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Glorious Shades

[whitespace] cocktail umbrellas

A long-overdue tribute to the cocktail umbrella

By Eric Johnson

THE COCKTAIL umbrella is among humankind's most elegant and useful inventions. During the present prudish neo-Victorian era, which we can only hope is coming to a close, the cocktail umbrella has developed a reputation for being silly and frivolous. On the contrary. The cocktail umbrella, so often overlooked, so frequently maligned, epitomizes form-follows-function design.

What better way to prevent the ice cubes in a poolside mai tai from melting? What better way to keep that blended chi chi refreshingly slushy? Just as a good Panama hat, which is nothing but intelligently woven straw, can make the hottest tropical day seem pleasant, the cocktail umbrella, a little bit of split bamboo and pretty Japanese-print paper, can fight off solar radiation for a time, ensuring that the icy integrity of a good mixologist's creation remains intact. And look: it actually opens and closes like a real umbrella!--a transcendental feat which places the cocktail umbrella beyond the realm of mere appropriate technology (however brilliant) and into the realm of art alongside Frank Lloyd Wright's louvered window panels.

The origin of this masterful invention is admittedly somewhat mysterious. Anecdotes suggest it first appeared on mainland North America at Trader Vic's, San Francisco's notorious island-themed speakeasy, which brought various delights from what was then called "the Orient" to the West Coast. It likely arrived there from Hawaii and other locales in what was then called Polynesia.

From these exotic beginnings, the cocktail umbrella spread to beachside funspots on both coasts and hotel pool bars nationwide, where it was able to function according to its design, and then to move indoors, where it served as a colorful garnish for the newly invented cocktail--a drink initially designed for women, who were boldly making their first forays into barrooms which had previously been reserved for men.

From a history of the cocktail in the mid-'60s classic Playboy's Guide to Entertaining comes the following description of the first flowering of cocktail culture: "At the newly opened ladies section of men's clubs, a fresh breed of nymphs hovered over their drinks, busily telling the bartender just how much honey to use in a Bees Knee, and how much curacao went into a Flying Dutchman." Adding, perhaps: "Will you please put a cocktail umbrella in that?"

As a new generation of Americans learn that the pleasures of the spirits extend beyond microbrewed beer and fine wine, and even beyond single-malt scotch and small-batch bourbon, and just as lounge-music aficionados have discovered that Dean Martin sounds better with a martini glass in hand (especially when said glass is filled with a Cosmopolitan), we can only hope that the cocktail umbrella, and the chilled concoctions it was designed for, will gain in appreciation and become more widely available. For now, the House of Genji in the Wyndham Hotel on North First Street in San Jose offers a fabulous variety of iced and frozen beverages, all appropriately decorated--and protected--with this most elegant of inventions.

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From the June 17-23, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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