There Are Lots of Cocktails Named After Movie Stars, but Only One Is a Classic

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Feb. 17 2014 6:15 AM

Celebrities on Ice

Slate’s guide to cocktails named after movie stars.

Mary Pickford cocktail.
Mary Pickford cocktail

Photo courtesy John Fladd/Flickr

The good names of beef Wellington and Chateaubriand and veal Prince Orloff and so on demonstrate the royalist sympathies of the gastronomic eponym. Kaiser rolls and Alexandertortes, mirepoix and praline, pizza Margherita and Earl Grey tea and General Tso’s chicken: These dishes honor dynasts and their minions. America, however, has no sovereigns after which to name culinary inventions and so turns her attention to the Sultan of Swat and his ilk. Our proxies for emperors at the dinner table include robber barons (oysters Rockefeller), golf champions (the Arnold Palmer), and—our subject today—A-list entertainers.

Movie stars: heavens!  Let us now praise that mocktail named for the recently departed Shirley Temple. Let us also wonder whether this year’s case of Oscar fever might best be treated with a cold beverage or two. Here are some notes on Hollywood celebrity as it relates to the intriguing field of mixonymics.

Step right this way—our tour of the prehistory of the phenomenon begins in the mid-1800s, with P.T. Barnum’s superstar soprano, Jenny Lind. The smorgasbord of tributes to the Swedish Nightingale included pastries, soups, a potato casserole, an oyster omelet, and an heirloom cantaloupe. (A few of the dishes named for Lind were indeed personal favorites, but most of these foodstuffs were parasitic—simple attempts at classiness-by-association, primal appeals to name recognition; mostly they were named by people hopeful of exploiting the customer’s aspirations.) High cuisine entered the mass-culture arena in the 1890s, when Auguste Escoffier ran the kitchen at the Savoy, famously feeding the fledgling beast of fame itself, which was famished for the glamour of Sarah Bernhardt (for whom he devised a strawberry surprise) and Nellie Melba (who really loved her peaches and her toast).

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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Then came the moving image, grinding out idols like so much Muybridge horse meat. In 1917, a trade magazine called Northwestern Druggist reported on a soda counter offering a Lillian Gish sundae, a Baggot phosphate, and a Theda Bara cocktail. Not long thereafter, we picked up the noble delicatessen tradition of naming sandwiches for stars, a practice approved by pretty much everyone but Larry David—and yet it seems that America has, historically, preferred not to eat its pop-culture icons but to enjoy them in liquid form.

Ginger Rogers cocktail.
Ginger Rogers cocktail.

Photo courtesy Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr

Is there a cocktail named for your favorite film star? Perhaps. Is this cocktail likely to be your favorite cocktail? No—unless you’ve swallowed the myth that the Margarita is named for the daughter of Eduardo Casino. The Guardian's 2008 list of old-school movie-star drinks is not a lineup of taste sensations. Many of these recipes are interesting only insofar as they present palimpsests of ephemeral crazes, testaments to dated taste, and log entries detailing desperate quests for novelty. The Ginger Rogers is most notable as a testament to the onetime popularity of apricot brandy. The Will Rogers (gin, dry vermouth, orange juice, curaçao) reads to me simply as a variation on the lamentable Bronx. That said, I am hereby calling for a revival of the Jean Harlow, which is, like the floozies the actress portrayed, fun and easy to make: Stir equal parts light rum and sweet vermouth with ice, strain, add a lemon twist. Use Banks 5 Island rum and Carpano Antica vermouth to mix a treat as lush as the Laughing Vamp herself.

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