When you enjoy a glass of wine with your dinner, do you ever ponder its provenance? When you uncap a cold beer on a hot summer day, have you ever wondered how brewing got started? Many of us can’t imagine a day without that trio of caffeinated drinks: coffee, tea, and Coke; but where and when did they originate? We discovered this month that many common beverages have a long and checkered past. Since the beginnings of humanity, people have had to settle where there was water; but other drinks have also shaped history in prominent and surprising ways. This month’s title, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, views its namesake drinks through the lens of politics, culture, religion, and more.
If you’re thinking right now that this all seems pretty weighty for a cup of coffee or a Coke– our group would agree with that. While most found the history “interesting,” there was a bit too much information, particularly in the earlier chapters, which focus on beer and wine. We recognized that these drinks have centuries of history to explore, and author Tom Standage provides a detailed, almost academic treatise of his subject. Some felt his writing was just too dry for their taste (like some wines?), though we did enjoy the numerous anecdotes sprinkled throughout. Here’s one factoid to mention at your next workshop or conference: the word symposium comes from the Greek symposion, which means a ritual drinking party/discussion group with a “formal, intellectual atmosphere.” Since Greeks watered their wine (they thought this was the civilized way to drink), they were probably able to speak coherently for most of the evening. But do remember that a symposium, by definition, includes wine!
Things picked up a bit in the chapter on spirits, which have a considerably shorter history. Rum in particular played a big part in Colonial America’s economy, mostly because of the molasses-rum-slaves triangle you may remember from high school social studies class. Whiskey also became popular in this period, as it could be produced from crops grown domestically; and a still was easily constructed. Spirits played a prominent role in election campaigns, as well; imagine if the following happened today: “When George Washington ran for election in 1758 to Virginia’s local assembly, the House of Burgesses, his campaign team handed out twenty-eight gallons of rum, fifty gallons of rum punch, thirty-four of wine, forty-six of beer, and two of cider– in a county with only 391 voters” (Standage, p. 118). I’m pretty sure he won that race!
Moving on to the caffeinated three– coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola– the most popular chapter by far was the one about Coke. Somehow this section seemed the most entertaining and relatable; compared to the other beverages in the book, Coke has a very short history and most of us are familiar with parts of it already. Whether you like or despise Coke, its influence on our culture and economy are undeniable; and Standage vividly illustrates its global reach as well. Perhaps part of the intrigue and enjoyment of this chapter came from understanding the history of something so ubiquitous that we rarely think about its whys and wherefores.
Both coffee and tea share this trait; that is, they’re so common and consumed by so many people that for us they just are. Like wine and beer, they have a long history across many nations, and like Coke they have had an outsize influence on politics, national economies, and culture. Again, most members of the group thought these chapters were “interesting,” but felt a little overloaded by the sheer volume of information. We enjoyed the discussion of how coffee fueled the early Industrial Revolution; instead of drinking beer or cider before work, people started to drink coffee and were therefore more alert on the job. Undoubtedly safer for all concerned! Coffeehouses were also extremely popular as meeting places/de facto offices going back to the early 18th century, so Starbucks definitely didn’t invent that idea. But sorry, ladies– coffeehouses were only for men. No lattes for you!
Tea was drunk in China for centuries before the British discovered it; but the UK’s near-universal adoption of this beverage had far-reaching consequences for both China and India, and of course for the American colonies. Our group was surprised to learn of tea’s role in the 19th century opium trade (yes, there was a not-so-secret opium trade with China endorsed by the British government!), but no one needed to be reminded of the role tea played in the beginnings of the American Revolution
Standage ably proves his point– that “…drinks have had a closer connection to the flow of history than is generally acknowledged, and a greater influence on its course.” (Standage, p.5). While our group acknowledged that this book was a worthwhile read, for most it just wasn’t their cup of tea (so to speak). This was reflected in our voting, where this title received and average vote of 2.1 chef’s hats. However, if you enjoy history, and delving into a subject at length, then this book may be just what you’re looking for.
Our next meeting will be Friday, December 2 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. Please note that this is a combined November/December meeting. All are welcome! This month’s titles are about “savories and sweets”: choose Martha Stewart’s Appetizers, by Martha Stewart; or Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy: Melt-in-your-mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich; or Crazy About Cookies: 300 Scrumptious Recipes for Every Occasion & Craving by Krystina Castella. Copies are available at the main desk.
At our last meeting, we voted on whether to have a cookie swap at the December meeting; the result was we will not have the swap. But, since it is our holiday meeting, how about a recipe grab-bag? Bring a favorite recipe (holiday or otherwise, sweet or savory), and we’ll put them all in a box, and everyone can draw one to take home and try. You can fold it up, roll it, or put it in an envelope– please feel free to get creative with your packaging. As always, this activity is optional.
May you all enjoy a bountiful Thanksgiving, and see you December 2nd!