An old drinking friend . . . makes good.
Not all of my childhood acquaintances ended up like Al. Most survived. Some have even prospered.
One of my best childhood friends was Bruce Cochran, a fellow member of our Dairy Products Team for Salem High School's local chapter of the Future Farmers of America -- to which we both belonged back in our "Honky Cat" days.
One of our tasks was to judge the condition of that part of the milking machine that fits onto a cow's teats.
Not, of course, while it was still on the teats.
We were a proper, upstanding team, not some lowlife sort. Admittedly, we did also have the duty of judging milk in various stages of corruption . . . but we kept ourselves pure (except for the occasional foray into testing such 'wines' as Boones Farm Strawberry Hill).
Moreover, we had the great good pleasure of tasting exotic cheeses . . . even something labeled "Edam/Gouda" that we called "damn good" cheese. (Later, much later, I learned that "Edam" and "Gouda" are actually two distinct if related cheeses.)
We became good enough at judging dairy products to qualify for the State Competition in Fayetteville, where we were treated to a fine, formal dinner at the University of Arkansas. That meal taught us hicks that reward comes for hard work and also that a crystal wine glass rubbed along its brim by a moistened finger will produce a fine, high-pitched whine (much to the consternation of our hosts).
Maybe all of that milk, cheese, and even occasional 'wine' tasting paid off for Bruce, for he's now enjoying success as a food and wine expert in Arkansas.
Yes, Arkansas. Try not to be too surprised.
Bruce has done quite well for a fellow-Ozarker -- and even seems to be developing something of a national, indeed international reputation for his wine and food expertise. Here is what his Florentine friend Joe Pascale -- a fellow wine expert -- says about him:
"Let me tell you a little more about Mr. Cochran. I could say that this Little Rock native is one of the -- if not the leading wine authority in Arkansas. But honestly, that does not do him justice. Bruce is one of the most knowledgeable individuals on wine, food, and travel I've ever met. He has conducted wine classes, dinners, and trips for twenty years. Since 1978, Bruce has worked in the wine trade as a retailer, wholesaler, and importer -- all three levels of the chain between the wine and spirits producers and the consumers. He continues his roles as a writer on wine, food and travel, a wine and food teacher, and group trip organizer. Throughout his career, he has been published and quoted in various magazines and newspapers, has conducted over 1,500 wine events, and has organized group trips to Italy, Chile, Argentina, and France."
That's from Joe Pascale on Bruce. From what Bruce himself has told me, he has even done some wine touring in Russia -- though not recently, perhaps. Anyway, Bruce and Joe conduct summer wine tours together in Italy: "Driving Italy with Bruce and Joe." Here -- in Bruce's words -- is what they promised to do for this past Spring of 2005:
"My partner Joe Pascale lives in Florence, and he and I will each drive a van. Our small group (no more than eight people) will be mobile, and able to visit restaurants and other places that cannot accommodate large groups. The idea is to have a more personal experience than a large tour bus, but more convenient than driving yourself, poring over road maps, looking for parking, etc. If you go with us you'll stay where we stay, eat where we eat, and visit the towns that we enjoy most. You'll get to spend time with some of my Italian friends, and stroll the cobble stoned streets of some of Italy's loveliest towns and villages. With this itinerary you won't run into a lot of other American tourists!"
I like the promise of avoiding the typical itinerary of "American tourists." For how they kept their promise, see Bruce's "Italy Trip Report Spring 2005." Here's a sample:
"Arriving in Parma, the rain persisted, and I started to worry a little. For one thing, I love the restaurant at the hotel we use in Parma, but the chef was in another part of the country cooking at a chef’s event. But, good food isn’t hard to find in that town, or that whole region, which is known even to the Italians as having the best chefs. Isabella at our hotel had long recommended to me a nearby restaurant, so I sent in advance a list of some of the local dishes that I hoped could be prepared, and of course it was no problem. It turned out to be a fine dinner. Walking four blocks in a light rain may or may not have sharpened our appetites, but the food was good and plentiful. The staff didn’t speak much English, which to me says local cuisine and not touristy fare."
Read on for a meal that'll whet your appetite. It all sounds like good 'epicurean' fun. And Bruce doesn't limit himself to the Old Continent. He also heads south of Arkansas, way south:
"Also, planning now for February 2006--repeating one of my favorite trips, to Chile and Argentina. Includes a drive over the Andes!"
And here I was, thinking that I was the gypsy! Bruce, you've come a long way and done well.
(And to think that it all started long ago with us as teenagers sipping such 'wines' as the insipid Boones Farm Strawberry Hill selection . . .)