The Cocktail Hour: Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver: Bloody Mary

It’s been well established that writing and drinking go together, but not all pairings are as elegant as Oscar Wilde and champagne or as cosmopolitan as E.B. White and his martinis. Some concoctions are born less out of delectability than out of necessity: specifically, a need to get epically sloshed, then somehow wake up the next day ready (or at least able) to work. Raymond Carver was an expert in both.

“I know you like to drink, and I like to drink, but I never met a guy who likes to drink like Ray likes to drink,” Carver’s peers would gossip among themselves. Getting drunk didn’t require any glamorous cocktails for Carver; a fifth of vodka in the morning and a fifth in the afternoon was what he preferred to do the job.

He was known for out-boozing even his fellow writers—no strangers to the bottle—including John Cheever, a colleague at the University of Iowa. “He and I did nothing but drink,” Carver wrote. “I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” Their students became the responsible ones, cooking dinner for the duo to ensure they got down a few bites of solid food.

But although they shared a fondness for late-night partying, the two friends differed on their approach to another writerly affliction: the hangover. Cheever preferred to nurse his with a deliciously greasy sandwich, but Carver took a “hair of the dog” approach. “Most mornings, Ray woke everyone by calling out ‘Hot doughnuts! Steaming hot cups of coffee!'” his biographer claims. “But when they got to the kitchen, ‘heart starter’ Bloody Marys were the main offering.” In other words, Bloody Marys aren’t just a typical Carver drink; they are a full Carver meal—with just enough nutritional value to qualify as breakfast.

Bloody Marys also played a role in one of the biggest moments in Carver’s career. When the publisher of McGraw-Hill called to invite him to lunch, Carver wasn’t in the most … professional of mindsets: “I was drunk and hungover both,” he wrote. But he made it on time and downed two Bloodys before learning the news: McGraw was offering him his first advance, for a novel he hadn’t even written yet. He immediately celebrated with an ideal Carver lunch: a double vodka on the rocks, a couple of cocktail shrimp on the side.

Raymond Carver bloody mary recipe

raymond carver bloody mary tomatoes

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T.S. Eliot: Duck à l’Orange

T.S. Eliot - Duck a l'Orange

T.S. Eliot once asked his messenger boy what he would do with £5,000. “I’d have a good dinner,” the boy said. “Duckling and green peas, gooseberry tart and cream.” Having just moved to London, Eliot was impressed by the boy’s expensive taste. “Such is the society I move in in the city,” he wrote, where even 11-year-olds know their food. 

In 1916, Eliot’s own dinners were much less extravagant. Having accepted a humble teaching post that included most meals, he was shocked at food prices in the city: “Living is going up. Eggs are three pence,” he wrote. Rather than suffer the costs of dining out, Eliot and his wife, Vivien, preferred to invite friends over—keeping budget in mind. “We had five people to lunch, the most ambitious attempt we have ever made,” Eliot wrote to his mother. “It is easier to have people to lunch than to dinner, of course, because of the impossibility of serving meat; at lunch fish and spaghetti suffice.”

But as his success grew, Eliot’s tastes became increasingly refined, just like that young messenger’s. “I like good food,” he wrote to publisher Geoffrey Faber in 1927. “I remember a dinner in Bordeaux, two or three dinners in Paris, a certain wine in Fontevrault, and shall never forget them.” He recalled, with particular relish, a dinner in Paris held by the journal Action Française. “A private room in one of the best restaurants – fifteen people – and the most exquisite dinner I have ever tasted,” he wrote. “I remember the canard aux oranges with permanent pleasure.”

It’s harder to make my Christmas list every year—that is, to think of physical, wrappable “things.” I still want, but the wanting is less immediate, less tangible. That’s why, with Eliot in mind, I’m hoping for experiences this year: learning to make the perfect pasta dough, trying my first Guatemalan food, cooking a meal without worrying about dishes afterward. They won’t gather dust, they’ll never need recharging, and I can always keep them with me. As Eliot wrote, “The pleasures of dining well are not transitory, but abide forever.”

eliot1 eliot2

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James Joyce: Rigatoni Con Stracotto

James Joyce - Rigatoni con Stracatto

I read Ulysses in my first year of college, armed with a “European Literary Tradition” class syllabus and a book of annotations that was nearly as long as the novel itself. The details of Proteus and Stephen Dedalus didn’t stay with me in the least, but what remained was the overwhelming sense of loneliness I felt: People were always sadly eating kidneys in a pub, a kind of dual gastronomic punishment (first the solitude, then the kidneys). For a generation that’s been told we should never eat alone, Leopold Bloom’s day seems like a cautionary tale (an extremely elaborate one).

Restaurants can be a taunt to the solitary diner: You can’t even be alone with your loneliness when there’s a table of strangers at your elbow. And your pity party of one would have felt particularly grim if you were seated next to James Joyce’s party of ten. When the Joyces went out, they went as a pack—a boisterous one. Hemingway shared the gossip from Paris in his letters: “[Joyce] and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s, where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week.” I picture a modern-day Joyce dining out, making it rain euros while ordering bottle service.

Joyce’s enjoyment of food, unlike that of his withdrawn characters, was wrapped up in his enjoyment of others, and vice versa. Writing to his brother, Stanislaus, he requested both food and company: “a slice of corned beef and cabbage, a sizeable beefsteak prepared on a gridiron, and (excuse the hierarchy) an intelligent supra-burgher like yourself to share the meal.”

But Joyce’s favorite dining companion was his wife, Nora—who conveniently also did all the cooking. A day with the Joyces meant a day of eating, starting with hot chocolate at 9 a.m. “At midday we have lunch which we (or rather she) buys, cooks (soup, meat, potatoes and something else)…. At four o’clock we have chocolate and at eight o’clock dinner which Nora cooks.” If anyone tells you having multiple hot chocolates a day is wrong, direct them here. 

Eating wasn’t all that went on in the Joyce’s kitchen; if you read their infamously naughty correspondence, you might not want to eat off their dining table when you learn where it’s been. But their exploits prove what Joyce clearly already knew: The kitchen isn’t just a place for the stomach, but for the heart. As he writes to Nora, after a short absence, “I shall not quit the kitchen for a whole week after I arrive, reading, lolling, smoking, and watching you get ready the meals and talking, talking, talking, talking to you. O how supremely happy I shall be! God in heaven, I shall be happy there!”

Rigatoni con Stracatto Recipe

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Zora Neale Hurston: Chicken Consommé

“So, what’s your backup plan?”

Everyone who lusts after a job in some creative field runs into this inevitable question. When I was 10, I told my mother I was destined for Broadway. When pressed for a possible fallback, I shrugged and said I could always go into journalism. She has worried about me ever since.

In the fall of 1931, Zora Neale Hurston was working on several projects, all of them artsy and none of them lucrative: short stories, concerts, book proposals. Recently divorced and without a steady income, she was being supported by her godmother, the philanthropist and New York socialite Charlotte Osgoode Mason. Mason and my mother would have had a lot to talk about. “I know that you worry about my future,” Hurston wrote to her godmother. “Therefore, if I had a paying business—which after all could not take up a great deal of my time,—I’d cease to be a problem.”

That’s how she came up with her backup plan to become “New York’s Chicken Specialist.”

Like any good start-up entrepreneur, Hurston did her research. She surveyed the local competition: “I have been sampling the chicken soups already on the market and find not one really fine one.” She outlined the business model: Ever practical, she would use all parts of the bird. The bones would be for soup. The chicken breasts, “they’d be my salad material. The other part of the chicken would emerge as a la king.”

But despite her concessions toward her godmother and her own pragmatism, Hurston never wavered in her assurance about her real talent. “I firmly believe that I shall succeed as a writer, but the time element is important,” she wrote to Mason. “Besides I like to cook.”

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