originally published July 26, 2014
Hey kids. Your mom normally takes care of story-time, but there’s an engrossing marathon of The Real Housewives of some damn city on TV, and she’s asked me to fill in. I’m more of a freestyler than a page-reader, so I’m going to unfold this tale fresh from my mind’s back pocket.
Because I love you, and because my brain is bobbing lazily upon a lilting brume of a particularly precocious rum tonight, I think I’ll unwrap the story of one of daddy’s heroes, a man whose singular vision of an urban oasis has not only helped daddy get through your mother’s tearful re-telling of the salient plot-points of every goddamn Nicholas Sparks novel, but also through your ballet recitals, your soccer games and your school concerts. That man’s name was Don the Beachcomber.
No Trixie, daddy isn’t going to tell you a story about a pony. Why not? Because Don the Beachcomber was a man, man of prescience. Hey, stop your whining! What would you rather hear about? Trixie, I don’t know any stories about goddamn unicorns. Lucy, so help me, if you ask me to read that Berenstain Bears book again, I will spend your college fund on cocaine. What did you say, Tommy? You want a story about zombies? That’s my boy. The story of Don the Beachcomber is full of zombies.
When Don was nineteen years old, he left his home in Limestone County, Texas – that’s near Dallas, where the Cowboys play football… you remember last Thanksgiving when daddy was throwing candied yams at the TV set and cursing a man named Tony Romo for almost blowing a game against the Oakland Raiders? Well, he plays for the Cowboys. Anyway, Don went on an adventure, sailing around the Caribbean and the islands of the South Pacific.
While Don was out exploring, he learned all about yummy rum tiki drinks. Lucy, remember when you told me that Shirley Temples are the bestest drinks in the world? Sorry honey, you’re flat-out wrong about that. The cocktails Don discovered could push your taste buds into retirement, for after having sampled those sweet droplets of Polynesian nectar, there will be no greater summits for them to conquer. No Trixie, you can’t try one now. It’ll just taste like booze to you. Right. Eww. Whatever.
Don used to be a bootlegger during Prohibition. That means he brought alcohol into the country when it was illegal. That’s right Tommy, you shouldn’t break the law. But this was a stupid law, and by breaking it, Don was able to earn lots of money so he could move to Hollywood and build a restaurant. So you see, sometimes breaking the law is okay, if you’re ultimately elevating the collective palette of an entire society.
Don opened Don’s Beachcomber Café in 1934 just a half-block off Hollywood Blvd, right by where the Kodak Theater is today. You guys remember back in February when daddy was throwing Cheetos at the TV set and cursing the fact that A Good Day To Die Hard didn’t get nominated for any Oscars? Well, the Kodak is where they filmed the Oscars. And if Don’s café was still around today, he’d no doubt win every statuette in the building. Let me tell you about some of these drinks.
Sorry Tommy, the zombie cocktail is not made with actual zombies, nor do human brains pop up in the recipe. A zombie happens when four ounces of three kinds of rum walk into a glass and meet up with some bitters, some fruit juices, and a little bit of magic. The story goes that Don invented the drink to help out a customer with a bad hangover. What’s a hangover, Trixie? Well, remember last Sunday morning when daddy was throwing pork rinds at the TV set because Kelly Ripa wouldn’t stop talking, except the TV wasn’t actually on and daddy was just having what mommy called an “after-party episode”? That’s a hangover.
Sometimes a zombie is made with something called falernum. Falernum is a syrup – no, not for pancakes, Lucy – made from almonds, ginger, sometimes cloves, allspice and lime. Falernum is to a tiki drink what Van Morrison is to music: textured, inventive, and joyously distinct. Trust me Trixie, you wouldn’t like it. Falernum invites your tongue on a quest, throws in weather changes, plot twists and a gentle wisp of danger, then ultimately anoints your palette with wisdom and an intangible sense of exaltation. Trixie, you told me last week that Fresca “tastes too loud on your tongue.” Falernum would probably kill you.
While Don’s friendly Oakland rival, Trader Vic, claims he invented the Mai Tai in his tiki cove in 1944, Don swears he created it eleven years earlier in L.A. I’m inclined to believe the man, as he has bestowed upon my innards such so many drops of cunning bliss I abhor the thought of ever doubting him. Trader Vic’s Mai Tai is a sweet little number – Tommy, you might be able to handle one of these; maybe I’ll make you one next time mom’s out meeting with her Blog-Of-The-Month Club – made with rock candy syrup, orange syrup, orange curaçao, some lime and some rum. But Don’s? Don’s Mai Tai is a dimension of flavor unto itself.
Sipping on a real Mai Tai is such an immediate portal to the unremitting tropics you’ll feel the visceral scrunch of beach-sand beneath your feet; you’ll find yourself wiping away the salty spittle of the South Pacific from your brow; and you’ll discreetly wonder – even if you fashioned the beverage in your own home – if the crushed ice singing against the side of your glass might be tainted with a smidge of Hepatitis.
During World War II, Don traveled the Allied lines, setting up exquisite R&R escapes for enervated servicemen, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his troubles. He was a hero, and when he returned home, he and Trader Vic unleashed the mighty tiki fad upon a thirsty nation. People donned garish cotton frocks and dragged their livers through a consciousness-throttling stream of Technicolor mayhem and rum-soaked felicity. Rec-room bars in homes took on a Polynesian panache and for a brief time in history, our collective cup runnethed over with the serpentine taste of dreams.
And then it faded away. Don lost control of his restaurants in a divorce, he moved to Hawaii, bought a houseboat and lost it in a hurricane. The tiki trend gave way to Brylcreem, clanking guitars and a noisy counterculture with no delicious libations to boast about. The spirit of the tiki, those meandering byways of narrative flavors, went underground. Those who know of such empyrean elixirs still dance beneath their luminous halo-lights when possible, but outside of a few savvy crannies along the west coast, the culture has mostly evaporated from our part of the world.
That’s all for tonight, kids. Time for bed, and time for daddy to look up the recipe and make his own Falernum. Tommy, get daddy some Chex Mix to throw at the TV. I hate this Real Housewives crap.