Making Musk Julep: Sugar Coating a Bitter Medicine

The Thibetian [Tibetan] Musk, Native of Asia. Sir William Jardine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Thibetian [Tibetan] Musk, Native of Asia. Sir William Jardine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Susan Brandt

Popular eighteenth-century pharmacopoeias often included animal-based substances such as musk, which might seem nauseating to the modern palate. In The New Dispensatory Containing the Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753), William Lewis describes musk or moschus as “a grumus substance like clotted blood, found in a little bag in the umbilical region” of the Asian musk deer, “an animal met with in China, Tartary, and the East Indies” (162). To harvest the musk gland, male deer were trapped and killed in large numbers, leading to musk deer’s current endangered status. According to Lewis, the “musk pod” was “the size of a pigeon’s egg, covered with short brown hairs” and it exuded a scent that attracted female deer (162). Although musk was an expensive product, in minute quantities it formed the basis for perfumes, as well as for pharmaceuticals and culinary recipes. Based on Lewis’ description, eighteenth-century users were likely ambivalent about the idea of ingesting the pungent-smelling contents of an animal’s gland with the texture of coagulated blood. However, users were torn between their potential aversion and their desire for a substance with aphrodisiac and medical potential.  

Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.
Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.

Unpleasant medicines, such as musk, were often mixed with sugar or sweet tasting substances to form a more palatable “julep.” The New Dispensatory’s author admitted that although the musk ingredient was often dried into a powder, musk julep still had a feral-smelling “strong perfume.” Nonetheless, for those who could bear the repugnant taste, it “proves of great service in lowness, fainting, &c.,” as well as for convulsions and “the bite of a mad dog.”  In humoral medicine, musk julep’s “bitterish sub-acrid taste” might even convince reluctant sufferers of its efficacy in expelling maladaptive humours from the body. (162, 434).

William Lewis, The New Dispensatory Containing The Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753). Source: Archive.org
William Lewis, The New Dispensatory Containing The Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753). Source: Archive.org
 

Despite musk julep’s loathsome savor, the remedy appears in eighteenth-century English and North American pharmacopoeias, popular medical manuals, and women healers’ recipe books, which demonstrates the overlap between the prescribing practices of doctors and non-physician practitioners. To make “Julepum e Moscho or Musk Julep,” William Lewis advised the reader to “Take of Damask rose water, six ounces by measure; Musk, twelve grains; Double-refined sugar, one dram. Grind the sugar and the musk together, and gradually add to the rose water” (433). Due to its expense and pungency, musk was measured in grains or 6.5% of a gram. Nonetheless, in his popular self-help manual, Domestic Medicine, William Buchan gave directions for a larger batch of musk julep by increasing the amount of musk in his recipe to half a drachm (30 grains) and adding eight times as much sugar. He substituted cinnamon and peppermint water for the rose water. Like Lewis, he recommended musk julep for convulsions, “nervous fevers,” and “spasmodic affections.” Although the medicinal uses of musk had its origins in ancient Asian medical practice, it came into increasingly popular use in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies.

During the American Revolution, the widowed Quaker healer, Margaret Hill Morris prescribed musk julep in her Burlington, New Jersey medical and apothecary practice. Creating medicines such as musk julep required hands-on skills in chemistry and botany, and it allowed women to produce novel scientific knowledge and products. Morris likely obtained the musk julep recipe from her personal copy of Buchan’s Domestic Medicine. Women’s home-production of medicines was particularly important in the face of shortages of imported pharmaceuticals due to the Royal Navy’s blockades of American port cities during the war. However, while Morris was compounding musk julep one afternoon, her fetid concoction spilled onto a letter that she was writing to her sister. The sugary liquid pooled and stained the fabric-like texture of the cotton and linen paper. Morris apologized and explained, “Son John [and I] had been making musk julep for [Neighbor] Carey, on the Counter where my paper laid and scented it.” Although Morris had apprenticed her son to her physician brother-in-law, she relished his visits home, where “the business of an Apothecary be still carried on by a diligent apprentice, & watchful Mother.”[i] Morris’s kitchen was a site of medical education as well as odiferous medicinal production.

As new Western European theories of the nervous and vascular systems influenced humoral medicine in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, doctors and non-physician healers became interested in the stimulating power of musk. The expense, exotic origins, pungent taste, and gelatinous consistency of the fur-encrusted musk gland added to the medicine’s mystique. The intermixture of cinnamon, peppermint or rose water, along with sugar, added complexity and sweetness, making musk julep’s earthy taste more appetizing. Musk julep recipes highlight how the unique flavors and textures of a global trade in pharmaceuticals enlivened eighteenth-century medical prescriptions and practices.


[i] Margaret Hill Morris to Hannah Hill Moore, ca. 1780, G. M. Howland MS Coll. 1000, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford, PA; Susan Hanket Brandt, “‘Getting into a Little Business’: Margaret Hill Morris and Women’s Medical Entrepreneurship during the American Revolution,” Early American Studies 4, no. 4 (2015): 774-807.

Susan Brandt teaches history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Her dissertation, “Gifted Women and Skilled Practitioners:  Gender and Healing Authority in the Delaware Valley, 1740-1830,” was awarded the 2016 Lerner-Scott Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. Women’s History by the Organization of American Historians. Brandt has published an article in Early American Studies and a chapter in Barbara Oberg, ed., Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World. She is under contract with Penn Press to publish a book based on her dissertation. Prior to pursuing a career in history, Brandt worked as a nurse practitioner.

To Make Muske Cakes

By Casey Mitchell

From a cultural perspective, odd foods are a common occurrence in the world today. Individuals from America might be horrified to eat something as foreign as monkey brains–a delicacy in Africa and India–or haggis, the Scots’ age-old recipe for beef-in-a-sheep’s bladder/stomach/what you will. Jane Baber’s Book of Receipts, compiled in 1625, contains several recipes that are, well, interesting, to say the least. Most of them have medicinal qualities of some sort, and, while nutritious, may be pungent or downright aromatic in their own way. One such recipe is “To Make Muske Cakes.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Musk? Like the really smelly ‘perfume’?” Yes, indeed. The very thought of including a glandular secretion from an animal into a recipe sounds fairly disgusting, right? The important part is not in its smell or taste, but its purpose, as musk grain, like most smelly ingredients, is used as “a remedy for very grave diseases known to all antique pharmacopeias”.[1]

The process of obtaining the musk itself is worth mentioning, as it can be long. During the period in which Jane Baber was collecting recipes, musk had been an international commodity for about 300 years. Marco Polo’s journey to the Orient in the late thirteenth century yielded the West’s first real encounter with the identity of the musk deer, the animal responsible for the big stink (pun intended). The animal itself, native to Kashmir, was hunted once a year for the two musk pods contained under the belly of the males, which gave off the odious secretions we’re so familiar with today. Once the secretions congealed, they became very much like coffee grounds, filling the glands with musk grain. According to a modern Kashmiri perfumer, “3 small grains of one gram are sufficient to make a liter of alcoholic perfume”.[1] Taking into account the offensiveness of the musk itself and the amount used in making perfume, Baber’s recipe calls for “2 grains of Muske,” making this a very smelly cake.

musk 1
Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.

Other ingredients include, at the very start of the recipe, “gum dragon” or Tragacanth, to be laid “3 days in Bee water.” The plant itself is used in foods and pharmaceuticals as a binding agent, like flour and eggs in baking, and can be administered medicinally to treat both constipation and diarrhea.[2] The “Bee water” remains something of a mystery, being a possible reference to another early modern recipe entitled, “An aproued medesen for them that have ther water stoped with the stone or Strangrel them & it will make them make water in tow hours”.[3] The recipe itself involves the pulverizing of bees using a wooden mortar and pestle, straining the resulting juice, and drinking it to cure urinary blockages, which plays into the waste-managing qualities of the remaining ingredients of the Muske Cakes. Alternatively, it might refer to the syrupy sugar water used by beekeepers to supplement the diets of bees during late winter and early spring when honey and pollen are scarce. This particular concoction in its modern form is made of a heated combination of water, cane or beet sugar–and a small amount of apple cider vinegar to prevent the sugar from caramelizing, which can harm the bees.[4]

The inclusion of caraway seeds in the recipe fulfills the role of an added spice to the cake itself, which is also comprised of “one new laid eg” and “double refine sugar,” mixed in a mortar and pestle. Because this particular recipe doesn’t call for flour, yeast, or any other composite for making a bread-based cake, one would assume that the gum dragon would render the “cake” into something resembling a flan or Jell-O mold. The recipe calls for “the stuffe” to be laid on “wafers” before being put into the oven, to be made “as hott as you can that they maye bee well bakt.” Because I was so interested in what the final product of this oddity might look like, I searched for and found an image that might closely resemble it.

Musk Cakes 2
Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite. Source: Bubble and Sweet’s flickr photostream, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bubbleandsweet/5037947115/in/photostream.

The differences between this version of what the description referred to as a “Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite” and Jane Baber’s version are many.[5] The main one, however, is that the ingredient of true musk grain is now very difficult to find, given that the musk deer has been hunted almost to extinction. Therefore, the musk utilized in the recipe pictured above is very likely taken from the derivative of a musk plant, which serves the same aromatic purpose, though not the medicinal one. The texture of the cake’s interior, however, appears to be pretty close to what I pictured as that of Baber’s.

While the medicinal purpose of Jane Baber’s musk cake is yet unknown, having possibly some connection with the digestive and laxative properties of gum dragon, its composition remains fairly simple. Its ingredients thereof, including artificial musk, can be found in most markets and health food stores. Buyers beware, however, as the smell of musk in a kitchen may be enough to put off the appetites of others! In short, I would only recommend this recipe to those who have no problem in adopting their own special fragrance.

[1.] AbdesSalaam Attar, “Moschus Moschiferus, The Kashmiri Musk Deer”, www.profumo.it, March 2006. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

[2.] “Tragacanth”, www.webmd.com. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

[3.] “An aproued medesen for them that have ther water stoped with the stone or Strangrel them & it will make them make water in tow hours.” British Library, Egerton MS 2608.

[4.] Tammy Curry, “How to Make Sugar Water for Bees” www.ehow.com15 August 2012. Dates accessed, 6 April 2013.

[5.] Linda V. “Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite”, Bubble and Sweet’s Photostream, 29 July 2010. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

Casey Mitchell is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. Casey was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.