Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Martini Memories

with 6 comments

My father and I always had a close relationship.

In my working-class family, sophistication mean drinking wine from a bottle with a cork. As an adult, when I’d return to my parent’s home in Norfolk, my father would celebrate, buying a corked bottle of red wine, rather than the half-gallon, screw top jug he usually purchased.

“Karen, this is the good stuff. It has a cork in it,” he’d proudly declare. I would smile and nod in agreement. “Yup, the good stuff,” I replied. My fondest memories of my father are drinking a glass of that “good” red wine with him. At dusk, the two of us would sit on the concrete steps outside the kitchen door, sipping wine and solving the world’s problems.

After marrying, I moved to the Washington D.C. area. I worked for National Geographic Magazine for over 25 years, first freelancing, and later as a contract photographer. Then—and probably now—Geographic attracted young and talented staffers. Many came from wealth, raised in far more rarified situations than my working-class roots afforded. At company events they’d order sophisticated drinks I had never encountered—brisk gin and tonics, sweet bourbons, or chilly martinis. Clutching a glass of white wine in my hand like an amulet, I was fearful of trying anything else. What did I know? I had no idea what to order or if I’d even like it.

Two years into my Geographic career, I was assigned to make publicity pictures for an upcoming television special about gold recovered from Atocha, a Spanish treasure ship. The photo editor for the television team was Karen Huntt, a lovely young woman. We Karens bonded immediately. She sent me to Key West, Florida to make pictures of Mel Fisher, who discovered the wreckage of Atocha.

Arriving in Key West was magical–my first encounter with palm trees.

I was thrilled. At that point, the two stories I had photographed for Geographic were on Hampton Roads—my hometown, and Tennessee—my adopted home. Key West sounded enticingly exotic. I arrived in January, a world away from snowy Washington.  The town felt like a movie set. My rental car was an open jeep, my hotel a bungalow surrounded by sand and palm trees. To my inexperienced mind, it seemed like I might have landed on some island in the south Pacific.

Sunsets at Key West evoked the romantic history of the Florida Keys.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha went down in a hurricane off the coast of Florida in 1622, a time when Spain was a world power. The ship carried 40 tons of gold and silver, and over a hundred thousand Spanish coins. Treasure hunters had sought the ship for years, but in 1985 Mel Fisher and his crew found a huge cache of the ship’s precious cargo. Geographic television needed pictures of the gold and of Mel.

Mel Fisher, proudly displaying relics recovered from the Atocha.

He was a truly a personable fellow. For our late-afternoon photo session, Mel showed up on the beach by himself, carrying gold bars and other gold items. They must have been worth tens of thousands of dollars. I arranged the gold bars on the sand, letting the tide wash over them. I can’t imagine this happening today without a squad of security guards surrounding me, scrutinizing my every move. But Mel was funny and cooperative, a perfect photo subject.

Starfish and seashells adorn weighty gold bars and chains from the wreck.

Back at Geographic, Karen looked over my shoot and invited me to have a drink with her. “We should get a couple of martinis to celebrate!” she said. Martinis? I told her I’d never had one. That was the last time I uttered those words. Karen took me to the bar of a nearby hotel and ordered two Gibsons. My first sip introduced me to a world of tastes I’d never encountered—sharply edged vodka, softly sweet vermouth, and earthy acidic cocktail onions. I was hooked.  “Next time,” Karen said, “try a martini with olives.”

I did.

Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel–one of my favorite places in Japan. CREDIT: Kakidai/Creative Commons

By the time I did my last assignment in Japan a few years later, I had moved on from olives, preferring my martinis with a simple twist of lemon. I thought of myself as a martini connoisseur. I was staying at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. Most National Geographic writers and photographers working in Tokyo back then stayed at the Imperial. It was a comfortable old school hotel on the edge of the Imperial Palace grounds. The current version, built in 1970, replaced the earlier Imperial Hotel, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and had miraculously survived the WWII bombings.

My husband was with me, and on our last day, I suggested we have a farewell drink. We went to the hotel’s famed Old Imperial Bar. It was an elegant place of dark wood and sumptuous leather, using materials and designs that echoed the original Frank Lloyd Wright hotel. My assignment had gone well. I was feeling quite smug and amazed at my good luck to be sitting in Tokyo at this wonderful bar in the Imperial Hotel.

(Note to Karen, never feel smug about anything…)

Though I love martinis, I could never find the etched glassware like the ones served in the Old Imperial Bar.

We each ordered martinis. They arrived in delicately etched glasses, about half the size of a normal martini glass. How quaint, I thought, examining the intricate design that held my drink. Still glowing from completing what had been an amazing assignment, I drank the potent liquid quickly, without enough thought. The vodka went straight to my head, and then to my knees. When I got up to leave, I fell to the floor. My husband, less affected than me, pulled me up. No one around us in the quiet bar noticed. Or at least seemed to not notice.

Does smugness reduce your tolerance for liquor? I don’t know.  I have never fallen from a bar stool before or since.

Had my wits been about me, I would have asked the bartender where those small, elegant glasses might be found. But while my other work took me to many other places in Japan over the years, I never stayed at the Imperial again. When it was possible during my travels, I checked Japanese department stores and shops, but never found a glass that matched the one in my memory. Eventually I stopped looking, realizing that my memory of that place and that time in my career couldn’t be recovered by a piece of glass, no matter how elegant. Now, I’ve learned that the Imperial will soon close. A new version will eventually rise, but it won’t have that amazing bar, or that amazing martini that brought me to my knees. Memories of a wonderful career which took me to incredible places is what I now savor.

If I don’t see a thin glaze of ice I haven’t shaken it enough.

A Vodka Martini

Everyone one has their own way of making martinis.  I like mine ice cold and shaken. Not stirred.

2-3 oz of vodka (I have never taken to a gin martini)

½ oz or less of white vermouth

A few shakes of Angostura orange bitters

A twist of lemon sliced over the glass

Put the first three into a shaker with crushed ice, shake until one’s hands are painfully cold. Pour into a frosted martini glass. If you’ve shaken enough, a very thin glaze of ice should cover the drink’s surface. Add the twist of lemon. For me it’s all about the glass. It should be “V” shaped and very cold. I prefer a small glass. Two or three ounces of liquor is enough to enjoy a drink. More than that and it becomes more about feeling tipsy.

6 Responses

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  1. What a great story Karen


    January 13, 2022 at 3:55 am

  2. Love your Memories of the Golden Age of NGM.

    Charlene Valeri

    January 14, 2022 at 11:29 pm

    • Yes those were the days! So glad I was able to experience some of it.


      January 15, 2022 at 12:02 am

  3. I’m way late to finding your blog. This entry brings a lot of memories of great old bars in Singapore, Phnom Penh, London, Paris I recall with a smile.


    January 15, 2022 at 8:59 pm

  4. So if you go to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo’s web site they have a picture of a martini glass. https://www.imperialhotel.co.jp/e/tokyo/restaurant/old_imperialbar/
    Is that the type of etched glass you are referring to in your post?

    Michael Popp

    January 16, 2022 at 2:24 am

    • I took a screen shot of it, if I ever am lucky enough to return. I will check it out.


      January 16, 2022 at 3:45 am

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