Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sorghum Lemonade Maker

I once read in the mixing guide for Harry's New York Bar that one shouldn't create new cocktails. I have to paraphrase because I can't find my copy, but it said something like "If you haven't had it yet, there's a good reason."

There are tons of bartenders. Even the most popular of them are bound to have slow shifts. They are often creative people, and they are surrounded by the implements for making cocktails. In light of these facts, the book seems right: if they haven't made the next best cocktail, why would you?

Of course "Harry" probably thinks that he could keep inventing new cocktails, he just don't want you to. (For one thing, you wouldn't need his book anymore.) That type of hypocritical pedagogy is the same reason we're forced to learn correct grammar while asked to read Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Learn the rules, admire those who break them, but don't do it yourself. This tension is the single greatest battle in my cooking: improvisation v. tradition. When to trust those who have come before you, when to come up with something new to pass on.

Fortunately, there's a solution. Google. When I envision a dish and am not sure if anyone else has ever made it, I google it. If there are lots of o's in the word google, then I know I'm in the clear. If not, I have to decide if I'm a ninth grader or James Joyce. In the case of this lemonade, I chose the latter.

When I searched for "sorghum lemonade" on-line, all that came up was a link to the Universidad Evangelica De El Salvador. I decided that was a good sign, and went and made it anyway. It wasn't as user friendly as lemonade made with sugar, or even honey or maple, but at the end of the day I know that I am at heart an improviser, and would rather have a weird version of something than have it twice.

Besides, sometimes we have to improvise to return to tradition. Recipes provide a very narrow view of the vast panoply of things humans have historically put into their mouths. There was a time before recipes, when people just knew how to cook the foods they'd been surrounded by for as long as they could remember. A cooking culture structured entirely on recipes, like we now have, is one which is cracked enough for many traditions to fall through.

Even if google didn't know that someone else has made sorghum lemonade before, I did. How? If I had the idea, someone else must have. Tradition through improvisation, grammar via Joyce.

Take that, Mr. Whelan! (my 9th grade English teacher)


Recipe: Sorghum Lemonade for One

1/2 lemon
1 heaping, sticky tbsp sorghum syrup

Combine the syrup with slightly warmed water, stirring until it dissolves. Add the juice of 1/2 of a lemon. Fill to the brim with cool water. Add ice if so desired.

Note: I know summer is lemonade's chief season, and I know that we're technically still in summer, but this drink was perfect on a recent warm, blustery, early Fall feeling day. More of a farewell to warmth than a hello.

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