Book Review: The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe


Author: Taras Grescoe
TitleThe Devil’s Picnic : Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit
Publication Info: New York, NY : Bloomsbury Pub. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2005.
Previously Read By Same Author: The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists and Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Summary/Review:

In Grescoe’s travel books he seeks out a specific theme for his travels.  In The End of Elsewhere he deliberately sought ought the most touristed spots across the Eurasian landmass and in Straphanger he rode the world’s best metro systems seeking solutions for cities.  In The Devil’s Picnic, the theme is prohibition and Grescoe travels the world to make a meal of food, drink and other consumables that have been banned or severely restricted in different parts of the world.  The menu includes moonshine in Norway, poppy seed crackers and chewing gum in Singapore, bull’s testicles in Spain, smoking in San Francisco, absinthe in Switzerland, mate de coca in Bolivia, and assisted suicide in Switzerland (the one thing the author does not sample).  Many of these items are banned out of concerns of morality and health, but Grescoe notes the arbitrary nature of prohibition and the damages on society and individuals that arise when resources are dedicated to legal enforcement rather than treatment, and forbidden fruits are only available through criminal organizations.  Similarily, there’s the hypocrisy of some substances such as caffeine being considered “harmless” and commonplace, something Grescoe attributes to it being a productivity drug that benefits a capitalist system. At times Grescoe comes off as a jerk, like when he deliberately chews gum in Singapore trying to provoke a reaction, knowing that a white Westerner will not be punished like a local.  But largely this is a thoughtful book on where the lines should be drawn between self-determination and societal protection.
Recommended books: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Prohibition (2011)


Title: Prohibition
Release Date: 2 October 2011
Director: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Production Co: Florentine Films
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | History
Rating: ****

This Ken Burns documentary illustrates the United States’ experiment with banning alcoholic beverages. The story is told in three parts.

Part I documents the adverse effect alcohol consumption had on Americans, especially men, who drank away their pay while women and children suffered poverty and abuse.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union organized to successfully (albeit temporarily) shut down saloons, and inadvertently providing a political outlet for women that helped the suffrage movement. On the other hand, alcohol played an important social role, especially in immigrant communities.  The dark side of the temperance movement is that it was made up of rural and small-town Protestants from the mid-west and south who were prejudice against the immigrant groups in the big cities.  The strongest opponents to prohibition were German-American brewers, so it was no surprise that anti-German sentiment during WWI helped sway the national opinion towards Prohibition.

Part II shows America under Prohibition.  Interestingly enough, many people (including politicians who voted for the amendment) expected beer and wine to be permitted under Prohibition.  The Anti-Saloon League under Wayne Wheeler are able to influence the drafting of the Volstead Act which enforced Prohibition by banning all beverages with more than one-half of one-percent alcohol.  There were many loopholes such as people who stocked up before the ban or those who could get prescriptions for medicinal alcohol.  While many in the heartland were pleased to abstain, places like New York City exploded with illegal importation and distilling of liquors.  These illegal activities were soon consolidated under organized crime bosses whose territorial battles contributed to notorious violence.

Part III illustrates the growing awareness that the levels of hypocrisy and unintended consequences of Prohibition, ultimately leading to repeal.

An interesting aspect of this documentary is it shows how the Prohibition story accompanies the increased role of women in American public life.  The temperance movement was led by women.  Mabel Walker Willebrandt enforced the Volstead Act in her duties as U.S. Assistant Attorney General.  Lois Long documented the glamour and sexual liberation of speakeasy nightlife in her articles for the The New Yorker.  And Pauline Sabin lead the political movement for repeal as head of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

Like Ken Burn’s other works, this was an excellent and informative documentary, richly illustrated with period photographs and films and words read from primary documents by actors and narrators.  I learned a lot from this film.