Editor’s Note

The Triumph of the Spirits

The margarita machine finally makes the Smithsonian.

By Scott Vogel June 30, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Margaritas patiently wait for the recognition they’re due.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC is home to the country’s greatest treasures, from the Wright Brothers’ plane to the Star Spangled Banner to Dorothy’s ruby slippers to the Hope Diamond. Nevertheless, the collection has always seemed oddly incomplete. Great swaths of the citizenry have been given conspicuously short shrift by the “Nation’s Attic,” their contributions to this great country often minimized or ignored, casualties of a museum whose historical approach is—to put it politely—reductionist. 

I’m talking of course about the contributions of frozen margarita drinkers. On the whole, they are seen with contempt; separately, they are seen in groups of twos and threes, whiling away their afternoons sucking down great goblets of froth on patios of terra-cotta tile and plastic flora, engaged in heated disputes over what really caused the divorce, disputes that do not end until someone abruptly bolts up, tips over a drink, and staggers dizzily to the parking lot.

Given the group’s behavior, it is perhaps not surprising that their achievements have been overshadowed. Then again, an unnatural love of mojitos did not prevent the Smithsonian from mounting an exhibition of Ernest Hemingway portraits, or, for that matter, Yousuf Karsh photos of Winston Churchill, who downed whiskey before breakfast. Even Rat Packer and celebrated singer-drunk Dean Martin has been honored by the museum, this despite famously quipping that “when Sinatra dies, they’re giving his zipper to the Smithsonian.”

Still, there are signs that relations between the institution and the frozen concoction are, yes, thawing. In 2005, apparently bowing to public pressure, the Smithsonian acquired the world’s first frozen margarita machine, although it would be another seven years before it went on exhibit as part of Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000 at the National Museum of American History. Tucked between Julia Child’s kitchen and a display case detailing Pringles’s contributions to the culture (potato chip uniformity, long shelf life), the machine is now enjoyed by thousands every day. Indeed, many thousands more might enjoy it were the Smithsonian to turn it on.   

“In 1971, Dallas restaurant owner Mariano Martinez noticed that ordinary blenders did not deliver a consistent mix for frozen margaritas,” reads a caption beneath Martinez’s inspired solution, a simulated wood box no taller than a tombstone and as harmless-appearing as the Slurpee dispenser it was based on, its gleaming silver spigot looking none the worse for having dispensed millions of booze slushies during a 34-year career. 

“The invention of the frozen margarita machine is a classic example of the American entrepreneurial spirit,” said museum director Brent D. Glass, acknowledging the device’s importance, however belatedly. Lest the machine and its adherents grow too uppity, however, he added: “This story is told through many of our collections, revolutionary or mundane, from the light bulb to the can opener” (italics mine), thus revealing his institution’s kneejerk bias against secretaries on their lunch hours, against those who happen to enjoy premixed entertainment in a plastic cup for $1.50. It is snobbery disguised as discernment, I submit, something you’ll never see at Taco Cabana, where right now, even as I write—hastily, as happy hour goes only till 7 there—a machine called The Gulp of Mexico is dispensing whole glaciers of lime-based satisfaction. All you will see there are America’s forgotten, patiently consuming nachos, waiting for the recognition that is their due. 

—Scott Vogel

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