In the classic wartime movie “Casablanca,” French police captain Louis Renault dumps a bottle of clearly labeled Vichy water into a trash can in disgust, signifying the shift of his allegiance away from the Nazi-backed regime to the resistance.
The move marks the beginning of his “beautiful friendship” with gin-joint owner Rick, and it demonstrates how we often reflect our values by shunning - or embracing - certain types of food and drink.
This week, people around the country are doing their own versions of Renault’s Vichy-water purge. They’re pouring bottles of Russian-made vodka into street drains. Governors are calling for Russian liquors to be pulled from store shelves. And bar proprietors are changing the names of their cocktails to make it clear what side they’re on: In many places, the Moscow Mule is now the Kyiv Mule. In at least one bar, it’s the Snake Island Mule, a reference to the Ukrainian territory where border guards made a defiant last stand against invading troops.
Sam Silvio, co-owner of Em Chamas Brazilian Grill in Kansas City, took a look at his menu last weekend as the Russian invasion was underway. He had seen a news report about a local tavern taking Russian vodkas off its bar, and he figured he should do something, too. The idea of serving anything that promoted Russia didn’t sit right with him, he said.
“I would feel - I don’t know if ‘insincere’ is the word. I don’t really know how to put it,” Silvio said. “I just think that any little thing we each can do can add up to something big.”
And so the Moscow Mule became the Snake Island Mule (with a line striking out “Moscow” for emphasis), and the Caipiroska - the Russian-ified name of the classic Brazilian drink the Caipirinha, when it’s made with vodka instead of the traditional cachaça - was re-dubbed the Caipi Island. Silvio said it didn’t require too much work to make the changes, since his restaurant has been using QR codes instead of paper menus. He’s working on finding a charity to which he can donate some of the profits, he says.
More than 1,000 miles away in Bethesda, Md., Ronnie Heckman was having similar thoughts. At Caddies on Cordell, his golf-themed sports bar, he changed the Moscow Mule to a Kyiv Mule, and the White Russian and Black Russian cocktails to the White Ukrainian and Black Ukrainian. He’s identifying legitimate charities to help support the Ukrainian people, with $1.50 from each drink, plus a matching donation from his liquor suppliers, going to those causes.
Heckman, whose mother’s family is Jewish Ukrainian, says the change is a small way he can help the collective effort of calling people’s attention to the plight of the Ukrainian people. “If I can raise awareness and shed light on the evilness and senseless acts, I will,” he says. “It’s like voting - if I do it, it’s no big deal, but if millions of people do, that has an impact.”
Experts note that the boycott of Russian-made booze is unlikely to take an economic toll on the invading country (Last year, Russian vodka made up only 1.3% of vodka imports, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States). And the wave of renaming drinks (which most bartenders know aren’t really even Russian in origin, anyway - the Moscow Mule is said to have been invented at a New York bar) is obviously not going to win a war.
“We had a few people commenting like, ‘Oh, like that’s going to help?’ " Heckman says. “But that’s small-minded.”
Symbolism, particularly when it comes to food and drink - key ways that we express our identities - can be powerful.
Brian Walsh, a partner at Washington-based PLUS Communications, would know. That’s not just advice he’s given clients of his PR firm, it’s something he saw firsthand back in 2003 when he was the spokesman for the House administrative committee that oversaw the chamber’s cafeterias. Walsh was the one who printed out the sign that read “***Update*** Now Serving . . . In All House Office Buildings ‘FREEDOM FRIES.’ "
“The whole thing took about 30 minutes,” Walsh recalls of the planning and execution of the campaign, prompted by France’s opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and copying a move made by a restaurant in one of the committee member’s home district. The sign - whose image ended up on the front pages of major newspapers around the globe and on countless cable news segments - was mocked up in Microsoft Word, the frame borrowed from his boss’s office wall.
“If you looked under that sheet you would have seen some kind of award from a rotary club,” he says.
And although it was mocked by many, the small gesture had major impact.
“It galvanized one segment of society,” Walsh said, bringing attention to what some leaders thought was a serious point. " ‘Where are the French, and why aren’t they helping us?’ ‘”
Food has often become a flash point - for good and ill - in moments of war or global conflict. In the United States, Chinese restaurants became targets of vandalism as the coronavirus spread. And during the lockdown of Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, some sought to foster solidarity with its people by celebrating its signature hot, dry noodles.
Sometimes, attempts to use food as a stand-in comes off as cynical or worse, such as when then-candidate Donald Trump was widely mocked for a tweet of a photo of himself and a taco salad in which he proclaimed, “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”
And people often frequent restaurants owned by immigrants to show solidarity. This week, lines were out the door in New York at Ukrainian diner Veselka, which is selling a special edition of New York’s famed black-and-white cookies in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
The renaming of cocktails also jibes with the tendency to name drinks after figures in the news. In Washington, where news chyrons offer plenty of fodder for pun-loving bartenders, the “Fauci Pouchy” was a splashy to-go concoction launched during the pandemic, and the “Covfefe Cocktail” was another served during Trump’s impeachment hearings.
But both Silvio and Heckman say the names are meant to inspire unity, not stoke division. And many places making the changes are quick to note that the eschewing of Russian monikers isn’t meant as a rebuke of Russian people and their culture.
Still, Silvio wonders whether the names will stick around. After all, many cocktail names have evolved throughout the years. All he knows is that on his menu, the Moscow Mule won’t return at least until there’s a change in Russian leadership.
“As long as they’re doing what they’re doing,” he says, “we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”