She’ll DRINK to that
BARBARA HOLLAND drinks a half-gallon of scotch every week. She’s in favour of elation but feels it’s under attack. That’s why she wrote The Joy of Drinking — to protest the decline of social drinking and the rise of broccoli, exercise and Starbucks
BLUEMONT, Virginia Outside Barbara Holland’s little house in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a cold drizzle falls through a thick fog. Inside the house, it’s warmer and drier and the fog isn’t water vapour; it’s cigarette smoke.
Smiling, she offers her visitor a choice: “You want to go outside and get pneumonia or stay in here and get lung cancer?”
She’s a wisp of a woman with short, white hair and a face that’s weather-beaten enough to be called craggy. She has just published her 15th book. It’s called The Joy of Drinking and, as the title suggests, it’s a lighthearted history of humanity’s long romance with strong liquids.
“Holland has a light, winsome touch and is always funny,” The New York Times raved, and The Los Angeles Times agreed: “Barbara Holland is a person you’d want to sit in front of a cosy fire and drink with.”
When a little old lady writes an ode to booze, it behooves a local reporter to drop by for a visit, bearing a bottle of wine. She breaks out a corkscrew and two wineglasses, which are filled quickly.
“Cheers!” she says. Glasses clink and she takes a sip. Then she lights up.
“Stuck up here on this mountain, I have only two hobbies,” she says. She raises the cigarette: “This is one.” She raises the wine glass: “This is the other.”
She already wrote her ode to smoking in an earlier book, Endangered Pleasures, which praised cigarettes, naps, bacon, swearing, loafing and other precious joys. That book turned her into a quirky spokeswoman for an older, slower, less driven, more gregarious way of life.
“I’m in favour of a little more sociability, a little more merriment, maybe even a little more singing and dancing,” she says. “Jeepers, I’m so old that I remember when we all used to sing all the time.” Really? How old are you? “None of your (bleep) business,” she says. She bursts out laughing and then her happy cackle turns into a nasty cough. She fights it with another sip of wine, then talks about her book.
“It came out the week before Mother’s Day, and I was kind of hoping people would buy it for their mothers,” she says.
She’s a mother of three, grandmother of two, and the kind of feisty old dame who’d be thrilled to receive a book called The Joy of Drinking. She jokes that stores should sell The Joy of Drinking in a gift package with The Joy of Cooking and The Joy of Sex.
She’s in favour of joy but she feels it’s under attack. She wrote the book as a protest against the decline of social drinking and the rise of broccoli, exercise and Starbucks. “I was getting sick and tired of being lectured by dear friends with their little bottles of water and their regular visits to the gym,” she says. “All of a sudden, we’ve got this voluntary prohibition that has to do with health and fitness.” She pauses. “I’m not really in favour of health and fitness.” But isn’t it good to be healthy? “I suppose so,” she says, “but it’s largely a crapshoot. The ghost of my sainted mother hovers around, talking about how self-centred it all is. They’re always thinking about themselves — how far I ran, how much I can bench-press, how I ate three servings of broccoli. For heaven’s sake, get over yourself.”
She grew up in Chevy Chase in the ’40s. Her mother was a children’s book author, her stepfather a lawyer in FDR’s Labour Department. Back then, she says, Washington was a serious party town.
“I distinctly remember Alben Barkley falling into my aunt’s swimming pool.” Barkley was Harry Truman’s vice president, and Holland thinks maybe he was pushed into the pool. Needless to say, it happened at a party. Was alcohol involved? “Alcohol was always involved,” she says. “I was really impressed growing up by the amount of drinking and general merriment that was going on among some fairly high-level people. And it doesn’t seem to me that much of it is going on any more. I can’t bear the idea of people lurking in the shadows text-messaging each other instead of whooping it up at the Willard and falling into swimming pools.”
Booze, she writes, is “the social glue of the human race.” As soon as humans stopped wandering around looking for berries and settled down to raise crops, they started creating wine and beer and, not coincidently, civilization.
Researching the book was fun, partly because she’s the kind of dogged historian who really checks things out. For instance, when she read that Queen Victoria used to drink a tumbler filled half with red wine and half scotch, Holland felt obliged to try the horrendous cocktail.
“I was expecting to throw up,” she says, “but it wasn’t bad at all.”
By now, the wine glasses are empty, so she fills them up. The wine is a delicious 2005 Barbera d’Alba, but Holland couldn’t care less about that. She’s not a wine snob, or even a connoisseur.
“There’s a local restaurant where, when I show up, they get me a glass of merlot,” she says, “and everybody keeps telling me that nobody is drinking merlot any more; everybody is drinking pinot noir. Well, frankly, darling, I’m not sure I could tell the difference.”
The restaurant is Cate’s in Purcellville. “It used to be a car dealership before it was a Dairy Queen and, frankly, everybody else there is drinking iced tea,” she says, visibly appalled at the very idea. “I spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia, and in Pennsylvania a man would as soon go out in public wearing a tutu as drink iced tea. But these guys have tattoos and bulging muscles and the waitress keeps filling up their ice tea while I’m drinking my merlot.”
Actually, she drinks mostly scotch, she says, but she’s not a snob about that, either.
“Everybody is horrified that I don’t insist on a single malt and I don’t have an opinion on Glenfiddich and all that,” she says. “People want to impress me and they serve me Cutty Sark, which tastes like white wine to me. I like ice cubes in my scotch, but apparently it’s illegal to put ice cubes in a single malt. You are allowed to put in a teaspoon of water to bring out the nose.”
Just for the record, how much hooch does the author of The Joy of Drinking knock back?
“The author of The Joy of Drinking knocks back roughly a half-gallon of scotch a week, year in and year out — and enjoys excellent health,” she says. “A couple glasses before dinner and one before bed. It seems to agree with me. And it’s been going on for a long, long time.”
It certainly hasn’t curtailed her literary production. After a couple of decades in the advertising business in Philadelphia, she has banged out three children’s books and a dozen adult books, including a history of duelling, a biography of Katharine Hepburn, a book of essays on American presidents, and a bestselling memoir, When All the World Was Young, that won rave reviews when it was published in 2005.
“Writing is the only thing I was ever able to do, actually,” she says. “I wrote my first novel when I was five. I had to dictate it because I couldn’t print all those words. I think it’s still around here somewhere. My mother saved it.”
One of her books, Wasn’t the Grass Greener? was subtitled A Curmudgeon’s Fond Memories. Does she see herself as a curmudgeon? “I guess so,” she says. What is a curmudgeon? “Anybody over 60,” she says. Doesn’t it mean you’re kind of cranky? “I don’t know,” she says. “I complain a lot about how various things were better in the olden days, but I don’t feel particularly cranky.” She smiles. “If you drink enough, you don’t feel cranky.”
By now, the wine glasses are empty again. So, alas, is the wine bottle.
Both Holland and her interrogator are suffused with a mellow glow and the happy feeling that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the world is wonderful and life is a delightful lark in convivial company.
Holland starts reminiscing about the good old days, when bars didn’t have TVs and so people actually talked to each other — sometimes even burst into song.
“We sang in bars, we sang in cars,” she says. “My mother always sang in the car. As soon as she turned the key in the ignition, she started to sing. Of course the songs nowadays are not anything that a person could sing — at least not without a percussion instrument, and we never had those in the car.”
Now, with her voice and spirit lubricated by the magic of fermented grapes, she begins to sing: I had a little hen and she had a wooden leg, And every time she cackled,
she would lay a wooden egg. She was the best little hen
that we had on the farm, And another little drink
wouldn’t do us any harm.
She bursts out laughing, and then starts coughing.
The Washington Post