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Flavor, less

Sunday Comics, flavourOur Sunday Comics columnist serves us with a round of the latest, tasteless trends in American consumption

It is an interesting, worldwide, multi-cultural phenomenon:  adding flavor to the flavorless.  This was forcefully though happily brought to mind by onslaught of the Annual Mirliton Festival, coming to my neighborhood soon, a yearly celebration of the native and all-pervasive vine which fills so many yards during the New Orleans summer, producing huge numbers of the essentially flavorless fruit.

Lovely, aren’t they?

Better known as “chayote” (Sechium edule), that name derives from its origins in the Classical Mexican/Nahuatl word chayohtli. 

An edible plant belonging to the gourd family Cucurbitaceae, along with melons, cucumbers and squash, it has now traveled the world, and become known as christophene or christophine, cho-cho, mirliton/merleton (our Creole/Cajun name, explained below), chuchu (Brazil), Cidra (Antioquia, Caldas, Quindio and Risaralda regions of Colombia), Guatila (Boyacá and Valle del Cauca regions of Colombia), Centinarja (Malta), Pipinola (Hawaii), pear squash, vegetable pear, chouchoute, choko, güisquil (El Salvador), Labu Siam (Indonesia), Ishkus (Darjeeling, India), Pataste (Honduras),Tayota (Dominican Republic), and Sayote (Philippines). 

Pretty immense and widespread fame, considering that it does not taste like anything at all.  It became “mirliton” here amidst the Cajun/Creole cultures as something described in an article entitled “Le Mirliton enchanteur”, “the charming trifle”, in “Historique d’un mot à la mode en 1723” as “…like one of those things used as a refrain of song … things which mean nothing by themselves but depend on the whim of the singer…”   Nothing by themselves, and dependent on the whim of someone, or something, else.  There we get our mirliton and its use. 

As with many an other entity, dependent on others for its character. 

Mirlitons are used in Louisiana and New Orleans cooking as an ingredient that literally takes on and amplifies the flavor of anything added to it. 

A prominent example would be Chef Paul Prudhomme’s decades-old and yet still masterful recipe for Mirliton Pirogue, a dish which fills a halved mirliton (that hollowed half resembling the small Cajun swamp boat known locally as a “pirogue”) with heavily spiced and buttered bread crumbs, crawfish tails, and oyster and tasso hollandaise.  Flavors to die for.  And fat levels that will probably cause just that. 

But the people of New Orleans are so devoted to this free-growing carrier of cuisine taste messages that, after the plant was nearly wiped out by the intrusive saltwater floods of Katrina and subsequent hurricanes, an organization was formed to save it.  “Adopt a Mirliton” and its website have brought the vines back to fruitful cultivation approaching pre-hurricane numbers.  The markets are again full of wrinkled green orbs.

And once again, for something with no flavor, the aggressive vegetable promotion seems quite an extension of time and energy.  Why promote an essentially “neutral spirit”?

Why, indeed.  That is until you notice what has happened these last two years to spirits.  In particular, what has happened to vodka, and who/what has been at the forefront of that development.

Consider the who first:  L’il Kim, Spike Lee, Flavor Flav, Dr Dre, all have something in common.  No, something besides their all being African-American.  Something besides their cultural immersion in urban and hiphop culture.  Though this new connection may also be considered cultural.

Nothing comes to mind?  It’s simple, one more burst of Americana – I suppose it to be a particularly American phenomenon, as this country always seems to forge to the head of the line when it comes to bad taste – each of the individuals above, and many many more, have a signature flavored vodka. 

L’il Kim’s is just called “purple”, possibly a reference to the chroma of her cleavage display:

Flavor Flav proclaims his “Bubba Gum” to be the best:

And the film auteur Spike Lee?  His vodka is called “Brooklyn”, which one columnist half-jokingly commented must be “scented with hobo urine, bagels and lox.”

Notice that the Lee vodka base is Absolut, long a distinguished Swedish brand.  And they are selling lots of this stuff according to the website TopVodkaBrands:

“Every year the world sells more than 90 million liters of Absolut flavored vodka. This Absolut flavored vodka makes it one of the best selling spirits in the world. Every day produces over 500,000 bottles of Absolut vodka… regardless of whether it is consumed in New York or in Paris… According to Advertising Age, one of the greatest authorities in the field of marketing and media marketing, the campaign for Absolut flavored vodka was one of the 10 best campaigns in the 20th century.”

 And similar advertising and marketing has brought us to this:

I was inadvertently thrust into this tsunami of flavor imposition as I wandered down the liquor aisle of my favorite supermarket in search of bourbon (the purity of which beverage I personally only dilute with the occasional unflavored ice cube in the August heat of Deep South America), and there in front of me were shelf after shelf after shelf of flavored vodkas, including a “Froot Loops” flavor (no kidding), leading me to wonder how many parents were lacing their hyperactive and “loopy” eight-year-olds’ cereal with a little calmer-downer.

The Bartenders Blog does say that the same Three Olives brand handles some more esoterically pleasing flavors:  "The quadruple-distilled and quadruple-filtered vodka comes in nineteen flavors: passionfruit, mango, pomegranate, cherry, berry, grape, watermelon, chocolate, orange, vanilla, green apple, raspberry, citrus, espresso, root beer, and tomato."  Though eighty-proof root beer and espresso may be pushing the, uh, loop.

Then there is Pinnacle, which has just introduced salted caramel, pecan pie, blueberry cobbler vodkas.

And you thought I was exaggerating. 

Some of the cocktails people have been coming up with sound close to non-poisonous, if we only knew what actually makes up the flavors like Gummy Bear and Whipped Cream.

Yummy Gummy cocktail:
1 oz. Pinnacle Gummy
1⁄2 oz. Triple Sec
2 oz. lemonade
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Orange Dreamsicle cocktail:
2 oz. Pinnacle Whipped
2 oz. orange juice
2 oz. lemon-lime soda
Splash grenadine
Mix in a glass filled with ice and garnish with a cherry.

Or not.  Maraschino cherries and I do not often meet on congenial terms.  Nor do I favor drinks accompanied by miniature umbrellas and/or fruit slices.  And yet “whipped cream” flavored vodka is now the third most popular vodka made.  Among those selling that flavor is Invanabitch vodka out of Jacksonville, Florida, which takes the proverbial vodka cake even a layer further in combining two bad habits in one:  Tobacco-flavored vodka.

And you may notice they even have a menthol-tobacco  flavor. 

You just can’t make this stuff up and beat the reality.

The site reports that while vodka is the third largest seller in the US, twenty percent of that volume is now for flavored vodkas, and the marketers will tell you that the sales rule is the sweeter the better.

Two sites have speculated on where this can go.  Table to Grave believes that the children’s breakfast vodkas should exploit Pop-Tarts next.  And has come up with a list of seven flavored vodkas that should exist, but don’t, including corn dog and sushi vodkas.

But these actually do exist.  This is not a parody.  This very moment, someone is drinking peanut butter and jelly flavored vodka in a bar near you.

And now, now the cashing in on flavors has begun creeping into sacred realms, into Kentucky of all places, into… flavored bourbon.  Even my own favorite, Wild Turkey, has developed a spiced version.  There are so many new taste sensations out there that has seen fit to offer a Top Ten List of flavored bourbons.  The mind boggles.  John Wayne swaggering up to the bar and ordering a shot of cherry bourbon?  Maybe with a tiny cowboy hat on top.  Seems a tad off-kilter.

And thus comes the sociological speculation on what this development indicates.  First, of course, it is economic.  Cashing in on any fad is always to be expected.  Liquor manufacturers are not out to spread joy and humanitarian love.  Oddly enough, they only want to make money.  Loads of it.  Out of whatever works.  Though I can only imagine what will happen to warehouses stacked with Froot Loop vodka once this thing winds down.  Do they recoup the investment by developing it as fuel for schoolchildren’s alcohol-powered plastic flying drones or to ignite laboratory burners?

So first of all the money’s there.  But what created this need for spending on something so innately and simultaneously homey and creepy?  The liquor companies are looking for more “experimental” drinkers, according to Business Week, but interestingly enough, their own studies showed them that combining emotion-triggering elements like mom’s apple pie with booze succeeds nicely with younger drinkers, women, African-Americans and Latinos.  A cocktail as one’s teddy bear?  One’s piñata?  Is this to be a comforting quilt-hugging drunken weekend? 

To be sure, there is snobbery and a human-to-human alcohol caste system involved.  I can personally remember less than a decade ago sitting down to a dinner with moneyed media sorts at a fancy upscale faux-bistro  in L.A., with me ordering a drink to start the evening’s fooded negotiations.  When that cocktail was delivered I immediately was cast as pariah.  The very thought of drinking plain hard liquor amongst a group of SoCal intelligentsia labeled me as a person who would undoubtedly be out early the next morn chopping down endangered redwood trees and knocking over green recycling bins.  I was deemed paleontological for my choice in alcoholic beverages, and my car was consequently brought out of valet parking last.  OK.  I learned my lesson.  Now I take cabs.

Times have changed.  Booze is camouflaged and cuddly.  I have a feeling that in 2014 those same denizens of the L.A. studio system could actually be caught quaffing warmed ceramic glasses of that legendary sushi vodka, all the while condemning the buttered popcorn version as unhealthy and possibly even fattening.

I can only think what weak creatures we humans are, how easily we are taken from one extreme bit of consumption to the next by the twisted will of some marketing goon intent on a year-end bonus.

Maybe, as they believe, life is indeed just le mirliton enchanteur, a charming trifle deriving all its flavor and worth from something/someone else.  Maybe that makes it all OK. 

And maybe L’il Kim’s image actually gives a natural tang to her Purple flavored vodka.

About the author

Jim Gabour is a film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. His New Orleans novel Unimportant People is available via Kindle.

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