Birthdays—at my age, they are just another day in our gradual and inevitable march through time, but my one pleasure in marking my incremental increase in years is eating cake. Cake is my favorite food, and I’ve mentioned it in other blogs before, but since …
So what does history really taste like? As you can read from Susan’s event preview blog post, this past week we hosted a 1860s MSU-inspired meal based on archival and archaeological research. This event took place through the collaboration of Campus Archaeology and the MSU …
Today is the day! Campus Archaeology is throwing it wayy back with an 1860’s-inspired three-course meal. For my blog post this week, I thought I’d get into the spirit of historic food and drink with a little history—and some of my own, highly professional market research—on ginger beer.
Archaeology provides a unique opportunity to look at the physical evidence of past consumption. At MSU, archival documents tell us the official records of what the school bought for students and faculty to eat and drink. However, we can learn about what people were actually consuming on campus by looking at the archaeological record of things they threw away. This is how we learned that at least one thing people drank was ginger beer, as evidenced by a stone ginger beer bottle excavated from Saints’ Rest dormitory in 2005.
Ginger beer was a popular drink in Britain and North America from the 18th century until Prohibition. Technically speaking, ginger beer is not a beer. Whereas the production of beer involves the fermentation of a grain (typically barley or wheat) malted to turn its starch into sugar, ginger beer involves the fermentation of ginger and added sugar, typically molasses or cane sugar. Ginger beer is more likely related to the ‘small beers’ popular in Europe from Medieval times until Industrialization. Before the advent of sodas and modern soft drinks, these weakly alcoholic, fermented beverages were typically brewed at home and provided a safer alternative to often-contaminated water.
Why make a ginger drink? Humans have been drinking ginger beverages for thousands of years, often for medicinal purposes. However, the history of ginger beer is tied to the cultural and economic importance of its two main ingredients, ginger and sugar. Ginger and sugarcane, crops native to tropical regions of South Asia, were introduced to Europe via the spice trade. Europeans brought these crops and others to the New World, where they flourished in the tropical climates of the Caribbean. Powered by the labor of enslaved Africans, French- and English-controlled Caribbean plantations became the world’s biggest sugarcane producers. By 1655, England also controlled Jamaica, the Caribbean’s most prolific producer of ginger, with over two million pounds exported to Europe each year. Jamaican ginger was considered especially flavorful and was a prized ingredient in ginger beer.
Apart from ginger and sugar, ginger beer has two other traditional ingredients: lemon, and a special microorganism that aids in fermentation. The microorganisms responsible for the fermentation in ginger beer are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (a SCOBY) known by the more innocuous name of “ginger beer plant.” A culture of ginger beer plant is added to sugar water flavored with ginger. These microorganisms ingest the sugars and produce carbon dioxide and low levels of alcohol as waste products. While today’s ginger beers are typically non-alcoholic, prior to the mid-19th century, ginger beer was up to 11% alcohol by volume. In 1855, British Parliament passed an act that imposed export taxes on beverages with an alcohol content above 2%. After this, most ginger beer brewers reduced the alcohol content in their products (via reduction of the fermentation time) in order to keep them affordable.
After it was brewed, ginger beer was corked inside stoneware bottles, like the one found at Saints’ Rest. Early stoneware bottles and those brewed locally in North America at were usually fairly plain, brown in color, and etched with the bottler’s name or city. The Saints’ Rest bottle seems to fit into this category. Beginning in the 1880s, however, sleeker gray bottles with colorful shoulder slips and stamped logos designed to attract consumer attention became more popular.
Part of the reason for packaging in stone rather than glass bottles was cosmetic: ginger beer was usually unattractively cloudy in appearance. However, packaging was also functionally important in the export of ginger beer. England shipped large amounts of ginger beer to the U.S. and Canada beginning in the 1790s through the 19th century. Though ginger beer was brewed regionally, England maintained market dominance in North America because English breweries used superior quality stoneware bottles that better maintained ginger beer’s effervescence and kept it cold. The bottles were sealed with liquid- and gas-tight Bristol Glaze and wired and corked shut to maintain carbon dioxide in solution.
During Prohibition, ginger beer dipped in popularity in favor of its cousin, ginger ale, and other soft drinks. Unlike traditional ginger beer, ginger ale is made by adding ginger flavoring and sweetener to carbonated water and does not involve the addition of a microorganism. Today, the difference between ginger beer and ginger ale is much less clear. Many modern manufacturers use this abiotic process to make or enhance ginger beer, adding flavoring and carbonation without the use of a microorganism. For this reason, modern ginger beers differ from ginger ales primarily in flavor; they are typically spicier and less sweet than ginger ales.
All this research got me excited to try some ginger beers. Naturally, Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright and I had to do our own taste test, you know, for science. We picked four brands of ginger beer that I hadn’t yet tried at stores near us: Regatta, Barritt’s, Q, and Bundaberg. We tasted each ginger beer alone and for science—and because #gradschool—we added vodka and lime to make some Moscow Mules.
In no particular order, the first brand we tried was Regatta. It was spicy with a strong ginger flavor and made an enjoyable cocktail. Barritt’s was up next. This one was much less flavorful so it seemed disproportionally sweet, like a ginger ale. Third, we tried the Bundaberg. This was spicy and sweet and definitely enjoyable alone. Last, we tried Q ginger beer: spicy, very fizzy, but not at all sweet. According to the Q website, it is made with chili pepper and is specifically intended to be used as a mixer. Our highly scientific and definitive ranking put the Bundaberg in first place, Regatta in second, Q in close third, and Barritt’s in fourth.
If you have a favorite ginger beer, please tell us about it! We hope you open one up and think about early MSU students who might have enjoyed a ginger beer in their dorm after a long day of classes and farm work (although this was probably enjoyed in secret as alcohol was banned on campus).
Author: Mari Isa
As I’m sure any of our regular readers are aware, CAP has been looking into the foodways of the early MSU campus this year. Our ultimate goals for the project were to create a website documenting early foodways on campus, and to recreate an 1860’s …
It’s official… the fish skeletal material recovered from the Saint’s Rest privy, the toilet associated with the first dormitory on campus contained walleye! Walleye are the largest member of the perch family and can be caught in shallow bays and inland lakes. As there are …
During Susan Kooiman and I’s research on the early foodways of MSU’s campus, we scoured our way through a number of purchasing records in the MSU Archives. After Susan’s blog post on the seasonality of food purchased, we realized that it might be interesting to see if there were any patterns of meat purchasing through time! To accomplish this, I reorganized all of our data from the 1861 to 1874 archival records by meat type (i.e. ham, chicken, salt pork, lamb, whitefish, etc.). While we have a few lost years, 1864-1866, I was able to see a few changes through this period of time.
In the beginning, during the early 1860s, the purchasing records were very specific, not only recording that MSU purchased “fresh fish”, but the specific species as well, including trout and whitefish (sometimes even listed as Lake Superior White fish; read more about this here). Through the entire period I analyzed, they also recorded specific cuts of meat, instead of just beef or pork. The types of meat that were listed in detail include bacon, beef shanks, coined beef, beef steak, beef roast, corned beef, shoulder, salt pork, and salt beef.
While there are no clear patterns of changes in purchasing preferences in these early years, the records became much more difficult to interpret during the late 1860s into the 1870s. During the 1870s, it becomes more vague, sometimes only listing from whom the meat was purchased from and not always including the type of cut or even species! This lack of detail makes it much more difficult to recover any changes in meat purchasing and use over time, meaning that other means of gathering information, such as the bones themselves, will be critical for looking at meat use over time at MSU.
While I am unable to uncover any changes in meat use at this time, I did find a few fun entries in the purchasing records as I was compiling the data. The first comes from 1867, citing the specific purchasing of meat from the MSU farms. While it doesn’t say what type of species, it is one of the few accounts that we have come across that specifically cites the purchasing of meat from our very own farms! Second, lists the purchasing of chickens in 1869, not for everyday consumption, but for winter commencement. Commencement would have been one of the larger events held on campus every year, so the college had to buy a lot of food specifically for this event. Lastly, one of my personal favorites, were listings over multiple years for the purchase of steak as well as beef and pork roast, not for the boarding halls, but for President T.C. Abbot. The purchasing records do not list the occasions that the meat was destined for, but from the pounds of meat purchased each month, one may assume that it was purchased for sharing at small functions… unless President Abbot really loved his steak.
Author: Autumn Painter
MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. “Agricultural boarding hall”
MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 82. Folder 11, Box 2531. Collection UA17.107. “Cash Account with Boarding Hall”
MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 108. Folder 11, Box 2533. Collection UA17.107. “Cash Account With Boarding Hall”
MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 32. UA17.107. “Accounts 1867-1873”
As part of her research on historic campus cuisine, CAP Fellow Susan Kooiman visited the MSU Library’s Special Collections Department to peruse their collection of historic cookbooks. As you can (and should!) read about in her blog post, she came across several interesting recipes while …
We are continuing our quest to chronicle historic campus cuisine, so I hope you are starving for more information. I have recently been exploring cookbooks from the latter half of the nineteenth century to get a feel for the kinds of recipes and dishes that …
The analysis of animal bones from historic MSU involves more than the identification of species. While it is important to determine the species that were being consumed, we are also very interested in the specific portions of animals that were being purchased and produced by MSU. Not only was MSU purchasing meat from local vendors, but, as an agricultural school, they also were butchering animals raised on campus. It is possible to determine what cuts of meat were being produced and consumed on campus from analyzing the faunal material uncovered during archaeological excavations. However, there is an added level of difficulty in this type of analysis. While animals were being butchered on campus, they were not being processed by professionals. Instead, MSU students were being trained on how to butcher and process meat from the campus farms. How do we know this you ask? Well, there are photographs in the MSU archives that show the butchering of animals, but we can also learn from studying the animal bones themselves. They allow us to see the many different cuts and angles present that suggest that the individual who was processing the meat was learning where and how to make specific types of cuts (AKA like student drivers, student butchers could not stay in their lane).
So how can we tell different meat cuts apart by looking at the animal bones? Not only can we talk to current butchers, there are countless books on the subject going back through time for butchering processes and preferred cuts. Below are some images that depict various meat cuts on different animal species. Through comparisons between the actual bones recovered and the illustrations of the types of bones that are the result of different cuts of meat, we can figure out what types of meat cuts were the most preferred on campus at the time.
Another factor that needs to be considered while conducting this type of analysis is the preference for specific meat cuts through time and by region throughout the United States and the world! Even today there are certain types of meat that are very popular in one area of the United States, but that cannot be found in another. For example, tri-tip in California is a very popular cut of beef from the bottom sirloin for barbecuing, however, in the Midwest, it is almost impossible to find in a grocery store! However, by understanding the skeletal anatomy of each species, archaeologists are able to determine what types of meat cuts were being produced and/or consumed during the Early Period of MSU’s history.
Using all of this information, I will continue working on the faunal analysis from the Early Period of MSU’s history. After the faunal (animal) bone analysis is complete, I will be able to compare the meat cuts found within the archaeological record to the meat cuts listed within the MSU Archives detailing the purchasing records for the boarding halls.
Author: Autumn Painter
The Meat Book: A consumer’s guide to selecting, buying, cutting, storing, freezing, & carving the various cuts by Travers Moncure Evans and David Greene .
Meat Cuts and muscle foods: an international glossary by Howard J. Swatland .
Last semester I focused much of my attention on the account books from the boarding halls (i.e, dining halls) during the Early Period of MSU history. The books cover a period from 1866 to 1874, during which the school was known as the State Agricultural …