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Credit: Bijou Karman
personal essay

The Kids Are Asleep and the World Is on Fire: A Love Letter to Uncool White Russians

published Sep 25, 2020
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We don’t leave the house much lately, but typically my husband and I do try to get “dressed.” We have two small kids, and maintaining some sense of routine has become key to hanging on to a basic level of normalcy, for all of us. One particularly harried Thursday morning, though, my husband pulled on a faded undershirt, some paint-spattered basketball shorts, and a robe that predates our relationship (we met in 2009). Neither of us noticed until nearly lunch time. We burst into tears. “Am I … the Dude?” he asked, eyes wide and bleary with laughter and exhaustion. The resemblance was alarming.

As it turns out, I hadn’t done much better. In fact, I’d unwittingly completed Jeff Bridges’ iconic leisure look from The Big Lebowski with an oversized cardigan in a bold (okay, loud) pattern and an overgrown shag that had, in my defense, been very cute back in February. Between Zoom calls (him), arranging roughly one thousand snacks for our 5-year-old son (both of us), completing a dozen puzzles and craft projects with our son (me), and clearing the kitchen of anything that might attract our just-crawling daughter (him) so I could test recipes for a project, getting dressed — whatever that means now — had taken a backseat. As we laughed at and with each other, we made some joke about White Russians, the Dude’s all-day beverage of choice in the movie. I promptly forgot about it.

As the day wore on, so did the crushing news cycle. And the work cycle. And the snack cycle. (So many snacks.) That night, after the kids had been fed, bathed, and wrangled into crib and bed, I stumbled down the hall like a zombie to my bedroom. The day hadn’t been all that different from previous days since mid-March, and yet, just as I had most of those nights, I collapsed into bed. A short time later my husband crawled in next to me, equally zonked, and threw his arm around my shoulders in silent solidarity. 

An informal poll of friends tells me we are all riding a similarly wild coaster of emotions, dipping and peaking in waves. So I know I’m not alone when I say that every few weeks or so in this general hellscape of 2020, I come to an emotional breaking point. Turns out I was just about due that very evening, and I let loose. 

Twenty minutes later, ensconced on the couch under a blanket, I dabbed the last of some messy tears and probably snot from my face. Wordlessly, my husband left the room and returned with a glass of what looked like pale chocolate milk on ice. Evidently one of us hadn’t forgotten the White Russian joke.

I took a sip and melted into the couch. Never had I felt so held by a beverage. It wasn’t my first White Russian, but it was my first White Russian in a time of great emotional need. If you’ve never had one, it tastes like melted coffee ice cream with a decidedly boozy undercurrent — a creamy, comforting hug coupled with a shot for courage. I knew instantly I’d found an official Quarantine Cocktail; a nightcap of choice to congratulate myself on the completion of one day and console myself in contemplating the next. 

“This is … really good,” we announced to each other, our voices tinged with delight and a bit of surprise. He made us another round. We laughed about the ridiculousness of this time, about funny or sweet things our kids were doing or saying; we tinkered with our home project wish list, looking forward to mundane improvements like a new mattress and a functioning outdoor electrical outlet; we made bold proclamations about travel for 2021. After nearly drunk-dialing our handyman, we learned one round of White Russians was sufficient. 

The next morning, I felt lighter. Had this extremely old-school, maybe-pedestrian drink eased my psychic load? Or had I just slept really well after a couple of nightcaps? (Also, is this the point of nightcaps?) I started to compose a text to my best friend, also a mother of two, to tell her I’d found the perfect drink for weeknights in quarantine while doomscrolling or laughing to keep from crying, congratulating myself on my thoughtfulness and excellent taste. But I stopped short. Is this even a cool drink? Like, should I be embarrassed for drinking it, or at least not admit to others that I do? 

Traditionally made with equal parts vodka (hence the “Russian,” although the drink supposedly originated in a Dutch bar), coffee liqueur, and cream, I admit that the White Russian is … not an interesting cocktail. It’s not obscure or mysterious or edgy. However, Dominic Whisson, a hospitality consultant and former bartender at the American Bar at the Savoy in London, tells us (okay, me) to take heart: “My 70-year-old mum knows what’s in a White Russian, and so do many people who don’t drink cocktails on a regular basis, and that’s the magic — it’s accessible to everyone.” 

This idea of accessibility, of ease — even if it’s not cute, or sexy, or cool — feels like it’s become emblematic of my 2020 self-care strategy. In a year when I didn’t have “global crisis” on my bingo card, I’m learning to not overcomplicate things and accept softness where I can find it, even if that needs to be a beloved, ridiculous sweater and an extremely basic cocktail.

Whisson agrees, bless him: “I think people are a lot less embarrassed these days by their personal choices and have embraced drinks that might have some social stigma surrounding it,” he says. I think that’s a kind, diplomatic way of telling me not to sweat it and drink what seems to fit the moment. And if there’s any moment for a White Russian, it’s this one. 

So I’ve learned to drink my evening beverage proudly, even if it’s not cutting-edge or artisanal. I did end up texting my friend about it, and you can consider this my public admission. I’ll even double down with an assertion: The humble White Russian is underrated and may even improve what’s left of this garbage year. In fact, I’m finding that White Russians are particularly parenthood-friendly: None of the ingredients are particularly costly (because you’re spending a small fortune on snacks and also various out-of-season berries, wow), you can find the ingredients in an ordinary grocery store (if yours sells alcohol), and simple, forgiving proportions mean you can whip up a serviceable one quickly and after even the toughest days. Whisson assures me there are ways to make the cocktail more special, with things like local dairy or small-batch single-origin coffee liqueur or vodka made from milk. Those things sound nice, don’t they? Maybe I’ll try them in 2021.