Some things stick with you, inexplicably. I have always been curious about that. How I can clearly remember staring at the clouds through the branches of a tree on my great aunt’s farm when I was 6 or 7, but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. Or how I can remember the smell of the Shogun Warriors mask I wore for Halloween in 1978, but I forget my blood type. I don’t know why some things stick and others fade away. I do know why this drink made my spooky drinks list, when it is not scary in any way. It starts with a poem, an epigraph in a book that kept me awake all night many moons ago. Terrified, I kept turning the pages, pushing through the story, hoping that knowing the end would let me sleep. So, with a nod toward night terrors and carrying on because you can’t go back, won’t you join me now as we stand and make the Bitter Heart.
So why does this one frighten me? I blame a couple of Stephens and a poem “In the Desert”, by Stephen Crane that appeared as an epigraph to open Stephen King’s collection of novellas, Four Past Midnight. I like to think that these words have some sort of educational value, beyond the obvious how to make a drink and/or how to be a better human message, so I’ll take this opportunity to mention that an epigraph is “a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme.” I did not know that half an hour ago, so I figured I should share the literary wealth, so to speak. In fact, I only learned it while trying to figure out which King novel it appeared in. I was convinced that it was The Stand and I had this great idea for tying that novels themes of search and redemption in a post-apocalytic world ravaged and forever changed by an outbreak of disease. It was gonna be great, talking about how people divided themselves and turned against each other, how kindness and understanding helped to save the day, how the whole thing was a cautionary tale against buying in to those selling fear. That was the plan, but I had misremembered things as they say, so here we are talking about memories.
The first story in the book was The Langoliers and it terrified me. Straight up unable to sleep, unable to put the book down kind of terror. I read all night long. Watching as the characters were trapped outside of time, seeing their fear divide them as they turned on one another when things got tough. Witnessing one man whose regret would help him rediscover his humanity as he sacrificed himself so that the rest could live. Hmmmm, so maybe I should have stuck with my original plan. I remember finishing the story and immediately grabbing something else to read to keep my mind off the imagined terrors of the Langoliers. I read till early enough to grab a shower and headed off to school without sleep, thankful for the distractions of the day. I guess that’s the way things go sometimes. Anyway, this bittersweet riff on the classic Negroni was created by Navarro Carr of Atlanta’s The Sound Table, where it is still on the menu. It has some sweeter elements than the original, so we will see where it goes.
Grab your mixing pitcher and pop in 1 1/2 ounces of that wonderful artichoke based bitter amaro Cynar, 1 ounce of gin, I went with Botanist Islay Gin and half an ounce of amaretto, I chose Amaretto Di Saronno. Add some artisanal ice and give it a good stir to the beat of Zee Avi singing her remarkably upbeat “Bitter Heart“. When well chilled and diluted strain into a rocks glass over a king cube and garnish with a dehydrated blood orange wheel.
That’s interesting to be sure. I am not usually a big fan of the Negroni, I mean, I want to like it, but it is often a bit too bitter for me. That said, this one is a bit sweet for my tastes. Weird, I know. My wife would tell you I can be cantankerous and hard to please and she’s not wrong, so maybe this one is on me. I actually prefer my negroni made with the less bitter Cynar over the usual Campari, so I had high hopes here, but that amaretto pushed it too far the other way for me. To be fair, I’ve been limiting my sugar intake, so everything tastes too sweet to me right now. It’s a good drink, just not for me, not forgetting that we have already established that I am not a credible witness here. It reminds me a little of the Montenegroni, not so much in flavor, but in concept. After it got a bit more dilution, the wife enjoyed it and it is a cool variation on the original.
When I saw the name of this drink, I was immediately reminded of the poem and the image in my mind of a “naked, bestial creature” squatting on the ground. I can see it clearly, even now, how it goes about its task, distractedly, mildly annoyed by the questions. It is strange how some words connect. For some unknown reason, these few lines read late one evening in 1990 were carved on my soul:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter…bitter,” he answered;
“But I like itIn the Desert, Stephen Crane
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
Of course, I had read Crane before. The Red Badge of Courage was required, if not terribly interesting, reading in high school. I remember Mrs. Brown explaining how it was a major American work, noted for its use of ironic tone and portrayal of internal struggles played against the backdrop of war. I remember the core discussion of the need for affirmation after a display of cowardice exemplified in a warriors wound, the titular red badge of courage. I also remembered not enjoying the novel, I just did not connect with it. But that naked, bestial creature eating his own heart, that touched me.
A dear friend used to say that if we all tossed our troubles in the middle of a room, we’d fight to get our own back. She was right, of course, and that always made me think of this poem as well. Why do I eat it? Because it is mine. We do that a lot. We find things to worry about, troubles to chew on and we claim to like them, no matter how bitter, because they are our own. I suppose that is the way of it. If we are going to worry about the little trials and tribulations of this life, we might as well enjoy them. I mean we must, right? Otherwise, why would we continue doing it? I don’t know myself, I never promised answers. Mostly I just offer more questions. It does seem like life is a little like my evening reading with the two Stephens. Our thoughts get out of control some times and we just have to run with them until the the distractions of the waking world can get us out of our own heads. So, lift your cup and enjoy your drink, because it is bitter and because it is your own. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.