Farewell to Ump

Posted by bmountain | Posted in Restaurants, Sake | Posted on 04-10-2009

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Mark Umphrey was my fraternity brother at Phi Gamma Psi at the University of Lowell.  While I hadn’t seem Mark in quite some time, I was terribly saddened to attend his wake this past Friday.  Later that evening we toasted Mark with good friends and sake and shared memories of the Ump.

Mark S. Umphrey, 1958 - 2009

Mark S. Umphrey, 1958 - 2009

Mark like so many students at U Lowell came from humble roots and went there for the quality of the engineering program and the relatively low tuition cost.  Mark was from Worcester and programs like Worcester Polytech cost 5-6 times more than our state school.  He and several friends from the Worcester area enrolled at U Lowell two years before I did, and joined the fraternity their freshman year.

Every school has its “animal house” and Phi Psi was U Lowell’s version.  One weekend I needed a ride to school and when my parents dropped me off my mother asked if there had been a fire there.  Many of the windows were broken from various wild parties and the exterior hadn’t been touched in decades.  The ancient victorian had a flat roof where we spent much of our time in the nicer weather.  Our house had the Wednesday night party slot where we charged a $1.00 cover charge that went to the band and sold beers for $0.50 and a devilish concoction called “kit” for $1.00.  Kit was a secret mix passed down from class to class but the primary ingredient was grain alcohol which we procured from the drug store up the street.  Wednesday night was the best deal in town, you could show up with $5.00 and get live entertainment and four kits which you’d still be feeling the following afternoon.

Mark was a fixture at all Phi Psi events but as president of Phi Psi was a bastion of calm and responsibility.  One night when I went off the rails and incited a small riot Mark assessed me a $10 fine which I duly paid.  I thought twice about causing breakage knowing I’d lose 2 hours of my hard earned pay as a roofer on weekends for the next incident.  Mark was tough as nails and in a rough town like Lowell, had plenty of opportunities to test himself.  He never backed down from anyone.  One night he came back from a party with a collection of scrapes and bruises but laughed that even though he got the worse of his encounter that night, it was nothing compared to our drunken fraternity wrestling matches.  I can vouch for that, I wrestled in high school and could beat most of my brothers on the mat but constantly marveled at how they could find ways to leverage a coffee table or bed frame to inflict the maximum about of pain on you.

The travel Gods were smiling on me as I landing at Logan from Toronto on Friday night.  The wake was from 4:00 to 8:00PM in Lowell and my flight landed almost on time at 6:40.  Note:  I flew Porter Airlines out of Toronto Island Airport which was one of the most pleasant airline experiences I’ve had in years.  I was seated in row two with gate-checked baggage so was second in line at immigration and breezed through.  I paid the parking ticket at a kiosk and flew out of central parking minutes later.  There are times when I think the Big Dig was worth every penny of the $14 Billion that we paid for it and this was one of them.  I screamed through the tunnel network from east Boston to route 93 north and was out of the city in under 10 minutes.  Traffic was moderate and moving quickly, I tucked into a group of cars in the fast lane and quickly we were touching 80 mph.  As traffic cleared each of us took turns taking lead.  The front car would pull over and let the others pass, then pull in behind and keep up.  I always enjoy this protocol, the cars in the middle are the least likely to get a ticket so it’s only fair to switch around.

I arrived at the funeral home at 7:40, in plenty of time to pay my respects to Mark’s family.  You never know how these things will hit you until you arrive and I had an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach to see my friend after all these years in his coffin.  Mark was way too young to move on.  He has a wonderful family with a son in medical school and a daughter in the masters program for public health at Boston University.  Mark was president of Thermo Engineering and leveraged his experiences at the Animal House into success both at home and in his career.

Attending the wake were three of my closest fraternity brothers.  John and Steve Fairbanks, and Rick Strand.  John was also known as “Fearless” Fairbanks and saved my neck on more than one occasion when I got in over my head.  John was a black belt in Karate and at 6 ft 2 could side kick most mortals across the gym.  His brother Steve never practiced but would show up for the tournaments hung over and always seem to win more fights than he lost.  Rick was probably the most naturally talented fighter of the bunch with flexibility and strength that would enable him to throw and land high-section kicks from just about anywhere.  He rarely fought in tournaments but when we could talk him into it he never lost a fight.  His main reason was that collegiate tournaments didn’t allow contact to the head which he felt took all the fun out of it.

We arranged to meet after the wake at a Feng Shui, a Japanese restaurant near the Wang towers in Chelmsford Massachusetts.  Feng Shui is a sparkling multi-level facility with a hibachi section, a buffet, and traditional seating.  We joined John’s mother and wife at a big table and toasted Mark and each other.  It had been quite a few years since we had all been together and despite the sadness of the moment it was wonderful to be with such old and great friends.  We talked about the good times, the parties, the close calls and triumphs of college life, and wondered why it was Mark’s time to go.  The appetizers and sushi were excellent and the price was extremely reasonable, under $100 per person for literally a boatload of sushi and saké.

And yes course we drank saké, lots and lots of saké.  Feng Shui’s sake menu has a couple of very drinkable Junmai Ginjo’s.  Hakushika which I’ve written about before is one of my favorite table saké’s.  Its clean taste and reasonable cost make it extremely popular at many restaurants.  It is moderately dry and served chilled is a very pleasant experience.  We shared a couple of bottles and then switched to a very interesting saké that I’ve had before and been meaning to write about.

Momokawa Silver is produced by SakeOne of Forest Grove Oregon, one of the few saké’s that is brewed in the US.  Like most saké breweries in Japan, proximity to an ultra-pure source of water is key.  SakeOne is located on the east slope of the Coast Range at the edge of a lush rainforest aquifer.

Founded by an American who evolved into a saké visionary after experiencing the finest sakés Japan had to offer, SakéOne was first incorporated in Oregon in 1992 under the name Japan America Beverage Co. (JABC). It was established through a joint partnership with Momokawa Brewing Inc. Japan of Momoishi, Aomori Prefecture, Japan, a saké producer since 1856 that brought deep product knowledge and ages of experience. The new company started as an importer, then built its facility in Forest Grove just a few years later. In October of 1998, JABC changed its name to SakéOne and became the world’s only American-owned-and-operated sakéry.

I like how Momokawa has positioned this brand.  There are four different sub-brands within Momokawa:  Silver, Ruby, Pearl, and Diamond.  They vary greatly in terms of their level of dryness ranging from the extremely sweet Pearl (SMV -20) to the very dry Silver (SMV +6).  The Silver is has a deeper richer taste than the Hakushika.  John tasted Anacet, but the consensus was that too much kit had destroyed his taste buds.  I find it to taste extremely dry with an aroma of green apples.

As we finished the evening we touched glasses with one final toast, “To Ump” John said.  A fine man who will be missed.

Feng Shui Restaurant
285 Chelmsford St
Chelmsford, MA 01824
978-250-8888

Momokawa Silver Sake
$14.85 at InternetWines.com
From: Oregon (USA)
SMV: +6 (Dry)
Acidity: 1.8
Alcohol: 15%

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