Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Whiskey Punch Update

Since nothing is more important to my enjoyment of classic literature than alcoholic accuracy, I decided to pursue the question of what might have been in that bowl of whiskey punch that Joseph Sedley drank, much to his disadvantage, in Chapter 6 ("Vauxhall") of "Vanity Fair". I contacted my friend and internationally known vintage cocktail expert Erik Ellestad. Mr. Ellestad got his start in the world of vintage cocktails by his continuing efforts to make every cocktail in the Savoy Cocktail Book, a classic and comprehensive cocktail recipe book published just after Prohibition. I contacted Erik and asked him what might have been in a whiskey punch made in England in 1847-1848 (the years "Vanity Fair" was published). He pointed me to this recipe which is basically whiskey (either Scotch or Irish), hot water, lemon peel, and sugar, with maybe a little nutmeg. Sounds pretty good to me. But alas, then I reread the passage in "Vanity Fair" and found that Thackeray describes the drink as "rack punch", rather than whiskey punch! Oops, was I drunk on punch when reading that passage?? Odd, I could have sworn I read "whiskey punch". Further inspection revealed that the reference to whiskey punch that I remembered was in Chapter 8, when Osborne and his men are singing songs in their barracks over a whiskey punch:

All things considered, I think it was as well the gates were shut, and the sentry allowed no one to pass; so that the poor little white-robed angel (Amelia) could not hear the songs those young fellows were roaring over the whiskey-punch.

Interesting. In the Vauxhall chapter, Joseph Sedley orders his rack punch, and Thackeray says that Osborne didn't like it. This seems like that the rack punch is then a different drink, as Osborne is clearly enjoying whiskey punch with his men two chapters alter. So what could "rack punch" be? With the help of google, I found this gem:

I must close with two familiar words which have been so long with us that few who use them ever suspect that they came from the East—namely, Punch and Toddy. The Rev. J. Ovington, who sailed to Bombay in 1689, in the ship that carried the glad news of the coronation of William and Mary, tells us that, in the East India Company's chief factory at Surat, the common table was supplied with "plenty of generous Sherash (Shiraz) wine and arak Punch," Arrack (properly "Urk"), sometimes abbreviated to Rack, means any distilled spirit, or essence, but is commonly used to distinguish country liquor from imported spirits. The Company's factors drank it because European wines and beer were at that time very expensive in India, and to reconcile it to their palates they made it into a brew called Punch, from the Indian word "panch," meaning five, because it contained five ingredients—viz. arrack, hot water, limes, sugar and spice. This was the ordinary drink of poor Englishmen in India for a longtime, and public "Punch-houses" existed in every settlement of the East India Company.

Now, one of the principal substances from which country liquor is distilled is palm juice, the native name for which, "tadee," has been perverted into "toddy" (as in the case of "cot" above-mentioned), and "toddy punch" meant the same thing as "arrack punch," Returning Anglo-Indians brought the receipt for making this brew to England, and lovers of Vanity Fair will remember how the whole course of that story was changed by the bowl of "rack punch" which Joseph Sedley ordered at Vauxhall, where "everybody had rack punch." How soon both the brew and its Indian name took firm root and spread among us appears from the fact that, at the Holy Fair described by Burns in the century before last, the lads and lasses sit round a table and "steer about the toddy."

Sounds like the same drink as whiskey punch, but made with Arrack (see here as well). Since Joseph had lived in India this makes total sense. I found these recipes for Arrack Punch, which are in line with the other punch recipes (booze, lemons, sugar, water) although the drink can include rum as well as the Arrack. But I think we at least have the gist of the drink that got Joseph Sedley so drunk, and then painfully hung over. But why didn't Osborne like it? Or was he just on his best behavior because of Amelia?

It's also interesting that Arrack can be made from palm juice, since Okonkwo and his tribe all drank palm wine in "Things Fall Apart".

Whew, that was some detective work. I think I need a drink now! One bowl of rack punch, please!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Book #25 - Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)

I've been a bad, bad blogger. I haven't posted in two weeks. Did I finish "Vanity Fair"? Was I too convulsed on the floor with laughter to write up my thoughts? Or was I just too drunk on whiskey punch, like Joseph Sedley? No, I've merely been busy with work, and with travel for work. As a result, I've only read 140 pages of "Vanity Fair", out of 688 pages in the edition I'm reading. Which means at this rate I won't finish the book for three more months. I still hold the opinion of my last post...that the book is great, and quite humorous. I love the concept of Thackeray's narrator, who is Thackeray himself, and who comes out from the pages to constantly remind you that this is a novel and that he's made up the plot and the characters. No, my slow pace is not due to the book, but due to my hectic work schedule of late, and my travels to the midwest (to visit family) and now to suburban Maryland, near Washington, DC (for work). Turns out the area around Washington, DC is a huge suburb/exurb. Well, at least where I am. I'm surrounded by chain hotels, office parks, and shopping malls. Granted, the malls are pretty upscale, and the landscape is lush with green, and deer everywhere, even by the side of busy highways. It's a wonder there's not more deer carnage on the roads around here. But I digress...big time...

The novel is subtitled "A novel without a hero" and even after 140 pages it's clear that will be true. The novel's characters are all flawed in some way, usually deeply flawed. Some are ruthless and some are clueless, but none of them are like the idyllic or angelic characters you'll occasionally find in Dickens (I'm talking to you, Esther Summerson). But isn't that how life is...who among us knows anyone without flaws? I rest my case.

The story is rambling at times...much like this particular blog post. It's hard to see how Thackeray is going to milk this puppy for another 548 pages. Well, scratch that...yes, from the story's rambling nature so far it is indeed clear how this is going to happen. But I don't care. It's funny, it's a good read, and it's not at all clear how it's going to end up. But I'm keeping a close eye on Becky Sharp. I'm guessing that more antics will ensue, and she'll be at the center of it all. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Holy F#&k!!

Ok, here's the deal. Normally I wouldn't comment on a book when I'm only nine pages into it, but here I have to make an exception. I started reading "Vanity Fair" (William Makepeace Thackeray) tonight, and got through the first chapter plus intro, and I am dumbstruck...with laughter! If this book can keep this up, then I'm gonna be totally blown away. It's hilarious! First of all there's the introduction which strikes me as almost "postmodern"...and I use that word in quotes because frankly, as a scientist, I believe that no one really knows that the word means. In the introduction, the author says, basically, "Check this story out, you huddled mass of humanity...I made it all up! It's nothing but a puppet show...weee, here we go, mother f#%ers! Ha, ha! No, but seriously...".

In Chapter 1, we learn that Miss Amelia Sedley and Miss Becky Tharp are graduating from Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies. Actually, Miss Sedley is graduating, and Miss Tharp is leaving for reasons as yet unclear, but graduation does not seem to be one of them. The chapter describes the scene of the two leaving the school. Both are given copies of Dr. Johnson's dictionary, since Miss Pinkerton seems to have met the good doctor at some point, and has held on to this as her claim to fame. Becky ends up throwing her copy out of the coach as they drive away from the school. Hmm, I think I'll like her. But what really cracked me up is that Thackeray writes this in the third person, but comes out from behind the narrator's voice to play the puppet master. First of all, he rags on the characters, calling Miss Pinkerton a "pompous old Minerva of a woman". I'm not quite sure what that means (and yes I looked up Minerva on Wikipedia), but the point is clear. And then, after describing in detail the students' reaction to Amelia's farewell, he writes:

All which details, I have no doubt, JONES, who reads this book at his Club, will pronounce to be excessively foolish, trivial, twaddling, and ultra-sentimental. Yes; I can see Jones at this minute (rather flushed with his joint of mutton and half-pint of wine), taking out his pencil and scoring under the words "foolish, twaddling," &c., and adding to them his own remark "quite true." Well, he is a lofty man of genius, and admires the great and heroic in life and novels; and so had better take warning and go elsewhere.

Woah! This is so awesome!! First of all, I love how JONES is capitalized! WTF? Then, in a couple of sentences, he manages to not only rag on Jones, but to rag on his own book as well. If that isn't postmodern, what is? Hmm, who thought Victorian literature was postmodern? And don't tell me I don't know what postmodernism is, because you don't either! But we already discussed that point.

Anyway, I don't plan on blogging after EVERY chapter of this book, but if it continues to be so awesome I may have little choice.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Book #24 - Up From Slavery (Booker T. Washington)

"Up from Slavery" is a classic piece of Americana that I suspect is not read as much as it used to be. It is the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, who rose from being a slave to becoming arguably the most dominant black spokesperson at the beginning of the twentieth century.

He was born around 1858, although he is not sure of the exact year or date. His mother was a plantation worker in Virginia. His father was a white man who lived nearby. He says his owners were not especially cruel compared to others, but since he refuses to speak badly of anyone in this book, that may be taken with a grain of salt. He was six or seven when the Civil War ended and he and his family were freed. This was one of the more interesting anecdotes in the book. He writes that all the slaves knew the war was going badly for the south, which meant they would soon be free. Deserting soldiers were a common sight along the roads. One day an announcement came that all the slaves should gather at the plantation house. The master and his family were all there, as was a uniformed officer. The officer read a long paper, presumably the Emancipation Proclamation, and then announced that all the slaves were free and could go when and where they pleased. Everyone rejoiced, and there were "wild scenes of ecstasy". But that didn't last...by the time the slaves returned to their cabins, it began to dawn on them that they suddenly had responsibility for their lives, and didn't really know what to do. All that evening, many of the former slaves quietly went back to the plantation house to have whispered conversations with their former owner. Booker even writes that the slaves felt sorry for their former owner and his family. Again, though, I have a hard time believing this. One of the problems I had with this book is that it is relentlessly, almost painfully optimistic. Clearly Booker wants peace and harmony between the races, and he takes great pains to disparage no one. To the modern ear this seems to ring a bit false. But was it? Was he really this optimistic and altruistic? Surely he must have encountered terrible prejudice at times, yet he doesn't report this, and throughout the book goes to great lengths to explain how white people have helped him, his cause (we'll get to that), and his race throughout his life.

But I digress. After being freed, Booker's mother got married and the family moved to Malden, West Virginia, where Booker's stepfather worked in the coal mines. Booker himself started working in the mines, but that didn't last for more than a few years. He had an almost insatiable thirst for education and learning, and studied as much as he could on his own at night. Booker was the exact opposite of a slacker. His relentless drive to work, learn, and succeed were unbelievable. He eventually made his way to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, which had been set up as a school for freed slaves. He convinced the school to let him in, agreeing to do janitorial work full time to pay for his schooling. He eventually graduated, winning the admiration of the school's white president, Samuel Armstrong. After attending Wayland Seminary to learn to become a teacher, Booker was recommended by Samuel Armstrong to head up a new school for freed slaves in Tuskegee, Alabama. While these posts were usually held by whites, the school's founders took Armstrong up on his recommendation, and asked Booker to head up the school at the age of 25. He would head the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) for the rest of his life.

The first third of the book details Booker's childhood and education, while the second third or so details his work in building up Tuskegee from a shack into a major educational institution. Two things stand out. First, he firmly believed that not only should students learn in the usual sense (classes, books) but that they should also work themselves through school, and learn a trade. Unbelievably, most of the buildings erected at Tuskegee over the years were built by the students. The students also made the bricks for the buildings, and ran a farm that grew the food for the school. Booker believed that black people needed to learn trades to be able to support themselves, and that if whites could see that blacks were hard-working assets to their communities, they would be more accepted into American society. This became somewhat controversial within the African American community (and this is not mentioned in the book). Prominent write W.E. DuBois argued that blacks should get the same liberal arts education as whites, and that a well-educated black vanguard would help push the cause for civil rights. In DuBois's mind, focusing an education on the industrial arts was holding blacks to a limited set of options.

The second thing that stands out about Washington's work at Tuskegee is that much of his time was spent in soliciting funds for the school. He starts out in the local community, asking for money from both blacks and whites. He works hard to build up relationships with the local white people so that they will look upon the school with pride, and thus be more likely to donate to it. And he starts traveling to the northeast, seeking donations from philanthropists. He must have been an extremely persuasive and charming person, because he totally succeeds. He builds up a large network of donors, and hobnobs with the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and others.

The last third of the book details Washington's accounts of traveling to visit donors, and giving speeches. He became quite famous as an orator, and delivered one of America's most famous speeches at an exhibition in Atlanta in 1895. The "Atlanta Compromise" speech encouraged whites to hire black workers and accept them into local communities. He also argues that agitating for social equality is "extremist folly". Other would disagree with this, but white people were soothed, and the speech was a turning point in Washington's ability to raise more money for Tuskegee and black education. This last part of the book I found not nearly as interesting as the first 2/3 of the book...Booker's struggles for success have ended, so it's just not as interesting. Plus, there's that relentless optimism, praising this person and that person as the greatest person ever to walk the earth. He sounds like he's plugging something, which I guess, in effect, he was. After all, you can't expect donations from people if you put them or their friends down in your autobiography. Because of this relentless optimism, it's clear this book was written at the beginning, rather than the end, of the twentieth century...the mood and tone seem a bit dated now. Regardless, it offers a unique glimpse into the years when African Americans were recently released from slavery...at least for the first 2/3 of the book.

Next on my list...it's back to Victorian England!