Canada’s favourite han­gover cure has a se­cret: It’s not re­ally Cana­dian af­ter all.

Cock­tail ex­isted long be­fore it was mixed in a Cal­gary ho­tel res­tau­rant

National Post - (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - BY ADAM MCDOW­ELL Na­tional Post am­c­dow­ell@na­tion­al­post.com

It comes from shady world of han­gover cure

Afre­quently re­peated myth has it that the un­likely fel­lows of clam broth, tomato juice, vodka and spicy sauces were first mar­ried in a ho­tel res­tau­rant in Cal­gary in 1969, thence­forth to spread their tangy (and slightly fishy) de­li­cious­ness from sea to sea to sea, trav­el­ling wher­ever Cana­di­ans ven­tured.

The Cae­sar, beloved de­spite its odd­ball com­bi­na­tion of flavours, has been called the quin­tes­sen­tial Cana­dian cock­tail, as Cana­dian as hockey, and an im­por­tant Cal­gary con­tri­bu­tion to both the culi­nary arts and our na­tional her­itage. A 2006 CBC poll named it the 13th great­est Cana­dian in­ven­tion ever.

Now, are you sit­ting down? With a Cae­sar, per­haps? What if we were to tell you that the Cae­sar (or Bloody Cae­sar) was in­vented, al­beit un­der a dif­fer­ent name, at least six decades ear­lier — and likely not in Canada?

With the help of U.S. cock­tail guru David Won­drich, I have un­earthed ev­i­dence that proves the Cae­sar’s defin­ing trio of vodka, tomato and clam juice were well ac­quainted long be­fore meet­ing in a Cal­gary ho­tel res­tau­rant in 1969.

But first, the leg­end, which usu­ally goes like this: The late Wal­ter Chell, bev­er­age di­rec­tor of Marco’s Res­tau­rant at the Cal­gary Inn — now the Westin Cal­gary — was try­ing to come up with a drink to cel­e­brate the open­ing of the Ital­ian eatery. He took vodka, tomato juice and Worces­ter­shire sauce — a Bloody Mary, es­sen­tially — and, in­spired by spaghetti vongole (i.e., spaghetti with clams), he added clam juice to it. The unap­pe­tiz­ing-sound­ing blend caught fire with cus­tomers, but only Cana­dian ones. “It took off like a rocket,” Chell told The Toronto Star in 1994.

Mott’s in­vented Clam­ato in re­sponse later in 1969, and the rest is Cana­dian cock­tail his­tory.

The story be­came well known among cock­tail en­thu­si­asts and made the Westin Cal­gary, as the Cal­gary Inn is now called, into a pil­grim­age des­ti­na­tion.

Not that ev­ery Cana­dian heard the tale. “I can hardly be­lieve it, it’s like no one ever re­ally re­al­ized it was my dad who in­vented it,” said Joan Chell, Wal­ter’s daugh­ter, in an in­ter­view with the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen around the time of her fa­ther’s death in April 1997.

The trou­ble with the story (which I re­peated my­self, un­ques­tion­ingly, in my drinks col­umn in the Fi­nan­cial Post Mag­a­zine last year) is proof that drinks rec­og­niz­able as Cae­sars ex­isted be­fore 1969. At most, Mr. Chell came up with the name “Cae­sar,” per­fected the for­mula and man­aged to pop­u­lar­ize a rather loony propo­si­tion of a drink that had only ex­isted in ob­scu­rity be­fore.

The Wal­ter Chell story al­ways seemed a lit­tle — well, fishy — to me. Specif­i­cally, why would Mott’s cre­ate a prod­uct to go with a drink in­vented just months ear­lier, in (no of­fence) Cal­gary in the 1960s of all places? It didn’t add up.

Then one night I found some­thing that sounded a lot like a Cae­sar in an old cock­tail book. Frank Meier was the bar­tender at the Ritz Bar in Paris in the 1930s. His bar man­ual, The Artistry of Mix­ing Drinks (you can buy a beau­ti­fully pro­duced reproduction of it at mud­pud­dle­books.com), in­cludes a Clam Juice cock­tail of tomato ketchup, cel­ery salt, Tobasco sauce and clam juice.

In Paris. In 1936. My Cana­dian cock­tail-lov­ing eyes popped out of their sock­ets a lit­tle.

Soon af­ter, I found two sep­a­rate recipes for a Clam and Tomato Cock­tail in the Trader Vic’s Bar­tender’s Guide of 1972. Did the Cae­sar make its way from Cal­gary in 1969 to Trader Vic’s stomp­ing grounds of north­ern Cal­i­for­nia in time to be in­cluded in the 1972 book? In a con­ver- sa­tion this week, his grand­son, Peter Seely, agreed with me that it seemed im­prob­a­ble.

It was time to con­sult David Won­drich, a New York-based cock­tail writer, whose ex­per­tise on the his­tory of mixed drinks is ar­guably un­matched.

Mr. Won­drich con­sulted his large data­base of cock­tail lore and un­cov­ered five 20th-cen­tury news­pa­per ac­counts men­tion­ing clam cock­tails, some very much rec­og­niz­able as what Cana­di­ans would call a Cae­sar. Most of the ev­i­dence points to an ori­gin in New York state.

In the Sept. 28, 1909 edi­tion of the New York Evening Tele­gram, Emma Pad­dock Telford of­fered recipes by “Andy,” the chef of an un­named chop house. His “Dewey Clam Juice Cock­tail” sounds aw­fully close to the mod­ern Cae­sar (see side­bar).

“Once you’ve got the le­mon, the tomato and the clam to­gether, I think you’re pretty close” to a Cae­sar, Mr. Won­drich said.

Andy told Ms. Telford the drink was cre­ated in hon­our of Ad­mi­ral Ge­orge Dewey cap­tur­ing the Span­ish fleet dur­ing the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War. This would place its in­ven­tion way back in May 1898 — but skep­ti­cism is war­ranted when it comes to bar­room sto­ries about drinks.

Even fur­ther back, in 1886, the New York Star ob­served that “most men about town know the virtues of a cock­tail of clam juice be­fore break­fast.”

“It comes from the shady world of the han­gover cure, which is not sur­pris­ing. Most good drinks spent their time there,” said Mr. Won­drich, whose 2007 book Im­bibe! has helped cat­alyze a re­vival for pre-Pro­hi­bi­tion-style cock­tails.

Like a tiny clam stuck to a big rock, the proto-Cae­sar seems to have clung to the mar­gins of 20th cen­tury cock­tail cul­ture. “As to adding vodka to it, that comes a lit­tle later, I think,” Mr. Won­drich said.

The ear­li­est men­tion of booze comes from the early 1950s. The ad­di­tion of vodka would make the drink into some­thing most present-day Cana­di­ans would iden­tify as a Cae­sar. How­ever, the New York swells who swilled these Cae­sar-like drinks in the post-War pe­riod knew them by other names. For ex­am­ple, the Clam Dig­ger.

More on that name in a moment. For now, back to the Wal­ter Chell leg­end. Just about ev­ery time a Cana­dian pub­li­ca­tion re­counts the story, it in­cludes an anec­dote about a Cana­dian try­ing to or­der one in the States and be­ing met with a blank stare. Amer­i­cans could never groove to the Cae­sar’s weird­ness.

While they may not hold it as close to their hearts as we do, a few Amer­i­cans drink Cae­sars. They just don’t call them that. Try Googling “Clam Dig­ger cock­tail.” It turns out we Cana­di­ans could have been drink­ing Cae­sars in parts of the States all along, if only we’d known what to call them.

“That could rock the en­tire nation,” said Rob Mont­gomery, head bar­tender at Toronto’s Miller Tav­ern — and maker of a mean Cae­sar — when faced with the news this week. “There will be some great de­bates hap­pen­ing around the bar.”

Canada Dry Mott’s stuck with Wal­ter Chell in a state­ment re­leased to the Post yes­ter­day.

“What Cana­di­ans have now en­joyed for 40 years as the Cae­sar cock­tail was cre­ated by Wal­ter Chell … in 1969,” the state­ment said.

“With its cam­paign to have the Cae­sar rec­og­nized as Canada’s Na­tional Cock­tail, Canada Dry Mott’s cel­e­brates the Clas­sic Cae­sar Cock­tail.”

The gen­eral man­ager of the Westin Cal­gary also stuck with the Chell story, writ­ing in an email: “The Cae­sar’s roots re­main with and at The Westin Cal­gary. The nam­ing of the drink at the then Cal­gary Inn by Wal­ter Chell started a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non that re­mains to this day and a cock­tail that is a Cana­dian trea­sure.”

The Westin’s Ross Mered­ith con­tin­ued: “As we have for the last 40 years, we wel­come lo­cals and vis­i­tors alike from near and far to de­light in many of our Cae­sar in­spired of­fer­ings at the ho­tel.”

The Post was un­able to reach any of Wal­ter Chell’s liv­ing relatives.

Mr. Won­drich — who has done his share of cock­tail myth-bust­ing and knows how feel­ings can get bruised — says Wal­ter Chell de­serves credit for his ac­com­plish­ments, even if he was not the first to think up the vod- ka-tomato-clam-spice com­bi­na­tion that de­fines the Cae­sar.

“He might have added the fi­nal Bloody Mary touches to it,” he said. “All we know is he wasn’t the first to mix the main com­po­nents.”

Those with a stake in the Wal­ter Chell leg­end can take com­fort in the fact that he was able to win pop­u­lar­ity for a drink that had never en­joyed much of it be­fore.

“It’s one thing hav­ing a drink sort of ex­ist. It’s an­other thing mak­ing it pop­u­lar,” Mr. Won­drich said.

“He might have rein­vented it on its own. New in­gre­di­ents come along and you get sim­i­lar ideas. He might have added the name to it, and the name’s im­por­tant.”

And Mr. Chell seems to have pi­o­neered a for­mula that made the Cae­sar palat­able. His obituary in the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen spoke of three months of labour to get the for­mula just right, which is be­lie­ve­able. Ear­lier recipes were not as suc­cess­ful. The Ritz Bar one is down­right gross.

What­ever Mr. Chell’s con­tri­bu­tion, he gave Cana­dian bar­tenders a peren­nial hot-seller in an oth­er­wise cock­tail-averse coun­try, as well as a tem­plate for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion (see side­bar).

Cana­di­ans, said Mr. Mont­gomery, the Toronto bar­tender, “won’t aban­don the drink. It’s wo­ven into the fab­ric of the coun­try, and will carry on. We own it. If any­thing, [the ques­tions about its ori­gins are] prob­a­bly go­ing to make it more pop­u­lar than ever. Some peo­ple who haven’t had one in a while will say, ‘ I’m go­ing to have one.’ ”

This coun­try’s on­go­ing Cae­sar ma­nia, said the Amer­i­can Mr. Won­drich, “says some­thing good about Canada. It’s not an ob­vi­ous drink. It’s a lit­tle bit odd, but it’s kind of hard­core and cool.”

AARON LYNETT / NA­TIONAL POST FILES

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