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How to Tell If Your Cocktail Is Racist

Caleb Pershan | July 29, 2013 | Story Ingredient

My friend once ordered an Irish car bomb at a bar in Dublin. You know the drink: Guinness, Irish cream, and whiskey. Instead, the bartender brought him two double shots of Wild Turkey 101, lit them on fire, and said “Here’s a 9/11.” My friend got the point.

So, how much racism is stirred into our favorite cocktails? And are we to blame for ordering beloved dishes and drinks of dubious authenticity? The recent revival of the Tonga Room has got me wondering.

This phenomenon is not new. The Bay Area is home to chop suey, the fortune cookie, and Irish coffee—or, if you look at them another way, cartoonish caricatures of Asian cuisine, paens to inscrutable Confucian wisdom, and celebrations of Irish alcoholism, respectively. Let's not even go there with Black and Tans. American Tiki culture, named for both a god and a statue of Central Eastern Polynesia, is another controversial distillation that we Californians might be said to own.

Last week, Michael Bauer revisited the nearly 70-year-old Tonga and called it “endearing” without acknowledging much else about the culture of Tiki. When I checked out the bar and restaurant this week, with its indoor thatched roofs, converted swimming pool lagoon, Cantonese dishes, and “Polynesian” drinks, the place was packed. But something about the whole scene made me feel a little bit queasy, as if I was some rum-swilling colonialist overseeing a sugar plantation.

Okay, this isn’t to poo-poo the Pu-Pu platter. After all, it was at the Tonga that Anthony Bourdain said Tiki had inspired him to travel the world and sample its cuisines. But here’s the question: Are cocktails that combine, elide, or distort cultural heritage actually racist? Or are they harmless celebrations of cultural fusion? What’s the difference between appreciation and appropriation? And can we trump racism by contextualizing it, viewing the Tonga room as a historical relic rather than a tasteless aping of ethnic culture?

For the record, the concoction of coffee, whiskey, sugar, and cream was first served in the states at the behest of Herb Caen’s Chronicle contemporary Stanton Delaplane. Times have changed, but the drink hasn’t. Similarly, when the fortune cookie was first served at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park at the turn of the last century, our understanding of Asian cultures was radically different— and perhaps excusably less accurate—than it is today. Put all the cultures in the blender with ice!

Tiki, a more recent American confabulation, probably calls for more cultural understanding than the less defensible 1970's creation of the Irish car bomb. Its place in California history is no surprise when you consider our proximity to Disneyland and the Pacific theater of the Second World War. The first Tiki bars—LA’s Don the Beachcomber and the Bay Area’s own Trader Vic’s, which are still dueling over credit for inventing the Mai Tai—were founded by white WWII veterans to recall and combine South Pacific cultures. That's their central problem. But in this way, Tiki drinks can be seen as an archive of a less-sensitive but admittedly less-informed time in American history rather than an accurate representation of island cultures.

So, should Tiki drinks be given the tacit, historical approval we grant Civil War reenactments: as kitschy but educational? I don't know. How would we feel to get off the plane in Tahiti and see Paula Deen’s Plantation Paradise serving up mint juleps and slavery jokes? That's a rough analogy, but it gets at the heart of the question. We'd be pretty shy about a Native American theme bar serving Jimmy Buffet-ized Pocohontas drinks—so why is it that Tiki get a pass? Geographic distance? Disparities in scholarship? Bigger problems?

Martin Cate of the Smuggler’s Cove rum bar in Hayes Valley points out that we don’t drink cocktails for the purposes of cultural anthropology. It's about escapism. That is, when we give ourselves up to a great Tiki cocktail, we’re transported to another world—but not necessarily one that exists. “Tiki is authentically inauthentic,” says Cate. “It’s a tropical fever dream invented by out-of-work set designers in Hollywood.” So the style might be thought of as sui generis, or as it’s sometimes referred to: Polynesian Pop. It’s very much inspired by a true story, but not very much based on one. That’s why Cate refers to his d├ęcor as “vintage” Americana—and has chosen it carefully. “I can still have a great Tiki bar without the antique big-lipped savage figurine.”

Maybe Tiki—with savages excised—gets a pass because what we’re really celebrating is the historical popularity and enduring allure of the exotic. It's just that the exotic isn't the same for everyone. Of course Tiki is based on cultural misconceptions, but how else can we begin to imagine paradise? Historically, Tiki was a refuge for Don Draper types who badly needed a Hawaiian-style vacation from workaday mid-century life.

In some way, we can all relate to that and enjoy doing so. Don the Beachcomber promised “if you can’t get to paradise, [we’ll] bring it to you,” if only in the form of an umbrella drink. With Tiki, the further from any actual place, the better.

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