Monthly Archives: February 2015

So Much Resin, So Much Time: The First Chewing Gums Ever

Throughout history, people have chewed tree resins: they were the first and longest-standing chewing gum, appreciated for their flavor and medicinal and health value. Amazingly, the shift from gum as a natural resin to a popular industrial wonder spanned a mere 75 years – a fraction of a hiccup in time. Here are some of the originals:

Birch: The oldest chewing gum in the world was found by British archeology students on a volunteer dig in Finland. There, they discovered a clump of birch-bark tar, complete with teeth marks. Finish archeologist Sami Viljamaa says the chunk is between 5,500 and 6,000 years old and that Neanderthals used it to treat sore gums and stomach distress. Modern science proves they were right: the bark, which they boiled to make the tar, contains antiseptic compounds called “phenols.” It also contains xylitol, the natural sweetener you see advertised on gum packages today, which fights tooth decay.

5,000 Year Old Birch Gum

5,000 Year Old Birch Gum

Mastic: Largely from the Greek island of Chios, the mastic resin is a favorite of mine – it’s the first in written history and one we carry at the shop. It comes from the shrubby mastic tree which looks like an overgrown bonsai: the pearls are the stuff of jewelry – yellow beads with a subtle glistening quality. The resin is also called “Chios Tears” because it seems to “weep” from the tree and makes a crying sound when you step on the branches. Some scholars believe the “bakha ,” in Psalm 84 of the bible,  which comes from the Hebrew word for weeping, refers to the mastic tree.

First century botanist and physician Dioscorides recorded the mastic’s medicinal  value in his treatise, “De Materia Medica.” The ancient Greeks chewed the resin to clean their teeth and relieve stomach troubles, as did countless others since then. Modern studies at such a places as the Universities of Nottingham, Thessaloniki and Meikai found mastic contains antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, can cut over 40% of bacterial plaque in the mouth and heal peptic ulcers, among other advantages.

The Beautiful Mastic Resin

The Beautiful Mastic Resin

 Spruce: The hard amber nuggets from the spruce tree are closely tied to U.S. history. Native Americans of the Northeast originally chewed them, taking pieces on long hauls when fishing, hunting or exploring. It moistened their mouths, cleaned their teeth, and likely had other medicinal qualities. In 1847, John Curtis, a European American in Maine, packaged the resin as “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum,”  making it the first commercial chewing gum in U.S. history.

The spruce was so successful, Curtis built a factory to manufacture resin sticks. Curtis’ father managed the factory as Curtis hit the road, selling spruce gum throughout the country. Other companies joined in, including American Flag, Yankee Spruce, 200 Lump Spruce, and Kennebec and spruce resin became an American success. Around this time, another entrepreneurial spirit came on the spruce scene. The son of a soap salesman, he was selling baking powder when a marketing lightning bolt struck: why not give free spruce gum with the baking powder? It turned out that people preferred the gum to the powder and he ended up making and selling chewing gum, instead. His name: William Wrigley.

Amber gems

Amber gems

 Sapodilla: No tree has influenced American’s chewing habits quite the same as the sapodilla tree. Its resin probably sounds familiar: it’s the chicle and the native peoples of Mesoamerica have been chewing it for thousands of years. Like other tree resins and gums, they used it to clean their teeth and freshen their breath.

A bit like today, the Aztecs had rules of decorum for chewing gum – women who chewed gum in public were considered harlots and men, effeminate.  In her book, “Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley,” author Jennifer Mathew quotes 16th-century Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún as saying: “All the women who unmarried chew chicle in public. One’s wife also chews chicle, but not in public…with it they dispel the bad odor of their mouths, or the bad smell of their teeth. Thus they chew chicle in order not to be detested.”

The chicle reached the U.S. via the deposed president of Mexico, General Antonio Lopéz de Santa Ana who hooked up with former Civil War photographer, glass-maker, and inventor Thomas Adams. After failing to use the resin to make rubber for tires, dolls and other items, which would make them both rich, Adams turned to chewing gum, instead. The result was the first soft chewing gum in the U.S., “Adams’ New York Gum No. 1 — Snapping and Stretching.” Adams became incredibly wealthy as a result –Santa Anna lost interest and returned to Mexico broke.

As for the Maya in Mesoamerica – the story is more bitter than sweet. The sapodilla forest was depleted, owing to the European and European-American taste for gum. American companies  employed locals, but exploited them in numerous ways,  leading to what some call the second fall of the Mayan Empire.

 

The General, Lithograph, 1852

The General, Lithograph, 1852

Thomas Adams

Thomas Adams

 

                                                                                  Gums Today

The chewing gum industry’s reliance on natural resins ended only during World War II when manufacturers sending gum to the soldiers realized the natural stuff wouldn’t meet the demand. Today, the majority of gum is synthetic. Still, some gums promise to give the same value as the ancient resins.  Experts say these claims have some merit, especially about sugar-free gum – it causes you to salivate which cleans the teeth.

                                                                         Pitch? Gum? Resin

In this piece, I have used the term “resin” to describe the early chewing gums. But there is a difference between the stuff that flows from the tree, depending on where it comes from in three and how you treat it. The USDA Forest Service explains the distinction at http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/resins.shtml.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Confections: The Secret to Harmony? Who Says?

Who knew that two ancient confectionery ingredients could provide evidence that 1. two starkly different cultures could come together in a perfect union; 2.opposites can find perfect balance when brought together; and 3. at least men and women really can co-exist no matter what the sitcoms say.

We discovered this symbolically (and tastefully) with two new products we introduced at the shop. One involves the cacao nib – the  essence of chocolate in its rawest, most naked form. At the risk of

Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl_16th century

Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl_16th century

sounding sexist, the cacao is male in nature – the taste is deep, rich and complicated and the bean  fortified by an amour-like shell. Since the Olmecs of Mesoamerica about 4,000 years ago, the cacao was considered everything from a gift of gods to currency.  While likely shelled and prepared by women, it resided in the domain of the chiefs.

Cross the ocean to the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia of the same time period and you find a reoccurring symbol in the pomegranate. This fruit, with wet, red, voluptuous seeds was represented fertility and appeared in the Buddhists’ “Three Blessed Fruits,” the ancient Greek’s myth involving Demeter, goddess of fertility, the Biblical “Song of Solomon,” and many more. The flavor is sweet, the surrounding flesh soft, and the inner seed hard or, you could say, strong.

We decided to put the two together in the shop’s section on the early makings of candies: the sweetness of the pomegranate mixed beautifully with the chocolatey-bitterness of the nib. Perfect to eat by the handful or use in muffins, atop cereal, and other possibilities. We taste-tested, including with the production staff at a television station where I was appearing. All those involved came back for more and more – the perfect complement in a healthy, versatile treat.

Pom and Nibs                                                  Poms and Nibs Ready for Packing

We duplicated the process with another combination – again, the cacao, only this time in the present form of dark chocolate. Our chocolate-maker, Randy, is a true craftsman, a trained chef well-versed in the nuances of the bean. For this effort, he prepared a deliciously dark chocolate – very pure and very rich. We complemented the chocolate with a fig which has long been symbolic of the female genital.* A great demonstration of this is in Ken Russell’s 1969 movie “Women In Love” based on D.H. Lawrence’s novel, you’ve missed one of the sexiest scenes in movie history and one that demonstrates the true nature of this succulent fruit:

Randy bathed the fig in the dark chocolate, covering it completely from the stem to the base. As for the taste test? I can only say that when I passed out samples at the TV studio there was a general pause amongst the crowd after the first bite. Then a sigh of pleasure. The guest who followed me, a romance writer, put it this way: “Oh my God, my mouth just had multiple orgasms!”

chocolate covered fig                                                         Chocolate Covered Figs

Obviously, world peace, cross-cultural harmony, and happy passion between the genders doesn’t rest on the merging of two ancient flavors. But I do think the symbolism is revealing of the potential – the delicious potential – that exists in the universe. I’m looking forward to finding more.

 *A great resource for this and other female symbols is Barbara Walker’s “The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myth’s and Secrets,” Harper & Row (1983).