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posted: 3/8/2014 5:01 AM

A Gibson hinges on its garnish

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  • The pickled onion gives the Gibson its salty, sour bite.

    The pickled onion gives the Gibson its salty, sour bite.

By M. Carrie Allan
Special to the Washington Post

When it's made with a fresh pickled onion, I prefer a Gibson to the standard martini with its olive or lemon twist. A Gibson hinges on its garnish: Crunching into a flavorful allium at the beginning of the drink brings out new flavors in the gin and vermouth, adding a salty-sour note that transforms the martini into a cold, delicate onion soup, at once both aperitif and appetizer.

With the Oscars ceremony just past, the Gibson deserves a nod. While it has never won an award for Best Supporting Cocktail, it's a drink with a Hollywood pedigree, including cameos in two of the American Film Institute's top 100 American films.

One of those appearances bugs me. Plenty of drinking happens in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic "North by Northwest," not all of it consensual. Early in the film, protagonist Roger O. Thornhill -- played with that droll elegance so particular to Cary Grant -- is hauled away at gunpoint from a martini-enhanced business meeting. Later, the same thugs pour bourbon down his throat and force him to drive, assuming he'll end up dead. (The subtle implication that Thornhill survives this deathtrap because he's accustomed to driving loaded would not earn the film a stamp of approval from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.)

But it's not the bibulous "Mad Men"-style meeting or the forced imbourbonation that bothers me. It's his flirtation with Eva Marie Saint in the dining car of that cross-country train, when Thornhill orders a Gibson.

Really, Roger?

Let's take a poll, readers: You're traveling with a cool, seductive Hitchcock blonde. She's bantering with you as racily as the Motion Picture Production Code of the time will allow. She has told you where to find her sleeping berth. She has told you, as you peruse the menu, that she never makes love on an empty stomach. (You could read her lips, even though the censors insisted the line be redubbed with the less blatant "I never discuss love on an empty stomach.")

Would you order a cocktail guaranteed to give you onion breath?

The drink makes far more sense in its other movie cameo, the famously tense party scene in "All About Eve" (1950), when Bette Davis tells her guests, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night." It's all air kisses at that little shindig; the Gibsons passed around among the theater sophisticates are perfect for people who secretly hate one another's guts.

With its reference to Gibson Girls, "All About Eve" even mentions the man long thought to be behind the cocktail. New York illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the iconic Gibson Girl -- with her high-piled hair and ample bosom -- purportedly asked his bartender for something new and was given a martini with onions. Not the most shining moment in the history of Bartender Creativity, perhaps, but that was the story.

More recently, most have come to credit a San Francisco businessman named Walter D.K. Gibson, who began drinking the cocktail in the late 1800s and, according to his family, thought that pickled onions would ward off colds. (There are many more spurious origin stories, many more historical Gibsons who have tried to stake their claim. Any day now, a crazy Mel Gibson will probably be picked up drunkenly arguing that his progenitors invented the cocktail, using onions due to olives' purported Zionist connections.)

Such is the problem with a common name: Gibsons are everywhere. Some time back, I sampled a terrific Gibson at -- surprise! -- the Gibson in D.C. The drink, made with aged genever, had no cocktail onions in it yet was nonetheless suffused with a rich, oniony flavor.

It seemed a no-brainer that the Gibson would serve a killer Gibson. But when I called head bartender Frank Jones, I was tickled to find that the bar is named for a different Gibson: jazz musician Ellsworth Gibson. The cocktail was not originally on the menu.

"People always assume we're named after the cocktail," Jones says. "We don't even carry cocktail onions. But even once we explained to people that it's not really what we're named for, they still wanted a Gibson." The Gibson's Gibson -- made with a red onion-vinegar shrub instead of cocktail onions -- was their compromise.

If you're going with the traditional version, though, go with DIY pickled onions. "Most Gibsons, you go into a bar and you get these onions that have been sitting on a shelf ... for 15 years. Mushy and nasty," says Todd Thrasher. When the EatGoodFood Group general manager/sommelier/mixologist first opened PX in Alexandria, Va., he offered a Pick Your Onion Gibson; drinkers could opt for onions pickled with rosemary, thyme, saffron or jalapeno or a bread-and-butter style recipe Thrasher got from his grandmother. A splash of the pickling liquid finished the drink.

These days, I sometimes make my own pickled onions, but if you don't feel like peeling a bunch of the little suckers, you'll be happy to know that Thrasher's delicious, briny standard and sometimes other variations are available.

Right now our refrigerator is loaded with homemade sherry-pickled onions. They're good enough to eat on their own.

But I would not order one if I were scoping out some hot locomotive honey, unless my potential partner ordered one, too. I wouldn't want a case of halitosis to make us just strangers on a train.

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