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Literary Libations


Ben Fenwick December 26th, 2008

Literary figures with local ties had choice words about a good, stiff drink. Their picks " both drinks and words " carried a wide vocabulary. Here are their drinks and where to get them. W...

Ralph-Ellison
Literary figures with local ties had choice words about a good, stiff drink. Their picks " both drinks and words " carried a wide vocabulary. Here are their drinks and where to get them.

While some may drink to forget, some drink to remember. It was his upbringing in Oklahoma that clouded Ralph Ellison's glass with ghosts.

By accounts, Ellison, whose 1952 novel "Invisible Man" rocked the literary world with its account of the black/white cultural fault line in American society, was quite the drinker. The martini was the author's drink of choice, according to a biographer, Stanford University Professor Arnold Rampersad.

"At times he perhaps drank to excess," Rampersad said. "He loved martinis and had at least one before dinner and is said to have, at least during one period of his life, carried around with him an eyedropper so that the correct amount of vermouth would be added to his gin or vodka " I think gin. He was very happy at the little bar at his club in New York, the very posh Century Association or Century Club. I suspect he also drank bourbon and perhaps rye whiskey."

Direct observation confirms Rampersad's research. According to John F. Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., Ellison liked a number of spirits, but chief among them was "a very, very dry martini his wife, Fanny, would make."

Callahan would know: He drank them with Ellison.

"His favorites were her martinis, and I can attest, they were terrific," Callahan said. "I had theirs the first couple of times and I started ordering martinis (at restaurants). I didn't understand why they didn't taste that good. I once asked her, and she said, 'John, it's the vermouth. I don't put that much vermouth in. It's the vermouth that makes you drunk.' That was her answer to it. Fanny made Beefeater martinis."

Callahan said he met with Ellison for long, literary evenings in which the talk coalesced with the drinks. From the first time they met, in which Ellison shared a glass of Jameson Irish Whiskey, to sipping bourbon or brandy, Callahan said Ellison enjoyed a good after-dinner drink.

"That was a wonderful ritual," Callahan said. "I would go to their dinners frequently over a period of 17 years. That's why I knew the ritual. You'd start with martinis, then go to table and have some wine and then bring out the brandy. That was pretty much the routine."

Callahan said the young Ellison would have hung around the jazz scene in "Deep Second," or Deep Deuce, which later instructed his writing.

"I'm sure he hung around places in the old Deep Second " the music places and the jazz joints. They also had booze," he said. "If he was starting out there before dinner, I'm sure he had martinis."

Ellison was well-known around the New York literary scene. Rampersad's "Ralph Ellison: A Biography," published in 2007, notes that even though the writer hoboed out of Oklahoma City aboard a freight train in 1933, the city went with him. Rampersad noted one passage from Ellison that described a smoky night listening to singer Jimmy Rushing around Deep Deuce:

"Heard thus, across the dark blocks lined with locust trees, through the night throbbing with the natural aural imagery of the blues, with highballing trains, departing bells, lonesome guitar chords simmering up from a shack in the alley " it was easy to imagine the voice as setting the pattern to which the instruments of the Blue Devils Orchestra and all the random sounds of night arose, affirming, as it were, some ideal native to the time and to the land.

"When we were still too young to attend night dances, but yet old enough to gather beneath the corner street lamp on summer evenings, anyone might halt the conversation to exclaim, 'Listen, they're raising hell down at Slaughter's Hall,' and we'd turn our heads westward to hear Jimmy's voice soar up the hill and down, as pure and as miraculously unhindered by distance and earthbound things as is the body in youthful dreams of flying."

"The further in time and space that Ellison traveled from Oklahoma, the slimmer became his gift," wrote Rampersad.

Lucky us. If his gift faltered when he left, well, there's still plenty here in OKC to inspire. While most of Deep Deuce got paved over by Interstate 235, the Deep Deuce Bar & Grill now thrives in the district if you're looking for proximity.

Don't miss the year-round jazz ambiance in Bricktown at Maker's Cigar and Piano Lounge, 25 S. Oklahoma. There, you can hit up bartender Houshang Nour for not only those martinis, but also some history of Ellison himself.

"Interesting you brought Ralph Ellison to the conversation," Nour said. "I also work at a bookstore and I hosted the literary executor of Ralph Ellison six months ago. I followed some of his stuff and know a little about him."

There, amid the smoke and the live jazz on the weekends, one might get a glimpse of the invisible man himself, if only in the spirits.

Sidecar noir

One can get a glimpse into the sharp, incisive mind of Oklahoma writer Jim Thompson even now, more than 30 years after his death. But one has to view it through the glass, darkly:

"Something with a little more character, I believe. A sidecar, say, with bourbon instead of brandy. And, Allen, no Triple Sec, please."
"Emphatically!" The waiter wrote on his pad. "We always use Cointreau in a sidecar. Now, would you like the rim of the glass sugared or plain?"
"Plain. About an ounce and a half of bourbon to an ounce of Cointreau, and a twist of lime peel instead of lemon."
"Right away, Mrs. Langtry."
"And, Allen ..."
"Yes, Mrs. Langtry?"
"I want that served in a champagne glass. A thoroughly chilled glass, please."
"Certainly." Moira watched him as he hurried away, her carefully composed features concealing an incipient snicker."

Although Thompson's dark masterpiece was marketed as one of many in the "pulp fiction" category, 1963's "The Grifters" was even darker, if possible, an Oedipal tale of lovers, swindlers and tragedy. Stephen King wrote of Thompson, "The guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn't know the meaning of the word stop. There are three brave lets inherent in the forgoing: he let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it."

Born in Anadarko in 1906, Thompson worked at the University of Oklahoma during the '30s, where he headed up the Oklahoma Federal Writers' Project with Western writer Louis L'Amour as a part of President Roosevelt's Works Project Administration. In addition to calendars and other pamphlets, the project under Thompson endeavored to write about Oklahoma's labor history " he was at one point a member of the Communist Party " and also attempted to develop a history of black Oklahomans with Oklahoma's Black Dispatch editor Roscoe Dunjee, although Thompson was removed from the program before the history was completed.

His affinity for drink, however, earned him a hallowed place in "Hemingway & Bailey's Bartending Guide to Great American Writers" by Edward Hemingway " yes, the grandson of Ernest Hemingway " and Mark Bailey.

"Jim Thompson was really one of the very, very hard drinkers," Bailey said. "The sidecar, from 'The Grifters,' was such a great description "¦ and it was more than likely he drank it."

Like the protagonists of many of his books, however, Thompson himself came to a hard end. He died penniless in 1977, with none of his books in print in the United States.

"Just you wait," he told his wife from his deathbed, according to the guide. "I'll become famous after I'm dead about 10 years." And, so it was.

Despite some recognition in his lifetime for his writing, including writing the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," Thompson spent a lot of his time destitute and thus, drinking the really rotten booze. On the skids, he could only dream of drinking a sidecar, Bailey said.

"But it was probably much more than he was able to afford for much of his life, or at least the places that served it. It was such a great description of it, though, that we had to include it in the book," Bailey said.

If you're thirsty, visit the appropriately named Sidecar Cocktail Lounge, 5100 N. Classen Circle.

Apples of discord
Revisionists have recently tried to divorce (yet again) John Steinbeck's name from that of Oklahoma. His seminal work, 1939's "The Grapes of Wrath" won him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and eventually he was awarded the Nobel Prize. It also made the plight of the "Okies" " the impoverished migratory farm workers traveling from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl of the '30s " a national symbol of ordeal and triumph.

Yet, instead of embracing the experience of the Okies (and the author's honors), Steinbeck, like Woody Guthrie, is met with no small amount of discomfort among some of Oklahoma's leaders. Maybe those who would decry the state's adoptive literary lion would see the connection differently through rose-colored glasses. Make that glasses colored with Jack Rose, a drink associated with Steinbeck, according to Bailey in the guide.

"Steinbeck was a brandy drinker and there's this great drink called the 'Jack Rose,' which is made from apple brandy," Bailey wrote. "It's a drink for the working class and Steinbeck so identified with the working class. When he drank his brandy, he did it in that spirit."
Applejack is a very strong apple brandy, the first spirit to receive a liquor license in America, according to Richard Sauvé, proprietor of the Prohibition Room, 1112 N.W. 23rd, which is one of the few bars in the country that still make a Jack Rose.

"I put the cocktail list together, and it was just something that seemed to come to forefront in research," Sauvé said. "I honestly didn't even know if Applejack was available. But I put in the menu and came to find out that it was. I guess I'm honored. It's actually a very tasty drink." Bailey agreed. He said the surprise of the Jack Rose was how good it tastes.

"It's a neat drink because it's delicious and people don't know it," Bailey said. "We knew he liked brandy and we knew he liked that cocktail, so we wanted that one for Steinbeck."
Bailey said he might adjust the amount of grenadine in the recipe for the drink. However, Sauvé said the issue with the grenadine lies in what kind is being imbibed.

"You need Applejack brandy. The real key to it, though, is the grenadine. If you don't use real pomegranate grenadine, then it doesn't taste right," he said.

Sauvé said Okies of all walks still flock to the drink, as evidenced by a recent taste test.
"The Overholser Mansion did one of their fund-raising things this past summer and they wanted us to make cocktails," Sauvé said. "We took a giant cooler full of Jack Rose out there and the stuff sold out like you wouldn't believe."
 
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