The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

As we stumble toward another year, the third or fourth in the new millenium depending upon your interpretation, everyone’s looking for a good time. There doesn’t seem to be any logical explanation for the phenomenon, but for some reason all of Western civilization feels the need to get bombed on New Year’s Eve (or feels the need to act self-righteous about not getting bombed.)

As you’ve probably guessed, I fall into the former category, but it’s no big thing; New Year’s is no better an excuse to party than Groundhog Day or Invention of Philips-Head Screws Day. Prominent in my butler’s pantry/bar is an Esquire-born tome of about 1956 that includes, beyond recipes for hundreds of esoteric drinks, a list of 365 reasons to have a party. This, truly, is one of America’s greater contributions to humanity. (Yes, Philips-head screws are on the list.)

A recurring problem of New Year’s Eve is that it’s Amateur Night. For a vast beige segment of the population, this is the only night of the year that it’s okay to get blitzed, don a lampshade, kiss the boss’s wife and do the Charleston with a coatrack. Thus, every bar in every city is flooded with people who, to be blunt, don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Of course, there are alternatives. Dear God, are there alternatives. The Politically Correct (read: annoying) thing to do now is a First Night celebration. There does not seem to be any cultural precedent for these awful things, but they proliferate. From what I can gather, the idea is to take a traditionally lewd boozefest of a night and turn it into a Kids ’n Kool-Aid yawn competition. Apparently, “The Arts” are involved, but given that the local version happens in pretty but sleepy Annapolis, I’m not too convinced of the pedigree of the arts in question.

In decades past, it was possible on almost any night of the year to go to a Big Downtown Hotel for drinks, dinner and dancing. Any city worth its salt had several behemoth hotels with house orchestras and cork-padded ballroom floors. New Year’s Eve would be a little more spiffy, a little more charged, and they’d hand out confetti. Now New Year’s Eve is the only night of the year that the few remaining grand hotels do something like this, and it’s depressing. The cost hovers around $200 per couple, and you get rubber chicken, flat champagne that may have been produced in used Pontiac gas tanks, and dancing on a much-reduced ballroom floor to the mellow strains of... a DJ??? These affairs are saddest at the old grand hotels; it’s hard to be in a place like the Virginia Room at Richmond’s Hotel John Marshall and not imagine what it would have been like with Glenn Miller’s Orchestra instead of some pimply DJ.

I’ll avoid commentary on the Cool Kid nightclub scene on New Year’s. Let’s just say that I’m over 25 and don’t fit in, and that if I wanted to listen to screaming, wasted peroxide chicks and equally wasted steroid boys, I’d attend a perfectly good mob riot.

This year I will again have a party at home for the Few, the Elite, the Too Broke to Do Anything Else. For the rest of you, enjoy the evening and best wishes for 2003. And don’t forget — Drink Responsibly! Champagne does not go in a martini glass!

Thursday, December 26, 2002

This probably won’t hold much interest for the non-Maryland set — there, you’ve been warned.

As long as anyone can remember, Charles Street has been the central axis of Baltimore. At one point, the numbering system radiated from the intersection of North (now Guilford), South and Baltimore streets, but someone finally realized that since Charles was really the foremost north-south axis, it would make a better focus for the numbers.

Charles also has the distinction of being probably the most schizophrenic street in the United States. South Charles reaches down past the waterfront into workaday South Baltimore, where it hosts a pleasant little business district and small, mostly-well-kept rowhouses.

Oh, but North Charles street! Always the home of fashionable boutiques and imposing houses, it runs through Washington Place and up across the Jones Falls to the toniest residential sections. It also looks like a street designed by Dr. Caligari.

The lower reaches of Charles Street are perhaps ridiculously wide. Baltimore had urban renewal thrust upon it accidentally in 1904, when the entire central business district burned. The city was thus able to rid itself of the embarrassing old rabbit-warren of tangled and narrow streets. This section of Charles now sports the Ionic perfection of the old Bank of Baltimore building and the massive B&O Railroad headquarters. Unfortunately, a few similar Beaux-Arts masterpieces were wiped out in a burst of urban renewal — anticipated this time — in the 1960s.

Once out of the old “fire district,” Charles Street (like all good Marylanders) promptly reverts to its old ways and narrows back down, basically only one lane with parking along both sides. This is the sort of Baltimore vista that reminded Trollope of Merrie England. Thankfully, the street widens out again before anyone gets claustrophobia, right around the Archbishop’s residence.

Charles disappears entirely for two blocks, graciously allowing its path to be usurped by beautiful Washington Place. Then it picks right back up where it left off and continues north. Once past the weirdly angled Pennsylvania Station (which was built to be parallel to the tracks, not the street) the street’s gentility fades badly, but fortunately a few dedicated souls seem to be trying to reclaim its glories.

In the Victorian age, this section was all new. They called it “Charles Street Avenue” because, well, Charles itself was downtown; this was merely the avenue that got you to Charles eventually. This was a pretty common habit; Richmond has similar concoctions. Charles Street Avenue, as befits what was once a shady country lane, is much wider than Charles is downtown.

Once Charles crosses 29th, though, all hell breaks loose and takes the form of pavement. This section is what was once called “Charles Street Avenue Boulevard”, an appellation that takes redundancy to an extreme but, as Letitia Stockett wrote, had the advantage of being very precise. This is also the section of Charles that has given citizens, city fathers, confused tourists and traffic experts more headaches over the years than all other stretches of pavement in the city combined (with Frederick and Hagerstown streets thrown in for good measure).

The problem is that the section became fashionable in the 1890s and so drastic measures were taken. We must remember that in the 1890s nothing could be fashionable without a lot of extra frippery. A battle royal ensued between the varied interests of the Wyman family, who owned the land to the west of the street and didn’t want it developed, the Johns Hopkins University, which was trying to (and did) score most of the Wyman land, and the people developing the east side of the street. The Olmsted firm was called in to landscape, and part of the Wyman land was turned into a park, which would be attractive if it weren’t in a deep valley. It’s a park in a hole. Olmsted recommended widening the road and making it a boulevard — which is almost what happened. The city wasn’t satisfied with a normal boulevard, and decided to make a triple boulevard — a wide central roadway flanked by medians and two smaller roadways on either side. Very pretty, but very weird. It’s been causing traffic nightmares since the days when navy-blue barouches plied the streets, and the current proliferation of city buses, Oldsmobiles and Hopkins students aren’t helping. The easternmost roadway is too narrow and is basically a parking lot now. The westernmost is a southbound speedway, and the central road is given to northbound traffic, except for one lane that is southbound only during rush hour. Naturally, all of this means that even people who have lived in that neighborhood for forty years can’t figure out what’s going on.

Once again, the city wants to do something about it. Too many people have gotten offed in “the death lane” (that weird one that changes direction) and too many people trying to find the art museum have ended up plunging down the hill into the park out of sheer traffic despair. Several planning meetings and hearings have ensued. Nobody is happy. The city doesn’t want to spend the estimated $15 million to rip out the old triple boulevard, but traffic managers don’t see any other way. Preservationists are in both camps — some want the triple boulevard to stay because it’s always been there, others say it must go because it wasn’t Olmsted’s original plan. Commuters want the use of the road; residents are tired of commuters roaring up and down the street.

The best solution would be, simply, to do away with traffic in the two smaller roadways and turn the main roadway into a two-way road all the time. It would allow use of the road while slowing traffic to a manageable speed, provide more parklike space, preserve the by-now-historic triple boulevard, and alleviate the insanity of the current traffic flow plan.

Best of all, this solution could be reached for the price of a few gallons of yellow road paint.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Yesterday evening I did something that I normally never do — I declined an invitation to a party. (Since the invitation had been rather a last-minute thing anyway, I could see that it was a last ditch effort to add a Single Young-ish Male to the guest list, so I didn’t feel too bad about pleading an awful case of the vapors.)

Usually, I take invitations, even backhanded ones, because those of us in reduced circumstances don’t dare turn down free food and booze, and it’s always fun to visit with a group of people.

I turned this one down because I knew what was going to be served, and even with the possibility of some interesting people, I knew it wasn’t even going to be worth the carfare it would take to get there. This host is in his own right a delightful person, but seems to have a reception only because it’s the Done Thing. The whole shindig was supposed to last only from three until five. Who on earth has a party that only lasts two hours? Worse, the only available beverage is some concoction called “Glögg”, ostensibly Scandinavian in nature, that I can only assume harks back to the thirty-two minutes in the late ’60s when Scandinavian cuisine and culture were “in” here. The stuff is potent spiked wine that can bring on a headache faster than a rubber mallet.

I’m not implying that hosts should always have a full bar ready to sate their guests’ greed, but an alternative would be nice. Then again, perhaps the Glögg is there by design. I’m sure that when faced with nothing but Glögg people don’t mind leaving after two interminable hours.

Friday, December 20, 2002

I have a friend who believes in the Great Christmas Elephant. This is no half-baked relation of the Great Pumpkin, friends. This is a big circus elephant decked out in red and green velvet and spangly things whose sole mission in life is to back up and sit on you, smothering you with its giant Christmas-y butt. I decided a few years ago that the Elephant needed a sound effect, so like everything on the road these days that isn’t stamped “Tonka”, the Elephant beeps as it backs up. (Dear God. It has recently come to my attention that certain brands of toy trucks actually beep when they back up. Civilization is crumbling!)

I do not have a problem with the Christmas Elephant. For the most part, it is my friend, and I ride it happily to go shopping and stand in line at Rheb’s Chocolates with all the little old ladies and their lists of who likes what. I’m fond of Christmas in general, if for no other reason than it reminds me of big downtown department stores. I don’t feel smothered by Christmas; it’s a fun time and you get loot (even though I long ago hit the age when socks could be considered acceptable loot). And of course there’s my beloved eggnog.

No, I live in fear of the Great Christmas Baking Elephant. When I had my first apartment (some of the readers here may recall that commodious, elegant Williamsburg address), I felt compelled to make it “just like home” and do some Christmas baking. After a couple of years, I got pretty good at it.

By now Christmas foodstuffs have become a giant albatross-shaped ginger cookie around my neck. I think it’s really supposed to be a dove of peace, but I’m telling you it’s an albatross (which should tell you that I have no idea what an actual albatross looks like). I have convinced myself that I must — nay, am bound by divine decree — to crank out cookies by the thousands, little tiny Dresdner-Stollen to give away and an almond-studded Gugelhupf for Christmas morning.

As I type, there are two boxes of Pfeffernuesse “curing” behind the TV (they need to be someplace warm), Springerle dough waiting in the freezer since I didn’t have time to bake it last night, and a jar of citron so I can put little “leaves” on the Berliner-Kranze that need to be made tonight. I am trying desperately not to think about the rolled cookies that haven’t been made.

This may be the last year of obsessive baking. I caught myself last night drawing up plans for a little gingerbread version of St. Alphonsus Church, which indicates that I may need professional help. Next Christmas, you’re all getting a box of Berger’s cookies and you’d better enjoy them.

It’s a very Dickensian night here in Baltimore. Chilly, but not bone-freezing cold. Not raining, really, but misting, and not quite fog. I can’t see the skyscrapers downtown from my windows, as I usually can. And the streetlights cast a beautiful glow in the mist.

“Silver Bells” is easily my favorite non-religious Christmas song. Sadly, it’s a song of things Christmas-y that are gone with the wind. “Silver Bells” is a celebration of a downtown Christmas, and there’s not much left of that. If I were to go down to Howard and Lexington &mdash that once-bustling place known as The Busy Corner — I’d find no more glittering window displays, no electric garlands hanging overhead. No more enticing display of Christmas wonderland from stylish Hutzler’s or stodgy Hochschild’s. There’s a lot left downtown &mdash just go to the Market any Saturday and you’ll see it &mdash I had to fight my way through three hundred adamant Baltimore dowagers to the counter at Rheb’s candy shop last week to fill out my Christmas list — but the glory days are gone.

On a night like this I cannot understand why people do not want to live in the city. (I speak now not only of Baltimore, but of Richmond, and Cleveland, and St. Louis, and... all cities.) I leaned out the window of my upstairs living room (first floor, mind you, is the Front Parlor and reserved for Proper Entertaining) for a quick smoke. There’s the lovely block of houses just south of my own block, the big white house on the corner fairly glowing in the mist. The mammoth Methodist church across the street looked gorgeous, and I don’t even like the old thing (it was designed by Stanford White, but a good pedigree doesn’t mean I have to like it). Its neighbour, the former main building of Goucher College, hovered heavy but elegant. While I hung out the window one of the neighborhood cops &mdash Virg Caunter, who knows me pretty well, called up to say hello and to bum a cigarette. After we’d finished chatting he even said, “Frohe Weihnachten” — he knows I like everything a little better auf Deutsch.

This neighborhood is not, perhaps, what it was in 1913, but it retains a certain amount of gemutlichkeit that is sadly missing from most suburban milieus. My best friends in Baltimore do live in my neighborhood, but my immediate neighbors aren’t my close friends. Yet, I know them; I know that the guy next door is a movie projectionist and likes whiskey sours. I know that the chick two doors up is a pastry chef and is into bonsai. Lately, when I visited a friend out in Owings Mills (one of Baltimore’s far-flung suburban environs), I was shocked to realize that she didn’t know even the names of her next-door neighbors. And this, in a “townhome” development. Pity they didn’t call them “rowhouses” instead of “townhomes.” How can you live in a place where you share a wall with neighbors, and not even know their names? Is this the “safety” that suburbia craves? Thanks, I’d rather know who lives next door.

Perhaps the most constant argument against city life is the issue of schooling. To this, I say, “Feh.” My neighborhood’s grade school serves an area that includes a lot of yuppie haveitalls, a lot of disenfranchised industrial workers, ancient bluebloods, and an awful lot of gay men. The kids are mostly poor. Yet, this school manages to produce scores among Maryland’s highest in standardized testing. Apparently, something is working. A good friend has put three kids through the City’s school system, and they’re all quite competent. The education is there if you want it.

And so I come back to the Christmas ideal. You know, cities are wonderful places to be at Christmastime. Even the frowziest old neighborhoods turn into happy enclaves. Look at Hampden &mdash I remember my mother telling me that “nice people don’t go to Hampden!” but there it is, with the famous 34th street lights outshining everything else in town.

Let the malls do their best. I’m spending Christmas right here on Saint Paul street. I might go downtown to score some hot roasted peanuts from Konstant. This is Santa’s big scene, soon it will be Christmas Day!

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

I really want to keep this journal well away from the political arena, because frankly, I loathe politics. My overall intent here is to comment on the foibles of popular culture.

I couldn’t stay away from this one, though, because it’s driving me nuts. This country is working itself into a bedwetting frenzy over terrorism. What was, last year, a gut reaction to a hideous event has become parody.

American culture has always loved a good fad. What other nation could become so completely obsessed with pet rocks as ours? The fad of the early 2000s, unfortunately, seems to be paranoia. Thanks, I’ll take Hula Hoops. Hell, I’ll even take hunkerin’, which had to be the stupidest fad ever spawned by wasted college students.

I know people who keep a suitcase next to the door filled with a couple of changes of clothes, bottled water and various emergency medicines. They fully expect to have to vacate at a moment’s notice. Now, let’s consider: Two of these people are in Baltimore and two are in Washington. I’m talking downtown, too, not fringes. On any normal day, it takes a good twenty minutes to head for the hills from either city, just to get outside city limits — and forty minutes to an hour during afternoon rush. Add to this equation the fact that, if someone does drop even one plain li’l ol’ conventional bomb at the corner of 14th and F in DC, you’re going to have streets clogged with a zillion frantic people. It would take you three months to get to the city line. Forget the suitcase, folks; just have a shaker of Martinis ready — you’re gonna need ’em.

I also maintain a fatalistic attitude about this whole thing: I, personally, can’t do a thing about it if someone or some country takes a notion to bomb my city. What am I going to do, go out there with a tennis racket and lob the warhead back where it came from? If it happens, it happens and it’s going to happen whether I’ve got a shelter full of inedible hardtack or not.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 were doubtlessly the most frightening attack in American history, primarily because they were the only attacks since the War of 1812 that involved a foreign entity and American civilians. (For reference, our current allies, the British, wreaked havoc on the towns of the Chesapeake in that war.) And certainly they were perpetrated as a function of an unpleasant fact — there are a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily like the United States, no matter how much we pat ourselves on our politically-correct backs. But what is the reality of actual danger? Is there really an Islamic extremist lurking behind every corner? I rather doubt it. The vast majority of people in the Islamic world are just like the vast majority of people here; they’re just trying to make it one day at a time. I doubt they go home every evening and plot against people in Cedar Rapids.

The anti-Islamic paranoia of today is the updated version of Soviet paranoia, circa 1962. Forty years ago, we were all supposed to be quaking in our boots because “the Russians were coming.” In retrospect, that was a somewhat more realistic fear; the Soviet Union was a (more or less) cohesive political entity and it was a (more or less) major power. Our other allies at that point were nations that had been so recently shattered by two horrible wars in succession that they couldn’t say boo to a goose. Hindsight is of course better than foresight; we know now that Russia was struggling to produce enough toilet paper to wipe its collective ass. I don’t think we had too much to fear, after all.

It’s time for us to find a new fad. Paranoia is getting old and it’s making everyone crazy. What this country needs is (I love to hate people who say that) a resurgence in dance marathons. They’re fun, people would learn how to dance again, and we’d all work off the effects of the last ten years of Biggie Size.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

I have made it to December 17 without having seen one single Christmas special on TV (unless we’re counting the Simpsons rerun that aired back in September, and I’m not). I haven’t even been purposefully avoiding the television. I’ve just missed all of them. Since I’m in no mood for cutesy-vomit-SWEET this year, it’s probably a good thing.

What’s sort of perverse is that most of those TV Christmas specials are exactly the same ones that were airing when I was a kid. It’s as if the TV Gods called them all into being in 1967, and there they remain, the Eternal Christmas Specials.

If they’re a little dated, that’s probably all for the better. New animation seems a little too soulless for Christmas. At the same time, it seems odd to think that this generation of children, whose childhood experience will be so different from my own, are watching the same saccharine Christmas drip that I did. They have computerized games instead of toy soldiers, movies via satellite instead of in theatres, shopping online instead of mammoth downtown department stores — but they still plop on the floor three inches from the TV to watch Rudolph.

The Rudolph special was probably the most saccharine and yet the most endearing. Even by my junior high school years (when I no longer admitted to watching the thing but did anyway) its old stop-motion fuzzy-doll animation was starting to seem really creaky. I always identified with the misfit toys, though, and rejoiced in their triumph. If the show didn’t really make me a better and more tolerant person, it at least made me appreciate my one toy soldier who was missing an arm. (I conveniently ignored the fact that he was missing an arm because, trying to create a “real” war situation, I made land mines with balls of caps, and the poor guy’s arm got blown off. I felt bad about it, though, and pretended that he’d been awarded a little toy Purple Heart for his efforts.)

Because Peanuts transcends time and just about everything else — if Charles Schulz didn’t score a special place in eternity, I’m converting — I hold the Peanuts special to be particularly sacred. Even so, one of its main premises was already outdated by the time I was old enough to watch it, and that was about 1973.

Maybe it was Baltimore’s overwhelming German population that insisted on real trees, or maybe it was the ’70s “back to basics” crap philosophy. Everyone I knew had a real tree. The sequence of the program where they’re looking for the perfect tree and see nothing but these pink and blue shiny things struck me as surreal and nonsensical (thankfully, I now know words to describe the confusion I felt at four). My parents tried to explain about aluminum trees, but since I’d never seen one, I still didn’t really get it. It wasn’t until years later — when they started coming out of the basements and attics and returned to schlocky fashion — that I saw my first aluminum tree and finally made the connection. Modern kids have the benefit of living in the second Aluminum Tree Era, so they’ll probably get it more than I did. (I’m going take this opportunity to selectively overlook the fact that, while a little love and a security blanket fix cartoon trees, they don’t help you that bloody much in the rest of the world.)

I haven’t even seen It’s a Wonderful Life this year. Although I love the movie, I have seen it about three hundred and forty six times. When your economic circumstances are perilously similar to those that almost pitched George Bailey off the bridge and you have no Donna Reed in sight, it’s unwise to be reminded of those facts. Actually, if I did pitch myself off the nearest bridge, I’d a) land on top of a pile of coal in a B&O boxcar, and would get a free but dirty trip to New York, or b) land in the Jones Falls and end up mad, wet and cold and in desperate need of a drink.

Although I’ve blissfully been able to avoid these annual cutefests this year, it’s nice to know they’re still around. The six-year-olds of 2002 are frighteningly less innocent than I was in 1975. They can probably use a little bit of guileless pap. And I like to know that, should I need to do so at some point, I could put on footie pajamas, hold my one-armed soldier (who’s still around somewhere) and watch Rudolph again.

Monday, December 16, 2002

I am extremely sorry for having touted the glories of eggnog on Friday, because I felt compelled over the weekend to sample my own wisdom, and I now feel (and probably look) like an alcoholic Winnie-the-Pooh. And, after four parties in two and a half days, playing consultant on Form and Guest Lists to a variety of people, I’ve gained new appreciation for Pooh’s tendency to drop off for a nap at random intervals.

The tendency to cram an entire year’s worth of entertaining into one month has become tiresome, to say the least. Have I missed some heavenly decree forbidding Saturday afternoon cocktail parties in March (when God knows we need something to perk up a dreary afternoon) and October tailgate parties?

In most cities, there was once a “social season” that contained the year’s formal entertaining. You might have summer parties, but always informal. Formality in the summer is to be frowned on for two main reasons: it’s Just Not Done and, to paraphrase Tom Robbins, no one wants to be swaddled in evening clothes in a city whose climate resembles nothing so much as the inside of a napalmed watermelon. “Social season” was the time when you absolutely had to be back in town; men dusted off their evening clothes (and prayed they could still fit into them). Women descended on the department stores and sent to Europe for the latest fashions. The Season had a different opening day in every city. In New York, I believe, the official rule was that the Season opened with the first night of the new season of the Opera. Richmond doesn’t seem to have been too particular, as long as people started having formal parties in November sometime. Baltimore tried to gauge things by the Monday German or the Bachelor’s Cotillion. Whenever you got it started, Social Season always had a hidebound and unforgiving termination on Ash Wednesday.

Naturally, very few people have the time and inclination to really throw a large formal party anymore. We just don’t have the time — or the domestic servants — to pull off twelve-course dinners for eighteen people. Neither do most people have the money to arrange for the Belvedere’s ballroom and a little salon orchestra for six hours. Still, it’s sad to see the once-glittering Season pared down to four frantic weeks in December.

Is it our ever-increasing obsession with Christmas decorations and showing them off that has led us to eschew January and February entertaining? Or just that, in a time when almost all adults work a forty-hour week, we can only find time to get the house really cleaned and up to snuff for Christmas itself? And anyway, why does Christmas have to come to a screeching halt at midnight on the 25th? There are supposed to be twelve days of Christmas. Even barring actual religious observance of the holiday, that gives us until January 6th to leave the tree up and squeeze in some more gatherings.

I’m all for reinstating the old Season. It would take some of the furor out of December, and spread it around. Wouldn’t it be pleasant to go to one wintertime party and not be assaulted with pine cones, magnolia leaves, evergreen garlands and red-and-green everything? If you had your party in late January rather than December 14th, you wouldn’t have to obsess over getting the house decorated in time.

January and February in this part of the world are cold, wet and dreary enough. It would be a real pleasure if someone — anyone — would throw a party. And it would prolong eggnog consumption for another month or two.

Friday, December 13, 2002

My initial impulse was to treat you to a rant about the overwhelming lack of automobilic courtesy. I was awakened this morning by some idiot who was mad at being stuck behind a waiting cab and elected to lean on his horn, obviously not realizing that the sixteen three-story objects immediately to his left were houses full of sleeping or just-waking people. I was none too pleased, and that’s one suburbanite that now has a dent in his SUV, courtesy of a well-aimed rubber doorstop that I winged out the bedroom window.

Such rants, however, aren’t very Christmas-y, and if I’m purporting to be the voice of Baltimorean gentility and Old Maryland graciousness, it’s probably ill-advised to go throwing rubber doorstops, or at least to admit to throwing rubber doorstops.

Therefore, today’s pontification will address the glories of eggnog.

Since I’ve previously decried the unavailability of decent eggnog in modern bars, it seems appropriate that I should address the proper creation and consumption of this pleasant alcoholic milkshake. Far too many rely on the cartons of goo labelled “Egg Nog” that come from the supermarket. Those things are crimes against humanity, no matter how many little holly leaves are printed on the carton.

Let me state, further, that the eggnog formula I hyperlinked to a couple of days back is no more Baltimorean than the Sears Tower, although it’s claiming Chesapeake origin. Honestly, there really isn’t any “true” Baltimore eggnog, because everyone here is weirdly obsessive about the stuff and we all jealously guard our private recipes. There are probably 200,000 different versions in the city alone, and I’m not even going to get into what they do out in horse country. (Get your minds out of the gutter. We’re talking about drinks here.)

Several sources claim that “No true Baltimore eggnog contains Whiskey” and insist on the use of rum. To these people, I say “Huh?” Since everyone I know is either from this city or from Richmond, which isn’t too far away, or from Germany (where they think eggnog is some weird barbaric concoction), I can say with some authority that most Baltimoreans do, in fact, use whiskey. Rye whiskey, at that.

Unlike the more ceremonial trappings of mint juleps, eggnog doesn’t really require special glasses or a mixing ceremony. What it does require is freshly grated nutmeg. This isn’t an affectation; it really does taste different, and it’s much better than the pre-grated stuff that our friends at McCormick sell. (If you can’t get the whole nutmegs, though, by all means buy McCormick’s. I have some McCormick stock and you’ll line my coffers if you buy it. Or, buy Sauer’s and help to light that groovy sign on Richmond’s Broad Street.)

Eggnog is also therapeutic. Not only does it make you feel all warm and fuzzy (too much rye and you’ll have a fuzzy overload), it’s healthful and nourishing. I know this because I have a Victorian-era cookbook that lists eggnog in the section of nice, nourishing things to give sick people. (It’s a lousy recipe, though.)

I do insist on a little ceremony when making eggnog for actual purposes of entertaining. It involves a silver punch bowl and one month’s worth of Caroline County’s egg production, and I’m also not giving up that recipe because my grandfather would have kittens if he thought I’d divulged it. I will, however, give up my own personal “emergency eggnog” recipe, which really will do just as well and is more practical, as it makes about four glasses’ worth, instead of fifty.

Beat four eggs violently with about a cup of sugar. Your blender will do this really well and it’s fun to play with, too. Add half a pint of heavy cream and continue to beat until the stuff is pretty thick. Dilute with a half pint of milk. The point of beating the eggs and cream until it’s thick is so that it will be frothy, but you don’t want cake batter, here — that’s the logic behind thinning it with milk. Grate at least ½ of a whole nutmeg into the mix and blend. Let the stuff sit for a couple of minutes for the flavors to blend, then add about a cup of whiskey. If you’re not in Maryland you may have trouble finding rye whiskey, which is horribly unfashionable these days. No worries — bourbon works. Some people also add a bit of peach brandy, but I think it’s overkill. Pour into glasses, grate a little more nutmeg on top, and imbibe.
Nota bene: Eggnog sneaks up on people, so if you’re trying to get someone tipsy this holiday season, just add more whiskey — they’ll never know.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Isn’t it an awful thing, to have the scales fall from your rose-colored glasses? Especially when those glasses were pointed directly at your own childhood.

During a lull in an otherwise eventful trip to Williamsburg a few weeks ago, I had two consecutive unpleasant awakenings courtesy of cable TV. Now, to set the record straight, I do not have cable TV. There is no earthly reason for me to spend thirty dollars per month in order to receive seventy channels of utter garbage, particularly since they make you pay extra for the never-very-exciting pornography. When in Rome, however, I firmly believe in doing as the Romans, or in this case, the other tipsy William and Mary alumni. Resting up in my motel room (delightfully “retro” only because the place hasn’t redecorated since 1957), I flipped on the TV.

Wow! A Scooby Doo marathon! Life just doesn’t get better. Poised in faded letter sweater and jeans, beer in hand, I prepared for a trip (with training wheels) down Memory Lane.

Memory Lane is evidently one of those roads that shows on the map looking something like the Skyline Drive, but is in reality more like the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Scooby Doo is patently awful. Obviously, my five-year old brain hadn’t been able to recognize that, but somehow you’d think that if it had really been that awful, I’d have figured it out somewhere along the line. Nope. It stinks. Mind you, it’s light years better than the computer-generated schlock you see any given Saturday in 2002, but it still stinks. It’s not particularly sophisticated from an artistic standpoint; it’s far too dated linguistically and the jokes fall flatter than a soufflé in a tornado. Here I’ve been using this program as a point of reference for years, the shining example of how good Saturday morning cartoons used to be, and it’s… well, bad. I tried to convince myself that the constant ending — the tag line of every episode — was meant to be a joke, but I’ve resigned myself to the likelihood that it was an easy cop-out that kids wouldn’t notice. And they would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling thirtysomethings.

My television apocalypse was not yet complete. Giving up on the banality of Hanna-Barbera’s charms, I flipped over to a station that was showing a collection of Halloween skits from several years’ worth of Saturday Night Live. Good, I thought. They’re bound to have some of the Old Ones, from the Time When SNL Didn’t Suck.

Wrong again, old boy. What is it about these shows? With Scooby, of course, it’s the fact that we were five when we watched it. It was good then, and our minds never processed the fact that it wasn’t that great, because by the time we were old enough to realize it the program was long gone. Poor Saturday Night Live, though… long past its prime, it stumbles on blindly, and badly. What was its prime, though, really? Sitting through those Halloween skits, I began to wonder if the Scooby paradigm didn’t apply to SNL as well. Did I just think SNL was hilarious when I was sixteen, because it seemed so sophisticated at the time? Was it, in fact, always a string of sophomoric jokes that I only remember as witty?

The old saw that you can never go home is true. I know this, because I tried returning to my hometown only to find a city that I didn’t really want to call home anymore. (I stayed, though.) Some memories, even those as trivial as television shows, are perhaps best left memories. Let the mind’s eye alone see the roses and you’ll never have to discover that they’re paper.

Happy Fun Ball is still bloody hilarious, though.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Notes on Drinking

Last night I was confronted, once again, with an Annoying Manhattan.

Don’t get me wrong. Manhattans are among my favorite cocktails, and I’m glad that in the recent revival of cocktails, they’re one of the few that has been revived with a minimum of adulteration.

Nonetheless, the one I got was annoying. It was primarily annoying because the glass was full to the rim. This is the latest thing in cocktails — fill the damned glass to the rim. This is just plain stupid. It’s going to slosh all over the waiter’s hand, then it will slosh on the tablecloth (well, just the table; restaurants haven’t used tablecloths for fifteen years). And, assuming that half the damn drink hasn’t sloshed all over by the time you get it, you have to somehow get it to your mouth without sloshing it into your crotch. I solved the problem by leaving it on the table and lapping at it, catlike, until it was down to a manageable level in the glass.

Note to Bartenders: I don’t care how goddamned chic it is, glasses that are full to the rim are a waste of perfectly good booze, and a pain in the ass.

The 1980s, with their insipid wine coolers and MADD platitudes, did more to destroy American alcohol consumption than Prohibition could have dreamed of doing. We went from a nation of sophisticated cocktails (well, barring some of those awful ’70s Harvey Wallbangerish concoctions) to a nation that drank nothing but vodka (a.k.a. rubbing alcohol). We emerged, in the late ’90s, out of the Drinking Dark Ages, only to discover that everyone with the exception of a few elderly bartenders in dark forbidding ’50s restaurants had forgotten how to make drinks.

The once-vaunted names of Sazerac and Bronx will now meet with a head tilt and “Huh?” from twentysomething waiters and bartenders. Order a Rusty Nail and the same waiter will take the order, go up to the bar and come back two minutes later: “Umm, Sir, what’s in that?” If you have to ask, you won’t make it well, and I don’t want it. Mint juleps — once a summertime feature in every bar on the East Coast, even in New York — are now for some reason considered the realm of white linen suits and hoopskirts. The last time I was foolish enough to ask for one in a bar, the waiter put on a fakey Deep South accent and said, “Oh, I’m sorry Suh, we ain’t got none o’ your Mint Julep heah!” Okay, pal, say goodbye to your friend Mr. Tip. And eggnog, fer Chrissakes! I’m in Baltimore, the eggnog capital of the world, and these days the only way I’m getting eggnog is to make my own. The bar at the Hotel Lord Baltimore serves it, but it’s the un-potable variety that comes in a carton from 7-11. It tastes like a liquid yellow cake with a shot of whiskey.

Further Note to Bartenders and Younger Drinkers: Everything is not a “Martini.”

While waiting for my Annoying Manhattan last night, I overheard a waitress ask the bartender what he was making. He told her, but since she’d never heard of a Manhattan, he explained it as a “Whiskey Martini.” Um, no. It’s a Manhattan. Go to any fashionable bar where the younger set congregates and you’ll find a list of “Martinis.” Pepper Martinis, Cognac Martinis, Chocolate Martinis. Again, no. There is precisely one drink that is a Martini. It is gin, vermouth and an olive. If you make change the gin to vodka, it is not a Martini. It has just morphed into a Vodka Martini. If you change the olive to an onion, it becomes a Gibson. I don’t know what the hell it turns into if you add chocolate Schnapps, but it is emphatically not a martini.

I’m really happy that, as a nation, we’ve rediscovered cocktails. I was getting quite tired of the little nose-wrinkle and reproachful glares that you got a few years ago when people noticed you with an Old-Fashioned. Hey, I’m not Satan, folks, I just like a stiff drink. (Satan could probably actually get a well-made Old-Fashioned if he wanted one.) All I ask is that people walk the walk. If you’re purporting to be a bartender, pick up a damned bartender’s guide and learn to make something, and learn that something is not a Martini just because it's in the same room with a vermouth bottle.