March 29, 2017 by Gregory Josephs
“Lady Gaga and Tennessee Williams Are Doing It” or Lessons from Campari—Part 1
Q: What’s bright red, bitter, alcoholic, filled with the crushed exoskeletons of insects (formerly) and wisdom? HINT: Its not your Aunt Lydia.
A: Campari; the greatest, most divisive spirit you may have never heard of.
Piggybacking off the wild success of my little series of Things I Learned from Sauerkraut, I’ve decided to continue the theme for the Wednesday installment of my blog. So without further ado, here are Four Things I’ve Learned from Campari, with another six to follow next week.
First, here’s a little background:
I think Campari left a bitter taste in my mouth even before my first sip. It was the summer of 2007—my twenty-third birthday—and my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend of two years had taken me to Provincetown for the day. We caught an early ferry from Boston, and when we docked ninety-minutes later, I was initially over the moon. I’d never been to the Cape before, and certainly not to such a legendary gay-centric arts community.
I was excited, but the trip quickly turned out to be a dud. We weren’t off the boat for five minutes before the soon-to-be-ex bought a newspaper and planted himself on a park bench. I wanted to see the shops, go to the beach, hit up the Tea Dance later, and all he was interested in was soaking up a little sun by the docks and catching up on current affairs.
After several minutes of protest I got him moving, and we had a relatively pleasant morning. I think I was close to wearing him down about the beach by early afternoon, but was ultimately foiled when the second-most ominous storm clouds I’ve ever seen rolled in out of nowhere (I’ll save the most ominous for another post). One minute we were walking down the quaint, sunny main street admiring giant chocolate phalluses in shop windows, and the next we were caught in a torrential downpour.
“Greggy, Greggy!” My soon-to-be-ex shouted. He grabbed my hand and pulled me forcefully toward the doorway of a stately white, vintage hotel. We paused on the covered veranda to catch our breath.
“Isn’t this a hotel?” I asked. “What are we supposed to do here, just wait out the rain?”
He clucked. “Greggy, this isn’t just any hotel! Don’t you know? Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams knocked back more than a few in the bar of this fine establishment.”
“Oh?” Damn him! He’d piqued my interest. “Well, I guess we’d better have one ourselves then.”
“Yes, now you get it!” He said as he walked through the doors, into a a foyer, and then to the bar beyond.
Either it was too early in the day or everyone else was getting ready for the Tea Dance, because when we took our seats we were the only ones at the bar. An attractive but sleepy looking bartender waltzed over, as surprised to see us as we were to be there. “Gentlemen,” he said. “What can I get you?”
I placed an elbow on the bar and said, “Jack and coke, please.”
The bartender nodded as my soon-to-be ex clucked again. In his grating, American-posh accent, he chided. “Greggy! Come now! An establishment like this demands something more sophisticated than whiskey and coke!”
I rolled my eyes. “Such as?”
“Hmm. What did Hemingway and Williams drink?” He squinted at the bar and perused the bottles of liquor at length while the bartender impatiently stood by. After an eternity, his eyes lit up and he said “What’s that? That red stuff. Campari?”
The bartender turned slowly and located the bottle in question. “Yep.” He said. “Campari.”
“Greggy! I think thats what Tennessee Williams liked! He wrote about it in one of his novels. Oh!” He turned his attention to the bartender. “What do you make with it?”
The bartender shrugged. “I don’t know. No one really orders that.”
This brings me to the first lesson Campari ever taught me:
BEING COOL ISN’T A REASON TO DO SOMETHING
“Oh,” my soon-to-be ex said. “Alright, well, if it’s good enough for Tennessee Williams, it’s good enough for me! Just pour me some on the rocks.”
The bartender shrugged and went about making our drinks. I frowned and asked, “What the hell is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Its Italian I think—some kind of digestif.” Just then the bartender returned with our beverages and set them in front of us. “Perfect!” The soon-to-be ex said. He raised his glass. “Happy birthday!”
I raised mine half-heartedly, clinked glasses, and watched as he took his first sip.
His face contorted monstrously for a moment, then he spit the bright red liquor onto the bar, sputtering. The bartender looked up in alarm and said “Woah! Is everything alright?”
“Ugh!” My soon-to-be ex groaned. “I don’t think so! It’s so bitter! It’s like—god! It’s like vomit! I think it might be bad!” He turned to me. “Greggy! Taste it!”
FOREWARNED IS FOREARMED
As a general rule, when someone asks you to smell or taste something that has repulsed them, you should just say no. I’m not sure why this sage logic didn’t strike me in the moment, but I reached over, grabbed the glass and brought it to my lips.
The thing is, I smelled it first, and it smelled like—
Sweet, slightly citrus, a little herbal. There was almost an essence of cotton candy. I looked at the soon-to-be ex and thought, what the hell is his problem? I tipped the glass, took a little of the bright red liquid in my mouth, and fought as hard as I could not to gag.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was so awful. The bitterness was the real deal breaker; whatever sweetness or complexity of flavor existed in the spirit was totally overwhelmed by that horrible, tongue-coating, stomach-turning bitter. Still, forewarned is forearmed, so I swallowed hard.
“Greggy?” My soon-to-be ex said with uncommon concern.
“Ugh. You’re right. Its terrible. Whiskey and Coke for you too?”
He nodded and that was that.
WE SHOULD ALWAYS CHALLENGE OURSELVES
Two years passed before I encountered Campari again. I was happily single, living with friends in Somerville, Massachusetts, and really getting into cooking. I’ve always been a foodie, but this was the first time in my adult life I had a decent kitchen, nice pots and pans, and a little money to spend on fancy ingredients now and again. I was a few months into a subscription of the now-defunct Gourmet Magazine (kind of like the New York Times of food), and stumbled across their cocktail of the month—
The Classic Negroni: Equal parts gin, vermouth and. . . Campari?
The article went on to explain how special this cocktail was; Tennessee Williams wrote about it (ugh); it was invented by an Italian count, etc. Even remembering my bitter first experience, I was intrigued.
Then Lady Gaga dropped the music video for her new single Love Game, and guess what? It was full of Campari (beginning 20 seconds in):
Are you kidding me?! If Lady Gaga and her horde of sexy male dancers could spin around some industrial dance floor with glasses of Campari on the rocks in her new video, it couldn’t really be that bad, right? With Gourmet Magazine and Mother Monster conspiring against me, I decided I’d better give it another try. There had to be something about it that caused these two media titans to give it their endorsement.
Challenge accepted. I had to go to three liquor stores before I found a bottle, and at $30 for 750ml, I was making a serious commitment. I went home, mixed up my first Negroni, took a sip and. . .
PERSEVERANCE IS KEY
I spit it in the sink. It was just as bitter as I remembered and might have tasted even worse. I shook my head in disbelief and tried another sip. I managed to swallow this one, but my stomach threatened to revolt if I had any more. Defeated, I reluctantly poured the rest down the sink and shoved the barely-used bottle as far to the back of my liquor stash as I could.
I did my best to put Campari out of my mind, but the $30 I’d spent on that bottle really bothered me. I might have gone a week, and then. . .
I pulled it out again. I started looking up other recipes. First I gave the Negroni a second chance, but swapped the gin for whiskey. It was still awful, and it took me well over an hour to drink, but I finished it. The next day I tried mixing it with orange juice, which was a particular kind of hell to swallow.
This went on for a few weeks, off and on. Slowly the bottle began to empty itself, and I found the drink was becoming incrementally less revolting. Then one evening in the early summer of 2009, something extraordinary happened; I poured a Campari and soda, sat down to do some work at my computer, and before I knew it the glass was empty! I suppose the fact that I’d finished the drink was less significant than the fact that I’d been drinking it, unaware. Could it be that finally, somehow I’d learned to tolerate it? Perhaps even. . . like it?
I quickly poured a second Campari and soda (actually finally emptying the bottle), and to my astonishment. . . Yes! I actually liked it! The bitterness melted away and I could taste all those things I detected on first smell—the citrus and the herbs, and yes, even the cotton candy syrupy sweetness! This was it, then! This was what everyone was raving about.
And its been love ever since.
But what do you think? Would you have suffered through a whole bottle to try to find its value? Would you have just dumped the $30 down the sink? Have you tried Campari? Love it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments below.
This is just the beginning. I’ll be continuing my exploration of things I’ve learned from Campari next week. Thanks as always for reading, and please consider subscribing to this blog by email, or joining my monthly mailing list below.