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Silver Threads: Tales of cocktails past

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

I’ve told you that I’m from Texas, where men drank their whiskey from the bottle or from a shot glass, and nice women didn’t drink at all when I was a child in the ‘30s and ‘40s. I also lived in Mississippi, and that state was dry when our family moved there in ‘48, so I don’t guess anyone much imbibed.

In New Orleans, however, it has already been about 200 years since Monsieur Antoine Amadee Peychaud, a pharmacist, poured the first cocktail, called the Sazerac. The  Tales of the Cocktail website calls this the first “true” cocktail, and you’ll have to go to one of the many events that began here this week to find out what that means. If you’re not an amateur mixologist, you could just visit a restaurant or bar participating through Sunday in “The Tales of the Cocktail” celebration, have a Sazerac, Gin Fizz, Absinthe Frappe or Hurricane and ask around. Be sure and have dinner, too; it’ll be delicious.

Way back when, an uncle of mine used to entertain us kids when he came home from work and saw us playing around his front porch by stalking into the house, down the front hall and into the dining room, taking his bottle of gin from a cabinet with glass doors, and pouring a bit directly into his mouth. He’d make a big face, shake his head briskly from side to side and let out a mighty groan.

“If it’s so nasty, why do you drink it?” we’d chorus, and he’d always tell us it was good medicine for a tired man.

When I came to New Orleans, it was my first time to live in a town that actually had bars. I met the young man who would become my husband, and he took me to his regular stomping grounds on Bourbon Street: Papa Joe’s. It’s not that we hadn’t drunk alcohol while I was in college,  but it came from the bootlegger’s little shack behind one of the drive-ins popular with students, and we mostly bought vodka, because we’d been told that our dorm mother couldn’t smell it on our breaths, and mixed it with 7-Up. That was a cocktail of sorts, I guess, but surely not a “true” one.

I did sample a cocktail, on a trip to New York with a teacher and three other students from the journalism department for a seminar at Columbia University. Before dinner at the Waldorf, I ordered a “pink lady” -- and didn’t like it.

Bourbon and coke was the drink of choice when I worked for a newspaper in Jackson, Miss., just after graduation, and when we went to dance at one of the legion halls or other makeshift nightspots, you arrived with your bottle in a bag and the house provided the glasses, ice and soft drinks to mix it with.

My drinking habits haven’t changed much over the years, except that I like a variety of wines -- burgundy and sauterne were pretty much what most  New Orleanians drank with red meat and fish 50 years ago. I’m sure some folks were well-educated as to other varieties, but these two were what you saw in grocery stores. Then the wine business boomed; just look at the shelves today.

Bourbon whiskey is still my hard liquor of choice, and these days I take it with Sprite. The other day I went into the grocery store looking for the latter and I must have looked lost because a youngish man offered to help me.

“Do you want Diet Sprit?,” he asked, pulling out a carton.

“No way,” I told him. “That doesn’t taste good with bourbon!”

I could still hear him laughing as I checked out.

An elderly tippler.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected].

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]