Monthly Archives: September 2014

Review: Empire of Sin, a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle of modern New Orleans

book cover

Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin

One of the classes I took on my way to earning a BA in history was on the history of jazz music. I think that Dr. Berkaw would love to read Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin: a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle of modern New Orleans”. The decades of New Orleans history covered by Krist, from 1890 into the 1920’s, saw the birth of all modern music, right there in New Orleans’ Storyville district. But the book covers much more than that. Racism and lynchings that went beyond the expected American story of white on black violence.

Storyville was a social experiment, “reformers” wanted to confine activities they looked down on into one area in the city, they said this would leave the rest of the city free from “filth and degradation”. As a social experiment it worked very well. Too well for the “reformers”. Saloon keepers and madams were making enough money to take on “respectable” roles in the city. Roles that it becomes apparent the “reformers” felt should be reserved for themselves. Tom Anderson entered state politics, Josie Arlington established a family home in a “respectable” upper class neighborhood. Even worse, whites and blacks mingled together. It was not just the multi-racial houses of prostitution, that served only white customers, but the new music brought black musicians into nearly every venue. This could not be allowed in the post-Reconstruction south.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in particular the coverage of Carry Nation’s visit to Storyville. Speaking to a crowd at the St. Charles Hotel she said “Roosevelt, Busch, Schlitz, and Muerlein are the quintet which is doing America much harm” Being familiar with Cincinnati’s brewing history I was pleased to see her reference the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company even if the newspaper misspelled it. During her conversations with working girls at Emma Johnson’s House of all Nations she was told that it it was not coercion or entrapment, the “white slavery” explanation for prostitution that was popular at the time, it was simple economics. “Respectable” jobs for single woman paid pennies a day, not close to what it cost to stay alive. Of course, as is always the case with “reformers”, Miss Nation was deaf to the facts that did not support her dogma.

Krist does not rub reformers nose in their failings but he is willing to point them out. He points out that one reform politician was a ringleader in the mass lynching covered early in the book. He credits reform politicians ineptitude with their failure to get re-elected and their character assassination of “Ring” politicians as a factor allowing Huey Long to gain the governor’s office. I have to give Krist credit for sticking with the facts, even when the facts don’t follow the standard script of WASP exceptionalism. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and look forward to finding another one of his works. Learning a little about the bartender that created the Ramos Gin Fizz was an added bonus.

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Filed under Book review, Drink, History, Music, Politics, True Crime

My 100 Proof Hobby

I seem to have developed a new “hobby” over the last year or so. I was with my wife at one of the conferences at the JW Marriott in Washington DC in the winter of 2013. We had just flown in, tired and hungry we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Of course the first thing they give us was a drink menu. On the menu they claimed to be the hotel that served the first Gin Rickey over a century ago. I had recently read a book, “America Walks into a Bar”, and in it I learned something about how “cocktail culture” developed. Their claim sounded reasonable so I ordered one.

This shocked my wife. We joke about being a mixed marriage, she drinks wine and I drink beer. When I say I drink beer let me clarify, a six pack can last me a month. And I have had cocktails before. Dad made Mai-Tais for us kids on the holidays and mom’s “cold medicine” is better known as a Hot Toddy, but that was the first cocktail my wife ever saw me order. She still should not have been shocked. I bought a bottle of cognac when we got married and occasionally drank a shot of it. That bottle lasted almost a decade so the key word here is “occasionally”. We also, at times, had vodka and bourbon in the house. My wife made a killer Cranberry Vodka Pork Chop and her Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie is the best anywhere. I occasionally had a shot of the bourbon or made someone a Hot Toddy when they were sick but no one would have said we were into cocktails. Good liquor, I said, should be enjoyed straight.

That Gin Rickey was great. Even my wife agreed. So when we got home I went and got a bottle of gin, a bottle of lime juice, and one of club soda and I mastered the Gin Rickey. The same conference this year was in San Diego. My wife had lived there when she was fresh out of high school and she took me around town to see the sights. We had a late lunch in Old Town and the waiter asked if I would like some Tequila. At first I said no, but I had second thoughts about that. We had ridden the train and walked to get there. One shot was not going to be a problem and after all, where else could I expect to get good Tequila? So I told him to bring me a shot. When he asked what brand I confessed to him that I had never tried it before and asked him to pick something good. I wish I had paid attention to what brand he picked, it was good. (He stood there and watched me take the first sip, I think he was expecting a reaction from a “non-drinker”. If that was the case he went away disappointed. I may never have had tequila but I grew up in the land of bourbon.) The next day at a restaurant near the museums in Balboa Park I decided to try something else new to me, a martini. It was nasty, all sugary sweet, no bite, and, no taste except sweet. When we got home I started thinking about how bad that martini was. Would James Bond drink something like that? Not a chance.

I remembered that, in our collection of cookbooks, we had two about cocktails. A 1984 printing of Mr. Boston’s Guide and a 1934 book titled “Charles’ Book of Punches and Cocktails”.  There are also a lot, a lot, of free and low cost apps about mixing cocktails that I found when I started looking there. So I started looking, reading the little recipes, some sounded horrible, some sounded interesting. I decided to have the kids, and their kids, over for a Labor Day party where I would let them try some of the different concoctions. Even the teenage and younger grand-kids got into the act with Shirley Temples, Arnold Palmers, and Roy Rogers, all non-alcoholic drinks. I think we all had a good time and I am planning a Halloween get to get together with drinks with names like Zombies.

Now that I am paying attention I notice that I am not the only one looking into the cocktail culture. In August I learned that I was to review “Of All the Gin Joints : Stumbling through Hollywood History” and  recently I heard the author of “The Curious Bartender: The Artistry and Alchemy of Creating the Perfect Cocktail” interviewed on NPR. I have seen articles on “shandys”, drinks for when beer is too heavy, for example, one part lager beer and one part fruit juice. Another one on making your own bitters was more surprising. There is even a book devoted to bitters, “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-all”. I have not even gotten far enough into mixology to use bitters. These days, around 8:00 in the evening you can find me mixing a cocktail, one I have never tried or a “revised” recipe of one that did not seem as good as it should be.

Bond was right, martinis can be very good when done right. Trying these recipes can be a bit of an adventure. In the older books measurements are vague or even optional. Thankfully with Google I have a hope of learning how much a “pony” or a “wine glass” is supposed to be. (1 ounce and 4 ounces) Unfortunately dashes and splashes are still just as vague as they were 80 years ago. Some of the drinks I have tried I should have known better, a White Plush, equal parts whiskey and milk, is not going to be a modern hit. Some are much better than their names suggest, an Ambassador or a Cincinnati Cocktail for instance. If you are feeling thirsty you might try my newest favorite, an Incider. One part Bourbon with six parts Apple Cider. Just pour the whiskey over ice in a rocks glass and top off with the cider. When I offered my wife a sip of my first attempt at this cocktail I never got the glass back.

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Review: Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory

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Slavery and Public History

Public history, history presented in museums, parks and at historical sites, is the sharp end of scholarship. We Americans know our history. We remember what our parents, grandparents, and teachers told us about the way things were. We have seen John Wayne die defending the Alamo, and die again building airstrips in the South Pacific. However, our historical memory is often at odds with historical fact. James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton’s 2009 book “Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory” is a collection of essays examining the causes and outcomes of some controversies that have resulted when memory and fact collide.

All the essays the Hortons chose for the book are readable and easy to follow. Given that a public historian’s job is to present complicated issues and events in a manner acceptable to experts and understandable to school children what else would you expect? In fact, he difference between “historical memory” and “historical fact” a distinction I have stumbled over in the past, is better explained here than in any historiography I have read. In addition to the opening theoretical articles there are several interesting case studies presented, the controversy on the new building for the Liberty Bell and its location on the site of the Presidents House, introducing the stories of bonded servants to tours at historical sites like Monticello and “My Old Kentucky Home” Park, and reinterpreting Richmond Virginia’s public space to encourage historical tourism in the new, New South, are interesting and, for me, somewhat surprising. Edward Linenthal wraps the book up by showing that our disconnect between our “historical memory” and our factual, documented history is not restricted to slavery or even to the United States by pointing out similar disconnects around the world.

If you have ever disagreed with something you read in a museum or on a monument you should enjoy this book.

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Review: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

Howard Bingham’s title, “Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight : Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America”, explains the thesis of his book. Ali’s most powerful opponent wasn’t Liston or Frazer or Foreman but the government of the United States. I have to say that this could well be the most enjoyable book I will read this year. Bingham presents the compelling story of Ali’s fight to follow his own personal morality. Even a serious student of history cannot know everything about an era or topic. Bingham does an excellent job of explaining to the reader the history of race in boxing in America and, just as important, he bookmarks events in Ali’s story with the world events that shape it.

This is not the story reported in the newspapers and on network news. Bingham is a friend of Ali and worked as his photographer for a time so he has access to details that the media did not know or left out. There is some pro Ali bias, however, as any historian knows, everything written has a bias. In the 1960s media was more biased against Ali than Bingham is for him. In my opinion this helps level the field. As American writer Budd Schulberg observed in the early 1970s, if you knew someone’s opinion of Ali, you knew where that person stood on half a dozen other issues. “Never before in this ideological sense had there been a champion of the world. Never before a champion fighting for millions of people of the United States against the government of the United States.”

What I found most interesting was that Ali failed the military aptitude test, twice, the second time under observation by a military appointed psychiatrist who testified that Ali made an honest effort to answer the questions. It is obvious to anyone who has heard or read Ali that he is a brilliant orator. His poetry and his off the cuff eloquence is legendary. That he had such problems with math brings up the question did his school fail their brilliant boxing champion or, as one of his teachers speculated, does he struggle with a learning disability which, in the 1950s would have been a mystery to everyone. When it shown that Ali did not meet the standards the Pentagon lowered the required score for induction into the military from 30 to 15. Ali’s score was 16.

My only disappointment with the book is that it is not better documented. That is not the fault of the book, it is meant to be popular, not scholarly, history and the documentation is acceptable for popular history, but is it wrong to hope for more? Regardless of your opinion on Ali and the draft I think that you will find this book as entertaining as it is enlightening.

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Filed under Book review, Education, History, Politics