Wangensteen at Café Scientifique

Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation

By Rachel Hawkins

Lois Hendrickson and Emily Beck
Lois Hendrickson and Emily Beck

The history and health benefits of fermentation and distillation seemed like an appropriate topic for a happy hour lecture at Bryant Lake Bowl.

And so, last fall the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine’s Lois Hendrickson and Emily Beck did just that, presenting Cafe Scientifique: Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation.  

To a full house, the pair shared how they drew inspiration for the Wangensteen Library’s current exhibit, Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation.  The exhibit runs through May 2016.

About Café Scientifique

The Café Scientific presentation is available for viewing on YouTube and can be downloaded as a podcast through iTunes.

Café Scientifique, sponsored by the Bell Museum of Natural History and held at Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, is a happy hour forum for science and culture, drawing connections between scientific research, culture, environment, and everyday life.

Audience members appeared to enjoy hearing Hendrickson and Beck explain how fermentation and distillation have been employed by people throughout the centuries in an effort to make themselves healthier.

“Many of the early books in the Wangensteen Library’s collection highlight medicines that either use fermented and distilled drinks as bases for medicines, or show how to make fermented or distilled drinks simply as medicines,” said Hendrickson, curator of the Wangensteen Historical Library.

Production at Home: Pickles and Mad Dogs

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At the beginning of the presentation, Beck, Ph.D. candidate in the Program for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, discussed that in the 19th century beer and wine were often brewed at home and the practice was seen as a typical homemaking skill.

“Even when beer and winemaking moved out of the home and into industrial production facilities, people continued to make their own at home for their health care,” she said.

Beck also explained why alcohol was considered healthy and how water was widely mistrusted because it made people sick – think about the massive 1854 cholera outbreak in London.

“The boiling of the liquid in the fermentation process would kill bacteria dangerous for consumption,” said Beck, adding that the calories from the fermented grains and fruits were an important part of the early modern diet. “So when the recipe says, ‘a good cheap beer for every poor family,’ the kids are included in the consumption equation.”

Fermentation: The Romance of the Holes in Bread

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Hendrickson talked about fermentation, focusing on The Romance of the Holes in Bread (written by I.K. Russel and published in 1924) and the work of Louis Pasteur.

“It’s an example of the influence of fermentation on human life and of the influence of Louis Pasteur’s research on fermentation on the scientific and culinary community.”

Russel’s explanation for the romance in the holes in bread, she said, comes from a young farmer’s complaint that wheat is “solid and whole” but “the consumer’s bread is mostly full of holes.”  

In fact, Russel recognized the significance of Pasteur’s discoveries of the principles of microbial fermentation and pasteurization.

“The Modern World exists,” he wrote, “in much that separates it from the Ancient World, upon an incident that occurred during the study of what causes the holes in bread.”

Distillation: Distilling the Essence

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Scents were often used to cure a number of illnesses. 

“In order to protect themselves, plague doctors in the 17th century wore these huge beak-like masks so they could stuff the ends with aromatic plants like cloves and mint,” Beck told the audience.

“In a time when the most significant medicines were derived from the virtues of plants, distillation was a powerful way to make more and more potent cures,” she said. 

“A tea made from rosemary simply wasn’t as powerful as essence of rosemary.”

Distillation, a process of separating components from a liquid mixture by selective evaporation and condensation, became a technique widely used to make medicines.  

In Sickness or in Health? 

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In every century, Beck explained, there have been debates about whether alcoholic products, or alcohol itself, helps or harm consumers.

The debate, she said, rages on. 

“The major shift we see from our books is that with advancing biological science, authors became more concerned with alcohol rather than what was in the alcohol.”

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