Please, I implore you, read the Vanity Fair Cocktail Talk Part I, so you can hear more about the book, where I land on it, and on what seven glasses of Champagne does to you. Here, we’re not going to get too deep into the book proper, as we have a long Cocktail Talk below, and it’s a good one, funny in a tipsy way, full of eating and drinking, featuring some of the book’s main characters, and highlighted by Rack Punch. Rack Punch! A curious thing, Rack Punch. It’s hard to pin down. I mean, I’m sure a genius cocktail historian like David Wondrich would know without looking up from his drink, but I can’t bother him. It’s either punch made with Batavia Arrack (rum-ish spirit made with sugar cane and a bit of fermented red rice), used in many tiki recipes or Arak, the grape-based anise spirit from the Levant area of the Eastern Mediterranean. You look it up and you’ll see Rack Punch using either one or the other (and even one spot that spells it Arrack but talks about it as if it was Arak!). My feel, my lean, as you might say, is it was made with Batavia Arrack. As it’s rum-y, that would match the time, and I don’t think Arak had made the inroads to Britain that rum and relatives had at the time. Also, the basic punch – sugar, lemon or other citrus, water, maybe some spices – would just pair better with it, as opposed to the anise-side, in my view. Both could be delicious, but that’s my take (btw, both spirits are delicious. The below Cocktail Talk is delicious, too).
The two couples were perfectly happy then in their box: where the most delightful and intimate conversation took place. Jos was in his glory, ordering about the waiters with great majesty. He made the salad; and uncorked the Champagne; and carved the chickens; and ate and drank the greater part of the refreshments on the tables. Finally, he insisted upon having a bowl of rack punch; everybody had rack punch at Vauxhall. “Waiter, rack punch.”
That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history. And why not a bowl of rack punch as well as any other cause? Was not a bowl of prussic acid the cause of Fair Rosamond’s retiring from the world? Was not a bowl of wine the cause of the demise of Alexander the Great, or, at least, does not Dr. Lempriere say so?—so did this bowl of rack punch influence the fates of all the principal characters in this “Novel without a Hero,” which we are now relating. It influenced their life, although most of them did not taste a drop of it.
The young ladies did not drink it; Osborne did not like it; and the consequence was that Jos, that fat gourmand, drank up the whole contents of the bowl; and the consequence of his drinking up the whole contents of the bowl was a liveliness which at first was astonishing, and then became almost painful; for he talked and laughed so loud as to bring scores of listeners round the box, much to the confusion of the innocent party within it; and, volunteering to sing a song (which he did in that maudlin high key peculiar to gentlemen in an inebriated state), he almost drew away the audience who were gathered round the musicians in the gilt scollop-shell, and received from his hearers a great deal of applause.
Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, what to do with you? I’m talking here about the book by Thackeray, of course, not the magazine. I’ll leave that to people who have read the magazine, and here we’ll stick to the book, which I recently re-read. And it took me a while, I will fully admit. I’ll also admit that the book is a classic, no matter how long it took. I mean, it’s so rich with stuff, in a way, and such a view into a certain milieu of the times, which is in some ways reflection of ones modern (maybe more than some ways). But it’s also a novel that to me reads completely (well, maybe not every single moment), or nearly completely, as if written in the sarcasm font, to bring it modern again. And if Mr. Thackeray, with respect, just scorns every character. Which means – very funny. Very realized characters. Now, he brings it together at the end in a friendlier way, and manages one of the best last lines ever, and when I was done, I was happy to have re-read it, and no doubt many Thackeray scholars if they read this post would school me! Understandably so. So, let’s change the narrative as they say. And instead let me say that I had forgotten how many swell Cocktail Talking scenes he brought into the book. We need to have at least two, maybe four. It makes sense, as Thackeray was known to enjoy, love, adore the clubs of the time (think port, not pulsating music), and not be ashamed to hit the late night brandy dens, etc. I’m all for it! And here we are! Our first Cocktail Talk. With Champagne! Seven glasses! And cherry brandy! And more!
“I think she’s going,” said the Rector’s wife. “She was very red in the face when we left dinner. I was obliged to unlace her.”
“She drank seven glasses of champagne,” said the reverend gentleman, in a low voice; “and filthy champagne it is, too, that my brother poisons us with–but you women never know what’s what.”
“We know nothing,” said Mrs. Bute Crawley.
“She drank cherry-brandy after dinner,” continued his Reverence, “and took curacao with her coffee. I wouldn’t take a glass for a five-pound note: it kills me with heartburn. She can’t stand it, Mrs. Crawley–she must go–flesh and blood won’t bear it! and I lay five to two, Matilda drops in a year.”
While I wouldn’t say our front yard in the north Seattle area is the prettiest – I tend to shade towards the scraggly when it comes to the grass, for one, cause over-watering is a problem, ya’ know – it is blessed with an abundance (or over-abundance as neighbors might say) of lovely, bee-utiful, lavender. When it flowers in summer, the air smells delish, the flowers hide the dead grass, and the bees are buzzing happily. But what, if anything, to do with it? I mean, pretty for pretty-ness’ sake is swell! All for it. Art for art’s sake, too. And making bees buzz jollily is a state of being we should aim for, cause bees rule. But, but, it’s also quite fun to utilize a little of that lavender in making lavender simple syrup (recipe below), which can then be mixed with gin and Prosecco into this very cocktail, the Lavanda (which sounds like a sultry dance, but isn’t. Not saying you can’t have a few of these and dance btw. Cause that, that you should do). The combo is classy in a summertime way, fragrant in a floral way, and makes an ideal accompaniment to a summer’s late afternoon or evening. Thinking more, what a crowning glory of a drink this would be at a summer wedding. You should get married! You can serve this – I have lots of lavender to spare.
1. Add the flowers from the top of one lavender sprig, gin, and lavender simple syrup to a cocktail shaker. Using a muddler or wooden spoon, muddle well.
2. Fill the cocktail shaker halfway full with ice cubes. Shake like dancer.
2. Strain into a flute. Top with chilled Prosecco, and garnish with the second lavender sprig.
First Note: To make lavender simple syrup, add 1/4 cup chopped fresh lavender, 2 cups sugar, and 1 1/2 cups water to a medium-sized saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until it reaches a low boil, stirring regularly. Once it reaches that low boil, reduce the heat to medium- low and keep the syrup at a simmer, still stirring, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool completely.
Second Note: For gin here, you could go traditional London style (like, Broker’s gin, which wouldn’t be a bad choice), as the juniper plays with lavender well. But you could also go something less traditional,
Does one, when one is older, feel oldest in the Spring (as opposed to the other seasons)? I could see an argument being made for Winter, as the cold chills old bones, and perhaps Fall as well, as that’s the season when things (trees and their ilk) shed leaves and begin to go dormant, which points to getting old. In Summer, all are young, for some moments at least. I lean Spring, I have to say, as it’s when youth begins to be so evident after Winter, what with buds on the trees and shorts on or above the knees. Not to maudlin naturally, but mulling it, and placing that point as a reason why I’m having this delicious number today, a drink names after the explorer who went looking for the fountain of youth. Cause when the old bones yearn for being younger, that ol’ fountain sounds mighty fine. As it’s not, ya know, real, this drink (which will make you feel younger, for moments if not forever) will have to suffice, for now!
March is a celebratory month (as is every month, I would hazard to hypothesize), and celebratory months deserve punches, as you can celebrate by your lonesome, but it’s not really the same as celebrating with a passel of pals or a flock of family. Is it? I don’t feel it is. Those sole celebrators, don’t get up in it. You can have your own stance. Anywho, following along the celebratory-and-punches track, here’s one to consider: Bombay Punch. I have to admit, I’m not sure why it’s called “Bombay,” as it doesn’t contain to my eye any ingredients from the Bombay region – though there are I believe some good brandies made in India, so you could go that route! Brandy being the base here, onto which grape-derived goodness is added nutty maraschino, orange-y Cointreau, apricot-y apricot liqueur, some tangy oj, and some bubbly bubbles. It’s a fruity, bumping, sparkling treat, one ideal for any celebration – though if it is a solo one (as we chatted about above), don’t drink this all at once by yourself.
This quote’s from another story featured in one of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, edited as always by the indefatigable Martin Edwards (see a couple past British Library Crime Classics Cocktail Talks). This particular collection is called Guilty Creatures, and is roaming with mysteries that circle or feature or highlight or spotlight animals in some way. Being an animal-lover myself, it was an ideal mix of stories for me. Not a lot of Cocktail Talking as you might expect, and (also as you might expect in a collection featuring a range of stories from early-to-middle last century) with a few stories that don’t hit such a high mark, though many, many do. This particular story actually wasn’t one of my favs, but was fun in a way, and has the amazing title “Pit of Screams,” and has snakes playing a big part, and a warning on brandy and Champagne in the below quote that while I can’t agree with, I can certainly understand!
In Togarapore to this day they will tell you that the snakes hypnotized the Rajah so that he fell. But what do you think?
He was giddy from the drink and the sun? Yes, that’s another possible explanation. It is bad to drink brandy and Champagne at midday. But neither is correct. What really killed the Rajah was a tear running down the cheek of that girl wife.
I was a young man in those days, very strong and with hot blood. When I saw that tear I bent, unnoticed, and jerked his ankles so that he somersaulted like the rat he was into the Pit of Screams.
I’ve only yet had one other Cocktail Talk (The Case of Oscar Brodski Cocktail Talk, from the Blood on the Tracks anthology) from a British Library Crime Classics collection, though I hope to have more. These collections (there are a fair amount now, themed often in various ways) bring together some more famous, some less famous, some oft anthologized, some mostly forgotten mystery and crime stories written by British authors mainly in the early part of the last century. They’re loads of fun. Not all the stories are top shelf, but I haven’t read one yet (and I have three of the collections now) that didn’t have some merit. In them, better-known names (the awesome Arthur Conan Doyle for one) sit alongside lesser-known authors, some of whom were renowned during their times, then faded from public knowledge as years passed. As happens! Just today, I was reading the collection called Settling Scores, which contains murders and crimes around various types of sports and sporting events: tennis, golf, squash, boxing, and more, including rowing, which is where our Cocktail Talk comes from, as might be guessed from the story’s title, “The Boat Race Murder.” It was written by David Winser, who had a burgeoning writing career (and doctoring career) cut tragically short by a bomb in WWII. The series editor (and well-known mystery writer in his own right) Martin Edwards provides helpful bios for each author, along with picking the stories. You might think, “sports,” and expect a lack of Cocktail Talking (training and all) – I didn’t expect to find a quote quite right myself. But then came across the below, which is perfect.
You must try and picture a fizz night at Ranelagh. Someone, the coach or some other old Blue, had suddenly produced a dozen bottles of Champagne, and the coach has said that the crew’s been going so well that it damn well deserves the filthy stuff. Actually, as he and everyone else knows, the main purpose of the fizz is to stop the crew getting stale.
Sometimes it’s good to go back to the basics. This here (or, below here) is my recipe for Champagne Punch, the one I picked up from family holiday gatherings when I was a wee one, the one I was making for parties long before even this blog started (so, dinosaurs were walking the earth), and long before I put the recipe in Good Spirits (and probably others books and articles), and long before I started typing this sentence (which is itself rather long now, though not as long as some by, say, Henry James). It’s a basic ol’ bubbly fruity rummy punchy number, not all la-de-da, but very solid, very tasty, and very much a sparkling treat that’s wonderful around the holiday season – which, low and behold, we are now in, or nearly in if you don’t want to jump the gun. A stance I understand, but good to be prepared pals! So, have the basic recipe below in your back pocket – it’s sure to be a hit at your holiday gatherings, which I’m sure will be anything but basic.
Ice (in block form if possible; if not, large chunks)
6 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice
4 ounces simple syrup
2 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice
2 ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 ounces white rum
6 ounces dark rum
Once 750-milliliter bottle chilled Champagne
Orange, lime, and lemon slices, for garnish
1. Add the ice to a large punch bowl. If using chunks (as opposed to a large block of ice), fill the bowl just under halfway.
2. Add the orange juice, simple syrup, lime juice, and lemon juice. With a large spoon or ladle, stir 10 times.
3. Add the white and dark rums. Stir 10 more times.
4. Add Champagne, but not too quickly. Enjoy the moment. Add a goodly amount of orange, lime, and lemon slices. Stir, but only once.
5. Ladle into punch glasses or festive goblets. Try to ensure that every guest gets a slice of fruit and a smile.
The Man Behind the Evening's PlansA.J. Rathbun is a freelance food and entertainment writer, poet and author, a frequent guest on the Everyday Food program (Martha Stewart Living/Sirius satellite radio), and is a contributor to culinary & entertainment magazines such as Every Day with Rachael Ray, The Food Network Magazine, Real Simple, Wine Enthusiast, and many others. Of course, there's so much more to it than that...Read More