Book Review: Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail

Lowell Edmunds’s Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail was first published in 1981 when the venerable Martini was actually on the decline. When the Martini craze in the 1990s began, Edmunds obviously thought it was time to revise the book. So here we have it, the 1998 version of Martini, Straight Up with a lot of added content related to the rise of the Martini in culture and the return to the classic Martini.

Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American CocktailProbably the best part of the book is from the original preface:

It is odd and perhaps even unprecedented that a scholar should conclude a preface with a plea for his health and safety, but I know that, as a result of the publication of this monograph, I shall be offered innumerable Martinis. I also know that most of them will be downright poisonous or otherwise unacceptable. Therefore, I should like to take the unusual step of stating in advance the minimum requirements for any Martini that shall be served me.

In the first place, the Martini on the rocks is an abomination, and must be classed with fast foods, rock and roll, snowmobiles, acid rain, polyester fabrics, supermarket tomatoes, and books printed on toilet paperas a symptom of anomie. My Martini shall be served “straight up” in a thoroughly chilled, stemmed glass. The gin, but not the vermouth, which is supposed to aromatic, shall have been chilled before mixing, and the gin and vermouth shall be stirred or shaken—I don’t care which—with good ice. “Good” means made from spring water, or failing that, Perrier or the like. There should be very slight dilution of the drink with water—it has a smoothing effect….

Instead of a garnish in the drink, a piece of lemon rind shall be twisted over the surface of the Martini so that the lemon oil is extruded onto its surface; and then the lemon rind shall be discarded.

Well, I would love to have Edmund Lowell over for a drink, but I am certainly not going to try to make him a martini. He would probably scoff at it. Well, actually it’s a bit of funnery for him to talk this way. Notice the way humor is woven through that passage, both in its curmudgeonly persona and in the writing itself. Notice, for example, that he says it is a matter of his personal “health and safety” that he be given good martinis. Notice, also, how he says that these martinis “shall be served me,” as if everyone is his servant. That kind of fun writing continues throughout the entire book.

Let’s be clear, too, that this book is considered an “academic work” published by Johns Hopkins Press, but it isn’t really that academic. The writing is good and accessible with humor woven throughout, and the subject matter itself--bacchanalogy--is not above anyone’s head. It isn’t until he gets to the conclusion that he goes into academic inanity. It’s a good read, and you can skip the chapter on theory and method if you don’t want to bother with it.

The rest of the book is about the messages and ambiguities of the Martini. This is not, really, a history of the Martini. Some history is included, but that isn’t the point of the book. No, this book is more about what the Martini means. There are seven simple messages:
Edmunds then goes through each one of these simple messages before reaching the ambiguities:
Martini Straight Up Photographic Poster Print by William Lingwood, 18x24 So this is a book about cultural history that looks at the Martini in America through history (mostly the twentieth century). He does try to give a history of the drink itself, but the point is to discuss how the Martini has certain connotations, but that some of those connotations change according to who is doing the drinking. He talks about the conjugal Martini, the Martini of friendship, the fraternal Martini, the communal Martini, and the isolating Martini, depending on who is drinking and why they are drinking.

It makes for fascinating reading, and it’s fairly short, so it goes quickly. Make yourself a few martinis and sit and enjoy. I decided that I had better enjoy one as I wrote this review. Of course, I broke every one of his rules. My gin isn’t good enough, and I like it with a lot of olives. Sorry, Dr. Edmunds.