These days at Yale, frat culture defines the preppy drinking scene of the 21st century: red plastic cups overflowing with cheap beer, aggressive Abercrombie boys slapping each other on the back, and halter-top hotties posing for one digital photo after another. While many of us view this as the best of all possible drinking worlds, we tend to forget that the ’80s was a golden age for preppies everywhere. (Unfortunately for many of us, the only drink we knew how to nurse back then was milk.)
In their new book, “Tipsy in Madras,” co-writers Matt “Johnnie” Walker and Marissa “Mitzy” Walsh explore what it means to be a 1983 prepster sipping on a Cape Codder and sporting a green and pink plaid lightweight cotton fabric weave commonly known as “madras” (note: a true madras will bleed when washed). Two parts history, two parts practical drinking guide, five parts camp, this original book will mix well with any Yalie’s agenda to revitalize preppy culture. And honestly, isn’t that what the Ivy League is all about?
Although the 200-page book can currently be found on the shelves of the Yale Bookstore, it might feel more at home on the shelves of Urban Outfitters, in between “Get Stoned and Read this Book” and “Everybody Poops.” Replete with drink recipes and preppy trivia galore, “Tipsy in Madras” is far more useful than these, but takes itself just about as seriously, employing self-consciously retrospective humor evocative of VH1’s “I Love the ’80s!”
Walker and Walsh don’t earn praise merely for their hilarious style and helpful tips, but for their treatment of Drinking as an art, a subject worth examination. And why not? In the following excerpt, for instance, they take a standard drink and portray it against a seersucker backdrop:
RUM AND TONIC
The silent member of the tonic triumvirate, the rum and tonic is the drink of choice for the mid-August going-away beach-side soiree. The summer’s coming to an end soon, the Salinger and Steinbeck still sit in a pile on the floor of your room, and your crush is still unreciprocated. Enjoy the sunset.
ACCESSORY: Daddy’s college sweatshirt
DON’T: Step in the poison ivy
The appendices of the book help capture the essence of the era by suggesting movies to watch (think “Risky Business”), books to read (think Jane Fonda’s “Workout Book”), and music to play (think Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”). There is also a “Social Calendar,” subtitled “A Year of Prepping Dangerously.” For preppies, July 4 is not an occasion on which to celebrate the Independence of the United States, but a reason to commemorate John McEnroe’s triumph over Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon in 1981. Party on!
If “Tipsy in Madras” seems like it reflects Yale culture a little too accurately these days, it is probably because one of the authors, Matt Walker, is currently a third-year graduate student in philosophy at the School of Arts & Sciences. After a publicity event at the Yale Bookstore a couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions:
Magazine: How did you and Marissa conceive of writing this book?
Matt: Marissa and I were both working as book editors in New York — she was at Random House, I was at Simon & Schuster — but we’d wanted to write a book for a long time. We’d both gone to prep schools in the ’80s, and, of course, had been suitably warped by the whole experience. So when we suddenly started seeing people walking around again with their polo shirt collars flipped up, we thought, “Hmmm, maybe it’s time to revisit the world of ’80s preppiness.” There was nothing out there: Lisa Birnbach’s “Official Preppy Handbook,” of which we were both fans, had been out of print for years. And the drinks angle just seemed to click. After all, we liked to drink, and when we thought about what our preppy friends liked to do, the answer was “drink!”
Mag: How much legitimate research did you conduct and how much resulted from your real-life experience as a prep school student at Shady Side Academy?
Matt: One of the ironies about the book is that neither [Marissa nor I] was all that preppy in the day. We were both public school kids who ended up at private high schools and found the whole Mallard-and-Muffy scene to be like some parallel universe. In a way, that helped the book: we could cast a sympathetic outside eye on preppiness and find the humor in it. Another irony of the book is that we were both too young to drink in the ’80s. So we drew on our experience from college and from life afterwards in New York. Our method, as we like to say, is “speculative archeology.”
But we also did a lot of magazine and book research, a lot more than we originally expected to. I was amazed to find that Sterling has a large collection of old, but very good, books on booze. We also did some undercover investigative research, like sneaking into the Ivy alumni clubs in New York to find out what was on tap. It was fun.
Mag: Do you have a secret agenda to revitalize the prep culture of the ’80s or is “Tipsy in Madras” just a resource for party-throwers who need advice from the people who know ’80s prep culture best?
Matt: The high-prep era of the 1980s — roughly 1980 to about 1983 — was a strange blip in time. The disco ’70s were over, but the really glitzy go-go ’80s Donald Trump style hadn’t taken hold. As a result, preppy style filled in the void for a few years, but disappeared overnight. So we thought it was time to revisit the whole time, only in a humorous, campy way. At the same time, we wanted to write a drink guide that would be useful for theme parties, since preppy style was undergoing a big revival.
Mag: Are you pleased with the way people have responded to “Tipsy in Madras”?
Matt: Yes, very much so. At first, we were a little concerned that some people might take the book in dead seriousness and view us as snobs or worse, but everyone’s gotten the book’s humor and skewed angle, so it’s been pretty gratifying.
Mag: On your Web site you say that you dress fairly preppy these days. Does that mean you’re still rocking the green and pink plaid madras?
Matt: Actually, the only madras I own is a shirt I bought at J. Press for our book release party. But I have a large collection of dark polos and khaki pants, which I like to wear because they never go out of style, they last for years, and you can wear them pretty much anyplace. Practicality is nine-tenths of preppy style, but it’s also key for grad school!