This week I willingly fell for a targeted ad and snagged a copy of William Sitwell’s The Restaurant: A 2000-Year History of Dining Out. Now, after reading it, all I can think about is Treebeard the Ent. Specifically, how much of an absolute beast he would be in a tug-o-war competition. Think about it for a minute. Huge amounts of upper body strength plus roots he could sink deep into the ground? I’d feel very confident with him as the anchor on my squad and I would welcome any argument saying otherwise.
Sitwell’s supremely interesting book details pubs from Pompeii and the invention of the tablecloth. He discusses the rise and fall of celebrity chefs, including Gabriel-Charles Doyen, the private chef of Marie Antoinette. Once Robespierre beheaded his cake-eating patron, Doyen found himself without a job. When Doyen approached Robespierre demanding employment, he was greeted by Madame Guillotine’s sweet embrace. There is also a whole chapter dedicated to a man named Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Marco Polo-like traveler who may have been the world’s first food critic. Battuta was robbed by pirates! Much easier these days to just post on Yelp. Sitwell’s book maps out the history of restaurants by investigating world events that forced eating (and drinking) habits to change. Simply put, it was wonderful, I strongly suggest grabbing a copy for yourself.
So how on middle-earth do I associated a walking talking tree and the history of restaurants? By using the last piece of advice my father gave me when he dropped me off at college for the first time: “Don’t drink and talk about politics or religion.”
For the last 14 years I have been under the assumption that avoiding these topics while inebriated was a way to save yourself from heated discussions with strangers or over-argumentative friends. Save discussion of important matters for sober times. Keep drunken arguments for sports (Michael>Lebron) or pop culture (What house would you be in at Hogwarts? – Sorry pal, you’re most likely a Hufflepuff). Or perhaps my favorite topic of drunken debate, the fictional tug-o-war competition.
The rules are simple. With a group of 3-5 individuals take turns picking your best five-member tug-o-war team, one of which must be any human from any point of history. For the four fictional characters, you can’t duplicate “universes.” You can’t just pick Andre the Giant and four of the Avengers (you’d get smoked anyways). At the end of it all you have to defend your choices to your fellow drunkards. Over the years I have seen some wild picks. A friend of mine once wanted to pick Thomas the Tank Engine. The argument was that if Thomas could start facing away from the center of the “tug” he would be unstoppable. Another friend once picked Bender from Futurama as a tug-o-war was just another form of bending. My best team in order on the rope goes as follows: 1) DC Comic’s The Flash – his superior quickness should give my squad an immediate advantage 2) My human choice – 1998’s World’s Strongest Man champion, Magnus Samuelsson 3) Megatron, the supreme ruler of the Decpticons, arguably (that is the point) much stronger than Optimus Prime 4) Machamp, the four-armed body-building Pokémon and 5) Treebeard the Ent, my anchor. Whether or not my friends and I were just drunk-flexing our nerd knowledge, the debates that followed these tug-o-war creations were as riveting as they were ridiculous. But it always was, in my opinion, a far better use of our time than drunkenly arguing over anything of actual importance.
After reading Sitwell’s new restaurant history though, I’ve come to believe that the advice my father gave me all those years ago has roots much deeper than just avoiding late-night barstool yelling matches. Sitwell points to documented Roman Emperor decrees from almost 2,000 years ago that limited what establishments could and could not sell.
“In fact,” He states, “Roman leaders eyed [food and drink establishments] with suspicion, believing some taverns to be harboring political hostility, and so began to inflict regulations.” Page 17, Chapter 1.
Sitwell suggests emperors Tiberius (AD 14-37), Claudius (AD 41-54) and Nero (54-68) all imposed restrictions in an attempt to put down the discussion of politics by the common people. Later he goes into detail on the Ottoman Empire squashing coffee houses where the thinkers of the day gathered to “ridicule the corrupt elite.”
“…between 1623 and 1640, during the reign of Murad IV, many coffee houses were forced to close. There are records, even, of coffee drinkers – and tobacco smokers – being executed.” Page 33, Chapter 2.
Just a few years later in 1675, almost 4,000 miles away, King Charles II of England issued a very Trump-ian “Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses.”
“It is most apparent that the multitude of coffee-houses of late years set up and kept within this kingdom … have produce very evil and dangerous effects. In such houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such persons therein, diverse false, malicious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad, to the defamation of His Majesties government, and to the disturbance of the piece and the quiet of the realm; His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary that the said coffee-houses be (for the future) put down and suppressed.” Page 67 Chapter 5.
These past few days I have managed to convince myself that the whole “no politics no religion while drinking” thing might have its roots more so in saving your life than saving your friendships. I started picturing western movies involving corrupt city leaders strong-arming townsfolk in a saloon into terrified silence or perhaps union busters coming down hard on a tired factory worker as he drinks his beer complaining about long hours and poor working conditions. You had better watch what you say in 1950’s America as you wouldn’t want to be outed as a communist by Joe McCarthy!
Here in Astoria, New York in the year 2020 I don’t fear an outcome of bodily harm from any discussion I might find myself in, but that is not a luxury afforded to the whole world – the whole country even. These are strange times we find ourselves in, my friends. There are many things that need to be argued over. Things that need to be fought for. There are fires that need to be soothed and opinions that need to be changed. Just please try and keep drinking out of it.
If you find yourself in need of a drunken argument, please reach out. Treebeard and the gang are taking on all challengers.
MIKE FERRIN is a co-founder and co-editor of 86 Logic. Born just outside of Chicago, he now lives and works in Astoria, Queens. Mike has spent time at just about every job possible in the service industry and though it’s been years since he hung up his chef coat, his heart has never strayed far from his back-of-house roots. His enthusiasm for sausage is unmatched. He has no doubts, that if God exists, his fingers must surely be made of bratwursts. His thumbs would dispense mustard – God’s thumbs not Mike’s.