Tuesday Night in San Francisco
Went to an absinthe tasting in San Franciso on Tuesday night. I am still not sure if the drink is legal in the United States or if what exists now is liquor or liqueur. No slotted spoon, no sugar cube and no water dripping on the sugar and into the drink a’la Ernest Hemingway. And so, there was no true vision of the green that the drink is supposed to be. My artist’s eyes were looking forward to seeing that.
It is just as well that I had no expectation of taste. I was surprised by absinthe’s strong anise flavor. It tasted like licorice. I hate licorice. Still, I was game and had two of the three servings allotted for the evening. By the third drink, however, when the serving had been elevated to a 74 percent alcohol level, I had had enough. I know my limit and so I stopped after drink number two (which was about a 35 to 45 percent alcohol level). No walking around the Mission District or getting on the BART drunk for me.
The Many Stories of Absinthe
Absinthe is rife with history and includes stories of art, agriculture (a la the Great French Wine Blight), the economics of supply and demand, medicinal elixirs, the French military in North Africa, European imperialism, the Belle Epoque period (the French counterpart of America’s Gilded Age), industrialization and urban sprawl, the beginning of women’s liberation/feminism, French and New Orleans cafe society, Social Darwinism, and the Prohibition/Temperance Movement(s). Artists too, feature prominently in the drink’s history. Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Verlaine, Picasso and Hemingway were all aficionados of the green fairy. Poet Oscar Wilde is said to have been a heavy drinker of absinthe but there is no real proof of this. Perhaps the only statement about absinthe that seems directly attributable and related to him is one he made to author Arthur Machen:
“I could never quite accustom myself to absinthe, but it suits my style so well.”
Far from being a heavy absinthe drinker, it seems that Wilde didn’t quite like this drink. Maybe like me, the infusion of anise which produces a licorice-like flavor wasn’t quite to his liking.
What is That Thing?
As a teenager I saw this Picasso sculpture in either New York or Philadelphia and thought that the sugar cube was a dice with too many numbers on each side. That was before I started reading the labels on museum walls. (Now I read them sometimes but only after I’ve seen the works, digested them and made of them what I want to make of them). I still say this looks like a dice in a spoon and it’s not a particularly good sculpture either. Maybe the only thing it has going for it is that it was created in 1914, which is the beginning of World War One. So historically, it is significant: This is the end of the Belle Epoch period, Bohemian Paris and the avant garde lifestyle enjoyed by many, including Picasso.
Blame the Drink
Absinthe has a bad reputation and has been blamed for madness, debauchery and even murder. Among the artists who were heavy absinthe drinkers, some veered toward insanity. Van Gough, Hemingway, and Verlaine all came from families with histories of mental illness: Verlaine drank himself to death and the other two committed suicide. Absinthe, with its incredibly high levels of alcohol (74 percent!) plus mental illness, plus alcoholism, all make for a deadly combination. But is the drink to blame for murder, madness and mayhem? I would say not. The trouble with the artists mentioned in this article is that they didn’t know their limit. They were incessant drinkers and probably all alcoholics. To blame the drink for these ills is tantamount to blaming violent video games and movies for the prevalence of gun violence in our society today.
***** ***** *****
The Yellow House
You can watch a free downloadable movie (based on a book by the same name) about Van Gogh’s and Gaugin’s time together in the South of France. There is also a short animated introduction to the movie here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGHwFn5xS5o.