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How to DIY the Ultimate Bloody Mary Bar With Garnish Galore

I promise this is about blood marys, but first it’s going to be about leaving my church.

When I left my hometown and moved to another state for college, I found myself suddenly surrounded by new friends who never really went to church. Or maybe they did, for a little bit when they were young. But they’d lived more or less secular lives, church reserved for religious holidays if at all. I grew up going to church not once but several times a week. There was Sunday service, but there was also youth group, Bible study, small groups, choir practice, handbell practice (if you used to be in the handbell choir at church, congrats you’re gay now!), Wednesday Night Dinner, etc. After I stopped going to church, I didn’t talk about it much. Most of the people around me wouldn’t know what I was talking about, not really. I felt ashamed a bit when I did talk about my church girl history, even though religion itself was the breeding grounds for my shame and leaving it allowed me to let go of some of that shame. It felt embarrassing to talk about church and religion to new friends. Perhaps if I’d joined a church on campus or gone to a religiously affiliated student group, I would have met people who got it, but no they wouldn’t, because the whole point was that I was done with all that, was untangling myself from it, not trying to preserve it but rather unlearn and unpack it.

Talking about church was something my fiancé Kristen and I bonded over early on. Then, when she introduced me to her closest friends in Orlando, I realized that a big part of what brought the group together had been exactly this: bonding over different but still overlapping religious upbringings and bonding over breaking out of those constraints, too. We listened to some of the same goofy ass contemporary Christian rock music. We could find humor even in some of the messiest parts of our parts. It felt nice to be seen in this way.

I never really celebrated a religious holiday like Easter after I left home for college. Christmas, sure. It was easy enough to make that secular. But when Easter 2020 rolled around, Kristen and I both found ourselves wanting to do something special. This came, I think, from a dual impulse. Firstly, it was the early stretch of the pandemic and we’d been quarantined in a city where we knew almost no one, where we didn’t have roots, and the days spanned out in front of us like an amorphous blob. We jumped at any chance to make a day feel distinct, memorable. Easter could be that. But secondly, we both felt the invisible strings of our past, of Easter lunches, of a sunny Sunday spent celebrating. For Easter 2020, I made bloody marys and an elaborate cheese and meat board, and we marathoned our beloved Bravo shows.

The next year, we embraced Easter traditions of youth that aren’t explicitly tied to the church. We dyed eggs using kits we bought from Publix. We bought Cadbury eggs, and Kristen made her grandmother’s ham casserole, which instantly became a meal I look forward to all year long. Indeed, again in 2022 we had the casserole. We bought a few bottles of natural wine from a great hidden gem in Miami (a literal normal gas station that unexpectedly has a massive selection of craft beers, natural wines, orange wines, and speciality canned drinks). Our two-person, queer, secular Easter anchored by good drink, nostalgic food, and decorating eggs together gradually became a new tradition, something that brought us closer to each other and also allowed us to reconnect with our pasts on our own terms.

This year, we decided to invite two other friends into the mix. We still wanted to keep it small, intimate. And though I didn’t do so consciously, I must have deep down been drawn to the idea of having these two friends over in particular because they share this history, too. And in fact, one of them had already been consciously doing her own secular traditions for Easter for a few years for the same reasons. We absorbed one of her rituals — watching the Irving Berlin movie musical Easter Parade — because these traditions Kristen and I are building together are additive and expansive. Flexible. All the things our old traditions were not. Thanks to this friend, Easter Parade will now be a part of our Easter tradition in the future, too.

While we’d been doing just natural wine for the past couple years, I resurrected a tradition from that first New Easter in 2020: the blood marys. See, I told you we’d get there eventually. I’ve made fancy bloody marys at home before, but never like this. For Easter this year, I went all the way out on bloodys, constructing a garnish bar using a rolling cart usually used for storage in my kitchen and making my own blood mix instead of buying the prebatched stuff. And now that I’m done processing some religious baggage, I’m here to tell you how to DIY the ultimate bloody mary bar for an indulgent, flavor-packed at-home brunch experience.

a blood mary with pepperoncini, bacon, dill, shrimp, tomato, cheddar cheese, lemon slice, pickle, salami

First: the mix. I don’t know why I’d never thought of making my own bloody mix. It’s super easy and way cheaper than buying premade stuff — plus you can really customize things like spice level, thickness, salinity, etc. The base is just water and tomato paste. I bought two cans of tomato paste and blended the paste with water until it reached a consistency I was happy with, gradually adding more water as I went. Tomato paste is super concentrated, so you’ll need more water than you think. Then I added additional flavorings and spices, including raw garlic that I blitzed in a blender into a paste, garlic powder, chili powder, a little bit of smoked paprika, soy sauce, worcestershire, buffalo sauce, hot sauce (specifically, my favorite, which is El Yucateco chile habanero), loads of cracked black pepper, salt, and a little bit of cocktail sauce — mainly because I wanted to add horseradish but didn’t have any on hand. There’s no cooking involved, and it’s basically just a game of adding and tasting as you go.

blood mary mix, bacon, dill, lemon, lime, shrimp, cherry tomatoes, garlic stuffed olives, toothpicks

But everyone knows the bloody is all about the garnishes. I went with some traditional ones, like:

  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cubed cheese (I used a sharp cheddar)
  • Whole pepperoncini (I got the Italian seasoned kind)
  • Pickles (I don’t like cornichons so I bought baby dills and then cut them into thick slices)
  • Garlic-stuffed olives
  • Lemon and lime slices
  • Celery sticks

Then there were some other garnishes that were slightly more extra, like:

  • Whole sprigs of fresh dill
  • Cocktail shrimp (my Publix has a small “shrimp cocktail cup” for just $7 that comes in a cute container with cocktail sauce and a slice of lemon — check the seafood section at your Publix for something similar!)
  • Strips of bacon
  • Peppered salami (since these are a little trickier to skewer, I pre-skewered them for people, cutting a circle of salami in half and then folding it twice and spearing it so it’s kind of accordioned)
  • A second, more fun cheese, like the Cabot habanero cheddar I’m obsessed with that’s often BOGO at Publix
  • Sport peppers (like the ones that come on Chicago dogs)

lemons, cheese cubes, pickles, marinaded quail eggs, skewered salami, pepperoncini

It is my firm belief that the key to a great bloody mary bar is to have at least one garnish that’s a wild card. Something unexpected and fun and perhaps even requires a decent amount of prep beyond just chopping something up. This could be spicy pickled pearl red onions or homemade mango pickle. It could be miniature sliders or homemade jalapeño poppers. The super extra, showstopper blood mary garnish I went with this Easter was marinated quail eggs, which felt on-theme.

These Easter eggs were little flavor bombs. Most Publix stores sell quail eggs in the regular egg section, and you can also find them at specialty food stores and Asian markets. I first boiled them, which only takes about four minutes since they’re so small. Then I plopped them into an ice bath and once they’d cooled got to peeling. This was…a labor of love. Those suckers are tedious to peel. BUT I WAS DETERMINED. Once peeled, I made the marinade, which was soy sauce, gochujang, sugar, gochugaru flakes, and roasted sesame seeds. These egg marinades are super customizable, but if you want to find a base to begin from, look for recipes for Korean marinated eggs. I plopped the tiny eggs in a container with the marinade, covered it, gave it a shake, and placed it in the refrigerator overnight. I know an overnight ingredient that is merely a garnish for a cocktail sounds like a lot of work, but it was worth it, and I look forward to folding this night-before Easter into my holiday weekend rituals in the future, too.

a rolling cart with ingredients for bloody marys on it and a little white and black french bulldog looking at it.

After that, it’s all about presentation. I used a cheap Ikea flower vase as a carafe for the blood mix and set out a small plate filled with water and another small plate with an herbed salt on it so that people could rim their pint glasses. The garnishes were sorted into small colorful bowls and arranged on my rolling cart. You could also set everything up on a bar, counter, island, or coffee table. I used long bamboo skewers from Publix and set out a dish with a bunch of them so people could make their own, along with some of those skewers with pre-speared salami on them. I put a decanter of vodka on the bottom of the cart along with four pint glasses. (I also enjoy a bloody mary made with tequila rather than vodka, and it’s super easy to make these nonalcoholic, too. Just mix the bloody mix with water, extra worcestershire, and crushed ice.)

And yes, I did name the blood mary bar “Bunny Bar” and print off a drink menu for it, because I always have to go all out in these situations. It’s my Easter, and I’ll celebrate with my future wife and my friends exactly how I want to. (But truly, this at-home blood mary bar situation would be great for any weekend that doesn’t come with church baggage, too.)

a blood mary with pepperoncini, bacon, dill, shrimp, tomato, cheddar cheese, lemon slice, pickle, salami

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 843 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I never thought of making my own Bloody Mary mix before but that looks delicious! I’m here for any and all tomato-based recipes you wanna share!

    Also, not only was I in the youth handbell choir at the church I grew up going to, after a couple of years I got moved to a special handbell ENSEMBLE where 5 of us with advanced handbell proficiency got to play harder pieces. Does this mean I’m extra gay now??

    • SPECIAL HANDBELL ENSEMBLE!!!!!!!! incredible and so so gay

      oooo maybe i’ll do a tomato recipe list?! i’ve been really enjoying a lot of tomato tarts lately.

      i also had somehow never thought of making my own bloody mix but now that I have, i’ll never go back! it’s so much cheaper and tastes better than pre-batched!

  2. Oof you had me til the quail eggs. Brave. Still the worst thing *I’ve* ever had in my life. Lol. I love bloody mary’s and definitely would like to make my own mix.
    Last year while visiting my sister – who got me into Bloody Mary’s back in the day – in TX a neighbor made a mix with their bbq sauce recipe. The first time we made drinks they were good. The next day the mix was too sweet for for us (was super weird how the taste changed). Still I think a good, spicy bbq sauce probably would rock.
    As for Easter, I think I block out most memories cause it was the one day a year I was forced to wear a dress. I do miss the bonnets though.

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