CONTRABAND COCKTAILS: HOW AMERICA DRANK WHEN IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO
By Paul Dickson
Melville House Publishing, $19.95, 174 pages
TO HAVE AND HAVE ANOTHER: A HEMINGWAY COCKTAIL COMPANION (REVISED)
By Philip Greene
Tarcher Perigree, $26.50, 360 pages
Most of us have someone who has fallen into the latest snobbery; that of the cocktail connoisseur — or booze bore, as I call ‘em.
Holiday gift giving for such folks is a vexation. A hideously high-priced bottle of spirits is out of the question — they will only sigh in disappointment at your ill-informed choice. Shot glasses are tacky and they already have all those neat little bar tools at hand. It is enough to drive one to drink.
I advise you take your choice of two books just published that combine some historical background to the cocktail as a cultural phenomenon as well as a copious collection of authoritative recipes that at least will enable your friend to settle such burning life issues as the precise amounts of gin and vermouth that goes into a classic Martini.
Philip Greene’s meditation on Earnest Hemingway’s legendary appetite for strong drink is a reissue of his 2012 attempt that has been enlarged by three dozen new recipes. The historical summaries of Hemingway during various dramatic episodes of his life and the drinks that featured are an easy reading condensed history of that talented lonely man’s hectic and ultimately tragic life. But the reader has to really be a fan of Hemingway and his manly self-image.
The trouble for Mr. Greene and the reader is that Hemingway through most of his life would drink almost anything including the Spanish version of moonshine — aguardiente. This leaves Mr. Greene with something of a problem for many of the recipes reportedly quaffed most by Papa cannot (perhaps should not) be attempted even by the most adventurous. Many of the brand-name ingredients of those days no longer exist. And we are better off for it.
A more lively and highly readable choice if the intended gift recipient is a Washingtonian is Paul Dickson’s rollicking history of how Prohibition had the unintended consequence of killing off the saloon of the previous century and giving rise to first, the speakeasy, and then the cocktail bar.
Another unintended consequence was the boost the cocktail gave to women’s rights, Mr. Dickson argues. The cocktail bar was where perfectly respectable women were welcomed to drink along with the menfolk. And when women started occupying the bar stools of better establishments the sophistication of the drinks they imbibed gave rise to the chic fashion of the cocktail array we enjoy today. Think William Powell and Myrna Loy in “The Thin Man” movies of the Thirties.
Fittingly, Mr. Dickson begins his tour of the drinks horizon in that bastion of cultural good taste, the Congress of the United States. Hardly had Washington, D.C.’s boundaries been sited than taverns sprang up before the cornerstone of the Capitol was laid. Starting with Rhodes Tavern in 1801 there were more than 250 others in a few years — or one for every 90 residents. Well into the first decade of the 20th century our lawmakers drank whiskey, neat and in such quantities that fistfights and duels were part of the legislative process which makes today’s gridlock bickering look positively namby-pamby.
Mr. Dickson hits his stride with one of my favorite Capitol Hill yarns, the one about The Man In the Green Hat. George Cassidy set up as a purveyor of various hard liquor to House and Senate members. He operated out of a suite in the Old House Office Building and made dozens of deliveries each days and just as often his best customers were lawmakers who have voted “dry” to great fanfare.
Another of my favorite booze haunts that Mr. Dickson describes was a stash that one bootlegger stored behind the shrubbery at the White House. The city blossomed with illegal but heavily patronized speakeasies and some — clubs along F Street and on Connecticut Avenue — morphed into respectable if somewhat boring restaurants and private clubs that survive today.
Two personal notes. It is my recollection that the bar at the National Press Club functioned around the clock to serve those tireless pursuers of truth back in those days. Even when I arrived in town in the early Sixties, the NPC bar served from eight a.m. until three a.m. the next morning. While I don’t know Mr. Greene (who works at the Pentagon) I have met Mr. Dickson on several professional occasions at the same NPC bar. He is, by the way, the author of 65 books on language, baseball, science, labor history and, yes, strong drink. .
Mr. Dickson writes with verve on the true birthplace of the cocktail and the speakeasy where Prohibition was flouted most spectacularly — New York City. Gaudy Gotham’s clandestine drinking gave birth to the madcap cultural mix of jazz, fads in dance and slang, glamour status for bootleggers (think “The Great Gatsby”) and organized crime.
Whoever you gift with this book will thank you doubly for Mr. Dickson has dredged up the recipes for the most fashionable of the concoctions of the day. Happily nearly all can be reproduced with currently available ingredients. Who wants to be Papa Hemingway when you can be William Power or Cary Grant?
• James Srodes’ latest book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint).