Wednesday, January 4, 2017

And a Bottle of Rum - Wayne Curtis

And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten CocktailsLet me put this out there to begin with: I am not a big drinker.  I can nurse a cocktail all night long, and beer and wine?  No, thank you.  That said, I don't mind reading about drinking.  And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails seemed like an interesting title, so I tossed it into my Amazon cart a while back when I needed something to push me over the limit for my add on items to ship.  It's a food history, and I love those, and also seemed like a fun spin on American (and Caribbean) history, which is a field I'm normally not too fond of because I find it boring compared to history in the rest of the world.

Curtis' book does focus exclusively on rum, though a few other types of alcohol are mentioned in passing.  The portions of the book are all named after a cocktail, though the section sometimes only bears a loose connection to the cocktail it's named for and "themed" to.  And this isn't a very comprehensive history, to be sure.  It focuses mostly on the United States, with maybe two chapters looking more at the Caribbean.  And because this book is rum-focused, it doesn't really touch on "New World" history until rum production began, which is significantly after the New World was "discovered" by Europeans, and obviously far, far after the history of people living in the Americas began.  (Remember, there were people in all of these places before the Europeans sailed onto the scene and began killing and enslaving people.)

Curtis keeps his history brief and high-level, glossing over a lot of the messier aspects of history such as slavery (vital to rum production in the Caribbean because of the labor commitments required to grow and process sugarcane, the byproduct of which is molasses and is what rum is based on), war, and even rum production itself.  For example, he talks about producers throwing in things like dung or the contents of a chamber pot to assist with fermentation, but doesn't really go into what this would do or the potential health consequences it might have.  He breezes over a lot of things, focusing on the romantic and patriotic instead of dirtier side of history that is always there, only really lingering on how awful the original rum must have tasted.

This book is basically the cocktail of the history genre: light and fun without a lot of depth.  True, some of this might be attributable to the checkered history that alcohol in general and rum in particular has; with periods of dry states and countries, rum running, and smuggling rampant in the various periods Curtis touches on, there's a lot of documentation on rum that just doesn't exist to be drawn on.  It's a historian's nightmare, and I think probably is a big reason why this is as surface-level as it is.  Still, it did make me want a tiki drink!

3.5 stars out of 5.

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