The popular history of a humdrum object—that faddish genre in which the most boring items on your dining-room table (salt, cod, potatoes, bananas, chocolate) are revealed to be secret juggernauts of profound social change—has recently become so popular that it’s probably time for someone to write a popular history of it. If I were forced, I’d diagnose the trend as yet another symptom (like $4 gas or home foreclosures) of our current flavor of late-phase capitalism—a commercialism so far advanced we’ve begun transferring historical glories from our leaders (Napoleon, Churchill, Gandhi) to our products, so that we find ourselves surrounded by greatness in every aisle of Whole Foods. I’d also add, if forced, that the genre’s wild success seems to predict its own obsolescence: The conclusion that everything is integral to the history of everything is perilously close, in the end, to no conclusion at all.
True to form, Iain Gately’s new book, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, posits its subject as the lifeblood of the world. Booze has presided over executions and business deals and marriages and births. It inspired the ancient Greeks to invent not only democracy but comedy and tragedy. It helped goad America’s Founding Fathers into revolution.
Good popular history requires a paradoxical skill set: on one hand, the centrifugal instinct to roam widely for obscure details that would otherwise rot, neglected, in far corners of the archives; on the other, a centripetal impulse to radically compress those rescued details for an audience that might well have forgotten the basic outlines of WWII. Pop histories must be simultaneously comprehensive and concise, expansive and abridged, deep and shallow. Gately is, by every indication, a prodigious hoarder—Drink runs to 500 pages of closely printed text; it quotes “Gilgamesh” and Beowulf and Ogden Nash, as well as government studies of binge drinking and academic tracts on ancient viticulture. But he seems to lack the ruthlessness necessary to streamline all of that detritus into a functional narrative. There are vast stretches of prohibitive dryness. The pace is erratic: One page will plunge into frustrating detail about minor colonial politics; another will skip briskly over the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the fall of feudalism. Most of all, for such a big book, Drink suffers from a shortage of big ideas. Its opening sentence—“Alcohol is a fundamental part of Western culture”—wouldn’t surprise the driest teetotaler or the wettest lush, and yet it’s as close as the book ever gets to a real thesis.
Still, as with other mildly disappointing kicks (boxed wine, Zima), it’s possible to have a very good time with Drink. A thorough distillation of Gately’s best anecdotes and tidbits would fill many entertaining pages. The star of the book is ethanol, alcohol’s “chemical soul”—a clear, sweet, volatile, nutritive liquid that’s produced naturally when yeast attacks fruit, and which inhibits our central nervous system in all kinds of entertaining (though occasionally fatal) ways. Gately doggedly traces its ancient roots, from a fermented concoction of rice, honey, grapes, and berries scraped out of a 9,000-year-old Chinese pot to Egyptian wine connoisseurs who rated their drinks by stacking up the word nfr, meaning good (the best was nfr nfr nfr). Alcoholic tastes, throughout history, are surprisingly diverse. The Greeks drank wine (mixed with water, spices, and honey) constantly, a tradition the Romans inherited and spread to the far corners of their empire. The barbarian tribes that eventually ruined Rome were binge beer drinkers. Huns drank fermented horse milk; Anglo-Saxons drank mead and ale. Aztecs liked fermented sap, but had a legal drinking age (52) higher than their average life expectancy—although every four years they’d hold a New Year’s festival called “Drunkenness of Children,” at which all citizens, including toddlers, were required to drink. Before Europeans arrived, many Native Americans didn’t even have a word for drunkenness. (The Anglo-Saxon word for “plastered,” if you should ever need it, is beordruncen.) For most of its history, alcohol has been considered as much a food as a recreational beverage. The pyramid builders got a daily ration of one and one-third gallons of beer. In medieval Europe, every child, parent, and grandparent “drank every day, and usually several times each day”; even monks were allowed up to eight pints. While Christianity adopted wine as a central holy symbol, the Koran banned liquor entirely—and yet it was Arab chemists who perfected the science of distillation, which produced a liquid they compared to mascara—in Arabic, al-koh’l. During Prohibition, American moonshine-makers didn’t have time to age their spirits, so they faked the effect by adding dead rats and rotten meat. A single louse from the species that decimated the vineyards of nineteenth-century France could “produce 25.6 billion descendants within eight months.” In sixteenth-century Japan, it was an insult to your host to stay sober, so guests who couldn’t drink would pretend to be drunk and even hungover “by sending thank-you letters deliberately late, written in shaky characters.” Elizabethan England had a pub for every 187 people. (By 2004, the country was down to one for every 529 people.) The Pilgrims’ Mayflower was actually “a claret ship from the Bordeaux wine trade,” and a group of settlers who came over to join them brought 20,000 gallons of beer and wine but only 3,000 gallons of water.
One of Drink’s most fascinating subplots, as it turns out, is humanity’s apparently universal contempt for water. In ancient Greece, water drinkers “were believed not only to lack passion but also to exude a noxious odor”; in post-WWI France, they were thought to be fat, weak, and pimply—hurtful prejudices that I, having once been publicly berated by an Irishwoman for ordering a pint of water at a pub, can confirm still exist today. In fact, such enduring hydrophobia might make for a good popular history of its own, if only we could get someone to write it.