Welcome to the Cocktail Hour.
All July we are going to focus on historical drink recipes along with the history of women’s roles in cocktail culture. Most histories of alcohol center on men, but women have always been an important part of this history, and we will show you why.
On July 21, Dr. Amy French, a history professor at Delta College will present “Mixing It Up: Michigan Barmaids Fight for Civil Rights,” for History After Hours.
In the meantime, we are going to look at the history of cocktails – from the mixed drinks themselves to the social cache of a savvy host and the accouterments needed, from Volstead to Mad Men and the women’s influence underlying it all. So grab a glass and let’s get started!
Sláinte! Prost! Salud! Cheers!
Hostess with the Mostess
Thanks to myth and misinterpretation, Clara Bell Walsh has been credited as the inventor of the cocktail party in 1917. But wait, surely people mixed drinks before 1917? Of course they did. They even named them cocktails (where that word comes from has a history that makes it hard to sort fact from fiction, so we’ll just avoid that for now).
That still begs the questions: who was Clara Bell Walsh and why did her cocktail party make national news and credit her with the first cocktail party? Walsh grew up in the spotlight as one of the wealthiest women in Kentucky. Her father died when she was only eight years old and left his fortune to her, held in a trust. This was an era when women were rarely left in control of their own money, so Walsh’s situation gave her more freedom than most. She enjoyed a robust social life with that freedom. She later married Julius Walsh of St. Louis, a man with a fortune of his own. In fact, Clara retained control of her money even after marriage (and her subsequent divorce).
A syndicated article from The Times (image shown from Tacoma Times, April 17, 1917) claims “Cocktail Parties Are New Society Stunt.” A closer read of the article shows that it wasn’t the cocktail party that was new, it was when she had her party. Today we’d called it a boozy brunch and not even raise an eyebrow. In 1917, hosting a drinks brunch right after church was “an innovation” that seems to have left many in awe.
“The party scored an instant hit. Mrs. Walsh’s home is equipped with a private bar. Around this the guests gathered and gave their orders to a white coated professional drink mixer who presided behind the polished mahogany.”
Given the list of mixed drinks the guests might have ordered, it is clear that the cocktail and the cocktail party were not invented here. However, Walsh – already known for her daring theme parties – solidified her social celebrity status with her boozy brunch, a tradition to which many still raise a Bloody Mary.
Walsh led a fascinating life and you can learn more at The Feast podcast.
Mother Barbour's Tomato Juice Frappe
2 c. tomato juice 1/4 tsp. onion powder
2 1/2 T. lemon juice 2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt Dash of pepper
1/4 tsp. celery salt 1 drop Tabasco sauce
Mix all ingredients. Stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Pour into freezing tray and freeze until mushy, stirring occasionally. Serve in glasses with a slice of lime on the rim of each.
Mother Barbour's version wouldn't quite fit at Clara Bell Walsh's boozy brunch, but you could add some vodka. We won't tell.
"Mother Barbour" isn't from Saginaw, and she's not even a real person. Mother Barbour was a character on One Man's Family, a popular radio show that ran for 27 years. It debuted in 1932 and aired its final episode in 1959. Savoring Saginaw explains how the recipe made it into the cookbook: "'Mother Barbour' and 'Father Barbour' and their whole trouble-prone brood were just as real to many Saginaw families as their next door neighbors."
"...Dedicated to the mothers and fathers of the younger generation, and to their bewildering offspring..."
Each week, listeners followed the saga of the Barbour family of San Francisco: “patriarch Henry (J. Anthony Smythe), a conservative stockbroker who ruled with an iron hand, and his wife Fanny (Minetta Ellen), a sweet and gentle soul who generally supported her husband but effectively kept his excesses in check. Their offspring were eldest son Paul (Michael Raffetto), oldest daughter Hazel (Bernice Berwin), twins Clifford (Barton Yarborough) and Claudia (Kathleen Wilson) and youngest son Jack (Page Gilman)." (Radio Archives).
One Man’s Family was built around relationships rather than plot, according to the show’s creator Carlton E. Morse. That seems to be what attracted people. Even though it’s often described as a radio soap opera, and the episodes had quite a few scenes in the bedroom, it was not filled with melodramatic and incredulous plot twists that we’ve come to associate with soap operas. Radio historian Elizabeth McLeod suggests the reason it gripped people was because it was “psychologically-complex” and deftly handled (Radio Archives). Carlton Morse believed the enduring popularity of the show was due to making the Barbours the "average American family" with all their "virtues and weaknesses." He wrote, "You realized it is the average American home, where the great moral battles are fought and good citizens are made" (Mother Babour's Favorite Recipes).
The 20th Anniversary recipe book interlaced the fictitious family's stories told in the first person by Mother Barbour with favorite family recipes. The stories are intriguing, but mostly they remind us how much food, recipes and family history always go hand-in-hand.
Savoring Saginaw cookbook.
One Man's Family, The Radio Archives.
Mother Barbour's Favorite Recipes: One Man's Family 20th Anniversary Souvenir. Elkhart, IN: Miles Laboratories, Inc.