In Proof, the new podcast from America's Test Kitchen, we aim to solve food mysteries one story at a time. Every episode goes beyond recipes and cooking to investigate the foods we love (such as deep-fried oreos and tiki drinks) and don't love (like once-in-vogue celery and the meteoric rise of the grain bowl); ask the big questions (where do food cravings come from?); and uncover the hidden backstories that feed your food-obsessed brain.
In the third episode of Proof, we dive into the history of one of our favorite escapist beverages: the mai tai, which was created in, of all places, Oakland. Follow along as we track the popular cocktail’s historical journey through the rise and fall of tiki culture in America.
5 Things You'll Learn
1. The Vic Behind Trader Vic’s: Trader Vic’s isn’t just the name of a restaurant chain known for its Polynesian decor and tropical drinks. Victor Jules Bergeron was a real person who was born in San Francisco in 1902. He earned his nickname from his tendency to barter with his patrons.
2. The “Friendly” Tiff Behind the Mai Tai: Vic and Hollywood bar owner Don Beach both claim to have concocted the first mai tai. Bergeron’s granddaughter claims photographic evidence from 1944 documents her grandfather doing it first.
3. The War Effect: Vic and Don’s tiki bars were established in the 1930s, but the popularity of the genre gained real momentum in the 1940s, when the soldiers returned from fighting in World War II and the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific was published.
4. What Orgeat Is (and How to Pronounce It): Jack Bishop stops by the studio to teach Bridget Lancaster about the primary ingredient in the mai tai cocktail. His tip for pronouncing it correctly? Think of Zsa Zsa Gabor.
5. The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Tiki: Bridget’s favorite childhood tiki restaurant, the Kahiki, in Cleveland, Ohio, is now a Walgreens—and this has been the fate of most tiki destinations around the country. Hear more about what started the descent of this once nascent style of restaurants and how some restaurateurs are hoping the craft cocktail scene can help bring it back.
Who You'll Hear From
Meet the tiki experts who you'll hear from in this episode:
- Bridget Lancaster: Host and producer
- Eve Bergeron: the granddaughter of Trader Vic himself, Victor Jules Bergeron
- Martin Cate: owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and author of Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki
“They are iconically American and. . . they're just as valid as a sports bar. They are a wonderful example of American imagination and creativity from an era when Americans loved themed dining and themed experience. . . “ —Martin Cate, on the beauty of tiki bars
“Try to find an authentic mai tai out there. It's nearly impossible. You end up with a red cocktail, a bunch of fruit salad on top, laced with cheap rum. So I like to think of Martin [Cate] and his crew as tiki evangelists. They’re bringing back some purity but they're also making it a little bit sexy.” —Bridget Lancaster, on the fight against sad mai tais