Category Archives: Old time 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.

Will the real cinnamon please stand up!

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

“I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come let us take our fill of love till morning.” (Proverbs 7, 17-18)

When enjoying cinnamon, a staple in food stores large and small, you’re actually enjoying a spice with a history colored by elegance, spirituality and brutality. The cinnamon goes back to Egypt around 2000 BCE and comes from the bark of a laurel tree. It has gone by the Malay name “kayumanis,” meaning “sweet wood,” the Italian, canella, or “little cannon tubes” for the rolled cinnamon sticks, and the Hebrew “qinnämön” – probably the origin of the English word “cinnamon” .

It also goes by the name “cassia” and that’s because the cinnamon we know and love is actually two different spices. One is the Ceylon cinnamon, thought to be the purer of the two, from a tree that originated in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. This variety comes from the tender inner bark of the tree and has a fine texture and sweeter flavor. The other is cassia, a native to Southeast Asia, which contains both the inner and more rugged outer bark of the tree, and has a stronger, spicier flavor. While we might not distinguish between the two, others did; in the Book of Exodus (30:23) God commanded Moses to use both sweet cinnamon and cassia in the holy anointing oil.

Throughout its life, cinnamon has served a variety of purposes. The Egyptians used it as a preservative for meats, in embalming, and religious ceremonies; the Romans for perfumes and other fragrances and as an ingredient to flavor wines; and in the Middle Ages, it was a favorite flavor in banquet foods as well as a digestive, an aphrodisiac, and remedy for coughs and sore throats.

But the popularity of the cinnamon began to peak in the 16th century when the Portuguese discovered it in Ceylon. In an act of great and on-going brutality, they enslaved the island’s population and ruled a prosperous

Drawing of cassia circa 1655

Drawing of cassia circa 1655

cinnamon trade. This lasted 100 years until the Dutch, conspiring with locals, overthrew the Portuguese. Unfortunately, they ruled the cinnamon trade and the native population with an equally hard hand for the next 150 years.

Gradually, the popularity of cinnamon waned. In the late 1700s, when the British defeated the Dutch and overtook Ceylon, it was no longer a rare and expensive spice. The Dutch had made Ceylon cinnamon more readily available by planting saplings in Indonesia and other places and the use of cassia was on the rise. Besides, another flavoring, this one from Mesoamerica, had won the attention of traders: the cacao bean.

Today, we use the two cinnamon more or less interchangeably borrowing from some of its historic uses: in perfumes and potpourris as a fragrance; in seasonal banquets such as Thanksgiving and Christmas; and in mulled wines and other fermented drinks. Some even claim that cinnamon is an aphrodisiac. Evidence of that is entirely subjective but it might be fun trying.

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Red Hots: Sinfully hot cinnamon.

Cassia cinnamon - an American favorite

Cassia cinnamon – an American favorite

A powerful cinnamon kaboom in an itty-bitty bite. Originally called cinnamon imperials, these hard candies hit you from your nose to your toes. Small, hot and oh-so-good. If your eyes water, it just means you love them.

-Ferrara Candy Company

 

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The candy of today likely uses cassia rather than Ceylon cinnamon. Here are a few of them:

  • Cinnamon rock
  • Cinnamon disks
  • Red Hots
  • Fire Balls
  • Hot Tamales
  • Christmas Coal Candy

Chocolate Talk Bits and Nips

I attended a talk on the history of chocolate at the historic Dumbarton House in D.C. The speaker, Joyce White, managed to cover a broad swath of history in 90 minutes with plenty of interesting facts. Here are a handful with a few of my own thrown in.

  • We all know that the ancients Aztecs revered the cacao bean: they even considered it money…so drinking chocolate was much like drinking gold. But the crème de la crème of the chocolate drink was the froth. The frothier the better.

    Whole cacao bean with soft shell

    Whole cacao bean with shell

  • Chocolate was considered hot and moist in a purely sensual way. In fact, the Catholic Church of the 1600s didn’t think it was suitable for women. Flash forward about 300 years and suitors were giving women boxes of chocolate to lure them to bed. Who knew some of the fillings, such as nutmeg and cinnamon really were aphrodisiacs.
  • Chocolate liquor is not an after dinner drink but the result of the cacao being heated. In other words, chocolate.
  • Baker’s Chocolate, which opened in the 1700s in Dorchester, Massachusetts just outside Boston, was among the first American chocolate makers. The company was not named for the people who used it but the founder Walter Baker. The logo of the girl serving chocolate drink was adopted in 1883 and based on a painting of 1740.
  • The Quakers of England, including the Cadbury and Frye family, were instrumental in creating modern day chocolate, starting in the 18th A great read is Deborah Cadbury’s book on the subject: “The Chocolate Wars.”
  • German Chocolate was actually Sam German’s chocolate. He developed a kind of dark chocolate for Baker’s Chocolate Company in 1852. In 1957, Mrs. George Clay’s chocolate cake recipe, with German’s chocolate, was featured in the Dallas Morning Star. The chocolate was a hit but the possessive wasn’t. It was soon dropped and the American made chocolate took on a new national identity.
  • Today, most chocolate is made in Africa, not its native Mesoamerica although plenty can be found there, too.

Baker’s Ads through the Ages

Baker's Chocolate in the Industrial Revolution

Baker’s Chocolate Celebrating the Industrial Revolution

Good for the elderly? Really?

Good for the elderly? Really?

Baker's Girl Based on 1700's painting

Baker’s Girl Based on 1700’s painting