Thursday, December 29, 2005

7 Drinks of Mankind: Tea

Joe Mooney Quartet, Tea for Two.
Blossom Dearie, Tea for Two.
Bud Powell, Tea for Two.
Bob Wills, Tea for Two.
Symphony Orchestra of Beijing, Picking Tea Leaves.
Alvin Ing, et al, Chrysanthemum Tea.
Manfred Mann, Trouble and Tea.
The Boswell Sisters, When I Take My Sugar to Tea.
Leon Redbone, When I Take My Sugar to Tea.
The Kinks, Afternoon Tea.
The Kinks, Have a Cuppa Tea.
The Police, Tea in the Sahara.
Shelby Lynne, Iced Tea.
Nirvana, Pennyroyal Tea.
Holy Modal Rounders, Tea Song.
Benny Goodman w/Jack Teagarden, Texas Tea Party.

A Prelude

"Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will immediately suggest to those who know their London, is a tea-shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed--which she seems to do on the slightest provocation--she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea-shop in the West-End, which she calls Ye Oak Leaf; Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye Snug Harbour, according to personal taste.

There, dressed in Tyrolese, Japanese, Norwegian, or some other exotic costume, she and her associates administer refreshments of an afternoon with a proud languor calculated to knock the nonsense out of the cheeriest customer...They rely for their effect on an insufficiency of light, an almost total lack of ventilation, a property chocolate cake which you are not supposed to cut, and the sad aloofness of their ministering angels. It is to be doubted whether there is anything in the world more damping to the spirit than a London tea-shop of this kind, unless it be another London tea-shop of the same kind.

Maud sat and waited. Somewhere out of sight a kettle bubbled in an undertone, like a whispering pessimist. Across the room two distressed gentlewomen in fancy dress leaned against the wall. They, too, were whispering. Their expressions suggested that they looked on life as low and wished they were well out of it, like the body upstairs. One assumed that there was a body upstairs. One cannot help it at these places. One's first thought on entering is that the lady assistant will approach one and ask in a hushed voice "Tea or chocolate? And would you care to view the remains?"

P.G. Wodehouse, A Damsel In Distress.

Have A Cuppa

Each drink is, in its own way, an embodiment of civilization, but tea drinking is civilization at its most refined and at its most removed--it is serenity in a cup, a few minutes of humbly brewed peace, satori achieved with the union of hot water and tea leaves.

Everything about tea is charged with ritual, from the intricacies of picking tea leaves and flowers to the formalized tea ceremonies of Japan, down to the steps one takes in the kitchen to make tea (waiting for the kettle to boil, steeping the teabag for a specific time). Tea is not to be gulped down but rather mulled over; it is passive.

There are fewer songs about tea than for most other drinks, at least in terms of Western popular music (there are allegedly hundreds of traditional Chinese and Japanese tea songs, hardly any of which I’ve heard). Is it because tea has an effete sensibility? There are few, if any, lusty odes to tea, nor any rowdy ones, and associating tea with rebellion or a wild night out seems ludicrous--rather, tea is part and parcel with the home. Tea songs are meant for quiet afternoons, for pensive hours. It's a private, privileged drink--the singer of "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" is trying to go for a higher-class girl, and so "I never take her where the gang goes". Instead, he's going to tea at the Ritz.

(Two servings of tea with sugar: the glorious Boswell sisters, in a fantastic, fantastic recording from 1931. On Shout Sisters Shout!. And Leon Redbone's version from 1991, on Sugar. The latter courtesy of the Rev. Frost, who has been providing songs for every one of these drinks.)

A confession: I do not really like tea that much, except when I’m sick with a sore throat, so perhaps subconsciously I associate tea drinking with being ill. But more likely, I think that one must at some point in life decide between tea and coffee, and many long years ago I became indentured to coffee. So, through no fault of its own, tea has always seemed to be an inadequate substitute.

The Choice

Coffee and tea represent two different modes of being. In the book The World of Caffeine (which has been an essential resource for this post, as well as for the coffee post), Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer survey the realm: Coffee drinking is associated with gossip, fevered activity, the workplace, public rooms and is often considered an unhealthy vice, while tea "is associated with the feminine and with the drawing room, quiet social interaction...the drink of the elite, the meditative, the temperate and the elderly."

Weinberg and Bealer even offer a chart, "The Duality of Coffee and Tea", and so I've taken their lead (about half the pairs are theirs, the rest mine. Add your own in the comments.)

Coffee v. Tea

Discord v. Harmony
Casual v. Formal
Obvious v. Subtle
The Frontier v. the Kitchen
Diner v. Hotel
Libertarian v. Statist
Fox v. Hedgehog
Mondays v. Sundays
Earthy v. Wispy
Mornings v. Afternoons
Warner Bros. v. Disney
Sam Spade v. Sherlock Holmes
Captain Kirk v. Doctor Who
Bob Dylan v. Nick Drake
Beethoven v. Mozart
Swift v. Woolf

Tea for Two

"Sir Thomas resolutely declined all dinner: he would take nothing, nothing till tea came—-he would rather wait for tea. Still Mrs. Norris was at intervals urging something different; and in the most interesting moment of his passage to England, when the alarm of a French privateer was at the height, she burst through his recital with the proposal of soup. “Sure, my dear Sir Thomas, a basin of soup would be a much better thing for you than tea. Do have a basin of soup.”

Sir Thomas could not be provoked. “Still the same anxiety for everybody’s comfort, my dear Mrs. Norris,” was his answer. “But indeed I would rather have nothing but tea.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park.

While there are few tea songs, there is one perennial in the small bunch. "Tea for Two", written for the Broadway show No No Nanette in 1925 by Vincent Youmans (music) and Irving Caesar (lyrics), soon became a jazz standard, mastered by seemingly any musician of note in the following 80 years.

The song came out of desperation--Harry Frazee, the impresario best known for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, was trying to rescue his show "No No Nanette", which had flopped miserably in Detroit during its preliminary run. Frazee, by all accounts a drunken brute, demanded that his songwriters come up with show-stoppers to grab the audience's ear, and Youmans and Caesar pounded out "Tea for Two."

Here are a few different brews:

Blossom Dearie's recording, from 1958, is a wistful, dreamy take on the song, sung marvelously. On Once Upon a Summertime.

Probably my favorite version is by the Joe Mooney Quartet, recorded at the tail end of 1946. Mooney's "Tea" is a hipster's reverie, with some funny improvised lyrics at the end about life in the distant year 1983 (when the kids leave home at 3). The Mooney Quartet (Mooney, who sang and played accordion, Andy Fitzgerald (clarinet), Jack Hotop (g) and Gate Frega (b)) played together only from 1945 to 1948. You can find it on Do You Long for Oolong?

In Bud Powell's assault, Bud discards Youmans' melody after the intro, though it turns up, ghost-like, in some of his bass figures. This is take 10, one of three complete takes recorded by Powell in 1950. "'Tea for Two' represents the demonic Powell," as Gary Giddins wrote--the performance is a maelstrom of sound. From the apparently out-of-print? (what gives, Verve?) Genius of Bud Powell.

And Bob Wills' version--well, come on, it's Bob Wills. It smokes. Recorded live (for a radio broadcast) in 1947, on the out-of-print Tiffany Transcriptions No. 7.

Brew of heaven

"The first cup moistens my lips and throat; the second cup breaks my loneliness; the third cup searches my barren entrails but to find therein some thousand volumes of odd ideographs; the fourth cup raises a slight perspiration--all the wrongs of life pass out through my pores; at the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup--ah, but I could take no more!"

Lu Tong, History of Tea.

Shen Nung, the second of the legendary founding emperors of China (2737 BC-2697 BC), who invented the plow and the concept of husbandry, who named the plants and discovered their many curative powers by eating them (until one killed him), also by happenstance discovered tea.

Shen, walking along at the height of a hot day, sat down in the shade of a tea bush and decided to build a fire and boil some water to drink. As Shen cracked off some branches of the nearby bush, a breeze of destiny blew some of the tea leaves into his pot. After drinking from what had become the first teapot in history, Shen felt both refreshed and a bit high.

Once again, the myth falls a bit far from the likely truth. In fact, historians now believe the Chinese did not discover tea at all, but rather learned about it from either denizens of what is now northern India or various aboriginal tribesmen living throughout Southeast Asia, both of whom had long traditions of chewing and brewing tea leaves.

Yet it was China that became tea's homeland. By the time of Lao Tzu (600-517 BC), the founder of Taoism, tea had become an all-purpose drink, a means to improve health, treat guests and inspire thought.

In 780 AD, Chinese tea merchants hired the greatest Taoist poet, Lu Yu, to write a public relations brief on the benefits of tea, which would be like Maxwell House hiring W.B Yeats to tout coffee. Lu's three-volume work, called Ch’a Ching ("c’ha" being the Mandarin word for tea), is an extravagant exploration of tea in all its varieties and forms.

For example, here is Lu Yu on the texture and look of tea:

Tea may shrink and crinkle like a Mongol's boots, or it may look like a dewlap of a wild ox, some sharp, some curling as the eaves of the house. It can look like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they flow out from behind a mountain peak.

There were three distinct ages of tea in China– the brick age, when leaves were pounded into a brick-shaped mold which was then either chewed or boiled; the powder age (during the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279), in which tea was crushed to a powder, mixed with hot water and then whipped into a froth (it was an era whose sensibilities were so delicate that female tea pickers had to keep their fingernails a specified length, so that the leaves didn't touch their skin); and then finally the leaf age, in which tea leaves were cured and then steeped in hot water, a method that began during the Ming Dynasty, @1300. It was via this method, the way most of the world enjoys tea today, that the West would discover the joys of tea, when shipments began to Europe during the 17th Century.

"Picking Tea Leaves", a symphonic adaptation of a Chinese folk song, is performed by the Symphony Orchestra of Beijing Conservatory. Recorded in 1997, it can be found on a 12-disc compilation called Chinese Symphonic Century, found here. I found this track on iTunes--I can't vouch for the quality of the rest of the massive compilation, but "Picking Tea Leaves" is gorgeous.

The shine in your Japan, the sparkle of your China

Sometime in the 7th Century, Buddhist monks from China carried tea across the Sea of Japan to the island that would turn tea drinking into the one of the most elaborate rituals ever accomplished by human beings.

Tea, greatly popular with the Japanese people, was also steeped in the vicissitudes of the Japanese shogunate. Oda Nubonaga (1534-82) collected tea sets, haggling to get a prized set the night before his assassination. His successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was an avid tea lover who, during battles, would have his attendants erect a portable teahouse on the battlefield so that he could practice the tea ceremony in view of his opponents, to inspire fear in them. As a sign of the cultural divide between West and East, try to imagine Ulysses Grant or Dwight Eisenhower doing this.

still from Yasujiro Ozu's The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice.

"Chrysanthemum Tea" is from Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, a 1976 musical that is one of the pair's odder works. A dramatization of how American warships in the 1850s forcibly opened Japan to the joys of free trade, it originally was performed by an all-male Asian cast (thus, Alvin Ing plays the Shogun's mother, the primary singer in "Chrysanthemum Tea"). In "Chrysanthemum Tea", the Shogun's mother tries to rouse her son to the danger the American landing party poses for Japan, and when he seems oblivious or indifferent, she puts something deadly in his tea to solve the Shogun's indecision. Original cast recording here.

Another deadly brew: Manfred Mann's "Trouble and Tea", from 1966. On Chapter Two: The Best of the Fontana Years (i.e., the forgotten years between "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" and "Blinded by the Light").

"The Englishman's Proper Element"

"Dr. Daly. (with the tea-pot):

Pain, trouble, and care,
Misery, heart-ache, and worry,
Quick, out of your lair!
Get you all gone in a hurry!
Toil, sorrow, and plot,
Fly away quicker and quicker –
Three spoons to the pot –
That is the brew of your vicar!

None so cunning as he
At brewing a jorum of tea,
Ha! ha! ha! ha!
A pretty stiff jorum of tea.

W.S. Gilbert, The Sorcerer, 1877.

But it is perhaps the British, relative latecomers to tea drinking, who came to symbolize the practice most of all. While almost no one in Britain drank tea in 1700, nearly the entire country was doing so a century later. And by the Victorian era, the average resident of the British Isles (or any servant of the Empire in India, or Burma, or Suez) was drinking so much tea that they likely would have bled oolong.

One factor was that by 1750, the heyday of the coffehouse was over. The thugs, bookies, pimps and other disreputable sorts that had frequented taverns had at last discovered the coffeehouse was where the action was, and so had migrated. Coffeehouses, rather than being salons of the Age of Reason, had become shady, disreputable hovels.

And certainly no place for women. But something else was. In 1717, a coffehouse proprietor named Thomas Twining opened a store designed to specifically sell tea, especially to women. Ladies could now go to a clean, respectable store and sip tea, or have their servants pick up tea there. By the 1730s, the first tea gardens (a British attempt to ape the Japanese custom) had opened; two decades later, foreigners noticed that even maidservants were drinking the stuff.

For one thing, tea was cheap, even for a wage slave in 18th Century London. And increasingly fashionable, especially when the Duchess of Bedford (according to legend or history), feeling hungry and slothful around four in the afternoon, created the concept of having afternoon tea in the 1840s.

The two paintings above are by Mary Cassatt, and show how ingrained and ritualized tea drinking had become by the end of the 19th Century. From the grand tea gardens of Vauxhall to the working class tea break, tea drinking had come to define an entire people's sensibilities.

"And all these meet at levees;—
Dinners convivial and political;—
Suppers of epic poets;—teas,
Where small talk dies in agonies

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Peter Bell the Third.

The Kinks, perhaps the most English of English bands, have two tea songs in their catalog. "Afternoon Tea" is sweet and wistful, almost dainty. From 1967's essential Something Else. And "Have a Cuppa Tea", from 1971's Muswell Hillbillies, is half Methodist sermon, half medicine show.

The Open Door

The need to secure a constant, cheap supply of tea, without incurring a massive trade deficit, became one of the ongoing goals of the UK government, leading to such measures as converting India (a country completely ruled by the UK by the 1860s) into the world's leading tea producer and such missteps as imposing the Tea Act in the American colonies, leading to the Boston Tea Party, the American Revolution (and, arguably, a change in American tastes to favor coffee over tea).

China got the worst of it. The problem was that the Chinese were not interested in trading tea for European goods, leading to massive trade imbalances. As the Mekons put it:

The English love for China tea
brought deficit to the economy.
What could we sell back?
Send in the army to deal some smack.

As Tom Standage writes, "an enormous semi-official drug-smuggling operation was established in order to improve Britain's unfavorable balance of payments with China." The drug was opium, grown in Bengal and shipped into China via Canton. And when the Chinese at last attempted to stop the practice, the result was the Opium War (1839-42), which completely shattered and humiliated China, left the country open to a century of Western, Russian and Japanese exploitations, and gave the British Hong Kong.

A late imperial take on tea is the Police's "Tea in the Sahara," on 1983's Synchronicity.

Lord Earl Grey poses for his encyclopaedia picture


"There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and the talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,' thought Alice; `only, as it's asleep, I suppose it doesn't mind.'

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!' they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There's plenty of room!' said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

`Have some wine,' the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don't see any wine,' she remarked.

`There isn't any,' said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it,' said Alice angrily.

`It wasn't very civil of you to sit down without being invited,' said the March Hare.

`I didn't know it was your table,' said Alice; `it's laid for a great many more than three.'

`Your hair wants cutting,' said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Before leaving London in the late 1990s, we decided to attempt a true afternoon tea. We picked what seemed an ideal place: a down-on-its-heels establishment in Bloomsbury that several tourist guides had credited for its classic Edwardian tea service.

We showed up at four, entered a stifling drawing room and sat in chairs whose cushions had been shaped to the contours of persons likely long dead, and after a twenty-minute wait were served tea and an assortment of small cakes, which upon contact with the tongue transformed into a thick, chalky paste, biscuits that seemed to have survived the Great War, and spongy cucumber sandwiches.

And then immediately upon our first sip of tea, a trio of dissolute people entered the tearoom. Two of them, who turned out to be Americans, had been drubbed into silence by a combination of jet lag and colossal drug use, and were being led, shuffling and bobbing like marionettes, to a couch nearby by their guide, a British man wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket.

"You're so funny," he told one of his friends, who looked like a stand-in for Lenny Kravitz, only without the money. Then he got on his cel and began telling some other poor soul about his friends. "They've just come from El Lay...yes, oh they're so funny. You're going to love them."

He appeared to be a man who could not bear to entertain a thought, so, after watching his friends sit comatose on the couch for a second, he took a long, commanding look at the drawing room. "This is about as exciting as watching paint peel, isn’t it. Like watching paint peel. I feel like a cadaver. A cah-dahhhhhhh-veh."

It all went to smash after that. The guy kept talking, louder and louder; one of his friends, at last roused to consciousness by his voice, stumbled off to the bathroom and nearly took out a tea table; our tea left a filmy aftertaste that remained for hours afterward; and last we got out after nearly tripping the waiter to get our check. Thus ended my tryst with tradition.


Unlike many drinks, tea has not changed much over the years, so a cup of Earl Grey tea today likely tastes similar to how it did in 1850. Standage writes that green tea was the first type of tea to reach European shores, but in the 18th Century, black tea (oolong) became far more popular. For the working class, cheaper varieties of tea were barely tea at all, but tea leaves mixed with all sorts of dicey substances.

Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea" is from 1993's In Utero. Pennyroyal tea, which is made from the pennyroyal herb that grows wild in Appalachia, has long been touted for its medicinal properties, but the late Kurt Cobain was referring to the tea's storied use as an abortifacient.

And Shelby Lynne's "Iced Tea" is from Suit Yourself, a record issued this year that was ignored by virtually everyone.

And it's no coincidence that tea has long been aligned with marijuana, whether serving as one of pot's many pseudonyms, or being used as a method of consuming it--the substances look pretty similar in leaf form, and a meditative tea drinking ceremony and sharing a good joint share more qualities than some might like to admit.

The Holy Modal Rounders' take on Michael Hurley's "Tea Song" is described by one of the Rounders, the inimitable Peter Stampfel, like so:

"the song is imbued with some kinda powerful mojo that just won't quit. Notice the chords--it's almost the classic rock & roll 4-chord progression--C/A minor/F/G. Only the last two chords are reversed--C/A minor/G/F. I've never seen another song that uses that haunting and obvious progression. Why not? Only the Shadow knows! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-hah!"

It's on 1999's Too Much Fun.

And go out with the swinging "Texas Tea Party", performed by Benny Goodman's band and sung by the mighty Jack Teagarden, who's wondering where his woman hid the reefer. From 1933, and found on Father of the Jazz Trombone.

Almost done with this never-ending series. One more oversized post, and then a much shorter epilogue. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

7 Drinks of Mankind: Coffee

Bob Dylan, One More Cup of Coffee.
Emmett Miller, You're the Cream in My Coffee.
The Boswell Sisters, Coffee in the Morning and Kisses in the Night.
Jaybird Coleman, Coffee Grinder Blues.
Serge Gainsbourg, Couleur Cafe.
J.S. Bach, "Ei, Wie Schmeckt" (from the Coffee Cantata).
The Ink Spots, Java Jive.
Tom T. Hall, Don't Forget the Coffee Billy Joe.
Lefty Frizzell, Cigarettes and Coffee Blues.
Lightnin' Hopkins, Coffee Blues.
Peggy Lee, Black Coffee.
Squeeze, Black Coffee in Bed.
Duke Ellington, Cafe au Lait.
MC Lyte, Cappuccino.
The White Stripes, One More Cup of Coffee.

A Prelude

"The coffee maker was almost ready to bubble. I turned the flame low and watched the water rise. It hung a little at the bottom of the glass tube. I turned the flame up just enough to get it over the hump and then turned it low again quickly. I stirred the coffee and covered it. I set my timer for three minutes. Very methodical guy, Marlowe. Nothing must interfere with his coffee technique. Not even a gun in the hands of a desperate character...

I did a fast wash-up in the bathroom and the bell of the timer went just as I got back. I cut the flame and set the coffee maker on a straw mat on the table. Why did I go into such detail? Because the charged atmosphere made every little thing stand out as a performance, a movement distinct and vastly important. It was one of those hypersensitive moments when all your automatic movements, however long established, however habitual, become separate acts of will. You’re like a man learning to walk after polio. You take nothing for granted, absolutely nothing at all.

The coffee was all down and the air rushed in with its usual fuss and the coffee bubbled and then became quiet. I removed the top of the maker and set it on the drainboard in the socket of the cover.

I poured two cups and added a slug to his. "Black for you, Terry." I added two lumps of sugar and some cream to mine. I was coming out of it by now. I wasn’t conscious of how I opened the Frig and got the cream carton.

I sat down across from him. He hadn’t moved. He was propped in the corner of the nook, rigid. Then without warning his head came down on the table and he was sobbing...He lifted his head and saw the coffee and drank some slowly, not looking at me. “I didn’t shoot anybody,” he said."

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.

Enter Caffeine, Stage Left

All right, sober up. With the appearance of coffee, we make the great transition in the 7 Drinks of Mankind--crossing a continental divide of sorts, from evening to morning, from lassitude to promptness, downers to uppers, agreeable dullness to keen wit, sloppiness to precision, from play to work, Catholicism to Protestantism, classical to modern, from disgrace to propriety, from the loud joys of tavern to the serenity of the home kitchen.

Coffee is the blood of the modern world, the oil in its circulatory system. Without coffee, entire businesses ranging from coding to telemarketing to bond trading simply could not function. Nor could writing. A confession: the typical "Locust St" entry (not an elephantine monster like this one) is often the result of three strong cups of coffee taken in a 45-minute period.

Songs about coffee generally are not celebratory, but are often quotidian, focusing on simple pleasures. They are hymns of reconciliation, of quiet mornings, of bringing things back to order. Not to say they are celibate--some cap a long night's affair. Even the louche swinger in Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" apologetically tells his conquest in the last verse that he's out of milk and coffee.

The instruments of civilization

Coffee is the balm of recovery. Bob Dylan, by mid-1966, was a complete wreck, barely eating, living on pills and pyschedelics, until a happy motorcycle crash got Dylan off the hook for various obligations.

By the summer of 1967 Dylan had been renewed, living up in the country with his wife and growing family, free from immediate pressures, and writing reams of songs. Accounts of the period describe a typical day as Dylan taking his kids to school and then showing up at the house the Band was living in (Big Pink), brewing astonishingly strong coffee on the stove, and downing cup after cup while pounding out on a typewriter "The Mighty Quinn" and "I Shall Be Released" and "Sign on the Cross" and "This Wheel's on Fire", and the rest of the great Basement Tapes songs. When the Band would stumble out of bed in the afternoon, they'd record them.

Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee", Bob's gyspy fantasy, is from 1976's Desire.

The Wine of Arabia

Coffee is a relatively modern drink. While chewing coffee beans likely provided people in Eastern Africa with simple caffeine highs for millennia, no one in the classical world knew of the substance. And while the Arabs make a few scattered references to coffee around the year 1100, coffee drinking really comes into fruition much later, around 1500.

There is a myth of origins, of course. This time, it's happy Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherd who, according to legend, noticed that when his goats ate the crimson berries of the wild coffee bush, they acted jumpy. So Kaldi, being an inquisitive sort of goatherd, eats the beans himself and feels a sense of exaltion. He runs to the local imam, who, disapproving, throws the berries into the fire. The smell of the roasting beans captivates everyone around the fire (including, apparently, the stern holy man), and so someone scoops up the burned berries, mixes them in water, and drinks the first cup of coffee in history.

This is likely complete nonsense, but it reflects the likely fact that coffee drinking, or at least bean chewing, began in Africa somewhere (most likely Ethiopia), possibly in the 500-1000 AD period.

The first written reference to coffee comes around the turn of the 11th Century, in a copious medical reference book, Al-Ganum fit-Tebb (known generally as the Canon of Medicine), by the Islamic scholar Ibn Sina, who refers to something called "Buncham", a drink brewed from the "bunn" plant:

"It is hot and dry in the first fortifies the members, cleans the skin, and dries up the humidities that are under it, and gives an excellent smell to all the body."

Not too dissimlar from a Folger's ad from the last century. Weirdly, however, while coffee was apparently known about around 1100, it doesn't become popular for centuries more. Europeans and Muslims regularly encountered each other (often at opposing sides of a crusade) during that time, but no Europeans mentioned coffee, and for that matter, neither did the Muslims of the period.

Coffee's true breeding ground would be Sufi monasteries located in today's Yemen. By the 14th Century, juice of the "bunn" plant, now called qahwah by Muslims, was being used by Sufi mystics to keep themselves awake during all-night chants. Likely at some earlier point in time, Ethiopian coffee beans had been transplanted to Yemen, which is right across the Red Sea.

And then, at last and all at once, coffee drinking begins to explode. By 1510, Muslims in Cairo and Mecca are drinking it; by 1550, it reached Constantinople. And it is here, the gateway to Europe, where Westerners at last encounter what would be one of their fundamental drinks.

The First Coffee Drinker in England

It is an early morning in Balliol College, in Oxford. A few students are milling around the refectory, weakly gossiping or thumbing their eyes to ward off sleep. Then he arrives--the Greek who makes the strange drink. There's been talk about him--that he will only communicate in Ionic Greek, that he killed a man in Malta, that he is a Papist spy, or an informant for Archbishop Laud.

He is a slight man, with long crest of black hair; he keeps to himself, carrying in his hand a small cloth bag, from which, as he nears the open fire, he withdraws a palmful of grains. Some have seen him late at night making these "grounds", taking what appears to be some variety of cherries and mashing them to paste using a mortar and pestle from the apothecary. He pours the grains into a pot, to which he then adds a dose of water. He places the pot upon the fire, stirring it until it boils, which makes a most particular smell, and pours the steaming result into a metal flagon, which he drinks sullenly.

John Evelyn, who was at the college at this time, recorded the strange occurance in a diary entry in May 1637:

"There came in my time to the College one Nathaniel Conopios, out of Greece, sent into England, from Cyril, the patriarch of Constantinople… He was the first I ever saw drink Caffe, not heard of then in England, nor till many years after made a common entertainment all over the nation."

Conopios, who was born in Crete, had worked for the patriarch of Constantinople until his employer was strangled and Conopios fled for his life. Winding up in Oxford, he brought with him the knowledge of a drink the Turks had recently introduced to Constantinople. Soon afterward, Conopios was expelled from Oxford by mysterious "Parliamentary visitors" and is never heard from again. But less than twenty years later, the first coffehouse had opened in London--by 1700, there were thousands.

Around the same time as Conopios, Robert Burton, an Oxford don, made a reference to coffee in his massive, genius Anatomy of Melancholy:

"The Turks have a drink called coffa (for they use no wine), so named of a berry black as soot, and as bitter (like that black drink which was in use among the Lacedaemonians, and perhaps the same), which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suffer; they spend much time in those coffa-houses, which are somewhat like our alehouses or taverns, and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time..."

Coffeehouse plots

With the advent of the coffeehouse, something quite novel appeared. There is a fundamental difference between the bar and the coffeehouse: In the bar, one's focus is on drinking and relaxing, forgetting troubles, trying to find distractions--it is a place to get away from society through the means of fabricating an alternate, happier society--a commonality of drinkers.

In the coffeehouse, no one is getting drunk. They're getting agitated, hopped-up--they want to talk about things that bother them. Did you ever notice? The questions begin. Of what authority does the King cite in the matter? The President's an ass. And, adding fuel to the blaze, there are all sorts of things for these people to read now, and talk about, and angrily respond to: newsletters, pamphlets, essays, newspapers; acidic verses, allegories, lampoons; 10-point plans, jeremiads, manifestos.

"Here a Man, of my Temper, is in his Element; for if he cannot talk, he can still be more agreeable to his Company, as well as pleased in himself, in being only an Hearer," Richard Steele wrote of coffeehouses in Spectator 49, in April 1711, adding:

"I, who am at the Coffee-house at Six in a Morning, know that my Friend Beaver the Haberdasher has a Levy of more undissembled Friends and Admirers, than most of the Courtiers or Generals of Great-Britain. Every Man about him has, perhaps, a News-Paper in his Hand; but none can pretend to guess what Step will be taken in any one Court of Europe, till Mr. Beaver has thrown down his Pipe, and declares what Measures the Allies must enter into upon this new Posture of Affairs."

You could say that most of the major revolutions of the past 300 years emerged from coffeehouses--to milder varieties like the Glorious Revolution in England, to the French overthrow of the monarchy (Jules Michelet: "those who assembled in the Cafe de Procope saw, with penetrating glance, in the depths of their black drink, the illumination of the year of the revolution.")

Not all revolutions were as noble. Above is George Grosz's Kaffeehaus, a lithograph from 1917, depicting the type of petri dish out of which the Nazi Party germinated--coffeehouses full of disaffected war veterans, cranks, closet cases, crypto-monarchists, budding fascists.

Is it any wonder authorities kept trying to shut down the places? From Kha'ir Beg, the chief of police in Mecca, who saw coffeehouses as hotbeds of sedition, and shuttered them until the sultan of Cairo overruled him, to King Charles II, who in 1675, issued a royal decree "for the Suppression of Coffee Houses" ("the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons").

Even today, in your local Starbucks, is likely to be a frenzied man or woman typing at a laptop, utterly aggreived at life, government, society, and determined that things need to change.

Waiter, waiter, percolator!

By the 1720s, coffee drinking had become so established a phenomenon that even women were taking it. Naturally, the world was going to end.

Johann Sebastian Bach's Kaffee-Kantate (officially known as "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" BWV 211) is one of Bach's more enjoyable trifles. It was composed in 1734 as part of a series of "Ordinary Concerts" Bach wrote for a musical college in Leipzig (in which the first coffeehouse had opened in 1694). The storyline is that the bourgeois father, Schlendrian, is worried about his daughter Liesgen's scandalous coffee addiction.

The aria "Ei, wie schmeckt" is Liesgen's rebuttal, a rapturous ode to drinking java. (This recording is sung by Ann Monoyios.) The lyrics are:

Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
Coffee, Coffee muß ich haben,
Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
Ach, so schenkt mir Coffee ein!

My poor three-semester knowledge of German translates this as:

Mmm, how sweet the coffee tastes,
sweeter than a thousand kisses,
milder than Muscatel wine..
Coffee! Coffee! I must have it!
and when someone wants to give me a treat[?]
ach! pour me a coffee.

(any legitimate Germans reading, please correct this)

All ends well--Liesgen agrees to be wedded off and spare her father future scandals, but includes in her request to prospective suitors that she needs to brew coffee each day. A good recording of the Coffee Cantata is here.

From 1941, the Ink Spots' "Java Jive" is another, groovier take on coffee's sweet addiction. This track comes from a new contributor to the "7 Drinks" series--Jamie, from The Sound and Fury of Radio CRMW. Available here.

(I totally forgot to ask Kat, who would have perfect for this one!)

Cream in My Coffee

Enough history for a bit. Enjoy these odes to coffee-fueled romance.

Emmett Miller's "You're the Cream in My Coffee" is from 1929 and features Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Eddie Lang. Miller, the last of the blackface minstrels, was a lost link between the 19th and 20th Century musics, a prime inspiration for Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. From The Minstrel Man of Georgia, an essential (and appallingly out-of-print) compilation.

The Boswell Sisters were three beautiful, sassy, brilliant singers whose sound would be ripped off and cornified by the Andrews Sisters in the following decade, and, far, far worse, by the McGuire Sisters in the '50s. "Coffee in the Morning and Kisses in the Night," recorded in 1934, is on That's How Rhythm Was Born.

More coarsely, here's Jaybird Coleman's "Coffee Grinder Blues", from 1930, in which coffee grinding is a metaphor for..well, guess. On Alabama Blues.

And Serge Gainsbourg's "Couleur Cafe", from 1964, is a choice by the Rev. Frost. On Couleur Cafe.

The daily planet

"This is what I saw yesterday morning through the tall, old artist-windows of my apartment. The bright morning sky that day had a rare blue and white fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty. It is hard to set nature apart in the city, and everything, inside and out, takes on the frame of a relentless housekeeping. Someone has let the coffee boil over; on this floor it must be."

Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights.

One of coffee's gifts is that it provides constancy in an inconstant world. No matter where you are, where you wake up, in what condition you or your country is in, you can likely get a cup of coffee to start the day. Even if it's instant coffee. (Ugh.)

Tom T. Hall's "Don't Forget the Coffee" is from 1973's Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers.

"We must observe the amenities
even if we are going nuts.
So heat the coffee
and it is time
to get the lock changed."

James Schuyler.


"Coffee is a much more powerful stimulant than is believed. A strong man can live a long time and still drink two bottles of wine every day. The same man could not long support a like quantity of coffee; he would become imbecelic, or would die of consumption...It is a sacred duty for all the fathers and mothers of the world to forbid coffee to their children with great severity, if they do not wish to produce dried-up little monsters, stunted and old before they are twenty."

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.

more "Mr Coffee Nerves" adventures at Lileks.

Two takes on drinking too much coffee:

Lefty Frizzell's take on "Cigarettes and Coffee Blues" is from 1958 and can be found on Look What Thoughts Will Do.

And Lightnin' Hopkins' "Coffee Blues", from 1951, is on Blues Masters.

Cream or sugar?

"It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it'll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington."

Malcolm X, Message to the Grass Roots, 1963.

Do you like coffee straight or with sugar and/or cream? I've always taken it black (though a little cream once in a while is fine.) I've got nothing to say about the recent trend of alleged coffees from Starbucks that are more akin to milkshakes than actual java.

Two wistful songs about black coffee:

Peggy Lee's "Black Coffee" one of the tracks that revitalized her career in the early 1950s, is sultry and regretful. On Best of.

Squeeze's "Black Coffee in Bed" marks the end of another affair, with just memories and a stain on the singer's notebook as evidence. From 1982, and the the last of the great string of singles the band released over the course of five years. On 45s and Under.

And two with milk:

Duke Ellington's "Cafe au Lait" is from 1957's Such Sweet Thunder, one of Duke's more ambitious records (with tracks tied to Shakespearean themes and characters).

And MC Lyte's "Cappuccino", in which getting a mixed coffee proves a sobering experience. From 1989's Eyes on This.

"I'll have fried aiggs,' said the Virginian. 'Cooked both sides.'
'White wings!' sang the colonel through the hole. 'Let 'em fly up and down.'
'Coffee an' no milk,' said the Virginian.
'Draw one in the dark!' the colonel roared.
'And beefsteak, rare.'
'One slaughter in the pan, and let the blood drip!"

Owen Wister, The Virginian.

End of the pot

"The coffee had been steadily growing more and more execrable for the space of three weeks, till at last it had ceased to be coffee altogether and had assumed the nature of mere discolored water--so this person said. He said it was so weak that it was transparent an inch in depth around the edge of the cup.

As he approached the table one morning he saw the transparent edge--by means of his extraordinary vision long before he got to his seat. He went back and complained in a high-handed way to Capt. Duncan. He said the coffee was disgraceful. The Captain showed his. It seemed tolerably good. The incipient mutineer was more outraged than ever, then, at what he denounced as the partiality shown the captain's table over the other tables in the ship. He flourished back and got his cup and set it down triumphantly, and said:

'Just try that mixture once, Captain Duncan.'
He smelt it--tasted it--smiled benignantly--then said:
'It is inferior--for coffee--but it is pretty fair tea.'

The humbled mutineer smelt it, tasted it, and returned to his seat. He had made an egregious ass of himself before the whole ship. He did it no more. After that he took things as they came. That was me."

Mark Twain, the Innocents Abroad.

Tom Standage (whose book has inspired this series) notes that while the traditional Arabic method of preparing coffee requires bringing a mixture of ground beans and water to a boil three times in rapid succession, the Western method has produced far more adultered brews.

Originally, in England, coffee was taxed by the gallon, and so coffeehouse owners had to prepare coffee ahead of time to pay their duties, and then had to reheat the coffee for consumption. So basically, a traveller entering a classic English coffeehouse of 1670 would have tasted coffee that had been prepared possibly days earlier and reheated again and again--in short, it would have tasted unbearably nasty and would have required massive doses of sugar to get down.

"Perhaps the nearest modern equivalent," Standage writes, citing coffee expert Jeremy Torz, "is the coffee in an office percolator that has been left switched on for a day or two."

It reminds me of a former co-worker who prided herself on never washing her office coffee cup, whose insides, over the years, had become stained as black as tar. The office is never a good place for the light of heart, or of stomach.

Jack and Meg take five

So finish your cup with The White Stripes' take on Dylan, in which Jack White sings as if he expects he's not coming back from the valley below. From 1999, on White Stripes.

That's it until after Christmas, when we'll hopefully get through the remaining entries in this series faster than at our current pace. Enjoy your beer, wine, booze and coffee in great measure this Christmas--have a merry and safe holiday.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

7 Drinks of Mankind: Spirits

Wynonie Harris, Quiet Whiskey.
Jerry Lee Lewis, It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me).
Fats Domino, Whiskey Heaven.
Gene Simmons, Drinkin' Scotch.
The Modeps, Whiskey and Soda.
Norman Blake, Whiskey Deaf and Whiskey Blind.
Roscoe Holcomb, Moonshiner.
George Jones, White Lightning.
Blind Blake, Bootleg Rum Dum Blues.
Gwenn Foster and Clarence Ashley, Bay Rum Blues.
Bessie Smith, Me and My Gin.
Champion Jack Dupree, You've Been Drunk.
Nina Simone, Gin House Blues.
Snoop Dogg, Gin and Juice.
Tobin Sprout, Martini.
John Coltrane and Paul Quinichette, Vodka.
The Champs, Tequila.

A Prelude

"In Helena and Great Falls, we stayed at hotels, ordering gin from the bellboy to drink in our rooms. I like the gin quite well, mixed with lemon soda and ice. Nothing to write home about either, though on the drive up to Helena I had had an odd experience.

As usual, we had a bottle of moonshine with us when we started out and we passed it back and forth, as usual, while we drove along. The road was rough and once, when it was my turn, I spilled a few drops on my silk stockings. That night when we were changing for dinner I found little holes in my stockings everywhere the liquor had spattered. I showed them to the girls, who positively could not understand it...

We made jokes about it and kept the stockings for a trophy; yet the incident, so to speak, burned a hole in our minds. In Great Falls, Ruth suddenly decided that she did not like the looks of the bellboy who had brought us the gin. It tasted all right; it smelled all right; but Ruth remain suspicious...Ruth packed the bottle to take back to Madison Springs for analysis. It was wood alcohol, sure enough, Bob Berdan told us a few days later. If so, we should have been dead, since we had each had two or three ounces of it.

In fact, we felt no ill effects; perhaps the local moonshine had developed a tolerance in us – a tolerance not shared by my stockings. But the two incidents made us warier and tamer."

Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

Spirits, or When Drinking Gets Serious.

Distilling, the creation of spirits, is to beer and wine what calculus is to basic mathematics. Or to put it another way, but using another awkward math metaphor, spirits made drunkenness exponentially more powerful.

Songs about spirits--brandy, whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, tequila, and a few other deadlies--are plentiful, typically either celebrations of getting viciously, loopy drunk (like Wynonie Harris' "Quiet Whiskey") or miserable brown studies, dispirited and bleak. A song about gin or whiskey is meant to play quietly in the midst of someone's breakdown, or get blasted at a party where the cops are kicking in the door.

For the latter, here's a bit from the diary of Sussex merchant Thomas Turner, in the 1750s: "We continued drinking like horses and singing until many of us were very drunk, and then we went to dancing, and pulling wigs, caps and hats; and thus we continued in this manner, behaving more like mad people then they that profess the name of Christians."

Or listen to Wynonie Harris' "Quiet Whiskey", a swingin' morality tale about what happens when you take whiskey off the shelf. Both the Rev. Frost and Brian at Big Rock Candy Mountain selected this one. From 1953, and found here.

Waters of Life

Remember the drunk Sumerian farmer, our fictional beer pioneer? Let's trace his family lineage.

After almost 10,000 years, the farmer's descendants have spread throughout the Middle East, Asia and Europe. One, in 1480, is a grubby peasant living in the outskirts of Cologne.

Most of his life the peasant has lived on watery beer or, a few times at church or at weddings, some vinegary wine. Either way, while the drinks have been enough to rub away the rough edges of a typical day planting turnips, he's barely been drunk by modern standards. (The most that naturally fermented wine or beer can get is roughly 15% alcohol.)

Then news comes of a new, miracle drink--aqua vitae-- that can be obtained by a process called distilling. The one person in the peasant's village who can read obtains a pamphlet detailing the process. Some say diabolical monks have written it, or the French, or the Turks. Regardless, the directions are fairly simple, and soon, the educated man begin distilling stocks of small beer and spoiled communion wine.

Word about how to distill spreads around the village, until one night the peasant travels to a friend's crude hut to have a small cup of brannt wein, burned wine. Timidly, the peasant brings the cup up to his lips, and tastes--Blecch! Jesu! Like swallowing a hot canker. Another sip appears to ignite his lungs. Jesu! I can taste the smoke! Another apparently eats away his gums. He eventually faints, but since he often does this from hunger, no one pays him any mind.

The peasant passes away a few years later, found lying dead of hypothermia in his turnip plot. Before expiring, he recalls that evening as the pinnacle of his life.

So where did branntwein (brandy) come from? Take a step back.

Around the year 1000, there were many great civilizations in the world--the Sung Dynasty in China, the Heian era in Japan, the Mayans in Central America and the great pan-Islamic world, ranging from Al-Andalus (Spain) to Persia. Far back in line was the gruesome hellhole that was Western Europe--riven by endless petty wars, a technological and cultural backwater, routinely enduring famines, plagues, etc.

The Arabs, during this time, were experimenting with distilling, not really to see if they could get drunk faster (Islam, of course, forbids drinking alcohol) but to discover possible remedies. Distilling is basically vaporizing a liquid and then recondensing it, so as to separate a liquid into its constituent parts. Once considered near-miraculous, the process is now a staple endured by bored high school students (that is the fate of most things--Shakespeare, math, etc.)

The 8th Century Arab scholar Jabir ibn Hayyan, the world's first great chemist, routinely applied the distilling process to wine. Here's where things get interesting--when you heat wine, because alcohol has a lower boiling point, it turns to vapor before water does. And so if you then draw off this alcohol-rich vapor and condense it back into liquid, you get something far more alcoholic than wine. And if you keep re-vaporizing the wine and then re-condensing it--eventually you get some really good hootch.

As Europe began slowly reviving in the 12th and 13th centuries, the distilling process began making its way into cultural life, first as a miracle medicine, latterly as a way to get really, really drunk. By 1300, Arnald of Villanova, a French professor, was making grandoise claims for distilled wine, or, as it was called, aqua vitae--the water of life.

(A good chunk of this information comes from, of course, Tom Standage's A History of the World in Six Glasses, the inspiration for this series of posts.)

King: To-day it is our Pleasure to be drunk,
and this our Queen shall be as drunk as Us.

Queen: If the capacious Goblet overflow
with Arrack-Punch--'fore George! I'll see it out;
of Rum, or Brandy, I'll not taste a Drop.

King: Tho' Rack, in Punch, Eight Shillings be a Quart;
And Rum and Brandy be more than Six,
Rather than quarrel, you shall have your Will.

Henry Fielding, Tom Thumb, A Tragedy.

Uisge Beatha

The making of Exile on Main St., brought to you by whiskey and heroin.

"Bartender goes, gets the soda bottle. Squirt, squirt. A blast coming out of it. Whoops. The whiskey shot up the sides of the glass, splashing on the bar.

'Sorry sir.'
'It's a new bottle.'

Bartender puts away the bottle and comes back for the money. Stands embarassed in front of Dangerfield...the old men, sensing disaster, turning on their stools to watch.

'Two shillings.'...
'Half my whiskey is on the bar.'
'No trouble now.'
'Would you mind bringing me the bottle to replace the amount splashed in my face.'

J.P. Donleavy, The Gingerbread Man.

Whiskey, its name derived from the Gaelic uisge beatha (aqua vitae), is the classic spirit, at least in music. Lyrics devoted to either celebrating or cursing whiskey are innumerable, and that's just the country songs.

Whiskey (or whisky, depending on where it is distilled) is made by distilling grains, each type of grain leading to its own brand of whiskey (hence, rye whiskey, or malt whiskey (from 100% malted barley, etc.))

"There is nothing like whiskey in this world for presevering a man when he is dead...if you want to keep a dead man, put him in whiskey--if you want to kill a living man, put the whiskey into him."

Dr Guthrie, The Temperance Handbook.

"It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)", offered by the Rev. Frost, was recorded in 1990, one of the best Lewis recordings of recent times. It first appeared, of all places, on the soundtrack to Warren Beatty's ill-fated take on Dick Tracy. You can find it on Young Blood (now out of print, it seems, but still cheap.)

The Rev. passes on this bit of information he found (written around the time of recording) about the track:

"The producer, Andy Paley, wrote the song with Jerry Lee in mind more than a decade ago when he was a staff writer for Warner Publishing and Jerry Lee was one of the rulers of country radio. For reasons too obscure and random to recount, the song was not then presented to the Killer. Now Paley is supervising one element of the soundtrack for a film version of the Dick Tracy comic strip, following director and star Warren Beatty's directive that the movie's music should reflect his version of what Chicago radio might have sounded like in the 1930s.

"It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" fits into that niche; it's a pleasant, if not spectacular, trot along the pep side of Bob Wills-style western swing. The blame-the-booze-not-the-boozer lyrics of the song are not particularly convincing, but they do appear custom-made for Jerry Lee's latter-day recording persona. "Think about it," he often says between takes, more as an ominous general warning than as a reference to anything specific.

Fats Domino's "Whiskey Heaven", a Big Rock offering, is from another soundtrack--that of 1980's Any Which Way You Can, a biker movie with Clint Eastwood and an orangutan. "Whiskey Heaven" can be found on a number of odd, cut-rate compilations, like this one.

Angry, drunk Beatles (Scotch & Coke men, all), w/Jayne Mansfield, 1964.

Gene Simmons' "Drinkin' Scotch", a Rev. contribution, is from 1956 and can be found on That'll Flat Git It!

The Modeps' "Whiskey and Soda" is also offered by the Rev., who describes it like so:
"The Modeps, a Jamaican popular group in the late sixties (the song
was recorded in 1967), has the place jumping with "Whiskey and soda". What a bass line! And a smashing harrow between alto sax and hammond organ!
" I think this band is referred to as "The Mopeds" sometimes--anyone know what's up, besides dyslexia on someone's part? Find it here.

Mountain Dew

"'Wheyski' was our only drink, as it was on the three days following. We managed however to make a tolerable towdy of it."

Marquis de Chastelleux, Travels (in this case, to backcountry Virginia), 1782.

You could argue whiskey is the United States' national drink. After all, one of the first things that occurred after George Washington became president was the Whiskey Rebellion, essentially a multi-state riot inspired, among other things, by excessive taxes on whiskey. (Americans have their priorities.)

By the mid-1700s, the American backcountry drink of choice--at times, the only drink--was whiskey. And a specific type: Scotch whiskey--that distilled from barley--was replaced by bourbon (from corn or rye), due to a change in popular crops. Everyone drank whiskey in an area like Kentucky or western Virginia; even children were served it at dinner, with a little sugar to sweeten it.

David Hackett Fischer: "Appalachia's idea of a moderate drinker was the mountain man who limited himself to a single quart at a sitting, explaining that more 'might fly to my head'."

And because whiskey could travel well--requiring no cooling, and hence no chance of spoiling--it became the standard drink of the Western U.S. during the 19th Century. The copious amount of whiskey drinking on "Deadwood", for example, is if anything,understated.

Naturally, Prohibition in the 1920s proved a bust with most Americans, who simply turned to bootleggers for their whiskey when the stores could no longer sell it. Moonshining has a long, storied life in the South. Roscoe Holcomb's a cappella version of the traditional ballad "Moonshiner" (or "Moonshine Blues") is from 1961; it's on The High Lonesome Sound. (This version is likely the one Bob Dylan used as a reference for his own take on the song a year later--Dylan was familiar with Holcomb's records.)

In George Jones' "White Lightning", from 1959, home distilling is a Southern family tradition. On Best Of.

And Blind Blake, from 1928, sings about his new bootlegger, who might be trying to kill him. While the song is called "Bootleg Rum Dum Blues", it's mainly about whiskey, as far as I can tell. On All the Published Sides.

And finally, here is an American epitaph: "Whiskey, dope and women done made a wreck of me." Norman Blake's "Whiskey Deaf and Whiskey Blind," a wonderful song (one a few blogs have put up), is from 1999, on Far Away, Down a Georgia Farm.

The Devil Be Done for The Rest

On 25 October 1599, Sir Edward Kennel, commander-in-chief of the English navy, offered to his ships' companies a monster punch which he had prepared in a vast marble basin. For his concoction he used 80 casks of brandy, 1,300 pounds of Lisbon sugar, 5 pounds of nutmeg and 300 biscuits, plus a great cask of Malaga.

A platform had been constructed over the basin to shelter it from the rain, and the serving was done by a ship's boy who sailed on this sea of punch in a rosewood boat. To serve the 6,000 guests one ship's boy had to be replaced by another several times, each one finding himself intoxicated by the fumes from the lake of alcohol at the end of a quarter of an hour.

Larousse Gastronomique.

Of the spirits, rum has the most catastrophic history, entwined as it was with the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Standage's book goes into detail to explain the origins of rum, short for Rumbullion, which began being produced in Barbados in the 1620s. The great sugar plantations, worked by slaves imported from Africa, were getting underway, and planters soon found they could siphon off the foam produced by boiling sugar cane juice and then distill it to make what was first called Kill-Devil, until it earned the slang name Rumbullion, a South English phrase for a violent commotion (a typical result of too much Rumbullion drinking.)

Rum soon became the grease of the slave trade--given to new slaves to "season" them for their horrific work conditions, and when the New England states began distilling rum themselves, used as a method of payment by slave traders for African slavers. (It became the favored drinks of sailors (mixed with water and lime to make grog) and pirates as well.)

Rum's slave trade roots remained visible in the 20th Century, as rum makers continued to print wildly racist ads. Below, the first shows a weary white woman being served rum by her happy-as-punch menial; the second is a sort of treble-Sambo rum fiesta:

Here is Gwenn Foster and Clarence Ashley's "Bay Rum Blues," in which the singer blames rum for a whole host of missteps. Foster occasionally played with the Carolina Tar Heels, and then made a series of "blues" records for ARC with Ashley in the '30s before vanishing into obscurity. This recording, from 1933, is one of my favorite tracks--both funny and bleak, and featuring some amazing harp playing by Foster.

"Roosevelt was wet
and Hoover was dry
Gimme Bay Rum
and let Hoover by."

I'm not sure what exactly Ashley is referring to when he sings about "the railer's chain"--a chain gang? A job on a railway line? Here's one guess. On Harmonica Blues.

What Magnified Monsters Encircle Therein!

Is there a more malicious drink than gin? Of the spirits, it is the most pitiless. Gin drinking is often referred to in songs as being a sin, a solitary sin best practiced in the dark--it is chaos, bottled misery, a glass of weakness.

Much of this stigma comes from the gin epidemic in England during the 18th Century. Much like the US crack wave of the 1980s, gin was embraced by a desperate underclass and killed a good many of them, while newspaper writers and public officials talked about how dreadful it all was.

It began after William III banned French imports in the 1690s, including brandy (a very popular spirit), while encouraging domestic distilling of cheap products like corn and grains. Out of this turn of events emerged gin (whose name comes from genever, the Dutch name for the juniper berries used to flavor it). Cheap and deadly, it soon became the poor's drink of choice. Bemoaning the public drunkenness and social disaster that gin drinking caused, the ruling class attempted to ban gin several times, only to be met with riots.

The salient image that remains from this period is Hogarth's Gin Lane, in which a mother is so drunk on gin that her infant is tumbling out of her arms:

And while the gin craze had abated by the 1750s, gin was still loathed by moralists for years to come. Here is a word-picture poem that appeared in Punch in 1843, which begins "Gin! Gin! A glass of Gin! What magnified monsters encircle therein!" (click on image to enlarge):

A century of gin songs:

"Any bootlegger sure is a pal of mine." That said, Bessie Smith didn't drink gin ("Bessie would say anything sealed made her sick"). "Me and My Gin", from 1928, is on Complete Recordings Vol. 4.

Champion Jack Dupree's "You've Been Drunk" finds Jack's woman showing up in the morning, stinking drunk, with foul breath, and "hair all nappy". It's the gin again. From 1945 (thanks to Big Rock for this masterpiece). On Rum Cola Blues.

Nina Simone's brilliant "Gin House Blues" is from 1961. On the Colpix Years.

and Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice", from 1993. Pure hedonism, and a good chunk of misogyny too. On Doggystyle.


That said, gin remains a popular cocktail. Which do you prefer, a gin or vodka martini? Brian at Big Rock has a strong preference for gin martinis, to put it mildly. Let him explain:

"Anyway, Gin versus Vodka. It's real simple. There is no such thing as a Vodka Martini. If there is vodka involved, it's not a damn martini. A martini is gin, three olives, up. Dirty's ok, too, but you'll need to specify. One takes a bottle of vermouth, walks about five feet away from the martini glass, opens the bottle of vermouth, waves it in the general direction of the martini glass, then closes the bottle. Shaken or stirred is a matter of choice. That's a martini.

This vodka ridiculousness is a creation (conspiracy?) of the vodka bottling companies to sell more of their fruit and candy flavored bastardazations of vodka. There's nothing worse than a martini bar. You go in, and the menu of martini choices is a mile long, all containing flavored vodkas and other ridiculous concoctions. Nowhere on the menu do their fake martinis contain the slightest whiff of gin. These people are idiots, and the trendy morons who go to martini bars need to be locked away for crimes against alcohol.

Even bartenders have taken the bait. Every bar I go to, I ask the bartender what he would serve me if all I asked for a martini. Almost every response starts with, "Well, I'd ask you what kind of vodka you wanted in it." Shame. Shame Shame Shame on the once proud men and women representing the face and hands of our consumption.

I don't care if people want to drink fruity drink concoctions. That's their right. It's a good way to get sorority girls drunk. I know gin has fallen out of favour over the years (mother's milk 'n' all that). But just because it's in a martini glass, that does not make it a martini. If I poured orange juice into a beer stein, does that make it beer? You know the answer. If you know someone caught in the clutches of this evil vodka "martini" heresy, and intervention is in order. Make Dean Martin proud

Amen! Here's Odgen Nash, to further the point:

There is something about a Martini
a tingle most remarkably pleasant;
a yellow, a mellow Martini,
I wish that I had one at present.
There is something about a Martini,
Ere the dining and dancing begin,
and to tell you the truth,
it's not the vermouth--
I think that perhaps it's the gin.

That said, there is one strong advocate for the other side. James Bond's shaken-not-stirred martinis are vodka martinis (medium dry). Bond would not appreciate today's vodka martini, though, as often they are served with hardly any vermouth. In Live and Let Die, Solitaire attempts to make Bond's drink: "I hope I've made it right. Six to one sounds terribly strong."

Tobin Sprout (formerly of Guided by Voices) offers his instrumental take on martinis--found on 2003's Lost Planets and Phantom Voices. Get it on Luna Music or the regular corporate way.

Vodka and Tequila: the Antipodes

"Just fancy, they gave me drink, fed me! Such bread, it was exquisite! Délicieux! And the vodka, I never tasted any better. And they would not take a penny for anything. And they kept saying: ‘Excuse our homely ways.'

‘What should they take anything for? They were entertaining you, to be sure. Do you suppose they keep vodka for sale?’ said the soldier, succeeding at last in pulling the soaked boot off the blackened stocking.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

There is neither time nor space to really delve into other types of spirits, so let's just briefly touch on a pair of the most popular.

Vodka's central space in today's barroom is a far more recent development than you'd think--vodka was considered a strange indulgence of the Russians and Poles for centuries until the 1950s, when, at the height of the Cold War, ad executives decided to sell Americans on the drink of their alleged mortal enemies. It worked, partly because it fit the mood of the time--a flavorless, odorless spirit that could mix with all sorts of exotics.

From 1957, just when vodka was taking off, comes John Coltrane and Paul Quinichette's "Vodka". On Cattin' With...

First we had some whiskey,
then we drank some gin,
Then we drank tequila
and that's what did me in.

The Pogues, Boat Train.

And, of course, there's tequila, the longtime killer of college students and honeymooners venturing into Mexico. Made by distilling the agave plant, Tequila is a type of mezcal produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, deriving its name from a town there.

"Tequila", by the Champs from 1958, is the classic tequila song, but there are tons of others. Find Tequila on one of many, many cheap compilations.

We're about halfway through our series now. Thanks again to Tom Standage, to Thomas and Brian (once more), to the Faber Book of Drink, Drinkers and Drinking (a source for lots of the quotes used).


Scotch: Dunhills.
Gin: Gordon's.
Rum: None. Makes me ill.
Vodka: Smirnoff.
Tequila: See rum.

Next: Time to sober up, people.