Cocktails and Conversations: History from behind the pine

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I come from a long line of bartenders. My older brother, Josh, always had a paint can full of loose change and lit his cigarettes from the burner of the gas stove. He tended bar in his 20s. I idolized him. He even helped me land my first job, washing dishes at a restaurant called Trainer’s Inn, while he entertained his regulars out front. I was 16 and wasn’t going to come by money any other way. I realized this after asking Dad for a few dollars to take a girl to the movies. He reached into his jeans and gave me all he had: mostly change.

Joel Finsel. Courtesy photo.

Joel Finsel. Courtesy photo.

“Here,” he said, offering the coins. “It should be enough for an ice cream.”

I knew if I wanted a girlfriend, I needed a job.

I showed up at the restaurant after high school let out. The chef was in his early 30s. He liked heavy-metal music and wore an eye-brow ring. On my first day, he pointed to two huge sinks, a Tetris-maze of pot-and-pan-handles protruding out of brown-congealed muck. I held my nose and sunk my hand in deep to probe the bottom for a plug to pull but found only gooey chunks blocking the drain. Gagging, I cleared the line. The disgusting water gurgled its way down.

Chef occasionally sniffed cocaine as he worked. After tweaking a line, he often came at me with his personality enlarged, egging me on to invite girls from my class to hang out in his hot-tub after hours. Sometimes he ordered me to make pomme frites. I would first have to peel the eyes off the potatoes and scrub them with a brush. The cutter looked like an industrial garlic press mounted on a wall in the basement. I stuck the spud inside and pulled down a kind of sharp metal grid that cut the Yukon gold into long thin pieces.

Once the guests started to arrive, I would move to the machine near the servers’ dirty dish drop-off station. It was fun at first—to shoot water using the overhead rinsing wand—but it got old.

I was working one afternoon when my brother’s girlfriend peeked in the back to see if the rumors were true. “You work here?” she asked, her eyes scanning my wet apron. It hit me, suddenly, that I was being judged.

“Inglorious scullery,” I cursed.

I knew then if I wanted a girlfriend, I needed to get out of the kitchen and behind the bar as soon as I was legal.

It didn’t occur to me then, but long before my brother shook his first drink, our parents once co-owned a dive bar in the Pocono Mountains. It was in the town of White Haven, which is basically a single commercial street up on the banks of the Lehigh River. Their bar was on the far end, near a trailhead with a path that wound along the river where the old railroad tracks used to be. If you followed it for a few miles outside of town, it led to a quartz mine. The bar had a pool table and a photo on the wall of George Thorogood playing pool—the local claim to fame. “Bad to the Bone” was definitely on the jukebox. It also had a video poker machine that paid out cash; although, I’m pretty sure I knew, even at my prepubescent age, that it was illegal.

My parents smoked cigarettes by the pack back then, the butts piling up in the black ashtray on the cement step outside. They rarely let us inside the place, unless the sun was still out. One of my few memories is of an old man wetting himself one afternoon while sitting on a stool and my aunt escorting him out.

I think my parents had fun with the business for a while. They once hired a car to drive them all the way to Philadelphia for a Grateful Dead show with their partners. Then, after the night one hell-bent customer shot his gun through the glass door, they sold their share.

It’s even crazier to think my grandparents before them once owned a roadhouse, the Fireside Inn—the perfect mountain getaway for all their old Philadelphia friends. They had a good run for a while, attracting those seeking weekend escapes. Some ran a tab for the entire weekend, including meals and accommodation upstairs. For an extra fee, my grandfather would sometimes hunt, skin, and butcher a deer for select friends and send them home with a cooler of fresh meat.

When I asked my grandmother about the place recently, she said she once had to make over a hundred ham sandwiches for a parade of Hells Angels who just happened to stop in one afternoon for lunch. The bikers were even kind enough to send one of their own prospects in the kitchen to help her prepare the food. My grandparents lost the place after my grandmother stabbed a customer with a grill-fork. The drunk was making lewd gestures toward her and got a little too close, she said. His lawyer saw it differently. My grandparents were forced to sell.

When I brought up the story to my mother, she went on to tell me about how my great-grandparents owned a speakeasy. All she knew about it was from a pair of grainy photographs. The bar looked like the cross-section of a locomotive inside a narrow room. A man wearing a suit stood beside it with a rack of what looked like postcards on the wall. All I could notice was the absence of bottles.

Boulevardier

1.5 oz. your favorite bourbon

1 oz. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth

1 oz. Campari

Pour the above ingredients over ice in a mixing glass and stir for about 20 seconds. Either strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass, or serve up in a pre-chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a Luxardo cherry and a generous swatch of orange peel twisted on the top of the drink to expel all of its essential oils. Lighting the oils on fire for a flaming twist is a crowd-pleasing option.

Veteran bartender Joel Finser is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane.” Feel free to send questions or comments to joelfinsel@gmail.com.

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