When I was a kid, our family used to go to the West Amwell Fire Company chicken dinner every summer. It was advertised for weeks on a big letter-board sign planted in the cornfields along Route 179, and we passed it in the car with building excitement. On the June day, the firefighters rolled up the gates of the bays and set up long folding tables where the trucks were usually parked. The wives made cakes and the men worked immense charcoal fires walled in with cinder blocks and covered with metal grates where they basted the halved chickens by the hundred. You bought your ticket and stood in line, and when a spot opened up at one of the tables, you were seated. And there you ate a community supper, raising money for the volunteer fire company, flanked by what seemed to me a lot of old people and a lot of young parents while all the kids raced in and out, like hummingbirds docking for a few seconds at a juicy flower before zipping away again.
I love a community meal. Back then, there was a ham supper at the Methodist church in New Hope that I was so fond of that I asked for it to be my birthday dinner one year (even though it came with dreaded lima beans), and an epic lobster fest at the Episcopalian church across from my elementary school that was so popular you had to reserve a spot as soon as it was announced. It was a day for blazers and floral prints, and everybody from every part of small-town life came.
Was it the era or the region that had those suppers commence with a Dixie cup of tomato juice, set down on your plate? Just a little shot to get you started, served in a small wax-coated cup hardly bigger than the one used at the dentist’s office when they ask you to rinse. Whether what followed was chicken and corn on the cob or ham and lima beans, it started with the tomato juice.
It felt like a little Communion before supper, which even a person like me — with no church or any religion in her household — was allowed to participate in. I’ve started every Thanksgiving dinner for the past 20 years by serving a small glass of cold, salted tomato juice in that very same spirit.
Tomato juice doctored up with horseradish and lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco brand hot sauce and ground black pepper is obviously the beginning of a Bloody Mary, that famous brunch cocktail, which when garnished with its customary celery branch and a couple of pimento-stuffed olives becomes nearly a meal in itself. But a chilled bolt of the stuff on its own, without vodka — zingy from the lemon juice and lively with the heat from Tabasco — makes for a convincing, modest appetizer. Bloody Mary mix — virgin — is what I order on an airplane, on those late-afternoon return flights, when once back on the ground there will be work waiting for me and much to still accomplish. It wakes me up and holds me over until dinner. And Bloody Mary mix — properly spiked — is what I order on those exuberant outbound flights to vacation, when you are giddy to be getting away from all the work and obligations, and where there will be nothing that needs doing when you land except to unpack your bikini.
There was a “swimsuit” diet for the ladies of my mom’s era involving a glass of tomato juice and a scoop of cottage cheese for lunch, which she never had use for but which my dad followed for decades — subbing clamato juice — when he was trying to get into his ski pants each season. I gave a nod to him and his love of clamato juice on our brunch Bloody Mary menu (11 different Bloody Marys with their individual garnishes), using gin and clam juice and garnished with half a pickled egg, which I called a Bloody Caesar. That was a tasty one, for sure. There was also the Danish Mary, with aquavit and a fresh branch of fennel, and another with tequila and a hit of smoky chipotle in adobo called the Southwest. But all 11 used this same base recipe here. It has all the necessary body from the tomato juice, but we use so much lemon juice that it remains clean and bright, never getting thick or muddy. The “gourmets” often insist on grated fresh horseradish root, but I’ve noticed that the fresh stuff loses its kick almost immediately, and then you end up with bits of flavorless pencil shavings clogging up the glass, while prepared horseradish holds its bite just about forever, and the gratings remain fresh and moist, pleasant to chew. Worcestershire brings depth to the umami already inherent in tomato, and Tabasco — the most perfectly acidic of hot pepper sauces — brings the whole thing to life.
Several years ago during the modernist-cuisine apex, there was an obsession with tomato water in general, but my good friend and chef Michael Schlow brilliantly took the technique — long, slow straining of fresh tomato pulp through several layers of cheesecloth — from the kitchen to the bar at his restaurant Great Bay in Boston, and introduced a cocktail called the Ghost of Mary. What a miracle! Clear as a martini — yes, clear! — with the full-on flavors of a Bloody Mary. You prepare the Bloody Mary mix as usual but then let it drip for hours through the thick filter of cheesecloth until you are left with a liquid that has all the flavor and none of the pulp or color. Mixed with vodka for a martini, you taste everything there: the horseradish and the lemon and the tomato and the pepper and the Worcestershire, without a speck of texture.
But the greater miracle is that a simple glass of juice — no straining required! — can be such a remarkable workhorse. It’s breakfast, lunch and brunch, as welcome at an early church supper as it is at an evening cocktail hour.
Recipe: Bloody Mary Mix