This afternoon I was trying to think of what single thing best represented the zenith of so-called “western civilization,” a term I employ rhetorically with apologies to my Chinese and Middle-Eastern friends whose ancestors were busily cranking out one early scientific discovery after another while western barbarians were still squatting in the dust and filth, puzzling over bird entrails when they weren’t stabbing and clubbing each other over acorns and cold rabbit meat.
I considered the grand accomplishments–splitting the atom, traversing space and diving to the bottom of the sea. Amazing stuff, but perhaps too complex–space travel still beckons back to the world war 2 era Nazi rockets and that embarrassment of embarrassments, Sputnik. I entertained life-changing breakthroughs like immunizations and vaccines, central heating, Mark Chagall. Central heat was a big one, and so too indoor plumbing–but none of these things, with the possible exception of Chagall, are what I was looking for. I wanted something…you know…important.
I worked it down to two things: the runner up was the guy who invented hot showers. That was truly visionary. Warm baths, of course, were a wonderful but inevitable step forward from the time man harnessed fire, and I love a good steamy bath–and better still a soak in a hot tub (shout out to the person who invented added bubbles and invented the Jacuzzi–you deserve your own post). It took a real visionary to come up with the idea of spraying that hot water on our heads, on our slumped shoulders, on our knotted, exhausted backs. So that’s number two.
And the number one, pinnacle achievement of western society, the creative endeavor that marks the ingenuity, inventiveness, and distinctively decadent essence of what it means to–well–civilized?
Ladies and Gentles, I give you THE BLOODY MARY.
Skeptical? Allow me to elaborate: it is at one indulgent and nutritive, combining alcohol and the dual life-extending elixirs, tomato juice and hot sauce along with vitamin C from tomato and lemon juice, fiber from celery, and even the powerfully anti-oxidant properties of freshly ground pepper. And did I mention it has vodka?
That brings us to the second point: it is subversive. Vodka has been perfected by Russians, but is employed in various decadent western concoctions, albeit usually for the unique and exaggerated reputation for being unobtrusive. “You can’t smell vodka” and “you can’t really taste vodka” are recurrent mantras, and incorrect–it smells, and if you’re spending your money wisely it tastes–but it is stealthy. Like the commies. (you had to know I’d bring this around). It takes a real American to take the Russian national passtime–“would-ka”–and turn it into decadent and occasionally effete drinks. Inversely, there is something about Vodka insinuating itself into breakfast, the very core of our society, that must be more than mildly disconcerting to the insanely patriotic crowd
Not that Vodka is by nature effete. Or Russians. And certainly not Bloodies. Even with the celery, a Bloody Mary is about as masculine as you can get this side of rye whiskey–and rye whiskey isn’t going to pass muster with your mother in law at Sunday Brunch. Indeed, the Bloody Mary is the crowning achievement for Vodka, which has been sullied over the years by it’s employment in all those frou frou drinks, not to mention (with apologies to The Dude) the abominations know to the world as “white russians.’ Because: blech.
Ironically (given my recent posting history), creation of the Bloody Mary is generally attributed to a Frenchman, Ferdand Petiot, who claimed in 1921 to have invented the ambrosia-like concoction in a joint called Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, a watering hole popular with Ernest Hemingway and other American expatriates in post World War 1 France–where is clearly made an impression. Petiot would later immigrate to the USA, where he became a quasi-legendary New York City bartender–and his clientele would follow. A more thorough history is summarized on the official wikipedia Bloody Mary page, and I won’t trouble you with it here, except to point out that the dates in the wiki don’t quite add up, but the general story is correct. In essence, Petiot was not the first guy to dump Vodka into tomato juice, but he’s one who added to and refined it.
There are countless variations of the drink–if you go in for that sort of thing. Personally, I’m a man of absolutes: I like to find what works for me and stick with it. I find that the more you fiddle with a Bloody, the more you undermine the very nature of it’s essence. With that in mind, I call attention to the infamous–and, I believe, definitive–Bloody Mary, as described by Ernest Hemingway in a letter to his friend Bernard Peyton in 1947. It is simple, authoritative, and untrammeled by trends or the instinctive, desperate attempts of johnny come latelys to associate themselves with the glory of this beverage by “distinguishing” their interpretation from countless others.
Hemingway Bloody Mary Recipe
To a large pitcher (anything smaller is “worthless”) add:
1 chunk of ice (the biggest that will fit)
1 pint of vodka
1 pint chilled tomato juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 jigger fresh lime juice
Pinch celery salt
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch black pepper
Several drops of Tabasco”
“Keep on stirring and taste it to see how it is doing. If you get it too powerful weaken with more tomato juice. If it lacks authority add more vodka.”
- Hemingway’s recipe will kick your ass–at 50/50 it is strong, even for me.
- The Bloody Mary is a drink that is neither pretentious or suitable for hipster-style sentimentalism for Vodka you drank mixed with Hawaiian Punch and canned Pineapple at the drive-in movie theater back when you were a cheese-eating high school boy. Very cheap Vodka will ruin your drink–no $6 bottles of Nikolai here, please–with it’s caustic, chemical fire, but the subtlties of expensive Vodka will be lost to the spices in the drink. Look to spend around $20– Tito’s and Luksusowa are recommended. Note: Neither is Russian. Tito’s is distilled in Austin, TX and Luksusowa is Polish.
- Lemon juice will do in a pinch, and some find it preferable.
- The drink can easily be adapted to make individual servings…I start with two shots of vodka from the freezer, about 8 ounces of cold tomato juice, appropriately smaller pinches of spice (the easiest thing to do is mix a teaspoon each of celery salt, cayenne, and black pepper and then add a hearty pink of that mix), along with “a dash and a splash” of Tabasco and Worcestershire respectively. Next, cut a thick slice of lime, then halve it to make two wedges. Squeeze the juice from one half into a drink shaker, add all the other ingredients except the ice, and shake gently (not stir) to mix. Pour over large ice cubes crammed into a 14- or 16oz tumbler and add the over lime wedge to the lip of the glass, where is can be squeezed onto the top of the drink then thrown in on top.
- Avoid shaking the drink with the ice in the shaker and, even more importantly, never ever make this drink with crushed ice, which melts too quickly and alters the proportions of the drink to its detriment.
- Always sip the Bloody Mary–some bars will give you a straw, but regard that as a test of character and avoid it at all costs.
- Finally, some folks salt the rim of the glass as one would a Margarita–while tasty, I find it excessive.
The upside to the rainiest summer in my memory: the lawn and garden are more lush than ever before. My wife’s tireless gardening and newly cultivated photographic eye have made for some vivid scenery around these parts. I’m not sure why I never posted this before–but ain’t it pretty?
So, my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers went out and signed pariah quarterback Michael Vick as what is likely to be a short term fill-in as a backup. Predictably, a few dim, narrow corridors in the social media maze have gone ablaze with fury fired so hot that it quickly consumed all available oxygen, which resulted in secondary hypoxia for all therein. That anti-Vick crowd, now gasping for breath, still writhes angrily on the floor, contorted in bitter and frustrated resentment.
“Vick screwed up–but I think it’s safe, if not particularly correct or popular–to say that the business with dog fighting has a certain cultural element to it–and by culture I mean, yes: poverty, latitude, and race. That isn’t an indictment of any group–different communities have their vices–poor people, and black people are inordinately represented among the poor, are more apt to be involved in dog fighting than wealthier folks–and it doesn’t hurt that the latter know better how to keep their hands appearing clean.
Dog fighting, and its associated abuses, was not taboo in Vick’s microcosm. He grew up around it, like a lot of poor city kids, and while he probably knew in the abstract that it was wrong, it didn’t really sink in until he was hip deep in trouble. (and for the love of the gods why doesn’t the NFL hire a team of “cleaners” who would find these kids and see what they hell they’re into that won’t wash now that they’re famous, then make them stop?) Ignorance–or even the fact that in much of the word dogs = calories–doesn’t exonerate him, but it does explain what he did and why, and it’s long past time to move forward from what happened because, as those before me said, he’s paid what society demanded of him. And more. He went to prison and lost millions upon millions of dollars as well as the prime years of his athletic career. We forgive a lot worse people for a lot more terrible things.
He also worked his way back and, as far as we know, has been an exemplary citizen (and yeh, I’m knocking on wood as I say it) and an admirably professional athlete. The free agent cupboard is pretty bare, especialy at quarterback, and I can’t think of a better available free agent, between his maturity and his skills. I’m glad that the Steelers are going out and taking care of business pro-actively. If Gradkowski wasn’t hurt, I’d think differently. At this point, I don’t sign Vick over Bruce–but with no viable backup (Jones is still a project and then some)–there simply isn’t anyone else out there right now, and from a purely football standpoint this is a good signing.”
Within a few minutes of posting this, one of my “real name” friends stuck up an angry change.org petition on her facebook page, that bleated “Michael Vick is a convicted felon and no-class piece of crap. He is also a terrible QB which is why he has no team. Let’s united as Steeler fans – as NFL fans – and stop him from playing on our team! Steelers fans united! Sign to keep Vick from ever wearing the coveted Steelers uniform!!”
Ugh. If there is one thing that makes me want to invite Michael Vick over to the house for a nice, “Welcome To Western Pennsylvania” meal, it is a Change.org petition.
Change.org petitions are one of several reasons that I have stopped identifying myself as a liberal, which strictly speaking I never was, at least not by definition. Libertine, but not liberal. As I’ve said before, my politics skew to the old school Bull Moose progressivism–populist, anti-corporate, strong domestic policy, etc–and the namby pamby sensitivity that accompanies “liberalism” as it is colloquially regarded, respulses me. These petitions are little more than vehicles for us to feel good about ourselves with the least possible effort–look, ma, I clicked against that guy who did that thing! I clicked hard, too! I was really ticked off! I made a difference! Yay me!
We’ve become too weak, too fragile in our sensitivities, and it the case of Mr. Vick, we’re grossly hypocritical. He killed dogs. It’s a terrible thing. I love dogs. I love my 40 pound dog who sits on my lap and lets me hold her like she’s an infant. I prefer her company to that of all but a very few humans. Vick’s actions disgusted me, but how much do we ask of one man–at what point do we forgive? We work tirelessly to rehabilitate other criminals–we cheer them when they transcend their missteps, however vile, but because Mike Vick is famous he must be forever marked. If he was a stringy haired punk from the corner who’d done his time, cleared his parole, and got himself a new job, we’d point to him as gleaming beacon of hope for the success of justice system. But he’s a black dude who runs fast, and gets to be on TV, so he’ll never pay enough. Would we resent him if he got a job at Dairy Queen? No, because the schadenfreude would be washing over us so thick and warm we’d tremble in orgiastic delight.
All My Friends…
You know you want to be them…
I’m a situationally humble person, when it comes to myself and my country (but not my kids, who are awesome, and if you’d like I can spend a few hours telling you why…) and as such one of the stereotypes I’ve fallen for over the years has been the idea of “the Ugly American abroad”–you know, the loud, boorish guy in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and Nikes grumping around Paris complaining about not getting ice in his Coke and that all the locals don’t have the courtesy to speak English. I’m not the only one. There are web sites and entire chapters of travel books dedicated to teaching Americans how to tone it down, lay low, and fit in, enough in fact that an intelligent, sensitive individual can certainly be excused for adopting a preemptive inferiority complex verging dangerously close to shame.
No longer. Not after this trip.
Now before I go further, a caveat: I have a dear friend who lives in Marseilles and who may just be the sweetest, kindest, and most considerate person I have ever met–and let’s be clear about what I’m saying: I met Mr. Rogers once, and my friend Agnès is right in that ballpark. For many years, I held her up as a representative of her nation, but lately I’ve begun to suspect she is an anomaly. Why?
Because every French person I encountered on my 24 days at large in the Wild West was an asshole–and when I got together with my friends, one of them relayed to me a traumatizing story–of being bullied by, you guessed it, the French.
In Badlands National Park, descending a precipitous portion of trail called “the 140 Steps” which is pretty much a cable ladder secured into a slope too steep to scramble and too unstable to switchback, we were in line, taking turns–my wife was about halfway down, moving slowly because, while she’s extremely athletic she’s also a little nervous about heights. Two children were on the rungs between her and the top–the kids being a primary concern, because the steps near the top are spread widest and are the most difficult. From behind us, a shrill voice breaks into our quiet patience.
“Excuse, excuse!” A middle aged couple pushes past me and the rest of my party in turn, “Make room, excuse!” and when the person up next doesn’t move, the woman says, “If you step aside we will go down much quickly and be out of your way,” then shoves herself onto the the ladder, edging past a 12 year old girl, and heads down. The husband follows. The others on the ladder make room, mostly in fear of getting knocked off, but my wife won’t budge.
“You might as well slow down because I’m a little afraid of heights and you’re not getting past me,” she says, with a hint of fake laughter to keep things light. But the woman keeps coming. My wife makes another attempt at friendly, but unyielding banter, but the French chick fires back snark. At the bottom, she cracks something sharp and in French–I couldn’t hear what from my perch above, which is a damn shame because I can speak a little French, but the tone was clear enough. We shook it off, though, appreciated having someone external to complain about, and moved on.
Several days later, in Yellowstone, at a Pay Shower concession, there were about a dozen stalls, all occupied, and six guys standing in line. This guy comes in just as there’s an opening and heads right for it. “Yo!” Someone says. The potential shower poacher flinches–he heard it–but keeps resolutely going for the shower. “Yo, man!” The guy at the front of the line is a biker on his way to Sturgis–and he doesn’t look like one of those guys who bikes two weeks a year when he’s not Vice President of Marketing back in Sandusky, Ohio. The guy looks up, we’re all glaring at him, and he slouches to the end of the line. Isolated incident? I’d think so, but TWO MORE GUYS come in the next six or seven minutes, all of them ignoring the line, and in no time at all they’re shamed to their rightful place, where they all start jabbering in French–some of it fairly unpleasant.
I briefly turned to face them, “Avez-vous des lignes en France? Je pensais que nous étions les “barbarians”?
That showed ’em–but damn, what were the odds I’d remember the word for “lines?”
So, we go on to meet up with my friends in Jackson Hole, and Karen has a story to tell that beats ours all to hell–though when she starts, we’ve no idea it fits in with our theme of the boorish French.
Karen towed a camper trailer behind her husbands truck up from Colorado to meet up with a bunch of us. It’s a big-ass truck and she hadn’t much experience with the trailer. When she gets to the first campground it is full, and they send her on to the next one that is further out and a bit more rugged. She parks to register and discovers she’s scored the last site–hooray, right! While she fills out the paper work, the campground host suggests she send one of her children to go sit in the site so if anyone else comes they won’t get all excited about finding an open site. Her 12-year old girl is dispatched to sit on the picnic table, while Karen accidentally backs her camper into a ditch–not a bad ditch, but enough to require some extrication using a jack, with the assistance of the campground host.
About this time, the daughter comes back, a little shaken, reporting that a couple pulled into the campsite, ignored her when she said her family already registered, and proceeded to unpack everything in their car and pile in on the picnic table and around the site–presumably to claim ownership, but who knows. When my friend finally frees her rig and goes to the site for some serious WTFing, the stubborn squatters want nothing to do with her or her receipt–they ignore her, they pooh pooh her and argue in–you guessed in–heavy French accents. Ultimately, the campground host must be summoned to intervene and evict the bastards, and even then they leave reluctantly. Later in the evening, they repeatedly drive and walk by Karen’s campsite, glaring and staring.
A pattern emerges.
Utah was lousy with French–in the campground in Arches we were surrounded by French families in rented RVs. Companies like CruiseAmerica must advertise like crazy in France, because everywhere we went the ubiquitous 30″ behemoths were spitting our hordes of loud, angry-looking French families who, while slamming doors and stomping around a lot, otherwise remained happily inside their hermetically sealed vehicles except for a lot of trips to the restrooms–where they could be found washing dishes in the sinks, even though NPS has added some very convenient dishwashing stations to many campground facilities. And lest I be too subtle with my warnings, consider who is driving when you’re navigating all those western switchbacks, and that they’ve spent all of their lives steering Peugeots and Citroens into virtual anarchy.
I tried being nice, even threw in some “mercis” and “saluts” when I was navigating the more crowded trails in Arches, but mostly I got grunts in response. When we were shadowed one day by a tour bus–“Le Bus” painted on the side–I reached my fill. At three different trailheads we ran into “Le Bus,” as it disgorged its herd of unruly French, elbowing each other as badly as they pushed their way through and past everyone else. They must really not have lines in France, I realized–it has to be a cultural thing–this almost Darwinist “me first” behavior. At one point, I stood with a group of Japanese–no strangers to emerging from tour buses like a rising tide–and noted their wide-eyed horror at the toddler-like ego-driven comportment of the French. “It’s entitlement,” my wife growled. “That has to be it. Cultural narcissism.”
I’m not ready to adopt that extreme position, but I was almost pushed to my limit at our last destination, in Mesa Verde park, where our neighbors were a French family with 5 seemingly feral kids who, when the father wasn’t berating them aggressively, ran roughshod through everyone else’s sites–the oldest two, boys of about 7 and 8–were running about, dualing with tree branch swords, and at one point ran out into the lane yelling “Dragon! Dragon! Tuez le dragon!” and proceeded to thwap the passing vehicle multiple times with their tree limbs, while Mama and Papa stared blandly–all the while ignoring the shrieking, screaming 2 year old, who they were still bottle feeding formula (I watched Papa mix and shake), and who would continue to wail like a banshee for the three days straight. I recalled a really patronizing article I once read in the New York Times, about how French children are taught their place–to be seen and not heard–while Americans let their kids run roughshod until they become demanding self-absorbed assholes who think they are the center of the universe. Well, this kid was certainly heard by everyone within a 4 mile radius–she sounded so dire that vultures were circling–and I instructed my kids, “when a baby cries for hours, it’s my experience that they’re usually sitting in a pile of shit or under some other sort of discomfort. You ignore a 4 year old who has tantrums–when it’s a baby, you pay attention.”
Finally, and perhaps most horribly, were the signs in the showers at Mesa Verde, which read “Please do not use shower drains for solid waste. They cannot handle it. Please use toilets in the restrooms next door.” I mean: what the fuck is that? I don’t really want to know, I think, but all I can come up with is it’s some kind of sick-ass French bidet thing….*
Because, really. Who’s ugly now?
*okay, I’ll admit it–bidets are awesome, but they freak out most of my fellow Americans, and no way to I pass up a chance at a cheap laugh.