Archive for the ‘Ancient Foods’ Category

The Slow and Quick Rise of the Peppermint Plant

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I recently got a call from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, asking about the background of peppermint in the U.S.: Was it a breath freshener? A medicine? A treat?  The answer is “yes.” Peppermint was all this and more. The peppermint originated as a naturally occurring  hybrid of water mint and spearmint. The exact date of this union is unknown, but the ancient Egyptians and likely, the Greeks, did use it. In Europe, the peppermint appeared in John Ray’s book Methodus Plantarum Nova in 1682 and was listed in the London Pharmacopceia in 1721.   From there, the…

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The Strawberry, a Spy, and a Happy Accident

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Taken, in part, from “Sweet as Sin” (Prometheus, 2016) Strawberry is one of the most popular candy flavors in the nation. It’s in chewing gum, hard candies, jelly beans, taffy, Caramel Creams. Strawberry leaves make a healthy and delicious tea and chocolate covered strawberries are unbeatable. Yet, the most intriguing aspect of the strawberry is its story, involving three continents, international spies, life at the high seas, and science. Humble Beginnings Originally, North American strawberries were tiny little nuggets, a humble yet wild plant. They held special meaning for Native Americans because they were the first to produce fruit in…

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Dandelion Mania: Dandelion Jelly, Dandelion Tea, Dandelion Gardens…

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The dandelion, so remarkable, unforgettable, and essential. Plus… so loathsome to Americans, they invented a specially crafted hand tool to extract it. But time presents a non-loathsome reality: the dandelion is  a venerable flower admired since antiquity.  The ancient Chinese used it for food and medicine; the Japanese cultivated 200 varieties; the Greeks used it as a celebratory gift in their mythology; and monks planted it in the psychic garden of monasteries during the Middle Ages. The dandelion’s geographic range was vast…but not in North America. It took the Puritans to plant dandelion seeds carried from Europe; in the new…

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Mexico

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THANK YOU MEXICO! Without Mexico we would be chocolate-less. Of course, early on Mexico was home to the Olmecs, known for their large head sculptures, the Mayans, and the Aztecs. In 1521 explorer Hernán Cortés landed in Mesoamerica and saw a mesmerizing sight: the great Aztec leader Montezuma, bedecked in jewels and feathers, and attended to by 200 wives. And in his regal hand he cupped a golden chalice filled with the cacao drink. This inspired Cortés, largely to overthrow him, which he did with a devastating, bloody blow.   As for the cacao – the bean which is the…

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Valentine’s Day: Why Hearts?

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So, it’s almost Valentine’s Day and you might be wondering how the ubiquitous  hearts got their start. The shape actually evolved from the ancient and now extinct silphium plant, used in the fifth century by Romans as a spice, aphrodisiac and birth control measure. The plant’s seed pod was heart-shaped, much like the bleeding hearts you see today. At some point, the heart was also used as a  depiction of the anatomical heart. Around 1250, the heart took on sexual and religious significance, appearing as  an inverted pine cone. A hundred or so years later, it was featured in its…

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Chocolate Candy: An Aphrodisiac – Is It or Isn’t It?

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Is chocolate an aphrodisiac? The answer is yes. And no. And like so much about sex and lust, somewhere in-between. Here’s what happened: when 16th century explorers, such as Hernán Cortés, landed in Mesoamerica they come across a mesmerizing sight: the great Aztec leader Montezuma, bedecked in jewels and feathers, and attended to by 200 wives. And in his regal hand he cupped a golden chalice filled with the cacao drink. Montezuma inspired Cortés, largely to overthrow him, which he did with a devastating, bloody blow. The cacao also inspired the creative talents of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who traveled…

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Nutmeg: Sure, A Flavoring in Candy but an Aphrodisiac and So Much More

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If you’re searching for an effective yet tasty aphrodisiac look no further than your local grocery store. The solution comes bundled up in the pit of a more-or-less remarkable spice humbly referred to as “nutmeg.” For thousands of years, the nutmeg has been used to inspire love and lust – even its name derives from the Arabic word “mesk,” or “musky,” as in fragrance.  Today, Americans enjoy nutmeg to limited degrees – in hot cider and apple pie, for example, unaware of the sultry – and dangerous – spice that it is. But First… Nutmeg: The Early Years Even the…

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Where Have All the Halloween Marshmallows Gone?

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Today, when you look at kids’ Halloween Bags you see individual serving size bags of, say, M&Ms, and little bricks of candy bars, but nary a marshmallow. Aside from Peeps’ Halloween selections, in fact, marshmallows have been cast aside in the one national event focused primarily on candy. This is strange given that marshmallows played a large part of Halloweens in days past. So where have they gone? Or, more precisely, why? I think I know. It all starts with the Halloweens that were celebrated in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, with parties, containing bowls of candy, finger…

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The Guy Who Invented Chewing Gum – A Life of Many Firsts

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John Bacon Curtis was the one who started it all – he ushered in the world of chewing gum, bringing the nation a new pastime and treat. In the process, he ignited many other firsts, most so commonplace we forget anyone could be first to do them. Curtis was born in Hampden Maine in 1827. He went to common school for a few years then left to help bring in money for his family. He worked as a farmhand and later a “swamper,” clearing the underbrush and forests to make way for roads. At that time, the Native Americans of…

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So Much Resin, So Much Time: The First Chewing Gums Ever

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Throughout history, people have chewed tree resins: they were the first and longest-standing chewing gum, appreciated for their flavor and medicinal and health value. Amazingly, the shift from gum as a natural resin to a popular industrial wonder spanned a mere 75 years – a fraction of a hiccup in time. Here are some of the originals: Birch: The oldest chewing gum in the world was found by British archeology students on a volunteer dig in Finland. There, they discovered a clump of birch-bark tar, complete with teeth marks. Finish archeologist Sami Viljamaa says the chunk is between 5,500 and…

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Ancient Confections: The Secret to Harmony? Who Says?

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Who knew that two ancient confectionery ingredients could provide evidence that 1. two starkly different cultures could come together in a perfect union; 2.opposites can find perfect balance when brought together; and 3. at least men and women really can co-exist no matter what the sitcoms say. We discovered this symbolically (and tastefully) with two new products we introduced at the shop. One involves the cacao nib – the  essence of chocolate in its rawest, most naked form. At the risk of sounding sexist, the cacao is male in nature – the taste is deep, rich and complicated and the…

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The Amazing and Mighty Date

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If you love sweets, ancient history, ancient symbols, and the miracle of certain plants…then you have to love the date. This remarkable fruit has been cultivated since 7000 BCE – longer according to some reports. Its very existence defies the endurance of other plants: it grows in hot, arid conditions, its palms rise up in the desert like large, ungainly umbrellas in the midst of dry earth. When food in the Mideast was often scarce, and sugar unusual, the date must have been a marvel. More than half of the fruit – roughly 54% – is sugar and the tree remarkably…

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