Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Anything-But-American Paradox

A close cousin of the Americans who praise the eating habits of all countries other than our own are their countrymen who fancy themselves somehow European and thus enlightened when weighing in on American drinking habits. That the NYT now has a blog devoted to "Alcohol and American Life" has invited comparative responses declaring the superiority of Europe, and of non-America generally. Such as: "I live in Europe, and it is clear that children are much better socialized with alcohol here than I was when growing up in the US." Or, "My upbringing reflected the European attitude toward wine and beer." Or, from someone with little knowledge of the rules of Islam and that religion's popularity in the world today, "only in america.. could people be so uptight about drinking." The various comments about moderate wine-consumption in Italy were not too surprising, but it seems even Germans are, in the American fantasy, thimble-of-wine-type drinkers.

The myth of the Mediterranean as a region where you can live to 100 subsisting on ouzo and feta is also alive and well in Britain, as amusingly expressed just now in the Guardian: "The belief in some middle-class families that you can teach children to drink by giving them wine with meals, as it is assumed happens in some Mediterranean countries, is not founded on any evidence, [medical chief] Donaldson said." (Wine would go far better with an Israeli breakfast than with a traditional French or American one, but I doubt if that pairing has ever taken place.)

I haven't been keeping up with "Proof" and its copious comments section well enough to notice whether anyone has yet pointed out that Europe's youth are in fact drunker than our own. The Europeans-and-alcohol myth comes in part from conflating alcohol problems with an inability to hold one's liquor--that a European teen could drink an American one of equal weight and non-Ashkenaziness under the table means Johan has more practice drinking than John, not that Johan is a more sensible person from a superior culture.

But it's also about wanting the world to work in appealing ways, and insisting that it does, in fact, work in those ways, because for it to work otherwise would be too much to handle. It would be lovely if drinking wine with every meal from the age at which one first wants to do so prevented drinking problems later in life, or if an uninhibited attitude towards something potentially harmful removed its potential to harm. I get why people, not all of whom simply find America aesthetically vomitorious, want these things to be true. I wish, if I had an uninhibited attitude towards twenty-dollar-a-pound Spanish sheep's-milk cheese, I could consume as much of it as I wanted without this affecting my build or bank account. And so on.

I guess the reason I find all this silly is that the need to declare a pleasurable lifestyle indistinguishable from a healthy one is, clearly, as American a need as they come. After all, a) taste is subjective, and b) even if we could agree upon what foods and activities were most pleasing to the most/most discriminating people, it's unlikely the results would just happen to line up with whatever contributes most to long life. To hold forth on the superiority of Europe and articulate this in terms of health is to be super-American, more so even than the Americans shamelessly filling their carts with health-food-store knock-off Cheetos.


Miss Self-Important said...

European social alcohol moderation in two words: soccer hooligans.

Or football hooligans. Whatever, I'm into shoes, not sports.

David said...

"The idiot who praises, in enthusiastic tone

Each century but this, and every country but his own"

--Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado