Revisiting Lisa Smith’s Coffee: A Remedy Against the Plague

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a post by our editor Lisa Smith on the use of coffee as an eighteenth century cure-all against smallpox and the plague. The botanist Richard Bradley claimed that coffee would be effective in treating such diseases because it ‘lifted the spirit’. I certainly find that caffeine lifts my spirits, even if temporarily, but we know that high spirits are unfortunately no protection against COVID-19 and other viruses. Still, there is no harm in taking a break – caffeinated or not – and I hope that this post will give you good cheer. Laurence Totelin


By Lisa Smith

1721, London: The plague raging in Marseilles threatened London’s busy ports. The British government took action, asking a core group of physicians to devise a plan in case the plague reached London. Smallpox was already rampant and the King had ordered a series of inoculation experiments on prisoners. Troubled times.

Enter the impecunious botanist Richard Bradley. (I discussed his interesting life in a recent blog post.) When he wasn’t in debt to booksellers, he made a living from popular medical and scientific writings, such as The virtue and use of coffee, with regard to the plague, and other infectious distempers (London, 1721). He wrote: “At this time, when every Nation in Europe is under the melancholy Apprehension of an approaching Plague or Pestilence, I think it the Business of every Man to contribute, to the utmost of his Capacity, such Observations, as may tend to the Service of the Publick.”

And in the face of the plague and smallpox he offered… coffee. Remedies prescribed by other physicians, he insisted, “are little different from each other.” Coffee, however, “is of excellent Use in the time of Pestilence, and contributes greatly to prevent the spreading of Infection.” Who knew?

Apparently the Turks. Bradley explained: “in some Parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee.” In his treatise, he discussed coffee’s efficacy and provided (most tantalizingly for the coffee-mad Brits) “an Account of the best Method of roasting the Berries, and preserving them after roasting.”

Coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Line engraving by H. Burgh, c.1726
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I present to you Bradley’s instructions for preparing coffee. First, he recommended spreading out the ripe berries to dry and harden beneath the sun. The husks were then to be removed so that the berries could be toasted in an “airy place to clean them.” Finally, the berries were ready for the roaster, and this was an important step: the roasting process, Bradley claimed, would determine “the Goodness of the Liquor.” Never fear, though, Bradley had “taken some pains to experience the best Method of roasting it.” His conclusion was that the berries would be heated most equally by placing them in an iron vessel and turned on a spit over a clear or charcoal fire. His personal preference was “roasted in a middle way, not overburnt.” To modern readers, this seems like a lot of work, but Bradley reassured his readers that this process could easily be done at home, as apparently many “Persons of Distinction in Holland” did.

Making the beverage also required special equipment and techniques. To prepare the decoction, earthen or stone vessels were best, as metal spoiled the flavour. Boiling the coffee evaporated “too much of the fine Spirits”. Pouring boiling water over the powder of ground berries and infusing it for four or five minutes in front of the fire would be better and “much exceeds the common way of preparing it.” He provided an alternative, too: grinding the berries into powder, adding the powder and water into a stone or silver coffee pot and leaving the pot in front of the fire for a couple minutes. The liquid was always “thick and troubled” after brewing, but could be made “clear enough for drinking” by adding a spoonful or two of cold water to force the grounds to sink.

Coffee was worth the effort, being the ultimate cure-all. Bradley described its many virtues, which included treating head pains, vertigo, lethargy, coughs, moist and cold constitutions, consumptions, swooning fits, digestive problems, sleepiness, running humours, sores, scrofula, drunkenness, rheumatism, gout, intermitting fevers and infection. It could also purify the blood, provoke urination, stimulate the menses and deworm children. Indeed, it was particularly beneficial for menstruating women. According to Bradley, Arabian women drank coffee during their “periodical Visits, and find a good Effect”, such as contraction of the bowels and toned up genitals. Coffee was not for everyone though. Those suffering from melancholy vapours, hot brains, or paralysis should avoid it.

The reason that coffee would be so efficacious in treating infectious disease was that it lifted the spirits—and those “whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections”. The correct use of coffee supported the drinker’s “vital Flame”, protecting the drinker from fear and despair. To gain coffee’s maximum benefits, Bradley recommended the following dosage: at least twice a day, first in the morning and at four in the afternoon.

Coffee breaks: good for your health!

Eating Through the Seasons: Food Education in Japan

By Alexis Agliano Sanborn

Children participate in food education lesson. Credit: Nourishing Japan

Seasons have been celebrated in Japanese society for centuries through poetry and prose. During the Edo-period (1603-1868) this appreciation of nature codified in the creation of the saijiki, or, poetic seasonal almanacs. These almanacs, notes Columbia University Professor Haruno Shirane, “systematically categorize almost all aspects of nature and much of human activity by the cycle of the four seasons.” Without a doubt, food and food production are important seasonal markers.

In the modern era this appreciation of seasonality continues in new forms. Food knowledge has come to be combined with lessons of hygiene, food safety, food production, cultivation of healthy diets, and other teachings through food education, or shokuiku. Food education became law in 2005 which outlined the goals and provisions for local and national support of activities to foster an understanding of a healthy diet and appreciation of food and food production.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of food education are children, who learn about food and diet through classes and hands-on experiences in and out of school. One of the primary ways they learn about food is through their daily school lunch. School lunches use local and seasonal ingredients and serve as a way for children to taste and understand where food comes from, how it is produced, and how the food and themselves are connected to the environment.

Caption: A farmer who contributes to school lunch harvests cabbage in the field. Credit: Nourishing Japan

Food education as taught in schools almost serves as a de facto culinary saijiki. Children come to remember the seasonal or even monthly association to a certain food. The loquats of early to mid-summer will give way to the eggplants and figs of late summer. The month of March almost always include the na-no-hana, the edible rape blossom with a mustard-like taste that is often cooked into rice as part of the daily meal. The month of October is characterized by chestnuts, sweet potato harvests and wild boar. Eating according to the season – shun – has a long history in Japan, but one that is in danger of being lost as diets change and evolve in a globalized world.  Even if cantaloupes may now be available in the grocery store year round, children in school experience teachings rooted in the cycle of the seasons.

The na-no-hana flower

Just as strict adherence to the saijiki in haiku composition does not offer much room for deviation, so too does the seasonal culinary calendar tend to keep ingredients in their time and place. Nevertheless, there seems a certain innate joy and comfort to see the return of specific ingredients again and again at a prescribed time every year.

While food education is itself a complex and nuanced topic, the cherishing of seasons and nature as viewed through food is an undeniable hallmark and one that helps to re-forge connections to nature and the world around us.

If you would like to learn more about food education and school lunch in Japan, visit Alexis’ web page to learn more about her documentary film Nourishing Japan. 


References:

Shirane, Haruo, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons (New York: Columbia University, 2013), xii.

Pulverized Food to Pulverize the Enemy!

By Nathan Hopson

This is the third in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.

Nukapan. Let me introduce our teatime specialty, rice bran fried in a pan. Mix wheat flour and rice bran, add a little water, and fry in a pan. Add no eggs or sugar. Fry for two minutes. It looks just like good custard. But it tastes bitter, smells like horse dung, and makes you cry when you eat it.[1]

Nukapan is an exemplary Japanese wartime culinary abomination, so much so that it features in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, where the taste is upgraded from horse dung to “old, dried leather.”[2] However, it is not nukapan’s dubious gustatory merits that make it representative of the joys of cooking during the Pacific War. Instead, it is the use of flour and attention to waste reduction that make this a consummate early 1940s delight. Nukapan was both a direct response to food and nutrition shortages caused by catastrophic war planning failures and a manifestation of principles derived from a longer history of national nutritional activism in modern Japan.

Even before Japan plunged into the Pacific War, warning signs indicated the fragility of the Japanese food supply. True, despite constant Malthusian anxieties, Japan proper had achieved high levels of food self-sufficiency in the 1930s, but only by relying on its colonies, suzerains, and neighbors to make up the deficit. Japan’s wartime plan, such as it was, followed the Roman dictum, bellum se ipsum alet. Japan’s war planners believed they could fully integrate the resources―food, oil, etc.—of Southeast Asia into the metropole’s economy. “That strategy,” wrote Daniel Yergin, depended “on the integrity of Japan’s own shipping system.”[3] It failed. American forces decimated supply convoys, incapacitating Japanese shipping. Rice imports fell to ten-percent of prewar levels even before B-29 superfortresses destroyed over 130,000 tons of staples stored in Japan proper. No wonder, then, that the American Hunger Blockade was, according to postwar testimonies by Japanese leaders, “the Allies’ most effective tactic in ending the war.”[4]

Despite “adversity that stood a half-century of better living on its head,” the principles espoused for an ideal wartime diet remained relatively consistent.[5] By spring 1942, the daily menus that had been a fixture of Japan’s newspapers for two decades began the transformation from a combination of sensible middle-class fare with occasional aspirational “bougie foods” à la Japonaise to a grim set of “recipes for disaster” with dour headlines such as, “Meeting minimal nutrition needs with ingredients on hand.”[6] Though the punditocracy expressed confidence to the bitter end that “creative solutions for full use and consumption of foods to eliminate waste and maximize nutrition will appear,” they did not.[7] Instead, Japan doubled down on rationalization (viz., waste reduction and labor and resource optimization) and the substitution of nutritionally equivalent foods. The latter had been promoted by the Imperial Government Institute for Nutrition during the interwar years. Substitution’s primary wartime aim was to reduce rice consumption by supplementing or replacing it with other grains, potatoes, etc. Substitution was not limited to staples, however. No, substitution was comprehensive alchemy. Bread and noodles substituted for rice; beans, fish, insects, and wild birds for meat. Used tea leaves morphed into vegetables while potatoes evolved from vegetables to staples. Daikon and squash leaves―uneaten in better times―doubled as leafy vegetables and waste reduction. Porridges, soups, and other catch-alls dominated the menu, soaking up otherwise discarded ingredients and allowing creative caloric and nutritional supplementation. Potatoes were the most ubiquitous and despised of late wartime substitutes, but the keystone of substitution was “flour.”

Figure 1. Wartime postcard promoting rice conservation (setsumai). Author’s collection.

Perhaps the representative “flour-based food” (funshoku) was kōa pan (“Rising Asia Bread”). In fact, from acorns to kelp to rice hay, anything and everything that could be was powdered or pulverized and eaten, and animal feed and fertilizers such as soymeal and fishmeal found their way onto the menu, too. Comparatively, then, kōa pan might have been relatively harmless. A 1940 women’s magazine recipe called for flour, soymeal, baking powder, salt, powdered seaweed, fishmeal, substitute vegetables, and even sugar―which soon became unavailable. The accompanying illustration included butter; surely nobody was fooled.[8]

Figure 2. Kōa pan illustration (1940), reproduced in Saitō Minako’s Senka no reshipi (Iwanami Shoten, 2015:41).

These flour-based foods were controversial. Some praised their portability and long shelf life, others the ease of mass production and nutritional supplementation by eclectic mixing. Dissenters pointed out that many were, well, gross, and matched poorly with soy sauce, miso, and other traditional seasonings and condiments.[9] Digestive complaints abounded. Nevertheless, “flours” of all sorts gradually came to dominate wartime discourse―if not dinner―pushing out traditional “granular foods” (ryūshoku) such as rice.


In my next post, I will examine the surprising continuities of “flour-based food” in the early postwar years, and how American agricultural surplus helped complete a dietary transformation already underway during wartime.

This post is based on my “Women, Waste, and War: Food, Gender, and Rationalization in Wartime Japanese Discourse.” In Gender and Food in Contemporary East Asia, edited by Jooyeon Rhee, Chikako Nagayama, and Eric Li. Lexington Books, forthcoming.


References:

[1] Quoted in Thomas Havens, Valley of Darkness (Norton, 1978), 114.

[2] Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha (Vintage, 2011), 346.

[3] Daniel Yergin, The Prize (Free Press, 2014), 333.

[4] Sheldon Garon, “The Home Front and Food Insecurity in Wartime Japan: A Transnational Perspective,” in The Consumer on the Home Front: Second World War Civilian Consumption in Comparative Perspective, ed. Hartmut Berghoff, Jan Logemann, and Felix Romer (Oxford University Press, 2017), 51.

[5] Havens, Valley of Darkness, 123.

[6] “Asu no kondate,” Yomiuri Shimbun, March 3, 1942.

[7] Tsutsui Masayuki, “Kanso seikatsu no shihyō (12),” Yomiuri Shimbun, May 6, 1944.

[8] Saitō Minako, Senka no reshipi (Iwanami Shoten, 2015), 56.

[9] “Funshoku no senji futekikakusei,” Yomiuri Shimbun, September 4, 1944.

Announcing… a new journal!!!

By Dorothy Cashman

The European Journal of Food, Drink and Society is now live! It is hosted at the Arrow website, which has some other great journals. But please come check out the page for the journal for details on our aims and submission process.

We see this journal as an exciting new critical and interdisciplinary space where scholars can debate and progress research on the study of food and drink, whether from global or local levels. As editors, we each approach the subject area from our own academic perspectives. We strongly believe that our ability to appreciate the reach of research related to food, drink and society across disciplines is intrinsic to (and reflected in) the stimulating publications that we have been witness to over the last several decades.

We believe that this journal will add to that conversation, and want you to come be a part of it. 

From the outset, we have been encouraged by people’s interest in our project; this is manifest in the wonderful editorial board supporting us in this venture.

Dear academic and independent researchers… for that paper that you are working on right now, we are here and welcome your submissions.    


Editorial note: The Recipes Project is excited to welcome EJFDS to the wider community of food scholarship. Congratulations!

Image Credit: The Newberry Library Postcard Sender.