Of all the ways to celebrate National Poetry Month, there can be no finer than to spend the evening at Back Forty in the East Village, drinking cocktails paired with poems. And there could be no better host for this inaugural event than owner Peter Hoffman, who has been putting food and drink in meaningful context since he first opened Savoy in SoHo in 1990. For nearly as long, he’s been hosting intimate communal dinners featuring writers, speakers and intelligent discussion by his wood-burning fireplace upstairs.
His more casual Back Forty (it’s at Avenue B and E. 11th Street) lends itself to a different flavor of function. This week the floor was cleared to make room for a Poetry and Cocktail Slam. Eight bartenders from Manhattan and Brooklyn each selected a poem—and then composed a cocktail to go with it.
Passed works of art prepared by chef Shanna Pacifico included asparagus fries, pigs in a blanket, grass-fed beef sliders with cheddar cheese and ramps, Cape May oysters, and fresh pea and fava bean fritters. But Pacifico’s most inventively apropos hors d’oeuvres were the Green Eggs and Ham—bedeviled eggs with green yolks and bits of crispy pork, a wonderful tribute to Dr. Seuss and a perfect playful foil for Katie Stipe’s (Vandaag) “Inch of Courage,” a Bols Genever-based glass of Dutch courage inspited by Shel Silverstein’s child-friendly “One Inch Tall:” “If you were only one inch tall, you’d ride a worm to school…To move a pen would take all night, (This poem took fourteen years to write).”
The party really got rocking when Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club, with cocktail in hand, gave dramatic readings of the selected poems with the accompaniment of dancer Jawole Zollar, who created spontaneous movements timed to the music of the poetry.
Mayahuel’s Phil Ward evoked the spirit of Richard Brautigan with the brief but gut-wrenching “I Feel Horrible.” “She doesn’t/love me and I wander around/the house like a sewing machine/that’s just finished sewing a turd to a garbage can lid.” Ward’s cocktail, The Wicked Kiss, a mix of Rittenhouse Rye, Laird’s apple brandy, Chartreuse, Benedictine, and Angostura bitters, was built, he said, to be “a good drink for a broken heart.” Holman, who knew Brautigan, said the cocktail evoked, “a deep, dark unwillingness,” that truly captured the spirit of the poet.
Kelly Slagle of Terroir was inspired by Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart,” a poem about not letting your life “be clubbed into dank submission.” She choose mezcal as her primary spirit because, as she said, “It doesn’t get kicked down very easily.” Bukowski, known as much for his drinking (see: Barfly) as his writing, would have loved this straight-up smokey well-balanced combo of Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, Carpano Antica, grapefruit juice and a touch Grade B maple syrup. Back Forty chef de cuisine Shanna Pacifico created her own artful homage to Bukowski’s book (Ham on Rye): ham on a crunchy rye crouton, an excellent pairing with Slagle’s cocktail.
Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons”—the choice of Anna Dunn of Marlow & Sons—a surreal and Dadaist poem was brought to life by a dual reading by Holman and his friend Heather. Tender Buttons the drink, was deceptively and dangerously easy to drink and like the poem highly conceptual; a sophisticated update of the Long Island ice tea, the cocktail included LiV Vodka (from Long Island), Zaya rum, Berkshire gin, Chinaco tequila and tarragon and lemon syrups.
Alex Mirkin of Savoy selected the Irish poet W.B. Yates as his muse, channeling the “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in a cocktail incorporating local honey (“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee”) and Jameson Irish whiskey. John Asbery’s “The Improvement” was Russ Tinsley’s (of Back Forty) enigmatic choice, served with a refreshing ginger-infused Bluecoat gin and fresh mint on ice. Similarly springlike, “Sweet Spontaneous,” an ode to American poet e.e. cummings, had an American spirit as its base (Rittenhouse Rye) paired with apricot liqueur, honey and grapefruit.
Michael Neff from Tribeca’s Ward III, meanwhile, was inspired by Spanish poet Pablo Neruda. He created a stunning and original cocktail called “La Sombra” based on a poem that helped bring him together with his wife. Who wouldn’t want to imbibe a potion imbued with this kind of romantic power: “I love you like the plant that never blooms/I don’t know how to love you any other way.”
By Michael Neff from Tribeca’s Ward III
1 oz. Puebla Viejo Silver Tequila
1 oz. Root Birch spirit
¼ oz. Velvet Falernum
½ oz. fresh lime
Dash simple syrup
Pinch Spanish paprika
Shake all ingredients over ice. Strain and serve in a tall glass. Garnish with a pinch of paprika.