One of the great things about my profession is that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s okay to plagiarize yourself. AndÃ¢â‚¬”though it happens rarelyÃ¢â‚¬”we all occasionally write something worth repeating. In this case, I want to share a piece I wrote for Newsweek on that great summer drink, the Yucca Flats. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been on my mind a lot lately, not because itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s so hot and a YF would be mighty tasty right about now, but because Nell Yarbrough, the matriarch of the family who first introduced me to themÃ¢â‚¬”an extraordinary woman whom IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve mentioned in this space beforeÃ¢â‚¬”recently died. When we all gathered in Mississippi to celebrate her life, the subject of the Yucca Flats almost immediately came up, and you will see why, below.
So, herewith, the column, with a few changes and additions befitting the moment:
The summers of my youth were spent largely at the house of our neighbors, who had six children (including three good-looking, much older and very funny boys) and a playroom with a pool table, card table, stereo and ancient refrigerator. Depending on the summer, I was invariably in love with one of the brothers or their friends, and it was in their company that I picked up the skills that have contributed to my good health and happiness ever since: how to kiss, play poker, hold my beerÃ¢â‚¬”and hum along to pretty much every song on a nonstop vinyl soundtrack that included, but was not limited to, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones and the Sir Douglas Quintet.
The most memorable summer was marked by the introduction of the Yucca FlatsÃ¢â‚¬”not the nuke site, but a passion-inducing concoction mixed in metal trash cans with floating handfuls of squeezed citrus, and I’ve always wondered what else, exactly, was in there.
The good (and scary) thing about the Internet is that you can locate not just the answers to such questions, but also a lot of people who appear to have lived your same lifeÃ¢â‚¬”when I Googled “Yucca Flats,” a great many cocktail blogs appeared containing such comments as “We drink this when we are playing cards.” One recommended mixing it with your feet. There was some disagreement about the recipeÃ¢â‚¬”versions included vodka, gin, rum, tequila or some combination thereof. But the consensus seems to be that a Yucca Flats is a whole lot of gin mixed with equal parts lemon juice and sugar, shaken or stirred with ice until really cold, and topped with maraschino cherries and halves of lemons, limes and oranges.
I intend to try it immediately, and not merely because I’m motivated by nostalgia. For one thing, it is at least as hot in Louisiana, where I now spend most of my time, as it was in my hometown in Mississippi. It’s also time to switch cocktails: warm-weather months have traditionally meant a change from brown liquor to white, from heavy cocktails to those that are lighter and more refreshingÃ¢â‚¬”though equally potent.
Recently there’s been a strong trend toward what master mixologist Dale DeGroff calls “a culinary style of cocktails, utilizing exotic fruit and kitchen ingredients.” So now there’s also a seasonal shift from the stronger and more savory end of that spectrum to the lighter, fruitier end, which also includes the herbs abounding in the garden. You might switch from a properly muddled old-fashioned to, say, a lemon-thyme margarita.
I am thinking seriously of making a new version of the Yucca Flats with rum and mintÃ¢â‚¬”or, perhaps, adding some lemon-thyme syrup to the gin version, minus the maraschinos. In a garbage can, after all, there is plenty of room to experiment. I plan to name it after Mrs. Yarbrough and to serve at the First Annual Nell Yarbrough Memorial Invitational Poker Tournament. The Allman Brothers will be on the stereo.