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The Taste of Summer

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By Rachel Feit, August 8, 2003, Food

After Absinthe

When I get home this evening, I think I will have a pastis. First, I will fill a small pitcher with water. I will take down a tall, narrow glass from the shelf. I will fill it two fingers full with pastis, and then add an ice cube. The ice is too big for the glass and so hangs above the clear greenish liquor like a boulder that has found a precarious angle of repose.

It is important that the ice remains suspended above liquid at this stage; eventually it will melt into it, but for now, it must not touch it. Then, I will pour water from the pitcher into the glass, watching it trickle first over the ice cube, then cascade into the greenish pool below. Like magic, the clear liquid turns a phosphorescent, cloudy green. The scents of anise, cardamom, and sage float from the cup. It is cool, refreshing, and powerful. In the late afternoon sun, as I drink my pastis, I fantasize about the lavender-scented hills and the sawtooth coast of the Mediterranean.

There are few other drinks (wine is one) enshrouded in such ritual. Prized for its restorative powers, pastis is the French workingman's elixir. It is said to cure stomach ailments and hiccups. Pastis, the word itself, carries the hint of past, and its 19th-century incarnation came from the French term pastissar, meaning to put into turmoil, to stir up excessively. It was called absinthe then -- a powerful concoction of medicinal herbs combined with 144-proof liquor made from wormwood, a substance that released a THC-like opiate. The French called it the green fairy, and it cast its spell on many a notable figure: Rimbaud, van Gogh, Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The cafes of their time devised special equipment for serving it. Perforated spoons to hold sugar cubes, specially shaped crystal glasses, and a water fountain that slowly dripped over the sugared spoons became essential to the stylish method of serving absinthe.

Henri-Louis Pernod, who purchased a doctor's secret recipe for a restorative tonic that combined absinthe (known throughout the Mediterranean since Antiquity) and medicinal herbs, first marketed the French version in 1805. It became popular during the Algerian colonization of the 1830s. Soldiers there complained of digestive problems, and so they were prescribed a little bit of Pernod's tonic to mix into their water. Upon returning to France, they found that they had become accustomed to this refreshing drink and continued to imbibe. The French middle class soon began to emulate their war heroes, and they too took up the habit. By the 1860s, absinthe had become the national drink of France; by the end of the 19th century, addiction to it had become a national epidemic. In 1915, it was declared illegal to serve it. It wasn't until 1932 that Paul Ricard developed a less toxic version of absinthe, which he called pastis.

Though today's pastis has less of the force of its 19th-century predecessor, it has lost none of its ritual or popularity in France. It inspires strong opinions and heated debates -- Pernod or Ricard, with ice or without. Inherited from the craggy slopes of the ancient Mediterranean and popularized under the flickering Algerian sun, it has a rare, epic pedigree. On my porch, as I drink my pastis, and inhale its licorice-scented sweetness, I forget about rush-hour traffic and deadlines. I think I will have another.

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