Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How To Drink Mint.

You know how, sometimes, when you are looking for recipes for milk drinks, you end up about as far away from that wholesome white beverages that it is possible to be? You don’t? That sort of thing happens to me all the time.

Anyway, I started with milk and ended up with mint julep, which, as I am sure you know, is deeply linked with the Deep South of the US of A. I came across, in my meanderings, the words of the English naval officer and novelist Captain Frederick Marryat (1782-1848) on this beverage. In the late 1830’s the Captain spent a couple of years in Canada and the United States (1837-39), and afterwards he recorded his impressions in A Diary In America (1839). Essentially, he wrote the post for me by including history and quotations on the topic, as well as a recipe, so here it is.

“I must, however, descant a little upon the mint-julep, as it is, with the thermometer at 100o, one of the most delightful and insinuating potions that ever was invented, and may be drank with equal satisfaction when the thermometer is as low as 70o. There are many varieties, such as those composed of Claret, Madeira, &c; but the ingredients of the real mint-julep are as follows. I learned how to make them, and succeeded pretty well. Put into a tumbler about a dozen sprigs of tender shoots of mint, upon them put a spoonful of white sugar, and equal proportions of peach and common brandy, so as to fill it up one third, or perhaps a little less. Then take rasped or pounded ice, and full up the tumbler. Epicures rub the lips of the tumbler with a piece of fresh pineapple, and the tumbler itself is very often incrusted outside with stalactites of ice. As the ice melts, you drink. I once overheard two ladies talking in the next room to me, and one of them said, “Well, if I have a weakness for any one thing, it is for a mint-julep –” a very amiable weakness, and proving her good sense and good taste. They are in fact, like the American ladies, irresistible.
The Virginians claim the merit of having invented this superb compound, but I must dispute it for my own county, although it has been forgotten of late. In the times of Charles I and II it must have been known, for Milton expressly refers to it in his Comus:-

“Behold the cordial julep here
Which flames and dances in its crytal bounds
With spirits of balm and fragrant syrups mixed.
Not that Nepenthes, which the wife of Thone
In Egypt gave to Jove-born Helena
Is of such power to stir up joy like this,
To life so friendly, or so cool to thirst.

If that don’t mean mint-julep, I don’t know the English language. The following lines, however, which I found in an American newspaper, dates its origin very far back, even to the period when the heathen gods were not at a discount as they are now.

“’Tis said that the gods, on Olympus of old,
(And who, the bright legend profanes, with a doubt,)
One night, midst their revels, by Bacchus were told
That his last butt of nectar had somewhat run out!

But determined to send round the goblet once more,
They sued to the fairer immortals for aid
In composing a draught which, till drinking were o’er,
Should cast every wine ever drank in the shade.

Grave Cerce herself blithely yielded her corn,
And the spirit that lives in each amber-hued grain,
And which first had its birth from the dews of the morn,
Was taught to steal out in bright dew drops again.

Pomona, whose choicest of fruits on the board,
Were scattered profusely in every one’s reach,
When called on a tribute to cull from the board,
Expressed the mild juice of the delicate peach.

The liquids were mingled while Venus looked on
With glances so fraught with sweet-magical power,
That the honey of Ilybla, e’en when they were gone,
Has never been missed in the draught from that hour.

Flora, then, from her bosom of fragrance shook,
And with roseate fingers pressed down in the bowl,
As dripping and fresh as it came from the brook,
The herb whose aroma should flavour the whole.

The draught was delicious, each god did exclaim,
Though something yet wanting they all did bewail,
But Julep the drink of immortals became,
When Jove himself added a handful of hail.

Is there any support for Capt. Marryat’s claim for an English origin for mint-julep? He quotes the poet John Milton (1608-1674) as evidence for his claim, but in fact the word had already been in use in England for several centuries before Milton’s time, so well before the ‘discovery’ of America by Europeans.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites its use in a medical manuscript in the year 1400 to support its first definition of the word as ‘A sweet drink prepared in different ways; often, simply a liquid sweetened with syrup or sugar, and used as a vehicle for medicine; sometimes, a medicated drink used as a demulcent, ‘comforting’, or gently stimulating mixture.’ Mint, like so many herbs, has a very long history of medicinal use, so it is possible if not probable that juleps were made with mint in medieval times in England. Note that this definition however, does not include alcohol.

The OED’s second definition of the word is ‘U.S. A mixture of brandy, whisky, or other spirit, with sugar and ice and some flavouring, usually mint,’ and the first supporting quotation is from 1804. So, it seems that sometime between colonisation and the early nineteenth century this sweet English medicinal potion became a sweet American alcoholic potion. Evolution happens, my friends.


Shay said...

The mint julep comes neither from England nor Virginia. The mint julep comes from Kentucky. End of story.

The Old Foodie said...

Shay - I both hoped and feared that I was provoking a fierce "authenticity" debate! Wonder what other claims will come in - for both origin and "real" recipe.