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Rosie Schaap on Writing, Bars, and Writing about Bars

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: Rosie Schaap talks to us about how to find the right bar, how to sit at one, and what you should read when you're feeling thirsty. 

Rosie Schaap on Food52  Drinking with Men on Food52

We now interrupt our regular programming to move from the kitchen to the bar. Specifically, any bar where Rosie Schaap may be. 

In Drinking with Men, Rosie tells the story of her life through the bars she has loved. Instead of romanticizing smoky establishments or late-night encounters, she draws her readers to the bar by celebrating the communities that a good one can foster, and the relationships it can build.

The book also endears you to its narrator as you follow her many adventures. We see Rosie as a fortune teller on a train car, as a deadhead, as a college student drinking with her professors. She's a bar chaplain, an expat in Ireland, and finally, brilliantly, the organizer of a group reading of The Tempest at a local spot whose end is near. We meet the characters that line her path; we see more clearly why bars still matter.

So before you head home to cook dinner, or once you're feeling cooped up in your kitchen after one too many pragmatic winter pantry meals, head to your local bar, and take a page out of Rosie's book. If you need more convincing, read her tips on picking the right place -- and enter to win your own copy below.

Some people are terrified by the prospect of walking into an unfamiliar bar, alone, without a friend to talk to or a smartphone to flip through. What is your advice for those looking to drink alone, at a bar, without having a panic attack?
If there’s a barstool open in a corner, grab it. A corner is a great vantage point from which to watch the story of a bar unfold. (And something just feels cozy about a corner seat). Say hello to your bartender. Look at what people are drinking -- is it what you like, too? Eavesdrop. Listen. When I go to a bar I’ve never visited before, I do something that falls somewhere between an audition and a meditation: I pay attention to how the bar (not just the booze) acts upon me, how it makes me feel. Do I feel welcome? Do the regulars seem friendly, diverse, interesting -- like people I want to know? Do I like the lighting? The music? The photos on the walls?

And if you don’t like the feel of a place, trust your instincts. I haven’t fallen madly in love with every bar I’ve ever stepped foot in. When you find your bar, you know it. 

In Drinking with Men, you write almost exclusively about neighborhood bars. Has the craft cocktail movement had any sort of effect on the institution of the neighborhood bar?
The craft cocktail movement has probably improved one’s chances of getting a good classic cocktail at a neighborhood bar: I see more care and attention given to cocktails generally, and that’s great. But I think the movement has changed some consumers’ expectations, and that’s not necessarily great. It’s still good to know how to read a bar: some places are best for a beer and a shot, some for a rediscovered, absinthe-laced 1930s number, some for a glass of wine. Community always will matter more at neighborhood bars than craft-y cocktails matter, and that’s as it should be.

More: Feeling thirsty? Shake up a Blood and Sand.

Blood and Sand on Food52

What characteristics make for the perfect neighborhood bar?
Most of all, it’s about a strong sense of place, and a feeling -- warm, relaxed, safe, friendly. It should have a great mix of people of different ages and sexes and backgrounds and occupations and interests. Conversation should prevail over music and television. A neighborhood bar is a vital place to build community among people who might seem to have little else in common. A place where people have got your back, no matter what kind of mood you’re in -- and where FedEx can drop off that package when you’re out of town.

There has been a lot of hoopla over the past few months about the role of women in restaurant kitchens. Namely, that they don't receive the recognition that they're due. Do you think that a similar prejudice exists for bar staff?
I wrote Drinking With Men because I recognized that, as a bar regular who happens to be a woman, I am part of a culture that is largely the domain of men, but which I believe many women would love and value if they took that sometimes scary step and claimed a barstool of their own, too. In many respects, I feel the same way about the working side of a bar: It’s also a predominantly male world, but one that can be great for women, too. 

Without question, many of the best bartenders in New York are women -- both at neighborhood bars and craft cocktail destinations. I can’t imagine that anyone who loves cocktail culture would not acknowledge how crucial the role, and influence, of women like Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner has been. 

What is your favorite piece of writing -- poetry or otherwise -- about booze?
I love so many, I can’t pick a favorite. Kingsley Amis and M.F.K. Fisher and David Embury were all so brilliant on drink. My friend Kate Christensen’s novels are loaded with spot-on and often hilarious renderings of inebriation (In the Drink and The Epicure’s Lament especially). I love Ciaran Carson’s Bloody Mary poem, “Hippocrene,” and Moira Egan’s Bar Napkin Sonnets (especially #11, about mescal). The hangover description in Amis’s Lucky Jim. And there’s Brecht. And Ko Un. Booze is a busy, busy muse.

We're giving away five copies of Drinking with Men! Tell us in the comments: How do you define the perfect bar? We'll choose winners at random this Friday, February 21st.

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