Michael P. Foley, a sometime contributor to this site, has just published a welcome book about one of the things that distinguishes Catholics from some (if not most) other faiths: our appreciation of booze.
Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to Happy Hour is a lighthearted book about a serious subject. There’s no doubt that the consumption of alcohol – a morally neutral activity in itself – can be a pleasurable accompaniment to blessed fellowship, but also a destructive enabler of misery and isolation.
This I know from personal experience. My home is a happy gathering place in which the host (moi) is a somewhat legendary mixer of cocktails (see the recipe for my “Cristo Rey”), but growing up – many years ago and miles away – I watched my otherwise saintly mother slowly descend into a haze of alcoholism from which death alone rescued her.
To my own sons, I have preached the importance of moderation in drinking, although they know their father’s idea of temperance – rightly understood – would probably make a strict Methodist swoon. But there are such pleasures in drinking as must be protected against the kind of excess that transforms elixir into toxin.
In Professor Foley’s book, one finds some of what’s standard in books about beer and wine, and spirits, but the genius of it is its organization around the liturgical year. Appendices list cocktails alphabetically; ditto the holy days and the saints.
So, for instance, I looked for my patron, Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast day is August 20 and found three pages of fascinating history and legend, illustrated by one of the many paintings depicting the “lactation of Bernard” (lactatio Bernardi), an incident in which our Blessed Mother, wet nurse to humanity, squirts breast milk into the great saint’s mouth. (Catholicism is beautiful and strange.) The recipes suggested for toasting Bernard include several featuring milk, and are too sweet for my taste (bitter is better!), but there is also a sensible digression about Trappist beer.
The Trappists grew out of the Cistercian order and, therefore, owe much to Bernard. Drinking with the Saints, which publishes today, even mentions the newest Trappist ale, which isn’t from Belgium or the Netherlands, but St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, although best of luck laying your hands on a bottle. More widely available are ales from Ovila Abbey, a partnership between the Benedictines of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in California and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, so not a true abbey product as are the great Trappist beers and ales, which is to say: made at the monasteries themselves.
The section on Bernard ends with a roundup of Cistercian produced liqueurs, and there are a bunch of them.
Perhaps the best way to use Drinking with the Saints is chronologically. Side markers make it easy to find each month. For today, the Feast of St. Monica, the forbearing mother of Augustine, who is also the patroness of “difficult marriages and disappointing children, Foley indicates a cocktail called the Merry Widow: gin, dry vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe, with orange bitters and a lemon twist. If wine is your preference, Sardinian wines from a vintner called Cantina Santa Maria la Palma are suggested.
In a sidebar about the vineyard, the author notes that Sardinia is the birthplace of Eusebius, the great historian and opponent of Arianism. Professor Foley notes that Eusebius was so beset during his lifetime by the heretics who believed that the Son is not consubstantial with the Father that “the Church traditionally honors Eusebius as a martyr, even though he died an old man in his bed after years of exile.” That’s certainly a reason to raise a glass in his memory – on August 2, which is his feast.
Also on May 4, however, are Saints Sacerdos (d. 720) and Florian (d. 250). Celebrating Sacerdos calls for wine from the Garrone, and Florian, a Roman soldier and Christian convert, deserves a cocktail called Fireman’s Sour. Florian was an Austrian, which make, by being so New World, might a rum-based cocktail with grenadine and limejuice seem a bit incongruous, except that one of Florian’s jobs in the Roman Legion was firefighting.
There is no listing for my fall birthday – another good use for the book: pairing up birthdays with Catholic beverages – but when I was a boy we almost always deferred my parties to All Hallows’ Eve, for which Foley suggests two “diabolic” cocktails mentioned elsewhere in his book: Black Devil (rum, sweet vermouth, and a black olive) and Satan’s Whiskers (gin, dry and sweet vermouth, OJ, and orange Curaçao). For some, obviously, bitter is not better.
Foley has a nice anecdote about trick-or-treating. His father used to take the kids out: they brought their bags. He carried a shot glass: “As the kids were being given candy at the house of a friend, my dad would grin and hold out the glass.” He adds that it was good for his father’s sobriety that the Foleys didn’t have many friends.
By my rather extensive home bar, I have half a dozen dog-eared cocktail guides, the most-used of which is The Joy of Mixology by the great Gary Regan, from whom you can get superb recipes, much about the history of the cocktails themselves, and insight about how one builds a cocktail.
I’ll now keep Michael Foley’s Drinking with the Saints next to Regan’s Joy – not just for the recipes but for the memorials and toasts a faithful Christian ought to keep in mind when drinking Catholic beverages. Prosit!