Sunday, July 27, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Becherovka

     Becherovka is a type of liquor made in the Czech Republic.  I’d never heard of it until I tried some while visiting a friend (Hi Jess).
     The history of this alcoholic drink is conclusively known, because, like vegemite (see April 30, 2012 post) there was only one undisputed inventor.  Spice trader/shopkeeper/distiller/politician Josef Vitus Becher (1769-1840) liked to experiment with different sorts of liquors.  In 1807 he developed his most famous creation, using an assortment of spices and herbs to flavor it.  The company really took off under his son (known as “Jan” Becher), and has continued up until the present day.  Technically it’s categorized as a “bitter,” which is defined as, “an alcoholic drink flavored with botanical matter characterized by a bitter or bittersweet flavor.”  As far as when it’s designed to be consumed, it’s known as a “digestif,” meaning a drink consumed after a meal, to (allegedly) aid in digestion.  (An “aperitif” is the opposite, a drink imbibed before a meal, to stimulate the appetite, kind of a “liquor appetizer.”)
     Becherovka is probably most notable as being one of those products whose exact recipe is known only to a very few people—in this case, two, who meet every week to mix the herbs and spices.  (To read about more examples of these, I recommend the online Cracked Magazine article “7 Secrets Only Two Living People Know (For Some Reason), which includes pieces on Coca-Cola, KFC, and the locations of both Oliver Cromwell’s head and the mud used to rub up Major League baseballs.)  However, it seems that this is true, but only sort of.  In 1945, Josef Becher’s descendant Hedda Baier-Becher was forced to reveal the secret recipe to the Czech secret police before she left and settled in Germany.  After the war she restarted her former company in Germany, and produced Becherovka (with a slight change in recipe, under a different name), while a separate Czech company did the same in Czechoslovakia.  Since the Czech company’s version was sold only in Communist Bloc countries, and Hedda’s only in non-Communist areas, they didn’t really compete with each other.  When the Soviet Union and its associated Communist countries collapsed in the early 1990’s the rivalry was activated.  After a period of inter-company agreements and then legal actions, a French Company (Pernod Ricard) settled the fracas by buying up both companies and consolidating them.  So the “only 2 people know the recipe” account is a fun, cloak and dagger-ish story, but it’s obviously extremely questionable.  (To add to the story, a Slovakian variant was sold from 1998-2003 by a man claiming to have gotten the recipe from another Becher family member (in 1939) who feared it would be lost in World War II, but he was forced to stop when he couldn’t prove this.)
     Anyway, back to the drink itself.  It’s pretty strong (38% alcohol), and has a rich, spicy odor.  Evidently some folks mix it with soft drinks or tonic, but I had it straight, as a shot.  Becherovka is very good.  Very herby and spicy, with a strong but not overpowering taste and heat behind it.  Some claim a ginger-y or cinnamon-y flavor, which I can see.  I’m a fan of another European bitter/digestif, Jagermeister*, and this is roughly similar to that one.  I took to it immediately, and tried to buy it for myself.  Alas, there was a problem with this—it doesn’t appear to be very popular in the U.S.  The only place I could find it was a specialty liquor store in Washington, D.C. (and it’s expensive, too—a 750 milliliter bottle was about $40).  So, in anyone wants to try it, I suppose your best bet is to look for it in Eastern and Central Europe, or in other areas with high Czech/Bohemian ancestry.  And if you’re in the Czech Republic itself, the original hometown of the Bechers, Karlovy Vary, even has a museum with information about the drink.

* I learned a disturbing tidbit about Jagermeister while writing this post.  This liquor dates back to 1935, and is of course, German.  Its name means “Master of Hunters,” a term popularized by the then German Imperial Gamekeeper, who enacted laws about hunting.  Some people even referred to it with the nickname “Goring Schnapps.”  Since this man was infamous Nazi high official Hermann Goring (also spelled Goering), I’m not shocked that Jagermeister discouraged the use of this moniker after the War.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Passion Fruit

     This one might not seem to fit my exotic/disgusting guidelines, but hear me out.  Yes, passion fruit flavoring, whether actual juice or artificial chemical approximates, has become fairly common in fruit drinks over the last decade or so, but until a week ago I’d never seen the fruit itself for sale.  So when I saw it at the local Shop Rite I quickly snapped it up.
     Passion fruit is South American in origin.  In fact, it’s the national flower of Paraguay.  But because it grows readily in other tropical and subtropical environments, it’s now cultivated across Central America, the southern U.S. and Hawaii, Africa, South Asia, and Australia/New Zealand.
     It comes in two main variants—yellow and purple.  The yellow kind is larger (it can be about the same size as a grapefruit) and has a more strong, sour taste.  The purple sort is smaller, more the size of a large plum, and has a sweeter flavor.  People both eat the fruit and drink the juice.  As mentioned before, it’s a common additive to other juice medleys, for its pleasing aroma and flavor.  In New Zealand and Australia they even make a soft drink from its flavor, called “passiona.”  And in Israel it’s even used in wine.  Nutritionally it’s a solid choice, as it has significant amounts of B vitamins, Vitamin C and A, potassium, fiber, and iron.  Some claim it might have medicinal uses, but, as I’ve typed seemingly dozens of time before, these benefits haven’t yet been proven scientifically.
     But the thing that leaps out is its name.  I always assumed (and I guess this says something about me) that the “passion” was sexually-related.  I figured it got the name because centuries ago it was thought to be an aphrodisiac, and/or an early fruit version of Viagra.  It turns out I was completely wrong.  It’s actually from “passion” as in the suffering of Jesus, in Christian theology.  It’s based on the plant’s dramatic flower, and is quite intricate.  To whit, the pointed tips of the leaves are seen to represent the Holy Lance (used to wound Jesus on the cross).  The tendrils are seen as stand ins for the whips used to scourge Christ.  The ten petals/sepals are representative of the ten loyal Disciples (Peter (temporarily) denied knowing Jesus, and Judas was the betrayer).  The radial filaments of the flower are supposed to be the Crown of Thorns.  The chalice-shaped ovary with receptacle is seen as the Holy Grail.  The three stigmas are the three nails hammered into Jesus, and the five anthers below are the five wounds Jesus suffered—four by the nails (one caused two wounds as it passed through both ankles) and one by the Lance.  Finally, the white and blue color of the flower is representative of purity and Heaven.
     This is kind of cool in a complicated way, but it makes me wonder—have people interpreted other flowers in this way?  Is there a flower with say, three petals (for 1903), two stigmas (for the pair of brothers), twelve tendrils (North Carolina was the 12th state to ratify the Constitution), plane-shaped leaves, and which grows on sandy beaches, which could be called the First Flight Flower?  Do other plants' flower parts “predict” or represent the Black Death, the Moon Landing, the birth of disco, etc.?  I think that a joint venture of botanists and historians should waste lots of time investigating this.
     Anyway, back to the fruit itself.  The two I bought looked pretty sorry.  They looked like plums that had been beaten and then abandoned in Death Valley.  They were purple and extremely dried out—their skin was falling into itself and almost looked warty.  Cutting them open wasn’t too difficult, and the inside rind was white.  Then, inside this was a phlegm yellow, loose fruit mixed with innumerable greenish seeds.  The seeds are edible, which is fortunate, as separating them from the pulp would be a real pain in the butt.  I’m happy to report that despite its grotesque appearance, passion fruit is quite good.  Slightly tart, but in a positive way.  As advertised, the odor is pleasant as well.  They were a bit expensive—one fruit, which yielded several tablespoons of pulp, was about $2—but I didn’t feel cheated.  I would have this again.
     In closing, just to show diversity in cultures, several countries—Japan, Greece, and Israel—interpret the passion flower’s appearance differently.  They call it the clock flower, or clock plant.  And in India the blue passion flower is called Krishnakamala, as its parts correspond with some aspects of the Divine Krishna.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Interview with Jeremy Hicks

    Today I'll be interviewing a friend, Jeremy Hicks, who's both a fellow archaeologist and an author.  To date, he's cowritten the novel, "Finders Keepers," the first book in the sci-fi/fantasy "Cycle of Ages" series (Dark Oak Press, formerly Kerlak Enterprises), along with stories in the "Capes & Clockwork: Superheroes in the Age of Steam" and "Luna's Children: Full Moon Mayhem" anthologies (both also from Dark Oak Press).  He also has a stand alone story from the "Cycle of Ages" universe called "The Savior of Istara" (Pro Se Press).  Jeremy's very active on social media as well, as he has a website (, blog (, and twitter account (  Finally, if you're eager for more interviews with archaeologists/writers, he recently posted one with me on his blog.

How long have you been writing?


I started telling stories with pictures before I ever began writing. So it was a natural transition to writing them down as a child. Luckily, my Uncle Danny encouraged me by paying me a quarter a page to write stories. Didn’t matter what, just that I wrote a story. I kept writing to keep those quarters rolling in; they could actually buy something back in the day. My first story to be published was featured in my elementary school newspaper; it was a horror tale about an archaeologist and a mummy, even then I knew two things: I wanted to dig and I wanted to write.


Which writers have influenced you the most?


Stylistically, I prefer older, pulpier writers who actually played with the language without padding their stories heavily. As a reader, I like a lean style similar to Ambrose Bierce who once said that a novel is only a short story…padded. However, I do not like the extreme of modern industrial fiction that insists one remove every adjective, adverb, and dialogue tag other than “said” and “asked.” I try to be flowing, florid but not excessive. I also find that I break the fourth wall often, especially in first-person perspective stories. I feel I can credit that to writers who feel comfortable reaching out and speaking to their audience, such as modern writers like Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, and others. Older writers such as Dickens, Poe, and Lovecraft use this style but without the humor. I try to embrace that for horror. Thematically, I can go back to those writers as well as people like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne. I like to deal with speculative fiction mostly, so I like writers with imaginations who have something to say about the state or fate of humanity. Attitude wise, I am probably too much like Harlan Ellison, only without the talent, money, litany of works, and clout.


Where have you found inspiration for your stories/books?


Depends on the story to be honest. I have found inspiration in so many places. Not all of them turned into stories that ended up being written down, but I find myself spurred to daydream little scenes of situational tales based on any number of things, from a real life incident, to a song, a person, or even a photograph or scene in nature. My latest story, “Beta Male, Alpha Wolf”, was actually inspired by a real life event that left me broken and battered physically and emotionally; so this wild, unhinged tale of a werewolf with a broken heart was how I dealt with it. It was therapeutic, even cathartic to write.


How did you come up with your story titles?


That’s almost as varied a process as coming up with the stories themselves. Inspiration comes from a number of places but titles can be trickier. Sometimes it comes before the story and spurs and steers the tale itself. Other times I find myself enjoying a particular phrase or piece of dialogue and use it for the title. I’ll give you some examples. If a story is inspired by a song, such as my short submission for Chaosium’s Summer of Lovecraft anthology, “Some Kind of Way Out of Here”, it comes from the song lyrics. In the case of my story about dwarves on a submarine in Capes & Clockwork, “Deep Diving Death Defying Dwarves of the Deep” is a twist on what Navy submariners call themselves. Only they use “denizens” instead of “dwarves.” For the first Cycle of Ages Saga novel, its title, Finders Keepers, refers to the mercenary company that Kaladimus Dor, the main character, partners with on the island.


Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing, and how do you deal with this?


So many things. And the longer I do it the more challenges I encounter. Motivation is an issue with me. I deal with depression and insecurity issues already, so writing, which is a self-motivated endeavor that ends up with one exposing their creative endeavors to the world for criticism, can be a bit daunting. People who say that it is only fun for them. Well, I hate those people. I enjoy what I do. But I also know that there comes a moment when the bird has to fly the coop and face being shot to pieces by every asshole on the internet. Or worse yet, have it ignored for a bestselling, ghostwritten book about Snookie’s new baby and people writing Bigfoot and dinosaur porn. Despite all of that nonsense, writing is very freeing, even liberating. It’s the part where I try to talk other people into reading the results and then awaiting their feedback that I hate. Though I am told that I pretend to deal with it quite well. I guess a steady regimen of bitching about it keeps my ulcers from exploding like the super volcano under Yellowstone and drowning me in my own blood.


What advice would you give to aspiring writers?


Get a stable job that pays you six-figures first and then budget the time to write into your schedule. Trying to write for a living nowadays is a fool’s errand for the most part. Less than ten percent of writers can pay their bills and live off of what they make. So plan on telling your story your way for you; with 15 million books flooding the market every year, no one may be reading but you. And if you do plan on running the gauntlet and trying to keep the lights on with your writing, you must be prepared to write to your market, unashamedly and unabashedly, as the well-paid whore that you will become, a euphemism that Harlan Ellison uses to describe himself as a professional, successful writer. Build a platform online, branch out, and if you can stand people on the internet, be social with them. Start this process a few years in advance of actually releasing your magnum opus. If you don’t, you’ll be playing catch up with people who have 100K followers but not a single book on the shelf, much less on Kindle. Don’t worry about an agent or a manager for now. If you have to share you profits with anyone, other than a publisher worth their share of the profits, do yourself a favor and find a good, eager, and energetic publicist. Find one, hire one, and then call me, so I can hire them too.



Do you sit down and write “by the seat of your pants,” or do you carefully outline all the plot points before you start creating?  (Or in other words, are you a “pantster” or a “plotter”?)


I am only a pantster when it comes to poetry and very short fiction. I find that if I don’t work on careful notes, research, and outlines, I do not finish longer projects. Hell, with my attention span, I have enough trouble starting them. But mission planning is always necessary in my opinion, especially for a genre that requires a lot of world-building, like most sci-fi and fantasy. I started my endeavor to become a professional writer as a screenwriter so there are plot formulas, scene lists, character bibles, and more that I used for writing screenplays and I find that those are helpful to regular fiction writing too, from mapping out worlds to complicated action scenes.


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see as the star(s)?


Funny you ask, the first two installments of the Cycle of Ages Saga, Finders Keepers and Sands of Sorrow were written as screenplays before they became novels. Producers told us we’d need a fan base to push for enough funding to do them right though. They are pretty high concept, big budget affairs. So we’ve contemplated this before and talked it over. My preference for Kaladimus Dor, our calamitous mage of Myth, would be Robert Sheehan, an actor from the British series Misfits. Though I think Freddie Highmore, Norman from Bates Motel, could do the role justice as well. We’d actually talked to Peter Mensah’s agent about our saga and sent them the scripts for him to read, but we never heard back, which is pretty typical without any sort of funding behind a project. He would make the perfect Breuxias. As for our elven war-mage, Yax’ Kaqix (pronounced Yahsh-hah-keesh), I think Jeffrey Donovan from Burn Notice would play the part perfectly; he even has the martial arts background to make the fight choreography believable.



If you could talk to any writer, living or dead, who would it be, and what would you discuss?


Honestly, I’d love to say Douglas Adams, as he writes some of my favorite books, but I think Mark Twain would be a helluva lot more fun and insightful in the long run. It’s a close call though. If we’re talking ideals, I’d just have the Doctor swing by in the TARDIS; we’d pick up Adams and then travel back in time to catch old Sam Clemens on a particularly ornery but talkative day, preferably after he’s completed War Prayer but realized he cannot published it while he’s alive. Then we can all sit back over some whiskey and talk about the life, the universe, and everything.



What writing project are you currently working on?


For the moment, I am on a hiatus while I recover from a back injury. It took me too long to get my last story out the door and then I had to bow out on a hardboiled detective anthology. So I am taking it easy and trying to decide what is next for me. I spend so much time and energy on short submissions that I may discontinue most of those projects for the interim and focus on mission-planning and world-building for another novel. The main problem is that I have so many ideas outlined and in different states of development that I am not sure what to work on next. It may come down to which genre I want to try my hand at or which theme/tone I am more in tune with emotionally at the time. On top of that, there are people in my circle of friends, family, and fans that are pushing me to write something more commercially appealing, like erotica or a children’s book. I thought fantasy was commercially appealing. Judging by our sales, I guess not, at least not our saga anyway. How about you? Got any suggestions? I have at least one idea or premise for every genre. I just have little faith in what I am doing at the moment, and chronic pain and depression are not the best companions for crafting coherent, much less entertaining fiction.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

"Under the Bed" magazine Volume 2, No. 10 now available

     A couple of weeks ago I talked a little about my story, "Unholy Spirit," and how it had been accepted for publication in "Under the Bed" Magazine.  I'm happy to report that day is now.  You can order it at this address:
     A story blurb and excerpt are included below.  Also, a review of this issue can be found at:
    Finally, for a limited time, all "Under the Bed" issues are on sale at 50% off.  So enjoy!

“Unholy Spirit” Blurb:

     Keisha Cartwright is a misanthrope.  Not content with just idly hating her fellow human beings, she yearns to be more proactive.  She’s also rich, cunning, dedicated, and ever so patient.  Her deliberate misinterpretation of an anti-war novel gives her obscene inspiration.
     Keisha’s victims are a mix of ages, races, genders, and home states.  They do have one thing in common, though—the unspeakable atrocities that have been done to them.  They’re prisoners held both behind literal walls, and within their own flesh.
     The victims’ agony, and Keisha’s glee, continue on for years.  Her busy schedule results in still more “clients” for her twisted schemes.  Will anybody ever stop her?  And even if they do, is it even possible to truly save her victims?


     Keisha saw a photo of herself with (as he liked to be called) Mammon in college.  He was dressed like a Goth guy, with dyed black hair, black painted fingernails, black long coat, and a Van Dyke beard.  What a bunch of losers that group had been!  Those Satanists had been almost as bad as the Christians.  “Pray to the Dark Lord.”  “Kneel before the Light Bringer.”  Screw that.  Prayer was for codependent, weak-willed assholes, no matter who it was to.  Plus, all the witchcraft and magic was silly, too—did they really believe all that crap?  She wasn’t even 100% that a Devil existed.  And wouldn’t a God of Evil hate subservience, even in his favor?  Maybe she was taking a chance, but she figured it was actions that were important, not trivial kneeling and recitation of bad poetry.
     She was near the end of the pile of photos and keepsakes now.  Ah, she remembered these ones, too.  Serial killer trading cards.  “Collect Them All!” it said on the packet, in dripping blood red letters.  There was Ted Bundy, Gary Heidnik, Ed Kemper, Dean Corll, and even a lady, Belle Gunness.  Shit.  She thought she had the complete set of 64—where were the others?  She flipped each over in turn and checked out their “stats.”  Ah.  There had been a time when she’d considered emulating them.  But then reason had won out.  Killing was so simple, so cliché.  Any fool could, and did, commit them.  It was so quick, too, usually.  And there were spiritual considerations.  If you killed a good person, you just sent them to their eternal reward that much faster.  How was that punishment?  And torture had it merits, but was kind of limiting as well.  In the big picture, it was over too fast.  And if it lasted for long, years even, the victim might get used to it, not suffer enough.  She’d thought long and hard about this—what was the worst thing you could do to a person?  There were lots of good candidates, like rape, but she wanted the crème de la crème of abuse, the pinnacle.