Dwight Garner on the Long History of Writers and America’s Greatest Invention, the Martini ‹ Literary Hub


I make a martini, Gordons or Barr Hill, every night at seven with, in my mind at least, a matadors formality. I use dense, square ice cubes. Like the pop of a cork exiting a bottle, a martinis being shaken is one of civilizations indispensable sounds. The martini is the only American invention, Mencken wrote, as perfect as a sonnet.

I like my martinis shaken rather than stirred because they seem colder and because the ice crystals that swim briefly on the surface are ethereal. I also like mine extremely dry. I was pleased to read, in the 2018 Times obituary of Tommy Rowles, the longtime bartender at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle hotel, that his secret was to omit vermouth entirely. A bottle of vermouth, he said, you should just open it and look at it. Modern cocktail orthodoxy is not kind to me, or to Tommy. Stirring, these days, is in, and vermouth is poured with a heavy hand. T. S. Eliot would not have minded. He was a vermouth man, so much so that he named one of his cats Noilly Prat, after his favorite brand. When I do add vermouth I apply Hemingways formula, 15:1, in honor of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who liked gin to outnumber vermouth in the same ratio he wanted to outnumber opponents in battle. The toast I make, with whoever is present, is usually the one I learned from the late Caroline Herron, a former editor at the Times Book Review: To the confusion of our enemies. The toast Jack Nicholson makes in Easy RiderTo old D. H. Lawrenceisnt bad, either.

The world and its martinis are mine! Patricia Highsmith exclaimed in her diaries. Martinis inspire this sort of enthusiasm. Frederick Seidel, in his poem At Gracie Mansion, refers to an ice-cold martini as a see-through on a stem. The poet Richard Wilbur liked to add fennel juice and foliage to his. Id like to be like Eloise, in the childrens book by Kay Thompson, and keep a bottle of gin in my bedroom. If you want to go broke quickly rather than slowly, drink your martinis outside the house.

Occasionally Ill mix a vodka martini, recalling that Langston Hughes appeared in a Smirnoff advertisement. Vodka martinis flush out the snobs, who dont consider them martinis at all. Roger Angell, whose New Yorker essay Dry Martini is the best thing Ive read on the subject, admitted that he and his wife moved from gin to vodka because vodka was less argumentative. The best paean to the vodka martini appears in Lawrence Osbornes amazing book The Wet and the Dry, which is about trying to get a drink in countries where to do so is against the law. Osborne decides that, with its olive, his vodka martini tastes like cold seawater at the bottom of an oyster.

Dont get all excited, as did Kenneth Tynan, and try to take your vodka martini rectally. Tynan had read, in Alan Wattss autobiography, that this was a good idea. Tynan had his girlfriend inject the contents of a large wineglass of vodka, via an enema tube, into his rectum. Within ten minutes the agony is indescribable, he wrote in his diary. His anus became tightly compressed and blood seeped from it. It took three days for the pain to abate. Oh, the perils of hedonism! he wrote.

I make my first drink on the late side because I like it too much. I also want to prolong the anticipation. Alcohol is, as Benjamin Franklin noticed, constant proof that God loves us. I drink more than most people but less than some. I dont have an especially big tank; my tolerance is not Homeric. But almost nightly I drink two martinis and, with dinner, a glass or two of wine, without negative effects in the morning. If I have that third glass of wine, my morning at the desk becomes an afternoon at the desk.

I like my martinis shaken rather than stirred because they seem colder and because the ice crystals that swim briefly on the surface are ethereal.

Drinking alone doesnt depress me, the way it does some people. Franklin didnt recommend it. He that drinks his cider alone, let him catch his horse alone, he wrote. But Christopher Hitchens said that solo drinks can be the happiest glasses you ever drain, and Norman Mailer, in his novel Tough Guys Dont Dance, praised what he called that impregnable hauteur which is, perhaps, the most satisfying aspect of solitary drinking. When alone, Ill put on good loud music, of the sort my wife, Cree, does not especially like (jazz or Hsker D) and read magazines and eat cheese until I get tiddly and head for bed. But I prefer companions. When I learn that someone new is coming over, I mentally ask the same questions Kingsley Amis did: Does he drink? Is he jolly? Alcohol can bring out the poetry in a persons soul.

In 2006, Gary Shteyngart, the irrepressible author of novels such as The Russian Debutantes Handbook and Super Sad True Love Story, gave an interview to the Denver-based magazine Modern Drunkard. Its one of the great interviews of the new century and some enterprising young editor should print it as a chapbook. In the meantime, find it online and send the link to your friends. James Baldwin may have said, I dont know any writers who dont drink, but that was a long time ago. Shteyngarts complaint is that writers dont belly up to the bar with the enthusiasm they once did. Were this sterilized profession, we all know our Amazon.com rankings to the nearest digit, he said. The literary community is not backing me up here. Im all alone. He added, Its so pathetic when I think about my ancestors. Give them a bottle of shampoo and they have a party. And here I am with the best booze available. Ive tried my best to keep Gary, from my own apartment, company.

Why didnt everyone drink? Karl Ove Knausgaard asked in Book Four of My Struggle. Alcohol makes everything big, it is a wind blowing through your consciousness, it is crashing waves and swaying forests, and the light it transmits gilds everything you see, even the ugliest and most revolting person becomes attractive in some way, it is as if all objections and all judgments are cast aside in a wide sweep of the hand, in an act of supreme generosity, here everything, and I do mean everything, is beautiful.

Dawn Powell made a similar point in her diaries. A person is like blank paper with secret writing, she wrote, sometimes never brought out, other times brought out by odd chemicals. In his novel Submission, Michel Houellebecq wrote, Its hard to understand other people, to know whats hidden in their hearts, and without the assistance of alcohol it might never be done at all. Amisa copy of his book Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis should be in every homeput it this way: The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings.

Americas founders understood all this. Barbara Holland, in her book The Joy of Drinking, reminded her readers that in 1787, the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention adjourned to a tavern for some rest, and according to the bill they drank fifty-four bottles of Madeira, sixty bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, twenty-two of port, eight of hard cider, and seven bowls of punch so large that, it was said, ducks could swim around in them. Then they went back to work and finished founding the new Republic. Fifty-five delegates consumed fifty-four bottles of Madeira? Which founder let the side down?


Excerpted from The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading by Dwight Garner. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 2023 by Dwight Garner. All rights reserved

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