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|Written by Frederick Hidell|
|Wednesday, 03 October 2007 19:00|
With the absinthe sloshing around in my belly, I felt like a Mexican long-nosed bat. The blue agave plant would be completely dependent on me for pollination. Without my leathery wings flapping in the night, there would be no tequila. And God have mercy on the poor soul who had to tell the room full of hard drinkers that filled the Avant-Garde Bar and Gift Shop that evening that there was no more tequila. Forget killing the messenger, those jackals would have eaten the messenger alive -- myself included, despite my occasional proclivity towards vegetarianism. If The Man thought the 1906 Lanfray murders were bad, he ain’t seen nothing yet. We’re talking about the potential for a full-scale psychedelic massacre of epic proportions. Morality goes out the window when in the depths of a solid drinking binge, and we weren't just digging a trench at that point -- we were mining.
We had been drinking for seven hours straight, and by the time we made our way downtown, I would have just as soon maced a relative in the face as hear words like “temperance” mumbled anywhere within my vicinity. This was my bachelor party after all, and while strippers had most certainly been on the agenda, we instead found ourselves settling into this unique little establishment.
Our ride had dropped us off on Rideau Street a bit earlier, claiming he was far too tired to soldier on. (It is more likely he was experiencing the deep depression well known by designated drivers everywhere. Being forced to transport cigar-smoking drunks about town, witnessing their depravity but unable to take part, all the while humoring the obnoxious antics of these former humans now swiftly navigating their way back down the evolutionary ladder is not any easy role to play, even for the strong of heart.) Thus abandoned, we stumbled our way south to Besserer Street, and before long the Avant-Garde was welcoming us into its warm embrace.
Soviet propaganda posters stared down from the walls, filling the room with the evocative implications of what power ‘The People’ hold within their grasp. I was there, surrounded by my people, and I too could feel their power, even across the flames of the burning suger cube… for we had quickly discovered that the Avant-Garde serves absinthe.
Bob Marley’s beautiful song, No Woman, No Cry, was playing on the sound system as we ordered the drinks. Marley crooned, “I remember when we used to sit, in the government yard in trenchtown,” but I misheard the lyrics, thinking Marley was singing, “I remember, when we used to say, in the government you’re entrenched now.” (I’m a public servant in my other life, and I’m sure our friend Sigmund would have plenty to say about that little misreading of the lyrics.) It’s strange… music and story are created with intention, but then we change them, and make them speak to our own lives.
This journalist therefore can’t help but ask himself, does absinthe do anything a couple of martinis wouldn’t? Are the drink’s supposed ‘psychedelic properties’ completely fabricated? How much of my experiences following consumption of the drink was simply the mirror in my mind reflecting back a century of popular culture? Did the absinthe really mess with my mind in a unique way, or was it Trent Reznor sipping the perfect drug back in 1997 that planted that seed? Were there tracers, or was that just Kylie Minogue’s green fairy (fuelled not by absinthe but the Hollywood money machine) telling me how to behave? And on a more serious note: was the threat of death-by-polka a real possibility? Who knew? Someone had to have the answers. What is this damn drink anyway?
I know this much: absinthe is derived from Artemisia Absinthium, a plant also known as Grande Wormwood. I repeat: Grande Wormwood… how could something with such a mystical name not produce mysterious and wonderful effects on the drinker? Most absinthes contain between 60% and 75% alcohol. At the Avant-Garde, three different options are available: Absinthe Hill's Czech R (70%), Absinthe Pernod France (68%), and Hill's Absinth Liqueur Czech Republic (70.0%). We, of course, needed to try all three, and regardless of whether the chemical component thujone truly produces hallucinogenic effects, there can be no denying that -- like any good alcohol – if you consume enough absinthe, it will most certainly alter your state of mind.
Though originating in Sweden, it was the French artists centered in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century that popularized the drink and imbued it with its romantic connotations. Painters such Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, and “The Soul of Montmartre” himself, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, were all known proponents of the drink. Toulouse-Lautrec is said to be the inventor of the “Earthquake” cocktail, which includes absinthe along with red wine and cognac. I must admit that, as a writer, it’s difficult to ignore the bohemian allure of the drink. Hemingway, for example, included absinthe as part of his own “Death in the Afternoon” cocktail. His instructions on how to make the drink included details on mixing absinthe with iced champagne, followed by the advice, “drink three to five of these slowly.” Good god, now there’s a writer/drinker whose footsteps we can all hope to follow in!
With its own specifically designed glasses, slotted spoons and preparation procedure, the drinking of absinthe has become a ritualized event. (Some linguists suggest that the French word “absinthe” actually originates with the Proto-Indo-European word ‘spend’, meaning “to perform a ritual”.) Absinthe is usually served in a small glass, over which a slotted spoon containing a sugar cube is placed. Absinthe culture has produced many ornate slot designs and shapes for the spoon, but the spoons used at the Avante-Guard are rather simple, perhaps to reflect the bar’s working-class theme. The sugar cube is lit on fire, and then doused with ice water, diluting the drink and producing a cloudy consistency, known as louche. The water brings out many of the flavors that are otherwise overpowered by the stronger anise in the drink. A familiar black licorice taste is perhaps the best description of its flavor.
The absinthe was going down ridiculously smoothly that night, and there was no way we were going to make it to the strippers by the time a couple of doses had been swigged by our absurd troupe. The wonderful green drink was producing all the entertainment we would need. I must admit, my recollection of the night’s events becomes somewhat foggy at around the time of our second or third round, but somewhere amongst the mad craziness and endless green fairies, I decided to order a pickle plate. This is not something we should have been eating at 1:30 in the morning after an evening of experimental drinking, but I pushed forward with the idea anyway.
There was no reason the pickles should have gone down just as smoothly as the absinthe, and yet they did. Those heavenly pickles slid down my throat and swan-dived deliciously into the cocktail of gastric acids and absinthe pooled in my stomach. I do remember this part of the evening distinctly. The pickle plate was a thing of beauty: green olives with blushing red pimento hearts, delicious hot peppers, pickled red peppers, long juicy kosher dills, and tiny gherkins that crunched when you bit into them. You chew on those suckers for a few minutes, with absinthe pleasantly buzzing around in your head and working its way up and down your spine, and its like you’re a Mesopotamian and the last 4000 odd years never happened. You’re in some sort of weird green heaven.
Pickling food is simply a preservation process, meant to prolong the life of perishable produce. By soaking cucumbers, carrots, olives, peppers, even eggs, in a brine solution, or by marinating and storing them in an acidic fluid, such as vinegar, an anaerobic fermentation process takes place, which produces the delicious sour flavor that brought my taste buds alive that night.
Perfectionists need not embark on a pickling endeavor (let those snobs stick to canning!). Pickling is a process that must include fermentation, so the food being pickled cannot be completely sterile. In a pristine world of perfect cleanliness and order, where madness and weird green drunks have been banished to the fringes, there would be no pickles. Like alcohol, for pickles to exist, something needs to go wrong -- something needs to rot just enough to mess with our delicate human senses. And my senses were most definitely tickled that night.
Now, where does one go from here? Shall I venture forth into the tale of sad madness that took place following our exile from the bar at closing time? I dare not. Let it be known, simply, that the streets of downtown Ottawa in the early hours of the morning are no place for an absinthe-addled mind and a stomach full of pickles.
And so, did this meandering tale have a moral that can be wrapped up in a nice tight package in order to provide the reader with a solid conclusion? Should I, as a dignified and respected food and drink critic for (Cult)u’re Magazine recommend the pickle plate/absinthe combination? (Lord no! What sort of responsible human being would advocate consuming such a monstrious aggregate? And in a public forum, no less!) I will go only so far as to say, in the case of pickles, absinthe most definitely makes the heart grow fonder. Do with this knowledge what you will.
I suppose that, if we are to conclude with anything, it is with the knowledge that the wonderful thing about eating and drinking is the fact that once one has completed the endevour, it will only be a matter of time before it is begun anew. More pickles must be eaten, and indeed more absinthe must be drunk, for that is the way of the human, the drinker, the artist and the writer. So, dear reader, for better or worse, I’ll return you back to the beginning, so that you too can begin anew, and we’ll leave it at that:
With the absinthe sloshing around in my belly, I felt like a Mexican long-nosed bat…