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Drink Up: “The History of the World in Six Glasses”

Beer, yes, beer — has made history. And no, we’re not talking about the hazy stories told the morning after beer-soaked frat parties — we’re talking thousands of years of real history. Who knew that the bubbly, fermented beverage was once a form of currency in ancient Mesopotamia? Or that Egyptian mothers were urged to give beer to their children?

I feel like much was edited out of my history textbooks, likely the result of overzealous parents hoping to shield their innocent children from any book containing the word alcohol. But to censor alcohol is to censor history — the oldest forms of writing in several cultures include the intoxicating elixir. Fortunately, Tom Sandage’s book, “The History of the World in Six Glasses”, has filled in those critical gaps.

Sandage — the technology editor for the Economist — regales us with tales of how beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola have shaped history. And unlike your dry history books of yore, Sandage has full of cocktail party-worthy tidbits (and has any topic ever been more interesting for a cocktail party?) that keep you intrigued. Who knew, for instance, that tea began as a medicinal gruel in China, mixed in with garlic, shallots and ginger? Or that Coca-Cola was exempted from sugar rationing during World War II so that it could be sent abroad to the troops to keep up morale?

What’s funny is that while reading the book, you recognize that, well, some things haven’t changed. Greek and Roman wine buffs distinguished between wines of different regions and prided themselves on their knowledge. In ancient Rome, wine became a symbol of social differentiation, of status and class. “For wealthy Romans, the ability to recognize and name the finest wines was an important form of conspicuous consumption; it showed that they were rich enough to afford the finest wines and had spent time learning which was which.”

Hmmm… sounds to me quite a lot like modern readers of Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast!

My only complaint is that the book is too short. Sandage picks only several periods in history to highlight as he talks about the influences of these drinks when we well know that some of their influence stretches across different cultures and eras. For instance, how can you tell the story of coffee while mentioning modern coffee empires like Starbucks in only one line? Or how to talk about the history of wine without mentioning new regions like California, Chile and Argentina? Clearly, each of these drinks deserves a volume and it’s difficult to include everything, but all in all, the book is quite fun to read.

Some of my favorite facts (take these to your next wine-and-cheese — you’re sure to impress):

  • Coca-Cola still includes extracts from the koca plant, from which it was initially derived
  • In 1671, French doctors decried that coffee caused impotence and burned the blood (they did so at the behest of wine merchants who feared for their livelihood)
  • “Coca-Cola” is said to be the second most understood phrase in the world after “OK”
  • The word “alcohol” is derived from the Arabic “al-koh’l”; the Arabs became master distillers around 1000 A.D.
  • The first stockmarkets started in European coffehouses
  • The British began adding sugar and tea to their milk in order to mask the bitter and often adulterated beverage (merchants added loose leaves, ash, sawdust — even sheep’s dung to stretch the tea)
  • Sailors in the 1600 and 1700s were able to prevent scurvy by drinking “grog:” rum, lemon juice, water and spices on board
  • Greeks and Romans almost always drank their wine with water
 
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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Food Reads, Wine

 

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Tea Time


As hard as it is to believe, I’ve pretty much all but give up caffeine. For health reasons, I now eschew my hot steaming double espresso in the morning and occasionally turn to decaf. But mostly, I drink tea.

Joining the ranks for British (and many other cultures, including the Chinese and Japanese), I’ve become a tea lover. Fortunately, tea has seen a resurgence similar to coffee’s and you can find zillions of different kinds of teas out there. There are teas for all different kinds of moods — English Grey for the morning, green tea for the zen-like afternoons, herbal tea at night, Chai tea to accompany a scone or cookie.

I know a true tea aficionado would turn to loose leaf tea, but I’m simply too lazy to find the little special spoon or strainer to make it and prefer the bagged stuff. For those looking for some tea inspirations, here are my faves:


My friend Arin turned me onto the most amazing spiced tea out there — Yogi Tea’s Chai Redbush — which includes stevia, a natural sweetener, as well as cinnamon and a bunch of other spices. This red bush tea contains no caffeine, so it’s perfect for curling up with at night with a good episode of Sex and the City or the West Wing (my current obsession). Perfect with a splash of soymilk.

I love green tea. When I went to Japan, I drank it by the gallon. The coolest thing is that you could find bottled green tea everywhere, in all of their vending machines. Here in the States, I drink The Republic of Tea’s Double Green Matcha Tea. Crisp, fragrant and slightly grassy, this tea is perfect for a detox morning or a post-yoga afternoon.


When I’m having trouble sleeping at night and I’m tempted to take Lunesta or Ambien, I take Triple Leaf’s “Relaxing” tea. Chock-full of herbs, including valerian, chamomile and catnip, one warm cup at night really helps me wind down and get a good night’s sleep.

Other faves: Again, I’m partial to the Republic of Tea and love the Vanilla Almond (which does have caffeine) and the Ginger Lemongrass (which is a green tea).

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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