Liquid Poetry: The Problem with Recipes

Sometimes the most accurate definitions aren’t the ones we find in dictionaries, the most thrilling flavors not spoon-fed to us by recipe books. The great masterpieces that now hang on museum walls were not “paint by numbers” projects, which is why we know them as “Mona Lisa” and “American Gothic,” instead of “smiling lady” or “creepy farmer couple.”

Creepy Farmer Couple (Actually Entitled "American Gothic")

Creepy Farmer Couple (Actually Entitled “American Gothic”)

When something is special, we give it a name, and that is especially (sometimes dizzyingly) true in the world of cocktails. Not only are cocktail names mnemonic devices that allow both new and experienced bartenders to develop a single-phrase shorthand for a list of ingredients and combinatory techniques that comprise a drink, but they also become a repository for all the wonderful (or not) sensory experiences that we associate with a given cocktail.

That’s why, if someone were to come up to me and ask, “what’s a Negroni?”, I’d feel compelled to go beyond the dictionary definition. Of course, I’d start by telling them that it’s a 1:1:1 mixture of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, but that sounds a lot more like a shopping list than an answer.

Negroni Flower Embitterment

What about the orange peel garnish? What about the flavor? What about that time I drank too many of them and the world turned lovely and stayed that way?

Beyond Simple Definitions – A Poem

In his poem, “In Answer to Amy’s Question What’s a Pickerel,” Stanley Plumly is faced with just such a dilemma. Clearly, the named character in the title is looking for a little primer on a certain species of freshwater fish, but Plumly’s speaker ends up offering perhaps more than she bargained for.

In Answer to Amy’s Question What’s a Pickerel

Pickerel have infinite, small bones, and skins
of glass and black ground glass, and though small for pike
are no less wall-eyed and their eyes like bone.
Are fierce for their size, and when they flare
at the surface resemble drowning birds,
the wing-slick panic of birds, but in those
seconds out of water on the line,
when their color changes and they choose for life,
will try to cut you and take part of your hand
back with them. And yet they open like hands,
the sweet white meat more delicate in oil,
to be eaten off the fire when the sun
is level with the lake, the wind calm,
the air ice-blue, blue-black, and flecked with rain.

The poem begins in the style of an elegant dictionary definition, but really achieves its emotional resonance as it morphs between images, the fish becoming first a bird, and then a hand, and then a flavor enjoyed in context.

In the world of the bar or the recipe book, it’s easy to get caught up in measures and ratios (and in all fairness, you can’t have a great cocktail without them). But great poems remind us that the magic doesn’t reside solely in ruthless precision. Exquisite flavor is a palimpsest of memories strewn across the recipe page so that you can’t read the numbers without wandering through a few good memories in the process.

A Different Approach to the Recipe

I’ll leave you today with a different kind of cocktail recipe to illustrate my point:

The Negroni

On the warmest weekend of the summer, drive to the beach. You know the one. Go to the freezer where your father-in-law keeps several pint glasses chilled at all times. Have confidence that they will be there, as they always are, as they always will be. In one of these glasses, combine over ice equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. Add several dashes of Embitterment Orange bitters. Stir with the back end of an iced-tea spoon; watch the red-pink liquid moving through the heavy frost dotted with your fingerprints. Pour the whole mixture into a large tumbler and garnish with a fresh orange peel. Walk out to the front steps, next to which a shock of hibiscus flowers stand in full bloom. Make a silent toast to the gods of summer as the smells of ocean and grill smoke filter down the street on the breeze. Enjoy.

Stay thirsty, stay bitter.

-Eric Kozlik

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