Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em by Neal Bodenheimer and Emily Timberlake


Review by George Yatchisin

What Marseilles is to the Mediterranean, New Orleans is to the Caribbean, a savory meeting place where countries and cultures, priests and pirates, hopeful and hucksters mix daringly and delightfully. It would be easy to call New Orleans the ultimate melting pot, but it’s probably more fitting to think of it as a cocktail shaker, given its long association with drink culture. So, who better to take us on a tipsy tour of the town than Neal Bodenheimer, founder of the James Beard Award-winning bar Cure? Heck he’s even co-chair of the Crescent City-based Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. (To produce this book he was ably assisted by longtime food and drink writer Emily Timberlake.)

Obviously the bulk of Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em is recipes, each one sounding more quaffable than the next, but one also may read the gorgeously photographed volume both as a guidebook and a history of the myriad ways the mercantile impulse charted cocktail history. For instance, in his Sours chapter Bodenheimer tells the tale of the effects of the Italian lemon trade in New Orleans—he asserts that by 1884 they were New Orleans’s third most valuable imported commodity, behind only coffee and sugar. How could a Brandy Crusta not have happened, with its horse’s neck lemon twist prominent inside the glass? And while Bodenheimer himself isn’t the biggest fan of that drink, he has to tip his cap to its more pleasing offspring, including the margarita and sidecar.

Fittingly, the connections and debts that exist among cocktail creations is as twisted as that of a family tree in a Faulkner novel. I know, Faulkner writes of Mississippi, not Louisiana, but everything gets a bit blurry after sipping too many Devil’s Knees or Cruel Summers or Nervous Light of Sundays. (Yes, you could read the book just for the evocative drink names.) Bodenheimer does his best to dig deep into archives to sort out fact from the fabulous. Yet he also makes clear his magnanimity when he discusses Stanley Clisby Arthur, who “wrote what was considered for many years to be the definitive book on New Orleans cocktails.” Bodenheimer even suggest Arthur wrote his stories “pay for play,” concluding “he never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” At the same time, the name for Arthur’s most enduring work is the 1937 Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Mix ’Em. So consider Bodenheimer’s book both a homage and a corrective.

As for the cocktails themselves, while you will read of the Cure’s take on classics raging from all-timers like the Manhattan and the Martini to more New Orleans-specific drinks like the Vieux Carré and the Ramos Gin Fizz, the majority of the drinks are the fascinatingly creative province of Cure (and some other Bodenheimer properties) since it opened in the Freret District in 2009. Alas, even a relatively serious home bar will be at a loss to try to make many of these drinks without a trip to a liquor store; I’ve got 15 different bitters and 6 distinct amari in mine and still feel poor in spirit, so to speak. Take that Devil’s Knee, described as a funky daquiri in the headnote; its base spirit is Uruapan charanda blanco (from Michoacán), and then you still need Clear Creek pear brandy, Braulio amaro, and Bitter Truth Aromatic bitters. They also suggest you make your simple syrup with Demerara sugar. (There’s lemon juice in there, too, if you want the full flavor profile.)

Bodenheimer shares the glory very honorably, listing the creator of each drink with its recipe, and by the end of the book you almost feel like you get to know the different bartenders as if they were characters in a novel. (“Oh, yeah, Kirk Estopinal is the cranky one who keeps reinventing popular drinks like the Bloody Mary because he doesn’t like them as they are usually served!”) It’s great to see the owner of an establishment not gather all the inspiration of his staff under a royal We that somehow becomes a very singular first person by the end.

In the same vein, Bodenheimer also incorporates numerous others to help tell his town’s tale, so the book becomes a veritable party of voices. Ian Neville takes us on a tour of the town’s best music venues, Annene Kaye-Berry and Jeff Berry—of the town’s famed Latitude 29 tiki bar—expound on New Orleans’s connection to tropical cocktails, L. Kasimu Harris describes his project preserving at least the memory of the city’s historic Black bars. The book concludes with some bites provided by some of the town’s most esteemed chefs, from Nina Compton to Frank Brigtsen. This food section could be called out of the cocktail shaker and into the fryer, given so many of the dishes spend time in hot oil, right down to fried Saltines on which you are meant to serve mussels in absinthe (yes, absinthe gets its full due in the drinks section, too—it’s New Orleans, after all).

But the way Bodenheimer kicks off the Bar Snacks chapter captures his book’s spirit perfectly: “Any book about New Orleans that doesn’t talk about food is immediately suspect. I don’t care if it’s a book about jazz or politics or native plant species. There will 100 percent be a connection to New Orleans food culture.” For beyond the delights of a drink like an inverted martini laced with sage syrup the Two-Way Mirror, beyond the erudition of drink names that call out Calvino on one page and Kundera the next, beyond his undercurrent arguing for bars as a crucial “third place” for community-building, this book is a love letter to a town that miraculously ties up all of time—past, present, future—around every delicious street corner. And if you can’t hop a plane to be there this evening, you can still sip its spirit in a Sazerac you now know how to create in the correct Cure fashion.