Essay / 15 April 2019

A Drinker and a Ciderhead, Part 1

Statistically, alcohol correlates with a high level of human development.


I'm a drinker, and I'm a Ciderhead.

One of the great dichotomies of human existence is that of eating and drinking. While we all both eat and drink, each of us has a preference, usually just a slight one but sometimes a quite strong one, for either the one or the other. Just like we can, with varying degrees of justification and mutual exclusivity, think of ourselves and others as left-handed or right-handed, auditory or visual personality types, S or M, straight or gay, we can divide people into those to whom eating is more important (the eaters) and their counterparts, the drinkers.

Take sex. As a drinker, the only accessory I could ask for would be a bottle of good red wine and two glasses. Food, on the other hand, is an anaphrodisiac to me. In my younger and more enterprising years I sometimes ended up with a lady who would insist on cooking dinner, not knowing that I was to be wined, not dined. While women are known to be pressurised, by eaters, into fucking for their dinner, I was subjected to the reverse ritual. Nonetheless, I've always been a “good eater”, never failing to devour whatever quantities of grub are put before me. I just don't think that food and sex go together, and I fully understand that Byron was turned off when he witnessed his Italian lover, whom he otherwise adored, eating with a great appetite; whatever that might tell his shrink about Byron, that dieter and glutton and likely bulimic. When it is said that food is the sex of old age, I feel fully ready to die on the spot. But when I am told that an old man's best friend is a glass of wine, I feel relief and hope.

In a famous passage of Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, Claude Lévi-Strauss analyses the different attitudes towards food and drink in a restaurant frequented by the popular classes in the rural Midi in the mid-twentieth century. While each guest eats their (usually his, though, I surmise) own plat du jour, the wine that is included in the price of the meal is exchanged among the guests. Two perfect strangers seated at the same table would unfailingly pour their wine into each other's glasses, exchanging gifts of similar quality and value and thereby establishing a social bond. The moral of Lévi-Strauss's anecdote is that there is more to an exchange of things than the things exchanged and that a merely economic analysis misses the point. But we also learn that the solid food (l'aliment solide) is a personal good (un bien personnel) that represents the constraints of the body (les servitudes du corps), whereas the liquid food (l'aliment liquide) is a social good (un bien social) that represents its luxury (son luxe). That the wine represents the luxury of the body is somewhat surprising if one considers that by ethnological standards it is most of the time an unworthy liquid (un liquide le plus souvent indigne).

The ancient Greek symposion (literally, “drinking together”) spawned a whole literary genre devoted to the all-male drinking party, the finest example of which is Plato's famous dialogue Symposium. The symposion (both in general and in Plato's dialogue) was preceded by the deipnon, a large meal which served as preparation for the intake of wine. While the drinking party has given us the most sublime philosophical texts, the greatest literary achievement the deipnon can claim in Greco-Roman antiquity is the cena Trimalchionis in Petronius' Satyrica, which pokes fun at the culinary excesses of the newly rich. As Socrates argues in Plato's Symposium, both the comedy and the tragedy are necessary, and we can add that so are both the deipnonand the symposion. In my esteem, drinking ranks higher than eating like tragedy ranks higher than comedy.

And think of all those wonderful songs about drinking! Take any such song and turn it into an eating song, and the result will be utterly ridiculous; in lieu of Whiskey in the Jar, Phil Lynott will give you Coddle in the Pot. The drinking song has recently found its eating equivalent in the photos of food posted by Instagrammers who have no life.

Where I'm living today, the boundaries between the deipnonand the symposion have been somewhat blurred, like the boundaries between comedy and tragedy in Shakespeare. And while homoeroticism is not a mainstream practice, slavery unknown, the mixing of women and men a matter of course, and reclining on sofas has been given up in favour of sitting on chairs, the basic rules of first eating a lot and then drinking a lot still apply. And whoever has lost all interest in solid food, sustaining themselves by liquids exclusively, is considered an alcoholic, as are those who drink without company.

In their archetypal simplicity and incomprehensible complexity, beverages remind me of colours. Like a rainbow shows an infinite number of colours, of which we humans are said to be able to distinguish about ten million, there is also a potentially infinite number of different drinks, of which we can tell apart a very large number. For everyday purposes, however, only about half a dozen, or at the most a score, named colours of the rainbow are used, traditionally seven in English. Likewise, if we assume that water is the black and white and grey of drinking, we make do with just a handful of basic beverages. The seven liquids of my sustenance are milk, tea, coffee, fruit juice, beer, and wine. That's six, and I generally abstain from fizzy sugary drinks and from spirits. Oh, and there is cider.


Before I moved to Vienna in 1989, I lived in Upper Austria for more than eighteen years. In popular Viennese speech, Upper Austrians are often called Mostschädeln, from Most (which in the regional variety of German refers to the alcoholic drink made from fermented apple or pear juice, i.e. cider, and not to must, the unfermented grape juice from which wine is made) and Schädel (headin the dialects, skull in standard German). A Ciderhead, to the Viennese, is always an Upper Austrian, despite the fact that the Mostviertel (“Cider Quarter”) of Lower Austria stretches from the border between Upper Austria and Lower Austria almost to the gates of Vienna.

While living in Upper Austria, I had barely been aware of this demonym, which I imagine was once intended to be offensive but is as a rule taken to be jocular by us Ciderheads. We tend to be rather full of ourselves, and if the Viennese saw ruddy, cider-gutted rustics in our forebears, it's their own fucking fault for failing to see how worthy and indeed exemplary we really are. If the world decided to call us Frogs or Krauts, we'd surely take pride in those names and happily apply them to ourselves.

I have vague childhood memories of running through apple-strewn orchards, the sun shining through the trees. On no more than a handful of occasions, we children were given Süßmost (“sweet cider”, not unlike the, non-alcoholic, apple cider in the United States), and in my teens, probably before the legal drinking age of sixteen, I did try cider at a country inn or as a guest at a farmhouse perhaps two or three times. Together with the agrarian civilization which produces it, cider has long been marginalized, but by no means stamped out in Ciderland.

The regional drinking history is, on the whole not incorrectly, often told like this. The ancient Romans brought wine, which the Germanic tribes across the Danube cherished. In the Middle Ages, wine was cultivated in Ciderland, but then the climate got colder and wetter, so we had to make do with cider. Where I grew up, the farmhouses are the size of the stately homes of England, and it is sometimes said that “cider built them”. Meanwhile, the Bavarians (the ones form the wrong side of the border, in what today is Germany; Ciderheads, along with most other Austrians, are ethnolinguistic Bavarians too; but parlez-nous à boire, as the Cajun song goes) introduced beer, actually forced us, when parts of Ciderland fell under their rule, to produce and consume beer rather than cider. What with current climate change, wine production is being resumed in the region.

Cider doesn't have a very good name. It is often regarded as cheap and unsophisticated. If white wine is draughts to the chess of red wine, cider is Ludo. However, when I was a teenager, the wine you could get in the places I went to tended to be — even by small-town, petty bourgeois Ciderhead standards — very indigne indeed. Along with everybody else, I had to learn to swallow large quantities of beer.

In the nineties and noughties I enjoyed pollo y sidra at the Casa Mingo in Madrid a couple of times. And last year in England I walked up to a hotel bar, looked at the taps and asked for a pint of the beer with the least familiar name, which would most likely be a local or regional brew. Strongbow sounded only vaguely familiar and like a good name for a beer. When I got cider, I decided that some instinct or unconscious drive had led me to misorder like this. You can take the Ciderhead out of Ciderland but you can't take Ciderland out of the Ciderhead.

In fact, that whole regional-identity business, like all the identity-mongering that has regained so much political force, is largely a fantasy in my case. But completely denying the influence it has on both individuals and society would be as wrong as jingoistically celebrating it. I go to Ciderland only every couple of years or so, although it's just an hour's train ride from Vienna. I must make an effort to speak the dialect. Nobody suspects I'm anything but Viennese. Being a Ciderhead doesn't involve any actions or beliefs on my part. Nevertheless, a Ciderhead I live, and one fine day I will die a Ciderhead.


One of the most astounding feats of modern marketing is that it has elevated some newly invented drinks to rainbow colour status. The two most obvious examples I can see are Coca-Cola and Red Bull, which rank on a par with water, milk, and cider as archetypal beverages. Cider, it must be admitted, has all but lost its rainbow status; I've even seen good all Upper Austrian Mostmarketed as cidre, a vain attempt at disguising a fading regional specialty as a hip globalization-era commodity.

Although I know they are chemically the same and taste the same, I unequivocally prefer Coca-Cola to Pepsi, or any other type of cola. I believe in real things.

In my twenties, I made a living as a freelance teacher of foreign languages. Many of my students were Coca-Cola employees. One of the company's goals at the time was to turn Austrians, who typically were weekly consumers of Coke, into daily consumers. Myself, I'm a yearly consumer of Coke and a decadal consumer of Red Bull. Coke was there when I was a child but Red Bull wasn't, so I may have a tendency to view the energy drink with suspicion, just like a lot of people my age take cars for granted and regard smartphones as devillish. I think cars are evil and smartphones are good, and I make a point of picking up some cans of Red Bull for my ex-girlfriend's daughter in the supermarket when there's a sale.

I even cultivate fond memories of Red Bull. On a road trip through Tibet in 2007, one of the tyres of our car had a tendency to go flat. So every other day, I found myself in the middle of nowhere, at an altitude of over four thousand metres, surrounded by the mountains, the next village often an hour's drive away, with my three fellow passengers and our guide and nothing much to do while the driver was fixing the car. On each of these occasions, we found the roadside strewn with empty cans of Red Bull, which we used for impromptu football matches. Having kicked a can of Red Bull about vigorously for half an hour, I never failed to feel thoroughly energized.

What really endears Coca-Cola to me is its hyphen. On the one hand, Coke is the epitome of American capitalism and consumerism, but on the other hand it has already become a symbol of the good old days. The hyphen has very much gone out of fashion, and many words that formerly had one have given it up. For millennials, hyphens are the preserve of old folks who tap on their smartphones with their forefinger, wouldn't think anything of smoking in front of their grandchildren on the playground (a “play-ground” to them), and probably don't shave their pubic hair. As a brand name with a well-established logo, Coca-Cola can't shed its hyphen as easily as “ice-cream” and “low-life” have. The protective forces of the market have helped Coca-Cola to retain its hyphen and become a beacon of traditionalism.

While running, I love drinking from the many drinking fountains that provide mountain spring water in the streets of Vienna. As part of my preparation for my first marathon, however, I went on some 30K jogs without drinking anything at all, in an attempt to accustom my body to the effects of dehydration. When I got home and gulped down half a litre of orange juice with water in one go, the feeling was the same as in my childhood, when I would return home after dark, having played outside for hours on end, and experience that same intense thirst only at the moment it was being satisfied by the first glass of fruit syrup with water.

But during the marathon itself the greatest drinking pleasure came not from the non-alcoholic beer in the finish area (the Ciderhead shuns non-alcoholic beer just like decaf and vegetarian meat and non-penetrative sex) but from the Coke which was offered to the marathoners at kilometre 33. I've never drunk Gatorade or any other sports drink. But good old Coke, with its caffeine and its sugar and its water, carried me on for the final nine K. Thank you, Coke.


Outside the toilets at the railway station in Enns, the small town where I grew up, there was a washbasin, next to which there was a sign saying Kein Trinkwasser and, beneath the German words, Water not potable. I was a kid and knew neither Latin nor a Romance language, which would have allowed me to understand the exact meaning of potable. It was clear enough what the whole phrase meant, but potable remained a mystery. There was no Google you could ask in those days, and incommoding any of my fellow Ciderheads with the question would have been senseless. My guess was that potablesuggested you were not supposed to pour the water into a pot, although pots were not used for drinking and the mystery therefore not solved but transferred to the extravagancies of the English language. I found out about the origin and meaning of potable soon enough. It wasn't, however, until I was twenty-three that an American, ever so politely, pointed out to me that the first syllable of the word is pronounced not with the short vowel of pot but with the diphthong of potent.


In the seventies and eighties you didn't take any drinks with you to school, and you certainly never drank during a lesson. Free “school milk” (Schulmilch), plain or with cocoa, was introduced at one point; later they charged you a more or less symbolic sum for it. On a hot day you may have drunk some tap water in the lavatory. When you went hiking in the mountains, you drank a lot in the morning and then went without a drink for hours.

These days, a young person without a drink, typically in a plastic bottle, is as rare as one without a smartphone. Three times a week I cycle to a further-education institution across the Danube, where I teach English and Russian. Most of my students are young adults, between seventeen and twenty-five. Very seldom do I see a desk that is unadorned by a supermarket-bought vessel with a pricy beverage in it. Once a year, however, usually during the hot spring months, the bottles disappear from many, or in some classes most, of the desks for a few weeks. After a few days, it must be added, many of the beverageless students tend to disappear as well until the end of the month that they call Ramadan. Still, they do demonstrate that the new generations are genetically capable of surviving without the intake of any liquids for several hours, even if the beverage industry has convinced them of the opposite.


Nothing is sacred to a Ciderhead. Not even cider. And certainly no month or book or messenger.

Statistically, alcohol correlates with a high level of human development. A look at a world map of alcohol consumption enlightens us that the countries with high rates tend to be desirable places, where people can say and write what they want; where consenting adults can legally have sex with each other, no matter whether they are men or women, “married” or not, believers or people of reason, where they can kiss and hug in public and wear either a lot of clothes or almost none at all. The dry countries, where Islam reigns, tend to be averse to freedom and fun. No Ciderhead, given the choice, would opt to live there.

The prohibition of alcohol is by no means the worst aspect of Islam, but is does pit the Muslims against the unclean kuffar, such as the Ciderheads are, in a fundamental manner that surfaces more noticeably in everyday life than more abstract “theological” tenets. This problem concerns mainly those adorable people of wine and reason who brave the often atrocious realities of the Islamized parts of the world. The theme of wine, and of its suppression in modern-day Algeria, figures prominently in Kamel Daoud's superb novel Meursault, contre-enquête. And in a newspaper column from 2015 he writes that while elsewhere wine means “taste, scents, robe, and palace”, for the Algerian it is associated with “dissidence, disobedience, infraction and exclusion and shame”. “God and colonisation have given it a bad reputation” (my translation and paraphrases).

Daoud commemorates the early “Arab” (a word he never uses without inverted commas, but not in the mean spirit in which the Western self-haters write of the West as “the West” or, worse, “the west”) tradition of poetry devoted to the drinking of wine, naming Omar Khayyam and Abu Nuwas. He does not mention that one of the most heinous Islamists of recent history also wrote some verses about his love of a goblet of wine, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

To a person of reason, the reemergence of religion, and of religion in its totalitarian form, in so many parts of the world is a saddening and sickening affair. Like for many of the primary victims of Islam today, those raised to be Muslims, belief in a supernatural being and the preposterous worldview attached to it is not a lifestyle choice but an inescapable necessity, apostasy from which results in complete social exclusion and even death, most Ciderheads of just a few generations ago could not even conceive of a life outside Roman Catholicism. Ever since the double disaster of Christianity and Islam struck, the civilizations affected by it have been operating in a mode of resistance. The great scientists and architects of a thousand years ago were “Islamic” scientists and architects despite Islam, not because of it; just like Copernicus and Galilei and Newton, whom fortunately nobody is impudent and ignorant enough to call “Christian” scientists, were scientists despite Christianity.

Judeo-Christiano-Islamism is false and pernicious because it is based on an irrational belief in things for which there is no evidence and which are mutually irreconcilable. It is that belief itself which is the fundamental problem, not the objects of that belief. However, Judaism and the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity have retained wine as a civilizational element, which Islam has been striving to eliminate. Protestantism, with its Prohibition movement and open containers in brown paper bags, is Islamic in spirit. From a Cider-chauvinistic point of view, the Middle East and the Middle West are civilizationally indistinguishable. They also share a prissy attitude towards nakedness which strikes the Ciderhead as utterly ridiculous. It makes sense that the teetotal Bushes and Trumps of the United States are best friends with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, that “Daesh which has succeeded”, as Daoud calls it. And the Mormons (technically not Protestant Christians, but surely in spirit) even ban hot non-alcoholic drinks such as tea and coffee.


I was making tea for a Russophone Jewish girlfriend and myself. She said to me, in Russian, “Even the Jew doesn't economize when making tea,” explaining that this was the way some Russians chose to express the rule (known as George Orwell's fourth golden rule of making a good cup of tea to Anglophone literary types) that tea had to be strong.

Was the message that I, a blatant Russian (Russophone Jews sometimes call everybody who is not Jewish “Russian”, just like to the Amish all outsiders to their community tend to be “English”), was being overly Jewish? That I should act more like a Russian? Or less so? The question was way above my Ciderhead. Anyway, I've always taken care to brew my tea really strong since that day.


Kurt Leutgeb

was born in Upper Austria in 1970. He is the author of eight books, the latest of which, Humana fraus (2015), tells two versions of a story from Titus Livius. He lives in Vienna.