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Original Essays | June 20, 2014 2 comments
I'm not a bookseller, but I'm married to one, and Square Books is a family. And we all know about families and how hard it is to disassociate... Continue »
The Wettest County in the Worldby Matt Bondurant
At this point, I normally begin with a few questions of my own. It is a difficult thing to describe, and some knowledge of their past history with alcohol helps me frame my attempts at recreating the experience. I ask them if they normally drink hard liquor, whiskey in particular, neat or on the rocks. Few people do these days, of course, except yuppie hipsters who haunt bourbon bars (guilty) or the people whose last trip to Europe was in a uniform with a rifle. But if you do, then moonshine whiskey will likely taste quite familiar to you. You may really enjoy it. Warning: pure corn liquor will smell awful. Don't let that faze you. Get past it and you are due for a treat: a clean, slightly sweet taste, hot on the back of the tongue and throat, but smooth and pure tasting, with hints of grain and sugar. If you get some good stuff from a guy who knows what he is doing, it is some of the most pure and clean liquor in the world.
On the other hand, if your idea of a "cocktail" involves something other than ice, tonic, or soda; if your martini comes in several dazzling colors; if your drink normally involves a blender, you will likely spit real moonshine out in the sink after a few choking sobs, your eyes blurry with tears. In fact, don't even try it. Trust me. Besides, it would be a waste.
But actual moonshine drinkers aren't necessarily sitting around slugging back white-hot liquor. If you probe the back cupboards of nearly any house in Franklin County, or check in the garage fridge back behind that bloody hunk of venison, you will likely find a half-gallon mason jar of clear liquid with some kind of cut fruit suspended in it, most often peaches. This is the easiest way to give a bit of flavor to your 'shine and cut the heat a bit. When you have a taste of "peaches" as it is called, make sure you get an actual piece of the fruit and pop that in your mouth for a real surprise. It makes eating the worm in a bottle of tequila (mescal) seem like chewing breath mints.
Most people assume that all moonshine comes in one style, the Everclear-type stuff. There are other types, like something called "Crazy Apple," which is like an apple brandy. The clear stuff, called "White Mule," or "Mule," or just "Corn" (absolutely nobody calls it "moonshine" people in the north created that term), is usually doctored with fruit or mixed with a soft drink; in Franklin, the soda of choice seems to be something called Sun Drop, a kind of regional Mountain Dew-type beverage. I've never seen this stuff for sale anywhere else in the world, and I'm sort of convinced that Franklin County moonshine is what keeps that little soft-drink company in business.
But I'm afraid, unfortunate reader, that unless you are from Franklin County or related to someone who is, you will likely never be offered a drink of real mountain liquor. You will not see it out at parties. Nobody walks around with a glass of White Mule on the rocks at a BBQ. No, it is still consumed the same way it has been for the last century: by men, in dark gravel parking lots or behind the barn, out of the open trunk of someone's Oldsmobile or from behind the seat of a pickup, using paper cups, ice unlikely, but usually a warm bottle of Sun Drop.
The first time I had some corn liquor, I was a teenager in a shed with a dozen men in Carhartt coveralls and Philip Morris ball caps, quietly watching a scratchy NASCAR race on a TV from the 1960s. Nothing was ever said, I don't even really know how I got there, but at some point a guy handed me a plastic cup (opaque) with what looked like a slice of peach in heavy syrup. I sniffed it. I may have grown up in a prototypical leafy suburb in a major metropolitan area, but I had been around. I'd had a few drinks. So I slugged it back. I remember a guy in the corner, his face obscured by his cap, spat a stream of tobacco juice on the floor and let out a snort. You know that moment, right after the words leave your mouth, right after you swallow, when you swing at a bad pitch, when you wish you could take a decision back?
If you are offered a drink in Franklin, better put on your coat and kiss the wife goodbye, because you are definitely going outside, and I'll guarantee a vehicle is involved.
In fact you will almost never see a man in Franklin County drink anything in front of women and children. If you do, it will be in an opaque cup, plastic or paper, and it will remain off the table. I was in Franklin a few years ago for an aunt's birthday party, held in a large barn on my cousin's land. They had several long tables set up, laden with food, at least 50 cousins and friends, and when we sat down to eat, I was the only person there with a can of beer at the table. I wasn't the only one drinking some of my uncles and cousins were positively ripped but I was the only one that anybody saw drinking. And this is the county that, as the New York Times reported recently, produces half-a-million gallons of illegal liquor a year. You could spend years there and never see it, even as it is all around you.
This strange relationship with liquor was one of the more interesting challenges I had to confront in The Wettest County in the World. The novel takes place in the 1920s and '30s, and people in Franklin have been making, selling, and drinking the stuff the same way for a century. It is a kind of secret world, a shadow behind the neatly mowed lawns and shining tobacco greenhouses. The people of Franklin are some of the friendliest people I've ever met, but there are things that they won't talk about, and that you will never see. This was the insular world that I tried to project in my novel.
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Matt Bondurant was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia. He received a B.A. and an M.A. in English at James Madison University and a Ph.D. at Florida State University where he was a Kingsbury Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, and New England Review, among others. His first novel, The Third Translation, was sold in 15 countries. He currently lives and writes in northern New York.