Tuesday, February 24, 2015

drink up ...or not: just musing

One of my living-history friends linked an interesting article on facebook, Moonshine Whiskey and Alcohol Consumption in American History.  It seems to be largely an excerpt from a book called Moonshine:  A Cultural History of America's Infamous Liquor.

Like other books I often see, the observations repeated in the article show a lot of research on the subject in question and a lot of misunderstanding of confounding concepts.  As an illustration of what i'm trying to express, there's a terrific book or two about nineteenth-century clothing that I recommend to newbies in the reenacting hobby, though I always tell them, "Look at the pictures, but don't believe everything you read in the text."  The pictures provide evidence straight out of objective history, but the written accompaniment only gives you insight into the mindset, ignorance and bias of the authors.  A certain authoritative book on Victorian-era underclothes offers some incredibly stupid opinions by post-Freudian twentieth-century scholarship ... but the illustrations provide an excellent resource for what the living-historian should wear.

When it comes to the diet and health of our forebears, period resources like old cookbooks that contain recommendations for menus and special feeding of infants, children and the ill are wonderful for providing info on WHAT people were considered to need*, ... BUT...

A lot of modern writers will take the old recommendations out of context. 

Context is CENTRAL to appropriateness of dietary recommendation.  Context is why what works for the bro's isn't appropriate for ME.  Context is why telling an impoverished family they should eat grass-fed steak and organic vegetables is repugnant.

The writer who decided to try to drink the same things our colonial ancestors drank, in the same quantities, will not have the same EXPERIENCE as the originals.  There are countless differences between them and their world, and ourselves and ours, of which the experimenter is ignorant.

Physical activity is a major confounder here.  American colonials worked HARD, though they didn't work OUT.  Every little chore that we do with comparatively little effort required a lot more then.  To visit the bathroom from where i'm sitting right now, all I have to do is stand up and walk a few paces to the "little room," sit, flush, step over to the sink, turn on the faucet, and wash my hands with soap I bought when picking up my other necessities at the grocery-store.  If I lived in 1700, even in a town, I'd have to go outdoors to the privy, come back inside, and wash in a washbasin -- with water which I drew out of a well and carried in, and heated over a fire which I had to build with fuel I had to chop, with soap I had to make from fat I had to render plus lye I had to leach, ...then take the dirty wash-water to the back door and toss it broadcast so the repeated disposing thereof didn't create a sour-smelling nuisance in my backyard....

Multiply a simple activity by the extra steps it used to take to do it, and you've got some serious calorie-burning going on.  Remember that you had to walk everywhere you needed to go, or if it were really far you had to saddle or harness the horse, and take care of him and his accoutrements before and after the trip....

An interesting book contains the diary entry of a girl in 1775:

Fix'd gown for Prude, -- Mend Mother's Riding-hood, -- Spun short thread, ---Fix'd two gowns for Welsh's girls, -- Carded tow, -- Spun linen, -- Worked on Cheese-basket, -- Hatchel'd flax with Hannah, we did 51 lbs. apiece, -- Pleated and ironed, -- Read a Sermon of Doddridge's, -- Spooled a piece, -- Milked the cows, -- Spun linen, did 50 knots, -- Made a Broom of Guinea wheat straw, -- Spun thread to whiten, -- Set a Red dye, -- Had two Scholars from Mrs. Taylor's, -- I carded two pounds of whole wool and felt Nationly, -- Spun harness twine, -- Scoured the pewter

 I think we can safely assume that even if she was eating a high-carb diet, her activity level made her swap over from glucose to fat-burning before her next meal came along, and she might have been in ketosis at some point in her day.  And if you're a ketone-and-fat-burner, you don't metabolize alcohol in the same way a sugar-burner does.

I know this, because there's a huge difference in how I feel NOW after a couple of cocktails, compared with what the same amount did to me before I discovered Atkins.  I don't get the same KIND of buzz, my brain isn't impaired similarly, and I don't get hangovers.

And all that is just PART of why a 21st-century American and an 18th-century diet are incompatible....

When it comes to historic eating, a modern individual makes mistakes having to do with volume and mass, too.

Ever look at food vessels in museums, like plates and wine-glasses?  Ever compare them to what's in your kitchen cupboard?  Not in the same ballpark.  A single modern chicken breast raised on antibiotics and steroids would completely fill the antique pewter plates I own.

Old recipes for cocktails use a measurement called a "wine glass;" to make my period-correct drinks, I had to find a way to quantitatively define that but thanks to the internet it can be found.  It's two ounces.  TWO OUNCES.  Old wine and cocktail glasses are tiny things.

People just didn't slug down huge schooners of HFCS-containing highballs in the old days.  Just as a standard cup of coffee used to be five ounces, not the twenty ounces of a "venti."  People my age remember the 4-oz juice-glass, too....

It's thanks to low-cost restaurants that we consider outsize portions to be normal.  Since the cost of the actual EDIBLES they serve is minuscule compared to hardware, labor, and overhead, they led the way in the value-meal concept.  Thanks, McDonald's and Starbucks!  :-P

When someone says "cider" what do you think of?  How 'bout "beer" or "ale"?  "Wine"?  Probably not the same thing your g-g-g-g-great-grandfather drank.

I made ginger beer from a vintage recipe a couple of times.  I liked it -- it was lightly effervescent and decidedly low in alcohol.  You could probably use the same recipe a dozen times and it wouldn't have the same ethanol content twice.

Beverages of this nature used to be a purely home-made commodity.  When local civilization got to a certain point, it became possible to buy from your local ale-house for home use, but today's standardized brews and vintages -- especially centrally-produced/widely-distributed ones -- are of very recent creation.  Historically, only in the luxury trade was wine made in quantity and shipped long distances.  You can bet your booty that for the common people "wine" and "cider" started as fresh fruit juice that began mild and ended up ... vinegar.  Somewhere in the middle of that period you had an intoxicating beverage, but at each end it wasn't.  There have been various attempts to ascertain the alcohol content of "small beer" -- i.e. the stuff ordinary people drank during the day -- and the best-guess is agreed to be somewhere around one-and-a-quarter percent.

We've been consuming fermented concoctions for hundreds of millennia (the history of ardent spirits is considerably shorter), and it's been known for a very long time that it's safer to drink things with alcohol content than to drink ground-water, especially where there are lots of other people around.  This is why "Queen Elizabeth used to drink beer for breakfast" and all those other amusing factoids you hear at historic sites.

When you hear that everybody ran around tipsy (if not actually drunk) because they drank X number of glasses of wine or beer every day, there's an awful lot more to that story.  Even now, the difference between 3.2 beer and "stout" is huge.  And how many of you know that "nobody" in Europe USED to drink their white wine without diluting it, or that a glass of red was very often "mingled with sugar and hot water"?

So whereas it makes amusing reading to dredge up the menu recommendations of yesteryear (including the beverages to go with the food), trying them out for ourselves requires some savvy adjustment.  Modern tastes and modern capacities are significantly different for a variety of reasons! 
*  comparing several sources is necessary, too, lest one read recommendations which are the author's own brainchild.  We don't want to assume a nineteenth-century Pritikin is mainstream!

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