Friday, December 12, 2008

Our Fathers Who Art In Taverns

It would appear as long as there have been humans in the Americas, they have been drinking alcohol. In fact, Hstorians suggest that the earliest known alcohol in America, pulque (a precursor to tequila), was toasted with by Native Americans as early as 100,000 BCE.

Since then, the assortment and complexity of heady libations in the New World has grown to a "staggering" degree. If you ask 3 Americans what the most American of all alcoholic drinks is, you're likely to get three divergent answers. Ask those same three people what criteria makes any particular inebriant the most American, and you'll likely again, have three different replys.

When Europeans first landed in what is now the United States, they brought beer with them! The British colonists had the cultural history, technology and a taste for ale and other foamy liquids. But crops needed to produce beer - barley and hops - were luxury crops because they could for used for little, if anything else. Early colonists couldn't afford to spend the time or energy to raise these crops and so, had to abandon beer at least temporarily. Instead, early drinkers planted pear and apple trees, which demanded far less attention, and began making Applejack and brandy.

As part of colonial trade, the liquor market of the North American colonies was awash with rum from the Caribbean and tropical colonies, filling any void left by beer. The rum trade turned out to be so profitable that the British government began taxing it like tea. In fact, alcohol aficionado and historian Perry Luntz even suggests that it was the taxes on rum and not tea that triggered the American Revolution (after all, it was tea they threw in the harbor, not the rum).

"Argh Matey! Shark got me leg, but he didn't get me rum!"

"Rum is more than just a delicious drink - it helped to shape the modern world. Known then as "Nelson's blood," it was to the 17th Century what oil is to ours - the primary commodity fueling the engine of commerce in its time. Made from molasses, the story of rum is filled with humor and horror, courage and cowardice. Rum paid for wars and fired up the warriors who fought them. With temperance and prohibition, most Americans who were not historians developed a non-alcoholic amnesia about the importance of rum for the Revolution and in the life of the founding fathers."

Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776

The prevailing attitude toward alcohol in the 18th century and throughout much of our country's early existence has been a genuine fondness for imbibing and enjoying. Alcohol has played a major role in our nation's history! It is a proud part of our heritage. In colonial times, Americans drank more alcohol than in any other era. Spirits were integral throughout the colonies regardless of the geographic or economic differences. It has been reported that the average American drank eight ounces of alcohol a day. And it didn't matter what. Revolution era Americans drank beer, and cider with breakfast; rum and wine with dinner; claret, ratafias, creams, punches, and other concoctions in the evening. (The Colonial Origins of Comparative
Development: An Empirical Investigation -Robinson, 2001)

"Revolutionary War era persons drank a phenomenal amount. We have here an account of a gentleman's average consumption: 'Given cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner; punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punchbowls big enough for a goose to swim in.'" (As cited in Washington and Kitman, 1970)

The English at that time believed that water was bad for a person's health. Given the sanitary standards of the day this may have been true. Beer, was seen as the healthy substitute for water. Beer was considered a food, which showed social status (only the most destitute drank water) and allowed for persons to put in a full days work! Franklin, speaking of fellow workers in a London printing house said they were "great guzzlers of beer...My companions at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o'clock, and another when he had done his day's work."

An early morning tankard of beer was typical in colonial America, even for children. This tradition, as stated earlier, came from England. The Pilgrims loaded more beer than water on the Mayflower. And, there is some evidence that they were put off at Plymouth, rather than Virginia, because the ship's crew needed to be sure they had enough beer to consume on their return voyage.

Rutgers University was founded in the good old days - before there was even a federal government. King George III might have had his faults, but he didn't stipulate a drinking age for the colonies. That's a good thing, too, since the first classes at Rutgers were held in a tavern. Ironically, in 1776, Rutgers students rose up in revolution against King George...I wonder if they knew that their newly created government by the people would take away their right to have a beer if they would have fought as they did? America was no nation of teetotalers and choirboys
despite what today's revisionists attempt to tell you. It's a smear job, a disinformation campaign.

The ingredients for beer did not grow very well in New England. The Puritans drank hard cider. The many apple orchards of the area were planted for its production. Puritans began their day with a quart or more at breakfast.

Unfortunately for the young men gone west, beer and cider were not readily available on the frontier. Settlers west of the Allegheny Mountains converted their corn into whiskey as a substitute and to make their crop transportable.

"...there is unquestionably too much spirituous liquors drank in the newly settled parts of America, but a very good reason can be assigned for it. The labor of clearing the land is rugged and severe, and the summer sweats are sometimes so great that it would be dangerous to drink cold water..."(Barr, 1999)

The first businesses established in the colonies as well as on the frontier were often simple taverns located along trails and roads to take care of travelers and thirsty colonists. Tradition of the time dictated that a drink be had at every stop in a journey. One story in , Stephen Powell's "The Devils Drink" tells of two travelers on a seventy-mile trek by coach who drank a quart of liquor each at the eight stops that were made.

Tavern owners enjoyed a very high social status. Their social esteem was much higher than the clergy during the colonial era. Taverns were the center of civic life. Because of this many were required to be located near the church or meeting house because religious services and court sessions were often held in taverns. Judges interrupted court to drink, and clergy were obligated to drink at every house call and were often seen stumbling home. (Powell, Devils Drink-1999)

Taverns were the convention centers, hotels, and life blood of a community in 18th century America. Historians agree the City Tavern in Philadelphia was the place most of the fledgling democracy's founding documents were hammered out. It's still there, and still serving many of the same dishes and tankards it did to Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington.

Jefferson was one of the most knowledgeable wine connoisseurs ever to hold national office. And, he was the wine advisor for Washington, Madison and Monroe.
Jefferson believed that wine stimulated conversation. There must have been quite a bit of conversing at Monticello because records show that he and his guests consumed 1,203 bottles of wine in just over two year's time. Jefferson thought of himself as a man of moderation however.

" are not to conclude I am a drinker. My measure is a perfectly sober on of 3 or 4 glasses at dinner, and not a drop at any other time. But as to those 3 or 4 glasses I am very fond."

Jefferson's interests in wine went far beyond just drinking. He was also involved in viticulture. He planted his own vineyards at Monticello and encouraged others to take up the practice.

The sober picture we have of Washington is bogus. It was said that he could dance the night away with four bottles of wine under his belt. And, that his Revolutionary War personal expense account for alcohol from September 1775 to March 1776 amount to over six thousand dollars. (Washington & Kitman, 1970) He was a devout lover of beer; in particular a dark porter was always in ample supply at Mount Vernon. A typical Washington hosted dinner "included several wines, beer, and applejack." (Mount Vernon, An Illustrated Handbook, 1974)

Perhaps the Spirit of '76, would be more correctly stated as the "Spirits" of 76!

Remember folks-
Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day;
Give him a religion, and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish.

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