Tuesday, January 09, 2007

It’s Not Easy Being Green:

The bottle of emerald liquid sits on the table at the front of the room. On its label, a single eye stares back at the audience. It’s giving me the once over, daring me to take just a little taste.

I’m attending the monthly program of the Culinary Historians of New York to hear the dark and sordid history of Absinthe, a liqueur credited with everything from instigating murder to causing fatal brain degradation. The crowd is standing room only. Everybody loves a good villain.

I wasn’t familiar with this jaded cocktail, but the very name “Absinthe” was enough to send a young colleague fleeing from the room screaming something about hallucinations.

It looks a bit unearthly. Like something the Wizard of Oz or Puff the Magic Dragon might serve as a cordial. Make that something Kermit the Frog might drink on a bender. The contents are far from magical according to lore. In fact, the stuff was banned in most countries at the turn of the last century.

What is this controversial brew? Absinthe is actually distilled from herbs in the thyme family (hence the green color) and was first used as a medicinal drink. In plain terms, it was a vermicide, and was great for ridding the digestive system of parasites. French soldiers used it during the Algerian campaigns to purify water and later drank it as an aperitif. The key ingredient is wormwood, a bitter compound that can be toxic in large doses. Sounds like fun, huh? Well, the café culture in France loved it. They would drink it with sugar cubes and ignite tablespoons dipped in Absinthe.

Yet, despite being banned, Absinthe seems to be enjoying a renaissance. Just last week, Harold McGee explored the drink in the New York Times and our speaker, Professor David Weir of Cooper Union, seems intent on rescuing Absinthe’s tattered reputation. He is wearing a Kelly green handkerchief in his breast pocket. He reads a quote from a late 19th century author who describes Absinthe as “a nectar like the last kiss on the lips of a discarded mistress.”

The story of Absinthe is really about a clash of cultures. It was a working class drink. Weir shows us slides of famous Impressionist art depicting the iconoclastic members of the French café culture, each enjoying a bright green glass of Absinthe. As the years progress, and the reported effects of Absinthe spread, the pictures get uglier. The upper class blamed it for all kinds of distasteful, common behaviors. It was said that it only took six glasses before you would start hallucinating.

I’m about to get my first taste.

Glasses are passed through the audience containing one part Absinthe and five parts water. When combined with water, it takes on a milky, chartreuse color, and looks a bit like fresh squeezed lemon juice. I smell the astringent aroma of caraway and herbs. I take a sip and detect anise and licorice. There is a bitter, chemical aftertaste on the tongue and a strong aroma of insecticide or cleaning solution. This stuff is potent, with a capital P. Forget about hallucinating. Six glasses would probably kill me.

Professor Weir says the appeal of Absinthe was in its forbidden qualities. After two sips, I decide I’ll stick with approved beverages like Green Apple Martinis or Green Tea.

Besides, my taste buds are in shock, and I need to save them for next month’s program – an historic overview of love and chocolate.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Bradley said...

Just don't cut off your ear!


wheresmymind said...

What fun is drinking Absinthe without the wormwood in it? I mean..if you can't meet the green fairey, what's the point? ;)

Jann said...

Oh yes, that's the stuff ! I drink it in France, NOT often-it reminds me of dish-water. You may hallucinate next week and definately will start to grow a sixth finger, hopefully on your hand-That stuff is nasty!Good luck!What a fascinating history, though!!

Patricia Scarpin said...

T.W., I had a great time reading your post. :D

I must confess I'd be terrified to taste Absinthe... You're a very, very brave guy! :D

Anonymous said...

fascinating! I never knew any of that :) Now you've made me wanna get my hands on it !!! mmmm wormwood !! :D

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Be careful, Sarina! I haven't been the same since ...