Tuesday, December 30, 2008


The Goob's been playing "menolade stand" with a bucket and a toy cup and a bunch of bracelets, pouring them back and forth and stirring with a stick that's the cardboard core of a roll of baking paper. (Isn't make-believe lovely?) It's got me started thinking about lemonade, and the history of it, and I haven't done a food history post in a while, and I've got nothing else to discuss (I'm still sick and the sinus has triggered a migraine, whoopee), so here we go. Lemonade, the history.

All you REALLY need to make lemonade is lemons, sugar, and clean water. All those things are available in SE Asia where lemons are native, but it took a trip to the west for lemonade to get invented. In medieval Egypt (where they were also busy inventing knitting, from what evidence we have), they made the first drink we know of that we would recognize today as lemonade: There is mention in 1104 of the trade in lemon juice, qatarmizat, that was some combo of lots of lemon and sugar (no mention of water, ack), which was bottled and drunk. It was very popular, I'm guessing because alcohol was against the rules for Muslims and also because it was probably healthier than water at the time - no germs could live in such a strong acid/sugar combo, and there was vitamin C to boot.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, the ingredients.

LEMON: Citrus of all types is native to the SE Asia area. There is of course raging debate (among plant freaks, though I personally can't get too worked up) about exactly where each species is from. Lemons specifically are thought to have come from the NE India/Burma/Thailand/Golden Triangle area. It is very likely they were first domesticated in India (very clever with plants, those Indians), and traveled along the trade routes to the west, along with so much other good stuff. Ancient Rome knew about lemons, so they made the trip fairly early, as these things go. (At least, we think so... I'm of the opinion the Silk Road, or some variation on it, was open all the way back to the stone age. Humans don't stay at home now, why think they did ten thousand years ago?) Anyway, no one in Europe knew quite what to do with lemons and treated them as medicine until the 1800s when some Arab concepts of cooking spread into Europe, and Euros as a whole got a bit more adventurous about what they were willing to eat. Lemons as medicine isn't so weird; not only do they have lots of vitamin C, they're good for circulatory system health, and is said to 'cleanse the liver'. The oil was also used as a wood polish for many, many years before they were ever thought of as food.

SUGAR: This one's tricky, because there are a lot of sources of sugar; dates (that's what the Arabs probably used for their qatarmizat), honey (if not date sugar, than honey for the qatarmizat), beets, and sugar cane. Beet sugar is a relatively modern invention (Napolenonic Wars, early 1800s), and for Euros, we were making and using cane sugar when we made our lemonade. Sugar cane is a grass (yes, really) native to SE Asia, the tropical part. There are quite a few different sub-species, some natural and some created by man trying to increase the sugar yield. The Gupta Dynasty in India was using it by 350 CE as a sugar source, and the Arabs acquired it during one of their invasions/conquests of India. Because Europe lacked the proper climate to grow sugar cane, we imported it from the Arabs (at a huge markup, I'm sure) until we gained colonies in places that could grow sugar cane; 1420s had cane introduced to the Canaries and other islands off Africa, and in the 1550s cane was introduced to Brazil by the Portuguese. That and the introduction of cane to the Caribbean islands by assorted European empires, and sugar production really took off. Growing and harvesting sugar cane and then refining it is a disgusting, nasty, dirty, polluting process (I saw some of it close up in Hawaii), and slaves were imported to sugar-growing areas to do the dirty work. The European sweet tooth drove a great deal of the slave trade. I try not to think about it over my morning tea.

CLEAN WATER: This brings us to what you'd think was the most simple of the three basic ingredients. But of course it isn't simple at all. Judging from the cholera outbreaks going on right now in Africa (we should be there helping, not bugging Iraqis), it's not getting any simpler. Clean water has been a challenge pretty much for all of mankind, for all our history, and though we're getting better at it, it's still a work in progress. Modern water-treatment plants in industrialized countries have only existed since WW2 at best, and even then they often involve imperfect systems that use nasty chemicals (chlorine) and produce nasty byproducts (the gunk they clean out of the water). Clean water has been a motivating issue for science and technology for at least two hundred years, since the concept of germ theory was introduced. Amazingly, it took a cholera outbreak in London to 'prove' germ theory; a statistician and generally Smart Guy, John Snow, used statistics and modern mapping methods to trace a cholera outbreak to a single pump in London. That's when clean water became an issue, at least in Europe, and large cities began building sewers. 1854. Industrial chemistry was in its infancy, we'd had the printing press for three hundred years, we'd mapped the globe, and we were still arguing about germ theory. And statistics was advanced enough to prove it, meaning that bean-counters had a better grip on reality than the scientists. Just amazing. It's amazing we've survived at all.

Take the juice from six fruits native to SE Asia and domesticated by Indians, add one cup of white granules refined from a grass with a dark history, and mix with sixteen cups of universal solvent cleaned with toxic gasses. Garnish with a few leaves from an invasive plant that was a water nymph who offended the gods (mint) and sprinkle in a little spice that triggered several major wars (nutmeg). Enjoy.

So there you go, the strange, wonderful international trip through history in your glass of lemonade. I haven't even included the trails of other ingredients (mint, nutmeg, carbonation). But this is why people discuss 'international cuisine' or 'fusion cooking' and I scoff. There is an international trail going back thousands of years in every cracker, glass of lemonade, or bite of chocolate. Someday I should discuss the botanical wonder of a modern produce section. But that's another post, for another day.

All this history has woken me up. I think I'm gonna go knit.


Amy Lane said...

Holy shit. I may never drink lemonade again. (That was awesome, btw--seriously awesome.)

Emily said...

Oh, my good Lord, that you can get your brain to work like that when you're feeling lousy! I am in awe.

tactical grace said...

I say to my husband that you know a lot about a lot of stuff. I read a bit out loud, and he says your husband has good taste.

Alwen said...

My husband and son make homemade lemonade all year 'round. Which is why the child got two lemons and a lime in the toe of his Christmas stocking.

I always used to get an orange.

Donna Lee said...

I love lemonade any time but it does not love me back. I have to limit my intake (stomach issues). Until, that is, they come up with a less acidic lemon which would then destroy all the wonderfulness that is lemon. I'll just have to settle for small sips now and then or large glasses for which I suffer the consequences. Good history lesson!

GrillTech said...

Add some yeast to that sweet lemony concoction and let it sit for a couple of weeks. TADA now you have hard lemonade.

Galad said...

Hurray for lemonade trivia to add to my stash of knowledge. Hope your headaches are better soon.

Louiz said...

Cool. And trivia: There is a pub called the John Snow very near the pump where he removed the handle of to prove his point about the outbreak of cholera.

Brewgal said...

Edward Tufte gives a great lecture on John Snow and the cholera epidemic using his map. Is that a Hall pitcher in your photo?