Monday, April 30, 2012

Charles H. Baker Jr. Comes Home to Red Hook

You want to know something about 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, you ask Thomas historian David Wondrich. Have a question about tiki-master Donn "Don the Beachcomber" Beach, Jeff Berry is your man. And if you're curious about mid-20th-century, globe-trotting mixologist-journalist Charles H. Baker Jr., take a stroll down to the Red Hook, Brooklyn, bar Fort Defiance and talk to St. John Frizell. 

Since traveling the globe in pursuit of places and bars that Baker visited, and publishing his findings in the Oxford American in 2008, Frizell has been acknowledged as the world authority on Baker, his life, his bibliography and his cocktail creations. 

The apotheosis of Frizell's Baker obsession will come on May 1, when he will formally unveil at Fort Defiance a cocktail shaker that once belonged to Baker. It was given to Frizell by Baker's daughter, Pamela. Here's the story I wrote about it for the Times:  
At Fort Defiance, Saluting a Drinks Pioneer
A cocktail shaker once owned by the influential drinks columnist Charles H. Baker Jr. will soon have a place of honor at Fort Defiance, a bar and cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Today’s history-minded mixologists follow various guiding lights from the past. Some bow at the altar of the 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, the so-called “father of American mixology.” Others look to Harry Johnson, a leading barman of the late 1800s.
For St. John Frizell, the owner of Fort Defiance, a bar and cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Charles H. Baker Jr. was always a lodestar. And on Tuesday, Mr. Frizell will hold a private party to celebrate him.
A bon vivant and world traveler who married exceptionally well and drank with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Errol Flynn, Baker found time to write about the cocktails he encountered around the globe, in the pages of Esquire, Town & Country and Gourmet, where he had a column called “Here’s How.” His book “The Gentleman’s Companion,” published in 1939, has become a collector’s item among cocktail types, and occasionally you’ll find one of his liquid creations popping up on a modern cocktail list. (I am particularly fond of the Remember the Maine, a Manhattan-Sazerac cross laced with cherry heering.)
“I was given his books in 2000 by a friend of mine,” Mr. Frizell said. “This was back before anyone was talking about him. To read that book is to fall in love with Charles Baker. The problem was, the only thing I could find out about him anywhere was an obituary in The Miami Herald.”
And so Mr. Frizell decided to retrace the peripatetic writer’s footsteps, spending 2005 and 2006 going wherever Baker had gone. He published his finding in a 2008 essay in the literary magazine Oxford American.
At some point in his investigations, he became acquainted with Baker’s daughter, Pamela Johnson, who lives in Princeton, NJ. She rewarded Mr. Frizell’s interest by giving him an ornate Japanese cocktail shaker once owned by Baker. The shaker, possibly dating from the 1920s or ’30s, is footed and high-shouldered and shaped like a teapot. Painted a funereal black, it has a red handle and spout, and is decorated with the image of a fantastical, long-tailed rooster.
The party on Tuesday will mark the arrival of the shaker. Guests will be invited to build Baker-devised cocktails in the vessel. At the end of the evening, the shaker will be placed on the wall in a glass case created for the purpose. And there it will remain.
Ms. Johnson, who is in her 70s, is planning to travel from New Jersey for the event. “She is surprised by the whole thing,” Mr. Frizell said. “She loved her father, but finds this whole thing strange. I think she thinks I’m the only one who’s interested in him.”

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