Coconut Ale

dsc_7353In Chapter Three of Mason & Dixon, the Reverend Cherrycoke narrates the first excursion of our title characters in London. As Mason (“coming the Old London Hand”) inducts Dixon into the cheerful violence and mystery of the city, they encounter a group of sailors in charge of the vessel the pair are to sail on. Under the enthusiastic captaincy of Fender-Belly Bodine, the sailors are plotting to kidnap one Léarned English Dog (LED). Page 21:

“Now,— our plan, is to snatch this Critter, and for you Gents to then keep it in with your own highly guarded Cargo, out of sight of the Master-at-Arms, until we reach a likely Island,—

“Island…” “Snatch…” both Surveyors a bit in a daze.

“I’ve been out more than once to the Indies,— there’s a million islands out there, each more likely than the last, and I tell you a handful of Sailors with their wits about them, and that talking Dog to keep the Savages amused, why, we could be kings.”

“Long life to Kings!” cry several sailors.

“Aye and to Cooch Girls!”

“— and Coconut-Ale!”

“Hold,” cautions Mason. “I’ve heard they eat dogs out there.”

“Wrap ’em in palm leaves,” Dixon solemnly, “and bake ’em on the beach…?”

Happily, the Léarned D. foils the sailors in their kidnapping plot with the help of his present “exhibitors,” and all retire to the Pearl of Sumatra for a drink on Bodine’s tab.

dsc_7372But back to that Coconut Ale, apparently a delight of the Indies! I can’t find much of any information on Indigenous coconut beer in those regions. The sailors may be referring to a type of Palm Wine made from the sap of a coconut tree. But I will take them at their word and stick with a coconut ale.

This Coconut Hiwa is a porter brewed in Hawaii by Maui Brewing Company. It’s made with hand-toasted coconut, and plenty of that comes through. Were I an English sailor encountering such a thing on a sojourn in the East Indies, I would certainly find it a memorable twist on the original style from back home, and a drink well befitting an island king.

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Small Beer

Pynchon Small BeerAmong the many pieces of historical, gustatory, and alcoholic miscellanea we can gather from the pages of Mason & Dixon, the early birth and long-life of the mutual incomprehension customary between British and American beer drinkers is one I particularly enjoy. Yanks find British beer dank and warm, Poms find the US stuff fizzy and insipid, and apparently it has ever been thus. Here’s Dixon offering to buy a round on page 569:

“Eeh, lo, thy Jack’s empty…? Can’t have thah’, allow me, all who’re dry, no problem, Mr. McClean shall enter each into his Ledger, and in the fullness of Time will all be repaid,— aye then, here they come! how canny, with those greeaht Foahm Tops on ’em, what do tha call thah’?”

“That is a ‘Head,'” Blackie quizzickal. “They don’t have that, back wherever you’re from? What kind o’ Ale-drinker are you then, Sir?”

“Shall we quarrel, after all?”

“Innocent question,” Blackie looking about for support.

“Very well, as tha did ask,— I’m a faithful and traditional Ale-Drinker, sir, who does thee a courtesy in even swallowing this pale, hopp’d-up, water’d down imitation of Small Beer.”

“Far preferable,” replies Blackie, “— even if sladerously and vilely untrue,— to that black, sluggish, treacly substitute for Naval Tar, Sir, no offense meant, that they swill down over in England?” with a look that would have been meaningful, could it get much beyond a common Glower.

After which point, unexpectedly, both find the forgiveness in their hearts and the broadness in their palates to appreciate each other’s ales after all. They pull back from the precipice of this argument and join in another comradely American Pint.

As an aside, when I first read Mason & Dixon the 18th century-ish language seemed forbidding at first but quickly came to feel familiar and comfortable. But transcribing bits of it really dispels the illusion that this kind of writing could ever come easily–the effort that must have gone into making such strange sentences read so easily must have been phenomenal. And they don’t just read easily, they spark incredibly into life. The layers of phonetic accents and mock (?) 18th century weirdness somehow result not in abstract postmodern textual artefact or overblown monstrosity but in a Jeremiah Dixon so real and human you can just about smell the beer on his breath.

Small Beer Mason & DixonSmall Beer, the particular British style Jeremiah denigrates the American specimen in relation to, was a lower-alcohol beer that was often brewed from the second runnings of wort when making a stronger beer. Workers would drink it through the day, children at festivals. The beer I have here is quite literally a “hopp’d-up imitation” of such a style. It’s the Small Ale from Colonial Brewing Co in Margaret River, Western Australia, a pale ale with grassy and citrusy hops, suprisingly flavourful for its 3.5% abv. The Foahm Top is decent if perhaps not greeaht. I don’t love it, would rather go straight to something stronger. But if Mr Dixon happened around, I guess this wouldn’t be the worst representation of Australian beer he could try. No doubt we could have a most convivial time over a few pints of it.

Cock Ale

Don’t get too excited—Pynchon clearly has his saucier moments, but I haven’t gone all NSFW on you here. A cock’s a chicken, you dirty bastards. And what could be a more natural beer ingredient than a chicken.

Cock Ale PynchonThe Cock Ale appears in Mason & Dixon, brewed regularly at “The Moon,” a St Helena “punch house” on “Cock Hill” (p. 116). Mason, Dixon, and Maskelyne are hanging around celebrating (or more like commiserating) Maskelyne’s twenty-ninth birthday. Mason’s mysteriously sober, preoccupied with a misinstalled Plumb-line. Meanwhile “a Malay” runs into the the room screaming “Cock Ale Tomorrow! Cock Ale Tomorrow!” and “holding by the Feet a dead Fighting-Cock trailing its last blood in splashes like Characters Death would know how to read” (p. 119). But we apparently don’t have to wait until tomorrow—there’s a batch ready today. The proprietor, Mr Blackner, presents M, D & M with “three gigantic Pots of today’s Cock Ale” (p. 120):

“Rum Suck, Gents, and if Mr. Mas-son, can resist it, why then you Gents may divide this third Pot betwixt ye, Compliments of the House.” Mr Blackner’s Receipt for Cock Ale is esteem’d up and down the India Route, and when these Malays stop in Town with their travelling Cock-Fights, the Main Ingredient being suddenly plentiful, Cock Ale, as some might say, is in Season.

Cock Ale is not the invention of Mr Blackner, nor of Pynchon. It is in fact a venerable beverage, and probably a mostly forgotten curiosity by the 18th century of Mason & Dixon. Back in 1669, one Sir Kenelm Digby wrote that “these are tame days when we have forgotten how to make Cock-Ale.” He then helpfully provided a reminder, the first known printed recipe for cock ale:

Kenelm Digby,

Kenelm Digby, “The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, Knight.” (London, 1669). 

I’ve pillaged that from a fascinating history of cock ale that you can and should read here. Mr Blackner’s recipe at The Moon differs slightly from Sir Digby’s (p. 120):

Mr. Blackner prefers to soak the necessary dried Fruit Bits in Mountain, or Málaga Wine, instead of Canary, and to squeeze the Carcass dry with a cunning Chinese Duck-Press, won at Euchre from a fugitive aristocrat of that Land, in which Force may be multiplied to unprecedented Values, extracting mystick Humors not obtain’d in other Receipts.

The cock ale I sampled apparently sticks pretty close to Digby’s recipe, with mace and a whole unpressed chicken. It was the Big Red Cock Ale from Brisbane’s Bacchus Brewing (which I found alongside a terrific mushroom burger at Brother Burger and the Marvellous Brew). The raisins were much more prominent than the cock, but I could more or less convince myself that there were some savoury chicken stock type notes in there too. Generally, it tasted like a subtler, weirder German dunkel.

I would of course like to sample Mr. Blackner’s version. If anyone has a spare cunning Chinese Duck-Press sitting around, send it over my way and I’ll have a go at brewing it up myself.

Merry Christmas! (Fruitcake soaked in brandy)

Pynchon Christmas cake

Merry Christmas all! The day’s over here in Australia; probably just beginning for Tommy Pynchon himself. Among my celebrations, I’ve squeezed in a fruit cake soaked in brandy, as recommended by Mason in Mason & Dixon. A nice chunk of Christmas does appear in M&D, but the fruit cake doesn’t actually herald from any of the most Christmassy scenes. The troupe are snowed in, so it’s wintery at least. They’re talking about Dixon’s relationship with “someone in the kitchen” and the effect it’s had on the “size and curvature” of his stomach. Mason cheerily teases Dixon about the products of her kitchen:

“—the Pies,” Mason is joyous to enumerate, “the Tarts, the, the Jam-stuff’d Dough-nuts, the lengthy Menu of French Crèmes and Mousses, the Fruit-Cakes soak’d in Brandy be it Feast-day or no,—”

“Stop . . . ?” cries Dixon, “tha’re making me hungry.”

Fruitcake brandy PynchonPynchon Christmas brandy cake

It is sadly a rare opinion that fruit cake is a wonderful thing whether it’s a feast day or not. I love the stuff. This particular one was great too, a fancy supermarket Christmas cake that I topped up with extra brandy. And now eating has worn me out and I must sleep. Happy Christmas!

Madeira

I stepped off my bus this afternoon halfway through Mason & Dixon‘s last chapter. No way could I have gone home and socialised with people at that point. I sat down on the first available bench and finished it. The thing is though, finishing M&D in public isn’t exactly like finishing Lot 49 or Gravity’s Rainbow or any of the other books. The final few chapters of M&D must be the tenderest, saddest pages in Pynchon. So I was a bit of a blubbery public spectacle. But whatever man, it’s a brilliant book.

Pynchon Madeira

The drinks list for Mason & Dixon is of course all ready to go now, and it sure does features some stunners. The “Cock Ale” will be one to look forward to especially (I’ll leave you to look up the recipe, which Pynchon does give in moderate and disturbing detail). But two drinks really dominate the action: corn whiskey and Madeira. Dixon proposes early on that the world divides into grain people and grape people. Dixon’s the grain man, Mason the grape. The book itself seems to start out on the side of the grape, with a glass of Madeira in every character’s hand. It’s the first drink show up, right on the second page (labelled page six):

…smoke ascends from Chimney-Pots, Sledging-Parties adjourn indoors, Taverns bustle,— freshly infus’d Coffee flows ev’ryplace, born about thro’ rooms front and back, whilst Madeira, which has ever fuel’d Association in these Parts, is deploy’d nowadays like an ancient Elixir upon the seething Pot of Politics,— for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.

And it keeps coming up through the first episodes of the book, showing up five times before page 300. After that, it starts to fade out of the adventure. By the time we reach its final appearance on page 566, it’s being literally shifted out of the way:

They make their way to a Corner with a Clavier, from whose top Dixon must remove a Madeira bottle, two cold Chops, and a severely tatter’d Periwig in order even to lounge against it.

Grain pushes Grape more and more to the sidelines as the line-drawing expedition progresses “as, the further West they go, the more distill’d Grains, and the fewer wines, are to be found.”

Like the book, I’m starting out with Madeira on the side of the grape. The one I have here is a five year aged Malmsey, which is the sweetest of the four possible varieties. Sweet it is, with an acid finish. Tastes overwhelmingly of raisins. If you’re seeking sugar, it is very enjoyable. Would be great, I’m sure, with ice cream. Pynchon describes Cape Madeira at one point as “a thick violet Liquid one must get thro’ six or seven Bottles of even to begin to feel at ease,” which just sounds to me like a huge sugar headache. I’ll seek out one of the dryer varieties next time.

Oh, and why is it Madeira our crew are always drinking? According to Wikipedia (my favourite phrase), the 18th century was the “golden age of Madeira.” It’s a very robust style, happily surviving exposure to oxygen and extreme temperatures, which must have helped it get to everyone in those wilder times.