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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Truman Capote: Italian Summer Pudding

How long can you last before thinking about what to cook for dinner? It’s a rare occasion when I make it past lunch. Usually by my morning commute, I’m already gone – dreaming up recipes as I walk to the subway, devising shopping lists at lunch, dropping by the farmers’ market on the way home. So I know how Truman Capote felt when he wrote: “Food. I seldom think of anything else.” That kind of sums it all up, doesn’t it?

I’ve always loved eating food, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York—and had a kitchen to myself—that I began to love cooking it. If an aspiring writer needs a room of her own, a budding chef needs a kitchen: a private laboratory where she can experiment to her heart’s (and stomach’s) content. Capote’s chance came in 1950, when he settled down in Sicily with his partner Jack Dunphy. Capote always had a personal cook, but in Sicily he began to explore the kitchen himself – “an unmanly activity, I suppose, but very relaxing and the reward is delicious,” he wrote after a day making fruit preserves. Plus, he noted, storing jam was great way to “do something with these old gin and wine bottles,” a tip destined for the Pinterest boards of boozehounds everywhere.

What began as a way to pass the time became a food obsession, with a particular focus on sweets. After graduating from humble Toll House cookies to fancy chocolate confections, Capote ultimately took on the amateur cook’s triathlon: For Christmas in 1951, he presented Dunphy with a turkey, chestnut stuffing, and a multilayer orange almond cake.

Despite his new culinary chops, though, Capote’s favorite treat was something he didn’t make. In 1962, on a trip to England, he and his friend Cecil Beaton lunched with the Queen Mother. But the royal company didn’t impress Capote – the dessert did. It was “the best cake I’ve ever tasted – a sort of chocolate cream stuffed with fresh raspberries,” he wrote. He wasn’t shy about expressing his enthusiasm, either; years later, Beaton remembered his friend cheering with joy when it was served. Because when a good dessert is involved, who can be bothered with a stiff upper lip?

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