As I prepare for a tropical storm by painstakingly removing approximately 4000 pounds of tiki masks, thatched umbrellas, glass floats, and other potential hurricane projectiles from my yard, I blame my parents. Not for the storm, of course. But I’m blaming them for my need to create an unrealistic South Pacific paradise in our suburban American back yard.

Kate Dolan is trying to turn her backyard into a tiki barMy mom and dad took me to Trader Vic’s at a very impressionable age—and kept bringing me and my sister back on special occasions until our favorite tiki havens gradually all disappeared. In recent years, tiki bars have made a modest comeback, but I find most of them woefully under-decorated. Therefore, I feel compelled to recreate the kitsch of an island paradise that appropriates aspects of a variety of different cultures without understanding any of them. The rum drinks may contribute to that lack of comprehension.

To further immerse myself in this unnecessary fantasy world, I will be writing a series of blog posts on tiki culture and periodically reviewing “tiki bars” as I encounter them. I’ll start by explaining what tiki is – and what it isn’t.

Tiki is fiction, though like the best of all fiction, it incorporates enough reality to allow you to immerse yourself in the fantasy of being there. Everyone’s version of ideal tiki differs, but there are some standard features.

• Drinks – It is much easier to suspend your disbelief when your intellectual capacity is diluted by alcohol. Therefore, it is not surprising that if you type “tiki” in your phone or computer, the first word that pops up is “bar.” The original tiki joints were restaurants, but their drink menus often became as important as the food. Tiki drinks usually have exotic or dangerous-sounding names and may be served in a coconut shell or a mug shaped to look like an indeterminate South Pacific deity. Most tiki drinks incorporate tropical fruit juices with rum or other ardent spirits. Rest assured, a very lengthy future blog post will be devoted to tiki bar drinks.

• Décor – Tiki culture attempts to create a paradise where the weather is warm, flowers grow in profusion, and you can hear the sea in the background. Modern bar owners have taken this as an invitation to name any bar located near the water a “tiki bar.” In my opinion, however, a bar must incorporate a certain amount of tiki kitsch in its décor to deserve to wear the tiki label. The word tiki is traced to the mythology of the Maori culture, and statues of a human shape with a Polynesian style are often referred to as tikis. Tiki statues and masks are classic staple decorations of tiki bars. It’s pretty hard to be taken seriously as a tiki bar if you don’t have several of these in evidence. Other common tiki décor includes thatching, fishing implements like nets and floats, and south seas wildlife.

• Music – The original tiki bars played background music generally designed to reflect American expectations of what Hawaiian and Polynesian music should sound like. Often the style was relatively authentic, but lyrics were in English. As time passed, many tiki bars moved to instrumental music featuring energetic drumming or rhythmic melodies intended to evoke a south seas holiday. It’s been years since I’ve been in a tiki bar that made any attempt to play tiki-esque music. I’m having trouble even finding the right music for my backyard tiki playlist.

Interestingly, I do not feel that a tiki bar needs to have an actual bar. As long as there’s a level place to set your drink, it works for me. However, my husband believes my backyard tiki paradise will require him to build a tiki bar, and I will certainly not discourage this initiative on his part.

If tiki isn’t real, where did it come from and how did it become so popular? That will be the topic of my next post. In the meantime, I will naturally be doing some additional research for the article about tiki drinks…