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Monday, October 31, 2011

Praise the Laud!



If  you should find yourself  suffering a spot of the “bloody flux” (dysentery) and you reach the point where your diarrhea is so bad you reasonably expect to die (as 700,000 do each year, according to the World Health Organization), then you ought to have these ingredients on hand to whip up some Laudanum, or as it’s also known, Tincture of Opium. Of course, you’d be long gone by the time it’s fermented for 20 days by the fire, but if you were sensible and knew dysentery was making the rounds, you’d have some already prepared.

But, I hear you scoff, they don’t sell opium at my local pharmacy counter.

Well, you’re not going to the right one. Because Tincture of Opium was marketed and distributed prior to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, it is grandfathered in as and “unapproved” but legal substance. It is still used to wean newborns off drugs received in the womb, and for exceptionally bad cases of the runs.

Laudanum was a very popular drug back in the 1800s, forming the basis of a great many patent medicines whose ingredients could remain a mystery. All that changed in 1906, when new rules made accurate labeling a requirement for sale. Dysentery was also fairly common, given the deplorable state of toilets and lack of hand washing. People relied on laudanum to treat almost anything, which if it failed to actually cure the ailment, certainly assuaged the symptoms (at least temporarily). Because it was a classified as a medicine it was not taxed as an alcoholic beverage, which meant that it was cheaper than a bottle of wine, and thus became the first working class drug.

Like any good drug, however, it was used and abused by everyone. Laudanum addicts could be found everywhere — Mary Todd Lincoln loved the stuff.

This recipe is for Sydenham’s Laudanum, named after the brilliant English physician Thomas Sydenham who compounded it in the 1660s. He was the chap who said “Of all the remedies it has pleased almighty God to give man to relieve his suffering, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.”

Paracelsus, Badass Extraordinaire
It is still narcotized opium though, which will make you puke your guts out. What you want is de-narcotized, or deodorized opium, which has had the narcotine (a powerful emetic) removed.

As for the other ingredients: “sack” is sherry; and saffron, cream of tartar, cinnamon, cloves and mace can all be found in your supermarket’s spice section.

The word “Laudanum” comes from the Latin laudare — to praise. It was coined by Paracelsus, a Swiss-German alchemist who discovered that opium was best dissolved in alcohol rather than water. Back in the 16th century, it was important to be able to name things well, a task made easier when engaging in neologism meant building words with Latin laced with a generous dose of wit and propriety. His parents must have felt the same way, because his real name was Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The Compleat Housewife, Eliza Smith, 1742


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