Cocktails have been on my mind.
As a cheesemonger, I know that I am expected to have just images of fromage dancing through my head and that the only tipple I should contemplate is wine, since it’s considered (but not entirely accurately) the quintessential accompanying drink, but cocktails seep into my imagination as well.
This was especially so a few weeks back when I made a day trip up to Providence to catch up with a friend visiting from Singapore and to do some research for an article I am writing for the magazine culture, “the word on cheese.” Also luring me to the city was a special exhibit, “Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920–1980,” at the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum.
It was an intoxicating show, so to speak, with over 200 objects, chronicling changing American mores, as manifested in the most American of social rituals, the cocktail party. Undoubtedly the highlight was the sixty haute-couture dresses, spanning sixty years of changing fashion, from flirtatious and liberated flapper dresses to the quintessential black cocktail dress, a term coined by Christian Dior in the 1950s, to the stylized, flowing “ethnic” wear of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
|View of "Cocktail Culture":|
What I took away from the exhibit, in addition to a thirst for a properly made cocktail, was an awareness of how Prohibition forever changed social interaction between the sexes. Before this embarrassing experiment in American history, men drank in their dark clubs while women sipped tea in stuffy parlors. When alcohol was banished to clandestine gatherings in speakeasies and elegant private homes, women and men mixed, like a well-balanced cocktail. With the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol returned, but the segregation of the sexes did not. The giddy delights of the cocktail party had been established and woven into the fabric of American society. Added to this social institution was a heavy dash of glamor, which the current resurgent interest in cocktail culture tries to recapture. We want to bring back drinks and style.
Unfortunately, it’s too late to see the exhibit. It closes on Sunday, July 31. You can, however, view some images from it and hear a radio piece on NPR’s Web site.
|Norman Bel Geddes’|
1934 “Manhattan Cocktail Service”:
But it’s never too late to have a dose of cocktail culture. Gather friends, dress up fashionably, and make seasonal drinks. Fruit is a great way to go. Dice up watermelon for margaritas and peaches for Bellinis. For something novel and intriguing, try fresh herbs, like basil for a take on the classic gimlet. You already know that I am keen about making lavender simple syrup for summer concoctions, such as the Bee’s Nose . I’ve also given thyme a whirl, adding grilled sprigs or infusing simple syrup for yet another version of a gimlet.
The real way to get into cocktail culture, besides putting on a stunning black cocktail dress or a tuxedo and lounging by a piano, is using measured dashes of bitters in your cocktails. Bitters, which originated as healing tonics, is alcohol infused with herbs, spices, and other botanicals. Believe it or not, cocktails aren't technically cocktails without bitters. The most well known brand is Angostura, which you can find in most supermarkets, but with the renaissance of the cocktail have come a wide range of bitters: orange (the classic for a martini), Peychaud's (the sine qua non for a Sazerac), and unusual ones like celery, Aztec chocolate, grapefruit, and rhubarb. Sickles now has a wide range of bitters from Fee Brothers. On sale right now, 3 for $21, these bitters can help you get into the spirit, so to speak!
Diana Pittet the cocktail-shaking cheesemonger