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Luis Buñuel's autobiography, My Last Sigh, contains a font of practical ruminations in a chapter called "Earthly Delights," the most frequently quoted passage of which is Buñuel's recipe for the dry martini:

To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of the dry martini. To be frank, given the primordial role played in my life by the dry martini, I think I really ought to give it at least a page. Like all cocktails, the martini, composed essentially of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat, seems to have been an American invention. Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin's hymen "like a ray of sunlight through a window — leaving it unbroken."

Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won't melt, since nothing's worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients — glasses, gin, and shaker — in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don't take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.

(During the 1940s, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York taught me a curious variation. Instead of Angostura, he used a dash of Pernod. Frankly, it seemed heretical to me, but apparently it was only a fad.)

Nearly ten years ago in the digital pages of Slate, Buñuel's recipe was criticized with surgical nitpickery by none other than Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek's international edition and the author of The Future of Freedom, a book that, to the best of my recollection, contains no recipes of any kind and nary a reference to martinis. Nevertheless, Mr. Zakaria is a connoisseur. More vermouth, he spake, aghast.

To make his case, he began by pointing out that Buñuel's joke about the Virgin was doctrinally incorrect. It seems he's right about this one. Score one for the wonk. We could blame the translator, but I imagine the mistake is Mr. Buñuel's. However, while the filmmaker may have used the term "immaculate conception" to place the wrong instance of divine hymen-breaching in service of an analogy for how little vermouth to use, he was quite precise in describing his beverage as a "dry martini" in nearly every instance, a beverage very different from the plain ordinary martini that Mr. Zakaria favors. Apples and oranges, sir! The title of the piece in Slate: "Toward the Wet Martini".

And so it comes as no surprise to this fan of Buñuel's films that he was cavalier with Catholicism but precise in describing the earthly pleasures.

Truth be told, I like Mr. Zakaria a great deal. I find his work, like Buñuel's, to be sobering and lucid. But one of these men is also delirious and wicked, and which of them would you trust to make you the better martini? And which of them more generously offers the recipe whenever the opportunity arises?

Let me add another data point. I've tested both formulae. Mr. Buñuel is specific about most steps, but he does not mention whether one should chill the Noilly Prat and Angostura bitters along with the glasses, gin, and shaker. The first time, I chilled neither, and the second time, both. I detected no difference, so Mr. Buñuel's vagueness seems to be appropriate. He also, in this instance, mentions no garnish. There are those who are certain the Spaniard would choose an olive, but I prefer the lemon peel and consider Mr. Buñuel's citizenship of the world to be my license in this regard.

Aside from those ambiguities, his recipe worked like a charm both to provoke and sustain a reverie. Q.E.D.

But wait. So did Mr. Zakaria's. I conclude from this photo finish that the martini is remarkably resilient! However, the dry recipe tastes more complex even to my unrefined palate, in the same way that Land Without Bread seems to me even richer and more thought provoking than The Future of Freedom. One is the product of delirious reverie. I will forever wonder about its goats.

And so: to each his own. (Goat.)

PS: Inspiration for this post comes from Michael Guillen's survey of My Last Sigh. Apparently a blogathon is afoot. OK. I haven't been following them very closely. But I [try to] follow Michael's blog, which is sufficient for me.

PPS: Imagine a world where each man [sic] receives a goat. I'd prefer it to a world where every man gets a sapphire. Reason: obvious.

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
September 27, 2007, 06:10 AM

"And so it comes as no surprise to this fan of Buñuel's films that he was cavalier with Catholicism but precise in describing the earthly pleasures."

That's perfect, Rob. If I ever write about Bunuel, I promise to use it as my epigraph.

September 28, 2007, 10:10 PM

I'm not sure how I misread this so badly, but the first time I saw your comment I thought you were suggesting I use this phrase on my epitaph. Weird. That's some sloppy reading. Mr. Bunuel doesn't mention this as a side effect.

Thanks, man.

September 28, 2007, 11:51 PM

Rob: thanks for the tip of the hat. I try to imagine getting drunk with Bunuel. Especially since I can't stand gin in my martinis. I'm a James Bond martini man myself. Vodka.

September 29, 2007, 08:30 PM

Actually, Michael, thank you for unwittingly giving me an excuse to write something for my blog. Your post on My Last Sigh was lots of fun.

December 23, 2008, 10:05 AM

As far as I know Bunuel loved wine, I don't see him drinking gin, English or else. I have read his autobiography which he did not write!