We are well and truly living in the Last Days.
True, I tend to start complaining about summer's imminent demise about a week after the Fourth of July. I'm an hourglass-half-empty type, and without a solid two months of summer fun stretching out before me, all I can think about are encroaching darkness, extortionary heating bills, and medicating my SAD with tearful candy corn binges. Now autumn is days away. How best to wring that final cocktail of salt water, citrus juice, and Panama Jack tanning oil from summer 2010?
"In the depth of winter," Albert Camus wrote, "I learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." He might have been channeling my old pal Mike Stutzman, whose passion for all things tiki informed much of my summer fun this year. Recently, after having browsed in Trader Vic's Tiki Party! (2005), I marinated a cha siu pork tenderloin, bought a fat sack of limes, and took the train to Mike's place in New Haven.
He seems like a mild-mannered poet and teacher, but step into his cabana and you've entered, with apologies to Ferlinghetti, the Cook Islands of the Mind. A glass cabinet of tiki mugs sits, imposing as an Easter Island mo'ai, against the far wall of the dining room. An antique shortwave radio serves as bar, where the visitor finds, among much else, an assortment of fancy-schmancy rums. Here and there one glimpses Mike's piratical, one-eyed cat, Willie.
The impression that Mike must have multiple graduate degrees in the Leisure Arts is strengthened by a peek into his office, a veritable museum of tobacco pipes, tins, and packets. But the proof is in Mike's cocktail-making expertise. Mike and his sister Annie and I shared a pitcher of Navy Grog and one of Painkillers, ate a tenderloin marinated in equal parts sugar, ketchup, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce (then sliced, garnished with toasted sesame seeds--which he just happened to have!--and dunked in Chinese hot mustard), and slipped into a hibiscus-scented reverie. As the Stutzmans and I are old friends, we didn't spend much time talking about the theory and praxis of tikiculture. I saved that for email.
Who is Trader Vic? What does he have to do with the tiki gestalt?
Trader Vic--Victor Bergeron--ran an eponymous chain of restaurants that became the quintessential representations of post-WWII tiki and exotica culture: tiki mugs, bamboo décor, a good strong rum drink, Martin Denny soundtrack, and the proverbial "whole lot of crazy crap on the walls." Vic invented the Mai Tai; any claims otherwise are god damned lies, to paraphrase the man himself. He and rival tikitrepreneur Donn "The Beachcomber" Beach (né Gantt) lay claim to creating or perfecting most of the "tropical" drinks we associate with tiki culture.
Your Navy Grog was delicious. Can you explain what grog is, and what's so naval about it?
As Wayne Curtis writes in And a Bottle of Rum (2006), the first rums were essentially distilled industrial waste, the molasses left over from refining sugarcane. It was the Navy tot of choice as it wouldn't spoil in the barrel, but would quite efficiently spoil the livers and brain cells of sailors. Grog was a way to make the rum ration more palatable and less fierce: dilute with water, sweeten (if sugar was on hand), and add citrus to ward off scurvy. Some variety of it was served aboard each of Her Majesty's fleet until the rum ration was ended in the 1970s.
I'm not a fan of specialty glassware, but naturally I'll make an exception for tiki mugs. Now, what are they?
Tiki mugs are meant as homage to the stone and wood statues found throughout Polynesia, Micronesia, and Oceania. Depending where you go, "tiki" is a first-man character, a male fertility symbol, and/or a collective noun for that sort of mythic character and its figural representation. Most contemporary tiki mugs, though, are original designs in the style of other tiki mugs. It's a bit postmodern, which is why copious drinking helps one's understanding of the subject.
How did your tiki passion get started? And what's that weird bowl that your grandfather gave you?
I come by it honestly, I suppose. The Red Cross Blood Bank informed my father that he has a blood factor usually found only in Pacific Islanders. My mother went into labor with me performing "Hawaiian War Dance" whilst watching Sha Na Na. And being raised Jewish, I spent many hours in old-school Chinese-American restaurants, a hotbed of tiki drinks. So when I was gifted a four-pack of tiki mugs in college, it was really fulfilling my destiny. Overdoing it followed.
That bowl is an authentic kava bowl, from the Marshall Islands, I believe. It's used to mix a mildly hallucinogenic tisane made from kava, a cousin of the pepper plant. It tastes, as my grandfather reported, like dishwater.
Walk me through those Painkillers you made. (I think I have the name right. At first I
remembered it as "Paint Thinners.")
Painkillers are, it turns out, a registered trademark of Pusser's brand rum, and as it happens I used a Cruzán amber rum instead. So strictly speaking, we were drinking a Painkiller-inspired cocktail . . . let us call it, for argument's sake, the Paracetamol. That would be one part each OJ and Crème of Coconut, two-plus parts amber rum (very plus for us), and four parts pineapple juice, garnished with fresh-grated nutmeg. It's what a Piña Colada ought to be--a little more forward with the rum flavor, and its bouquet not so reminiscent of suntan lotion.
Suppose one is in a state of crippling anguish over the end of summer, and hoping to go out with a tiki-themed bang. What do I need?
If there are Mai-Tais, or better yet, cocktails designed for multiple drinkers (like the Scorpion Bowl), guests are usually game, but hospitality comes first: If you know your guests will want beer, or martinis, or soft drinks, get plenty of 'em. (Though perhaps you could convince them to pour their Schaefer into a tiki mug, of which you should also have many on hand.)
You'll need pupus (finger food). Asian appetizers are de rigueur for a tiki party--spare ribs, dumplings, Korean BBQ, satay skewers, etc. I like to add in some Hawaiian dishes like poke (a cousin of ceviche) or lau-lau. Spam is also Hawaii's adopted meat product of choice--a Spam musubi (rice ball) is real Local Style. If you can find poi, go for it--almost everyone is curious how it tastes, and inevitably one person will adore it and finish the bowl.
Of the remaining "luau" trappings, I run a bit conservative. Tiki torches are good, especially filled with functional citronella oil. But plastic leis will give your guests itchy necks. I learned this the hard way. Hours of Arthur Lyman-style exotica and slack-key guitar music get lost in the background--as with drinks, generously mix in music that will make the guests happy. Of course, if someone plays ukulele, they should absolutely bring it along. Most of all, you need people. It won't be a proper hukilau without plenty of guests.
We're conversing for an Internet audience, and the commenters usually manage to find something to be upset about. How do you respond to the inevitable charges that tiki is an insulting, reductive appropriation of Polynesian culture?
I'd say have a drink, and try not to overthink it. Most of what tiki culture borrows from other cultures--Pacific, Asian, Caribbean--is just another version of the stuff we all love: good food, drink, music, hospitality. Yes, the mugs themselves are inspired by a style of figural carving that's used for subjects that include mythic figures, as something beautiful and evocative of place. Recreating and re-imagining cultural touchstones can be tacky, sure, but it's not appropriation any more than a Great Pyramid of Giza paperweight is grave robbery. It's a souvenir of tourism, not the spoils of war.
I also like the idea that despite wave after wave of missionaries to the Pacific islands, smashing statues and preaching doctrine, tiki has survived as part of our culture that embraces intemperance, leisure, and good-natured idolatry.