At a dinner party just the other night, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the guests was far more dressed up than the rest of us. I had changed my shirt before climbing into my truck and driving into town, but she was wrapped in a black tunic, glittering with sequins. I had changed out of my barn boots; she had chosen knee-high, leather-soled boots in high polish.
It was a bit like that time I was at a party and Lauren Bacall showed up. (For the rest of the night, no one managed much of anything except mumbling that Lauren Bacall was in the house—later I thought what a drag it must have been to be Lauren Bacall, always shutting down every room she entered.)
I learned, eventually, that my friend was so dressy because she had another party to attend later that night. I was relieved for two reasons. First: I had not overlooked a cultural shift in sartorial requirements. Second: I didn’t have to go to another social event.
Yes, the party season is upon us yet again.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, we face a gauntlet of often awkward and uncomfortable social engagements. We will sit around tables with our extended families and listen to stories about home appliances and parking-lot fender benders. We will stand in bright rooms with our colleagues and learn the granular details of the obsessive hobbies of people we try not to speak with most of the year. We will watch bosses laugh at their own jokes and office grouches silently judge everyone. We will resist the urge to wipe bits of cheese off of someone else’s cheek.
We will compensate for these discomforts with the traditional salve and reward: alcohol.
During no other season are we obligated to drink so much—and to do it so badly.
Here’s what I mean, lest you think me a Scrooge. Everyone has their own version of Ernest Hemingway’s clean well-lighted place, their own favorite place for a drink. Despite the whiff of sedentary decrepitude that comes with this admission, my absolute favorite place to drink is in my well-worn leather chair by the fire. (A close second? The bar in New Orleans institution Tujague’s, for a Sazerac, back when crotchety Paul Gustings bartended there.)
Raymond Chandler liked to drink the first drink a bar made, when everything was fresh, the place was quiet and the bottles still perfectly square in their rows on the back bar. One of my oldest and dearest friends would say, without hesitation, that the best glass is one full of Champagne, enjoyed with her toes in the sand.
Essentially, whatever it is that makes a good drink a good drink is not usually what you’re up to now. On a scale of one to “have another, for tomorrow we die,” I’d say most drinking done between now and the New Year ranks at about a 6.
How can we make it better? The solution, of course, depends on the problem. And the first step toward solving a problem is admitting that there is one.
I’ve got a friend—he will remain nameless—who can’t stand his in-laws and resents every moment he spends at their house. His (super-questionable) solution is to stash a flask of vodka and a bottle of Vicodin. To boost his morale, he’ll sneak half a pill and take slug of liquor.
Once upon a time I had a dinner guest who arrived already drunk and drove everyone nuts with his lurching, his arguments and his being constantly about to throw up on someone’s lap. Finally, he poured himself a big wine glass of very strong bourbon (there might have been some encouragement from the room) and passed out in a chair for the night shortly thereafter. Problem solved.
Another friend of mine keeps party over-imbibing at bay by restricting herself to chilled glassfuls of Angostura Bitters. The strategy reminds me of what an outfitter told me once about going into the woods: Bring a snack you don’t like, because if you bring a candy bar you are going to eat it the second you get bored and you won’t have anything to sustain you when you actually get lost.
I can’t recommend any of these solutions. Do not mix your Martinis with painkillers. Do not allow people to over serve themselves for your own amusement/convenience.
A glass of Angostura Bitters, however, is an intriguing prospect and I’m going to try it. It’s enough of an attention grabber—palate-wise—to take my mind off my surroundings. (It doesn’t hurt that those bottles are just the right size to slip into my jacket pocket.)
It’s a bitter season. Might as well settle into it.