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A Drinkable Feast

A tribute to what is pure and good and true and tastes of the fruit that is red and ripe and kicks like a Cossack's boot.

January 15, 2006|David Lansing | David Lansing last wrote for the magazine about potato vodka.

When i was 23, I moved to Paris to play Ernest Hemingway. Every morning I sat at a clean, well-lighted cafe on Boul' Mich nursing a cafe au lait and writing short stories that were simple and true and a lot of rot. I ate the little radishes for lunch because I was poor, and had a bowl of soup for dinner at the sad cafe that smelled of smoke and sweat, and the women who drank there were called poivrottes.

For six months I drank the bad red wine, saving my money so just once I could go to Harry's New York Bar by the old Opera and pay a dollar to become a member of the I.B.F. (International Bar Flies) and order the drink that Papa drank by the pitcher, the drink that was invented there by Fernand "Pete" Petiot about 1920--the Bloody Mary.

I went and sat at the bar, perhaps in the same seat where F. Scott, who did not know how to drink, told Papa that the rich were different from us, and Papa said, "Yes, they have better wine"--or something like that--and ordered a Bloody Mary. It was not much. The tomato juice came from a can and was watery, the vodka cheap and the lemon juice of no particular merit. Even though I was young and poor and knew nothing about such things, I knew this was not a good Bloody Mary. This Bloody Mary was like death in the afternoon.

That was a very long time ago, before I knew that a really good Bloody Mary should be a drinkable feast. Since then, I have ordered Bloody Marys that took away that lost and empty feeling in Paris, drinks that were as good and real as a Bloody Mary could be and that made me feel both sad and happy at their perfection.

There is the one made by Brandon Boudet at Dominick's in West Hollywood known as Papa's Morning Medicina. Boudet's Italian grandfather was an old man of the sea who, he says, often came back from his fishing outings three sheets to the wind. His grandmother would gather Roma tomatoes from her garden and wrap them in cheesecloth, extracting their juice. She then mixed the thick juice with freshly grated horseradish root, a dash or two of aged balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of fresh lemon. And an ample amount of vodka, of course.

I've tried to make the drink as Boudet's grandmother did, and I can tell you that making fresh tomato juice is as difficult as spotting a leopard on the western summit of Kilimanjaro. I do not try to make it this way, though I am always happy to partake of Papa's Morning Medicina at Dominick's.

There once also was the Bloody Mary made by Hector Minero at Norman's on the Boul' Sunset. The bar where Minero worked is warm and clean and friendly, and if he liked you and was in a certain mood, he would tell you a story about the actress named Drew Barrymore for whom he once made a special cocktail, and it would make you feel wonderful on a cold afternoon when the Santa Ana winds were blowing. One day when I was sitting at the bar, thinking of my youth and young manhood and the actress named Drew, Minero also made me a special drink, one that reminded me of what Miss Stein had told Papa: "You should only drink what is truly good." Or something like that. It was a white Bloody Mary and was truly good and as succulent and strong as the fresh oysters at the Closerie des Lilas.

It was made with pureed fresh tomatoes drained slowly through a sieve to make tomato water. To give the drink heat, Minero used pickled Scotch bonnet peppers, which are tangy and fiery and make small beads of sweat appear above your upper lip if you are part of the lost generation like Scott or Zelda that does not know how to drink. I liked Hector Minero very much and I liked his white Bloody Mary even more, but now he has left Norman's on the Boul' Sunset and taken his white Bloody Mary with him, and his replacement, although a fine gentleman, feels that to make Minero's drink is to run naked with the bulls across the river and into the trees, which is to say he thinks it's too much work.

And down along the coast that is Newport, where the water is sparkling and fine, there is a cafe where you can sit by the window and smell the sea and, on a Sunday morning in winter, watch the game that is football. Here at Sage on the Coast, you can order a Bloody Mary that is made with a relish of smoked tomatoes, pickled red onions and cucumbers. The relish is made by owner Rich Mead, who will bring you small plates of the ribs that are short or the crab cakes that are blue, while the bartender makes the Bloody Mary that is like gazpacho. Drinking it makes you feel happy to be in love with the quarterback who is named Favre, even if his first name is that of a woman Papa loved.

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