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Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, by Mallory O'Meara
This week’s book is Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, by Mallory O’Meara, so why don’t you get yourself a cocktail first. I’ll wait. Make mine a Manhattan.
I enjoyed this book more than I expected. O’Meara hits just the right combination of scholarship and entertainment. Her previous book, a biography of Milicent Patrick, was more narrowly focused on the life of the the early Disney animator and designer of the costume in the classic monster movie Creature of the Black Lagoon. In Girly Drinks, she covers thousands of years of history spanning the entire globe.
(That earlier book, if you are interested, is The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.)
The book opens in a way that made me think of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which an ape changes history by picking a bone up off the ground and realizing it can be used as a weapon. In Girly Drinks, however, it is rotting fruit that the prehistoric simians pick up off the ground, changing history with the realization that it was high in calories, so vital for survival...and had an interesting side effect as well.
Humans later made this same discovery: leave food out and it starts to ferment, which adds calories to the food and, yes, has that side effect. O’Meara demonstrates than in the early millennia of human history, it was the women who dominated the making and distribution of alcoholic beverages. She points to what may be the earlies depiction of a person drinking, the 25,000 year old Venus of Laussel, carved into a cliff in France, and writes:
This carving depicts a nude woman, with one hand on her belly and holding what looks like a drinking horn in the other. Some male historians posit that it is not a drinking horn but rather some kind of musical instrument that the woman is holding incorrectly. Imagine being so staunch in your belief that women aren’t drinkers that you think someone would take the time to immortalize a picture of the world’s worst hornblower into the side of a cliff.
In the Mesopotamian cradle of humankind around 8000 BC, archeological evidence shows that deliberate fermentation was taking place, and it was women who controlled the process of making wine and beer. Agriculture evolved to grow grains specifically meant for fermentation, given the benefits to survival of alcohol’s higher caloric and nutritional profile. Some even theorize that writing itself was developed in order to record and track the production of beer. The Sumerian deity Ninkasi was the Goddess who presided over beer.
The earliest known poetry was written by a Sumerian woman, Enheduanna, around 2286 BC. The 42 clay tablets of her writing that have survived offer paeons to drinking and the rituals around it.
There were similar developments in ancient Egypt, where the Goddess Hathor ruled over the sky. women, fertility, love...and drinking. The annual Drunkenness of Hathor festival was two weeks of binge-drinking and revelry participated in by both genders. The book wanders through the early intoxication of ancient Greece and Rome, and mentions that Cleopatra had an amethyst ring engraved with the word methe, which means intoxication. And in ancient Japan, the female deity Konohana Sakuya Hime is credited with the creation of saké, by chewing mouthfuls of rice to ferment them.
A number of other famous women of history were steeped in the culture of alcoholic drinks. Hildegard von Bingen, the famous nun of the Middle Ages, is known for her mystic visions, theological writings and musical compositions. She was also a dedicated beer drinker, so I imagine that both Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett would find pleasure in her company. Hildegard von Bingen’s scientific writings included an analysis of barley as beneficial to the digestive system, and of hops as producing a calming effect, both of which were used in the making of beer. She also wrote that hops worked as a preservative, which gave beer a longer shelf life. Her medieval observations have been confirmed by modern science.
In China, the famed woman poet Li Qingzhao, born in 1084, wrote extensively, deeply and lovingly about drinking alcohol. As O’Meara writes: “Sorry, Charles Bukowski. Li Qingzhao is the reigning monarch of booze and writing.”
And so the book goes, a mix of feminist and alcoholic history told with an often hilarious verve. The chapters travel through history organized around a specific woman of an era. The chapter on the Renaissance focuses on the Englishwoman Mary Frith, a larger-than-life female criminal, but also manages to bring in the brewing cultures of the Netherlands, Scotland, southern Africa and more. The Eighteenth Century chapter nominally revolves around Catherine the Great and the vodka empire of Russia, but also manages to work in the gin craze in London, chicha brewing in the Andean regions of South America and the development of rum in the Caribbean. The Nineteenth Century chapter highlights Barbe-Nicole Clicquot in France and the development of sparkling champagne, but you’ll also learn about ‘Ladies’ Entrances’ in frontier taverns in the United States, and the great Japonese saké brewery run brilliantly by a woman, Tatsu’uma Kiyo.
The entire second half of the book is devoted to the Twentieth Century and up to our own time. There are tales of the Golden Age of Cocktails, including Ada Coleman, bartender at the American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel. We visit the underground brewing and imbibing of the American Prohibition years, the great jazz performers who worked the nightclubs, the Tiki culture of the Fifties, and on into the craft cocktail renaissance of today. Throughout, the role of women is at the forefront, and, while the examples I give in this paragraph may seem Euro- or US-centric, the book keeps its global sweep
It’s truly a fun book, and, if you are so disposed, best enjoyed with a craft beer, a glass of wine, or a classic cocktail. Right now, I could go for a Negroni.
Should this book give you the yearning to learn more about alcoholic beverages, The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails was published late last year. Its 864 pages of alphabetical entries provides almost everything you might want to know. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed browsing at random through its pages.