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Beowulf and the Perfect Martini

October 28, 2010

bagby.jpegI like seeing performances in languages I barely understand or don't understand at all.

This feeling came back to me a couple of nights ago when I was in Berkeley seeing a great interpreter of Anglo-Saxon stories and music, Benjamin Bagby, perform Beowulf in the  old English in which the epic poem was originally set down in writing centuries ago.

Supertitles are obviously helpful. But, just as with some of the best theatrical productions I've experienced in my time in Russian, German and a variety of Indian tongues that didn't provide assistance with translations, I don't believe the supertitles  significantly increased my enjoyment of the show.

Bagby is such a consummate storyteller: The intensity of his gaze and his delicate harp accompaniment, speech modulations and emotional, lusty singing voice conveyed a great deal of meaning. It is sufficient, I think, to go into the theatre with a general understanding of the plot of Beowulf. Parsing every word isn't necessary for one's enjoyment. I was completely transported by the performer's narrative.

In other news: A friend of mine who lives on the other side of the country saw my recent New York Times piece about the Bay Area cabaret scene and was inspired to write to me about his experiences in a not-very-authentic martini bar in Traverse City. I'm hopeless on the theme of cocktails. I'm a wine drinker almost exclusively, so asked for John's help in knowing how to order a martini next time I go to the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel to see Chita Rivera -- and what to expect.

John's advice was so artfully articulated that I asked him if I could share it on my blog and he agreed. Here it is:

A real Martini is not made with strawberry juice or Cointreau or as in any other of the frou frou girly monstrosities.  If you go into the Cabaret in the Fairmont and ask for a classic martini with Bombay Sapphire gin, Tanqueray,Hendricks or one of the other top shelf gins and you want it say 10:1 or 16:1 you will get a classic martini. Vodka came much later in Martini history.  Many persons who say they want a martini really only want gin or vodka straight, with the garden vegetables. They will only allow vermouth in the same room, but no closer. Try it in the above proportions and you will find a very nice blend of flavors ( but see below).  Observe the bartender. If she/he macerates the lemon peel ( no flesh) and rubs it on the rim and puts a tiny bit of the juice from the olive jar in the drink with the olive, you will get a sense that she/he knows how to make one. If you ask for just a drop of single malt scotch in with the gin and vermouth, you will be noted as a cognascente. It should be served very cold.  If you have your 3” stilettos on and one leg over the other on a stool at the bar make sure you get it “up”, that is in a icy chilled conic section stem glass. If you are going to hunch over the bar or be at a table, then I guess an old fashion glass will work. In any event don’t chug it but drink it while it is still cold. Warm martinis are deathly. The drop of single malt came from the bartender at the Oak Bar, or so my father said. It really rounds out the taste. The limit on Martinis is well established at 2, that is 2. Beyond that you are asking for trouble.  I recommend that you round out your education in Britishness by hieing yourself to the library and borrowing a copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. Therein lies the origin of the phrase “Shaken not stirred”. Martinis are delicious with a doz. raw oysters. Life just cannot get much better.

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