Tag Archives: John Montagu

Who the Hell Invented Gin Anyways?

If one does a brief check of the internet in order to discover who “invented” gin, the first thing one encounters is a vast series of misinformation and misunderstanding.  At least three different people get credit for creating gin, and there’s little evidence to support any of them. However, in the interest of fairness, I’ve decided to list them all here, and tell you who has the better shot of being credited with the popularity of the storied spirit.

  1. Franciscus Sylvius - 17th Century:  Born in Germany but lived in the Netherlands, Sylvius is often the first person given credit for gin’s creation. He’s also the less likely to actually have done so. An anatomist by trade, he is rightfully credited for defining and mapping parts of the brain.
  2. Sylvius de Bouve – 16th Century: Certainly a better candidate than “Brainy” Sylvius, de Bouve was a Flemish alchemist who actually worked with distillation and created a series of concoctions as medicine with this technique.
  3. Jacob van Maerlant – 13th Century: Another Dutch, van Maelant documented juniper based medicine in his series Der naturen bloeme, a 20 volume manuscript detailing the natural world.

Here’s the thing – None of these guys likely “invented” gin, any more than the John Montagu invented the sandwich*. Out of the three candidates above, only Sylvius de Bouve worked with distillation on a regular basis (although Franciscus Sylvius had access to labratories). The nature of the world back in the 1500′s and 1600′s was that the majority of people, including alchemists, were students of the oral tradition, and only the wealthy had access to books and manuscripts, and only the wealthy and upper middle classes had the resources to learn how to read.

Alchemy, from which genever very likely evolved, would have been known by more than a few people, and juniper was a common adjunct at the time, and added to various concoctions, including beer. Being a society based on the oral tradition, juniper infused alcohol that had been distilled could have occurred anywhere from Scotland to Switzerland. In fact, there is evidence that the whiskeys of the time (the unaged, white-lightning variety) were often flavored with one type of herb or another, up to and including the aforementioned juniper.

So why do I think de Bouve deserves some credit? Because it is very likely that he was the first to write  a variation of the recipe down, and then sell his concoction to great popularity. Similar to the case of Montagu, de Bouve became the de facto person known for  an already established product.

History is rarely as clean and tidy as having one person be responsible for the discovery of any one thing. Solo efforts are the exception, not the rule.  The history of gin follows that same rule.

(*NOTE:  Nothing is sillier to me than the idea that Montagu invented putting meat on bread and then eating it by hand. It discounts so many different cultures, including the history of Middle Eastern cuisine, that it surprises me that so many people accept the “invention” of the sandwich as fact.)


100 Greatest Moments in Food History? meh…

I realize that any “greatest” list making is a hackneyed ploy to get people debating/talking about the list rather than actually conveying anything resembling insight or knowledge. But let me suggest something…

If you’re going to write a list determining the “100 Greatest Moments in Food History“, it might help if the writer actually knew anything about food history.

Let’s take a look at the list for some quick examples… oh look! Item number 2!!

1762 The sandwich is created as gambler John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, calls for his dinner to be put between two slices of bread so he can continue his card game with one hand and eat with the other. Lunchtimes would never be the same again.

Let’s ignore the fact that the invention of the sandwich is the second most relevant even in food history, and instead point out that the idea of putting meat in between two slices of bread didn’t first happen in 1762. People had been doing it for centuries prior to Earl Montagu. It simply became socially acceptable for all classes to eat it once royalty had been seen ordering it.

Item 3-

1904 The hamburger, popular in the USA, is served at the St Louis World Fair – crucially, in a bun. It soon becomes the world’s favourite fast food. Some might suggest the burger’s impact has been greater than the sandwich’s; but where would it be without its bread/filling/ bread template?

According to the Los Angeles, CA Metropolitan New-Enterprise newspaper article, Old Menus Tell the History of Hamburgers in L.A., by Roger M. Grace:

From 1871-1884, “Hamburg Beefsteak” was on the “Breakfast and Supper Menu” of the Clipper Restaurant at 311/313 Pacific Street in San Fernando. It cost 10 cents—the same price as mutton chops, pig’s feet in batter, and stewed veal. It was not, however, on the dinner menu; “Pig’s Head” “Calf Tongue” and “Stewed Kidneys” were. (found here)

Item 11 –

1499 Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sails to India aboard the São Gabriel, with the aim of breaking the Venetian monopoly on the spice market. Da Gama’s seaborne route kick-starts an international trade in spices that bankrolls European expansionism for centuries to follow.

While this event is relevant in food history, the spice trade that instigated da Gama’s trip had a far more important affect upon history.

I could go on, but let me put in items that are missing from the list.

  • Man’s quest/need for salt. Simply put, any civilization that had limited to no access to salt (either through trade or production) was at a severe disadvantage developmentally when compared to those civilizations that had ready access.
  • Man’s discovery of fermentation has led to the development of the wine, beer, and spirits industries. It also has affected everything from tax codes to religious movements.
  • Britain’s quest for Tea and the “Honourable East India Company”, which was likely the first global corporation, before the idea of corporations was codified.
  • East Asia’s immigration to North America (and immigration in general) which introduced new foods to different parts of the world.

I’m sure I could think of others but instead I will leave it up to you readers out there. What, in your opinion, were the greatest moments in Food History?

Of Earls and Sandwiches

The usually-dependable Ask Yahoo! gives a wrong answer today. When answering the question “What is the origin of the word ‘sandwich‘?”, they give the following tidbit of trivia:

The food item has little to do with the town, but with John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. In fact, the first Earl of Sandwich (Edward Montagu) really wanted to call himself the Earl of Portsmouth, but for some reason, decided on Sandwich instead.

John Montagu didn’t shrink from enjoying life. It’s said that he was a corrupt, devil-worshiping sex fanatic who enjoyed gambling (he would have liked Vegas). The origin of the snack is attributed to his asking a waiter for meat between two slices of bread so he wouldn’t have to put his hand of cards down. Was he lazy or smart? Probably a little of both.

In actuality, meat and/or cheese on bread has been around since ancient times. As pointed out in the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture – “In fact, Montague was not the inventor of the sandwich; rather, during his excursions in the Eastern Mediterranean, he saw filled pita breads and small canapes and sandwiches served by the Greeks and Turks during their mezes, and copied the concept for its obvious conveninece.”

So why does the legend remain? Well for one, Montagu made it popular for the dish to be eaten by the upper class. From the gentleman’s clubs the finger food migrated into genteel society events such as a supper food for late night balls or finger food at low tea.

Plus, the legend has a bit of rebellous romance to it, what with Montagu being so involved with gambling, that he couldn’t be bothered to worry about a cooked meal.

But, officially? Montagu did NOT invent the sandwich. He merely popularized it amongst the upper crust – so to speak.

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Food Classism

One of the bigger secrets of food and food history is how laden it is with classism, the belief that upper class people are smarter and more articulate than working class and poor people, and have better taste. That belief permeates the restaurant world where a 30-dollar-a-plate restaurant is perceived to be of higher quality than the hamburger joint down the street.

Not only is this belief a bunch of hooey, but if you look closely at the history of food, you find out that this completely contradicts itself. Those high end Italian restaurants and Mexican restaurants have their traditions based in peasant food. Items like caviar, lobster and various cuts of meat have been at some point or another in their history have been seen as ‘lower class’ food as well as ‘upper-class’. And often, a food won’t be seen as fit for consumption until members of the upper class has embraced it.

Think I’m kidding? Quick, who invented the sandwich?

If you said the Earl of Sandwich (real name John Montagu), you would be…

WRONG! In reality, there is evidence that the working class of Europe had been putting meat on bread for quite sometime (as early as the 13th century). Montagu simply made the ‘sandwich’ acceptable to eat for the aristocrats.

Even more recently, the once lowly hamburger, which was once relegated to simple carts and cheap fast food chains, has now found a following by the upper crust. In New York, you can find hamburgers that cost 27, 59 and even 99 dollars. Sure, the 99 dollar hamburger is most likely a gimmick, but the 27 dollar burger has been well received enough that it is now popular and the invisible hand of the market has accepted it.

These are the thoughts that went through my mind when I read that Soul food has made it to the big leagues. Having eaten at Georgia Brown’s in Washington DC, I can attest to the fact that this sort of food translates very well when in the hands of an artisanal chef. But the irony is not lost. The history of soul food (or ‘Low country cuisine’ as it’s being hyped) is based on the food that either plantation owners discarded (think ham hocks and jowels) or African in origin (okra).

(Side Note: Ironically, the diet of a slave was often better than the plantation owner’s , as the “owners ate mostly fatty foods, with little or no vegetables and lots of sweets and alcohol that left them lethargic. The slaves needed to be strong and energetic to work the fields, so large vegetarian meals were encouraged and drinking discouraged. Ice tea and lemonade became typical drinks. .. from “The History of Soul Food“)

It’s interesting to watch what emerges as Haute Cuisine goes by the way side. As the American dining experience evolves, it’s clear that it has rejected the “meals for the few” for the idea of “meals from the many”. And Soul Food fits snuggly into that philosophy. Nouvelle Cuisine has found it’s inspiration in ‘High class’ peasant food. The question is how long until the next “big thing” takes place.