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  July 8, 2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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"Tagliare" by Kate Greenaway



by Brian Freedman

The Purple Fig
by John Mariani

Notes from the Spirits Locker
In Tennessee, Don’t Call Their Whiskey Bourbon

by John Mariani



                    OUT WISCONSIN WAY
                                                                by Brian Freedman

         When the opportunity to travel to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, presented itself earlier this spring, the usual (and, admittedly, stereotypical) images began dancing in my mind. As a lifelong East Coaster, all of my impressions of the mitten-shaped state were formed either by the television or the grocery store. So when the plane took off from Philadelphia International Airport this past June, I settled into my seat, closed my eyes, and allowed myself to be overtaken by images of Laverne and Shirley on the bottling line; and grown men with Styrofoam cheese wedges jammed onto their heads, screaming for a Packers victory; and the dairy section of my local supermarket.
         The reality, however, could not have been more different. Put simply, Elkhart Lake charmed me from the moment I arrived.
         Located about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee in Sheboygan County, Elkhart Lake is, in many ways, the embodiment of a certain strain of Americana that’s unfortunately been lost to the commercialism and rampant consumerism of our times. This isn’t to imply, however, that it’s a time capsule of a place, stubbornly clinging to some sort of idealized past at the expense of growing into the future. Far from it. Rather, it has managed to strike an exquisite balance between the sort of Midwestern charm you’d expect, with a strain of excitement and sophistication you might not.
         The town itself, from an aesthetic standpoint, is almost impossibly quaint, the houses tidy and well-manicured, the streets perfect for leisurely walks or old-fashioned drives. It’s that drivability, in fact, that first put Elkhart Lake on the international map: Between 1950 and 1952, a number of open-road races were held here, bringing the village to the attention of the moneyed Chicago sports-car enthusiasts, and, eventually, to the world. (Markers throughout the town note specific curves or other notable parts of these original races.) Soon after, in 1955, Road America (left)  opened its gates, and to this day continues to be one of the top closed-circuit road race venues in the country. The facility itself is beautiful, with activities for visitors throughout the grounds, excellent private facilities for corporate groups to enjoy well-prepared meals while watching the cars speed by, and a surprisingly deep history: Everyone from Mario Andretti to Paul Newman raced here, and many residents have stories about their encounters with these legends.
    For the group I was there with, our Road America highlight was a morning-long driving school at which we not only learned how to handle a car more safely in adverse conditions but also had the chance to put the classroom lessons into practice, fishtailing Chevys and VW’s in the parking lot, racing through a mini-circuit of orange road-cones, and generally getting to live the sort of burnt-rubber-on-the-pavement fantasy I’ve had since I was 14 years old.
         For sports enthusiasts, in fact, there is no shortage of entertainment. The Lake itself, a breathtaking teal color, is used for a whole range of water sports. And the loop around it is perfect for runners.
         It’s not all outdoor activities here, though, and this, perhaps, is where I was most pleasantly surprised. There are three resorts abutting the lake, and each one offers a very different experience. My personal advice is to avoid the Victorian Village Resort, the most budget-friendly of the trio. The accommodations run the gamut from unimpressive studios to rather lovely multi-bedroom condos on the water, but the overall level of experience is well beneath that at the other two. Breakfast is functional and joyless at best, with buffet eggs and meats, and the serving pieces when I was there were all disposable--even the coffee wasn’t served in a ceramic mug. Dinner at the The Back Porch Bistro was better, but far from memorable.
         The Siebkens, however, a historic property that has been in the same family since 1916, is a sort of best-of-both-words place, with a bygone-era drawing room replete with period antiques, and possessing character and soulfulness to spare. There are three buildings to choose from, each offering its own unique and appealing charms, from the antique to the more modern. It’s an excellent option for couples and families alike.
         And then there’s The Osthoff (right), a  resort that reminded me of nothing so much as a Four Seasons on the lake. It’s an expansive property, and both the indoor facilities and the grounds are well-tended and relaxing. The Elk Room bar is a wonder of soaring architectural grandeur that still conveys warmth and boasts the sort of selection and pricing that will stun serious wine drinkers. I don’t remember the last time I saw the Orin Swift Veladora by the glass (the pour is about the size of a bathtub), and even Schramsberg vintage Blanc-de-Blancs was being poured by the glass when I was there.
         The Osthoff is overseen by General Manager Lola Roeh, a passionate, ambitious professional who could have been every bit as successful in major cities across the country: Her understanding of and passion for hospitality have clearly influenced the culture of the place in its entirety, and every interaction here is colored by the quiet confidence and we’ll-do-anything-we-can-for-you ethos that sets great properties apart from the rest.
         Of particular note here is Aspira Spa (below), a gorgeous destination facility whose range of treatments is among the broadest I’ve seen anywhere, whose staff is fabulously accomplished; and L’École de la Maison, a cooking school located in a kitchen that seems to be the embodiment of every home chef’s fantasy, with gleaming pots and pans, and every piece of equipment you could ever need. Chef Instructor Scott Baker (he’s also the Food and Beverage Manager at The Osthoff) is both talented and infinitely patient, and his support staff is as skilled as they are unprepossessing.
         I also was won over by the restaurants in Elkhart Lake. There are plenty of excellent low-key options, here--the Off the Rail Café is a gem, its sandwiches well-conceived and deliciously executed--as well as higher-end restaurants that would be successful anywhere in the country.
         The Paddock Club, with its balance between Midwestern dignity and urban chic (warm woods, exposed brick), is a revelation. We visited on Tapas Tuesday, which really means that Executive Chef Lynn Chisholm visits the market that morning, buys whatever looks good or otherwise inspiring, and writes an entirely new menu that afternoon in time for dinner service. Dishes like fried cheese curds (though a  bit more complicated that that sounds: they were beer-battered and served with a dressing of smoked paprika buttermilk) happily exist alongside more complex ones. Oaxacan boar ribs were electrified by kohlrabi and a vivid mango slaw; duck and foie gras agnolotti were bathed in a deeply flavorful brodo with shiitakis and scallions. Service was well informed, casual, and professional, something we encountered at nearly every meal.
      Lake Street Café  (right), with a mind-bogglingly affordable list of legendary and more casual wines--was just as wonderful, though perhaps less expected. You enter through what is essentially a pizzeria and bar and walk through until you come to the dining room in the back. It’s a more traditional space where quaint takes precedence over sleek in design terms, but the food is very much a product of our contemporary dining ethos. Lobster bisque managed the difficult trick of being both concentrated and perfectly seasoned. Foie gras Benedict, with its pistachio polenta cake, foie vinaigrette, and scotch quail egg, reminded me of a similarly irreverent (and breakfast-inspired) preparation of this most haute (and, these days, maligned) component that I tasted last year at Animal, in Los Angeles. Just because Elkhart Lake isn’t an urban food mecca doesn’t mean it’s not plugged into the important national food trends that are defining the way we eat right now in America. Ambitious restaurants are ambitious restaurants, no matter where they’re located, and this one is a real standout.
         The Osthoff itself boasts multiple lovely dining options, from Otto’s (were the excellent breakfast is served) to Lola’s on the Lake, where dishes that take full advantage of the bounty of local and regional ingredients are featured. Hazelnut crusted walleye was kissed by the subtle sweetness of a maple beurre blanc; grilled Berkshire pork chop, from nearby Golden Bear Farms, was classically paired with accompaniments that had been tweaked just enough to surprise. The apple component here was incorporated in a roasted shallot and potato-apple puree, and the richness of Port and buttermilk blue cheese butter lent it all a heady richness that paired gorgeously with the bottle of Sturino Trotta “Jazz” 2006 we drank, a heady, complex blend of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc.
         Wine, in fact, is an important part of the Elkhart Lake experience. Vintage, a wine shop in town that also features craft beers, vinegar and olive oil, and a roster of classes, is owned and overseen by Jaclyn Stuart, a young California native who is widely acknowledged as among the most exciting up-and-coming wine professionals in the country, and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine and Food Pairing. Nearly all of the restaurants we visited had well-considered, interesting lists that had been written with the menu firmly in mind.
Sometimes, of course, you just want a burger or a sandwich and a beer, and the Stop-Inn Tavern & Restaurant, at the Siebkens, is a great place for it, as well as for late-night drinks and live music. Just make sure to save room for a scoop or three at Sissy’s Coffee & Ice Cream Shoppe afterward, where the high-butter-fat ice cream reminded me of certain decadent scoops I’ve enjoyed in Germany.
         Elkhart Lake, then, is the kind of destination that offers something for everyone, no matter what your idea of a great get-away actually is. Pottery classes at the Two Fish Gallery and Sculpture Garden (left) under the tutelage of Patrick Robison (he co-owns it with his wife Karen; tours (and overeating, especially the stupendously squeaky cheese curds and the near-ambrosial 7-year-old sharp cheddar) at the Hening’s Cheese Factory; spa treatments--it’s all here, in a place where, I have to admit, I least expected it.
         Sometimes, the best travel experiences are the ones that sneak up on you. I will definitely be back, next time with my family in tow.



by John Mariani

250 West 72nd Street (near West End Avenue)

    You might easily pass by The Purple Fig bistro on West 72nd Street. For one thing it’s a few steps below street level with an entrance door that looks like it hides a speakeasy. Inside there’s a small bar up front and to the rear the equally small dining room (left) whose skylight blunts the feeling of being quite so subterranean. Once seated the congenial staff will make you feel quite comfortable, and it is a matter of your taste if the William Morris-like wallpaper is cozy or a tad too dark.
    The real brightness at The Purple Fig is in Chef-owner Conrad Gallagher’s vibrant cooking, with his own ebullient Irish personality writ large. Gallagher has been cooking on various continents for a long time now, and I first tasted his food in Dublin a decade ago, when he ran Peacock Alley, bringing a lot more style to Irish cooking than most anyone around him. He also now runs a restaurant in Las Vegas, to which he commutes weekly, so, given the small size of his kitchen and crew here in NYC, you might want to call ahead to see if Gallagher’s back there cooking.
    For good reason, eggs seem to be getting more attention on dinner menus these days, and Gallagher's deep-fried soft duck egg with polenta, blood pudding, frisée salad with prosciutto and lemon oil makes a good case for the idea--wonderful flavors and textures in fine balance. He also does a tender risotto with asparagus, roasted chanterelles and slow-braised duck leg with a mushroom foam that is another study in getting contrasting textures and woodsy, meaty, salty flavors just right.  Of course, Gallagher uses wild salmon, which makes all the difference in the world (I won't touch the muddy-tasting farm-raised variety), which he makes into a pastrami with Dijon mustard and dill, pickled pear and ginger with cucumber, a dash of wasabi crème fraîche and a touch of soy.  Creamy, smooth and luscious describes his goose liver parfait with a sweet fig marmalade on toasted brioche with a spinach salad, apricot compote and hazelnut aïoli, which just tipped over into being too much on one plate.
    For entrees, I loved the peppered filet of beef with goat's cheese ravioli, a celeriac fondant, watercress cream, and oxtail jus, and if you love chicken more than anything, you'll be ecstatic over the way he serves it so juicy, with a mushroom duxelle, cèpe-flavored orzo pasta, with asparagus, peas, and favas in a Spanish albufera sauce.
    Excellent Muscovy duck breast is roasted rare, but not bloody, and comes with poached figs, butternut puree, puy lentils,  sunny-side-up quail eggs, and green apple salad.  Pan-roasted swordfish that night had a faintly fishy smell to it, served with truffled crushed potatoes, braised baby leeks, a fricassée of enoki mushrooms and summer morels.  So, too, roasted scallops had a strong taste, married to foie gras, celeriac rémoulade and mousseline, rocket, shaved black truffles (not much flavor to them), and a truffled aïoli.
    The winelist at The Purple Fig is priced to sell, with plenty of bottlings under $50.
    All the desserts I ate were very good indeed, ranging from an espresso-flavored crème brûlée made with a rich duck egg, with raspberries and a shortbread biscuit, to a finely grained mango and cilantro cheesecake with a spark of chili syrup and mango and coriander ice cream.
    There's obviously a lot going on with these dishes, and I wouldn't mind at all if Gallagher deleted one or two ingredients or side items from most plates, if only to lessen the burden on the kitchen to keep everything at its peak of freshness.  But in the flavors of everything, never disparate and always delectable, there is a wonderful imagination at work here.  Conrad Gallagher is nothing if not ambitious, and that is built on many many years of crafting his own personal identity on his cooking.  Anyone living or shopping or going to Lincoln Center on the West Side deserves to make The Purple Fig a regular stop; for everyone else, it makes the case that the neighborhood continues to burgeon with a wide array of exciting new restaurants.

The Purple Fig is open  lunch and dinner daily. Dinner appetizers run $8.95-$14.95, main courses $23.95-$36.95.




In Tennessee, Don’t Call Their Whiskey Bourbon
by John Mariani

     If you should  swagger into a bar in Nashville and, like Anne Christie, bark, “Gimme a whiskey—ginger ale on the side,” you’re probably going to get Jack Daniel’s or George Dickel. And if you sip it and say, “Damn fine bourbon,” you may get thrown out.
  Tennesseans take a justifiable pride in their namesake whiskey, which, they will remind you, is not bourbon, which is mostly made in Kentucky. NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) defines Tennessee whiskey as nothing more than a “straight bourbon whiskey produced in the state of Tennessee.” But you won’t find the word bourbon anywhere on the labels of the four distilleries that make Tennessee Whiskey--Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Prichard’s, and Collier & McKeel (this last sold only in the state of Tennessee). By legal definition, the distinction may seem slight: bourbon must be distilled from a mash of 51 percent corn, then aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years; Tennessee whiskeys are made much the same way but not necessarily aged in charred oak. But both Jack Daniel’s and Dickel are also filtered through sugar-maple charcoal before aging--called the Lincoln County process--which is said to impart a smooth sweetness to the liquor.         
    Of course, nothing’s ever that simple. “When it comes out of the still, it’s Tennessee whiskey if it’s made in Tennessee,” says Phil Prichard of Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, TN, part of Lincoln County. “We do not use the Lincoln Process because I think it filters out a lot of things like fusel oils and congeners that make for different flavors.”
         Prichard also makes a single malt whiskey, a 95 proof “Double Barreled Bourbon, a Sweet Lucy Bourbon Liqueur, and a 90 proof Lincoln County Lightning, made from white corn straight out of the still, that is, moonshine. To him they are all Tennessee whiskeys.
         Jack Daniel’s--whose fans just call it “Jack” of “JD”-is by far the largest and best known producer. They mellow the spirit by filtering through 10 feet of hard sugar maple charcoal.  For many years Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Black Label (80 proof), dating to the 1830’s and winner of a gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis World’ Fair, was their only product. In the past couple of decades, though, the brand has expanded to produce Gentleman Jack Rare (80 proof), which appeared in 1988, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel (94 proof) in 1997, and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey (70 proof) in 2011. (They also make a much cheaper, lighter, less aged 80 proof green label they don’t even show on their website.)             
    I did a tasting of various Tennessee whiskeys in a most appropriate place, the historic Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, TN, with a Hunter’s Plate of smoked and pickled charcuterie by Chef Tyler Brown.
         Given the similarities between Kentucky bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys, I cannot claim to taste significant distinctions. What I can do is tell you how they taste, from bottle to bottle.
         Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, with its familiar black label, has a fine balance of charred oak and caramel flavors and hits the back of the tongue like a love tap, just enough to linger. (By the way, no one knows what the number seven signifies on the label.)
       Gentleman Jack is charcoal mellowed twice, once before and once after aging—they call it the “blessing”--which makes it somewhat mellower, a little sweeter and a bit gentler on the finish.
         Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel is a powerhouse at 94 proof, drawn from barrels that rest in the warmer, upper floors of the distillery by Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, who contends each barrel can have different nuances that make one bottle slightly different from the next. It’s a darker whiskey, robust but very satisfying and warm on the palate.
        Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey is, really, a novelty, with an added honey liqueur, which the producer recommends be served “chilled straight or in drinks with other mixers like lemonade, tea or ginger ale.” That works for me, especially during the summer, and it makes a splendid Old Fashioned, with a dash of bitters.

"Rick burning," which gives the oak wood staves a good char.

        The story goes that George A. Dickel, who founded his distillery in Tullahoma, TN, in 1870, discovered that whisky made during the winter was smoother than whisky made in the summer. So, he began chilling his distillation before it went into the charcoal vats. (He also called it “Whisky,” as they do in Scotland.) Closed for 40 years, the distillery re-opened in 1958, now run by Master Distiller John Lunn, who makes No. 8 and No. 12 labels (as well as Cascade Hollow and Barrel Select, which I have not tasted).
         If there were such a thing as a “classic” Tennessee Whiskey, No. 8 might be it: vanilla, toast, corn, and smoke all mingle in the bottle, with a lively burn at the back of it all. No. 12 is a deeper, richer, more concentrated spirit, at 90 proof, blended from older whiskeys than the No. 8. This you do not knock back at a bar; you sip it after dinner.
     The renegade Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey, founded in 1997 in an old schoolhouse complete with basketball hoops, is made from white corn in small batch copper pots, then aged in white oak barrels.  The nose is a glorious burst of vanilla and soft oak, it begins sweet on the tongue, then trails off with an engaging, peppery finish that stays there until you take your next sip.  Which you will.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

John Mariani's wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis.



Ogden’s Own Distillery’s Five Wives Vodka  has been banned by the Idaho State Liquor Division. “We feel Five Wives Vodka concept is offensive to a prominent segment of our population and will not be carried,”  said Howard Wasserstein, deputy director of the Liquor Division. In response Steve Conlin, partner at Ogden’s Own Distillery in Utah,  said, “We have a product that has sold nearly 1,000 cases in six months in Utah. If the reaction is because of a religious concern, we think they are extremely misguided. We can only presume he means Mormons, though that makes little sense as they allow Polygamy Porter from Wasatch Beers of Utah to be sold. We’re a little dumbfounded by it all.”


“On a sweltering afternoon recently I stood in a dusty skateboard park in Stratford, Ontario, surrounded by about a dozen sullen-looking boys, all around 17. I mentioned someone they might know, someone who a few years ago used to hang out there, too, and a couple of them said he was a jerk. They could have been jealous, of course: We were discussing Justin Bieber, who not long ago was a local kid busking on the street a few blocks from this park and is now a pop star estimated by Forbes magazine to have earned $55 million, even before last week’s release of his third full-length album, `Believe.’”—Steve McElroy, “Tracking the Bieb and the Bard in Stratford,” NY Times (6/24/12).


 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

My latest book, which just won the prize for best book from International Gourmand, written with Jim Heimann and Steven Heller,  Menu Design in America,  1850-1985 (Taschen Books), has just appeared, with nearly 1,000 beautiful, historic, hilarious, sometimes shocking menus dating back to before the Civil War and going through the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the nightclub era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Space Age era, and the age when menus were a form of advertising in innovative explosions of color and modern design.  The book is a chronicle of changing tastes and mores and says as much about America as about its food and drink.


“Luxuriating vicariously in the pleasures of this book. . . you can’t help but become hungry. . .for the food of course, but also for something more: the bygone days of our country’s splendidly rich and complex past.  Epicureans of both good food and artful design will do well to make it their coffee table’s main course.”—Chip Kidd, Wall Street Journal.


“[The menus] reflect the amazing craftsmanship that many restaurants applied to their bills of fare, and suggest that today’s restaurateurs could learn a lot from their predecessors.”—Rebecca Marx, The Village Voice.

My new book--Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has just won top prize 2011 from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, The Modern, and Maialino.



FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."  THIS WEEK:

Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.


Tennis Resorts OnlineA Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored  two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to  Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991).

nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;

MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright,  and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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