Friday Musings: To Build a Fire

Friday Musings: To Build a Fire

As I started considering ideas for today’s post, I consulted Merriam-Webster for the definition of the word desperation and found two entries listed with a very subtle difference between them. The first is simply the “loss of hope and surrender to despair.” Not much of a surprise there, right? The second one is a bit more interesting: “a state of hopelessness leading to rashness.” Last week, my book club met to discuss In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn, the story of a family torn apart and reassembled by tragedy, and a study of the lengths we are willing to go to in order to survive. The drive towards self-preservation is considered to be the strongest of the basic human instincts, and very few of us ever have an experience that puts this universally accepted theory to the test. Closely related to this concept of self-survival is our inclination to also protect those who reside in our innermost circle. What wouldn’t we be willing to do in order to keep our loved ones safe, especially in a moment of desperation? At the same time that I was reading In an Instant for my group, my co-worker and fellow idea lover Ben Donia recommended the short story entitled “To Build a Fire” by Jack London as something that might inspire a blog post. And so my wheels began to turn.

There are obvious similarities between the two storylines that revolve around the concept of survival, and the two settings, in particular, feel ominously the same. Both the family in In an Instant and the man in “To Build a Fire” are quickly becoming overwhelmed by ice, snow, and brutally cold temperatures. In both cases, the main characters have underestimated the fact that these forces of nature have the power to totally consume them. The family in In an Instant has been in a terrible car accident after making what seems to be a remarkably foolish decision to go out for pancakes in the midst of a raging snowstorm. Yet we understand, as parents, that there is always a must-do list associated with family vacations. One of the daughters dies horribly and immediately in this crash, and she becomes our omniscient narrator for the remainder of the book. (These are not spoilers, but rather something that you know from just about page one.) As she offers us a glimpse into the motivation behind some of the tragic choices made in the aftermath of the accident, we cannot help but wonder whether the judgement we are casting would be totally obliterated by finding ourselves in the same hopeless situation. So goes it with the man. At one point he attempts to strike matches by holding them in his teeth, and at another he begins regarding the dog who is his traveling companion as some kind of a full body pelt that could be his salvation.

In both cases, we begin to realize how life can take a sudden and vicious turn that leaves us defenseless against the onslaught of desperation that follows. When the survival or protective instincts kick in, what rash decisions might we be inclined to make? What parts of ourselves are we wiling to sacrifice: fingers, toes, the tip of a nose or an ear, or the very things that make us human? In the short story, we never get to see the aftermath of the man’s decisions other than knowing that he dies alone in the snow. In the book, however, we do witness the paralyzing regret and guilt that emerge in the wake of the accident as each character contemplates the choices that he or she made. What do we know of the level of desperation that prompted these decisions? Is it possible to even imagine it? If we consider the example of standing on a street corner as a careening, out-of-control vehicle heads right for us, would we attempt to save those standing right beside us, or would we prioritize our own survival? What justifications might we make for the choice we made? In truth, we may not have had any governance over our own behavior, despite the fact that we think we always have that control. If the urge to survive is so primal, followed closely by the drive to protect, then the actions we take during moments of desperation are instinctual rather than rational or emotional. The question becomes whether or not we can live with the aftermath of that. In the very instant when our humanity is removed from our decisions, we act in much the same way as both dogs do in these stories: we survive, we push on, we seek the warmth of a fire. Yet in the next instant, that humanity returns, and we are left to confront the staggering emotions that follow in its wake, knowing full well that we may always struggle to come to terms with the choice that we think we made.

For today’s cocktail, I wanted to center the flavor profile of the drink around ingredients that would be very familiar to everyone. Lime, pineapple, and green tea were perfect options, and I knew that they would also work beautifully with gin as the base spirit. I wanted to go in this direction to represent the fact that both of these tragic tales began as ordinary days. On the one hand, we have a family honoring a tradition that has been in place for years, and on the other, a man setting out on a long hike across the snow, thinking of nothing but lunch and the blazing campfire and good company that will greet him at the end of his journey. To these ordinary ingredients, I then added Yellow Chartreuse, a liqueur that always brings a luxurious, elevating note to cocktails because it contains saffron among a multitude of other herbs and bitters. This reminded me of how even the smallest comfort like a warm fire can feel like such a tremendous luxury. Finally, I knew that I needed to drop the flavor of the cocktail down by adding something deep and dark to symbolize our primal instincts, and nothing serves that purpose as well as Bogart’s Bitters from The Bitter Truth. I used cloves as my garnish because their wonderful aroma always disguises the fact that they are completely inedible, reminding us that there are some things in life that we will simply never be able to process. Our only real option will be to release them. Cheers everyone. Happy Friday! I wish you a wonderful weekend.

To Build a Fire

1.75 oz gin
1 oz lime juice
1 oz green tea simple
1 oz pineapple juice
.25 oz Yellow Chartreuse
2 dashes Bogart’s bitters

Long shake over ice.
Double strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with cloves.


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