Down the Hatch

Sing along, now: 288.6 billion gallons of beer on the wall, 288.6 billion gallons of beer. You take one down, you pass it around, 288,599,999,999 billion gallons of beer on the wall. And that’s just last year’s ingurgitation. We like beer, and a few of us must really do. Then there are nuts. Archaeologists tell us that nuts are a 7,000-year-old favorite of ours, which means we have been eating them forever; it’s just that the 450 million-year-old fossil of the first shelled nut remains elusive. We eat a lot of nuts every year — plenty more than 300 billion — many of them suspicious-looking characters.

Which brings up a couple topics to grapple with: Why? — pretty much in the case of nuts — and how in heaven’s name did we ever get from barley to beer in the first place, for A to Z is not what you would call intuitive. Nuts aren’t exactly up there with sea urchins and lobsters as truly adventurous eating, but who would imagine there is anything to eat inside a Brazil nut? There might be something to eat inside a rock, too, right? We probably simply copied other, more evolved species, like squirrels. When it came to the higher forms of chemistry necessitated by alcohol, evidently nothing was going to stop us. And don’t for a minute believe those archaeologists who claim it was the ancient Sumerians, or maybe the Egyptians, who fashioned a brewery 4,000 years ago. (Though, if true, a round of applause to the Sumerians, who brought us the wheel, writing, and beer, allowing Brendan Behan to describe himself as “a drinker with a writing problem.”) Yeasts have been making alcohol — and, you better believe, drinking it; yeasts are not stupid — since the earth cooled enough to support life.

There is a treasure trove of this good stuff in two new titles in the Reaktion Edible Series: Nuts: A Global History, by Ken Albala, and Beer: A Global History, by Gavin D. Smith. The books in the series — and there are many, including lobster but not yet urchin — are short, in the neighborhood of 120 to 150 pages, but with a nice heft and as lovely, qua books, as cut glass, with artwork and illustrations to match. There are recipes, but the “global history” of their subject is the meat of each book (the whole series, by and large, is terrific). Windiness is frowned upon; the writing is distilled but not without personality, ranging from a slice of Monty Python — “In the U.S. state of New Jersey, for example, the custom is to rub coconut oil on the human body before frying them in the sun” — to passages as colorful and riveting as the knowledge Jane Grigson brought to food writing.

Like the best histories, the books are stories, braiding the weird and curious aspects into a smooth narrative. It helps, for instance, to start with who belongs to the family of nuts under consideration, which Albala confines to specimens that are edible, crunchy, grow mostly on trees, and are surrounded by a hard shell. Exit sunflowers and pepitas, which are seeds; tiger nuts, which are tubers; and peanuts, which are legumes. Personally, the peanut is a nut, the Ur-nut, even if it grows as far from a tree as you can get. But mongongos get the nod, as do betels, kukuis, yehebs (a rare Somalian nut eaten by goats, which makes their meat superb, like pigs raised on mast), and pistachios, hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts (of which, Dioscorides [c. AD 40–90] tells us, “If eaten in great quantity they expel worms… And with onions, salt and honey, they are good for those bitten by dogs or men”), and a whole host of unfamiliar cousins, including coco de mer, an erotically suggestive native of the Seychelles. (Go try an image search on “coco de mer.”)

Smith, though a little drier than Albala and in contradistinction to Brendan B., still brings a fine measure of jump and fun to the history of beer, starting with some bon mots from Plato — “He was a wise man who invented beer,” though it was likely a woman, our proto-alewife. Why did beer gain in popularity? Why are there so many gallons of beer on the wall? Because the ingredients are cheap and available almost everywhere, there were many monks to guide the alewives through the process, and the drinking of straight water was in many ages and places only for those considering suicide. There is even a theory that we became agriculturalists, forsaking the freedom of the nomadic lifestyle, so that we could grow the grain to make beer. I like that; forget about the rise of cities and the specialist classes. Smith takes us through the sad tale of beer being transformed from a living thing to a mummified product — bland and one-dimensional for shelf life, for conformity — and beer’s gladdening reversal of fortune, thanks to the Campaign for Real Ale and the craft beer movement. He also takes us down the long road from malting cereal, arresting germination in a kiln, enzymes being given a chance to turn starch to sugar, grist being turned into wort — why not add some hops? — then introducing the yeast to do its magic on the sugar. If ancient alchemists never discovered how to turn base metals into gold, this was a feat of almost comparable significance.

So many signs and wonders. Except for the allergic, who doesn’t love a nut? Humble, neither aloof nor needy, earthy, bohemian, distinctive. There are bitter almonds, it is true, the black sheep of the almond clan, a handful of which contain enough cyanide to kill. But consider the range of hills in Nevada known as the Pine Nut Mountains, which give the Big Rock Candy Mountain a run as Elysium. There is Turkish delight and a dish made from pine nuts, capers, anchovies, a pinch of cinnamon, and a touch of vinegar. Fill your glass with Trappist ales, lambics, bocks and dunkels, Flanders sour brown, or the near-Pleistocene gueuze. Imagine the following exchange: “Hey, Joe. Why don’t we throw the swim bladders from some fish into the beer for clarity?” “Sounds like a plan, Henry!” It’s known as fining, and it worked. Smith does give us a moment’s pause: “President Benjamin Franklin believed that ‘beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,’ while his predecessor in office, Abraham Lincoln, opined: ‘I am a firm believer in the people…The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.’ ” As I said, signs and wonders; it’s good to know, however, that Ben and Plato were on the same page.
Then there are those summer nights when they come together: the crack of the bat and the great carpet of grass, the lights illuminating the field, the bag of warm peanuts and the cup of cold beer brought to you in your seat. Elysium.