Seasons by the Sea: The Drink That Eats Like a Meal

There are multitudinous variations on the Bloody Mary cocktail
Nick and Toni’s Bloody Mary Board invites patrons to blend their own drinks using various alcohol options, their own mix or straight tomato juice, and a number of garnishes. Jennifer Landes

I love Bloody Marys but seldom drink them. They seem to be kind of a meal in a glass, thick and spicy with bits and bobs of horseradish, a celery stick, perhaps an olive on a toothpick, like watered down cocktail sauce with booze in it.

There are multitudinous variations on the Bloody Mary cocktail. Don’t even get me started on the current trend of garnishes galore, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Never mind, here we go: I have seen or heard about Bloody Marys being adorned by sliders, Slim Jims, candied bacon, salami, string cheese, all manner of pickled vegetables, shrimp, and my favorite from Gary Cobb: a whole battered and fried soft-shell crab dressed up with olive eyes and perched precariously on top of the glass. More like meal on a glass.

This story required some in-depth research, so a visit to Nick and Toni’s for Sunday brunch was necessary. Here you can get a Bloody Mary Board for $40, which serves up to four people. Quite a bargain. Along with Nick and Toni’s house-infused peppery vodka, you get the usual suspects of olives and lemon and lime wedges. In addition there are pickled vegetables from the restaurant’s own garden: fiddlehead ferns and string beans, along with horseradish, fresh jalapeños, and a variety of Horman’s Best pickles. It is civilized, fun, and doesn’t stray too far from the norm. (When I imagine a warm, crisp slice of candied bacon coagulating in an ice cold drink, sending blobs of piggy fat to the surface, I just get the willies.) For an additional $10 per board, you can upgrade to premium tequila or gin. Woo-hoo!

In researching the history of this cocktail, I came across two somewhat believable stories. Delving deeper, I found a rather alarming one, the history of the Oyster Cocktail. This recipe was published in London in the Hospital Gazette in 1892. This tonic was prescribed for anyone “possessed of suicidal tendencies.” It consisted of six warm oysters swimming in tomato juice.

The Bloody Mary as we know it today may have first been concocted by Fernand Petiot, bartender at the New York Bar (later’s Harry’s) in Paris in the early 1920s. Such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and Humphrey Bogart made it the hangout in later years. Petiot may have named the drink after Queen Mary Tudor, a.k.a. Bloody Mary, due to her fondness for the execution of any and all protestants. Petiot may also have named it after the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Chicago, so named because the bar owners were constantly mopping up messes left from brawls and stabbings.

By 1925, Fernand Petiot was bartending at the Savoy in London, where he was discovered by Mary Duke Biddle, then owner of the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. She lured him to New York City when Prohibition ended, and he bartended at the iconic King Cole Bar from 1934 until 1966.

It is believed that the drink became spicier when the Russian Prince Serge Obolensky asked for extra spice and Petiot added some drops of Tabasco sauce.

In 1935, when Vincent Astor took over the hotel, the drink’s name was changed to Red Snapper. Astor found the name Bloody Mary to be too vulgar for his soigné clientele.

The vaudevillian actor George Jessel also claims to have invented and named this cocktail in Palm Beach in 1927. He had been drinking champagne all night with a pal and had a volleyball game scheduled for 9:30 a.m. What to do? They popped into the bar at La Maze, where the bartender showed them a bottle of “vodkee.” George suggested killing the “pungent, rotten potato” flavor with Worcestershire sauce, tomato juice, and lemon. As they were “knocking out the butterflies” with this new recipe, Mary Brown Warburton walked in wearing a white evening gown. George spilled the drink down the front of her dress and that’s how his version of the cocktail name came about.

Canadians like a version called either the Caesar, or Bloody Caesar, made with part clam juice. I must admit, my favorite version of this cocktail is made with Clamato juice.

The variety of white spirits you can add to the spiced tomato juice include aquavit, tequila, vodka, and gin. Some people feel very strongly that the citrus element should always be lemon, not lime. For the life of me, I couldn’t find out how celery salt ever became an ingredient in the recipe, but some theorize that the addition of a celery stick is meant to cleanse the palate between sips of this spicy, salty cocktail.

While researching this subject with the help of Stephen (bartender) and Kirsten (boss lady nonpareil) at Nick and Toni’s, I wanted to try a simple version from the Camargue in southwestern Provence. Into a pitcher of good tomato juice, muddle some sprigs of spearmint and lemon slices, let sit for a few hours before drinking or adding chosen liquor. This was a big hit and we dubbed it the Camargue.

In a 1947 letter to his friend Bernard Peyton, Ernest Hemingway shared his recipe for a Bloody Mary and claims to have introduced it to Hong Kong in 1941. “. . . Believe it did more than any other single factor except perhaps the Japanese Army to precipitate the fall of that Crown Colony,” he bragged. He also offered some wise advice on the mixing and fixing: “keep drinking it yourself to see how it is doing. . . .”

Whether you like your Bloody Mary pure, simple, and classic or turned into a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, mashup of Tater Tots, pig’s knuckles, and artichoke hearts, just remember to mix and drink responsibly.

Click for recipes