Tastes of paradise can shatter mirrors

I’m not in the habit of compulsively re-reading books, even those of the highly influential sort.

Of course, there are exceptions:

  • The early beer writing of Michael Jackson
  • “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” a sobering tome by John Barry
  • Jim Bouton’s ribald baseball tell-all, “Ball Four”
  • “A Confederacy of Dunces,” the classic New Orleans comic novel from John Kennedy Toole

Another is “Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants,” by the wonderfully named Wolfgang Schivelbusch. He is not a Groucho Marx character from Duck Soup, but a German-born cultural historian operating from a decidedly (Karl) Marxist perspective.

Two decades after Schivelbusch’s book was published, I still consult it with frequency. It’s neither long nor “heavy,” and boasts thoughtful essays on coffee, chocolate, tea, tobacco, hashish, opium and alcoholic beverages. Taken together, these have the effect of guiding readers from the Middle Ages through modern times, with the focal point being not pharmacology, but sociology.

At its European debut in the 17th-century coffeehouse, coffee officiated at the rise of the bourgeois technocrat; the brew’s displacement from the coffeehouse to the home in the following century, the author argues, is a measure of the assimilation of bourgeois consciousness at the private hearth. (Publishers Weekly)

We already know that coffee is caffeinated, while beer and wine are alcoholic. When the Muslim world introduced Europe to coffee, the beverage’s “dry” and sobering qualities were aligned perfectly with developing notions of a work ethic in the context of expanding capitalism – or, where Calvinism meets the Industrial Revolution. Coffee made workers more efficient, while alcoholic beverages rendered them less productive.

Even today, while at work, you’re generally free to consume as much coffee as you please, though not ale … and that’s a shame.

Beer itself is a pre-industrial, communal and organic beverage, reflecting the pastoral ethos of the countryside, and inexorably bound by nature’s limitations on maximum alcoholic strength attained through fermentation. Distillation – again, introduced to Europe by the learned Arabs, who used the process in chemical experiments – provided the means to concentrate the strength of alcohol as beverage, subsequently wreaking havoc on human beings unaccustomed to the potency of distilled spirits, or to their new, oppressively squalid homes in urban industrial slums. Greasy gin offered ready pain relief between ceaseless shifts at the factory, which yielded just enough cash to begin the cycle anew.

You see, it really does matter where your sneakers are fabricated.

Schivelbusch makes it clear that while alcohol has been subject to abuse since the beginning of time, temperance movements as we know them today began only when liquor became cheap, common and widely ingested. In the end, liquor’s debilitating tendencies became too much even for the exploitative robber barons, who formerly deployed the liquid as pacifier from the company store. Reversing course, the accumulators of capital forged an unholy alliance with religious fundamentalism.

By the late 1800s, the city of New Albany’s much-lionized plate glass magnate, Washington C. DePauw, was providing financial support for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) – the latter agitating for the complete prohibition of alcoholic beverages, either when on the clock or off, all from the cozy confines of its downtown reading room, located in a long-demolished house that occupied the space where Bank Street Brewhouse’s beer garden now operates.

In this way, nowadays, we pay back those mad mothers with each pint of locally brewed goodness.

Recently, listening with mounting fascination as local beer enthusiasts explained to me how this very same fresh, local beer cannot possibly be worth drinking, and must take a seat to the rear of the bus when compared to the newest, biggest, greatest phenomenon brought to metro Louisville from far, far away, Schivelbusch’s fascinating explanation of the medieval spice trade came back to me.

It turns out that fascination with the far-off is as old as humanity, too. When the spice trade commenced in Europe several hundred years ago, the newly posited “need” to obtain previously unknown Oriental spices was far less about their supposed usefulness in masking otherwise rancid food, as is often erroneously imagined today, but because the spices themselves were quantifiable, visible measures of social status according to prevailing subjective value systems.

In essence, back then, anyone who was anyone just had to have these spices – or, risk not being anyone, any longer. Possession of Oriental spices was a palpable, tangible symbol of status, and the key to their value was a basic reality: These spices were from somewhere else – exotic, expensive and hard to obtain, and therefore infinitely sexier than piddling local norms.

But it went even further, into the realm of sheer mysticism. In the beginning, spices symbolized the superiority of the far-off lands from whence they so rarely came. If the spices themselves were imbued with magical and totemic properties, then surely it proved conclusively that the other side of the planet was superior to the mud, blood, poverty and ignorance of Europe. Paradise was elsewhere, and spices provided tastes of this paradise. It was evidence of a raging subliminal inferiority complex, and comprised the most anti-local viewpoint imaginable.

Like the objectified beer porn selfie of 2014, no one thought it necessary to bother with explanations as to why the bowl of Oriental spice proffered at the wedding feast mattered. It simply was understood. Peers compared the quantity of their stashes to establish social pecking orders, and any stray servant or cowed peasant in proximity of the scene knew immediately that strength and power were conferred on those who possessed the requisite spicy symbolism … while he or she remained a degraded underling.

It’s that Billie Holiday song, all over again, like a mantra for the coming year: “Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose.”

It should be obvious that I highly recommend Tastes of Paradise; just exercise caution when reading near mirrors.

That’s because flying glass is dangerous.

Illustration credit

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