One More Time
The Friday Newsletter's gonna celebrate.
Hello, and welcome to the final Friday of 2021.
It’s been an interesting year—the jury is still out on whether it’s been a good one—but one way or another, we have come to the end.
As far as this newsletter is concerned, it’s been another exciting year of growth. As of the moment I hit publish today, there are 3,902 people who subscribe to The Action Cookbook Newsletter, and 767 full paying subscribers. This is worlds beyond what I expected when I first launched this publication two and a half years ago, and though I say it a lot, I mean it—I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to write for you, and to share this growing community with you.
And there’s been a lot of writing, too! This is the 154th edition of The Action Cookbook Newsletter in 2021, and the 388th overall. By my rough math, I’ve published over 250,000 words of writing here this year alone, something roughly akin to the first three Harry Potter novels combined, and I’ve managed to do it without saying a bunch of bigoted stuff on Twitter like JK Rowling does.
As we sit here on the final day of 2021, I’d like to take this opportunity to look back. Fifty times this year, I sent out a Friday newsletter, each loaded up with a recipe, a cocktail, a music recommendation, a book recommendation, things to watch/listen to, and animals to fawn over. It’s a lot to sift through, but today I want to share what I think were some of the best entries.
(This post is going to be too long for email, I’ll tell you that now. You should probably just go ahead and open it on the website. I’ll wait.)
Also, if you’re not a full subscriber, why not become one now? It’s a great way to start a new year on the right foot. The easiest resolution, IMO.
Okay, we good? Let’s go.
7) The Literal Cookbook Part
I often note, half-jokingly, that the only reason I started this newsletter and turned it into a viable business was to insulate myself from blowback at home any time I decide to absolutely wreck the kitchen with one of my ridiculous culinary flights of fancy.
(That’s not entirely true, but it certainly does help.)
Whatever the reasoning is, the recipes are the prow of this ship, they’re the thing that set the tone for each Friday’s newsletter, and they’re a heck of a lot of fun to put together for you. There’s some pretty darn good stuff that’s come out of it, too!
Looking back at the year, here are the recipes that I enjoyed making—and eating—the most, starting with nine honorable mentions before crowing a Recipe of the Year.
Gigante Beans with ‘Nduja, Burrata and Fennel (March 5th)
Michigan-style Almond Boneless Chicken (Wor Su Gai) (March 19th)
Baltimore-Style Crab Fries (April 2nd)
Shawarma / Shawarma Pasta (August 20th)
The ACBN Ultimate Nacho Blueprint (August 27th)
Flamin’ Hot Cheese Curds (September 3rd)
Seventh Circle Pasta (September 10th)
Baked Feta with Walnuts, Dates and Olives (October 29th)
Action’s Thicc Vegan Chili (November 12th)
And now, the ACBN Recipe of the Year:
The Chicken Fingers From AC’s Bar and Grill (October 8th)
All of these recipes were fun, delicious and well-received, but this one was an absolute crowd-pleasing banger, and it was also the linchpin of what might be the most complete Friday newsletter out of the 125+ that I’ve written here; a full-on exercise in world-building where I imagined a beloved small-town bar and grill complete with drink menu, jukebox, and a full cast of characters. It’s my Caine-Hackman Theory of Friday newsletters, and I’m quite pleased with how it all came together.
6) Behind The Bar
If the dinner recipes are my tinkerer’s workshop, then the drinks are the chemistry lab. Some of the things I feature here are classic cocktails, while others are full-on “I’m going to put some things together and see what happens” experiments.
Occasionally that I means I’m pouring something down the drain in disgust, but more often than not, it’s a delicious punctuation mark to the week’s meal. It’s also where I can see the sheer breadth of a year the most, as the seasons turn and my tastes shift from refreshing drinks with gin and tequila to warming concoctions of brown liquor.
Here’s what I think were some of the best this year.
The Old Pepper bourbon, lemon juice, hot sauce (January 8th)
The Gold Rush Cocktail bourbon, honey, lemon (March 5th)
The Spaghett Miller High Life, Aperol, lemon juice (May 7th)
The Internationale gin, Campari, pineapple soda (May 24th)
Kombucharita tequila, lime, kombucha, honey (June 4th)
Olive Oil Sour gin, lemon juice, olive oil, rosemary simple syrup (August 6th)
Kimona mezcal, prickly pear, kiwi (August 27th)
Jalapeño-Dill Caesar Clamato, Jalapeño-Dill vodka, much more (September 24th)
The Rust Belt Manhattan Rye, sweet vermouth, walnut bitters (October 8th)
Of course, one victor must rise above the others, and for the ACBN Cocktail of the Year, I’m going with the one that, anecdotally at least, it seems like the most people tried out—the Noon Kickoff (September 3rd), a powerhouse late-morning cocktail intended to kick-start a tailgate or a full day of college football viewing, combining cold brew coffee concentrate, dark rum, Aperol, lemon juice and seltzer.
This drink was one of my most off-the-wall experiments of the year, and it worked amazingly well; I mean, heck, I posted it the first week of the college football season and the Cincinnati Bearcats made the College Football Playoff. Correlation equals causation, as we all know.
5) ACBN Radio
Every Friday, I come bearing musical suggestions. I’ll confess that my tastes are all over the map, but that’s fine—it means there’s more chances that something will overlap with your tastes.
Not everything I post is new, so I’ve limited my Albums of the Year to ones that were actually released in 2021.
James McMurtry, The Horses and The Hounds
Origami Angel, GAMI GANG
Parannoul, To See The Next Part of the Dream
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee
Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound
Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita
Adia Victoria, A Southern Gothic
The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Yola, Stand For Myself
There’s a wide range represented here, from the alt-country of James McMurtry and Sturgill Simpson to the shoegazing wall of sound from Parannoul to the neo-soul of Leon Bridges and Yola, but if you know me well enough, you know there’s one genre that I just can’t get enough of, and that’s pop-punk, so there’s no question who my album of the year was going to come from—Meet Me @ The Altar, who made their major-label debut this summer with Model Citizen.
I know it takes a lot of work to sift through a list of music recommendations, so I’ve pulled together a short Spotify playlist featuring something from each of these albums; it’s disjointed by nature, but gives you a chance to flip through and see what might appeal to you:
And heck, while I’m sharing playlists, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bump two of my favorite efforts of the year—first, the jukebox playlist from AC’s Bar and Grill—
And second, a tribute to a freshman dorm room in the 2000-01 school year, Music From A T1 Line:
I dare you to listen to either of these and not have a good time.
4) The Little ACB Library
I don’t think it’s possible to be a good writer without being a reader, too, and I try my hardest to consume new books whenever possible, whether that’s in physical form or audiobook format. Much like with the music, my recommendations aren’t always contemporary, but for the sake of this exercise I’m only going to share books that were released in 2021.
The Eagles of Heart Mountain by Bradford Pearson— a sobering, deeply-researched history of the American government’s forcible internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, centered around a football team that formed in one of the concentration camps
Story Mode: Video Games and the Interplay Between Consoles and Culture by Trevor Strunk— from the host of the excellent No Cartridge podcast, a look at the history of video game culture and how it influences and interacts with society at large
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib — One of the foremost essayists working today collects a series of meditations on Black performance art, from Josephine Baker to Whitney Houston to Merry Clayton and Michael Jackson. It’s joyful and heartbreaking all at once.
Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball by Luke Epplin — a history of the 1948 Cleveland Indians’ run to a World Series title, led by four men in particular: iconoclastic team owner Bill Veeck, fireballing star pitcher Bob Feller, American League color barrier-breaking outfielder Larry Doby, and former Negro Leagues superstar pitcher Satchel Paige.
Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America's Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt by Daniel Barbarisi — In 2010, eccentric art dealer Forrest Fenn made an intriguing announcement: he’d buried a treasure chest full of artifacts worth millions of dollars somewhere in the American West, and left only a cryptic poem with hints to its location; whoever could decipher his riddles could lay claim to a fortune. The decade-long frenzy that ensued swept in hundreds, changed the landscape, and even cost some people their lives.
Across the River: Life, Death, and Football in an American City by Kent Babb — Simply put, one of the best works of sportswriting I’ve ever read. Babb visits Algiers, a troubled neighborhood on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, and follows the Edna Karr High School Cougars—and their genius coach Brice Brown—as they chase a state title while facing down hardships many of their opponents could scarcely imagine.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel — in this non-fiction graphic novel, cartoonist and author of Fun Home Bechdel recounts her lifelong infatuation with fitness trends, from Jack LaLanne to cross-country skiing to spin classes. It’s both hilarious and touching, and (for me) entirely relatable.
The Night The Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage by Drew Magary — the Deadspin alum and current Defector writer recounts the traumatic brain injury that very nearly cost him his life in 2018, and his long road to recovery—and finding a new normal—afterward. With the characteristic humor and self-deprecation that’s made him an internet favorite for more than a decade, Magary recounts learning to taste and smell again, receiving a cochlear implant to regain lost hearing, and seeing the impact one person’s tragedy can have on a family and circle of friends.
Crying In H Mart by Michelle Zauner — Zauner’s the one person who shows up on my best-of lists twice, as the lead performer behind Japanese Breakfast, featured in the albums above. As a writer, she’s penned one of the most emotionally-stirring things I read all year, a memoir of her mother’s struggle with and eventual death from cancer, and her own struggle to find her cultural identity as the daughter of a Korean woman and an American man. This search often happens through food, as Zauner seeks to recreate her mother’s recipes and recapture childhood flavors and sense memories.
Finally, the ACBN book of the year—
The Effort by Claire Holroyde — I absolutely adored this book, Holroyde’s debut novel, a speculative work of hard science fiction that portrays the worldwide reaction to the discovery of an approaching comet with the potential to end all life on Earth. (It’s the story Don’t Look Up wishes it was, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the surprisingly-divisive movie.) It’s hugely ambitious and yet wildly successful, imagining the calamitous effects that such an event might have even well before impact, and doing so in far more realistic detail than pretty much any other piece of apocalyptic fiction I’ve ever read.
The book snuck into the 2021 best-of list, having been released in January, and its paperback release is coming up within weeks. If I haven’t convinced you to read it yet, now’s a great time.
Rather than linking each of these individually, I’m going to do what I always do and recommend that you visit my Bookshop affiliate store, where I collect these and (nearly) every other book I’ve recommended in the 2-1/2 years of doing this:
3) Everything Else
Number three in the countdown is always where the Friday structure starts to fall apart, but that’s okay. After I’ve offered you a recipe, a cocktail, music and a book, we enter the wild card slots: this can be movies or television shows, podcasts, longreads, whatever. I’m not going to try to make too much sense of a list here, I’m just going to bump some thing I really enjoyed this year:
The Summit of the Gods (movie, Netflix) — a beautifully-rendered adaptation of a beloved manga about a troubled mountain climber’s quixotic quest
Rocky vs. Drago (movie, various streaming platforms) — a major recut of the 1980s classic Rocky IV that strips out many of the most cornball elements and creates a tighter, smarter, significantly better movie. (And I loved the original, for all its flaws.)
Reservation Dogs (series, Hulu) — a dark comedy revolving around four Native teens in small-town Oklahoma committing petty crimes in a flawed plan to escape to California
Only Murders in the Building (series, Hulu) — a hilarious murder mystery starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as three true-crime podcast aficionados swept up into a dangerous story of their own
Cookbook Circle Podcast (podcast) — a charming and very funny podcast where hosts Hannah and Victoria take on a classic cookbook each episode, cooking recipes from it and reviewing it based on their experiences.
Girls 5 Eva (series, Peacock) — a goofball comedy centered on a late-1990s girl-pop group attempting to make a comeback 20 years after their prime and after the death of one of their five members, starring Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell and Renee Elise Goldsberry.
Waiting For Impact: A Dave Holmes Passion Project (podcast) — former MTV host Dave Holmes takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the investigative podcast format as he searches for the true story of what happened to Sudden Impact, a boy band that briefly appeared in the video for Boyz II Men’s smash “Motownphilly” and then was never seen again.
Bad Sport (miniseries, Netflix) — six hour-long documentaries that shed new light on lesser-known stories of crime and punishment from the world of sports; the episode “Hoop Schemes” on the 1994 Arizona State men’s basketball point-shaving scandal is terrific.
The Ballad of the Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping by Kaleb Horton (longform) — a deep-dive investigation into the long-ranging impacts of a headline-grabbing incident in 1976, when an entire schoolbus full of children was hijacked in California
In & Of Itself (movie, Hulu) — this might be cheating, as I think this technically came out in 2020, but it hit streaming in 2021 and was one of the most affecting things I watched all year. It’s hard to explain, but it’s an amazing hour and a half of live performance.
2) The Self-Congratulatory Part
Okay, here’s the hard part for me: collecting what I think are the best things I’ve written all year. This newsletter isn’t just Fridays, and I’ve published more than 100 pieces of non-Friday writing this year on a wide variety of topics. It’s hard for me to self-assess, because a) I don’t know always know what’s good and b) I forget 95% of what I write within days of writing it, but I’ve attempted to pull together a list of the things I think landed the best:
Creative Writing For Small Business Tyrants (April 19th)
A fresh way of looking at the idea—one bandied about throughout 2021—that “no one wants to work” during a pandemic.
In Defense of Weird Regional Foods (May 17th)
By far the most-active comment section of the year, this is where I stand proudly in my appreciation of Skyline Chili and all sorts of other regional culinary oddities.
The Superhero Illusion (June 14th)
Appreciating a moment in time where my kids still think I’m the strongest man in the world, and noting the things I’ll do to keep that fiction alive.
Faces of the Game (July 19th)
On Shohei Ohtani, Larry Doby, Chief Wahoo and the eternal gap between the baseball’s self-image and its real image.
After This Week, Things Should Settle Down (August 16th)
Probably the single piece this year that the most people yelled at me for writing. But it’s true. Things should settle down next week.
A Serious Man (August 25th)
A reflection on a person I know, who may or may not be me.
They Don’t Remember (September 8th)
A reflection on the 20th anniversary of September 11th through the lens of a new generation that doesn’t remember the world before that awful day.
WE LANDED ON THE MOON (December 6th)
My celebration of the Cincinnati Bearcats football team’s improbable, historic and thrilling 2021 season.
All of the Other Reindeer (December 13th)
My magnum opus, perhaps? A New Yorker-style longform investigation into the truth behind the well-known story of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Finally, my personal favorite of the year, as it comes closest to trying to express a feeling I often touch on in my writing about parenthood:
“The Perfect Age” (July 7th)
Read this piece and tell me if you’d read a book of essays like this, because I’m going to confess now that that’s something I’m seriously planning on putting together, and your interest might be something I could use to help sell that idea.
2022 vision board, folks. Cards on the table.
Okay, I’m well past the “email size limit” warnings, and I think I’ve said my piece for the year.
1) ACBN Friends of the Year
Every Friday newsletter ends the same way: with reader-submitted photos of dogs, cats, and any other pets you might wish to share with me. There’s no way for me to select the best, because they’re all good pets.
Instead, I’m going to wrap up 2021 with my own odd couple, Holly and Olaf, as mismatched a pair of good dogs as you could possibly imagine. One’s a surly old lady, the other’s an energetic goon: they’re the answer to a question no one asked, which is: “what if Fran Lebowitz and Rob Gronkowski were roommates?”
This is my version of the Old Man Past Year and Baby New Year imagery, and the only way I could think to wrap up a terrific year here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed The Action Cookbook Newsletter this year; I am forever grateful for your time, your readership, your support and your contributions. 2021 has been interesting; 2022 will be better. I look forward to spending it with you.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
PS: Go Bearcats.