How the right turned brie and chablis into an epithet
I like brie, that famously runny, aromatic cheese that comes from the Brie department of central France. Brie and Chablis wine, which hails from the Yonne department just to Brie’s south, have been a historic pairing for centuries (although Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, “we wouldn’t say we’re crazy about the combination of Brie and Chablis”).
Yet “brie and Chablis” (or “wine and cheese”) has long been a derisory term for liberals, and no liberals in America arouse the wrath of the right more than San Franciscans. When did wine and cheese become the odious signifiers of those unpatriotic, deviant, nattering nabobs of negativity, the liberals?
I trace it back to the split between wine and beer cultures that Europe saw in the Middle Ages. Where winegrapes could be cultivated in the warmer Mediterranean south, people were Latinized: less warlike, fond of siestas, food, dancing, conversation, good living and lovemaking. In the north, where it was too cold for vitis vinifera to grow, people turned to beer; they were Continental tribes, descendants of Huns, Vikings and Slavs, a warrior society not keen on art or philosophy. They preferred drinking beer from the skulls of their enemies.
We see this split echoed today in America, where Dr. Vino last week wondered “…how did light beer come to be the choice of NFL viewers?” Simple. The NFL reflects the Prussianized, warlike, hyper-masculinized psyche many American males believe themselves to embody (or wish they did). Wine is more the beverage of effete people who go to the Opera.
Wine and cheese receptions have been a mainstay of politics on both sides for a century. When the Harvard Crimson wrote about a Stuart Udall fundraiser in 1976 (Udall, a Democratic Arizona Congressman, was running in the primaries against Jimmy Carter), the writer described an event he went to as “a typical wine-and-cheese gathering.” Nothing Republican or Democratic about it, just bipartisanly political. But by 1980, the phrase somehow had become anti-Democrat, although when “cheese” was replaced by “brie” and “wine” by “chablis,” I will leave to future historians to figure out. When John Anderson, a Republican congressman from Illinois who was a sort of Ross Perot-style maverick, was running for President, he was portrayed by the right as not conservative enough. A columnist for the Washington Post, Mark Shields [himself a moderate Democrat], wrote: “For John Anderson to be a true challenger for the presidency, he cannot be either a ‘spoiler’ or simply the favorite of the brie-and-chablis set.” Did Shields pluck that phrase out from the ether? Undoubtedly it had antecedents. Some think that Leonard Bernstein’s famous party for the Black Panthers, in 1966, was the prototype; that fête was endlessly parodied by Republicans as bleeding heart “limousine liberal” pretension, and, after all, Lenny (the ultimate liberal Democrat), was a Jew, plus he was bisexual, and his beautiful foreign-born wife, Felicia, the quintessential Upper West Side hostess, served wine and “Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts,” according to Tom Wolfe, who wrote about it.
Little Roquefort cheese morsels! It was perhaps understandable that the right confused roquefort for brie, which may have been easier for them to spell. How easy for pretzel and beer loving Republicans to satirize that citified appetizer (and with crushed nuts, to boot). By 1982, “the wine and cheese crowd” had entered the political lexicon as a metaphor for Democrats: here’s The Texas Monthly describing “the hatred that the Okies from Muskogee feel for the wine-and-cheese” crowd” to explain Texas’s transition from FDR stronghold to Reagan country.
They’re still doing it. Yesterday, as the world famously knows, the San Francisco Forty Niners played the New York Giants for the NFC championship. Just before the game, a New York Daily News columnist, Filip Bondy, wrote that Niner fans are “overrated,” likening them to “Strange, exotic plants”, “not fat enough” and “softer” than Giants fans–in other words, San Franciscans are insufficiently brutal. Bondy was making a funny, of course, but the tweak was enough to prompt the San Francisco Chroncle’s sportswriter, Scott Ostler, to pen in response, “49ers fans’ courage not measured by Brie and wine,” he headlined, although Bondy used neither of those terms. But then, you can’t blame San Franciscans for being a little defensive after decades of getting their butts kicked by the right. As recently as 2008, Pat Buchanan (who knows something about demonizing his political opponents) still was ranting about “the chablis-and-brie set of San Francisco,” even though by then, the characterization was shopworn. Incidentally, being “brie-and-chablis San Franciscans” didn’t seem to hurt the 2010 Giants or, for that matter, five Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49er teams (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994).
Yes, San Francisco lost last night. They played like mensches, and I hope after the game they went wherever they went and enjoyed some well-deserved wine and cheese.