Return to the Index

GP 30 May 2007: Literary Martinis

Happy Decoration Day.  What we have come to call ‘Memorial Day’ used to be celebrated on May 30, until our governors decided it should be squeezed into a Monday to make a long weekend, so that our cars would consume more gasoline, and we would have an illusory vacation.  However, several of us will hold little parades consisting of a crowd of one on the 30th, walking under elms past the post office and then paying homage to some historical statuary in order to honor the brave.  As well, we will call it ‘Decoration Day,’ as it was originally known, in memory of Civil War soldiers and fighters from several of the country’s other battles.  The ‘Memorial Day’ term only gained wide currency after World War II, and it did not become the official designation until 1967.  Decoration Day sounds better: it is less funereal and intimates that we are toasting heroes present and past.  We believe in heroes, and you can find some of our candidates in our Gods and Heroes section.

Taste.  Is it too much to say that choosing between ‘Memorial Day’ and ‘Decoration Day’ is a matter to taste?  In this regard, we refer you to Letitia’s Baldrige’s recent, enchanting Taste, an elegant little volume by the nation’s celebrated doyenne of etiquette.  Ms. Baldrige is very prolific, having essayed on marriage, the White House, and executive manners.  Taste: Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy seems a summing up of her thoughts that is immensely relevant to the present moment.

It’s terribly difficult to define or understand ‘taste,’ as Ms. Baldrige implicitly admits.  We rather liked her take on Professor Pier Massimo Forni of John Hopkins, who said: “Someone with good taste is a member of an elite whose talent is choosing well.”  It’s all about discriminating for the true, the beautiful, and the appropriate.  And the right choice will vary in space and time.

Taste Changes.  As we said last week, taste has to change.  The martini that worked in an age when we still took time for lunch and when eating clubs were still clubs is a bit outré now.  It needs must be re-invented.  And we find even avid, hidebound martini connoisseurs, especially the most traditional, tinkering with the gin and everything else.

We suppose that if we had better taste, we would not even be talking about martinis.  For more than 50% of our readership lies outside the borders of the United States, and we have ample followings in places like Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Australia.  Despite James Bond’s leanings and all sorts of other martini twists around the globe, the martini and Decoration Day are largely American inventions, not the stuff to excite our international audience.  In this letter, we must admit, we are not only addressing a bygone age, but a very small division of our readers which makes us at least a trifle impolite. 

One Thing Never Changes.  But the martini’s history and culture never changes, and perhaps that has some international appeal.  The martini spirit is still alive.  It is a drink surrounded by stories which has been embraced by all manner of literary celebrity.  We are advised that Dorothy Parker loved her sips, but tried to hold it down to one drink, since two put her under the table, and three put her in a worse position.  Khrushchev thought the martini was capitalism’s ultimate weapon. 

Wikipedia tells us that “Western culture has created a virtual mythology around the martini, in part because of the many legendary historical and fictional figures who favoured it, among them Churchill, Truman Capote, J. Robert Oppenheimer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cary Grant, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” and more.

San Francisco.  Tales that add to the martini myth pour into us from all points of the compass.  A good part of martinidom is the story that goes with it.  Bud Johns, a publisher sited next to the Presidio, and a Levi Strauss executive during its salad days,  invokes the waspishness of Mencken and the grandiosity of DeVoto:  

Personally I like a combination of Mencken’s and Bernard DeVoto’s views on the subject.

Mencken, as quoted in my The Ombibulous Mr. Mencken (“I’m ombibulous: I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all”), said “just show the Vermouth to the martini glass, but pour none in.”  DeVoto, in his lovely little book The Hour said the ratio of vermouth to gin was up to the individual’s taste but “a thousand pounds of ice” was essential. 

London.  UK’s advertisers have added quite a bit of color to what was once a fairly monochromatic city.  If we remember rightly, the Saatchi brothers had a great deal to do with bringing Maggie Thatcher into power.  Smart young ad men were the key customers for Anouska Hempel’s Blakes Hotel, a hostelry that put some zest into London hotel scene.  And we learn from Gary Towning, who is in the adverts game, that the wordspinners even hatched an Eaton martini: 

Our starting point was The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930).  The Eaton as we called it, since I was living on Eaton Place, Belgravia then, was an adaptation by me to become the coldest and therefore the smoothest martini we could serve.  It became a well known Martini party once a year in late January as a tonic for the dreary time of year in London.  That was all that was served with 4 bartenders in attendance. 

Berlin.  Bill Grossmann has split his career between work as a plasma physicist, broad-scale technological advisory duties for large multinationals, and forays into the good life—to include martinis.  Today he hangs his hat in Europe’s most culturally dynamic city, Berlin.  His duel with martinis cuts across his whole career: 

As a young engineer working at NASA I found myself at an important dinner (in 1959) honoring a long time senior aerodynamicist—guest speaker was the NASA administrator who was spouting all the superlatives of the proposed supersonic transport plane (this was before the Concorde).  After 4 or 5 martinis I began a question that challenged the economic viability, ecological and environmental impact and overall technology readiness of the aeronautics community to embark on such a challenging effort.  Needless to say, my then father-in-law (NASA’s CFO) began to question whether his daughter had made the right choice. 

I had to stop drinking martinis until I later found the Great Jones Street Café in NYC, where they make a dangerous Cajun martini.  Marinating the gin with jalapeño peppers for several days, and then serving with blackened red or bluefish can start and end you day in short order. 

Some of us might claim that a martini gives one an extra degree of insight into the workings of heaven and earth. 

New York.  Maybe Al Vogl is the voice of reason and commonsense.  He’s the magazine editor at The Conference Board, an association of the world’s most important companies, distinguished because it has no particular axe to grind.  He’s a stalwart for the 20th century martini: 

What's this about the Martini needing a do-over or a "restoration"?  Life is difficult and complicated enough without fussing about things that don't need fussing about.  What’s the big deal—take a good gin (Plymouth is my favorite, and interestingly it topped the top tier in a recent NYTimes tasting), vermouth to taste (I prefer Tribuno), and voila you have a cocktail that dreams are made of.  I’d hate to see gin following the same route as vodka—ever more exotic and expensive but to no point except to get rubes to dig deeper into their pockets. 

Well, we guess it is all a matter of taste. 

Something Added.  The martini has a lot to it, including all the stories.  It’s a model for us as we try to put together a new economy that will compete with the cheap stuff coming in from all over the globe.  We have to beat back mediocrity with particularity. 

Carlo Petrini, the father of the Slow Food Movement, in his Slow Food Nation, makes clear the dilemma faced by all civilized men and women.  He tells of the decline of his peperonata, whose Piedmont version was traditionally made with the square peppers of Asti.  Alas, the peppers are no longer grown in the precincts of Bra, crudely replaced by horrible, cheap tasteless imports from Holland.  Now, in the greenhouses of Costigliole d’Asti, the farmers grow tulip bulbs instead—for export to the Netherlands.  If we are to preserve ‘taste,’ we must fashion valuable one-of-a-kind local products that are integral to our culture—that are not at all the same the world over. 

Ogden Nash said it well, as he praised “A Drink with Something in It”: 

There is something about a Martini,
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, a mellow Martini;
I wish I had one at present.
There is something about a Martini,
Ere the dining and dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermouth—
I think that perhaps it’s the gin. 

Without the mystique, it’s not a martini. 

P.S.  “On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend.  The holidays included Washington’s Birthday (which evolved into Presidents’ Day), Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day” (Wikipedia).  In the sixties, excess broke out everywhere, particularly in government.  Ever since, the Feds have been fooling with everything—to everyone’s loss. 

P.P.S.  For some, the martini is closely woven into the fabric of life.  In this regard, consult Don LaVange’s Martini O’Clock. “As this blog title implies, I enjoy the martini hour, and I enjoy the blither that comes on strongly around Martini O’clock.  So here’s to life, here’s to you, and here’s to the ongoing discussion….” 

P.P.P.S.  Ms. Baldrige’s brother was the late Malcolm Baldrige, a simply delightful man who was Secretary of Commerce in the Reagan Administration and of whom Ronald Reagan was quite fond.  The Baldrige National Quality Awards are, of course, named for him.  Quality, no doubt about it, is our defense against global mediocrity that is the tiger at our gates.  Baldrige is one of our heroes, and happily he died with his boots on. 

P.P.P.P.S.  More than a quarter of a century ago, a band of us were caught up in an article for a major national publication where we re-created great meals from literature.  We tested every one, ensuring that we were putting forth reliable recipes to the newspaper’s readers.  Afterwards, from all the good, rich eating, we were prostrate for hours.  Imagine if we were to recall all the great martini moments—our own and those of others.  Papers like the New York Times and the L.A. Times have begun to put together panels to judge gins, vodkas, and the like, but the judges have no history and little taste. 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  See Speechless and Old Glory. 

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  The International Style in architecture cropped up in the 1920s and 1930s.  A stateless style, it has been pretty much repudiated for all the right reasons.  We now understand that what we do today at every level must have all sorts of international accents, but be firmly rooted in local terroir.  Herein lies the secret to domestic happiness.  

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  SpiceLines, our sister site, currently features a recipe for the perfect egg, the intellectual capital for which was imported from France.  It absolutely depends on perfect ingredients and a pleasing design sense, often missing from the humdrum products of international trade.

Back to Top of Page

Return to the Index of Letters from the Global Province

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

Copyright 2007 GlobalProvince.com