The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

The dark history of food and drink

By in Features

There are some peculiar backstories, hidden histories, strange mysteries and even the origins of urban legends hiding in your bars and cupboards. Take a look back in time at cocktail cures, poisoned candy and the off-label uses for popular breakfast cereal.

Raise Your Spirits

Gin and tonic

This good old British beverage — a splash of lime, herby gin and bubbly tonic — has been a staple in bars for about 100 years. But what are the murky origins of this drink? Well, the popular mid-range gin Bombay Sapphire answers part o f that question. One look at the label and you will no­tice the hallmarks of the imperial British rule, down to its India-inspired name and stark portrait of Queen Victoria.

Flickr / Richard

The G&T was created by the British East India Com­pany during the occupation of the country in the nineteenth century. It was a tasty way for the colo­nist Brits to safe-guard themselves from malaria.

Tonic water was originally created not as a mix for your favourite clear booze, but as an antimalarial treatment. The “tonic” portion of the water comes from dissolved quinine, a bitter substance that’s found in cinchona tree bark used to treat malaria for centuries. Mixing it in water was a better way to con­sume the terrible tasting drug. A splash of gin and a squeeze of lime made it even more palatable.

The tonic water we consume today is still made with quinine, but in much lower doses. It won’t protect you from malaria, but if you’ve ever drank the stuff under a black light you will see that it glows bright blue — the UV light makes the quinine fluoresce.

Medicinal whiskey

G&Ts aren’t the only medicinal drink of the past — plain old whiskey has a long history of being used to treat cold and flu symptoms. The hot toddy, which is lemon and honey ‘tea’ with a splash of bourbon, is still a popular comfort drink to get you through your latest respiratory illness.

But in the early 1900s, medicinal whiskey was a popular item during prohibition and could be purchased with a prescription from your local pharmacist.

In 1918, when the Spanish flu hit North America, medicinal whiskey and other alcoholic drinks were hailed as a way to keep the disease at bay. Pharmacists in Saskatoon handed out up to eight ounce prescriptions. This idea of medicinal alcohol may have been attributed to an on-campus incident during the pandemic. The University of Saskatchewan was quarantined during the influenza outbreak, and it is reported that two pharmacy students drank cocktails of methyl alcohol, poured from the chemistry lab taps.

While whiskey’s medici­nal benefits are up for debate, there is no doubt that methyl alcohol will seriously mess you up. One of the students died and the other lost his sight. It is said that to avoid scandal, University President Walter Murray convinced the young man’s father and the coroner to document the official cause of death as influenza.

Other tonics of interest

Coca-Cola and 7 Up were pharmacy-marketed con­coctions.

Coca-Cola was created by biochemist and wounded confederate soldier John Pemberton, who found him­self addicted to morphine after the Civil War. “Nerve tonics” were all the rage then and Pemberton was de­termined to create a drink that would help him kick the narcotics and improve his health. This is where the “cocaine” in Coca-Cola story rings true — cocaine was considered the wonder drug of choice in the late 1800s.

Originally, 7 Up was known as Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Sodas and the name gives away its secret medicinal ingredient — lithium to “raise the spirits.” Lithium is still a commonly used medica­tion to effectively treat bipolar disorder. It was removed from the drink in 1948.

Flickr / army.arch

Witches brew?

Beer has a long history that dates back to an­tiquity, but one of its most interesting historical facts comes from the Middle Ages, which may be our origin story for contemporary witches. Brewing was traditionally a woman’s work, and in the 1300s, they were referred to as alewives. Often single or wid­owed, these women brewed beer over black cauldrons, wearing tall black hats to advertise their beer and stand out of the crowd.

Alewives often owned alehouses, a place where their brews were made and served. To signal that they were open for business, they would hang a broomstick out­side the doorway.

The brewing and drinking business picked up after the Black Death devastated Europe, when people be­gan to gather more frequently at alehouses. Men saw an opportunity for a lucrative career in brewing and began to slander the alewives, pushing them out of the business. Larger pubs opened up and men solidified themselves in the business.

Somewhere along the way, the classic cartoon witch adopted the alewives’ uniforms.

A Poisoned Past

Deadly sweet

Each year, we hear about poisoned Halloween candy, but these stories rarely, if ever, materialize into something con­crete. Where does the fear of poisoned candy come from?

Well, it may have something to do with the Bradford sweets poisoning seeping into our collective conscious­ness. On Oct. 30, 1858, in the village of Bradford, England, nearly 200 people fell ill and 21 died after a deadly mis­take was made in the candy-making process of shop owner Humbug Billy’s most popular treat.

Instead of 12 pounds of a filler known as ‘daft,’ 12 pounds of arsenic was added to the batch of peppermint candies. The arsenic wasn’t labeled properly and was grabbed by mistake during a supply purchase.

As children began to fall ill, it was thought that they were dying of cholera, but it soon became apparent that many in the town had been poisoned.

Each sweet contained enough arsenic to kill two people.

Bad apples

Snow White falls into a deep sleep after taking a bite of a poisoned apple. While this fairy tale fruit was delivered by the Evil Queen, disguised as a wicked witch, apples have a deadly secret at their core.

Cyanide, one of the most famous poisons in recent his­tory, hides inside the tiny innocuous apple seed. Now, the dose is what makes the poison — meaning that an apple seed isn’t going to harm you. But 200 seeds or 40 apples may be enough to strike you down.

Apples aren’t the only ones. Most stone fruits — peaches, plums and cherries — contain cyanide in the pit. A single cherry pit contains enough cyanide to knock you down if the pit is cracked open and eaten. In 2017, a man in the UK cracked open and ate the “almond-like texture” of three pits. He had to be treated in hospital for cyanide poisoning.

A wholesome breakfast

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes have been a breakfast staple for generations, but this crunchy cereal got its start as the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century medical spa. Imagine the movie A Cure for Wellness but with less tentacles.

John Harvey Kellogg was the head of this wellness retreat and wanted a bland digestible breakfast item that would be easy for his guests to digest — improving their health. The corn flake was born.

Kellogg didn’t just think that bland food was good for your physical health, he thought that it would benefit your spiritual health as well. Staunchly against masturbation, Kellogg thought that bland foods, like corn flakes, would stop this “sinful” activity.


Erin Matthews/ Opinions Editor

Photos: Flickr / Richard, Flickr / army.arch, Wellcome Images

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