Mojitos

"When I come over from Cuba, people see my bags, sure, but they don't see what I keep up here," whispers Jose Galvez, tapping a pate dusted with brown hair and speckled by age. "What I keep here is the secret formula. It is in my brain the whole time. The whole time. And when I finally make it to Miami, then people find out what the real mojito tastes like."
A bold statement. And utterly baffling if you are one of the vast majority who have no idea what constitutes a mojito. The real mojito, the one to which Galvez so passionately refers, was, and still may be, Cuba's most revered cocktail, a libation that sprang from the island's countryside like an immaculate conception and swept into Havana's poshest saloons during the city's besotted heyday. While the daiquiri wooed an international cartel of tourists, the mojito (pronounced mo-he-toe) held a lock on native bar tabs.

Today the drink is a relic of pre-Castro Cuba, a rum-soaked reminder of a vanished playground that simultaneously mocks and gratifies exiles' insatiable thirst for the past. Utterly foreign to American-reared Cubans, who invariably confuse the cocktail with mojo criollo, a lime-and-garlic marinade, the mojito nonetheless haunts Miami, clinging stubbornly to the fringes of bar culture and the minds of those who remember its finest hour.

"In the summer we would go to La Concha, a private beach club, and the bartenders there would line up the glasses, maybe a hundred of them at a time, to make mojitos," Galvez recalls, re-creating the scene in an elaborate pantomime that culminates with him guzzling mojitos two-fisted, and braying. The beverage manager of a dozen local Cuban restaurants, the 61-year-old Galvez is Miami's self-appointed mojito czar. He has spent more than half his life behind a bar. For today's lecture, he is camped at a corner table at Versailles, a Calle Ocho landmark decorated in late Louis XIV kitsch.

"Anybody who tells you they don't know a mojito, they aren't Cuban," says Galvez, his moon face multiplied in the restaurant's endless frosted mirrors. No longer a mixologist himself, Galvez is left to watch, hawklike, as his bartender combines rum, sugar, lime juice, yerbabuena, ice, and soda water in a tall glass, then pops in a shard of sugar cane as a mixer. Back at the table, Galvez takes a sip. "My secret formula," he hisses. "You don't print what you just saw."

Such commands echo through the raspy world of mojito aficionados, where minute recipe disputes balloon into vital philosophical differences. (Should the yerbabuena be added with the sugar or the rum? Or both? Can lemon juice replace lime?) Other deviations seem burdened by the weight of existential quandary. (How much soda water is too much? What are the implications of substituting cubes for crushed ice?)

"The most important thing," Galvez confides, "is to crush the yerbabuena. You have to break up the arteries of the leaf to get at the refrescante." He grinds a piece of the mint between his thumb and forefinger and takes a deep, spirit-cleansing whiff. "They say this herb is a little bit of an aphrodisiac. I cannot guarantee that, but...." His voice trails off, replaced by a nicotine-stained leer. (Among Caribbean folk healers, in fact, yerbabuena - a tropical subspecies of the mint family distinct from the common Wrigley varieties - is prescribed as a cure for everything from flatulence to venereal disease. Sadly, the powers of mentha nemorosa are not thought by botanists to include increased libido, though experts concede the issue has not been studied exhaustively.)

For Galvez the joys of mojitoism have been hard won. Just a year after he arrived in New York, the army drafted him for service in Korea, where his jeep promptly hit a mine twenty miles from the 38th Parallel. His right leg was nearly blown off. Thanks to the ridge of metal pins that traverses his thigh, he can still hobble. After the war Galvez spent seventeen years in Las Vegas, working from bar boy to full-fledged barman at Caesars. Back then Sin City was mostly white trash and he didn't think to serve anything so exotic as a mojito. When he came to Miami in 1971, the secret formula came out of hibernation.

"We used to have trouble finding the yerbabuena. Some people gave up and started using spearmint. Not me. I planted yerbabuena in my back yard. It grew like a weed. `What're you making, Galvez?' they'd ask, and I'd give them one. The mojito's got so much flavor you don't taste the rum. But it sneaks up on you. Then, BOOM." His head snaps back, as if struck by a thunderbolt. Not a bad summation of the mojito's physiological effects, actually, given the rum's tendency to race into the blood stream piggybacked on sugar molecules.

Across the street at the dimly lighted La Carreta, Felipe Cruz, another of Galvez's charges, prepares mojitos in a cell cramped with liquor bottles. Judging by the vintage of his premix - a jug of lime, rum, and yerbabuena, which has clouded with disuse - it's clear Cruz doesn't prepare the cocktail very often. A sparse, bleak-looking man who attends to his work with grinning fatalism, Cruz came to Miami in 1960, the year after Fidel Castro seized control of the Havana hotel where Cruz had worked for twelve years.

"I used to make mojitos every day," Cruz says, halfheartedly spritzing seltzer into a glass. "Mixed drinks cost 25 cents when I made my first drink. I was eighteen." The top sellers at La Carreta, he says, run to the mundane. Beer mostly. Iced tea. An occasional sangria. A tedious lot, hardly livened by his waitresses, gum-smacking, vaguely annoyed women who place their orders with sullen grunts. But it beats Cuba. "I didn't agree with Castro's politics. All the tips went to the government. We worked only for salary," Cruz says, flicking his Marlboro into the sink. "He made people work in the cane fields. I refused to do that work. I make the mojito. I don't pull it from the ground."

When Miguel Bretos thinks of the mojito, the image that comes to mind is one of cold cocktails, and of pork roasting under a tropical sun in the countryside. It's unlikely that Bretos, the prodigal son of upper-middle-class parents with roots that stretch back to Aragon, Spain, ever partook in such a pastoral scene. But his passion for the relationship between Cuba and its Floridian exiles has made him a de facto mojitoist.

"I had lunch a while back with an older Cuban, and he ordered a preluncheon drink, a mojito," recounts Bretos, a historian at Miami-Dade Community College. "As he sat with his drink, I remember so distinctly him telling me, `You know, tasting this drink makes me think of Santiago [Cuba]. For me this is almost like a communion.' I think this is true of the older generation. The mojito's presence in Miami is all about trying to re-create the culture they had there, over here.

"You have to understand that of all the cocktails in Cuba, the mojito was the really Cuban thing," the effete, blue-eyed professor adds. "It was almost like the nationalist drink." Bretos's clipped English, shaped by eight years as a professor of history in Sydney, Australia, lends his pronouncements an air of Alistair Cookelike authority. Despite his timid declarations of abstinence, Bretos has agreed, for heuristic purposes, to conduct some field work.

The first stop is Casa Juancho, an upscale cousin of Versailles distinguished by the alarming amount of meat that hangs from its ceiling. (According to Jose Galvez, the mojito at Casa Juancho is the city's best, a tribute not bestowed lightly.) The bartender snaps to attention when Bretos orders the drink, thrilled to have an audience for his elaborate preparation. He strips the yerbabuena, drops the leaves into a pear-shape glass, and sets to work with a pestle. "Even the mint in Cuba tastes better," he booms. Next he adds several tablespoons of sugar to each glass - an act that compels Bretos to murmur, "My God, I'd keep that away from a diabetic" - then a healthy splash of rum. But alas, the performance pressure is too much. A final stir with a cocktail spoon shatters one of the glasses. Undaunted, the barman delivers the surviving drink and hovers, watching as Bretos takes a dainty sip.

A large and garrulous man, the bartender chats with Bretos at length about the mojito, then, for no apparent reason, launches into a yarn about his years in the merchant marine, how he wound up in the Congo and was served roasted monkey but refused to eat it. In addition to his penguinwear, the man sports a gold neck chain adorned with a pair of eyes. As he speaks, the eyes bob to and fro, his thick chest hair coiled over them like eyebrows. The impression, particularly after downing a mojito, is of speaking to a man who has a three-dimensional tattoo of Groucho Marx on his sternum.

Bretos lets the man finish his story, then takes another shot. "Of all the rum drinks," he says, "the daiquiri was always the fancy one, the one that made the international rounds. The mojito was a drink with no airs. Just a refreshing drink suited to the island's climate. Nobody would say, `Give me a mojito' and expect to impress anyone."

All of which makes the drink's appearance in Miami's trendiest restaurants more than a bit ironic. At Victor's Cafe, where the owners make quite a to-do about their selection of Cuban cocktails, the mojito is served up as a kind of nostalgic status symbol. The ultraswanky Yuca in Coral Gables charges more than four dollars for Bretos's test mojito, which is whipped up by a Colombian kid who looks fresh out of high school. (Then again, it's hard to imagine that anything at Yuca - the kind of relentlessly nouveau joint liable to serve chicharrones with cantaloupe chutney - possesses much folkloric authenticity.)

Bretos figures El Pub, the venerated Calle Ocho eatery, may provide a better research site. No such luck. "We don't serve them," announces bartender Oscar Hernandez, a stooped fellow with a roiling pompadour. The liquor license doesn't allow him to serve anything that strong. Besides, he says, "People don't have the taste for mojitos any more."

Part Two
No taste, perhaps, but plenty of memories. Indeed, though the number of mojitos purchased in Miami on any given night probably can be counted on one hand, just about every exile old enough to remember the homeland has a mojito memory to impart. Al Rodriguez, a marine specialist with the City of Miami, recalls drinking mojitos out of a galvanized pail during the cattle runs of his youth. "We'd mix up a batch and pass the ladle around," says Rodriguez, who left the island only to return during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Mercedes Sandoval, a professor of anthropology at Miami-Dade Community College, recalls making her version of mojitos in coconut shells. "They could be treacherous," she says of the creation, which came to be called a saoco. "I remember walking back to my town from a nearby village, up and down the mountains. My friend got a little high and she forced us to sing hymns the whole way." Carmen Menocal, niece of the notorious General Mario Menocal - the Cuban leader for whom the Presidente cocktail was named - can still recount, at the age of 80, the days when a strapping young Ernest Hemingway would visit the family ranch outside Havana, El Chico, and indulge in the General's famous homemade 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.)

"You have to understand, this whole business of naming drinks really only came about because there were Americans with money around," Presilla stresses. "It was a gimmick, a way to market drinks."

Nowhere is this truth more glaring than in the polished headquarters of Bacardi Imports, which looms over Biscayne Boulevard like a giant blue-

and-white-tile cereal box. Since its inception 130 years ago in Santiago, Cuba, Bacardi has become the corporate embodiment of the tropical cocktail and, owing to a predilection for self-mythologizing, a revered font of alcohol arcana.

Indeed, visiting the rum company's U.S. base of operations is more like enrolling in a seminar on the virtues of Bacardism. Learn how Bacardi's master blenders civilized rum, how a U.S. engineer working in the Daiquiri copper mines mixed Bacardi with lime juice and ice to invent the daiquiri, how founder Facundo Bacardi's shrewd progeny went multinational in 1910 and later escaped Castro's regime with assets intact, all the while being waltzed through plush offices where brightly packaged Bacardi Breezers front sepia photographs of the old days. And above all, discover again and again that Bacardi is the world's top-selling spirit (a fact employees are required to announce at least once every hour).

As for hard data about the mojito...well, who needs hard data anyway, when you've got enough rum at your disposal to kill a fraternity? "We're not really sure on this one," reports Jose "Tito" Argamasilla Bacardi, Bacardi Imports' special-events director and, not coincidentally, Facundo's great-great-grandson. A jolly, paunch-intensive man, Tito attended the same Havana private school as Castro before fleeing the country at fourteen. "But I still remember the mojito," he says gamely.

Upstairs in the executive dining room, Tito sidles up to the bar and orders two. "Usually I drink my liquor straight," he murmurs. "When you've worked with the stuff as long as I have, you don't mess around with mixed drinks." The tense gaiety of executive schmoozing fills the room, which is dominated by a mural depicting happy campesinos lugging sugar cane from the fields. The carpet, a washed-out brown, is emblazoned with Bacardi emblems. Biscayne Bay is seven stories down.

Joining the party late is Bob Hunter, a sandy-haired fellow who wears the perpetually solicitous mask of a public relations man. Hunter's chief concern seems to be establishing whether the mojito, like the daiquiri, can be sucked into the Bacardi marketing vacuum. "Let's say the mojito was invented sometime around 1920. Now, if Bacardi was by far the most popular brand in Cuba at that time - and we're clear that it was, right Tito? - then it's fair to assume that the mojito was invented with Bacardi," Hunter says helpfully. "I mean, it would add to the authenticity of the story to note that, right? I'm just looking at it from a journalistic point of view." (The issue seems trifling until you consider the legal drubbing inflicted upon those who attach the hallowed Bacardi name to an inferior product. In 1936 the New York State Supreme Court ruled that only a cocktail made with Bacardi rum could be called a "Bacardi cocktail." A later trademark dispute went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Part Three
Over soup, a delicate clam chowder, Tito laments that for all Bacardi's efforts mojitos are still being made with other brands. "But Tito," Hunter interrupts, "some people do think it's the same. Not the older bartenders, they know Bacardi quality. But the young kids, they just don't know any better." His tone is the maudlin vibrato of a man eulogizing a toddler who has wandered into oncoming traffic.

Buoyed by a new round of food, Tito and Hunter next set about trying to nail down an etymology for the word mojito. "What could it possibly mean?" ponders Hunter, no doubt hopeful that some idiom exists in which "mojito" can be transmuted into "that which is made exclusively with Bacardi." Tito furrows his brow. He offers a few halfhearted conjectures - "It could be from mojar, which means to make wet" - before trundling off for another drink. Hunter spears at a piece of baked red snapper and pauses for a moment. "This is the most compassionate company I have ever worked for. We eat like this every day," he says. "Did I tell you that Bacardi is the number-one-selling spirit in the world?"

Before bidding adieu, Tito hands over a satchel of pamphlets in which the Bacardi history has been buffed to a high gloss, the fruits of his archival research. A few hours after lunch, he calls with a news flash. "I just talked to my father," Tito reports. "He's pretty sure they used Bacardi to make the first mojito."

Unless you're looking, you're not going to find Miami's own Floridita. Tucked beneath one of Flagler Street's flashing, disco-afflicted bazaars most weekdays, the hoary restaurant/bar is as listless as a tomb. During the Sixties the Floridita and the now-defunct local incarnation of La Bodeguita del Medio were Miami's closest links to Havana's clubland, places for the glitterati-in-exile to kick up their heels or drown their sorrows, depending on the mood. The Floridita even recruited legendary daiquiri maestro Ricardo Valdivia from the original bar. He died sometime back, though no one is quite sure when.

Now there is Orestes Mendez. At 58 he is an aging disciple of the old masters, a onetime bartender for Batista's army. "In Miami I am the exclusive specialist of the mojito," he declares, setting out two glasses for the inevitable demonstration. "The Floridita is the place to get a mojito in Miami. Winn-Dixie, they say they are the meat people. Well, we are the mojito people." Mendez's arms swing back and forth like a toy soldier's, the scent of pork rinds at war with his after-shave. His version of the mojito, topped off with a squirt of dark-green yerbabuena extract, is shaken with just the slightest hip wiggle. He makes them strong.

After Castro took power, Mendez, unable to find work, fled to Miami, where he has done time at a half-dozen bars. "After Fidel it was like everything was locked up," he says, twisting an imaginary key in a phantom padlock. No one knows for sure how the mojito is faring in Castro's depleted island nation, where media dispatches are issued like faded epitaphs. As with nearly everything, rum is rationed. The conventional wisdom in Miami, tainted though it might be, is that mojitos are restricted to the tourist circuit. "The Cubans make them at home," Mendez says, absently mixing another round. "If they make them at all."

He gives the glass one last swish, staring into the last of the mojitos. Over the barkeep's shoulder, a black-and-white photo of Hemingway mocks his rueful expression. Taken a few years before his suicide, the picture reveals Cuba's most famous writer red-nosed and contrite. In one paw he holds a mug, in the other what looks like a tall glass. From a distance the shape is a match for Mendez's mojito. Closer up, though, the decanter is a little easier to identify. It's a Budweiser.

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