Where did I read this?
March 30, 2005 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Sorry to bug, but this is driving me crazy: I recently read a passage (in a novel, I think) where the narrator or one of the characters says that you can tell a lot about a culture based on what they drank to avoid dehydration before the advent of reliably potable water. (mi)

So for example the Chinese drank tea, the British drank lager, many African cultures drank milk or animal blood, etc. I could've sworn that I saw it in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle somewhere, but I've searched inside the book on Amazon and google oogled and found nothing. Does anybody recognize this idea? Thank you, AskMe!
posted by audrey the bug to Writing & Language (17 answers total)
I've read the quote too recently, and I also thought of Stephenson for whatever that's worth to you.

It wouldn't be the Baroque cycle though because I'm only just getting started on that. I thought it might have been in this interview with Stephenson in Reason, but a quick scan didn't turn it up.
posted by willnot at 9:20 AM on March 30, 2005

I think it might be in there, but I'm at work so I don't have access to it. Check out the sections in The Confusion that deal with the women's prison that Waterhouse converted to a punchcard factory....I think that's where it shows up, if it does.
posted by dragstroke at 9:22 AM on March 30, 2005

This blog entry references this Salon article and says it is from Stephenson, although not necessarily the Baroque Cycle, and the avoidance is of diarrhea, not dehydration. I googled " thirst culture Chinese tea dehydration baroque cycle". The relevant quote is on page 3 of the Salon article, and it's really brief. You've pretty much got it all already.
posted by donnagirl at 9:27 AM on March 30, 2005

It was from an interview with Stephenson in Salon
People get kidney stones still, but they don't seem to get bladder stones anymore. I asked a couple of people why, and you get a vague answer like "changes in diet" or what have you. I think they rarely drank water. They were just drinking alcoholic beverages all the time. Nobody in the world drank water, except maybe Indians and people who lived in really pristine places. That's kind of my pet theory: Every culture can be kind of defined by what they drink in order to avoid dying of diarrhea. In China it's tea. In Africa it's milk or animal blood. In Europe it was wine and beer.
posted by willnot at 9:28 AM on March 30, 2005

The British drank lager?

I don't recall this, and I've read the bulk of his stuff. It doesn't sound like him to be honest, but I'd look towards an interview or System of the World if you're sure.
posted by Leon at 9:31 AM on March 30, 2005

Response by poster: Salon interview! Thank you very much willnot and donnagirl.
posted by audrey the bug at 9:39 AM on March 30, 2005

if it was stephenson, it must have been cryptonomicon, because it rings a bell with me, and that's all i've read of him lately. more likely it's just a meme that's been around a while, no?

the british drank beer, afaik, until gin became cheaply available. then there was something of a crisis :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 9:58 AM on March 30, 2005

The british drank ale not lager, but the relevance of a distinction based on yeast varieties and fermentation temperatures seems minimal here.
posted by Mark Doner at 10:02 AM on March 30, 2005

Note: Central/Southern Americans drank unsweetened cocoa. Who first drank coffee? Arabians?
posted by NickDouglas at 10:16 AM on March 30, 2005

One of the interesting historical changes in American culture was the switch in beverage soon after the European colonists settled here. Early colonists, being mostly British, drank ale or "small beer" (ale mixed with water). Soon, though, they switched over to cider, which was much easier to cultivate and process on this side of the Atlantic, and didn't require abundant quanitites of grain, which was better used for food and livestock. The reason Johnny Appleseed became such a hero was not so that people could keep the doctor away with a cruncy, wholesome apple for eating, but so that they could move to and settle areas already provided with cider apples, making habitation more possible. And in fact, you can tell a lot about American culture by examining this story.

For more, see Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire.
posted by Miko at 10:18 AM on March 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Or crunchy, even.
posted by Miko at 10:19 AM on March 30, 2005

I think coffee comes from Ethiopia, NickDouglas.
posted by librarina at 10:29 AM on March 30, 2005

Why didn't they just boil the watter?
posted by delmoi at 10:34 AM on March 30, 2005

Fuel efficiency, delmoi. Most traditional cultures (native American aside) did not have access to abundant sources of wood as fuel. In fact, wood was one of the resources tightly controlled by feudal lords throughout the preindustrial world.
posted by Miko at 10:36 AM on March 30, 2005

I remember going to a colonial museum and in the bedroom was a big vat for rum in case someone got thirsty, etc. It honestly made me wonder if our forefathers were ever sober.
posted by xammerboy at 10:56 AM on March 30, 2005

You can't drink animal blood in any kind of volume. It's full of nitrogenous compounds that'll make you puke.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:22 PM on March 30, 2005

Why didn't they just boil the water?

I'm not sure the connection between boiling water and health was very well known. It was known very early (mentioned in a hindi text 4000BC, and by a persian philosopher in the 11th century), according to this fascinating site, but I bet it wasn't very well known until Francis Bacon's experiments in the 1600s. No one knew what it actually did until the discovery of the microscope. Also, I think that very bad but boiled water still tastes very bad.
posted by advil at 2:35 PM on March 30, 2005

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