The Cocktail Hour: Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh Stinger Cocktail recipe

Note: Read on for the winner of the Laurie Colwin Home Cooking giveaway.

A strong cocktail is a popular cure for a variety of troubles, both physical and more … situational. Have a cold? Try a hot toddy. Feeling anxious or restless? A nip of bourbon will fix that right up. Spending the holiday season with your significant other’s extended family? I suggest a giant eggnog, double the brandy.

Of course, these treatments aren’t officially doctor-sanctioned (Disclaimer: Please don’t use this post as your personal WedMD). In the early 1900s, if you suffered from nerves or insomnia, they’d instead prescribe you a mixture of bromide and chloral, sedatives that also helped relieve pesky aches and pains. But what if you were really nervous or particularly achy? In Evelyn Waugh’s case, you’d just combine the two methods and see what sticks: the drinks or the drugs.

Waugh was a devotee of the cocktail cure for a number of life’s ills. “You must not think I am leading a dissolute life quite the reverse except for being drunk a lot” he wrote to his friend, the London socialite Diana Cooper. He soon became associated with several drinks that appeared frequently in his fiction as well as on his bar tabs, among them the Noonday Reviver (Guinness, ginger beer, gin), the Brandy Alexander (brandy, crème de cacao, cream). But the one drink he designated his “signature” was the Stinger: one part brandy, one part crème de menthe.

Although the cocktail combination was a favorite of many writers, including Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming, Waugh took it a step further, using crème de menthe as a mixer whenever the opportunity presented itself—and sometimes when it shouldn’t. When doctors suggested he try the bromide cure, Waugh prepared the drugs just like a Stinger, shaken up with a liberal helping of crème de menthe.

The result? A night of hallucinations that haunted Waugh for years, and inspired a similar episode in the novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Cooper, in one of her letters back to Waugh, recalled with horror “whatever that dread concoction was you did not know you were Wrong til madness claimed you.” She warned him against the “the drink-drug-escape addiction” that would continue for the rest of his career. Only someone with a Stinger on the brain could describe an unpleasant train ride as “exactly like being inside a cocktail shaker”?

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Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

Whenever I’m trying to remember something important—a due date, a birthday, the name of a friend’s new baby (oops!)—I’m always amazed by the random information my brain has quietly absorbed instead, without my knowledge. Most, to my chagrin, is completely useless: ’90s song lyrics, all the presidents in order, the name of the cat from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. But also, without knowing how or when it happened, I unexpectedly learned to cook.

Between all the poetry, philosophy, and cultural theories, Friedrich Nietzsche’s brain wouldn’t seem to have much space for cooking skills either. Food in general often gave him more trouble than pleasure. Suffering from digestion problems, he hopped around Europe, from the French Riviera to the Italian coast, hoping the climate would restore his health. He avoided restaurants, where, he complained, “one is made accustomed to ‘overfeeding’; that is why I no longer like to eat in them.”

Yet, over the years, Nietzsche absorbed a love of cooking by learning the same way I did: through those around him. In Genoa, his landlady taught him to fry artichokes and whisk eggs for torta di carciofi, the local specialty. In Sorrento, in a villa surrounded by lemon trees, his housemaid showed him her secret to a perfect risotto, lovingly ladling out the stock as she stirred. Studying the techniques of his Italian housekeepers, Nietzsche was eager to become a teacher himself. He wrote to his mother: “I shall teach you later how to cook risotto—I know now.”

Nietzsche would later revise his opinion of restaurants, becoming a regular at several neighborhood trattorias, but he always reserved special praise for those dishes he learned himself; game recognize game. In a letter from Turin, he detailed his regular order: “minestra or risotto, a good portion of meat, vegetable and bread—all good … I eat here with the serenest disposition of soul and stomach.”

For most of us, cooking doesn’t happen intentionally; we don’t crack open a book to “Chapter 1: Let’s Talk About Knife Skills.” Instead, the path to the kitchen unwinds slowly, over a lifetime: “helping” sift the flour for a batch of cookie dough, learning to cut an onion without catching your fingers, trying to perfect the swirl on top of a meringue pie. It’s hard to remember each step we took. Instead it’s the guides we remember—be it a mother, grandmother, father or kindly landlady—for leading us along the way.

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Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint recipe

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