Evidence for the earliest distillation of sugar?

Originally posted April 17, 2012

There is a lively debate about the earliest evidence for distilling. In his excellent book Uncorking The Past, Dr. Patrick McGovern makes a good case for the technology of distilling in China around two thousand years ago. There is another civilization that apparently had the same technology five hundred years earlier, though it is an open question as to how they used it. At the museum in Taxila, Pakistan, there is a complete alembic still that could have been used to extract alcohol, and it has been estimated to be 2500 years old.
The elements of the alembic still are obvious – a pot to boil the wort, chamber to capture the steam, with a tube to another chamber where the steam will condense to a concentrated liquid. It is all made from terracotta clay, and it looks very much like distilling equipment used in Indian and Pakistani villages today. Unfortunately, without testing the inside of the boiler to see what kind of residue was left behind, it is impossible to determine whether it was used to make alcohol or to extract oil from plant materials to make perfume or medicine. The same equipment could serve either purpose. The dating of this still is also open to question, since the display in the museum states the age of everything in this case without saying how the era was determined. I have sent numerous messages to the museum, but this display is apparently not one they are eager to discuss or investigate. It seems likely that an institution managed by a strict Muslim government is not interested in conducting an experiment that could confirm that alcohol was first distilled in what is now Pakistan. Certainly the people of the Indian Subcontinent during the Vedic period knew how to make a cane sugar based beer, but did they distill it into the world’s first rum? Lacking the proof that could only be obtained by chemical testing, it can only be said that the technology of distilling, the cultivation of sugar cane, and the knowledge of the art of making alcoholic beverages existed at the same place and time. Whether the people of the Indian subcontinent put those skills together, and whether they used the result as a recreational beverage, medicine, or for some other purpose, is a question that can not be answered with certainty at the present time.

A Flying Kitchen, Built By A Phone Company

The British R-100 and R-101 airships, both of which were finished in 1929, were designed and built under conditions that were bizarre. For political reasons a different government ministry was given control of each airship project, even though they were supposed to be built to the same specifications. The teams that built them were so competitive that they shared no information with each other and contracted with different suppliers for parts. If both had ever gone into regular service, as had originally been planned, two complete warehouses of spare parts would have been necessary, and any crew members who transferred from one ship to the other would need to be retrained. I have not been able to find out much about the specifications of the R-100’s kitchen, but came across this article about the R-101’s from Flight Magazine in July of 1929.R101Stove

The kitchen equipment was built by the Automatic Telephone Manufacturing Company, Ltd. of Liverpool, which had little previous experience making anything but telephone switching equipment, but had just started a division to manufacture traffic signals. What either of these has to do with inflight kitchens is questionable, but the equipment they made apparently worked well – it was used to prepare meals aloft for groups of up to 100 people who took demonstration rides during the testing period.R101-at_mast

Unfortunately the rest of the R-101 was not built to the same standard – the design had been more ambitious than the R-100, using unproven technology, and the resulting airship was unstable, difficult to steer, and used heavy, unreliable engines. The operators of the craft decided that to prove their design was sound they would fly it to India for its maiden voyage, rather than ease it into service on shorter runs. They were so determined to show that they could run on schedule that the R-101 left for the journey despite heavy rain and fifty mile per hour winds (over 80 km/h). The inexperienced crew was unable to control the ship, and it crashed into a ridge near Beauvais, France, less than 175 miles from its starting point. It was a fatal setback for the British airship industry; despite the fact that the better built and more thoroughly tested  R-100 made a successful trip to and from Toronto, Canada, no more airships were built in Britain. Though some military airships were built in the Soviet Union, the Zeppelin company had an effective monopoly on commercial passenger airship service, and they reaped great prestige until war put an end to operations.

TWA and the Happiest Passenger ever

Though United Airlines and Pan Am were probably responsible for more innovations in food and service than any other airline, TWA was much more consistent about using food quality in their advertising. Consider this example from 1936: TWAWaldorf1936

Though Lucius Boomer may not be a familiar name to people reading this in the 21st Century, he was a famous as a glamorous and successful millionaire who also ran the most successful hotel restaurant in New York. For the man who ran Oscar’s of the Waldorf to say nice things about airline food was much more impressive than some mere Broadway singer or movie star. Though Mr. Boomer wasn’t a celebrity chef himself, it could not be questioned that he was quite familiar with fine food well presented and served. This is one of the earliest celebrity endorsements, and it was an impressive one in its day.

This type of ad was probably very effective with the businesspeople who were every airline’s principal market in the 1930’s, but in the 1950’s, when airlines were trying to lure families from traveling by train, something else was needed. TWA embarked on ad campaigns showing everyday American families in the air, encouraging the idea of air travel as the fast. modern, and comfortable way of visiting family and friends. One of my favorite examples is the ad from 1952: TWASuchService1952

Has anybody else ever been quite as excited about eating airline food as this kid? The typical ad of that era showed an urbane businessman accepting the offered meal with a suave smile, while this one shows uninhibited enthusiasm. We might all want to grow up to be as successful as the businessman, but we might be just a bit nostalgic about the days when we could be this happy about anything.

A Rare Picture of the First Modern Airline Meal

In my book I mentioned the first frozen airline meals, which were made by the Maxson Company for the US Air Force in 1945. Visionary inventor William Maxson invented the small convection oven and segmented aluminum trays, and though the meals weren’t gourmet delights, they were vastly better than the cold emergency rations that previously had been the only option. An article about these new rations appeared in Yank Magazine, a publication of the US Military,  in July of 1945, and it included this picture:

MaxsonSkyPlateThe picture of the smiling stewardess handing a plate to a civilian reflected the company’;s aspirations, since no civilian aircraft would be fitted with those ovens for another four years. The article in Yank Magazine claimed that the frozen meals would soon be available in fifty different varieties and would be for sale to civilian housewives, which shows that Maxson had big dreams for his new product. Alas, by the time the first Pan Am flight using the new meals took to the sky, William Maxson was dead. His heirs had no interest in the business and sold it, and the new owners were interested only in producing the small convection ovens and discontinued further research into creating better meals. Had they stayed in the food business and used the founder’s research, the Maxson Company would have been ideally positioned to take advantage of the postwar air travel boom. Others would make money from their ideas, and continue to do so today.

Fine Meals From A Tiny Space: The Challenges of Flying Boat Cooking

I have been in some restaurants that were remodeled from private homes and admired the way that chefs working in close quarters could turn out fine meals. The kitchen at Restaurant Jules Verne, the eatery located almost at the top of the Eiffel Tower, turns out gourmet delights despite being the size of large closet. This is still roomy compared to the galley of a flying boat. Take a look at the kitchen in this Sikorsky VS-44:

Courtesy George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

Courtesy George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

Courtesy George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

Courtesy George Diemer and the New England Air Museum










And yes, that’s it. Two burners, two ovens, a prep space the size of two shoeboxes (that has a sink built in under it, covered in this photo), and the tall cabinet is the left photo is a refrigerator. That little space turned out meals for 26 passengers and three crewmembers, and they were fine meals – this aircraft was owned by American Export Lines, which also operated luxury liners and tried to match that standard of service. Harry Pember, in his book on the aircraft, wrote that meals were “prepared from scratch and served, in the style of the finest restaurants, to the 26 passengers on board.”

With thanks to George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

With thanks to George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

Look at something else about that kitchen and you’ll really be happy that you didn’t have to cook in it: There’s no lip on those electric burners, no barrier between them and the aisle, so if the aircraft hit some turbulence, a pot of boiling water could go flying. I thought this might have been  a detail left off of an aircraft that was extensively refurbished and now in a museum, but a look at the brochure from when this plane was new (left) shows the same situation.

The VS-44 was one of the last prewar designs, a relatively fast long-range aircraft that first flew in 1937. Pan Am, the major buyer for all passenger flying boats, decided they preferred larger aircraft from Boeing and Martin, but a few went into commercial service and kept flying passengers in the Caribbean until 1969. This aircraft was restored to beautiful condition after spending some years beached as a hot dog stand in St. Croix. To think of the kitchen that once produced luxury meals reduced to making hot dogs is sad, but the aircraft was rescued and is now available for viewing. Gourmet meals may never be cooked here again, but at least visitors can admire both the beauty of the aircraft and the agility of the people who cooked and served in her.