I was in Key West for the annual Rowan family and friends Thanksgiving potluck. I'd actually intended to leave a few days before the big day but the work I was down for stretched on a little, and after a week of everyone saying, “you have to stay for Thanksgiving.” I caved. The contrarian in me wanted to resist, but the timing sort of worked itself out and there I was.
The back of my folk's house is set up like an open-air pavilion, a large living platform surrounded by a dense wild garden that my mother keeps watered and even occasionally pruned. Every year a broad cross section of people come for Thanksgiving, pulled in from my family's various worlds'-sailors, architects, artists, and perhaps most relevant to the occasion, chefs. Married friends and surrogate cousins Chris and Erin have been longstanding mainstays-Erin handles some of the set dressing and Chris-well, Chris cooks. A lot. He's the chef at a restaurant called 915, and each year the bounty of roasted root vegetables and mole sauce and turkeys in big pans gets more and more over the top. Other chefs come too, and it's become a bit of a cook-off, with some dazzling results. But everyone has specialties—a lot of organic types in the mix who bust out some crazy mushroom pilaf types of dishes, and this year there was a particular emphasis on pies. And Argentinian Ernesto always makes these crazy empanadas. There were about 50 people this year, with a pulse of the under thirty set as my two youngest brothers were in town and had invited a lot of their friends. A fun crowd, and big drinkers. It is, after all, Key West.
In the past I've made some kind of showy salad for my contribution—moscatel vinegar, olive oil, arugula and citrus one year, or parsley, romaine , garlic and dijon another, but my salad making skills seem to have waned in recent years-around the time that I started getting paid to write, which makes me think talent (at least mine) isn't an endlessly renewable resource. There are only so many things I can do well, or even competently, at one time, and salad making fell behind. Plus I was reticent to even throw my hat in the ring with these pros. I'd just done a champagne story for OUT and had researched (by which I mean tried) quite a few champagne cocktails while working on the story, often under the capable hands of Jim Ryan. He'd given me a couple recipes that I'd used in the article, and a few more that got cut for space. Chris, Erin and I decided to try some out the night before.
I'd wanted to make the bourbon and champagne number The Seelbach, but my efforts to find a bottle of Basil Hayden's in Key West were seriously thwarted. I got some funny looks from some liquor store proprietors, as though I was some highfalutin' city slicker asking for the most obscure caviar in a fish 'n' chips joint. When I asked for St Germain they really rolled their eyes; the fashionable liquer hasn't made it this far south, and my aspirations to do La Bicyclette were dashed. "Damn,” I said as we walked out of the third place empty-handed, “I'm getting tired of being treated like I'm Lord Autumnbottom,”, a phrase that I've heard applied to someone putting on airs. Eventually we settled on Makers and a case of Proseco and as the sun set we headed back to the little house I was staying in, a sweet place tucked away from the road with an excellent front porch that seats 3.
Fortunately I had been able to turn up both Peychaud's bitters and Orange bitters at the Restaurant Store and had grabbed some Angostura bitters at the grocery store. Some Turbanado sugar cubes too. I dropped nine bottles at my parent's, pulled three and we headed over to my place to try out some mixtures. Chris was immediately fascinated by the Peychaud's--”Fennel and Allspice,” he thought. Of course, the mysterious ingredients of bitters (labeled only 'herbs and spices') lends itself to such flexing of the taste muscles. While the classic-with sugar cube and Angostura-was friendly, Chris immediately fixed on a combo of orange and Peychaude's—we arrived at 7 dashes of each, soaking the cube, topping with Proseco and a long orange twist. Sweet start, dry finish, flavor duality: “Lord Ottenbottom,” Chris dubbed it, a malapropism of my Autumnbottom crack and his own last name, Otten. While I did make one or two trial Seelbachs we deemed them a little too dangerous for pre-feast, but we polished off the rest of wine in Ottenbottom form while listening to the new Radiohead, leaving us high and happy. We called it a night early as we had a big day the next day, although we all reported waking up in the middle of the night quite, quite awake-something about all the sugar and perhaps also the power of bitters.
The next morning rolled around and we all felt pretty good. I'd hit on the idea of using my dad's tool shed for the champagne cocktail station. Guests would pass it on the way into the backyard and I could offer them my oh-so-soignee cocktails, dazzling with my big city sophistication. So maybe the liquor store owner was right about me-I was being a bit of a ponce. It was still fun. By one p.m. I had rows of champagne glasses with sugar cubes in them lined up next to an array of bitters, drill bits and caulk, ready to be transformed into liquid gold.
The plan worked, a bit too well, perhaps. The pre-feast section of the day runs from one one til around three, when the food table is opened, and I'd planned to shut the champagne shack down at that point. I'd also imagined that people would just have one, possibly two cocktails and move on to wine. No dice. As people showed up I caught them with Lord Ottenbottoms and they were a big hit-the setting of the too shed was just too good. People would take the drinks, mingle, and then come back for more, again and again. I had to send out for, in the end, six more bottles of Proseco, and other guests had brought them as well, so all in all we went though a couple cases. I was in a flurry of bitters-tossing for a little too long, however—by the time supper rolled around I really didn't feel like eating-although I did, and it was all amazing. But intensive cocktail preparation for two or three hours can put you off your food a bit. Next time I'll prep a little more thoroughly—I'll have to try to pre-soak the cubes next time, or recruit a co-barkeep. That shed was jumping.
After dinner we whipped up some Seelbachs; Maker's Mark packs more punch than Basil Hayden--I missed the delicate, fragrant BH--but it did the trick. That euphoria that the champagne cocktail produces washed over everyone-the party moved to the street, Little brother Ian busted out the gorilla suit after dark, the party moved to the street where the younger set smoked and drank until 1:30, a record for Rowan Thanksgivings. Quite exhausted the next day, but as Bill Murray said about the product he was hocking in 'Lost In Translation', “The good news is, the scotch works.” The Lord Ottenbottom most definitely works. But whether it's the sugar or the bubbles or the bitters—it's potent, and perhaps more of a New Years selection than a Thanksgiving one.
Lisa's dad Dom came to dinner; he'd been an entertainer at Catskills resorts, and he wandered around the party noodling on his clarinet, which was awesome. He played 'The Night They Invented Champagne' when he saw my setup in the shed.
You could serve right through the window of the toolshed.
The Lord Ottenbottoms helped with the very merry mood--the more, the merrier, too .
Ma Rowan dishing up. The amount and quality of the food was absurd.
Erin and the man who put the Otten in Lord Ottenbottom, Chris. Otten.
The kids table, with the biggest kid of all Pa Rowan at the head.
Esme-and yes, she will nod and smile politely if you say, "As in 'For Esme, With Love And Squalor'?", which is good news for the Salinger-knowledge dropping crowd.
Our boy Cheech, fresh back from Iraq and out of the Air Force for good. I hadn't seen him since he joined up five years ago, so having him there, safe and sound, was truly something to be thankful for.
And the party spills out into the street, to the neighbor's horror. Imagine how they felt at 1:30 a.m.
Why leave? Everything-and everyone-you could want was right there.
When the gorilla suit comes out, the civilized part of the evening is over.
A special thanks to Jim Ryan from Dressler for his help on my OUT champagne cocktail story, and by extension my Thanksgiving.
In a tall flute, drop
1 Turbanado Sugar Cube
7 dashes of Peychaude's Bitters
7 dashes of Fee Brothers' Orange Bitters
Soak the sugar cube with bitters, the top slowly with sparkling wine-Proseco or Cava are both good choices. A long orange twist sets it off nicely-twist it over the flute before you drop it in. 7 dashes of Peychaude's may be a lot for some tastes-try 4 or 5 to start. But there should be a dynamic balance between the sweetness of Orange and the mysterious bitter-ness of Peychaude's.
Even though we failed to make this one it's so lovely and light.
1.5 oz st germain elderflower liqueur
1/2 oz lemon juice
Combine above in a flute; top with brut sparkling wine. Garnish with a sprayed lemon peel, but discard the peel before you serve.
I was set up to do this one, but somehow it never happened-I think I lost the cucumber.
A splash of Pimm's Cup
Top with sparkling wine
Garnish with a fresh cucumber spear.
Not to be consumed on an empty stomach (as in: not before lunch, or Thanksgiving dinner)
In a champagne flute add
One sugar cube
Seven dashes each on Peychaud's and Angostura bitters
1/2 oz Cointreau
1-1/5 oz Basil Hayden's Bourbon
Top with sparkling wine
Add an orange peel if necessary (and if you have to sub Makers as I did it will definitely be necessary-you'll need the citrus and the zest-plus it looks lovely.)