The Zombie Cocktail: Invented in Chicago During World War I? (Part III)

Further searching in the digitized 1940s press produces a few more tidbits. They may, for some readers, put a nuance on one or more aspects.

First, I will set out here a statement of my own I placed in Comments to Part II:

“Some may wonder, as I did, at the conclusion of Quin’s “testimony” to Malcolm Johnson where he states he can drink 10 Zombies but even half of a Jersey Cyclone, made with “white mule” or corn whiskey, apricot brandy and applejack (apple brandy) would be the maximum of anyone’s consumption of that cocktail.

Johnson gives the recipe for the Cyclone aka (he states) the Kentucky killer-diller. It is only four ounces of alcohol in total, plus, it is diluted with a long mix, so how lethal could it be? Was this the punch line in an extended joke? (The mix is “apple cider” which generally means, or did then, sweet or non-alcoholic cider).

True, corn whisky can be very strong and unpleasant to drink, but still, someone should be able to get down one Cyclone without any trouble.

This must remain a puzzle, but it is still worthwhile to check out Quin’s story, as one never knows what will be found. Why would he invent such an otherwise detailed origin story? Although, his boss Chin (or Chen) Foin had long been deceased by then – he died in an accident at the New Mandarin Inn – and could not be contacted to confirm yea or nay.

Yet, if Johnson saw the ruse, why did he say he was so persuaded by the agent Rubin, who introduced Harry Quin to him to tell him the “real” origin account? Unless Johnson was playing along with the joke, I guess”.

Second, I had stated earlier that two Zombie recipes provided by food journalist G. Selmer Fougner in 1940 apparently represented the drink as served by each of the Beachcomber/Ching in New York and Ruby Foo’s/Harry Quin in New York. This may not be so, as on February 4, 1941, see here, in commenting again on the drink, Fougner stated that two distillers “claimed paternity”, so likely the two recipes he earlier provided were from them.

One Zombie used a selection of Cuba rums, the other a selection of Puerto Rican rums, so evidently the producer of each national range had a recipe, which may well have differed from what the Manhattan Beachcomber and Ruby Foo’s used.

Third, on March 12, 1940 Johnson stated that Milton Rubin, a press agent who may have represented Ruby Foo’s, told him a principal of Ruby Foo’s had directed Harry Quin to dub a drink Zombie after seeing a revival of the 1932 film, “White Zombie”. Yet, as I showed earlier, when Rubin brought Quin to meet Johnson, the story was that Quin invented the Zombie in Chicago in February 1916.

Apart from what I remark in the quotation above, this “double-story” may tell against the veracity of Quin’s tale to Johnson. Possibly Rubin invented both accounts, or at least the 1916 Chicago one as a more exotic story for wide-eyed readers.

Or maybe not, maybe the full story came out only when Quin met Johnson and the other tale was quickly made up to head off the claims of Ching as true originator.

Interestingly, Virginia Forbes on November 1, 1943, by then writing the “Cafe Life in New York” column, states Quin is “credited” as inventing the drink in Chicago in 1916. It was mentioned on the occasion of his move to Lum Fong on 52nd street, to run its bar.

This is a kind of imprimatur by the New York Sun of Quin’s elaborate story to Johnson when they met. Certainly it off-sets to a degree the factors I mentioned suggesting Quin and/or Rubin had told a tall tale.

Next, columnist Earl Wilson of the New York Evening Post, later in 1943, interviews Quin himself (the surname is sometimes rendered as Quinn), at Lum Fong, and he has a new cocktail, Bazooka. Quin, as even on the earlier meeting with Johnson, seems oddly disconnected from his asserted, now famous invention. He wants to promote the new drink, clearly. Yet still he repeats that the Jersey Cyclone is the strongest drink, and Wilson duly repeats the recipe Johnson first reported, one that on its face seems no stronger than the typical Zombie.

To my mind, this counters the idea of a tall tale for the 1916 origin, as clearly the Zombie is now old hat and Quin has a new creation to sell, so what devious purpose did the Cyclone story emphasize now?

In a sense, too, Quin’s impatience viz. the Zombie is understandable, as assuming the 1916 Chicago story is true, what did it avail him when others – Donn Beach in Hollywood and later Monte Proser and Ching in New York, had made the drink “theirs”?

Surely Quin hoped the Bazooka (name of a U.S. Army shoulder-fired rocket) would set him on a new course of unalloyed cocktail fame. In other words, the jazz about the Cyclone doesn’t mean what he told Johnson about the Zombie wasn’t true. Quin may simply have rated the Cyclone an off-putting drink, “strong” in the sense that it turned off the drinker. Given that corn whisky was an ingredient, not the easiest spirit to like for many, this is plausible in our view.

While not material to this inquiry, readers might like to read the Lum Fong menu served to the Gourmet Society of New York in 1940, a shimmering example of high-end Chinese cuisine making its mark even in prewar Manhattan. Quite a dinner, and it would be today if an imaginative soul sought to recreate it. (The menu below was sourced from nypl.org at the link stated above).

While no alcohol was served apparently – contrary to Gourmet Society usual procedure! – if I did a recreation of the dinner the opening drink would be a Zombie. I’d call it Harry Quin Zombie, in honour of the man who quite possibly invented the drink in old Chicago in 1916, at the Mandarin Inn, as he claimed twice to the New York press. Note too the literate notes – food history in the making. The Gourmet Society were as much cultural as gastronomic investigators – pedagogues no less than sybarites.

See our continuation in Part IV, in which we show Ruby Foo’s did sell the Zombie in 1939, before Monte Proser’s first sales are documented to our knowledge.

Note re images: the menu images appearing in this five-part series are sourced from the New York Public Library’s website at www.nypl.org, as linked in each case in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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