Sign up for our free newsletter
Andrew Barr on the popularity of merlot, as opposed to cabernet sauvignon, among restaurant diners: “[Merlot] tastes less like a red wine. It is also easier to pronounce.”
Andrew Barr on American tastes in beer: “Anheuser-Busch is proud of its use of rice, which it insists contributes to the ‘snappiness’ of the beverage. Snappy, of course, is a euphemism for a beer that can be drunk quickly without bothering the taste buds too much on the way down….Beers as delicate and subtle as the best English bitters would simply not be noticed [by American taste buds].”
Andrew Barr on the semantics of drunk driving: “In this book the British term ‘drink-driving’ has been preferred to the American term ‘drunk driving.’ The latter is an emotionally charged term that implies that everyone convicted of drinking and driving is drunk, which is true only insofar as the drink-driving laws define a person who has broken them as being ipso facto drunk. Whether that person really is incapable of driving a motor vehicle is a completely different matter.”
Andrew Barr, you see, is British. His book, Drink: A Social History of America, is not a social history of America refracted through this country’s taste in beverages so much as it is a scholarly format in which to jeer at Americans’ ignorance of wines; “addiction” to air conditioning and palate-numbingly iced drinks; taste for weak, fizzy beer; and penchant for sanctimonious “neotemperance” frenzies, all of which debase the noble European art of knocking back a few. It is the rare social history, food book, or drink compendium that sparks jingoistic ire, but it is a bit rich to spend 400 pages being told that my people do not know what to drink (good stuff at the right temperature) or how to drink it (in moderation, kids and mothers-to-be welcome) or how to feel about it (insert worldly Gallic shrug here).
The trouble with Drink is that Barr is right in protesting the American trouble with drink, but he makes few ameliorating arguments taking into account the recent rise in gustatory consciousness, a process that is the opposite of what his first chapter calls “The Americanization of European Taste.” Americans are drinking better, smarter, and safer than ever, thanks to the globalization of the American table and the far-reaching power of the food-conscious yuppie—both influences pinpointed first in William Grimes’ wonderful little history of the cocktail, Straight Up or On the Rocks.
Barr’s book is also blind to the possibility that our atrocious drinking habits may have some resonance beyond merely being proof that we’re insensitive to fine potables. It is incontrovertibly true that moonshine is disgusting stuff, the ’40s produced a yardlong menu of revolting sticky cocktails like the Fluffy Ruffles, production of European-style beers was difficult to simulate with local flora and soil, ditto for decent viniculture, and publicly deploring the slightest alcohol consumption while privately getting swacked to the gills is an American tradition. But these are facts beyond judgment, and they say something larger about the culture and landscape that are like no other on Earth—who we are, how we see ourselves, and how drink has been a consistent presence playing ever-shifting roles in American life.
Drink consists of six long chapters flanked by an introduction (“Drink and Drugs”) and a conclusion (“Social Drinking”). Because of their length, the chapters’ focuses are vague and attenuated— “Drink and Sex” folds in the temperance movement, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition, because one led to another. (Again, it’s true that pesky, self-righteous women brought about Prohibition, but Barr’s infuriating attitude—try not to be hysterical, brutish Americans; I am merely relating the facts—induces a perverse patriotism in the reader.) Ramshackle organization leads to repetition. In “‘No Nation Is Drunken Where Wine Is Cheap,’” Barr slices to the thinnest the niceties of the Volstead Act’s proof allowances and returns to the subject of iced drinks, a Barr bugbear; “‘Stranger, You’ll Take Hash’” explains how Americans came to separate their food experience from their drink one, noting, “Considering the poor quality of the food, it is hardly surprising that people ate it so rapidly” (and in such small portions). In the same chapter, Barr then moves on to other crimes against cuisine, including fizzy white wines and microwaved meals. The footnotes are particularly frustrating—written, it seems, for the attention-deficient; nearly every page sports a little note clarifying, “This is discussed in the Introduction,” “This is discussed in the previous chapter,” “Drinking rituals are covered in the Conclusion,” or “This belief is discussed in Chapter 1.”
Ironically, Barr’s admonishments are most useful at their most strident, when he’s exposing idiotic “addiction culture” as a pathology itself. The introduction provides a deeply researched, totally convincing history of how Alcoholics Anonymous invented the concept of alcoholism as a disease, and it reveals that defining drinkers as patients does little to “cure” them. (A later chapter, “The Failure of Controls,” reprises this argument on a larger scale, indicting MADD, paranoid lawmakers, and American child-worship as well.) Barr treats this aspect of American life as a social phenomenon, pointing out that Draconian restrictions against ever drinking again spur rebellion-thirst, secrecy, and binge-drinking. It’s counterintuitive to think of drinking as a disease, since its outward manifestations are behavioral and controllable; one wonders what the cancer patient who does not choose to have his diseased cells replicate thinks of the drinker who claims that he couldn’t help ordering that Brandy Alexander. Barr sums up the central contradiction of disease theory succinctly: “Any alcoholic who seeks treatment is told that by drinking alcohol he sets off an irrepressible desire for the substance and that he must therefore agree as a condition of his treatment to abstain from drinking. Yet if he…abstains during treatment, he is disproving the theory that alcoholism is a disease that causes an inability to abstain from drinking.”
Drink is not a bad book, and despite the author’s superior tone and utter disorganization, it is not incorrect. But this massive compendium is less than the sum of its sources. Barr cites appalled Englishmen complaining about over-iced whiskey; Gerald Carson, in The Social History of Bourbon: An Unhurried Account of Our Star-Spangled American Drink, ties bourbon production into politics, statehood, war, social qualities like individualism and rebelliousness, and merchandising. Drink describes the conspicuous consumption of champagne in the 19th century in terms of Americans’ inability to enjoy it (“So great was the demand in the United States for champagne, so limited the area of France that could supply the genuine version, and so small was the knowledge of wines of the majority of people who demanded it…”); Andre L. Simon’s fabulous The History of Champagne celebrates American consumers, the “number of highly educated, much travelled, wealthy and cultured men and women of taste who know the difference between good, better and best, and who demand the best.” Betty Harper Fussell’s stoutly partisan The Story of Corn discusses moonshine production and the Whiskey Rebellion in a way that says more about America’s connection to its native grain than Barr’s positioning of industrial-alcohol-based shine as a Prohibition stablemate. Barnaby Conrad III’s Absinthe: History in a Bottle and The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic, along with Lowell Edmunds’ The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization, are specific-drink classics. Cathy Lucchetti’s Home on the Range: A Culinary History of the American West takes the reader out of the 19th-century taverns and into the homes of the men who frequented them. And anyone who gets so het up over cold drinks ought to read Elizabeth David’s Harvest of the Cold Months: A History of Ice and Ices. For every subject Barr touches upon as proof that Americans are coarse and undiscriminating, there’s a better book that tackles the same subject at appropriate length and with the attitude that this stuff is fascinating, fun, and as American as wine in a box. CP