Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 10, 2003

More on Placing Foods… Drinks, This Time

Okay, so chocolate results from an emulsion of ground up cocoa, which is not grown by Swiss maidens in alpine meadows. Cocoa originated in Central America where bloodthirsty, endocannibal Aztecs may have made the first hot cocoa, though we probably wouldn’t recognize it as such. I think they mixed in chili peppers. They may also have added in the burnt and powdered hearts of especially strong enemy warriors. If it doesn’t quite meet our current ideas of a wholesome bedtime drink, it must at least have been truly hot. (There remains controversy over whether it should be considered the first energy drink.)

Coffee is properly known as caffea arabica, but the name is yet another bad lead. Coffee seems to have actually originated in Ethopia, not Arabia (does anything grow in Arabia besides camels and oil wells?) Word is a goatherd got curious when his goats started skipping and twitching and refused to sleep at night. When he stayed awake the next day and watched them he discovered they were eating little red fruits growing on bushes. He chewed a few himself.

Hey, they aren’t bad! The seeds are bitter, but the skin and skinny pulp covering them is sweetish. They sort of share that with cocoa which also has a sweetish pulp around the seed from which the cocoa powder is actually produced, though the cocoa “beans” are a lot bigger and come in big bunches inside pods about the size of papayas. If a coffee bean drops on your head, you barely notice. If a cocoa pod does it can get messy.

Somewhere in here an Imam decides the little red demon berries are evil and consigns them to the purifying fires. Thus we got the first real connection between books and coffee: both were burned by religious zealots who recognized their inherent dangers to the status quo. Burnt coffee beans, however, have it all over burnt books. Burn a book; sniff the smoke: yuk. Burn a coffee bean; sniff the smoke. Cream and sugar?

Arabs traders brought expresso back to Arabia sometime around the 6th century C.E. By the 13th century the coffeehouse was the hot spot in Islamic culture. Coffee has had its place in Western culture, and as an excuse not to write, for ages. Hang on… (Had to make a pot.)

Since its origins were closer to Europe than China is, coffee beat out tea in the race to become a European staple, barely. Coffee arrived in Europe around 1615. Thus we have that great institution of the arts, the coffeehouse, not the teahouse. (Trust me, the T-shirt is another subject entirely!)

But tea… tea is old. Tea has a long and noble history. Legend has it in 2737 B.C.E. some leaves blew into Shen Nong’s pot of boiling water. He drank it anyway and decided the taste and smell beat the normal brew of dilute vegetable and animal wastes. Instead of teetee, tea! (Actually, probably from ‘tay’ while other languages picked up on the ‘cha’ or ‘tchai.’) Somewhere along the line lemon, cream and sweeteners entered the picture, but I’m told by avid afficionados that all are optional.

Pete Stuyvesant hauled the first tea leaves across the puddle to New Amsterdam in 1650. We aren’t certain whether he spent any time reading them, but that, along with tea’s prominent role as a party staple (de rigueur for Boston tea parties, especially) would become important to Americans before long. Reading tea leaves is what gave our Forefathers the insight into the future that led to the thinking behind the Declaration and Constitution, I’m certain. Of course, when it came time to actually write they drank coffee. Later a certain Teapot Dome would also achieve prominence.

Tea’s final development, however, and its most important evolution, is, of course, “swate tay,” as it’s properly pronounced. Richard Blechynden (which cannot be properly pronounced in polite company without spitting in everyone’s tea) is credited with inventing the iced form, also known as Nectar of the Belles, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He had planned to serve hot tea, but a premature bout of global warming destroyed the appeal of that idea. (It also, co-incidentally, created a new expletive, “blech!”) In desperation, and suffering from heat exhaustion himself, Rich (as he was ever after called) dumped a small iceberg into his surplus of fresh-brewed tea and tried serving it cold. Not only did it cure heat exhaustion, it sold!

Later, mint was paired with iced tea when it was discovered that while tea didn’t mask the smell of illicit sips of bourbon, mint did. Simply chewing mint led to suspicion among teetotalling wives (so called because the sum total of their liquid refreshment was tea). As a result an especially inventive husband took to spiking the supply of iced tea with mint so he could mask the evidence of his tippling with a tall glass of refreshing, licit and perfectly innocent iced tea. This innovation resulted in the eventual end of the Great Depression and started the rise of the South to its present glory.

Still later a husband with a weak bladder took to spiking his bourbon directly with the mint. While this innovation did point out the one downside to iced tea, it did not decrease its popularity.

Posted by dan at August 10, 2003 12:34 AM
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