I never had a fake ID. There was never really anyone who looked enough like me to be able to source such a collegiate luxury, though knowing the rule abider I once was, I probably wouldn’t have been slick enough to use it anyway.
My drinking life began, therefore, not in bars like a civilized human, but in dorm rooms where we drank from waxy paper cups made for dining hall coffee, not the inevitable bottom-shelf vodka that must be drunk quick, or the liquor will eat right through. And really, who wants to take their time with Aristocrat or—God help me—Popov, anyway? It’s almost, almost, funny that the dreaded two fingers of room-temperature swill we knocked back in a fluorescently lit freshman dorm (after a toast with and to the girls) shares fundamental DNA with my now—perhaps I should say still?—favorite drink: the uninterrupted hard liquor of the martini.
My friend Timi introduced me to martinis once I finally aged into bars. Raised in Lagos and London, Timi knew the world better than I did, and he drank his martinis dirty with blue cheese olives. We spent more nights, and more money, in the dark corners of college bars than I care to recollect. What matters is I learned a new way of drinking, a new way of being myself.
Now far more grown and back home in Nashville, I have the privilege of being in the same chapter of a Black women’s club that my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmother joined ahead of me, across the space of six decades. One night a couple of years ago during an annual conference in Las Vegas, some members of my chapter and I went to a steak house, where I found myself seated next to Elizabeth, a great friend of my late grandmother Joan’s. When it came time to order drinks, I chose a martini, “in honor of my nana.” Elizabeth didn’t miss a beat. “Now all you have to do,” she said, “is take off your shoes and sit on the floor.” She said it with such glee and salt and a sweet, wistful warmth. She knew my nana and remembered a version of her that I’d never met. Calling her name, in the name of a good drink, turned into a conjuring of her memory.
What do you say about a drink that punctuates your favorite stories? You tell how you came to know it. How the drink came to be of you, not an accessory.
When I consider my martini mentors, I think of Timi, of course, and Nana. But also her best friend, God-mommy Lea. My godfather, Jun. The booze-ode-writing miglior fabbro, Kingsley Amis. My Mississippi (and now Nashville) roommate, Everett. That list represents me to the world in a way that makes a great deal of sense to me: one Nigerian partner in crime; two beautiful, wild, luxurious Black women; one Japanese drinking buddy extraordinaire; one bitingly cheerful Englishman; and a cocktail-shaking white boy from Mississippi.
From Godmommy, I learned that if it’s not skating, it’s not right. Her perfectly manicured light brown fingers would artfully flash across a glass as she explained to a waiter: “skating” means ice rink cold. It means shaken, not stirred.
From Uncle Jun I learned I do, in fact, like a gin martini just as well as a vodka one. Who was I to contradict his order of two dirty Hendrick’s cocktails when we first moved our godfather-goddaughter dates from the movie theater to the bar? Only later did I drum up the gumption to insist my gin come with a lemon twist (olives with vodka only, please, and stuffed with blue cheese, thank you), but the case for gin had been successfully made. When I’m feeling light and bright and forward looking, gin with a twist is what that tastes like.
From Kingsley Amis and his book Everyday Drinking, I learned a practice that became essential to my survival during the time I lived in the sweltering heat of the Mississippi Delta. Leave a lowball glass (or several) half filled with water, in the freezer. When it’s time for your martini, grab one of these physical manifestations of a glass half full, top it with booze, and sip.
From Everett, I learned a new kind of Southern alchemy. He takes good liquor, shakes it in family silver, and places it, skating and salty, into my weary and waiting hand. Whether it comes in a martini glass or a mason jar, every time it happens is a gold-tinged moment that helps me stand the world.
And from Nana I learned the bigger picture: that how you drink and with whom becomes part of who you are. No shoes, on the floor, with your girls and something cold. It was her and it’s me, too.
HOW TO MIX IT UP
Fill a mason jar with ice, then pick your poison: Add either 3 ounces of gin, or 2½ ounces of vodka and ½ ounce of olive juice, cover, and shake until the liquid is “skating”—so frosty you can nearly see a thin film of ice across the top. For the gin martini, express a thin twist of lemon peel over the glass and then add to the drink. For the vodka, add a toothpick with at least three olives, preferably stuffed with a lovely blue cheese. If it makes you feel better, you may whisper the word vermouth over the glass before serving.