for the drawer mechanism.  Another notable result of this “restriction” is the drawer from Mark McCallum, who normally makes geometric style puzzles and not puzzle boxes.  Mark rose to the challenge and produced a fantastic puzzle box which houses his geometric puzzle.  Keeping in mind that the majority of contributors were not professional puzzle makers, one of the nicest reflections Rob has about the chest is how the quality of design and finish from these “hobbyists” exceeded what he would expect from the professionals.

Many discoveries await inside and out ...

The chest itself is a marvelous container, with beautiful exotic wood color accents and finely carved details.  It is, of course, also a puzzle, and at its core is a mechanical machine which moves the drawers in and out or locks them in place.  This is achieved via a unique cam lever and piston system, with arms extending into each drawer space that hook and lock the drawer in place until it is properly released.  Pushing on one drawer will make another pop out, and the mechanism can be unpredictable, surprising, and quite fun to observe.  The drawers are grouped into sections, and each section remains locked until secrets on and in the chest are discovered and properly activated. To achieve this, items and tools discovered inside the puzzle box drawers are used as well.  The idea was to ensure that the artists who contributed and thus received a copy of the chest would need to work their way through each other’s puzzles, to properly appreciate and admire the individual ideas while working toward the ending.  Again, rather than put any restrictions on the artists, Rob adapted the hidden tools and items to the boxes afterwards, placing what would fit here and there and modifying the chest as needed based on the final drawer configurations he received.   As Rob states, “the main purpose of the chest was to build bonds of friendship between puzzle makers, and that it certainly accomplished.  We are all a lot closer now having done this together.

Tippling Bros. Magical Pain Extractor by Wayne Curtis

To toast this epic achievement I wanted to stick to the apothecary theme.  Apothecaries, after all, were the original bartenders, and created the very first cocktails.  Each proprietor (what we would now call a pharmacist or druggist), would develop his own concoction from bitter herbs and roots, then serve it neat or mixed with a bit of water, sugar, and often brandy or gin as a medicinal cure all, no matter the malady.  The practice started in England, centuries ago, when it was common to add a few drops of these bitters into “Canary wine”.   Apothecary bitters really took off in colonial America and grew in prominence right up until Prohibition, when they all but disappeared.  Perhaps this was just as well, as many were sold as “miracle elixirs”, those guaranteed fixers, which certainly did not.  

Full to the brim with fruits, herbs, and bitters - it'll cure what ails ya

But the apothecary bitters, and bitter liqueurs, are back now, and these old time recipes are often celebrated in new inventive modern ways.  A particularly fun, festive and tasty tipple with which to toast the Apothecary Chest was created by spirits writer Wayne Curtis.  It’s full of fruit, herbs, spices and, of course, bitters, but has no other base spirit, making it a perfectly delicious way to appreciate the history of the Apothecary.  Here’s to many amazing individuals coming together to create a uniquely balanced whole which is so much more than the sum of its parts. Cheers!

Special thanks to Robert Yarger for the loan of his chest and his many insights into the history of the project.

This prescription comes with twelve refills

Tippling Bros. Magical Pain Extractor by Wayne Curtis

1 oz amaro (bitter liqueur such as Averna or Montenegro)
2 tsps chopped peeled green apple
3 rosemary sprigs
1 tsp sugar
6 mint leaves
1 egg white
3 dashes Angostura bitters
4 oz chilled tonic water
Cayenne pepper

Muddle the apple, rosemary, and sugar together, then gently muddle in the mint.  Add the amaro, egg white and bitters and “dry” shake, followed by a “wet” shake with ice.  Strain into an old fashioned glass (filled with ice if you like) and top with tonic water.  Garnish with rosemary, cayenne, and the cure for what ails you.

For more about Robert Yarger:

For the prior Apothecary Chest puzzles see:

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