"Vive Le Cocktail!": The Birth Of An American Tradition
Smack Dab In The Middle: Design Trends Of The Mid-20th Century
Old Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide, 1935
As any wise bartender will tell you, a bar glass is just a bar glass, no matter how elegant. It's what's inside it that counts. While the mid-twentieth century gave birth to plenty of sophisticated barware, those decades also gave birth to plenty of sophisticated beverages. Among them: multiple and increasingly complex variations on that mainstay of retro moviedom, the "cocktail."
For the daring flappers of silent film days, a garter-held flask of bootleg "hootch" made the '20s roar. In black-and-white movie musical extravaganzas of the 1930s, elegantly clad night-clubbers sipped more decorously as Fred and Ginger sailed across the dance floor. By the swinging '60s, the cocktail had assumed its still-current aura of James Bond-ish cool. Bar guides proliferated, each with its own can't-miss mixture of drink recipes and helpful hints ("Never mix by the 'eyeball' method - not even with highballs!"). For the Rat Pack crowd of yore (and the Mad Men crowd of today), there was even a politically-incorrect Girl Watchers' Drink Guide, awash in wolfish advice ("The hobby of girl-watching is best pursued with an expertly mixed drink in hand").
The concept of the mixed drink had, however, been around long before any of these on-screen incarnations, and the stories surrounding its creation are numerous. The most drama-filled has the cocktail making its debut in Revolutionary War days. The upper crust of American and French military men patronized a Yorktown, N.Y., tavern operated by Betsy Flanagan. For the Americans, the drink of choice at Flanagan's was gin or whiskey; for the French, wine or vermouth. When the time came for a toast, the liquors were often combined with joyous abandon.
Perhaps filled with liquid courage, one enterprising officer absconded with a rooster belonging to a nearby farmer still loyal to the Crown. The ever-practical Betsy cooked up the rooster for her guests, putting its colorful tail feathers to good use adorning their mixed drinks. The toast for the evening: "Vive le cock-tail!" A beverage legend was born.
Often, the names of cocktail combos are more interesting than the drinks themselves. They range from the seemingly-innocuous ("The Sweet Patootie," "The Fairy Bell"), to the high-hat ("The Vanderbilt," "The Fox Trot"). There are the slightly risqué ("The Soul Kiss," "The Widow's Dream"), and even the potentially lethal ("The Rattlesnake," "The Knock-Out," and "The Third Rail"). The hallmark of the cocktail, however, remains constant: combining the unlikely with the unusual to create the un-put-down-able. (The rooster feather is optional.)
For ringing in the New Year, there is, of course, eggnog, with its lip-smacking mix of dairy products and more potent drinkables. (Early bar guides encouraged especially ambitious egg-noggers to milk the cow directly into the liquor!) More genteel revelers might opt instead for the "Tom and Jerry," another dairy-based holiday tradition. Here's the recipe, courtesy of "Old Mr. Boston" himself, circa 1935:
Old Mr. Boston's Tom & Jerry:
First, prepare batter, using mixing bowl. Separate the yolk and white of 1 egg, beating each separately and thoroughly. Then combine both, adding enough superfine powdered sugar to stiffen. Add to this 1 pinch of baking soda, and 1/4 oz. rum to preserve the batter. Then, add a little more sugar to stiffen.
To serve, use hot "Tom and Jerry" mug, with 1 tablespoon of batter dissolved in 3 tablespoons hot milk. Add 1-1/2 oz. rum. Then fill with hot milk within 1/4 inch of top of mug, and stir gently. Top with ½ oz. brandy, and grate a little nutmeg on top.
The secret of a good "Tom & Jerry": a stiff batter, and a warm mug.
Happy New Year (and bottoms up!)
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including "Postwar Pop: Memorabilia of the Mid-Twentieth Century." He favors a Brandy Old Fashioned (sweet). Please address inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Donald-Brian Johnson is a nationwide columnist, and the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. His most recent, "Postwar Pop," is a collection of his columns.