Periodista Tales

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Periodista Tales: The Joe Baum Papers

New York again. I had decided to try my hand at some academic-style research. Maybe Greg Boehm’s project had inspired me. Maybe meeting writers like Dave Wondrich, Jeff Berry, and Wayne Curtis—true scholars of the cocktail—had left a mark. Maybe I was one jigger shy of a full shaker. In any case, I had to acknowledge the possibility that not all my answers were hidden in the minds of heavy drinkers. Some might be in a library.

The floor of the uptown 6 train was slick with mud and snow melt. Next to me, a man in an electric orange ski jacket diddled an iPod three generations out of date. When the train stopped at Grand Central Terminal I got out feeling like a new dollar bill on its first day in circulation.

As I worked my way down 42nd Street I looked up. New York towered over me. It towers over everyone. The trick is not to knock over any old ladies while you’re craning your neck. I made the three blocks to the New York Public Library unscathed.

Signs directed me to the Manuscripts & Archives Division on the third floor. I walked through the McGraw Rotunda, past Ed Laning’s murals from the 1940s. I hear they’d considered Sargent and Whistler for the job, but a trustee had landed on Laning—I guess he was the budget version. To my right, Gutenberg showed off an early print edition and above me Prometheus brought knowledge to mankind. Lucky mankind.

The librarian who buzzed me in looked like he might have been a side tackle in college. He was nervous, he stuttered, and he liked eye contact about as much as a shiner, but somehow he managed to nail that befuddled charm so particular to the profession. I described my “project” and the librarian sent word down to the stacks for them to retrieve the boxes I wanted from the Joe Baum archive. I was looking for the original menu from Baum’s Latin restaurant, La Fonda Del Sol.

Joe Baum was the first president of Restaurant Associates, a company that operated many of New York’s classic restaurants, including The Four Seasons restaurant and Tavern on the Green. In his book The Craft of the Cocktail, Dale DeGroff—a protégé of Baum’s—claims that his boss “singlehandedly introduced tequila to New York at La Fonda Del Sol.” The restaurant opened in 1960 and supposedly featured a number of Cuban cocktails. It was Jackson Cannon who first suggested to me that the Periodista might have found a place on that menu.

Even if the Periodista was on the menu, seeing it wasn’t going to help me find the cocktail’s origin. On the other hand, it might provide a midpoint between the Periodista’s presence in the 1948 manual of the Club de Cantineros de Cuba and its appearance in Boston. Right now that was a void. Where had it gone? Why hadn’t the Periodista made it into the annals of cocktail history? Why wasn’t it in any of the great cocktail books (a fact that had perplexed so many historically-minded bartenders throughout Boston)?

As I waited, three librarians held counsel in hushed tones. Everything in there happened in hushed tones. The librarians threw an occasional glance in my direction, just to make sure I wasn’t making a sandwich on a first edition Robinson Crusoe. The other patrons eyed me suspiciously, most of them from behind horn-rimmed glasses. I felt like a first-timer in a bar full of regulars.

I sneezed. That didn’t help anything. The beefy librarian approached me.

“That was bound delivery,” he said, indicating some carts that had arrived behind the iron railing. “Do you want to just start with the first box?”

I did.

I was handed a narrow grey box. Inside I found a stack of folders, each containing photographs and menus from a different Joe Baum restaurant. There was the Four Seasons, the Newarker, the St. Regis. And La Fonda Del Sol in folder number four.

The menu was easy to find—it had a brightly-colored, ornate design. La Fonda Del Sol’s cocktail offerings would have been impressive even today. For 1960 they were unheard of. The first item was the “Pisco Sawer” for $1.30, described as a “Peruvian Brandy Sour.” There was a “Taxco Fizz” with mezcal, lime, sugar, and egg. The “Algarrobina Coctél” with pisco, Peruvian herbs, and lime. I could have been looking at the cocktail menu of a tapas restaurant circa 2010.

Among their selection of rum drinks—Bebidas con Ron—were all the Cuban classics: the Floridita, the Daiquiri, the Mojito.

But no Periodista.

One of the drinks on the “Bebidas—Mixtas—Típicas” menu did pique my interest. It was the “Coctél Alegría,” which contained pisco, Cointreau, and apricot brandy. Close, but no cigar. I’d struck out again.

I thought about Joe Baum. What had inspired him to create such a sophisticated cocktail program at La Fonda Del Sol? Who had he hired to create the program? Which future bartending luminaries had tasted their first Pisco Sour within those walls and thought, “This is how cocktails should be”? I left the Manuscripts Division, my questions still unanswered.

I walked out of the library, past the concrete lions, and into a cold rain. Who was I fooling? I was no Wondrich, no Beach Bum Berry or Wayne Curtis. I might aspire to leave a lasting impression on the cocktail world like they had, but I couldn’t stomach the paperwork. The only real hope for the Periodista story was for me to keep getting in the room with the right people. The right lead was out there—I could feel it.

There was one person I hadn’t managed to meet—a man who had left an indelible mark on the cocktail scene through his research and writing. He’d been a trial to find, but I’d finally gotten a call returned. He was my next stop, right there in New York City. The professor himself: Dr. Cocktail.

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