You are what you drink

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on November 21, 2014 Published on November 21, 2014

Heady characters: LA gumshoe Philip Marlowe likes his gimlet, James Bond his dry Martini - S Subramanium   -  S_Subramanium


Over the years, the connection between fictional characters and the stuff in their cup or glass has only gotten stronger

It was a lesson I learnt in my early teens, when I first wandered into the lavender-and-lipstick world of Mills & Boon romances: You are what you drink.

Clearly, it meant something that the heroes — tall, rugged and masterful men with names like Tancred and Alessandro — always took their coffee black and strong, while the heroines — spirited but innocent Bellas and Amandas — sipped on milky, sugary beverages or orange juice. Over the years, the connection between fictional characters and the stuff in their cup has only gotten stronger. So the sensible protagonist of cosy hen lit books, the sort who run small antique shops and write gardening columns, cherish their pots of peppermint-and-chamomile tea. While their Jimmy Choo-clad chick lit counterparts, who work in fashion journalism and PR, usually moan about their life over a cosmo or white wine. Or teeter out of Starbucks with a skinny vanilla latte on a wintery New York morning.

Usually tough guys — both the villainous and villain-busting kind — drink whiskey and blather on and on about its malty flavours. Except when the characters are Chinese, in which case they are just as likely to meditate upon the liquid gold cloud-and-mist tea. Or card-carrying eccentrics like Sherlock Holmes, whose tipple of choice, it’s widely believed, is the smoky lapsang souchang tea. Either way, the message is clear. The drink maketh the man… or woman. Which is why Alexander McCall Smith, when he first introduced his “traditionally-built” lady detective in Botswana, didn’t bother with extraneous details. But he did tell us about her fondness for redbush tea: “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill,” he wrote in the first book of ‘The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series. “These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter. Then there was a teapot, in which Mma Ramotswe — the only lady private detective in Botswana — brewed redbush tea. And three mugs — one for herself, one for her secretary, and one for the client. What else does a detective agency really need?”

Fifteen books and innumerable adventures later, Precious Ramotswe still gasps for her steaming cuppa to clear her head. Just as fastidious Hercule Poirot depends on his soothing tisanes to kickstart his “little grey cells”. And, most famously, James Bond sips a chilled martini before crashing helicopters and defusings bombs. In fact, 007 is the inspiration behind the most celebrated cocktail in fiction. A drink created by Ian Fleming in Casino Royale in 1953 to fit his deadly, debonair spy:

“A dry martini,” [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m... er... concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

This cocktail came to be known as the vesper. Which sounds very prayerful — and very potent. I’ve never had a vesper like James Bond. Or a gimlet like Philip Marlowe, the ultimate hardboiled gumshoe in the LA of the 1950s. Although in The Long Goodbye, Marlowe and a dissipated playboy called Terry Lennox agree that a properly made gimlet is definitely the drink-of-choice for the man about town: “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.”

It’s at moments like these that I regret the fact that I don’t drink alcohol or even coffee — the two food groups that my closest fictional acquaintances subsist upon. Edinburgh cop John Rebus and Yorkshire policeman Alan Banks are both mavericks who love their Laphroaig way too much. Boston detective Spenser enjoys his bourbon and behaves as if his life is a quest for the perfect beer. While Chicago’s famous female private eye VI Warshawski drinks Black Label and red wine. But then all these sleuths are loners, who regularly need to drown their guilt and ghosts.

After which these very same characters wake up with a sore head and totter out of the local barista on a winter morning with buckets of the black stuff. Then they down quantities of copshop-slop while looking at shots of crime scenes and order more coffee to stay awake at meetings. So much so that in One Step Behind, Scandinavian crime writer Henning Mankell writes: “Police work wouldn’t be possible without coffee,” Wallander said.

“No work would be possible without coffee.”

Of course, coffee is no longer just coffee in our world. It is now a venti pumpkin spice latte, or a café Lespwa from Haiti or a caramel frappuccino — and allows us even more insight into fictional characters. It’s a pity we’ll never know what Romeo or Darcy would order if they strolled into a coffee shop today. Never fear though. Literary Starbucks is here. This popular website tries to imagine what coffees our favourite characters would like. Take, for example, Sherlock Holmes “goes up to the counter accompanied by an aged doctor. He orders two grande Earl Grey teas with room for cream and sugar. He makes eye contact with the barista and says, ‘Yes, my dear, I know it was you.’ The barista flees the scene, with Holmes in hot pursuit. Dogs howl in the distance. Holmes continues drinking his tea.”

Or Othello, who orders “a very innocent-looking drink: an iced café mocha. The barista takes his order, but tells him that the drink is not what it seems. Othello believes him. He seems trustworthy. He is clearly not jealous of Othello’s power. The drink is obviously a fraud. Othello smothers the taste of the drink with a mint. Always trust your barista.”

Admittedly, I would never have put Othello down as an iced café mocha man. But then that’s a debate for another time.

(This is part of a monthly series that follows a food trail through the realm of fiction.)

(Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street)

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Published on November 21, 2014
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