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“Hospitable” was once a high-ranking compliment, one of the nicest things you could say of people, redolent of all sorts of related traits like generosity, kindness, openness, and warmth.

Hospitality, or flinging wide the door to friends and wayfarers alike, was once important, back in a world without motels or safety nets, where a friend might find his castle burnt down or a wayfarer find bandits on his trail. This free offering of food and drink and shelter was built into the social contract and the Old Testament, and besides, the host might be in mortal need of it himself someday: life was chancy.

Life got safer, but the habit of easy hospitality persisted until late in the twentieth century. The phrase “Why don’t you stop by for a drink?” fell lightly from the lips in those days, before a drink became a sign of mental illness. Food might or might not be included; a bowl of potato chips or a dish of peanuts could stand in as symbolic of food, actual food being labor-intensive, but the heart of hospitality was the liquor cabinet.

In modest households it might simply be one of the kitchen cupboards set aside for the purpose. In others it was freestanding, and in one grand ménage I frequented, a broad low door in the living room wall concealed a trolley fitted for bottles, ice bucket, cocktail shaker, and glassware in the correct shapes for every known libation; it was wheeled forth among the guests like a roasted ox and the host manned it as if conducting an orchestra. (When the owners, now old, die and new people move in, I suppose they will throw away the trolley and use its space for boots and umbrellas.) During Prohibition, liquor cabinets were disguised as nonalcoholic furniture, or hidden behind faux bookcases, like a safe; one family I know had a splendid pool table installed and concealed the bar in a panel behind the rack of cues.

For those of modest means, the minimum stores required by the most basic hospitality were scotch, bourbon, vodka, gin, vermouth, and one or more of the heavily advertised blended whiskeys, with additions depending on one’s acquaintanceship; if a guest had asked in vain for rum, the next time he stopped by there would be rum. Supplies stored elsewhere included cold beer, generous amounts of ice, quinine water (to be mixed with gin or vodka), soda water (to be mixed with Scotch), lemons and limes, and olives, which were added to martinis, which were a varying combination of gin or vodka and vermouth. None of this was purchased for the occasion, since the occasions were spontaneous and often unexpected. It was kept on hand.

For those under forty, this must seem a staggering nuisance and expense, quite aside from the immorality of it, but for those bred in the tradition it was simply an essential domestic supply, like coffee and bread, but promising far more entertainment.

In far-off times, the company of other people provided most of the entertainment most people got. For the isolated country household, a rain-soaked traveler stopping by for a slug of mead or brandy and a drying by the hearth brought news of kings and battles and the reassurance that the world was still in motion. For the young and single, ten to eighty years ago, a chattering crowd of friends stopping by for a pitcher of martinis brought light and color and fresh jokes to the dreary studio apartment. The liquor cabinet was the hearth at which they warmed themselves. Its contents, prudently consumed, melted social barriers, inspired the shy, and fueled spirited discussions of the meaning of life.

“Some people are coming over for drinks,” the host or hostess would say, “and there’s someone I think you should meet.” Nowadays this would mean a possible business contact, but in the bad old days it meant possible romance. This custom gave the prospective pair a couple of hours to check each other out, risk free, in the easy company of mutual friends. If it clicked, fine; if not, no hard feelings. It was infinitely pleasanter than the stiff, lonely, precarious “dating” of recent times. It was even fun. Ask among the older generations and you’ll find an astonishing number of happy couples who met each other at the liquor cabinets of friends. The fall of the liquor cabinet coincided with the rise of the “personal” ads. This is not progress.

For the married couple, dropping in or being dropped in on for a drink provided a revitalizing change of voices and faces and viewpoints, not to mention people about whom to speculate later. After the guests departed, the man of the house checked the levels in the various bottles to see which needed replenishment; it was one of his domestic duties, often the only one besides making martinis.

Connoisseurs of stylish living from Nick Charles to James Bond recognized the martini, whether shaken or stirred, as a gender-specific art form, and for decades every man who aspired to sophistication worked to perfect his product. Unlike the perfect soufflé, it was created under the gaze of the guests (only a slob would make and refrigerate a pitcherful in advance; the alchemy would dissipate) and was largely performance art, a form of swordplay for the urban male. While measuring and shaking or stirring, he was expected to say a few words to the audience about his proportions and whether or not he believed that gin was bruisable. However witty and attractive his wife might be, this was the moment of the man, and all eyes were upon him. If the guests had all opted for Scotch instead, the host, not to be robbed of his limelight moment, made a martini for himself, deconsecrating the altar of the liquor cabinet.

My aunt and uncle had a particularly pretty and generous liquor cabinet, in polished birch with carved curving legs. It lived in the dining room. One dark afternoon I went to pay them a Christmas call, bringing along a new boyfriend to introduce. They offered us a drink, of course; back then it was unthinkable not to, at any hour after three or so, and “She didn’t even offer me a drink” described the sharpest slap of rejection.

The four of us sat around the table drinking, and somehow the talk turned to absinthe. Uncle Bob said he thought he had some, a bottle brought by a friend from Switzerland long ago, when you could still buy it there if you had the right contacts. He rummaged in the cabinet, back beyond the basics, and came out with a bottle of ancient French brandy, dusty and almost empty, and Bols gin in a stoneware crock. He set out some more glasses and we tried them while he dug deeper. He hauled forth souvenirs of old friends and old voyages; tawny port, and potent smoky Scotch from some hidden glen, Spanish sherry, applejack with a hand-printed label, unsanitized tequila with a look of murder in its eye, slivovitz with a label in Polish, aquavit smelling like rye bread, hundred-proof Cuban rum dark as sin, and liqueurs brewed by monks according to secret recipes half as old as time and tasting of mint, or flowers, or bitter oranges. The table grew a forest of bottles. By all rights the combinations should have made us sick as cats, but somehow the cheer of the moment preserved us in health and merriment.

There was no absinthe. Some unsupervised guest at some merry party must have been tempted by its reputation and rarity, Toulouse-Lautrec’s viciously seductive Green Faerie, for whose favors men had beggared themselves and gone mad. In the farthest corner, however, was an unlabeled Mason jar that Bob brought out, like a conjurer of many rabbits, marveling. “I remember this,” he said. “Moonshine. We bought it from the fellow who made it, on our honeymoon, back before the War, in the Smoky Mountains. He swore it was the best in Tennessee.”

We passed it around, sniffing it respectfully, but none of us had the courage to try it. Inspired, Aunt Peggy poured out a saucerful and touched it with a match. It burned clean and hot, with a bright blue dancing flame, until it had burned away. Awed, we each touched the saucer with a fingertip and yes, it was dry. “Pure and unadulterated,” said Bob proudly. “The best in Tennessee.”

They flicked their eyes briefly at each other, remembering their wedding trip, and my boyfriend gazed at me with new respect, coming as I did from a family with Aladdin’s own cave of hospitality in their dining room.

“Hospitable” is now a word used mainly by hotels and resorts, and a hostess is the lady who walks you to your table. As modern Americans we probably prefer it that way, being more comfortable with what we’ve paid for in a straight business transaction than with what’s been offered freely but may carry some nebulous obligation in its wake. Here and there, though, the tradition survives, at least by hearsay.

The young are understandably confused by the difference between friends dropping by and the full-blown cocktail party. The latter required advance invitation and was an efficient way to pay off social obligations to people to whom you owed less than an actual dinner. Since many of the guests would be strangers to each other, the rule was to have more people than places to sit, if necessary hiding the chairs in the bedroom, so folks would mill around, clutching drinks and cheese crackers, and “mix.”

They were invited for five till seven and expected to show up around six and clear out by eight-thirty.

Recently, in one of the country’s most sophisticated newspapers, I read a column explaining what a cocktail party was and how, in the long-ago times, people gathered together to use alcohol. In case the reader might like to re-create such a funny old custom, the writer included recipes for several complicated canapés and, for the proffered cocktail, a pitcher of “sangria” consisting almost entirely of fruit, soda water, and ice cubes. No liquor cabinet was mentioned. No liquor was mentioned. We live now in enlightened times.

The footsore pilgrim of old, the wayfarer half frozen from the storm, the tongue-tied lover dropping nervously by, might or might not be glad to hear it.

Excerpted from Wasn’t the Grass Greener? (Harcourt, 1999) by permission of author.

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