I suspect a lot of career bartenders have some level of social-anxiety disorder. Perhaps we showed up on the job with the neurotic seeds already planted; perhaps the life imprinted it upon us. All I know is that a lot of social situations scare the piss out of me.
A wedding, for instance, is something I sometimes get hired for, so when I attend one I’m in a slightly anxious state. As staff, I know exactly what my role is and where the out-of-bounds are. As a witness/participant, however, I’m completely at sea. I’m the guy who has to sit on his hands during the “… or forever hold your peace” part because it’s all I can do not to blurt out something outrageous, like how I knew the bride back when he was in the Navy, and how “she” still owes me money.
Sure, it’s fairly easy to get out of the odd wedding or wake or Bar Mitzvah (I once had to turn down an invitation to a boss’ son’s bris). But try getting out of a dinner party on a regular basis. Can’t be done.
Years of standing and gulping shift meals, kifing the odd snack from the kitchen between rushes, or swapping a late-night meal for a couple beers with the line cook have seriously compromised my notion of dinner. However, occasionally I have to say yes and then feebly attempt to navigate the wine-dark social seas. What do I bring? What do I wear? Do I bring someone or is this, like, a set-up? Which fork do I use with the sushi?
With one eye on the lookout for the “Here Be Monsters” signs and the other on the clock, I’ve learned to manage.
That said, when an invitation to a dinner Party (little “d,” big “P,” to clearly delineate the segments) comes along, I’m the first in line. It’s like a scrimmage with Mme. Etiquette herself — no winners, no losers, and lots of forgivable fouls.
For example, there was the now infamous dinner Party attended (in the early hours, at least) by the food editor of a national magazine that later devolved into a communal absinthe sup from one of the participants’ prosthetic leg. Nearly all of us were bartenders, so the fact that no one hemmed, hawed or even second-guessed the notion, nor thought the exercise ghastly or gross or beyond the pale, remains the most remarkable aspect of the whole odd experience.
Then there was last Thanksgiving.
A family and its friends and a couple of orphans (of which I was one) gathered ’round a hearth. I brought eggnog — by tradition, my first batch of the season. There was good champagne, wine and beer, and the food was tremendous (courtesy of the other orphan). We had a nice afternoon and a sumptuous dinner.
The family eventually dissipated, returning to their own hearths and homes, and the host and we two orphans began the task of cleaning up. We were probably drinking the port by this time — Whiskers Blake, if memory serves — and dipping tidbits of turkey or turnip or biscuit into the tureen of honey-colored gravy whenever we passed it by. Then I heard these magical words: “Damn, this gravy is so good I just wanna drink it!”
I shrugged. “Why don’t we?”
Gull-eyed looks of WTF? met my stare.
“Seriously,” I said. “If you’ve got some brandy — or even better, some bourbon — we can make this work.”
Gull eyes all around.
“It’s like this,” and I began to dissertate…
“Man has been putting food-stuffs in his booze since he first discovered alcohol. Back in Biblical times, dates and raisins and honey and all manner of sweets of the land were placed in his wine to make it palatable. Think of the Spaniard’s sangria, or the Viking’s glugg, or the Teuton’s glühwein [see the Dec. 6, 2007 edition of this column for a recipe]. The Eastern Europeans have been flavoring their vodka with buffalo grass or dill or peppers or garlic since they first discovered distillation.
“The eggnog we drank today has so much protein, courtesy of the eggs in it — not to mention the calcium and vitamins from the milk and cream — that we could have skipped dinner altogether. Our colonial forebears mixed vinegar and sugar and citrus fruits and made from it a drink called Shrub.
“And talk about herbs! How about the Mojito or the Mint Julep? It’s no longer strange to see cocktail lists featuring Sriracha or sage or basil or marmalades. It’s a hallmark of the modern mixology that bar chefs (and I use the term only as a slight pejorative) find inspiration deeper in the pantry than in the liquor cabinet.”
“Shit yes, gravy! Beef tea was prescribed for invalids and shut-ins throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries — probably even earlier than that. In the 1870s, Bovril was born, a salty, yeasty, thick beef extract that’s like instant coffee for the beef set. It’s a staple in the football (soccer) culture of the U.K.
“Kingsley Amis (yes, that Kingsley Amis) claimed to be the author of a Bovril cocktail he named the Polish Bison. It’s Bovril, hot water, vodka, lemon juice and pepper. He also claimed authorship of a drink called the Raging Bull that’s similar to the above: Bovril, hot water, vodka, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. Both, he claimed, are very heartening and cheering ‘in cold and/or hungover conditions.’ [See “Alas, My Poor Brother,” last December’s edition of this column, for recipes.]
“Not for nothing, but Amis seems to be nibbling around the edges of the Bullshot: vodka, beef bouillon, lemon juice, celery salt, Worcestershire and Tabasco, served cold and heartening only in a hungover condition.”
So it was with wide eyes and grimaces that they watched me pour equal parts Jim Beam and gravy into a shaker filled with ice. The pudgy rattle of ice and goo as I shook the mixture made us all wince a little, but then I poured three glasses and we hoisted them high with a “Happy Thanksgiving, boys!”
We drank our shots and chased them with bits of white meat as big as our thumbs.
— John Myers