Cary Bonnecaze stands in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, warehouse, surveying a row of clear plastic containers filled with stacks of silvery utensils packaged neatly in clear bags. He settles on one container in particular, pulls it from the shelf, and begins to unwrap the contents with the joyful anticipation of a five-year-old opening birthday presents. Tiny bundle by tiny bundle, he removes absinthe spoons from their plastic cocoons. Every handle carries a deep notch and a paper tag denoting its style. In one bin, silver-plated spoons feature paper-thin metal spades in the shape of a wormwood leaf (the plant’s essential oil is the main ingredient in absinthe). They are marked “Les Feuilles” (the leaves) in Bonnecaze’s elegant script. And for every container like this one, there are rows more, both here and at Bonnecaze’s nearby home. They make up a collection that contains roughly fourteen hundred absinthe spoons, an homage to Bonnecaze’s obsession with the curious epicurean instruments and his family’s French roots.
“I’m fascinated by the mystique that surrounds absinthe,” says Bonnecaze, who played drums in the band Better Than Ezra for eight years. “So much history was lost when it became illegal. And in today’s cocktail culture, there’s nothing quite like the preparation and ritual that surround it.”
A spiritual symbol of France’s storied Belle Epoque—an era that lasted from the 1870s until World War I—absinthe was a staple at Parisian cafés and a preferred lubricant for artists from Toulouse-Lautrec to Van Gogh to Manet. At the height of its popularity, it was the essential Parisian aperitif, sipped in the space between work and dinner, a tradition similar to the modern American happy hour.
Absinthe’s aggressively bitter flavor required that it be diluted and sweetened before sipping, usually by slowly dissolving a sugar cube over a perforated spoon perching atop a serving glass. This slow drip created a distinctive transformation—called louche in French—that allowed herbal aromas to bloom as the liquor turned from bright transparent green to a jade-tinted opalescent white. The dissolved sugar smoothed out the bitterness to each drinker’s desired taste. This made-to-order presentation required specialized tools—glassware, spoons, and tableside water fountains—that allowed patrons to control their own balance of sweet to bitter, strong to smooth.
Then came the Temperance movement. Absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912, and in France in 1915.
“I’ve always been interested in French culture,” says Bonnecaze, who grew up in the heart of Louisiana, with French-speaking grandfathers on both sides. When he was in his twenties and touring with the band, he became even more curious about his European heritage. Soon, he began taking trips to visit relatives in Paris, and to the small town of Orthez, in southwest France. “I saw things there that weren’t readily available here, so I started taking concepts from France and applying them at home,” he says. After leaving the band, Bonnecaze opened a shop called Vive la France, on Royal Street in New Orleans, in 1998. “We carried unpasteurized French cheeses, hard-to-find French magazines, soaps, and things that weren’t touristy, to bring a little bit of real France to New Orleans.” Over the years, Bonnecaze also began collecting antique absinthe spoons, as well as making and selling reproductions in the shop. His collector’s impulse started out slow, but soon “it became worse than a hobby. It was more of a compulsion.”
As a rule, absinthe spoons are more functional than decorative; mass-produced rather than handcrafted. They were workaday barware, pressed from sheets of steel, brass, or nickel rather than forged out of silver. Over the decades, different decorative motifs evolved, with categories named for the shape of the spoons’ holes—Les Losanges (diamonds), Les Etoiles (stars), Les Croix (crosses), and Les Publicitaires (advertisements, often with stamped typography).
Some spoons in Bonnecaze’s collection came from friends in Paris; some were purchased online via eBay and
Etsy, others from private collectors. Among his most prized pieces are an original spoon from the Paris Exposition in 1889, with a spade shaped like the Eiffel Tower, and what he calls a “poor man’s absinthe spoon”: a piece of metal repurposed by a resourceful World War I soldier in the field.
As Bonnecaze’s collection grew, so did his knowledge. He read voraciously about absinthe spoons, studying the book L’absinthe: Les cuillères by Marie-Claude Delahaye, one of France’s preeminent collectors and experts on the subject, and eventually befriending Delahaye and visiting her Musée de l’Absinthe in Auvers-sur-Oise. “She’s one of the few that started collecting absinthe items before it was popular,” Bonnecaze says.
A year after absinthe once again became legal in the United States in 2007, Bonnecaze opened the Absinthe Museum of America with a cofounder, Raymond Bordelon, inside the shell of his former shop. “We were in New Orleans, the birthplace of absinthe in America, and there was just such a buzz,” Bonnecaze remembers. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Absinthe never regained its original popularity, and the modern craft-cocktail movement moved on. The museum closed in 2010, and Bonnecaze returned to reproducing antiques, selling all manner of “absinthiana” (spoons, fountains, glassware, marble-topped café tables). These pieces might not have the same historic cachet as his original spoons, but they allow him to share the spirit, mystique, and French tradition with a new generation of drinkers, collectors, and budding Francophiles.
“Sometimes, on a quiet Friday night, I’ll go through my collection and get the itch to buy again,” he says. “It really does go in cycles. That’s how I know I’m not finished collecting.”