Saturday, July 30, 2011

From The Toronto Star:

A confession: This reviewer has been served intoxicating beverages by Christine Sismondo, the author of America Walks Into a Bar. It would be difficult to find a qualified reviewer of this book in Toronto who has not. Along with many other denizens of an Annex pub called Kilgour’s, I am gratuitously mentioned in the Acknowledgements.

Sismondo, an academic/mixologist/ex-beerslinger, is ideally suited to write this book. Her earlier book, Mondo Cocktail (2005), demonstrated a flair for research and love of a good story, and these traits prove useful once again.

America Walks Into a Bar (Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $27.95) is, by anyone’s standards, a serious historical study, but there is no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. She is on the side of the topers and the tipplers. Americans have long had conflicted feelings about drinking, but they’ve certainly done a lot of it. And they wasted no time getting down to it.

As in Canada, one of the first priorities of the earliest European settlers in America was to build a tavern, a public building that could serve also as a town hall, courthouse or even church. No sooner were these taverns built than someone tried to shut them down or at least curtail their activities, a social dynamic that has flourished for centuries. If they had half as many laws governing guns . . .

Apart from the spectre of public drunkenness, the anti-tavernists feared the political activity that went on in pubs from the beginning. For a very long time, people have been gathering in taverns to hear the latest news and to exchange views of current events. The tavern is an inherently democratic institution, open to anyone with the price of a drink, and the idea of real democracy makes ruling classes nervous. At its core this book is about freedom of assembly and those who would stifle it.

According to Sismondo, most of American history happened in taverns. The first victim of the Salem witch hysteria was a tavern-keeper. John Wilkes Booth plotted in a tavern. The American Revolution was fomented almost entirely in taverns. The Boston Tea Party was hatched at the Green Dragon and, possibly, the Salutation. Paul Revere is thought to have stopped at a pub for a tot of rum on his famous ride. George Washington held his inaugural ball at Samuel Fraunces’s Queen’s Head in lower Manhattan.

As the new nation matured, it set about creating political parties, and it should hardly be necessary to observe where they met, where they recruited members and where they spent the bulk of their campaign funds, plying the electorate with strong drink. Sismondo’s account of the growth of machine politics built around what were often no better than gangs is the least savoury part of her study. If you think American politics is sordid now, read this book.

You can’t write about American drinking history without tackling Prohibition, and Sismondo astutely points out that one of the turning points that led to the Noble Experiment was the creation of the Anti-Saloon League. Rather than attack a vague target like alcohol, the ASL went for the most easily recognized source of the drinking problem: the place where all these men gathered to get sozzled, not to mention where they formed labour unions and promoted such un-American practices as anarchism and socialism. Railway mogul George Pullman forced his workers to live in a saloon-free company town, to keep them both sober and untainted by political ideas (it didn’t work).

The ASL, aided by the hatchet-wielding Carry Nation, achieved its goals, and today Americans don’t drink at all. Oh wait, that didn’t work out, did it? Americans — except those living in dry counties, and they just have to drive farther — continue to exercise their right to the freedom of assembly, though they’ve had to battle for it.

Over the years tavern owners have suffered for serving both blacks and whites in the same bar. In 1969, gay New Yorkers fought in the streets of Greenwich Village for their right to assemble freely at the Stonewall. In the same era, feminists demanded the right to be served at men-only bars.

In an interesting twist, Sismondo introduces the hot topic of mothers in Brooklyn’s tony Park Slope area who take their kids in massive strollers into local pubs. Whose rights risk being curtailed? Barflies who dislike tripping over babies and being told not to cuss, or women who want the right to have a drink like everyone else?

America Walks Into a Bar is more than a book about America’s tavern history; it is a book about America itself, the mighty republic at its best, its worst and its least sober. Sismondo’s erudition and wit make this a lively, very readable study. I expect to see it being read in fine pubs everywhere.

Nicholas Pashley is the author of Cheers: An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada (2009) and Notes on a Beermat (2001).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wanted to let everyone know that I'll be at 92Y Tribeca on Wednesday July 13 at noon.

Following that, in the evening, I'll be at the Harvard Club.

The next day, we get rolling at the Fraunces Tavern Museum around 6:30 p.m. This is one of those wonderful little hidden gems of New York and I know some people are coming to this event on the grounds that they've never been.

In addition, I haven't mentioned my top ten list which I did for Kirkus. Number three (and no, it wasn't really in any order) was the Green Parrot Bar, which I see they've discovered and are happy about. Reading their blog post made me want to head straight down to Key West and head to the bar. Sad to hear that Frank won't be there to charm the customers but happy he's got a good home. We'll forget soon enough - the bar has a great crowd, good beer and seems to somehow always have a great bar band.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

This is what I wrote about it for Page 99.

Then, the caption:


Happy times in a simple tavern. As always, a wait for the bathroom.

I have never looked at this caption without laughing out loud. I know it’s not cool to laugh at your own jokes but, since it’s not my joke, it’s okay. It was produced in the sleep-deprived editing stages, by my husband who added it, I think, as a joke, to wake me up and distract me from my bleary-eyed editing. I then put it in as a joke for my editor to see, thinking he might remove it. He never did. At the page-proof stage, I had a pang of remorse and wrote the assistant. She passed it on, but it was (obviously) never removed. I guess everyone liked it, perhaps for the same reasons I do.

Namely, that it’s one of the few jokes in the book. One person reviewed my book and called it “pun-laden,” which made me want to go back and read it again, to see what puns I had in there! The point is, since this book is an attempt to treat bars seriously – as radical political spaces and valuable community centers – it’s not like a lot of alcohol books, which are pretty firmly planted in the humor branch of writing. In America Walks into a Bar, I strive for levity, but not jokes, per se. But we snuck this one in – as a reward for the careful caption reader.

And here's the link to the Page 99 Test, in case anyone wants to read the entire entry: