Recently, I went to a restaurant that served martinis -- a number of them, in fact, including something called a Dean Martini (vodka in martini glass, an olive, a book of matches and a Lucky Strike cigarette), a Mary Martin (Absolut Peppar vodka, tomato juice and spices), a Key Lime Martini (Licor 43, line juice, cream, sour mix and a graham cracker rim), and a host of other predominantly vodka-based martinis. They also had your classic martini and your classic dirty martini.
My girlfriend, deciding she desired something a touch sweeter, ordered a $6 Red Parrot "martini." I put "martini" in quotes here because said "martini" contained Parrot Bay rum, pineapple and orange juices, and a splash of grenadine, all of which have little to do with a martini in the classic sense of the word. It was served in a martini glass, however.
Being something more of a traditionalist -- as well as a guy who doesn't much care for sweets -- I ordered a dirty martini ($6), made with Skyy vodka, olive juice and three olives on one of those neat little tiny plastic swords I used to tape to the hands of my Star Wars action figures when I'd lose a light saber (there, I said it!).
Not willing to pay six smackers for a glass of vodka and a Lucky Strike, I was nonetheless curious enough to ask our waiter if the restaurant did in fact keep a couple packs of Luckys around for when someone decided on a Dean Martini.
"I think we might be out, actually, but if you're curious we can scare you up something," he said. "Whattaya smoke?"
This, my friends, is the joy of the martini experience: class in a glass.
When our soul (or perhaps our childish vanity) cries out for dignity and class, when we want to project our bon vivant bona fides, the martini is the thing. James Bond drinks them. Carrie Bradshaw drinks 'em. Hell, even Brian, the dog from Family Guy drinks them.
Thankfully, specialty martini menus are everywhere in the CLT. Loft 1523, Tutto Mondo (just not after 2 a.m.!), Blue and more serve a fancy selection, as do numerous others.
Although the drink has been around for over a century, the original martini recipe -- gin and vermouth and olive, first called a "Martinez" -- hasn't changed much over the years, but what we're willing to lump under the moniker has. Vodka has long since overtaken briny, anise-flavored gin as the mixer of choice for most folks, and ingredients such as flavored liqueurs and juices abound. Apple and chocolate are popular favorites among the ladies-who-lunch set, and I've even seen whiskey martinis (?!) around. Basically, if you can fit it in a martini glass, people will call it a martini. Which makes good business sense, of course. If they stuck to the classic definition, martini bars would have a menu about one paragraph long.
One other thing martinis have in their favor, as I hinted about above, is the Adult Factor. You're not likely to get some drunken mook hitting on your lady friend (or two-bit tramp hitting on your fella) if everyone's daintily hoisting a martini glass. The atmosphere helps, too: soft light, Art Deco décor and subtle sconces make you feel a little better about downing a few cocktails than a beer-bestanked, dimly lit basement bar. Sinatra takes precedence over Sublime and the latest from So So Def. To boot, you're much less likely to be outed as an alkie.
There is no shortage of martini literature, both in print and online, to guide you toward vermouth-infused nirvana. Below are a selection of easy-to-read, easy-to-find martini-related books and a sampling of some handy online links:
• Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini by Anistatia R. Miller and Jared M. Brown ($10) Features 40 "classic" martini recipes, 60 "nouveau" martinis, and a directory of the world's best martini lounges. Also features a "great moments in martini history" section.
• 101 Martinis by Kim Haasarud and Alexandra Grablewski ($15.95) A look at the slate of new "alternative" martinis, including those made with Scotch, fruit infusions, liqueurs, herbal supplements, and more. Offers martini suggestions for any occasion, and to match various popular foods.
• The Little Black Book of Martinis by Nannette Stone and Kerren Barbas ($9.95) A small, spiral-bound book, cutely packaged, featuring a healthy dose of martini history, martini-related quotes, and several recipes, of both the quirky and traditional varietals.
• The Martini Book by Sally Ann Berk and Zeva Oelbaum ($12.95) Features an in-depth history of the martini, many vodka martini recipes, and a breakdown of the famous shaken/stirred debate.
• The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic by Barnaby Conrad III ($24.95) Lighter on recipes but containing more historical nuggets than the tomes above, "The Martini" has various full-color examples of martini art, cartoons, collectibles, advertisements and more. Also contains literary excerpts, and a section on Mr. Shaken-not-stirred himself, James Bond.
Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, the Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site www.egullet.com. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.