19th Century New Orleans and its Magnificent Obsession: “Drinking is an Awful Vice Here”


JAN C. BRADFORD

 

Anheuser Busch Brewery warehouse and stable, and the Daniel Edwards iron/brass warehouse at Gravier and Front Streets, New Orleans. Not dated. c. 1880s – very early 1900s; most likely 1890s. Via Wikimedia Commons

“In 1718, the first Christmas in New Orleans is celebrated with “deer, quail, snipe and wild duck, along with wild turkey, which is in great abundance.  Native Americans provide grain and vegetables, and the ship Neptune, recently arrived in port, provides red wine, white wine and brandy.” (1)

The account of this celebration in the new French colony foreshadows not only New Orleans’ obsessive interest in food, but also one of its major preoccupations – liquor.

Bishop Whipple, an Episcopal minister from Minnesota, was often shocked during his 1844 visit to New Orleans and wrote in his journal, “Drinking is an awful vice here”. (2)  He found the city uncomfortably foreign and had little to say about its positive aspects.

In the 1830s, the New Orleans Bee, a local newspaper, frequently ran ads for a multitude of liquid refreshments. Port, Madeira, sherry, French brandy, Holland gin, Irish and Scotch whiskey, Bordeaux, white wine, cognac, and sauterne were all available, to name a few.(3)  A Mr. Juett, on Chartres St., also advertised Kirsh Wasser (cherry brandy)  of La Foret Noir and Extract of Absinthe of first quality in the Bee of 1835. (4)

Early reports of the city often describe a widespread tendency towards crass public behavior and municipal indifference to filthy gutters and streets. However, visitors, expecting a backward town, must have been surprised to find that the locals showed a high level of sophistication in their choice of liquor.  But jarring contrasts were common in the Crescent City.

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The doorway to the historic Hermann-Grima House. By Infrogmation of New Orleans, via Wikimedia Commons

William Howard Russell found that the mint julep was considered a “panacea for all the ills of climate” (5) while he was visiting Burnside Plantation, upriver from New Orleans. One morning an enslaved servant arrived at his door to serve Russell two of the drinks in quick succession.  This happened daily during his visit.  However, Russell was astonished when the man arrived another morning with a third julep, advising him to drink it for protection from fever.  Besides which, the servant added, his host sent word it was the very last he would be preparing before breakfast!  (6)

It was common for planters in rural areas near New Orleans to keep large stores of wine.  Oak Alley Plantation had a wine cellar; Homeplace and Point Chretien had wine rooms.  Samuel Hermann’s wine room at his house on St. Louis Street in New Orleans had shelving  to accommodate  hundreds of wine bottles. (The 1831 Hermann-Grima House, with its stable and wine room, is open to the public.)

Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape architect, journalist and experienced traveler, wrote that “light wines were drunk much more extensively in Louisiana than anywhere else in the United States,  to such an extent, indeed, that among the Creoles and more prosperous Americans claret was the common breakfast drink”. (7)

Unlike their male counterparts, ladies of any social standing were expected to limit their consumption of alcohol. According to diaries of the period, they excused themselves after the second toast during the fruit and wine course at dinner and slipped away to the parlor to prepare coffee.  Men remained in the dining room, hopefully out of sight and sound, drinking and toasting until they needed the coffee.

Aside from wine with dinner, women frequently did sip cordials, which were believed at the time to increase stamina. Many women prided themselves on a personal concoction of one of these fruit or herb-based beverages.  Since even wealthy women during the 19th century served as family nurses, many of them were constantly distributing homemade cordials, liqueurs and herbal teas  to family as well as enslaved servants.

Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book, edited by Patricia Brady Schmit, has recipes for blackberry and lemon cordials, currant and grape wine and peach liqueur. (Lewis was the granddaughter of Martha Washington; step granddaughter of George Washington.) Cherry bounce was another favorite homemade treat in the city and surrounding area.  The 19th century recipes for this exhilarating “tonic” vary according to the type of liquor included. In addition to cherries and sugar, either brandy, rum or gin could have been used. (Contemporary recipes favor vodka, which adds no taste. In Louisiana today, as then, only wild cherries are used because the hot weather is unfavorable to any other kind.)

This type of alcohol-laced drink was innocent enough if sipped in moderation, but more than a couple of glasses could disable a strong man.  However, the presence of a calming influence within the innocuous context of her well-run household may have been a temptation for women of all classes in the 19th century, given the multitude of disadvantages they suffered.

Joseph Ingraham apparently was amused at the local use of the word coffee house (actually a combination bar, café and men’s club) on his visit to New Orleans.  In his book Southwest By a Yankee, Ingraham wrote, “Though their usual denomination is coffee house, they have no earthly, whatever may be their spiritual, right to such a distinction.” (8) Coffee houses may have been inappropriately named, but they were both plentiful (over 100 in the 1830s) and popular.

Holidays in the city were an exciting time, intensifying the usual obsession with food and drink.  In her memoirs, Social Life in Old New Orleans, published years after leaving the city, Eliza Ripley  wrote about her early experiences.  She explains that on New Year’s Day, men were obliged to make a multitude of obligatory social calls to extended family and close friends.  Beginning at 11:00 in the morning until late evening, women held open house to receive the crowds of visitors.  The holiday guests found the traditional elaborate cake and  bowl of foaming eggnog waiting in the parlor .  Ripley goes on to report “Night would find they (the men callers) had finished their list of calls and eggnog had about finished them.” (9)

In addition to the holiday eggnog, Leonard Huber, in his book, Gumbo Ya-Ya, mentions that anisette was also a favorite French holiday drink. Housewives boiled sugar and water to make sweet syrup, then added alcohol and an extract of anise seed, producing a strong liqueur.

“Twelfth Night Revelers” ball program, 1870. For 12th night ball at the Opera House, New Orleans Carnival.

Christmas was a strict religious holiday for French Catholics, but  with Twelfth Night, January 6th, the Carnival season began and with it  a massive round of balls and parties. Mark Twain, writing  a letter from the city in 1859  wrote  “…An American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”  In a less flattering manner he added that although Mardi Gras was a relic of French and Spanish heritage, “… I judge the religious feature has pretty well been knocked out of it.” (10)

In spite of its reputation regarding liquor, New Orleans was not much different from the rest of the South, or even the entire country.  Daniel Okrent writes in his book, Last Call, that by 1810 the number of distilleries in the nation had increased to fourteen thousand in less than twenty years.  “By 1830, American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year.”  (11) According to most authorities, the lack of a safe and stable water source throughout much of the country was one of the major causes of this increase.

Joe Gray Taylor writes, “With the exception of south Louisianians, the people of the South continued to prefer the beneficial effects of corn whiskey to that of other forms of alcohol.”   He continues, noting that temperance societies in the South, as in every other part of the country, were generally unsuccessful. (12)

It’s true that alcohol consumption was problematic in 19th century New Orleans as it was throughout the country.  In Bienville’s Dilemma, Richard Campanella lists some of the historic causes.
“Port cities, with their diverse ethnic stock are typically more cosmopolitan and more liberal than interior cities.” (13) Campanella  goes on to suggest that “Latin cultural connections, informed by Southern European and Catholic societies”, tend to take a more tolerant view of alcohol consumption. (14)  According to their economic status, many immigrants arriving in the city were used to drinking either wine or beer with meals daily.

But considering its significant and ongoing presence, liquor has been just an accessory to the city’s world- amous cuisine.  Culinary prowess has given the city many celebrities, such as Madame Begue, the humble immigrant cook who became nationally famous preparing three hour breakfasts for tourists during the Cotton Centennial in 1884.  New Orleans’ historic reputation as a culinary mecca was certainly nurtured by its natural geographic attributes and its southern European influence.   But, in addition, it has not only bred, but consistently attracted creative people who are obsessed with the idea of praising, preparing, eating, living for and loving its incomparable food.

Footnotes, Part 3

1. Historic New Orleans Collection, “What’s Cooking in New Orleans?” exhibition catalog online, 2007  www.hnoc.org/Exhibits/pdf/What’s Cooking catalog.pdf

2. Henry Benjamin Whipple, Bishop Whipple’s Southern Diary, ed. Lester B. Shippee (New York; DeCapo Press, 1968), 111
3. Advertisement for store auction, New Orleans Bee Online, March 5,1835  http//www.Jefferson.lib.la U.S./genealogy/New Orleans Beemain.html
4. Advertisement for Mr. Juett’s store on Chartres St., New Orleans Bee Online, March 13, 1835 http//www.Jefferson.lib.la U.S./genealogy/New Orleans Beemain.html
5.  Joe Gray Taylor, Eating, Drinking and Visiting in the South: An Informal History (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, updated edition, 2008), 59
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 80
8. Joseph H. Ingraham, Southwest By a Yankee (Amazon Digital’s Kindle edition, Vol. I, Chapter  X)
9. Eliza Ripley, Social Life in Old New Orleans, (New York & London, D.Appleton and Co.,1912) Google E-Books, 56  http://books.google.com
10. Mark Twain, Mark Twain Quotations. http://www.Twainquotes.com/MardiGras html
11. Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2010), 8
12. Taylor, Eating, Drinking and Visiting in the South, 45
13. Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma (University of Louisiana at Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies), 296
14. Ibid.

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