10. Cafés and the Culture of Drink

10. Cafés and the Culture of Drink


Professor John Merriman:
So, the subject is drink and in particular drinking too
much. And I want to make a very
obvious point that drink and drinking, for better or for
worse, often for the latter,
is closely tied to the economy, political life,
culture, and social life,
sociability, of France, and that this has
always been the case as a wine producing country and a country
that, in the course–over the
centuries produced lots of other alcohol as well.
So, let’s get going on that. Here I’ve drawn on the work of
an old friend of mine, Susannah Barrows,
who studied aspects of this, and lots of other people as
well; and in addition some probably a
firsthand experience, not about drinking too much,
of course, but about living in France.
In 1934 the President of France, a quite forgettable
character called Albert Lebrun, said that wine “does not only
confer health and vigor to those people who are drinking it,
it has soothing properties that both ensure the rational
equilibrium of the organism and create a predisposition to
harmony among men; in addition it can be,
in difficult times, it can pour confidence and hope
into our hesitating hearts.” One of course thinks of
Pétain increasing the rum ration at Verdun in 1916 and the
regular rounds of doing shots before you went over the
trenches, the hesitating hearts soon dead
hearts. There has been in France,
a very long time from about the 1880s really into the early
’90s, 1990s, a denial of the problem of drinking.
This is not only France, Poland, of course,
which has even a higher rate of alcoholism–I spend a lot of
time in Poland these days, and it’s really kind of
amazing–and in Russia as well. But, because of the identity of
France and its national identity with products of quality,
with fine wines, with fine Bordeaux,
with fine Burgundy, this denial became rather
easier and the people who drank too much were not drinking fine
Burgundies and fine Bordeaux, nor are they today.
In 1875 Barrows discovered that the Grand Dictionnairen du XIXe
Siècle informed its readers that,
in quote, “in our country although drunkenness is not
unknown, it is far from having a character as repellent and as
nefarious as in England and as in America.”
Now, one of the reasons why a dictionary consulted by so many
zillions of people over the ages could throw out such a line is
because there’s been a close identification with people
drinking too much in, particularly the lower classes,
in Britain, with drinking hard liquor, gin–that is in Hogarth
and the prints–and not just getting wasted on beer.
And the United States, as Louis-Philippe himself found
out, the drink of choice was bourbon and various whiskies,
as in Scotland. So, wine seemed to be okay.
And in England where the Temperance Movement closely tied
to organized religion was terribly important,
and in the Scandinavian states, and in Germany the Temperance
Movement was but a small dike put up against the waves,
the hurricane like waves of drink.
Now, wine has always been produced in France for centuries
and centuries. There is a wine called Cornas,
c-o-r-n-a-s, that’s produced down here in
Ardèche, quite near the Rhône,
that’s a very dark costaud,
en français, a very hearty red wine that has
to be sat down for a long time, that one of the Roman poets
discussed in some Roman century, B.C.
century. In that particular region
people had to produce wine, most of it was bad wine,
in order to trade the wine for something to eat because the
region, that particular region, called the Vivarais–it doesn’t
matter–couldn’t produce very much at all because of the rocky
soil, and so they would trade their
rather bad wine for lentils, for example,
produced around Le Puy, higher up–it doesn’t matter,
the details don’t matter. So, wine had always been
produced. But wine was fairly expensive
and so people, as we’ll see in awhile,
began to drink other things. Bordeaux wines were well known
in England, and thus in Britain they refer to red wine as a
claret and the reason that Burgundy wines were not well
known in Britain is fairly easy, just look at a map.
Bordeaux, dangerous trips across–around France,
around Brittany, would end up wines arriving in
British ports; whereas, for example,
in Belgium when people drink great wines or very good wines
they tend to drink Burgundies because of the way the lay of
the land works. But what’s interesting about,
and what fits right into what we’re talking about,
is where people drank, because obviously the role of
the café is so fundamental in French
economic, political, social,
and cultural life. There’s just–any aspect you
think of modern France, particularly in the Third
Republic, is closely tied to that institution.
Impressionist painting, for example,
the role of café-concert where
you could go and be entertained as you drank,
is important in Impressionism; or paintings of the coast,
of the Normand coast by Morisseau and lots of other
people. Drink is totally prevalent,
and Degas and all of the other ones, there was just the
preoccupation with absinthe, for example–more about that in
awhile–which has just been made legal again,
within the last couple of years. Cafés are where deals
did used to get done and where deals still get done;
or, if you’re living in a large city, in a world of apartments,
people will tend, the first time they’ll invite
you will be to a café, often not to their own home.
But just as restaurants–which I’ll talk about at the end,
if there’s time–cafés themselves are relatively,
in French history, a recent phenomenon.
Even the word café, a café,
what is café? Well, café
is coffee, and it is with the arrival of coffees from the new
world that becomes the real rage,
the real hit of the eighteenth century and the emergence in
Britain of the coffeehouse where politics is done.
We use, and I use today, café to be a generic
place where one drinks, but in fact in the period that
we’re considering, at the end of the nineteenth
century, people were clever enough to
realize that–and aware of their surroundings enough–to know
that the cafés are where the wealthy people went,
on the big boulevards of Paris or on the Rue de la
République in Lyon, or in the fancy neighborhoods
of almost every large city, and ordinary people went to
drink in places where they did not often serve café
because it was so expensive, and if they did it was a fairly
rare thing because café was expensive;
drink, as we’ll see in awhile, cost absolutely nothing.
And even the names–I just picked a few,
six or seven, and nobody’s responsible for
this, except maybe the French people
would like to think about this–just kind of describe
where people go to drink. It varies from region to region
often, but let me just go through this briefly.
A café, well I’ve already said that,
and how they change because the days of the flipper
machine are all gone, the pinball machine and all
that, it just changes, and my God, now there’s
Starbucks–I have nothing against Starbucks,
do I?–I don’t know–but have arrived in Paris now,
and that’s as much of a shock and,
dare I say, blow as the arrival of McDonalds all those years
ago. But, anyway,
a cabaret, when you think of cabaret you think of the
cabaret, and you think of people dancing,
and you think of Berlin in the 1920s or something like that.
But a cabaret was a place where ordinary people went to drink,
that’s what a cabaret is. An estaminet is simply a word
for the same thing, but in the north of France an
estaminet you wouldn’t go to Agen,
you wouldn’t go to Marseille, and ask for the local
estaminet. A guinguette is
sort of a rural place that you would drink, and again I’m
thinking of Impressionist paintings that you might have
seen with the role of people going out there on Sunday,
both males, unattached males looking for unattached females
and families going out, along the Marne,
which in the 1920s and ’30s, outside of Paris,
was a real hot place to go–a guinguette was very
rural. A bouchon,
the word in French bouchon means a cork;
it also means a traffic jam, as a cork in a bottle is a
traffic jam, nobody can get through because it’s
bouchonné, or a wine can be
bouchonné, too.
But, anyway, a bouchon is a rural
drinking place, and when I think of
bouchon I think of a place where you go with your
friends and maybe play a little boule,
along side of that, and it’s sort of identity with
leisure but seeking the outside of the city,
to find some greenery on a Sunday.
And you think of Lyon, for example,
of the all the Lyonnais at the end of the nineteenth century
going across the Rhône River to a working-class
faubourg called La Guillotière,
and then going further out in these places like Brotot–it
doesn’t matter–but where it’s just full of places to drink.
Or chambrays, a chambray is a form of a place
of male sociability; women did not go there usually.
It was sort of a club where you drank essentially tax free booze
on the sly, and it’s more,
it’s identified particularly with a department called the
Var, v-a-r, which is– you don’t
have to remember, obviously, that–but which is
where Toulon is and Saint-Tropez.
And they were important because in the Second Republic,
that is 1848 to 1851, this is one of the places where
politics sort of came to very ordinary people.
So, but what you have is an expansion of these places that’s
simply phenomenal. And it’s hard to say–I guess
it’s more accurate to say that the expansion in the production
of wine helps generate the expansion of places to drink,
along with the expansion of the population itself.
Between 1840 and 1875 the amount of wine produced in
France doubled–now, this is the same time as the
population is stagnating–and in part this is because there are
better roads and there’s railways to carry wine that’s
produced to far off places. But regions that hadn’t
traditionally produced much wine, for example,
Corbières and Roussillon,
way down here, that is north of Perpignan,
around Perpignan and then north of Perpignan,
begin producing lots of wine; and Languedoc,
that is this region down here becomes a massive producer of
wine, that is around Montpellier and all that.
So, more and more people are dependent upon wine for getting
by. And, as a matter of fact,
there are lots of people who worked, who worked the fields
during the various harvests, are paid in wine as part of
their salary, as opposed–and have to take
those kinds of conditions. And then of course you can’t
carry a lot of wine with you, so you end up getting–drinking
a lot of it wherever you can. And then of course what comes
along, and this is part of these blows against the rural economy
in the Third Republic that helps also explain why the rural
population begins to depopulate, why rural France begins to
depopulate–remember two-thirds of the
départements have smaller populations in 1939 than
they did in 1871–is along comes the phylloxera disease here,
the phylloxera disease, which starts in the late 1870s.
And it comes after another disease, it doesn’t matter the
name, the pébrine which attacks the silkworm
production. So, it just devastates,
it devastates particularly this part of France.
But there isn’t any place that produced wine that isn’t
affected by the phylloxera. And Louis Pasteur,
a name of whom you’ve certainly–you’ve heard of Louis
Pasteur, he does a lot of his work
trying to study the origins of this wine blight as well as the
origins of the silkworm blight, that are these little–begin as
little taches, they’re little spots on the
silkworm; and phylloxera is basically a
disease that attacks the sap, that attacks the kind of roots
of–in the vineyards. And ironically what resolves
the problem is they started planting American roots,
plants, that are resistant to the phylloxera.
And somebody told me recently that California wine is now
facing phylloxera. I’d heard that.
I don’t know much about California wine.
But what this does is it just absolutely devastates wine
production in France. And one of the results is that
when the wine crops begin to bounce back, in the 1890s,
that many places that produced wine simply stopped producing
wine because it’s not rentable,
you can’t make any money on it. I’ll give you a couple of
examples. Brittany, it’s hard to imagine
wine being produced in Brittany, outside of a very ordinary wine
called Muscadet, a white wine,
right on the edge, and some just god-awful reds
also. But basically that all stops,
the production of wine up in the north stops,
wherever is possible, with the big exception
obviously of Champagne, here, and in other places the
production of wine is really cut back.
But this is a big blow to the rural economy and lots of people
abandon their fields, or they’re converted to other
things. But wine bounces back and takes
its place again as one of the real dynamic forces in modern
French life. But what’s incredible is that
the number of cafés continues to expand
exponentially. And this suggests–an obvious
point is that people drank more than just wine–more about that
in a minute. Let’s give you some
suggestions, some ideas, some figures.
1790, Paris only had 4,000 cabarets, 4,000 cabarets in a
town then of about 600,000 people, more or less.
In 1830 places that had licenses to serve alcohol in
France, 282,000 in France. Now, let me add one thing
though, having a license to sell alcohol, one of the things that
really basically no longer exists anymore but existed until
the 1960s was places where you did other things but you could
also buy a drink–well, I mean I still–I’ve been in
grocery stores that still are cafés,
or cafés that are converted into grocery stores as
well. But let me give you a ghoulish
example. I’ll talk later about
Oradour-sur-Glane, about the massacre there on the
10th of June, 1944, by the SS and where they
simply kill everybody in the village.
And when you go to this sacred site to see what they left
standing, which was everything–you’ll notice there
are all these places that were barbershops that were also
part-time drinking places. I had a barber,
my barber in Paris–I don’t go to the barber that much,
but he was kind of a buddy and he was on the Ile on Saint
Louis, and you had to get to him early
because if you got there late he’d already had five,
six, or seven, or maybe ten beers,
and you kind of look even more damaged than I do.
I tried to outfox him once. I made a rendezvous for 8:30 in
the morning, because he starts at nine, and I got there and he
was already– he’d been at that bar quite a long a time,
a bar that we called the Annex, because that was sort of the
annex of his shop. But, anyway,
when you see this horribly ghoulish place,
because of what happened there, and they left everything the
way it is, you see these part-time half grocery stores,
half drinking places, half barbershops,
half drinking places. A bougnat,
I can remember in the Marais, the center part of the Right
Bank, I can remember right down the
street from a place that we lived for a long time,
and not even that far from our apartment, the last
bougnat of the quarter and you bought coal there,
coal, and you bought drink there.
So, these places that are licensed to sell drink cover all
sorts of things, they’re not just your basic
café with the red sign or whatever,
the big flashing neon sign or the small ones you can barely
read; but the number is incredible.
Okay, 1865, this does not count places in Paris,
this is in France, a country that’s the size of
Montana, a little bigger,
slightly more populated of course.
1830 there are 282,000 in France;
1865 351,000; 1900 435,000;
and then they count Paris the first time the next year,
464,000; 1937 half a million places to
drink; and in 1953 a mere 439,000.
Now, this represents for every man, woman and child one bar for
every ninety-seven inhabitants, one place, a bar,
a generic bar for every ninety-seven inhabitants,
counting babies, counting old ladies who could
put them down too–maybe more about that in a minute–compared
to one for every 225 for Italy; one for every 273 for Germany;
and one for every 425 for England.
Now, also just an aside, I got to concentrate on going
ahead or I’ll just–every time I’ll go off on an aside,
but if you go to Alsace, you don’t find cafés in
the French sense, they’re really some of more
like wistubs, they’re sort of drinking places
and they look like German drinking places,
they’re more influenced by the culture there.
So, this is a huge number of places to drink.
But it’s also regionally specific.
Oh, here’s another good word for you, for those people,
in French, and I’m not trying to exclude the others at all,
but it’s just kind of fun to talk about.
This is more of–well it’s a Parisian but–I’ll go to my
zinc to have a drink–zinc means zinc,
like the metal, and because in a poor cabaret
or a poor bar it’s not copper or something like,
ladi-da like that–those were things like the Café
American and the sort of sense of luxury being associated in
the 1890s with the British and American world.
Mon zinc is my sort of grungy bar where I have my place
at the bar, which is, depending on how long you’ve
been there, will be near where the patronne,
where the woman working the cash register is.
We used to go to a place for ages, in fact that’s where I was
married, I was married here in, what’s that place,
Dwight Hall. And then we went–we had the
reception here and then we went to France and the café
that we’d been going to–I’d been going to for a very long
time closed the café and had a little reception for
us, right across from the National
Archives. And I’d been in there so long
that I moved up the ladder. So, when I went in there my
place was right next to the–no, I’m not saying I was drinking a
lot of stuff, I was just there for
conversation. You know me well enough already
to know that was the case. But there’s this sort of
hierarchy there that has to do with your association with that
particular place. And that was a very typical
place in that the couple were from Auvergne,
that is in central France, born in misery,
la misère, thirteen children–I mentioned
them before once–and twelve in the other case,
and they had got the money together because they had a
neighbor who had no children that loaned them the money to
get on the–kind of the equivalent of the Web in those
days, and to buy a café
from another person from Auvergne, and then they worked
there every day from five in the morning until nine at night.
Now they’re gone and it’s sort of a chic and ridiculous place.
But these places, these zincs were ones
that you had. And you never went to the one
across the street, never, never.
I would go to another place in the Marais and I used to
start–I started going there because Jean Jaurès went
there, and because Trotsky had been
there, and it was called La Tartine, and it’s still there,
and that’s a very different one because all the–now it’s also
become very chic, very bougie,
very ridiculous, and with the Bush dollar
unaffordable for almost anyone. Anyway, so, but it’s regionally
specific. In the Nord,
which you already know about, there was one bar for every
forty-six inhabitants. That’s amazing.
And you compare that to Elboeuf, which is a town in
Normandy, one for every sixty. Béziers,
way down in the south of France, which had a lower
alcoholism rate, by the way, Béziers,
there was one for every 120 people.
So, it tends to be very specific.
But again this is babies too, and of course everybody has
heard those horror stories about young mothers in the 1950s,
and the 1930s, and the 1890s,
their baby is crying all the time;
well, you get a little baguette, a little piece of
bread, and dip it in some brandy,
and stuff that bread in the baby’s mouth,
and there’s a smiling happy baby and they get some sleep.
Is that disastrous, or what? It’s absolutely terrible,
and they have to have these huge campaigns against all this.
But basically babies didn’t drink.
Older people did for sure. There’s this woman that used to
come into–even the terms of what they would drink.
You’d go down in the morning–I have my coffee before I go to
work at the Archives and really a coffee,
nothing else–and there’d be this rather elderly lady in
there, une mémère,
comme on dit en français,
and she would be tossing down a petite blancette,
which is a little glass of white wine, and she would call
the drink her gloria–now,
that’s mocking the church, because a gloria,
what you sing and what other people were singing in the Mass
I guess, gloria in excelsis dei
or whatever they sang, and she would have her gloria,
right there at her zinc, and she’d knock a couple of
those babies down and go off with her little shopping bag,
maybe lurching and trying to avoid the sixty-eight bus as it
roars by, and she was out of there. Again, I said,
I’m making fun of this a little bit but it’s sad because you’d
see all these people just blotto.
There was a guy at our bar called Jean, and he was kind of
a marginal guy, and he disappeared.
And, so, people in the bar–I wasn’t there then,
I was down working at another place–but people went out and
tried to find him, because he was on the Spree,
as you say–that’s a term that comes from Berlin,
I guess when soldiers would get all drunked up during the
occupation and they’d go on the Spree,
which was the river and get all–and drink way too much of
these spirits. So, how much did people drink?
It’s scary; it’s just scary.
If the consumption of wine per person, per baby,
per old lady, per you, per everybody–I hope
not per you–was in 1790 was 61 liters per year.
By 1850 it was 75 liters per year.
By 1895 it was 113 liters per year, but that’s only wine.
Now, also remember people drank at work.
We have a former neighbor who was an alcoholic who stopped
drinking; he’s also moved away.
He was a wonderful guy. He worked at EDF,
which is a big gas factory, electrical factory in Lyon,
and he would drink six or seven liters a day,
a day, because it was so hot where he worked.
And you see the difference between American construction
industry and French construction industry.
As you know–sometimes you go, and they’re standing–they’re
out directing traffic and they’ve got a bottle in their
hand as they’re directing you along there.
It was part, unfortunately,
of the culture of daily existence.
Now, that’s just wine. Then you have to add these
other things, and the other things,
the numbers are just phenomenal.
If you add distilled liquor, per capita consumption of pure
alcohol, in other words all distilled and fortified liquors,
fifty-proof and above, it was, the average was 1.2
liters a year–that’s again counting every old person and
every baby–and in 1880 it doubled to 2.24,
and by 1890 it was 4.35 liters. So, that’s plus all the wine on
the average. And what about beer?
Now, beer was not drunk in France until quite late.
Again, then here we go back to myth, but the myth is that it
came back with soldiers of Napoleon’s armies returning from
the German states, just as the myth that the
consumption of vodka, which is very–now there’s a
big problem because they sell, these companies sell this
pernicious vodka stuff mixed with fruit juice,
and the lycée students get wasted with it.
But the taste for–pas les miens, mais quand meme–but
the taste for vodka supposedly came to Montmartre with the
first Russian restaurant opened up by occupying soldiers in
1815. But the big problem
among–well, among other problems–but one of the big
problems is absinthe, absinthe.
And that’s worth retaining. Absinthe is made from wormwood.
It used–it was made illegal. It’s physiologically addictive,
it is addictive–well, drinking’s addictive,
too; but, this is physiologically
addictive, it’s bad stuff, and they banned it in 1915
because of the war. And I had some absinthe–we
have friends in Besançon who don’t drink very much,
but they had some absinthe and of course I was willing to take
a shot at that and drink that. And then it became legal again,
and now you can produce it, and you can drink it,
and it’s more of a southern drink.
It’s rather like–no, it’s sort of like pastis,
it tastes sort of like pastis. Pastis is pastis,
it’s sort of licorice tasting and you mix water with it,
hopefully lots of water and a little pastis,
and people in the south, in Corsica, and Marseille,
and Balazuc, and Ardeche,
if they’re playing boule on Sunday or something like
that, and stuff that’ll tourner la tête,
a couple of pastis. And it’s not very good for you,
it actually damages your brain cells in rather major ways–you
might have noticed, I don’t know.
But, anyway–no, I don’t drink very much pastis
at all. But absinthe became one of the
focuses of even some of the Impressionist paintings of
café life. I think it’s Degas who
has The Absinthe Drinker where you see a
woman sitting next to a man, and you don’t know their
relationship. They’re anonymous in the
café, you’ve kind of figured it out.
And in this painting, which I should have brought in
but I forgot, Degas brings you into it by not
having any table leg, and so you wonder,
“where’s the table leg?” And then you reach the glass
and you see the glass. And it’s simply called
Absinthe. And it’s always on the cover of
Emile Zola’s, which I’ll come to now,
Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir,
inevitably in the translation. Zola realized,
among others, that France seemed to be
drinking itself to death, and this came at a time when
there was fear about the French population, which I’ve already
said, that the French population is
not reproducing itself, and so they’re afraid of that.
L’Assommoir, briefly, is the story about the
decline, the fall, l’assommoir–really you
can’t even translate it, it’s never translated,
and l’assommoir would mean- well assommé
would be just completely get wiped out,
but also if you went to a place, a bar,
every day instead of coming to class,
the place that you went that caused your ruin would be the
place of your fall, sort of, so it’s got–but,
anyway, it’s just translated it’s the dive–that was a bad
translation once somebody did–or just the bar,
l’assommoir where things are going wrong.
And it’s the story about a woman called Gervaise and her
“family,” in quotes, and is part of this long series
of novels, and they all basically drink themselves to
death, and when she dies on a bed of
straw at the end of the novel–one of the amazing
scenes–and the doctors are looking at her partner who’s
this completely raving alcoholic,
it touched many, many people,
and the upper classes were saying well there they go again,
they’re drinking because they’re the drunken commoner,
while they were putting away their apéro;
an apéro, by the way, is a drink,
or two, or three that people would have before dinner.
And, so, Zola published this in 1877.
And what it was, according to Barrows,
and other people, it was a call,
a cry of alarm for parliament to do something about that.
He was a man of the Left, he defended Dreyfus,
against the church and against the Army and all that,
as you know. But it was a non-political,
it was an apolitical statement. He just wants somebody to do
something about the fact that the French seem to be drinking
themselves to death, and if you didn’t believe that
all you had to do was to go up to Montmartre,
or as today, and see all the people–and a
lot of them are sort of sad sacks who’ve had terrible things
happen to them, but the problem is just simply,
absolutely amazing. Now, this book,
L’Assommoir, there was thirty-eight
printings of the book in one year, after, that year of its
publication, again 1877. And by 1882 over 100,000 copies
had been sold. Let me give you an example that
Barrows also found interesting, of the influence of the book,
even in the way that the first psychologists or the first
sociologists, the first anthropologists
described crowd behavior. There was a guy called Gustav
Le Bon, l-e b-o-n, who wrote a book called The
Crowd, and because France was the
France of revolution and strikes, Decazville and these
other places, these other scenes that you
know about from Germinal. He was interested in the way
that crowds behaved, and he described them in ways
that reflected three of the kind of cultural/intellectual
preoccupations of the period, of the Third Republic before
World War I. First, he describes crowds as
flighty, that they’ll go from one place to another– think of
the women in the castration scene in Decazville–and that
was reflective of the fact that women were supposed to be
flighty and not rational, and what does that fear reflect?
The fears reflect a feminism of people like Michelle Perot and
of women putting forward claims for the right to vote and for
other things as well. Secondly, crowds were supposed
to be able to be manipulated by people on a big white horse,
like Boulanger; that crowds didn’t have minds
of their own, but the rationality would sort
of be sucked out of them by the moment.
And what does this reflect? It reflects the first interest
in hypnosis. Charcot, whom you’ve read about
in Chip Sowerwine’s book, Charcot, c-h-a-r-c-o-t,
whom Freud went to visit, to pay homage to,
when he went to Paris. And third, crowds were supposed
to lurch like drunks, and the image of the drunken
commoner, this sort of upper class view
that the Commune was the work of the people who had nothing to
eat but found plenty to drink in Paris,
in the caves of other people’s fancy apartments,
that the drunken commoner was capable of inflicting the same
kind of harm on the upper classes as had been the case,
or in many cases the imagined case, in previous revolutions.
And, so, the impact of drink itself can be seen in the
origins of crowd psychology, of a very primitive nature,
et cetera, et cetera. And in the novel,
which you’ve not read, they read it in the other–the
first half of this course, but he puts–focuses the novel
on a street called–which I will write on the board,
it’s still there–the Rue de la Goutte d’Or, and he picks this,
the golden kind of taste, he picks this because it was on
the edge of Paris, it’s near the Station of the
North, the Gare du Nord,
and they had produced wine there, at one time,
a “fine” wine that was–“fine,” in quotes–that was offered to
the king once a year. But it was a street that was
very identified with very ordinary people,
with workers in the big new industries but also these old
artisans. And Gervaise starts her own
laundry, and then everything just goes wrong that could
possibly go wrong in her life, and they all get wasted
together, and basically they all die.
But this was, this image of this street,
was something that fascinated upper class readers.
And, in fact, it’s only about fifteen years
ago that during one of the elections that Jacques Chirac
went to that same street, which is now identified with
immigrant populations and still has this same sort of lightening
rod effect on the upper classes, and said something like,
“God, it really smells here.” And just, it was almost like
when Sarkozy referred to the racaille,
the people in the suburbs as scum, two years ago.
And so these are still sort of– these images are very,
very powerful. And Zola knew what he was
doing, and this was the effect that he wanted to make.
And what these people drank–you can follow it if you
read L’Assommoir; it’s a great paper topic–they
drank almost everything they could.
But in addition to absinthe, the regional production of
fortified eau de vie, both liqueurs which are sweet,
and eau de vie which is fairly sweet, which is extremely,
powerful, it’s like a brandy. If you look at a map of
alcoholism in France today, very–the same thing,
really, since the middle of the
nineteenth century, since you first have statistics
really from the 1870s. The big regions of alcoholism
are not in wine producing areas. Now, here again you can
say–the wine producers say “yeah, we have that healthy
drink, baby, don’t get us confused
with these heavy drinkers in those other places”;
which is complete nonsense, as you know.
But, basically the big alcohol rate is there,
it’s in Paris and its immediate surroundings,
it’s in the north which is in the Pas-de-Calais because of all
the economic disadvantage in those regions–these are not
wine producing areas at all–and in Brittany,
above all in Finistère, which is the most western
department in France. And they’re not drinking wine
there. What are they drinking?
They’re drinking brandy, apple brandy,
in that case. Calvados is the name of a
département in France, Calvados,
the capital is Caen, c-a-e-n there;
Bayeux, the Bayeux tapestry; and Deauville,
a god-awful place, and all this stuff there.
But Calvados became named after that département,
and it is basically apple brandy.
There’s old Calvados which is extremely good and very,
very expensive, but there’s just your kind of
rot-gut Calvados also. But it’s not just that,
at that particular fruit, there’s almost–if you think of
Alsace there you have this pear drink called poire,
which means pear in French, and it’s eau de vie that’s made
out of pear; and you also have eau de vie
that’s made out of raspberries. There’s eau de vie that’s made
out of strawberries, there’s eau de vie that’s made
out of prunes, there’s eau de vie that’s made
out of almost any kind of fruit you can imagine,
out of kiwi, out of anything. And everybody in France still
has the right to produce I guess it’s about half a bathtub full a
year, of that, untaxed, at no expense.
And, of course, now in more refined times is
that true or not? Who knows, but the idea–more
about this in a minute–that those kinds of alcohols are what
you would drink after dinner, as digestives.
But that’s not what they were doing at the time of Zola,
and that’s not what they were doing in the 1930s,
and the 1940s in Lille, and that’s not what they’re
doing in the 1960s and 1970s in all sorts of places.
You go to–Sunday morning, while women were in church the
men were out getting totaled, knocking down this stuff.
And not all the women went to church.
But all of this, it tells you two things,
that they’re drinking, well, obviously way,
way, way too much, but an unbelievable amount of
alcohol, which cuts back on life expectancy,
to be sure; but, also that these,
all of these, these alcohols become part of
regional identities in France, that–Champagne is the classic
example. Champagne is still obviously
the fanciest drink. It’s ordered for big occasions
and champagne is extremely expensive.
There are other equivalents that are less expensive that are
produced in places like Die, the Clarette de Die,
or there’s–they’re all over the places–produced in Alsace.
But champagne, Champagne is basically this
region here, and that becomes not only part of the identity of
Champagne, which is a region,
but with French national identity.
And there’s a book on how that happened, how Champagne becomes
to become seen as a drink that you really celebrate,
for big birthdays. We have a friend who just hit
eighty and we left him–before we went we left him a bottle of
really good champagne, because that’s something they
couldn’t possibly afford; and the symbolism is really
there. But Bordeaux,
Bordeaux wines profit enormously from–I think it’s
1855 (or is it 1857? I don’t remember),
where they classify them according to the great wines.
And of course now a bottle of Chateau Petrus or something like
that, which is the most famous Bordeaux,
along with Chateau Yquem, would go up to a thousand
dollars. It’s just incredible,
those big kind of a Bordeaux. We took as a present to
somebody a Bordeaux that’s now $500.00 for the bottle because
we bought it about 15 years ago, and these prices they hold
their own. But for all the corruption,
for all of the trafficking too that has gone on in Bordeaux–
Burgundy, it’s the same thing; how closely the production of
burgundy wines like Vosne-Romanée,
and Gevrey Chamertin, and really the great ones that
I could never possibly afford to taste even,
like Richebourg, how those are identified with
the region is still very important.
And another drink came along too, that’s identified with the
region, that some of you may know about,
and I hope if you’re under 21 you’ve never drunk,
and that is called a kir, k-i-r.
You look at the k, and you think,
“well, that’s an Alsatian or Breton name,” because there
aren’t words in French that begin with k.
But actually Kir was, he was the mayor of Dijon,
I guess, in about the 1940s and ’50s,
and he came up with the idea of putting–somebody else had had
the idea but he drank a lot of these things–of putting this
sort of black currant into white wine.
And, so, then the kir becomes part of the sort of regional
identity of Burgundy. I remember, I was about your
age, seeing this great big posters saying–of some sort of
imagined Burgundian person, proud of being a Burgundian,
and he’s tossing down a kir. But all this fits together to
create almost the impossibility of doing anything about the big
problem of drinking. And when Pierre
Mendès-France, whom we’ll meet later,
when he tries to run for president–he was the greatest
politician who never held–was never president of France and a
great, great man–he tried to start a
“drink milk” campaign in 1954 and he was toast,
or French toast, if you will,
because they absolutely–they just destroyed him,
the wine lobby just destroyed him, they just went after him.
And you could still–I remember when these drunken guys would
park their big trucks on hills, and not put the brake on,
and they’d go–and they’d come back after about ten drinks and
these things would crash out of control and kill a bunch of
people. Again, even ten years ago they
started this campaign against drinking too much.
I must say now the last five or six years they really have made
it harder because they have not gone the Swedish way,
but they have–it used to be you could have an aperitif,
you could have three glasses of–a big ballon,
a ballon is a big glass of wine, and maybe a little
calva afterward, and the guy said,
“blow into this”– what do you call those, those
ballons, and he says,
“well see you, allez-y,
pas de problème.” And that’s not the case
anymore, and that’s really hurt rural restaurants.
We had a guy in our village who had a restaurant in the summer,
and he had this little teeny waiter,
this guy who was a tiny, tiny little guy,
and at the end of his job he had one beer,
and he went out on the road and bam;
you go there, you turn the corner and there’s
all these guys in big orange jackets,
and all these lights, and say, “soufflez,
monsieur,” blow into the little balloon.
And he had to pay a fine he couldn’t have afforded,
and he wasn’t drunk at all, but he was a very,
very thin guy and it was that kind of count.
I went to a–why am I telling these stories?;
but, they’re interesting. I went to a place,
people we know produce pretty good wine, so I went there with
this guy who’s a friend of mine, and he makes me look like a
dwarf, the guy’s probably about oh, 280,290 pounds,
a very big guy. And he brought his friend from
work, ironically in a halfway house for alcoholics,
and this guy made my friend look like a skatback,
look like this tiny little guy, and this guy’s at least about,
I’m serious, about 350 pounds.
And it was our village so I’m not driving anywhere,
I’m going to go home, go back to reading my book.
And so this guy he hits the road.
He lives about an hour and a half away.
And he got controlled twice, twice.
They said, “blow into the balloon;
no problem, see you.” That’s because the guy weighs
about, literally, about 380 pounds,
and it’s out of there. But, they’ve done a very good
thing in trying to control drink.
And the problem is that–see, it used to be when you started
out as–we’re leaving the subject,
we’re not leaving the subject–it used to be when,
and when our kids were growing up in France it was the same
thing, even when they were two or
three years old, if you know them you can ask
them, but you’d put a–you’d go to
someone’s house and you’d put a little symbolic drop,
and they would never drink it but it was a sense of
participation. And then when they got to be 12
or 13 they’d put a little bit of champagne there,
if they wanted to drink it they could drink it.
But they grew up with it. And it wasn’t like in high
school, when we first discovered that stuff, and then you’re just
chugging it down and you see people staggering around and
vomiting their lungs out. And part of it I really truly
think is that because it was so part of the culture,
for both good and for bad, and I emphasize the bad,
but it was a sense of participation.
And that’s what came to this sort of elaboration of meals and
occasions for sociability, that’s where it becomes part of
the culture. The whole idea of a meal where
you–how are we doing here? we’ve got to roll–a meal where
we have to–where you start out with a little something to
drink, and then you have white wine
with a fish course, or with oysters,
or something like that, and you have a certain kind of
red wine with duck, or whatever,
and then a little red wine with cheese,
but you can also have white wine with goat cheese,
and maybe a little eau de vie at the end of it.
This is something that’s recent. Most people could never afford
to eat like that. They did choucroute,
they ate whatever they could; they couldn’t afford to have
wine. But this is something that
comes out of the evolution of a restaurant culture.
The first restaurants were created–a really good book by
Rebecca Spang about the origins of the restaurant–were created
in the eighteenth century, basically;
because remember the chefs worked for the nobles,
and you’d have bouillon, which was supposed to make you
better if you were sick, so you’d go to a place to have
bouillon. And then the chefs are all out
of work–this is a short version of a long subject–and they
start setting up restaurants. But it’s really only in the
late nineteenth century that the elaboration of meals,
and Michelin, and grading meals,
and grading what is a good restaurant–that’s first 1900,
the Michelin; they’re not grading yet,
they’re simply saying to people on the road–and Michelin makes
tires, so they’re the first ones that
say you have to have signs on roads saying how far it is to
get to Vierzon, or wherever.
And, so, this is part of this elaboration, that keeps food and
drink in people’s assessment of the French and the French of
their assessment of themselves. And regional identity has,
to an extent it’s disappearing– more about that
in a tirade sometime, but not now,
because we’re out of time. But one can even argue that
whether Michelin with its regional guides,
and with the guides to restaurants,
and Gault Millau, and the other guides have not
kept alive in some useful way a sense of what–that one is from
one region as opposed to another,
and where you eat certain things in one region that you
don’t find specialties in another,
and where we all started, that you drink some kinds of
wine in some regions and not in others,
but above all that you not drink too much.
I’ll pick up that theme again when we get to the Belle
Époque, because I won’t be able to
resist it.

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