Hard to Get: The Appeal of Pimm’s N°. 1

Wimbledon is said to be the right time to enjoy a Pimm’s N°. 1, custom mandating that tournament attendees slurp the quintessentially English drink out of a jar, which seems a perverse reinforcement of snobbishness.  You imagine a bunch of people standing around in their idea of formal dress, holding these drinks in their hand and, in the words of Simon Amstell, talking as if their mouths were full of pound coins.  I first drank Pimm’s some years ago when in London a friend of mine and I were wandering around looking for a bar.  We came across an appealing looking place called the Sherlock Holmes Pub, and since it was a sunny afternoon, he asked if I wouldn’t like to have a Pimm’s.  “A what?” I replied.  Simultaneously freakish and plummy sounding names for things is another mark of the English character, like we’d be drinking it with men called Chuzzlewit or Balls or Jagger.  I’ll admit the appeal of the drink wasn’t immediately evident to me, like a fruit salad floating in a slightly bitter off-red stew, but that’s the way it has been with a lot of my favourite things:  Brussel sprouts, Elvis Presley, watching tennis.  Now when I dislike something, I often wonder if there might be a pearl lurking in there.  Usually, though, and seriously, my initial judgement is correct.  And Pimm’s is appealing exactly the way a shabby English rooming house is elegant (nice if you squint ).  What I mean by quintessentially English, too, is that its refinement stems from its vulgarity. It is both reassuring and baffling at the same time, just like the highs and lows of British culture.  The comfortable fug of the drawing room is interrupted by the appearance of a Miss Havisham in the doorway with a bit of decayed cake frosting on her lip.  A sporty man in tennis whites and a sweater tied round his waist is only five years from becoming a paunchy sea monster with rotten teeth reminiscing about his fondness for a bit of the old argy-bargy, his hands motioning in front of him as if turning an invisible steering wheel.  Pimm’s embodies these English polarities well, refreshingly so even.  It is the best of drinks and the worst of drinks, redolent of the nation that gave us Shakespeare and Benny Hill, both equally revered.

When I got back, I had a hard time finding Pimm’s.  In my case, it’s because I live in Quebec (not known for its anglophilia).  In Ontario, however, it’s all over the place.  Figure that.  So it being a hard-to-get ingredient created a sort of mania on my part.  But it’s a well-known fact that the attainment of a sought after thing contains as much disappointment as satisfaction.  In the words of the immortal song, “Is that all there is to a fire?” as the singer watches her childhood home burn to the ground.  Quite often, I prefer for some things to be just out of my reach, so that they become special occasions.

Pimm’s is one of those “top secret ingredients” formulas, gin-based, with some kind of herby bitter component.  The most famous iteration of it is a slice of cucumber, slice of lemon, slice of orange, a couple mint leaves, and two parts lemonade (keep reading, British surprise ahead) to one part Pimm’s No. 1 Cup.  The British notion of lemonade, of course, is basically their version of 7Up, not to be confused with the North American soda pop.  So an acceptable substitute (because I’m not big on soda pop) might be to use a lemon/lime flavoured soda water.  Better yet, get your hands on some French limonade artisanale, like Lorina, Elixia, or Rième.  There are, as with any drink worth its weight, a lot of opinions, argument and variations, including the idea that it must be drunk out of a jar, as if it were some kind of working-class summer cocktail.  Not being English, I don’t have much of a stake in the debate except to enjoy the beverage.  And I do.

In the ballpark of other summery bitter drinks, the Pimm’s cocktail comes off pretty extravagant. Compared to the clean, uncomplicated Italian joy of a Campari and soda, Pimm’s piles on its pleasures like a retired colonel telling stories about the war, like a downed fighter pilot stumbling towards an oasis in the desert, like a slightly spiritual woman wearing a couple too many scarves, like a writer drunk on cheap allusion.  I can’t say when I drink Pimm’s that I see the face of Margaret Rutherford, but something of the ex-empire shimmers in the piling up of contrasting elements.  A little bit of sunny conceals an overall dankness; and that’s England exactly.

Which brings me back to my original problem of disappointment.  To want something and to have it is one thing.  If it’s a tangible thing, then you’ve got it and that’s the end.  But to desire a bottle of something is to have that thing for as long as it lasts, a few fleeting hours of enjoyment, before it disappears into your memory.  The desire for it starts fresh and lives there until the next Wimbledon.

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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965