Tom Stafford and Deke Slayton holding tubes of vodka given to them by Russian cosmonauts during the historic linkup of Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft.
I am going to explain something to you about vodka, which is having a really terrible moment right now. Bartenders are saying it doesn’t taste of anything (which is patently false, as it clearly tastes of a combination of fire, sugar, and nail polish remover), and–according to the New York Post, anyway–substituting gin.
The thing is, vodka isn’t supposed to taste of anything. (Even though we have already established that it does. Perhaps the bigger sin, in a bartender’s reckoning, is that, regardless of what Grey Goose and Chopin want you to believe, there is little in the taste to differentiate individual vodkas from each other.)
Or, rather, the taste–on its own–is not the point.
The reason we have trouble with this relatively neutral liquor is that ours is one of the few cultures in the world (Britain is another) to have completely divorced the act of drinking from the act of eating. This is not to say that Americans never eat and drink at the same time, but there is no cultural imperative that we must. And so we have never embraced vodka in its true spirit: a complement to food.
Look around. Spain has tapas for its sherry, China has xiao tsai to go with its rose-scented sorghum liquor. In Korea, there is no soju without anju. And France, birthplace of such food-centered drink concepts as apéritifs and digestifs, imported the concept of wine bars from us. Likewise, in Russia, vodka and zakuski go hand in hand. To drink vodka without even coarse, symbolic zakuski (a heel of bread, some cucumber trimmings), is, in the Russian understanding, to have reached a special, acute form of alcoholism from which there is no returning.
Meanwhile, America has some sports bars, and sports bars have Buffalo wings, but mostly it just has bars.
A meal I enjoyed in Moscow last summer. We alternated sips of vodka with sips of mors, a rustic berry punch, and an array of pickles, crudités, and Uzbek dishes.
They say that taking food while drinking keeps you steadier longer, and even wards off hangovers. That may be true, but I don’t think the origins of the practice are so pragmatic. I quote Octavio Paz, Mexico’s great poet:
The variety of the meal’s delicacies should be matched by an equal variety among the guests. Wines, liqueurs, and alcoholic beverages are the complement of food; their function is to stimulate the relationships that develop around a table.
He goes on:
Unlike wine, pulque, champagne, beer, and even vodka, neither whiskey nor gin is a good companion for a meal. They are neither aperitifs nor digestives. They are beverages that accentuate withdrawal and unsociability.
Paz is a bit hard on the Americans, maybe. These lines are part of a larger essay titled “Eroticism and Gastrosophy” in which he systematically tears the country (though he really focuses on the Puritan Yankee tradition) a new one. But I agree with him on those points. There really is something solitary and grim about whiskey, and the way we in America drink it, that even beautifully crafted cocktails cannot redress. Think of how rare it is to really drink as a family in the U.S.; here, drinking is something you do with friends or even with strangers, but there is very little sitting around a table with colorful, delicious food and getting joyfully smashed with your kin. There is plenty of getting quietly and inappropriately drunk at family gatherings because of suppressed animosity, but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing. The way I see it, tapas and anju and zakuski are physical manifestations of conviviality and rejoicing, sentiments that are not always present in American drinking sessions. (We’re the guys who came up with Prohibition, remember? Culturally, we have some issues with alcohol.)
So yes, if you wrest vodka from its culinary context, where its cool fire slices clean through the fat of cured fish and its almost floral sweetness makes a cucumber pickle picklier, somehow, it hasn’t much to recommend it as the foundation for a cocktail. (Although, should you just want to get drunk on something unassertive that blends harmoniously with tonic water, that is your right, and mixologists need to get over themselves. Anyway, alarmist trend pieces aside, I think most bartenders are over themselves.) But remember that vodka, as it was intended to be consumed, offers as balanced a taste experience as a fine cocktail–only the mixers are spread out on the table, and they’re called zakuski.