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Trouble in Paradise

Where, below, our own Joseph Mailander takes some quiet umbrage to kumquat mojitos et. al., your Doctor thinks there are bigger fish to fry - albeit in the same frying pan.

Whatever you may think of most of the beverages cited in Susan LaTempa’s LA Times article, the central bugaboo is in the naming conventions. These drinks are NOT Mojitos and they are NOT Caipirinhas. On these points, I share Joseph’s distaste. It’s different than cocktails etymologically cannibalizing older categories; the cocktail was never a specific drink. And it’s different than ‘Martini’ being used in place of the word ‘cocktail’ too, insofar as that bit of bad grammar introduced a new generation to stemware and led us eventually back to classic cocktails through that knowledge.

It is, however, exactly the same as the ’strawberry margarita,’ the ‘peach mango daiquiri,’ and the ‘tuna colada.’ The Margarita, the Daiquiri, and the Pina Colada are each specific drinks and the promulgated spin-offs poached their names out of pure brute profiteering. The working thesis is that since drinkers so thoroughly embraced those nascent potions, why not ‘add to the franchise?’ Every time this decision is made, it abases the original. As you might expect of me, I must reflect that there is a grand history of this in the world of drink. Did you know that Cointreau used to be called Cointreau Triple Sec? The company actually coined the term to describe its refined orange liqueur. Can you guess what happened? You are exactly right: imitators immediately adopted the same bottle shape and color of the highly successful product and co-opted the term ‘Triple Sec’ which they rendered in the same typeface as the name Cointreau. Oh, this was repeated again and again and isn’t it simply the world in microcosm? You bet it is. Remember Little Eva’s Locomotion? Sure you do. Remember her next release? Of course you don’t; it sounded just like Locomotion. Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s follow up to The Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu was the Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas and the Sinus Blues. You can guess the tune. If Old Fashioneds were the trend, do you doubt we’d be captivated by vodka-melon ‘new’ fashioneds today?

Incidentally, my giving a ‘pass’ to the word martini always came with a certain mollifying proviso. It wouldn’t last. As people traded in their highballs for cocktail glasses, those with a few brain cells would eventually (unbeknownst to themselves) evolve, through hands-on cultivation, into more urbane drinkers. This has come to pass. Anyone with any depth involved with drink preparation (or consumption) regards candy martini menus - and those who order the drinks they contain - as having the sophistication of a pet rock and the taste buds of a trailer park - and not the one in Malibu either.

Unfortunately, the candy daiquiris, and their ilk cater to a very low common denominator and this is why they soldier on, demeaning their estimable parents. It is also why articles like La Tempa’s, though I ascribe to them no mendacity, are so woefully mishandled. A little mendaciousness would be preferable to the ignorance. Now, mind you, it’s all about the hook and I don’t doubt that some clueless editor came up with that ‘Write about new kicky summer mojitos!’ concept.

The sad thing is, if they had taken a longer look if they had given it more than 5 minutes of thought they might’ve downplayed the Caipirinha/Mojito angle. I say this because (and here I may or may not depart Joseph’s take on it) the actual drinks being introduced are part of a REAL substantive trend my cocktail associate Robert Hess likes to call ‘cocktails as cuisine.’

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, ‘Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’

The danger in taking the all-enveloping xenophobic stance to new anything is the prospect of fossilization. Sure, the Charleston as a dance can still be performed - but it is an insect in amber, an ornament of archaeologists and others who study the dead to get to the living. For cocktails to thrive, we must have new formulae building on the foundation of the old. Cocktails as cuisine are a real step that direction. Notable in the recipes related in the LA Times article are the fresh ingredients. In New York, one chef wanted to do a cocktail take on the Bloody Mary. It was written up in the New York Times (I’ll note so the LA Times doesn’t think I’m singling them out) under the horrid title ‘Bloody Martini, Anyone?’ The drink, thankfully, is really known simply as the Peppar Tomato. It calls for, among other things, Pepper vodka and ‘tomato water.’ Tomato water is made by pureeing ripe tomatoes with salt and leaving them overnight to drain by gravity, through cheesecloth. In the morning, the pink-but-utterly-transparent tomato water is ready to be used.

No recipe was given, but Gary Regan approximated it with this recipe:

1-1/2 ounces pepper-flavored vodka
1 ounce plain vodka
2 ounces tomato water
1 pinch of celery seed
Shake in iced cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with lemon twist.

My point is, this is a recipe only a chef could come up with. I had one at the originating restaurant, Walls, and it was excellent.

And they didn’t call it a ‘martini.’ It took our proud Press to do that.

The recipes in The Mojito Gets Its Groove On follow not just in that tradition but in 2 others - one moderately old and one pretty durn old - as well. The latter is illustrated in this picture.

Fancy 19th century bartenders (who were considered like chefs) liked to jamb fresh fruit into their drinks. Since quality bars had refrigeration by the 1880s while homes either did not or had iceboxes of tiny storage capacity, such additions were luxurious indeed.

And then we have the 1964 World’s Fair. It would be America’s first taste of Sangria. That’s the other aspect, well represented by Ms. La Tempa: the seasonal aspect of drinking, as in food, as in cuisine. She displays a ducky balance of drinks with bases other than vodka too. If attention were not focused on the quazi-caipirinhas, I could embrace the seasonal drinks the article explores. Kudos to Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger, and the Geisha House for resisting the temptation to pander as the other joints did.

The trick is simply to focus on what’s really important instead of the knee-jerk pandering treatment commonly given to articles on drink and maybe a few other subjects as well. Be better journalists, make a better press.

(Apologies to Adegiulio of eGullet for stealing the Tuna Colada quip.)

Originally published on May 27th, 2005