Columbia College alumni possess a range of knowledge thanks in part to the Core, but their expertise extends well beyond the classics. From planning the perfect dinner party to running a race to identifying constellations, they can do it, and here, they tell you how.
What should a coffee newbie look for in different roasts? How do the roasts affect the coffee’s taste?
Coffee becomes “dark” by increasing the roasting time and temperature. As the roast gets progressively darker, the coffee bean oils are brought to the bean’s surface and the taste profile becomes stronger. More subtle flavors often found in lighter roasts are diminished in darker roasts; some people find dark roasts to be bitter. There are a variety of potential roast shades, but at the end of the day, it is very much a matter of taste.
How do the beans’ country of origin influence the flavor?
Each coffee-growing region in the world has unique characteristics — different soil conditions, elevations, rainfall and cultivation methods. All of these create unique flavor profiles. For example, coffee from Sumatra, in Indonesia, has a full-bodied mouthfeel; coffees from Ethiopia, such as from the Sidamo or Yirgacheffe regions, are well known for winey, thinner-bodied flavors; coffees from Colombia offer a nice balance of body and acidity — they give you a sort of tingly feeling on the tip of your tongue. Coffee has been grown for centuries, but now more countries have become larger “players.” For example, Vietnam was a non-factor 20 years ago; today it’s the second largest global exporter!
How do you make coffee at home? Walk us step by step through your process.
Ideally you should grind the beans right before you brew them — this results in maximum freshness. The only challenge is that a small home grinder may not yield consistent grind results, so you can get inconsistent brew. I pre-grind for only a few days’ worth of use and store it in an airtight container. Many people store it in the refrigerator — that’s fine — but beware of creating moisture on the coffee — that and oxygen will quickly deteriorate the flavor. Use good filtered water if you can. As for brewing methods, I use a basic, high-quality drip coffeemaker; most of them do a fine job. I don’t recommend percolators — they force water over the coffee repeatedly, bringing out less desirable flavor elements. Single cup systems are convenient but can vary in result. I often use a French press, which allows for the grinds to sit in the water and extract the flavor profile. Get an insulated one to maintain temperature.
What should coffee lovers try in a café that they might not make at home?
Coffee by the cup is an affordable luxury. Try something exotic that you would not normally have. A special, high-quality single origin, like certain African or Central American coffees, is often a good place to start. When I visit a new café I usually try its signature blend — it should represent the essence and highest quality of the brand and would be unique to that location.
— Anne-Ryan Heatwole JRN’09
Look up what you don’t know. Daily crosswords typically get increasingly harder as the week goes on. You won’t make it to Tuesday if you don’t check your answers from Monday. The first time I competed in a crossword tournament, “SST” (supersonic transport) was an answer in the first puzzle. I didn’t know what it was, so I asked my neighbor before the second puzzle started. Sure enough, SST was an answer in the next puzzle, but I was ready for it that time.
Crosswords rarely include obscure trivia. Usually, a hard-seeming clue on a challenging late-week puzzle is just an obscure way of cluing a more well-known answer. Once you learn that Mel Ott is crossword’s favorite baseball player because of the great combination of letters in his last name, you’ll recognize that you don’t have to be a sports fanatic to get the clue “First National Leaguer with 500 home runs.” Three letters, baseball player? Ninety percent chance it’s OTT. Three letters, hockey player? Probably Bobby ORR. Three letters, musician? Your best friends are Brian ENO and Yoko ONO.
Be ready for the rebus. Intermediate solvers looking to conquer mid-week puzzles are often stymied when they get to a rebus puzzle: a puzzle where you have to put multiple letters into one square. Be on the lookout for wordplay suggesting a rebus rationale. An easy, elegant rebus puzzle might have the title “Jack in the Box” and fit the word HIJACK into three squares (H, I and JACK) and FLAPJACK into five.
Join the crossword community! Follow some of the robust blog commentary from prominent figures in “crossworld,” as we call it. The New York Times has an official column, “Wordplay,” and you can read commentary on puzzles at “Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle,” “Diary of a Crossword Fiend” and “XWord Info.” You can retain more knowledge and pick up tips from the pros who run these sites, and if you chime in in the comments, you might make a few friends. If you want to take it to the next level, register for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (the next one is March 24-26 in Stamford, Conn.). Only a few people are there to win — most go because of the fun people you meet and the chance to nerd out over puzzles, whether you’re a speed-solver or a novice.
— Jill C. Shomer
Move in close. Watch the eyes. Keep it simple. Now that everything is automatic, shoot a lot of photographs. In Zimbelism, the 2015 documentary about my work, I call that ‘digital diarrhea,’ but that need not be a bad thing — if you are careful going over the shoot and eliminating all but the best shots. Then, do it again and do it again until you are down to three shots that satisfy you. Then make prints of those three, look again and pick the one that truly says what you want to say about the person. For pleasure shooters, it helps if you like your subject.
Bought a piece of art you love? You’re going to see it every day, so make the most of it. Mel Dogan ’75, LAW’78 offers these tips:
— Lauren Steussy
Astronomer Marcel Agüeros ’96 was overwhelmed when he saw the Milky Way directly overhead — with his eyes, not a telescope — at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Alas, most people will never make it to the Southern Hemisphere to take in that view. But Agüeros has suggestions for checking out stars and planets closer to home.
Go to the dark side. Light pollution is the enemy of stargazing, Agüeros says. “Get as far away as possible from any source of light,” he says, particularly if you are in a city. Go to a backyard or into the middle of a park or anywhere there isn’t bright light in your eyes. If you’re serious about finding dark, Agüeros recommends visiting any of several parks and communities in the United States that have been declared International Dark Sky Places; go to darksky.org.
Drier is better. Clouds obstruct stars, so the drier the climate, the better the view. In many regions, winter stargazing is more interesting because the skies are clearer; desert climates will have great views year-round.
Map or app. You can find a monthly map of the constellations in an issue of Sky & Telescope magazine or check out the weekly “Sky at a Glance” feature on skyandtelescope.com. Sky-charting apps such as StarWalk 2, SkyView and Sky Guide use your GPS coordinates to give you a view of constellations and planets in real time or direct you toward something specific you’d like to see. All you need to do is hold up your phone or tablet toward the night sky.
Start here. Where should a novice astronomer look first? “I’d look at the moon,” Agüeros says. But not the full moon: “That’s blinding, and it’s difficult to see the craters and maria [dark regions].” The noticeable redness of Mars is another cool thing to look out for. While they’re not essential for stargazing, Agüeros says a good pair of binoculars will enhance your view. He also notes that a telescope is not necessary unless you’re trying to see details, like the moons of Jupiter.
Heads up. The most exciting upcoming celestial event is the full solar eclipse in August 2017, viewable from a swath of 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina. “A total solar eclipse is a unique experience — if you can see one, you should,” Agüeros says. Usually they are visible only from remote locations, most recently the North Pole and off the coast of West Africa, but “this one is coming to our doorstep.”
— Shira Boss ’93, JRN’97, SIPA’98
What makes flamenco a pre-eminent art form? And how did you get interested in it?
Flamenco is the emblematic performance art of southern Spain; it has a singular power and intensity in the way of the American blues tradition. The art arose from the unique blend of cultures in the region: Moorish, Jewish, Gypsy and Iberian. My father played flamenco guitar in the 1940s. Growing up, the sound annoyed me, but when I got to Columbia I suddenly missed it — I’ve been struggling with the guitar ever since. Flamenco music features a descending chord sequence called the Andalusian Cadence. It’s a 12-beat rhythm with five accents: on 3, 6, 8, 10 and 12.
In addition to playing guitar, you write a lot about flamenco singing. Tell us about that.
The dance has universal appeal as a staged spectacle and the flamenco guitar is admired everywhere, but the singing is something of an acquired taste. That’s a shame, because that’s where the art’s deepest mysteries and most profound answers can be found. I attribute the most intense flamenco forms to Spain’s gitanos, or gypsies, but nowadays it’s considered bad form to single out that ethnic group. I actually prefer the funkier forms — the deep siguiriyas, soleares and martinete and the uptempo bulerías.
Spain’s King Juan Carlos knighted you for raising America’s awareness of Spanish culture through flamenco. How did that happen?
Damned if I know! But I’ve spoken and written about flamenco for 50 years and helped preserve rare tape recordings and films. In 2008, I learned by email I’d been knighted. I thought it was a hoax until Spain’s ambassador in Washington, D.C., gave me the medal.
How can we learn more?
If you’re able to get to Spain, Jerez is the last bastion of cante jondo, or deep song, flamenco’s darkest style. Seville and Granada are also hotbeds. Otherwise, go to YouTube and search for “flamenco”; also try “Agujetas,” “El Chocolate,” “Fernanda” and “La Piriñaca.” For superb modern guitar, try Paco de Lucía. For traditional dance, try Farruquito and Manuela Carrasco, and then see rule-smashers Israel Galván and Rocío Molina. You can also check out deflamenco.com or my website, flamencoexperience.com/blog.
— Kim Martineau JRN’97, SPS’14
You’ve run the last 41 NYC marathons, with a best time of 2:40 in 1982. How did the obsession start?
I hopped in during the 1973 NYC Marathon and ran a six-mile loop around Central Park. I caught marathon fever and ran the following year with a number.
What’s the most common mistake first-time racers make?
Going out too fast. If you burn 90 percent of your energy in the first half, you won’t have anything left for the finish.
Any other mistakes?
Thinking you have to run the whole race. I like the Galloway Run Walk Run method: Run for 15 minutes, walk for 30 seconds, run one mile, walk one minute, and so on. There’s no shame in that. Not only is it easier to finish the race but also you recover so much faster.
Can you suggest a motivational book?
A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York, by Liz Robbins. It has 26.2 chapters. I tell my friends to start at Chapter 18 — “Kings of Quirk” — I’m featured there with Tucker Anderson. At that point we had each run 32 consecutive years.
What about running shoes?
Bring a pair of used running shoes to a specialty running store so they can see where the soles have worn. Be prepared to spend at least $100. It’s cheaper to get good shoes than pay for a doctor if you get injured. Replace them every 300–400 miles and buy a second pair so you can alternate them.
Do you suggest using a training plan?
There’s no magic plan. Generally, you shouldn’t increase your mileage more than 10 percent each week.
During a race, do you eat? Listen to music?
If you’re 150 lbs. you’re burning 100 calories each mile; water won’t give you fuel. Try Gatorade, PowerBars and gels, but test them out first. Don’t try something new if you’re running a marathon. As for music, New York Road Runners discourages headphones. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the music and ignore your body. You can push too hard and get hurt. If you really need it, keep the volume down.
Any more tips for finishing?
Tell your friends to come out for the last few miles. One part of your brain will say “Stop!” The other part will say, “But Dave, you’ll miss all your friends!”
How do you recover?
For the first few days after the race, walk down the stairs backward. It’s 50 percent less painful.
— Alexis Boncy SOA’11
Schwartz creates a cartoon for CCT on the spot! View the video.
Grated carrots: The French do this every day. Shred carrots and toss with a dressing made of tarragon, shallot, a touch of honey and a dash of cayenne, plus extra virgin olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. Add lots of chopped parsley.
Coleslaw: Reinvent coleslaw using Thai flavors like coconut milk, fish sauce and lime juice.
Scrambled eggs: Use extra virgin olive oil, not butter, for fluffier eggs — it has surfactants, which help to trap the steam. And oil heats faster than butter because butter contains water.
Brussels sprouts: Cook in a hot cast iron skillet to produce a rich, slightly sweet char. Top with honey, garlic, anchovies, red pepper flakes and lemon juice.
Fruit salad: Make a quick caramel sauce (use orange juice instead of water and either a cinnamon stick or star anise) and pour over peeled, sliced, seedless oranges. Chill. Serve with Greek yogurt and toasted pistachios.
Orange and caramel, yum! Check out the recipe from Kimball’s Milk Street Kitchen.
When Buzzy Cohen ’07 was young he suffered from insomnia and would stay up all night reading the encyclopedia. “Then I just never stopped trying to learn everything about everything,” he says. “Plus I have a photographic memory.” For those who are not so genetically gifted but still enjoy Trivia Night at a local pub, try Cohen’s tips to get a higher score:
Throughout his 46-year career in diplomacy, Ray Burghardt ’67 has learned several languages: He speaks Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, and has some knowledge of French and Korean. But he’s not a born linguist. Burghardt struggled with learning Spanish in high school and at Columbia, until he spent a summer in Spain. Immersed in the language, he picked it up quickly. Once he entered the Foreign Service, learning languages came more easily. “Language teaching is a real strength of the State Department,” he says. Its method: first learn to speak, then learn to read. While Burghardt speaks several languages fluently, he writes well only in Spanish. “We don’t worry about how to write — diplomats don’t need that,” he says.
What worked well for Burghardt using the Foreign Service Institute’s method was focusing on everyday dialogues. “Start with ‘Good morning! It’s raining!’ and progress to being at a store or post office,” he says. In his State Department classes, pictures were flashed and the students had to describe what was happening. He also found it helpful to listen to colloquial speech in foreign-language TV shows and movies.
Burghardt points out one benefit of learning any foreign language: “It enormously enhances your understanding of English.”
For beginners, Pomerantz says there’s nothing better to start with than a new sleeve of tennis balls.
Pomerantz recommends committed, short (10–20 minutes) “trial and error” practice sessions at least five days a week.
Got the cascade down? Read more from Pomerantz.
WRITE THE SCRIPT
If you have a brilliant idea but you don’t have credits or samples of your work, you need to write a “spec” (speculative screenplay). You should have something concrete to send out.
LEARN THE LANDSCAPE
It’s virtually impossible to sell a pitch or a screenplay without representation. Studios and producers want to get something through a credible representative. Subscribe to IMDB Pro, look up your favorite writers and check who they’re repped by. The major agencies are CAA, WME, ICM and UTA; the next tier, size-wise, includes Gersch and Innovative. Seeing who represents writers you like and respect will give you a sense of who you should target as you begin to seek representation.
GET AN AGENT OR LITERARY MANAGER
If you don’t have connections or contacts, there are a few ways to get some. One is to enter a script festival. Most film festivals have script festivals, which are essentially contests where producers and agencies judge your script. If it’s well received, your script begins to get noticed and you get meetings with potential agents. Final Draft, the app I use to write screenplays, also holds a competition. Another way to get on people’s radars is through the website The Black List, a subscription site where you submit your screenplay and essentially pay for feedback and critique. Readers will rate your screenplay; highly rated screenplays then get distributed to production companies, lit agencies and so on.
STUDY YOUR GENRE
If you are trying to sell your work, you need to be smart about the kind of spec that you’re writing and try to understand where it’s going to fit into the marketplace, or if it even has a place in the marketplace. Does it have potential to be a blockbuster like Avatar, with merchandising tie-in? Is it an independent film for art audiences? This will help you finesse your sales pitch.
NAIL THE PITCH
If you are lucky enough to get time with someone with the ability to buy your script, your pitch should be 15 minutes and you should have a clear sense of what your story is and a few main plot points so people understand what it will feel like to watch your film.
DON’T ADVERTISE YOUR IDEA
Ideas are not copyrightable. You can copyright a screenplay, but when you have just an idea, it’s never a good plan to share it with too many people, because that is very hard to protect. Other than your mom, your S.O., your team, the one smart confidante who gives you good input, and whoever you think wants to buy it, you should be cautious.
— Yelena Shuster ’09
Know the type of terrain you’re most likely to encounter and follow the weather closely over the days leading up to your trip — it’s important to make sure that you have the supplies necessary to cope if and when conditions turn south. “Ten Essentials” is a packing concept that’s been around for a long time, and for good reason. It covers your survival basics:
I am a strong proponent of ultra-light packing. To best maximize space, first and foremost, pack less. Yes, that means you will smell, but such is life in the backcountry. It’s OK to wear the same outfit two days in a row — I wore the same outfit every day for five months on the Pacific Coast Trail. Bring less than you think you need, way less. As the outdoors adage goes: “The fun goes up when the pack weight comes down!”
Without a pack, your center of gravity is roughly right below your sternum. Wearing a loaded pack shifts the center of gravity backward, forcing you to lean forward to find balance. The heavier your pack is, the more you’ll have to lean. But there are some simple ways to pack your essentials smarter to mitigate this effect:
Line the inside of your pack with a trash bag; it’s a cheap and lightweight way to waterproof your things. Keep rain gear and an insulating layer close to the top of your pack so they are accessible.
1. Get yourself a set of jiggers.
When you start experimenting with cocktail recipes, you’ll notice most provide proportions in ounces. A jigger will have measurements down to a 1/4-oz. notched in the metal, so even the less-experienced bartender will find them easy to use. Any cocktail that uses only spirits gets stirred; anything that has citrus juice should be shaken.
2. Buy yourself a nice metal shaker set.
A shaker you like to look at is a shaker you’ll feel good about putting on display, and it’s one you’ll be much more likely to use. The novelty shakers you see at places like Urban Outfitters that have drink recipes/measurements printed on the side of the mixing glass are convenient but not sophisticated, and the recipes aren’t always correct or practical. Cocktails aren’t just a novelty anymore — these days you can find more and more interesting liqueurs and high-quality spirits at your local liquor store, and we all deserve a proper Sidecar without having to stare at some lowbrow Long Island Iced Tea recipe while we shake it.
3. Treat yourself to glassware that you love.
If you’re a whiskey drinker, get some heavy- bottomed rocks glasses with a nice bevel. You’ll feel fancy. They look great and the heft of the glass is pleasing in your hand —you may decide to splurge on that smoking jacket you’ve always wanted, too. If you prefer bubbly, get a set of flutes or coupe glasses that suit your decor. It elevates your hosting prowess when you serve your guests with quality glassware. If cabinet space allows, it’s always nice to have some Cabernet wine glasses as well.
4. Grab yourself some bitters.
It’s amazing how a couple of dashes of orange bitters or Angostura bitters can change the quality of a drink. You use so little at a time that it’s a small investment that goes a long way, and it opens the door to a new dimension of flavor. Angostura in a gin and soda is wonderful; orange bitters in a vodka martini shed some light on the situation. There are a multitude of tinctures and flavored bitters available at liquor stores and specialty kitchen and grocery stores, so you can really have fun with it. Black walnut bitters in a glass of whiskey with a scant amount of sugar provides cozy liquid warmth in the winter.
5. Buy yourself a few quality spirits you’ve never tried.
Your home bar should have (at least!) one bourbon, one gin and one fun, different liqueur. We all have our go-to order when we’re at the bar, but the next time you go to the liquor store, explore! There is a burgeoning market of small and independently owned distilleries creating really interesting and delicious products and it’s worth a few extra dollars to try something new. I often google brands I haven’t heard of to learn the history of the distillery and its methods; I love to find new producers who are making an effort to buy local grains in order to make something innovative and interesting.
Bonus: Now put it all together!
Like most people, my cocktail preferences vary season to season. but one drink I enjoy year-round is the Boulevardier. The Rye whiskey version of a Negroni, it’s dark and spicy but also mildly bitter and sweet. My favorite version is made with 1 oz. of Willett Rye Whiskey, .75 oz. of Campari and .75 oz. of Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth. Stir it with ice and then pour over one big cube (king cube ice molds are available at nearly every kitchen/cooking store); twist an orange peel over the top to release the citrus oils into the cocktail.
Haverly prepares a Boulevardier at The Bad Old Days bar. Watch the video.
Every successful dinner party starts with careful planning. Nass, who describes herself as a “pattern-happy cake artist,” sets the table ahead of time and makes place cards to avoid awkwardness about who sits where. She advises a cooking “drill” — try out the recipes before the party to avoid unwelcome surprises. Also consider choosing courses that can be made ahead of time, like soup as an appetizer. Avoid anything that needs extra work before serving: “If I’m sweating over the stove, I can’t be attentive to the company,” Nass says. Opt for oven-made dishes that are easy to take out quickly.
The same care should go for your party’s music options: Consider the right genre for your guests, not just what’s popular. “Assume that if you’re having a dinner party you are an adult, and you want to hear music for adults,” says Ratliff. “I love music for teenagers, but that’s for another time.”
Playlist Prospect: Ratliff likes to start with bossa nova: “When people are coming in and sitting down and having a drink, they’ve traveled, maybe they’ve been on the subway, they’re stressed or hot or cold or whatever so you want them to calm down and feel welcome,” he says. And not just any bossa nova will do. “It has to be Brazilian. It can’t be a bossa nova made in America.” He suggests João Gilberto’s Chega de Saudade, Nara Leão’s Nara or Maysa’s O Barquinho.
Once guests are seated to eat, Nass advises serving a combination of plated and family style: “I so believe in food looking great. You eat with your eyes first.” But you also want your guests to eat as much as they’re hungry for. “Serve a protein, but put sides like vegetables and potatoes in the middle of the table for people to pass around,” she says. Nass also usually opens several bottles of wine and leaves them on the table for guests to serve themselves.
The host should have a conversation topic or two in mind in case the table talk goes flat. “At Victory Club events, guests arrive, there’s an art talk or lecture or something cultural, and then they sit down for food inspired by the arts. People talk about the food, how it relates to the art and that, in and of itself, is food for thought,” Nass says. Another way to spur conversation is to replace a flower centerpiece with a little sculpture — “because the guests will talk about it. It’s different and outside of the day-to-day life.” Nass hand-paints or prints her menus, and will sometimes include quotations to trigger conversations.
While guests are eating, your music playlist should pick up speed — “music that makes peoples’ thoughts fizzier,” Ratliff says.
Playlist Prospect: “Small Bebop jazz groups from the ’40s and ’50s — not big or large ensemble bands,” he adds, suggesting artists like Sonny Clark, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk. Ratliff also suggests baroque music: Choose from Bach, or Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. “If it’s played on period instruments, all the better.”
A great dinner tells a story, so consider dessert an opportunity for a dramatic ending. Buy or make something ahead of time that will look and taste special. Nass is known for her edible sheets that adorn cakes (Chefanie Sheets; chefanienass.com/shop); not surprisingly, these are her go-to choices.
Music-wise, Ratliff says, “when the meal is done and you’re sitting around in the kind of nether-zone, just eating dessert or having coffee or more drinks,” go for something surprising.
Playlist Prospect: An Internet radio station like NTS.live will keep guests on their toes without a lot of mic breaks. “By that time guests will be feeling pretty loose and you’ll want to let the DJ take over.” And when you’re just about ready for guests to leave, segue them toward the door with Brian Eno’s first ambient record, Ratliff says with a laugh. “It’s very beautiful but some people hate it.”