Black Friday

This Facebook post by Robert Reich about all the stores that will be open on Thanksgiving made me reflect on how I have spent Thanksgiving and the day after over the years.

Before I  was a nurse, I briefly had a job as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army.  People didn’t call the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” then but it was a huge  shopping day and  the kickoff for the holiday season.  Now the holiday season starts before Halloween which is one sign that our economy is not doing great.  It felt funny to me, as a Jew, to be ringing the bell for this Christian organization but people didn’t realize that I was being paid and thanked me for my service.

Once I became a nurse I often worked on Thanksgiving. If I was working a 7-3 shift when I got home we would go out to eat. One year my husband and one of my sons cooked dinner which was a real treat. When I worked 7-7 my family met me at the hospital and ate in the cafeteria with me.

This year my Thanksgiving  and Hanukkah will be spent with family and not shopping. Thanksgiving is a nice holiday because it is non-denominational and a time to relax. In our 24/7 society we need days of rest and no commercial activity.


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Legalizing Marijuana

Another one of the session I attended at the Alcohol Drugs History Society conference, Under Control?, was on “Prohibiting Cannabis”.  Neil Boyd spoke about Vancouver and the status of legalizing marijuana use in Canada. Many people in Vancouver support decriminalization and promote taxation and regulation in place of criminal penalties.

There were several other papers at the conference which looked at the history of cannabis use and regulation. They all left me with a series of questions about what legal marijuana would look like. If we tax and regulate marijuana in a similar way to alcohol and tobacco will we get the commercialization that those products have engendered?

Further what are the social and public implications if marijuana becomes legal? Drinking alcohol in most societies is a social activity which has produced institutions where the drinking takes place. Will spaces similar to cafes, pubs, and bars develop for consuming marijuana?

At the same time that drinking is a social activity societies have enacted rules that create boundaries for drinking in public spaces. What will be the legal equivalent of open container laws?

Many municipalities in North America have enacted legislation which prohibits smoking tobacco in restaurants, hotels, and often outdoor spaces near hospitals and other facilities. Will these laws simply be extended to the smoking of marijuana?

As states consider legalizing recreational use of cannabis answers to these questions may begin to emerge.

marijuana plant

Cannabis plant

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Methylated Spirits

Denatured alcohol

Denatured alcohol

At the Alcohol Drugs History Conference, Under Control?, held in London from June 20 to June 23, Stella Moss gave a very interesting and somewhat horrifying talk about “Methylated spirit consumption and the control of deviant drinking in interwar Britain.” Methylated spirit is denatured alcohol. Hospitals and businesses use this product for cleaning and other things.

In Britain, the Customs and Excise department regulates methylated spirits. Denatured alcohol is not meant to be drunk. In fact it contains methanol and other additives to prevent consumption. It is 19 per cent alcohol. At the present there are about 500 prosecutions a year in Britain for meths drinking.

Drinking denatured alcohol can cause blindness and other problems. During Prohibition many people drank denatured alcohol which is poisonous and I imagine tastes awful.

Methylated spirits is a surrogate drink; other products that serve this functional are antifreeze and hand gel. What all these products have in common are that they are cheap, relative to commercially produced alcohol.

Denatured alcohol is a byproduct of the tax code. Because states tax ethanol, drinkable alcohol, it would be too expensive for business to use ethanol for industrial purposes.

Restrictions on pubs and British drinking during World War 1 had led to moderate drinking during the 1920s. Because habitual drinkers had less access to alcohol in mainstream establishments they turned to methylated spirits.

Often people mixed the meths with other substances, using some form of ethanol. A red biddy was red wine and meths while a red Lizzie was meths mixed with Lisbon wine. Most meths drinkers were very poor.

There seems to have been lot of compulsion assisted with drinking methylated spirits. Because it is a purple color the meths drinker had a distinctive look with purple lips.

Society saw the meth’s drinker as deviant, as other. This is very similar to the current portrayal in America of the crystal methamphetamine user.


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Queen Bee: Drinking Practices in a British Pub

One of the most interesting talks I heard at the Alcohol Drug History Conference, Under Control? was by Amanda Fine, a Ph.D. student in anthropology. She is doing an ethnography of young people and alcohol use in a new town. It is a study of drinking practices.

The new town has a center purposely built for the night-time economy. She is studying one particular pub which has a music venue attached to it. A young woman, Jenny, is the landlady of both establishments. She started running the pub when she was eighteen and has been doing it for four years.

Amanda Fine is examining the culture around Jenny who she has designated the Queen Bee. She is a participant-observer and has, to some extent, become part of Jenny’s inner circle. The inner circle functions as informal surveillance and protection for Jenny.

I found this study very interesting because not that much is written about drinking practices and what actually goes on in pubs and bars. The idea of consciously creating night-time activities which have an economic purpose is, to me, a new way to look at social and cultural activities. Several other papers at the conference also used this term.

One thing that Amanda Fine did not really address was Jenny’s economic role. She is running a business which requires involvement with local licensing agents, potential interaction with the police as well as purchasing liquor and stocking the pub. As a woman, being a publican is not that usual. How does Jenny cope with that?


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Bourbon and Wine

As I have said, one reason I was in Paris and London was to give a paper at the Alcohol Drugs History Conference, Under Control? My paper was “Creating Bourbon: Distillers and the federal government 1862-1963.” I was part of a panel, “New drinks, new cultures”. The other panelist was Elizabeth Gabay, who spoke on “A side effect of gin regulations: the development of punch in Britain.

Elizabeth Gabay discussed how society viewed punch as a better drink than gin. The recipe she gave for punch showed that he drink could contain a variety of spirits as long as gin was not included. To make punch you had to use sugar not honey as your sweetener. Different classes of people used different spirits for punch.

An organization, Film Exchange on Alcohol and Drugs (FEAD) filmed our session. I will link to the video when it is available.

In brief, my paper looked at how bourbon distillers used government regulation such as the Bottled-In-Bond Act and federal bonding polices to carve out a market niche. Absent these government policies, bourbon distillers would have been slow to store and age their product. Aging gives the liquor its distinctive flavor and is now part of the definition of what makes bourbon, bourbon.

Much of the conference focused on social and cultural aspects of drug and alcohol use. Fewer participants gave papers on the economic or political issues surrounding the production and manufacture of alcohol and drugs.

One of the keynote speakers, James Simpson, spoke about the wine industry, globally, from 1880-1980. His talk focused on wine cooperatives which functioned as cartels. Although my paper didn’t look at the economic associations and combinations in the distilled spirits industry, they did take place.

A key to the success of a combination is agreeing to control, usually reduce production. In America, the California Wine Association (CWA) was able to effectively control production in the late nineteenth century. The distillers were less successful and had many different combinations prior to Prohibition.

James Simpson mentioned that the CWA was able to continue as a trust because most Americans did not drink wine and most of the wine the CWA produced went out-of-state. The distillers were once again less successful at avoiding scrutiny. The Whiskey Trust, a combination of neutral spirits producers, was the subject of Congressional investigations.

I enjoyed going to the conference and meeting people whose research interests are similar to mine. Comparing wine and distilled spirits shows the strong role government plays in shaping what we drink.

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Down and out in Paris and London

As you may be able to tell from my previous two posts I found being in London easier than being in Paris. Part of it was the language, of course, but there were other reasons as well. There was less visible evidence of poverty in London.

The first day we were there and walking around our neighborhood near Tavistock and Russell Square, a very persistent woman stood in front of us with a sad story about being from Greece ad needing money. She followed us for quite a while before she gave up. Her behavior was very aggressive.

Besides her we really didn’t see people in the street begging or sleeping in public areas. In Paris it was a different story.

There are a lot of people in Paris who try to scam you or live on the streets seeking money. We saw several people sitting on the sidewalk with dogs that seemed almost dead begging. One woman had an emaciated lifeless cat and several kittens. These scenes were very disturbing and unpleasant.

One day we were walking to the Orsay Metro stop and a woman approached us holding a ring. It looked like silver wedding band. She asked if it belonged to me. When I said no she offered to let me have it and placed it in my hand. As I was holding it she asked for money for finding it or giving it to me or for something. I handed it right back to her. The whole situation was bizarre.

Click here for a fuller description of the various scams in Paris. We saw them all. Reading the descriptions makes me nauseous.

Our hotel was right down the street from a church, Saint Roch. There was a man who lived on the steps. He was there every day. He had a suitcase and he sat there every day.

Eglise Saint Roch

Eglise Saint Roch

One day we went through a passage way to get to our block. A restaurant had some tables and chairs in the area. In corner the man from the steps was there urinating. I have no idea how he did anything else. I think he tries to sleep there but one evening I saw a policeman shaking him to get him to move.

Our hotel and the church were right down the street from shops selling $200 or more handbags and shoes. When I think of the man on the steps there is a pervasive feeling of sadness.

Poverty, unlike food, has always been global. The poor of Paris do not seem to have changed much from the poor Victor Hugo described in Les Miserables. That is a crime.

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Drinking in Paris and London

I have been to Paris three times and each time I have felt that I generally got good wine. To me, who knows nothing about wine, French wines taste better than the wine I get in America.

One of the reasons we were in Europe was so that I could give a paper at the Alcohol Drugs History Society conference, Under Control? Several of the other participants study wine from a historical perspective. When a bunch of us all went out to dinner one night, the wine scholars did not feel the house red wine was very good. It tasted fine to me. They ordered a bottle of something I don’t remember the name that did taste a lot better.

I do know something about beer although I think all of it is a matter of taste. While in Paris we bought large 16 oz. cans of Leffe Blonde. A Belgian Pale Ale, it is 6.6 % alcohol by volume (ABV). I really liked it. Leffe is light in color and has a very good flavor. It was refreshing and thirst quenching.

Leffe Blonde

Leffe Blonde

I usually drink beers that have a much more pronounced hop flavor but the Leffe hit the spot. It would be a great beer to have at a ball game, considerably better than what is usually available at Yankee stadium.

While in London we drank beer a lot. Although Britain is undergoing a craft beer revival, sparked in some ways by American craft brewing, I did not find beers that I liked as much as the beer I usually drink at home.

I did have Budvar, which in many parts of the world is called Budweiser, which I liked. It is a flavorful lager with much more body than its American counterpart. It was also served cold; most British beer is served at room temperature. Again this is a matter of taste but I am used to beer being cold, not too cold but not warm either.

The British beer I tasted, London Pride and Spitfire, were okay but neither had enough hops for my taste. I am sure that are British beers which are hoppier but I didn’t have the chance to drink them. That is probably a reason to go back.

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Eating in Paris and London

I just came back from a trip to Paris and London. I had a great time. Before I went I would have thought that the food in Paris would have been better than the food in London but that was not the case.

This was partly because we wound up staying in a fairly touristy neighbor near the Tuileries which made prices more expensive. Also the language barrier made inquiry more difficult.



There was something else at play as well. In Paris I felt like I should eat “French food” That turned out to be hard to do and was expensive. Two of the best meals we had and for which we got the greatest value were savory crepes at a Greek place in the Rue Cler pedestrian mall and Chinese food in the Marais near the Carnavalet museum.

In London, before getting there, the thoughts in my head were about how bad English food is and how we ate mostly Indian food when we were there 23 years ago. This time we didn’t eat any Indian food but we did eat Asian, Italian, tapas, as well as pub food.

The breakfast at the hotel which was included in the price for the room was the least appealing of all the meals. It was a typical English breakfast with eggs, porridge – actually oatmeal, sausage, bacon, baked beans, stewed tomatoes, some kind of fish in some kind of sauce and stewed prunes. None of it was done very well and some of it tasted horribly.

The meal we had that I felt was truly English and tasted really great was a lunch at a church, St Martin in the Fields. It was cool because you eat all the way in the bottom in the crypt. We had vegetable soup and a berry cobbler with custard. The soup was delicious and the custard was scrumptious.

The Crypt at St. Martin in the Fields

The Crypt at St. Martin in the Fields

One of the best meals we had in Paris was a simple omelet and then for dessert crepes with salted caramel sauce. Divine. Salted caramel seems to be a flavor in Europe, particularly France that we don’t have in the States.

After eating in both countries, the globalization of both French and English culture really stood out. Many restaurants have burgers. In England at a pub we had chicken wings. It is really hard to go someplace that doesn’t feel like the place you left.

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Macro Beer versus Craft Beer

On Feb. 8, Elizabeth Flock, had an interesting in-depth article in US News and World Report about competition between macro brewers, such as Anheuser-Busch, and craft brewers. The key players in her story are several craft brewers, Jim Koch and Sam Calagione and the brewing industry trade associations.

One of the first industries to form trade associations, the brewing industry currently has two. All brewers can belong to the Beer Institute; however it functions as the mouthpiece of the macro brewers. It is the successor organization to the United States Brewers Association which existed from 1862 to 1986.

The craft brewers all belong to the Brewers Association which, in 1941, originated as the Small Brewers Association. Recently the Brewers Association created a definition of craft beer. Part of the definition is that the brewer must brew less than 6 million barrels a year. This measurement allows Jim Koch, owner of Boston Beer, to claim craft beer status.

In the article Flock notes that Chris Thorne of the Beer Institute claims that the concept of craft beer is just “a marketing term”. It is in the interest of craft brewers to distinguish themselves from the macro brewers. Macro brewers, on the other hand, would like to associate themselves more closely with the craft brewing sector. Craft beer is the only part of the brewing industry that has experienced real growth in the past few years.

Flock details the various points of conflict between the two facets of the brewing industry. She indicates that one area of agreement is on federal taxes. All parts of the brewing industry would like to see them lowered.

Other aspects of the tax code do not generate as much harmony. The Brewers Association is seeking to expand the amount of production that can qualify for a small brewers tax decrease.  Currently brewers of less than 2 million barrels a year are eligible for a tax reduction. The new legislation would increase eligibility to six million barrels.

This differential tax rate dates from 1976 and was a moment of true cooperation between small and large brewers.  The Brewers Institute does not support the Small Brew Act.

The issues facing the brewing industry are not new ones. Since 1862and the imposition of federal taxes the brewers have always sought to have the lowest rate possible. Completion between large and small brewers became a fact in the late nineteen century, reemerged during Repeal and has continued unabated.


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As part of President Obama’s gun control plan he has included a request to have his nominee for director of the ATF be confirmed. Prior to 2006 the director of the ATF did not require Senate confirmation. Since 2006 there has not been a permanent director of the ATF.

The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has had a problematic existence. In 1951, as part of tax increase legislation, the name of the Bureau of Internal Revenue was changed to The Internal Revenue Service. The IRS was responsible for collecting the excise and license fees that the liquor and tobacco industries paid to the federal government. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Treasury Department was responsible for monitoring illicit production, distribution, and revenue fraud
In 1968, in response to the violent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Congress passed the Gun Control Act. Firearms became part of the portfolio of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. In 1972 it become an Independent agency, The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and was responsible for revenue collection and preventing illicit distribution and fraud. Once firearms become part of the BATF the agency gained a perpetual enemy in the guise of the NRA.

It is this enmity that has prevented a permanent director from being confirmed. During the Regan administration the NRA nearly succeeded in disbanding the agency. The BATF has remained a weak agency.

The most well knows incident that many feel revealed the incompetence of the Agency is the massacre in Waco in 1993. Despite the fact that many people believed that the government action at Branch Davidian represented an overreach of federal power, a subsequent investigation determined that the BATF had not used excessive force.

In January 2003 the BATF split into two bureaus. The duties of tax collection and regulation of production, labeling, marketing and advertising of alcoholic products went to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) while the law enforcement aspect of the ATF became the responsibility of the Justice Department. These changes were part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and were a consequence of the events of September 11, 2001.

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