Category Archives: First Candy

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Amazing and Mighty Date

1280px-Dattes_Kenta

Dates, Wikipedia Photo by Madhif

If you love sweets, ancient history, ancient symbols, and the miracle of certain plants…then you have to love the date. This remarkable fruit has been cultivated since 7000 BCE – longer according to some reports. Its very existence defies the endurance of other plants: it grows in hot, arid conditions, its palms rise up in the desert like large, ungainly umbrellas in the midst of dry earth.

When food in the Mideast was often scarce, and sugar unusual, the date must have been a marvel. More than half of the fruit – roughly 54% – is sugar and the tree remarkably prolific: eight bunches can produce 440 pounds of fruit.(1)(2) It was a tasty food, a fermented beverage, a mild aphrodisiac, and a remedy for such things as fever, constipation and the pains of labor; in the Qur’an, (19:23-26) Maryam, was advised to eat dates to ease her labor pains.

The date also hails as one of the first confections in written history and a favorite of the Classical Romans. Apicius, the ancient Roman cookbook whose recipes are attributed to Marcus Gavius

Modern Date Roll, Nuts.com

Modern Date Roll, Nuts.com

Apicius, contains stuffed dates with nutmeats covered with honey. Apicius himself had a fetish for edgy, gourmet foods: when his money ran out and these foods became unavailable, Apicius killed himself.

Given the date’s culinary significance, naturally the ancients endowed it with symbolic meaning. The ancient Jews called it “‘tàmâr,’ and considered it a symbol of grace and elegance: King David named his beautiful daughter “Tamar.” (3) In Mesopotamia, people thought the tree originated in

 BCE Ra and Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari. 1298-1235 BCE

BCE Ra and Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari. 1298-1235 BCE

heaven and they, as well as the Egyptians and Chinese Taoists, considered it a Tree of Life and a symbol of immortality. (4) The date palm was also sacred to Ra, the sun god, symbol of life over death, and the most widely worshiped deity among the ancient Egyptians.

The ancients’ reverence for the date – and the death-defying attribute they bestowed upon it – was merited according to modern reality. In 1963-1964, archeologists in Israel were excavating Herod the Great‘s palace in Masada, Israel when they discovered date palm seeds radiocarbon dating placed between 155 BCE and 64 CE. In 2005, after being pre-treated in a fertilizer/hormone solution, three seeds were planted at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arabah desert. One of the seeds sprouted and, three years later, was almost four feet tall. The Israelis named the plant “Methuselah,” after Noah’s grandfather, who was the oldest character in the Bible, living to be 969 years old. (5)

Given the date’s history, its flavor which rivals any modern gourmet confection, and its abundance in California, not to mention Israel and other parts of the Mideast, it’s amazing that dates aren’t considered a mainstream American fruit, holding its own against other imports such as the peach, apple, and pear. The “why” is hard to explain and not worth the trouble. What matters more is the “but” – as in, but it still might become a front-line favorite today. Given the date’s history, no one should be surprised.

.Methuselah, at Kibbutz Ketura                                                          Methuselah, at Kibbutz Ketura

  1. Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Volume Two, [Cambridge University Press:Cambridge] 2000 (p. 1767-8)
  2. Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 243-4)
  3.  Plants of the Bible, Michael Zohary, Cambridge University Press 1982
  4. Nectar & Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology, Tamra Andrews [ABC-CLIO:Santa Barbara CA] 2000 (p. 79)
  5. Roach, John (2012-11-22). “2,000-Year-Old Seed Sprouts, Sapling Is Thriving”. National Geographic News.