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Après-ski: Where does that merde come from?

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GRAPHIC BY CY WHITLING

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that aprés ski originated in Telemark, Denmark. This has been corrected to Telemark, Norway.

By Joe Borden EBS Contributor

I remember where I was when I first heard the term “après ski”: I was in my TV show’s writers room and we were all feverishly planning our upcoming work ski trip. One writer suggested a spot for après ski and everyone else loved it! 

Naturally, I nodded in agreement and pretended to love it too while my brain screamed at my face “We’ve got no clue what that means, liar!” and my fingers flew over my keyboard to covertly Google the term. 

[Merriam-Webster Dictionary]

noun: après-ski

From French (yeah, duh), literally means ‘after skiing.’

The social activities and entertainment following a day’s skiing.

Ah. Got it. Not sure who we’re trying to impress with our raised-pinky, hoity-toity lingo here, but maybe that’s just something American people do in the mountains. On belay? Belay on.

Now, years later, having partaken in … dozens? hundreds? of après-ski events, I understand that there’s a deeper meaning. It’s a time-honored tradition that can involve: 

  1. pretentious barrel-aged craft cocktails and fish-egg foam served on a porcelain spoon or
  1. slamming slushy tall-boy beers and tipping shotskis while a DJ tries to pop open your eardrums like a bag of kettle chips at altitude. 

Nothing is set in stone. Après-ski belongs to the wealthy and powerful. And to the young and beautiful. And to the rest of us who are somewhere in the doughy middle. All who ski may après-ski. 

But why?

Did a bunch of French people decide to start pounding fromage and Cab Franc after a day on the slopes? That was my guess. But it’s wrong. While France may be the birthplace of baguettes and braided hair and tongue kissing, après-ski originated further north. 

According to Skiing Heritage Journalthe tradition of après-ski actually began in the mid-1800s in Telemark, Norway. Sound familiar? That’s right: it’s also the namesake of the knee-destroying ski style where your heels inexplicably pop out of your bindings.

Danes began having drinks and snacks after skiing as a social event. And as it grew, it evolved into a gathering where you’d eat large portions of potatoes to soak up all the aquavit (So, historically speaking, that basket of fries you order for the table is like the official food of après-ski!). The custom finally went international in the First Winter Olympics back in 1924, which took place in … Chamonix, France. 

From there, word spread across the Swiss Alps (thanks to their legendary yodelers, I assume) and eventually, in the Austrian ski hamlet of St. Anton, the phrase après-ski finally took hold. Fun fact: the French term narrowly won out over the German term, gemütlichkeit (which is fortunate, because gemütlichkeit sounds like what you say to someone who just sneezed and burped at the same time). 

What came next? Of course, in the proud tradition of Vienna sausages and Arnold Schwarzenegger, it wasn’t long before the Austrian export of après-ski would take America by storm. At first, in New Hampshire, it was spaghetti and tiny glasses of wine, but as the rope tow came into fashion and skiers no longer had to hike up to ski down, the party evolved and the hoity-toity, French-but-not-French pre-dinner post-skiing, classy-yet-debaucherous eat-drink-dance-sing-talk-athon as we know today gloriously came into form.

And that’s what Google and Merriam-Webster won’t tell you: variety is the secret sauce of après-ski. After 175 years of practice, we’ve learned that how you après matters a lot less than whether you après.

And now you’ve got some nuggets of wisdom to go with that basket of fries.

Joe Borden is a writer/producer in Big Sky, Montana. He has written for Tosh.0, Talkshow with Spike Feresten, and Showbiz Show with David Spade. He’s currently producing the film “Somewhere in Montana” starring Graham McTavish.

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