Bobby Heugel of Houston's esteemed cocktail bar Anvil is a history buff with a thing or two to say about the true meaning of Columbus Day.
Photo via Flickr user heelslide
Most of us are either going to be off from work on Monday or sitting in the office wondering why the mail carrier hasn't delivered our crucial Amazon Prime orders. Even the iPhone calendar seems to automatically know that it's Columbus Day, and while some of us are willing to accept it as just another day off, many others recognize it as a problematic celebration of a man who was indirectly responsible for the mass genocide of thousands of indigenous people.
Bobby Heugel isn't going to let it slide. The James Beard-nominated bartender has released his third annual "Christopher Columbus Was an Asshole Menu" at his highly acclaimed Houston joint, Anvil Bar & Refuge. The rum-heavy cocktail menu has eight carefully curated drink specials, and each one of them is listed underneath a Columbus Fact that describes one of the many atrocities he committed against the Lucayans and other original inhabitants of his self-described New World. "Columbus Fact #2," it reads above the mojito ingredient list. "Columbus brought 1,700 men on his second voyage. Whenever a local individual protested colonialist actions, their ears were cut off." (Check out more details about the classic Caribbean cocktails, "badass sherries," and intention behind the menu here)
It doesn't make for easy reading, but to Heugel, its importance outweighs the discomfort it causes. (And neither this menu, nor his efforts to raise money for Hurricane Harvey recovery are the the reasons why Anvil has been named one of America's best bars by every publication that matters—although in the future, they may be factors). MUNCHIES spoke with Heugel about Columbus, rum, and revisionist history.
MUNCHIES: So why Columbus Day?
Heugel: I don't think that a lot of people think about Columbus Day as anything more than a reason they didn't go to school as kids or why the bank is closed. [The menu] is something that we casually started, but people were interested in it, and it started a conversation that ultimately questions what it is that bars do in their communities. What are we supposed to do, other than serve people intoxicating beverages? I don't know if this is an answer, but it's an option.
This menu is heavy on rum, which is one of Columbus' non-asshole contributions.
Yeah, just learning about rum history I thought it was an interesting footnote. Columbus was the first person to bring sugarcane to the Western Hemisphere. He brought it from the Canary Islands and essentially started that industry in the Caribbean. Even though rum wasn't distilled in the New World until the early 1600s, he brought it and the farming of [sugarcane] as a crop started as a result. Columbus was also bringing sherry on his voyages, because it was stable and something that could have survived the transatlantic voyage. I just thought it was interesting stuff about how Columbus relates to the world of booze and bars and spirits—except the guy's a huge asshole. How do you tell the story of people that impacted the world in negative ways, but are also inescapable parts of our history? It makes for an interesting question.
What has the response to the menu been?
It's been positive, although it's a pretty intense thing to put in front of somebody who casually wants a drink. Typically, there's a rule of not discussing politics in bars, but history is fair game. I think it's challenging people. What's interesting about Columbus Day for us, as a bar, is that it's a holiday that nobody really cares about, so it's usually a slow day. There's some time for some lively debate about the role of history, how accurate we should be and how important it is to be precise about how we look back at where we come from.
And challenging the existence of Columbus Day is a huge part of that.
I think it's fascinating that the only reason that Columbus Day is a holiday was because it was advocated by Italian-Americans who were pushing back against anti-Italian-American sentiment at the time. They were looking for a historical figure they could point to as a great example of what Italians had done for the United States, so Columbus really became a focus there. It started as a way to say "Hey, let's recognize the role of Italians," which is ironic because [Columbus] was someone who wouldn't recognize the civil rights of others in his colonial conquests.
Do you think Columbus Day should be replaced with an Indigenous Peoples' Day instead?
I'm not going to say what should or shouldn't happen; I'm just saying that we should definitely not have a holiday that celebrates a mass murderer. I think it's pretty clear that this celebration of someone who is literally connected to the deaths of millions of people, who documented raping nine-year-olds in his journal and hung people's [severed] hands around their necks, is probably not someone that we should hold highly as an esteemed historic figure.
You're ridiculously well-versed in history. Has that always been an interest of yours?
I have a master's degree in intercultural communication with a focus on peacekeeping overseas, which means that history plays a role in how you navigate those rhetorical pathways with all groups of people.
I think that's what makes me interested in spirits and bartending culture as a whole. We're kind of blending this lineage of people who have preceded us with what we do today. I think that's been a big part of why the modern cocktail has been revived. Mixing my background and my professional path, it seems like if we really want to have an understanding of where we come from, it overlaps with all kinds of different subject matter. The menu that we put together for Columbus Day ties that together. We're talking about the history of rum, the history of wines, how they migrated, how that merges into rum as an industry, and the chain of transatlantic trade. That's all part of the same story, and I think that it's fun, once a year, to mix those things up in a more explicit way than what we normally would. It gets people to consider something that maybe they've taken for granted.
Thanks for speaking with us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.