Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Black Drink

"The Black Drink" was a holy ritual beverage fermented and brewed by ancient tribes in the Southeastern United States, especially Florida and Georgia. Each tribe had its own special formula, but the concept seemed to coexist simultaneously amongst many different groups of Native Americans. The predominant ingredient in its mixture of herbs was roasted leaves and stems of Ilex vomitoria, or Yaupon Holly.

The Black Drink was served in large communal cups, sometimes made from whelk shells and sometimes in ornately decorated ceremonial vessels. According to ethnologists who claim to know such things, tribal councils were served the sacred drink in order of the precedence of individuals present, with important visitors getting the first taste. Some scholars say the practice was to induce ritual vomiting, while other accounts make no mention of it.

According to Wikipedia:

The yaupon leaves and branches used for the black drink were picked as close to the time of its planned consumption as possible. After picking they were lightly parched in a ceramic container over fire. The roasting makes the caffeine soluble, which is the same reason coffee is roasted. After browning, they were boiled in large containers of water until the liquid reached a dark brown or black color, giving it its name. The liquid was then strained into containers to cool, until it was cool enough to not scald the skin, and drunk while still hot. Because caffeine is 30 times more soluble in boiling water than room temperature water, this heightened its effect. It was then consumed in a ritual manner. Its physiological effects are mainly those of massive doses of caffeine. Three to six cups of strong coffee is equal to 0.5 to 1.0 grams of caffeine; the black drink could have delivered at least this much and possibly up to 3.0 to 6.0 grams of caffeine.

In 1696, Jonathan Dickinson personally witnessed the Black Drink ritual as practiced among the Ais people of Eastern Florida. According to Dickinson, lower status men, women and children were not allowed to touch or taste the beverage. The chief and his associates sat around enjoying their Black Drink, smoking cigars and pipes, and ruminating amongst themselves for most of the day. By nightfall, the bowl that had held the beverage had been covered with skin to make a drum, and they then drummed, sang and danced until the wee hours of the night.

Analysis of relics found on Terra Ceia Island indicate that the Black Drink ritual was performed here as well. The New York Times noted in 2012 that "as recently as the Civil War, Southerners were known to use the black drink as a pick-me-up", though I am having trouble finding anything to back up this assertion myself. I do think it's interesting that our modern society developed an obsession with our own Black Drink, Coca-Cola,, and that my own love for weird herbal liqueurs like Jagermeister and Zwack seem also to resonate with this ancient tradition.


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