Thursday, January 31, 2013

Books I'm Reading: Drink: A Social History of America (January 30, 2013)

While this is somewhat out of date now, having been published in 1999 (Carroll & Graf), it remains an interesting discussion of how the role of drinking--specifically the drinking of alcoholic beverages--has evolved in the United States during the past 200 years or so. Barr makes it plain that--as in so many things--the US is rather out of synch with many of its counterparts among the developed countries of Europe. Our attitude toward drink has been rather unusual from the outset--the result of peculiar circumstances and later the effects of prohibition. First, because of the difficulty of obtaining fresh, wholesome beers and light wines (as opposed to fortified wines) in early colonial times and the difficulty of storing these perishable items in a comparatively hot climate), American colonists early became dependent on rum and madeira, the former because it didn't spoil and was cheap and easy to make, the latter because it survived (and even improved) on long ocean journeys.

The heat of the southern colonies and the long distances between settlements in colonial times contributed to a reliance on rum and madeira rather than on the beers and ales favored in Britain or the unfortified wines common on the continent, both of which perished quickly without refrigeration. It was no help that despite the abundance of wild grapes in the United States (none of which made good wine), European grape varieties stubbornly refused to take hold in the New World, repeatedly falling victim to the vine diseases that attacked the native varieties (which have developed immunities European grape varieties lack).

As a result, Americans on the whole never developed a solid tradition of drinking light alcoholic beverages (beers and wines) with food, as an ordinary part of a leisurely meal. That tendency, exacerbated by prohibition (and the partial prohibition of alcohol to teens and into the early 20s that continues today) has left most Americans with a binge drinking mentality focused mostly on hard liquors that, ironically, was precisely what the original prohibitionists aimed to combat. I've long thought that college binge drinking and other abuses would be far less prevalent if we taught our children about responsible, pleasurable, moderate alcohol consumption from the early teen years. Barr makes this same argument cogently and with much evidence to back up his claims. Chock full of interesting detail about drink and our attitudes toward alcohol. Well worth a read. Recommended.  

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