Saturdays always find me reflecting on the magnificence of Weekend FT’s cultural coverage as compared to the attenuated offerings in the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition. It has nothing to do with my apparent Anglophilia, or any subconscious associations with the like-colored “peet-section” of my youth. Weekend FT is just better.
There is, however, one saving grace to the WSJWE. I’m not talking about Teachout’s occasional pieces, which appear too infrequently on Saturday for me to count on. (Although there was a good one last Saturday.) I’m talking about Eric Felten’s cocktails column, “How’s Your Drink?”
I’m only moderately interested in cocktails, so I particularly appreciate Felten’s usual ratio of three parts spirits to one part literature. Here are a few literary references from “How’s Your Drink?” over the past year or so:
“There are no more Christmas stories to write,” declares O. Henry at the start of his 1906 Christmas story “Compliments of the Season.” O. Henry sets a somewhat cynical Yuletide scene: “Everywhere the spirit of Christmas was diffusing itself,” he writes. “The banks were refusing loans, the pawn-brokers had doubled their gang of helpers, people bumped your shins on the streets with red sleds, Thomas and Jeremiah bubbled before you on the bars while you waited on one foot.” Thomas and Jeremiah was a jokingly highfalutin name for Tom and Jerry, a frothy, hot drink that was as much a piece of American Christmas iconography as mistletoe and roasting chestnuts. (12/23/06, “A Mug of Holiday Cheer.”)
In 1933, “The year that brought the end of the long drought,” the ever so elegant Del Monte Hotel in California solicited favorite cocktail recipes from many of its famous patrons. Theodore Dreiser contributed a tart drink he called the American Tragedy (gin, grapefruit juice and lemon juice); Ernest Hemingway offered Death in the Afternoon (gin, juice of fresh lemons and limes, creme de menthe and bitters). (12/30/06, “The [Your Name Here]-Tini.”)
“I am Buffalo Bill’s horse.” Thus begins Mark Twain’s “A Horse’s Tale.” And though it is an opening of Ishmael-like import, the book itself proves to be considerably shorter than Melville’s tale of a whale. One of Twain’s last stories, the book wasn’t exactly his most biting work. A sentimental plea for animal rights, it might not have fared well at the hands of a snarky reviewer. But J.B. Kerfoot was not of that breed. Struggling to say something nice about Twain’s book in the Dec. 12, 1907, issue of Life magazine, Kerfoot latched on to an odd, extended metaphor, likening “A Horse’s Tale” to a drink called a Horse’s Neck. (01/06/07, “Horse’s Neck Is Often Soft, Never Silly.”)
The elegance of the Sidecar was put to use by W.H. Auden in 1928’s “Paid on Both Sides.” The poem-play is a mash-up, its energy generated by jarring juxtapositions. So when a couple of bloodlusty killers from the provinces of England’s north step inside for a drink after a murder, the one called Culley ever so politely says, “I’ll have a sidecar, thanks.” (01/27/07, “A Drink’s French Connection.”)
Whether Gin Pahit or Pink Gin, the drink marked one as a navy man or a colonial. In the Maugham story “P. & O.,” a rubber farmer named Gallagher is returning to Galway after 25 years working a Malay plantation. Shipboard, he enjoys a drink with a woman he has just met: “the Irishman ordered a dry Martini for her and a gin pahit for himself. He had lived too long in the East to drink anything else.” When James Bond is passing himself off as an officious personal assistant to Scaramanga in the Ian Fleming novel “The Man With the Golden Gun,” he out-Britishes himself: “Some pink gin,” he tells a barman. “Plenty of bitters.” (02/03/07, “Born of the British Empire.”)
Lafcadio Hearn was a Brit born in Greece who worked as a reporter in the States. He sailed for Japan in 1890, and once there he soon went native. Hearn’s writings on life in Japan were widely published, and one of his letters to a friend gives us a glimpse of what sake was like at the time. “It is extremely deceiving. It looks like lemonade; but it is heavy as sherry,” he wrote. “There is no liquor in the world upon which a man becomes so quickly intoxicated.” (02/10/07, “The Subtle Sorts of Sake.”)
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. And I’m only up to February. Crazy, huh? I often say — after a few drinks — that there is more literary content in the Wall Street Journal cocktails column than there is in a whole month’s worth of the Trib. That’s what I hate about drinking — sometimes one sees things too clearly.
Anyhow, back to Felten. Not long ago I was delighted to discover that his columns have been collected in a new book: How’s Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well. I got special pleasure from noting that the book comes from Surrey Books, an imprint of Chicago-based Agate Publishing.
Good going, Agate!
I only hope that Felten will eventually unlock the secrets of that insidious Mou-Tai …