Beer, Civilization, and Hurricanes

There was a portion in When the Levees Broke that really stuck out to me: one of the Katrina survivors was talking about when he was watching as people left to drink soda and beer in an attempt to hydrate themselves; water, the very thing that had brought destruction to New Orleans, was, paradoxically, just as necessary to the survival of its people, but they were unable to attain it. Yet the usage of beer reminded me of a point earlier in the semester when Beth made note of the consumption of beer in the wake of Katrina, which made me stop and think about beer’s presence there.

My first thoughts went to a book that I read in the summer before my sophomore year of high school, A History of the World In 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. In the novel he charts the history of civilization through the lens of beverage, moving chronologically from beer to wine to liquor to coffee to tea to Coke. However, what I honed in on for this topic was beer and it’s presence at the onset of human civilization. According to Standage’s research, beer was one of the first major inventions of ancient civilizations, and it held a role both secular and sacred in society. In Egypt, beer was a salary for the slaves as they built the pyramids, a beverage which provided purification of the Nile’s filthy water as well as nutrition akin to that of bread, and in Mesopotamia it was a drink to be shared at celebration feasts in honor of the gods. In short, beer was an important part of their society, and it was with this in mind that I considered its presence in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

According to Roach, “[an effigy] consist[s] of a set of actions that hold open a place in memory into which many different people may step according to circumstances and occasions. I argue that effigies – those fabricated from human bodies and the associations they evoke – provide communities with a method of perpetuating themselves through specially nominated mediums or surrogates” (36). In the context of human civilization, beer can be seen as an effigy of celebration and happiness, and its presence from society’s inception and continued usage throughout history speaks to its state a a method of perpetuation. People make toasts and share drinks in celebration of major achievements and events, but they also use it as an escape, which is still a method of societal perpetuation; rather than using the beverage to celebrate the achievements of a person and perpetuate society in that way, beer is instead used to omit and forget the failures or troubles of a person, perpetuating the society through omission instead of celebration.

New Orleans has a tradition of perpetuation through celebration in the form of Mardi Gras, and I feel that the opposite, perpetuation through omission of memory, was practiced in the consumption of beer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Some residents of New Orleans were in need of an escape to deal with the storm, so they turned to beer to cope. In order to get through the day and begin the rebuilding of the city in the coming days, they omitted the moment they found themselves in through drink, even if only briefly. By escaping the current memories through alcohol, some survivors of Katrina were able to prepare themselves for the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans, a literal perpetuation of their society, and those citizens who drank also communed with the early civilizations history through the effigy of beer, as both groups used the alcoholic beverage to perpetuate their societies, albeit in different ways.

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