I sit down to write this at a sturdy oak table that I’ve pushed against the windows of my kitchen. I look out past pots of lavender and Ernie the snoring Maine Coon, who’s spilling over an ample windowsill, to see spring eking its way out into the New England morning. After a few days of cold and wet it’s expected to be warm and sunny, so I plan to take a stroll later at the Arboretum and see how the trees are coming along.
I’m struck by how lucky I am. I’m lucky to be in Boston, a city that I love, in this apartment that I love with this smelly cat that I love. I’m here because I wanted to be. I left Baltimore because I wanted to, left a job that I had originally taken because I wanted to. Tonight I’ll stay in, because I want to, and make a nice dinner for M and I and watch some goofy period piece. I’ll plot my next steps. All these choices, I get to make, with support from my family, my partner, and—for the most part—society.
I’m having this moment of gratitude, something I don’t do nearly enough, because I’m reflecting on The Awakening by Kate Chopin, a gutting story about the price paid for personal freedom. It follows Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother who, following a romantic attachment formed on a seaside getaway, becomes awakened (hence the title) to her own urges and desires, and in hopes of understanding and achieving them, strikes out from her husband and children, with a brilliant and eccentric musician for a guide.
Sadly for Edna, 19th century Louisiana did not allow women the same freedoms that 21st century New England has afforded me. She does not, in fact, get to achieve what she wants, and in the end is unable to reconcile what she perceives as her responsibility to her family with the new-found love and respect for herself.
Maybe many of you read The Awakening in high school, where the careful and excruciating ministrations of your symbolism-adoring teacher made you a tad less sympathetic to Edna’s plight. That’s understandable. I, for one, did not. I read it not long after graduating from college, when my choices felt terrifying and burdensome, so I was in the right place to meet Edna and Kate.
I felt a great deal for Edna, and for this post I wanted to take her seriously, so I made for her a serious New Orleans drink: the Sazerac. A classic cocktail, featuring a muddled, Peychaud’s bitters-soaked sugar cube, rye whiskey, and an absinthe rinse, it’s not a drink you’d make for some sheltered, weak-spirited 19th century female, but rather for someone with a distinct sense of their own tastes.
The history of the Sazerac is a long, and rather convoluted one. In brief, the drink’s close ancestor was originally served at Peychaud’s Apothecary in 1838, using the namesake’s own bitters. The drink was refined a bit and made famous just down the street, at the Sazerac Coffee House. Thomas Handy (you’ll see his name on one of the bottles there), a clerk and eventual owner of Sazerac’s Coffee House, changed the recipe slightly, swapping out Spanish brandy in favor of rye whiskey, and adding the absinthe rinse. It’s lauded as America’s first branded cocktail, with a recipe that hasn’t altered since the 1870’s—which means that this is precisely the same drink that Chopin herself would have drank.
The best whiskeys to use for this drink come out of Buffalo Trace, which makes a fine selection of Sazerac ryes based on the New Orleans recipe. I only use the standard rye for this drink, as the Thomas H. Handy and the 18 are a bit too special for me to mix, though I know they make fabulous cocktails as well, if you’re flush enough to try them. Whichever you choose, you’ll be tasting Edna Pontellier’s New Orleans, with the added benefit of having made the choice for yourself.
Makes one cocktail
1 sugar cube
2 or 3 hard dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
1/2 ounce water
2 1/2 ounces rye whiskey
dash of absinthe
Get out two old fashioned glasses, fill one with ice (or stick it in your freezer) and allow it to chill. In the other, saturate a sugar cube with bitters—you’ll need about two or three hard dashes—add the water, and muddle the sugar cube, swirling it around the glass until you have a nice, red liquid. Fill the glass with ice, add your whiskey, and stir. Now dump the ice out of the other glass, or take it out of the freezer, and add a bit of absinthe, just a dash, and swirl it around, completely coating the interior of the glass. Dump out (or drink) any remaining liquid. Finally, strain your whiskey and bitters into your absinthe rinsed glass, and add a twist of lemon.