1912 – Mardi Gras and the Baby Doll
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass
Or, pour directly into a rocks glass over ice
Featured Glassware: Scotch Whisky Tumbler No. 1 by Villeroy & Boch
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Fat Tuesday –better known as Mardi Gras – is upon us and, with it, celebrations spanning the globe from Belgium to Brazil to the Big Easy. Each Mardi Gras is unique in its way, but, given our current affection for all things 1912, it is the pre-Lenten revels of New Orleans that interest us today.
Originally a religious festival, Mardi Gras was brought to the Crescent City by French settlers who indulged in rich food and drink – as well as parades, masked balls, and late night carousing – before the fasting of Lent. Most of the festivities were and still are centered on krewes and social clubs, among them the Baby Dolls who celebrate their 100th anniversary this year. Tracing their roots to New Orleans’ 6th Ward, historically a cornerstone of Creole culture, the Dolls are one of the many “second line” groups in the brass band parades, which evolved out of traditional jazz funerals.
According to Kim Vaz in her article Resurrection of a Mardi Gras Tradition, “Socially, much was happening at the advent of Baby Doll masking in the 1910s. Jazz was evolving from the music hall to the street. Women were rebelling against Victorian restrictions on their self-determination and sexuality.” The Baby Dolls – many from the wrong side of the tracks and others who just pretended to be – were born of this early jazz age empowerment, parading in lace stockings and frilly baby dresses (there were even some men in the groups, sporting tuxes and top hats).
There have been numerous incarnations of the Dolls, but the original group was the Million Dollar Baby Dolls (1912-1950), whose “’raddy’ walking, shake-dancing, cigar-smoking, money-flinging, and ‘bucking’ activities gained them notoriety”, according to the upcoming “They Call Me Baby Doll” exhibition.
The references to “shake-dancing and ‘raddy’ walking” bring home the fact that originally jazz was primarily played to accompany dancers, and the Million Dollar Baby Dolls were known as “women who danced the jazz”. These “Back-o-Town” women, African American prostitutes from the Storyville area, inspired an entire era (1920s-1960s) of middle and upper class ladies to start their own Baby Doll Social and Pleasure Clubs – with names like the Gold Diggers and the Satin Sinners.
The 1970s saw a revival of the clubs, one of the more recent being the charitably-focused Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls. When Antoinette K-Doe decided to start the group, she went to Miriam Batiste Reed, one of the Golden Slipper Baby Dolls of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s . Along with showing the new Dolls how to make their bonnets and lacy panties, she offered some further advice: “’You got to have a walk to you. You got to shake it a little bit. You got your baby bottle — you can put anything in your baby bottle you want. I like to put Scotch and milk in it.’” That gives you some idea of how these ladies roll. In 2005, the New Orleans Society of Dance’s Baby Doll Ladies, founded by Millisia White, brought a modern spin to this living art form by integrating “bounce” music (New Orleans hip-hop) into their traditional parade chant.
Like the Baby Doll Ladies’ modern take on their old school muses, our Baby Doll cocktail is really just an old school Sidecar, but with more orange liqueur. The Sidecar’s origins are murky (the Ritz Hotel lays claim), but the first recipes show up in 1922 in both Harry MacElhone’s Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails and Robert Vermeire’s Cocktails and How to Mix Them. Now, 1922 isn’t exactly 1912, but then the Sidecar is little more than a Brandy Crusta (minus the gum syrup and bitters), which appeared in Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks in 1862. So, you’ll perhaps forgive us the hyperbole of saying that it is altogether likely that the Baby Doll would have been equally at home then and in 1912.
As Mardi Gras is upon us, we at 12 Bottle Bar fully intend to indulge (sensibly) in all pre-Lenten pleasures. We may not – correction, will not – be donning any Baby Doll costumes, but if Miriam Reed can fill her baby bottle with Scotch, then we might just fill ours with a Baby Doll. As the locals say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” Yeah, baby.