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How the Margarita Became My Unofficial Family Cocktail

When my mom turned 50, around the time I graduated college in 2006, our family threw an elaborate feast in the backyard of my childhood home in the Chicago suburbs. My New England-native parents boiled live lobsters, and the four of us got rip-roaringly drunk on a foundation of Dad’s Famous* Margaritas, which he’d begun pouring into oversized coupes with salted rims in the early afternoon. By 7:30 p.m. — sometime after my sister and I smoked a couple illicit Parliaments on the front stoop and retrieved Annie Bear the mutt, who’d scaled the four-foot fence out back — everyone had flopped onto a bed or other soft surface somewhere, hoarse from laughter and hopelessly smashed.

For those unacquainted with my father, *Famous denotes the standard build of blanco tequila, freshly squeezed lime juice, and Cointreau triple sec, which he corrects via extra tequila dispensed in splashes measurable in the time it takes to say, “Ehp!” while grinning devilishly. Dad shakes this with ice then seasons to taste with more triple sec and lime, as my citrus-loving mother inevitably demands.

I wish I could remember the first time Dad made me a Margarita, which he has always pronounced “Mah-gyer-ritah.” I’m not sure why he does this and I wouldn’t dare ask, much like I wouldn’t question the way he pronounces the Canadian pilsner Labatt Blue — “Lay-BAHT” — before reciting something along the lines of, “It’s a good imported beer.” Then again, I suppose the first Marg matters far less than the collection, which represents the aspirational notion of a wayfaring life — well lived and never taken too seriously.

American Dream

My dad is the most impish of five, second-generation Irish-American children, born 70-odd years ago in Belmont, Mass., to a carpenter and a homemaker from County Kerry who sought a better life stateside. He went to college at Northeastern University in Boston and spent his entire career in sales, mostly for Hershey Chocolate Co., which moved us from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania and Illinois, all before my seventh birthday.

When my sister and I were little, my parents would drop us off at my grandparents’ house a week or two each year and they’d go to Acapulco, Mexico, which was their favorite place. There’s a framed picture of them from a trip they took there before I was born: mustachioed Dad in a gauzy shirt and Mom, deeply tanned and wearing all black, with a boa constrictor casually draped over her shoulders — both looking deliriously happy. I thought it was the most glamorous thing I’d ever seen.

The 90-year-old Margarita is perhaps the original aspirational cocktail — an accessible gateway to our important southerly neighbors, a pleasant way to down fiery, thrilling tequila, probably endorsed by the likes of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The Margarita was foundational to the glamorous image of the jet-set era of the ’60s and ’70s that forever imprinted on young up-and-comers like my dad.

“In the afternoon you sip a Margarita and gaze pensively across the wide strand,” wrote Gene Sherman in a December 1954 “Cityside” column in the Los Angeles Times. “This is a sort of Mexican daiquiri, belted hard by the international set in Acapulco. … When sipped in the afternoon, they mellow the memory of morning and tinsel the prospect of evening.”

My parents took us to Cancún for the first time when I was about 7. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the warm, placid Gulf lapping at my toes on that blinding-white shore while sunscreen stings the corners of my eyes. I can taste those hot, greasy chicken flautas, splintering with each shattering bite. One day, we drove to see the Mayan ruins in Tulum and stopped for lunch at an open-air roadside joint. We fed French fries to an ancient parrot that grabbed them with his talon then lifted them all the way up to its beak. My sister and I drank Mexican Coke and Squirt in condensation-beaded bottles; Mom and Dad had Margaritas in styrofoam cups.

It was around that time that Dad commenced an annual-ish ritual of sitting my sister and me down to make lists of our goals, which — at his behest — always included a running tally of cities and countries we wanted to see in our lifetimes. He’d regale us with his misadventures backpacking alone through Europe in his 20s. (Being endowed with the Irish gift of gab, Dad’s a sensational storyteller.)

“Travel when you’re young and when you’re older,” he’d say.

The (Un)Glamors of Jet-Setting

Dad always traveled a lot for work, usually to categorically unglamorous places like Oklahoma City and Omaha, to woo prospective clients and check in on accounts at Walmart and 7-11. He’d come home exhausted and short-tempered, in search of sports on TV and a stiff potion or two. He never took a sick day (which he still brags about!) and worked a lot on Saturdays. Sometimes he’d bring my sister and me along to the empty office, where we’d play secretary on the powered-down computers and ravage the refrigerated candy closet while he caught up on work.

Some years back, we got in the habit of reuniting at strip-mall Mexican-American restaurants, which upgrade to tiny vacations the moment someone decides to order a Margarita.

Tension over his work-induced absences would occasionally bubble over into epic shouting matches between my parents while Dad was packing for the next trip. I’d perch at the curve in the stairwell, out of sight but still within earshot. “Do you think they’ll get divorced?” I’d whisper to my sister, terrified. “No, Marge,” she’d say. “You’re being dramatic.”

By the time we reached middle school in the mid-’90s, Dad moved up to a sales director job and was making good enough money to take us to the occasional fine-dining restaurant and on annual vacations to Puerto Vallarta, a place that loomed large in his mind ever since he saw the 1987 film “Predator.” The year my sister turned 18, she and Dad stayed out late almost every night drinking Margaritas in the hotel bar, because she could. Drink them when you’re young and when you’re older.

Despite the fights over missed recitals, games, and Mom’s art openings; the exhaustion; the countless delays that trapped him in Kansas City or Cleveland or Scranton, Dad never wavered in his love of travel. He relished vacation planning and insisted on booking our flights for ungodly early hours.

“We’ll be there in time for lunch, Mah-gyer-rita in hand!” he’d say.

I often wonder if curating those family trips to Mexico, like fostering our love of travel, helped assuage the breadwinner’s guilt he carried as a traveling salesman for all those years. Come along for the part that so often supplanted my time with you. Maybe he’d say that those unglamorous tales are simply the necessary battle scars of a well-traveled, richly seasoned life — the harder stuff that makes you appreciate the good. Plus, in hindsight and after a few cocktails, you can shine those stories up and embellish the good parts, like a curled citrus-peel garnish on the rim.

On some level, I think that’s how the Margarita became my family’s unofficial cocktail, the tinsel to our milestones and mundane gatherings alike. Some years back, we got in the habit of reuniting at strip-mall Mexican-American restaurants, which upgrade to tiny vacations the moment someone decides to order a Margarita. Yet just as often as this cocktail transports me to the beach, I find myself back in the cramped, old yellow kitchen of my childhood home.

The photo that pops up when my mom calls is my favorite one from her 50th, now almost 20 years ago. She’s squinting like a pirate with reddish patches blooming on her cheeks, and gripping a heavy-walled, cobalt-rimmed goblet half full of Dad’s Margarita. It’s a postcard day. The lilac bush is out of frame, but I know the late-spring air is heavy with its sweet scent. Also just out of frame is Dad, his face wearing that impish grin as he asks, “Kid, can I top off your Mah-gyer-ritah?”

The article How the Margarita Became My Unofficial Family Cocktail appeared first on VinePair.

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