This week I’m reviewing “At the Existentialist Cafe” by Sarah Bakewell. The book, which recounts the lives and debates of the leading lights of existentialism, opens in 1932 at a meeting of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and philosopher Raymond Aron at the Bec de Gaz bar in Paris. The house speciality there was apricot cocktails which, along with many other distilled lubricants, helped facilitate a revolution in how we view the world and our place in it. Very charitable of Ms. Bakewell to make my cocktail tie-in so easy 🙂
So I walked on over to my Harris Teeter to pick up some apricots to make nectar only to discover they are out of season. Shucks. Undeterred, I thought outside the box and grabbed some apricot brandy. The first drink was my favorite, the “Nacional de Cuba” – named after the legendary Havana hotel , this rum, brandy, lime, and syrup combo is a delicious, perfectly measured tropical drink; so smooth, just the right level of sweetness off of the simple syrup and the fresh lime is golden. Didn’t really pick up on a distinct apricot flavor but the overall sweetness and fruity level is just perfect, so I’d give at least a little credit to the the apricot.
Nacional de Cuba
- 2 oz light rum
- 1 oz apricot brandy
- 1.5 oz lime juice
- 1 oz simple syrup
Next up was the “Valencia” (one of my favorite Decemberist songs) a mix of apricot brandy, gin, OJ, and lemon juice – this is ok, like the citrus-forward orange and sweet apricot flavor, which follows through and culminates in a pleasant and resonant aftertaste. The gin is subdued which I wanted, so that’s good. A nice little drink with the orange and apricot serving as the dominant ingredients. A really plesant apricot echo, this is an effective celebration of the brandy flavor. Good, not great.
- 1.5 oz apricot brandy
- 1.5 gin
- 1.5 orange juice
- 1 dash of lemon juice
I then moved on from apricot brandy to apricot nectar with the “Apricot Bourbon Cocktail” with Elijah Craig, mint, lemon juice, and nectar (store bought). This didn’t quite work for me, the apricot was a bit too sweet for the bourbon, resulting in a kind of strange, off-taste that isn’t helped by the mint. I could see how this might work with apricot preserves as they would probably be less candyish-sweet, so this might be one to make again come summer time.
Apricot Bourbon Smash
- 2 oz bourbon
- 2 oz apricot puree (I used store bought nectar)
- .25 oz lemon juice
- 3 mint leaves (shake with the mix, then strain out)
My last apricot experiment was the “Spring Bling” with nectar, orange vodka, lemon juice, and prosecco. This was decent, a nice refreshing drink with a good tart edge from the nectar and lemon. Good hot weather drink that would be even better with some fresh prosecco, I think. Perhaps a little too rich from the high-sodium apricot nectar, though. Fine.
- 1/4 cup apricot nectar
- 1 tbsp orange vodka
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- Fill with prosecco
I went into Ms. Bakewell’s history of existentialism with some trepidation, as I’m barely conversant on the subject of modern philosophy. Barely. But the book has received such rave reviews, and I’m always eager to read outside my comfort zone. I’m happy to report that I found “At the Existentialist Cafe” a mostly enjoyable and intriguing story, although it was challenging at times.
Perhaps the most attractive trait of the book is not its subject, but the writing style: Ms. Bakewell weaves a wandering narrative that moves from actor to episode to argument and back, while adding a few autobiographical snippets in for seasoning. I’m not too proud to admit that I struggled to track all of these complex intersections and philosophical debates – indeed, this is probably the type of book best read in 3 or 4 sittings, if possible. Still, I found myself drawn in by that free and buoyant narrative, which frequently helped me better understand the more complicated philosophical themes addressed in the book.
Ms. Bakewell also makes effective use of metaphors to illustrate the theories and dilemmas the existentialist circle debated, further aiding neophytes like myself. And her recounting of the relationships between thinkers like Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre are very lively and fun to read, revolving around a witches brew of sex, politics, and alcohol. On a more serious note, I thought Ms. Bakewell’s formidable skills shined particularly bright when she details how the tumultuous 1930s and 40s shaped the beliefs of many existentialists – I found this use of history as catalyst for philosophy particularly compelling.
If you’ve always felt intimidated by the more arcane, esoteric aspects of philosophy and existentialism, “At the Existentialist Cafe” is a good and entertaining introduction. Oh, and if you find yourself lost in some of the more arcane aspects of existentialism, have a cocktail or two; things will become clearer then.