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…
Imagine how surprised you’d be if you were on a long flight and were served coffee by the pilot! That was standard in the early days of inflight service, as the Ford Trimotors that were the early workhorses only had seats for six passengers. Look at this picture of service aboard National Air Transport, circa 1928:Behind that rather interesting looking couple is the co-pilot, taking a break from his other duties to hand out drinks and sandwiches. Note the very high ceilings and curved windows – this is what the aircraft looked like from the outside:
Ford Tri-motors kept flying commercially into the 1980’s, and were favored for sightseeing trips over the Grand Canyon, as the slow aircraft with huge windows was perfect for that purpose. The aircraft in this picture may still be flying, as many airworthy examples are in collections around the world. As for National Air Transport, it was folded into Stout Airlines in 1930, which merged with other carriers to become United Airlines in 1934.
My book received another positive review, this time from Juliette Rossant, who wrote the book “Super Chef” and has a blog by that name. You can read it at this link. In her honor, this post will be about chefs who claimed the most coveted of superpowers: flight.
Airline competition across the Atlantic heated up after the Second World War, as state-owned airlines competed with private carriers for an expanding market of tourists and business travelers. Since almost all carriers were flying the same aircraft in substantially the same configuration, none could claim greater speed or comfort, so competition in food service became intense. One of the most effective ads was a series by KLM, which touted their “Flying Chef”:A 1947 ad boasted, “KLM’s Flying Chef performs culinary miracles in his kitchen in the clouds…creating delectable hors d’ouerves and desserts, savory sauces and salads, twenty thousand feet in the sky. He is indeed the world’s top chef!”
You might note that though starters, sauces, and desserts were mentioned, main courses weren’t. This was a coy admission that the era of frozen food was blossoming, and the entrees were cooked on the ground and reheated. The Lockheed Constellation shown in the background of that picture had little room to cook – here’s the galley aboard one of the few remaining aircraft of this type, which is in the Museum of Flying in Seattle:
Photo commissioned from Museum of Flying, used by permission.
There may have been a cabin crew member who had a very limited ability to make a sauce from scratch, but anyone doing that job was mainly a garde manger, making beautiful arrangements of cold food. KLM continued to use the advertising tagline of the Flying Chef late into the 1950’s, but hasn’t deployed it lately. Someone else has – look at this contemporary ad from Turkish Airlines: We’d all like to fantasize that a dedicated professional chef is making the meals we eat aboard aircraft, even as we know that almost everything is made in industrial kitchens hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles from where it is consumed. There are few exceptions, the private corporate jets and government aircraft, but unless you’re aboard Air Force One your chef probably has no greater powers of flight than the rest of us mere mortals.
While the name of the first American stewardess – Ellen Church – is well known to people who are interested in commercial airline history, the first female flight attendant in Europe is not as well known. Nelly Diener started working for Swissair in 1934, and during her brief career she was featured in several news stories. One look at this picture gives a hint about why that might have been the case – look at this great shot of her wearing a rakishly tilted uniform cap:
By all accounts Nelly had a charming personality, and was known as Engel der Lüfte (“Angel of the Skies”). I recently found another picture of her that is also obviously posed, but includes a detail of her profession that I hadn’t seen before:
Note the wicker basket, which was used to transport food and cutlery to the aircraft, and dirty dishes away at the end of each flight. Wicker was the strongest light material available until the invention of plastic, and was used for airliner seat bottoms and luggage racks. I was surprised to see the rigid rather than folding handle on this one, and wonder where in the aircraft they stowed the basket.
Tragically, Nelly Diener’s career was very brief – she started working in May of 1934 and was killed in a crash during a thunderstorm in July. A Swiss aviation history website at nelly.ch is named in her honor.
Originally posted 15 September 2014
I occasionally get questions about the origin of various rum-based cocktails, and while I know the answers to some of these, in many cases there were so many claims to the invention that I didn’t have a definitive answer. Luckily a historian has taken on the task, and he is both an exacting sleuth and a very fine writer. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s book “Potions of the Caribbean” is a marvelous read, the story behind the drinks and their cultural impact interspersed with easy to follow recipes for potions both popular and obscure. The unlikely lives of some of the creators are explored in detail, and as it turns out they were fascinating people; Berry restores the place in history of some otherwise forgotten masters of the craft.
You will want to own this – it was released in spring of 2014 and is headed for classic status. Buy his book, check out his website at beachbumberry.com, and if at all possible go to one of his events, as he is a delightful raconteur.
Originally posted 13 September 2014
It is always a delight to find old recipes that are easy to follow, and a rarity to find one that has been annotated by a contemporary who has actually used it. One of the prized examples is from the Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, a plantation owner who made copious notes about her kitchen experiments in South Carolina in 1770. One of her recipes is for rum shrub, a popular hot weather refresher. She starts by transcribing a neighbor’s recipe:
To every Gallon of Rum put one Quart of Juice and two pounds of the best double refined Sugar. Shake the Shrub every day for two Months, and let it settle once more, then draw it off for use. The Vessel should be kept close cork’d during the whole process, and to every hundred of Oranges put twenty-five Lemons. To make your Shrub fine all the Materials should be the best.
In the margin of this recipe, Harriott wrote,
“I think the following receipt better. To one Gallon old rum add 5 pints Juice and 3 1/2 pounds Sugar.”
A modern recreation of this recipe might use a higher proportion of lemons, since the strains of oranges available in 1770 were much less sweet than modern oranges, but it is a tasty drink exactly as described. You can also make shrub using tart berry juices like raspberry, or even strawberry juice, but need to reduce the sugar content to have the right balance between tart and sweet. Start now and those of you in the Northern Hemisphere will have something delightful to serve your guests before the summer heat has entirely vanished.
Originally posted 10 January 2014
One of the most popular vintage liquor ads is for Rhum Des Incas, which was bottled by a company in Paris in the 1920’s. Have a look at this lovely piece of art before I mention a few things about it.
Astute viewers may notice just a few things wrong as regards historical accuracy… The Incas didn’t have horses, especially with European-style ornamental bridles like that, and nothing worn by any Inca ever resembled that bizarre pants-suit-toga whatever-it-is with the matching red boots. That goes for the headdress too, though you have to figure that if they had the materials, they probably would have gone for it. Finally, even if the Incas drank rum in the first place, which they didn’t, the stuff in that bottle was made in Martinique, which is a thousand miles, a chain of mountains, and an ocean away from any place the Incas ever settled. On the plus side, it is an arresting and memorable image that probably inspired many people to gallop somewhere on a horse while waving a bottle of spirits. I am amused by the possibility that some lazy student somewhere will find this image on the Internet and use it to illustrate a homework assignment on the Incas… I do not think it would help their grade very much.
Originally posted 02 January 2014
I have received several questions from reenactors and museums about how rum was stored and shipped in the early era, and a recent discovery clarified the situation. The people at Finest And Rarest, a broker that deals in very old and unusual spirits, found a unique item – the oldest dated bottle of rum ever found, from the year 1819. Here’s a picture of it:
As you can see, the large, slightly irregular bottle was wrapped in braided sugar cane stalks to insulate the glass from shocks, and the corked top was sealed with wax. The label is leather with a stamp that indicated that this was rum agrichole from Martinique, with the date handwritten. Long distance shipping was usually done in barrels, which were less fragile and made more efficient use of space, but this represents the way that rum was packaged for sale in lower volumes than a cask-full. By the way, the rum inside the sealed bottle was said to still be good, and was sold off in small lots to connoisseurs. I tried to get some, but was just a bit too late – I won’t wait to reply if a similar opportunity comes along again…