I don’t have any of those terrible/wonderful stories about my romantically tipsy parents, drinking Sidecars, flirting dangerously and doing the Watusi while I watched, with nervous admiration, from the carpeted stairs. My mother thought that the greatest drink in the world would be a chocolate milkshake with a shot of Kahlua (and feel free to hold the Kahlua) and my father drank sugary white wine to be sociable (in later years, he just put a teaspoon of sugar into the glass when people served something other than Blue Nun.) They had a bottle of Tio Pepe in the sideboard for about twenty-five years.
I also don’t have any fabulous stories from when I was a bartender. I didn’t bartend in a cool, grotto-like place favored by hipsters and people drinking beer made in tiny batches by cool people in Red Hook. I also didn’t bartend in places where I had to wear high heels, tight jeans and a wet t-shirt while dancing on the bar, for a bunch of yahoos. I tended bar, wearing comfortable shoes and army fatigues, in one dark, slightly mildewed place where three sad characters showed up at about two in the afternoon ( an inept insurance salesman, the shame-faced Classics professor and the never sober, never working black sheep of a prominent and industrious family). Everyone else came in after work for boilermakers or Jim Beam. Vic Damone and Frank Sinatra played on a constant loop and to this day, I loathe them both.There were a few fights on Saturday night. The dishwasher had a .38 tucked under his apron, the owner’s wife handled the cashier and the owner’s mistress waitressed. People drank in a businesslike fashion and went home to face empty apartments or disappointed families; some staggered out at two in the morning and a few times, someone vomited on me while I helped them into a cab. In another place, there was a giant stuffed shark on the wall,the three sad characters were elderly lesbians and the people who came in after work ordered boilermakers and sometimes rum-and-coke. I got to listen to Chet Baker and Dusty Springfield everyday, which was an improvement. There was nothing I ever saw or heard in either place that would make up even one mildly fabulous and sparkly anecdote. It did reinforce my sense that drinking to get drunk was a bad and sad idea and rarely ended well.
What has saved me from teetotaling and my grim memories is champagne, “the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it.” (Thank you Mme. Pompadour.) Champagne is my drink. I like the bubbles and the taste. I like the deceptively mild look of chilled crystal flutes (not the seventeen inch tall ones and not the ones with colorful squiggles and not the ones with zig-zag stems) I like the excitement of popping the cork and the sexy struggle to pour it properly.
I was sixteen the first time I had champagne. I was working at a receptionist for a movie company and a man who had produced what were called “spaghetti westerns” asked me to lunch. We went to the Four Seasons. (I wouldn’t even put this story in print if my daughters weren’t grown women). I had Oysters Rockefeller and champagne and one of those charming little chocolate soufflés, with another half glass of champagne. I alternated bites of dark fluffy warm chocolate with sips of champagne and thought, as people do after sex or heroin or skydiving, I am alive. I went back to work and noodled around, dreaming of my life in Rome, until it was time to go home. The man came by for the next three days and we went to Nanni’s and I had a Bellini and we went to a little French place and I had a dish of champagne sabayon sauce over strawberries and we went back to the Four Seasons for our farewell lunch and I had two whole glasses of champagne and another soufflé. He held my hand from time to time and once he kissed me on the wrist. He suggested that I should not bother learning to type and should sneak into my boss’ office and read movie scripts instead.He counseled me against hard liquorand early marriage. It was a very champagne week in my life
When my best friend, a wonderful cook and a wonderful person, was dying, she had lost not only her sense of taste but her ability to speak. I brought her handfuls of mint, cloves of garlic, a baggie of rose petals. On our last day together, I brought a bottle of champagne. She smiled at the pop of the cork and put out her hands to let me pour Veuve Cliquot over them, so she could feel the bubbles tingling. I held a glass under her nose and the bubbles rose up again. I put a teaspoonful in her mouth and she laughed, silently. One way or another, we finished the bottle.
In honor of the man whose face I can still see but whose name I’ve forgotten:
The Velvet Swing
6 oz. champagne
½ oz. port
½ oz. cognac
Pour into a glass with a stem and drop in the raspberry.
In honor of my friend Amy Waldhorn, who named this:
Any Idiot’s Chicken in Champagne Sauce
2 whole boned chicken breasts, cut in half to make 4 pieces and flattened with a mallet, then dredged in flour
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
½ c. diced celery
½ c. diced leeks (white part only)
¾ c. chopped mushrooms (mixed types is good)
¼- ½ c. chicken broth
2/3 c. champagne
2/3 c. heavy cream
Heat 3 tbsp. and sauté all the vegetable for 1 minute . Add broth and a little salt and cook for 5 minutes—no browning! Add 1 tbsp. butter. Add chicken breasts and sauté for half a minute on each side. Pile vegetables on top, add champagne, stir in cream, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add pepper. If the sauce is too thick, add more champagne, of course.
Serve on a bed of something colorful.
Everyone from George Bernard Shaw to Napoleon to me thinks that champagne is the perfect drink. It matches your high spirits, it lifts your low ones, offers comfort and even irony on one glass and it appeals to the deep and irrepressible bubbles within.