Saturday, October 27, 2018

Boxes and Boos

It’s that time of year again, for every good ghoul and boy’s favorite spooktacular count dracular blog, Boxes and Boos.  Believe it or not, this year’s themed offering comes by way of our friend downunder, the dark prince of puzzles, maker of “fiendish” limited editions, yes that’s right Dr. Frankenstein – I mean, Mr. Puzzle himself, Brian Young. 

Houdini's Torture Cell by Brian Young

It may not be so obvious at first glance, but Brian’s “Houdinis Torture Cell” is a perfect Halloween puzzle.  One of his coveted limited edition puzzles, Houdini won a Jury First Prize in the 2012 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.  According to Brian, “the puzzle celebrates Harry Houdini’s first public performance of The Torture Cell at the Circus Busch in Berlin on 12th September 1912.” The design is also based on a clever idea Brian incorporated originally in the Opening Bat puzzle, a much more complicated, multistep puzzle, where this particular mechanism is completely hidden and must be solved blindly.  Did I mention, fiendish?  This reminds me of one of the clever mechanisms found originally in the MSM Telephone Box, which is also completely hidden and must be solved blindly.  We find it again in the Louvre puzzle, where it is more visible and easier to understand.  Or perhaps I should say it is easier to put one’s finger on.  Which should be a figure of speech in this case.   Anyhow, the Houdini puzzle presents our hero, Harry Houdini, suspended upside down inside his famous Water Torture Cell.  Your job, as puzzle savior, is to free him.  While avoiding mention of his rather suggestive appearance.  Perhaps Brian thought Houdini’s real name was Richard.

Can you help Houdini, or are you Weisz averse?

So why is this a perfect Halloween puzzle?  You are thinking, perhaps, that the Houdini inside is hollow?  Making him a hollow weenie?  Wrong!  Stop laughing.  This is serious business.  In fact, on October 22, 1926, while performing a series of shows at the Princess Theater in Montreal, Houdini invited a few students from McGill University back to his dressing room.  He had met one at a lecture earlier that week, who was an artist.  Ostensibly, this fellow was going to sketch Houdini, who was reclining on a couch.  But one of the other “students” engaged Houdini in conversation about his boasts of strength and his ability to withstand punches to the stomach.  Without allowing him to prepare, the student delivered numerous severe blows to Houdini’s abdomen, finally stopping when Houdini held up his hand, clearly in pain. Some accounts suggest that this assailant was actually an amateur boxer.  Despite being unwell, Houdini went on with his show that night, and the next.  He could not finish the following performance and underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix on Oct 24.  Few survived such an occurrence in those days.  Houdini returned to the operating room a few days later, but gave up fighting and died on Oct 31, 1926.   He was considered the greatest escape artist in history, and he inspires so many of us still.  So do a little magic in his honor on Halloween, and keep his memory alive.

The Dapper Dead

What shall we drink on this chilly October evening?  Ghouls, ghosts, and ghastly gentlemen alike all have one thing in common - they all love a stiff drink. "Stiff" as in, dead guy, get it?  Ok, ok, groans are good on Halloween, right? One thing we can all agree on is that Halloween is the perfect time for some liquid adult treats, and luckily I've got just the trick up my sleeve.  The classic Boulevardier cocktail, named after the very much alive bon vivants and stylish gentlemen who strolled the Parisian boulevards in the nineteen-twenties, was created by Erskin Gwynn, who wrote a magazine of that same name for American expats. 

Perfect for a stroll down the boulevard ... in the underworld

It’s quite likely that Harry Houdini and his wife Bess enjoyed this drink.  They loved Paris and had an apartment there.  Houdini was known to stage publicity stunts to promote his magic shows.  He once orchestrated such an advertisement along a street café in Paris, where he lined up seven bald men wearing berets.  As people strolled by, they would sequentially remove their hats, revealing the letters H-O-U-D-I-N-I inked on their heads.  I’ve created a delicious autumnal variation of the Boulevardier featuring applejack, one of the earliest spirits in America. George Washington's troops were given rations of the stuff - you might even say it's so old, it's revolutionary! Mixed with a sweet vermouth (such as the delightfully named “D’ Sange” from Momenpop) and some Campari, the resulting drink would look perfect in the hand of the most stylish of spooks, and tastes so good you'll need to fend off those fiends who want a sip. What the hell, just mix one up for them too.  Happy Halloween!

There's no escaping how good this pair is

The Dapper Dead

1 oz Laird’s Applejack
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz Campari
2 dashes Bittermen’s Hellfire Bitters

Stir ingredients over ice and strain into an eyeball glass.  I mean, a highball glass.  Garnish with a set of citrus peel fangs frozen inside a clear ice cube.  Cheers!

For more from Brian Young:

For prior Halloween hijinks see:
Trick and Treat
Wolves at the Door

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Traditions Old and New

When it comes to traditional puzzle boxes, the history books direct us to the Hakone mountain region south of Tokyo in Japan.  The thousand year old wood marquetry technique known as yosegi-zaiku is the region’s greatest claim to fame.  The secret opening boxes which feature the marquetry are a much more recent development, relatively speaking.  Much has changed with puzzle boxes in Hakone over the past two hundred years or so, but the allure of the “traditional” sliding panel, yosegi covered box remains. 

Traditional Box (Stickman No. 32) by Robert Yarger

The creations of puzzle box artist Robert Yarger are a far cry from the standard mechanics of traditional Japanese puzzle boxes.  I'm a huge fan of traditional Japanese boxes, which require exceptional skill and precision to make, and can be incredibly complex.  They are a dying art form.  The movements required to open them are, however, often routine and mostly repetitive, once you know how they work.  Progressive thinking and ingenious artistry championed by Akio Kamei and the Karakuri Creation Group in Hakone have saved the art form and advanced its boundaries.  In the same way, Robert Yarger has never settled for the routine.  His puzzle creations in wood are among the most complex, diverse and creative in the world, and his Stickman boxes came to life in parallel with the new school of developers in Japan.  Rob relates a story of his brother and himself having traditional Japanese puzzle boxes when they were kids, which were somehow lost over time.  The Stickman Puzzle Box Company began from Rob deciding to replace these old boxes with new ones of his own creation, the “Oak Wood Slide” boxes (Stickman No. 1).

Those original Stickman boxes were nothing like a traditional Japanese box, especially on the inside.  They contain a mechanism which links drawer compartments and automates movements.  Rob’s designs have only gotten more complex and interesting.  This introduction is simply to point out that when he finally released what he named his “Traditional” Box (Stickman No. 32), an homage to the puzzle box’s Japanese origins, he didn’t really settle for “traditional”.  It should come as no surprise that the inner workings of the box are anything but standard.  In fact the name is both a serious nod to the origins of this art form and an ironic spoof on that idea as well.  The box does have a very traditional look and feel to it, being approximately 5 “sun” in measurement, incorporating kannuki sliding key sections embedded within each end piece, and being covered in yosegi wood marquetry.  This last detail, the yosegi, is actually what inspired Rob to create the Traditional Box in the first place.  His apprentice Rick Jenkins had been interested in learning the technique, and they used it to finish the final Stickman No. 1 Oak Wood Slide box for a special touch.  Rob ended up learning the technique as well, and used it to tremendous effect on the Traditional Box. 

Beautiful yosegi creates a 3D effect

Rob relates a common pitfall for making yosegi which he learned the hard way.  Using the traditional Japanese hand planer requires the blocks of wood to have the grain patterns lined up in the right direction for "pull" planing - otherwise the planer hits a dead end snag.  He designed a number of beautiful patterns including the three dimensional geometric pattern seen on the top and bottom. It's incredibly unusual and really stands out, framing the more traditional “kikkou” pattern in the center.  Along the sides is a hexagonal yosegi pattern created by Jenkins.  Exploring the box reveals another surprise.  Unlike traditional boxes, on which the kannuki slider bar(s) move independently and usually just in the center of the end piece, the ends of the Traditional Box are divided into multiple kannuki bars which all move in unpredictable ways.  Sometimes they move independently, other times together.  Repeat movements don't always have the same result ... quite reminiscent of Rob's 3-Lock Box ....  There’s just a lot of movement which starts to happen, all around the box, and in unpredictable ways.  It can get confusing, and complicated!  Another surprise – there are four compartments in all to discover here, and the finale, getting the lid off completely, involves a truly unique mechanism unlike anything ever seen on a “traditional” box.  In total there are a minimum of 47 moves required to find all four compartments and remove the lid.  Ironically, Rob says that these boxes are set to the easiest solution, but a much harder (“insane”, according to Rob) configuration is also possible, which was too complicated to even try to describe in the solution booklets.  I really think that this version is hard enough! Keeping the tradition alive could not have been made better.

Bon Iver (Good Winter)

My own collection started when I was a boy, with a four move traditional Japanese puzzle box I got from my parents which is a little loose these days.  My prize possession back then was a more complicated box a got from them soon after that, having demonstrated a keen interest.  It still works perfectly.  I’ve had it in mind for a long time to pair that old traditional box with an old classic cocktail called the “Old Pal”.  The Old Pal traces its origins to 1927 and the friendship between Paris based sportswriter William “Sparrow” Robinson and Harry McElhone, the famed proprietor at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris.  Robinson liked to call every “My Old Pal”.  He loved the combination of rye, dry vermouth and Campari that Harry would fix for him, and the drink became legend.  Like a Negroni, with whiskey rather than gin, the Old Pal is also a great drink to modify by simply varying the ingredients from the same family of spirits.  Instead of whiskey, for example, we could use apple brandy, a wonderful spirit this time of year.

Apple, cedar and sapele make this the perfect fireside sipper

To toast the Stickman Traditional Box I thought it would be nice to take this idea and make it a bit more special.  It seemed in keeping with the unique nature of the box, which takes its starting origins and adds a whole lot more.  It’s also nice to be toasting Rob with what is essentially a fancy Old Pal.  For this version, which is a perfect fall and winter drink, as mentioned I substituted the whiskey for apple brandy from Laird’s, America’s oldest continuously operated distillery.  They provided the “spirit” ration to George Washington’s troops in the American Revolution.  Instead of regular vermouth, I used the delicious aromatized Italian wine called Barolo Chinato, which is similar to vermouth but full of rich and intense flavors of bitter orange and cinnamon spice.  Finally rather than Campari I used Meletti, another bitter Italian aperitivo which features orange and saffron notes.  Tying all these flavors together, I added a few dashes of charred cedar bitters, which evoke a wintry scene of forest and fireside, and lastly a few dashes of Rob’s own homemade Stickman Sapele Bitters.  These last are an amazing tincture made from actual sapele wood, which he uses often in his puzzle boxes.  He discovered the flavor quite by accident, when wood chips fell into his beer one day.  The taste is mellow and sweet, very different from an oak flavor one might expect from barrel aged wine or bourbon.  The sapele adds one more incredible layer to this delicious drink which has made it a favorite I’ll be enjoying over and again this season.  I agree that this may not be the most accessible list of ingredients for most people, but I argue that neither is a Stickman Box often found on many a shelf.  Here’s to good pals, old and new.  Cheers!

These old pals are quite special

Bon Iver (Good Winter)
1 oz apple brandy
1 oz Meletti
1 oz Barolo Chinato
3 dashes charred cedar bitters
3 dashes sapele bitters
 Stir with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Orange twist garnish and sapele stirring stave.

For more about Robert Yarger:
Favorite Things

Photos of yosegi blocks in preparation for the Traditional Box, courtesy of Robery Yarger:

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Great Pyramid

The ancient pyramids of Egypt hold an air of mystery and wonder and remain a fascinating marvel of engineering.  Modern day speculation posits that the near perfect precision of orientation along the cardinal points (north / south / east / west) of the great pyramids was achieved with the use of gnomons – long surveying rods placed in the ground to cast shadows.  At the fall equinox, the rod’s shadow will trace a perfect east – west line along the ground. 

Pharaoh's Secret by Perry McDaniel

Perry McDaniel, a favorite craftsman and fellow Texan, uses something a bit more modern to achieve his precision, but I suspect he could do it with shadows too.  He designed (along with Norman Sandfield) and created the Pharaoh’s Secret, a miniature pyramid made from walnut, mahogany and padauk woods.  Those familiar with the creations of the Sandfield brothers won’t be surprised to see that this pyramid is held together by perfect dovetails, impossibly positioned at opposing sides all around.  There’s definitely something deep inside this tomb, rattling around like an angry mummy waiting to unleash its curse upon the world.  Listen closely and you might hear it whispering the secrets of the ages.  I can just barely make it out … I think it’s saying … “foooooled youuuuuuu”. Hmphh.  Well, whatever the secret is, finding it is half the fun.  The other half is admiring the beautiful workmanship and clever design of another timeless piece from this team.

Ancient Egyptian Dovetail ...

I’m taking a bit of poetic puzzling license here with this toast, but I think it’s acceptable in this case.  The group of puzzlers who produced this fine pyramid are themselves at the pinnacle of playfulness.  I don’t think they will mind.  The Pharaoh’s Secret pyramid also resembles a volcano to me, with its red cap and dovetails like lava bubbling out and flowing down the sides of the mountain.  Since the goal here is to get inside, I logically thought that going “Under the Volcano” would be in order.

Under the Volcano by Kyle Davidson

There are a few Under the Volcano recipes floating about but this appears to be the original, from Kyle Davidson and sourced from the underground collection of rogue cocktails published in the pamphlet “Beta Cocktails”.  Presumably the drink takes its name from the 1947 novel by Malcolm Lowry set in Quauhnahuac, Mexico on the Day of the Dead, 1938.  It tells the tale of an alcoholic former British consul who experiences the most fateful day of his life.  It’s full of lyrical metaphors on the human condition and struggles against the forces of destruction.  Sounds like an amazing recipe for a cocktail.  This one is a sophisticated margarita which replaces the orange liqueur with something quite a bit more complex, the combination of Italain Cynar amaro and French Chartreuse.  The result is absolutely incredible, a medley of flavors to ponder and enjoy.  Perhaps it even contains the secret of the pyramids, who knows.  Cheers!

Not your average margarita ...

Under the Volcano by Kyle Davidson

2 oz Tesoro Añejo Tequila
3/4 oz Lime Juice
1/2 oz Cynar
1/4 oz Yellow Chartreuse
1/4 oz Agave Nectar 

Shake together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with something explosive.

Surprises appear amid this pair ...

For more from Sandfield and Company:
More Dovetail Attention
Complimentary Condimentaries
Fool Me Twice

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Doctor is In

Who doesn’t love a confusingly eccentric Time Lord who goes around saving the world?  Dr. Who (his real name is exceedingly hard to pronounce) originally premiered on November 23, 1963 starring English character actor William Hartnell, who would go on to be known as the First Doctor.  One of the many pieces of trivia from the show’s long franchise is how the original “time and relative dimensions in space” machine (TARDIS) in which the Doctor and his companions travel got its distinctive external appearance.  It was actually supposed to "blend in" to wherever and whenever it appeared, as a disguise – such as a column in ancient Rome, perhaps a pagoda in China, who knows.  But after constructing the famous blue police box for the first episode, the producers realized they did not have the budget for such extravagance.  It was much easier to claim that the time machine’s “chameleon circuit” was broken, and the police box remained forever after.  I personally grew up during the Tom Baker era, the Fourth Doctor, who brought an impish charm and charisma to the role as he dashed about the universe in his striped scarf while eating Jelly Babies. 

TARDIS Box by Richard Giaimo

To celebrate the release of the landmark “Season 11” which premieres around the world on October 7 (2018) I thought it apropos to feature a TARDIS puzzle box.  The new season is only season 11 if counting from the program’s revival in 2005, but the thirty-seventh season overall.  Dr. Who has spanned generations.  I should say, re-generations, since the lead role relies on the premise that the Doctor, an alien “Time Lord” from the planet Gallifrey, will take on a new body every so often as he travels through space and time.  It’s about time too that the Doctor visits the modern era.  For the first time ever, the new iteration of the Doctor will be played by a woman, Jodie Whittaker, who will now go on to be known as the Thirteenth Doctor.  James Bond, take note.

I can't list the box's dimensions, there are far too many ...

The TARDIS box is the unique creation of wood working hobbyist and musician Richard Giaimo from Cape Cod, who modeled it after the 1970’s Tom Baker era iteration.  Fashioned from birch and painted with watercolor blue, the box is decorated internally with printed graphics which recreate the internal time machine and control panel from that era.  On top there is a functioning blue light.  There are three or four internal compartments which are fairly easy to find, as well as two others which are more cleverly hidden away, including one extremely sneaky and well disguised compartment which is easy to overlook.  The box is styled as roguish folk art, a bit rough, full of surprises and incredibly charming, just like Tom Baker’s Dr. Who. 

Banana daiquiri by Dr. Who c. 1750?

Die hard Dr. Who fans will know about his proclivity towards bananas.  He loves them.  Bananas make an appearance now and again throughout the show’s history, like a long standing running joke.  In “The Girl in the Fireplace” (season 2, episode 4, 2005), the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, travels back in time to Versailles where / when he apparently invents / invented the banana daiquiri.  Good thing he was carrying a banana at the time.  Of course, I had to make a banana daiquiri to toast the good Doctor and this TARDIS.  The daiquiri, as everyone now knows, is the simple and delicious combination of rum, lime and sugar.  This version (with said banana) from Caitlyn Jackson of Geraldine’s in Austin, Texas ups the ante with banana liqueur.  I threw in some extra banana as well, which I know is bananas, but I found it appealing.  You’re gonna love it – a bunch!  Here’s to the new Doctor Who, it’s about Time. Cheers!

What do you call a shoe made from a banana? A slipper ...

Banana Daiquiri adapted from Caitlyn Jackson

1 ½ oz aged rum
¾ oz fresh lime
½ oz Giffard Banana liqueur
¼ oz simple syrup
½ ripe banana

Muddle the banana in the bottom of a tin then shake all ingredients with ice.  Strain into a favorite glass filled with crushed ice.  Garnish with banana TARDIS.

Time flies like an arrow
Fruit flies like a banana