July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
Can there be any truism that commands less actual belief than the one about history repeating itself? It certainly happens; but the absolute tyranny of the present makes the concept just slightly more credible than that of one’s own mortality. All throughout the 1970’s, while I was working here inn own history can’t repeat itself because it’s never much changed in the first place), I’d receive mailings from an organization with a name like the Distilled Spirits Research Foundation for the Humanities heralding the return of the martini. “It’s Back!” each brochure began, followed by lots of utterly unpersuasive photographs of people manipulating shakers and lifting pretty, archaic glasses.
How pathetic, I thought, and I’d pass the leaflets around the office and everyone would be mildly amused by a declaration that might as well have announced the return of spermaceti oil.
But now, of course, the martini is back, and if the first vigor of its return may have spent itself, there’s still a good chance you’ll be handed a martini menu in any enterprising bar. Indeed, a Philadelphia establishment called the Martini Cafe offers 125 varieties, among them such cloying heresies as a martini made with chocolate liqueur, and “the Climax,” which has bolstered the standard vodka with white crème de cacao, crème de bananes, amaretto, and Triple Sec. The thing is in the air. We read that George Bush prepared for his recent parachute jump by forswearing martinis for the month prior to it (I would have adopted exactly the opposite regimen); and ranks of gleaming inverted triangles flash their spiky swank from backbars in numbers unapproached since the late 1930s.
That glass is the elegant, fragile funnel that gathered about it the other three great American things in this issue. Once Max Rudin had turned in his eloquent social history of the drink, it seemed natural to group the disparate ingredients that we have arbitrarily selected.
Of course, it might sound ludicrously chauvinistic to declare a tradition that was horn in (lima more than a millennium ago American, bur yet another great thing about America is the fact that becoming American is a matter of volition—and across two centuries and over a hundred thousand towns, fireworks have more than earned their citizenship by decorating our Independence Days.
How strange it is that the document they are saluting in the July skies was originally meant to be no more durable than a skyrocket itself. As Pauline Maier explains in an essay that is an artful encapsulation of her fascinating new hook about the Declaration of Independence, it was initially seen as a working tool of the moment, a justificatory statement whose usefulness ended with its publication. It was only in the years after the crisis that its stature began to become evident, and it took an equally great crisis and the steely genius of Abraham Lincoln to establish it as the expression of our highest principles.
The subject of the last offering in our quartet, Yankee Doodle Dandy , will, I think, more than repay the curiosity of anyone who wants to see how well the movie has held up. In fact, here is a fine program of participatory history. This July 1 Fourth weekend, rent or buy the video of Dandy (it’s still selling to the tune of eleven thousand cassettes a year) and then concoct a martini—Max’ article will give you plenty ol guidance here, whether your fealty is to the stir or the shake camp. Then enjoy the martini while you become reacquainted with James Cagney’ astonishing combination of exuher ance and delicacy, and the lost theatrical world that the Warner Rros. research people so painstakingly preserved. You might want to do this while the sky darkens outside the windows and you wait for the first humid thumps that precede the opening salvo ot a fireworks display.
It is hard to see how this routine can fail to make you a better citizen; and at the very least, it will greatly accelerate your pursuit of happiness.