Food & Drink on Film: A New Leaf’s Malaga Cooler

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When Henry Graham and Henrietta Lowell first meet in Elaine May’s 1971 film A New Leaf, it is over a cup of tea, or rather three cups, and quite literally over them for Henrietta has just spilled all three. ‘Incredibly clumsy woman isn’t she – no wonder she’s doesn’t ride’, utters Henry’s friend Bo, who has problems of his own: he explains that his apple trees, only just cured of crown gall, appear to have now caught the sooty blotch.

The hostess of this social gathering loses her patience with Henrietta, denouncing ‘If your nerves aren’t steady enough to hold a cup and saucer in your hand then you shouldn’t be drinking tea’, but Henry comes to her defence. He coolly confronts the hostess, stating, ‘Madame, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time, but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque and certainly the most boring I’ve ever encountered. You’re more to be scorned than pitied’, and leaves with Ms Lowell.

As the two become acquainted, Henrietta reveals her preferred drink. Over dinner at a fancy restaurant, as Henry expounds on the merits of different vintages of Mouton Rothschild, Henrietta interrupts: ‘May I ask you something? Have you ever tasted Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga wine with soda and lime juice?’. A botanist by profession, she explains:

Henrietta: One of my students happened to introduce it to me on a field trip to the Canary Islands. It tastes a little like grape juice, and every year is good. 

Henry: Why don’t you just drink grape juice?

Henrietta: It’s not as sweet. I had never drunk wine at all until I tried Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga wine with soda and lime juice. It’s delicious. It’s called a Malaga Cooler.

Henry: Malaga Cooler? Oh, well that sounds…unique!’

With Henry intent on a quick marriage proposal – he has to marry by the end of the week in order to secure sufficient funds to pay back his rapacious uncle – his ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ Harold asks ‘Shall I order additional champagne, sir?’. Henry responds, ‘No, no champagne. Order a dozen bottles of Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga wine…and lime juice. And lower your eyebrows please, I told you she was primitive’.

That evening, as the couple clink glasses and Henry toasts ‘To science!’, Henrietta wonders, ‘Do you have any straws […] I should have told you to buy straws’. Henrietta smears the juice all over her upper lip, and the Malaga Cooler, of course, ultimately ends up adorning Henry’s rug. But he assures her, ‘Can you possibly believe, for one moment, that what happens to this foolish hairy floor covering matters to me when I have you sitting beside me?’. And after finishing off his allocation of the drink for the sake of courage, he makes his proposal, inadvertently kneeling on the shards of a broken coupe glass.

Later, as Harold tends to Henry’s knee, Henry complains, ‘I can feel my teeth rotting away from an excess of sugar that no amount of toothpaste can dislodge. I will taste those damn Malaga Coolers forever!’. But on into the later stages of A New Leaf, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern whether these drinks are a menace or a bond.

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A view over Mogen David’s vineyards in Westfield, New York

Mogen David is based with its vineyards in Westfield, New York. The company name is the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew ‘Magen David’, which refers to the Star of David, the recognised symbol of Judaism. Its ‘extra heavy Malaga wine’ must have lived many years ago; and Henrietta pronounces ‘Malaga’ with emphasis on the second syllable, as ‘Muh-lah-ga’. According to their website, Mogen David describes itself today as:

‘America’s Classic Wine since 1933. Perfect for gatherings and to be shared amongst family and friends, Mogen David is available in three tasty, sweet flavors: Concord, Blackberry and Pomegranate. These wines are Kosher for Passover and for everyday enjoyment.’

The three wines Mogen David presently offer come in sizes of 750ml, 1.5l, and 3l. The Concord grapes which make up their Concord wine – ‘A nice sweet wine with aromas of fresh Concord grapes that finished elegantly’ (sic) – are typically used to produce grape jellies, preserves, juices, soft drinks, and candies. Mogen David is able to sell its 750ml wines for less than $5 a bottle.

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Mogen David’s blackberry wine, in three sizes

Several years ago, Mogen David was perhaps best known for the MD, or ‘Mad Dog’, 20/20. This was a cheap fortified wine that came in flavours ranging from the fairly sedate-sounding Peaches & Cream; to their standard Red Grape Wine; to the self-explanatory Strawberry-Kiwi, Kiwi-Lemon, Mango-Lime, Dragon Fruit, and Blue Raspberry; and the more vividly descriptive Banana Red, Orange Jubilee, Coco Loco, Electric Melon, and Habanero Lime-arita. Such inexpensive fortified wines, usually with a volume between 13% and 20%, have sometimes been referred to as ‘bum wines’. A review from 2010 on bumwine.com states:

‘As majestic as the cascading waters of a drain pipe, MD 20/20 is bottled by the 20/20 wine company in Westfield, New York.  This is a good place to start for the street wine rookie, but beware; this dog has a bite to back up its bark.  MD Stands for Mogen David, and is affectionately called “Mad Dog 20/20”.  You’ll find this beverage as often in a bum’s nest as in the rock quarry where the high school kids sneak off to drink.  This beverage is likely the most consumed by non-bums, but that doesn’t stop any bums from drinking it!  Our research indicates that MD 20/20 is the best of the bum wines at making you feel warm inside.  Some test subjects report a slight numbing agent in MD 20/20, similar to the banana paste that the dentist puts in your mouth before injecting it with novocain.  Anyone that can afford a dentist should steer clear of this disaster.  Avaliable in various nauseating tropical flavors that coat your whole system like bathtub scum, but only the full “Red Grape Wine” flavor packs the 18% whallop.’

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The MD 20/20 line-up in full

Alas, the MD 20/20 has faded from existence, as bum wines have come under attack in both the United States and the United Kingdom for constituting a health and a societal hazard; with the formation of Alcohol Impact Areas forcing MD 20/20 out of some cities, and bum wines in general being replaced by cheap beers. More recently, in addition to its current offering, Mogen David also sold a ‘Moscato’ medium sweet white.

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Recipe for a Malaga Cooler:

  • 2-4 parts Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga wine
  • 1 part soda water
  • 1 part lime juice
  • 1 straw (preferred but optional)

‘Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971)’ – Culturedarm’s in-depth look at A New Leaf, Elaine May’s directorial debut, starring Walter Matthau as a gentleman who has squandered his inheritance.