Cocktail Friday: the false origin of the Martini

The Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, early 20th century and 2015
The Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, early 20th century and 2015, courtesy MuseumHack.org

I can’t escape cocktails, and cocktail history. Even when I’m traveling for work, they find me. So it is that I find myself staying in a hotel in New York that was once one of the epicenters of pre-Prohibition cocktail culture.

The Knickerbocker Hotel was completed by John Jacob Astor IV, after a development project on land he owned failed. Opening in 1906, it was a destination for after-theatre dining, with decor by Maxfield Parrish (whose Old King Cole mural created for the hotel bar is now at the St. Regis in the King Cole Bar). The reputation of the hotel was largely built on its food and drink, and its social connections; Astor was a bon vivant who was fleeing negative press surrounding the pregnancy of his second (18-year-old) wife when he died in the sinking of the Titanic. (He is said to have remarked, “I asked for ice in my drink, but this is ridiculous.”)

The hotel bartender, one Martini de Arma de Taggia, was said to have created the martini in 1911; mixing dry gin and vermouth, the drink was said to have caught on when it was favored by John D. Rockefeller. Unfortunately for picturesque history, that tale is almost certainly false; John D. Rockefeller was a teetotaler, and the Martini existed well before 1911.

The most likely actual origin for the Martini is in the drink called the Martinez, supposedly invented either in Martinez, California or in San Francisco for a miner who had struck it lucky; it was first documented in 1887. By 1888, the drink first called the Martinez was already being called the Martini. Though the version in Harry Johnson’s New & Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual uses red vermouth rather than dry, and adds Boker’s bitters (a little like modern Angostura), gum syrup and an optional dash of curaçao or absinthe, it’s still gin and vermouth at its roots. The first version using dry gin that I’ve found is the 1909 Dry Martini (II) in Applegreen’s Bar Book—still two years prior to the Knickerbocker’s claim.

Whatever the truth of its connection to the Martini, the hotel today contributes to modern cocktail culture with the St. Cloud rooftop bar. I hope to gather impressions there sometime.

I don’t claim to have anything definitive on “how to make the best martini,” but if you want to try its precursor, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

martinez-created-with-highball

Travel day

Not much blogging energy today. I’ve been meeting with a lot of software developers, both in a strictly job-related context and in preparing for a conference I’ll be at the next few days.

I can’t emphasize enough how lovely it is to be at a dinner table where someone observes that we have different words for some animals as meat (porkbeef) than we do as animals (pigcow), and why is that, and then someone who’s not me gives the answer, which is that the cuisine words were brought by the Normans and hail from what is now French, where the animal words come from the Anglo-Saxon. These are my people.

A week in Olympia

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As my week in London comes to a close, I thought it might be interesting to learn a little bit about the exhibition hall in which I spent the week. As with everything else in London, the layers of history go a little deeper than you might expect.

The Olympia exhibition hall sits about 4km west of Buckingham Palace in the suburb of Kensington. From the inside it looks a little like a train station, with its glassed in barrel ceiling rising high above the central hall. You might be forgiven for guessing it was built in the early 20th century; in fact, it dates to 1886. It’s survived bombings, repeated requisition to support war needs in World Wars I and II, and (especially early on) dry spells in bookings.

One of the most curious moments in its history came in 1934. It hosted a rally for Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, that turned to violence, appalling and alienating many of Mosley’s supporters; it can be said to have hosted the turning point leading to the decline of fascism as a popular movement in Britain.

Knowing its past, I think I can forgive its uneven air conditioning.

Traveling: London calling

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There’s nothing like an international trip to make you appreciate modern travel. I’m in London this week, so I’ve had planes, trains, and automobiles—the last due to tube maintenance.

There’s always something different when I come for a visit here. This time, it’s the spread of contactless payment. Since the last time I was here, I notice many more Londoners using contactless credit cards to pay at restaurants, pubs, and shops. The technology is the same as that used by Apple Pay, Android Pay and others, but the RFID chip is embedded into a credit card rather than a smart device. Regardless of the reason, it’s nice because it means that most of the places I’m visiting have readers that work with Apple Pay.

It got me thinking about what factors influence the spread of technology. There’s clearly a benefit to end users for widely adopted contactless payment—no swiping or signature. There’s a benefit to issuers as well, given that the contactless payment transmission is harder to intercept than a magstrip swipe, and does not actually transmit the credit card number. Retailers are the long pole in the tent, but the threat of being held liable for credit card losses is convincing them to update the technology.

Magic Kingdom day 2: Adventure and Frontier

Disney World promenade

We spent most of our first day in Magic Kingdom yesterday around Main Street, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland (with a brief detour into the outskirts of Liberty Square for some funnel cake). But with a late afternoon case of the sore feet and aggravated from one more too-scary roller coaster (yes, my 5 year old son is officially Too Little for roller coasters if he can even be scared by the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train), we hopped on the train and rode it all the way to Frontierland.

It was like being dropped off in a different century. The whole aesthetic of Frontierland seems tied to the same decade that brought us the Berenstain Bears — a nuclear family where the mama wears a bonnet and dad wears overalls and they live in a wood paneled country cabin style tree house. Which is to say, I walked through and instantly felt as though I were back in 1981 during my first visit to the Magic Kingdom. I even had a powerful flash of déjà vu walking from Frontierland into Adventureland. I knew that stretch of Old West street. I had walked it. I had gone to the Country Bears Jamboree in it.

The fact that going around the corner brought you to Aladdin’s Magic Carpet (and a character meet and greet with Jasmine) didn’t dislodge my memories—these attractions sit cheek by jowl next to the Enchanted Tiki Room and still are around the corner from the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. If Tomorrowland has received a big grafting of 21st century product, Tomorrowland and Adventureland felt something like 90% pristine.

Which is interesting to me. I think the original theory of these two lands was that they would be the “boy” lands while Fantasyland and Main Street would be the “girl” lands. But today’s kids have never heard the theme song to “Davy Crockett” (which was, to my surprise, playing on the bus to the park yesterday morning). There are no free range outdoorsman or cowboy kids any more. So what explains the enduring power of these attractions?

I guess the difference between Tomorrowland and Frontierland is that, when it was built, we still thought that there was more Tomorrow to be discovered. But the frontier celebrated by Frontierland had been largely explored a hundred years before Disney got to it. Frontierland was nostalgia from the beginning, grown into archetype, and now all but into myth.

Missed-a-day-cause-I-was-in-Magic-Kingdom blogging

Yesterday was our first day in the Magic Kingdom’s parks, and of course I didn’t blog.

One of the things this exercise in daily blogging has taught me is the importance of carving out time to write, which is impossible when sharing a room with three other humans, two under the age of 10. So I’m writing this while the kids bounce off the walls.

We learned some important things yesterday at Animal Kingdom:

  1. Timely breakfast is important for everyone’s happiness.
  2. The five year old was not ready for Expedition: Everest or for the time traveling Dinosaur ride.
  3. Neither was his nine year old sister. Or his mom.
  4. In fact, I’m probably the only scary ride aficionado in the family.
  5. Even a nine year old gets tired of chicken nuggets. That doesn’t make her want to try new foods though.
  6. It’s nothing short of a miracle to find good beer in a big amusement park. Thank you, Victory Golden Monkey.

It’ll be interesting to see what today brings.

Travel day

Don’t know that I’ll get much blogging done today, as we are flying far away from the frozen Northeast for a few days at the Magic Kingdom. So far I’ve learned that there are four magic things to help kids wait for a plane:

  1. The promise of lunch
  2. Reading a story, preferably some Roald Dahl (we’re working our way through The B.F.G. at the moment)
  3. Chocolate 
  4. iPads with headphones

More later. 

Traveling in London

I flew into London yesterday morning, and my arms aren’t tired. And surprisingly the rest of me isn’t either. I got almost ten hours of sleep last night, and while I did wake bolt upright at 4:30 this morning I’m still feeling pretty good and not particularly jet lagged. It’s been gorgeous here, much nicer than it was when I last visited twelve years ago (granted, that was in February).

Things I’ve done so far: 

  1. Walked around the south side of Kensington Park, taking in the sights.
  2. Gotten lost in Harrods.
  3. Watched people queue around a city block for hours to go to the French Embassy to vote in yesterday’s election.
  4. Learned how much you can pay for unreliable hotel wifi.
  5. Evaluated several pubs in the vicinity of my hotel and found a keeper. 
  6. Figured out how to navigate the Underground (or reminded myself) and to get my tickets for the National Rail Service.

And that was the first day. Should be a fun trip.

At the Salt Lick, Driftwood, TX

At the urging of about six Facebook friends, I make the pilgrimage from downtown Austin, where I am on travel for a few days, to Driftwood, Texas, tonight to visit the Salt Lick. It’s a barbecue joint that’s been around for about 43 years. As these things go, it’s commercialized and simple at the same time. Commercialized: mail order menus sit on the table; jars of the sauce line the entrance; there’s a separate function building. Simple: Four meats (brisket, sausage, pork ribs, turkey), three sides (potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans) that all come at once, free “condiments” (pickles, raw onion, white bread), pie, and soft drinks. (Driftwood is in a dry county, but they allow BYOB; I decide not to B my own B, since I have a 25 mile drive each way.)

I order a plate of brisket and sausage and an iced tea, and wait at an otherwise empty table.

The table in front of me is discussing old Texas home construction. “There would be a place in the parlor where you would have the viewings. With a stained glass window. Now it’s just a window seat, but then they assumed you would be hosting a wake. I remember two occasions where they had to open up the windows to get the casket out.” Behind me, a different technology: “So I had to convince them to take our quarter micron process and adapt it to the 3.3v work.”

Of course, Texas is, in terms of high tech, a hardware state. (What else?)

I sit thinking about old technology: cooking meat in smoke.

The food: Brisket is absolutely lean and supple. The sausage is saucy: well spiced, juicy, flavorful. The pecan pie is an inch of custard with a single layer of pecans on top–not at all my grandmother’s recipe–but the pecans are completely evocative of autumn nights with a nutcracker at the dining room table over a layer of newspaper.

As I stand to leave, I get the salty tangy burning in the eyes of the woodsmoke. It conjures other fires, and other cuts of meat with perfect pink rings from the smoke: 12 Bones in Asheville, Big Jim’s in Charlottesville, Dixie’s in Bellevue, WA, Three Pigs in McLean, and of course Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Q south of Williamsburg.

And even though I am full to bursting, it all makes me homesick for Carolina pulled pork in a bun.

Postcard from Madison County

madison county vista

Today’s post is a delayed peek at where I was the first week of August. We took a week’s vacation and spent it with my parents at their house in Buncombe County, as well as getting in a lot of good time with my aunt and uncle, cousins, and a rare visit with my Aunt Jewell. The photo above was taken at what I still think of as my grandmother’s farm (now my Aunt Jewell’s) in Madison County, as are a number of the other photos in the Flickr set I just posted. (Folks who are marked as friends and family in Flickr will find some new family photos in this set and in my photostream.)

Every time I go down there to visit, time slows a little bit. Part of this is because of the infrastructure in western North Carolina; though growth has accelerated in Buncombe County around Asheville, Madison remains the same deeply rural, underdeveloped county that maddened me as a bored child and entrances me and saddens me now. Part of it is the land and the quiet. Part of it used to be the isolation from technology, but my parents have had high speed for a while and before this visit they installed a wireless access point. I still managed to spend most of my time outside.

I sometimes think: so much of my job is virtual. What if I had to live in Asheville? I could probably do some of what I do, but sadly product management still requires a lot of face to face time with the various constituencies that we support. The refrain of “Free Man In Paris” goes through my mind every time I leave: “If I could I’d go back there tomorrow, but for the work I’ve taken on…”

(Of course, I’d miss other things about where we are, like being able to sing in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. But our work is the main thing.)

Lenox rhythms

lenox ma downtownIt can be really beautiful out here in the summertime before the crowds come. That’s what yesterday was like. While the chorus and symphony were here, there weren’t any concerts going on, just rehearsals, and the only people about were a few symphony families and one or two odd visitors who wanted to get a preview of the weekend’s concerts.

Not only the grounds at Tanglewood were quiet (as you can tell from yesterday’s photos) but so was downtown Lenox (as you can tell from this shot). There were no crowds, it was easy to get a parking space even at lunchtime, and it was generally nice and quiet.

That changes tonight when James Taylor rolls into the Shed for a two night residency.

Already this morning Lenox was a mess. Tourists asking three or four times whether the local businesses took credit cards, parking and pedestrian hassles, long lines at the coffee shop. None of the wi-fi hotspots in town are actually functioning due to the large presence of freeloaders. It’s all kinds of fun, really.

The shop owners are looking a little wild eyed as the crowds come and they prepare to make some serious money. The guy at the bagel shop says, “I wish it were Monday already and I survived this weekend.”

We’ve got rehearsal this afternoon on grounds–it’s going to be a mess. But that’s the rhythm of Tanglewood. There’s always a different flood of people to share the town with.

Deluge

I had a nice walk tonight from the docks at the end of King Street in Alexandria, Virginia to my hotel. Or, it was nice for the first three blocks until the heavens opened up. Man, I forgot what thunderstorms in June are like here. I made it to the hotel, drenched, and rested a bit before heading back to Old Town and Bilbo Baggins. Where the food has been adequate and the beer, divine.

All the reviews are spot on regarding the décor here, btw. I’ve been in Michigan State college bars that had more elaborate ambience. But they didn’t have Dominion on tap, or Duchesse de Bourgogne in the bottle. Mmm, Flemish red ales.