The following is an excerpt from Libation: A Bitter Alchemy by Deirdre Heekin. It has been adapted for the Web.
My personal New Orleans has for a long time been one of mythology and imagination. My family once lived in New Orleans, and the childhood stories told to me over dishes of red beans and rice, one of my mother’s better recipes, or the King Cakes sent by an old neighbor at Mardi Gras, provided mystery and atmosphere to what I thought at that time was a fairly mundane, quotidian existence. There were foreign spices and Voodoo spells, Catholic mysticism and masked balls, storybook witches and minor tragedies, happiness and brightly colored beads. There were fancy dresses with white gloves and exotic flowers.
I have always felt a particular kinship with the Crescent City. I was conceived in New Orleans, during what I hope was an unfettered moment during Mardi Gras. I also died in New Orleans, which was not happy, and not unfettered, but a product of the unknown and cloaked in ceremony and ritual. My conception and my death? In this case, the two go together, in New Orleans, and yet I am still here to write about it.
When my mother was five months’ pregnant, she miscarried while teaching a Sunday school class at St. Catherine of Siena, in Metairie, a town next to and closely aligned with New Orleans. One of my sisters sat in the classroom and saw my mother one minute speaking, the next on the floor in a pool of red. She describes it like one of those slow-motion dreams in which she couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but knew to run and get my father, who was attending Mass. Next, my sister remembers sitting in a Catholic hospital cafeteria. She and my other sister were left there to drink Coca-Colas out of thick plastic straws while our father tried to navigate the labyrinth of doctors, nurses, priests, and unwelcome advice.
My mother tells me that the doctor gave them the bad news: She had lost the placenta. There would be nothing to feed me, I would be stillborn, or even if I lived I would be born severely handicapped at best, and if she took me to term her life would be at risk. Even in 1966, doctors didn’t know then what they know now.
Having converted to Catholicism after marrying my father, whose family was Catholic, my mother decided to rely on her own strength and buck the doctors, placing herself in the power of her beliefs. A kindly hospital priest gave her a scapular (one of those little prayer cards encased in plastic and hung on a string to be worn around the neck). It was a picture of the Virgin Mary, and he told her to pray and meditate upon it every day. The doctors told her to keep to her bed. My mother tells me she did both those things, and after an arduous move from New Orleans to another river town in southern Indiana, she was confined to her room during an unbearably hot autumn when the sheets on the bed would never dry and the air felt heavy and oppressive. My mother tells me I was born on December 8—neither stillborn nor handicapped—born on the Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception and, according to my mother, this miracle is all anyone should ever need to understand the power of faith.
My sister tells another version of the story. All these things are true, my sister says, but what was most compelling for her was the unbidden view of my mother’s hospital room in New Orleans after the loss of her placenta. My sister tells me that my mother’s bed was surrounded by a circle of nuns in white wimples chanting prayers, and that a priest, his white collar slightly dirty at the starched edge, held the scapular over my mother’s pregnant belly and swung it like a pendulum. These two versions of the same experience, true to both my mother and my sister, lead me to believe even more than I already do in the intensity and subjectivity of memory.
recipe for sazerac
The key to a true Sazerac is in the provenance of the ingredients: the rye, the anise, and the bitters. While many substitutes are available, an authentic drink is made with Old Overholt rye whiskey distilled in Clermont, Kentucky; Herbsaint anise liqueur; and Peychaud’s bitters, the last two ingredients hailing from New Orleans. This recipe is adapted from the dry and spicy version prepared for us at Arnaud’s in the Crescent City.
- 1 teaspoon simple syrup
- 2 ounces Old Overholt rye whiskey
- 3–4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1/4 teaspoon Herbsaint anise liqueur
- Strip of lemon peel
Pack an old-fashioned glass with ice, or chill it in the freezer. In a cocktail shaker, add the simple syrup, whiskey, and bitters. Put a few ice cubes in the shaker, and stir to chill. Discard the ice from the first glass, or take it out of the freezer, and coat the entire inside of this glass with the Herbsaint by rolling the liquid around in the glass. Discard the excess. Strain the whiskey concoction into the Herbsaint-coated glass. Twist the lemon peel over the drink so it catches the citrus oils, then rub the peel around the rim of the glass. Some purists advise you to refrain from dropping the peel in the glass. Others say to add it at the end. I like the way they serve it at Arnaud’s, with the peel.
(adapted from Gourmet’s Guide to New Orleans circa 1960)
In a cocktail tumbler or old-fashioned glass, moisten one or two lumps of sugar according to taste and crush with a wooden pestle. Add a dash of Angostura bitters and two dashes of Peychaud’s bitter and a jigger and a half of rye whiskey. Add two or three lumps of ice and stir with a spoon until chilled. In another tumbler that has been chilled with ice, put one dash of absinthe, twirl the glass, and throw out the excess absinthe. This will give a bouquet to the drink without actually flavoring it. Pour into this glass the mixed drink. Squeeze in a bit of lemon peel about the size of a nickel and put it in the drink, then rub the edge of the glass with a bit of lemon peel and serve. Do not shake or serve any ice in the drink.