Purple breeze

Untamed and tighter than Lana Turner’s sweater

Purple breeze

Do you remember Tiki ? That slightly frightening carved-wood divinity from the 1960s ? Recently, I went to the quai Branly museum to see the exhibit Tiki Pop : America imagines its own Polynesian paradise, which is all about the American obsession for South Pacific culture from the 1940s to the 60s. I do personally own a muumuu dress, and I have a vague memory of tiki mugs and tiki torches. And the hut-like architecture styles displayed in the exhibit looked familiar to me once there. But how could I have known who Don the Beachcomber was before I was even born ?

The quai Branly museum is a relative newcomer to the Parisian museum scene. Built by the architect Jean Nouvel, it was inaugurated in 2006, and specializes in the art and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The elongated red “bridge-museum” is built on stilts and hovers above an enormous park. The winding paths and decorative pampas grasses which brush my arms as I’m walking through the park leave me feeling a long way from the busy road alongside the Seine just behind me.

Once inside, the museum is dark and cool. And even though the design and layout already feel dated, the Tiki Pop exhibit is fun and refreshing. Beginning with reference to Gaugin’s paintings of Polynesian women in the 1890s, the exhibit lead me through the post-World War II period, when novels like James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific helped popularize the islands, and then it explained how the Tiki divinity became co-opted by restaurateurs and bar-owners on the West coast and through other parts of the U.S.

Don Draper

You’re probably no stranger to the mid-century aesthetic, which has become popular (again) in the last ten years. When I lived in the U.S., I loved collecting colorful Melmac dishes (which some French friends have refused to eat from, with the exception of during a picnic), Danish coffee tables, or scraps of barkcloth. The Mad Men craze hit France a few years back, and with it a renewed love for all things mid-century. A gallery called Les Modernistes opened in a street near ours a few years ago, mercifully replacing a shop full of glorified phone booths called TaxiPhoneDar. So now instead of hearing people scream into telephones as I walk by the shop, I can regularly ogle Danish desks or even a multi-colored Charlotte Perriand bookshelf.

Modern portrayals of the 1950s show how the era was all about achieving the American dream : job, house in the suburbs, wife, children, and a great car. Think Don Draper - his only jobs once back home after work were to have a(nother) drink, read the paper, and simply put his feet under the dinner table (mettre les pieds sous la table, as the French so aptly put it). Betty Draper’s job was to provide him a stress-free environment far from the crowds, grime, and crime of the city.

Tiki culture took the 1950s American man one step further into relaxation, into the carefree world of the South Pacific islands, represented by the Tiki divinity and the vahiné, or bare-breasted hula girl. The so-called primitive island lifestyle involved palm trees, thatched huts, ukulele music, and of course, cocktails.

Mai tai and bamboo

Back in California, Sugie’s Original “The Tropics” was one of several Tiki-themed establishments that sold many a cocktail while glorifying the island lifestyle. Opened in Beverly Hills in 1936 by an Englishman, Harry “Sugie” Sugarman, the Polynesian-themed restaurant and cocktail lounge featured palm trees and pretty much anything you could possibly fashion out of bamboo. Menu items included a cocktail called Lana Turner’s “Untamed : One drink and you’re tighter - than Lana Turner’s sweater !” The price you paid for getting tight ? A whopping 64 cents.

The quai Branly curators set up a tiny replica of a Mai Tai bar in a cozy room in one corner of the museum, although I was disappointed to discover that they don’t actually serve cocktails. But I slid into a cushioned built-in seating area around a rattan table and looked through the exhibit catalogue, and I admit that those cushions were so comfortable that I closed my eyes for a glorious ten minutes. Where else but Paris could you have a nap in a museum ?

Purple breeze

But the exhibit also includes Tiki mugs, menus from other bars like Don the Beachcomber’s in Los Angeles, and even photos and dioramas of the Tiki architectural style that was used for bowling alleys, motels, and restaurants that sprang up in California, Florida, and other areas of the U.S. during the period.

Makin’ Wicky Wacky

Even though the late 1960s saw a fading out of this style, which was deemed to be colonialist, decadent, and old-fashioned by the younger counter-culture generation, the recent craze for all things mid-century has revived the Tiki aesthetic. And once I’d seen the exhibit, I started finding Tiki influence everywhere : while looking through the web site of the amazing German company Wallpapers from the 70s, I ran across the one called Megamba in black/greyor pale green. Even my local cinema’s 1930s architecture (at Gambetta) features spooky-looking faces above the marquee that strangely resemble Tiki.

Purple breeze

But if you don’t have a Tiki around, how about just making and serving a Purple breeze ? The cocktail recipe is below, and it was adapted from the recipe provided by the Tiki Lounge in Paris’ 11th district. If you want to put on a few songs from the period, simply click on the quai Branly’s Deezer playlist, and don’t forget Sophie Tucker’s “Makin’ Wicky Wacky Down in Waikiki” ! Put on your favorite muumuu or Hawaiian shirt, sip away, and peruse the immense exhibit catalogue, written by the urban archeologist Sven Kirsten. Aloha ahi ahi... And let me know in the comments section below if Tiki shows up at your door !

Purple breeze

for the hibiscus syrup :
- ¼ cup (50g) raw sugar
- scant 2¼ cups (500ml) water
- ¾ cup (25g) dried hibiscus flowers (sometimes called "flor de Jamaica," you can find these in Mexican food shops or at Amazon)
note : This makes much more hibiscus syrup than you’ll need for the cocktail, but stored in a jar in the fridge, it comes in handy for drinking on its own or making more cocktails later.

for the cocktail :
- ⅓ cup (65ml) dark rum
- ¼ cup (50ml) freshly squeezed orange juice (1 orange)
- 1½ tablespoons (20ml) hibiscus syrup
- 1½ tablespoons (20ml) freshly squeezed lime juice (½ lime)
- ¾ cup (150ml) ginger beer or ginger ale, or more (to taste)

how to make it :

  1. First make the hibiscus syrup : put the sugar and water in a small casserole and bring to the boil.
  2. As soon as the sugar is completely dissolved, place the hibiscus flowers in the syrup.
  3. Let this mixture boil for two minutes.
  4. Cover the casserole and let the mixture cool while letting the flowers infuse the syrup for 1 hour. Strain the syrup into a jar.
  5. To finish the cocktail, put the rum, orange juice, hibiscus syrup, and lime juice into a shaker or jar and shake vigorously with several ice cubes.
  6. Divide this mixture into 2 tiki mugs or glasses (I used some 1950s French flea market finds) and top up with the ginger beer or ginger ale.
  7. Decorate with straws, umbrellas, a slice of pineapple or orange, or anything South Pacific you can find ! Okole Maluna ! (Bottoms up !)

makes 2 cocktails

Tags : cocktail , Tiki , quai Branly , mid-century , rum , hibiscus flowers


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