Martinis, the original understanding
Yesterday, a colleague passed along a request for some information about Robert H. Bork’s position on Martinis. Since Bob’s death in December, we have seen many reflections about his opinions regarding the law. Next week, Encounter Books, where I hang a hat, will be publishing Saving Justice: Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Other Adventures of a Solicitor General. This memoir about Bob’s tenure as Solicitor General and Acting Attorney General during the Watergate crisis provides a fascinating glimpse into the engine room of American politics in the tumultuous year of 1973. This period, too, has received its share of commentary.
Rather less ink, however, has been dispensed to explain Bob Bork’s philosophy of the martini. A full disquisition would doubtless be lengthy. Here I will confine myself to sharing with readers the comments I sent on to that journalist who is doing research into what H. L. Mencken called “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” “The first thing to be understood,” I wrote, “is that Bob Bork was an originalist when it came to martinis, just as he was about the law and many other things in life.
There is a recipe, whose exact origins are lost in the mists of time, but whose lineaments have been passed down through the generations. We introduce innovation into this hallowed process at our peril.
I once suggested Bob write a book with the title: Martinis: The Original Understanding. He was partial to The Road to Hell is Paved with Olives. Bob observed that the original martini was a careful mixture of three or four (or five or six) parts gin (preferably Bombay or Tanqueray) to one part vermouth. The whole was shaken (not stirred) over ice in a cocktail shaker, served in a chilled martini glass, and garnished with a twist of lemon. A twist of lemon, mind you. That is what a martini was.
On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, I gave Bob a silver vermouth dispenser in the shape of an tiny old-fashioned oiling can (you can get them at Tiffany's). He found it amusing, but he regarded the unbridled diminution of vermouth, favored by many asking for a dry martini, as dangerously latitudinarian.
He recognized, however, that the battle to preserve the martini had far more radical enemies than the vermouth minimalists. One large heresy concerned the very foundation of the martini: gin. People might ask for a "vodka martini" (let's say) but that concoction, though possibly delicious (my concession, not his) was not a martini.
The recent fad of calling almost any clear-liquor drink a martini pained him. For a while, I collected some absurd examples and sent them on to him for his Index Potio Prohibitorum: I wince to recall such toxic-sounding confections as a "smoked salmon martini," a "chocolate martini," etc. Once, having ordered a martini, Bob was presented with a drink containing two olives. He sent it back. "If I had wanted a salad," he told the waiter, "I would have ordered one."
I hasten to add that this was not pedantry or narrow-mindedness on his part. He often ordered and enjoyed a Gibson, and was not averse to other cocktails. But a martini was a martini, and if he ordered a martini, that is what he wanted. There is a famous scene in Through the Looking Glass in which Alice has an exchange with Humpty Dumpty about semantics, identity, and power. It is relevant to Bob's battle to preserve the martini.'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'
Bob Bork took a dim view of the Humpty-Dumpty approach to language and to life. We cannot simply redefine things to suit ourselves. Or rather, we can, but the fate of Humpty Dumpty offers a cautionary tale of what the consequences may be. You might think it an innocent thing to substitute an olive or two for the specified twist of lemon. What harm could it do? But start down that road and before you know it you wind up with monstrosities like the "smoked salmon martini." At that point, all the king's horses and all the king's men are helpless. No, when it came to martinis, Bob Bork was an originalist and we are better off for it.
Related at PJ Lifestyle from Roger L. Simon: Roger’s Do-It-Yourself Bourbon and More