This’ll Warm Us Up: Drinking Rum With Richard Foss

Richard Foss
Richard Foss, author of “Rum: A Global History,” in 1973.

Richard Foss, author of “Rum: A Global History,” in 1973.

Richard Foss wanted to write a book about pickles.

But the editor of The Edible Series, which is published by Reaktion Books in Britain, countered that proposal with one of his own: How about rum?

Foss, who is known around these parts as a gourmet and a hale fellow whose previous incarnations included being the head chef for Henry VIII, has been critiquing South Bay restaurants for Easy Reader for nigh 30 years.

Rum? “I actually didn’t have any particular passion for rum,” he confesses. “I drank it occasionally, but I was really more of a wine and whisky guy.”

A book about rum? He gave the suggestion some thought.

“If I wrote about rum I get to write about pirates, voodoo, slavery and smuggling. What’s not to like?”

He wouldn’t have been able to say that about pickles, now would he?

And so Richard Foss – who will expound upon the subject a week from tonight at {pages} in Manhattan Beach – dove into his subject.

Asked what he learned, he says: “I learned that most of what I thought I knew was wrong.”

“Part of the idea of the Reaktion series,” Foss explains, “is that it is a global history rather than the more Caribbean-centric history that you usually get about rum. There are other books that go much deeper into the history of rum than I had space for. This book is a good introductory title; it’s not some academic doorstop.”

Indeed. It is short, personable, full of anecdotes, and nicely illustrated.

“Over the course of writing the book I’ve tried a whole bunch of different rums, discovered that there’s a great variety of flavors I had never guessed at, and I have become a rum drinker. So researching it has changed my habits rather considerably.”

As one might imagine, this interview is taking place in a seedy rum bar, glasses and bottles strewn everywhere, girls from countries I’ve never heard of trying to tempt us (I’m easily tempted), and a fine but threadbare Latin band in the darkened recess playing an ageless rumba.

Foss relishes sharing the history of rum, and he explains that it was the British navy that essentially funded the creation of distilleries worldwide by creating markets for it wherever there was a British-run port or garrison.

“Rum was made as far south as New Zealand and as far north as Newfoundland,” he says, “both places where sugar will not grow, because it’s made from molasses which is a very stable and easily shipped product.”

A gallon of molasses shipped from the Caribbean to New England, for example, where there was more wood for the distillation process, in turn produces a gallon of rum. However, the early days of rum production are inextricably bound up with the slave trade. Foss, being Foss, slips in an allusion to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the point being that the veneer of English high society was to some extent fueled by human trafficking and its resultant miseries.

Foss didn’t just chugalug a few varieties of rum, he experimented with it in food.

“My family put up with rum cakes, me putting rum in the chili… For a long period of time I was testing traditional recipes and wanting to write about them knowledgeably.”

He describes one concoction – “I do it at parties and it’s an absolute showstopper” – that involves stirring a mix of cream, sugar and beer with a hot poker while adding rum. The result resembles an alcoholic marshmallow, he says. “It is really tasty because you’re carmelizing the sugar with a hot poker, boiling the results, and you have this great frothy creamy thing.”

He’ll be making it for everyone at the Easy Reader if he wants this article to be published.

Happily, the book includes a smattering of recipes. The one for rum cake was acquired from the owner of Mr. Cecil’s in Manhattan Beach.

“Something that I try to do in the book is to look at some of the ways that rum has been reflected in popular culture,” Foss adds. “We print sections from sea chanteys, lines from some plays, and lines from some of the anti-rum songs from the temperance and prohibition era [that] talked about how evil rum was.”

Naturally, pitching rum as an evil drink will sell more copies of the book.

I’m not sure if Foss will get his shot at writing a history of pickles, but he’s got other culinary projects up his apron sleeves, including a dining history of the South Bay. For instance, what did people like you and me eat when we stayed in the Redondo Hotel in 1905? If we are what we eat, what were we then in comparison to what we are now? Richard Foss will soon dish up the answers.

Mark your calendars and prepare to learn about “Rum: A Global History” on Thursday, May 3, at {pages}, 904 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach. The talk begins at 7 p.m. (310) 318-0900 or go to ER



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