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A high-octane, amusing and idiosyncratic history of alcohol
on May 1, 2007
Civilization, said William Faulkner, began with fermentation.
This makes sense. You'll sweat carrying even a few bushels of fresh fruit. But if you let that fruit ripen and ferment, you can fill a bottle with the liquid, walk over to a friend's house and have a party --- and if that isn't civilized, what is?
Barbara Holland, a widely praised essayist, returns with a short, idiosyncratic history of alcohol. Whether you drink or not, it's a fascinating book on an important subject --- maybe an all-important subject.
I'm kidding? Not so. The impulse to leave this reality behind is hard-wired in most of us. For Dr. Andrew Weil, the desire for intoxication begins when we're kids, spinning around and around and around until we're thoroughly dizzy. Later, we graduate to substances. But the deal's the same: We want to get high. Or, as Samuel Johnson put it, looking at the dark side of drink, "He who makes a beast of himself at least rids himself of the pain of being a man."
For most of Holland's book, the beast is hidden. What we find --- to our certain astonishment --- is the ubiquity of alcohol in daily life. She starts with the Bible, moves on to Marco Polo, and digresses to muse about all those centuries when the only amusement was socializing:
Along with occasionally promoting drunken brawls, alcohol encouraged a more tolerant interest in one's fellow man. Note that today vodka-soaked Russia doesn't produce murderous fanatics like those of caffeine-soaked Islamic societies. Drunk, the suicidal Russian kills only himself.
The book kicks in for me in the Middle Ages, with the rise of the tavern, the Starbucks of its time. Beer, sack, mead --- gee, it's fun just saying those words. But then came gin, powered by the juniper berry. And with that poisonous brew, which made men violent and women unreasonable, we see, for the first time, the power of drink to ride like an apocalyptic horseman through an entire social class, wiping lives out by the thousands. In the mid-1700s, London's streets were a sea of drunks; "little girls took up prostitution to support their habit." Gentlemen were spared the gin curse, but only because their daily consumption was "four to six bottles of port, drunk slowly in small glassfuls."
The New World was no more sober. Christmas in the Colonies lasted three weeks --- but who remembered? George Washington bought votes with liquor. Not long after, Thomas Jefferson worried about alcohol consumption and proposed that Americans drink wine, a drink few had tasted and fewer liked.
You know about Vin Mariani, the cocaine-laced wine endorsed by Pope Leo XIII. But did you know Presidents Grant and McKinley adored it? And Queen Victoria?
Prohibition led to the rise of the Martini, which merits a chapter all its own. "Fred Astaire in a glass," someone said of it. Winston Churchill, a brandy and champagne man, made his by pouring gin in a pitcher and nodding at a nearby bottle of vermouth. And so on....this drink inspires anecdotes.
Alcoholics Anonymous. Hangovers (which can, apparently, be cured by a product called Sob'r-K). The best recipe for a Bloody Mary. The water-and-fitness craze. Red wine for health. Barbara Holland dances over every alcohol-related topic and trend, sprinkling each with some amusing tidbit or wry observation.
And she ends? Where else? A barstool. In the midwest. With the guy on the next stool asking, "How's your mom?"
Fun to read. And, even more fun: a great gift.