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The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit

by Taras Grescoe

“As soon as I encountered the words absinthe, hashish and opium as a teenager, I was dreaming up ways to get my hands on them,” confesses Taras Grescoe in the preface to The Devil’s Picnic. Grescoe takes the reader upon a multi-course feast of beverages and foods that someone somewhere does not want you to consume; his book is part travelogue and part history.

Each chapter is built around a banned beverage or food, examining its origins, production methods, and ultimate prohibition. Beverages include Hjemmebrent, a Norwegian moonshine; absinthe; Mate de Coca; Chocolate Mousseux, and Pentobarbital Sodium. Then there are poppy seed crackers; Criadillas or bull’s testicles; Epoisses, a smelly cheese made with unpasteurized milk, and of course chewing gum and the Cuban cigar. Grescoe interviews producers and government officials, tours factories, and smuggles contraband, all in the quest for authentic experience. He examines the relationships between nations and their citizens and the interrelationships between nations, such as the U.S. dictating drug policies in Latin America. Grescoe also explores the politics and financial and social costs of addiction to both the individual and the state.

In a typically engaging chapter, Grescoe recounts his discovery of absinthe in the expatriate memoirs he read as a teenager. The drink became a symbol of bohemian life and excessive behaviour for Grescoe. Originally made with wormwood, an herb whose active ingredient is a hallucinogen called thujone, absinthe was popular in France from about 1860. But by 1914 alcohol consumption in France had become a substantial social problem. Banned in France that same year, absinthe was the sacrificial lamb. Grescoe makes the point that prohibition frequently achieves the reverse of its aim. Now there is a museum in Paris devoted to absinthe; prices for collectibles such as glasses, spoons, and absinthe fountains are outrageous; and an international absinthe underground exists on the Internet.

The Devil’s Picnic is thoughtfully written in a witty, provocative, and occasionally manipulative style.


Reviewer: Christopher Johnson

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada


Price: $34.95

Page Count: 360 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-200780-0

Released: February

Issue Date: 2006-3

Categories: Reference