“Orthodoxy: That peculiar condition where the patient can neither eliminate an old idea nor absorb a new one,” wrote philosopher Elbert Hubbard, known as much for his pithy quotes as for the fact that he wrote extensively on the Titanic disaster only to die aboard the Lusitania three years later. His quote occurred to me after hearing from a reader.
“When my husband and I were dating and then young marrieds back in the ’60s, we often dined out and had a drink before dinner. He would order a Manhattan and I would order a daiquiri, and we would drink whatever was served and enjoy it. Now, you’ve made the ordering of a cocktail an ordeal, and like your correspondent, I end up just ordering a glass of ‘house white wine’ and have a choice of perhaps two.
“Can you imagine doing what you suggest when you order dinner? The pasta has to be made with stone-ground whole wheat, the filling (be it cheese, fish or meat) has to be from a certain region, the sauce must be made with cream from an organic dairy in Petaluma, and the vegetable has to be locally grown on a small family-run farm. Good God, man, you would be there all night and the waiter would be rolling his eyes.
“Please don’t intimidate those of us who don’t know all there is to know about various spirits, but would like to order a cocktail now and then. Enjoy your column most of the time.”
Oh my. To wit, I would make two points.
The first point is that I am not the one fueling this phenomenon. I am just reporting on what is already happening. Trust me, I have been a bartender for almost 30 years, and I long for the days when there was only one type of Manhattan, one martini, etc. All I am doing is suggesting that one be prepared when ordering a cocktail these days because you will likely be subjected to the questions I outlined in the previously. Ironically, this new age of “mixology” has added affectation to the equation like never before (at least not in my lifetime). I suggest it doesn’t make things better, rather it makes things more difficult. The benefits of positive liberty — the ability to choose — versus those of negative liberty — the freedom from choice — have been debated by political scientists since absolutism gave way to democracy. However, in the realm of food service, the only thing that an excess of choices does is muck up the works. Perhaps that is why the gigantic menus of the 1980s have given way to the more-streamlined versions seen in better bars and restaurants these days. Better to do a few things great, than many things badly. The bar business, however, has picked up the slack.
I blame it on Starbucks. Now everybody wants his or her drinks customized. And when you have as many bottles as most back bars do, the variations can be endless. A simple Manhattan can be made hundreds of different ways, literally. Thanks for that, Starbucks.
As to the second point my reader makes, people already order food like that every single day. I know, because many of them do it from me: Is this gluten free? Is the chicken free range? Is the beef organic? Is the bacon nitrate free? Are the herbs local? Is the salmon wild?
Recently I had a person ask about beef liver, balk because it was only “natural” and not “organic” and then order flounder, a bottom-feeding fish that could have come from anywhere.
Welcome to the new millennium, folks. Step into it if you dare.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• ”Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” wrote Leo Tolstoy.
• Elbert Hubbard also coined the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” One wonders if he used that on the Lusitania.
• “Would you like your daiquiri with light rum? Dark rum? Blended? Chilled? On the rocks? With fruit? Hemingway style?” Sorry, just warming up.
• There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur. Being an amateur with an attitude, on the other hand …
• “I’ll have a coffee.” Me, at the local Starbucks.