A Personal History of the Martini
A love story.
The first martini I drank was in Luigi’s a large Italian restaurant that catered to tourists wandering around Times Square. I had taken the train down from my college in Connecticut to meet a man I knew in Ireland. This was a try-out date, a one-shot deal on my side, although coming into Manhattan and meeting him in Grand Central Terminal under its eternally blue constellation-filled ceiling for the explicit reason to wander about the city on a warm autumn night certainly pointed otherwise.
He chose the restaurant on a friend’s recommendation that it was dirt cheap. The dining room’s volume shattered with packed-in diners dizzy with anticipation at seeing a famous Broadway show or the prospect of rambling about in what was then the fairytale sleaze of Times Square. A moonlighting set-designer surely decorated the dining room, all fake brick walls and thick garlands of plastic flowers and vines arranged in some kind of delusion of an Italian countryside villa that would have played better to a theater’s third balcony audience.
A waiter immediately dumped a plate of limp celery, red peppers, and olives along with a bread basket on our tiny table in the bull’s-eye middle of the mayhem. He said he’d be right back with our complimentary carafe of red wine. But the man I was with stopped him and ordered a martini, his parents’ nightly cocktail, then asked if I wanted one which was not my parents’ nightly cocktail of whiskey with the smallest splash of orange juice. Always a game girl, I said sure.
What to know about my first martini: It came as he had ordered it, on the rocks with a lemon twist knocking about among the cubes. After the first sharp brace of gin, the man I was with grinned and visibly relaxed. I took a sip, cold and medicinal tasting. I would have been very happy with the cheap red wine when it arrived, but then I took my second sip and relaxed as much as he. Just like that, a girl raised on whiskey and beer dumped them for gin.
The try-out excelled and from then on when the man and I were together we began our evenings with one or several martinis. (The advantage of on-the-rock martinis is you can drink them all night and still maintain some semblance of sobriety.) In one sense they were a sharp indication of entering adulthood, where frivolous short relationships gave way to serious long-term unions. In another, they distinguished the man, later my husband, and I from among our beer-and wine-drinking peers. It’s hard now to phantom how unique it was back then for people our age to drink cocktails. We mixed them nightly and ordered them whenever we went out. We could barely support ourselves but always found the means to afford a weekly bottle or bar tab because a martini was integral to the rhythm of our lives together. This pitched us into two camps: those who saw us as madcap, Jazz Age-tinged Manhattanites and those who found us strange, possibly headed to dissolution.
The first was laughable, the second dead on the money, coming on about the time when burgeoning careers and young parenthood crashed against the dullness martinis caused in the morning. My husband quit drinking altogether and I switched to wine, never in the quantity of gin but enough to feel relief from incessant work and toddlers’ care.
And that’s where things remained until about 15 years ago, when suddenly everyone discovered cocktails. Old fashioneds, Manhattans, cosmopolitans, mojitos, and many, many abominable martinis—dirtied, flavored, sweetened, every other liquor substituted for gin. A purist took these developments as amateur desecrations of a perfect recipe. A former martini drinker, in some convoluted nostalgic twist, took these developments as permission to uphold a classic and show these novices what a proper martini is. Mainly, though, a return to a nightly martini and the muscle memory of relaxing with the first sip blanketed the worsening pressures of midlife careers and parenting teenagers.
So the ritual returned, still on-the-rocks but now drunk alone. I always said I had only one martini a night. I did for awhile but then personal turmoil and a hellish day job abetted the addition of more gin to keep the glass full, probably raising the nightly martini quantity to at least three a night. My doctor expressed a small concern about my liver’s blood levels. But then we both blamed it on cholesterol medicine.
About a month after the pandemic hit I suddenly lost my taste for alcohol and stopped drinking martinis. I understand this runs counter to recent findings, and I was surprised at how easy it was to switch to ginger ale. It helped that life’s turmoils had calmed down and I had quite my day job. That trips to the liquor store were now a possible deathtrap contributed, as well. But there was also a realization that my fierce martini drinking was a liability when faced with a world falling into chaos and despair. I wanted to be clear-headed and in control and, while both are not innate to my character, the absence of gin helped
The next martini I had was during fall 2020, when our aunt Margie lay dying. After my sister, Sue, brother Joe, and I were allowed to be at her side or, more often, could only stand outside her nursing room window waving at her, we would lie to one another about how good and alert she looked. Then we’d drive back to Sue’s house and she would mix a pitcher of martinis and we’d sit together with our cocktail glasses in the gloaming of the day, one small martini to warm our numbness.
Every now and then since then I will sometimes make myself a martini. It’ll be after 7 p.m. when I leave off from work and there’s still dinner to be decided upon and cooked. The choice usually revolves around how hard the day’s work was, how many words were mangled and sentences tangled. Or it may be the way twilight settles through the rooms. Like my very first, it is on-the-rocks but in a small glass and sipped slowly while performing the two-step cooking dance down the counter, over to the stove, from pan to pot, the refrigerator and sink.
Luigi’s is now the vestibule of a posh hotel. A small bar is tucked up on the second-floor landing, composed of a handsome rough wooden bar, four stools, and a gaggle of curvy chairs covered in inky purple velvet. I met a friend there the week before Christmas in 2019. Everyone around us was ordering exquisite cocktails. On the evidence of the nearby tables, smoked old fashioneds were the favorite, filling the air with the scent of burning hickory, an incongruous outdoorsy smell in a room crowded with indoor-looking people. She and I ordered martinis. They were huge, expensive, ordinary. Not relaxing at all.
The man who took me to Luigi’s is usually late coming home. When he finally appears in the kitchen, he tastes the gin on my lips but doesn’t remark upon it. It just is, something between us, that no longer defines us or him or me. A martini—one martini—is now an occasional drink, its metallic taste and coldness intimately enjoyed. He changes into sweats and opens a non-alcoholic beer. I wash the small glass, fill a taller glass with ice and pour in seltzer before we settle into the night.
Ah thanks! Now you have to come over and have a martini with me
This was completely lovely!