Tiki

PrintPrintEmailEmail Soon came the short stories of a talented naval reservist, who had spent much of his enlistment typing away in a Quonset hut in Vanuatu. He was James Michener, and the book he published was titled Tales of the South Pacific . It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and made it to Broadway as a musical entitled South Pacific , with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Victor Bergeron pours a drink at Hinky Dinks, before he became Trader Vic and built his chain of restaurants.
 
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In 1947 the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl had set off from the coast of South America on a raft to test his theory that Polynesia had been settled by the Incas; his account, Kon-Tiki , became a runaway bestseller. In 1959 Hawaii joined the Union amid fireworks and hullabaloo, and two years later Elvis added his own brand of fuel to the South Pacific infatuation with his movie Blue Hawaii .

Disneyland opened in 1955, and among its first rides was a Jungle Cruise, in which boats drifted through tropical scenes; a few years later the park’s creator presented an attraction called the Enchanted Tiki Room, where 225 birds chattered and danced among “tiki gods” named Kor, Maui, Pele, Rongo, Tangaroa, and Tangaroa-Ru (this was Disney’s first use of “Audio Animatronic” figures). Aloha shirts took off, driven in part by the ukulele-playing TV host Arthur Godfrey’s fondness for them. If it had thatch and torches and colorful fabrics and little statues (which Donn Beach liked to call his “cannibal gods”), the public wanted more of it.

The American cult of tiki moved into the suburbs and beyond. Apartment buildings, bowling alleys, trailer parks, Laundromats, and corner restaurants were dressed up with tiki heads and masks, rattan walls, dried blowfish, and electric tiki torches.

A growing number of tiki bars and restaurants emerged as landmarks on the American cultural landscape, building and expanding on the foundation laid by Donn Beach and Trader Vic. Here one could briefly enter an exotic world and engage in curious rituals amid hula girls and seductively unfamiliar music. Temples of tiki cuisine cropped up throughout the country to meet the demands of what the tiki historian Sven Kirsten called the “modern primitives.” They offered easy escape for those who didn’t want to drop out of society and play bongo drums all day but weren’t content with the circumscribed life of the “organization man.”

Tiki revival: the pupu platter at Waikiki Wally’s  in New York City.
 
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Customers typically entered the tiki realm by crossing a low bridge or passing through a damp grotto, which offered a gentle transition from the pesky reality outside the door. It took a few moments for one’s eyes to adjust, as the restaurants were often windowless. Who wanted to see the harsh sun, the parking lot, and the road outside? The tiki restaurant existed in a sort of perpetual twilight, lit by propane torches, the fiery eyes of tiki statues, and golden flames licking off the pineapple-and-brown-sugar dishes delivered by a hula girl.

If there was a cult at the tiki palaces, it was that of the tiki drink. Few customers came to the restaurants solely because of the food. (Noting the flaming entrées, the Columbus Dispatch once wrote of the Kahiki that it “is one of the few restaurants in Columbus in which food can injure you.”) The lure was the drinks. Restaurants sought to outhustle one another in concocting the most outrageous cocktails, giving them names like Pele’s Bucket of Fire, Sidewinder’s Fang, Molucca Fireball, Tonga Surfrider, and the Aku-Aku Lapu. (Not all bars showed imagination; many saw fit to name their specialty simply The Mystery Drink.)

Tiki bars marshaled whole stockrooms of custom-made ceramic skulls, pineapples, barrels, Easter Island heads, and statues in which to serve their potions.