Food & Drinks

My Life Story in Eight Drinks

This is All on the Table, a column featuring writers we love sharing stories of food, conflict, and community.

1986, Jacksonville, Florida: At the family reunion, I’m supposed to be playing with my gaggle of cousins, but I’m much more interested in peeping the grown folks. Mama plucks a Bartles & Jaymes out of a cooler and sways to Stevie Wonder; Daddy mixes a screwdriver at the card table before the next hand of spades. How delicious those pinks and oranges look, like the colors in a scoop of rainbow sherbet!

But even plain brown liquor fascinates me. My G-Mama—my father’s mother and the most elegant woman in the world, with her silvery updos and perfume bottles—keeps bourbon next to her bed. The vessel is always the same: a dainty juice glass painted with golden wheat stalks. I never see her take a sip, but the afternoon light makes the liquid inside glow amber. Though I don’t dare touch, I’m convinced these potions must be magic.

1994, Rome: I’m 17 on a spring break tour of Europe. My mother has plundered her savings to afford it, the first time anyone in our family has traveled abroad. So far the first dinner has been a letdown— not the rich pasta I’d been imagining but a lukewarm hamburger with fried potato cubes. My spirits perk up when the waiter brings a bottle of red wine (which Mama, reluctantly, has agreed I can try). I turn my stemmed glass upright, heart pounding as the waiter pours the first alcohol to ever pass my lips. I take a sip and taste not candy but…vinegar? I’ve been duped! I struggle to keep from spitting 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 sourness of injera, the spice of doro wat, the communal fun of pinching open the boiled egg at the center of the stew. I’m still wary of most things alcoholic. Everybody here raves about Hefeweizen, but, like all the beer I’ve dared to try, I pronounce it hella vile.

Near the end of June, I turn 21 and my roommate Rachel and I plan a big house party. “Dress: Up,” we note on the invitations. I try to look as elegant as G-Mama would and pack a blank cassette tape with ’70s jams. That night we have a tableful of spirits and mixers: What would the birthday girl like to drink? On another birthday years from now, it will be kamikaze shots and the resulting hangover will put me off vodka. But tonight I nurse a few splashes in a cup of cranberry juice before ditching it to dance to “Sir Duke.” I’ve had just enough to feel officially grown.

1997, Florida A&M University: I’m in my last semester of college and someone at some party has introduced me to the Midori sour. The color is an electric version of FAMU green, and it tastes like a watermelon Jolly Rancher—so tart that the glands at the back of my jaw do a dance. Awww, snap. This might be it!

Dawnie Walton in Paris just before lockdown.

Photo by Anthony Santagati

1998, Portland Again: I’m back at the newspaper for my first post-college job. “You want a what?” says the guy behind the bar at North by Northwest. I start to repeat my order but realize he’s heard me perfectly well; he just can’t believe what I’ve asked for. Guess a Midori sour ain’t it after all. But thank God for Rachel, who introduces me to a shame-free, tiki-themed watering hole in a weird part of town. The bartenders at the Alibi make tropical fruity drinks, yes, but also keep milk on hand for white Russians. The Big Lebowski has made them a thing. Licking my lips, I’m not mad at The Dude.

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