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How rum changed the world: Morris Library's food history presentation

Food historian Cynthia Clampitt gives a presentation Tuesday night at the Morris Area Public Library called “How Rum Changed the World,” about the intriguing history of the liquor.
Food historian Cynthia Clampitt gives a presentation Tuesday night at the Morris Area Public Library called “How Rum Changed the World,” about the intriguing history of the liquor.

MORRIS – A presentation by food historian Cynthia Clampitt on Tuesday night at the Morris Area Public Library focused on the role the liquor rum played in history in her presentation, titled “How Rum Changed the World.”

“Rum has had a wider impact on history than any other alcohol,” Clampitt said to a group gathered in the library auditorium.

Molasses was known as the waste product of sugar, and without sugar cane the world might not have discovered that fermenting molasses could make rum.

Rum rose to prominence as a big part of the spice trade in the 1100s, Clampitt said, and possessing it meant you might be in a good financial position. 

At that time, Clampitt said, people consumed more sugar per person than they do now, even when realizing it could rot their teeth. Dark teeth were signs of wealth.

“People in Elizabethan England colored their teeth black because they wanted to appear rich,” Clampitt said.

Audience member Nancy Limbach thought that fact stood out.

“It’s interesting how values change over time, but that was important to them,” Limbach said.

Surprised by the historical significance of rum and how it seemed to weave through history, Limbach said she enjoyed the presentation. She said it stayed on topic.

“She was a really good speaker,” Limbach said.

Not only was rum once a sign of wealth, it was believed, like most alcohol, to have health benefits, Clampitt said.

“Europeans used it heavily, believing it could treat disease, sickness, and more,” she said.

But at 160 proof in the early stages, rum actually was quite strong and dangerous.

Admiral Edward Vernon, an English naval officer in the 1700s, noticed a high death rate in his military associated with use of 160 proof rum.

He decided to mix it with water, which at sea, had poor taste after a while.

The poor taste was remedied with the addition of sugar or lime juice, a first for rum. Rum has advanced in quality, since then, she said.

“The worst rum you could buy now would be better than the best rum back then,” Clampitt said.

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To see a video of the presentation at the Morris Library on rum's evolution and role in history, click here.