It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar and give us both of their opinions of said book.
Truth be told, I was pretty happy to find this “bar book” has nary an illustration, recipe or reference to obscure technology or lost technique to be found. While the 30 pages of footnotes, indices and bibliography at the end keep it from being a completely prosaic work, this historical approach was a welcome change from the vast majority of the fare we’ve been reviewing to date.
Christine Sismondo’s writing pedigree is undeniable and she tackles some serious subject matter with aplomb. But be warned: this isn’t some light romp on the origins of “A guy (or a termite, or a priest, or a piece of string, or an etc etc etc) walks into a bar” puns. In the first three chapters alone we’re treated to a history lesson on how taverns were an integral part of the Salem Witch Trials, the Slave Conspiracy in New York and the Philadelphia Election Riots. Frothy, this is not.
If you’re getting the sense that this book has a deeply political bent, you’d be right. And as long as that’s of interest to you, this is a fascinating read. Impeccably researched, with compelling anecdotes (did you know that “healths” or as we would refer to them today, toasts, were outlawed for the longest time?) the cast of familiar characters (Samuel Adams, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Paul Revere, i.e.) keeps it from being quite so, ahem, dry.
Once we get to Section 2, and the nineteenth century, things start to appeal a bit more to the cocktail nerds among us. Some cool trivia around the origin of the modern saloon, and visits to the drinking dens of San Francisco and New Orleans prove interesting (if slightly disturbing). Enter Jerry Thomas, and the birth of the modern cocktail; throw in references to Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe and the modern concept of the “bar” really start to gain some credibility – even as tavern-keepers continued to be widely maligned.
If all the politics isn’t quite your kettle of fish, you might consider skipping ahead to the more modern era, which makes an appearance in section 3. While Prohibition may be well-trod territory, the international bent – especially around the role Canada plays in supplying America’s bars – is a nice detour. From there the subjects range widely, covering women’s role in drinking culture, gay and fern bars, and the rise of the chain restaurants and local watering holes that have become so ubiquitous in our neighbourhoods and in our popular culture.
Marlene’s Last Word: Hard-core history buffs will certainly find a lot in here to love; those less inclined towards learning the ins and outs of tavern culture (and/or American politics) may just appreciate the anecdotes and surprising stories that go down a little more easily.
So, I feel like I must put forth a quick disclaimer — I consider Christine Sismondo a valued acquaintance for the last five or so years, and at my first bar gig in Canada I worked briefly with a close relative of hers. That said, there are quite a few bartenders in our city who know Christine, as she is a tireless reporter and enthusiast of the cocktail scene. I will endeavour to keep my personal feelings separate for this review.
America Walks into a Bar is the first detour our review series has taken into a second category of drink books: spirit and bar history. As a proud former Kentuckian, my shelves are littered with books about the history of whiskey in America, and as I have ventured into the wild of cocktail crafting those volumes have expanded to include both boo ks on other spirits (like Talia Balocchi’s excellent “Sherry”) and historical studies on topics ranging from bootlegging to moonshinin’ to social histories to the science behind alcohol. Ms. Sismondo’s book fits into a subcategory that I particularly find fascinating: the place of alcohol and alcohol culture in wider history. Along with Ian Gately’s ambitious “Drink: A Social History of Alcohol,” Ms. Sismondo’s “America Walks into a Bar” is a core text for anyone who wishes to discover the place of spirits and bar life in North American culture.
America Walks into a Bar is not for every bartender. A fledgling bartender or cocktail-maker will gain no knowledge of the execution of their craft from the book. Outside of obscure anecdotes, it won’t help you upsell spirits or solve the “Is Jack Daniels a bourbon?” argument that seems to pop up once a month at any bar. If you are a new bartender who wants to learn what to do, a bar manager wanting to up their game, or someone looking for a collection of cocktails to be inspired by, this book will be useless to you — we’ve reviewed a murderer’s row of books so far that you should spend your tip money on first. If you are interested in where our industry actually came from, and its place in history, it is a thorough and engaging read.
America Walks into a Bar is a carefully researched pop-history book, and as such can be a bit dry. Ms. Sismondo’s academic tone allows the subject matter to stand on its own, and her stories are thoroughly referenced, with some chapters having an upwards of 50 footnote references to other texts. That said, she never strays from the primary text and none of the references have any written asides, so her lengthy bibliography serves primarily as a way to find more information on a particular subject. The index is solid, and is useful for looking up references on a slow bar night where patrons are being regaled by the more outlandish tales of bar history (I particularly love the “shock-and-block” barrel houses, where patrons could drink straight from a barrel that was often tainted with knockout drugs). Ms. Sismondo’s core conceit seems to be that the history of taverns and saloons is essential to the core identity of the United States (and, through proximity, Canada), and she weaves it from the establishment of colonial taverns to bars being the incubators and cause of the American revolution (learning how my early history classes glazed over how the big thing colonials were pissed off about was taxes on their rum really gave me a much better insight into the core conceits at the political heart of my land of birth) to Prohibition to the fern bars and gay culture in the 60s and 70s. The book puts to lie the tired phrase of “religion and politics shouldn’t be talked about in a hospitality establishment” — a lie that probably propagated through polite society because, as the book argues, the neighborhood pub is a core incubator for social change. That said, while the book does an interesting job of illuminating the place of bars in the civil rights movement (mostly bad) and the gay rights movement (a central spot), it does little to untangle the thorny nature of colonialism beyond presenting some of the terrible facts about how native peoples who drank were treated by colonists, leaving that in the first chapter and moving on to more overtly “historical” subjects — though such a discussion may detract from the overall arc of the book, which is already a bit top-heavy towards early American history.
Anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting through one of my cocktail classes, or around a bar after I’ve had my staff drink, has probably heard me intone “the history of booze is the history of the world.” The idea of the bar worker as informed, erudite, and the center of a community has roots reaching back to the first colonial pubs. There comes a time in every worker’s life where they have to ask why they are doing their chosen career. Bartending, in particular, with its long, abnormal hours and physically grueling schedule can be considered a young person’s game. Many folks enter it for the easy access to immediate cash, or because they like drinking or partying and figure they should get paid (or the more sophisticated cousin, the “love of proper hospitality”), or because they can get away with more at work than at a 9 to 5. Those reasons often fade, and bartenders can be left wondering why they do what they do, beyond being beholden to simple inertia. “America Walks into a Bar” can offer some historical context for the trade, but more importantly an argument that everything we do is political, even the places we view as an escape. The neighborhood bar can be a community hub, can be a force for good and social change, rather than just a place to get some beer or grub, pick somebody up, or escape responsibilities (though those are all well and good and honestly essential things and core to bars’ identity). More and more bars are rediscovering this fact and reclaiming their history — famously, Ms. Sismondo wrote the lengthy historical introduction on the Dead Rabbit’s menu — and engaging their community through social work and charity. Drink, properly curated, can be a source of liberation — not as commonly thought, a drunken escape, but rather as a way to loosen inhibitions and allow people to potentially accept real change.
Lucas’s Last Word: America Walks into a Bar is an incredible book if you want to be a long-winded nerd of a bartender like me who is fascinated by the culture and role of publicans. If you’re looking for a way to up your bartending game or make better cocktails, you should probably look elsewhere.