I was going to write about something completely different today, but I was transfixed by one of those momentous question which can change a country’s entire culture. You know the sort of thing: the little spur of the moment butterfly cough that can derail whole civilizations and send them spiralling toward doom or greatness.
So why do some mixed drinks have to include a paper umbrella?
Yes, I know. You are amazed that someone who spends most of his time on trivia about Dutch kids on postcards could tackle a philosophical point of such magnitude. But every now and then you have to push the boat into deep waters. (Water not necessarily being the point here, of course.)
A few people seem to feel that the umbrella, often seen in drinks consumed in a beachfront area, provide important shade for the beverage. A lot of these drinks are chilled, and/or contain ice cubes, so naturally you want to keep the sun off them. That doesn’t exactly work, of course, because what’s melting the ice is the heat around the glass: your sweaty palms or the humid atmosphere. A few other people pooh-pooh the whole ice cube theory, saying that the umbrella provides a cover to keep alcohol fumes from evaporating too quickly. In this theory, the fumes are forced back down into the beverage enhancing the booze content. Food scientists love this theory: they didn’t think anybody could come up with something sillier than the ice cube theory.
An expert I asked about this said, “They have umbrellas because they have tropical names.” There’s a lot of sense to this. The paper umbrella business boomed about the same time the tiki craze swept the nation, though this involves us in a separate debate over what constitutes a tiki drink. A tiki drink, according to purists, must be primarily rum and tropical fruit juice. And, to make it worse, some tiki drinks are served with umbrellas and some are not, while some drinks with umbrellas do not fit the definition of tiki drink. None of this negates the original thought, however: tropical drink equals umbrella.
Another theory makes it a simple marketing tool to get women to come to bars. The old style neighborhood bar was a men’s establishment, according to this theory. Women and even children might show up, but only to buy beer to take home for the family. Only men hung around the bar drinking until all hours, and a number of bartenders realized they could double the take if women could be coaxed into the place. (Or tripled, as men who didn’t want to go to bars to drink might show up to meet women.) What would bring women into these rugged all-male spots with spittoons on the floor and pig’s knuckles on the free ,lunch counter? Why, little paper umbrellas, of course! So in the 1930s, a bunch of bars got together and decided….I am still getting my head around this story, and I will get back to you when I figure it out. Mind you, there IS a belief that any drink with an umbrella in it is a Girlie Drink. It’s the fruit juice.)
My personal favorite is the theory that the umbrella is there as a hiding place for the Tiki Drink Demon, who hides there and whispers “It’s full of fruit juice! It’s healthy! You’re getting healthy food with your alcohol. Better get another one!” Some purveyors of this theory suggest the demon is really the spirit of Don the beachcomber or Trader Vic, whichever one of those gentlemen you feel is the inventor of the umbrella-clad beverage.
You can, of course, probably come up with an alternate theory that beats all of these. Don’t just make one up, though. Making up stories about paper umbrellas is a shady proposition. (Sorry. I get giddy when away from the postcards.)