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Very few liquors deserved so much attention in literature, painting, and poetry as did the absinthe, the favorite drink of the Parisian artistic community. Absinthe drinking involved an ever-fascinating ritual, best described in one of Marcel Pagnol’s novels (Le Temps des Secrets):

“The poet’s eye shone suddenly, and then, in a deep silence, began a kind of ceremony. He installed before him a glass, which was very big, after checking its cleanliness. He then took the bottle, uncorked it, smelled it, and poured an amber liquid with green reflections, whose dose he seemed to measure with suspicious attention, for, after examination and reflection, he added a few drops. He then took from the tray a kind of small silver shovel, which was narrow and long, and pierced with cut-outs in the shape of arabesques. He put this device, like a bridge, on the edges of the glass, and charged it with two lumps of sugar.


With a hand resting on her hip at the end of her gracefully rounded arm, the Infanta lifted the pitcher high enough, then with an infallible address, she dropped a very thin stream of fresh water on the sugar cubes, which began to fall apart slowly.


The poet, whose chin was almost touching the table, between his two hands laid flat, watched closely the operation. The Infanta’s jug was as motionless as a fountain, and Isabelle was no longer breathing. In the liquid, whose level was rising slowly, I saw forming a kind of milky haze, in twisted twists that eventually joined, while a penetrating scent of anise was refreshing my nostrils. ”

Absinthe was also called the Green Fairy as it was believed that it opened the door to a fairyland


The effect of absinthe varies from person to person but it can be described as mind and eye-sharpening.  Some consumers mention impressive dreams. The active ingredient in absinthe is a plant called wormwood.  The most persistent misunderstanding about wormwood is that it is a drug. Although not true, this vision of absinthe as a dangerous intoxicant and hallucinogen grew until the liquor got banned.

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)


Paintings of absinthe drinkers usually depict melancholy and resigned individuals:

The Absinthe Drinkers Au Café By Edgar Degas, 1876





The Absinthe Drinker by Pablo Picasso, 1901





Absinth Drinkers by Jean Béraud, 1908

Absinthe got popular under the Second Empire (1852-1870).  At the beginning, it was a fashionable drink for the wealthy. Around this time, it became normal to start the meal with an aperitif, and between the 1500 liquors available, absinthe accounted for 90% of aperitifs consumed.

A cozy middle-class moment with absinthe


The consumption of absinthe crested in the years 1880-1910, when its price fell and it became accessible to all, rivaling in popularity with wine. During this time, everyone drank absinthe, from  society ladies to workers. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 liters of wormwood, but in 1910 this figure reached 36,000,000 liters a year. By that time, absinthe was already a major French export. The French colonies were important markets, followed by South American countries like Argentina and Chile.

Posters condemning the consumption of absinthe began to appear. Even the dog shows his disrespect for this working class loser


Absinthe contained 75% alcohol and was not always sufficiently diluted with water. When it began replacing wine, the problems with drunkenness grew and so did the backlash against the liquor. Absinthe was blamed for a syndrome, called absinthism, characterized by hyper-nervosity, epileptic seizures, and hallucinations. According to the anti-absinthe activists, the drink even caused the painter van Gogh’s madness and his ear amputation. (Not true.)

The Green Hour
What we know as the Happy Hour was called the Green Hour because absinthe was the drink of choice. This poster shows the effects of absinthe on the working class (left) and on the better class (right)


Discussions followed discussions. Petitions were signed. The vise slowly tightened around absinthe. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a series of particularly brutal family murders for which absinthe was blamed – largely unjustly. Preceding the crime, the murderer drank not only two glasses of absinthe but also a mint cream, a cognac, six glasses of wine to water his lunch, another glass of wine after work, a cup of coffee with brandy, a liter of wine on the way back, then another coffee with brandy. Only absinthe was blamed for his murderous dementia.

Absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1905, in Switzerland in 1910, in the United States in 1912, and finally in France in 1915. It was resurrected in 1987 in former Czechoslovakia and is now available in other countries as well


There are two ways of serving absinthe: the meditative and the flamboyant. Both are depicted in this video:




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Apaches at Work

Encounter of the Apaches with the police on the Place de la Bastille

 

Tourist traps were not invented yesterday. The Parisians have got the hang of it very early on. One of the tourist attractions in the past was the glimpse of the redoubtable Apaches, the vicious gangs that terrorized Paris. (More about them in The Gangs of Paris.) Like other tourists, the American author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb followed this fashion of playing with the fire. We first came in contact with his caustic humor in Jacques Takes a Bath where he questions the local hygiene. In the following text, Cobb explores the Paris underground hoping for an adrenaline high in mingling with the Apaches:

Knowing from experience that every other American who lands in Paris will crave to observe the Apache while the Apache is in the act of Apaching round, the canny Parisians have provided a line of up-to-date Apache dens within easy walking distance of Montmartre; and hither the guides lead the round-eyed tourist and there introduce him to well-drilled, carefully made-up Apaches and Apachesses engaged in their customary sports and pastimes for as long as he is willing to pay out money for the privilege.

Being forewarned of this I naturally desired to see the genuine article. I took steps to achieve that end. Suitably chaperoned by a trio of transplanted Americans who knew a good bit about the Paris underworld I rode over miles of bumpy cobblestones until, about four o’clock in the morning, our taxicab turned into a dim back street opening off one of the big public markets and drew up in front of a grimy establishment rejoicing in the happy and well-chosen name of the Cave of the Innocents.

Alighting we passed through a small boozing ken, where a frowzy woman presided over a bar, serving drinks to smocked marketmen, and at the rear descended a steep flight of stone steps. At the foot of the stairs we came on two gendarmes who sat side by side on a wooden bench, having apparently nothing else to do except to caress their goatees and finger their swords. Whether the gendarmes were stationed here to keep the Apaches from preying on the marketmen or the marketmen preying on the Apaches I know not; but having subsequently purchased some fresh fruit in that selfsame market I should say now that if anybody about the premises needed police protection it was the Apaches. My money would be on the marketmen every time.

Beyond the couchant gendarmes we traversed a low, winding passage cut out of stone and so came at length to what seemingly had originally been a wine vault, hollowed out far down beneath the foundations of the building. The ceiling was so low that a tall man must stoop to avoid knocking his head off. The place was full of smells that crawled in a couple of hundred years before and had died without the benefit of clergy, and had remained there ever since. For its chief item of furniture the cavern had a wicked old piano, with its lid missing, so that its yellowed teeth showed in a perpetual snarl. I judged some of its important vital organs were missing too – after I heard it played. On the walls were inscribed such words as naughty little boys write on schoolhouse fences in this country, and more examples of this pleasing brand of literature were carved on the white oak benches and the rickety wooden stools. So much for the physical furbishing.

By rights—by all the hallowed rules and precedents of the American vaudeville stage!—the denizens of this cozy retreat in the bowels of the earth should have been wearing high-waisted baggy velvet trousers and drinking absinthe out of large flagons, and stabbing one another between the shoulder blades, and ever and anon, in the mystic mazes of dance, playing crack-the-whip with the necks and heels of their adoring lady friends; but such was not found to be the case. In all these essential and traditional regards the assembled Innocents were as poignantly disappointing as the costers of London had proved themselves.

According to all the printed information on the subject the London coster wears clothes covered up with pearl buttons and spends his time swapping ready repartee with his Donah or his Dinah. The costers I saw were barren of pearl buttons and silent of speech; and almost invariably they had left their Donahs at home. Similarly, these gentlemen habitués of the Cave of the Innocents wore few or no velvet pants, and guzzled none of the absinthe. Their favorite tipple appeared to be beer; and their female companions snuggled closely beside them.

apache 1

We stayed among them fully twenty minutes, but not a single person was stabbed while we were there. It must have been an off-night for stabbings. Still I judged them to have been genuine exhibits because here, for the first, last and only time in Paris, I found a shop where a stranger ready to spend a little money was not welcomed with vociferous enthusiasm. The paired-off cave-dwellers merely scowled on us as we scourged past them to a vacant bench in a far corner. […]

For the sake of the conventions I tried to feel apprehensive of grave peril. It was no use. I felt safe – not exactly comfortable, but perfectly safe. I could not even muster up a spasm of the spine when a member of our party leaned over and whispered in my ear that any one of these gentry roundabout us would cheerfully cut a man’s throat for twenty-five cents. I was surprised though at the moderation of the cost; this was the only cheap thing I had struck in Paris. It was cheaper even than the same job is supposed to be in the district round Chatham Square, on the East Side of New York, where the credulous stranger so frequently is told that he can have a plain murder done for five dollars – or a fancy murder with trimmings, for ten; rate card covering other jobs on application. In America, however, it has been my misfortune that I did not have the right amount handy; and here in Paris I was handicapped by my inability to make change correctly. By now I would not have trusted anyone in Paris to make change for me – not even an Apache. I was sorry for this, for at a quarter a head I should have been glad to engage a troupe of Apaches to kill me about two dollars’ worth of cabdrivers and waiters. For one of the waiters at our hotel I would have been willing to pay as much as fifty cents, provided they killed him very slowly. Because of the reasons named, however, I had to come away without making any deal, and I have always regretted it.

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English and American visitors to France marveled at the quantities of alcohol consumed in public places and the lack of visible consequences. Here are some personal observations written between 1870 and the end of the century:

“The extreme instances of French sociable habits in their full development are the men, who, on getting up in the morning, go straight to a café for a glass of white wine, which means half a bottle, or sometimes a bottle. Whilst drinking this, or immediately after, they smoke one or two pipes or cigars. The conversation lasts some time, they take a little turn, or if they have anything to do before déjeuner, perhaps they may decide to do it. It is possible (we are supposing an extreme case) that absinthe may be considered needful to prepare the system for the work of digestion, which is a reason for returning to the café.

The déjeuner itself is a great gastronomical piece of business, if the man is an epicure; and during the course of it he will drink his bottle of wine. Then he will return to the café for his cup of coffee and little glass of pure cognac. After that he smokes, talks, lounges, does a little business of some kind, is surprised to find that it is already four o’clock to meet his friends at the café again to drink beer, or absinthe, or bitters. Dinner comes next, and during dinner, another bottle of wine is absorbed. After that meal, our friend returns to the café, and talks, or plays billiards, cards, or dominoes till eleven, smoking most of the time and drinking Strasburg beer.

We will leave out of consideration for the present the gastronomical part of such an existence, which is not the least anxiously cared for. The reader perceives that the habits just described keep a man in a state of perpetual alcoholic stimulus. One drink has not exhausted its effect before it is succeeded by another, and this from eight or nine in the morning till eleven o’clock at night. A series of small customs have so arranged themselves as a tradition from other bonvivants who have gone before, that by simple conformity to these a man may be constantly alcoholized.

The reader is not to suppose for a moment that such a Frenchman as I am now describing, is ever drunk, in any degree perceptible to other people. He has always so perfectly the control of his reason that it even becomes doubtful whether he feels any pleasure from his drinking. Perhaps he feels no other sensations than those of the normal physical life, but the white wine, absinthe, red wine, coffee, cognac, beer, bitters, red wine again, beer again till bed-time, have become necessary to prevent him from sinking into mental dejection or physical prostration. The effect upon health, provided only that the slave of these habits does not smoke incessantly, and does not take absinthe more than once a day, is imperceptible in strong men for many years, and at the worst only seems to necessitate an annual trip to take some kind of waters.”  Philip Gilbert Hamerton

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“Intoxication is almost unknown in the better cafés; their patrons may sear their oesophagi with hot chartreuse, derange the nerves with absinthe, stimulate themselves hourly with their little cups of black coffee and brandy; but they never get drunk. Frenchmen are temperate, even in their intemperance. An English gin-mill and probably an American bar causes more drunkenness than a dozen French cafés.”  George H. Heffner

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 “One may, in fact, pass a whole year in a large French city, even in Paris itself, and still not witness a single case of insobriety.” The Cunard Souvenir Guide

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