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!

Exhibition Review: “Food: Bigger than the Plate”

By Catherine Price

Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.

The Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition is taking place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from May until October 2019. The exhibition takes you on a journey through the four zones of Composting; Farming; Trading; and Eating. Here, I highlight what I feel are the most thought-provoking exhibits.

The aim in the “Composting” zone is to encourage you to reimagine waste. Instead of considering waste as disposable and to be forgotten about, either in landfill or oceans, the aim is to think about waste as valuable and beautiful. By doing this, humans become reconnected to ecosystems.

Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Used coffee grounds from the Victoria and Albert Museum café are used in a bed to grow oyster mushrooms. These mushrooms are used as ingredients in the café, reducing waste and illustrating how food can be grown in the city.

Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The exhibit also showcases composting efforts from around the world, beyond the walls of the V&A. For example, Mexico has over sixty varieties of native corn. The show exhibits Totomoxtle, a veneer material created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. It was designed in response to the loss of native varieties of corn following the implementation of industrialized agriculture in the country. This supports the villagers of Tonahuixtla who are replanting heirloom corn varieties by providing them with a second income.

Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The next section of the exhibition concerns “Farming.” Hedge H.U.G.  (Horticultural Urban Growth) encourages you to reimagine a city that is concentrated around the edges of farmland. Instead of having hedges separating fields, buildings are built in their place. People living in cities are fed directly from the land.

Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

 

Human-animal relationships are explored in the exhibit of ‘This Little Piggy.’ Elaine Tin Nyo followed the life of a piglet named Zelai from birth to death, including the final production into ham. She filmed his journey, and this video is actually very difficult to watch. Zelai’s hams will age two years, which is twice his actual lifespan. The rest of his flesh is preserved in 182 cans, which are on display and contain sausages, meat, and pâté.

Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The “Trading” zone encourages you to consider how food is transported, traded, and packaged. Uli Westphal created three landscapes designed to be both perfect and unsettling. They are intended to show how food marketing is designed to appeal to our desires to purchase food that is healthy and wholesome. As people are now so detached from agriculture and food production, we have to rely on the information provided to us by the food industry.

Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Björn Steinar Blumenstein and Johanna Seeleman’s ‘Banana Story’ is an exhibit which tells the story of a banana on its journey from a tree branch in Ecuador to a supermarket in Iceland. The banana was given a passport and an extended label to show its amazing journey. It travelled 8,800km, crossed multiple national borders, and passed through 33 pairs of hands. The accompanying video illustrates how important global shipping has become and how deeply we rely on it for the food we eat.

Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

“Eating” is the final zone in the food story journey. It features three photos of women eating items that make them feel good, as part of a series taken by Sana Badri. They are an act of defiance against a food press that can be elitist, judgmental, and fat phobic, encouraging agency over pleasurable food choices.

Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.

This section also features the 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This book was aimed at the rapidly expanding Victorian middle classes, and includes recipes, advice on childcare, etiquette, entertaining, and how to manage household servants. Curators included it in the exhibition to demonstrate both household management and curating food for a reading public. The curators describe how ‘instructions on how to boil a cabbage rub shoulders with plans for seating guests at the dinner table. The positioning of the book in the exhibition is also interesting as it sits alongside cookbooks which are collections of handwritten or newspaper clippings of recipes accumulated over time.

Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Juxtaposed with the historical are images from the contemporary in the form of Instagram posts. Instagram enables us to see into the culinary lives of others, as well as celebrating everyday creativity for cooking for loved ones. It also provides businesses with the opportunity to sell food products by posting mouth-watering photos.

The table laid out at the end of the exhibition is designed to provoke deeper engagement and thought about our food, our bodies, and each other. New tableware and food products can prompt us to interact with each other as we eat, sharing food, conversation, and ideas. A plate from Paul Scott‘s project Cumbrian Blues depicts the bleak realities faced by farmers in one of the worse affected areas following the UK’s Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. Six million cattle and sheep were culled in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The highlights I describe provide just a snapshot of the exhibition. These are all designed to encourage us to question what we eat and to ask ourselves if we could eat differently. Eating is not just about health, diet, traditions, and cultures, but also land use, water consumption, energy and transport systems, and human and animal welfare. We have to determine the value we place on quality and the conditions in which our food is produced.

Winning the War with Eau de Cologne

By Jess Clark as part of the Perfumes Series

In August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. As many historians compellingly argue, the Great War was a point of major military, political, and socio-cultural disruption. This extended to commercial relationships between Britain and Germany, as firms suddenly found themselves at odds with time-honored partners. In Britain, for example, German products—and nationals—were subject to boycotts or outright violence as British consumers conveyed their national loyalties via their shopping preferences.

Fig. 1: Bottle of Johann Maria Farina’s Eau de Cologne. Public domain image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.
Fig. 1: Bottle of Johann Maria Farina’s Eau de Cologne. Public domain image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

The expression of patriotism through shopping extended to the purchase of eau de Cologne, one of Britain’s most popular commercial scents leading into the First World War. While its origins are contested, the scent is often attributed to Johann Maria Farina (1685-1766), a Cologne-based perfumer of Italian descent who (allegedly) first developed eau de Cologne in 1709.[i] The exact recipe remained a secret, but the perfume typically included a blend of bergamot, neroli, citrus, and other essential oils. For two hundred years, the Farina family firm dominated its production, with customers flocking from around Europe to purchase the authentic German good. This extended to Britain, where shoppers could purchase original Farina eau de Cologne from local firms like Floris [Fig. 2].

Fig. 2: Order from London perfumer Floris to Johann Maria Farina, Cologne, 1887. Image courtesy of Farina Archive and WikiMedia Commons.
Fig. 2: Order from London perfumer Floris to Johann Maria Farina, Cologne, 1887. Image courtesy of Farina Archive and WikiMedia Commons.

However, the scent came under scrutiny with the onset of war, given its associations with luxury, not to mention its “enemy” origins. Britain’s perfumery firms suddenly found themselves in the difficult position of offering a “luxury” to a market that was increasingly rejecting such items. The British industry endured, however, and for the most part did not suffer during the war, despite the halt in trade with Germany and its allies. In fact, reflecting on the trade’s performance in 1915, the Perfumery and Essential Oil Record estimated that, as long as the government’s “campaign against ‘luxuries’” did not go too far, the essential oil and perfumery business could continue to be “fair” in spite of global conflict.[ii] 

Fig. 3: Wartime advertisement for Gosnell’s Society Eau de Cologne. Courtesy of John Gosnell & Co. Ltd., Lewes.
Fig. 3: Wartime advertisement for Gosnell’s Society Eau de Cologne. Courtesy of John Gosnell & Co. Ltd., Lewes.

This success also depended on ongoing promotional efforts to maintain consumer interest in British-made perfumes, including eau de Cologne. Domestic perfumery firms manufactured “British” alternatives to the German scent, with national connections becoming a key selling point in wartime marketing. For example, London-based firm John Gosnell & Co. advertised their eau de Cologne and “Real Old English Lavender Water,” two “very delightful British perfumes,” as “refreshing and welcome gifts to the wounded and other invalids.”[iii] Boots Chemists proclaimed that British-made eau de Cologne “entirely supersed[ed] any German Eau-de-Cologne.” Meanwhile, famed firm Yardley proclaimed that their eau de Cologne was not, in fact, German but French, a seemingly acceptable alternative.[iv] In this way, perfumed purchases were yet another means to demonstrate alignment with a national wartime effort—by smelling of “pure” British smells that derived from “pure” British and allied sources.

Not only did British advertisements emphasize the domestic origins of their eau de Cologne, but they also suggested a broad range of uses that made the good a necessity rather than a luxury. Promotions for Luce’s “Original Jersey Eau-de-Cologne” suggested using it as “a mouth wash after using tooth powder,” a hair rinse, a carpet deodorizer, and a means of scenting the sick room.[v] Other firms extended eau de Cologne’s usefulness beyond the British home to the Front. Leicestershire-based Zenobia Ltd. argued that “[n]o other perfume” offered “an ever welcome ‘Comfort’ for wounded Soldiers & Sailors.” In the context of war, perfumes purportedly had value, serving all-purpose functions in “reviving, cooling, and refreshing.”[vi]

Throughout the trade disruptions and nationalist marketing campaigns, one thing seems to have remained constant: the recipe for individual firms’ eau de Cologne. While firms advertised their use of English or French ingredients, there was no mention of changing the formulation of the scent. This suggests that, despite the disruptions of war and attempts to signal British loyalties, consumers still smelled of the original recipes for eau de Cologne. In this way, longstanding olfactory trends prevailed, as British consumers sought out new ways to smell of time-honored scents.

 


[i] Catherine Maxwell, Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture (London: Oxford, 2017), 97.     

[ii] “Commercial and Legislative Features of 1915,” The Perfumery & Essential Oil Record Year Book and Diary 1916 (London: G. Street & Co., Ltd., 1916),v.

[iii] 20 December 1914, John Gosnell & Co. Ltd., Lewes, East Sussex. 

[iv] See “Gifts for the PeaceTide,” The Graphic 98, no. 2559 (14 December 1918): 38.

[v] “The Uses of Luce’s,” The Illustrated London News 149, no. 4051 (9 December 1916): 713.

[vi] Advertisement, The Illustrated London News 145, no. 3939 (17 October 1914): 560.               

Colonizing Condiments: A (Very) Short History of Ketchup

Ketchup.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ketchup. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

ByAmanda E. Herbert

Today we imagine ketchup as the ultimate modern American food (and it is true that we like to put ketchup on…well, a lot of things).  But ketchup’s origins are found in Asia, and its adaptation into the thing that resembles our thick, modern-day ketchup began in early modern Britain.

The word “ketchup” is borrowed either from the Chinese language (kôe-chiap, a brine of pickled fish or shellfish, with “kôe” as a kind of fish, and “chiap” as juice or sauce), and/or from Malay (with “kecap” or “kicap,” soy sauce).  It’s likely that Britons encountered this tasty sauce – a thin, black-brown liquid that was either a type of fish sauce or a type of soy sauce – during acts of travel and colonization. 

Ketchup (which early modern Britons spelled a lot of different ways: ketchup, katchup, ketchop, katchop, kitchup, ketsup, catchup, cachup, catchop, and even catshup) began to appear in British texts at the end of the seventeenth century.[1] These were sometimes travelogues and books about colonization, with a description of the sauce – and how good it tasted – but without any instructions on how to make it.  When ketchup did start to show up in recipe books, it was often listed as an ingredient, but again, without providing readers with a guide on how to produce it themselves.  This might mean that the recipe book authors trusted that their readers would be able to purchase ready-made, imported ketchup. 

Eighteenth-century ketchup bottle. Blue glass and gilt cruet bottle and stopper, ca. 1790-ca. 1800, 117&A-1907, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Eighteenth-century ketchup bottle. Blue glass and gilt cruet bottle and stopper, ca. 1790-ca. 1800, 117&A-1907, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Thanks to Angela McShane for this reference.

But ketchup was either so popular, so hard to get, or so expensive, that early modern British people soon started trying to make their own.  Evidence for these early ketchup experiments can be found in manuscript recipe books from the period.  In their quest to replicate the umami flavor found in soy- or fish-based Chinese or Malay sauces, Britons turned to a variety of ingredients: mushrooms, anchovies, oysters, walnuts, and even horseradish.  One 1693 recipe for “Cucumber Catchup” called for cooks to “put a handful of scraped horseradish” to “every quart of the Liquor” in the dish.[2] 

Like that cucumber ketchup, most early modern British ketchups were heavily flavored, seasoned, and spiced.  Mrs. Marshall’s “white Catchup,” found in Jane Staveley’s 1693/4 handwritten recipe book, called for “a pound of shallots…a quart of Madira, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, [and] a quarter of an Ounce of whole white pepper.”  Staveley – or someone in her household – clearly liked ketchups, because her book also contained receipts for oyster ketchup, made with lemon peel, a quarter of an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and one sliced nutmeg.[3] Spices were also added to a recipe “to make catchup of Wallnut [from] Mrs Richmond” which is found in an anonymous recipe book from c. 1720.  This recipe author included a quarter of an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of nutmeg, and a little bit of pepper to their ketchup, which was supposed to be cooked until “it’s the Couler of Clarett.”  Another recipe in the same anonymous book claimed that ketchup could be made spicy by using Dianthus caryophyllus, the clove gillyflower – also known as the clove carnation – as a base.  This Carnation Ketchup called for the “top of three clove gilly flowers” along with one nutmeg, half an ounce of cloves, half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of cinnamon, and one shallot.  This combination of botanicals created a mixture so potent, the author warned, that “a little of this goes a great way.”[4]

Longevity was another important factor.  One of Mrs. Knight’s 1740 recipes for ketchup was entitled “to make catchup to keep 20 years.”  This effect was apparently achieved by using “strong stale bear [beer]…the stronger and staler the bear [beer] the better.”[5]

"To make White Catchup." Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library.
“To make White Catchup.” Detail from Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Flavor, spice, and shelf-life were clearly important to early modern British ketchup-makers as they attempted to replicate the soy and fish sauces that had come to them via acts of travel, conquest, and colonization.  But just as these Britons worked to use and enjoy Chinese and/or Malay sauces, they simultaneously adapted them, changing the recipes to suit their own tastes, needs, expectations, and palates.

Recent works by scholars of early America and the Atlantic world have traced how white Europeans appropriated, gleaned, bought, and stole knowledge and knowledge-systems from indigenous Americans and enslaved people of African descent in acts of colonization; two Recipes Project posts by Claire Gherini describe these acts via cures for poison. These frameworks can be exceptionally useful for anyone analyzing culinary adaptations made by British recipe authors.  Jane Staveley explained to her friends and family members that, if “you wish” her “white Catchup” could be “thicken’d with flour and butter,” using a technique that was “the same as if you were melting butter.” In her aim to produce a sauce that, she believed, was a good accompaniment “for [the] Turkey Fowls & Veal” that often appeared on British tables, she worked to turn southeast Asian ketchup (in its place of origin a thin, salty, vinegary sauce) into British ketchup (now a dense, creamy sauce). These instructions, for making ketchup into something it wasn’t – thick, not thin; buttery, not astringent; white, not brown – were an admittedly minute act of colonization, but they were a symbolic one nonetheless.[6] 

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Anglo-Americans began to incorporate tomatoes into their ketchup, making antecedents of the thick, red paste that we slather on fries, burgers, and hotdogs today.  But as we have seen, as early as the seventeenth century, early modern British women were colonizing condiments in the pages of their manuscript recipe books.


[1] “Ketchup, n.,” OED Online, March 2019, Oxford University Press, accessed April 10, 2019, http://www.oed.com.proxy.wm.edu/view/Entry/103080?rskey=SEQwHQ&result=2&isAdvanced=false.

[2] Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[3] Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[4] Anon., Cookbook, c. 1720, W.b.653, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[5] Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Knight’s receipt book, c. 1740, W.b.79, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[6] Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library. For some recent studies of the ways that European scientists and natural philosophers (both amateur and traditionally-trained) appropriated, stole, managed, and bought information from indigenous Americans and African-descended people, many of whom were enslaved, see Christopher Parsons, “The Natural History of Colonial Science: Joseph-François Lafitau’s Discovery of Ginseng and Its Afterlives,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1 (January 2016); Kathleen S. Murphy, “Collecting Slave Traders: James Petiver, Natural History, and the British Slave Trade,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4 (October 2013), 637-670; Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, Daniela Bleichmar, Paula De Vos, Kristin Huffine, and Kevin Sheehan, eds. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew, Science and Empire in the Atlantic World (New York: Routledge, 2008).