DRINKING: A LOVE STORY
FOR A KHAKI-CLAD 1990S OBSESSED WITH 1950S swing dancing, cigars, and the big-band sound, the Martini, in all its nostalgic glory, has become the liquid accessory of choice. The commercial possibilities of the newly repopularized Martini have not escaped publishers. In the past year, fanciers of the cocktail have been treated to numerous histories, cultural surveys, and coffee-table booksamong them Barnaby Conrads The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic (Chronicle Books), Anistatia R. Miller and Jared M. Browns Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini (HarperPerennial), and William Grimess Straight Up or On the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink (Simon & Schuster).
But when Rutgers classics professor Lowell Edmunds first published his seminal study, The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization (Greenwood Press) in 1981, the Martini had all but disappeared. What Nikita Khrushchev once labeled "the U.S.A.s most lethal weapon" had become such an unpopular anachronism by the late 1970s that Jimmy Carter could point to the excesses of the "three-Martini lunch" to berate the decadence of fat-cat politicians and businessmen. And at the dawn of the health-conscious 1980s, the beloved drink of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hemingways stoic expatriates, and countless white-collar executives had been eclipsed by lite beers, wine spritzers, and designer mineral waters. Even at The Four Seasons, bastion of Establishment tradition, well-bred patrons ordered wine almost fifty times more often than Martinis, according to a survey conducted by Forbes magazine.
Edmundss study, a self-described "labor of love" that developed from his youthful enthusiasm for Martini recipes, offered a dry, intoxicating polemic on the "proper" formulation of the classic Martini: It must be made with cold English gin and dry French vermouth mixed in a 4:1 or 8:1 ratio, chilled, but not served, with ice made from springwater. A piece of lemon peel should be twisted over the glass to release its essential oils and then discarded. Dont even ask about olives.
Edmunds also offered a wide-ranging cultural examination of the complex "messages" of the Martini drawn from personal anecdotes, literary examples, cartoons, films, bartenders manuals, and other documents of popular culture. Readers were treated to a breezy anatomy of "what the Martini has said to or about them." The drink (and, by
extension, the drinker) is urbane, civilized, masculine, and fundamentally American. And Edmunds illustrated this heritage of affluence, sociability, maturity, and conviviality with lively vignettes from Auntie Mame, Cole Porter, and M.F.K. Fisher.
But the Martini, Edmunds insisted, also has a less carefree side. "If the Martini is the civilized antidote to civilization," Edmunds wrote, "like any antidote, it can become poison if it is used in excess or for the wrong purposes." Citing the examples of such Martini commentators as Jack London, Pearl S. Buck, and Sinclair Lewis, Edmunds deepened and darkened the social role the Martini has played since its creation in the 1880s. These writers fictional characters seek "the Martini that comforts the misfit, the solitary traveler, the loner, or the one who is world-weary or somehow at a loss."
"As the excessive drink," Edmunds argued, "the Martini is the characteristic choice of the alcoholic." For example, in Charles Jacksons novel Lost Weekend, "the inebriated hero drinks Martinis while he plays the solitary observant gentleman-drinker...and steals the purse of the woman sitting next to him." Edmunds concludes, "With the alcoholic, we reach the fulfillment of the uncivilized propensities of the Martini."
When Edmunds isnt moonlighting as a self-taught bacchanologist, the silver-haired professor of Greek and Roman poetry and prose spends his days in New Brunswick writing about intertextuality in Roman poetry and Athenian urban legends. His nonalcoholic books include Theatrical Space and Historical Place in Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus; From a Sabine Jar: Reading Horace, Odes 1.9; and Commentaries on the Individual Odes of Pindar. While Edmunds doubts there are explicit connections between his Greek and Roman scholarly explorations and modern Martini consumption per se, he does allow that "studying ancient Greek and Roman societies has made me more aware of ritual."
This December, Edmundss 1981 study returns to the bookshelves fully revised and with a snappy new title: Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail (Johns Hopkins University Press). But if Edmundss early work introduced innocents to the cultural ambiguities of the ascetic Martini, this time around he also explains why he finds the current Martini craze hard to swallow. For in its current incarnation, the Martini neednt contain even a hint of gin or vermouth, and certainly not in the precise proportions espoused by Edmunds in the original edition. "Bars across the land," he notes, "have Martini menus offering concoctions that bear no resemblance to the traditional drink.... These include Aprils Martini (Godiva chocolate liqueur, Frangelico, and an orange twist), the Cosmopolitan (Absolut Vodka, Cointreau, orange juice, and a splash of cranberry juice), and the Blue Skyy (Skyy Vodka, blue curaçao, and an orange twist)." In fact, in these giddy days, the Martini doesnt even need to be a drink. Edmunds notes that "Florence Fabricant [of The New York Times] offers her readers recipes for Salmon Tartar Martini and Ecuadorean Ceviche Martini."
Employing the ideas of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and other theorists who probably prefer wine, Edmunds argues that what marks the recent return of the Martini is not the drink itself but its image. "The glass," Edmunds claims, "has done the work." He finds in artist Claes Oldenburgs Tilting Neon Cocktail (1983) a distillation of the Martinis iconographic essence. The rotating sculpture, a three-dimensional rendering of the ubiquitous neon cocktail sign in stainless steel, cast aluminum, and Plexiglas, evokes the Martinis aura of potency and glamour. Here, Edmunds rhapsodizes, the Martini is "the drink fit for millionaires, as Oldenburg well knew, gracing the happy occasions of their and others lives."
For all of Edmundss interest in the modern resurrection of the Martini, he still believes that the drinks best days are behind it, and his passions are still stirred by whats in the glass rather than by the glass itself. The preface to the revised edition of Martini, Straight Up begins not with a celebration of the Martini revival but with a nostalgic evocation of the spirits of the past. "In my experience of the Martini outside of my own home, how often have I seen the ravages of time," Edmunds writes. "My earlier playfulness as a Martini writer is no longer possible. The persona of Martini purist that I adopted in the first edition of this bookor, as Werner Dannhauser, a reviewer in the American Spectator, called it, Martini elitistis no longer a persona. It is the real I." And the real Edmunds repeats his earlier complaint against "these young would-be bartenders," who have banished gin in favor of vodka (worse still, some of them serve the drink on the rocks). The vodka Martini, he declares, "must be classed with fast foods, rock and roll, snowmobiles, acid rain, polyester fabrics, supermarket tomatoes, and books printed on toilet paper as a symptom of anomie." A sober judgment, to be sure.