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The Shipwreck Rose: Eat a Peach

Wed, 01/03/2024 - 16:50

On New Year’s Eve we played card games, Rat-a-Tat Cat and Exploding Kittens, and I attempted to steal a kip on my friend’s couch, having consumed a flute and a half of Kir Royale. My Sag Harbor hostess wouldn’t permit me to steal a nap, however, calling out from the parlor as the parlor games were beginning: “Bess is pooping out! Look! Bess is crapping out!” loudly enough that I was shamed into getting up from the couch, on the far side of the dining room, and returning to the party to lose every hand. I cannot hold my Kir Royale.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, again, on New Year’s Day, as another year rolls into oblivion: We grow old, we grow old, we shall wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled.

We shall leave the creme de cassis in the bottom of the glass.

We shall decline to be awake for the toast at midnight.

It’s someone else’s turn to dance on top of the bar.

Frequent readers of this column will know that I like to sprinkle it liberally with references to cocktails of various kinds, but that’s not so much because I’m a drinker, actually, as that I like the idea of a well-stocked bar cart of shiny bottles, as a treat and for the variety of it, in the same way you might enjoy a Whitman Sampler of chocolates: a raspberry one and an orange one, a cherry cordial and so forth, for the pleasure of taking a nibble (having a sip) and putting it back in the box (leaving it half full on the party coaster). I may have aged into the sort of wet-blanket guest who finds a fuzzy throw and a secluded couch and attempts to nap before 10 p.m. at a New Year’s Eve party but, nevertheless, I persist in conceiving of myself a champagne-cocktail kind of girl. The classic champagne cocktail, prepared with a sugar cube, three drops of bitters, and an orange twist.

Don’t you like the words “orange twist”? I do. Even the words “Angostura Bitters” are pleasing. Did you know that Angostura Bitters have been distilled on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago since 1824? We imagine the Angostura heirs napping coolly on cotton sheets behind louvered shutters, in blazing midday, in a mansion house painted palest conch-pink, surrounded by raspberry-pink bougainvillea. Who wouldn’t want to taste that? I know I do.

I could write an autobiography in perfumes, and I could write an autobiography in alcoholic beverages.

I started out my drinking career as a self-serious teenager standing with a book of LeRoi Jones poems tucked under my arm, trying to look intellectual, who, in the company of fellow adolescents intent on pilfering their parents’ gallon jugs of Beefeater Gin, refused to drink at all. I refused to drink at all, at the start, because I wanted a clear head to think my thoughts — brilliant, obviously, in my own mind — and also because I’d seen my fair share of sloppy grown-ups acting the fool.  That didn’t last long. The first cocktail I remember ordering was a gin and tonic at the bar at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, in the dancing days of the 1980s, when we were 16 and stayed out till 3 or 4 a.m. several nights a week. I chose a gin and tonic because I knew what it was, and it didn’t sound foolish. Teenagers’ drinks of choice were the generic gin and tonic or a screwdriver.

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”

During my college years, I missed the beer-keg culture entirely, never went to a frat party once, but it was still beer, beer, and beer in the bars of Alphabet City and the Lower East Side. Ukrainian bars, Hanks Crystal Palace on the Bowery, Downtown Beirut, CBGBs, the Lismar Lounge. The underground rock and rollers drank nothing else. Rolling Rock, Schaefer, Pabst Blue Ribbon . . . if the beer brand was old school and cheap, it was guzzled by the rattling six-pack. The night I met Joey Ramone, and he backed me up against a wall to mumble in my direction, we both had a beer in hand. But I never liked beer particularly. I haven’t had a beer in 25 years. I don’t see the point. It only makes me sleepy.

Unicum, in a round, black bottle that looked like an anarchist’s bomb was the frequent poison of my Budapest years. Unikum is a deep, dark, treacly, herbal distillation that tastes like ancient medicine. It should properly be drunk as a digestive, by the spoonful, but we drank it regularly from shot glasses, in the dawn, at dusk, in the gloaming, in smoke-filled basement clubs, beside the Danube, in many echoey Art Nouveau apartments with peeling paint on the walls and lilacs in jars on the floor as we talked about Charles Bukowski. Unikum and many bottles of homemade “palinka,” fruit brandy distilled from pears, plums, cherries, or whatever fruit grew on the heavy boughs of the trees in granny’s garden plot in the hills of Buda. Everyone was drunk in Central Europe, circa 1993 to 1995. Even though we were drunk, we were good-looking as we danced to Boney M’s “Ra Ra Rasputin” and Prince’s “Sexy M.F.”

Back to New York City I flew on Malev Airlines for the Tom Collins years, 1995 to 1998. I dressed exclusively in vintage clothes during that attenuated sojourn in Midtown Manhattan, from my satin teddy and seamed stockings to my fox-fur stole bought for a song (“Amapola” by Helen O’Connell and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra) at the flea market on Sixth Avenue. It was the swing revival, and I was a charter member of the first iteration of the East Coast swing set, cutting a swathe through the faux-speakeasies and supper clubs of New York. The crowds parted when we walked in on the arms of tall men in suits meticulously tailored by the House of Savoia. A belt in the back. Linen in summer, tweed in winter. Gloves, clutches, spectators and bucks, handkerchiefs, cigarette cases. We drank midcentury cocktails — old-fashioneds, Manhattans, martinis — eight to the bar.

Next came my rosé champagne era, defined by the one regret I will allow myself from my tenure at Vogue magazine. I don’t regret giving the best years of my adult working life to Condé Nast, deal with the devil though it was. . . .  I don’t regret being a cog in the wheel of the corporate-fashion oppression machine . . .  or declining to accept a job offer that would have taken me from Vogue to Martha Stewart Living in 1999 . . . or terrorizing the junior fashion writing staff with my steel-fisted dictates about good and bad magazine copy . . . or even anonymously rewriting various famous writers’ work instead of focusing on my own. No. Non. Je ne regrette rien. I only regret “no” to an invitation to jet to the Hotel George V in Paris on a press junket in celebration of Veuve Clicquot Rosé Champagne on or about 2002. A friend who is a wine importer informed me years ago that Veuve Clicquot is not good champagne in point of fact, and from a real wine person’s point of view, but I wouldn’t know. I cannot taste the difference, especially if I’ve put creme de cassis or a sugar cube into it. I’m only sorry about the free trip to the George V.

There is a well-stocked cocktail tray in my kitchen right now, as I type, with three kinds of fancy bitters as well as ginger syrup and two different botanical gins from Great Britain, but the only cocktail I drink as frequently as perhaps three times a year is a dark rum and Coke, which I manage perhaps two-thirds of, over shrimp Parmigiana, when I take my kids out for dinner at Sam’s restaurant on Newtown Lane.

“I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.


We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”


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