I had the distinct pleasure of attending a great conference in Louisville on April 4-5 this year, as one of the keynote speakers. Called Cocktail Culture: A Conference, it was organized by Dr. Stephen Schneider at the University at Louisville and Dr. Craig Owens at Drake University, two English professors who are also cocktail lovers. A range of academic papers were presented on a broad range of topics, followed by cocktail hours, tastings and more.
I learned a lot, and met some very interesting people. A few favorite experiences:
- Until the end of World War II, only 35% of the liquor in the US was consumed at home; by the early 1950’s it was over 70%. Home cocktail parties became a real thing, and homes were designed to accommodate home entertaining. Cocktails were typically the domain of men at that time. Women’s fashions during that period were influenced both by European designers and by a return to societal pressures about women’s bodies and the idealized feminine form that had been reduced since at least the 1920’s in the US. These observations were courtesy of Dr. Lori Hall-Araujo, a post-doctoral research from the University of Indiana presented a great paper entitled “Cocktail Culture, Idealized Femininity, and the Postwar Cocktail Dress .”
- Though it is perceived merely as fun (and a longing/return to a time and place that never really existed), Tiki is/was inherently racist. That aspects of its history is downplayed in the Tiki revival being seen today, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The paper presented by Dr. Andrew Pilsch from Arizona State University, entitled “Polynesian Paralysis: Race in a Tiki Mug,” was the most provocative of the conference, at least from my cocktail nerd’s perspective, and one that has stuck with me. Dr. Pilsch also shared that the rise of Tiki in the US initially corresponded to the rise in recreational air travel, and Hawaii joining the Union. Favorite quote: “Hawaii was jet travel’s killer app.”
- Absinthe, and vermouth, and other wormwood-infused alcoholic beverages, were initially intended as deworming agents – wormwood is a powerful deworming medication. In fact, to get children to take wormwood, they would wrap wormwood leaves in figs and feed it to them. In his very interesting paper entitled “The Lingering Louche: Absinthe, the Green Demon of Alternative Modernity,” Dr. Aaron Jaffe from the University of Louisville shared the history of absinthe, and highlighted the manner in which the wine industry worked to demonize the spirit in Europe in the early 1900’s.
Some other notes I took away:
- I should research Kingsley Amis more and see what he wrote about, he sounds like an interesting guy, even if he did die a slow, painful death after drinking far too much, and treated a number of people very badly.
- Whiskey distillers sometimes patch leaky casks with wheat paste, which dries and crusts – and potentially introduces gluten back into the spirit (gluten is a protein that does not come across in a distillation, so distilled spirits are without gluten unless it is reintroduced afterward). Who knew?
- This kind of conference is a great way to explore our culture, both historically, currently and for the future, and I hope there are more conferences of its type in the future!
My heartfelt thanks to Dr. Stephen Schneider for hunting me down and inviting me to speak at this conference! And if any of this interests you, you should go next year.
And PS, since I was coming from Chicago, I brought a Chicago bar tradition with me – Malört. I tried, but failed, to take a good Malort Face photo submission. While I’m quite sure many of the attendees will remember the experience, I did not get a great photo. Sigh!