“Really? Cinco de Mayo, Kentucky Derby, and Mother’s Day – in four days. Come on, Calendar Dudes…” David made this offhand Facebook comment the other day when considering the “pressure” we were under to come up with cocktails for the ensuing holidays. Our friend Sue responded quite succinctly – “That’s a lot of hats to buy.” It was a comment which, in turn, made us think – that’s a great subject for today’s post. After all, Cinco de Mayo demands a sombrero. Women hire milliners to design one-of-a-kind toppers for their Derby debut, and men have sported Panama hats at Churchill Downs since the beginning. As for Mother’s Day, well, it may be a bit of a stretch but, like Easter, it’s usually a brunch affair and that means, you guessed it – a hat.
Just how did hats evolve, then? Now, don’t get all smart on me here (which is exactly what David did when I suggested this post). I realize that hats are used to protect us from the elements, but actually there’s a whole lot more going on here than something to keep the sun out of our eyes. Some of the first recorded hat images were found in a tomb in Thebes. Other early hats include the Phrygian cap, which became known as the ‘liberty cap’ presented to Roman slaves when they became free men.
Men have always worn hats, in the form of skull caps, armor, and the like. Sometimes, this was for religious reason, other times it was to distinguish themselves (by choice or by law). However, western women only started to wear them regularly in the Middle Ages when the church decreed that they must cover their hair, an example set by the Jews and Muslims. The term “Millaner” is seen in the 1500s, referring to the traveling sales folk from the city of Milan who sold all manner of fashion accoutrements. The term “milliner” is derived from this Italian word. Probably not coincidentally, with the presence of these Millaners, the late 16th century saw the emergence of hats specifically designed for feminine embellishment.
In the early 1800s, the over-sized bonnet adorned with ribbons, flowers, and feathers was the rage, protecting the wearer from the sun and from the inquiring glances of onlookers. By the middle of the century, Italian straw, velvet and tulle, became fashionable. In the 1850s, the “bavolette”, a frilly ribbon on the back of the bonnet, was used to cover the neck, considered an erogenous zone that was only to be seen at fancy dress occasions.
With the Victorian era, an entire industry rose up to meet the need of fashionable types. Plumassier workshops evolved where feathers were dyed and used for everything from boas to hat toppers. Feathered hats – a sign of status – could fetch as much as 100 pounds. The feather craze was taken to extremes when entire stuffed birds decorated the hats of society’s best and brightest. The copy from Harper’s Bazaar 1875 for the image below read “the entire bird is used, and is mounted on wires and springs that permit the head and wings to be moved about in the most natural manner.”
According to the book “Plume Trade” (1988), 1,608 packages of heron plumes were sold in 1902 at the London Commercial Sales Room. As it took four herons to assemble one ounce of plumes, the sale from this one event necessitated the killing of some 192,960 herons. Needless to say, America’s Audubon Society and England’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds both voiced concerns and eventually rare bird feathers were banned from millinery use. Feathers or not, hats were de rigueur for both men and women, rich or poor, in the early 1900s.
The shorter hair styles of the 1920s led to the rise of the cloche, a smaller, face-framing style that called attention to the face; small brims re-emerged in the 30s and 40s, but etiquette broke down in the wake of World War II and hats became more about practicality than fashion. Today, we wear hats for both purpose and pleasure, although the extreme embellishments of yesteryear are usually only seen in very particular settings.
The Kentucky Derby is one of those times when flights of fancy aren’t only accepted, but encouraged. Derby hats are an essential part of the tradition and are considered good luck. Louisville, home of the Derby, even has hat shops dedicated to the creation of hats just for the races. While the high rollers are part of the “Derby Hat Parade” that takes place inside Churchill Downs, average folks on the field add their own form of personalized haberdashery with looks that range from homespun silliness to outlandish absurdity.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mother’s Day just briefly here. In America, we have Julia War Howe, who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, to thank. In 1870, overwhelmed by the devastation of the Civil War, Howe called on all mothers to protest the futility of the battle with an international Mother’s Day. How does this tie in with hats? See for yourself – even Ms. Howe wouldn’t be seen in public without an appropriate head covering. (Howe’s holiday didn’t stick, but the efforts of stalwart activist Anna M. Jarvis led Woodrow Wilson to sign the holiday into law in 1914).
All this leads me to my last (perhaps questionable) segue – cocktail garnishes. For aren’t they, ultimately, just little hats – a final decorative flourish — perched atop a liquid body? Just like folks who hate hats (see “Counterpoint” below), a lot of cocktail folk dislike garnishes, calling them “the junk”. We at 12 Bottle Bar embrace them for what they are – amusing and often singular accessories. Let’s face it, would a tiki drink be a tiki drink without that ubiquitously tacky umbrella? Would a martini be the same without its olive or twist of lemon? I think not. And would Admiral Russell’s Punch à la David Wondrich be the same without a Playmobil “boy” floating on top (technically not a hat, but you get the idea.)
So, too, our Pineapple Julep sports its own defining topper, an enthusiastic jumble of mint, pineapple, and berries. The Mint Julep is the traditional Derby drink, of course, but we’ve hocked it here a few times already so we felt compelled to offer an alternative. Not we think the Pineapple Julep fits the bill just as well – but with its gregarious garnish, it seems right at home with the over-the-top millinery at Churchill Downs.
Of course, the Pineapple Julep isn’t really a julep in the traditional sense, but purists can argue that neither is the Mint Julep. Originally medicinal in nature, real juleps call for flowers macerated with water and sugar – no alcohol to be seen. It continued in this vein all the way through the 1700s until 1796 when, according to Wondrich, an anonymous author rhymed “tulips” with “cordial juleps”. Suddenly, this medical potion became something “you drank for fun.” In 1802, we find the first record of mint being used in what had become a sort of morning bracer. From that point on, the julep evolved into the most popular American drink in the 19th century; the Mint Julep has been linked to the Derby since 1938.
So here we have the Pineapple Julep, delightful however you define it. We have substituted Orange Liqueur for the traditional Maraschino Liqueur (not something we’d do in, say, an Aviation, but it works fine here) and used Bols Genever, which was the standard “old gin” called for in early gin julep recipes. As Jerry Thomas’ original recipe calls for this to be made in a bowl – with chucks of pineapple – we added a splash of the latter fruit to our single serving portion – for good measure, if nothing else. All in, the Pineapple Julep makes for a subtly addicting drink, perfect for Derby Days and Mother’s Days – and all the days in between.
Counterpoint: We’d be remiss if we didn’t embrace one of Lars’ favorite sentiments on the subject of hats:
“A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.” – P. J. O’Rourke
Esoterica: Courtesy of Wikipedia, of course. “Since 2006, Churchill Downs has also served extra-premium, custom-made mint juleps at a cost of $1000 each at the Kentucky Derby. These mint juleps were served in gold-plated cups with silver straws, and were made from Woodford Reserve bourbon, mint imported from Ireland, ice from the Bavarian Alps, and sugar from Australia. The proceeds were used to support charitable causes dedicated to retired race horses.”
Yes: That’s David’s mom in the top photo. Happy Mother’s Day to all of our moms!