Many years ago – in the late Cretaceous Period – when I was a child, there were the official holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, etc… But there were also about half a dozen unofficial holidays that kids looked forward to as much as the ones actually printed on the calendar. They never happened on a particular day; you knew generally when they would happen, but it was always a happy shock when they finally arrived:
Back to school shopping, when you could pick out a new lunchbox. Looking back on my own lunch boxes, to this day, I can’t decide which was better – Snoopy, or The Six Million Dollar Man.
The night The Wizard of Oz was on TV. It only happened once a year, and was thrilling, but we all knew we’d hide behind the sofa during the witch scenes. Don’t even get me going on the flying monkeys…
The Saturday in late September, when the new cartoons premiered. (If you don’t agree that Johnny Quest was the greatest cartoon ever, we can still be friends, but our souls will never completely align.)
That afternoon in Spring, when the ice in the parking lot at school melted at pavement-level, leaving a ledge of ice that you could stomp on and collapse. Humility prevents me from pointing out just how good I was at this. Being a fat kid, I was able to learn the weak points in the ice shelf and jump on them with enough force to collapse truly impressive swaths with a single whoomp. It’s a gift.
But for those of us who were kids during the Nixon Administration, the greatest of all the unofficial holidays was the day in August that the Sears Christmas Wishbook was delivered.
There were other Sears catalogs, of course. All our mothers got two or three of the boring ones throughout the year, that were mostly clothes and stuff. Some houses even got tool catalogs, and those were cool enough in the abstract, but were full of things that we knew we’d never be allowed to play with, so they were only interesting in a theoretical sense.
But the Wishbook…
Somebody at the Sears Corporation was touched with brilliance.
American industry had just begun to see us kids as an untapped market force. Presumably, in the prosperous baby boom following the War, many of the executives had married and had children of their own. Prosperity plus children equals whining. While most parents were driven to the brink of madness by our whining, some genius at Sears decided to weaponize it.
Everything about the Wishbook was brilliant. Although it was theoretically a Christmas catalog, it came out in August – supposedly to give frugal shoppers enough time to plan out their holiday shopping and budget accordingly – but the actual result was to kick off four months of whining in underaged consumers-in-training. If you didn’t manage to extort at least one toy out of your parents by September, you weren’t trying hard enough.
Yeah, yeah… a good half of the catalog was devoted to things that only adults cared about – clothes, and shoes, and cuckoo clocks – but that was just bait to get our moms to keep the catalog around in the first place. Ask any American over the age of fifty about the Wishbook, and they will tell you – in detail – about their personal ranking system and particular strategies for marking the best toys and breaking the spine of the catalog, so it would stay open to a particular page, and you could leave it lying around, casually, to give your parents hints with the subtlety of club hammer.
Today, as my generation looks at the world around us with confusion and alarm, we find ourselves asking, “How did we get here?”
I suggest looking at the 1973 Sears Christmas Wishbook for some clues.
The subtle trickiness started with the cover.
Clearly, Sears had reached some sort of marketing agreement with the Disney Corporation, because 1973 was clearly the Year of Winnie the Pooh. In much the same way that all mothers, regardless of piercings, tattoos, or political extremism, are required to love the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland, the Winnie the Pooh characters are the only cartoon characters that mothers were universally fond of in the ‘70s. This was enough to make sure our moms kept the catalog around, but also sent an important message – namely, TOYS!!
Also, that index they mention in the bottom-left corner?
But enough of the marketing strategy. Let’s look at what Sears was actually selling in 1973:
The first third or so of the Wishbook was devoted to clothing.
Like 87% of children – a statistic I just made up – I never looked at this part of the catalog, and as I do so now, I find my eyebrows firmly raised.
The clothing started with sleepwear, and while there were pages and pages of matching pajama sets, and even some fairly steamy nightgowns, there was a small-but-fascinating selection of something called “hostesswear”. Exactly what kind of event Sears thought our mothers were hostessing is unclear, but raises all kinds of questions.
2 oz. Gin – This time, I used Collective Arts Gin with Rhubarb and Hibiscus
1 oz. Hibiscus syrup – see below
1 oz. Fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/3 oz. Amaretto
5 drops Rosewater
Shake all ingredients over ice.
Strain into a cocktail glass
Is this sweet? Welcome to the ‘70s, Baby.
Does the slightly hibiscussy gin have an unnaturally close relationship to the hibiscus syrup? Again, welcome to the ‘70s.
What’s with the lemon and amaretto? Sweet and sour tie everything together.
Yeah, but rosewater?
Look at Model #2 in the photo above. Imagine her welcoming you to her party – almost certainly in a sunken living room with shag carpeting in an alarming color. As you hand her a bouquet of flowers – because you always give flowers to the Hostess With the Mostest (as my old man used to say in the ‘70s) – and give her a reasonably-chaste-but-appreciative kiss on the cheek, what will you smell?
Seven to five, it’s roses.
21 oz. Water
18 oz. Sugar
1½ oz. Fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 oz. Dried hibiscus blossoms
Bring the sugar and the water to a boil over medium heat, making a simple syrup.
Remove from the heat, and add the hibiscus blossoms. Stir them in and let them steep for 30 minutes.
Add the lemon juice, stir, and strain into a bottle.
This should keep indefinitely in your refrigerator.
As I look through the women’s clothing, I’m struck by…
Wait a second! Is that Cheryl Tiegs?!
Well, if they could afford Winnie the Pooh… And, you have to admit, she is young and lively.
Anyway, as I was saying, the thing about the women’s clothing is…
Is that Susan Dey? As in Laurie-on-The-Partridge-Family-Susan-Dey?
Well, if they could afford Cheryl Tiegs and Winnie the Pooh…
You know, I’ve forgotten my original point. Let’s look at what our dads were wearing.
I have to admit that my original plan was to find a number of beige or avocado polyester leisure suits and mock them mercilessly, but it seems that they hadn’t really come on the scene yet in 1973. What I did expect, and did find however were Very Wide Ties.
The Very Wide Tie – Old Thyme Sour Cocktail by Colleen Graham
Let’s be honest here. Ties or no ties, our dads would not have drunk this cocktail. They would almost certainly have had a double-bump of Cutty on the rocks and devoted the rest of the party pursuing their rose-scented hostess (See above).
But this is the type of adventurous gesture we ‘70s kids liked to imagine the grownups having. Paisley ties and caftan dresses. Sideburns and rose perfume. Exotic drinks and goldfish crackers.
I would have loved to have had the type of dad who drank this.
I’d like to be the type of dad who drinks these.
1 cup Water
1½ cups Sugar
2 springs Fresh thyme
1 Cinnamon stick
5 springs Fresh thyme
¼ oz. Green Chartreuse
2 oz. Blended Irish whiskey – I like Paddy’s for this.
½ oz. Elderflower liqueur – I use St. Germaine
1 oz. Fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 Egg white
½ oz. Cinnamon-thyme syrup
1 dash (1/8 tsp.) Peychaud bitters
½ tsp. Lemon zest
Make a simple syrup with the sugar and water. Bring it to a boil to dissolve the sugar completely, then reduce to a simmer. Add two sprigs of thyme and a cinnamon stick, and simmer for another 30 minutes. Remove from heat.
Add two sprigs of thyme and Green Chartreuse to a rocks glass. Swirl to make sure the thyme has been completely soaked by the Chartreuse. Set aside.
Add the remaining thyme, whiskey, St. Germaine, lemon juice, egg white, cooled syrup, and bitters to a cocktail shaker. Dry shake thoroughly. (This means without ice.)
Add ice, then shake again, just as thoroughly.
Carefully, light the alcohol-soaked thyme on fire. If the room is light, you will not see the flames; listen for the sizzle of burning thyme.
Extinguish the thyme by straining the cocktail over it.
Garnish with lemon zest.
Given how much preparation this cocktail requires, it wouldn’t be surprising if the end result was slightly anticlimactic.
But it isn’t.
This is delicious. Lemon is the backbone of this drink – slightly sour, yes – but also perfumy. The elderflower and cinnamon notes are very subtle; they serve mostly to support the thyme. It’s probably a little pretentious to say that the egg white provides a texture to the sour, but the mouth-feel is both softer and more solid at the same time. Because eggs are slightly alkaline, it takes a little of the edge off the lemon’s acidity.
This is a drink that a man with sideburns and a wide, paisley tie might lose his mind over.
When I say that none of us kids paid any attention to the clothing section, that’s not entirely accurate. Our mothers would read through the children’s holiday clothes, then stare at us unnervingly through narrowed eyes.
This was never a good sign.
And I have to say, here and now, that there is no way the ad execs at Sears didn’t know that this was going to get some poor Theater Kid badly beaten up at school.
Perhaps this was revenge for all the whining.
Between the clothing section and the important stuff (the toys), there was a sort of no-man’s-land of vaguely interesting products that were worth looking at. We all had aunts or grandmothers who were clueless when it came to BB guns or Dream Houses, but might be persuaded to spring for something more interesting than socks for Christmas.
A cookie jar, for instance:
This is where a smart kid could get himself in trouble.
Most kids would skip right over this, but a smart, fat kid, might look at this page and get thoughtful. Cookie jars lead to cookies. If your mom tried to put the cookie jar into storage to keep you away from said cookies, you had a certain amount of emotional leverage at your disposal. The next time you were on the phone with your grandmother, you could mention glumly that Mom had put away the special cookie jar she had given you and boy, did that make you sad! The next day, the cookie jar would be back – though probably full of barely-even-cookies, like Vienna Fingers.
On the other hand, very few of these particular cookie jars were actually whimsical. The eyes of the clown would follow you around, no matter where you stood in the kitchen. And I’m not even sure what was going on with that snail. The best you could hope for would be the red cow.
[About now, you are expecting a cocktail recipe called The Cookie Jar, or The Red Cow, but frankly, none of us need flashbacks from that snail, so let’s move on.]
Most kids would half-heartedly circle a microscope, or a digital clock, or an 8-track tape player, then move on to the really important stuff – the toys.
The Inchworm, for instance.
My sister had one of these, and you’d think that it would be really easy to break its spine. In reality, it was quite difficult.
I’m not a big game-player, but I would unhesitatingly play any of these games now, in the light, in the dark, sober, or with a drink in hand.
Speaking of which…
SuperSpy Cocktail – A Classic Martini
Simplicity can be brutal; there’s nowhere to hide.
3 oz. Very good gin – Right now, I really like Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin from Ireland
~1 oz. Dry vermouth
1 Very good cocktail olive – For this, I used a Filthy Pickle Gherkin-Stuffed Olive
8 Ice cubes
Run the martini glass under cold water, then place it in your freezer.
Go into the Living Room and listen to Herb Alpert for half an hour
Place ice in the mixing glass. (Yes, I know the whole James Bond, “shaken-not-stirred” thing, but I’ve tested this out and stirred really is better.)
Pour an ounce or so of vermouth over the ice. You don’t have to be exact; you’ll see why in a moment.
Stir the ice. Make sure that every cube is coated with vermouth.
Using the strainer, pour out all the vermouth. You will be left with vermouth-coated ice cubes.
Add three ounces of gin to the mixing glass. Stir thoroughly. The idea here is to combine the gin with the merest hint of vermouth, to chill it until it is blisteringly cold, and to dilute it slightly.
Remove the martini glass from the freezer. As soon as the room temperature air hits it, it should frost over.
Spear an olive with the olive pick and place it in the martini glass.
Using the strainer again, pour the gin into the martini glass. It is now a martini.
Many years ago, I was in the Army, and got into a rather heated argument with one of the other privates about alcohol. He was bragging about drinking ultra-high proof alcohol and I may have expressed my opinion that “Everclear is for weaklings, Gomer” – an observation that he did not take philosophically.
I like to think that I’ve learned to express myself with a little more tact since then, but my point still stands – alcohol of that strength is for people who don’t actually like drinking and just want to be drunk.
A classic martini, on the other hand, is a purist’s drink. It is for someone who wants to taste every nuance of a good gin.
This is not to say that it isn’t ultra-high octane; two or three of these martinis, and you’ll be making lewd suggestions to a hat rack. I’m just saying that drinking one is an immersive, almost meditative experience.
Ironically, considering that we’re theming this around a board game, martinis are not for playing around with.
Voice of the Mummy
This is a slightly snooty variation on a traditional Mummy Cocktail.
2 oz. Vodka – Right now, I like Ukrainian Heritage Rye Vodka
1 oz. Orange curaçao
1 oz. Fresh squeezed lemon juice
3-4 oz. Club soda – I really like Topo Chico Mineral Water. It is aggressively bubbly and lightens most drinks.
Cracked ice (see below)
Wrap 12-15 ice cubes in a tea towel and whack them several times with a stout stick. I used the pestle from my largest mortar and pestle. You don’t want to reduce the cubes to pebble ice or crushed ice; take them down to about the size of an unshelled almond.
Fill a rocks glass halfway with your punch-drunk ice.
Add vodka, curaçao, and lemon juice.
Top with club soda and stir gently.
The original iteration of this cocktail uses triple sec. Substituting it with curaçao makes this a little less sweet – and thus less authentically 70s-y – but makes it very refreshing. Normally, club soda is used mostly to dilute a very sweet drink; it’s not a featured player itself. Here, the club soda and the ice have – if you’ll pardon a metaphor that is trying way too hard – slipped the DJ a Jackson and are dominating this dance. The lemon juice and curaçao follow their lead, and the vodka does what vodka does – stand in the corner with a serene half smile, watching the drama unfold.
Aside from its name, what does this drink have to do with the actual Voice of the Mummy™ board game?
Not much, but I’m reasonably sure that after several of these, the game would take on a surprising amount of drama.
I don’t know how things worked for children who had actual athletic ability, but for me and most of my friends, the real action in the Wishbook centered around dolls of one type or another.
In 1973, I wouldn’t have been all that interested in baby dolls, but Adult Me is surprised and a little gratified to see Tamu on the same page as Mrs. Beasley.
Granted, she seems a little dated, but her message?
“Cool it, Baby.”
Seriously, who can argue with that?
Add in the fact that there is a Black doll here at all, much less one with self-assurance and a full afro, maybe the 1970s were more progressive than we remember.
Err.. Or maybe not.
At this point, I would be remiss not to discuss Barbie, but in point of fact, in 1973, Barbie was much as she has always been – fashionable, serene, and aspirational.
Today, if we think of Ken at all, he’s either one of Barbie’s accessories, or – let’s face it – a bit of a joke. Ken has so little personality that we might wonder why Barbie would be with him at all.
1973 Ken would beg to differ.
Clearly, in 1973, Ken was going through some things.
Ken’s Voyage of Self-Discovery (AKA Chestnut Cup)
I showed these pictures of Vintage Ken to my teenager, who happens to be gay and asked for an opinion on various cocktails Ken might drink:
Bright Green – “Not gay enough.”
Neon Pink – “Too gay.”
Garnished with Tropical Fruit – “Are you trying to get him openly mocked?”
Chestnut Cup – “Perfect.”
The great thing about the Chestnut Cup is that it’s perfect for someone like Ken, who is, as the drink’s name implies, on a voyage of self-discovery. It has a perfectly respectable, vaguely masculine name. It is sweet – like Ken himself – but with back-notes of bitterness. It sends a coded message to other ambiguously self-actualized action figures who might see him out and about. (See G.I. Joe #3, below.)
1 oz. Gin – Death’s Door works well for this.
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Fresh squeezed lemon juice
¾ oz. Orgeat
Shake all ingredients over ice, then pour – unstrained – into a slim highball glass.
Almonds play well with bitterness. Gin is a switch hitter that deals well with bitter or sweet ingredients. The lemon juice is just happy to be included. If you aren’t a fan of Campari, this could give you a new perspective on things.
Not unlike Ken.
For me and my friends, the most important part of the Christmas Wishbook – perhaps the reason for its existence at all – was G.I. Joe.
Our G.I. Joes were more than just toys. They were surrogates for the adventures we never had, and indeed, wouldn’t have wanted, had they presented themselves. Our Joes leapt out of bedroom windows, and off roofs, fire escapes, and balconies with abandon – albeit with help and encouragement from us. We tied them to balloons, and sent them into the sky, though, not having access to helium, the balloons acted more like bulky parachutes, and further life-like plummeting action.
We fed one to a snapping turtle.
There was a rumor – which we never verified – that one of the boys at school had blown out the fuses at his house by playing “War Crimes” – putting his Joe in a bucket of water, then dropping an extension cord into it.
G.I. Joe was our hero.
Looking at 1973 G.I. Joe with middle-aged eyes however, I have questions:
While not carrying much survival equipment to Nepal(?) with him, Joe seems over-prepared in some ways. Most of us would have brought skis or snowshoes.
Presumably, Joe is very brave, or he would not be on this mission at all – much less alone – so why, when finally making contact with a Yeti, has he immediately adopted a submissive posture? Did it only occur to him once he’d seen the giant, albino, Arctic gorilla, that perhaps he was in over his head?
It appears that Joe has brought a giant slab of tripe with him, which makes a certain amount of sense, bait-wise, but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything with it. You could make the argument that it’s actually a net, but how is he going to throw it, especially in the submissive posture he’s adopted?
First of all, WHY is the sea boiling? Doesn’t that present some logistical problems that aren’t addressed by the minimal amount of equipment that Joe has brought with him? (That said, you know in 1973, we would have seen this and immediately tried plunging our own Joes into boiling water.)
Joe is wearing a diving costume with an external air supply, but with no equipment to actually deliver air, which seems short-sighted, particularly in light of the Boiling Lagoon situation.
The caption suggests that Joe is salvaging the nose cone of a rocket. How is he supposed to bring it to the surface, let alone get it to shore onboard a bass boat with a frighteningly underpowered engine?
Yes, they’ve brought more tripe with them on this adventure, but what really stands out to me is that the mummy has gone missing “again”. How often can you call in Joe and Other Joe to clean up your messes? Seriously, People – get your act together.
It’s time for another drink.
Adventurers’ Cocktail – Cucumber Wasabi Martini
This is a riff on another cocktail by Colleen Graham, with regular, boring, run-of-the-mill gin replaced with cucumber gin, and the wasabi bumped up to adventurous levels.
4 slices of cucumber
¼ tsp. Prepared wasabi paste
½ oz. Simple syrup
1½ oz. Cucumber gin. (See below)
½ oz. Fresh squeezed lemon juice
Muddle three slices of cucumber in a cocktail shaker.
Add simple syrup and wasabi. Muddle again.
Add gin, lemon juice and ice. Shake thoroughly – long enough to get halfway through a very groovy song
Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with the remaining slice of cucumber.
Go out and seek adventure, like – I don’t know – the unknown frontier of 1974.
Wasabi seems like an unlikely flavor for a cocktail, but surprisingly, it’s the cucumber that does the heavy lifting here. The wasabi supports it, linking arms with the lemon juice and providing backup vocals. The sweetness of the syrup brings out the fruitiness of the cucumber.
It’s just really good.
An equal amount (by weight) of medium quality gin – Gordon’s is my go-to for infusing.
Wash, but don’t peel the cucumbers.
Blend the cucumbers and gin on the slowest speed in your blender. You are trying to chop the cucumbers finely to maximize the amount of surface area they have exposed to the gin, but still be in large enough pieces to filter out.
Store the mixture in a large jar, someplace cool and dark for seven days.
Strain, then filter and bottle this very delicious gin.
So, looking back on the 1973 Sears Christmas Wishbook, what have we learned?
We’ve learned that Ken has a surprising interior life.
We’ve learned to say no to plaid, polyester slacks and yes to baby dolls with Afros, Susan Dey, and caftan-wearing hostesses who smell like roses.
Are these deep lessons? Will they lead us to a better, more enlightened future?
I can’t hear you; I’m listening to the Carpenters.