In my book and also my first post on this site, I mentioned that India has a very long history with both sugar cane and distilling. For a look at the ancient symbolism of sugar, consider this picture of the Hindu goddess Kamakshi: Kamakshi is a goddess of love, motherhood, and settled homes, and is usually depicted holding sugar cane. She isn’t the only Hindu deity with a connection to sugar – the love god Kamadeva carries a bow made of sugar cane that has a string of honeybees. The fact that peaceful avatars of love and domesticity carry sugar cane suggests an association between sweetness and harmonious relationships, a connection the candy industry was quick to exploit.
Hindu alchemists had mastered distilling at least 1500 years ago, and in my book I mentioned that it was surprising that there was no evidence that rum was made in the subcontinent before Europeans arrived. The eminent food and drink historian David Wondrich found that evidence, pushing the history of distilled sugar cane juice back at least the year 1316. That was the year that a Sultan of Delhi died, and contemporary Indian Historian Ziauddin Barani wrote that among the other laws of his reign, the Sultan had prohibited the distillation of “wine” from sugar cane. Since we only know that this ruler outlawed it and that was the year he died, the law was probably enacted at some earlier date, and since lawmakers rarely outlaw something that nobody is doing we must assume that the technique had become known some time still earlier. There may be other records lurking in dusty archives, so the start date for rum history may be pushed back still further in years to come.
(Incidentally, David mentioned finding this information while I was researching the section on rum and sugar for the Oxford Companion to Sweets, which was published in April of 2015 by Oxford University Press. My article begins on page 583, and it was an honor to contribute to such a worthy project.)
A reader of this site sent a question that I’d like your assistance in answering – namely, any information at all about Alfred Lamb, the creator of Lamb’s Navy Rum. Representatives of the brand have remarkably little information: Alfred was a London merchant who reportedly came up with the blend of rums marketed under his name in 1849, when just 22 years old, and apparently did nothing else to attract any attention for the rest of his life. It’s not clear whether he ever actually went to the Caribbean – a reference to an Alfred Lamb in the West Indies may have been a different person who happened to have the same name. There are references to an Alfred Lamb, merchant of London, as a member of a charitable organization in 1866, but beyond that tenuous link he seemed to have no impact on society. For a man of wealth who put his own name on the bottle, he seems amazingly shy of publicity. The records of the company were destroyed during the London Blitz, and his descendants have put plaintive requests for help on ancestry and genealogy websites. Does anyone out there have any information, original documents, or pictures? It would be good to shed some light on the founder of a popular brand.
Another mystery seems destined to remain unsolved – a reader asked the reason for the number on this label: The brand wasn’t established in 1951, and there is no obvious connection between that number and anything in the history or production of the spirit. A question to the owners of the company yielded the following unhelpful answer:
“There are many stories circulated about the meaning of “51”. I can not confirm any of them, as the owners prefer to keep the true meaning a family secret.”
This is one of the most deliberately mysterious trademarks in the annals of marketing. I include their response so nobody else will waste time bothering them, since they obviously don’t seem inclined to discuss the matter…
A few months ago I showed some pictures of food aboard blimps during World War II. George Diemer, a volunteer at the New England Air Museum, found a few more pictures, including this one showing the rather dangerous placement of the hot plate.
Courtesy New England Air Museum.
That’s a frying pan right by the flight engineer’s neck – he probably hopes they never cook bacon, because the grease spatters would be painful. In looking at this picture and another published in 1943, I note that one stylish item that was provided aboard some blimps wasn’t shown. Note the nifty little samovar in the picture below on the right:
Courtesy New England Air Museum
The picture on the left of food being loaded shows that another tradition is still alive – loading food in wicker baskets. Humans used woven reeds to hold food for thousands of years, and it was still the best material for the job well into the 1940’s. Yes, they had aluminum by then, which was lighter and easier to clean, but during the war years reeds were readily available and metal was reserved for the war effort. I haven’t found any postwar pictures showing food handling using baskets, but I’m still looking…