Bars, Bites and Booze
Moonshine, Jell-O, orange blossoms: The Roaring Twenties brought with them not only parties and new freedoms, but many exciting food trends as well – so festive, in fact, that we want to revive them.
The Roaring Twenties. The Charleston, exuberant jazz music, flapper girls. And the speakeasy. The sale, trade and production of alcohol was prohibited in the United States between 1920 and 1933, a time collectively called the Prohibition Era.
The 1920s also ushered in a time of optimism after World War I and – just like today – a pandemic (the influenza pandemic of 1918): people had hope in the future and there was ample technological growth. There was a fascination for everything new, prosperity increased and people moved en masse to New York and Chicago. At the same time, many people cheered the advent of Prohibition. They believed alcohol consumption is immoral and dangerous.
But it appeared that people aren’t so easy to tame. Secret bars – the famous speakeasies – sprang up like mushrooms out of the ground, alcohol was produced illegally (in the form of moonshine and bathtub gin) and a libertine, experimental music and dance culture flourished. In the New York City neighbourhood of Harlem, legendary jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington experienced their heyday in de Cotton Club and Smalls Paradise. New fashions and hairstyles gained unrivalled popularity due to women embracing a freer lifestyle, and the flapper girl was born. Because women had blossomed into a full-fledged workforce during the war and gained the right to vote in 1920, they felt more independent. The modern 1920s woman smoked, drank and danced. Her skirts became shorter, just like her hair, and she wore heels and disctinctive make-up.
Despite Prohibition, a zest for life and excitement prevailed. In addition to speakeasies, there were seedy bars that served orange blossoms (cheap gin with orange juice), like the 21 in New York: a multiple-storey club featuring entertainment, live music and a restaurant. There alcohol flowed freely, but in public the classic oysters and champagne were replaced by fruit cocktails.
In 1927, the Washington Post advised serving fruit juice instead of wine with Christmas dinner. Now that the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight, will we experience another Roaring Twenties, or are we destined for an era of Boring Twenties instead? In any case, we are able to celebrate, dance and dine out (a little more) now, and we can go ahead and leave that fruit juice with Christmas be. Let yourself be inspired by the 1920s: Hold a swinging Great Gatsby Christmas party with pre-prohibition cocktails.
Freedom, inventiveness, enjoyment: The 1920s speak to the imagination. Swinging jazz, flapper girls and gangsters like Al Capone continue to fascinate us. Many retro speakeasy bars have pre-prohibition cocktails on the menu. The Evans & Peel ‘detective agency’ in London hides an entrance to a cocktail bar. The secretive speakeasy Dr. is located somewhere in the Rotterdam Maritime Quarter (Scheepvaartkwartier). And New York speakeasy Bathtub Gin is a reference to the homemade alcohol of yesteryear. In Paris, the Mobster Bar will invite you in (perhaps).
New products from the 1920s such as Jell-O, 7-Up and Snickers responded to the growing popularity of everything sweet. Savoury finger food was also hugely hip in the 1920s, in both illegal and legal hospitality venues and at home. A good host/hostess would serve an arsenal of salted nuts, raw vegetables (such as rose radishes), pickles and olives, accompanied by small sandwiches and canapés of all types and sizes. The other cocktail – of the shrimp variety – had tons of variations on it, like crab, oysters and lobster. Both Chinese and Italian cuisines increased in popularity: Chinatown continued to expand and Italian immigrants cleverly capitalised on Prohibition. They opened hundreds of speakeasies in Little Italy, where food was also served. A steaming plate of spaghetti with meat balls was, of course, very welcome when drinking.
The pre-eminent manual for cocktail mixers published during Prohibition during 1927 was Here’s How, written by the obscure figure Judge Jr. The book provides an overview of the most popular cocktails, such as the French 75: a mix of 45 ml gin, 20 ml lemon juice and 20 ml sugar syrup, topped with champagne and ice. In 1927, the Bronx was an old reliable from before 1920: equal parts (60 ml) gin, orange juice and vermouth. A suggestion for a toast accompanied each cocktail: ‘Here’s to the flapper; may she keep that fool-girl complexion!’
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