The Joy of Drinkingby Barbara Holland
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With characteristic elegance and delicious wit, Barbara Holland, ("a national treasure,"-Philadelphia Inquirer) celebrates the age-old act of drinking in this gimlet-eyed survey of mans relationship with booze, since the joyful discovery, ten thousand years ago, of fermented fruits and grains. In this spirited paean to alcohol, two parts cultural history, one part personal meditation, Holland takes readers on a bacchanalian romp through the Fertile Crescent, the Mermaid Tavern, Plymouth Rock, and Capitol Hill and reveals, as Faulkner famously once said, how civilization indeed begins with fermentation. Filled with tasty tidbits about distillers, bootleggers, taverns, hangovers, and Alcoholics Anonymous, The Joy of Drinking is a fascinating portrait of the world of pleasures fermented and distilled.
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The Joy of Drinking
By Barbara Holland
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2007 Barbara Holland
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCivilization Begins
Quickly pass the social glass, Hence with idle sorrow! No delay-enjoy today, Think not of tomorrow! -Thomas Love Peacock
Here on my scruffy, untamed mountainside in northern Virginia, if you stand on the kitchen steps and pitch a rotten peach into the woods, in a few years you will have a fine peach tree. In years when May doesn't spring a sharp freeze and the squirrels don't, for reasons inscrutable, harvest the unripe crop, you will have more peaches than anyone can possibly eat or freeze.
It has always been so here. Long before, and during, and after Prohibition, my region was so famous for its peach brandy that the rich from all over the Northeast flocked here to stock up. Even the most industrious farmers learned early on that loading their carts with ripe peaches and trucking them to the market to sell at fluctuating unreliable prices while they bruised and rotted was no way to do business. Brandy was easy, portable, compact, and lasted pretty, much forever. And among congenial company, more fun than eating peaches.
Farther north, the colonials drank their apples. It was easy. In an abandoned orchard, apples unpicked on thetrees ferment themselves in the fall and possums climb up, get drunk, and fall down on their backs. Apples could be simply squeezed and the juice left around for a few days. Without modern preservatives, it turned into a two-fisted drink, but not a very respectable one; it was mostly for breakfast, not for dinner guests. Distilled, it turned into apple brandy, American cousin to Normandy's Calvados, the French workingman's eye-opener. Applejack was apple brandy distilled by freezing or simply mixed with straight alcohol.
The nostalgic notion of the family orchards is lovely-all that wholesome fresh fruit for our forebears to sit on the back steps biting into-but basically we were growing it to drink. So were people growing cashews, or sugarcane, or barley, or palms.
Some ten thousand years ago our ancestors gave up wandering around eating whatever came to hand and settled down to raise crops. Planting and harvesting was much more work than picking whatever they passed by, but incentives came with it. If you could stay in one place and cultivate fairly stable crops of peaches, rice, apples, berries, grapes, honey, potatoes, barley, wheat, milk, cactus, corn, sugarcane, coconuts, or practically any other organic substance, even if you didn't understand the science involved, it would presently ferment into a drink that made you forget your troubles and feel better about life.
William Faulkner, who knew a thing or two about it, observed that civilization begins with fermentation. For the record, fermentation is what happens when the glucose molecule is degraded to two molecules of the two-carbon alcohol known as ethanol, and to two molecules of carbon dioxide. It involved yeast, easily made by every husbandman and housewife from potato water and hops, or simply found naturally in various sources, as common as germs and everywhere, lurking on grapes, drifting into tubs of barley, settling on unpicked apples. Strictly speaking, yeasts are Saccharomycetaceae, or microscopic fungi. They feed on sugar, including the sugar in almost everything edible, and transform it into a drink with a punch.
The important thing was staying in one place instead of drifting, so things had time to ferment. The longer you waited, the more powerful the product, though some fruits, like mangoes, turned alcoholic almost as soon as they ripened, and even small birds passing by for a snack got too drunk to fly. And some fruits are just natural intoxicants; last year in South Carolina a flock of cedar waxwings came to grief after eating the holly berries in a downtown business park. The heady juice is irresistible and at least a hundred of them, flying drunk, crashed into a glass-paneled office building. Half of them died on impact.
In 2004 archaeologists dug up a batch of elegant, graceful jugs in the prehistoric village of Jiahu in China and found them to be between eight and nine thousand years old. Chemists inspected their contents: they'd been used for a wine made of rice, beeswax, and hawthorn fruits or wild grapes. Traces of similar brews had been found in the Middle East dating to around ten thousand years ago.
According to the evidence, their villages dated from the same time. Archaeological chemist Patrick McGovern observed, "The domestication of plants, construction of complex villages, and production of fermented drinks began at the same time in both regions."
Agriculture, drink, and social life walked in holding hands. We stopped living in mutually hostile family groups, scouring the brush for berries and beetles and throwing rocks at other families, and clustered together into tribes to grow and ferment crops. Having discovered conviviality, we moved our living quarters closer together and quit trying to kill each other on sight. Visited the neighbors. Shared a few drinks. Learned to work and play together. Had a few beers.
Beer has been called the cornerstone of civilization, though many claim honey's mead came first. Scholars speculate that a bowl of barley, first domesticated in the Near East, was left out and got wet, so the grain germinated and then was visited by airborne yeasts and foamed up, and somebody drank it and was pleased. That theory lays a lot of weight on a single bowl of Near Eastern barley. With no communication between peoples and areas, how did drinking spread so far so fast?
It seems almost like a supernatural inspiration, a blessing draped simultaneously over the peoples of the earth, and it seemed so to the ancients too, since before anyone understood yeast, natural fermentation was a glorious and often divine mystery. In Mexico the Aztecs drank pulque made from the agave plant, which graciously turned alcoholic just from being exposed to air. It was sacred. Getting drunk on it in a secular way was a capital crime, at least for the masses, while staying sober on it during religious ceremonies was equally illegal: The Aztec gods, particularly Tepoztecal, god of drunken merriment, had sent pulque as a miracle to the people and wanted to see it appreciated until everyone passed out cold.
In India today, followers of the thousand-year-old cannibal sect Aghori drink alcohol from a human skull in order to speak directly to the spirit and draw on its vast reserves of power and energy. Far away on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, the natives drink enough of the fearsome kava, brewed from roots, to see and pray to a long-gone white man called John Frum, invisible to all but the blind drunk. In Japan the Shinto o-miki ritual requires the priest to drink so much sake that he can call up the sacred forces and ask them for good luck.
Unlike, say, iron smelting, gunpowder, or venereal disease, drinking didn't need to be carried from place to place by traders and travelers from more sophisticated cultures. It came naturally, everywhere.
When the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, according to Kings I, she was much impressed by the sheer numbers of his cupbearers, who apparently paraded past him in a steady stream while he emptied each vessel, and verily, "all King Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold." It's unlikely he'd have gone to such expense just to fill them with orange juice.
In the thirteenth century Marco Polo set out on his Asian travels and wandered the area from Arabia to Vietnam for twenty-four years, closely observing the native customs, products, food, and drink. Especially drink. Some Muslims, he tells us, drink copious amounts of wine and soothe their consciences by boiling it a bit first and calling it something other than wine, making it religiously acceptable. In another area, though, Muslims drink their wine au naturel and lots of it. Polo finds it good but adds, "When it is drunk, however, by persons not accustomed to the beverage [perhaps himself?] it occasions an immediate flux; but upon their recovering from its first effects, it proves beneficial to them, and contributes to render them fat." On another trek near the Salt Hills of Thaikan, he finds an alarmingly bloodthirsty group of Muslims much given "to excess in drink, to which the excellence of their sweet wine encourages them."
According to the legend, the Prophet Mohammad was giving a dinner party for his followers from both Mecca and Medina, where everyone drank a sufficiency and one of the men from Mecca recited a rude poem about the tribe from Medina. A man of Medina, incensed, picked up a bone from the table and bashed the Meccan poet with it. The wound was slight but Mohammad was upset and asked Allah how to keep it from happening again. Allah answered, "Believers: Wine and games of chance, idols and divining arrows, are abominations devised by Satan. Avoid them, so that you may prosper. Satan seeks to stir up enmity and hatred among you by means of wine and gambling, and to keep you from the remembrance of Allah and from your prayers."
As with most rules, this was and is broken. Some authorities claim a good Muslim can drink all the wine he wants as long as he calls it medicine. The "Arabian Nights" puts it nicely: Wine, it says, "disperseth stone and gravel from the kidneys and strengtheneth the viscera and banisheth care, and moveth to generosity and preserveth health and digestion; it conserveth the body, expelleth disease from the joints, purifieth the frame of corrupt humors, engendereth cheerfulness, gladdeneth the heart of man and keepeth up the natural heat; it contracteth the bladder, enforceth the liver and removeth obstructions, reddeneth the cheeks, cleareth away maggots from the brain and deferreth gray hairs."
Hard to imagine a more sweeping commercial claim for any modern cure-all. The passage goes on, sadly, to say that "had not Allah (to whom be honour and glory!) forbidden it, there were not on the face of the earth aught fit to stand in its stead." It's easy to see where the author's heart lies, and he doesn't explain how, as a virtuous Muslim, he researched all those benefits.
I hear that today, in strict Islamic countries, drinks, being illegal, are so expensive that heavy drinking confers terrific social status, as during American Prohibition, proof of powerful connections and money to burn.
Several hundred years after Mohammed, coffee came to stand in for drink, and the gentlemen had an excuse to get away from the family by going to coffeehouses instead of taverns. However, there is little evidence that coffee is better than wine at quelling Islamic enmity and hatred as Allah promised.
Besides, alcohol is an Arabic word, al-kuhul.
Marco Polo continued on his travels. In Cathay he finds sake, "a sort of wine made from rice mixed with a variety of spices and drugs, so good and well-flavored that they do not wish for better. It is clear, bright, and pleasant to the taste, and being made very hot has the quality of inebriating sooner than any other." Polo did his homework.
In Samara he finds the palm wine "an excellent beverage," and so wholesome it's used to treat dropsy and complaints of the lungs and spleen. In Koulam he finds their local palm wine "extremely good, and inebriates faster than the wine from grapes." In Zanzibar he likes the rice wine too, and notes that the people give buckets of it to their elephants to inflame their courage before charging into battle, and in Muslim Aden he loves the liquor made from rice, sugar, and dates: "a delicious beverage."
There are various translations of Polo, and some have been cleaned up more than others. In R. E. Latham's version, on one of his northern journeys he finds a population much devoted to honey mead, and clubs of thirty to fifty men and women gather together to drink it all day.
Let me tell you something that happened on one occasion. A man and his wife were going home in the evening after one of these bouts, when the wife paused to relieve herself. The cold was so fierce that the hairs of her thighs froze on to the grass, so that she could not move for the pain and cried aloud. Her husband, reeling drunk and distressed by her plight, stooped down and began to breathe over her, hoping to melt the ice by the warmth of his breath. But, while he breathed, the moisture of his breath congealed so the hairs of his beard froze together with his wife's and he too was stuck there, unable to move for pare. Before they could leave the spot, other helpers had to come and break the ice.
(I don't think we're supposed to believe that this hardy northern wife had luxuriant long hairs on her thighs; surely he's speaking delicately of another area. It's also possible that someone was pulling Polo's leg. He believed many a strange and marvelous report.)
All over the world drinking arose spontaneously and joyfully, complete with merry ceremonies. Even today all around the arctic circle, where temperatures drop to 96 below, among the Eveny nomadic reindeer herders, whose traditions go back maybe eleven thousand years, the guest entering the tent must still placate the Fire God by splashing some vodka on the burning logs. In many primitive cultures the elders must drink themselves into a stupor, then wake to reveal the intentions of the gods and the plans of the enemies.
In Central Asia the nomadic Mongolians never stood still long enough to raise a crop. Their only available raw material was horses and lots of them, so in the absence of grapes, barley or honey they fermented mares' milk into airag. According to the online magazine Mongolia Today, it gets up only to 18 proof or so, so the trick is to drink lots of it: "Drinking too much airag, one may easily become drunken, especially given the fact that usually airag is served in huge bowls. Medical features of airag were proven long time ago. It clears any poison, especially the consequences of much fat consumed during long winter, strengthens the body. It contains many types of vitamins, organic and mineral elements. Airag is widely used for treatment of many diseases."
The magazine claims it's prepared in great vats and must be stirred, with family and visitors helping, a thousand times a day. Apparently, though, if you were on the move, the technique was to sew it up tightly into a horsehide and keep beating it, or just tie it to a trotting horse all day.
Marco Polo said it was fermented "in such a manner that it has the quality and flavor of white wine," but a more recent traveler reports that it tastes like vomit. Another said it reminded him of warm sake filtered through a dirty horsehair sock.
In the eighteenth century when Captain Cook arrived in Tahiti, the easy-going natives had been living happily on a small island thousands of ocean miles from anyone since time out of mind. They knew nothing about civilization except singing and dancing, and almost the only work they did was brewing up a native drink they called ava. They drank it out of coconut shells and were very merry.
In the nineteenth century the British explorer Capt. Sir Richard Burton plunged into Central Africa from the east coast and forged into uncharted areas where the people were so primitive he hesitated to call them "people." Nobody had ever stopped by to teach them, but they'd figured it out for themselves and drank a wine they called pombe, made from plantains, and it gave every satisfaction. According to Burton, they started drinking as soon as they got up in the morning and stayed pretty much drunk till they fell asleep again. Their revered tribal queen mother was almost never sober; he saw her get down on her knees and suck up the pombe from a trough. (Burton, a Victorian gentleman, was fairly disgusted, though his own ancestors probably had a beer or two.)
Excerpted from The Joy of Drinking by Barbara Holland Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Holland. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Barbara Holland is the author of fourteen previous books, including Gentlemens Blood, Hail to the Chiefs, and They Went Whistling, and has written for Smithsonian, Glamour, Playboy, the Utne Reader, Redbook, Seventeen, and the Washington Post, among many others. She lives in Virginias Blue Ridge Mountains.
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