Recommende​d Reading: The Widow Clicquot

widow clicquot

The story behind the founding of one of the world’s foremost champagne houses is a curious mix of individual personality, international business, and French society.  The story centers on one Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the famous widow of Reims, and is told in Tilar Mazzeo’s bestselling book, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.

Mazzeo, a professor and self-admitted oenophile, expertly weaves the tale of the widow’s business acumen, professional drive, and competitive nature, not to mention her luck and amazing timing when it came to European geopolitics and the fluid nature of the early champagne market.  All this creates a rich fabric of the widow and her times.  Amidst these themes are nestled captive descriptions of French country estates and dank, ancient wine cellars, as well as informative summaries of the winemaking process and its progress between the 1790s and 1860s.

Simple explanations – such as distinguishing levels of champagne’s dryness or a brief overview of grape varietals (which determine the style of champagne) – might be missed, but for careful reading.  The book’s brevity betrays the wealth of knowledge it offers to the introductory champagne drinker or wine trivia buffs.  One of my favorite quotes, from the prologue: “According to legend, the shallow goblet-style champagne glasses known as coupes were modeled after this lady’s [Madame de Pompadour, mistress to the King of France] much admired breasts.”

Even unexciting topics – the process of fermentation or how champagne’s age affects the bubbles – come alive alongside the overarching story of the widow’s life.  Intertwining the two, historical narration and technical explanations, so effortlessly and seamlessly is one of Mazzeo’s most notable talents.

Yet the widow’s world, so often looked at through grainy and colorless photos, comes bursting alive via the author’s words.  Even in death, Barbe-Nicole is painted in lushly descriptive imagery: “In the last days of July…1866, when the gardens at Boursault were sending forth their intoxicating blooms and the grapes were beginning to grow heavy on the vines that clung to the hillside below the château, the Widow Clicquot breathed her last.”

This book – from vivid settings throughout pre-industrial Europe, early wine-making tutorials, and insight into the “Grand Dame of Champagne’s” ahead-of-her-time management and entrepreneurial methods – is much like champagne itself: a carefully crafted and leisurely savored luxury item.

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Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm  Comments Off on Recommende​d Reading: The Widow Clicquot  
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Barbara Holland’s Wasn’t the Grass Greener?

Author Barbara Holland’s books are frequently referenced here at The Hip Flask. Most importantly, her words were the inspiration for this blog’s inception, which builds in no small part on her philosophy on the importance of drinking and lamenting. Today, I recommend another book by Holland titled, Wasn’t the Grass Greener? Thirty-Three Reasons Why Life Isn’t as Good as It Used to Be.

This book (the latest entry to my Recommended Reading page) takes the form of a list: 33 people, activities, places, and home furnishings that represent a by-gone and sorely missed period of American history. Among these, and most importantly, are those items and ideas concerning drink, which thanks to Ms. Holland’s love of the bottle, are plentiful.

Most notably her book addresses the absence of taverns and liquor cabinets, which are each increasingly difficult to locate. Holland’s initial thoughts on taverns – in her sharp-witted prose – begin with Andy Capp:

“In Andy’s world there are only three scene changes—his pub, his living room, and the street in between. Sometimes he tries to entice a lass at the bar. Sometimes he brings his wife, to swap acid comments with the bartender. Sometime she awaits him at home, in curlers, with a rolling pin. The story line has a mythic simplicity, and endlessly repeated escapes to conviviality and returns to domesticity.”

Andy’s British attitude on booze, passing only between home and tavern, encapsulates perfectly Holland’s desire for America, the relationship a serious drinker should have with his favorite pub, tavern, or bar. And once you arrive at your favored location – if such a place still exists – Holland believes (as I’ve previously argued) that the television is largely responsible for ruining a quiet drink, alone or with friends.

“Television is noisy. It makes casual conversation an effort and confiding in bartenders too loud to be confidential. Even with the sound turned off, television is distracting. Images squirm around on the screen. A row of people at the bar, confronted by television, tend to ignore each other and stare at the set. The whole purpose of the tavern fades: why be here at all?”

If you choose or must drink at home, a well-stocked liquor cabinet is therefore necessary. Yet even this is becoming a vestige of another time, one that doesn’t center on fitness, efficiency, or productivity. A liquor cabinet was once a symbol of hospitality, where conversations began and acquaintances became friends. And it’s not only liquor cabinets that have disappeared in today’s modern houses, but pianos, desks, radiators and porches, even playing cards and other “old things” – whose sole purpose centered on relaxation, socialization, and deliberation.

Although I enjoyed Holland’s extensive reflections on all things alcohol, my favorite passage from this book was found in the chapter titled “Cities,” which provoked a chuckle when considering my family’s recent addition: “New York was where we wanted to live when we were finally grown up, and drink martinis and stay out past bedtime, not where we wanted to take the toddlers for a weekend of family values.” The God’s honest truth to be sure.

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Please visit The Hip Flask’s Recommended Reading page for other books on drinking culture I’ve enjoyed.

Published in: on October 18, 2012 at 11:48 pm  Comments Off on Barbara Holland’s Wasn’t the Grass Greener?  
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Considerat​ions While Abroad

Perhaps it was a little ambitious to take three books on my recent European vacation with my family, a little ambitious to think I would actually have time to read while visiting Paris with my toddler and wife.

On past trips, overnight flights began with dinner and a few drinks then a bit of reading or channel surfing before dozing off for a few hours before arrival.  Of course not this time – occupying a two-year old while maintaining a moderate noise volume for six-plus hours is a full-time job. And with the five-hour time difference, there was no way bedtime over the course of our visit would go smoothly.

Yet as is often the case, I was proven completely wrong: both flights and every night save one were surprisingly uneventful, even pleasant.  I was able to imbibe and read much more than I had thought possible (in other words, more than none). I finished two books over the eight days in Paris: Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet and Scott Fitzgerald’s On Booze.  Reading these books – especially while traveling with my family – provoked a bit of introspection into my own life since first visiting Paris in 2002.

First, traveling with a young child, more importantly one eager to assert their burgeoning independence, is far different from traveling with oneself or another adult.  Everything takes more time, which is both good and bad: bad because daily tasks are dreadfully inefficient and frustratingly slow; good because you are forced to slow down, compelled to enjoy your surroundings, to relax, and refresh. Which, for a high-strung, tightly wound person like me is very necessary.

Secondly, you’re guaranteed imperfection when traveling with kids: they will spill drinks; defiantly stand on the seats of moving trains; and distract you enough so as to become lost.  Oftentimes things don’t go as planned and that’s ok. It has to be ok, a fact that dawns on all fathers eventually.  Fitzgerald too learned this while traveling in Paris with his own family: “[At] the Deux Mondes in Paris…we bathed the daughter in the bidet by mistake and she drank the gin fizz thinking it was lemonade and ruined the luncheon table next day.” Sometimes your kid gets sick on the lunch table, or in my case, vomits in your bed for no apparent reason. These things happen.

The week’s experiences drove home the differences between my two visits to Paris, the changes in my life between then and now.  Here too, Fitzgerald’s words neatly reflect my own thoughts, albeit in far better prose: “Life, ten years ago, was a largely personal matter.  I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to ‘succeed’—and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.”

A decade ago, where did I think my life would be?  Did I make perfect decisions based on absolute knowledge in every circumstance? Of course not.  Life can only be described as making the best of, even enjoying imperfect situations.  You do the best with the incomplete, the inefficient, and the exhaustive.  And you focus on what you’ve done right: marry the right woman; raise your child well; and make your parents proud.

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Please visit the Recommended Reading page for Fitzgerald’s On Booze, as well as other books I’ve enjoyed.

Published in: on May 1, 2012 at 10:39 pm  Comments (5)  
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Kaye and Altier’s How to Booze

I wasn’t going to do a full post on Jordan Kaye & Marshall Altier’s book, How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice.  No, I was just planning to quietly add it to the Recommended Reading page with a few quick words, and leave it at that.  You see, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by drawing attention to the fact that I’ve been reading it since way back when.  Yet as I finished the book and looked back on the pages I dog-eared, I realized this short book really had several great quotes, and even a few lessons that are worth elaborating upon.

At first glance, this short book reads like any other “how to” booze guide: a description of standard barware; the authors’ description of several cocktails, alongside an entertaining description of the drink’s purported origins and a singularly notable situation the authors found themselves in whilst drinking the particular libation.  And perhaps that well-worn formula was partly responsible for why it took me so long to finish the book.

That’s not to say it’s a bad, unhelpful, or even unfunny book.  On the contrary – the book’s early instructions on “garnishing with a lemon peel” and “how to flame an orange peel” are two uniquely helpful and interesting paragraphs.  However, most of book’s early content – “if any self-destructive pastime can be elevated into an art form, we believe we have stumbled upon it,” for example – rang hollow, trite, and overused.

On the other hand, there are other parts I agree with wholeheartedly.  The authors’ statement that “the right drink is always, always, always, whatever you bloody well feel like drinking” is spot on.  You can’t disagree with their assertion that the Americano’s history makes it belong “to everywhere and nowhere” and that it’s “rarely out of place.”  And I particularly enjoyed their rant against technology’s pervasiveness when out drinking:

We will not join the rest of the world in celebrating this information revolution…  So for old time’s sake, pretend for the moment that your flight is ready for takeoff.  Power down your handheld devices, lift up your trays, and unplug your laptops.  Cut off all access points to the factual record.  The only way to test the strength of your friendships is to nearly ruin them by bickering as if there is no right answer: as if you live in a vacuum and the only path towards redemption involves repeating the same points over and over at progressively louder decibels, insulting each other’s intelligence, and rejecting the possibility of your own fallibility.

Perhaps it is my age, or my current place in life, that made this book’s later pages more relatable than some of the earlier content.  In recommending the Golden Gin Fizz before attempts at procreation, the authors turn introspective.  “Having children may not be the rational thing to do, but it is the gratifying thing to do: gratifying in ways that only a parent can truly comprehend.  Parenting makes every other activity look idiotically pointless in comparison—but it takes being a parent to know that.”

A few pages later, they make a similar point, suggesting the Mint Julep for those times you must accept your present station in life, that of the average, run-of-the-mill yuppie father.  “Throughout life, there are dark moments of weakness, humiliation, and shame – many of them are described in this book – and they call, desperately, for something called liquid dignity.  This is a concept we have no doubt inherited from Hemingway, and though we didn’t want to get you down by mentioning it too early in the book, we should note that the need for liquid dignity is a primary reason for boozing.”

This book’s applicability and usefulness will certainly depend on where you are in life.  Nevertheless, everyone can learn a thing or two about choosing the right drink for the right time.

Published in: on January 25, 2012 at 12:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Earlier this year, I wrote a few words about George Orwell’s novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, where I noted the prominent role booze played in the lives of the working underclass in Post-World War I-era Paris.  I turn now to discuss another book – set in Paris at about the same time – that highlights the role of drink in the lives of those at the opposite end of the social spectrum.

The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s novel that first brought him to national prominence as an American fiction writer is, if nothing else, a meditation on perpetual boozing and rambunctious behavior, an ode to drunken arguments and the hurt feelings they cause.

Drinking is imbued throughout Hemingway’s novel with such ferocity and intensity that one may think the novel is a treatise on the subject.  Instead of the frequency, however, I’d like to focus more on the purpose – why the characters are perpetually drinking – especially considering the fact that while in Pamplona Jake and his cohort are nearly always drunk or in the process of becoming so.

Perhaps I focused more on “purpose” because I read this book shortly after finishing Orwell’s.  The bold contrast between the books’ characters – Orwell’s working man living hand to mouth and Hemingway’s group gluttonously misbehaving, carousing, and bickering – stood prominently in my mind.

Early in the novel, Hemingway’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, begins chatting with a Georgette, a “working lady,” while drinking at a Parisian café, shortly before meeting several friends.

“Well, what will you drink?” I asked.
“Pernod.”
“That’s not good for little girls.”
“Little girl yourself.  Dites garçon, un pernod.”
“A Pernod for me too.”
Pernod is a greenish imitation absinthe. When you add water it turns milky.  It tastes like licorice and has a good uplift, but it drops you just as far.  We sat and drank it, and the girl looked sullen.

Rather than scraping by on meager amounts of food for sustenance and drinking to dull the pain of such a Spartan existence, Jake, Brett, and Robert freely and carelessly spend on food and drink (and women).  This happens so often as to become commonplace and therefore, quite easy to miss.  A brief discussion over where to lunch quickly results in a full table: “How about Wetzel’s?  They’ve got good hor d’œuvres.”  In the restaurant we ordered hor d’œuvres and beer.  The sommelier brought the beer, tall, beaded on the outside of the steins, and cold.  There were a dozen different dishes of hor d’œuvres.

While the amount booze enjoyed by Jake and company in Paris is impressive, it’s nothing compared to the constant state of drunkenness endured while fishing outside Burguete and during the fiesta in Pamplona.  In this latter half of the story, it’s a challenge to find some activity that doesn’t center upon eating or drinking to excess.  The group, now joined by Bill and Mike, continually derides and argues with each other – occasionally coming to blows – all while imbibing endless amounts of beer and wine.  During one particular evening, Jake describes his condition following an evening early during the week of fiesta: “The country became very clear and the feeling of pressure in my head seemed to loosen.  I was very drunk and I did not want to shut my eyes because the room would go round and round.  If I kept on reading that feeling would pass.”

Jake, Brett, Richard, Bill, and Mike all seem to be out for a good time, and nothing else.  My earlier question of purpose seemed to have a simple answer: they drank for fun, because they could; nothing more, nothing less.

Interestingly, Hemingway provides some insight into the drinking philosophy of that day, perhaps tipping his own hand on his thoughts concerning the 18th Amendment’s prohibition of alcohol, in a short conversation between characters during their trip between Paris and Bayonne.

“You know how the ladies are.  If there’s a jug goes along, or a case of beer, they think it’s hell and damnation.”
“That’s the way men are,” his wife said to us.  She smoothed her comfortable lap.  “I voted against prohibition to please him, and because I like a little beer in the house, and then he talks that way.  It’s a wonder they ever find any one to marry them.”

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In related news, Maria Popova – Atlantic contributor and creator of Brain Pickings –  recently wrote an excellent summary of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922, “a fascinating new volume that peels away at a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works.”

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Please visit The Hip Flask’s Recommended Reading page for other books on drinking culture I’ve enjoyed.

Published in: on October 25, 2011 at 11:17 am  Comments (3)  
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