Approximately the height of a cocktail shaker and the same silvery color, Cecelia Tichi’s Midcentury Cocktails comes aswirl with information and anecdotes poured, neat, over history. But does it belong on the bibliography of the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and Professor of American Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt University?
Why, yes, it does. This is the third in a series that began with Tichi’s well-received Gilded Age Cocktails (which is subtitled History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Golden Age), followed by Jazz Age Cocktails (that would be History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Roaring Twenties). Also the author of a crime series set during the Gilded Age, Tichi knows her way around a narrative and things that go bump in the night.
For Midcentury Cocktails and the baby-boom era it covers, that could be blotto bar-car commuters in their gray flannel suits, overwhelmed wives several Manhasset cocktails to the wind, bashful city newcomers seduced over Playboy bachelor-pad dinners, or jet-lagged flyers on Braniff’s Pucci-painted airplanes downing a final Stinger, Acapulco cocktail, or devil-may-care Dark and Stormy before disembarking into drabber lives.
Joan Didion flew for the first time for her summer as a Mademoiselle guest editor, following in the Pappagallo steps of Sylvia Plath, who “showcased the drinks tabulated by others in her exposé that saw print as the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar.”
To her credit, Tichi makes only one Mad Men allusion. Another show that totally gets it is the ongoing alternative-history series For All Mankind, in which the Russians land on the moon first, and American drinking progresses from hokey homemade cocktails on Houston’s outskirts to competitive toasting among a someday space program’s incestuous elite.
Pursued by ghosts of a war just past and beckoned by a prosperity on the flip side of the horizon, the era was above all on the move. A nation restless as all get-out even when sitting still signed interstates into law as far as General Motors’ highball-hoisting executives could see, although not everyone outran Joseph McCarthy’s grasp.
In Tichi’s recounting, there were libations to fuel upward Wapshot Chronicle mobility, to lubricate outward mobility such as Jack Kerouac’s road-tripping and John Steinbeck’s travels with his poodle Charley, to inspire Hemingway-style escapism (amusingly memorialized in To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion), and to get a young blue-collar South Pacific fan so hopped up about serving soi-disant Polynesian fare in his dank Oakland dive bar that he originated Trader Vic’s there, its franchises eventually as far afield as Eloise’s Plaza. Like so much else, Donald Trump is to blame for that subterranean deb bar’s 1989 demise after he bought the hotel for his own brand of tacky.
The period pushed the outer limits of wishful thinking with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations, a smiling denial of nuclear brinkmanship to match a chicken in every Crock-Pot and Ike’s favorite scotch at day’s end. Tichi isn’t a fan, and her ingredients for an Apricot Fission cocktail are almost sickeningly sweet.
All her chapters conclude with cocktail recipes, to such a degree that, put differently, this is a breezy bartending manual sprinkled with sociological observations, cultural analysis, and historical aperçus by a quick-witted academic—albeit one who overly idealizes John F. Kennedy—highly educated in barware esoterica.
Tichi’s mixology remains not for the faint-hearted or imprecise. Consider that a scotch on the rocks required of any hosts worth their Park Avenue salt “3–4 clear, hard, coldest ice cubes,” and you can see where their kids might have chosen to chuck Brooks Brothers for Woodstock. Already, Tichi writes, a “generation gap” had “erupted when teens’ record players throbbed with the 45-rpm rock ’n’ roll music that parents feared promoted juvenile delinquency. Rock music burst racial boundaries as teens danced the Twist to Chubby Checker and sang along to Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee (the ‘Killer’) Lewis.”
Not so fast. Isn’t this a description of white teens dancing to Chubby Checker, including on an American Bandstand closed to Black contestants, singing along to Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, both white and both beholden to Black gospel and juke-joint music, while Chuck Berry couldn’t order a drink in many of the venues these kids stampeded? This seems a surprising misstep since Tichi’s introduction does reference The Negro Motorist Green Book that helped guide Black Americans to safe havens for socializing on their travels during segregation. But that’s more of a nod—a chapter on the subject, called “Green Booking,” comes next-to-last in the book, uncomfortably like the back of the bus.
And let’s just circle back to Tichi’s bar cars for a moment. Who’s wearing the gray flannel suits? Who’s serving them their drinks?
Celia McGee is literary editor of Avenue Magazine