Monday, November 25, 2013

Alphonse Allais and his pal Captain Cap, touring the bars of Montmartre - with a bonus mint julep recipe, sort of

Captain Cap: His Adventures, His Ideas, His Drinks is a 1902 collection of the French humorist Alphonse Allais.  I had assumed that the humor had lost its flavor and that the book was useful as a period piece.  I was right about the latter but wrong about the former.

Allais, like any good humorist, needed a shtick – he needed a bundle of them – and Captain Cap has a great one.  Most pieces are encounters on the streets and bars of Montmartre with Captain Cap himself, who always has a new scheme, a new gadget, a new lie, and a new drink.

Early on, for example, over mint juleps, Cap describes his discovery of a cold cut mine in Quebec:  Meat-Land.  An explanation is given for the creation of such a mine that is almost plausible to those familiar with the principles of French cooking.

The cold cut mine has to be the finest creation in the book, from the Surrealist point of view, but it has lots of rivals, from the Kangacycle to the scheme to fill the French Catacombs with Arctic foxes to the Grandiose Billiards Club:

It looked as if the rain had not decided not to fall, so I proposed to Captain Cap that we play a game of billiards, simply, I added, to kill time.

“Alas!” Cap replied, “it is not we who kill time, but time that kills us!”

“Just to make it pass, then.”

“Alas!” Cap repeated, “it is not we who make time pass, but time that makes us pass.”

We could have continued quite a while with this system, so I thought it best not to insist.  (165)

In a bit of scene-setting later on the same page, Allais says he “should inform the reader, of there is still time, that the scene took place in the little white café on Blue Street – far preferable, in my opinion, to the little blue café on White Street).”

Allais has more than one arrow-through-the-head in his shtick quiver, is what I am trying to demonstrate here.

I need to get to the drinks.  The translator has helpfully catalogued all of them in an appendix.  Some of the drinks have dated where the jokes have not, like the various flips – try to find a bartender to serve you a drink with a raw egg in it.  And other drinks were once more, hmm, flexible:

The mint julep is excellent, when you can get fresh mint: crush four sprigs of the plant with a teaspoon of sugar, add a glass of cognac, fill with crushed ice, add a jigger of yellow Chartreuse, top off with water, and stir well.  Soak a spring of mint in lemon juice, and put it in the center of the glass.  Add seasonal fruits, and pour over it, without stirring, a dash of rum.  Sprinkle with sugar.  Drink with a straw. (333)

Seasonal fruits?  Yellow Chartreuse, are you insane?  And this is if anything less bizarre to me than the cocktails involving port.  Captain Cap adds port to lemonade.  How tastes change, in literature, jokes, and booze.

So this is an educational book, is what I am saying.  A period piece in the best sense.

Doug Skinner, who fortunately comments at Wuthering Expectations on occasion, is the translator.  He has enhanced the original with his own illustrations.  “Nobody said translation was easy,” Skinner notes (p. 245).

Congratulations and many thanks, Mr. Skinner!  Captain Cap is a fine contribution to English letters and Franco-American drinking. 


  1. How nice to hear that you enjoyed it! It was not easy to translate, given Allais's penchant for wordplay.

    The drink appendix, by the way, was part of the original book; the recipes were supplied by one of Allais's favorite bartenders. We served the port and lemonade concoction at the book launch, and it was surprisingly tasty: like Parisian sangria.

  2. Your conceptual coup was to translate the entire book, not just a selection of the best or most accessible pieces. The first section, the political campaign, is the most obscure, the closest to a period piece - but what a period! It is valuable, too, even if less funny and less snockered.

    Your illustrations and notes were a treat, too. You may have given us a better book than is available to French readers. I hope the book gets some attention. Anyone interested in the place and time should enjoy it a lot.

    I can imagine how a port cocktail could work. I just hope you did not use port that was too good. It would be a shame.

    1. I've loved the book for decades, so I did want to make the whole thing available. The campaign is best seen as documentation of a legendary prank, and as one of the few records of the real Cap, who died far too young. I think it makes a good prelude to Allais's fictionalized Cap.

      Translation and illustration is an odd combo; I hope it worked.

      We used an average port, but an exceptional mixologist. His version was better than the one I tried over my kitchen sink.

      Some of Allais's output was topical journalism, but much remains fresh. There's more in the pipeline: next is a collection of his short plays and monologues.

  3. Doug - your readings at the launch were remarkable. Sparkling, like a summer beverage. And nicely dark in places.

  4. Though I grew up in the U.S. South and thought I knew from Mint Juleps, that one is a recipe I will certainly try - and the book, too, bien sur, already, within minutes of reading this post, hinted around to those near and dear as the perfect gift idea in case any of them wants to get me one. Congratulations, Doug.

  5. Scott, this one is definitely up your alley. Do you have an alley? No need to answer that.

  6. "Captain Cap adds port to lemonade."
    Still a popular drink with elderly ladies in the UK, though they add lemonade to port.