Saturday, February 24, 2007

That Which We Call a Martini

In the title of my previous column, I asked the question, "What's in a name?" There are so many ways of addressing the question that I'm not even going to try to answer it, and even though I don't particularly like applying labels to things, beliefs, or behaviors, I understand that labels can sometimes be useful, maybe even necessary. When used judiciously, they make life easier, because they allow us to refer to something by name rather than having to describe it.

However, sometimes the use of a particular label broadens to the point that it loses most of its value. Consider, for example, the word "martini." Originally, this drink consisted of some gin, a little vermouth, and a green olive. It was fairly straightforward. You could order a martini, and every bartender in the world would know what you meant.

But then, someone got creative and decided to use vodka instead of gin. The result became known as the "vodka martini." And as vodka martinis became more popular, they became known simply as "martinis." So if you walked into a bar and ordered a martini, you would most likely be met with the question, "Vodka or gin?"

Fine. No problem. But look where we are today. The current definition of "martini" has broadened to the point that it basically means "anything you can pour into a martini glass." If you don't believe me, go to a restaurant and look at their martini menu. (Yes, there are restaurants that have martini menus.) That's all well and good, but what I find interesting is that on these menus, you will never find a drink consisting of gin, vermouth, and an olive. You won't find a vodka martini either.

I don't know why, but the martini is more prone to modification than any other drink. Perhaps it's because of the name, which is so easy to play off of. For example, there's the catini (in which cat blood is substituted for vermouth), the carpetini (made with carpet fibers), and the insectini (garnished with insects or insect parts).

Last week, I was watching some cooking show while riding my stationary bike. The theme of the show was food from Greece, so along with all the recipes for Greek food, the host showed us how to make what she referred to as a Mykonos martini. First you fill a pitcher about halfway with ice, then you pour in equal parts of gin and dry vermouth, and then you add some strained Kalamata olive juice. At last that's what it looked like -- I actually stopped listening after she said "equal parts of gin and dry vermouth" because that stunned me into a state of open-mouthed incredulity and wide-eyed amazement.

"Equal parts of gin and dry vermouth"? Doesn't that strike anyone as possibly being maybe just a little too much vermouth? Granted, she did specify "dry vermouth," but unless the vermouth is completely evaporated, that's just way too much.

I remember when I was a kid, my dad once said that the way to make a perfect martini is to pour some gin and then whisper the word "vermouth" into the glass. I didn't know it at the time, but he probably wasn't the first person to say that. According to something I found on the web, the saying may have originated in a New Yorker cartoon.

In any case, it was clever, but it wasn't the only clever thing anyone ever said about how much vermouth a martini should contain. As a matter of fact, here are some ideas (taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry for "Martini") that other people have had on the subject.

Winston Churchill chose to forgo vermouth completely, and instead simply bowed in the direction of France.

General Patton suggested pointing the gin bottle in the general direction of Italy.

Alfred Hitchcock's recipe called for five parts gin and "a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth."

A scene cut from the theatrical version of the movie M*A*S*H suggested that a bottle of vermouth should 'last an entire war.'

Finally, according to an equally clever but unattributed remark in the Wikipedia article: One might prepare a martini by waving the cap of a vermouth bottle over the glass, or observing that there was vermouth in the house once.

So not only was Alfred Hitchcock an extraordinary film director, he also knew how to mix a drink.

By the way, I happen to think that Wikipedia gets more than its fair share of criticism. People say it's full of inaccuracies, but according to one analysis, for every three errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia has four. I think that's actually pretty respectable, especially when you consider that the relative number of Wikipedia errors will probably decrease over time as corrections get made. What surprises me is that the Encyclopaedia Britannica has any errors at all, since it's always been regarded as the ne plus ultra of reference materials. It just goes to show that nobody's perfect. And it also reinforces the old adage that you shouldn't believe everything you read.

Of course, you shouldn't believe everything you see on TV either. So if someone tells you to use equal parts gin and vermouth, you can feel free to ignore it. (Not only will you have a better martini, but think of the money you'll save by not having to buy a bottle of vermouth.)

On a related note, someone recently sent me a link to an article about a Japanese TV show that falsified scientific data, ostensibly to make the show more interesting and thereby increase its ratings. Among the fabrications was the exaggeration of the healthful benefits of the Japanese food known as natto. In case you don't know this, natto is a gooey mess made from fermented soy beans. And in case you've never tried it, it tastes every bit as good as it sounds. I tried some once a long time ago, when I was trying to learn Japanese. Our teacher brought some to class so we could all try it. I've forgotten most of the Japanese I ever learned, but I haven't forgotten the unpleasant taste of natto.

So I'd never eat natto again, even if it were good for you. Give me a martini instead. Or to avoid any potential confusion, just give me a bottle of gin and a jar of green olives.