Jet Planes, Seer Sucker and Fernet – Welcome to Fleet Week
Every October in San Francisco, Indian Summer invades the city, and with it come rising temperatures, crisp white uniforms, and the loud roar of the Blue Angels. You know what I’m talking about: Fleet Week – more commonly known to locals as one of the best weekends in San Francisco to be outdoors “PaoSipping” a selection of your favorite cocktails.
The San Francisco tradition started back in 1981, and it continues to draw in more than one million people over this patriotic weekend. It attracts a diverse audience: the military crew of Top Gun look-alikes, men with white duck jackets and the recognizable pointed sailor hats; families with strollers and coolers of food; and of course local San Franciscans who take their seersucker suits to the top of San Francisco roof decks or out on a boat. Hordes of people gather at Crissy Field to watch the air show. Food vendors and beer gardens line the grassy path. The lawn is covered with blankets, plastic chairs and gaping faces, all waiting anxiously to witness a Blue Angel fly by, a stunt plane do a free-fall dive over the Bay, and or a professional set of sky divers to drop from over 30,000 feet.
Yet where do all the locals go? If you’re lucky, you could be on one of the many sailboats or yachts heading through the Bay waters. Last year a friend put his planning skills to good use and organized a 100-person yacht party, with a mandatory dress code of nautical gear. It was my first introduction to yachts, boat shoes and seer sucker, but it was most certainly not my last. San Francisco is home to a number of East Coast preppy transplants, the majority of which live in the Marina or Pac Heights – the playground for Fleet Week weekend. With this emphasis on prep, you are guaranteed to become overly familiar with “aggressive” seer sucker ( Yes, apparently prepster clothes, similar to man-eating dogs or boy-devouring San Francisco cougars, all can be described as “aggressive.”) Picture this: a strapping young man, 9 times out of 10, he is an alumnus from an Ivy League east coast institution. He is also likely a lacrosse, golf or tennis player. His outfit? Red Nantucket or seersucker pants, a gingham shirt, a belt adorned with salmon or a harmless sea mammal like a whale, a pocket square (think handkerchief) as an accent piece, and of course the requisite set of boat shoes. I happened to come across a near copy of this description and you can see pictures of him below in all his glory. It really is quite fantastic.
Don’t be surprised when you uncover that many of these Cadbury-blue, cashmere-sweater donning chaps, like a large majority of San Franciscans, also all seem to have an overindulgence in the bitter Italian aperitif known as Fernet Branca http://www.romefile.com/foodanddrink/fernet-branca.php# .
San Francisco consumes 50% of the Fernet imported into the US each year, second only to the country of Argentina. How does Fernet taste? It has over 20 different herbs, and the resulting flavor is similar to menthol or cough syrup, which I suppose makes sense given that many people equate it to a digestive with multiple health benefits. Did you know Fernet comes in miniature airplane sizes? Neither did I till just recently. It seems only appropriate for Fleet Week that the inscription on each Fernet bottle is “Excellence knows no oceans, no frontiers.” So now that we’ve talked outfits and primary companion beverage, where do you go to celebrate patriotism and fly-bys if the ocean is not available as your frontier?
Option #2 – to the roof! San Francisco, a city known for it’s concentration of apartments atop some of the steepest streets in the US, make up for the limited yard space with the abundance of roof decks. Some of them are actual decks, others are just a landlord’s worst legal liability nightmare, but all stand to be excellent viewpoints for Fleet Week. Assuming weather cooperates (this year the show was delayed to the ever-present San Francisco fog) the air show starts around mid-day – 12:30PM. My friends and I gathered at a house party/mimosa brunch in Pac Heights/the Marina to take in the day. The menu? A full breakfast burrito bar catered from nearby Cow Hollow spot – La Canasta. For our “Sip?” A wide-range of brunch appropriate beverages:
1) The spicy Bloody Mary – vodka, spicy Bloody Mary mix (just say no to Clamato), celery, stuffed olives, pepper, pepperoncinis, a healthy dose of Worcester sauce, horseradish and extra Tabasco. I recommend investing in the Absolut Red Pepper vodka if you have an itching for a spicier Bloody Mary – and make sure not to water down your bloody. It should have a bold flavor that excites your mouth.
2) Mimosas – I’ve had a few different renditions of brunch mimosas. There is the standard orange juice and champagne. But I really recommend doing a blood orange mimosa for that little extra something, and maybe even trying a bit of muddled fruit (mango proved to be a great addition this year)
3) Woo’s Concoction – I don’t’ actually know the proper name so I’m naming it for my buddy. If you like champagne and want an alternative to the Mimosa – take a bit of Chambord, a French black raspberry liquor. Fill the bottom of your glass – add in champagne (Prosecco, Asti Spumante or even just something as simple as Korbel will do the trick), then drop in a raspberry or two for extra flavor.
4) Fernet – see prior paragraph for description.
Now that you have your beverages for brunch, you can head out to the patio or roof deck for the show. The day lasts a few good hours with a variety of different planes (fighter planes, stunt planes like the Red Baron, large cargo planes that look like ships in the air, the Blue Angels of course, etc).
This weekend, while beginning as a tribute to patriotism and air shows, is really just a typical local weekend in SF, one that exhibits the hard to describe characteristic of any local. There is a hard commitment here to enjoying life, to making each sun-filled day a new memory with a day party, cocktails with friends, in-depth conversation, and all while dressing up and doing so with gusto. It is not a matter of “to party or not to party.” No, the more common question of any San Francisco local is which of the many events in the city will I choose to fill my day with? And more importantly…what will I wear to honor this level of celebration and what will be my beverage of choice?
Final Take: Pao Wow?
I can tell you this, while you may scoff at the preppy or even fraternity-like nature, Fleet Week is a weekend not to be missed. So grab your boat shoes, throw on a Polo shirt (preferably collar unpopped), snag a sip of Fernet and embrace the day with an “ahoy matey.” Everyone else in San Francisco will be doing it. Except perhaps those skinny jeans wearing, Ray-ban toting, kids from the Mission. Don’t worry hipsters – I have love for you, too. Your BiRite market, Dolores Park activities and superior restaurants will have their own Pao Chow, Pao Sip or Pao Fit entry in the coming future…Just not over Fleet Week weekend. I give it and even that digestive Fernet a definite Pao Wow.