Cocktails are Heavier Than Air, Part Two

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Heinrich never, ever forget his first sight of the Hindenburg. He’d just taken the train down to Friedrichshafen, where the ship was making a brief stop before its first voyage across the Atlantic. He’d felt very superior, riding on the train, looking at the other passengers. He’d felt sorry for them, in the haughtiest sort of way, that they would remain bound to the land, crawling along, subject to every terrestrial obstacle; whereas he would soon be floating over continents and oceans. And then seeing the ship, just in from its triumphant maiden tour around Germany, tied down at the mouth of its enormous bespoke hangar on the shores of Lake Constance, his burgeoning pride seemed to him entirely warranted. It was really a ship, as big as a steamliner, and it behaved like a U-Boat in reverse, buoyed by the air in exactly the same way that submarines rise and descend in the much denser medium of the seas. Heinrich imagined cutting the mooring cables, and soaring up, up and away, to the roof of the sky and beyond, to something unspeakably grand.

His first tour of the ship, conducted by the head steward, Herr Kubis, didn’t disillusion him, though it was amazing to see just how much of the volume of that leviathan was divided into great pockets of emptiness. Passengers occupied a tiny slice of the Hindenburg’s belly: common rooms with grand exterior views on each side, and windowless cabins between them. Cargo, crew quarters, and control rooms were arrayed along its keel, ballasting the ship. The rest of the vessel was monopolized by giant membranes filled with hydrogen gas. They were made of some new sort of latex material. Herr Kubis told Heinrich they’d been made of animal guts in earlier models, that it had taken the innards of hundreds of thousands of cows to make one airship. That made him a little sick, thinking about it, but it seemed to mean nothing to Herr Kubis.

Strictly speaking, the Hindenburg could not have carried even a full cargo even of air. To float, it had to be still lighter than that. Thus all the hydrogen, and all the space that couldn’t be used. And even then, the ship didn’t like to float very high. Ascend very much, where the air is thinner, and a Zeppelin just starts to sink back down again. So it always flew low. That surprised Heinrich, and it usually surprised passengers too, especially those who had flown in airplanes. They flew low enough that it felt like they weren’t quite defying gravity, that the Earth was keeping them on a short leash.

And even with all that wispy-thin hydrogen, the little occupied sliver of the ship still had to be as light as the genius of the time could contrive. The interior looked nothing like Heinrich had thought – he’d imagined something like the pictures of the Bremen he’d seen in the illustrated papers, sumptuous decoration and heavy wood furniture, bringing its passengers slowly, but in great luxury, across the Atlantic. In fact every kilo was counted, and the furniture was spare and Spartan, made of aluminum tubing and fabric. Looking at the pictures now, one is reminded of the inside of a second-rate ferry, but back then it looked to Heinrich’s eyes like the essence of modernity, or even like the interior of some futuristic spacecraft.

Heinrich wondered if even he had been chosen for his lightness. He was not tall, and back then was also still very thin. Of course it was his uncle Willi, the handsome shopfloor genius of the Daimler Motorwerken in Unterturkheim, and then the ace mechanic of the Hindenburg, who had gotten him the job for its first commercial flight; a junior steward, terrified of flying, had had several panic attacks during the first trial voyages around Germany. He’d finally been kicked off the ship, and there was a sudden and urgent opening. Heinrich arrived just in time, two days before the ship was to fly out again. 29 March, 1936. That was the day of the plebiscite on Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, and he was glad of a good excuse to skip the vote.

It could have been even harder to get out of his previous job, than to get in to the Hindeburg, with the doubled salary it offered, and the relatively great prestige. Heinrich had been a waiter in a Gestapo officers’ canteen, at the Hotel Silber in Stuttgart, and one didn’t just walk out of a job like that.

Now, Heinrich was no Nazi, at any time, or so he claimed many years later. His father was a socialist, and two of his uncles were communists. Heinrich had started at the Hotel Silber in 1932, when it was still a real hotel and Weimar still reigned, and the security police of the republic occupied only a part of the building. But the next year the Nazis seized power and immediately doubled the number of police involved in the nasty political stuff, and they took over the whole hotel, along with most of the staff. So there was Heinrich, raised by members of the Internationale in good standing to hate Hitler down to his bones, and yet serving fancy meals on Hotel Silber bone china to some of the very worst sorts of his minions. It was humiliating, and made worse by the fact that most of them seemed to like him. He was blue eyed, and was blond back then, and usually considered comely enough, so he was the sort of German they liked; or even fancied, some of them. A number of uniformed men made passes at him in those days, and the higher they were in the Nazi hierarchy, the more likely they were to do so.

So Heinrich had been afraid that the head waiter at the hotel, who went everywhere with a picture of Himmler in a locket, was going to denounce him, maybe even have him sent to a concentration camp, when he showed him the telegram from his uncle. But the heading of the message immediately sold him on Heinrich’s release. “’The Hindenburg, under way over Franconia!’” he’d read, slapping him on the back. “Of course you must go! It’s at the leading, heroic edge of our glorious new era. I daresay you’ll have a chance to serve the Fuhrer himself his dinner, in the sky, one of these days.” He certainly misunderstood the reason why his words made Heinrich smile so broadly.

And then there was Heinrich in Friedrichshafen, home of the famous Zeppelin works, and birthplace of the Hindenburg, now being hastily prepared to leave Europe in less than thirty-six hours. An office boy wearing a DZR (German Zeppelin Line) uniform picked Heinrich up from the station and led him first to the company office in town for the necessary formalities of employment, and then to the lakeside airfield just outside of town. Heinrich could see the Hindenburg long before they reached it, and it took him a minute to realize that the little specks moving about larger specks beside the craft were people, and piles of supplies and parts waiting to be loaded. By the time they’d crossed the gravel field to the ship, half-sheltered by its correspondingly gigantic hangar, Heinrich had been awed into silence. He instinctively looked for the wheels or struts supporting the ship, but of course there were none. Even stranger to see it flying high in the sky, he thought, was to see it suspended just a few meters above the ground, as though it were levitating under a spell of black magic.

The boy hailed Herr Kubis, inspecting some food deliveries for the kitchen, who reluctantly hastened over to take charge of Heinrich. He followed the head steward into the ship via the starboard gangway, a retractable aluminum staircase with weight-saving holes punched all over its surfaces, a signature feature of the airship. Then they went up another, more elegant, flight of stairs to the main passenger deck for a first glance at his new workplace: the reading room and passenger lounge on the starboard side, and then the dining room to port, both with a little promenade along the downward-looking observation windows that pierced the airship’s otherwise opaque skin.

“This is a place for passengers to enjoy, and for you to work,” said Herr Kubis laconically. “Forget your grimy second-rate hotel in Stuttgart.” Heinrich involuntarily flinched. “I’ve been working on Zeppelins since before the Great War, and I have served some very fine people. Only people of real quality travel in airships, you know. And this is the greatest airship of them all. You’ll find only true elites taking passage on The Hindenburg. So think of this part of the ship like it’s something between the grandest restaurant you’ve ever heard of, and a temple. And If I catch you loitering here for as much as an instant, you will be disciplined.”

He considered Heinrich for a moment, like he was looking at a bug crawling on the floor, and debating whether to stamp it with his foot, or let it continue along. Then they walked back down the hall to the main stairway. Herr Kubis pointed out two corridors branching forward into a middle space between the common areas on each side. “There are the passenger cabins. Twenty-five cabins, for a maximum of fifty passengers. That area is absolutely forbidden to you, without my express permission, excepting a direct order from an officer. Now, let’s see what most concerns you.”

They went back down the stairs to the lower deck on the starboard side, and then forward along a short corridor with more windows on the right, past the passenger lavatories, to a dead-end, but with an odd-looking, sealed door on the left. Herr Kubis pulled up on a lever and opened it outwards to reveal a small vestibule, with an identical sealed door leading forward again.

“An airlock,” said Herr Kubis. “Protecting the bar and smoking room, which are pressurized, from the rest of the ship. The walls are solid, and insulated with asbestos. Nowhere else do we allow smoking, or even an open flame. A precaution, with all this hydrogen on board. This is where you will be most often working. I don’t trust you yet to work the dining room, apart from giving the dining stewards a hand at the busiest moments. Whereas Herr Schulze, the bar steward, he needs assistance here. Passengers are often ordering drinks to pass the time, and it will be your job to bring them to the lounge above, or to the smoking room just beyond the bar, on the other side of that door, which has proven to be a very popular place indeed. The bar is only closed for a few hours each day, so don’t expect to sleep much once we’re under way. Now, you will excuse me, I have much to do. I will let you introduce yourself to Herr Schulze. He will show you to your quarters, and give you what’s necessary.” Before Heinrich could say anything, the head steward was gone, closing the outer door of the airlock behind him.

Heinrich stared at the inner door for a few moments. He would probably have stayed there for some time, afraid somehow to enter what he suspected would be very strange sort of space. But it wasn’t much fun standing alone in a small airlock, either, so he quickly found some courage and knocked on the door to the bar, first softly, and then after a few moments, more insistently. Then the lever operating the door swung upwards, and the door opened with a faint hiss of air, revealing a man of ordinary build, the oldest man he’d seen on the ship, though still strong and vital-looking, with a square but kindly face. He looked at Heinrich and smiled.

“Are you the new kid? Willi’s nephew, right?”

“Yes, Herr Schulze. My name is Heinrich.”

“Of course it is. Well come in, and close the door behind you.” Heinrich fumbled with the lever for a few moments before getting the door to seal properly.

“Yes, that’s how it works. Must always keep that closed, too. Even if no one’s smoking right now. The captain won’t tolerate any exceptions. Well. You can call me Max, but only when we’re alone, of course. You’ll be working for me much of the time, it seems. Say, are you afraid of flying?”

“No sir, Max, sir. . .  Well, I don’t think so. I’ve never flown before, but I can hardly wait to get up in the air. I’m sure I won’t be afraid.”

“With an attitude like that, I’m sure you won’t. Good. Your predecessor was quite the nervous fellow, from the moment they untethered the ship. At least he knew a few cocktail recipes. Do you know how to make cocktails, Heinrich?”

“I do, Max. Quite a few.”

“Do you know the American ones?”

“Yes sir. Mar-tinis and Man-hattans, especially.” He articulated the foreign words carefully, correctly except for the accents, and with some evident pride. “Cobblers, Fizzes too, things like that.”

“My word. How did you learn about that?”

Heinrich told him about the Gestapo officer at the Hotel Silber, who had gotten a taste for American-style cocktails as an intelligence agent in Paris during the 1920s, hanging out at some of the more expensive bars in the city. He’d lent Heinrich his copy of The Savoy Cocktail Book, and made him memorize his favorites.

“Well. Good to see that one of those devils taught you something, beyond snooping and torturing.” His friendly voice turned acidic, and Heinrich was startled. No stranger had ever spoken to him like that about the Nazi authorities. But Max returned instantly to his more usual tone of avuncular bonhomie.

“We’ll have to put an official cocktail menu together, my boy, and you’ll help me. You know,” he said, briefly descending to a faux-conspiratorial whisper, “I was a dining room steward, all those years on the Atlantic. Never served a cocktail in my life, until I got here. An American on the first flight asked for a Man-hattan, and I misunderstood him, told him we wouldn’t be going there for a couple of months yet, ha-ha. There will be lots of Americans on this ship, you know, northern ones, and southern. And we’ve got to get our German passengers to drink cocktails, too. Spirit bottles are heavy enough, but beer’s worse, and the captain doesn’t let us carry much of that. So you’ve got to sell them on the cocktails, when the beer inevitably runs out, so they don’t get too fractious. Liquor keeps a lot of these people calm, sailing at one thousand meters under a big bag of flammable hydrogen, ha-ha. Oh no, now I hope I haven’t scared you, my boy.”

Max’s stream-of-consciousness banter was bewildering, but also genial and charming. Heinrich didn’t have adults like this in his life, and he had the sense to recognize his good luck.

Max looked closely at Heinrich, and smiled. “Now why don’t you show me how you make your Man-hattans. We’ll have access to all the alcohol we want, until we lift off tomorrow, so we’d might as well take advantage of that while we can.” He pitched his voice to another jovially complicit stage whisper. “And we won’t get to drink anymore, either, once we’re aloft.”

“Sure, Max. . . I can make samples of some of the favorites from the ‘Silber, and you’ll tell me if they’re ok for the menu?”

Max’s smile broadened still further. “I think this is going to work out very well, my boy.”

Zeppelin bar

 

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Cocktails are Heavier than Air, Part One

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Peter, my landlord during my time in Stuttgart, lived in a large comfortable flat, just below the studio he rented out to me. It was in a four-story Jugendstil building in the working-class eastern district of the town, and was certainly the most attractive building in the neighborhood. The interior seemed a bit dim compared with the brightly-painted façade, but both were lovely expressions of the German version of the Arts and Crafts style, with their elegant combinations of lines and curves, realized with fine workmanship. Peter’s living room, occupying a large corner space, looked and felt unchanged since the golden age of radios and pendulum clocks, with the startling exception of the late-model computer on his mahogany desk.

Peter would go out every Sunday to dinner at some relative’s house, and maybe once a week he would meet an old friend at a quiet café down the street. But mostly he kept to himself. He was old enough that I suppose his peers were mostly dead or incapacitated by then. He had lived beyond his time; and I was living in a place truly foreign to me, so we were both lonely. As soon as we realized that we both loved cocktails, we met often in the evenings. Then I could practice my rudimentary German, he could exercise his excellent but neglected English, and we could both drink something nice. Peter especially liked Manhattans, and he would serve himself a half portion against a double for me, to even things out. He was, after all, a half-century older than me.

At our third or fourth meeting of this sort, sitting in that corner salon, the sounds of the traffic from the intersection below distinctly audible and yet seeming far away, I commented on the odd-looking document framed on the shelf behind the bar, as Peter stirred our drinks with a shaky but deliberate hand.

“This is funny, Peter,” I said, peering at it more closely. It seemed to be some old memento, a German drinks menu from some long-vanished bar. Clearly it was of pre-war origin; the prices were in Reichmarks, and the organization of the offerings was archaic. It still listed “Cocktails” as a special category of mixed drink, along with “Cobblers”, “Flips”, “Sours” and “Fizzes”.

“I’m glad you don’t charge me for the drinks here. I’m fresh out of Reichmarks,” I said. “Though, I might try to find some, if that’s what it takes for you to make me . . .” Here I squinted to be sure I was reading it correctly. “. . . an LZ-129. What is that?”

“That was,” said Peter, suddenly solemn, putting his shaker down and looking at me, “the signature cocktail of the, well, of the LZ-129. Better known as the Zeppelin, Hindenburg.

“Good lord, really. That’s so cool. Where did you find it?”

“My brother gave it to me. My older brother, Heinrich.”

This was typical Peter sort of stuff. He’d willingly answer any question, but narrowly, omitting the information answering the second question that the first one so obviously begged.

“And may I ask where Heinrich got it?”

“Of course. He was a bar steward on the Hindenburg.”

“Oh. Wow.” I thought for a moment. I badly wanted to know more, but first needed to figure out, as tactfully as possible, just how tragic, and thus sensitive, this actually was.

“Um, so he kept this as a souvenir?”

“Yes he did, apparently. I found it in his things when he died, some years ago.”

“Well. I’m glad he survived the accident.”

“I was too. I was just a boy then. We heard about the fire on the radio. Got a telegram from him the next day, saying he was alive and unhurt. Actually he was somewhat burned, and broke his arm jumping from the ship, but didn’t want mother to worry any more. She’d already had a terrible twenty-four hours. But he recovered completely.”

“What did he do after that?”

“Well, we were just working-class kids. We Osties, we east Stuttgarters, this was a tough part of town then, much worse than it is now. We were poor, everyone we knew was poor. Everyone worked in the factories, and as a kid you stayed around your block. Our fathers might be in the same labour union, part of the Internationale, drink beer together, but the kids didn’t care, they lived by a much more primitive, tribal code. Walk a few blocks over and they’d beat you up. Tough town. The Hindenburg was his ticket out. After that he worked on the Hamburg-America line for many years. Except for the war years, of course.”

Peter never talked about what he’d done, during the war, and I didn’t expect he’d say any more about his brother.

“That’s how I, too, got out of here. Heinrich got me a job with him on the Atlantic liners, after the war. When those stopped running, well, we were experienced stewards by then, and times were good, and we moved back here, worked the country resorts in the summer, and the city hotels in the winter. Made enough money to buy this place. I guess that was back in ’66.”

“Did Heinrich tell you much about the Hindenburg?”

“Some things, yes. But he wrote a lot more. He wrote something of a memoir about, in fact. I found that, too, when he died. Would you be interested in reading it?”

“Oh, yes, I would. But I think I would find it tough going. My German is still shi — so bad.”

“Well, I have it in digital form. You could have that, ah, googler-program translate it into English, to help you.”

“That’s terrific. Did your brother type it on a computer?”

“Oh no. He was much shyer of those things than I am. He never used a computer in his life. And he died before these fancy phones were around. No, I thought of trying to get it published, so I typed it up myself and sent it around a bit. Not much response, alas. I admit that the memoir is quite fragmentary. I could try and polish it up, but I’m too old now.”

“Huh. Do you have a copy to lend me?”

“I don’t have an extra copy, but I can send you the file by email.” He said the word slowly, and with some complacency. “I know how to do that. After you have read it, I would love to hear what you think. And then I’ll make you an LZ-129.”

It’s amazing what you can learn from elderly people, if you just think to ask.

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One evening, about six weeks later, I was again with Peter, drinking one of his Manhattans. I loved the way he made them, with a solid, rich bourbon, and with chocolate bitters that came out of a big, dusty bottle. I’d never seen such a big bottle of bitters before. It was like a lifetime’s supply. He said they’d been made for digestive purposes at a local shop, long since closed. Peter had fit a plastic dropper to the neck of the bottle, and carefully measured out a few dashes for each drink. He held the bottle firmly with two hands, as though it were a reptile that might at any moment try to writhe its way out of his grasp.

“It’s funny that you like Manhattans so much. Whereas the guy in charge of the bar on the Hindenburg didn’t even know how to make one, at first,” I said.

“Max? Oh yes, he was very classical. Already old when he signed up for the Hindenburg. His first airship, of course, and his last. The pity,” replied Peter. “Cocktails are an American thing, you know. Your people’s passion for mixing things, especially with ice, was quite uniquely American. There was never enough gin and bourbon, my brother said, when there were many Americans on board. Cocktails are heavier than air, ha ha, they couldn’t afford to stock the bar like we did, say, in the first-class saloon on the Bremen. Everything was carefully rationed, to save on weight. On the Hindenburg’s first transatlantic, they had just a couple of bottles of gin. A little group of Americans emptied those in the first hour of the flight. After that, Max had to use kirschwasser, white rum, anything that looked like gin, to make the Martinis. Heinrich loved to tell that story . . . Of all the crew, and even of all the passengers who travelled on that ship, and some of them were very famous, I would have liked to have known Max the most.”

“I agree. He comes off as being the most humane, but also independent and fair-minded, person on the ship.”

“He was the only man on the Hindenburg who was kind to Heinrich . . . so it seems you’ve become quite involved with his manuscript? Did you really go to the Zeppelin museum in Friedrichshafen?”

“I am. And I did. Two weeks ago.”

“Did that inspire you?”

“O yes. Really interesting. The lake is very beautiful, too, even if Friedrichshafen isn’t much.”

“Yes. Another town targeted for its industry, during the war. But go back and visit Constance, at the western end of the lake, if you have a chance. It’s still very lovely. It’s right on the border with Switzerland, so the Allies didn’t dare bomb it . . . So, you were able to read all the manuscript?”

“With the help of the computer, yes I was. And thanks for answering my emails so quickly.” I’d sent him enquiries about everything that befuddled the translation engines.

“You’re welcome. Do you agree with the publishers I solicited, that it wouldn’t really interest people?”

“Well, I think it’s a fascinating story. It would need an editor. A very good and engaged one . . .”

“I know what you are trying to say. It needs to be re-written, from beginning to end. My brother was no writer, I know that.”

“Yeah. But still, there’s material here. . . In fact, I got so absorbed in this, that I re-wrote parts of it myself, into a more compact story. Told in the third person, though still from Heinrich’s point of view. I hope you don’t mind.”

Peter leaned forward, looking still more alert. “I don’t mind at all. Quite the contrary. Do you have it, the story, here?”

I pointed at my backpack, laying at my feet. “Yes. On my laptop.”

“I am touched, that you would bother to do this. And I must say, very interested. Would you read it to me?” asked Peter.

“Now?”

“If you don’t mind.” Peter got up, and walked over to the bar. “Another Manhattan, to keep you refreshed during the reading?”

“Anything from the Hindenburg menu is fine,” I said, as my laptop booted up.

I watched Peter make the Manhattans. I always felt sure that his shaking hand would drop the mixing glass, but somehow, through great concentration, he never spilled more than a drop. He put the glasses on a little silver tray, served me one, and sat down in the armchair across from me with the other, and looked at me expectantly, raising his glass.

I raised mine and sipped. I took a moment to appreciate the spectrum of flavours from the tannic vanilla alcoholic bourbon, through the sweet-root of the vermouth, to the ebony bite of the bitters, nodded to Peter in appreciation, and cleared my throat.

“’Heinrich never, ever forgot his first sight of the Hindenburg. . . .’

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ALL THAT WAS LOST, EXCEPT THE BEER

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Not long ago, I was in Stuttgart for a few months on a short-term contract. It wasn’t the best time I’d ever had. My colleagues were mostly married with children and went right home after work, and the locals didn’t seem much interested in me. I did often see my elderly landlord, who lived downstairs from the studio he let out to me. Many evenings, we gave each other lessons in German and English, and then we would drink a glass of schnapps. To be honest, he gave me German lessons, and I listened to him speak English. I wasn’t really any help to him, but he was as lonely as I was. His company was much better than nothing, but I was still very happy when my old friend Alexander told me he had a few free days, and could fly in from Prague to meet me.

A week later, he got in to the city center on the airport train about noon . I met him at the main station, a massive, imposing edifice sheathed in granite, done in a rather Brutalist variant of 1930’s Art Deco. No masterpiece, but not as awful as it could have been. Alexander had travelled only with a light pack, so we went straight into town. It was a Saturday and the town was crowded.

We both wanted a beer, but I thought it would be nice to give Alexander a little tour of the main sights first. Anyway, that wouldn’t take long. We walked along the upper Schlossgarten, and I pointed out the opera house and the state theatre, both built in pleasant but unremarkable ancient regime French style, and the state parliament building, spare and modern, dressed in glass and aluminum. We continued on, past the “new” royal palace of the kings of Wurttemberg, a bad aping of Versailles, and across the Schlossplatz to the old castle, a German renaissance building of considerable charm and presence. Then we walked down the Königstrasse, looking less like a royal avenue than a 1970s shopping mall, past the collegiate church, to the Marktplatz. The square makes a large, airy space, and hosts a nice farmer’s market two mornings a week. Too bad about the architecture. The city hall that serves as its centerpiece is a square-motifed, contemporary riff on the traditional stolid-burger style of such buildings. It is ugly, and the rest of the buildings around the square are worse.

We circled back to the north side of the Schlossplatz, and sat under the arcades of the Artists’ Society café. The café fronts the Kunstgebäude, a blocky museum building with a little dome, topped by the royal stag of Wurttemberg. They have good snacks there, and my favorite local beer on tap; and the view over the broad square, really a park, is nice enough. I ordered a couple of Schönbuch pilsners, and a dish of wurstsalat, a mix of shredded sausage and pickles in vinegar, with brown bread. We toasted and drank. The beer was delicious, as usual, wonderfully bitter like a really good espresso, aromatic, with a body of chilled liquid gold.

“This is so good,” said Alexander. “I might forget about cocktails for a few days.”

“Can’t criticize the beer, sure. This one is the best of the three big local brands. There are still better ones made in the Black Forest. Rothaus, Waldhaus, yum yum. Furstenberg was great too, until Heineken bought it and cheapened the recipe, may their greedy souls be damned. German beer is still as good as they say. It’s a funny system. The breweries are mostly local, but they sell so much on the local market that they can still brew on an industrial scale. So it’s not really microbrew. And not really macrobrew either. It’s a real 19th century holdover. . . . Heineken bought the biggest brewer in Stuttgart, a few years ago, and sold it back to the employees almost immediately, they hated each other so much . . . But what do you think about the rest?” I knew Alexander had spent very little time in Germany before.

“Well. I don’t want to be too negative right away. But, um, it’s certainly more, um, modern than I expected. I’ve never seen a European city like this. Most of the buildings are postwar.”

“Stricto senso, they are all postwar. Even the ones that look old, are reconstructions.”

“Sure, the bombings. Of course. I thought the royal palace looked a little cheap.”

“Yep. They did a better job with the castle. The train station, too, looks just as it was in the old photos. But that’s about it.”

“I thought the church looked all right, especially the outside. The inside’s pretty spare.”

“Huh. Well, I think it’s one of these Catholic-on-the-outside, Protestant-on-the-inside, sorts of churches you find in reformation-y parts of Europe.”

“Hey, that sounds like an advert for an ecumenical religious snack . . .” Snuffle. “If we reversed it, we could call them . . . Euchar-Crisps . . . hard as a Calvinist on the outside, soft like a Medici pope on the inside.” Snuffle, snuffle.

“Oh, oh yes. ‘Are Euchar-Crisps transubstantiated? You decide!’”

“Or we could say the red Euchar-Crisps are really the flesh of the Christ, and the black ones only symbolic.”

“We could do a special offer for Catholics: ‘Free delivery of Euchar-Crisp Reds, by an ordained priest, right to your door — and into your mouth!’”

We are overly fond of this sort of joke, and it took us a few moments to settle down again.

“Well, anyway,” said Alexander, finally mastering his snuffling. “All the ersatz antiquity is a little creepy, somehow.”

“Yeah. The reconstructions can be cheesy, or even downright weird. In Brunswick, there’s a building that looks like a grand 18th century palace, but it’s pure façade, trompe l’oeil even. Inside, it’s a shopping center, of the totally modern, standard-issue type. That really creeped me out.”

“The bombings were bad, huh?”

“Yeah, they were. Stuttgart was spared for a long time. Too far south for the bomber escorts’ range, for the first few years. But by late 1944 the Allies could hit anywhere in Germany they wanted. And they sure hit this place hard. Big urban center, but especially all the factories; no way was this place gonna be spared. It was hit again and again, and one thousand-bomber raid finally destroyed pretty much everything.”

“Oh. That sucks. But I guess they kinda had it coming.”

I thought of Peter, my landlord. A few evenings before, I’d told him that I was reading a history of the city, which he seemed very pleased to hear, and he started telling me about what the city had been like in his youth. I figured he’d been born in the early 1930s, as he could recall many details about what Stuttgart had been like before the bombs fell: taking trams around town with his mother on her daily shopping rounds; working in the family allotment garden on long summer evenings; Sunday picnics with his grandmother, then going to fetch his father from the labor union beer hall. He was so eager to share his memories with me that I dared to ask him about the bombing. At that, the exchange had become, for a few moments, not so friendly and willing.

“Don’t you think so, Jack?” asked Alexander, after I’d been silent for some moments.

“Sorry. . . Yeah, I used to think that too. But I’ve been doing some reading, and thinking,  about that, and I’m not so sure now. For starters, Germany had its physical history erased, mostly, by the bombs. This was once a very beautiful country, I think. Now it’s hard to find a city or even a large town that doesn’t make you want to cry, if you have any idea of what it looked like before. It’s so bad that no one here wants to think about it. I guess they’re right, I mean, what can anyone do about it now. But man, the reality is, that it deeply, deeply sucks.”

“Yeah, but dude, that war was hard. You can’t blame the Allies for pulling out all the stops. The Germans after all weren’t so concerned about preserving London, Warsaw, Rotterdam . . . even Guernica.”

“Again, I thought so too. I still think targeting factories and infrastructure and economic stuff like that was fair game, and there was bound to be collateral damage, of course. At some point, the omelet’s gotta have some eggs. But these places were targeted for total destruction. And I can’t find any evidence that urban bombing helped win the war. Certainly not economically.[1] And in terms of morale it seems, if anything, to have helped the Germans to keep on fighting.”

“You don’t think it hammered home to people, in a visceral way, that the war was a failure, a disaster?”

“I think they were gonna come to that conclusion anyway, with or without the bombing. Total defeat and occupation have a funny way of doing that. . . No, the bombing gave them a sense of real injustice, that their enemies were morally compromised, bent on Germany’s total destruction. It made them feel sort of backed into a corner.[2] My landlord, he’s an old dude, old enough to have lived through all that, and to remember it well. He claims that his parents were socialists, you know, hated Hitler, were ashamed of what Germany was doing in that war. But even they were, like, appalled by the bombing. He says his father didn’t dare complain about it much, but he’s sure he never forgave the Americans for it. And that’s the thing. When we bombed these cities, we didn’t just kill Nazis. We killed children. We killed socialists, and communists, and pacifists, too. People who never liked or trusted Hitler, people who never wanted war. We could have killed Peter, my landlord. Imagine that. We did kill his uncle and some of his cousins, according to him. It’s just sad.”

“Huh. Well, now you mention it, I spoke with a lot of people, Vietnamese people, about the American bombing, when I was in Hanoi. Nixon wanted to pound them into suing for peace. Bomb them back into the stone age, I think he said. What a mensch he was. But yeah, it had the opposite effect there, too. Nothing the Americans could have done, could’ve made the northern regime more popular. And it did bother me to meet all these nice friendly people, who’d been targeted by bombs paid for with my parents’ taxes.”

“Of course there, the moral wrong of that one is obvious to most people,” I said. “It’s less of a thing, to feel sorry for Nazi Germany. And yet. . . Anyhoo, I wonder if we’ll ever do something like that again. I hope not. I’m tired of going to places that my home country flattened.” I counted on my fingers. “One, two, three, four different countries. St Malo in France. Every city I’ve been to in Germany, excepting Heidelberg. Livorno and La Spezia in Italy. Hanoi, of course.”

“I could add five and six: Tokyo, obviously, and I’ve been to a couple of villages in eastern Cambodia that got hit hard in the early seventies.”

“Well,” I said, surveying our empty glasses. “One more round?”

“Sure,” said Alexander. “Then what?”

I considered for a moment. “Let’s go to Tubingen. That’s only a thirty minute ride on the train from here. It’s very charming, in that half-timbered, nostalgic-for-the-Heimat German sort of way, a real town, but just small enough for the Allied bombers to ignore. And it has a good brewery restaurant on the river.”

“Think we could fit in a visit with Peter? He sounds interesting.”

“Maybe we can try to see him tonight.”

“Is his English good enough for a conversation?”

“Oh yes, I think so.”

I thought of Peter’s last words on the subject of the war. Clearly it was not the first time he’d said them. It was like he’d been declaiming a poem:

“Nothing you see now, Jack, can give you any idea of what it was. It was right here. A wonderful city. A renaissance capital, and a twentieth century marvel. It had the grace and splendor of a more elegant age, with the energy of a new industrial era. We would have had it here today, and our children should have inherited it tomorrow. But everything burned one night, hotter than a furnace, even the asphalt in the streets boiled. The soul of the city burned that night too, and up it went with the smoke, gone, gone forever.”

His English really was very good.

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[1] Gerhard Weinberg in The World at Arms (1994) was early in making a persuasive argument againt the economic effectiveness of the bombing. His conclusions have been confirmed in subsequent research, notably by Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013), The only bombing that made a clear difference were the highly targeted strikes on transport infrastructure, and on synthetic gasoline plants (oil was the one irreplaceable resource which bottlenecked the overall German economic capacity to fight the war).

[2] See Nicolas Stargardt, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945, 2015

Pina Coladas, Chaos Theory, and the Butterfly Effect

It is an odd but fundamental characteristic of complex dynamic systems, Life of course included, that small changes in input can lead over time into huge changes in outcome. Thus could a tiny air disturbance in, say, Japan, lead to a hurricane in Florida some time later.

This is something you should consider when choosing cocktail ingredients. Yes, you could save time and a little money and skimp on quality and freshness – but know that the consequences could be grave. Let’s take two alternative histories for Bob & Sue as an illustration:

POSSIBLE REALITY #1

Afrer a few years of marriage, with its attendant ups and downs, Bob & Sue had to decide their next step: stay in Chicago where Bob had a good job as a lawyer, or move to London where Sue had an excellent offer from a strategic consultancy.

The night before Sue had to give a final response, they sat down at home over cocktails to talk it over one more time. Sue had earlier sent a text suggesting Pina Coladas. Bob had agreed, but then was tired and hurried at the end of the workday, and just grabbed cartons of pineapple juice and cream from the store on the way home from work. Coming home he realized that he was out of limes, too, and so dropped a jigger of Rose’s Lime Cordial into the shaker just as Sue was coming through the door.

They sat down and spoke desultorily of their day, sipping their drinks, which were sickly sweet and insipid, through frowning lips. Bob was irritated with himself for not having made an effort to prepare a better cocktail, but decided not to apologize – after all, he had to make almost all the drinks, and he couldn’t be expected to make them great each time. Sue was irritated that the mediocre drink was spoiling her favorite time of the day, turning the relaxation and conviviality of the cocktail hour into something tedious and even rather seedy. Sue put her glass down and asked for a beer. They began to argue, and after 30 minutes, Sue told Bob that she was going to London, and that he could go to Hell. Bob replied that that was just fine with him; he did all the cooking and cocktail mixing anyway, and would do just fine without her.

A month later they separated, and Sue moved to London, where she was soon killed crossing the street, having looked in the wrong direction before so doing. By that time Bob was already well into a terminal downward spiral of alcoholism, depression, and drug abuse, and finally died penniless and friendless at the age of 53, after a series of arrests for mail fraud, larceny, and public indecency.

POSSIBLE REALITY #2

Afrer a few years of marriage, with its attendant ups and downs, Bob & Sue had to decide their next step: stay in Chicago where Bob had a good job as a lawyer, or move to London where Sue had an excellent offer from a strategic consultancy.

The night before Sue had to give a final response, they sat down at home over cocktails to talk it over one more time. Sue had earlier sent a text suggesting Pina Coladas. Bob had agreed, and though tired and hurried at the end of the workday, he stopped at the greengrocer on the way home for fresh fruit and coconut milk. Coming home he put some Lena Horne on the stereo, and just as Sue was coming through the door he finished making the cocktails, in the following manner:

In a shaker, Bob put

  • 4 oz dark rum
  • 4 oz fresh squeezed pineapple juice
  • 1, 25 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 3 oz coconut milk
  • 0,5 oz sugar syrup
  • 8 ice cubes

shook vigorously, and then served in cocktail glasses over a few additional ice cubes, with a pineapple slice for a garnish.

They sat down and spoke desultorily of their day, sipping their drinks, which tasted a bit like Paradise, authentically fruity and lightly sweet and sharp and rich and balanced. Bob felt good about himself for having made the effort to prepare a great cocktail, and felt grateful to have a wife who appreciated it, for Sue was practically purring over her drink. They both felt the tension drain away with each sip, and soon began to discuss, considerately and amicably, the choice at hand. After 30 minutes, Bob agreed to go to London, admitting that it could be good fun, and Sue suggested that they could return to Chicago after a couple of years if he did not like London, or could not find adequate employment.

A month later they moved. As it turned out, Bob’s firm was looking for an opportunity to open a branch office in London, which they chose him to head, and he was made partner soon after. Sue herself became Senior Vice President of her consultancy in short order. Once she was almost hit by a taxi in Picadilly Circus, but Bob grabbed her by the arm at the last instant and pulled her back onto the pavement. That very night they conceived a child, their first of three, all healthy and happy as it turned out. On the evening of their 10th wedding anniversary, they reminisced about how troubled their marriage had been at first, at times, but since their move to London, it had been the most felicitous relationship they could have hoped for, or even imagined; they laughed to think that they had ever considered separating, so many years before. They would have laughed even harder, had they known that Bob would later use his network of contacts to raise a huge amount of money for the winning presidential candidate in 2028, and be rewared with his nomination as US Ambassador to Great Britain. They would positively have doubled over, to know that following his heroic behavior during a terror attack on the US Embassy, Bob was to become a beloved national icon, and would be elected President himself in 2036, just in time to save the world from the Great Nanobot Plague. . . .

So please, the next time you’re tempted to make that cocktail with bottled juices: think (about the future salvation of humanity) before you drink.

Cheers!

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Cocktail Spotlight — Starting TODAY with the MANHATTAN

Not so many decades ago, countless numbers of amateur bartenders peopled the Western world. In civilized living rooms across America, the liquor cabinet and the cocktail tray were ubiquitous, and as the sun set across the land, the soothing sounds of ice shaking against gleaming stainless steel and clinking inside sparking highball glasses could be heard from sea to shining sea.

Unfortunately, in the intervening years, cocktails slowly disappeared, to be reborn in recent times as the product of professional “mixologists”, the conceit being that one could not possibly mix a few liquids with ice without a university degree.

This is really a pity, as cocktails are easy to make, requiring very little training, equipment, and investment. Let’s see just how easy, by getting down to business today with ingredients that will cost you less than US$50, and equipment that you will find in any kitchen. Let’s make together that timeless classic, the Manhattan.

The only things you need to prepare in advance: a trip to absolutely any liquor store this side of Eden, to pick up the ingredients: Bourbon or rye whisky (basic,quality stuff like Jim Beam and Four Roses work perfectly), a mass-market sweet red vermouth (Cinzano or Martini & Rossi are recommended), and a small bottle of bitters (Angostura’s products, regular and orange-infused, are excellent, and almost universally available);

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 and just make sure there are some ice cubes ready in the freezer. Nota bene, no cheating here: you must get the bitters; else it’s not a cocktail. Are you really going to miss the 10 $US that much?

Then, wait for 5 o’clock to ring in on the old church tower, and come as you are. If you enjoy putting on, say, a velvet smoking suit, I salute you. But a t-shirt and some trashy shorts are ok, too. Nudity, a clown suit, it’s all good. The main thing is to start today.

 Let’s assume that you don’t have a cocktail shaker in the house. You can get one later, because I know you’re very busy, and because cocktails “on the rocks”, though different from cocktails shaken and strained, can be just as tasty. Just take a squat, broad-mouthed sort of glass, not too big and not too small, say 18 to 30 cl (6  – 10 fl oz)  in capacity, and drop in 4 or 5 ice cubes of average size.

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Then rouse your humble measuring cup out of the cupboard and measure out 7,5 cl (2,5 fl oz) of bourbon or rye, and 3 cl (1 fl oz) of vermouth

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 and pour over the ice.

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 Now, for those indispensable bitters: the soul of true cocktail enjoyment begins right here. Cocktails were born as a specific sort of mixed drink: a blend of spirits with a little bitters as a “hair of the dog” morning pick-me-up. For a very long time, a drink without bitters simply wasn’t a cocktail at all, but rather a sling, fix, fizz, julep, punch, sour, etc. Nowadays, the distinctions have long since blurred together completely, and we refer to all mixed drinks indiscriminately as cocktails, but even if one doesn’t much care for historical authenticity, or even semantic clarity, not to know the true cocktail is really to miss out on something deliciously unique. A true, old-school cocktail has a concentration and a focus of structured flavors that other mixed drinks can’t offer, with the bitters adding several layers of complexity to the various degrees of astringency and sweetness of the base spirits. It makes the true cocktail a precious libation for thoughtful citizens in a 21st century world of thoughtless consumerism.

 So boldly dash those bitters in to the glass with a simple flick of the wrist. 2 or 3 dashes should suffice.

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 Swirl the glass about, let it chill for a minute or so, and then wet your lips! Ah, but doesn’t the first drink of the day taste gloriously?

 Do note how the drink changes as you sip it away, as the liquid is progressively both chilled and diluted by the melting ice. You may like it more at the beginning, middle, or end. Whatever the case may be, withhold judgment until the glass is empty. Then you may decide that next time, you’ll try adding more or less of each ingredient, change the brand of liquor or flavor of bitter, or even add a new ingredient. A dash of absinthe? A few dashes of Cointreau? A lemon twist? More, less, or even no ice, in the English style? Hey, it’s your cocktail, the recipe is only a starting point. Make it exactly as you like it, that’s the whole point of the cocktail, where endless individual variations are possible.

Manhattans are best enjoyed with friends at any hour; they work both as apéritifs and as after-dinner drinks, but they can also be profitably self-served after a long working day with a good book or a new CD, or just weaved in, sip by sip, into your reverie of thoughts and memories . . . .

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 Cheers!

Cocktail Spotlight: A Sidecar Story

Lamp cocktail art deco

I’d said goodnight to my friend after dinner in the Marais. It was a rainy Monday in November, and cold, but I was troubled in my mind, and bored. So I took the long walk up the rue de Rivoli, the rain dripping off my homburg, all the way to the Palais Royal, looking grand in the arc lights through the steamy haze. The Louvre, covered in scaffolding, loomed in the darkness on the left; it was depressing and I hardly looked at it. Then right through the Palais Royal, and along the rue de l’Opéra, I bore down on Garnier’s pompous creation. It grew more massive at each step and I turned just short of it on to the rue Daunou, and so through the swinging saloon doors into Harry’s New York Bar.

I sat down at the bar and looked at the shelves across from me and felt better. There was a lot of good liquor, and it was very quiet. The saloon was almost empty. Here, with a Sidecar well and truly made, I would be able to settle my mind and figure things out. My nerves were raw and so I didn’t think much of the momentary electric flash in my head as I waited.

The bartender took my order and got to mixing my cocktail. He talked to me in decent French but with a thick Scottish brogue. I couldn’t understand much except something strange about the “damned Germans” stirring up trouble in Austria. Even stranger was the fact that he smoked a thick cigar whilst making my Sidecar. There was hardly anyone else in the bar so I guessed he thought why not, and I wasn’t complaining. He was making my Sidecar just as I like it: with

6 cl of v.s.o.p. cognac

3 cl of Cointreau and

the juice of half a fresh lemon,

with plenty of ice in a shaker, which he then strained into a crystal cocktail glass, ringing like a bell when set empty upon the countertop.

“Hey, thanks,” I said, and raised my glass, sniffing the mingled aromas of citrus and grape and rancio. The bartender replied in English, “Oh, an American, how fine, we don’t get your folk coming here so much these days, which there being the Depression and all the troubles.”

“Has the financial crisis affected tourism so very much?” I liked his use of the word “Depression”. He was quaintly avuncular with his funny old-fashioned language and bow tie and heavy rough broadcloth coat. Scots are colorful people, I thought.

He hesitated. “Well. . .well yes. . . . But you’ve come at a good time anyways, I need a more intelligent Amercian opinion. My friend Ernest here insists that what you’re drinkin’ is—“

A bear of a man on my left whom I somehow had not noticed before broke in, “A Frenchified Daiquiri. A sissified Daiquiri. Harry, this sort of thing is fine when you’re sweating it out in Havana, but what a man really wants in New York or Paris isn’t this fruity rot mucking up his good liquor.”

“Ernest, you are a great writer, and for an American you hold your liquor well, but I don’t think you know what you’re talkin’ about here.” Harry turned, his solid round face appealing to me. “You look like a serious drinker. Surely you have tried and loved my White Ladies, my Clover Clubs. Surely you appreciate a well-mixed Bronx Cocktail. Ernest would be having us all still drinking Juleps and Slings and Fixes and Cobblers, afraid to mix delicious sour juice in with our spirits and sugar and bitters just because some damned fool might call it a Punch. Tell Ernest that it has been perfectly respectable to mix fruit and sugar into the Cocktail since the bonnie Brandy Crustas of the 1850s. That’s eight decades of tradition behind me!” He turned back in triumph.

Eight decades. I rather thought his maths suspect. Then a photo on the wall behind the bar caught my eye. It was a portrait in black and white, with the caption : “Harry MacElhone, New Year’s Eve, 1934”. It was the spitting image of the bartender, and not a day younger.

I felt light-headed. I drained my glass and rubbed my eyes. When I finally opened them again, to my relief, the chair next to me was now empty, and the bartender was a rather modern-looking young Frenchman with a yin-yang tattoo on his exposed lower arm.

“Encore un Sidecar Monsieur ?”

I looked around me. There were a few people about, sitting at tables, some talking in low voices, some drinking intently. It was still 2013, and all was well, as I felt again the flash in my skull. Then I saw the saloon doors swinging, and in walked a man in an archaic but natty, perfectly-tailored tweed suit, with a flower in his buttonhole, and with exactly the same face that stares out at me from the back cover of my secondhand copy of Tender is the Night.

“Deux, s’il vous plait. Mon ami est arrivé.”

Cheers !

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Cocktail taxonomy: making YOUR cocktail

Cocktails are wonderful, wonderful things. Wherever and whenever I serve them, people say, almost invariably, “Yum! Why don’t I drink these more often? And can you mix me another one?” Then I show them how they could make their own, and their eyes glaze over, and they stare blankly out into the distance, disbelieving, as though I were explaining to them how they could transmute lead into gold by mixing the molten base metal with dragon bile, creme de tartare, leprechaun urine, and New Coke. WTF is going on here? Our great uncles mixed these things routinely on Monday nights after getting home on the 6 oh 7 from Central Station, and now we treat them like something Hermione Granger learned to make in her final Potions lessons at Hogwarts.

Really, tut tut. Cocktails are easy to make, and don’t let any mystifying, sand-in-your-eyes bartender tell you differently.  The problem is the difficulty in conceptualizing the different categories of cocktails you can make. The curious but uninitiated drinker is intimidated by the million and one published cocktail recipes, the laudable but confusing result of  two centuries of steady mass drinking in the Western world, but there are in fact surprisingly few underlying themes, and herein lies the solution. By creating a Cocktail Taxonomy, grouping the finest, time-tested recipes by meaningful category, we can overcome the confusion, just as we make sense of the otherwise bewildering diversity of earthly fauna by classifying it all in such groups as mammalian or reptiliian, vertebrate or invertebrate, bird or beast, and so on.

As an alcophile, you can, and should, create your own Taxonomy, as a function of your taste, ethnic origin, current geographic status, and bitter/sour tolerance. But here’s something to inspire you: my own Taxonomy, developed with my wife over many nights of earnest  tasting over the last two years. It lists for you the ingredients you need to get started (depending on where you live, a single trip to your local liquor superstore with US$200 in your pocket should be enough), the classes, genii, or species of cocktail (more on this in future posts), and recipes broken down by ingredient type, with comments on mixing technique. When we consider this, ideally in a club chair with a Straits Cocktail in one hand and a Dutch cigarillo in the other, the hocus-pocus melts away, and we see clearly that vast numbers of cocktails are just small variations on a handful of archetypes :

* The Manhattan type : a brown liquour with sweet vermouth

* The Crusta type (cf Margaritas) : liquour, orange liquour, citrus juice

* The Speakeasy type (cf Martinis) : gin, gin, gin, and any other dry ingredient you care to dribble in to your shaker

* The Sour: liquour, lemon juice, sugar

* The Tiki Bar (cf daiquiris) : rum, sugar, citrus juice

* The Italiano (cf Negronis): liquour, vermouth, Campari or amaro

and so on. Then we can relax, drain our glass, and head back to the kitchen to mix another round, confident that that next cocktail will surely be the best you’ve ever made, keeping in mind that, even if you don’t have a shaker, don’t worry: most of these drinks are also delicious on the rocks.

So here it is: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-EO9tJAxQ1ja0VzY3BGSDZxaUk/edit?usp=sharing. If you have any trouble downloading the source file,  contact me at johnshess@yahoo.com and I’ll re-send it to you. So get mixing, and let us know which cocktail makes you sing “the hills are alive with the sound of music!”

For me, it’s the Boulevardier

Cheers !!