Friday, August 2, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth Cocktail (with Bonus Tardis Variation)

Today's guest post is from Clare Toohey.

"It was very much like the tollbooths he’d seen many times on family trips, except of course it was much smaller and purple." - The Phantom Tollboth

There is abundant mystery, theft, deception, and plenty of suspense in The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I know, I know, it’s a kids’ book, so you may ask whether pairing it with a cocktail is precisely appropriate. Fair enough—and I’ll offer a delicious “virgin” version—but please don’t feel limited. This book encourages great expansiveness of thought for all ages, especially when, like Milo, you’ve become bored and dissatisfied in a world, which “so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty.”

If it’s been decades since you read this one—or you never read it--I guarantee The Phantom Tollbooth holds up dazzlingly to an adult perspective. First, because the wordplay and its attendant world-building is profound, plentiful, and brain-ticklingly delightful. It’s so different from anything before or since that it’s a literary palate cleanser. But it’s also great, because what grown-up hasn’t felt caught in The Doldrums, The Foothills of Confusion, by the snares of the Terrible Trivium, or in the Mountains of Ignorance? Who hasn’t needed nudging from a reliable friend like Tock or The Humbug to help set free one’s own beautiful Rhyme and Reason? Ennui is imagination’s sworn enemy, independent of one’s age. Now, onto the perfectly paired cocktail/shot and mocktail.

Just like Milo’s adventures in the book, our endeavors starts with assembling the tollbooth. Get this part right, and everything else is a downhill ride in an electric car (see how contemporary?). Online, I found the perfect little square 4-ounce parfait tumblers with lids, available in sets of 50 for around $20, though you may find them cheaper. The bases are sturdy plastic, but the tops are made of the stuff you find in salad bar containers, so you have to be sure to separate the thinner lids carefully from each other.

That’s the hardest part done. The rest is all fun and customization. Yes, of course you could just use grape juice and vodka, but really, where’s the tollbooth-inspired sense of playful imagination in that? Using the mixers below and a cocktail shaker with ice, here’s a delicious tropical purple recipe. Make in whatever proportions you need, based on the traffic on your tollroad.

Put ice in the receiving tumbler if you prefer. Fill shaker with ice, adding:
1 part Blue Curacao liqueur
1 part light rum
2 parts pomegranate juice
2 parts cranberry juice (or cocktail)
4 parts clear, fizzy soda pop
Shake to chill and pour.

This is my very own, beloved, dog-eared, and stained copy of the book—see the 95 cent price on it? The nice thing is that this well-worn pal doesn’t care if I slosh a drop of this light, fun drink on the pages. It still reads just as well. I did snip an X into the cup’s lid, so I could stuff in a cute purple straw and drink it with the lid on. Sloshing is one thing, but I hate sticky pages. 

If you’d like to make this more dessert-like, just pack the cup with crushed ice first, and then pour your refreshing mixture over the top until it’s filled. People can eat it with spoons, big straw like I haves, or just suck it down like the bottom of mushy snow cone. It’s fun, and this way, you can make a tray in advance and stick them in your freezer to stay cold before serving en masse.

Also, as promised, here’s a virgin version that’s got more going for it than just Welch’s:

Into a cup with ice, I used a squeeze of liquid drink mix in blueberry lemonade for a deep blue-purple color, and then topped it with pomegranate juice mixed with coconut water. Sweet enough for kids and seriously yummy. (I might try the coconut Pom in my adult tollbooth, too--mmmm.)

Last, here’s my attempt at a Tardis Variation (which sounds a little like a progressive rock band). Blue curacao has sort of an orange-y flavor, and is really more turquoise than navy, but I think you’ll get the gist. 

1 part Blue Curacao
1 part light rum
splash pomegranate or blueberry juice to darken slightly
splash fresh squeezed lime for freshness, if you also find blue-colored things can have a strangely artificial taste.
5 parts clear, fizzy soda pop

Oh, I got very elaborate with this presentation, using liquid white-out and a permanent black marker to rough in the call box windows and darken the edge of the lid. Instead of the call box light, I stuck a matching cocktail sword through the top with a piece of pineapple stuck on it. Any fruit would be good or even a gummy candy, but since the Tardis’s interior is always surprising, hide a treat in there.

You have now completed your trip, courtesy of the Phantom Tollbooth. We trust that everything has been satisfactory. . .It’s true that there are many lands you’ve still to visit (some of which are not even on the map) and wonderful things to see (that no one has yet imagined), but we’re quite sure that if you really want to, you’ll find a way to reach them all by yourself.

Clare Toohey helped found and now manages Her short stories have appeared in the Fresh Slices and Feeding Kate crime anthologies, and also edited the first issue of an upcoming e-collection called The Malfeasance Occasional (aka The M.O.). She’s a musician who can’t remember chords, an artist who buys greeting cards, an online wayfarer, and a friendly contrarian. She also blogs at and tweets @clare2e.


  1. Love it. Think I'll mix & match with the vodka and pom and coconut.

  2. Thanks for having Clare on Mystery Playground today, Deb! I must share this with my daughter, a huge Dr. Who fan. Clare, you truly are one of the most talented souls on this planet. An awesome post, written beautifully, with gorgeous accompanying photos (as usual on all counts). Terrific!

  3. Terrific post. So--the grandkids can read this, right? I've actually never heard of The Phantom Tollbooth but am going to look it up right now. This is why they say: so many books so little time.

  4. @Clare - thank you for such a great post with all of the photos.
    @Terrie - not only can your grandkids read this, THEY WILL LOVE IT.

  5. Ahh I love, love, love The Phantom Tollbooth! It was one of my very favorite childhood stories. I bought it for my daughter, and she just took it to camp with her today!

  6. Thanks everyone, for coming by! Such a fun feature idea from our fabulous hostess. *toasts her and all of you*

    P.S. Yes. The Phantom Tollbooth is that good a book.