Vacation of the Mind
Mixing Up the Paris of the 1920s
How to mentally get away from it all for at least one drink.
When work is relentless and overwhelming (yes, even drinks writers get stretches of that, in between the cocktail-sipping, the rare whisky-judging and the tax-deductible wallowing in low and decrepit dives that just happen to have excellent jukeboxes); when the news, all mendacity and greed and cold-eyed slaughter, is one emotional hand-grenade after another, lobbed straight into my foxhole; when everything is grim and grey and galling, I like to send my mind on vacation.
Now, sensible souls, when they do such a thing, direct their thoughts to times and places they have been happy. They’ll think of that perfect personal day, the beach vacation, the candlelit date, the little restaurant in Barcelona, the Springsteen concert, the night their team came back from behind to win it all. I tend to send my mind somewhat farther back, to places it has never experienced in person.
Say, like Republican Rome under the Consulate of Cicero, where I could sip Falernian wine and listen to Lucretius recite atomic theory hammered into verses of fire or be by turns charmed, beguiled and stricken with pathos by Catullus’s matchless lyrics. Or Restoration London, where I could sit in the corner of Will’s Coffee House drinking Rack Punch and listening to John Dryden and his fellow wits bat the words around like shuttlecocks.
My favorite destination, though, is 1920s Paris. Not because I’m a huge fan of early Hemingway or Gertrude Stein or F. Scott and Zelda or any of those people. In my mind-vacation, I never run into any of ‘em. That’s because I’m too busy consulting with Jimmie—or Ollé, or Frank, or Pete the Frog—to pay attention to the riff raff. They’re the ones making my drinks, you see.
The late, sainted A. J. Liebling and Waverly Root have both written eloquently about the state of dining in Paris in the 1920s, when even the ordinary places could turn out a perfect caneton à l’orange, truite grenobloise or langouste à l’américaine and produce the requisite Gevrey-Chambertins and such to properly accompany their ingestion. Nobody, however, has done the same for the state of drinking, which was equally elevated.
There were dozens of cocktail bars in the Paris of the day, of all sorts. Frank Meier’s bar at the Ritz was great fun if you were rich and fancy. If you were an older, American sporting gent, you’d probably prefer the bar at the Chatham Hotel or Henry’s, around the corner. If you were still sporty, but not quite so old, you’d be consulting Jimmie at the Dingo in Montparnasse. The Viking, where Ollé held court, was maybe a little more regular-people, with a Bohemian edge. Pete “the Frog” Petiot was one of the crack crew at Harry’s New York Bar, where pretty much everybody stopped in at one point or another (and still does). The list could go on and on.
But really, the point of this mental time travel is to find somewhere pleasant and park your mind there. So, I’m going to park mine at the bar at Harry’s and feed it a Burnt Fuselage, a longtime favorite cocktail that, in its name, salutes horrors overcome. Its creator, Chuck Kerwood, you see, had been in the Lafayette Escadrille, the squadron of young Americans flying for the French before the United States entered World War I. As such, he saw a lot of his comrades spiral down to the ground in flames: this was before pilots wore parachutes. But he survived to lead a rich, long life (he died in 1976), and, as a survivor, he knew that taking pleasure where you can is also part of surviving. So, thanks, Pete, and cheers, Chuck!
Created by Chuck Kerwood
1 oz VSOP-grade Cognac or Armagnac
1 oz Grand Marnier
1 oz dry French vermouth, such as Noilly Prat
Garnish: Lemon peel
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist a swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top.