37. Maiden’s Blush

22 Oct

Scroop is an epic of high living and confused thinking. Its authoress handles her shaker with considerable skill, though the outcome is perhaps too often a “Maiden’s Blush”. After all, though life may not be all beer and skittles, it is, thank Heaven, even less all cocktails and chemmy.

— “Review of Scroop by Altamira Chickweed”, Punch, vol. 179 (6 August 1930), p. 163.

“She’s not like the others, thank God!” said Mrs. Vivian piously, and reached behind her to take a second cocktail from the serving table. “Vonnie’s straight and pure and clean, she is, as I, her mother, ought to know, thank God!” “Mother, please!” protested Vonnie, trying in vain for a maiden’s blush.

— Gordon Arthur Smith, “Another Waterloo”, Saturday Evening Post, vol. 198:25 (19 December 1925), p. 131.

When Prohibition was finally overturned in 1933, repeal parties were celebrated throughout the land. But as the booze once more ran freely in the home of the free, it became immediately apparent that, after almost a decade and a half of swilling bathtub gin and bootlegged Canadian whiskey, American taste had been debased and an entire generation grown up unpractised in the ars bibendi.

Changed drinking habits resulting from years of schooling in the speakeasies became evident yesterday as throngs flocked to high-class restaurants and hotels cafés where liquor was being served.

Old retainers in prominent hotels looked puzzled and scratched their heads as they accepted repeated orders for hard drinks. Although the best domestic wines, some of them aged since before prohibition, and the finest vintages of France and Italy were available in many resorts, the overwhelming majority of orders was for highballs, cocktails and “straight drinks”. […] The most popular drinks in the Times Square and Grand Central districts as well as in the hotels along Park Avenue seemed to be Scotch-and-soda and the “old-fashioned” cocktail, the base of which is rye whiskey”.

— “Hard Liquor Leads in Hotel Drinking”, New York Times (7 December 1933).

In his memoir the British journalist C.V.R. Thompson also remembered the helplessness of the servers that December night, as they struggled to cope with the demands of a clientele used to furtively swigging cocktails out of teapot spouts:

So I stayed up all night to celebrate Repeal. I had dinner at the Plaza. There were only two drinks, champagne and dry martinis. That was all the staff knew how to serve. “A terrible night, sir,” said the headwaiter.

“I ask you to believe, sir,” he explained, with ponderous sincerity, “that I have not taken a single drink during Prohibition. This is a new world to me, sir. In the old days, I could, of course, mix a perfect champagne cocktail, or a Manhattan, or a dry martini. Any of those normal drinks. But these young people, sir. They have been asking me for T.N.T.’s and Maidens’ Blushes and Death in the Afternoons. How, sir, can I know what they are talking about?”

— C.V.R. Thompson, I Lost My English Accent (New York: Putnams, 1939), p. 88.

Those evocative, Jazz-age names might not have rung a bell with our waiter, but they ought have given him some indication of the lethal effect of the cocktails they describe. All three cocktails list absinthe as a major component, but only one is palatable—and unsurprisingly it’s the one that doesn’t allude to high explosives or tauromaquia. The other two, TNT (½ absinthe and ½ whiskey) and Death in the Afternoon (½ absinthe and ½ champagne), a foul decoction dreamt up by Ernest Hemmingway and called, obviously, after his 1932 study of bullfighting, are symptomatic of the lingering influence of Prohibition, when the goal was to get drunk, quickly, and by any means necessary. (They are reminiscent, too, of the Belle Époque cocktail attributed to Toulouse-Lautrec, the Tremblement de Terre or Earthquake, which consisted of ½ absinthe and ½ cognac and did double duty as an emetic and elephant tranquilizer.)  Even one of the Savoy Cocktail Book’s two recipes for the much more romantic-sounding Maiden’s Blush (1/3 absinthe, 2/3 dry gin, 1 teaspoonful grenadine) uses so much absinthe, an extremely assertive ingredient even in small quantities, that the drink becomes unbalanced and the taste of the gin is overwhelmed. And that, of course, would have been precisely the point during the Volstead years. The other Savoy recipe omits the absinthe entirely, which makes for a rather bland and undistinguished cocktail (1 dash lemon juice, 4 dashes orange curaçao, 4 dashes drenadine, 1 glass dry din).

The Café Royal Cocktail Book contains the most promising contemporary formula for the Maiden’s Blush.  It’s a kind of synthesis of the two Craddock versions: the absinthe is scaled back, although what I take to be the characteristic anise flavouring of this cocktail is retained, and the dose of lemon juice is increased to lend a zingy freshness to the whole:

1/2 Dry Gin.

1/4 Lemon Juice.

1/8 Absinthe.

Teaspoonful powdered Sugar.

3 dashes Raspberry Syrup.

Shake and strain off into coloured glass. Put a slice of lemon on top.

Ignoring the directive to dust off the coloured glass, I tweaked the recipe slightly and used simple syrup and grenadine instead of powdered sugar and raspberry syrup.

The Maiden’s Blush was a key cocktail of the interwar period, evidenced not least in the fact that the British composer of light music, Joseph Engleman, gave the title “Maiden’s Blush” to the first movement of his 1937 suite Cocktail Cabinet  (the remaining parts of the work were “Orange Blossom” and “Manhattan”). The name, of course, is ancient, a poetic cliché dating back at least to the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. It subsequently became attached to a variety of apple introduced in New Jersey in 1817, the “Queen Pomological”, according to the New York Times, and also to an alba rose, which in the Victorian language of flowers, where different roses symbolized different stages of a love affair, meant “If you love me, you will find it out”. Less romantically, or perhaps more romantically, depending on your point of view, there was also a maiden’s blush sundae, which “consists of half an orange shelled out, with bisque ice cream and sliced orange on top” (“Oddly-Named Trade Teasers”, Bulletin of Pharmacy, vol. 30:4 [April 1916], p. 163).

But there also seems to have been an earlier cocktail with the same appellation (which, as I say, was a fairly common turn of phrase and perfectly suited to the denomination of mixed drinks). Take, for example, this letter, which appeared in Notes and Queries:

Some time in the ‘sixties—I think earlier than 1866—I heard a comic song on American drinks of which the chorus ran:—

Stone-fence, a Rattlesnake, Renovator, Locomotive

Pick-me-up, a Private Smile, by Jove it’s worth a fiver,

Colleen Bawn, a Maiden’s Blush Cocktail or a Flash of Lightning

Julep, splash and sangaraee, or else a Corpse Reviver.

Notes and Queries, vol. 157 (13 July 1929), p. 24.

Or how about this passage, published in 1872:

Having passed over the ridge, and some distance from it, the camp has much the same appearance as when you were approaching it, but when you get a few miles away all signs of life, so to say, disappear, and you are on a somewhat lonely road until you change mules about halfway on your journey, at an inn called the “Dewdrop Inn,” by Harvey and Co., on the canvas walls of which you noticed that it was notified in large black letters, that the said Harvey and Co. were licensed to sell wines, spirits on draught and in bottle, beer, long-cooling beverages, American drinks, pick-me-up, ginger cocktail, maiden’s blush, skittles, drink of the period, rum and milk, cigars and tobacco, groceries and bread, anything and everything, refreshments and beds at all hours.

— Charles Chapman, A Voyage from Southampton to Cape Town, in the Union Company’s Mail Steamer “Syria” (London: Berridge, 1872), p. 153.

Finally, in the satirical weekly Judy (an imitator of the better-known Punch), we find this snippet of news, which alludes, by way of explanation, to Edward Bulwer Lytton’s popular drama, The Lady of Lyons (1838), one of whose main characters, Claude Melnotte, is a gardener’s son who masquerades as a foreign prince to woo the eponymous heroine:

The fashionably dressed Englishman, who has just been sentenced to twenty years’ penal servitude in France for robbing churches, was one of the ‘lions’ of Lyons society. This British Claude Melnotte was much sought after by the sportive ladies of Lyons, as a man of taste and talent. It was he who introduced ‘Chinese Cocktail’, ‘Pousse L’amour’,  ‘Maiden’s Blush’ and ‘Dan Godfrey’s Tickler’ to the fair sex of Lyons.

— “Pepper and Salt”, Judy (26 August 1885), p. 104.

But what was in the nineteenth-century Maiden’s Blush? I have found no recipe (yet), but I did turn up this nugget in the slick French arts magazine Réalités:

A cocktail that was allegedly Toulouse-Lautrec’s favourite was served at the dedication of a room filled with souvenirs of the painter on the premises of the Moulin Rouge.  It consists of absinthe, mandarine, bitters, red wine and cognac and is known as a “Maiden’s Blush”.

— Réalités Monthly Magazine, issues 92-97 (1958), p. 81.

There’s no way of telling whether that’s the same Maiden’s Blush as the one described in the extracts above, although, interestingly, it has absinthe in common with the later version. One thing’s clear, though: Toulouse-Lautrec, a notorious votary of the Green Fairy, had terrible taste. He and Hemmingway had a lot in common; they would have made formidable drinking buddies.

Postscript. There was also an older cocktail called the “Ladies’ Blush”, which was a specialty of Leo Engel, who ran the show at the Criterion, one of the earliest American bars in London. A recipe is included in his book American and Other Drinks (which is also one of the first cocktail books published in Britain):

To a wine glass of Old Tom gin add one tea-spoonful of Noyau and five drops of Absinthe; sweeten to taste, about one tea-spoonful of sugar. Shake up well with shaven ice, strain, and pour into a coloured glass, the rim of which has already been damped with lemon juice and dipped in white sugar.

— Leo Engel, American and Other Drinks (London: Tinsley, 1878), p. 95.

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