Monday, March 21, 2011

Literary Cocktails: The Dulce Decorum

The other night I had a Death in the Afternoon, a cocktail originally designed by Hemingway, and it got me to thinking-- why aren't there more literary cocktails? Hemingway has his share, there's at least one in honor of Dorothy Parker, and the Fitzgerald is a work of art. But where's the Faulkner, the Behan, the Poe, or the Rabbie Burns? And what about those writers that weren't filthy, filthy drunks? And so I'm embarking on a project to give some of them drinks--something special with which we can toast the artists who deserve it, so that there is a particular glass we can raise in the honor of those we can never honor enough.

It's not amazing that Behan died young, it's amazing his level of alcoholism didn't travel back in time and prevent his birth.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that Wilfred Owen was an incredible man and that this drink is to do him the honors he deserved to be given to his face, and that were he here I'd drink one with him. He was one of the first great anti-war writers to grow out of the absolute horror that was World War I, and his work is a product of the birthing pains of Modernism. He wrote about the horrors of war, the brutal inhumanity of the technology that allowed men to kill each other from miles away, and he wrote with absolute, seething scorn of the poets and journalists who cheered on the war.

Alasdair Gray (one of my absolute, all-time literary heroes), in his Book of Prefaces, holds up Owen as the first poet willing to let the War kill off his sentimentality. "This war had stripped elegy of its heroes, of its panapoly of consolations, dominions & powers, leaving a poetry of true feeling, without the bullshit of a bankrupt officer class." Owen was arguably the first poet to write of war with honest brutality, to write poems about soldiers rather than heroes. When he was staying in a hospital having his "nerves regenerated," his roommate had constant nightmares about his dead commanding officer, rotting, bloody, in his uniform, demanding to know why the man had let him die. Owen's poetry attempted to do the same to those who read it.

His greatest, most famous work is "Dulce et Decorum est," one of those poems that--even to those not passionate about poetry--hits you in the stomach with all the power of a goddamn car and leaves you reeling. It includes some of the most horrifying lines in English poetry ("Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. // In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, /He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning."), and ends with the absolutely furious condemnation of anyone who could say that burning a man's lungs from the inside out until he vomits blood so much that he dies is somehow a noble thing.

Hey bitch, Wilfred Owen says you can go fuck yourself.
When Owen's best friend--also a soldier--was sent home after being injured by friendly fire, Owen volunteered to return to the front in his place, believing that the world needed him to be able to truly describe the War and that, somehow, he hadn't suffered enough already to create a masterpiece.

He was shot in the head in France a week to the hour before the war ended. His mother received the news via telegram literally while the Armistice bells were ringing.

Jesus. I think...I think we all oughta take like a three-minute break, because otherwise any jokin' on my part is gonna seem really tasteless.
You good? Can we go on to the booze?

Okay, let's go.

Those of you who follow my other blog know that I'm a bit of a big  fan of booze. So it's fairly natural that it would bleed over onto my lit blog as well. When designing a drink named after the great gas poem, I knew what the principal flavoring would have to be: French? Bright green? A noted reputation for being poisonous? Well golly gee whilikers, I wonder what I could possibly--
Ooooh, right. Thanks Vincent.
So with the absinthe decided upon, I had to figure out what to use as a base alcohol, because trust me, absinthe is too damn strong to ever use as the core of a drink, in flavor and in other things (I have stories, man. And my girlfriend has like six hours' worth of progressively more unspeakable text messages). I decided to use some of the basil/rosemary vodka that I infused a while back, both because Russia and Italy were also Allied powers in WWI and because the herbal bitterness of it would complement the incredibly herbal, slightly toxic bitterness of the absinthe.

As a base I used plain seltzer water, both because everything else had pretty strong flavors and because I thought something fizzy would best evoke that feeling of, well, "the blood...gargling from froth-corrupted lungs" (wow I only just now realized what an unappetizing premise this post had). All in all, the drink is herbal, bitter, milky-green, and has a fairly sharp edge to it. It tastes mildly poisonous, but not in a bad way. It makes you want to lock your door and think about what's wrong with the world. It doesn't taste Dulce or Decorum--sweet or just--and I think Owen would be glad to share one with me and spit on the names of those who killed millions for thirty miles of ruined land.

Sorry for the lack of image gags in this article-- there are literally like three photos of the guy and, weirdly enough, he's a tough guy to joke about.
Pour 1.5 oz. of basil rosemary vodka (either shake your vodka with the herbs, or out several leaves of each in a jar with the vodka for a day) into a very, very cold highball glass. Fill the rest of the glass with seltzer water. Add .5 oz absinthe and give one gentle stir. Sip slow, think hard, and toast a great man who never had the chance to become an even greater one.
Finally, a productive use of my doughboy gas mask and 19-teens french pornography.

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