Monday, 14 May 2012

Elephant No. 225: Cocktail Umbrellas

I bought a bunch of little cocktail umbrellas last week to use for an elephant, although I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to use them. But they're fun and come in pretty colours, so I figured I'd think of something, even if it was simply poking them into a block of floral foam.

Cocktail umbrellas are small paper parasols used to decorate drinks and various types of food. Made of colourful paper, cardboard ribs, and a toothpick stem, they actually open and fold, just like real umbrellas. There is also a tiny sleeve of folded newspaper under the collar that serves as a spacer. The newspaper is usually Chinese, Japanese or even Indian, indicating the umbrella's origin. Some still believe that the newspaper sleeve hints at secret messages; people who have taken the sleeve apart, however, say that they are usually mundane writings about the weather and farm reports.

The tiny umbrellas made their debut as drink decorations sometime in the early 1930s, when Victor Bergeron of the famous Trader Vic's in San Francisco added them to the cocktails he served. Vic, however, said he got the idea from Don the Beachcomber: the original North American "tiki bar", featuring all things Polynesian. Interestingly, the rise of the cocktail umbrella coincides with a rise in cocktail consumption by women.

Because of their association with tiki bars, some have suggested that cocktail umbrellas derive from colourful offerings made by Polynesian peoples to their gods. My own opinion is that, because of their striking resemblance to the colourful waxed-paper parasols carried in the Orient as shade from the sun, cocktail umbrellas are probably just pretty decorations.

On the other hand, there are those that swear that cocktail umbrellas serve a practical purpose: providing shade to keep the ice cubes in that fancy drink from melting. This seems to stretch things a bit, as most tiki bars I've ever been in are so dark that the ice cubes are never going to catch even the most errant of sunbeams.

Others suggest that cocktail umbrellas prevent strong spirits from evaporating too quickly. The theory goes that the alcoholic vapours become trapped underneath the umbrella. When the umbrella is pushed aside for the person to take a sip, the pong of alcohol is inhaled. Although this sounds a bit far-fetched, studies have shown that alcohol molecules can indeed be trapped to a certain extent under a large cocktail umbrella.

There are various instructions available online and elsewhere for making your own cocktail umbrellas. My feeling is why bother when you can get 18 for a dollar, but I've seen some very pretty DIY versions as well.

As for art created with cocktail umbrellas, most of what I saw online was fairly simple. I saw some wreaths made with a ring of cocktail umbrellas, a spherical lighting fixture made of cocktail umbrellas, and a swath of cocktail umbrellas suspended from the ceiling with fairy lights behind it. I also saw a lot of prints, paintings, drawings and small figures holding cocktail umbrellas.

None of these really provided much inspiration for an elephant made of cocktail umbrellas, so I decided to make something up.

My first idea was sticking a bunch of umbrellas in a block of floral foam. I even bought a piece of floral foam to play with. But it looked too small to make anything interesting, so I didn't go that route. Then I thought I could try sticking the little umbrellas into a larger piece of upholstery foam. I didn't really like that idea, either.

Then I hit on something that I thought might look quite pretty: a bunch of umbrellas tied onto fishing line, in the shape of an elephant. In my head, it looked quite interesting. In execution, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to pull it off. I'm not very good at mobiles, and this struck me as being suspiciously similar to a mobile. Then again, if it proved too irritating or difficult, there was still that block of upholstery foam.

I started with a long, straight stick that I'd cut from my honeysuckle bush last year, as well as some 20-lb. test fishing line.

For umbrellas, I bought three packs of paper cocktail umbrellas, each of which contains 18 umbrellas: three in each of six colours.

To start, I hung my stick in a doorway, so that I could hang the umbrellas from it as I went. To attach the umbrellas, I double-knotted fishing line around the stem, and taped the fishing line to one of the inside ribs of the umbrella. The tape was to help hold the umbrella more or less at a 90-degree angle to the hanging fishing line.

I pre-tied the first 18, so that I wouldn't have to stop frequently once I got started. As I often do, I started at the tip of the trunk, and worked my way towards the head. Because I wasn't quite sure what I was doing, nor how well this was going to work, I only put a single knot around the stick. I also made sure I had lots of extra line on each pre-tied umbrella. This made it possible for me to adjust the length of the fishing line so that I could play with how far down each umbrella ultimately hung.

The photograph below shows was what the first three looked like. As you can see, the fishing line remains somewhat wavy. I had run the fishing line between my fingernails to straighten it as much as possible, but short of weighting each umbrella, it's probably best to just take the waviness into account in your design. At least, that's what I did.

The photograph below shows what it looked like about halfway through.

To complete my design, I opened up a new package and added about ten additional umbrellas. Once it looked about as good as I thought I could get it, I adjusted the length of each umbrella, tied double knots over the stick, and cut off the extra lengths of fishing line.

The photograph below shows what the final looked like hanging from the doorframe.

I decided to take it outside as well, partly to see if it could be moved without falling apart, and partly because I thought it would look prettier. The sun was at a nice angle in my back yard, so the umbrellas looked quite nice.

This was pretty easy once I figured out how to do it, and from start to finish it took me about 90 minutes, including finding an appropriate stick, tying all the umbrellas and taking it outside. The umbrellas will never all hang facing the same direction (I tried), but it doesn't really matter, because either way the light shines through them, so the effect is relatively the same.

I'm not sure I'll keep this—mostly because I don't know where I would keep it—but it was kind of fun, and the final result is quite pretty. It's even rather interesting in a light breeze, and holds its shape remarkably well.

I don't really love tying things onto a stick, but now that I know it's possible to make a hanging with cocktail umbrellas, I might be convinced to try it again sometime.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Since today's elephant involves cocktail umbrellas, I thought I'd provide a recipe for an elephant cocktail, which I got here. This particular dessert cocktail is named for elephants because it contains a liqueur made from the berries of the marula tree, one of the African elephant's very favourite things in the world. So fond are elephants of the marula, that it was once rumoured that they often grew drunk on the fermented fruit. This theory has since been disproven.

If you can't find Amarula Cream, another berry-based liqueur, such as cassis, can be substituted.

Pink Elephant Cocktail

1-1/2 oz. (45 ml) Amarula Cream liqueur
1 oz. (30 ml) chocolate liqueur
3 oz. (90 ml) raspberry purée
2 oz. (60 ml) Merlot or other red wine
3 oz. (90 ml) heavy cream
2 tsp. (10 ml) sugar
Raspberry and/or sprig of mint for garnish

1. Combine all ingredients, except cream and sugar, with some ice into a shaker and shake vigorously.
2. Strain into a martini glass.
3. In a separate shaker, combine cream and sugar and shake without ice.
4. Layer cream/sugar mixture gently over the fruit base.
5. Garnish with raspberry and/or mint sprig on rim of glass.

For a non-alcoholic version of the above, substitute your favourite Italian or Middle Eastern fruit syrup (e.g., blackcurrant) for the Amarula Cream; chocolate syrup thinned with water for the chocolate liqueur; and concord grape juice with a touch of lemon juice for the Merlot. For more non-alcoholic substitutes, click here.

Asian elephant, originally photographed in Thailand, then colour-adjusted.
Photo: John Lund

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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