Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Zombie's gone to Mai Kai Heaven

Adult Disney World
Rum Renaissance kicked off here in South Florida with a Zombie Jamboree thrown at the legendary Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale. It included a Zombie Seminar by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry and bartenders from near and far throwing down their versions of this classic Tiki drink.

Running from the Zombies
I must make a confession. As a child, I was obsessed with 1950's tiki-tacky. I begged my folks to stay at the Polynesian resort at Disney World. I liked fancy drinks with big garnishes. At the beach I like to dig for buried treasure and play out fantasies closely modeled on The Goonies, Treasure Island and other swashbuckling adventures. To this day I still walk around my apartment in a sarong, trying to stay as naked as possible while I dream of tackling the waves in a dug out canoe and cooking fresh fish by a beach bonfire. It is only recently that I have learned that my early cravings for cocktail culture might have been generated in this childhood desire. Perhaps the Zombie was my destiny calling from the Gods and Goddesses.

Offering myself as sacrifice to the Tiki Gods
As we learned from The Bum's fascinating seminar, The Zombie, created by Don Beachcomer in 1936, almost single handily kicked off the Tiki craze. After the fall of prohibition, many drinkers went back to gin and whiskey, leaving behind the cheap rum drinks of more restricted times. Having access to all this cheap and good rum, Don started wowing the crowds in Hollywood with sophisticated cocktails called "Rum Rhapsodies". To avoid theft of his complicated cocktails, Don forced his bartenders to work behind closed doors in a service bar and wrote his cocktail recipes in code. This led to mass desertion of his staff, rightfully perturbed about not getting their fair share of tips (See?! Tip pools ARE best) and mass disintegration of the actual recipe for a Zombie since no one knew what was in it!

In his exhaustive research, over 15 or so years, Mr. Berry found 3 likely candidates for a Zombie. The first two, from 1950 and 1956, come from printed publications that have quotes from Don Beachcomber himself. (Why not find an interesting cocktail recipe in a magazine about the best places to go to for Burlesque? I guess it was like the Maxim of the day complete with comely babe on the cover.) The third and earliest example of a Zombie recipe came from a holy artifact in Tikidom; a little black book.

Those service bartenders who worked behind screens in Tiki bars had little black books with all of the cocktail recipes written inside. Mind you, they were often still in code, but with this early building block in place from an original bartender at Don Beachcomber's in 1934, Mr Berry now was on his way to finding the most original and likely candidate for the true Zombie. While the 1950's version was well balanced and bright with delicious citrus, the 1934 version was boozy and rich. Seemed a more likely drink to be named Zombie with its dark notes and ability to knock you into a stupor.

Speaking of stupor, the next part of the Jamboree was indeed that with 6 different teams of bartenders from around the world (well, two came from Mancheser, England at least) competing for best new interpretation of a Zombie. It was fun to be on the other side of a contest for once and have a chance to show my mom and dad what I do. Some local boys did real good with a bright passion fruit version and a very authentic deep rich version with a raw sugar rim. The winners (there was a tie) was Esteban's NY version that was rich with vanilla and the Vegas version that was full of nutmeg, citrus and a complex note from the lemongrass syrup. I wish I had a pirate loot to recognize them all!

The Molikai bar in the front of Mai Kai is Joe's favorite place on earth. And no wonder. It looks like the inside of an 18th century sailing ship. Lovely girls in sarongs serve you the finest drinks made from fresh juice, syrups and numerous rums. There are no liquor bottles in sight and all the mixing is done in secret behind a spinning lazy susan. With half off drinks and appetizers from 5-7pm, I'd be here every night too!

But the real charm of the Mai Kai lies in their elaborate serpentine dining rooms and gardens and nightly Polynesian shows. Its like Disneyland for adults. And the show is a thing of wonder. The talented joyful dancers and musicians take us on a journey through many islands of the Pacific; from New Zealand to Tahiti and Hawaii. Energetic, elegant and heart pumping, these performers were astoundingly beautiful and expressive. I found my breath taken away many times and was even distracted from the tasty dinner. The longest running Polynesian show since 1956 (even Hawaii can't boast that!) is an absolute treasure to South Florida and I am so excited to have discovered it!

I think I know where we are going for Grammy's 93rd Birthday next year....


Eileen Charbonneau said...

Fabulous post...made me feel I was there! I WILL FIND this great place in South Florida!!

shadow said...

Reminds me of " Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N." from 1966.