Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I'll Take Manhattan

In the latest James Bond movie, Casino Royale,we finally understand why our hero chooses the vodka martini as his signature cocktail. It has nothing to do with the inherent sensual allure of this tasteless concoction, but rather, it is the easiest drink in which one might be able to detect poison. And, when you spend your most productive hours killing people and sleeping with women others hold dear, the possibility of poisoning is more than an academic consideration.

I come by my personal drink, the retro, straight-up Manhattan, by a different route. But, like Bond, it gives me the excuse I need to drink my favorite distilled beverage, 90-proof All-American Kentucky Bourbon, in as pure a way as possible, without feeling like a complete degenerate. A large splash of vermouth, a shake of bitters and a cherry or lemon twist, give the bourbon a degree of respectability.

Manhattans were medicine, not cocktail, in the Matteucci household of the last century. My Nonnie (deal with the fact that a middle-age man is using the word “Nonnie” with a straight face), who lived with us, used to “put them up” in old Canada Dry ginger ale bottles, so that there would always be 64-ounces available in case some one came down with something. Nonnie would “take” one Manhattan-a-day prophylacticly to ward off the possibility of disease. The $5 per bottle Old Crow whiskey, which the family would buy multi-case from “some one in the business”, was the central theme of this miracle drug.

Others of my relatives would show up for their doses occasionally--I assume mostly during cold and flu season, which apparently lasted pretty much year-round in San Francisco.

This wasn’t the only family snake-oil. Nonnie would also drink, each afternoon, a concoction of lemon juice, water and ginger ale, which may have been medicinal, but I think was just her way of emptying Canada Dry bottles. In the sweltering 68-degree San Francisco summers she might augment all of this with one 18-cent Brown Derby beer.

Now, one drink a day as a tonic strikes me as a perfectly reasonable solution to viral invasion. My mother, on the otherhand, drank not at all, except for soaking fruit cocktail in crème-de-menthe and scooping it over vanilla ice cream during the holidays. After a second helping, we might find her dancing with her sisters in the kitchen as they slurred Italian songs and waved dish towels. My father didn’t drink much—well not much for a man, who lived with his mother-in-law.

Like most Italian children, I enjoyed a taste of fermented grape now and again, with permission, from my parent's glass at family gatherings. I didn't drink alcohol with a purpose until the morning of my Junior Prom, when I proceded to exhale the remains of a pint of Old Minors Gin into the face of my buddy's silky terrior. I thought it might be funny. The dog, apparently a comedy-critic attached its jowels to my face in protest. It took several seconds of shaking my head back and forth to get the two-pound rat-mammal to disengage after which I wore make-up to the Prom.

My life and Nonnie’s intersected for approximately two decades, during which I came to understand the concept of personal power. At 4-foot nothing, and 16 years young, she emigrated alone to America to marry a man she had never met. Upon arrival, she decided she did not like him, so she broke up the deal and eventually married another man. True-love #2, legend has it, was a familial non-entity, who died shortly after fathering his third daughter, my mother. Nonni raised her three girls during the depression by taking in laundry and boarders, one of whom eventually became a son-in-law. I was actually conceived in her Hattie Street house in the Castro district of San Francisco. It has been suggested that I may have been one of the last people conceived in the Castro district of San Francisco. Who knows?

By the time we met, Nonnie was commanding a hundred-plus extended family of sisters, half-brothers, third cousins, nephews, nieces, son-in-laws, daughters, grand children and a couple of cats. She held this group of gumba-misfits together by the strength of her will and her high expectations of all of us. Lots of love; no excuses. She communicated without English, even to us youngsters, who knew no Italian. To this day, I can understand a language I cannot speak.

No one made an important decision without consulting her. No one wanted to disappoint her, let alone cross her. Yet she had no material currency, save for the $1 a month us grandkids lined up to receive from her meager accounts. She had no ability to affect our lives except by her opinion, and by what control we willingly allowed her. And, amazingly, virtually all of us, dozens of children of the ‘50s and the ‘60s, made something of our lives.

She accomplished this while traveling life’s highway, first with a cane, then a walker, then a wheel chair and finally by being carried as arthritis riddled her body. In short, she was the most powerful person I have ever known.

This explains why, as a twenty-year old man, I spent her last summer at her side, some days literally—lying next to her as stomach cancer took her from us. That summer, I would make the daily trips to Fred’s Pharmacy to pick up the opium enemas that would ease the pain, and listen to her last stories, admonishments and instructions. Finally, I witnessed her last breaths.

I think this might also explain why I have so little tolerance for a culture where a hangnail apparently entitles some one to victim status and collective retribution. When you watch a diminutive, crippled, non-native speaking, poor, female emigrant run the micro-world that is most significant to your existence with imagination, love, strength, determination and multi-generational perspective, you want to say to those with moderate obstacles not of there own making:

Get Over It, and Use the Gifts God Gave You To Conquer Your World. And If You Don’t Reap the Reward Directly, Your Children or Grandchildren Will, Because You Gave Them the Life Skills They Needed to Thrive. And if You Don’t Believe In God—Then I Submit that Evolution Teaches the Same Lessons More Mercilessly. So, Again, Get Over It.

Easy for me to say since I am the Grandchild--huh!

Anyway, this is why I drink Manhattans. Now for the important question: how do you get a good Manhattan. One way is to befriend Robin Selden at Logitech and convince her to let her young son, Spencer, make one for you. Spence has a knack for the perfect Manhattan, and I don’t believe he actually drinks them.

Barring this eventuality try the following:

Standard Manhattan

Fill a shaker with ice then add:

2 parts excellent bourbon like Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve (I like saying "parts" because then you can make them as big as you want).

1/2 part (or a little more) sweet vermouth

2 dashes of angostura bitters (available at your liquor store)

Shake well and pour into a wide-rimmed cocktail glass

Finish with a marachino cherry or twist of lemon


In a pitcher or a jar combine:

750 ml of good quality bourbon like Woodford Reserve.
3 cored and diced (large) Jonagold apples (you can use Granny Smith in a pinch)
4 cinnamon sticks
2 whole vanilla beans, sliced open longwise

Refrigerate 2-5 days stirring or shaking daily.
Strain back into the original whiskey bottle.

For the Manhattan make as above but substitute Amareno cherries from Sicily.

Here’s lookin' at you, Nonnie!


Blogger spencedooog said...

it is nice to be recognized enery-now-and-then for a skill no one knows about....i hope my teachers aren't reading this. :D


8:19 PM  

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