Beer and Martinis: Two writers and their drinks
NEW YORK — In my last column, “Portrait of the Artist as Nick Joaquin,” I wrote about the legendary writer’s fondness for San Miguel beer and how it became inextricably linked with his persona. So much so, in fact, that even the Cultural Center of the Philippines, with its strict rule forbidding food and any type of beverage to be brought into its theaters, made an exception for St. Nick. And there he would sit, nursing a San Mig while taking in the night’s theatrical offering.
This brought to mind another writer and his preferred drink: José Garcia Villa, the erstwhile Pope of Greenwich Village, and the martini.
Just as it is impossible to visualize Joaquin sans San Miguel, I cannot imagine the poet without a martini in hand. Unlike Ian Fleming’s suave James Bond, Villa liked his cocktail stirred, not shaken.
The first time I met Villa, along with his signature drink, was at Smith’s Bar, a rather nondescript watering hole in Greenwich Village where the poet chose to have drinks with his poetry workshop students. At the time, he was teaching at the New School, just a stone’s throw away. My oldest brother Henry and his wife, Beatriz Romualdez—both deceased—were then living in New York and were friends with Villa. They had brought me along, newly arrived in the city, so I could meet the famous writer.
I don’t recall what I uttered or replied to questions put to me by Villa—I was too much in awe to remember anything that was said. But I remember distinctly that he had a cocktail (at that point I didn’t know what a martini was) that he would sip from, pinky upraised. Later on, once I had survived his New School workshop and “graduated” (a favorite Villa term) to the one held in his West Village flat, I, along with the other workshoppers, could, if we wanted to, have a martini. Or two. To really be part of the workshop, it helped if you could drink the quite strong martinis that he conjured in his kitchen. Doubtless the martinis—and they were the driest sort imaginable—enlivened our discussions immeasurably.
A martini suggests a certain kind of sophistication. According to Wikipedia, H.L. Mencken once described the martini as “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” Made up of gin or vodka and vermouth, it is a cocktail that I suspect Villa was introduced to when he became part of the chi-chi lit crowd in New York.
Much more affordable beer on the other hand tends to be associated with the masa. If one were to go drinking with cops, budget-conscious writers and characters from the underworld, as Nick did, beer would have been the drink. (The denizens of Manila’s demimonde may have had Champagne tastes but had to contend with beer budgets.) I cannot picture Nick drinking anything but beer, even if he could afford an upscale martini, just as I cannot imagine Villa with any drink but a martini in hand.
With these two writers, San Miguel beer and a martini cocktail in a sense symbolize their identities respectively and even which country each lived in.
Arguably, San Miguel beer is identifiable with Pinoys, the way Guinness is identifiable with the Irish. Being also a historian and a Manilaphile, Nick would have been aware that a Spaniard, Enrique Maria Barreto in the San Miguel district of Manila—where Malacañang Palace and the San Sebastian Cathedral are—founded San Miguel in 1890, with permission from the Spanish Royal Charter. This, at a time when Spanish rule seemed like it could go on forever and Manila remain an ever “Noble and Loyal” citadel.
For the Hispanicized Joaquin, elegant chronicler of the Manila of yore and ineffably and proudly Filipino, how could it be anything but San Miguel in his hands?José Garcia Villa, avid advocate of modernist abstraction, who aspired to go beyond borders and nationalities, but ironically well within the canonical traditions of Anglo America, who hobnobbed with such well-known literati as e.e. cummings and Edith Sitwell, it had to be a martini. I don’t mean to imply, as others have, that the poet (and friend of Joaquin) was any less Filipino. He never gave up his citizenship and believed that Filipino writers could write with the best. He described Joaquin’s stories as world-class. But his was an identity forged at a time when American culture was in ascendance. But that is a story for another time.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2017