It’s not a joke, if you are the only one laughing

“Do you have orgy syrup?” asked the 70ish woman bellying up to the bar.

Even I, don’t hear stuff like that every day. Every other day, maybe, but bars are not really like the real world, are they? Certainly though, some things stick in one’s head. And this was one of them.

“I beg your pardon.”

“You know, the stuff from Polynesia,” she clarified. “That you make mai tais with?”

Apart from Hawaiian products, I know of no liquor, liqueurs or bar additives that come from Polynesia. But then, I also know the source of her confusion.

We call it Tiki Culture, and many people believe it is indicative of Polynesian culture. It is most certainly not. And the mai tai is the best example of why not.

Originally invented by Donn Beach (actually Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt-I kid you not) the original mai tai was a combination of a Tahitian name (maitai translates as “good”), Caribbean rum, Persian lime juice, British- by way of India- orgeat (pronounced “orzhat” not “orgy”) syrup, and orange curacao (also Caribbean).

How did this mostly Caribbean drink invented by an American in L.A. come to symbolize Polynesian culture in the minds of many? You can thank two men. Donn Beach and Bay Arean Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic.

Beginning after Prohibition both men began promoting so-called Polynesian-themed bar/restaurants (Beach in LA, which Vic had visited and then appropriated in the Bay Area) which really were a jumble of cultural appropriation, retro colonialism, orientalist fantasy, and just plain exploitation. And both were wildly popular. After the Pacific Campaign in World War II, Americans became even more fascinated with the concept. High potency rum drinks became the rage and it didn’t matter if most of the food items at both restaurant chains were basically Cantonese (a word which itself is a cultural appropriation of the city of Guangzhou). What mattered was that people found it exotic. Accuracy didn’t matter. Tiki has now become so ingrained in our culture that it is often hard to recognize as such: Hawaiian shirts, palm trees, Bermuda shorts. Tiki, tiki, tiki. Trader Joes, the Jungle Ride at Disneyland, rattan furniture and even outside lawn torches also all owe a nod to tiki pop culture.    

The mai tai drink itself is perhaps the most obvious example of the cultural mishmash that is tiki, with both Bergeron, and Beach claiming to have invented it. Obviously after breaking down the ingredients in a mai tai, you realize there is almost nothing Polynesian about it at all. The word “Tiki” itself, however, does in fact have Polynesian roots.

“Tiki” is derived from the Maori word for large wooden images of the “first man,” their Adam so to speak. But it would be more accurate to describe him as the “creator” or wellspring of all mankind, a god/man.

With that in mind, I sincerely doubt that the Polynesian people, who see the images of their ancestor/god used for cartoonish caricature on alcoholic “tiki” drinking cups, find them very funny. As a friend of mine once said “it’s not a joke if you are the only one laughing.” And it is especially unfunny if the target of the joke doesn’t find it amusing. Then, it’s something else entirely.

Right now, there is a lot of talk about symbols and history. History is fluid, not static. It is always possible to revisit it and reconceptualize what happened and why. And more importantly, whether it is appropriate now.

So, when it comes to “tiki,” I think there is something to be said for its pure Americana kitsch. But when it comes to appropriating the religious imagery of another culture as comical farce, we go too far. I can take the Hawaiian shirts, the Bermuda shorts and the straw hats, and I might even still sit back on my rattan chair surrounded by flaming torches and palm fronds while enjoying a mai tai, but I will no longer do it out of a cup in the shape of a Maori god, nor call it “tiki.”  Because you know what? It tastes just as good in a fake coconut shell. And is far less offensive.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-“You’re stupid,” is not a joke, it’s an insult, even if the person saying it thinks it’s funny.

-The international headquarters for Trader Vic’s was located in Marin County twice, first in San Rafael, and later in Corte Madera.

-“People that bartenders have learned not to like,” the title of Chapter 2, Trader Vic’s Bartenders Guide, 1947.

“Bartenders that customers don’t like,” the title of Chapter 3.

-The ostentatious display of the public luau was popularized by Donn Beach, and was based on a private traditional Hawaiian familial party. Think Thanksgiving on steroids. 

-The so-called Persian lime (a cross between a lemon and key lime) may have actually originated in Tahiti.

-Orgy syrup. Really?