Keeping the Spirit Alive: St John Frizell on Charles H. Baker Jr.

Posted by TraderTiki on August 2nd, 2008 — Posted in Events, Guest Blogger, Tales 2008

The following is an article on the Tales of the Cocktail presentation “Keeping the Spirit Alive: St John Frizell on Charles H. Baker Jr.“, written by Lizzy Caston.

As presented at Tales of the Cocktail. Hotel Monteleone. July 19, 2008

“We are still heartily of the opinion that decent libation supports as many million lives as it threatens; donates pleasure and sparkle to more lives than it shadows; inspires more brilliance in the world of art, music, letters, and common ordinary intelligent conversation, than it dims.”

-Charles H. Baker Jr.

A jigger of history, a dash of entertainment and a garnish of grand showmanship set the tone for St John Frizell’s informative and, at times, gut-busting hilarious presentation on the life and times of the late, great cocktail documentarian, Charles H. Baker Jr.

St. John Frizell on Charles H. Baker Jr.

Frizell was a terrific presenter and more than managed to keep the energy going at 10:30 AM on a Sunday morning to a packed room of mostly “tired” (read hungover) cocktail conventioneers, surely no easy feat. With a gregarious and engaging speaking style, an aesthetically appealing slide presentation (including background music!) and treats for attendees such as a handout index of Baker’s complete cocktail recipes and raffle prizes, this was one of my favorite events at Tales this year.

Zane Harris, holding his raffle-won first editions

Mythic and a bit mysterious, larger than life and probably one of the most influential beverage writers of the modern age, Charles H. Baker, Jr. like no other before or since, both defined and documented the golden age of the cocktail. Bon Vivant doesn’t even begin to describe him. From mostly the 1930s onward, Baker scoured the globe in exotic locales from South America, through the Caribbean, to India and beyond, living a life of endless decadent banquets and cocktail parties, glamorous steamer voyages and other Orient Express like adventures. Hobnobbing with the celebrities of the day and minor royalty, Baker’s writings are more manuals on how to live the “good life”, than mere food and beverage guides. With advice on topics ranging from the practical to the esoteric, you can be certain that no matter what Baker is proliferating on it will be in a sort of prose that is both oddly metered and highly superfluous, at times bordering on the surreal:

The Gentlemans Companion

“TO ALLEVIATE APPARENT DEATH from Toxic Poisonings, & Especially Should, in any Happenstance, the Quality of the Liquor Be Suspect

…And in such case the symptoms are usually sudden and violent enough to publish the emergency. In any case where a violent illness is felt, or apparent, administer emetic at once. It is better to tax a patient-guest unnecessarily than to chance severe conclusion, and anyway, since the patient quickly regains a feeling of exhausted well-being no one will ever be the wiser.”

Whew, pass the Gin. I need a drink after reading that one.

Or take this passage on hangovers a la Baker, as presented by Frizell,

“…You awake to blazing light like a hot brazen sword at base of skull. Your scorched blanket-hot eyelids smart like salted live raw beef. In your querulous- queasy stomach lies a heap of tallow golf balls. Your tongue is a gun-wad of old burlap batting. Yestereve’s mixes have long since quit all benefit and have departed to greener pastures, leaving a residual aftertaste offering a fine blending of the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder and a well-aged Norse snow-shoe moccasin— if there be such a thing…”

And so on and so on. Hemingway or Fitzgerald, Baker certainly is not, but he remains beloved anyway for his dogged pursuit of all things liquid and tasty. I for one certainly admire his prolific use of the thesaurus and typewriter, and find his writing style oddly enticing. It is an amusing brain tease certainly, trying to figure out what the hell Baker is talking about most of the time.

Alas, lucky for us, and buried between the mind-boggling passages like the above quoted, Baker did obsessively document his pursuits, tastes and recipes through his once long out of print (they are now available as paperback, see the link at the bottom), but still much coveted Gentleman’s Companion series books and through articles in places such as Gourmet, Esquire and Town and Country magazine.

Revered in hushed tones and considered a must read by serious cocktail aficionados, the influence of Baker continues to resonate. Baker certainly offers a compass and road map for those leading the way in today’s quality cocktail revival. Providing detailed and easy to follow recipes from the well known (including several versions for mint juleps); to the naughty (Angel’s Tit II, for example with its whipped cream mound and a cherry on top); to the exotic and unknown (such as the Yokohama Romance) these are no gimmicks. Instead, the thousand plus drinks in Baker’s universe are each small works of art, the antithesis of the detested “appletinis” and other sugary sweet garbage many a modern drinker falls prey to.

Therefore, who better than contemporary cocktail master St John Frizell of the Pegu Club and The Good Fork fame to keep the memory of Baker alive? For it is fair to say that Frizell is certainly a man on a mission when it comes to all things Bakeresque. In a sea of Baker fans, Frizell may very well be the biggest fan of all. He is certainly the most informed. Having given up his steady job as promotion copy director of Bon Appétit magazine in 2005, Frizell along with his wife Linden, retraced many of Baker’s journeys and tasted many of Baker’s drinks on a round-the-world adventure of their own. In addition, Frizell has an extensive article on Baker in the Summer 2008 issue of the highly regarded Oxford American. Well done, Mr. Frizell, well done indeed.

During the presentation, Frizell took his audience on a whirlwind tour of Baker’s life. From the unremarkable childhood in small town Florida, to the college years at Trinity in Hartford, Connecticut, to the “lost years” where Baker worked at the god-awful sounding Norton Abrasives company, nothing in his past would indicate the excitement to come. From there however, we were indulged with a sample of Baker’s early writings, his beginning travel itch working on an international cruise ship, and his later dabbles in pulp fiction. Through three marriages and several different residences around the U.S., Baker went from staid upper-middle class beginnings to a life of never ending sunsets and parties, fishing trips and world journeys while he wrote and drank his way through it all. In between sips of the refreshing Cuban Grapefruit Blossom cocktail offered to attendees, Frizell provided his take on Baker’s modus operandi and ability to live the life of a well-heeled international gentleman,

“Baker’s three-fold path to success: 1. Inherit money, 2. Work on a cruise ship, 3. Marry rich.”

I’ll toast to that, brother. Cheers!

Frizell was also generous enough to share his Keynote slides with me, and with his permission I’ve posted them here. Granted, gentle readers, as fair warning, both are but a pale comparison of seeing Frizell give this presentation in the flesh.

Still, in a fast-food world where far too many distilleries and bars still pump out mass produced kool-aid flavored swill with nary a thought, and many drinkers would happily sip chilled radiator fluid without a care in the world, Baker is a beacon of light on the way the cocktail world could and should be. We salute this great man for his life’s work and thank St John Frizell immensely for bringing it back to us.

“And so, before the turned page, we say: Salud y pesetas, skol, sante, salute, and here’s mud in your eye!”

Charles H. Baker Jr., The Gentleman’s Companion, Being An Exotic Drinking Book. Or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, 1939

Lizzy Caston is a food writer and hack journalist based in Portland, Oregon and writes for Portland Monthly Magazine, Edible Portland, Portland Spaces and anything else with Portland in the title, along with a whole slew of websites and national trade publications. She also owns the imaginatively named communications firm, Lizzy Caston Communications, with a specialty in marketing, interactive and new media. Although she has launched and manages websites and blogs for dozens of clients, she is adamant about never finishing her own: www.lizzycaston.com