August 2012

Essays

Frank Moorhouse

Man About Town

During the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I took visiting American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides to drinks. I took him to the Shady Pines Saloon, with American western decor, which I had visited before and which seemed to be an amusing bar and is rated Australian Gourmet Traveller’s bar of the year. I took him to say hullo to the full-sized cigar-store American Indian that stands in the bar, headdress and all. Eugenides said “Hullo” and told me that the Indian was a chief but not a Manhatto Indian, the tribe who originally occupied what we know as Manhattan.

I asked him how he knew but the music drowned out his reply.

He also said “Hullo” to a longhorn steer head, and the deer and fox heads.

I told him and our two guests, Virginia Rowlands, a remarkable flâneuse, and the legendary Jane Finemore, his publisher from HarperCollins, about Dad Rudd, a character from the great short stories of our pioneer days, On Our Selection by Steele Rudd. I said that when Dad Rudd visited the big city for the first time he went to the museum where he saw a stuffed koala on display and said, “Well, I’m damned.” The story says, “Dad was always glad to meet anyone from the Bush.”

I don’t think Jeffrey or Virginia or Jane heard me.

I remembered that when I lived in Besançon, France, I would visit the sad local zoo where lived a kangaroo and I would commiserate with him. The kangaroo said to me once, “Look at it this way, Frank, the food is better in France than in Bourke.” I didn’t mention this to our party.

Jeffrey is a friend of my New York friend, the screenwriter Steven Katz (Shadow of the Vampire), who inspired my character Voltz in Martini: A Memoir.

Well, my attempt at being the Man About Town failed badly in a number of ways. Firstly, when the drinks were served, Jeffrey said his Manhattan was the worst he had ever drunk. It was served in a stemmed, stainless-steel vessel instead of in an old-fashioned glass, known sometimes as a lowball glass.

I asked him why it was bad but didn’t catch his reply.

A Manhattan is a cocktail made with American or Canadian whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters.

My martini was among the worst I had ever drunk, which is saying something – inadequately chilled, a sloppy mix, and in the wrong glass. As Jeffrey pointed out, it was served in a margarita glass. To be fair, perhaps the bartender at Shady Pines was having a bad night, things not good at home. Even cowboys get the blues. We’ll forgive him this time. Bartenders are heroes who nightly face shocking behaviour from their often foul customers and, at their best, strive for excellence, which I know they do at Shady Pines.

This is not the only bar that plays around with glasses as part of its cool image. If a bar is going to be cute at least they can offer the customer the option of a traditional glass.

As I have said at least a thousand times, the glass is half the drink. To not use the traditional glass disappoints expectation and goes against happy times and happy traditions of which the glass is a depository, a strongroom, and a treasury. The glass is also part of the gestural pleasure of the drink – we like the image of ourselves holding the glass.

Jeffrey read out loud to us the section from his book The Marriage Plot that was inspired by our friend Katz, who was with Jeffrey at Brown University. We leant in close to hear the reading.

For our second drink we changed to rye, but they did not have Redemption Rye, which Jeffrey wanted, or the Hudson Manhattan Rye, which I fancy, but instead we took the Templeton Rye, which is fine. The Shady Pines does have a better range of ryes than most bars.

Rye is known as a saddlebag whiskey. In westerns, the cowboys in a bar usually drink rye by throwing it down from shot glasses. When I first visited the United States in the 1970s, I brought back a bottle of Old Overholt for my friend Don Anderson, the much admired critic and essayist. We had never drunk rye before and back then it was not available in Australia. Back then we fancied ourselves as cowboys in daring and style, perhaps, rather than in dress or anything to do with horses. Existential cowboys.

 I now recall wistfully that Don and I used to sing the Tex Ritter song ‘Rye Whiskey’.

I sang snatches of the song for our party.

 

Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry

If a tree don’t fall on me, I’ll live till I die […]

You may boast of your knowledge an’ brag of your sense

’Twill all be forgotten a hundred years hence.

 

I don’t think anyone was listening.

Rye whiskey is made from a mash of at least 51% rye together with corn and malted barley. It is sometimes claimed to be America’s equivalent of an Islay whisky. It’s significantly different from bourbon, which is distilled from at least 51% corn and is sweeter.

I came back to drinking rye whiskey a year or so ago after reading James M Cain’s 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce. In 1945, the book was made into a movie starring Joan Crawford and, last year, into a mini-series starring Kate Winslet. The story is about a devoted, hardworking mother whose daughter unjustly turns on her by having an affair with the mother’s lover. In the novel, Mildred’s despair is expressed by her beginning to drink rye whiskey straight. I forget the despair, among many, which caused me to take it up again.

By the way, not only were the drinks disappointing, there was something else. My Man About Town image took a further blow when I sensed, and had confirmed, that to some Americans the cigar-store Indian is now considered politically incorrect. I wondered, then, how I would feel if I were taken to a New York bar that featured an Australian Aboriginal standing on one leg with the other foot at his knee, leaning on a spear.

Not too comfortable, I think. Although on second thoughts, maybe it depends on the sensibility of the viewer. It could be an encounter of respectful contemplation, it could cause a flash of imaginative connection and happy thought, and, as did Dad Rudd, I would say, “Well, I’m damned,” and say to the Aboriginal that I was always glad to meet anyone from the bush. Or is that being far too generous to the human race?

Along with the bad drinks, however, I suspect I chose the wrong bar for a visiting American novelist.

To make up for the bar experience, I did take Jeffrey to the Boathouse restaurant because he wanted to taste our oysters and as we ate a mixed plate of South Coast rocks – excellent –

I intoned what a dear friend of mine calls my “bloody oyster wisdom” but I had forgotten to bring my pocket magnifier, which spoiled it somewhat. I like to examine the barnacles, sponges and sea worms on the shells.

Sydney man of letters Tim Herbert was with us and Elva Darnell, who has a story in the current issue of Wet Ink. Look for it.

Jeffrey told Philip Stack, the excellent maître d’ at this fine restaurant, that it was the best meal he had ever eaten. It was good.

Oh, another thing you might like to know on the plus side: Shady Pines Saloon has a mechanical bull for private parties and it is one of the few bars that open at 4 pm, which is, for me, on some wearisome days, rather important.

Frank Moorhouse

Frank Moorhouse is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. He is the author of Grand Days, Dark Palace and Cold Light.

August 2012

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