This is the debut post for ABG contributor Dr. W. Matthew J. Simmons. I may get scolded for using his newly-acquired title in this intro but I figure a man that has successfully defended his dissertation is entitled to being addressed with it. You can find Matt's bio on the Contributors page.
By W. Matthew J. Simmons
Some time ago, the proprietor of this establishment penned a little piece in which he described something he called the “cornbread conservative.” To summarize (and, I admit, do a bit of interpretation of) Brother Burnham’s argument, the cornbread conservative is the man who recognizes that the conservation of things that point to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful can be accomplished through the cultivation and presentation of things that are, well, superfluous. That is, there is no necessary reason for a man to wear a blazer or a sports coat when he goes out of the house of a morning. But the cornbread conservative does do this, and he does it because he recognizes several interrelated things: that how we dress says something about personal discipline (either that we have it or lack it), that the public and private spheres are separate, that our personal comfort is not the be-all and end-all, and that not all practical considerations are immediately apparent. For example, I wear a jacket daily, and I have found that having something to give to my wife when she’s cold, as well as having all those extra pockets to hold the items that constitute my everyday carry, is really invaluable.
So then—the cornbread conservative, amongst other things, is he who recognizes the hidden uses, both esoteric and practical, in things that seem otherwise superfluous. Of course, many of these superfluous things also connect us to history and tradition as well. And if this is what a cornbread conservative is, and if the cornbread conservative is a Southerner, and if he be the kind of Southerner who responsibly enjoys the pleasures of drink, then his beverage is the julep. The mint julep.
Perhaps the greatest video on the internet is this video of a bartender named Chris McMillan making a mint julep, along with describing its history, the etymology of the word “julep,” and connecting it to poetry. Watch this, and then come back and hear me out for a few more minutes, friends:
Do you see what this beverage is? It is a beverage that grounds us in time, and in the process and movement of the seasons. It is a beverage we crave through the winter, that we first enjoy in that first bloom of false summer that mid-March brings to the South, when it’s suddenly 85 for a week and everything thaws and all is green and bright. We know this is false, this is spring flirting with us, that next week it will be late winter’s cold again, and then come April the real spring, with the azaleas and the dogwoods blooming, will come, and we will then be enjoying this drink—cold, strong, tasting of the sweetness of our joy and the minty brightness of our soil—again and again, until the days grow short once more. In the whiskey we taste time, the history of Southern bourbon, the distilling traditions our ancestors brought from the old world. For these same reasons, it is a beverage that grounds us in place; where we are, and from whence we came.
But it is more than that. The traditional cup, as McMillan points out, has its subtle practicalities, though it seems (and perhaps ultimately and truly is) superfluous. And the beverage itself is certainly superfluous and unnecessary—no one needs drink a julep to survive, however much it may be a great balm of the soul. But the julep makes us feel alive, in that it demands we use all five senses: we drink and taste it, surely. But we also see it in the cup, and it is beautiful to behold. We smell its fragrance, and the wonderful scent of the mint with each sip. The cup is cold in our hands, demanding we sip it slowly (and if you make it as strong as I do, that is a good thing indeed). And we hear the crushed ice squeal and crack as it melts, resettling clumsily in the cup after each sip. The English philosopher Roger Scruton, a cornbread conservative himself, thinks of beauty as something like an ineffable quality inherent to a thing that forces us outside of ourselves, connects us to the fullness of the world and time beyond ourselves, if only for a temporary moment. The julep certainly does that, and it is truly beautiful.
Cheers, y’all. It’s time to fix a julep.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire