I am trying to overcome 35 years of drink-shaming.
It started all those decades ago on my first visit to New York as an adult. Being a child of the Bible Belt, I knew as much about cocktails as I did about subways.
I was visiting a friend I had known since junior high school. He had completely transformed himself: lost 30 pounds, started going by his middle name instead of his first and came out as gay. He had always possessed a wit and intelligence that left me in awe, but now he had become the ultimate Manhattanite. He wore a lot of black.
He had a list of friends he wanted to introduce me to, including his newest boyfriend. I packed what dark clothing I owned (which wasn’t much) and fervently hoped for my friend’s sake that I wouldn’t come off as Ms. Hick From The Sticks.
When I got to New York, I dropped my bags at his place and we set out on the evening he’d planned for weeks. It started, naturally, at a bar. He said newspaper people hung out there, which was why he’d picked it. I ordered the only cocktail I knew: a Bloody Mary.
It was pretty dark in there, but I could clearly see the look the bartender gave me. It clearly said: “What the heck?”
I could clearly see the look the bartender gave me. It clearly said: “What the heck?”
The bartender scrounged under the counter for a bottle of tomato juice, poured some in a glass, sloshed vodka in it and handed it over as if divesting himself of a dead rat. My friend grabbed his drink – probably something sophisticated, like a martini — and sat me down for a stern lecture.
He informed me in clear terms that Bloody Marys were never consumed after 3 p.m. Ever. Even if one were dying of thirst in the desert and the only oasis was made of Snap-E-Tom and Smirnoff.
I felt like I was wearing overalls and chewing on a piece of hay.
The lesson of that evening has stuck with me long after I’ve abandoned other rules. I wear white after Labor Day without fearing my grandmother’s wrath from the grave. Vertical stripes are not always slimming. “Beer on whisky, mighty risky” is not true in every possible case.
But that Bloody Mary rule has hung on in my mind.
Like many cocktails, the Bloody Mary has murky origins. Some say that the original combination of tomato juice and alcohol (early ones may have featured gin) arose at the famous Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, then migrated to Manhattan where it acquired horseradish, lemon juice and Tabasco. In New Orleans, a bartender added beef bouillon to the mix and called the result a Bloody Bull.
Bloody Marys initially appealed to drinkers for two main reasons. The tomato juice and spices made it appear healthy (Vitamin C and lycopene, y’all!) and able to relieve the previous night’s indulgences. Also, because of the spicy, salty ingredients, bartenders could use cheap vodka.
The exploding popularity of brunch has carried the Bloody Mary along with it, and the drink has been garnished into something that’s almost unrecognizable as a beverage. I’ve seen local bartenders pile nearly an entire salad bar on top of the glasses.
But having just a few vegetables on top is mild compared to the Frankendrinks that have arisen from the brunch world. The Ice House bar in Minneapolis offers Bloody Marys topped with bacon and mini doughnuts. At the Anvil Pub in Dallas, the glass of red is stabbed with skewers of shrimp, olives, tomatoes, an onion ring — and a slider. Some menus now have Bloody Marys specifically labeled vegetarian, something I never thought you’d have to point out but I guess unless you do, you’ll get a burger stacked on your cocktail.
With such abundance – or nuttiness – in a glass, it does seem a shame to consign the drink to daytime hours. What if I really need a vodka-soaked snack at, say, 9 p.m.?
Yet the voice of drink-shaming persists in my head like the lyrics to “The Pina Colada song,” an earworm which I think would even defeat Jedi mind reading.
I turned to friends for therapy. To a woman, they said to drink whatever I want. One pointed out: “It cannot possibly be more socially acceptable to get liquored up at 8 a.m. than it is at 8 p.m.” Good point.
I said goodbye to my Manhattan friend some years ago, but I think that if he saw today’s Bloody Marys, he might alter that rule of his. Or run in terror.
Besides, when we arrived at his boyfriend’s apartment, we were greeted with a tray of frozen banana daiquiris. Now, that was a drink that needed to be shamed.
Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.