A Taste of the 18th Century: Spruce Gum

Here’s something to chew on: Outlander’s characters will encounter every major development in chewing gum.. from chewing resins in the 18th century, to chicle based gums during and prior to WWII, to the butadiene-based synthetic rubber which has been used to make gum since the 1960s… all within the first three books.

It must be a uniquely human thing to need something to grind your teeth on that isn’t edible because we’ve been chewing gum for some 5000 years.. archeologists found tooth prints in birch bark tar at a Neolithic excavation in Finland.  The Greeks chewed on Mastic Gum which is still so popular it is sold by Amazon, New Englanders, in the 18th century, adopted the Native American habit of chewing Spruce Gum, which led to the first commercial chewing gum (1848), a product called The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.

A decade later, in the 1860s, a modern chewing gum was developed from a natural gum called chicle, a sticky, sugary, substance collected from trees in Mexico and South America.  I don’t make this stuff up: Black Jack (1884) and Chiclets (1899) used chicle. Wrigleys used so much of the stuff that when Wrigleys adopted synthetic rubber as a gum base in the 1960s Guatemala was forced to develop an aide program for growers when the bottom fell out of their market.

Today Glee Gum  is the only product still using naturally harvested chicle.. so to experience the gum chewed by Roger, his father, Claire, and Frank… you’re going to have to get your hands on some Glee.

To get your hands on some Spruce Gum.. you’re going to have to harvest it yourself.

My grandmother, a woman who insisted nice girls didn’t chew gum, was the one who taught me to chew spruce gum.  When I was young you could still find spruce gum, usually sold as a novelty, available in small gift shops.  But the paper industry uses spruce trees, and the demand for spruce diminished the stock of trees available for resin harvest.  Our own woods were logged several years ago, and with the maple, birch, and beech.. went our spruce.

Spruce-Gum3So I was delighted to discover a spruce tree studded with dry resin the other day.  Spruce trees and I go way back.. way way back.  One of my first home business experiences was making Christmas wreaths for the New York City market.  The short version of the experience is “never again.”  The long version is here: Christmas Wreaths.

If I owned this property most of these spruces would be coming down.. they are getting too large, which means they are dropping heavy limbs, encroaching on the driveway, and (perish the thought) blocking a lovely view.  But they are also dripping and crusted with resin.

Click for a larger view of resins.

Click for a larger view of resins.

There’s two ways to enjoy spruce gum.. the first is right off the tree, the second is to process it into a clean and brittle slab.  I recommend the first.

To enjoy spruce gum right off the tree take a chunk of dry resin and pop it in your mouth. Roll it around to soften it, gently squeezing it with your teeth as it softens. Your mouth will be filled with wind and forest as the resin softens and develops into a lovely bit of chewing gum, a gift from time.. and a tree.

Spruce-Gum4Looking to share your newfound obsession with authentic experiences, but afraid your friends won’t be impressed with a handful of little lumps? You can create your own spruce gum in the kitchen… but don’t expect it to come out soft and squishy.  Spruce gum, whether it is right off the tree or processed in the kitchen resembles a hard candy, and must be held in the mouth to soften it.

No matter how you process resin it is going to involve ruining a pot, and is going to cost you at least 25% of your resin as it sticks to the pot and filtering cloth.  Which means you’re going to want to gather almost a pound of resin.  Personally, I think you should give your friends little chunks, and if there’s a bit of bark in the gum.. they can spit it out.  It adds to the authenticity of the experience.

But if you must filter out any bits of bark, and make something that looks.. like.. a stick of black resin..

Most online methods recommend adding a cup of water to your resin bits and liquifying them over low heat (in that pot you don’t care about), then pouring the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth or muslin (more trash) into a pan to cool.. when the resin is cool pour off the water and gently crack the spruce gum into bite size chunks.  Dust the chunks with corn starch and box up.  Consider tossing that pan, along with your pot.

If you must make yourself a year’s supply of processed Spruce Gum, or want to impress your friends with an 18th century holiday gift this year, consider using this method instead.. it makes a better looking gum:

Consider including some directions for enjoying Spruce Gum in your gift box too.  Otherwise you’re going to have some very confused friends.


Further Reading: One of my favorite books is now out of print.. but Abe Books periodically has copies: The Taste of Spruce Gum by Jacqueline Jackson

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