Carry a nation

“When evening quickens (…) comes a pause in the day’s occupation that is known as the cocktail hour,” writes Bernard DeVoto in ‘The Hour’ (1948). The cocktail hour, that is the treasured “borreluurtje” in most Dutch families. “It marks the lifeward turn. The heart wakens from coma and its dyspnea ends. Its strengthening pulse is to cross over into campground, to believe that the world has not been altogether lost, or, if lost, then not altogether in vain. But it cannot make the grade alone (…) It needs two or three friends, but no more than two or three (…) and with them what it needs most of all, the bounty of alcohol.” Oh, the restorative powers of a quiet drink at the end of the day …

I can find just one single argument for not permanently settling in Chase County, Kansas. The only liquor store here, in Strong City, a twenty-minute drive from Matfield Green, does not sell my favorite beer. That’s Hefeweizen, but only the Hefeweizen brewed by the Widmer Brothers from Portland, Oregon. It’s not in the book, is what they tell me, and the book is the law, and Kansas state law is very peculiar and strict when it comes to deciding who sells which alcoholic product. Moreover, each county adds its own regulations and restrictions. Real beer, real wine, let alone intoxicating fine beverages such as tequila, mescal, and eaux de vie, are neither sold in supermarkets or general stores, nor in many restaurants, at least not in the ones that are not fully licensed. In those venues I find only 3.2% beer: Coors, Budweiser, Miller, and all that other unjazzy slobber and bloodless fizz that reminds me of the old joke about the international brewers convention, where all the American producers consume their own brews with the festive opening meal, while the Belgian brewer sitting at their table quietly sips a Diet Pepsi. “Why? You don’t drink? Don’t you drink your own beer?” the Americans wonder. The Belgian brewer humbly answers he wants to profess his solidarity with them by not drinking beer.

I guess for these alcoholic beverages sales restrictions I have to thank that fieriest of all temperance leaders, that “vessel of wrath,” that saloon and bar-room smasher, that hatchet-wielding crusader, Carry A. Nation. “Cyclone Carry.” I do not think I will ever pay homage by visiting her old home, in Medicine Lodge in south-central Kansas, to see her memorabilia, although most probably they form a fascinating collection. Already by her life, which ended in 1911, hers was a household name also outside Kansas, and even today many Americans know precisely who I am talking about.

In her own words she was “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like.” Which according to Carry were boozers, ‘bacco smokers, and broads dressed in immodest apparel.  She was convinced her name —carry a nation– was preordained, and smart enough to have it registered as a trademark slogan. Her first marriage to a heavy-drinking physician must have started her on her rock-and-brick-throwing path; her second husband, David Nation, a preacher and, simultaneously, an attorney, must have skillfully pushed her to carry on. “Carry on, Carry.”

Not that she needed an incentive to march, alone, or accompanied by the type of hymn-singing women that were so dramatically portrayed in that grandest of Western movies, ‘The Wild Bunch’. Director Sam Peckinpah didn’t have them cruelly killed in slow motion for nothing.

Carry (or Carrie) Nation was almost 6′ tall and weighed 175 pounds. Black-dressed, heavy-jawed, stern-faced as she is shown in photographs and poster images –there are hundreds–, her overpowering physique is nightmarish and her ugly expression a clear statement of her not approving of anything. It’s enough, either to get a man away from the booze forever, or, and most probably, to send him running to the nearest fully-licensed bar. Whatever … in the year 2010, I cannot buy me my favorite drinks, not everywhere in Kansas. Thank you much, Carry.

Meanwhile, I learn there is a band in Wichita, one hour to the southwest, performing a very reasonable Americana on fiddle, guitar, banjo, stand-up base and washboard, which is called ‘Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy’. They are playing in the style of ‘Split Lip’ Rayfield and, no doubt about it, they are good for a really raucous party.

It is not the first time music is performed under the name of Carry Nation. In the 1970 Russ Meyer cult film ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ a fictitious all-girl rock‘n’roll trio called ‘The Carrie Nations’ goes to Hollywood to achieve success, only to get sucked into “the seedier underbelly of the entertainment industry.” The girls are played by actresses who are backed up by the vocalists Lynn Carey and Amy Rushes; they create quite psychedelic sounds, as well as a few peace and love ballads with sometimes campy lines and funky guitar solos.

If ‘The Carrie Nations’ had been a real band instead of a group in a movie their history would be rather notorious because of two sensational, scripted incidents.

When the girls appear on TV to promote their new album, their former manager, lurking in the wings, decides to climb into the rafters and attempt suicide by leaping onto the stage. His body falls right in front of the band as they perform. The camera is kept rolling during the whole incident as the broken and bloodied ex-manager is taken away by medics. Later, an eccentric known for his drug-fueled parties is joined by one of the band’s girls and her lesbian lover, and a male gigolo, whom the eccentric wants as his own lover. The four of them take a large amount of drugs, at which point the eccentric goes berserk. He decapitates the gigolo with a sword then chases his servant down to the beach, where he impales the man with the same sword. Returning to the house, he retrieves a gun, which he uses to murder the lesbian lover. And so on and on, until he himself is finally killed by the alerted other band members.

Great schlock. For some people just peacefully having a beer is not such a bad idea.

Luckily, surprise, I am able to find yet quite a few good brews in Kansas. Many have a Belgian background, for Belgian beer is up and coming almost anywhere in the US and as a matter of fact becoming so successful, that a couple of American brewers have bought smaller Belgian brewers (and vice versa, I do not understand this at all, Belgian brewers now own Budweiser … who would want to own Budweiser? Oh, market share and distribution network, I get it).

Sometimes, I manage to find the famous Belgian white, Hoegaarden, or even the abbey brew Leffe. These are imported. Most times, though, I buy Belgian-style beers made in America. In Colorado there settled quite a few good brewers, either sons of Belgian brewery houses, or Americans who themselves fell in love with Belgian brew. One of these, the story goes, rode his bicycle all over Belgium to visit the Trappist abbey breweries and learn the trade from the monks. His successful brand is named Fat Tire in honor of this journey. His New Belgium Brewing is a good one. Its newer Abbey Ale will be a huge success too, is my guess. Blue Moon from the brewery carrying the same name is also making great furore. These beers may not be as refined and precious as many of the hundreds of small brews one can find in Belgium, but they offer a good bite, a good after-taste, a good foam. (I refuse to drink from the bottle “like a real hombre” and especially avoid the canned stuff; yet too often I have to remind the waitress or barkeep to pour my beer into a glass, thank you kindly, and in such way that I will not find it stone dead but can measure two fingers of vibrant foam to bite into.)

The Brooklyn Brewery has a place amongst the best, with brewer Garrett Oliver “The American Beer Pope.” On Times Square in New York City they have now Stella Artois on tap, which I consider the Belgian Bud Light. “Perfection has its price,” they advertize on loud billboards. Therefore Stellas, in a fast-growing market, are more costly in the U.S. than in Belgium. Americans pay an absurd amount of dollars for this weak, practically tasteless, brew. Funny thing is, in Europe Budweiser is doing suddenly quite well as a new trendy beer after Mexico’s Corona first created a booming market. I will never understand people … expert marketing gets them to do anything. But some Belgian barkeepers, their contract with the brewery forcing them to sell Bud, serve a small piece of soap along with the beer, which, they advise their customers, in combination with the Bud should be used to wash their hands with.

New York now has Belgian beer cafés such as ‘Markt’ in the Flatiron District and ‘Resto’ in the Murray Hill Section of Manhattan. In Brooklyn’s Park Slope there is ‘Bierkraft’. They draw a great blond Leffe and smaller 9% to 13% brews, each in their own type of glass. They do beer and food pairing, too. Delicious hams prepared in rich beer. Beer-steamed mussels almost as good as in Brussels. Which reminds me, in Brussels, if need to, you will easily find your way to the ‘Delirium Café’, which is one of the greater beer and food pairing places in the world.

New York isn’t alone with presenting small Belgian brews — today you can find them in Dubai, Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Paraguay, and Singapore. And, yes, even in Kansas. I was pointed to a brewery in Lawrence, Free State Brewers, which produces excellent beers, and a few strong Belgians to boot. Maybe, maybe one day I will be able to order a real La Chouffe, a Moinette, a Gruut, a De Koninck (the king), a Duvel (devil), a Witkap Pater (whitecap priest), an In de Vrede (in peace), or a Mort Subite (instant death), also at the ‘Hitchin’ Post’ in Matfield Green? More likely they will serve one of the growing Asian brews (Asia produces 60 million kiloliters yearly, more than either Europe or the U.S.). Such as Kirin (Japanese), Singha (Thai), and 333 (Vietnamese), pronounced “ba ba ba,” which, when spoken elsewhere in the world, indicates you have had at least three beers too many.

Back to the borreluurtje. DeVoto: “This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valour is reborn. When the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn.”

Ton Haak.
Matfield Green, KS, September 2010