• Nick Charlie Key

Bathing In A Meaty Broth


Food is an intrinsic part of our existence as humans. We know that ultimately what we put into our bodies will have either a positive or a negative effect on our wellbeing. If we eat well and put good food into our stomachs then we become strong and healthy. It has the effect of working from the inside out in a sense. Today however, we’re going to be looking at the ways in which people thought food could have the same positive effect on our health, but this time, from the outside in.

Throughout the medieval times all the way until the 19th century, there are tales of people using food in all manner of creative ways. Those in society privileged enough to be able to choose what they could eat, were always searching for the holy grail of health food. We still have this trend today in some quarters, with a new superfood being announced almost every six months. But back in the day, there were less resources at hand to debunk wild theories and people tended to trust anyone who looked like they knew what they were doing.

We have one account from an old German newspaper from 1848 describing a banquet of a local Hippophagic society that rather confusingly was based around the sole consumption of horse meat rather than the animal the name so obviously suggests.

These societies spread across Europe as a way to promote the idea that the eating of horse meat, specifically the meat of old and worn out work horses, would be the perfect way to supplement the lack of meat in the working class diet. Traditional red meat was prohibitively expensive yet there existed a veritable bounty of meat dying every day in the cities around Europe. These old work horses would be turned into pet food and glue because of a stubborn cultural superstition around the consumption of their meat. In more recent times even Gordon Ramsay has tried his hand at convincing modern society to adopt the practice of eating horse meat to supplement our diets, but we just can’t seem to get our heads around it as a viable option. Now, just as back then, the campaign to consume horses failed dismally.

Ironically in many modern blind taste tests, horse meat has almost unanimously come out tops in terms of taste. It’s a leaner cut of meat from other red meat options and is a fair bit less expensive. But try convincing a young child of that when all they want for christmas is a pony.

We’re not here today to talk about horse meat though, so back to the original article we go. In amongst the menu of this specific hipphophagic society alongside delightfully named dishes such as “Pegasus Filet” is a small line about bathing children in a broth of horse meat.

Yes. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it either but it seems it’s true. According to local expert physicians of the day bathing in a horse bouillon had long been a proven remedy for all sorts of ailments, especially when it came to children. The beauty of this treatment was that it was not simply reserved for the wealthy elite as so many forms of medicine are, but the simple act of bathing in a soup of animal bones and meat scraps was available, and more importantly affordable, to people of all classes.

At the time, horse meat was being touted as a health food. The German chemist Justus Von Liebig made the bold claim that the meat from a horse contained more creatine than either beef or mutton. Creatine being an important compound found in our bodies as well that in higher doses aided in the building of muscle mass. That’s all well and good, but the question remains, why not just eat it then, why the need to bathe in a meaty stew like some lost explorer from our childhood cartoons.

As it turns out there has been a rather long and storied history of Europeans simmering away in warm vats of meaty soup. The first mention of Europeans bathing in broth dates back to the late 12th Century. Around the same time there were various pagan rituals coming over from Asia in which horses were sacrificed and then boiled in large cauldrons. There is a certain school of thought which says these rituals may have made their way across to Europe around this time and, in the true tradition of the broken telephone game, some important points may have been lost in translation with certain revisions being added in after the fact. Revisions that somehow led to people getting into the pot along with the bubbling broth.

A man named Gerald of Wales was the chaplain to King Henry the second of England and was sent by his master to report on the behavioural habits of Irish population. Being from Wales and working in England, Gerald was seemingly looked down upon and took this opportunity in Ireland to do some looking down of his own. He made them out to be dim-witted and atheistic beasts in what we view today as clear anti-Irish propaganda. At the time however, his writings were taken as gospel truth, writings which included a rather strange tale of one of the Irish tribal kings.

As the story goes, the new king of the Ulster tribe surveyed his herd of horses and selected the most beautiful white mare to be the centrepiece for a rather uncomfortable kingly ritual. The horse would be led to his chambers, whereby the king would close the door and I want to assume, have a lovely chat. Once they finished *cough* chatting, the mare would be sacrificed and boiled up in a giant pot. The king would then slip into the water and while bathing in it, sip some of it from a wooden bowl.

It seems that the virtues of soaking in a warm liquid, otherwise known as hydrotherapy, have been fairly universal for as long as we can remember. Originally seen as a therapeutic cure by bathing in warm mineral water the practice was widely co-opted by the Greeks and Romans. Roman bath houses were a staple of middle to upper class society and were so popular that people would hold business meetings there. The theory was that our skin is permeable. Water seeps out as sweat and so surely it must also seep inwards as pure healing mineral water. It’s not such a huge jump from that to believing that if meat and soup are good for you to eat, then it must be even better for your whole body to soak up its goodness.

In the year 1782 there was a doctor named Rhodomonte Dominiceti who opened the doors to Londons first bath house in Panton Square near Haymarket. He had pools filled with a special personal recipe mineral water but also made available pools filled with veal, mutton and horse broths. The price for this experience was between 3 and 5 guineas, an exorbitant amount of money that today would be the equivalent of around 800 dollars.

Not long after this in 1786, a Scottish doctor by the name of William Cruickshank claimed that legendary Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus had apparently kept dying men alive for several days by simply placing them in broth or milk baths. Cruickshank had interesting ideas about where on our body the nutrients where being absorbed into. Lets just say he was wrong. Very very wrong.

Broth bathing did not seem to become very popular with the upper classes and by the early 1800’s century it had faded from the luxury spa scene altogether. It did however keep it’s appeal amongst folk healers all across Europe. A story is told of an English woman making her way through Italy in 1856. In the story she stops over at the home of a wealthy aristocrat in the town of Macerata, near the coast in central Italy. Her skin and complexion has apparently taken a turn for the worse, possibly due to the difference in climate coupled with the harsh sun compared to her native homeland of England. She strikes up a conversation with one of the aristocrats maids and tells her of her struggles with the roughness of her skin since her trip began. The maid’s eyes light up, she knows just the thing to ease the lady’s concerns. Simply rub some brodo lugo on your skin and it will soon soften and feel nourished and refreshed. Fantastic, the lady thinks, but what exactly is Brodo Lugo? Ah, says the maid, it is simple. It is merely what is leftover after soaking babies in a veal broth. Oh, I see.

German and Russian medical texts too speak of treating Typhus patients with daily broth baths. Patients were required to simmer for an hour or so in a vat of gluey gelatinous broth made from sheeps feet, boiled hooves, animal bones and tendons.

The practice even made its way over to America when in the 1850’s a Texan woman named Mary Ann Maverick made notes to the effect in her diary after giving birth to a daughter. Her little newborn girl was struggling to put on weight. Luckily they had a German nurse working for them who knew of just the cure from her homeland. Mary Ann was to boil beef bones for four hours and then leave the broth to cool until it reached 100 degrees fahrenheit, then slowly settle the baby girl down into the broth. Once she had soaked up enough of the liquid she was to be pulled out and immediately wrapped in a blanket, without being dried off and then put down to sleep. Apparently it worked and from that day forward the little baby began to pick up weight rapidly.

Conceptually the idea of bathing in liquids other than water has long been regarded to have positive health benefits and there few examples more famous than that of Cleopatra and her milk baths.

Cleopatra was a young Egyptian queen famous for her beauty as well as her political clout in strategically wooing and coercing the leaders of her rival nations. Part of her strategy was to intoxicate those men with her good looks and this required a great deal of effort in an age where facewash, toner and moisturiser hadn’t yet been invented. All of the cosmetics Cleopatra used were made from entirely natural ingredients. She was a stickler for making sure her skin stayed radiant and youthful and so in order to preserve her skin's vitality, she would take daily baths filled with the milk of 700 donkeys.

This kicked off a trend throughout history of women aiming to copy the famous queen and in some major cities donkey milk became a highly sought after commodity, especially when needed in such high quantities.

The famous Roman historian and author Pliny even wrote about the values of donkey milk for use on the skin. He said: ““It is generally believed that donkeys milk smoothes wrinkles in the face, renders the skin more delicate, and preserves its whiteness : and it is a well-known fact, that some women are in the habit of washing their face with it seven times daily, strictly observing that number. Poppaea, the wife of the Emperor Nero, was among the first to practice this; indeed, she had sitting-baths, prepared solely with donkey milk, for which purpose whole troops of donkeys used to attend her on her journeys.”

According to recent scientific studies, these women may in fact have been onto something. Research shows that this milk is made up of a variety of minerals, vitamins, essential fatty acids, and bioactive enzymes, meaning that it is in fact beneficial for the health of our skin.

At the end of the day, whether you choose to bathe in water, broth or milk, as soon as we set foot in that tub, we have made ourselves the meat in a strange warm, human soup. Just let that sink in.


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