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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What Writers Drink In Paris When They Are Not Writing About Drinking In Paris
My friend Krista and I had just left Shakespeare and Company for drinks on the Île Saint-Louis, a hop, slip and a pratfall from the bookshop. It was the night for Vespers, not prayers at nearby Notre-Dame, but libations, the potent James Bond-martini-kind of Vesper. Three parts gin, one part vodka, a dash of Lillet and, in the original recipe, lemon peel (see Krista’s crucial swap ingredient below), the drink is named after the female lead character, Vesper Lynd, in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, and is magnificently tasty.
“And whose legs will walk you home?” asked our waiter, Benoit, in a lawless, rough-cut franglais. He seemed to really want to know. I was hoping to borrow Krista’s strong dancer’s legs for the tilted walk home later. Leaning towards us, he said, “Ladies, I will tell you this thing: I have a deep need of the pirate.” It was hard to tell if his revelation was: 1) secret code for some form of kinky skullduggery, 2) a desperate plea for a Dark ‘n Stormy, or 3) a Parisian hedging technique practiced by members of the service sector to avoid putting in drink orders.
What he needed, he went on, was a book, and since we worked at or around Shakespeare and Company, we must know the book he was looking for. “The one about the pirate,” he said. Benoit was one of those loose literary cannons you meet sometimes and the best thing to do was just go with it because not only was he our direct link to the blissful Vespers, he was also the first person ever to assume that we were walking, talking card catalogues in lipstick and leather boots.
Henry Miller, expatriate drinker extraordinaire, said, “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” As the night wore on, the thing I was most aware of was how much the bar tipped and splashed about, not unlike a pirate ship. (I swear I saw clientele with hooks for hands.)
So many writers have drunk their way through Paris in huge gulps, delicate sips or just plain lapping up the booze. The list is long and lush in more ways than one: Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda, Guillaume Apollinaire, Djuna Barnes, honorary Parisian Dorothy Parker, James Joyce, Françoise Sagan, Marguerite Duras and many more. The nineteenth century boasts absinthe drinkers like Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and, Guy de Maupassant, among others. The crowded, rich list of writers who enjoyed drinks and drinking in Paris during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries merits at least another month’s column, so that recipes like Alice B. Toklas’ “Hot Toddy for Cold Nights” (that she attributes to Gustave Flaubert) can be fully contemplated.
This end-of-the year Apéritif is devoted to writers who are imbibing now, those whom we can go to for advice about what to order when we’re in need of liquid inspiration. From tipple to toast, souse to swallow, here’s a taste of what writers are savoring these days. As is said in Paris when drinks are served, be it in the local lounge, hipster bar, or pirate ship: À votre santé!
Krista Halverson (Editor at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop): I take my Vespers with an orange peel (that is, rather than an orange slice) or nothing at all. I find the citrus of the lemon kills the whole creamy, sweet goodness of that splash of Lillet—though no doubt others (Ian Fleming / James Bond) would disagree.
Samantha Dunn (Falling Paris): The year I lived in Paris was the most libertine of my life—which, trust me, is saying a lot. I arrived fresh-faced from New Mexico, with dreams of going to Champagne in the company of someone refined and handsome to drink the famed elixir. I thought I would learn to sip espresso from that tiny white cup at the Cafe Flore itself. In truth what happened was that refined and handsome wouldn’t give me the time of day, and I was too soon dead-ass broke. I learned to love the café au lait my roommate from Marseille made every morning in our French press on top of a two-burner stove that was our kitchen in glorified chambre de bonne in the back attic of a hotel. I came to crave the 2-franc Beaujolais we bought at the UniPrix pour faire la bouffe with friends from “Hard Force,” the French-language, heavy-metal magazine that hired me because they wanted someone who spoke not English but “américain.” And when all else failed, there was always Le Violon Dingue, the ex-pat bar in the 5th near the Pantheon, where pints of Guiness were always free. Why? I was the female equivalent of a wing man for a hot-looking California girl, plus there was a certain British bartender who, let’s just say, appreciated my Celtic heritage. I never did make it to Champagne, but I did enjoy fresh milk in Normandie.
Sandra Beasley (Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl): At age 18, I left behind a stressful semester at college–including an incomplete midterm on the Civil War—to go to Paris with my family. I’d never traveled abroad before, and because of extensive allergies I stuck to the same foods over and over: a quick espresso and still-warm baguette as we walked to a museum or cathedral each morning; smoked salmon and frisée salad at lunch; duck breast with haricot verts and fries for dinner. I must have had those same meals two dozen times, at different cafes spanning from the fourth arrondissement to Montmarte, and always with a glass of cold Muscadet to begin.
I loved the light, crisp, melon acidity of those Loire grapes. I loved the ritual. I loved that by the time we had a drink, we were truly thirsty, my head swimming with the inspirations of the day.
The first poems of mine that I took seriously were from that trip to Paris. That was also when I realized that a routine can be sophisticated, even sublime. If I didn’t value routine, I could never be a writer. I could be an “author,” sure; I could tell saucy stories over Sazeracs at every bar in town. But when it comes to actually putting the words to the page, you need a little modesty and discipline. You need a glass of Muscadet.
Courtney Maum (Electric Literature’s “Celebrity Book Review“): My favorite place in France is Brittany, a romantic, coastal region in the northwest. A girlfriend and I used to channel our affection for this place with a drink we named after our favorite town there, Lancieux. It looks like a gin and tonic, but tastes like a refreshing vacation by the moody sea.
2 oz of Cachaça (Ypioca brand)
5 oz tonic water
Lime to taste
3 springs of cilantro
Pour the Cachaça and the tonic into a highball glass, squeeze lime to taste and stuff the cilantro into the glass. C’est bon et c’est jolie!
Tara Ison (The List): My Parisian aperitif of choice: a Kir, or a Kir Royale – very dry white wine or Champagne (for the joy of the flute), touched with crème de cassis. Love how the glass glows ruby in late-afternoon light, it’s nutritive (Vitamin A! Anti-oxidants! I tell myself), not too sweet, the colder the better, but tricky to order, as I find the word “kir” (a proper noun, actually, the cocktail was named for a former mayor of Dijon), a challenge to accent properly.
Dylan Landis (Normal People Don’t Live Like This): I’m so tame. It’s just Champagne. But it’s in a Paris apartment with 11-foot ceilings, and book-lined walls, and views of some cobbled street with quirky shopping and great cafes, and I’m up there sipping Ruinart and writing fiction on our balcony, with Dean across the little table reading, and once again I’m grateful I didn’t get trapped in the teeny cranky elevator with my baguettes and Camembert and, at least, the Ruinart.
Matthew Rohrer (Destroyer and Preserver): What is Kir and Why Do I Like It? My wife and I were introduced to Kir at a reading at Shakespeare & Co. It looked like something we normally wouldn’t drink: it was pink. But on the other hand it was free, which is something we normally drink.
Kir is crème de cassis (just a little) mixed with white wine. The Kir Royale is crème de cassis with Champagne. In the summer it’s amazingly refreshing. A touch of sweet and sour crème de cassis (black currant syrup) makes the white wine (which is normally gross) refreshing.
The word “Kir” is very strange and seemingly not very French. I thought I was on to something when I assumed it was related to the German Kirsch—the cherry liqueur. Black currants and cherries. But the drink is named after the former mayor of Dijon, M. Kir. Where he got that name is a mystery to me, one I am not interested in pursuing.
Cecilia Woloch (Carpathia): I drink what everyone drinks in Paris, I guess: cafe crème in the morning — half strong black coffee; half hot frothed milk—and a tiny espresso in the afternoon, sweetened with sugar and gulped; a kir before dinner, perhaps; then red wine with dinner, unless there’s Champagne. And if there’s Champagne, there’s more Champagne. And if I’m still thirsty, water.
Karen Karbo (How Georgia Became O’Keeffe): “I only drink Champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I’m not,” Coco Chanel is said to have said. Cagey Chanel, ever ahead of her time, understood the power of the sound bite, and to that end employed a talented though underappreciated poet and self-styled mystic named Pierre Reverdy to help her craft her witticisms. Presumably she drank a lot of Champagne during their short, intense affair, which evolved into a forty year long friendship.
I seem to only drink two things in Paris, a 3 euro bottle of Chardonnay available at the chain grocery store Franprix, or a 25 euro glass of Lagavulin scotch at the Hemingway Bar in the Ritz, where each lady still receives a flower beside her glass.
Li Po let the moon slip into his wine,
alone among the flowers of the Milky Way.
Baudelaire drank to stave off “Time’s horrid fardel”,
the burden of aging diminishing with each swallow.
Hemingway loved his Mexican Mojito’s, sugary lime,
mint leaves adrift like small veined boats in a sea
of fermented molasses. Faulkner his Julep, Fitzgerald
his gin, the drink you can’t smell but that takes you away
like the grace note of a bitch goddesses’s perfume.
Chandler slipped his gimlets into the The Long Goodbye,
Marlow downing them two at a time: Rose’s and bitters,
his hat and gun. Fleming’s Bond tipped his Vesper Martini
from a Champagne flute, shaken, not stirred,
chilled vodka cooling his prayerless throat.
Edna invented Between the Sheets, two men
in her tawny sidecars, reeking of rum.
But it was Kerouac who caressed the sleek stem
of the Margarita, fan dance of tequila, lime wheels,
and ice, a scant ounce of Cointreau and crushed
diamonds of salt winking off the rim, garnished
with a wedge of green light.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.