Culinary Counterfeits And Fake Rum

Ever seen a “Prada” or “Gucci” purse at a swap meet for a suspiciously low price? Anything of value will eventually be counterfeited, and that includes food and drink. Sushi is notoriously dodgy, with trash fish standing in for pricier delicacies, and there have been scandals involving cheese and wines, but that’s not all. The world’s largest counterfeit food scam may be in honey, because there are thousands of tons of material labeled as honey coming from China that are really corn syrup or other sweeteners with food coloring added. It’s the same with alcohol, and particularly convenient for the fraudsters because by the time you have that first sip, you may be far away from the place where you bought it.

This is a longstanding problem – consider this bottle that one of my readers found at an estate sale:

Those who know Jamaican rums are probably familiar with Two Dagger, an excellent rum produced by Wray & Nephew. They also know from one glance that this isn’t it, and it’s not just that the the name on the label is plural instead of singular and the Wray & Nephew name isn’t there. If you look closely beneath the word “Rum” you will see the word “type” and those four letters devalue this bottle a lot. They mean it is quite possible that whatever is in this bottle isn’t all rum, or that it doesn’t contain any rum at all and is something else designed to taste like rum. What might that be? It’s hard to tell, because the raw material for Jamaican rum is molasses, and on that island it’s about the cheapest thing that can be fermented and distilled. Given that some fraudsters are quite willing to misrepresent what they’re selling, this might not be from Jamaica at all.

My best guess is that this bottle dates from the 1950’s or 1960’s based on the typography, and that it was bottled for sale to unwary tourists. I could be wrong, and would welcome any enlightenment – has anybody else seen a bottle like this?

Decoding Clothing In Shakespeare’s Plays

Though most posts on this site involve food and beverage, I have long had an interest in 16th Century theater and culture, and at one point was Theater Director for a nonprofit historical society. In that capacity, and later as an instructor at Osher Institute/UCLA Extension, I developed a lecture series called “What Shakespeare Left Out. I still occasionally present talks about the structure of Elizabethan society and the way it was reflected in Shakespeare’s plays. One of my more popular programs involves the class structure of Britain, which at that time had a rigid dress code.

That code was written into law in 1574, and it regulates in minute detail what people of different classes could wear. The text immediately below governs the nobility, and has been abridged to modernize some terms and avoid repetition:

Men

No man shall wear cloth of gold or silver, or silk of purple color except Earls, all above that rank, and Knights of the King (and then only in their mantles).

None shall wear cloth of gold or silver, tinseled satin, silk, cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver, or foreign woolen cloth except Barons, all above that rank, Knights of the Garter, and Privy Councillors.

None shall wear any lace of gold or silver, lace mixed with gold or silver, silk, spurs, swords, rapiers, daggers, buckles, or studs with gold, silver or gilt except Baron’s Sons, all above that rank, Gentlemen attending the Queen, Knights and Captains.

None shall wear velvet in gowns, cloaks, coats, or upper garments, or embroidery with silk, or hose of silk except Knights, all above that rank, and their heirs apparent.

None shall wear velvet, satin, damask, taffeta, or grosgrain in gowns, cloaks, coats, or upper garments, or velvet in their jerkins, hose or doublets. except Knight’s Eldest Sons and all above that rank.

Women

None shall wear cloth of gold or silver, or silk of purple color except Countesses and all above that rank.

None shall wear silk or cloth mixed with or embroidered with silk, pearls, gold or silver except Baronesses and all above that rank.

None shall wear cloth of silver in belts or kirtles except Wives of Knights and all above that rank.

None shall wear embroideries of gold, silver or silk (mixed) or headdresses trimmed with pearls except Wives of Baron’s Eldest Sons, all above that rank, Baron’s Daughters, Wives of King’s Knights or Privy Councillors, or Maids of Honor.

None shall wear velvet in upper garments or embroidery with silk thread except Knight’s Wives and all above that rank.

None shall wear velvet in kirtles or petticoats, or satin in gowns, cloaks and other outer garments except Wives of Knight’s Eldest Sons, Gentlewomen attending Countesses, and all above that rank.

None shall wear satin, damask, taffeta or grosgrain in their gowns except Landed Gentlemen’s Wives and all above that rank.

-*-*-*-

Among the middle and lower classes, there were still more restrictions – on the cost of fabric in clothing, on the quality of jewelry, and on the height of men’s hats and shoes. Gentlemen could wear swords, which were a fashion statement as well as a weapon,  and ladies might wear a single or double ruff depending on their husband or father’s income and social status.

            Where people were restricted as to the quality of the cloth they wore, they would make up for it with ornate embroidery, the finest buttons allowed, and finally, with simple volume of fabric. An edict of 1562 read:

            “For the reformation of the use of the monstrous and outrageous greatness of hose, crept alate into the realm to the great slander thereof, being driven for the maintenance thereof to seek unlawful ways as by their own confession have brought them to destruction: it is ordained that no tailor, hosier, or other person, whosoever he shall be, after the day of the publication hereof, shall put any more cloth in any one pair of hose for the outside than one yard and a half, or at the most one yard and three-quarters of a yard of kersey or of any kind of cloth, leather, or any other kind of stuff above the quantity; and in the same hose to be put only one kind of lining besides linen cloth next to the leg if any shall be so disposed; the said lining not to lie loose or bolstered, but to lie just unto their legs, as in some ancient time was accustomed; sarcanet, muckender, or any other like thing used to be worn, and to be plucked out for the furniture of the hose, not to be taken in the name of the said lining.”

The very fact that these laws needed to be made shows how despite the philosophy of the Great Chain, the human desire to be social climbers is eternal.

Charles Dickens’ favorite beverage

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is micawber-1.jpg
Mister Micawber examining a glass or properly made punch. From “David Copperfield.”

Charles Dickens is revered, but only a few of his works are frequently read, which is a pity. A look at his writings reveals not only a lot about his society, but also much about the author that we can sympathize with. That goes double if we appreciate the pleasures of the table. Dickens was a sensualist and an enthusiast for the finest food and beverages. He was a rare Victorian gentleman who did much of the shopping for his household, and purchased the finest wines, whiskeys, and brandies for his cellar. In appreciating good scotch whiskeys he was ahead of his time, because that was not a common enthusiasm in those days.

The beverage that he seems to have most enjoyed was a punch of his own recipe, which he wrote down in a letter to his cousin Amelia Austin Filloneau, who evidently had requested it after a party or gathering at his home. He sent a it to her on January 18, 1847, with the note, “I hope it will make you a beautiful punchmaker in more senses than one.” The recipe and abridged instructions are reprinted by permission from Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by David Wondrich, Perigee Books, copyright 2010. If you are at all interested in beverages of the Victorian period, you should own at least one copy.

Please note that if you recreate this beverage, neither that author or Richard Foss may be held responsible for kitchen fires, inebriation, sudden and unforeseen attraction to other people consuming it, or other consequences.

Original recipe: To make three pints of punch, peel into one very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket), the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double handfull of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy- if it not be a large claret glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up five minutes, and stir again.

            At this crisis, having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon, you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one-quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to the table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours take the lemon peel out, or it will have a bitter taste.  

Suggested modern procedure: Use an enameled cast-iron pot for the basin, or something else heatproof, but not aluminum. A crockpot can be used, but let it heat to medium before setting the fire. This will fume eh alcohol, and eliminate any danger of cracking the crock.

Use six ounces of Demerara sugar, 20 ounces of rum and 6 of Courvoisier VSOP, the kind Dickens kept in his cellar. David Wondrich’s book has an essay on recommended rums – brands include Smith & Cross and Sea Wynde. I use Jamaican medium dark rum or a mix of Myers’ dark and an amber rum – the more expensive rums do make a slightly better product.  You can use Raynal brandy, which has a cognac flavor but is far less expensive.

The fire melts the sugar and extracts the oil from the lemon peel. Dickens’ advice about lighting the spirits from a metal spoon is sound – do not try to light the whole pot while holding the match in your hand. You may have trouble lighting the alcohol on fire unless you heat the mixture slightly to make it fume. The alternative is to take a more alcoholic rum, like Wray & Nephew overproof, and use a spoonful of that as a liquid fuse. If you heat this over a stove be very careful to avoid spills because it will burn.

 The water should be Imperial measure, or 40 ounces, rather being based on the American quart, which is 16 ounces rather than 20.

The punch can be drunk hot or cold, and if you remove the lemon peel will keep for days if kept cool and sealed. Grate a bit of fresh nutmeg over each cup before serving for an added Victorian flavor. Dickens was a master punchmaker, and the sweet and sour flavor with a hint of spice will delight your guests. When you serve it, raise a glass to the master of literature and hospitality.

Some Rum Before The Next Dance, Señorita?

There are no known pictures of a fandango in Alta California, but this 1848 image of one in Mexico by Iziquio Iriarte is probably as close as we will ever have.

When you think of a place where rum was made and enjoyed in the early 19th Century, the first to come to mind probably isn’t California. Nevertheless it was a popular drink, as reported by multiple observers. Sugar cane was planted in those areas of Southern California with enough water to sustain it, and in 1828 Russian naval officer Kirill Khlebnikov noted that rum made from it was drunk widely but moderately. “Many women of the lower classes readily drink vodka and rum but not a lot. One should generally say of Californios that they are temperate, and drunks are to be seen very rarely.”

Apparently sugar stocks from California didn’t  satisfy the demand, because in 1842 Swedish traveler G.M. Waseurtz noted imported materials in his description of a rancho at Refugio Beach, near Santa Barbara. “His little farm was romantically situated and its produce were cattle, a few vegetables, and very good wine. He had also begun to distill rum from Sandwich Island sugar which Mr. Thompson provided.”

A little sugar is still grown in California near San Diego, but as far as I know nobody is now making rum from it. The fresh cane juice commands such a high price at health food stores and farmer’s markets that it would be madness to make rum from it these days…

You’re Giving The Passengers Free WHAT?

 

It’s interesting to see what the airlines used to think of as appropriate amenities for their customers. I don’t know what year this Pan Am inflight service card was printed, but from the graphic style I’d guess the very early 1950’s. Let’s see, they’re giving passengers free toothbrushes, sewing kit, chewing gum, and… what’s that circled item?Oh yes, benzedrine inhalers. And in case you were wondering what they looked like, here’s one:

And why might they be passing these little speedy treats out to all who wanted one? In that era before the problems with amphetamine addiction was widely known, they were regarded as a great antidote to altitude sickness and nasal congestion. They might have even worked, but the side effects might make this something you’d regret later. Thanks, but I’ll deal with the stuffy nose…

Rum, Reminiscence, and Death in Jamaica

Suitable for funerals and other occasions.

Rum killed plenty of people in the Caribbean, either through overwork in a distillery in the punishing heat or overindulgence in the finished product, so it is fitting that the beverage has such a central point in funeral rites in Jamaica. By tradition for nine nights after someone died a celebration of their life began at sundown, with stories about them told in between liberal toasts with white rum. A little was also always poured on the ground as a libation for the spirit, who was presumed to be present on those nights. The celebration peaked with a particularly festive and raucous celebration on the ninth night, featuring flirtatious dancing as a reminder that life goes on. On the tenth night the solemn and sober funeral took place – sober except for the gravediggers, who were paid in rum. I expect that they received their reward after their job was done, because even as simple job as digging a hole and refilling it later can be much more difficult when under the influence.

When it comes to arriving at work with a hangover for nine days straight, modern employers are much less tolerant than those of bygone eras, so these days the celebration is compressed into a single blowout on the night before the funeral. Modern gravediggers in the major cities seem to prefer cash, but those some in the countryside may still take their payment in the country’s most famous export.

A Strange Beginning For Asian Fusion In Flight

In my book I mentioned the ways in which airlines created themes aboard aircraft to make the flying experience more alluring and exotic. The most interesting of these was probably Northwest Orient’s “Fujiyama Room” which was the upstairs lounge aboard their Stratocruiser aircraft. In 1955 to celebrate their service to Tokyo and beyond in Asia, the airline put live bonsai trees and Japanese dolls aboard, painted Japanese calligraphy on the walls, and created a space that looked like this:

This looks like kitsch nowadays but was edgy in its time – remember that the US and Japan were at war just ten years before. The food was more reminiscent of a tiki bar than anything actually Japanese – here’s a description:

In the center of the large colorful tray was a pineapple cut flat on the bottom. The following items were skewered onto the pineapple with Asian type picks – shrimp, cheese, ham, cherry tomatoes, and various types of fruit cut into squares. Tray decorations included small wooden Asian dolls and other oriental trinkets, parasols and ribbons… 

Note that this meal service and decor was only offered on US domestic flights so that there was little danger that many actual Japanese people would see it – the flights to Tokyo offered standard service. After a few years the Stratoliners were retired in favor of jets, and the theme wasn’t replicated there. It remains an odd little milestone in air service, an exoticized Oriental fantasy to enjoy when flying between Minneapolis and Seattle.

Talking With The Dusty Hunter About Rum…

I recently visited someone who is a Dusty Hunter, a person who seeks out forgotten bottles in old liquor stores and mislaid cases of booze in the backs of bars. His apartment has a long rack of bottles of liquor from as much as a hundred years ago, and reading the old but still-bright labels was fascinating. Like all of his fellowship he has tales to tell of his favorite finds – the decades-old bottle of Scotch from a long-vanished distillery that a lazy clerk sold for the barely legible marked price, the case of rum a tavern owner was about to throw away because he figured it couldn’t be good any more.

Unlike some Dusty Hunters, this one doesn’t just collect the bottles – he gets together with other enthusiasts and on special occasions they crack the old bottles to savor and study the styles of other eras. (I approve of this, especially when I’m invited to join in.) Their pickings have gotten slimmer and slimmer because few people are now unaware of the value of the old bottles. If you have the cash to spend you can get these bottles from brokers like Finest and Rarest, which offers ancient, strange, and wonderful liquors like this bottle of 1891 Wray & Nephew Two Daggers rum.

Like your rum aged? Try this one...

Like your rum aged? Try this one…

That bottle will run you a mere 3,750 Euros, if it is still available. I know to my sorrow that the most interesting items sometimes go very quickly, since the one time I bid on an item (a much cheaper item, as rum historians aren’t nearly as well compensated as I might wish), it was already gone. I read their emails with new offerings with a sense or longing – did that Rhum Clement from 1819 still have the flavor of cane that was cut almost two centuries ago? Did the flavor of that Royal Navy rum from 1940 more resemble a modern Pusser’s or Lamb’s, or was it like something else entirely? For now I can only wonder, but I will keep an eye out when shopping in in old stores just in case lightning strikes and favors me with a similar find…

Jules Verne and Aerial Dining: When Fiction Lagged Reality

Jules Verne was a visionary, though he was modest about his writing and insisted that he never invented anything. To a degree he was right – humans descended beneath the sea in submarines before he wrote about them, but those craft were fragile and unreliable, nothing like the mighty Nautilus of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Verne’s early works often featured balloon voyages, and were published in a magazine that specialized in stories combining factual science and fiction. This is one reason they read oddly to modern people – they were designed as a combination of education and entertainment with the expectation that readers would know when one stopped and the other started.

Cover of the first edition.

Cover of the first edition.

Verne’s first novel, known to Anglophones as Five Weeks in a Balloon, was published in 1863, and was about an aerial exploration of Africa by three Englishmen. The description of their pre-departure preparations gives a distinctly spartan provisions list:

“He at the same time carefully weighed his stores of provision, which consisted of tea, coffee, biscuit, salted meat, and pemmican, a preparation which comprises many nutritive elements in a small space. Besides a sufficient stock of pure brandy, he arranged two water-tanks, each of which contained twenty-two gallons.”

Verne included a chart listing the weight of their supplies; the “Meat, pemmican, biscuits, tea, coffee, and brandy” weighed 386 pounds, the water 400 pounds. They also brought guns and powder to shoot animals along the way, and various adventures ensue whenever they do. The animals are butchered on the ground and steaks roasted over a fire and brought back to the balloon, and the only aerial cooking seems to be the making of coffee. I don’t remember any incident at which the three Englishmen preferred tea to coffee, which in that era may have qualified the book as science fiction. Perhaps the tea may have been intended as ballast, or saved to entertain any company with more conventional tastes.

Don't you hate it when this happens?

Don’t you hate it when this happens?

The pace of Verne’s novel is greatly slowed by his habit of cramming historical and technical information into the narrative, and casual readers will find themselves skimming past columns of numbers and recitations of the adventures of previous African explorers. It’s not riveting reading in the English translation, though everyone I know who has read Verne in the original French says the prose is much more elegant. Impractical as his vision was, and as imperfectly translated into other languages, he certainly inspired more practical people who made his dreams of flight a reality.

Rum Drinks: Tips On Flips

In my book on the history of rum I included a recipe for making Landlord May’s Flip, a Colonial American drink of dark beer with cream, sugar, and egg stirred with a hot poker while rum is added. When done correctly this makes a rich, creamy hot drink that is similar to an alcoholic marshmallow. Here’s a picture of me doing this at home:

Stirring a jug of Landlord May's Flip with a hot poker. Photo by William Foss.

Stirring a jug of Landlord May’s Flip with a hot poker. Photo by William Foss.

Some people who tried doing this after reading my recipe were successful, some weren’t, and at first I couldn’t figure out why. Then I did a demonstration at an excellent restaurant in Los Angeles called Redbird, which has a beautiful fireplace at one side of the dining room. When I arrived the poker was already in the fireplace, and I didn’t pay attention to it while making sure the other ingredients were ready. When everything was in order I pulled the poker from the fire and started to stir, and immediately recognized that there was a problem. There was a brief spurt of steam but not the sustained bubbling I achieved at home, and it was very difficult to move the poker inside the jug. A look at the poker revealed the problem – it was a very spindly thing made of thin welded rods, and the hooks for moving the logs extended four inches from the shaft. The traditional fire poker I had used had a heavy bulb of metal at the end, and the log hook extended only about an inch. As a result the traditional poker held heat for a long time, and it was easy to move around inside the jug. We couldn’t go out to search for another fire poker at Redbird, so had to make do with putting the cream and alcohol mixture in a saucepan and stirring it vigorously over the flame.

Since then I have looked around and found that almost all modern fire pokers are the simple welded rod type, and it’s very hard to find the traditional style. Ironically, I got rid of my traditional set before I found this out, and I am now scavenging thrift stores for a traditional set. If I’m really lucky I may find a tool designed for the job. Serious flip makers in the Eighteenth Century used a rod with a bulb on the end that had no log hook at all; it was called a loggerhead. Here’s a picture of one: 5FlipTools

I have no great hope of finding one of these in my home in Southern California, but if any of my faithful readers finds one, it would be a great birthday present… hint, hint…

Another tip: Take the beer and cream out of the refrigerator at least half an hour before making the flip, because it doesn’t need to be cold. Beer in Colonial America was drunk at room temperature, and if it’s cold when you start making this, it will speed the rate at which the poker cools down.

I hope that helps… If you have other problems, please feel free to contact me with specifics and I’ll try to help.