Revisiting David Shields’ American Bitters

With summer in full swing, many of us are enjoying an Aperol Spritz (or 2) in our gardens or on our tiny balconies. To give you something to ponder as you sip your drink, today we revisit David Shields’ wonderful post on American Bitters. Here, David not only tells us about the medicinal qualities of various  bitter elixirs but also offers a recipe for those itching to brew your own. Elaine Leong


By David Shields 

Nowadays bitters are an aroma and a flavor used in building cocktails, or a digestif taken in small doses after heavy meals. Prior to the twentieth century they were a medicinal infusion of vegetable material in alcohol. In the Galenic humoral system, they countered an excess of choler or bile in one’s system.

After the Islamic invention of the distillation of alcohol, distillates of bitter herbs could be preserved and volatilized more efficiently than in a water solution. Bitters became a standard stomachic in Renaissance pharmacology. Physicians had such faith in the power of bitter plant matter to right disorders of the stomach that they gave a general prescription for Extractum amarum, not specifying which bitter plant should be used, or what variety of gastrointestinal disorder was being dosed.

From the 1750s to the 1850s bitters were patent medicines prepared according to secret proprietary formulae. American newspapers brimmed with ads for improbable tonics: Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilious and Stomachic Bitters; Dennison’s Improved Jaundice Bitters; Plantation Bitters; Stoughton’s Bitters; James Gartland’s Genuine Herbaceous Bitters.

StoughtonsBitterslabel

What did these elixirs promise?

“These Bitters stimulate and strengthen the coats of the stomach and intestines, expel wind, correct the bile, remove redundancies, assimilate the nourishment, and possess a suitable proportion of nervine and diaphoretic properties; which, by restoring to the nerves their tone and firmness, and acting on the surface of the body by insensible perspiration, restore that balance and equilibrium so necessary to health.” [“Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilius & Stomachic Bitters,” Norfolk Commercial Register (November 29, 1802), 3.]

When Dyspepsia (acid reflux indigestion) became a cultural obsession in the early nineteenth century, bitters enjoyed an efflorescence in popularity.

In North America, the flora differed from that of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and so the materia medica ready to hand for concocting bitters recommended a change in formulae. In William P. C. Barton’s Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States the bitter medicinal plants are flagged: tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera; marsh pink, Sabbatia angularis; bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis; flowering dogwood, Cornus florida; feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum; small magnolia, Magnolia glauca; stinking chamomile, Anthenis catula; checkerberry, Gaultheria procumbens; black alder, Prinos verticillatus; yaupon holly, Ilex vomitorium. Yet the one repeatedly published recipe in American newspapers from the 1780s to the 1830s used none of these common bitter plants. Furthermore, it had a curious set of features: water as a liquid base rather than alcohol; and calamus as the principle bitter agent, rather than gentian (the favorite old world bitter).

Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.
Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.

“Take the common meadow calamus, cut into small pieces, or rue, wormwood, and chamomile or centaury of hore-hound, or each two ounces, add to them a quart of spring-water, and take a wine glass full of it every morning fasting.” (1788) [“A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3].

Calamus as the central ingredient of bitters became a peculiarly American choice. Even enormously famous British bitters formulae—Stoughton’s Bitters,a gentian and sour orange peel brew dating from the second quarter of the eighteenth century, would be transformed in the United States by the substitution of sweet flag for gentian. Here is the recipe for the transmuted American version of the Stoughton’s Bitters found in The Independent Liquorist.

½ pound wormwood

1 dozen canella bark

1 dozen cassia

1 dozen coriander

1 dozen grains of paradise

¾ dozen cardamoms

1 ¼ dozen chamomile flowers

4 dozen orange peel

½ dozen calamus

The ingredients were infused ten days in ten gallons of 20% spirits; “then take 60 gallons spirits proof and run it through a felt filter containing 9 pounds red sanders, after which you run the infusion through; then add one quart white syrup and 10 gallons water.” (p. 62).

If gentian was the hallmark of European Bitters, and the prime ingredient of Angostura Bitters (1822) , the preference for calamus was not universal in America. In that most European of American cities, New Orleans, tastes tended rather toward gentian. Peychaud Bitters (New Orleans 1830), the city’s historical cocktail concoction, made the taste central in its amalgamation of orange oil, caramel, oil of cloves, and maybe cinnamon oil to spirits. Some thought a synthesis of bittering agents—a formula using both gentian and calamus such as Seaman’s Bitters, doubled the tonic effects.

The non-alcoholic recipe calling for calamus, rue, wormwood and chamomile first appeared in the Pennsylvania newspapers toward the end of summer in 1788. In 1812 it appeared again in St. Louis. In 1826 it found its way into papers in South Carolina and was reprinted in state’s first cook book, The Carolina Receipt Book by “A Lady of Charleston” in 1832.

Why the firm retention of water as the base of the decoction, despite its comparatively modest capacity to volatilize? I suspect it may have to do with children as much as the rising popularity of temperance. Water based bitters can be administered to children without qualms about the effects of alcohol. The number of recipes devoted to stomach problems in household manuals cue the acute cultural concern for the digestive health of offspring.

Sources: “A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3.

David Dennison & John Parker Whitwell, His Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent. Improved Jaundice Bitters (Boston, [1800-1813). Charles Julias Hempel, A New and Comprehensive System of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (New York: William Radde, 1865), 2: 570. L. Monzert, The Independent Liquorist (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866), 95.

David S Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and the Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.  He publishes monographs in the fields of early American literature and culture, the history of photography, and Food Studies.

Revisiting Laurence Totelin’s Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity

Well, the Dog Days of summer are upon us once again…To help us cope with the heat, we revisit Laurence Totelin’s wonderful post from 2018.  In “Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity”, Laurence tells us about the origins of the term “Dog Days” and about various ancient remedies for seiriasis a fever whose name evokes the Dog Star Sirius. Keep cool, everyone! Elaine Leong


By Laurence Totelin

Summer this year in the UK has been particularly hot; we have experienced a heat wave for the first time in almost a decade. The hot days between roughly the tenth of July and the fifteenth of August are known as the Dog Days, so called because they are under the astronomical influence of the Dog Star (canicula in Latin, hence the French “canicule”, sometimes also used in English), also known as Sirius. Greek and Latin poets, starting with Homer and Hesiod, sang of the effects of the parching heat on the environment and people:

When the golden thistle blooms and the chirping cicada
Sits in a tree and pours down its shrill song
Continuously from under its wings, it is the season of exhausting heat,
Then goats are fattest, wine is at its best,
Women are most lustful, but men are weakest,
Because Sirius dries up the head and the knees,
And the skin is parched by the burning heat.
[Hesiod, Works and Days 582-588]

The constellation Sirius in the ninth-century manuscript Harley MS 647 . Source: wikipedia

To the Greeks, women were wet and men dry. The heat of the Dog Days caused both men and women to become drier; this brought positive effects to women, who became more like the ideal male, but weakened men. That weakness, however, was not a morbid state; it was not an illness.

Medical texts composed in later antiquity described a disease called seiriasis, which was an inflammation of the meninges accompanied by a burning fever. Its name evoked the Dog Star Sirius, although the physician Soranus of Ephesus suggested that the origin of the word seiriasis might be slightly more complex:

Some people state that the disease is called ‘seiriasis’ after the star [Sirius], because of the fever; but others state that it is thus called after the sunken forehead, because among farmers ‘seiros’ is the name of a hollow object in which they put and keep seeds. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.55]

Soranus, and other medical writers, recommended the application of various ingredients to the forehead as treatment for the illness: egg yolk mixed with rose oil, the leaf of the heliotrope, grated colocynth, the skin of melon, or the juice of nightshade with rose oil. Most of these products, available in mid-summer, were thought to be cooling, and therefore effective in the treatment of fevers: opposite is a cure for opposite. The heliotrope, however, was not known as a cooling drug. The therapeutic principle at play here seems to be that of homeopathy (similar is a cure for similar): the heliotrope, the plant that follows the heat of the sun, is a remedy for a burning fever.

An altogether more colourful remedy for seiriasis is recorded in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:

The inflammation of infants which is called seirasis is improved by the bones that are found in dog excrement, worn as amulets. [Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.135]

Girl playing with a dog on a Greek funerary stele, second century BCE. Credit: British Museum

Bone shards are sometimes found in dog poop, and these might be what Pliny was referring to here. This ingredient was most certainly chosen because of the perceived link between seiriasis and the Dog Star Sirius. One can only imagine the despair that would lead the sleep deprived parents of a sick child to put their trust in such an amulet.

Revisiting He Bian’s Fetch Me at Pearl Nest Street: Rhubarb Pills as Panacea in Qing China

Today we revisit He Bian’s fascinating post from 2018. Here, He tells us about the global trade in Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, panaceas and notions of difference in premodern theories of the body. Fascinated by this post and want to learn more about drugs in early modern China? You’re in luck as He’s monograph Know your Remedies: Pharmacy and Cultures in Early Modern China is now out with Princeton University Press. Have you ordered your copy? Elaine Leong


He Bian

In the late eighteenth century, American ginseng opened up a new niche market in Qing China. At the same time, Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, harvested from the northwest regions of the empire, were transported by Chinese traders all the way to the southeast coast and sold off to foreign customers in Canton (Figure 1). Part of these transactions took place in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Islands), a vassal state of the Qing but also an important node of global trade that crisscrossed the West Pacific. At some point in 1789, the Qing court issued an edict to the Ryukyu king that explicitly forbade him from selling rhubarb to Russians, with whom the Qing was then engaging in an all-out trade war. Rhubarb featured prominently in the Qing strategy because they believed that Europeans imported so much of this drug that they could not live a day without it.[1]

Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk
Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk

Yet is it really true that pharmacological visions in early modern China and Europe were so different that they could not possibly reach a consensus over rhubarb’s properties ? Classical Chinese pharmaceutical literature listed rhubarb as a drug with a “very cold” nature, and generations of physicians were taught not to use the cold drug in curing cold-natured diseases. This suggested that Russians (and other Westerners, as seen in this post on rhubarb in early modern England) had different bodies than the Qing Chinese, as they depended on rhubarb as an all-round cure. Pharmacological theories, in other words, engendered a vision of difference that seemed insurmountable.

During my recent reading of Qing medical recipe books, however, I discovered that rhubarb in fact functioned as nothing short of a panacea for Qing Chinese. This is evident in the text Bianyong liangfang (Excellent Recipes for Expedient Use), which appeared in the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820). Compact (only 2-juan in length) and very nicely printed (with carved woodblocks), it arranges pills, powders, tinctures, and decoctions by symptom. The book has about 120 pages, and most recipes are merely a few lines in length. What surprised me was that one very long recipe at the end of the text takes up the entirety of 13 pages. The remedy in question, mi shou Qingning wan (Secretly transmitted pill of purity and tranquility), calls for “several dozen pounds” of good quality rhubarb roots as the principal ingredient. Rubbed clean and steeped in rice water, the rhubarb was sliced, sun-dried, processed with “ash-less good rice liquor” for three days, and then put through a lengthy, elaborate protocol of fifteen rounds of steaming. Each steam involved a different set of herbs. Finally, makers took the resultant rhubarb paste, mixed it with “yellow ox milk” (using cooked honey as substitute if there was no milk), boy’s urine, ginger juice, and rolled it into tiny pills. The recipe listed hundreds of common illnesses that could be treated with this pill, ranging from headache and hemorrhage to gynecological disorders.

Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v
Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v

I have tried to look up this recipe in earlier Chinese medical texts, and my preliminary findings suggest that it probably came into existence no earlier than the seventeenth century. It became wildly popular in the eighteenth century, and recipe books serve as evidence of its widespread consumption. On the last page of Bianyong liangfang (Figure 2), the compiler, Luo Benli, announced that he had a batch of rhubarb pills prepared during his tenure in Guizhou – a southwestern province of China – and that, in case of emergency, readers could “call upon my house on Pearl Nest Street” and look for the “residence of Mr. Luo of the Ministry of Defense (bingbu Luo zhai).” Pearl Nest Street (zhuchaojie), a neighborhood in Qing Beijing not far from the Forbidden City, featured prime real estate. As a military official who had served in the frontier provinces, Luo was less bound by medical norms of the day and possessed the financial and political capital to manufacture elaborate pills like these. Was there, in other words, a sub-culture of health and medication championed by military elites such as Luo, which stood distinct from classical prescriptions?

One last word about this recipe that hints at a hidden connection between different cultural realms in early modern China: Sun Xingyan (1753-1818), a prominent scholar who combed through medieval sources for fragments of ancient texts, published the same recipe for Pill of Purity and Tranquility in his scholarly series. The inclusion of this Qing text alongside ancient monographs so bewildered modern bibliographers that they mistakenly attributed the recipe’s author to a seventh-century figure. In fact, Sun Xingyan made it clear that it was a contemporary remedy and provided an elaborate scholarly argument to defend rhubarb’s all-around efficacy to cure both hot and cold-natured illnesses. He also suggested that “vulgar physicians” despised the pill because if everyone had access to this remedy then their businesses would be lost. Therefore it does appear that, when it comes to rhubarb, Qing Chinese scholars and military commanders were no less enthusiastic than what they imagined about the Russians.

[1] I recommend this excellent essay by Chang Che-Chia (translated by Penelope Barrett) for more on this curious episode.

Tales from the Archives: SNOWBALLS: INTERMIXING GENTILITY AND FRUGALITY IN NINETEENTH CENTURY BAKING

I recently spotted these “schneeballen”  at the bakery counter of my local supermarket. From Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria, these delicious cookies are actually made from strips of shortcrust pastry, draped over a wooden stick or spoon to shape into a ball. They are then covered in powdered sugar. The chocolate version on the right has sprinkled almonds on top. They’re quite large – the size of a tennis ball – and made for a great after school snack for the kid. Seeing these Schneeballen reminded me of Rachel Snell’s excellent post from 2015 on the American dessert “snowballs”. Enjoy!

By Rachel A. Snell

Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg
Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg

For most readers, snowballs likely conjure memories of childhood winter games or, perhaps, the small, rounded cookies covered with shaved coconut or powdered sugar often prepared around the winter holidays. Of course, there is also the Sno Ball snack cake (cream-filled chocolate cakes covered with marshmallow frosting and pink coconut flakes), first introduced to American supermarkets in 1947.[1] The association between snowball named treats and coconut is a decidedly mid-twentieth century convention, likely due to the increased affordability, availability, and accessibility (dehydrated flakes) of this tropical fruit. In the nineteenth century, snowballs took a decidedly different form depending on the region where they were produced, revealing the intermixing of gentility and frugality that occurred in rural or peripheral areas.

My research suggests there were several versions of Snowballs circulating within the Anglo-American world during the first half of the nineteenth century. These versions of Snowballs were essentially apple dumplings served with a sauce or icing. One particularly sumptuous version consisted of whole apples, cored and filled with orange or quince marmalade, covered in pastry and baked. Once removed from the oven, the Snowballs were covered in icing and set near the fire to harden.[2] This description of Snowballs comes from Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, first published in England in 1823 with several expanded American editions between 1829-1860 that were readily available throughout North America. The comparative extravagance of this recipe is unsurprisingly since Mackenzie’s recipes appear to be aimed at a middle-class or higher audience with many elaborate and costly recipes.

 

Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).
Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).

The American variation on this dish, appearing in several sources such as an entry for Snowballs in Caroline Hayward’s manuscript recipe collection and a clipping pasted into an edition of Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, is a dish consisting of peeled and cored apples, flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon, and cloves, and tightly wrapped in cooked rice. Hayward’s recipe instructs the cook to tie each apple “up in a cloth like dumplings.”[3] The finished product would resemble Mackenzie’s Snowballs, but with rice in the place of pastry. These recipes are sometimes labeled Carolina Snow Balls, a reference to the use of rice. Since this version did not require the butter and refined wheat flour required for pastry or the costly marmalade, it may have been more economical to produce for family suppers or those with limited means.

Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, printed in Toronto in 1840, presents a related, but decidedly unusual version of Snowballs. A.B., the anonymous author of the Manual, undoubtedly had access to Mackenzie’s Snowballs recipe. Five Thousand Receipts was a major source for the Manual, nearly the entire cake section and many of the pudding recipes were adapted or copied from Mackenzie. Unlike the American versions, A.B. omitted the apples entirely. An unusual choice since apples would have been readily available in the Lake Ontario region. This incredibly simple recipe consists of balls of boiled rice, sifted with loaf sugar and served with “wine sauce is best with them, but butter and sugar with them is very good if they are kept warm.”[4] It is easy to imagine the source of the name; these balls of boiled rice covered with sugar glistening in the candlelight likely bore a striking resemblance to the snowballs manufactured by local children. It would be a very pretty dish and an economical one as well.

Snowballs FHM 1
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)

A.B.’s Snowballs were likely adapted to make the recipe better suited to regional cooking and entertaining habits. Her recipe for Floating Island, a popular nineteenth-century dish of French origin consisting of meringue floating on vanilla custard, has likewise been significantly altered to both simplify and economize the recipe. A.B. suggested serving her recipes for Floating Island and Snowballs together, which would produce a dramatic effect, Floating Island “is a very ornamental dish by candle-light, together with a dish of snowballs on the opposite part of the table; in exchange for a snowball you get a bit of floating island.”[5] Allowing the housewife to impress her guests with manageable effort. Thus, the recipe for Snowballs was tempered with frugality from the sumptuous and elaborate dish presented by Mackenzie, to the American variation that substituted cheap and plentiful rice, and finally A.B.’s version, which avoided expensive ingredients and time-consuming labor to produce a dish pleasing to both the eyes and the taste buds.

In this way, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual reveals a transition in regional foodways within the Ontario Lake region. At mid-century, recipe collecting was shifting from the practical and frugal recipes associated with subsistence farming in a frontier region to the recipes associated with status and gentility that signal established agriculture and the beginning of middle-class sensibilities about dining and entertaining. Recipe collections like The Frugal Housewife’s Manual allowed women to balance frugality and gentility in their cooking and entertaining. An example of the hybrid sociability identified by Catherine E. Kelly, A.B. and her community sought to imitate urban, middle-class social mores within the constraints of agricultural work rhythms and rural work-based sociability. For these women, gentility intermixed with frugality was the answer. While A.B. presents recipes that rely on imported luxuries (liquors, wine, citrus fruits, raisins, currants, and spices) and commercial products (saleratus, milled wheat flour, loaf sugar) that together suggest a comfortable family budget, economy is still the underlying theme. A.B. frequently notes recipes that are inexpensive to prepare or provides hints for preparing dishes less expensively, such as substituting or omitting rare and costly ingredients. She likely would have echoed Lydia Child’s advice to housekeepers to “prove, by the exertion of ingenuity and economy, that neatness, good taste, and gentility, are attainable without great expense.”[6]

Note: For those interested in attempting to make Snowballs in their own kitchens, Kevin Carter has an excellent post at Savoring the Past with instructions to make two versions and a discussion of rice’s connection to the American slave system.

[1] And we cannot forget the Baltimore Snowball, an iconic concoction of shaved ice and sweet syrup, often topped with marshmallow cream. More information about this local treat is available here.

[2] Colin Mackenzie, Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co., 1831), 182.

[3] Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Joseph H. Hayward Family Papers, Ms. N-2368. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA 02215.

[4] A.B. of Grimsby, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual: Containing a Number of Useful Receipts Carefully Selected, and Well Adapted to the Use of Families in General (Toronto, Ont.: J.H. Lawrence, 1840), 10.

[5] A.B., The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, 9.

[6] Mrs. (Lydia Maria) Child, The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (New York: Samuel S. and William Wood, 1838), 6; Catherine E. Kelly, “‘Well Bred Country People’: Sociability, Social Networks, and the Creation of a Provincial Middle Class, 1820-1860” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 3 (1999), 451-479.