Cecelia Tichi is an academic of the highest degree, now serving as an Emerita Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University. One thing she’s studied closely is the culture of drinking during the last century. Now, following her Jazz Age Cocktails and Gilded Age Cocktails, comes the fascinating Midcentury Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Atomic Age, a compendium that is one part page-turning history book and one part mixology handbook for some of the period’s most drinkable libations.
She chatted with Wine & Whiskey Globe about her favorite chapter, her preferred tipple, and what mystery (and cocktail-filled) project she has in the works next.
What draws you to cocktail culture and history?
Cocktail parties in my parents’ exotic 1950s home lodged in my mind before the onset of the cocktail “Dark Ages” of the 1970s and ’80s, and today’s fervor for craft cocktails spurred me into the past to explore the alignment of cocktail culture and social history. Plus, my classroom bailiwick in American Studies makes history a necessity!
What made the Atomic Age such a rich period for cocktail culture?
Two dimensions of the “Atomic” era gave rise to the Midcentury Cocktail craze: the exuberance of U.S. worldwide power, including visions of a benign atom fueling the grid and every conceivable device; and underlying angst that nuclear power might wreck civilization, thus sending Americans to be “buzzed” (numbed) by cocktails.
The book covers so many different aspects of the time, from tiki culture to life at the Barbizon Hotel to bachelor pads and even literary themes. What was your favorite to delve into?
Hands down, the “Bunnies and Playboy” chapter, which took me back to evenings at the Philadelphia Playboy Club as a guest, sipping Johnny Walker on the rocks and feeling ultra-sophisticated. The bunnies were impressively nice to women guests, and researching this chapter of Midcentury Cocktails, I was pleased to learn the bunnies were smart young women eager for the careers that awaited them once they turned in their cottontails for the last time.
What’s your current drink of choice, from the era or otherwise?
The Old Fashioned (rye or bourbon) continues from cocktails of the Gilded Age and is my mainstay. My very best one is a memorable version from the Parker Hotel, West Fifties, NYC. (A word to bartenders: the authentic maraschino cherry is not a dyed-red pseudo-garnish!)
What do you think tipplers from the Atomic Age would think of contemporary cocktail culture? I imagine the oohs and aahs of admiration, envy, and regret that the far future conjured cocktails unforeseen and unimaginable in the Midcentury years.
What can we expect next from you?
I am writing the fifth novel in the “Val and Roddy DeVere Gilded Age Series,” featuring a silver heiress and spouse who’s a master mixologist and lawyer fighting the Temperance crowd in court. The novels include his cocktail recipes, which reviewers seem to enjoy. In sum, I have doubled down on the U.S. Gilded Age, the first cocktail era, with murder, mayhem, and cocktails shaken and stirred.