In addition to tiki stuff, I love cooking, so naturally I’ve accumulated a few tiki cookbooks. The best ones are, of course, the older ones, so I was screamingly thrilled when Andrew gave me this 1968 classic for my birthday:
“Trader” Vic Bergeron, Jr., one of the two men who claimed to have invented the Mai Tai (the other being the equally famous Don the Beachcomber), was a genuine world traveler, and the recipes in this book, not to mention the colorful anecdotes about his jetsetting adventures abroad, are more authentic than most tiki kitsch from the era. At the same time, it’s hard to take Vic’s swingin’ swagger without a measure of retro irony. A typical entry, on the Tahitian city of Papeete (spelled “Pepeete” in the book):
That island drives me crazy. And I don’t mean just the sweet young things–I’d have to be a hundred years old not to notice them–but dammit, this island was made for the bon vivant. We stopped off at a little mom and pop grocery store for a couple of bottles of champagne. We came away with some pâté de fois gras, cut from a loaf in the refrigerator, some veal loaf that was excellent, some Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, a can of Planter’s Mixed Nuts, a can of Piff-O-Puff for cocktails and a Delic de Deux Cheese which I have difficulty finding even in the States.
Now that’s a man who knows how to live! And no, I don’t know what Piff-O-Puff was. According to the Internet, it may have been a brand of shrimp chips, but in that case I don’t know why Vic and his friends needed it for cocktails. It’s also the German name for Chip and Dale, which is interfering with my Google powers, so this mystery may have to go unanswered.
Admittedly, it’s a sign of the not-so-multicultural times when a cookbook of “exotic” cuisines includes Mexico and Texas (plus a stop back in Vic’s own San Francisco, where we learn to make Veal Rosemary and Liz’s Cheese Puffs). And there are tips that might not be relevant to modern readers, such as advice on what white women living in Hawaii should instruct their native servants to cook:
Um, yeah. But in 1968, a book that advised Americans to cook with wasabi, chutney, and curry powder (oh, and the occasional heaping spoonful of MSG) was pretty culturally savvy, at least on the flavor front. And I advise modern cooks not to scoff until they’ve braved Vic’s recipes for fish in ti leaves (“Scale and clean a fish, weighing from 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, and rub with Hawaiian red salt…”) or shark’s fin soup, or until they’ve successfully prepared one of these gentlemen:
A steaming slice of roast pig and a goblet of some unknown but doubtlessly highly alcoholic punch: that’s a perfect evening. Speaking of which, having made some of the drink recipes, I can attest that they are boozy as only drinks designed for people of the “Mad Men” era can be. I had to water down the Tahitian Wedding Punch after seeing that Vic’s version calls for an entire bottle of gold rum and two bottles of wine, tempered only by a can of crushed pineapple and some sugar. Whew.
Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook dances along that fine line between healthy fascination with foreign cultures and experiences and cheesy old white-guy exotica, between appreciation and appropriation. But Vic is a hell of a raconteur and can apparently hold five or six Ernest Hemingways’ worth of liquor, so I declare this cookbook awesome.
But what’s that? You want more cheese? And also canned pineapple in Jell-O molds? Next weekend. I promise.