Listen to Vivian Howard read this column:
It’s probably been a minute since you heard someone order a vodka cranberry with a wedge of lime or a bourbon and ginger with just any old ice. Maybe that’s because all bartenders tighten the leather straps on their aprons at the thought of birthing the next Manhattan or Fuzzy Navel—cocktails immortalized with snappy names now known the world over. Or maybe the sheer number of ingredients shaken into today’s libations requires wrapping them in a convenient label in order to sell them. Whatever the reason, our craft-cocktail-loving culture practically demands we title our drinks.
At Lenoir, my restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, we named our cocktails to help tell the story of the restaurant’s namesake, Lenoir County—my rural, rich, poor, complicated, and simple home in Eastern North Carolina. The process was fun at first, kind of like brainstorming an alias for a friend (although it did make me wonder why we name drinks and not dishes). Both the Backhanded Compliment for a vodka martini with pimento-cheese-stuffed olives, and Just Piddlin’ for a basil-and-gin number, reflected the balance of shade and wit I wanted to conjure as I decided what to call my cocktail children. But then it came time to christen my drink, my whiskey sour spiked with my blueberry barbecue sauce, the sippable party about which every server, bartender, host, and restaurant regular would know to say, “This is Vivian’s drink”—that task, to encapsulate my cocktail essence in a colloquial phrase, seemed undoable.
We’ve all named something—a pet, a car, a body part. If you have kids, figuring out what you were going to call them for the rest of their lives probably followed one of two paths, family name or creative expression. My parents gave the world a rare glimpse of their hidden eccentricities when they drove willy-nilly down the median between convention and invention when naming their four daughters: Their first child, Leraine, in homage to Lorraine, her maternal grandmother; the second, Currin, was to be a nod to my brother’s paternal grandfather until my brother came out a sister, known by Currie ever since; the third was going to be my dad’s namesake, John, but Johna was born instead; and finally, many years later, my parents touched family, film, and Southern culture all in one upon my arrival. Vivian after Vivien Leigh from Gone with the Wind, in which she of course played Scarlett O’Hara, who happened to share a name with my mother. Vivian Scarlett is a mouthful, but it’s mine. Like it or not, when you name something, you give it meaning. And that meaning, at least in some ways, represents a little piece of its maker. That’s the point but also the fear. Names have to be just right.
The first thing I’m sure I named was the faux Cabbage Patch Kids doll I got for Christmas in second grade. Real Cabbage Patch dolls were adopted. They came with birth certificates and names attached. Mine wasn’t even a knockoff—it was hand sewn and stuffed with cotton so tight she looked undeniably uncomfortable, with her arms and hands permanently splayed, poised to give anybody willing a fat-fingered bear hug. Once I accepted that she was the only version of a Cabbage Patch I was gonna lay my hands on that Christmas, I got to the business of naming her. I thought about how one day I wanted to be rich, and since all the rich people I saw on TV had poodles, I figured I’d name my Bride of Chucky look-alike “Poodle” and consider myself halfway there. But what I really wanted, more than riches or a legit Cabbage Patch, was to be just like my sister Johna, so I stole the end of her double first name and Poodle became Poodle Mae.
Naming Poodle Mae was clear-cut and easy. Other instances were too: I had the name for my first book, Deep Run Roots, before I had even written a proposal, and I knew I wanted to name my Charleston restaurant Lenoir before deciding anything else. I loved that the pretty word stood for the place I call home, but also the thought of people mistakenly fancying it up like the French and calling it “Len-whahr” made me smile inside. Other North Carolina enclaves have a tougher time. I imagine that the people who named the tiny communities of Tick Bite, Lizard Lick, and Boogertown found their handiwork to be knee-slapping funny. In the flattest part of the state, somebody exercised their irony as well as their reach by naming places that are basically concave their own antonym. Rose Hill, Pleasant Hill, Moss Hill, Potter’s Hill, and Pink Hill all exist with nary a hill in sight.
Mostly, though, I find naming things to be hard. When it matters, when your opinion is not the only one at play, when the name and the thing are destined to take on a life of their own, the pressure is on. I doubt the guy who named Tick Bite thought about how that label might affect his community’s future prospects. Yet when I put a name on something today, I understand the power it has—to position a business, to draw in viewers or to exclude them, to honor one’s parents, to set the stage for the person or the thing to come.
When the team from my first PBS series, A Chef’s Life, set out to make a new show about dishes that all cultures share in one form or another, we decided to build the episodes around dumplings, stewed greens, barbecue, porridge, hand pies, and pickles. But saying we had a hard time naming the program is like saying the pandemic has been long. Our group of about ten sat around a conference table for days trying to distill the show’s message into a profound, catchy, short, illustrative, inclusive, sensitive name. We all had opinions. From the get-go, I didn’t want to use the words South or Southern. For me the show was about how the South was just a microcosm of the rest of the country—I hoped everyone who watched would see themselves represented in the series, and I didn’t want the name to suggest otherwise. At one point I was 500 percent convinced we should dub the show Everybody’s Got One. When no one else agreed, I swallowed my conviction and mourned the death of that option. Naming the show was not like naming Poodle Mae; it wasn’t about me. In time we settled on South by Somewhere and generally all felt good about it. However, a little festival in Austin you may have heard of that draws, oh, a quarter of a million culture lovers liked their name but not ours, so we did what you can do at the very beginning of something’s life without wreaking all kinds of damage. We changed its name.
Turns out a couple of servings of my signature whiskey sour was all I needed for the gumption to throw out some ideas for its name. I felt “down-to-earth” and “above your raising” matched the personalities shared by the other Lenoir cocktails. People have described me as both and I can see myself in each characterization, even though I know you can’t be down-to-earth and above your raising at the same time. But the tone of the names troubled me, and as I sat with them, I kept thinking of my ten-year-old twins. I know the idea of my preteens perusing a cocktail menu rings wrong, but with everything I do and particularly in the way I describe myself to my children, I want to project self-love and acceptance, and neither choice hit those notes. True, on the list of names that wield power, drink names rank really, really low, but every name reveals meaning, and this time it was personal. So until there’s a witty, shade-forward way to convey all the complicated stuff in my shaker, my cocktail essence is simply called the Spittin’ Image.