Arsenic

Arsenic has been known as a poison for millennia. It was so commonly used during the Victorian Age it was called inheritance powder. (Seriously.) It occurs in nature and contaminates water and foodstuffs. (New Mexico has the dubious distinction of having high levels in their water and rice is particularly susceptible to absorbing arsenic.) A slightly sweet odorless and colorless powder, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning mimic cholera or some kind of intestinal distress. It has been used as a cause of death by many many mystery authors.

Women in the Elizabethan era used it in a paste to whiten their complexions. Of course it was absorbed through the skin and a lifetime of use must have meant serious health complications. (Talk about dying for fashion.)

What interests me, though, are the inadvertent poisonings. Napoleon’s hair was shown to have very high levels of arsenic. Was he poisoned by his nearest and dearest while on Elba? What about King George III, the so-called mad King who reigned during the Colonial period and Revolution? He had porphyria, a blood disease that results in dark urine and extreme sensitivity to the sun. (Some scholars think that porphyria was the original seed of the vampire legends.) Well, when they tested King George’s hair, it too displayed high levels of arsenic. Was he poisoned?

They were both probably poisoned by environmental factors. As that time a beautiful emerald green was all the rage for wallpaper. When George Washington built his house he ordered rooms papered in this fashionable color. The problem is that beautiful color was created by arsenic and in damp or humid weather the arsenic came out of the paper into the air. Instant poisoning.

sugar and rum

There is no rum without sugar (this is true for any alcoholic drink). Prior to the Revolutionary War most people drank rum or hard cider. Sailors were paid partly in rum. The early settlers, however, drank it in a punch or toddy. Early on, rum was distilled in the Caribbean where sugar was grown. Then it made sense for the rum to be distilled where the prime market was – New England. By the mid-1700s, though, most rum was made, and made more cheaply too, in New England. Many fortunes were made by this rum and I’ve read that one of those fortunes was made by. the Kennedy family.

But I digress.

What were some of the consequences of this cheap and easily obtainable rum?

Well, sugar is very labor intensive so the cultivation of sugar resulted in a tremendous need for slaves and was one of the big drivers of the slave trade.

Second, sugar exhausts the soil quickly so planters had to keep finding new land. This was certainly a big reason for the push for plantations and slavery westward.

Third, Americans drank more than ever. ‘Demon Rum’ became one of the many names for rum, leading to the temperance movement and to Prohibition with all of its associated crime and other problems.

And yes, although many New Englanders were abolitionists, New England profited hugely from the trade. New England ships brought slaves to the New World. New England ships brought sugar north. And New England ships brought codfish south for the slaves to eat.

Rum drinking declined after the Revolutionary War since rye was grown in the frontier – then around Pittsburgh – and distilled into whiskey. Of course, that came with its own set of problems.

Sugar is still grown in Louisiana and Domino has a big presence there. (Their factory looks abandoned – broken windows and shabby exterior.) In Louisiana there are two plantings a year.

How much sugar do we consume now? Well, in the early 1700s, a few pounds or less might be ingested by the average person per year. In 1999, the peak of sugar consumption, it was 111 grams a day, just about half a pound a day.  In 2016, that dropped to 94 grams a day. Soda is one culprit but actually sugar and high fructose corn syrup is in just about everything.

And what about rum? Well, by Prohibition, although rum was castigated as the ‘demon’, most people were drinking whiskey. Rum’s big day had already passed. And in a weird twist, New Englanders again made fortunes by becoming ‘rum runners’, making available alcohol during Prohibition.

And it all started with sugar.

 

How sweet it is -Sugar

Sugar has been known for millennia. Botanists suggests sugar was discovered in Papua, New Guinea and has been cultivated for 7000 years. (Wow!) From New Guinea, it traveled west, to India, where the Greeks discovered it. In Sanskrit the word for sugar is karkara. The name changed slightly as it passed through other cultures and ended up with the Arabs who called it sukkur. Not such a leap to sugar.

It was known in Medieval Europe but it was rare and expensive and used as a spice.

What about the Colonies? Well, by 1770 British (including the colonies, ate five times as much sugar as in 1710. That number only increased. At first sugar was used primarily in tea and coffee but was later added to baked goods (especially after the discovery that baking soda and cream of tartar formed a compound that raised quick breads) and candy.

Sugarcane is difficult to harvest (the cutter has to bend over and cut it close to the ground) and change from a sweet sap to granulated sugar. It is a very labor intensive process. The Portuguese have the dubious distinction of being the first to use African slaves but, once the sugar industry really got going in the West Indies, the British and especially the French jumped on the bandwagon. Napoleon’s Jacqueline had brown rotting front teeth from her habit of eating sugarcane.

So, what were the consequences? At the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans we saw the pots hung over fires that had to be stirred constantly to keep the juice from burning. This was a job usually reserved for slave children. Of all the jobs the slaves performed, this was probably the worst.

 

More about sugar, sugarcane, and rum next.

Dame Schools

In several of my books, Rees’s children attend dame schools. I mention them almost without a description. (Of course I mention the schooling received at the hands of the Shakers. Boys and girls were segregated: boys were taught by the men during the winter and girls by the women during the summer.)

Well, what are dame schools?

The New England Puritans believed that Satan would try to keep people from understanding the scriptures so it was decided that all children be taught to read. In fact, the first American schools arose in New England. The Boston Latin School was founded in 1635 and the Mather School in 1639 in Dorchester.In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony made town schools compulsory and other New England colonies soon followed. These were for white boys only. Common schools were established in the 1700s but a tuition was charged.

If parents could not homeschool their children they went to dame schools. Considering how busy most women were I wondered how that worked out. With that said, however, there were enough educated women in the North who could function as teachers. Usually they were widows who taught in their own home. They were paid in money but also in kind – baked goods, produce, alcohol and the like. (I imagine the abilities of these untrained teachers varied widely – from essentially a day care to a real school. But I digress.)

In the beginning education focused on reading and ‘rithmetic but soon it was the four R’s; ‘riting and religion as well. Some of the dame schools offered girls embroidery, sewing and other such graces. Dame schools went up to eight grade and most girls went no farther. Boys, however, might move to a grammar school where they were taught advanced arithmetic, Latin and Greek by a male teacher.

There was also a huge divergence between the North and the South. Planters educated their children with tutors and son were frequently sent to England or Scotland for schooling. During the early part of the 1800s, it was against the law to teach slaves but schools for white children were opened in Georgia and South Carolina (1811). Segregated schools for children of all races began opening during Reconstruction and continued until 1954 when the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing segregated schools unconstitutional.

A final note: These schools went only to the eighth grade just like the dame schools. For many rural areas of the country eighth grade school was the norm until 1945.

 

Shaker Herbs Part Four – Culinary Herbs

The Shakers served plain food but it was nourishing and, from the recipes I’ve tried, flavorful. There was some overlap of course. Basil, for example, was used as a tea and an aromatic to prevent excessive vomiting. Rosemary was also used as a tea and its oil was made into a liniment.

Some of the other herbs are not so unsurprising. One of my favorites is for a Dandelion salad. (Seriously!) The mixture includes dandelion leaves, simmered until tender and drained, then put into a saucepan with egg yolks, cream, butter and other herbs such as mint, lemon thyme and so on. The mixture is put on slices of stale bread and fried and then seasoned with oil and vinegar and parsley.

Fish was poached with chamomile leaves or covered with chamomile sauce. (Make a roux with butter and flour (2 Tablespoons each), add a Cup of chicken stock, parsley, the chamomile leaves and add salt and pepper to taste,) Marjoram, basil, parsley and basil went into meatloaf, tarragon, summer savory, marjoram, chervil and thyme into chicken fricasee.

Hancock Village served an herb soup made up of chopped sorrel, chopped shallots, chervil, mint and parsley boiled in milk. Butter and salt and pepper are added to taste and the whole mixture poured over squares of toasted bread.

I want to add a note about the Shaker’s recipe for bread which I found in a James Beard bread book. It is so delicious I could eat an entire loaf. But I digress.

Another soup is apple soup, so tasty on a cool fall day. A quartered apple, cored but unpeeled, a quartered onion and a herb mix of marjoram, basil, summer savory and more combined with cinnamon is cooked in the top of a double boiler. The apple is removed when soft and the soup is strained. Cider and cream is added when ready to serve.

Some of these herbs and herb mixes can be purchased in the gift shops of the various museum communities and at Sabbathday Lake. Hancock Village had a mix that includes basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, thyme and more. It has been several years since I purchased my supply so I am not sure it is still available.