Monday, August 9, 2010


After the “Drink What You Know” essay appeared, I got an email from a writer name of Bud Johns directing me to H.L. Mencken’s three rules for drinking. I was well aware that Mencken had described the martini as “the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet” but I’d never heard his rules.

They’re as follows: “First, never drink if you have any work to do. Never. Secondly, never drink alone. That's the way to become a drunkard. Thirdly, even if you haven't got any work to do, never drink while the sun is shining. Wait until it's dark.”

They strike me as pretty tough, and actually Bud Johns doubts whether Mencken stuck to them, and he would know, as the author of “The Ombibulous Mr. Mencken” a “humorous drinking biography” according to Amazon. It's published by Synergistic Press and is very reasonably priced.

The word ombibulous is Mencken’s invention, "I am ombibulous. I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all. I learned early in life how to handle alcohol and never had any trouble with it.”

Mencken suffered through, and drank throughout, Prohibition. Prohibition is one of those bizarre flowerings of American Puritanism, that is never quite incomprehensible to an Englishman. Given that we had riots in the streets of London in the 1990s when the Thatcher government tried to impose a poll tax, I can only guess how we’d have reacted if someone had tried to take away our booze.

One of the things “The Ombibulous Mr. Mencken” makes clear, and it was something I’d never really thought about before, is that Mencken, and no doubt many others too, knew that Prohibition was coming and so began stocking up for the impending drought. In his letters Mencken writes that he has enough booze to last him 18 months, then two years, and eventually 15 years, which of course is more or less how long Prohibition lasted, though later letters suggest he may have overestimated his supply

Mencken was a formidable eater as well as drinker. Bud Johns quotes from “H.L. Mencken - A Portrait from Memory” by Charles Angoff who recalled that Mencken would start his evenings with 4 or 5 beers and a large plate of sauerkraut. Then he’d have half a dozen blutwursts, or several slices of pot roast, or a dozen small sausages, with potatoes, vegetables and bread and butter. No disguising those German genes. Then there’d be more beer, or possibly or wine, along with one or two pieces of cheesecake. After that he’d begin the night’s serious drinking.

According to Angoff, Mencken said, “Food never hurt anyone, but only if it’s washed down with liquor. Most of the trouble from so-called overeating comes from under-drinking.” How very, very consoling, for him and for all of us.

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