The History Course

A writer and restaurateur explores the connections between taste and history.

“Taste is connected to history,” writes Deirdre Heekin ’89 in “Bitter Alchemy,” the third essay in her collection Libation: A Bitter Alchemy (Chelsea Green, 2009). “The history of the table, which is, after all, a narrative history, an oral history. The tongue experiences; the mouth tells a story.” Libation is Heekin’s own history of taste, chronicling the sensory experiences that have shaped her liquid-centric life. Her enviable globe-trotting (offset by a homebody’s sense of terroir; she’s determined to grow wine on her farm in Barnard, Vermont) is forever guided by the deeply textured pleasures of the palate and the connections between taste and memory. A restaurant owner and sommelier, spirits crafter, and Italophile, Heekin is also a seeker of stories: Her essays are vessels through which she shares the insights and people she experiences in pursuit of her passions.

Food and drink writers are prone to Proustian moments, when a taste experience evokes a memory, just as Marcel Proust’s madeleine cake does in Remembrance of Things Past. Heekin’s occurs in “Ode to Campari,” her love song to the Italian apéritif. “I’ve only just realized,” she writes, “that a Campari and soda, or Campari and orange, or a negroni, that powerful elixir made of equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth . . . have become a kind of personal Madeleine.”

Like other culinary-minded works, Libation also includes recipes: for rosolio, a spirit Heekin makes with petals plucked from her rose garden, and pan di spagna, a cake flavored with alkermes, a crimson liqueur colored with ladybug wings. But while other culinary memoirists shy away from the technical and the esoteric, Heekin relishes them, telling us how the microscopic flavor elements in alcohol are called esters and that Thomas Jefferson used the varietal V. vulpine to produce homemade wine. Libation is, like that bitter delicacy Campari, an acquired taste, rewarding slow and thoughtful intake and a genuine interest in what you might call “liquid culture,” the alchemy and history surrounding beverages.

Vermonters know Deirdre Heekin as half of the couple behind Pane e Salute, the Woodstock osteria where husband Caleb Barber ’88 cooks up rustic Italian recipes while Heekin helps diners navigate a wine list of the rare Italian varietals that are her life’s obsession. But then, Deirdre Heekin has a lot of obsessions. There is Italy, her “adopted home,” and New Orleans, the city of her birth, which is “her personal Carthage.” When she finally returns there, another obsession is born: She scours the Big Easy for the perfect Sazerac, a cocktail that originated in a French Quarter apothecary. “How did I study literature and film in college, and end up owning a restaurant?” Heekin wonders. “How did I spend so many years studying French and find myself living in Italy? How did I become a writer and also become a serious student of wine?”

What bridges these interests, it becomes clear, is the author’s fascination with the ways in which taste connects people and events over time: A Campari imbibed at an Italian café is recalled while sipping a second on a porch in Vermont—the taste links the locations and experiences, forming a chain that connects the events that make up a lifetime.

Or rather, lifetimes. Of a long-ago vacation that Heekin’s mother and father took before she was born, one they would relive through a nightly belt of Irish whiskey, Heekin writes: “It was here in Skull, with its scent of salt on the air, and the whistle of wind about the houses, that my parents fell in love with Ireland. The taste of the whiskey defined it ever after.” It is at such moments that Heekin—despite her many other interests and vocations—reveals herself to be a storyteller to the core.

Bond of Brothers

Sibling relationships outlast most other bonds, and are sometimes the most complicated. Childhood tensions and rivalries often go unresolved, or even grow, as kids become adults. In Water Dogs (Random House, 2009), the confident debut novel from Lewis Robinson ’93, the simmering struggle between two brothers in their late twenties heats up during a moody Maine winter.

Bennie and his older brother Littlefield still live in their childhood home on Meadow Island, on Maine’s midcoast. The nickname “The Manse” became the family’s inside joke because the house was relatively modest by island standards. But when the boys were teens, their father (Coach) died suddenly of a heart attack, and their mother and sister moved away.

In the decade since, the house has sunk into disrepair. “The porch seemed one or two strong storms away from crumbling into the ocean, and the old copper pipes were failing, rotting the ceilings and the walls, [and] calling the place ‘the Manse’ seemed sad.” The disintegration of the home’s infrastructure is a metaphor, of course, for how the family has fallen apart.

Only one activity draws Bennie and Littlefield together: playing paintball every Saturday, even during the winter. Bennie enjoys the camaraderie; Littlefield likes the guns. The game reminds them of biathlon, the sport of target shooting and cross-country skiing, which they trained for together as kids, under Coach.

The novel’s action focuses on what happens when one day of paintball goes horribly wrong. After a few beers, six men engage in a rematch at dusk, as a snowstorm comes in. Bennie falls off a quarry cliff and nearly dies, and one member of the other team, Ray, goes missing. In the accident’s wake, Littlefield’s behavior grows increasingly bizarre. The mercurial older brother barricades himself in the basement and then disappears for days. He was the last one to see Ray alive, chasing him when he vanished. Why is Littlefield avoiding the questions of his family and the police?

When the authorities can’t find Ray, and suspicion intensifies against Littlefield, Bennie and his girlfriend Helen decide to go “Nancy Drew” and do their own investigation. Unraveling the mystery means picking at the delicate threads that interconnect their rural Maine lives. Littlefield used to date Ray’s girlfriend; the main cop on the case bears a long-standing grudge against Littlefield’s father; Helen works for Bennie’s high school classmate, Julian, another paintball teammate. Will solving the puzzle sever fragile ties or strengthen them?

Robinson—who currently lives in Portland and teaches at the University of Southern Maine—uses clear, unadorned prose to conjure the setting. “The beach was gray with a few brilliant squares of orange where the sunlight filtered through the spruce forest, and the sand looked as smooth as an eggshell.” Crisp details of scents and sounds help make the stark landscape and volatile weather important elements in the storytelling. A river smells of dead herring; the steel chime of a bell buoy echoes across the water.

Nagging plot problems, however, detract somewhat from the tale. The central one is Bennie’s job euthanizing pets at the animal shelter, which is described in excessively graphic detail. (Sensitive animal lovers beware.) It seems contrived to serve a far-fetched plot twist.

Nonetheless, deftly drawn relationships propel Water Dogs: quirky lovers Helen and Bennie; trusting friends Bennie and Julian. Most compelling is the fraternal “push and pull” between Bennie and Littlefield. “They didn’t understand each other, and being born of the same parents only made things worse.” They vacillate between hate and “secret faith.” And they struggle to balance proximity and distance—both geographic and emotional—so that their strained bond of brotherhood remains unbroken.

—Elisabeth Crean

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