“If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.”
– Don the Beachcomber
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath.
Listen to the surf wash up gently on the white sand beach as the palm trees sway overhead.
Yes, I said palm trees. You’re in my fantasy now.
This is where I go in my head in February when we’ve had umpteen million snowstorms and the temperatures slide into the single digits for days on end. I transport myself mentally to the beaches of Hawaii or some other tropical paradise and imagine sipping on a mai tai while the sun bakes my bare white skin.
Want to bring more life to this imaginary paradise? Do what I did a few weeks ago (in the middle of a snowstorm, no less) and throw a tiki party. Grab as many kitschy tiki decorations as you can, find some little paper umbrellas, make food that has pineapple chunks and soy sauce in it, stock up on rum, and hey — what else do you need to get you through ’til spring?
I’ve always had a fascination with tiki culture. My parents live not far from the Omni Hut, a “PolyAsian” restaurant established in 1960 outside Nashville that is filled with classic tiki decor and serves to-die-for Polynesian Pit Ribs. I regularly scan eBay for funky tiki items, though I rarely actually buy something. And oh, all right, I’ll confess: I listen to Hawaiian music, a new interest I picked up when I visited the islands a few years ago.
Tiki culture in America had its beginnings in the 1930s and ’40s as pure escapism then really took off after World War II, when soldiers returned home with their juicy tales of the South Pacific.
It fizzled out in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There have been a couple of small revivals since then, but many people still associate the word “tiki” with tacky, thatched-hut decor and fruity, sugary drinks.
I’ve always wanted to throw a tiki party, but was worried my friends would think I was weird. Well, guess what? Tiki culture is making a big comeback. Tiki bars and restaurants are reclaiming the Big Apple, the New York Times noted in September, in the form of “modern tropical” places like the Hurricane Club and Lani Kai. San Francisco and London are rediscovering tiki too.
The current tiki revival is “bigger than I could have possibly imagined,” said Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of five books on vintage tiki drinks and cuisine, and creator of a tiki drink app for the iPhone.
“It was an underground thing for many, many years,” Berry said, “and then it sort of bubbled up (in California) around 2008. And it has since spread to London, where there are big, multimillion-dollar tiki bars that the royal family go to, and Madonna and Paris Hilton.
“It’s just this incredibly big deal now. There’s this place called the Mahiki where Prince Charles dropped, like, 12,000 pounds in one night or something. It’s just insane. And it’s hit New York in a big way this year.”
Hey, if it’s good enough for the future king of England, I suppose it’s good enough for me. So when a co-worker announced she was leaving for another job, a friend and I offered to host a going-away party for her.
It was not the tiki party of my dreams because 1) we only had a few days to plan it, and 2) we held the party at my friend’s house, so I couldn’t exactly go really crazy. No tiki torches, no live hula girls or fire-twirling Polynesian dancers.
But this first foray into tiki party planning taught me a lot. So let me share what I’ve learned with you, including where you can get the supplies you need right here in the Portland area.
I was most worried about decorations because this is, after all, Maine, not Maui. Imagine my shock when I walked into the iParty store on Maine Mall Road and discovered a veritable treasure trove of tikidom. I mean, they had an entire wall covered with makeshift tiki bars, cardboard hula girl cut-outs, tiki lounge lantern garlands, raffia fringe table decorations, and on and on.
I was in heaven. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll really have to control yourself here, because it’s just too much fun going through all this stuff. Most items were not that expensive, but it all adds up.
Our party was indoors, so I could skip the real outdoor tiki bar and torches. I bought a plastic tiki god statue, some fishing net, lantern garlands, cutouts of hula girls and ukuleles, and a palm tree centerpiece for the table with little tiki gods to go around it.
I also bought a ridiculous cardboard Polynesian dancer with movable arms and legs. My friend has a 6-year-old daughter, so I bought her a grass skirt and she became our hostess, greeting guests at the door and handing out 29-cent leis.
I also made a stop at One Stop Party Shoppe in South Portland. It had a much smaller selection of tiki decor, but I found good stuff on sale. I picked up a large flag for our little bar that said “Tiki Lounge Now Open” for less than $3.
The first thing I did when thinking about the menu was pull out my 1964 Hawaiian cookbook, “The New Wiki Wiki Kau Kau.” But practically speaking, when I had so little time to prepare, recipes that called for guava jelly, taro shoots or strained poi seemed a little out of reach. Other recipes in the book seemed too “Westernized,” or too expensive to do on a party scale.
So I decided to go with tacky tiki and make Waikiki Meatballs, a 1971 recipe from Betty Crocker. (Before you laugh, they were a big hit.)
On the lighter side, I found a recipe for a chicken, mango and rice salad.
I also made a baked brie with macadamia nuts, served with mango chutney, that I got from one of Hawaiian Chef Sam Choy’s cookbooks.
My friend made, among other things, pulled pork, baked beans and the best coconut cake I think I’ve ever had.
If you decide to try Polynesian-inspired fare, I suggest paying a visit to Samantha and Don at Rabelais, the culinary bookstore on Middle Street. I’ll bet they could find some great island-themed cookbooks to help you plan your party.
When it came to planning cocktails for the party, I became a little obsessed. I had just bought “Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log” and had visions of playing bartender all night, serving up authentic tropical concoctions that would wow our guests.
My co-host planted my feet firmly back on the ground by suggesting we choose one signature cocktail for the party.
That was a good thing because, as it turns out, authentic tiki cocktails are way complicated — and expensive — to make. They are often blends of different kinds of rum and definitely not the colorful, sugary, simple drinks that they became in the waning years of the tiki craze.
Take the mai tai, the classic creation of Trader Vic and my first choice for the party.
The mai tais I had in Hawaii were red or blue, but the test drink I made from Beachbum Berry’s book took two kinds of rum and was, um, amber.
And it contained something called orgeat syrup, which has an almond-y flavor and that I only found with the help of the nice folks at RSVP on Forest Avenue. (Interestingly, the mai tai recipe in my Wiki Wiki Kau Kau book was identical to the authentic version in Berry’s book.)
The mai tai, I can now say with authority, is a delicious and well-balanced cocktail.
In the end, I settled on the Rum Runner because it was simpler, and the grenadine and blackberry brandy gave it a fruity look that I figured most of our guests would be expecting. It was such a hit, I burned out my blender.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: