Thursday, May 6, 2021

Calling Dr. Funk

By the late 1950s, Vince Guaraldi was known by two nicknames: The Italian Leprechaun, and Dr. Funk. Indeed, "Calling Dr. Funk" is a Guaraldi composition that debuted on the 1956 album, Modern Music from San Francisco.

As it happens, a Dr. Funk is a popular libation at tiki bars and restaurants. 

Are the two related?

At first blush, it seems possible; San Francisco's Tonga Room and the Bay Area-based Trader Vic's — initially in Oakland, later in San Francisco and Emeryville — were well-established by the mid-1950s. These and many other bars and restaurants constantly competed with each other, to concoct popular drink recipes. Guaraldi was quite a presence in the greater Bay Area, with his distinctive mustache and vibrant piano chops, and he certainly wouldn't have been the first celebrity to have a drink named after him.

But no.

The drink actually is quite old, and was named after a German doctor by the name of Bernard Funk, who practiced privately in Apia, Samoa, in the 1890s. We know this thanks to an entry in Frederick O'Brien's 1921 book, Mystic Isles of the South Seas

“[The potion] was made of a portion of absinthe, a dash of grenadine -- a syrup of the pomegranate fruit -- the juice of two limes, and half a pint of siphon water. Dr. Funk of Samoa, who had been a physician to Robert Louis Stevenson, had left the recipe for the concoction when he was a guest of the club. One paid half a franc for it, and it would restore self-respect and interest in one’s surroundings when even Tahiti rum failed.”

Whether Bernard Funk developed the potion on his own, and how it transitioned from a sort of patent medicine to tiki libation, remain unknown. But it became a staple on the Trader Vic's drink menu, where Vic Bergeron re-named it Doctor Funk of Tahiti, and modified the recipe thusly:

• 1 cup crushed ice
• 1 ounce gold rum
• 1 ounce dark rum
• 1/2 ounce lemon juice
• 1/4 ounce lime juice
• Dash of grenadine
• Dash of simple syrup (sugar syrup)
• Dash of Pernod
• 2 ounces sparkling water
• 1 sprig mint and squeezed lime half, for garnish

Bergeron never claimed to have created this drink, but he did invent a droll relation that he dubbed Doctor Funk's Son, which he insisted was far superior. It's built as follows:

• 1 cup crushed ice
• 2 ounces dark rum
• 1/2 ounce lemon juice
• 1/4 ounce lime juice
• Dash of grenadine
• Dash of simple syrup
• 2 ounces sparkling water
• 1 sprig mint and squeezed lime half, for garnish
• 1/2 ounce 151-proof rum, floated atop the drink once all other ingredients have been mixed

That 151-proof float was a rite of passage. Timid drinkers bypassed it with a straw, allowing the rum to dilute via blending; braver souls gulped.

I guess the remaining question, then, is whether our Dr. Funk ever ordered a Doctor Funk of Tahiti ... or his Son. I suspect chances are very high; how could he have resisted?

(Thanks to the Mountain of Crushed Ice blog, for the passage from O'Brien's book.)

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