San Miguel de Allende

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My father's Mad Men cocktail shaker. Photo by David Lansing

My father's Mad Men cocktail shaker. Photo by David Lansing

Today is Thanksgiving and, like everyone else, I’m busy trying to burn a turkey and ruin the gravy so rather than a new blog, I’m running a post that originally ran on Thanksgiving in 2009.

My father was more Jackie Gleason than David Niven, more Walter Mathau than Fred Astaire. Sort of the blue-collar Frank Sinatra, I guess you’d say, a man’s man who loved T-bone steaks, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and playing ping-pong with my mother. He admired Steve McQueen, didn’t own a suit, and always won a free turkey around Thanksgiving in his bowling league. Always.

Oddly enough, his drink of choice was a Manhattan. Which, even as a kid, I sort of admired and was embarrassed by at the same time. I’ll tell you a story: When I was 10, maybe 11 years old, my dad would take me with him to a bowling alley on Thursdays, league night, where I’d get paid a buck plus all the cokes I could drink to keep score for my father’s team. All these guys—most a little younger than my dad—would down beer all night, but not my father. He’d order a Manhattan from the gum-smacking bar girl and she’d bring it to him on the rocks, in a plastic cup. At which point my father would pull out this ridiculous cocktail shaker, with drink recipes on it, from his shoe bag, and, after dumping the contents of the cup into it, strain it into a ribbed martini glass, which he also kept in his shoe bag. Then he’d pull out an old jam jar full of brandied cherries he’d made himself, and plop one of the scarlet bombs in his glass and another in my coke. He called my drink a virgin Manhattan—“which, as you’ll discover, is a very rare thing”—chuckling as he clinked my glass of cherry coke. This is the part that always embarrassed me: the clinking of glasses, the lame joke. This is the part I admired: his bowling buddies always treated him like a bon vivant, and me like a young prince. It left an impression.

But I came of age in a time of Harvey Wallbangers, tequila sunrises, and California wines hawked by Orson Welles. The first time I had a real Manhattan was the day my father died. I liked it immensely. I liked the way the rosy hue of sweet vermouth deepened the amber color of the whiskey. I liked its smoky sweetness, the way just the slightest sip filled my mouth with lubricious lushness. Most of all, I liked the way it comforted me at a time when I felt inconsolable. My father’s Manhattan immediately became my signature drink.

Here’s what I believe: The Manhattan is the Cary Grant of cocktails. The most charming, the most elegant, the most sophisticated of libations you can order. And this isn’t just me talking. Gary Regan, who wrote The Bartender’s Bible, says, “Quite simply (the Manhattan) is the finest cocktail on the face of the earth.” It is, he wrote in The Joy of Mixology, “the drink that changed the face of cocktails.” It’s the grandfather of the martini, pre-dating it, and the sine qua non of all French-Italian cocktails. It’s also inherently sexy (though I’ve yet to meet a woman who could actually tie the cherry stem into a knot using just her tongue).

There’s no exact record of who created the first Manhattan, but the most popular story revolves around a reception hosted by Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mum, for her father’s good friend, Samuel James Tilden, the governor of New York, at the Manhattan Club in 1874. Legend has it that Churchill asked the bartender to come up with something special for the evening, in celebration, and in a New York minute, the Manhattan was born. Not the Manhattan my father drank, of course, since in those days the whiskey of choice was rye and the maraschino cherry had yet to come along.

In fact, the Manhattan has gone through a number of permutations over the decades—from rye, originally, to Canadian whisky during Prohibition to my father’s preference, bourbon, in the 60s. And there’s always been disagreement over the type of vermouth to use—and just how much. The story goes that the original Manhattan was made with equal amounts of both dry and sweet vermouths, and this is still called a Perfect Manhattan, though in my mind there’s nothing perfect about it.

My father made his with Italian vermouth, as called for on the recipe of his goofy cocktail shaker. Back then, people referred to dry vermouth as French and sweet vermouth as Italian because that’s where they came from. These days there are all sorts of vermouths out there, including sweet whites, so you have to be more specific.

Now about the whiskey. Hardly anyone makes a rye Manhattan these days, largely because hardly anyone makes a rye whiskey (which, by law, needs to be made with at least 51% rye grains). But if you order a Manhattan back East and don’t specify the liquor, most bartenders will use a Canadian whisky—usually Canadian Club—which they will tell you is a rye whiskey. Which is nonsense. Almost all Canadian whiskies are simply blended, which means they come from a number of different barrels (Crown Royal, for instance, uses up to 50 whiskies to create its blend). Using a blended Canadian whisky to make a Manhattan is like using surimi to make a crab salad—please don’t do it. Order a straight bourbon. I prefer Maker’s Mark but Knob Creek is just as good.

When my father died, I inherited two things: his old cocktail shaker, which I still use, and his recipe for what truly is the perfect Manhattan. First of all, use orange bitters instead of the more popular Angostura. Shake exactly two drops into a martini glass, swirl it around, and dump out any excess that doesn’t cling to the glass. In a cocktail shaker half-filled with crushed ice, add two shots of Maker’s Mark and one shot of Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth (I find Cinzano a little too robust and Noilly Prat too cloying—you want to taste the bourbon, not the vermouth). Swirl the mixture around but don’t bruise it; you don’t want a cloudy Manhattan. Strain into a martini glass and add a maraschino cherry—or, like my father, a brandied cherry you’ve made yourself by dousing pitted, fresh cherries in a jar of brandy.

So today, before I put my brined, organic, free-range turkey in the oven, I’ll pull down my father’s Mad Men martini shaker from the top shelf in the dining room. I’ll add a couple of ounces of Maker’s Mark, an ounce of sweet vermouth, and lightly swirl my father’s concoction. Then I’ll take that first bracing sip and smile. And at dinner, I’ll make a Thanksgiving toast–to my father’s Manhattan. 

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So Monday afternoon I was lounging around the Starlight Lounge, the outdoor living room on the roof of my B &B, Casa Luna Pila Seca, just starting to doze off when my afternoon siesta was interrupted by the arrival of a young girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, who didn’t think twice about throwing herself onto my lounging area even though there was plenty of room elsewhere.

As I said, she was toting a copy of J.D. Salinger’s short story collection, Nine Stories. I moved my feet away from her when she sat down but continued reading my book.

“So what do they call you?” she said.

What do they call me? I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question. It sounds like something you’d hear in a John Ford Western, right?

Mi nombre es David,” I said without looking up, hoping the Spanish would discourage any further conversation.

“Oh, I get it,” she said, hopping up and going over to the honor bar. “We’re going to do the hable español thing, are we?” She reached into the little fridge and pulled out a Sol. “Want one?” she asked.

“Should you really be having a beer?”

“Well, I was going to have a glass of wine,” she said, “but it’s really gross. Have you tried it?”

“No, but I noticed that someone was rude enough to leave an untouched glass out. There were bugs in it.”

She frowned. “Yeah, that was probably mine.” She put the beer back in the fridge and returned to the couch with some tangerine-flavored soda. “You’d probably tell my mom if I had a sir-vay-za, wouldn’t you?”


“That’s what I thought.” I went back to reading my book but she wasn’t done with me yet. “So, Da-veed,” she said, pronouncing it in Spanish, “how long have you been in town?”

Okay, I had to laugh. First she wants to know what they call me and then she wants to know how long I’ve been in town? Was she going to ask me about my horse next?

Un mes o tan.”

She nodded, thinking about this. “Actually, I just started taking Spanish this year,” she told me, “so I’m not that great yet. My teacher, Señora Jakowski, doesn’t actually speak Spanish herself. But my mom lets me do all the ordering at the restaurants here. And yesterday I got a pistachio helado from one of those guys in the Jardín.” When I didn’t say anything she added, “Don’t you just love saying that?”


“Har-deen,” she said with a bit of exasperation in her voice. “I wish we had a har-deen in my town.”

“And where is that?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Well, at the moment, I guess it’s San Miguel. We were supposed to go home yesterday but my mom says we’re staying for a bit longer. Because of her new friend, Ben-ha-meen. Who she met last week in the har-deen. Ben-ha-meen is teaching her how to tango or something.

“And where do you live?”

“At the moment, Kileen, Texas. San Diego before that. And North Carolina before that.”

“You seem to move around a lot.”

She shrugged. “My mom has absolutely the worst taste in men, if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t, but I could see where she was coming from.

“So what do they call you?” I said.

She shrugged. “I like to mix it up,” she said. “When I was little and we lived in Oceanside I was Muriel. I’ve also been Rose and Lily. I went through a flower phase for awhile. In Fayetteville they called me River. I liked that, though I think Muriel was probably my favorite.”

“And who are you now?”


I nodded towards the book in her lap. “Like Franny and Zooey?”

“Nope,” she said. “Like Zooey Deschanel the actress. My mom says I look just like her.”

I nodded. “You like that book?” I asked her.

“This book?” she asked, holding up the Salinger as if it had just fallen into her lap. “Yeah, it’s okay.” She opened it up and started reading out loud. “”Here comes a wave,” Sybil said nervously.

“”We’ll ignore it. We’ll snub it,” said the young man. “Two snobs.””

“That’s pretty good,” said the girl. “And I like how she calls the man See more glass. Instead of Seymour Glass. That’s funny.”

“Do you know who Zooey Deschanel was named after?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “Nope.”

“Zooey Glass. From Salinger’s other book.”

“No!” said the girl. “Really? Wait ‘til I tell my Mom that! You want to hear something really funny? My Dad’s name was Seymour.”

“Not Seymour Glass I hope.”

She shook her head. “Seymour Hoffman. But not the famous Seymour Hoffman. Not Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just Seymour Hoffman. Seymour Hoffman from Lancaster, California. Have you ever been to Lancaster?”

“I have not.”

She nodded. “Me neither. My mom says it’s an armpit and I don’t need to see it anymore than I need to see someone else’s armpit.”

“Is your dad still living there?”

“Nope. He died. When I was two.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, my mom says I didn’t miss much.” The girl got up, went back to the honor bar and pulled out the Sol again. “Sure you don’t want one?” she said.

“I’ll split it with you,” I said. She popped off the top and brought the beer over along with two glasses. I poured her about an inch and handed it to her.

“Well that’s kind of cheesy,” she said.

“Best I can do.”

She took the glass and took a sip. “Yuck,” she said.

“As bad as the white wine?”

“Worse. How do you drink this stuff?”

“It’s an acquired taste.”

“Well I hope I don’t acquire it,” she said.

“Me too.”

Then she grabbed her book and headed for the stairs. “Nice talking to you, Zooey,” I said.

“Muriel,” she said.

“I thought you said it was Zooey.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, well, I think I’m going back to Muriel. A girl can change her mind, can’t she?”


With that she turned away, lightly dancing down the stairs.

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Yesterday was one of those Mexican afternoons when it is just too warm to do anything. So I took a book, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which seems just right for San Miguel (“The brothers were brought up to be men. The girls were brought up to be married. They knew how to do screen embroidery, sew by machine, weave bone lace, wash and iron, make artificial flowers and fancy candy, and write engagement announcements… my mother thought there were no better-reared daughters. ‘They’re perfect,’ she was frequently heard to say. ‘Any man will be happy with them because they’ve been raised to suffer.’”) and climbed up to the Starlight Lounge, the cool outdoor living room on the roof of Casa Luna.

I love the Starlight Lounge with its long concrete bench decorated with green cushions along one of the walls and the strings of tin stars—estrellas—hanging from the roof beams. Dianne has an honor bar up here so you can grab a Negra Modelo or a Fanta if you want. Someone before me had poured themselves a glass of Mexican white wine but it had not agreed with them. Or perhaps, after they’d already poured it, they found it too hot to drink wine. A few small black bugs, buzzing around inebriated near the rim of the glass, seemed to be enjoying it just fine.

I’d been up there for about an hour and had almost drifted off to sleep when a young girl came bounding up the steps and plopped down on the end of the bench opposite from where I was spread out.

Reading J.D. Salinger in the Starlight Lounge at Casa Luna. Photo by David Lansing

Reading J.D. Salinger in the Starlight Lounge at Casa Luna. Photo by David Lansing

“Hi,” she said. She was carrying a black notebook and a copy of Salinger’s short story collection, Nine Stories, which just happens to be one of my favorite books in the world. When I was a sophomore in college, I took a creative writing class. I don’t remember the instructor’s name. He wasn’t much younger than us, maybe 25 or 26, and I don’t know what qualified him to be teaching fiction writing except that I think he had some connection to Ken Kesey, who lived nearby, and it was generally accepted back then that if you were friends with Ken Kesey, you were probably okay.

Anyway, what I remember about this teacher, other than the fact that he was buds with Kesey, was that on the first day of class, all he did was sit behind his desk and read aloud a short story by J.D. Salinger called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” I am sorry to say that at that point in my life, the only Salinger I’d read was The Catcher in the Rye, but I knew for certain the minute our young instructor finished reading that short story that I was never going to go to law school as I’d always assumed I would.

And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. When the instructor finished reading the story, he was silent for a moment, the way a preacher might be in front of his congregation after making a particularly salient point, and then he smiled at his little class of 19- and 20-year-old wannabe writers and said, “Who here would someday like to write a story as good as this one?”

Of course, everyone raised their hand, including me. He nodded in appreciation.

“And who would like to be a high-flying trapeze artist in the Ringling Brothers Circus?”

Not a single hand went up.

The instructor took a very long pause. Then, in a very quiet, very serious voice, he said, “Well, I have some bad news for you. Y’all have a much greater chance of becoming trapeze artists than you have of writing anything even half as good as that Salinger story.”

Another long pause while this sunk in. “So if you want to drop this class, that’s just fine. For the rest of you fools, I’ll see you next week.”

That was a very long time ago. And I have written thousands of stories since then, but unfortunately not a single one has come close to the perfection of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

Still, I keep trying. Though I haven’t necessarily given up on being a high-flying trapeze artist.

I’ll tell you about my conversation with the young girl reading Salinger tomorrow.

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When I first rented my little house on Aldama I wondered if perhaps a month wasn’t too long. Now I realize it was not nearly long enough. And I am not ready to leave San Miguel.

So over the weekend I have moved into a magical little B&B called Casa Luna Pila Seca. When I arrived Saturday morning, the owner, Dianne Kushner, was in Guanajuato for the day, having left instructions with Basi, the maid, to put me in Escondido—the “hidden” room, which is tucked into the back corner of the courtyard and where I have my own fountain lined with blue tiles and topped with a stone carving of a woman rowing a lion in a canoe.

Outside my "hidden" room at Casa Luna.

Outside my "hidden" room at Casa Luna.

Escondido has saffron-colored walls, paver tile floors, and a brick ceiling. Across from my bed is a small fireplace and in the hearth, in place of firewood, four votive candles. An embroidered wall hanging made by Chichimecas women in the impoverished pueblitos near Guanajuato hangs over the fireplace. There are nine panels—like individual retablos—each telling a little story and giving thanks to the Virgin.

Gracias Santicima Virgen por aber zanado a mi esposo que se troncho un pie. El 23 de Abril del año 1997—Sabina.

Thanks to the Virgin for curing her husband’s foot.

In the afternoon, I walk down to El Tecolote (The Owl), a bookstore on Calle Jesús, to look for something new to read. I’ve been reading Loverboys by Ana Castillo, a collection of short stories, but it is not very good or perhaps it just isn’t what I was expecting. I pulled it from the Latin writers section at El Tecolote hoping to be immersed in tales of Mexico.

Seductive…full of infectious vigor,” the cover proclaimed. But what I got were stories about a bi-sexual Latina from Chicago.

Since the bookstore buys used books, I brought in Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre which I’d finished several days ago. But they’re not interested.

“No one wants hard cover books,” says the woman who owns the store. “Too hard to travel with, too hard to read in bed.” Besides, she’s never heard of Elmore Leonard.

How can you own a bookstore and not know Elmore Leonard? Even in San Miguel.

I tell her the book was a NY Times bestseller and got wonderful reviews. She sighs and takes it from my hand, turning it over from front to back several times as if it were a piece of fruit she was considering buying.

Fine, she says. I’ll give you 25 pesos credit. About two dollars. For a book I paid $23 for.

I don’t care. Frankly, I’d have given it to her for free. Just so her customers have something to choose from besides the row after row of John Grisham and Stephen King nonsense. Today Elmore Leonard, perhaps tomorrow F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m sure she’s never heard of him either.

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One of the most savy food and drink writers I know writes a blog called the Foodinista (she’s also an editor at a major food publication but, to avoid conflict, prefers to go unnamed in her blog). Knowing my love for Mexico, she recently asked me to write a guest blog for the Foodinista on how to make the perfect margarita. This is part of what I wrote:

I have come to the conclusion that Mexicans no longer know how to make a proper margarita. At Ten Ten Pie in San Miguel de Allende I had to pry the bottle of Jose Cuervo gold out of Chema’s hand before he dumped the inglorious liquid into my glass. At El Sacromonte in Guadalajara I reveled in their chile en nogada while ignoring a large but insipid especial margarita that smelled of petroleum. And at Adriatico in Bucerias I got into an argument with my waiter for insisting that the bartender actually squeeze fresh limes for my drink instead of using some syrupy mix straight from Gigante. It’s triste, no?

A good margarita is one of those things that seems easy enough to make—like an omelette—yet so few people do it well. So let me tell you the key to making the perfect margarita: balance.

To read the rest (and get the recipe), go to:

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