Friday, January 16, 2009

Got wine?

So the other day I was trolling the Internet, continuing my Serious and Highly Intellectual cultural history research on the Obamas (when are they getting the puppy? what's she going to wear Tuesday night?), and I came across a photograph of Obama, the Current Occupant, Clinton, Carter, and the first Bush at lunch. The Current Occupant sat at the head of the table (it's still his house, after all), with Obama on his right and Clinton on his left. Carter sat beside Obama, and the first Bush beside Clinton. The photograph (I've looked all over the NYT website and can't find it again, so you'll have to take my word for it) was taken from the foot of the table, looking towards the C. O. The presidents seem to be midway through their main course.

Here's what caught my eye: next to his plate, Carter had a glass of water and a glass of iced tea. Across the table, the first Bush had a glass of water and a tall glass of milk.

Milk and iced tea.

The photo's angle was such that I couldn't see what the others were drinking. (Believe me, I tried.)

But imagine, if you will, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac sitting down to lunch together at the Elysée. (I know they don't like each other, but I'll bet it's happened.) Are they going to be drinking tea and milk?

I don't think so, mon ami. If Sarkozy tried to serve Chirac a nice soothing glass of cold milk (good for the bones, and you know, Jacques, at your age, you can't be too careful), the insult and breach of decorum would be all over the toile mondiale in about three minutes. Non, merci, a light white with the fish course, please, and then a tasty red with the meat. Perhaps a different red with the cheese, and then we'll finish with a sauternes over dessert.

Were the American presidents actually having wine with lunch, but set up the photo with prop glasses so as not to offend the teetotallers among us? Or did these five adult men of broad exposure to the world sit down to lunch and not have a glass of wine? (I know the C. O. is a recovering alcoholic; a nice glass of Badoit for him, maybe.) And what does it say about me that I find the first option more reasonable than the second?

French people cook with milk, they put milk on cereal (when they eat it, which is not that often), but they don't drink a lot of milk. Even schoolkids don't drink milk at lunch: the girls and their classmates drink water at lunch, and the teachers, in their dining room next door, drink water and (of course) wine. (So that's how they get through the days teaching French middle school.) Wine is what adults drink, every verre, every glass, another link in the chain of civilization.

Americans don't have a long history with wine, but they do have a long history with cattle. (Try growing chardonnay grapes in North Dakota. There's a reason they graze cattle there.) And a long history with some of the more dour Protestant sects, which, as L said recently, were Where Fun Went to Die. Meanwhile, back in the Old World, standards have not always been all that the local sanitation inspectors in their hairnets might like. For several thousand years, drinking anything that wasn't fermented, milk included, could kill you. So there are a whole host of cultural reasons that could explain why Carter and the first Bush were drinking tea and milk, and as many reasons that that could seem bizarre to someone outside of America.

Our third day visiting my family last month, my daughter G asked me why no one was drinking any wine. I must have looked puzzled, because she elaborated. We've had three meals out, and no one has had any wine. Where's the wine?

She was right. My family is one generation away from a bedrock belief that demon liquor is the first step to eternal damnation, and although wine might show up quietly on the table at smaller family gatherings, we haven't gotten there yet with the Christmas luncheon. And many restaurants in my hometown don't have a liquor license, for much the same reason: old laws made by men who were certain that the road to hell was paved with empty Boone's Farm bottles, and equally confident that only Yankees would take a drink in front of a lady.

Whereas, of course, G's experience here is that everywhere we go, there's wine. You wouldn't think of inviting guests over and not opening a bottle of wine. On the rare occasions when we go out to dinner, C and I always order a pichet of the house wine (it's cheaper than bottled water); nearly every night at home, we have wine with dinner. Every local fête has wine for sale with lunch. Village events--concerts, parades, even the 5k run last June--all end with a pot d'amitié, red or rosé, and a snack of pissaladière or tapenade on toast. You don't have to stand in one line to get an i.d. bracelet and then in another line to get your little glass of wine. It's offert, free, go get it. It's a way for the village to reaffirm its identity, its community, its history. We are French; we drink wine.

As opposed to: We are American, we worry about our health and have family issues with substance abuse.

I told the hiking ladies about this photo the other day. We were walking around one of the local caps, with the mountains on our right and the sea on our left, a cloudless blue sky overhead. It was the 70th birthday of one of the ladies, and so, comme normale, we were having champagne with our picnic lunch. They laughed at the idea of the presidents' club having tea and milk with lunch. Then they all shook their heads--the American cousins, what can you say?--and opened another bottle of champagne.


  1. I don't think it's so terrible not to drink wine at noon-- yes, it's peculiarly American, but also authentically so.

    And what's with the sneering angst toward "dour" Protestant sects? They're made up of real people, too, doncha know. They even have their own varieties of fun. All cultures have their ideas about "fun." Even the Southern Baptists.

    My mom's family is made up of people who do still consider alcohol evil, but they aren't actually cretins. They can see what's going on down at the local honky-tonk, and it's hard to argue when the church elders announce that WE will have nothing to do with THAT, thankyouverymuch.

    The under-thirty crowd are falling away from the church, though (or at least its more distinctive "hard" stances. So rejoice!

    They see urban sophisticates drinking wine on TV, and over the years the youngsters have developed a "cooler" attitude toward booze, in much the same way that their funky regional accents have caved in to a lifetime of Network English.

    But this is not something I necessarily celebrate. Maybe us youngsters are finally Getting With the Program, but WHY is there only one respectably sophisticated program worth getting with?

  2. I didn't notice that they didn't drink wine, but now that you mention this, you're right. I know President -elect Obama drinks and enjoys wine, and I am happy about that. Everywhere in Italy when we had lunch with our kids, we and the waiters would give them a glass too with just a teensy bit of wine added to their water. Both children grew up never abusing alcohol. They also don't have much of a teen drinking problem in Italy. There's a moral there somewhere.

  3. I remember in Zeldin's history of France that there was at least one non-drinking French president back in the 1930s. He was noted as a go along, get along compromiser, and made do with a wine glass of colored water at state dinners. Yeah, strange, but true.

    Growing up Jewish, children are started young, usually at Passover seders where they HAD to drink four servings of wine. Kids got by with little dixie cups or shot glasses and Manischevitz training wine which tastes like grape juice.

    When I went to Europe ages ago I was served wine with meals as a child and was rather surprised that European wines weren't sweet. My favorite memory was the Heineken beer plant in Amsterdam where we got all the beer we could drink, and as an 11 year old I could drink a fair bit.

  4. For better or worse, the health benefits of alcohol are not well accepted, and given that the POTUS is also a role model, it's not the worst thing that the current occupant or any future one abstains from time to time.

    Btw. I love your boo and read I every time you write.

  5. By boo I meant blog. iPhone keyboard not so accurate. ;-)

  6. I'll bring the wine next year :)