Mojitos

Among the devoted, the debate still rages about how and where the first mojito came to be. Some say it was the master mixologist Constante, who invented 150 drinks during his reign as king of Havana's Floridita bar. Others claim it was born in the hinterlands of eastern Cuba about 1920. "It was a farmer's drink," howls one old man, perched shakily at Versailles's outdoor coffee counter. "My grandfather invented it. He was a farmer."

Maricel Presilla laughs when she hears such assertions, a whoop from the belly that flatly announces the idiocy of bar-stool historians. "You think somebody invented the mojito?" she asks, pausing to allow the question its full measure of absurdity. "Try it this way: the mojito evolved." And there is perhaps no one on God's earth better equipped to map "mojovolution" than Presilla, a Cuban exile and Rutgers University professor who specializes in Latin American and Caribbean culinary tradition. By Presilla's telling, the history of this drink is nothing less than a compendium of post-Renaissance imperialism, an inebriated journey down the swizzle stick of cultural encounter.

"It all started, of course, with the Islamic incursion into the Iberian Peninsula in 711," she notes matter-of-factly. The Moors, it seems, brought more to Spain than a fundamentalist zeal for the decapitation of Christians. They also packed citrus fruits. And from the bloody battlefields of Southern Spain sprang the famed groves of Valencia.

Presilla credits a shipworn Christopher Columbus with the introduction of mojito fodder to the New World. The wayward navigator may have been looking for spices, but foodwise he ended up importing more to the Caribbean than he extracted. On his second voyage west, the man the Indians called Aldenawa ("Leaky Britches") planted citrus seeds and sugar cane. The lush soil of the islands welcomed these exotic crops like a long-lost child.

Enter the booze. "With sugar cane production, it didn't take long for alcohol to come into the picture," says Presilla. But primordial versions of rum hardly resembled today's smooth brands. Unscientifically produced, the ammonia-tainted grog was relegated to sailors and slaves. And while storytellers such as Cuba's Ramon de Palma prescribed a daily shot of aguardiente for health purposes, the gut-grinding liquor was more commonly referred to as "Drake," in dishonor of Englishman Sir Francis Drake, the pirate-turned-explorer who harbored a legendary passion for the stuff.

It was at this juncture, experts agree, that mojito-related experimentation began. "You had all the ingredients right there," Presilla reasons. "It would be stupid to suppose that people didn't spike their lemonade with rum. Or spike their rum with lemonade." What remains a mystery is how the mojito's crucial ingredient, the fragrant yerbabuena that sets it apart from the endless daiquiri spin-offs, came into the picture.

Presilla says the Moors introduced a number of minty herbs - with which they brewed medicinal teas - into the European lexicon. Still, she is shaky about how and when these might have made it over to Cuba. "There's always the chance that the mint concept was derived from the mint julep of the American South," she says, indulging in a moment of wanton speculation. "But then how do you explain the current preference for yerbabuena?" There is a tortured silence on the other end of the phone line. Then quietly Presilla concedes, "Perhaps it is impossible to say about this part."

By the 1850s, Cuba's rum technology had hit full tilt. Huge plants were erected to distill the cane juice and molasses harvested by hastily imported African slaves. And as the island looked bleary-eyed toward the Twentieth Century, a bright and shining new hero emerged: ice. And with it the age of the compuesto (mixed drink) began in earnest. Initially merchants shipped the stuff down from New England wrapped in hay, which invariably became soggy hay or, in more disastrous cases, floating hay. Before long, though, a fleet of domestic ice plants had Cuba rolling in cubes.

The mojito's subparts converged under Spanish rule, but it would take American intervention to supercharge Cuba's cocktail culture. It started in 1898 with Teddy Roosevelt's Roughriders, who helped free Cuba from Spain's decrepit clutches during the two-bit skirmish that has come to be known as the Spanish American War. According to the prevailing lore, a Yankee lieutenant fresh from the liberation of Havana toasted the victory with a shot of rum and Coke. The drink, which soon was christened the cuba libre, offered prescient symbolism: America's go-get-em pop coupled with the Caribbean's sultry aqua vitae.

Prohibition turned the alchemy into gold. Overnight, barkeeps from Europe and the States flooded Havana, turning the city into an open-air speakeasy. One Irishman is said to have shipped down his entire establishment, mirrors and signs included, and reassembled it as "Donovan's Bar" in Old Havana. Tourists were delighted to find a host of glamour drinks cloyingly named after Hollywood stars - the Mary Pickford, the Douglas Fairbanks - and invented by bartenders who ranked as virtual celebrities. But while travelers gulped down elaborate fusions, natives remained devoted to simple flavors, and the mojito topped the domestic charts.

The end of Prohibition thinned the stream of visitors, but Havana's niche as the Caribbean's vice capital survived into the Forties and Fifties. It was during this era, Presilla says, that the mojito was granted its formal title. Ernest Hemingway, the intermittently impotent writer and quintessential macho who lived in Cuba for 22 years, was immediately recruited as its patron saint. Supposedly he quaffed the drink daily in the Old Havana bar La Bodeguita del Medio. A plaque that still graces the establishment's mantel commemorates Papa's pithy couplet: "My daiquiri at the Floridita. My mojito at the Bodeguita." (In fact, Hemingway's documented distaste for sugar suggests this account was strictly promotional hype.)

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