Tag Archives: food history

Sweets Under Seige: Revolutionary War

Dan in Uniform

Here’s a picture of my handsome husband over there in Afghanistan. The USO gives a little levity to folks like him with shows and, yes, candy, upholding a tradition that started with the Revolutionary War. I send Dan chocolate covered espresso and bourbon balls among the books and aspirins.  My packages are always followed by an e-mail that exclaims: Got IT!  Then a blow-by-blow of what he ate first.

So, why not explore what the troops have enjoyed since way back when starting with the Revolutionary War. The soldiers back then had an unpredictable assortment of food, sometimes nothing, sometimes mouse-nibbled, bug-infested johnny cakes, and sometimes chocolate.

You might imagine that the chocolate was bitter, grainy, and terrible, and I have no doubt  that some of it was, but European Americans of the day enjoyed sugar (grown and processed by enslaved workers in various parts of the world) and spices such as cinnamon (compliments of the Spice Trade). In other words, taste-wise it could take on a Hershey Bar on the battlefield or off.

FYI: In Europe, the cost of the cacao was prohibitive so the well-to-do had to suffice with drinking chocolate. But in North America chocolate was more readily available. Drinking chocolate was still the norm, but eating chocolate was on-the-scene and considered good for health and vitality, as many say today.

In fact, Bakers Chocolate of Boston was already advertising by 1770. Their most famous advertising campaign, concocted in the 1800s, was based on the painting  La Belle Chocolatière or “The Chocolate Girl,” by French artist Jean- Étienne Liotard  in the 1740s. Today, you can find a tasty example of chocolate from 1750, made by  American Heritage – a small division of Mars.

baker's chcolate

Baker’s Girl Based on 1700’s painting

 

 

 

The First Pop and Blam of Bubblegum!

When you think of bubblegum, I’ll bet 10,000 gum balls the Fleer brothers don’t enter your mind. But the Fleer brothers started it all. The story begins when Philadelphia native Frank Fleer, born in 1860, joined and later took over his father-in-law’s flavor extracts company. Fleer was in good company: his father-in-law was a Quaker, one of the oldest, most influential, and ethical players in candy history. Within five years Fleer began making chewing gum, some of which he sold in vending machines in the lobby of buildings.

One of the Fleer company’s most impressive accomplishments was created by Frank’s brother, Henry. He added a candy coating to pieces of chicle – a process known as “panning” that dates

Look Who Made this Classic!

      Look Who Made this Classic!

back to the 16th century “sugar plums” and is responsible for such treats as the jelly bean, Jaw Breaker, and Fireball. He called the pieces “chiclets” and the Chiclet we all know was born. Surprised? Most people think the Chiclet was an Adams gum from the get-go (think: “Adams” on the Chiclet boxes). Actually, the Fleers sold the Chiclet to Sen-Sen and, ultimately, to the American Chicle Company, of which Thomas Adams was a part.

Blibber Blubber: The Ill-fated First

            Blibber Blubber: The Ill-fated First

As part of the deal, the Fleer gum company could continue making chewing gum, only the gum couldn’t contain the critical component, chicle. Three years before, Frank had experimented with doing something the big three of the early gum universe – Wrigley, The American Chicle Company, and Beech-Nut – had not attempted: make a gum that could blow bubbles. He succeeded, using natural rubber latex, and launched the first bubble gum ever, called Blibber-Blubber. Shortly after, the Blibber-Blubber bubble popped. The texture was grainy and broke apart and the bubbles were hard to make. Worse, the gum adhered to skin with the ferocity of superglue. By the time Fleer sold his business to American Chicle in 1909, he didn’t have much to do.

But in 1913, Frank Fleer rose again, this time with the Frank H. Fleer Corporation in Philadelphia. The company made candy and trading cards featuring such celebrities as Babe Ruth, Gloria Swanson, and Mary Pickford. All the while, the pursuit of bubble gum continued, even after Fleer retired and his son-in-law Gilbert Mustin took over the business.

During the late 1920s, the company’s cost accountant, 23 year-old William Diemer would sneak into the lab after hours and play around with the bubblegum recipe. He wasn’t a cook, chemist or scientist and didn’t aspire to any of these things. What drove him was probably curiosity mixed with a sense of adventure. Numerous batches failed until finally, he got it right. Well, almost right. The gum didn’t stick and he could blow bubbles, but not if he let the gum sit overnight. In 1928, after more fiddling, Diemer figured it out, and added pink dye, the only coloring he could find in the lab. That’s why bubblegum is pink to this day.

He presented his creation to the company and Mustin dubbed it the misspelled Dubble Bubble. When they were ready to market the gum, Diemer himself went into shops to teach shopkeepers how to blow bubbles, so they could teach their customers to blow bubbles, who would teach their kids to blow bubbles, and their kids, their kids … and an American tradition began!

The Dubble Bubble has lived a long and fruitful life ever since, even appearing in the rations of GIs during World War II. It rose above competition from Topps, who made Bazooka just before the War and took off in the ‘50s, and Baloney made by the Bowman Company of Brooklyn New York, an early maker of trading cards. Today, Marvel Entertainment Group produces 15 million pieces a day. As for Frank Fleer – he died in 1921 and never lived to see his bubble gum succeed. William Diemer never trademarked his invention, never invented new confections, and never left the company. Instead, he became a senior executive and had a career which his wife said, after his death in 1998, was happy.

double bubble

The Story of the Peppermint Pattie (via the ice cream cone plus Junior Mints and a quick peek at the John Birch Society)

Traveling through Pennsylvania in March

Traveling through Pennsylvania in March

I’ve been traveling around the country, north and south, on my endless search for historic candy. To the north, I went to farmland in Pennsylvania where I passed the most astonishing vistas of farmhouses and fields…just stunning.

A while back, I was in that same area where I found a group of women baking in a Mennonite farm/bakery. I asked if they knew anything about sauerkraut candy: it originated in Germany and is made with actual sauerkraut.  They didn’t – and thought the whole idea was pretty funny. Would they be willing to try a batch? I had the original recipe. They thought that was even funnier. This time, the long winter was still causing the area to shudder with cold – no bakeries, candy shops, small farms with traditional treats. All I could find was the town of York – home to none other than the York Peppermint Pattie.

I also went to the outer banks of North Carolina where I had much better luck finding traditional candy – more about that later. One fabulous seafood place with to-die-for fried okra had but one candy for sale which was the…York Peppermint Pattie! Coincidence? Or was Henry C. Kessler, who invented the Peppermint Pattie, reaching through the heavens where he surely rests to request that I tell the story. So here goes:

The Story of the Peppermint Pattie (via the ice cream cone plus Junior Mints and a quick peek at the John Birch Society):

Henry C. Kessler opened the York Cone Company in the 1920s. Ice Cream Cones were relatively new in the U.S., although their origins go back to the 1700s in Europe. When exactly the ice cream cone made its debut in the U.S. isn’t entirely clear, but it was certainly broadcast at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and became a classic American treat thereafter. Henry Kessler joined in, adding confections to his list of offerings.

At that time, chocolate covered caramels, bonbons, and others along that line were old hat: suitors had been giving their intendeds chocolates for decades. But the chocolate covered peppermint was substandard: the peppermint was soft and gummy. According to Mike Argento of the York Daily Record, in 1940 Kessler figured out a way to make the center crisp, firm and delicious. He named the new creation the “York Peppermint Pattie”. Soon, Kessler was selling the treat throughout the Northeast, Florida, and places in-between. In fact, the Pattie became so popular Kessler gave up his ice cream cone business and focused exclusively on that.

But Kessler was not alone. Plenty of candy companies jumped onto the Peppermint Pattie bandwagon, including James O. Welch. In 1949, in Cambridge Mass, he developed a smaller version of the iconic sweet called the Junior Miss. Welch was no light-weight in the candy world: a native of North Carolina, he started his company in 1927 and went on to manufacture such iconic candies as the Milk Duds, Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies, according to the Cambridge Historical Society. His brother, Robert, started his own company called the Oxford Candy Company. After it went belly up in the Depression, Robert joined his brother only to leave in 1956 and co-found the John Birch Society.

As for the Junior Mints: the candy was named for Junior Miss a popular book written by Sally Benson in the1940s. It was serialized in the New Yorker and went on to become a Broadway hit and Shirley Temple radio production. The Junior Mints, which were small enough to navigate in the dark, became a movie theater favorite.

Still glamorous, today.

Still glamorous, today.

The Junior Miss stayed in the family…more or less. Welch’s company was bought out by Nabisco in 1963 where Welch remained director until 1978. His son, who had joined his father’s business after completing Harvard and serving in the Navy, became president and chief operating officer of Nabisco Inc. In 1981, that company merged with R.J. Reynolds Industries, to form Nabisco Brands, Inc. Welch Junior became president of the parent company, according to an AP newswire announcement at the time. Today, current owner Tootsie Roll Industries, produces more than 15 million Junior Mints a day in Cambridge.

And Kessler’s York Peppermint Pattie? After a number of corporate owners, it is now manufactured by Hershey in Mexico.

 

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).

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