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Drinking in Shirley Temple and Charlie Sheen

Published in Gourmet Live 02.15.12
Geoff Nicholson explores La La Land’s namesake foods and drinks, from the many Melbas to the Charlie Sheen and Larry David

From left: Actress Mary Pickford and husband, actor Douglas Fairbanks; Mary Pickford cocktail from 1943

If, last summer, you had slipped into many a Hollywood watering hole, chances are you’d have been able to order a cocktail named the Charlie Sheen. There was no general agreement about what this drink should contain. There was often some ironic version of “tiger blood” (be it tomato juice or Campari), but each bar had its own recipe. Rivalries between mixologists were intense but short-lived. By autumn no bar was featuring, and certainly no patrons were demanding, a Charlie Sheen. The actor had (mercifully perhaps) slipped out of the media klieg light, and the cocktail seemed no more current or fashionable than a Pet Rock.

Well, you might say, that’s the way things go in showbiz. It’s also the way things go with celebrity-name-checking food and drinks. In the afterglow of Charlie Sheen’s flameout, I turned to my copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book (there are multiple editions; mine’s from the 1970s). In its pages were drinks named after the likes of Harry Lauder, Will Rogers, and Johnny Mack, entertainers who were popular in their day but who no longer rank high on anybody’s Netflix list. At least there was Mary Pickford, an actress whose name still resonates as Hollywood royalty, and I think quite a few people still drink a version of her cocktail, which contains rum, pineapple juice, grenadine, and Maraschino, though the last time I had anything like that it was called a Zombie.

Perhaps the most enduring of all cocktails named after celebrities is the Shirley Temple, a nonalcoholic drink inspired by the child star, and according to some accounts invented by a barman at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills. It doesn’t appear in the Savoy book, perhaps on the grounds that it isn’t a “real” cocktail, but you will find in there the Melba cocktail named for Dame Nellie Melba: the drink combines rum, Swedish punch, grenadine, lemon, lime, and absinthe; I kid you not.

Dame Nellie never made it to Hollywood, since her heyday came before films with sound, though she has been depicted in movies. However when it comes to A-list cuisine few can compare to her: Napoleon is the only one who springs to mind. We’re all familiar with melba toast and Peach Melba, but she also gave her name to Melba sauce (puréed raspberries and red currants), and Melba Garniture (chicken, mushrooms, and truffles, inside a tomato, served with velouté sauce), though I can’t say I’ve ever seen that last one on a menu.

All these dishes were devised by Auguste Escoffier, though, in the case of melba toast this wasn’t so much an invention as a name change. Originally melba toast was Toast Marie, named after Madame Marie Ritz, and I imagine she must have been furious at having it taken away from her. Maybe she could console herself with Ritz Crackers, though I doubt it.

History suggests that Dame Nellie was happy to give her name to these dishes, but you can see there are certain foods you wouldn’t want your name attached to. There’s the famous episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David is initially delighted that his local deli has named a sandwich in his honor, then is bitterly disappointed to discover it contains whitefish, sable, cream cheese, capers, and onion. Personally I can think of far worse sandwiches, but I realize that would have left the episode without a plotline.

Sandwiches have always tended to have people’s names attached to them (not least that of John Montagu, the eponymous fourth earl). In many cases the origins are contested—we’re not quite sure which particular Reuben or sloppy Joe is being referred to. Here in L.A., for example, we’re pretty confident that the French dip was a local invention, but fights have broken out about whether it originated at Philippe’s or at Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet. Some sources say it’s named after Philippe “Frenchy” Mathieu, who—one story holds—accidentally dropped a sandwich into the meat juices; others cite a cop named French who had bad teeth and needed the bread softened.

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