“The martini is the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.”
In 1996 I was visiting my sister and her family on a night when Mike Tyson was fighting and on the comeback trail after his release from prison. He had been convicted of raping Desiree Washington in 1992 and was now out and ready to regain his title.
As the preliminary fights took place, we sat in the living room and dissected the train wreck that had become Mike Tyson’s life and, like many other professional athletes, the disgraceful choices he had made in his life despite his remarkable athletic ability.
My brother-in-law’s brother Hank had invited himself over to watch the fight as well. Hank was something of a train wreck himself considering that the best thing going in his life at that moment was the bottle of Evan Williams bourbon he had picked up on sale for $6.99 at the Safeway on his way over (I’m serious, he was so blown away by his good fortune I thought he might mess himself in some way).
Hank, in his infinite wisdom, was not on board with our denouncement of Mike Tyson. He wouldn’t be convinced that a professional boxer, whose goal it was to knock his opponent into a coma, could be responsible for such an act of violence and aggression.
“Haters, man,” he kept saying. “Why do you all gotta be haters?”
As the fight began, Hank was all over the place, sitting down, standing up, punching the air towards the television screen, all the while bumping the coffee table and slopping his Evan Williams and Coke on to the finished surface. My sister tried to offer him one of the coasters sitting 12 inches away in hopes that he would get the hint. “It’s for your drink,” she said. “The glass sits on top of it.”
“Nah, I’m good,” Hank replied, punching at the air breathlessly.
As expected, in round three Mike Tyson smashed an uppercut into his opponent’s chin, turning him to jelly on the canvas. Hank, leaping from the couch and spilling the rest of his drink on his flannel shirt and my sister’s couch, yelled out, “Yeaaaaahhhhh!!! That’s what I’m talking about, mother fucker!” Then he turned and looked right at me and said, “Now do you believe he didn’t rape that bitch?”
The scary thing is, I got the feeling that Hank didn’t actually believe Mike Tyson to be innocent as much as he believed Tyson should have been allowed to do whatever he pleased—like King Henry the VIII, chopping off heads on a whim—and Hank was only too happy to be one of his minions and disregard the logical facts of his master’s accusers.
The question he posed to me almost seemed like a threat (Now do you believe?) like he was daring me to oppose the king at the risk of having my head removed from my shoulders.
You have to be careful who or what you allow yourself to identify with or you will become something ugly, or at the very least something hollow and meaningless. Before you’re even aware of it you could suddenly find yourself on the street corner with a swarm of tight-knit cult members holding up a picket sign that reads, “Burn All the Puppies!”
Ok, now I’m being ridiculous, but you get the point. We are shaped by the identities we choose to adopt and we will fight like hell to stand for what we believe in, even if what we believe in is silly.
This recollection I had of Hank and the Tyson fight was triggered by a conversation I overheard two men having at my bar who were arguing over the origins of the martini. One of them was from Martinez and he had his history down cold as he laid out the facts as to why he believed that the martini was indeed invented by local Martinez bartender Julio Richelieu in 1871 (he used that word: “invented”, as if mixing different liquors together was the equivalent to Edison spending months and years in his basement tinkering with the carbon and platinum filaments that lead to the birth of the incandescent light bulb).
The other man, who grew up in San Francisco, insisted that the martini was created by Jerry Thomas at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco. He too shared many detailed facts and dates that made him sound like a Jeopardy contestant and before too long, what started as friendly bar banter, started to heat up and before I knew what was happening they had abandoned their bar stools and were nose to nose barking at each other as if each had threatened the lives of the other’s children.
Instead of stopping them, I stood in awe and watched two grown men defend the origin of chilled gin as if America’s freedom and civil rights depended on it. What they didn’t realize was that it wasn’t even about the martini (at the moment they were each drinking Heineken). It was a territorial argument based on where each of them grew up.
Identity. People latch on to it and won’t let go: “I’m a 49ers fan…I’m a Wall Street guy…I’m a gardener…I’m a scotch drinker…I’m a slut.” It goes on and on, even with cocktails, and none can even hope to approach the lore of the martini.
Think about it: the martini is consumed by businessmen and celebrities, young and old, from around the world who credit much of their happiness and success to a drink which is poured into a glass shaped like a funnel. The A-list is a hundred yards long and includes the likes of Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason, Humphrey Bogart, Earnest Hemmingway, W.C. Fields and of course Mr. 007 himself, James Bond. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our culture is obsessed with it. After all, if drinking a martini makes you like James Bond, why not? Who doesn’t want to be James Bond (assuming Jason Bourne is out of the equation)?
Practically everything is up for debate when it comes to the martini: its ingredients, its origin, the glass it’s served in, even the way it’s prepared: Shaken or stirred? Up or on the rocks? Dirty or not? Wet or dry? Onion? Twist? Olive? Jesus, shut the fuck up already!
Don’t even get me started on the new class of flavored martinis, which includes an infinite number of recipes geared toward women, mostly, because of their sweetness. The most popular of these are cosmopolitans, lemon drops, apple martinis, chocolate martinis and just about anything you can think of that resembles what you’ll find at a candy shop. Martini purists (those who believe that the only true martini is made with gin and possibly a dash of vermouth) have to bite on a stick in order to keep from grinding their own teeth into powdered enamel.
I love the craft of bartending and all it entails, but let’s keep things in perspective. We put juice and liquor in a glass with ice and stir it around. I have to laugh out loud when I see a bartender slide a martini the color of cotton candy in front of a lady and say, “Try that out. I invented it.” Really? You invented vodka? You invented cranberry juice? You’ve poured them in glass together and now you’re an inventor? Ok, Henry Ford.
If you ever choose to visit my bar, go through your checklist to see what it is you identify with, because despite the entertainment value, the last thing I need in my bar are two more idiots throwing blows over how to care for potted plants.
Cheers, until next time.