Memory is a perplexing phenomenon. Some things stick, and others don’t. That stickiness is often attributed to the importance we ascribe to the event, but I think there are other factors at play…
I was taken aback recently by a simple question that conjured a memory of an insignificant event with a vividness that surprised me. I was listening to a podcast episode of “Good Food” about the history and resurgence of the tiki phenomenon when the host posed a question; “Do you remember your first tiki drink?” Like a flash of lightning, I saw it in my mind’s eye with perfect clarity. But why was this such a vivid memory for me and apparently for many others as well?
The tiki phenomenon started and burned up in a flaming punch bowl well before my time. The whole scene left a trail of debris throughout the culture for us to stumble upon and try to piece together. The vestiges can be found in yard sales and thrift shops, consisting of wooden masks, luau shirts, and outdoor torches. Yet, its unique brand of nostalgic beachcomber escapism has a certain appeal.
The lasting legacy of tiki’s heyday is the collection of cocktails it introduced. Even as the tiki-themed dives faded away, their hallmark concoctions lived on. Bars and restaurants still offer a rag-tag collection of tiki cocktails with varying degrees of kitsch. Toss a Mai Tai with a paper umbrella into any occasion and away to plastic Polynesia you go.
So when my mind was confronted with the query of my first tiki drink, it flowed through the synapses, and I was immediately transported back to my college days. It was in a dive of a Chinese restaurant where a group of friends and I ended up one early spring afternoon. Someone got the bright idea to order a tiki bowl for the table. A punch bowl filled with a high-octane mixture of booze and juice was delivered to the table and off we went. A communal experience firmly planted in the realm of tiki dom. The funniest aspect of the memory that was cajoled back to the surface was the follow-up. My roommate and I enjoyed that first experience with a tiki bowl so much we went back a few days later, and each ordered our own personal tiki bowls.
The waitress looked up from her pad at the two of us incredulously and asked, “Two tiki bowls?”
“Yeap, you got it right sister, a gallon of booze for each of us and make it snappy.”
I guess the semblance of something exotic makes it a sticky memory. From its inception, tiki provided a vacation from the everyday, and apparently, the first encounter with it leaves an indelible mark on some people. The term tiki actually comes from Māori mythology and is their representation of the first man, so there is an element of inception built into it. Whatever the case may be, despite the tacky mashup of cultural cliches, there is still something slightly magical about knocking back a well-crafted tiki cocktail. It soothes the nerves and adds a hint of sea breeze to any summer evening. Maybe it’s that deep craving for nostalgia that is once again propelling society toward this pure American contrivance. Whatever it is, I’ll have another Mai Tai.