Gin (and cake)

Plug-time. I have a talk coming up at Kew Palace on June 20th called Gin & Cake. It does, pretty much, what it says on the tin. I spend about 45 minutes taking you through the history of gin, which is often fairly sordid, and remarkably free of my usual anatomical gags. Indeed, when writing the thing, I found it a topic quite devoid of laughs.

As a hardened gin drinker, I was aware, in the back of my mind, of its darker history. Like every British schoolchild, we ‘did’ Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street at some point (presumably between the voyages of discovery and endless, endless, hours of Corn Laws which is most of what I remember from pre-GCSE history classes. I knew that gin was demonised, polarised as part of 17th and 18th century class and gender dialogues, and I knew, if I thought hard enough about it, that it must have been rehabilitated sometime in the 19th century. Otherwise, wherefore all those pictures of grinning Englishmen and women wearing far too much clothing while supping on a G&T on immaculate lawns in Singapore, Hong Kong and India. When I started researching gin properly, however, both the vitriol of its detractors, and the desperate need of its drinkers, was striking. Gin was blamed for every conceivable social ill, especially (of course) the ruination of the flower of English womanhood. It was taxed, it was legislated against, it was, in effect, outlawed. But it outlasted all the attempts to prise consumers away from it, and onto more suitable drinks: beer, ale and, though itself disliked in some circles, tea.

Clearly, people getting blotto and falling out of their clothing, vomiting, putting themselves and others in danger is not a new phenomenon. Neither are warnings against the evils of drink which somehow cross the line into public entertainment (witness all those REAL POLICE, and FRIDAY NIGHT ON THE STREETS style TV programmes). We’re shamed, appalled, and fascinated in equal measure, as much in 1715 and in 2015.

Gin, however, has changed. It’s fashionable. You can visit gin distilleries run by bearded hipsters who can reel off the names of more obscure botanicals than they’ve had hot dinners. But it’s still edgy. James Bond drinks gin (admittedly as a cocktail). It’s an acquired taste, disliked by most adolescent drinkers, at least. It’s still got a certain something. (Not tonic, round my way, as I stopped drinking tonic with it once the usual 18th century corruption of my palette kicked in, and now I drink gin neat, which can get me strange looks). I suppose the whys and wherefores of that are what I eventually set out to explore in my talk.

The cake bit of Gin & Cake is a completely different thing. The history of cake, though, is not without controversy, mainly due to its frivolous nature: cake is not a staple food; we don’t need cake in our diets. As early as 1845 Eliza Acton was calling it ‘sweet poison’, and sniffily refusing to give many recipes for cake (a shame for cake-likers, as she’s one of the best pre-1900 authors I can think of). But cake hasn’t (yet) been blamed for murder, or beatings, or riots. Who knows – the current demonisation of sugar echos that of gin in the 17th century in some ways. In both cases, there’s a level of black and white thinking which allows for very little middle ground for the occasional consumer.

Anyway, the talk is on Gin and Cake, and, as usual, I aim to entertain and educate in fairly equal measure. Last time I gave the talk (last year), it sold out, which was nice, and I had the most mixed audience I’ve  ever seen. Absolute gin fanatics rubbing shoulders with interested in history teetotallers. Young and old, men and women – etc. It was great to see so many people coming together through a love of the past (or, possibly, drawn because of the samples of gin and cake of an historic persuasion, included in the format of the talk). Hey ho.

Link to Kew Palace talks site is here.

NB: I’m doing a sort of mini-residency at Kew this summer:
Gin and Cake (20th June)
Flatulence & Phlegm: on Georgian salads and herbs (2nd July)
Spice Night (8th August)
Abusing Hot Liquors: tea, coffee and chocolate (3rd Sept)
All will include samples.

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