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Why I would rather be in Philadelphia

And answering the oft-asked question about another television series

In another life, long before I ever encountered Conan O'Brien, I was on the staff of a talk show hosted by David Frost. I was grandly titled Associate Editor, and one of my jobs was to write questions for David to ask his guests. His favorite question, of his own devising, was: "How would you like to be remembered?" An inquiry like that would have been worthy of Sigmund Freud, by whose grandson I myself was interviewed a few years ago for The Times, of London. (No, it is not called "The London Times"; such a newspaper exists only in sloppily-researched B-movies).

Sigmund Freud lived his later years in London, where his grandson Clement became a journalist (writing especially on sport and food), and later a Liberal Member of Parliament, and was eventually knighted. Sir Clement interviewed me for a regular feature in which he ate dinner with a "celebrity". I was having an extra 15 minutes of fame at the time, as the recent presenter of the television series The Beer Hunter . I could not help noticing that, as a newspaper interviewer, Sir Clement was unusually probing on questions of my childhood. I do not remember whether inquired about the possibility of a second television series but, since this is the question most asked by audience members at my many public appearances, I shall answer it here.

The Beer Hunter question

The Beer Hunter was my own idea, and I persuaded a commissioning editor at Channel 4 (not the BBC), in London, to finance it. After the Discovery Channel signed as a U.S. partner, we had enough funding to shoot it on a film (something of a luxury these days) rather than video. The six half-hour films were shown initially on Channel 4 in Britain and Discovery in the U.S., and later on some PBS stations. They are still available in a video package.

Even before he had finished seeing the rushes, my commissioning editor indicated that he wanted a further six films - but he then left Channel 4 and moved to a company that does not do this sort of thing.

The Beer Hunter meanwhile achieved very respectable ratings, was positively and widely reviewed, sold extensively overseas and won a Glenfiddich Award for Television. Since then, there have been endless discussions with assorted networks, including Channel 4, Discovery, several strands of the BBC and A&E. As none has dismissed the idea, each discussion has lasted for many months before finally fizzling. Like the newspaper and magazine editors with whom I wrestled in decades past, they tend to conclude, frustratingly: "Beer? Didn't somebody do that already?" Yes, I did, but what about the countless viewers who would like me to do some more? So far, no cigar. Perhaps I should propose the Havana Hunter?

If I were for even a split second remembered for The Beer Hunter, I should smile in the hereafter as I shared a refreshing Duvel with my new drinking buddies. I have entertained many ambitions over the years, beginning at the age of 12 with a desire to get my hand inside Sharon Madelewski's blouse and extending to notions of captaining Great Britain at Rugby League, becoming Prime Minister, bringing about an end to racism, poverty and war, and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Apart from the first, achieved in a somewhat graceless grope, and not especially well received, these intentions have eluded me. Perhaps I have in the process become almost an adult. Why else would I feel embarrassed when people at book-signings say gratifying but excessive things to me? "Thanks for doing what you do." "Thanks for turning the United States on to good beer." "Thanks for your Pocket Guide - we had a great holiday in Belgium." (Surprisingly often, the latter turns out to have been a honeymoon). "Thanks for changing our lives."

I am, I hope, not yet ready to be memorialised, but the hungry ego more readily devours these tributes when they appear in print. One such note appeared in a recent, largely historical, book called Belgium by Beer , written by Charles Fontaine and Annie Perrier-Robert and published by Schortgen, in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. In a list of "Significant Dates," somewhere between the independence of the former Belgian Congo and the death of King Baudouin, appears the legend:

1977: in his book The World Guide to Beer, the Englishman Michael Jackson brought out the quality of traditional Belgian beers.

A similar, but more modest, chronology, appeared not long ago in All About Beer's contemporary American Brewer. In this case, the history concerned the New Orleans brewery Dixie, which was founded by Valentine Merz in1907. Among a dozen or so noteworthy dates, the following was observed:

1997: Michael Jackson leads a standing ovation for White Moose at the University of Pennsylvania Museum's annual beer dinner.

I have long had a place in my heart for Dixie Brewing. In one of the country's most distinctive cities, it is a brewery to match: a magnificent, antique, survivor, full of character. For years, I urged its various owners to produce more individualistic beers, and I certainly welcomed the above-mentioned white chocolate beer, though more as a novelty than a serious brew. Did I really lead a standing ovation? In all candor, I cannot remember.

I am flattered when people reminisce with me about my public appearances. I do at the time put an enormous amount of energy and commitment into these events, but I have presented so many over the years, in various cities and countries, that the details often escape me. Worrying that I might be suffering from Alcoheimer's disease, I reviewed my calendar at the end of last year. It turned out that in the 12 months I made more than 30 public appearances of one sort or another, in about 20 cities, in ten countries and a good dozen states of the union. For the record, in alphabetical order, it went something like this:

Amsterdam, The Netherlands (twice); Antwerp, Belgium; Baltimore, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Copenhagen, Denmark; Dallas and Forth Worth, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Dublin, Ireland; Karlsruhe, Germany (twice); Lexington, Kentucky; London, England (three times); Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New York and nearby cities (six or seven times); Orlando, Florida; Paris, France; Portland, Oregon (twice); Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Seattle, Washington; Stockholm. Sweden; Tokyo, Japan; Turin, Italy; Washington, DC. Now, where was it that I had an orgasm while tasting Dogfish Chicory Stout? Ah, yes ... the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

The Book and the Cook

My first appearance at the University of Pennsylvania Museum for the city's annual "The Book and the Cook" event was in 1991. I have participated every year since. By my shaky arithmetic, this year's will be my ninth. Not for the first time, this will necessitate my being away from home on the birthday of my long-time girlfriend. The very next day is my own birthday.

As this track-record suggests, I love the idea of "The Book and the Cook," and am very keen to support it with my best efforts. It is a festival of food-and-drink events, originally over one weekend, but now spanning two.

It was launched in the mid 1980s, to promote tourism in Philadelphia, a handsome and historic city that is sometimes overshadowed by its position between New York and Washington, D.C. Each year, the city invites authors on food and drink to present tutored tastings or meals at restaurants throughout the city. My "restaurant" is the café at the University. Why? Because much work on the history of beer has been done there, by Dr Pat McGovern and Professor Sol Katz, and many relevant artefacts are in the museum.

I usually speak at a dinner on the Friday evening of the second weekend, and present my main event in a series of three sittings throughout Saturday afternoon. Sometimes, I also present an additional event elsewhere in the city on the Sunday.

In my first year, my main event attracted more 1,000 people, the biggest audience at the Book and The Cook, and this was reported, with a raised eyebrow, in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I have held this record ever since, though it has been little reported. While the festival is intended to brighten Philadelphia's perhaps stuffy image, I suspect that some people are embarrassed that the biggest draw for so many years has been a writer on beer, rather than wine or haute cuisine.

In addition to the city itself, there is always a commercial sponsor. Last year, the TV Food Network provided that service, and will do so again. Naturally enough, it is heftily promoting its own food-and-drink performers and presenters, as a result of which my record as the biggest attraction is being strongly challenged. It is perhaps a shame that TV Food Network has not been showing The Beer Hunter.

At a time when in New York the pinheads of Wall Street are being so petulant over speciality beers, I hope we can in Philadelphia again demonstrate the true level of passion for malt, hops and possibly even white chocolate.

Published Online: AUG 9, 1999
Published in Print: MAR 1, 1999

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