A Tiki Tale

in 1950, when William Styron was a low-level, poorly-paid reader at McGraw-Hill , he rejected a book written by a Norwegian explorer about an 8000 mile voyage on a hand-built raft. The book, Kon Tiki, later became an international best-seller and made Thor Heyerdahl a legend.

Had Styron not been such a scribbler he might have realized that Heyerdahl’s book would catch the tiki wave that had been cresting in popular culture since U.S. troops came home from the Pacific. In 1947, James Michener won a Pulitzer for his Tales of the South Pacific, which were based on his service as a lieutenant commander in the New Hebrides Islands. The book was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into the musical South Pacific that premiered in 1949 on Broadway and ran for 1,925 performances.

It was wanna-be Cajun Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt who kicked off the mid-century tiki culinary craze. Ernie claimed to have been from Mandeville, LA, but grew up in Texas. After sailing the South Pacific, he changed his name to Don Beach, moved to California in 1934, and opened a Polynesian-themed bar, ‘Don the Beachcomber,’ in Palm Springs. Three years later, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, adopted a tiki theme for his restaurant in Oakland.

It wasn’t long before tiki got a lot of surf all the way to the East Coast. During the 50s and well into the 60s, tiki parties were a popular spin on those must-have patio barbecues, involving smoky tiki torches, flimsy pastel furniture, neon paper leis, and loathsome drinks with irritating, teeny-tiny umbrellas.

The mai tai became the quintessential tiki cocktail, and rumaki the quintessential tiki appetizer. Raymond is credited with inventing rumaki; it first appeared on the menu at Don’s, as “mock Polynesian”, chicken livers and water chestnuts marinated in soy sauce with ginger and brown sugar skewered in bacon and broiled. In time, rumaki became a cliché cocktail appetizer in dozens television shows and films.

Heat about a half cup of raw ginger in a cup of vegetable oil until bubbling. Keep at heat for about five minutes, drain and save the oil, and discard the ginger. Mix with lite soy 1:2 and brown sugar to taste. Cut the livers into bite-sized bits and whole water chestnuts into halves. Marinate both for at least an hour. Wrap  livers and chestnuts in bacon sliced to size, skewer, and grill or broil until bacon has crisped.

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