moonshine

By Ian Halbert

Let me eat when I am hungry,
Let me drink when I am dry,
A dollar when I am hard up,
Religion when I die …

So run the lyrics of the final (in some versions) stanza of the traditional ballad “Moonshiner.” It is a marvelous song, usually played in an upbeat tempo, as encouragement to and accompaniment of the drink. This Clancy Brothers version is a good example.
However, I have always been partial to Bob Dylan’s version, which brings a slow melancholy to the tempo and rearranges the lyrics with the effect of bringing to life a sad and broken man, trapped in a rich and full world he cannot access:
 

I was listening to Dylan’s version recently and wondering how I could incorporate it into The Art of The Rural, when I noticed this article in this month’s Atlantic about urban moonshiners and their products. The dangers of romanticizing rural culture I alluded to in the pickle post are in full bloom in this article. Even the title, in its attempt at a witty alliteration, insults: “Hipster Moonshine: Hooch isn’t just for hillbillies anymore.” From there it gets worse, as our “hipster moonshiner” (an oxymoron that could be possible only in this strange time and place), Max Watman, offers us his tasting notes on an authentic Virginia mountain shine he has personally sourced, only to trash the product as “bile with some simple syrup,” “musty,” “rancid,” and “Alpo.”

Astonishingly, the article has yet to hit bottom. The author, Wayne Curtis, goes on to regale us with the historical and insulting image of “hillbilly moonshiners”:
“… poor, illiterate, blue-jean-clad rustic with ‘an old slouch hat shaped in semi-Continental style.’ This image evolved over the decades, and the moonshiner became fixed as a corncob-pipe-smoking craftsman filling stoneware jugs with a clear and tasty elixir while keeping an eye out for pesky revenuers.”
To Curtis’ shame, he never corrects this absurd and cartoonish representation of “the mountain man,” and instead contrasts this prejudiced and ugly image with what I suppose he thinks is novel or provocative, namely the “hipster” – the very last person we would think smokes a corn-cob pipe (unless, he were being ironic, of course). How droll!
Finally, we hear of Mr. Watman’s urban shine and the marvelous hints of cocoa and apricot he has managed to produce from his mish-mash (no pun intended) of equipment, described, it seems, to give us a sense of Mr. Watman’s “street-cred,” i.e. the humble and hip DIY nature of his home-made stillery:
“ [He] had mashed up some apricots, added brown sugar, water, and yeast, and let the mess ferment for a week. He then decanted the pulpy slurry into an Erlenmeyer flask set atop an electric hot plate. The flask was connected to a copper coil that passed through a pan of ice water balanced on a snare-drum stand. Max turned on the burner, and we waited.”
It seems important to me that people in cities are starting to realize that various forms of food production are not as complicated as we may think. It marks a necessary reappropriation of agency from industry to the people. Still (again, no pun), as we learn from the hands-on example of rural traditions, the seduction of romanticism and, frankly, prejudice and ignorance can lead us to oversimplify certain activities, as we fail to see the intricacies and breadth of the complex of community and nature from which they come.
This article on moonshine is a prime example. I have never lived in a rural community and I have never had a drop of the good old mountain dew. But, as I understand it, among mountain communities it was traditionally enjoyed on special occasions, usually exclusively by men apart from the women and played something of a ritual function. That is not to say, others did not drink a fair bit more of it whenever they wanted, but only that it was a cultural product enjoyed by the community, produced within the community, from the materials of the community. This last principle is something that we grant to wine in an almost obligatory manner. No one who enjoys wine would dream of overlooking terroir – the distinctness of the mineral quality of the soil from which the grapes were grown which gives it its particular flavor – when appraising a wine. Yet, somehow our hipster moonshiner thinks he can just go to the grocery store and buy apricots and brown sugar and voilà: moonshine!
Something leads me to believe that the process and the product are far more complicated and meaningful than that. An engagement with something honest and whole, with a history and tradition behind it, requires a bit more humility and respect. It’s something I think Bob Dylan understood when he wrote about his own “Moonshiner.”