In his immortal “Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins wrote, ““If you’re honest, you sooner or later have to confront your values. Then you’re forced to separate what is right, from what is merely legal.” That can be tricky. There are a ton of things that are or were legal that were definitely not right. I know a bunch of you want to argue today, you are just itching for a fight, but I’ve still got that headache, so I’m not here for that. Slavery was the law of the land, that didn’t make it right, so concede the point and let’s move on. Old Tom has been on my mind lately. I am a child of the time that book was created for “the last quarter of the 20th century”, but I am living closer to the end of the first quarter of the 21st. I’m an Aries born under Nixon ascendent, so I am charismatic, clever and perpetually wary of all earnestness. A lot of things have changed since I joined the planet, but it looks like this century is working extra hard to repeat the lessons of the last, for those who weren’t listening to Santayana. So, let’s take a look back as we stand and make the Twentieth Century.
This drink is named for a train. Remember those? There was a time that if you were traveling across this country, you were probably riding the rails and doing it in style. You could have popped back to the bar car to have one of these cocktails served by a fella in a white coat. Not as much train travel this days. There are still some pockets where it is feasible and we ought to be working to expand that. If you have ever spent any time in Europe, you already know it is another of those things they are beating us at. Of course, what do they know, spending their tax dollars on social programs and infrastructure. I have always loved train travel, still do. I used to ride the Silver Palm up and down Florida and I have spent many a happy hour watching northern Virginia pass by outside my Amtrak window and even more watching the European countryside blasting by at 150+ mph. Living in middle Tennessee, my options are limited to excursion trains and few enough of those. I did get to drive one of those big diesel passenger train engines once, but that is another story for another day. This drink was first published in William Tarling’s “Cafe Royal Cocktail Book” in 1937. This riff on the Corpse Reviver #2, was actually created by C.A. Tuck, who named it for the “Twentieth Century Limited” express train that ran between New York and Chicago from 1902 till 1967. Let’s get into this one to see what makes it so special.
We are shaking this one so grab your tins and pop in 1 1/2 ounces of gin, I went with Corsair; 1 ounce of white creme de cacao, 2/3 of an ounce of dry vermouth, I chose Noilly Prat; and 1/3 of an ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Add ice and give it a good shake to the beat of the Doobie Brothers “Long Train Runnin” cause without love, where would you be now? Seriously. Double strain into something elegant, like they would have served in the Club Century bar car of the 20th Century Limited. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel and serve.
In the paraphrased words of Elton John, “Oh but it’s weird and it’s wonderful. That 20th Century is really keen”. There is a lot going on for a cocktail with so few ingredients. The herbal gin, playing with the sweet notes of chocolate, balanced by the citrus topnote. It just works, in such a wonderfully bizarre way. There is another version of this one that used a gin with a strong celery component, and as weird as that sounds, I want to try it too. This one works. It comes out of left field to do it, but yum!
That’s one of the fun parts, isn’t it? When you look at things and go, “I don’t know how this is going to work out…” but then it does. I am feeling a bit like that right now, not knowing how things are going to turn out. Watching people choose teams, running off to new echo chambers where division is what sells seats. It is tough to have a conversation and find common ground if everyone just wants to hang out with people who think like they do. That worries me. A lot. We have been trending this way for a while, but especially during Covid, folks are spending more of their time interacting online. Did I say interacting, I meant reading and judging other folks. Before y’all get started I am picking on both sides and the folks in the middle so don’t bother trying to figure out what I am really saying. I am saying that we are all doing a pretty bad job of actually seeing each other as fellow humans and trying to find somewhere to meet in the middle. So much easier to break up into groups, like a bunch of damn middle schoolers. As long as we aren’t getting out as much and not having to see each other at the grocery or the Co-op or the farmer’s market, it is only likely to get worse. As you remember from middle school, a lot of that “he said, she said” bullshit, fades away when folks are talking to their neighbors face to face. Cause we are better than that. Face to face we remember playing little league together, we remember that guy who helped you push your car out of a muddy field after a bonfire one night, we remember that they used to sit behind your grandparents at church, or that they shared their jungle juice with you on a third grade field trip. We remember that we are part of the same community. It is amazing how seeing each other makes a difference, even if half your face is covered with a mask. So, as we move through times that are truly unprecedented, don’t forget where your real loyalties lie. Not to a couple of guys in DC, but to your friends and family, to your community, to your humanity. I keep saying it and it keeps feeling like shouts into the darkness, but there really is no them, only us and when you want to hurt or belittle them, you are only pulling us all down. We are better than that. Hell, we are like this drink, so much better than we have any right to be. If you just did these ingredients as shots, that would be a pretty horrible tasting concoction, but when you get in there and mix them up, they have to work together and they make something amazing.
I am reminded of another Tom Robbin’s quote from the same book, which you should read. It is dated, a bit cringey in spots, but if you want to understand what makes an outlaw, why choice is so important and why the only question that matters is how to make love stay, it is worth your time. Anyway, in one of his preachy off topic tangents voiced through a character, he closes with “They glared at her the way any intelligent persons ought to glare when what they need is a smoke, a bite, a cup of coffee, a piece of ass, or a good fast-paced story, and all they’re getting is philosophy.” Don’t worry, I can feel your glares, so I will sign off. Y’all stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.