Those weren’t the days

I read with some amusement Carl Currie’s review of the Portland club Gingko Blue [Last Calls, “The Ginkgo Blues,” Sept. 2011], which offers, among other things, a sub-menu of what it calls Prohibition Era cocktails.

As the son of a genuine flapper, I learned about Prohibition booze at my mother’s knee, and the first thing she taught me was that mixed drinks of that period were concocted to do only two things — get the consumer pie-faced drunk as fast as possible and hide the dreadful taste of the operative ingredient. Both the proprietors of Gingko Blue and Mr. Currie seem to have overlooked these essential facts, though who can really blame them?

Mr. Currie cites as one of his favorite Prohibition Era beverages the French 75, which is a perfect case in point. As my mother pointed out when she taught me how to make it, the French 75 is nothing more than a Tom Collins with champagne substituted for soda water. The end result tastes like fizzy lemonade, but two 75’s on an empty stomach will render the most puritanical date as complaisant as any scoundrel might wish. Enterprising scoundrels need to avoid overdosing, however, as the distance between complaisant and comatose is only about one-and-a-half shots.

The drink’s purpose is clearly revealed by its name, which comes from the 75-mm. field gun widely used by the French army in World War I. Americans became well acquainted with the 75 when our Doughboys arrived in Europe sans artillery and were issued this excellent artillery piece, the first fully integrated quick-firing gun.

But back to the drink’s main ingredient, gin. The original French 75 cocktail was probably based on bathtub gin, the combination of cheap grain alcohol and juniper-berry flavoring allowed to steep in a tub (bath or other) for a few hours. Many producers of bathtub gin substituted denatured alcohol for grain alcohol, and a number of party-goers died or went blind during the 1920s after drinking bathtub gin. According to my mother, this distinct possibility was part of the thrill of drinking.

As one expert (Michael Pollick, writing on wisegeek.com) observes, “The makers of bathtub gin understood how undrinkable their product would be, so bartenders at secret clubs called speakeasies were encouraged to come up with their own recipes for cocktails. Many of these cocktail recipes devised to cover up the horrid taste of bathtub gin still exist today.”

I do wonder what the “champagne” in the original French 75 really was, though it’s probably not a good idea to inquire too closely. My mother considered Piper-Heidsieck Extra Dry the only bearable champagne, but I have a feeling it was not generally available in Manhattan speakeasies.

— Wolcott Gibbs, Jr., Bath


Don’t mess

I am writing to express extreme annoyance with Zachary Barowitz’ “Italians, Upgraded” article in the September issue of The Bollard.

The mere fact that he would even consider upgrading an Italian (or, to use the proper pronunciation, “eye-talian”) is an insult. Though he does acknowledge that “the junky goodness [is] part of the appeal,” he misses the fact that said junky goodness is the entire appeal.

Italians are cheap, practical, and only improve when paired with a Moxie — basically, they are the culinary equivalent of a true Mainer. What he suggests in this article is like saying, “those lobstermen would look much better in tuxedos. We should get on that.”

First off, replacing the squishy roll with a baguette. I love Standard’s bread, but let’s get one thing clear: if it’s on a crunchy roll, it’s a grinder. It is no longer an Italian. Italians are made on squishy rolls, period. Around here, it’s Botto’s. In the western mountains where I’m from, it’s gotta be on Lucarelli’s rolls. I’m sure folks to the east and up to The County have their favorite bakers, too. But don’t go telling me a grinder is an Italian. It ain’t.

Secondly, fresh veggies? I completely understand the love of fresh veggies, as I share it with the author, but not on an Italian. That’s why they’re drowned in oil, vinegar, salt and pepper — because the veggies don’t actually have any flavor, due to the fact they are the cheapest ones you can buy.

Third, fancy cold cuts and cheese? No, no, no, no, no. Italians have ham, preferably of the boiled variety (again, it’s all about economy), though turkey is acceptable, and in some areas, roast beef. But always the cheapest stuff. And the cheese is American. Not provolone, not gouda, not mozzarella. American. And if it isn’t stained green by the pickles, it isn’t right.

I won’t even get into the pickle-and-olive debate. Portland folk who grew up on Amato’s seem to prefer sour pickles and kalamatas; flatlanders like me are more hamburger dills and black olives from a can. This debate will rage on for generations, and I shan’t be a part of it.

Now, before you go thinking I am some old coot who hates cuisine, please know that I am a socially progressive male in his mid-30s who grew up on a free-range turkey farm. I currently work as a line cook in one of the eateries in this town, and as my chef could tell you, I will use any excuse to make an aioli. I will even admit that I am not from Maine — I was born in Canada to Americans of mid-western origin — but I have spent nearly my entire life in Maine, and am proud of its culture and heritage. Part of that heritage is the sublime beauty of the Italian.

So although Mr. Barowitz should be lauded for recommending that your readers eat better, as well as for endorsing several independent businesses, he chose the wrong way to demonstrate it. Hopefully future columns will not make such a foolish mistake.

-— Christopher Neal, Portland