The Teleology of Vodka

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Rock Island, IL

The martini glass and the garnish, O Best Beloved, were made for nobler spirits than vodka, nor did the lime and the tonic water have need of better company once gin joined their ménage.

And yet to this day both God-fearing and God-smearing men and women order drinks, make drinks, and drink drinks with vodka! Unbelievable!

I would not willingly offend the whole Alexander Nevsky choir or five fifths of its audience, but it needs saying that the true end of vodka is not a glass. Vodka, properly speaking, is not really a drink. So used it is more like an excuse—or a carrying device, much as a cigarette is a carrying device for nicotine. For although vodka may please the brain and the bloodstream, it can never fully satisfy the nose or the tongue—and will quite often offend the one and make offensive the other.

No, friends. Even once we have made allowances for the differences between rot gut and premium vodka, still we must ask a fundamental question: to what end is vodka?

Put aside your stemware and your tumblers, for as St. Paul saith (or “Paul,” as his modern commentators call him), yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

Let the weather turn cold, the sky slate-gray, and your inner weather gloomy. Put a deep skillet on the stove and a requiem on the hi-fi.

Or, if you’re breaking the Advent fast anyway, throw on some Russian choral music, for there’s vodka in your future. Just don’t be so impertinent as to drink it. Remember: we’re considering its true end.

Over low heat melt some butter—as little as a quarter stick or as much as a half. Watch that beautiful solid fat turn slowly into liquid as the music swells. But don’t watch too long, because you’ve got some chopping to do.

Chop up a yellow onion: small, medium, large—doesn’t matter. Quantity is up to the chef. Let old scolds worry about quantities over their tea. What you’re doing right now is making sure the kitchen smells good. And, Porchers, believe me: there’s nothing like an onion sautéing in butter to prepare you for discovering the teleology of vodka. You want incense, you’ve got it.

Oh, and garlic! Chop up lots of garlic and, after about four minutes or so, dump it in. Mind that you keep the heat low. And should someone you love walk through the kitchen, imprison her soft hand and gaze deep, deep into her peerless eyes. Or give her splendid bottom a friendly little smack. Think of it as a promissory note and dismiss her to her business. You’ve got yours to attend to. We’re doing teleology here.

But look you now! Mark the lack of contrast in the skillet. What you need is good eighth-of-a-cup of Italian seasoning or straight oregano if you prefer.

Ah, yes! If your nose is happy, why then shouldn’t your eyes also have their pleasure? Behold the pale garlic, the translucent onions, the golden butter, and now the green herb for the service of man. What but these was the eye made to look upon?

Yes, there are other things. But these will do for now.

And presently you’ll hear, beneath the music, the low sizzle as the heat rises, and soon enough you’ll taste the harvest of your labors, and of course you’ve been handling the ingredients all along. That’s five fifths of your senses at work here—and you’re thinking of even more touch later on—the erring lace, the tempestuous smock …

The incarnate condition! The fullness of man!

But knowing that the Dies Irae is coming, best get yourself a little drinky-poo. Not Vodka, though! It wasn’t made for drinking! A Russian stout would do the trick if you’ve got a good one at hand—and it would also lend a little justice to the occasion, but by now the kitchen smells so good, and you’re feeling so ecumenical, you could possibly find yourself imbibing a little sherry even! I’d try to keep that a secret if I were you, but do treat yourself. You’re learning something tonight.

By now you should have some salted water heating up in a separate pan, because you’ve got pasta to boil. As always, drizzle in some olive oil. Good local stuff.

Now the next thing you’re going to need is a nice big can of plum tomatoes—fourteen, sixteen ounces, plus the juices. Slice ’em up good, throw ’em in, and turn up the heat a little.

N.B. The disadvantage to doing this when the weather turns cold is that you can’t use fresh tomatoes, for which there’s no substitute. But this is a good cold-weather Rachmaninoff kind of dish, so some sacrifices must be made. Do remember, however, should a vodka mood o’ertake you in summer’s prime, to use fresh tomatoes.

You are stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula, are you not? That’s good, because stainless doesn’t quite sit right with the imagination or the moral sense, and Teflon or plastic could get you drawn and quartered and served to the hyenas at the zoo.

Chop up some shaved prosciutto if you can afford it, shaved ham if you can’t, and toss it in. A half a pound is probably plenty. You could get away with less if you’re feeling especially guilty about breaking the Advent fast, more if you’re not, but at any rate get some dead pig into the skillet. And then carve out some time to meditate on what a truly wonderful animal the pig is. If you’re the praying kind, give thanks.

And stir.

Though it may be you’ve been listening to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, or some of Tchaik’s liturgical pieces that never made it into the great Opus 41, here’s where you’ll note Russia’s true contribution to your evening: you’re going to pour about three-quarters of a cup of vodka into the skillet and watch it mingle promiscuously with all the other ingredients. This is what vodka was made for: promiscuous mingling.

And just when you think the picture can’t get any prettier, you dump in about a cup of heavy whipping cream, because, brothers and sisters, the only thing better than a tomato-based pasta dish, or a cream-based pasta dish, is a tomato-and-cream-based pasta dish. The white against the red, the red against the white, the translucent onions, the green herbs, the pink meat, and all those beautiful little rivulets of vodka!

Quick! Another drinky-poo! (But not vodka.) Ah! A ribbon of Russian stout like the lachrymosa Christi. Oh, this life! The poet was right. Who, stepping toward his grave, would not cast one last longing lingering look behind?

Thicken, thicken, thicken thou the juices, and now into the boiling waters toss your penne or rigatoni pasta. Ten minutes and counting. You step back and think and listen. The strings rise; the music builds. Two pans on the stove, one moving slowly over low heat and the other quickly over high heat, meet in the final cadence. How it all conduces to thought–and to thoughts of …

Cheese! You’ve forgotten to shred the Asagio cheese, which will be the finishing touch once you’ve brought everything promiscuously together. (Cheese be at my end–and in my departing!) So you shred some quickly and put it into a dark bowl. There must be contrast.

And now you drain the penne or rigatoni, toss it in with the vodka sauce, and, having learned vodka’s true end, you consider now your own. And, later, hers.

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