Last night, I was enjoying a glass of white wine at the Elysian Café in Hoboken. If you’ve seen the movie “On the Waterfront” then you might have seen the place.
Two slender women in their 40s stepped up to the bar and ordered a glass of Absinthe. As I admired my surroundings, a ceiling carved with mother-of-pearl coated plaster cupids and a huge wall mural with tall faded poplar trees, I was delighted when John, the bartender, completed the scene by pulling out a six spigot absinthe fountain.
I’ve never seen one and at first I thought it was some type of samovar. The fountain was top heavy with an oblong glass balloon hovering over a thin, carved silver stand. He filled the top with ice and water. He poured out a shot of absinthe into a beveled glass goblet over a spoon fitted with a rectangular sugar cube. Lighting the sugar on fire, we all watched the blue flame carve away the edges of the sugar until it was almost melted. Once the spigot of the fountain was loosened, the water poured onto the sugar to drown the fire and transform the glowing green absinthe to a surprising milky hue, a process called louching.
Since absinthe was just approved by the FDA, I started wondering about all the stories I had read as a French Lit major in college. I admired the beauty and mystique surrounding this notorious beverage around the turn of the century, but what is absinthe anyway?
Absinthe is an anise-flavored liquor that is brewed with herbs, much like Pernod or Pastis. The “magic” ingredient is wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, which can be toxic in large doses and has the reputation for bringing about hallucinations. More importantly, wormwood contains plant toxins that can hurt the human nervous system.
An outrageously popular drink in France at the turn of the century, it was known for causing health issues more because of its alcohol content (139 proof or 68% alcohol) rather than its percentage of wormwood. So is it safe for you to drink it today? Experts claim that the miniscule amounts of wormwood in our modern, “cleaner” version of absinthe on the market make it safe for consumption. But prepare yourself for a real punch! Somehow, it’s still Absinthe. You’ve got the strong licorice flavor and 62% alcohol, a real kick in the head for a cheap date.
My advice on absinthe is to think of it as edible poison and if you are concerned about health, drink with caution or not at all. What do I mean by “edible poison”? Well, many of the foods we consume on a regular basis have toxic or cancer-causing components, like alcohol for example. Even fruits and veggies that we know are healthy overall, sometimes contain trace amounts of toxins like in the case of beets and oxalates. Happily, healthy bodies bypass or filter out low-level toxins, thanks to our livers. In the case of the “new or improved” absinthe, think before your drink for your liver’s sake.