"Mai Tai" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endless Knot Tiki Bar! Today, we’re serving up Mai Tais!

When you hear “tiki bar”, you may think of Hawaiian shirts, tiki torches, grass skirts and leis. And you wouldn’t be wrong! But as always, there’s more to the story.

The word tiki itself comes from Maori, with related forms in a number of other Polynesian languages. The Polynesian language family, a subset of the large Austronesian language family, is a group of some 40 related languages spoken in the scattered islands of the central and south pacific, including Maori, Tahitian, and Hawaiian. Owing to their relatively recent spread, the languages still show fairly strong resemblances with similar sounds and much related vocabulary.  In Maori, Tiki is the name of the first created man (or the creator of the first man). Polynesian mythology is complex and varied, with numerous different deities known by many different names—reflecting the wide diversity of cultures covered by the term ‘Polynesian’. In Maori culture in particular, Tiki is often said to have been formed either by the war god Tū  or the forest god Tāne, out of red clay or a mixture of blood and clay. In some versions of the story, Tiki sees his reflection in a pool, and being unable to touch this companion, covers the pool with earth which then produces a woman. The first sexual act follows, so Tiki is often associated with procreation or fertility. The word tiki also refers to a large wooden carving of a human figure, which has religious significance or marks sacred locations. Thus the word tiki and its Polynesian cognates generally mean image or figurine.

Tiki culture in the US had its origin in the 1930s. In 1933 Texas-born Ernest Gantt opened a restaurant in Hollywood called Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, the first tiki bar. Gantt had traveled around the Pacific, then ended up in Southern California doing odd-jobs in the film and restaurant industries, and even a little bootlegging during prohibition. But things turned around for Gantt after he opened his own restaurant, with South-Pacific inspired decor, Chinese-American cuisine, and rum-based cocktails—mostly because rum was one of the cheapest spirits at the time. Soon, renamed  as Don the Beachcomber, it became trendy, drawing some of the Hollywood elite, and while Gantt was deployed in WWII, his soon-to-be ex-wife Sunny Sund continued the success of the chain of restaurants and expanded into 16 locations. Oh, and after years of everyone assuming it was his name, Gantt eventually legally changed his name to Donn Beach.

Don the Beachcomber also inspired competition. In 1934 Vic Bergeron, born in California to a French-Canadian father, opened a restaurant named Hinky Dinks in Oakland, but after visiting Don the Beachcomber’s bar, he changed the decor and menu to a Polynesian-inspired style and renamed it Trader Vic’s, inventing a whole new persona of a South Pacific traveller for himself. Bergeron’s chain of restaurants also went on to be quite successful in the tiki craze of the 1950s, and still exists today.

And it’s possibly through Trader Vic’s that the word tiki started being used for this mid-century pop culture trend. But to tell that story, I have to go all the way back to the 19th century and the World’s Fair. The first World’s Fair, London’s Great Exhibition organized by Prince Albert in 1851, kicked off the practice of these grand celebrations of industrial progress. Its featured attraction, the Crystal Palace, is the perfect reflection of  Victorian notions of industrial progress and Britain’s paramount world influence. Later, as the United State’s star was rising at the end of the 19th century, the 1893 Fair marked American ascendancy and a growing sense of American exceptionalism. This fair, held in Chicago, also celebrated the anniversary of  Columbus’s arrival in the New World and was dubbed the World’s Columbian Exhibition—so its aspects of colonialism & imperialism are fairly obvious. The 1893 fair featured native villages, recreations of the living conditions of so-called primitive peoples from around the world, including actual inhabitants—part of a widespread, and truly awful, 19th cent fashion for “human zoos”. As a sort of sideline to the Chicago Fair, newspaperman M.H. de Young organized the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park, with its own exotic displays; and among the exhibits were some Maori tiki carvings. After the fair was over, they didn’t go back to New Zealand, but continued to be held in the Palace of Fine Arts building, which became the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, where they still are today. At some point, years later, Trader Vic’s restaurant started using the image of one of these carvings on the restaurant’s menu, which helped establish the style, look, and name of the tiki bar craze.

Vic and Beach were friendly rivals throughout the tiki craze, but one ongoing argument between them was who invented the quintessential tiki drink, the mai tai. The mai tai started out as a cocktail that features its main ingredient, rum, and also typically contains curaçao, orgeat syrup (made from almonds), and lime. Donn the Beachcomber invented a drink he called a Mai Tai Swizzle in 1933, but that recipe is actually quite different from Trader Vic’s Mai Tai recipe invented in 1944. The word Mai Tai, which means “good”, is from Tahitian and has related forms in a variety of Polynesian languages. The story that Trader Vic told is that some Tahitian friends were visiting his restaurant, and he mixed up the drink for them. After sipping it, one of them immediately called out “Mai Tai - Roa Ae” which Vic translated as “out of this world - the best”, and so that’s what he named the drink.

Although the Mai Tai has a Tahitian name, none of the ingredients are in any way Polynesian. Rum comes from the Caribbean and is made from the byproducts of the sugarcane refining process. The name is something of a linguistic mystery, perhaps from an English slang word meaning “good, excellent, high quality” or “odd”, which itself may come from a Romany word. Or it might come from the Malay word for a “rice spirit”. Or from a Dutch word for a type of large cup. Or it might be from the last syllable of the Latin word for sugar, saccharum. Orgeat, a European product, comes, through French, from the Latin word hordeum meaning “barley” (which it used to contain), ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root that meant “to bristle”. And curaçao is named after the Caribbean island it hails from, which name itself comes from the Portuguese word for either “heart” or “cure”, or from a now lost indigenous word. So the drink really IS emblematic of tiki culture, being a blend of many cultures, topped by a decorative element taken from the South Pacific, in this case the name.

Though the Mai Tai can be considered the signature tiki drink, perhaps the second most famous is the Zombie, a very potent and complex concoction of several different rums, syrups, juices, and bitters, created by Don the Beachcomber, according to legend, to cure the hangover of one of his customers—but it was so strong that it left him feeling like “the living dead”. It was always sold with a two-drink limit, perhaps more for clever marketing purposes, though supposedly this was the last drink Howard Hughes had at Don’s bar the night he hit a pedestrian on his drive home. Though the name does have a tropical flair, it certainly isn’t connected with the South Pacific, coming instead from Haitian folklore, originally referring to a snake god and later to a reanimated corpse, and ultimately derived from a West African word meaning “god” or “fetish”. However, the Zombie cocktail does have an important role in the history of the tiki craze. Monte Proser, a nightclub owner with mob connections also known for the Copacabana—yes that Copacabana—and a press agent who counted Walt Disney among his clients, opened the Hurricane bar at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and sold Zombie cocktails, claiming them as his own invention. They became a smash hit, increasing the popularity of the  tiki phenomenon. And what’s more, as with the 1893 World’s Fair, there was a concurrent West Coast fair in 1939, the Golden Gate International Exposition, which was specifically themed to celebrate the cultures of the Pacific, and featured a 25 metre tall statue called Pacifica, a symbolic goddess of the Pacific. Over the first half of the 20th century we can see the World’s Fairs gradually moving from industrial triumphalism to cultural fetishization and appropriation to genuine attempts at intercultural communication, and this Golden Gate fair did much to introduce the growing tiki culture, as well as actual Polynesian culture more broadly, to mainstream American society.

Out of its start in the restaurant industry, tiki culture spread to other areas of 40’s and 50’s America.The tiki torches that were originally used to decorate the tiki bars and the tiki mugs in which tropical tiki drinks were served, have become iconic. And the Hawaiian or aloha shirt, which has its origins in 1930s Hawaii, became very popular in the US after service men posted in the Pacific and Asia during WWII brought them home. In fact these returning Americans had a lot to do with the explosion of tiki culture in the 1940s and 50s, as did the incorporation of Hawaii as the 50th state in 1959. But the craze was also a reaction against modernisation and the industrialisation of the post-war era, with a fantasy of an idealised ‘primitive’ simplicity, a tropical paradise without the rigid rules of 50’s morality and society. In some ways the Maori story of Tiki makes a good metaphor here: Americans looked towards the fantasy of the South Pacific life, but being unable to reach it, instead made a copy of it for themselves, reflecting their own culture more than the Polynesian reality.

The Polynesian aesthetic made its way into music as well in the form of Exotica, a subset of the popular lounge music of the 1950s. Classically trained composer Les Baxter kicked off the genre with his 1952 album Le Sacre Du Sauvage (obviously inspired by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps) which combined jazz forms and tribal rhythms in orchestral arrangements that were meant to evoke the exotic Polynesian world. A few years later Martin Denny had a hit with a cover of one of Baxter’s songs, and popularized the vibraphone-heavy sounds of the new genre which took its name from his 1957 album Exotica. He even performed for a while at Don the Beachcomber’s Hawaii tiki bar. Also worth mentioning is the Japanese-American composer Tak Shindo, who, after his time in an internment camp during WWII, explored the fusion of Japanese and western musical traditions, including some Asian influenced Exotica music.

The original tiki craze was actually quite shortlived, with its mainstream popularity lasting only from the late forties to the early sixties, when the counter-cultural movements of the hippies, and the growing awareness of the problems of American imperialism, colonial history, and cultural appropriation combined to make tiki culture seem tacky, artificial, and even racist. But there have been several waves of tiki revivals; for instance, in the 90’s tiki culture became popular for its kitsch value, as a fun retro fashion; and more recently, there’s been a movement among the craft cocktail set towards rediscovery and reverse engineering of the original tiki drinks, and new versions that reflect more modern tastes, with new tiki bars opening. One interesting instance of this recent revival is TikiBarTV, which was one of the very first vodcast web series, launching in 2005. Made by Canadians, about an American cultural trend, based on elements of South Pacific and Caribbean societies, it was a highly ironic and self-referential satire on both internet culture and the tiki phenomenon, and reflects a more post-modern, post-colonial engagement with pop culture. Though tiki culture was never really a reflection of cultural diversity, perhaps its re-examination can be.

So, tiki culture has a pretty complicated history, but at its heart it’s always been about a fantasy of escape from everyday life, with fun, food, and tasty drinks. And so I’ll end today’s video by making tiki culture’s most emblematic drink, the Mai Tai. Now, the Mai Tai has changed a lot since those early Trader Vic years – most of the time these days, the ‘Mai Tai’ served in restaurants is filled with juice and fruit garnishes, and maybe an umbrella or two. But the original recipe was designed to showcase a good rum, so I’m going to try to go back to that. I can’t get the rum Vic used, but I’m using a premium aged Jamaican rum that should be pretty good. Oh, and most recipes call for an old-fashioned glass, but I can’t resist the chance to use one of my Tiki mugs!

Combine with ice in a shaker:

2 oz aged Jamaican rum
1 oz lime juice
0.5 oz orgeat
0.5 oz orange curacao
0.25 oz rich sugar syrup

Shake and strain into a glass filled with crushed ice, and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

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