HIST 276: France Since 1871
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France Since 1871
HIST 276 - Lecture 10 - Cafés and the Culture of Drink
Chapter 1. The Locales of French Drinking: A Dictionary of Café Culture [00:00:00]
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.
Chapter 2. The Mid-Nineteenth Century Wine Surge: Developing Modes of Production and Consumption [00:12:09]
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 littletaches, 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.
Chapter 3. Representations of Drinking Culture in Art and Literature [00:26:53]
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 whohas 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 fromGerminal. 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 theracaille, 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.
Chapter 4. Regional Rates of Consumption [00:37:17]
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.
Chapter 5. Drinking in France Today: Legislation and Restaurant Culture [00:43:21]
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 bigballon, 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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