Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Random Musings on the Lost Art of the Cocktail Hour

I just finished re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's Two-Part Invention about her 40-year marriage to Hugh Franklin that ended with his death from cancer. I first discovered the book 15 years ago and consumed volumes of L'Engle after finding it. This copy is extra special to me because I had her sign it at a conference that she headlined. "For Cindy," reads the inscription, "Beautiful Inventions."

I've since learned that much of what was written as fact in the book might have been fairly fictionalized, but it's still a striking book. I've enjoyed re-reading it. Even if I initially picked it up for a rather trite reason: I was trying to find her description of their family's evening ritual. (Turns out, I must have remembered that description from A Circle of Quiet, because it's not in this book.) Every evening when her and Hugh Franklin's three kids were old enough to be civil but young enough to live at home, the family would have quiet hour before dinner. Hugh and Madeleine would each have a martini and talk about the day or world events. If their children wanted to participate in adult conversation, they could join in. If they didn't, they could make themselves scarce.

With our kids being six, three, and zero, I spend most of my time with them being talked at incessantly about Webkinz and Power Rangers and what Santa's on tap to bring in four months. Sylvia is mute, but still manages to stir up a fuss if she's a mite peckish or is tired of the bouncy seat or is stuck in mid-rollover. It will be a long time before Phil and I can incorporate a civil cocktail hour into our day, but I do aspire to it. From my vantage point, a properly executed cocktail hour serves a purpose in shifting focus from work to family.

One of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of cocktail hour I've found comes from Rachel Fudge in her essay "The Art and Science of Cocktail Hour," which is included in this great book of food writing. Rachel, whose parents enjoy a similar ritual to the Franklin-L'Engles, writes, "The underlying function of the cocktail hour is to create a smooth transition from work to relaxation, from hectic to tranquil." Who wouldn't love that? A quiet drink prepared thoughtfully and sipped meditatively is a far cry from what cocktail hour has evolved into: Happy Hour. That phrase fills me with thoughts of being trapped in the industrial windowless bar of a W Hotel, the beautiful people drinking layered or lime-green drinks, a television blaring sports, electronica playing too loudly to be comfortably talked over. The art of the cocktail has been hijacked in the past generation. Let's bring it back.

If I can continue my rant, when it comes to cocktails, size does matter. A "drink" is measured as 1-1/2 ounces. That's it. Like everything, however, cocktails have been supersized to the point of insult. I used to own a vintage set of cocktail glasses that held maybe 4 ounces; I got rid of them in the purge that preceded our move to Brooklyn. Ten years later, I still mourn those glasses at least once a month. Phil and I went on a quest to find remotely normal sized martini glasses several years ago, and the smallest we could find was 7 ounces. Or, for my poor math, the equivalent of four and a half drinks. It's obscene. A cocktail -- especially one that consists solely of alcohol -- should be like a perfect, cold little jewel, not a Big Gulp that has to be sloshed through and leaves its drinker feeling tipsy and bloated.

My cocktail of choice for a decade and a half has been the basic gin martini, not a drink to be taken lightly. I was first introduced to this classic by my friend Martha in a small Indiana bar called Syd's. Martha has always been mature for her age, and she ordered her drink, and then sat with her cardigan draped over her shoulders, chasing the air conditioner chill, and relaying the intricacies of a sketch she'd recently heard on A Prairie Home Companion. I figured what the hey and ordered a martini, too. It was a fun night, and we followed our martinis with Syd's famous burgers and fried pickles. I've never looked back.

For my money, I'm a purist when it comes to the martini. I agree with the sentiment that you can make a lovely drink with vodka and vermouth, but it's no martini. For me, it needs to consist of ice-cold gin, a smidgen of vermouth, perhaps a bit of olive juice, and a big olive skewered on one of various cocktail picks that seem to reproduce nightly in our dining room. Shaken, not stirred, and poured into the glass quickly before any of the ice in the shaker can melt.

While I love stories of extra-dry martini rituals, like FDR making his martinis by filling the shaker with gin and then glancing at the vermouth bottle across the room, I am not militant about the exact amount of vermouth to go in the glass. (I used to have a Smith and Hawken plant mister I used for misting the glass with vermouth, but I realized how effected it was. And the vermouth rusted out the workings, anyway, so it became unworkable.) I periodically like to skip the olive juice and trade in the olive for a lemon twist, but I think it's more because I like to show off now that I've learned to make the twist.

These days it's hard to believe that I'll ever be able to go to the bathroom alone, read an entire article in the Sunday morning paper without fielding half a dozen requests, or get a straight seven hours of sleep. And it's nearly inconceivable that Phil and I some day will be able to implement a quiet time before dinner when we can ease from hectic to tranquil. But I'm holding onto the dream.
Bottoms up.



Blogger Hooked on Houses said...

Madeleine L'Engle signed my book with the word, "Harmony." I love how she wrote something different for everyone.

I want a cocktail hour! My question is, who is going to cook the dinner while I'm relaxing and having a drink? The hour leading up to dinner is always so frenzied, with me trying to do about fifteen things at once.

Maybe I just need to hire a personal chef. And bartender, while I'm at it! -J :-)

8:04 AM  
Blogger althea said...

What a great idea. I like the idea about the transition from work to family. Working at home means I need that even more I think. Tom and I share some wine on Friday nights and focus on each other and discuss the week, but a cocktail hour would be so..what...refined?

Johnna Dinse

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Larry & I have become inordinately protective of our cocktail hour. But we've only had the flexibility to have it since we retired. You have awhile to wait I'm afraid. Very much enjoyed your musings. Leneta

3:30 PM  

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