From 1946, an ad in the Roosevelt Hotel’s in-house produced guest magazine. When I was working on my book, New Orleans Jazz, I went through several years’ worth of this magazine, in the hopes of finding music/band pictures. I ended up finding a bunch of cool ads instead!
Godchaux’s (not to be confused with Goudchaux’s, the Baton Rouge chain that eventually bought out Maison Blanche) was a mainstay of Canal Street retailing. I’ll bet my heel-wearing friends would like those two pairs!
Sazerac Cocktail, courtesy Chuck Taggart’s Gumbo Pages.
I’m a big believer in oral history. It’s a critical part of researching any subject. The biggest problem with oral history is that it’s difficult to assess it’s value when trying to establish a timeline. Memories fail, people deliberately change stories for various reasons. It can get complicated.
What concerns me, though, is when a writer outright disregards oral history, without an explanation of why they’re doing it. That’s the feeling I had when reading Todd Price of NOLA.com write-up of a Tales of the Cocktail seminar on the Sazerac cocktail given by David Wondrich of Esquire Magazine. The title of the article is Everything you know about the Sazerac is wrong, Esquire writer says. Well, I wrote a short article on cocktails for GoNOLA.com last summer, so I considered that, challenge accepted.
So, Todd’s introduction of Wondrich raised my eyebrows:
Wondrich has come to New Orleans before and tried to kill myths about the Sazerac. In the past, he has cited solid proof, despite what the tour guides will tell you, that the Sazerac was not the first cocktail. Hardly anyone in New Orleans seems to listen.
OK, sure, we all know New Orleans has a lot of “buggy ride history”, but we also have a lot of legitimate historians and tour guides. Someone swooping down and debunking us from out-of-town, well, now I’m starting to roll my eyes. But let’s look at what Wondrich has to say:
The standard story, which you will find on the website of the Sazerac liquor company, is that by the middle of 19th century, the Sazerac cocktail was a popular and recognized cocktail using Peychaud’s bitters. Originally made with a defunct brandy called Sazerac de Forge et Fils, in 1873 the recipe substituted rye and added a dash of absinthe. The cocktail, according to the oft repeated story, was created at the Sazerac Coffee House.
OK, here’s what I wrote a year ago:
Peychaud’s cocktail is widely regarded as the first cocktail invented in America, but he did not give the drink its well-known name, the Sazerac. The name comes from “Sazerac de Forge et Fils” brandy. In the 1840s, a local coffee house, the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, located in Exchange Alley in the French Quarter, picked up Peychaud’s bitters and his cocktail. The owner of the coffee house, Sewell Taylor, decided to use only Sazerac de Forge et Fils in the drink, so people began to ask for the “Sazerac Cocktail.” By 1850, Taylor saw more potential in importing the brandy than owning just one bar. He sold the coffee house to Thomas Handy, who moved the bar to Royal Street, changing its name to the Sazerac Coffee House.
This is based on the oral tradition from the liquor company. Wondrich says there were saloons named “Sazerac” in a number of other cities. Todd’s write-up doesn’t detail when this is, 1840s, 1850s, post-war, turn of the century. What we do know, however, is that a brandy-and-bitters cocktail in the 1840s. Did they call it a “Sazerac” then? Probably not. But consider this: A customer comes into the Merchants Exchange. He walks up to the bar and says,
“Give me that cocktail, the one with the Sazerac brandy in it.”
After a few years, it becomes the house special. People likely came in and asked for the speciality of the house. Didn’t need to call it a “Sazerac” when you were in the Sazerac.
Then Sewell Taylor sells the bar to Thomas Handy. Handy moves it and changes the name, putting “Sazerac” front and center. Did the name spread from there? Sure, westward expansion makes sense. Bismarck, ND was founded in 1872 (so was the Rex Parade, by the way0. I can see someone from New Orleans making their way out west and bringing a bit of home with them. Twenty to thirty years (including a civil war) is enough time for the name to get around.
The cocktail continues to grow in popularity, at least in New Orleans. Men go into other “coffee houses” and tell the bartender, “Give me that drink they make over at the Sazerac.” At some point, the name of the bar and the cocktail merge. Probably around the same time somebody from New Orleans made it out to Eureka and Bismarck.
The meat of Wondrich’s debunking focuses on the “Improved Whiskey Cocktail”:
Curiously, the recipe for the bottled Sazerac included maraschino liqueur and no absinthe (see recipe below). That same drink was what the legendary bartender Jerry Thomas called an Improved Whiskey Cocktail in his 1876 cocktail book.
The Improved Whiskey Cocktail was all the rage at the end of the 19th century. By 1900, the fashionable drinkers had moved on to other intoxicating pleasures.
There’s a cocktail ante-bellum. Post-bellum, we have an “Improved” cocktail. What was the “improvement”? Most likely the switch of rye whiskey for brandy. Post-bellum, there would be major shortages of brandy in New Orleans, a combination of the Union Naval blockade in 1861, occupation by Union troops during the war, Reconstruction, and, maybe…just maybe…the Wine Blight
The Great French Wine Blight
was a severe blight
of the mid-19th century that destroyed many of the vineyards
in France and laid to waste the wine industry. It was caused by an aphid
(the actual genus of the aphid is still debated, although it is largely considered to have been a species of Daktulosphaira vitifoliae
, commonly known as grape phylloxera
) that originated in North America and was carried across the Atlantic in the late 1850s. While France is considered to have been worst affected, the blight also did a great deal of damage to vineyards in other European countries.
“Give me that cocktail they used to make at the Sazerac.”
No brandy to make the popular cocktail? No problem, “improve” it. Use rye whiskey.
By 1888, the date Wondrich attributes to a written mention of the “Sazerac”, the “improved cocktail” was at least twelve years old. People keep asking for “that drink”.
By the 1900s, the liquor company decides to bottle the drink, Applications have to be filled out, paperwork processed. You don’t want a patent application to be denied for exaggeration, so go with a date easy to establish.
That doesn’t mean throw out the oral tradition.
Now I want a Sazerac.
Battle Flag of the Army of Tennessee, the main CSA force in the western theater of the Civil War.
In all of the dust-up over the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia of the Confederate States of America, quotes like this from Jelani Cobb, writing for the New Yorker, give me pause:
Tom Hall, an attorney who recently completed a film about the history of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, addressed the rally, remarking that the flag had come to prominence as a way for Southern politicians in the nineteen-fifties to cynically play on the interests of poor whites. (In fact, the Confederate flag we have known since then is not the Confederacy’s flag at all but rather one used by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.) Jim Lane, a fifty-year-old white native South Carolinian who attended the protest with his partner, Justin Daggett, said that the flag remained a gesture toward the prejudices of a portion of the populace stuck in the past. “Anytime there’s a symbol of hate, a symbol of discrimination, that is used against one group of people, it has no place on the State House grounds,” he said.
I apologize to Mr. Cobb for calling him out, but he unfortunately is the straw that broke the camel’s back on this issue for me. I’ve read variations of this remark from a lot of white folks trying to justify the continued use of this flag. When I was looking for information on Tom Hall, the filmmaker mentioned in the above graf, I came across his article. That means we’ve got historic innacuracy and misunderstanding on both sides of the issue, so clarification is in order.
Saying that a “battle flag” is not a flag of a nation is preposterous. Wars don’t pop up out of thin air; governments put troops into the field. Those troops are “diplomacy by other means” as von Clausewitz said. In the American Civil War, both sides authorized the use of “battle flags” by their troops. The primary, practical, use of a war flag or standard is to identify your position to others. This sounds counter intuitive in the context of modern warfare, but wars were fought differently in the 19th Century. Units needed to know where to re-group after a forward movement, or a cavalry charge. Artillery units needed to know where not to fire their guns, lest they kill their comrades by mistake.
Here are some of the battle flags from the American Civil War:
Flag of the 1st and 3rd Florida Regiment.
Flag of the 1st/3rd Florida Infantry Regiment. It’s the “Confederate Battle Flag” pattern, with battle honors of this specific regiment. The color scheme is a variant of the classic battle flag. This was common when a regiment would “personalize” their flag.
“Storm Flag” flown over Fort Sumter, 14-April-1861 (NPS image)
When South Carolina troops, led by Brigadier General PGT Beauregard of New Orleans, began shelling Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the fort’s garrison flew a larger version of this battle flag. After two days of bombardment, that flag was too damaged, so the garrison raised this smaller flag. Coastal forts and other installations where there was often a lot of bad weather would take down the larger flags, raising a “storm flag” that would be less expensive to replace if damaged.
On a side note regarding Fort Sumter: The flag hoisted by the rebels after the Union garrison surrendered was a variant of the palmetto tree flags often used by South Carolinians. They used a state-themed flag at this time, because the Army of Northern Virginia had not yet been formed.
Flag of the Dallas Artillery, Army of the Confederate States of America. (public domain image)
Flag of the Second Arkansas Field Battery, also known as the Dallas Battery, an artillery unit of the army of the CSA. Notice that, since this unit fought in the western theater of the war, their flag is a variant of the “Stars and Bars,” the flag Mr. Cobb and other writers usually recognize as the “official” flag of the Confederate government.
Standard of the 25th New York Cavalry, 1864
Cavalry regiments often carried a number of flags. Individual squadrons would have their own “guidons”, usually swallow-tail flags. The regiment as a whole would display both national and regimental standards. In the case of the 25th New York, their national standard was the Stars and Stripes, and the regimental flag was the blue standard above.
National Standard of the 33rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. (public domain image)
Union regiments often added “battle honors” to the Stars and Stripes. This is a tradition taken from the United Kingdom, where regiments list the battles in which they fought on the Union Jack.
The bottom line here: Writers, do your homework. Please don’t write things that are patently preposterous. Thousands of men died under these banners. They didn’t die for abstract concepts, but rather the governments that sent them out to fight against each other. Battle flags don’t exist in a vacuum.
Canal Street, ca 1900, by Alexander Allison (courtesy NOPL)
Lovely photo of Canal Street from around 1900. The building with the big cupola in the background is the Mercier Building, the first home of Maison Blanche. The streetcars in this photo are a combination of single-truck (one set of wheels), and double-truck (two sets, like the streetcars in use on Canal and St. Charles today). The single-truck streetcars with a narrow monitor deck on top are Brills; the ones with a wider monitor deck are Ford, Bacon and Davis cars. The double-trucks at this time are Brills. New Orleans wouldn’t see the now-legendary arch roof style cars until 1915.
Usually this would be cross-posted to CanalStreetcar (dot com), but the site’s down temporarily, as we migrate its content to WordPress.
NOLA Transformed – 103 Royal, then-and-now
NOLA Transformed is a new project by my friend Dan Soto. There are a lot of then-and-now books on the market, but Dan’s added a fascinating twist. Instead of putting up, say, a picture of Gallier Hall from a century ago, then a contemporary photo, Dan’s taking old photos, then manipulating Google Maps Street View to re-create the angle and location of the modern image so it’s exactly like the old photo.
This is going to be interesting and fun. Can’t wait to see its evolution.