When I was a kid, we had fewer than 500 TV channels. Gasp, I know. So I watched a lot of old movies that broadcast channels often ran to fill time, particularly at night and on the the weekends. Had an old black and white TV next to my bed.
Among those flicks, I saw several Shirley Temple films. I can’t say they were my favorites. I enjoyed a little more gangster gun play and world warfare. But her appeal and talent were pretty obvious. And for a 1970s-80s kid like me, watching a movie featuring 1930s kids was like being transported to another dimension.
But, upon hearing news of Shirley Temple Black’s death this week, her movies weren’t my first thought. It was that original mocktail that bears her name, and a little story that gives it a special place in our family lore.
In case you didn’t know, a Shirley Temple, the drink, is basically ginger ale, 7 up or something similarly lemon-limey, a splash a grenadine and a maraschino cherry. Some folks like an orange slice, or some orange juice added in. There’s a dispute over which bar invented the drink for Ms. Temple’s enjoyment. She told NPR’s Scott Simon that it was the Brown Derby. Others say a hotel in Hawaii.
I’m not much of a Shirley Temple drinker myself, but I enjoy the antique subversiveness of it, akin to those packs of chalky candy cigarettes my friends and I used to roll up in our T-shirt sleeves. It’s a drink for kids that is intended to mimic a potent adult cocktail, the old fashioned. That’s the sort of notion, if introduced today, that would draw some very heavy and earnest tut-tutting.
Shirley Temples, after all, could be a gateway drink. Today, it’s an innocent dash of grenadine. Tomorrow, Vodka Sam.
And nowadays, it’s the adults in backwards caps, grabbing a can of Amp, pretending to be adolescents.
But the Shirley Temple lives on. A few years ago, when our daughter, Ella, was 4 or 5, we slid into a booth at local Red Lobster, a restaurant that our kids love. They love crab legs. They love those Cheddar Bay biscuits/gut-bombs. And the love the lobster tank.
Despite those clear attributes, Ella was cranky. To cheer her up, my wife suggested that she order a Shirley Temple. A big fan of the fizzy, syrupy stuff, Ella was all in. And she was determined to order the Shirley Temple herself.
We talked about Shirley Temple. She practiced a bit. And then the waiter came to take our drink orders. The moment of truth.
“I want a Charlie Niblett,” Ella said, proudly.
Who? What? Ya got me. We’re still uncertain where this Charlie Niblett came from, exactly. Ella doesn’t even know.
We cleared things up for the confused waiter, and she got her Shirley Temple. She’s ordered several since then, correctly. But in our family, ginger ale, grenadine and a cherry will always be known as the Charlie Niblett. No offense to Shirley.
This is not all that unusual. Just this morning, Ella asked for a breakfast of French biscuits. I knew instantly that she meant English muffins. Someday, she may start an international incident.
And it may be hereditary. Once during the mid 90s, I was out with my folks at a restaurant in Iowa Falls, around the time the fizzy, sweet malt beverage called Zima was launched. My mom wanted to try one. When the waitress came, she ordered up a “Zippy.” I swiftly translated, and all was well.
So mom and Ella are kindred spirits. I’ll drink to that. And long live Shirley and Charlie.
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