The Great American Saloon Series

Vodka is Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless, and Amazing

By 7.10.14

October 4 is National Vodka Day, but no one knows precisely when, where, or even why vodka was first made. (Even National​ admits that “we have not found the origins of why, but it works for us. No harm celebrating responsibly on other days as well.”) It depends on your definition of vodka.

We can go as far back as the eighth century A.D., when alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, known to the West as Geber, invented the alembic to capture vapor from heated wine, which he described as “of little use, but of great importance to science.” (If only he had placed it in a frosted glass bottle and had beautiful women sell it at the local taverns!) In the fourteenth century, the Italians were drinking aqua vitae, which supposedly they learned to make from alchemists in southern France, who, in turn, had studied the methods of the Arabs. In any event the Italians brought their product to Moscow, and around 1430 a Russian monk named Isidore supposedly turned this into vodka.

A (Sort of) Defense of Soccer

By on 7.9.14 | 10:55AM

As soccer lovers and bandwagon hoppers the world over wait to watch the semifinal games of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, a few puerile pundits have transformed it into their own Hyde Park in which to set up a soapbox and spew pompous oratorical diarrhea. Ann Coulter’s adolescent attacks on soccer are easy enough to dismiss as the usual ranting and raving of an irrelevant demagogue, an attempt to politicize sport for personal profit and blow some last bombast into a deflating brand of irreverence. We may read her, wish she was being pleasantly satirical rather than gleefully inane, and turn away laughing with distaste.

The Beer Spectator: In Support of Smoking

By on 7.4.14 | 10:04AM

My favorite smoking section is located outside the Barnstable County Superior Court on Cape Cod. Across the street from the entrance, there is a lone sign amidst the weedy grass of the parking lot median. “Smoking Section,” it declares. Smokers are not welcome to stand on the sidewalk in front of the court. No, they must walk across the street, where all can judge them.

Everybody witnesses smoking, and everybody reacts in their own ways. Some ignore it. Some cough artificially. Some announce the health hazards of smoking, as if the graphic warnings on the packs didn’t tell us enough.

Why submit oneself to such ostracization?   

It’s simple: smoking, whether it’s a cigarette, a cigar, or a pipe, is soothing. It’s social, invigorating, and recreational. It doesn’t matter how high taxes are or whether the MPAA rates a movie because of smoking on screen; some people just want their fix.

Lena Dunham Weighs in on Hobby Lobby

By on 7.3.14 | 2:14PM

As a twenty-four-year-old woman with friends on all sides of the political spectrum, I’ve heard quite a bit about the Hobby Lobby decision over the past couple days. I’ve seen a few thoughtful responses, but mostly I’ve been struck by the illogical and factually incorrect criticisms from otherwise intelligent and well-educated friends. If someone looked at my Facebook and Twitter feeds, he would surely think that birth control was banned forever and soon there will be babies everywhere.

The panic-stricken tirades came straight from the top. Feminist actress Lena Dunham tweeted, “Women's access to birth control should not be denied because of their employer's religious beliefs.” Sandra Fluke experimented with different fonts in Photoshop to send the message that “we’re sick and tired of SCOTUS putting corporate interests ahead of women’s rights!” Meanwhile, the writers at the office just ran around screaming about Armageddon.

Boob Tube

‘Orange Is the New Black’ Proves TV is Being Written for Binge Watchers

By 7.3.14

There’s a wonderful subplot in the new season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black that follows Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), a cranky, elderly cancer patient. A bit player in season one, she remains a marginal character with whom the show nonetheless elects to spend time. We follow her to her chemotherapy. We learn the story of her youth as a bank robber (she’s still unrepentant). We watch her grapple with her rapidly approaching death, which has become more terrible to her because she’ll be dying alone in prison.

To the other inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary, Rosa remains “that person with cancer” (maybe most memorably demonstrated when somebody misguidedly recommends her The Fault in Our Stars). But because the show is so willing to spend time with a character so peripheral, Rosa is opened up to the viewer in a way she is not for her fellow inmates. She goes from being a joke to being a person. The joke begins to be on the other inmates.

Sports Arena

Patawomeck Tribe: Snyder Could Rename the Redskins After Us

By 7.3.14

Hail to the Potomacs? If the owner of the Redskins wants to put the controversy over his team name to rest while keeping a Native American theme, he’ll likely have one local tribe’s blessing.

“I was just telling my wife the other day, ‘Why don’t we write to Dan Snyder and suggest changing the name to the Washington Potomacs?” said John Lightner, chief of the Patawomeck tribe of Virginia.

The Patawomecks (or Potomacs), native people of the region, gave their name to the river that flows through Washington, D.C. In the 1600s they belonged to the tribal confederation headed by the great chief Powhatan, from whose war club daughter Pocahontas, legend has it, saved John Smith. (Pocahontas’s mother was a Patawomeck.) Today the tribe counts some 1,500 members, most in Stafford County, Va.

If — and that’s if — the Redskins wanted to style themselves the Potomacs, after the local tribe and the great waterway that shares their name, the tribe likely would endorse the move, Lightner, said.

On This Day in 1776

By on 7.2.14 | 12:22PM

On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed and the door to the United States of America opened even wider. Nobler pens than mine have graced this event with prose, but I think it is worthwhile to reflect that however impossible the American Dream might seem to us today, it seemed a great deal less plausible to the Founding Fathers then. I defer to John Adams, who penned the following letter (shown here in part) to his wife, Abigail, describing the tumultuous events he helped orchestrate.

Adams's view that July 2 would be a day of celebration ever after proved to be in error, but his other analysis is striking for being both prophetic and—238 years out—relevant.


Remake ‘Monopoly’ for the 21st Century

By 6.30.14

The venerable king of board games, Monopoly, needs a total makeover. Since 1935, the iconic parlor game has celebrated the excesses of capitalism, allowing players to parlay meager bank accounts and paltry $200 payouts for Passing Go, into massive fortunes in real estate (glitzy hotels on prestigious Boardwalk and Park Place) together with railroad and utility monopolies.

All of which is to say that it doesn’t reflect the current economic downturn and ongoing uncertainty that plagues the markets. Players should be able to mortgage their properties with toxic, sub-prime loans, which could put the banks in distress bordering on failure. The Chance cards should continue to feature the familiar “Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200,” but the charges should be upgraded to massive stock fraud, wire fraud, and insidious Ponzi schemes—updated crimes for our twenty-first century characterized by abject greed and rank corruption.

Culture Vultures

The Lazy Machines Kill Literacy

By 6.27.14

To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books,” Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote in the introductory volume of The Great Books of the Western World. “All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.”

An examined life has never been the aim of more than a fraction of any population, and intellectuals have always been rightly hated. But America certainly boasted a more literate citizenry fairly recently. More than sixty years ago, the Encyclopedia Britannica published the fifty-four-volume Great Books of the Western World. Whereas giving away the series today might be next to impossible, door-to-door salesmen—another relic (killed by enterprising door-to-door rapists) of a mostly forgotten age—sold more than a million sets at a starting price of $298, when $298 went a long way.   

Hard-Bitten Competition in the World Cup

By on 6.25.14 | 4:09PM

The pageant of the World Cup continues. Yesterday’s heart-stopping news was Uruguay’s super-star striker Luis Suarez taking a bite out of the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini (played by Chico Marx).

Suarez, who attended Transylvania State on a Mike Tyson scholarship, could be in big trouble, as this is the third time he has run afoul of soccer’s strict but often-ignored anti-cannibalism rules. It’s now up to FIFA—which stands for the mellifluous Federation Internationale de Football Association—to decide whether Suarez should be suspended, or simply lectured on proper eating habits. My sources in Natal inform me that Suarez’s attorneys and his agent will attempt to get the charges reduced to following too closely.

Suarez’s coach, Oscar Washington Taberez, who has been in the game many years, demonstrated how central proper and honorable conduct are in the world’s favorite sport when he commented on Suarez’s tactics and the reaction to them after the match. “This is a World Cup—It’s not about cheap morality,” he said. He complained that the media like to pick on Suarez. I can’t imagine why.