I like to consider myself a well-rounded individual with lots of different interests, but I do admit that I occasionally develop certain preoccupations that might be considered a bit left of center or even downright odd. My kids like to say that I’m like a podcast app where listeners select a topic and I then provide all the details of my research and empirical data. Recent episodes range from top beauty creams to keep your forearms looking youthful, to the countless benefits of a new sound app called Endel that will help you have the best night’s sleep ever, to the reasons why avocados may just be the perfect food. As you might expect, cocktails and astrology are the largest tabs on my touch screen with far too many episodes to count. In the last year or so, one of my most recently played podcasts has been about vultures. Yes, you are reading that correctly. Where on earth did this interest come from? Well, let me tell you a story. As the youngest member of my family, I have been without almost all of my older relatives like grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as my own parents for quite a while now. They are all resting peacefully in the same cemetery, and when I would go to visit them I had a favorite spot where I would park my car and could have a conversation with all of them at once. It was next to a very pretty line of those tall tombstones that always seem to have strong Italian names on them like Garibaldi or Lanza. As a person whose 23andme profile indicates 97% Italian ethnicity, it’s okay for me to say that. As I was sitting there one day offering up some prayers to whoever was listening, an enormous black vulture came and landed on one of the stones with his wings spread out in what I later learned is called the horaltic pose. He was basking in the sun. What a photo opportunity, right?? Believe me, I tried, but I was so startled that I ended up snapping an absolutely lovely shot of my dashboard and a flash of blue sky. My new friend looked at me with a disdainful scowl, and my chance at capturing the best photo ever flew off in a powerful whoosh of black feathers. I was left wondering if he’d been real or just a figment of my imagination. In that moment, my fascination with vultures began.
The thing that originally appealed to me about these incredible birds was their appearance. I know that may sound crazy to some of you, but they have that cool sense of creepiness that belongs right up there with the scariest of the bad guys like Darth Vader, for example. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see one up close, as I did, they have a particular way of looking at us as humans that made me feel as though my capabilities were somehow being assessed. It made me wonder what it is that they are measuring. Determined to find out more about them, I learned that they are scavengers and not birds of prey. Their food is what’s left behind on the road or in the field that no one else wants to touch. Their sharp beaks, bald heads, and highly acidic digestive systems are designed to efficiently process this carrion and remove most of it, allowing what’s left to more rapidly release and return to the earth. In this way, they have the extremely important job of keeping the ecosystem in balance for us. There’s a definite irony in the fact that vultures are often associated with roadkill as though they have somehow caused it, when it is really human beings who should assume that responsibility. We build the roads, we drive the cars, we encroach on the environment. And I’m speculating as to why they give us that resting vulture face?? Despite the serious work they do, vultures are not solitary grim reapers that roam the world like the scary vampires for which many of us have them pegged. Instead, they are quite social, hanging out in groups and chatting the hours away, although since they have no voice boxes they really can’t sing, squawk, or hoot like other birds. Unfortunately they hiss like the Nazgul of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that most definitely adds to their creep factor. In what was one of the best gifts ever, my daughter Wendy recently surprised me with a trip to a bird rehabilitation sanctuary in Bernardsville, NJ called The Raptor Trust. She’d set up a private tour for us, the highlight of which was the opportunity to meet two residents there, a black vulture named Winston and a turkey vulture named Turkleton, who had imprinted on humans early on and had become the sanctuary’s busiest ambassadors. These very large, very scary birds hopped over to me like puppies, hissing away, and then went on to put on an amazing display of jumping from perch to perch and doing all sorts of tricks. I was so happy that I nearly cried.
In the days since then, I’ve thought a lot about those two vultures and the reasons why I have an affinity towards them in general. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the cycle of the moon and the way in which we are encouraged to set intentions when the moon is new and identify impediments to reaching those goals when the moon is full. The final stage of this releasing process occurs when the moon is in its waning crescent phase, beginning three days before it’s new again. The moon in this final phase is also known as the balsamic moon or the dark moon, and it often carries the same unfortunate designation as our vulture friends. Where there is no light, there cannot be goodness either, right? But that is most definitely not the case. The work we are encouraged to do in those last three days of the moon’s cycle is very much like what carrion creatures do quite naturally. They scan the ground for that which needs to be removed, they deal with it quickly and efficiently, and they release it back to the earth. It is food for them and they see it as nourishment. This process of letting go does not have to be related to only the major things in life. After all, how much can we release? Sometimes that may be our situation, but more often than not we are quite aware of small things within ourselves or our relationships that we’d like to work on or make better. These items are often so small, in fact, that we might be under the false assumption that they’ll happen naturally, as a matter of course, without us having to lift a finger. No intention can ever be fulfilled that way, nor can any change ever be implemented. We have a very human tendency to resist the idea of releasing because we rest so comfortably in the place of what is familiar and static. With release comes disruption, and we often do not wish to bring this into our lives or our days in even the smallest of ways. And yet once we gain our footing again, the change we have brought about can be monumental. What if we remove the negative connotation of setting intentions and releasing obstacles and view it more as the natural process that it is? The work we do in what seems to be darkness may just bring about the greatest illumination of all.
For today’s cocktail, I did some investigating and found a vodka distilled at Milk Street Distillery in Branchville, NJ called Black Vulture. How could I resist the idea of using this as my base spirit? My next thought was to add a Sambuca to the drink because anise actually symbolizes the action of cleansing our spirits, which is exactly what results from the process of letting go. Interestingly enough, the symbolism of seeing a vulture in real life or in dreams is related to the ideas of harmony, purity, and cleanliness. From there, I decided to go with a cherry and porcini mushroom syrup for sweetness and a lemon cordial to bring in the citrus. As Wendy reminded me, fungi of all kinds in the environment create the process of natural decomposition that is so essential for all other living things to survive. Ordinary lemon juice will work fine here too, but I tend to use a cordial when I want to soften or round out the tartness just a bit. Cordials are very easy to make and many recipes can be found online, but I’m also happy to share mine if you reach out to me. This seemingly odd blend of flavors worked together in this cocktail in the most astounding way. I confess that what I wanted was to choose things that might make you wrinkle your nose just a bit. After all, isn’t that what we do when we see a group of vultures on the side of the road?? Cheers everyone. I’m hoping you now know just a bit more about vultures than you did before. Happy Friday and happy releasing!
2 oz Milk Street Distillery Black Vulture vodka
1/8 oz your favorite Sambuca
1 oz porcini mushroom and dried cherry syrup*
1.25 oz lemon juice or lemon cordial
Double strain into a cocktail coupe.
Garnish with a dried mushroom.
*Add 2 oz dried porcini mushrooms and 4 oz of dried cherries to a pot filled with 12 oz of water. Heat until boiling. Allow to rest for one hour. Strain and stir in an equal amount of sugar. Reheat gently until dissolved.