Novelist Dawnie Walton’s Life Story in Eight Drinks

This is Everything on the table, a column with writers we love to share about food, conflict, and community.

1986, Jacksonville, Florida: At family reunions, I should be playing with my group of cousins, but I’m much more interested in watching the grown-up people. Mama pulls a Bartles & Jaymes out of a cooler and staggers over to Stevie Wonder; Dad shuffles a screwdriver at the card table before the next hand of spades. How delicious those pinks and oranges look like the colors in a ball of rainbow sorbet!

But normal brown schnapps also fascinates me. My G-mom – my dad’s mom and the most elegant woman in the world with her silver updos and perfume bottles – holds bourbon by her bed. The vessel is always the same: a delicate juice glass with golden wheat stalks. I never see her take a sip, but the afternoon light makes the liquid inside glow amber. Although I dare not touch it, I am convinced that these potions must be magical.

1994, Rome: I’m 17 on a spring break tour of Europe. My mother plundered her savings to afford it, the first time anyone in our family has traveled abroad. So far, the first dinner has been a disappointment – not the rich pasta I had imagined, but a lukewarm hamburger with fried potato cubes. My mood gets better when the waiter brings a bottle of red wine (which mom reluctantly agreed for me to try). I turn my stemmed glass upright and my heart pounds as the waiter pours the first liquor that ever spills my lips. I take a sip and don’t try sweets, but … vinegar? I have been betrayed! I struggle not to spit it out.

1997, Portland, Oregon: I’m a summer intern for the daily newspaper. Far from home, my palate expands from California rolls to sashimi. I fall in love with Ethiopian food – the spongy acidity of Injera, the spice of Doro Wat, the shared fun of pinching the boiled egg in the middle of the stew. I am still wary of most alcoholic things. Everyone here raves about wheat beer, but like all the beer I’ve dared to try, I pronounce it hella vile.

I’ll be 21 by the end of June and my roommate Rachel and I are planning a big house party. “Dress: Up” is what we note on the invitations. I try to look as elegant as G-Mama and pack an empty cassette with jams from the 70s. That night we have a table full of spirits and mixers: what would the birthday child like to drink? Another birthday in years will be kamikaze shots and the resulting hangover will keep me from vodka. But tonight, I’ll put a few squirts in a cup of cranberry juice before dropping it to dance to “Sir Duke”. I had just enough to officially feel like I was growing.

1997, Florida A&M University: I’m in my final semester in college and someone at a party introduced me to the Midori Sour. The color is an electric version of FAMU green and tastes like a watermelon jolly rancher – so hot the glands dance on the back of my jaw. Awww, snap. It could be!

Dawnie Walton in Paris shortly before the lockdown.

Photo by Anthony Santagati

1998, Portland Again: I’m back at the newspaper for my first job after college. “Do you want something?” says the guy behind the bar in North by Northwest. I start repeating my order but realize that he heard me perfectly. He just can’t believe what I asked for. I think it’s not a Midori-Sauer. But thank goodness for Rachel for introducing me to a shameless tiki-themed watering hole in a strange part of town. The bartenders at the Alibi make tropical, fruity drinks, but they also have milk ready for Belarusians. The Big Lebowski made it a thing. I lick my lips and I’m not mad at The Dude.

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