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Brie and chablis: A match made in Washington?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 10, 2008 01:33 PM

In today's Wall Street Journal, wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher do a "fact check" on a politically charged wine-and-cheese combo. Their conclusion, in the words of the subhead: "Whoever came up with this slam on liberal voters never tasted the pairing." Brie and chablis, they say, both deserve better partners.

They're tasting cap-C Chablis, of course -- the real French stuff, not the domestic "chablis" that comes in a jug. But linguistically that doesn't matter; we all know the phrase is about political flavors, not actual refreshments. So where did it come from?

Dottie feels it has something to do with Leonard Bernstein's famous party to raise legal-defense money from rich white liberals for a group of Black Panthers. However, according to Tom Wolfe's famous, liberal-lampooning, satirical account of the party, the cheese served that night was Roquefort. ["Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts," in fact.]
The catchphrase "Brie and Chablis" to mean snooty liberal seems to have really caught fire during the third-party presidential campaign of John Anderson in 1980.

Sure enough, the earliest cite in the Nexis news database comes from a Mark Shields column in the Washington Post in April 1980: "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."

But during the '70s, political news stories do mention "wine and cheese" parties, generally for liberal candidates. In 1977, said the Washington Post, "There were garage sales, auctions jogging exhibitions, wine and cheese parties all in the name of participatory democracy. For the most part, the campaigns were low-budget operations."

Wine and cheese, you may notice (or remember), has a somewhat different connotation from brie and chablis. In the '70s, a wine and cheese party is not what the Bernsteins were hosting on Park Avenue; it's a cheap and simple alternative to a cocktail party, beloved by tweedy professors and graduate students and young couples on a budget.

They were escaping from the sort of party fare Peg Bracken prescribed in her 1960 blockbuster, "The I Hate to Cook Book": processed cheese mashed up with port or bacon or onions, store-bought biscuit dough wrapped around anchovies and baked. If a platter of Jarlsberg and St.-Andre had been an option for the harried hostess, that processed cheese would have been off the menu quicker than you can say Olive-Oyster Dip.

So here's my theory: Wine and cheese parties come along with the foodie movement, as an obvious and convenient improvement on the bourbon-and-cheese puffs cocktail party. Around 1980, some political wordsmith notices that "brie and chablis" not only rhymes, it sounds much snootier than "wine and cheese," even though this chablis is probably California jug wine.

The mystery is that nobody has taken credit for the coinage. In a 2003 column, William Safire claimed that "the brie-and-Chablis set" was used by politicians in the '60s, but I suspect that's a shot in the dark. Safire himself doesn't use "brie and chablis" till 1983, nor does he have earlier citations of it in "Safire's Political Dictionary."

So I'm paging Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus, who among other feats of word sleuthing has tracked the legend of Churchill's "up with which I will not put." If Ben can't find the culprit, no one can.

And by the way, say Brecher and Gaiter: "According to a July Gallup poll, among Americans who consume any type of alcoholic beverage, 37% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats say wine is what they drink most often."


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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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