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From a paper entitled "Hey! Did You Get Your Tom & Jerry Yet?"
FIELDWORK PROJECT, POPC 220, SPRING 2000
(C) Copyright 2000 CARLA T. COOPER, SENIOR, COLLEGE OF TECHNOLOGY
CONSTRUCTION MANAGEMENT & TECHNOLOGY
Itís December 1st. The old sign is retrieved from the basement, dusted off, hung in the front window, and plugged in. Click. The sign which says Tom & Jerry lights up for all to see, announcing to passers by that the renowned Alpha Café Tom & Jerry holiday drink has been prepared and is ready to be served to the patrons.
The Alpha Café is a small café/tavern located in downtown Wapakoneta, Ohio, with a 107-year-old back bar as the leading historical attraction owned and operated by my grandfather, William (Bill) J. Gutmann. Since 1938, Mr. Gutmann has seen many changes, but one thing that hasnít changed is the Christmas time ritual of the Tom & Jerry holiday drink that is served from December 1st to January 1st.
Why is this tradition still alive after all these years? What makes it so popular? What do the people who partake in this yearly holiday event bring to and take from this experience? What causes these patrons to share this close bond and interaction at the Alpha but almost nowhere else? Why do they have this bond in this place? Why do people of very different occupational status and class systems seem to leave these barriers behind when they walk through the Alpha doors? What is it about the Tom & Jerry (T&J) that adds another certain connection at Christmas time? Where does the T&J custom come from? What draws regulars back every year to share with others and to bring newcomers to the experience?
The History of the Alpha and its owner are steeped in rich tradition, stories, and personal narratives. The back bar was built in 1893 by Brunswick Balke Collender Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. The company built three back bars of this large size, all similar in design, but each unique in its intricate carvings and shapes. One was destroyed in a fire and the other still remains in Arizona. The Alphaís back bar is 24 foot long and is made of hand carved white oak. The wall on the opposite side of the bar is lined with a matching 8-foot tall wainscoting with
arched mirrors and the same intricate carvings. At the end of the bar sits a column supporting a leaded glass partition. The back section of the Alpha is the café area. A short café style counter with stationary round swivel stools sits in front of the grill and serving counter. To the rear of the café counter, against the wall, is an old electric bowling machine.
William (Bill) Joseph Gutmann started working in the Alpha as a bartender in 1938. In 1948, he bought into the partnership with Joe Miller and Harry Brunn. Miller had a stroke several years later and Gutmann and Brunn became joint-owners of the Alpha. In 1962, they moved the back bar and business from across the street to its present location at 7 East Auglaize Street. Gutmann bought out the partnership from Harry Brunn on June 24,1969 to become the sole proprietor. His daughter, Connie S. Gutmann has been the manager since 1984.
The Alpha is unique in its appeal to different occupations, ages, and classes. On any given day you may find a lawyer, a construction worker, a county engineer, a farmer, a retired bank president, or a shop worker all sitting around the small café bar discussing the weather, politics, current events, or recent town gossip. This social interaction is most evident in the early morning hours with their coffee routines. A group of four will most likely be sitting at a table playing an old German card game called Sheephead. What is so unique, is that many of these people do not socialize elsewhere in this small town other than the brief encounters of day-to-day business.
Daily conversation in the Alpha will invariably contain some type of history and story. An example of a traditional story that has developed over the years is the story of Harry Schwepe, a former partner of the Alpha with Joe Miller, being "done away with" during prohibition. Someone will make a comment like, "I hear he wore cement shoes when he went fishing at Russelís Point!" Bill Gutmann will retell the story of how back in the prohibition days, when gambling and bootlegging were dominant in the area, there was a feud between Wapakoneta tavern owners and Russelís Point tavern owners. Harry Swepe, was in Russelís Point when someone "slipped a mickey" in his drink and threw him into the lake. Another story of the prohibition era is when Al Capone frequented the Alpha when he was staying at the Valley View Hotel in Wapakoneta to "get away from Chicago until things cooled down".
Occasionally, a gray haired, balding man may walk up to Bill and say, "Do you remember me? I was a paperboy and came in here and drank Vess Cola!" Sometimes he remembers them and other times not. The Wapak Daily News building is directly behind the Alpha and on rainy days the paperboys would come in and wrap their newspapers while sitting on the bowling machine. Many, now in their fifties, still frequent the Alpha and bring their children and sometimes even grandchildren in to meet Bill and "see the Alpha". Bill is proud to say that he has served five generations now.
When the bar was moved from across the street, many of the men from town helped in moving the large pieces of the back bar. On occasion a patron will stop in and begin telling personal narratives of how he was one of those volunteers. Bill and the mover will sit and brag how they moved the back bar on a Sunday, and with all the help of movers, plumbers, and electricians, "Never missed a day of business".
There are many sayings that can be heard regularly. Here are some examples:
During the Christmas holiday, the unique patron interaction at the Alpha intensifies and a certain "air" develops in the making of the Tom & Jerry. This is an egg nog type drink mixed from a secret recipe which is made daily from the first day of December until New Years Eve. For many, it is a tradition in Wapakoneta to stop at the Alpha to "get your Tom & Jerry (T&J)" for the year. This tradition heightens on Christmas Eve day when the small café fills with patrons socializing and sharing the T&J. The crowd ranges from those who love the drink, those who have just one, those who take one sip of a friends for luck, to those who have been brought by a friend as a newcomer for the experience. A certain idea of luck and/or prosperity is associated with the drinkÖa reflection upon the past year and bestowing luck to the new.
The origin of the T&J is a subject that has gone unanswered to Bill or the Alpha. The secret recipe and tradition was handed down to Bill from the former owner, Joe Miller. This recipe has been guarded in the family for three generations now. Many have tried to duplicate the recipe, but always return to the Alpha for "the original". The T&J bowl and mugs were handed down from the previous owner. The original bowl was cracked and Bill found a similar bowl and six mugs at an antique store. Besides the T&J mix that Bill makes for the patrons to enjoy while in the Alpha, he always makes carry-out pints of the batter for the customers to take home for their own holiday celebration to mix with the brandy and hot water themselves.
When asked why people come to the Alpha for the Tom & Jerry, the responses were similar.
One account of the origins of the Tom and Jerry comes from the 1821 book, Life in London; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, by Pierce Egan. This book was very popular and to further publicize it, Egan named a version of eggnog the "Tom and Jerry". Pubs were even called "Tom and Jerries" for a while during this period. The most popular theory, however, points to Professor Jerry Thomas of pre-prohibition fame, and bartender at San Francisco's Occidental Hotel in the 1860's. The Professor traveled and put on exhibitions throughout the major cities in the US and Europe, performing on stage and as a celebrity bartender. This was probably to sell his book, published in 1862; The Bartender's Companion and The Bon Vivant's Companion. It is considered the first standard guide to mixing cocktails.7
A version of the recipe calls for one egg per serving, to adjust accordingly. Separate the eggs. Beat egg whites until firm peaks begin to form. Beat the yolks until they are very thin. Fold whites into the yolks. Add one teaspoon to one tablespoon of sugar (according to taste and consistency) for each egg. Add a touch of cinnamon, allspice, and ground cloves. This is now your batter. Preheat your mugs with hot water. Put one tablespoon of the batter, 1 oz. Brandy, 1 oz. Rum into the mug. Fill to top with very hot milk or boiling water, stirring gently. Sprinkle with nutmeg.7
There are endless variations of this recipe, but how the Tom & Jerry became a holiday tradition is not known. The eggnog, though served cold, has many recipe similarities. This drink is an age-old Christmas tradition. The T&J may also be a combination of both the eggnog recipe and the tradition of the wassail bowl. The word "wassail" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon waes hael, which meant, "Be in health" or "Hereís to you." Wassail is a steaming mixture of mulled ale, eggs, curdled cream, roasted apples, nuts, and spices.5
Folklorists, such as Yoder, have referred to American drinking habits as "drinkways".6 The T&J tradition at the Alpha sanctions the celebration of the Christmas holiday with social drinking. Other folklorists, such as Humphrey, have written that "recognition occurs because the participants in a festive event understand that traditional foods, events, and contexts encode more meaning than the single food or event".1 Other material which supports this type of folklore is Santinoís thoughts on commercialization, communal celebration, traditions, and symbolic objects as tools for realizing celebrations.3
Harnett T. Kane wrote in the introduction of The Southern Christmas Book that "Christmas is above all else a season of traditions, of things done in the old-time style."2 Though not a southern town, Wapakoneta is a small rural community with a strong sense of tradition and the celebration of Christmas in the old-fashioned way. Toelken discusses in The Dynamics of Folklore that "Ösuch familiar performances help to reinforce and maintain the central ideas of the group (their value centers), help to induct newcomers (children, greenhorns) into the group, help to re-experience important emotionsÖ"4
Many joining in the Tom & Jerry celebration at the Alpha are the second or third generation, their parent or grandparent handing down the ritual by including this next generation. Others may be friends who are experiencing the custom for the first time. An initiation that once experienced, becomes a natural part of their Christmas holiday.
With toasts of luck symbolizing the end of one year and the beginning of a new, there is death and rebirth. The custom of having at least one Tom & Jerry displays that the drink itself is not the satisfying aspect, but that of celebration. The T&J is a metaphor of expressing emotional associations with tradition.
For patrons of the Alpha, after weeks of various office and club Christmas parties, of shopping and the ever-growing commercialism, coming into the Alpha for the Tom & Jerry is a means to relax into an age-old tradition. Bringing one back to the old-ways. A quaint family owned tavern; a prized secret recipe; the use of old mixing bowls and mugs; the Tom & Jerry mix being handmade in the back by Mr. Gutmann. A feeling of belonging. As they walk through the door, they inevitably will hear those familiar words, "Hey! Did you get your Tom
& Jerry yet?"
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