Cocktail Chatter: Gearing up for housemates season

by Ed Sikov

"They eat grasshoppers there." This came from Kyle, one of "the puppies," as the rest of us called them behind their backs. "You moron! It's cicadas!" - the inevitable put-down by Robbie, the other puppy. Generically shirtless but periodically pantsless, too, the puppies moved and spoke in tandem. They played with each other like restless young Weimeraners.

"Kyle is right," I shouted from the kitchen just before pushing the blender button marked "pulverize," mainly to mix up the brunch cocktail "du jour," but also to drown out the conversation. The puppies were more than hot; they were scorching. But they could also be tedious, especially when clothed.

I was making "Sangres de Marias" - which my partner Dan and I thought up during a trip to Oaxaca, where they serve "mezcal" - a fierce, smoky drink made from the maguey agave plant.

Mezcal is tequila-ish, only better - more like a barbecued brandy than the druggy but mixable star of the 7-Eleven-Slushee-like frozen Margarita. Mezcal is smokier and more refined.

When they aren't drinking it with ground up worms preserved in salt (I said "no, no, no"), Oaxacans serve shots of mezcal with sangrita, the perfect chaser - Bloody Mary-like, but more complex and citrusy. And it's spicier and more refreshing than those awful hint-of-powdered-horseradish disasters sold to the gullible as Bloody Mary mixes. (Oh, come on! Get some tomato juice, a bottle of real horseradish, and some Tabasco, and make the damn Bloody from scratch.)

Dan and I have a house in Fire Island Pines, which we can only afford by having housemates, so we were launching the upcoming 2010 season with the annual housemates brunch - a slightly sodden prelude to another summer in Alice's Gay Wonderland - the gorgeous beach full of gorgeous men, the joking and the bitching, the flashes of skin in our outdoor shower (conveniently located outside the kitchen window - the puppies were superstars in this arena), and of course the cocktails.

We served the Sangres de Marias in tall, thin flea market glasses, but you can use any glassware you like. Just show some class - no plastic cups. And add enough vodka so you can taste it. I'm sorry, but vodka is not tasteless - it adds flavor as well as punch. If all you want is watered down tomato juice, then add more ice and let it melt.

Except for Robbie's obnoxious response ("This tastes like pureed grasshoppers" - I was outraged), the Sangres de Marias were a hit. Craig, the shall we say "fat" former theater student turned legal aide, blurted, "You should call it 'el cuaderno de la virgen.'" "You're dating yourself, doll," I said, to which he retorted, "Of course I am - no one else will."

Here's our recipe for "Sangres de Marias," but you should adjust the proportions and make it your own way:

1 48-ounce bottle tomato juice - don't get the low sodium kind or you'll simply end up with cocktails that need salt

1 cup orange juice (freshly squeezed is best but pricey)

1/2 cup unsweetened lime juice (use ReaLime, not Rose's, which is sweetened)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground ancho chilies (optional)

A handful of roughly chopped cilantro

A few shakes of Tabasco

Premium vodka - I recommend Absolut

Blend the first seven ingredients until almost smooth. Pour the mixture into a large pitcher, and add as much Absolut vodka as possible. Just be careful not to overwhelm either the cocktail or your guests. Add it by the slosh until you think it's enough. Never forget this cardinal rule: You're not making a hydrogen bomb. You're making a drink. Proportions aren't critical with Bloody Marys or "Sangres de Marias."

Ed Sikov is the author of "Dark Victory; The Life of Bette Davis," and other books about films and filmmakers.
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