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Charles Baker's Drunken Oriental Junket

An NPR interviewer once asked writer David Sedaris why he had left New York and moved to Paris. His answer must have sent a frigid wind into every local chapter of Bores Against Anything Pleasurable. He preferred Paris, he said, because in Paris he was allowed to smoke. Smoke cigarettes, that is, and just about everywhere: in bars, restaurants, parks - all the places one might expect, and all the places where America is now prohibiting smoking. And America is going about it in much the same insidious and paternalistic way that led to the laughable prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933.

Sedaris is not the only American scribbler to have fled his country in search of the humble drugs that have long been the prop and stay of his profession. In 1931 American Charles H. Baker Jr. departed from his parched land to catalogue culinary and spirituous exotica, and his trip was an oblique defiance of what Baker would later call Prohibition's "arid yoke". Forgetting for now the steady destruction of Baker's liver, the result of this journey was The Gentleman's Companion, two volumes committed to food and booze respectively. Or, as Baker has it, "World-Famous Lively Liquid Masterpieces from Greater & Lesser Parts of Orient & Occident, & the South Seas." Volume two is not only a cookbook of exotic cocktails, but also a travelogue, first-aid manual, and further proof that the English language has declined since the book's publication in 1937.

Baker visited nearly every Asian city and outpost of note and notoriety: Ceylon, Singapore, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines (where Baker more than once says that "monkeys have no tails"), Hong Kong, Shanghai, "Burmah", and India. The European empires were still chugging along, as was their vast and critical machinery of alcohol distribution. The Americans, inventors of most of the world's mixed drinks, were still in the possession of the Philippines and busy extracting rubies from Burma. The Far East was virtually crawling with men like Baker, happy for "coolies" to be fanning them with palm fronds while they fiddled with decanters and barspoons.

Baker begins by making an ecumenical appeal. All peoples everywhere, he says, have invented and enjoyed what he erroneously calls "stimulant liquids." Well before English ships plied foreign waters with their hulls full of Scotch, Filipinos were making liquor from coconut, Samoans from kava, the Chinese and Japanese from rice, and the Tibetans from, alas, yak milk. Scientists now tell us that yeast was cultivated not principally to make bread rise, but to make beer bubble. Even Asian elephants binge on fermented coconut juice after a hard day's work of keeping themselves fed.

Baker's journeys were not restricted to Asia, but he did seem to prefer it: "many of the old world laws, tabus, taxes, and other civilized nuisances are tossed overboard at Suez." Please observe that the word civilized is used here in a pejorative sense, as an antonym for "free." Baker enjoys gazing at Asian women, their "exquisite figures poured into scabbard-like split dresses of pastel silk that so elegantly suit their type," and in Manila he remarks on how casual are tropical encounters. His every description is pervaded by the fumes of infinite time and minimal worry. And he pines for those serene and sleepy days when he could expostulate on "Jenghiz Khan, and fiancies."

Above all he savors the Asians' graceful lack of inhibition, and the lack of prohibition to be found in their states. Unfortunately he misses a steamboat or two, and he blames his negligence on a certain cognac and absinthe concoction known as The Astor House Special, native to Shanghai.

Baker happily distributes blue ribbons to drinks and their designers. Of all Asian drink-mixers, he declares the best to be the Filipinos, and, somewhat unexpectedly, the Japanese. The best mint julep, pride of the Confederacy, is to be found at Luzon's Manila Hotel, managed by a rootless bon vivant named "Monk" Antrim. And Manila City is the source of "the best and most consistent group of mixed drinks." A favored "picker-upper" is the Maharaja's Burra-Peg: cognac, champagne, and the usual accessories of fruit and bitters. Shanghai leads the world in consumption of Bacardi rum, and the "finest hot drink extant" is the Shanghai Cossack Punch, containing brandy, curacao, rum, tea, and assorted flavor enhancers. ("Punch", says Baker, derives from Sanskrit panch, meaning "five": the standard number of ingredients in an Indian punch.) The award for best Gin Sling (gin, cherry brandy, and Benedictine topped off with soda) goes to Singapore's renowned Raffles Hotel, where Baker claims to have glimpsed that chronicler of colonialism's dying days, Somerset Maugham. Baker treats the Raffles Gin Sling (now known as a Singapore Sling) with some trepidation. It is a "delicious, slow-acting, insidious thing," he says, but "immortal" all the same.

Before I came to Thailand, my employer-to-be often wrote of drinking tonic with just a touch of gin to keep the fever down. I was intrigued, though I couldn't help wonder if it were the tonic or the gin that acted as the anti-pyretic, or both. Tonic contains quinine, which is a fairly mild anti-malarial drug by today's standards. Gin is rather inimical to life in its own way, so it probably helps fell many a tropical bug. The problem, says Baker, is that too many people took to drinking gin-and-tonic as a beverage when it was intended to be a medicine. Gin-and-tonic also became popular with "American hosts who wanted to impress folk with having combed the Orient."

As a sightseer in Thailand, Baker is little pleased by what he sees, and he looks forward to a few stiff ones to "forget our weary insteps, our sun-toasted eyeballs...." Like so many modern-day travelers, he "literally drank [his] way across Siam and Cambodia", and for some reason he finds the name "Pnom Penh" to be utterly ridiculous.

Baker proposes that the gimlet (a sweetened and citrified gin-based drink) is to the Orient what the Martini is to America. He might be disappointed to learn that the cocktail of choice, in Thailand anyway, is the woody whisky and soda or the cloying rum and coke. And by "rum" and "whisky" is often meant the most vile spirit available, rather than distillations of grain or sugar cane.

Some of this Oriental confusion may be explained by what Baker calls "arrack", which is liquor indigenous to the Far East "made from fermented palm toddy, from muowha flowers, fermented sugar cane refuse, rice mash" - or, one is inclined to say, anything short of wood pulp. Baker likens arrack to tequila, presumably as both double as a test of manhood, or insanity, or for that matter dipsomania, which Baker nobly condemns.

I was in Bali the only time I drank - or will ever drink - arrack. I was served a nearly full tumbler of the limpid stuff, and was directed to add Coke once in a while to dilute it. "Fermented refuse" is probably an apt term for what I quickly became, though the reggae playing in the club did come to sound more profound and inventive than reggae usually does.

But Baker is thoroughly of the opinion that sobriety is, as Samuel Johnson once said, "a diminution of pleasure", and to that end Baker adduces a host of fond, but rather fuzzy memories of exotic locales. He stands on Juhu Beach in Bombay; finds Japan to be "heart-breakingly beautiful"; recalls a "moonlight night in Ceylon" and "another dawn on China."

And by the end of it all, Baker is a changed man - ruined liver again to one side. He writes with a languor and a sweet love of life that is, if not Oriental, then tropical. In explaining why his fellow Americans are far too busy to truly enjoy wine, he writes:

"Everyone who doesn't leap out of warm sheets at the command of an alarmclock daily, rush through a shave, a hurried breakfast and a dash to an office is - for reasons no sane soul has ever been able to explain to us - viewed as not quite Worth While, and lacking the proper attitude toward life."

That this attitude is not proper but slightly pathological goes without saying, unbefitting a gentleman surely, and the prescription may very well include a trip to Asia and a dash, or a pony, or a jigger, of good old aqua vitae - before the prohibitionists have the chance to reassemble their dour brigade.

- The End -

Review of Charles H. Baker, Jr.'s The Gentleman's Companion, Vol. II, Derrydale Press, 1992.

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Published on 4/21/06

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