EDITOR’S NOTE: You may know a lot about tequilas and margaritas, but do you know where margs got their start? Wall Street Journal columnist Eric Felten gives a little history lesson on the cocktail’s obscure origins.
In 1939, the stodgy textbook house McGraw-Hill had a manuscript they didn’t quite know what to do with – a scathing satire on outmoded American education called “The Saber-Tooth Curriculum.” The book purported to be the transcript of an epic lecture given by a preposterously pompous professor named J. Abner Peddiwell. McGraw-Hill’s conundrum was that, though they thought the book just might sell, they worried the mockery would offend their core clientele.
You can’t blame them for being a mite concerned. It isn’t in a lecture hall that the book’s fictitious professor delivers his exegesis on prehistoric educational principles. Rather, he holds forth in a Tijuana bar, his loquacity fueled by a staggering succession of Tequila Daisies. When Peddiwell first appears, he is stentorious in his condemnation of alcohol. But he strikes up a conversation with the author, who commends to him the benefits of “tequila in the form known as the tequila daisy,” which “stands supreme as an integrator of the human personality.” Intrigued, the professor announces “I will have one of those tequila daisies.” A few dozen drinks later, Peddiwell finishes explaining why stone-age educators persisted in teaching their students how to scare away tigers with fire, generations after the last saber-tooth had been scared away.
McGraw-Hill decided to play it safe, printing just a small run of the book. The publisher quietly stacked them on the end of their display table at the convention of the American Association of School Administrators, meeting that year in Cleveland. “The Saber-Tooth Curriculum” caused a sensation. Time magazine reported that “Lionized by convention delegates was the supposed author of this spoofery, tousle-haired Harold Raymond Wayne Benjamin,” a cowboy-turned-college-administrator “who can roll two cigarets at once.” The newsweekly failed to report, however, the number of Tequila Daisies served at the convention hotel’s bar.
The Tequila Daisy – a mix of tequila, citrus juice and grenadine served over shaved ice – was the first truly popular tequila cocktail, and a natural derivation from the Gin Daisy and Whiskey Daisy. The cocktail achieved enough currency that a B-24 Liberator crew, flying missions to support the D-Day invasion, nicknamed their bomber “Tequila Daisy.”
But a decade after the war, the Tequila Daisy had disappeared, supplanted by an upstart cocktail called the Margarita. No one knows quite where or how. Among the classics of the cocktail bar, the Margarita is something of a latecomer. And yet, though of relatively recent vintage, the origin of the Margarita has been every bit as obscure as that of drinks a hundred years its senior. Not that there haven’t been plenty of paternity claims.
Among them was restaurateur Carlos “Danny” Herrera, who said he invented the drink in 1947 for chorus-girl-turned-socialite Marjorie Plant, widow of Broadway playboy Phil Plant. Herrera even had an elaborate story about how “She was allergic to most liquor, and the only thing she ever drank was tequila.” Not wanting to appear to be a hard-drinker, she asked Herrera to mix her tequila up into a cocktail of some sort. He added lemon juice and tried, first, banana liqueur then cherry liqueur to sweeten it up: “No good. Then I tried Cointreau, an orange liqueur, and that was it.” It’s a good story, but doesn’t explain why she wouldn’t have just ordered a Tequila Daisy.
Others asserting parentage have included a San Antonio society matron named Margaret “Margarita” Sames, and Beverly Hills bartender Johnny Durlesser, who staked his claim very early in the game. In 1955 he told the Van Nuys News that he had invented the Margarita way back in 1937 and had even entered it in a cocktail competition, winning third place (a showing of which there is no record).
The first evidence of the basic Margarita recipe comes, of all places, from England. The 1937 “Cafe Royal Cocktail Book,” published in London, included a drink called the Picador, made of tequila, Cointreau and lime juice. But the first appearance in print of a drink actually labeled a “Margarita” is the December 1953 issue of Esquire magazine: “She’s from Mexico, Señores, and her name is the Margarita Cocktail.” Esquire cooed that, “she is lovely to look at, exciting and provocative.” A year later, L.A. Times columnist Gene Sherman was about 20 miles south of the border at Baja’s Rosarito Beach, and reported that “In the afternoon you sip a Margarita and gaze pensively across the wide strand.” Sherman appears to have been the first to suggest that the drink was named for some or other “sultry lady who was the toast of the foreign colony,” but then he allows that the drink isn’t so far from being a “Daisy,” the word for which in Spanish, just happens to be “margarita.” I think that in this aside Sherman hit on the truth, that the Margarita didn’t replace the Daisy, but rather, evolved from it, both in name and content.
2 ounces blanco tequila
1 ounce Cointreau
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
salt, to taste to rim glass (optional)
Combine ingredients and shake with ice, then strain into a stemmed cocktail glass or champagne saucer that has been lightly rimmed (or not) with salt.
Source: The Wall Street Journal
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