Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Subject Was Absinthe, Part 2

By Pat Browning

(Peter King whips fact and fiction to a fine froth in his book ROUX THE DAY. I mix his visits to New Orleans gustatory palaces with tidbits from my own book, ABSINTHE OF MALICE, my recollections of a trip down Bourbon Street, a jazz podcast and a few recipes. Oysters Rockefeller is still a secret after all these years. Does it or doesn’t it call for spinach?)

In 2007, after 95 years of prohibition, absinthe with less than 10ppm of thujone was finally authorized again for sale in the U.S. An excerpt from the TTB Circular of 16th October 2007, fully outlining the requirements for the licensing of a legal absinthe in the USA:


Generally, absinthe, or absinth, is a high alcohol content, anise-flavored distilled spirits product derived from certain herbs, including Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood. Wormwood usually contains the substance thujone, which is purported to have hallucinogenic or psychotropic effects. Absinthe was popular in the late 19th century and early 20th century, particularly in France, and was often portrayed as an addictive and psychotropic beverage due to the presence of the substance thujone. (End Quote)

Wormwood, like so many plants, can cure you or kill you, depending on how it’s used.
In October 2007 I found a wormwood plant in a local nursery and of course I had to buy it. It’s a summer plant so it looked a bit bedraggled and our winter storms knocked it cattywampus, but for a few weeks I was the proud owner of a real live artemisia absinthium plant, a plant I used in ABSINTHE OF MALICE based solely on my Internet research.

Quoting from Chapter 28 of ABSINTHE OF MALICE:
"Artemisia absinthium." Dr. Heff beamed. "Wonderful tonic. An old standby for digestive upset. Just here." He pointed with his clipper at several sturdy bushes, about three feet high, with pale yellow flowers and silver-green leaves that reminded me of Italian flat leaf parsley.

"Is there a downside?" I asked. "Is it safe?"

"Best left in the hands of experts," he said. "Oil of wormwood is extremely toxic, quite deadly. It's a traditional folk medicine but modern medicine replaces it with synthetics. It's still used for fragrance in soaps and cosmetics. And, of course, a minute amount for that bitter taste in vermouth."

No tape recorder. How could I be so stupid? "What happens if you get too much?"

"Convulsions, vomiting, hallucinations. Not a pleasant death." Sharing the information seemed to give him great pleasure.
(End Quote)

I’m no expert but I’m guessing that damage done by absinthe comes from long, habitual drinking, an exception being someone allergic to wormwood and/or alcohol, like the victim in my novel.The picture of addiction would be Portrait of Angel Fern├índez de Soto (also known as The Absinthe Drinker), a portrait by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso completed in 1903 during his Blue Period. The oil painting depicts Picasso's friend and fellow painter, Angel Fernandez de Soto, in a bar with a glass of absinthe. The painting recently sold at auction for $51.2 million.

The history and legend of absinthe would fill a book or two. Everything you might want to know about it, including wonderful photos, can be found at The Virtual Absinthe Museum: Absinthe in America web site. Tiny Url is:

Which leads me to The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans. ROUX THE DAY stirred up memories of my first visit to New Orleans in the 1950s. At The Old Absinthe House my husband and I ordered mint juleps, which attracted the attention of a Norwegian ship caption whose cargo ship was in port.

We became instant friends with the ship captain. The Old Absinthe House was like that, close and clubby, full of history and tall tales. Supposedly there was an upstairs room where Andrew Jackson and the pirate Jean Lafitte planned the Battle of New Orleans. The ceiling downstairs was papered with business cards pinned there by customers, which, over time, included just about everyone who was anyone.

We made the rounds of Bourbon Street with our new best friend, the ship captain. The photo of the three of us drinking Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s somehow survived the years and my many moves.

For reasons known to himself, and probably to his publisher, King doesn’t mention Pat O’Brien’s by name in ROUX THE DAY. He calls it “Paddy O’Bannion’s” and the famous drink is the “Typhoon.” By any name, it was a jolly place when I was there and I hope it still is.

If you’ve worked up a thirst just reading about it, here’s the recipe from What’s Cooking America at

Hurricane Cocktail Recipe
1 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
4 ounces dark rum
4 ounces passion fruit syrup
Crushed ice
Orange and/or lime slice
1 Maraschino Cherry
In a cocktail shaker add lemon juice, rum, passion fruit syrup, and crushed ice; shake vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes.
Strain into a tall glass or hurricane cocktail glass.
Garnish with an orange and/or lime slices and a maraschino cherry.
Makes 1 serving.

A simpler New Orleans drink is the Ramos Gin Fizz, named for Henry Ramos who came to New Orleans in 1888 and opened the Imperial Cabinet Saloon. The drink owes its lasting fame to the Roosevelt Hotel (now the Fairmont.) As described in ROUX THE DAY: “Mix the white of an egg with an ounce of heavy cream, the juice of half a lemon, the juice of half a lime, two ounces of gin, and fill up with soda water. It needs shaking for at least three minutes to get (this) consistency.”

Special Photos:
Arnaud’s entrance from web site
Pompano-Duarte from New Orleans web site
The Absinthe Drinker from Wikipedia
Wormwood plant, personal photo
Hurricane drink from What’s Cooking America
Pat O’Brien’s, personal photo
All other photos from the Internet

1 comment:

Beth Terrell said...

Pat, I enjoyed both parts of this post--especially the recipes. Mike's in Mexico this week, but when he gets back, I think we're going to have to try out the Hurricanes.

I think every Oysters Rockefeller I've ever had has been made with spinach.