For a brief period in 1939, our best and brightest hit pause on their academic careers in pursuit of a nobler goal: determining, once and for all, who could eat the most live goldfish.
It’s said to have started in March with a Harvard undergrad who agreed to choke down a still-wriggling three-incher to win a $10 bet with a friend. The craze soon reached campuses nationwide, resulting in “gulping derbies” that saw kids vying to stomach as many goldfish as possible in a single sitting. Passé by May, the stunt is now but a footnote in America’s long history of youthful idiocy.
Buried deeper in the archives, however, is earlier evidence of our citizenry tossing a different type of Goldfish down the hatch: The obscure house drink of a long-gone New York City speakeasy called the Aquarium, and a favorite of Seattle bar proprietor Anu Apte-Elford.
A Prohibition-era establishment that appealed to the city’s so-called café society, the Aquarium derived its name from the enormous, illuminated fish tank that doubled as the bar. It’s here, according to Michael and Ariane Batterberry’s epicurean history, On the Town in New York, that the Goldfish—equal parts gin, dry vermouth and the German herbal liqueur Goldwasser—became a specialty, the signature gold flecks of the Goldwasser meant to mimic the surrounding aquaculture.
For Apte-Elford, who has maintained a small section of lesser-known classic recipes on the menu at Rob Roy since taking over the Belltown bar in 2009, the modified Martini had potential for modern palates. One thing she didn’t love, however, was the cocktail’s original equal parts ratio, which she first encountered in the 1977 Jones’ Complete Barguide. While it’s low in proof, Goldwasser, which offers notes of cinnamon, anise and mace, can drown out everything else in the glass if you’re not careful.
“When you do it equal parts… the drink becomes really cloying,” she says. Trimming the Goldwasser down to a half-ounce, and upping the amount of an all-purpose London dry gin like Beefeater, helps to recalibrate. “The botanicals really needed to shine through.”
While the drink is not currently on the menu at Rob Roy, they are always prepared to make one by request. Typically presented to guests near a candle so that the light catches the suspended gold flakes, the Goldfish has a disco-ball wow factor that Apte-Elford loves. “It’s like the giant chocolate cake at a chain restaurant,” she says. “They go through the room holding it up in the air so everyone can see it, then everyone buys it.”
Putting the Goldfish on the menu at Rob Roy was also a cheeky nod to the bar snacks Apte-Elford has offered since opening, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish—a move which encouraged some customers to perform their own kind of gulping derby. “People would order the crackers and the Martini,” she says. “And if they were drunk enough at the end of the night, they’d put a cracker into it.”