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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The Cocktail Hour: Carson McCullers

Sherry Tea Cocktail Hot Toddy Recipe

If you’ve ever lived with roommates, you know that the kitchen can be a dangerous place—and not because of the sharp objects. Battles in the tiny kitchens of New York are usually fought on a more passive-aggressive level, tearing apart even the closest of friends: skirmishes over fridge space, scuffles over stolen food, brawls about dishwashing duty.

That’s what happened in Brooklyn in 1940, when a motley crew moved into a dilapidated brownstone at 7 Middagh Street: poet W.H. Auden; playwright Jane Bowles; her husband, Paul; and Carson McCullers, whose debut novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was the blockbuster book of the summer. Add composer Benjamin Britten and burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee, and you had a very eclectic roster of roommates—none of whom was particularly interested in doing the dishes.

Which isn’t to say they didn’t create enough of them. McCullers was the de facto chef of the house, though her signature dishes left a little to be desired. According to a biography by Virginia Spencer Carr, The Lonely Hunter, McCullers’ specialties included “canned green pea soup enlivened with small chunks of wieners, and a unique dish which she labeled ‘spuds Carson,’ made with creamed potatoes, ripe olives, minced onions, and grated cheese.” Recipes were something McCullers “preferred to talk about, to envision the results rather than to actually cook them.” In other words, she improvised.

Instead, McCullers devoted the majority of her attention—and budget—to drinking. While living with her first husband, Reeves McCullers, she splurged on gallons of sherry, while dinners consisted mainly of eggs, bread and milk. By the time she moved to Middagh Street, McCullers still didn’t have recipes for actual meals, but she did have her signature drink down: a mix of hot tea and sherry, which she called “sonnie boy” and kept in a trusty thermos. She and the thermos were soon inseparable (there’s a picture of the two of them in The Lonely Hunter, with McCullers looking much happier than she did with the husband).

McCullers’ dubious skill in the kitchen was matched by her disregard for cleaning it. She would often forget about things on the stove, and return to find dinner burnt to a crisp, stuck to the pan. Visitors noted that “many of her pans, with remnants of charred food in them, were in soak on the kitchen floor.” This didn’t go over too well with the roommates—particularly Auden, the den mother of the group, who was in charge of both mealtimes (breakfast at 9 a.m. sharp.) and toilet paper patrol (one square per flush).

In his 1941 poem “New Year Letter,” Auden praises the merits of routine, work hours and regular meals. He doesn’t mention clean dishes, but you have to wonder if living with McCullers prompted the rant. Does a clean house really inspire creativity? Or is the cleaning just a distraction from inspiration itself? It’s an ongoing roommate debate—and if you live with a writer, one that might just be immortalized in verse, for future generations to read.

Carson McCullers - Cocktail Hour

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The Cocktail Hour: Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe - Eggnog

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruelest month. That honor belongs to January. After a month of presents, family merriment, chocolate advent calendars and that great pine tree smell, we’re supposed to calmly accept the bleak grayness of winter for three more months?

This is where brandy comes in handy.

Getting a bit tipsy has long been a preferred cure for dreary days. For Edgar Allan Poe, a student at the University of Virginia in the 1820s, drinking apple toddies and eggnog was the extracurricular activity of choice (definitely better than marching band). According to his biographer James Albert Harrison, “a sensitive youth, … surrounded by the social circle that thought convivial drinking and card-playing ‘at Homes’ indispensable to remaining at all in polite society, would easily fall in with the habits of his ‘set,’ and perhaps cultivate them with passion or excess.” In other words, Poe was a lush, but it wasn’t his fault. He just went to a party school.

Poe’s taste for brandy, in particular, became legendary after he left Virginia and entered West Point in 1830. His roommate there, Thomas W. Gibson, recalled that Poe was “seldom without a bottle of Benny Haven’s best brandy. … He had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.”

The reputation followed Poe for the rest of his life, and it was long assumed that his taste for drink was what killed him. Modern doctors believe he actually died of rabies; according to Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, Poe “may have had problems with alcohol as a younger man … but by the time he died at 40 he almost always avoided it.” Still, until just two years ago, a masked man would stop by Poe’s grave on the writer’s birthday, leaving a bottle of cognac on his tombstone for a toast in the afterlife.

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poe images 1

Brandy, EAP's favorite

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The Cocktail Hour: Robert Penn Warren

grapefruit gin punch cocktail recipe

“I had a birthday – only a few days ago – and am now thirty-eight,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1943. I’ve had birthdays on the brain, having also celebrated one recently. It wasn’t a big, round number, but it was a perfect square, the mathematics of which somehow seem especially daunting. It’s that age when we’re expected to put away childish things and start careers, find ourselves, tie the knot, settle down, paint the nursery, take out a mortgage. Instead of doing those things, I started this blog.

Clearly, a cocktail was in order. Luckily, Warren had just the thing.

Although it doesn’t have the universal significance of a 30th or a 40th, Warren’s 38th birthday was actually a very noteworthy one: It meant he could no longer be drafted into World War II. To celebrate, Warren threw “a gentlemen’s party with a particularly insidious punch” and invited his colleagues from the University of Minnesota, where he directed the creative writing program. If you think tenured professors don’t know how to party, think again: The revelry lasted almost seven hours, and they went through four gallons of punch.

If Warren’s parties were anything like his letters, they would have been a wickedly good time. Biding his time before At Heaven’s Gate to be published, he was full of writerly gossip, from who was a hack to who just got thrown in prison. He hates on the Chicago Tribune (“the world’s stinkingest paper but pays well”) and gives begrudging praise to The Nation (“doesn’t pay well but … is respectable”). August Strindberg and William Somerset Maugham? “Pure horse droppings.”

I can only imagine what bons mots Warren, on a little too much punch, might have dropped at his birthday shindig. He claimed that “high aesthetical conversation raged until a late hour,” but later dropped the act and just admitted the discussion was “more noise than wit, but the noise sounded like wit at the time.” It’s easy to take yourself too seriously as major birthdays loom, which might be why so many grown-ups have such dull parties. But Warren shows it doesn’t have to be that way. Just mix a group of good friends, a lot of noisy laughter, plus a glass of something delicious to wash it all down.

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Robert Penn Warren grapefruit gin punch

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The Cocktail Hour: Oscar Wilde

If I’m having a drink on a typical day, I’ll probably spring for a martini. On a tough one, give me a bourbon on the rocks. But when I’m feeling fancy, it’s always Champagne. Oscar Wilde must have been feeling fancy all the time.

It’s not a big surprise that one of the most famous dandies of literature had a serious Champagne fetish. But the lengths to which Wilde went to get his fix takes bubbly worship to a whole new level. At the best of times, there were elaborate champagne dinners … and pre-dinners and post-dinners; Wilde ordered his staff to serve champagne “at intervals” throughout the day. And at the worst of times – after being imprisoned for charges of indecency and sodomy – Wilde made the most of things by ordering cases of his favorite vintage, an 1874 Perrier-Jouët, straight to his cell. It even came up in the courtroom, according to the transcripts of his trial:

Mr. Oscar Wilde: Yes; iced champagne is a favourite drink of mine–strongly against my doctor’s orders.
Mr. Edward Carson, QC: Never mind your doctor’s orders, sir!
Mr. Oscar Wilde: I never do

Wilde’s taste for Champagne has become so legendary that it threatens to outstrip the truth. In a famous anecdote, Wilde was elegant until the very end, ordering champagne to his deathbed and sighing, “Alas, I am dying beyond my means.” But other accounts are a little less romantic – turns out, he may have just been thinking about his hospital bill.

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The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White

Learning about the drinking habits of your favorite children’s book author is both disconcerting and a little thrilling. It’s like that teenage realization, so obvious yet somehow inconceivable, that your parents likely were sloshed at some point during your early years and you didn’t even notice.

When you’re raised with Charlotte and Stuart Little, it’s harder to remember E.B. White’s other pursuits, ones that make him a more likely candidate to kick off a cocktail feature. Besides revising that English-major staple The Elements of Style, he was one of The New Yorker’s top contributors for an incredible 50 years. After a half-century in that crowd, you’re bound to pick up a few mixology tricks.

Writers are a notoriously well-soused bunch. But a martini probably has the most literary pedigree of any drink in the repertoire: the publishers’ three-martini lunch, Dorothy Parker’s poem, James Bond. White was one of its most vocal devotees, praising it as “the elixir of quietude. … Martinis, if anything, have a muting effect on the constant ringing in my ears.”

It’s still hard for me to picture White, martini glass in hand, writing the words I would later read with a flashlight under the covers. It’s easier to imagine him early on: just out of Cornell and working at an ad agency, looking for a newspaper job on his lunch breaks. “I wouldn’t mind going without the food if I could have a little luck with the jobs, but it’s damn hard to have neither success nor sandwiches at noon,” he wrote in 1921. When his first New Yorker piece was published, four years later, I envision him sitting down with a celebratory turkey club and pouring out a much-deserved drink.

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