Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Reader's Diary #1045- Dick Stevenson: The Saga of the Sourtoe

The toe, presented on a bed of salt. (Yes, the toe is real.)

Me, downing the shot with a toe. (It must "touch the lips.")
Certificate and wallet-sized bragging rights.
In Newfoundland, tourists are often eager to get "Screeched In," partaking in a ritual in order to become an honorary Newfoundlander. It involves kissing a cod (though I've seen it done with capelin and even a puffin), repeating a phrase that involves jibs drawing and an old cock, and of course throwing back a shot of rum known as Screech. It's gimmicky but fun. In terms of strangeness, however, it has nothing on the Yukon's Sourtoe.

In case you haven't heard of it, and in case the photos above are still leaving you confused (and most likely repulsed), in Dawson City, Yukon you can become a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Basically it involves drinking a shot of whiskey (I wasn't offered a choice a beverage, but I believe you can ask for something different, including non-alcoholic choices). Oh and it has a real, severed human toe in it. The last warning you get is that "You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow— But the lips have gotta touch the toe."

The name of the toe doesn't come from a sour taste (really all you can taste is the whiskey), but from a play on the term "sourdough."  People known as sourdoughs are Yukoners and Alaskans who are well-experienced in bush survival. It comes from the gold-rush days when the more established miners would carry fermented starter dough around their necks. (The opposite was a Cheechako, a new-comer with questionable skills.)

I had first heard of the sourtoe a while back when there was a national call out for toe donations (why they'd need more, I won't give away here), and just knew that I had to consume the cocktail. Call it my inner cannibal. Though I had no idea about the history of it. I assumed it had something to do with the gold rush days, but it had never come up in any of the Yukon historical books I'd read. So, on my way to Dawson City this summer when I found this book for sale I just had to grab it. Turns out that the reason it wasn't found in any gold rush histories is that it only began in 73. 1973.

Oddly, this fact somewhat dulled my enthusiasm initially. I had imagined some poor 19th century sop losing his toe to frostbite while lugging his gear up the Chilkoot Pass and then having the amputated toe finding its way into a glass of liquor served to a Cheechako while the grisly miners hooted and placed bets on whether or not he could do it. But 1973? Now it felt like a cheap, disgusting marketing ploy.

The truth lies somewhere in between and Dick Stevenson's simple but enthusiastic history of the cocktail not only set the record straight but won me over again. While not dating back to 1898, the story of the toe and how Dick Stevenson acquired it does go back further than 1973. Furthermore, the story of the toe and the cocktail since (hint: the toe that touched my lips is far from the original) is gruesomely fascinating enough to find its own place in Dawson's history.

Another interesting feature of Stevenson's book is the additional info added from subsequent reprints. First published in 1987, it's fun to watch the growth of Stevenson's bizarre ceremony take off. Even taking the toe on the road, the cocktail eventually gets national and even international attention. Soon newspapers and television shows were picking up Stevenson's story— not the least of which was an appearance on CBC's Front Page Challenge (which should probably not be surprising considering that long time panelist Pierre Berton also hailed from Dawson City).  Still, in 87, 14 years after the idea was first hatched, the count of people having joined the club stood at a mere 4866. Then it picked up momentum. In 91 the tally was nearly doubled at 9628. It topped 12, 000 by 97. The book is in need of another update as I'm not sure what the count is currently. It doesn't say on the Sourtoe Cocktail Club website but the Wall Street Journal estimated that the count stood at over 100,000 November of last year. (Though that wouldn't explain where the 50,916 number came from on my membership card.)

The Saga of the Sourtoe is short, very short, and in fact would probably be better suited to a pamphlet. Stevenson does his best to pad the book with anecdotes about his colourful chums. In the Yukon, colourful folk are nicknamed the 5%. The eccentrics. The bohemians. Interesting people to be sure, but they felt like filler in this book. As I said above, the writing while simple, still manages to exude Dick Stevenson's eager and quirky personality which more than makes up for the obvious fact that he doesn't have a background in writing. (Though he really should stay away from poetry!) Dieter Reinmuth has done a fine job with the editing, even if a few typos still managed to sneak in (another reason for another reprint).

I'll leave with a few more photos from my recent Dawson visit. Sorry if those of you who follow me on Twitter are sick of these photos. I'll at least limit these to the pictures that have a literary connection:

Robert Service's cabin.

Inside Robert Service's cabin.

Jack London's cabin and food cache

Pierre Berton's childhood home (currently a writer's retreat).

(If you want to see the non-literary photos, add me on Twitter and check my recent Tweets.)


Nikki in Niagara said...

I had no idea they got a new toe! I thought it was all over. I'd definitely do this if I ever visited but I think I'd have a few toe-less whiskies first! HA! LOL.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Any idea how many toes have been accidentally (or intentionally) swallowed?

John Mutford said...

Nicola: I was actually dreading the straight whiskey most, and it was the worst part!

Barbara: Oh yes, the book does have those stats. Not just swallowed, but stolen as well. I can't give away all of the book's secrets, however!