The Old Fashioned Lemon Habit

The Old Fashioned Lemon Habit

In a dinner conversation with a close friend, I talk about wanting to live in Milwaukee, “It’s the only place that makes a decent Old Fashioned.” My husband chimes in, “You don’t even drink it right.” And I give him a sidelong look because the blow to my signature drink is deep; it reaches to the relationship I have with that drink and the performance I’ve honed of cozying up to the bar and asking, not for an Old Fashioned, but if the bartender can make an Old Fashioned. So, the insult feels like the biggest heartbreak I’ve had since ’99 when the Buffalo Sabers fell victim to the man-in-the-crease rule.

The insult develops literal weight, is actually felt and experienced so it takes me a second to gather speech, to ask, “How is it not right?”

“You like it with a lemon slice. That’s just not the traditional way to have it.”

And it’s true, I’ve sent back Old Fashioneds for a couple of reasons: added carbonation, no bitters, decorative cherries, even—once—a skewered pineapple. I’ve been pretty pert about wanting my drink the way it’s supposed to be made. The decrees for my Old Fashioned is an inheritance: I drink the  same version of an Old Fashioned my grandmother drank. There was—in my mind—no way my grandmother was drinking a degenerate cocktail.

Let me go backwards, my grandmother had the kind of vitality that let her unapologetically wear a minimum of five dangling, clanging charm bracelets; uncompromisingly red lipstick; and dresses the were perfectly tailored to shape her figure into whatever shape the contemporary moment decreed. Hers was the kind of boldness of a woman that has a signature drink and stands by the essentials and fundamentals of that signature drink with resolute fervor. She worked at the act, she amplified and accentuated the image of the particular kind of woman who would drink an Old Fashioned and get prickly about how the sugar was dissolved into the drink.

Realistically, her signature drink was heavy with desire, was a pastiche of how badly she wanted to toss her working poor status. But her convictions about the Old Fashioned seemed separate from her upper class lust: Her convictions were about wanting to think that there was a recipe, a “right way” to do something. Desperately, she wanted to think that there was a method that would make her fit in. This isn’t surprising given the context: In the 1930s—as an Irish, poor woman with little education—my grandmother had a different kind of whiteness than the American women who easily afforded and were mostly born into the lifestyle she coveted. Those women drank cocktails a “certain way” and she followed the custom thoughtfully, used it as a costume. This costume had been carefully chosen and she was more careful to ensure it was pure.

But, surprisingly, she might have been wrong.

The first printed mention of a cocktail appears in a magazine known as The Balance (1806). It defines a cocktail as “a stimulating liquor comprised of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters…”. It’s worth noting that there isn’t a cherry, a citrus, any accompaniment. Likewise, there isn’t added soda. According to my family pantry that consists of extremely few cookbooks, my grandmother followed the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book recipe for an Old Fashioned:

1 lump sugar.

2 dashes Angostura bitters.

1 Glass Rye or Canadian Club Whisky.

So how did she fall into the lemon habit? To break any convention would have, in her mind, defrocked her crafted act. She would have been other-ed if she accepted a muddled cherry or the addition of club soda; such impurities would have taken the safety out of sipping a drink and appearing, to all observers, assimilated. For her, the classical definition of the Old Fashioned wasn’t a choice, it was protection to bridge the gap between her and them.

It might not be different for me. I might drink the same drink my grandmother drinks and feel as uppity about it being made “right” because it helps me see more clearly. In my own contemporary moment,  my generation is looking at being the first generation to make less than their parents, our student debt buries any chance my husband and I have of buying a home, and unemployment or underemployment is the norm. It helps me to have a drink that follows clarity of form. There is, surprisingly, some comfort in conventionality.

But I do, and she did too, add a twist of lemon.

How did the lemon slide into our drink? A simple break in the code probably from something even more simple, an attractive bartender, a suggestion from a friend; something let the lemon peel dip into our whisky and give slight flavor and aroma. We fell into the lemon peel and I wonder, upon finding out that my husband was right, how many other things give us away for our fears, show our imperfections, or break the fragile performances we’ve made to appear normal.

I remember my grandmother having a lemon peel and I adhered to the recipe. I don’t plan on giving up the lemon peel to become more linear and match up to the classic-by-definition-Old-Fashioned. It’s not as simple as Zukofsky’s assertion that we live with things as they exist: “I come into a room and I see a table. Obviously, I can’t make it eat grass.” No, it’s not like that at all. Instead, there are complications that make us try, desperately, to make ourselves something we aren’t and to make the things around us into other things. I drink an Old Fashioned that doesn’t follow the most pure definition and I’m lucky enough to be in a different position than my grandmother found herself in. My position is one with the energy to know a preference: I care about the detail of the lemon peel because that’s what makes the Old Fashioned my signature drink. The brightness of the lemon peel is part of the intricacy of being shaped by my own contexts, including my grandmother’s not-quite-right cocktail.

When I look at the lemon peel in my Old Fashioned, I think about Lorine Niedecker, another person who favored Wisconsin, and her relationship to place, “Early in life I looked back of our buildings to the lake and said, ‘I am what I am because of all this—I am what is around me—those woods have made me.’” For me, acknowledging my grandmother who tried so hard to be an American, there’s a tenderness to realizing that I drink her drink and know it isn’t the perfect costume she thought it was; knowing, instead, that it shows a subtle persistence of our unique family history and even, a bit of the American condition of diversity and change.

The lemon peel in my Old Fashioned is a variation worth attention not because it shows something other, but because it shows something more—a whole history of the women in my family and how everything influences everything else.

Photos by:  scaredy_katAndrew Magill