Dean Martin’s “Martin Burgers,” circa 1967, famously epitomize the Rat Pack’s swagger in all its cholesterol-and-cirrhosis-defying, testosterone-laden charm. Form one pound of ground beef into patties. Salt and grill, four minutes per side, he advised. “Pour chilled bourbon in chilled shot glass and serve meat and bourbon on a TV tray.”
Some 40 years later, America has transitioned from an era of meat-and-booze to one of meaty booze. No longer content to let meat and spirits share tray space, bartenders and drinkers have smashed them together in a glut of outlandish packages: infused liquors, meat-based cocktails and far messier gimmicks like the “bone luge.” (We’ll get to that.) Consider it a new variation on the liquid lunch: entertaining, sublime and downright wrong.
To cut to the bloody-rare heart, a mash-up of meat and booze symbolizes rebellion against the teetotaling vegan, a figure universally reviled among Bacchanalians. For pleasure-hunters, to refuse meat or booze is a choice of self and health over camaraderie and pleasure. To refuse meat and booze is an offense that begs epicurean counter-attack.
At mid-century, Rat Packers renounced prim prohibition conventions with hefty steaks and bone-dry martinis. Then, beginning with the “fat wash” in the early 21st century, neo-boozehounds upped the ante by narrowing the distance between plate and glass. Essentially, a fat wash requires melting salty, fatty things like bacon or even lard into a spirit, chilling until hardened, and straining solids to leave meat flavor without meat’s mess.
Arguably, this meaty downward spiral’s nadir is the bone luge, which began in Portland’s hipster-
saturated scene as an ironic rejoinder to the fratty ice luge. Whereas ice lugers slurp cheap liquor from tacky ice sculptures, bone lugers sip top-shelf liquor through a piece of marrow bone (after first hollowing out the marrow itself with a dainty silver spoon). A cheaper, avowedly anti-aesthete option can be found in the “t-boning” offshoot, which nods to Bronco Jesus – er, Tim Tebow – and red state-approved cuts of beef. In this iteration, any form of brown liquor, and perhaps any liquor at all in a pinch, is funneled down a steak’s aftermath into a Tebow-positioned subject.
Debates about the trend tend to focus on issues of class and humor. Is all this costly drinking as out of touch with Middle America as Mitt Romney? Is it funny and fun, or humorless and hipper-than-thou? Yet these questions miss the central point that often, meaty booze just doesn’t taste good. Rarely does meaty booze match the pleasures of meat and booze, Dean Martin-style, or even time-tested boozy meats like coq au vin or beef bourguignon. No concept should trump taste.
Thankfully, Providence appears safe from a bone luge-augured collapse into silliness. Marrow dishes are still uncommon here, and one can hardly imagine local restaurants hopping on the bone-to-cocktail bandwagon just yet. More importantly, as brunchers at Harry’s Bar & Burger can attest, we have a much-preferable way to merge meat and booze in the restaurant’s wildly popular Bacon Bloody Mary.
Hardly a paragon of subtlety, the drink boasts threefold bacon: an infused vodka base, small flecks in the drink itself, and a full strip as a swizzle stick. “The swizzle stick almost wasn’t necessary,” a patron remarked, “but I’ll never say no to bacon.” I’ve heard it described in hyperbolic terms as “inspired,” “a beautiful experience,” and “the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had.” Put simply, it works… and then some.
Partially, its success owes to great care. Harrison “Harry” Elkhay, Harry’s eponymous bar maven, tinkered with the formula until he perfected it. First came the vodka, which required testing types of bacon, degrees of browning, steep- ing time, and so on. Then came the classic Bloody Mary foundation, which had to be tweaked just so to match the bacon. Ultimately, Elkhay settled on a ratio of tomato juice, horseradish and other seasonings that stood up to bacon’s meatiness without becoming too much altogether.
In a way, too, Elkhay found a loophole in the rule against meaty booze by choosing a drink that’s a meal and a cocktail in one. Meat simply makes more sense in it. “Everything has its place,” he concedes, stating that bacon suits a Bloody Mary but isn’t wildly versatile behind the bar. Outside brunch hours, patrons can get their slices on a burger or with a beer or bourbon, on the side. Hold the TV tray, please.