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The Dog Days of Dive Bars
Why would anyone put Miller High Life into ice cream? Thoughts and (the world's oldest) jokes from the ongoing Dive Bar Book Tour.
Dive bars are having their moment. Despite society’s clearly irreconcilable opinions on alcohol, within our gluttonous gestalt the corner bar has carved out a space of recognition, even respect. These neighborhood institutions are embracing the term “dive” more than ever, a term formerly loaded with suspicion, even derision. It’s become something of a badge of honor, signaling that the establishment is home grown, authentic, and of the people.
I’m nearing the middle of a book-release tour in which my co-author and photographer Kirk Weddle, and I are visiting 13 Texas dive bars, which makes sense because the book is called Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State. I think our travels might be history in the making because I can’t find evidence of another author scheduling a book tour in dive bars. I’ve checked out all the biggies with notorious drinking reputations, like Charles Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Dorothy Parker, James Joyce, Shirley Jackson, and Ernest Hemingway. Some of these bright lights of letters wrote in bars, wrote about bars, and some may have read aloud a verse or maybe a paragraph on a barstool while working or just hanging out, drinking, and holding forth (in dive bar parlance: to command attention). Apparently, none of them took their published works back to those same bars for proper acknowledgment and celebration.
We decided to do just that. Not only are the bars’ owners tickled with the extra activity (i.e. paying customers) when we come around, but the regulars cannot believe we were telling the truth a few years back when we were haunting their bar for days at a time, asking all sorts of questions, buying everybody drinks to lubricate the conversations. “And yet, here we are,” I tell them whenever we show up for another stop on the tour, holding a copy of the freshly printed book.
While it’s clear that dives have moved up the social ladder, this development brings out the opportunist nature that seems to reside in humanity’s DNA. The most obvious example is the opening of brand new bars designed to look beaten up by time and curated with precisely strewn bric-a-brac. Such faux dives are Disneyesque at best and serve no purpose that I can fathom, other than to overcharge for cocktails.
In August, Miller Beer and something called Tipsy Scoop released onto the world a product that…. No, let this actual headline from the Food Network—which reads like it was composed by The Onion—explain things: “Miller High Life Makes an Ice Cream Bar That Tastes Like Dive Bars.”
You’re asking what does a dive bar taste like, right? And even before you’ve finished answering you’ve moved onto, “Why would anyone do this?” Yeah, that was my thinking, too.
I have an answer for the first question. According to the story, the ice cream is infused with beer, making the snack “up to” five percent alcohol by volume. Now, here’s where some culinary genius really nailed it: There is peanut swirl “to reflect the peanut shells always found on the floor of those bars” (we visited well over 30 bars for our research and none had peanut shells) and tobacco smoke flavor (other than a few outposts still allowing indoor smoking, this “flavor” is about ten years too late). The makers then dumped a bunch of nonsense on the thing, including caramel, something called “carbonated candy,” and dark chocolate.
The Food Network writer finished the story on the new product with this joviality: “Sounds like a great way to bring the dive bar experience to your couch, minus the tipsy walk home. Works for us!” (To be honest, I’m most upset with that cutesy little sign-off more than anything else. Works for us! Why would I give a shit about what works for you? Did you read what you just wrote?)
From that nightmare we awaken to some particularly interesting news, adding gravitas to our book tour’s place in history. You see, I’ve told an awful lot of “A guy walks into a bar…” jokes while on tour. They kill. I’ve got the perfect crowd for telling them, so I keep mining the internet for new material. I’ve found out that while some media mistakenly believe that this specific joke setup, “X walks into a bar”, began in 1952 with a joke in the New York Times, that’s not even close. The first recorded form of the joke was found written in cuneiform by the Sumerians on a tablet dating back to Babylonia, possibly between 1894-1800 BCE. That’s nearly 4,000 years, folks; the online Reddit community sparked interest in the joke earlier this year.
It’s been translated a couple ways; the two I’ve found cited most often are as follows.
On our book tour, I use the first one. It’s sleek, it’s efficient. I don’t have to speak in parentheticals. And it always gets people to break up.
But that hasn’t surprised me one bit so far. Even though there is no heavenly way we can decipher the true intent and humor of that ancient joke, when a bunch of good people gather together just to celebrate the existence and durability of dive bars, nearly everything under the sun seems ripe for laughter.
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Anthony Head has a checkered history, but he writes mostly about Texas these days. His latest book, Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State (Texas A&M Press) is available to pre-order now.