Saturday, December 13, 2014

Bushcraft or outdoor shoulderbags.....

Yes, dear folks,
it is time again for some geartalk!! 
Yes, you might as well admit it.... You've been waiting for it, haven't you?
All that gibberish talk about environment, inner thoughts and social issues... 

But rest assured... You may feast your eyes on a good handfull of bags!
In this case shoulderbags unfortunately a.k.a. manpurses... But I hate that term, because it does not do the shoulderbags used for outdoorpurposes any justice. A manpurse is something for those fashionable posh guys, who need to carry their mobiles, mascaras and beardgrooming waxes. No, a shoulderbag is for men, who need a place to carry their compasses, knives, bandages and what not with them.
And over time I have collected and tried a number of them, each with their pros and cons and I'd like to compare them here along with my experiences with them. I used my firekit, coffee container and mug to fill the bags in order to make some sort of comparison.

The ransel is a carkit, the pukkel is my son's.
The finbag I still have, the gasmaskbag is on the for sale-list and the ammobag is still in use.
The breadbag is sold and the medicbag remains...

First of all the specifications and requirements I have for those shoulderbags.
The reason for using those is because I do not want to clutter my pockets with all kinds of bits and bobs. I hate that, yet I do want to have a few essentials close at hand. Using a belt is not always the most handy thing to do either, although that would eliminate an annoyingly flapping and tapping bag on your hip or butt. For me a shoulderbag just is more comfortable and easy in use.
The bag has to be roomy enough for the things I need or think I need, yet not too large to become cumbersome and to avoid the risk of overloading it. It is not meant to be used as a daypack (originally)! So here's a rundown of the ones I used, tried, tested, kept, sold or gave away.

The British army S10 respirator bag or haversack
Country of origin is the UK and it is military issue.
Measurements in cm (I have to guess now) would be about 25x25x8

image found on the internet...
This is the green one I gave the local scoutgroup as a firstaidkit.

A good shoulderbag, sturdy, yet not overly heavy, not too big or too small, with a decent internal layout. 2 Larger pockets on the sides, a few smaller ones to the front and plenty of room in the middle plus an external pocket. I really liked the elestic straps on the inside of the lid! A very handy bonus was the option to attach it to your wastebelt, which is actually very easy, because you simply clip the bag to the belt. The camouflageversion had a broadened shoulderpiece. There is a small hole in the bottom to allow water to drain away and even a loop on the back to strap it to your thigh. It felt very solid and durable.
Downsides; For one it uses velcro for closing the flap, which is sewn into the seam. I strongly dislike velcro. The noise it makes... and that is loud on top of that! Than there was the camouflagepattern... so I went for green. The shoulderstraps felt uncomfortable, cutting into the shoulder, when the bag was loaded. Some padding might have solved that, but still the strap felt.... inadequate, thin and not rigid enough. The artificial fibre it was made of was the final point that made me look for other options.
In all honesty, if this one was made out of canvas and leather I would have found a way to get rid of the velcro and probably still have it.

The Dutch army webbing bag a.k.a. "pukkel"

The specimen shown here no longer is mine, but belongs to my son. I hauled mine long enough in my armydays to know it.... and I did use a similar one in my highschool days and after my armyservice. Based on the WW2 British webbingsystem, it is a heavyduty and bombproof bag, which can both be carried as a shoulderbag by using a webbing strap or as a small backpack by using L-straps. I have to say that the shoulderstrap option is the preferable one, with none of them actually being comfortable. The fabric is too coarse and heavy for that. It is part of an complete system, comprising of a webbingbelt, 2 long crossstraps or 2 L-straps, which then connect to the belt via a smaller strap and buckle. Despite it's lack of comfort, or maybe just because of it, this system is highly durable and will most likely outlast any user in the field. Due to this durability, it is also quite heavy. I guess the system outweighs any modern 50+ liter backpack, when empty. However it is also quite versatile. One can hook or clip several tools, canteens or pouches onto the belt and drop the whole system off in the blink of an eye. The weight will be (sort of) evenly distributed over the upper body.

As a shoulderbag it was quite usefull, due to its size 23x24x7cm and with its internal layout of a large compartment in the back and 2 compartments in the front. Main drawback was that these compartments were only divided by the walls. The bottom was not connected, so any small stuff would be moving around. It does have some extra loops on the outside, 2 on each side and one at the top, that makes carrying a tarp, jacket or similar quite easy.

And it's large brother 
the "ransel", 
but this time in plastic/vinyl

The only reason why I include this one, is to show that both bags are available both in webbing and in this plastic/vinyl. The ransel does have the same carrying options as the pukkel, but it is way to big to comfortably carry it as a shoulderbag, being 34x31x13cm. It has no internal layout and I actually use this one as a carry-all in the car. Keeps all the stuff like startercables, reflective triangle, basic tools and necessities neatly and dry packed together. Needles to say the comparison gear simply disappeared in the bag...

The German army WW2-style breadbag or "Brotbeutel"

Mine actually was a specimen dating from the early 50's and despite its generous size 30x30x8 I actually found it too small for practical use. I wonder how the soldiers managed to pack their rations in it. I could never fit a 24hr ration in there. I used it for a while, but then simply stopped doing so. It was not for me and now it has found a new owner....
As a shoulderbag I found it to be too much of a... well... bag. It is floppy, lacks rigidity.
It has 3 compartments; 2 in the bag itself and 1 in the closing flap. It all buttons down with one strap on the inside and 2 for the lid.
It has several external attachmentloops, which only makes the bag hop and flop even more. Originally it comes with a detachable carryingstrap, but it also has loops to hang it from your belt. That can be done without taking off the belt, but the loops are quite long, making the bag ride low and bump into your butt all the time. I try to imaging what it must be like, having filled the bag with food, attach a full canteen and fieldmesskit to it and than run for cover, whilst under enemyfire!

As a shoulderbag for small items it lacked the possibilty to sort the gear and keep it in place and the limited closing options, making it likely for small things to fall out and be lost.
It was more of a statement than actual practical use, when I used this one and I have grown out of that.

The Finnish army gasmaskbag
standardissue image varusteleka
Via an onlinebuddy I got hold of one of these Finnish army gasmaskbags, at that time highly sought after by many on the various bushcraft forums. It was a gift from him, directly from the country of origin.
and after I was done with the modifications.
I really did like the look and feel of this bag. Made out of a light weight canvas it matched my wants, it was roomy and easily accessible. Quiet too. So I started filling it up with bobs 'n bits and quickly came to one of the main drawbacks of this bag; it lends itself to be overloaded! It has too much room! A luxuryproblem, I know but still... Due to this overloading the closingstuds tended to pop open, while moving. A highly undesirable thing when creeping through the woods. So I started tinkering with it, making an additional closingstrap, added some loops et voila....

As a result it became even more overloaded, but it did hold together. This overloading did nothing for the carrying comfort, though. The straps are too thin for that. I remedied that by adding a broader piece which goes on top of the shoulder. But still it did not carry too well. It is too bulky.
It might make a great buttpack, but that would require a complete reworking of the straps. Sliding it over to your back does ot work, when using both the shoulder- and wastestrap.

The bag itself is quite good. Lots of room, several separate compartments, both big and small and the small pockets in the front have a lid with snaps. Everyting is easily organised and remains in place.
However it does not feel like it is made to last. The fabric is thin, the stitching is simple and in some cases the edges do not even have a seam. The clasps on the straps are nothing more than bent metal wire.
It measures 32x25x12cm roughly, has one large compartment, a lesser one next to it and an array of smaller pockets in several sizes in front. These have one, single flap over them, keeping all those small parts in there.
There seem to be several versions of this type of bag with slightly different layouts and colours!

The Swedish army M40 medicbag

image of an original found on
During my internet quest for the ideal shoulderbag I came across images of the m39 förbandsväska and everything about it appealed to me! The looks, the materials and the probable usefulness! So I set out to track and find one..... Turned out these things are hard to find! Especially in a useable condition and for a good price... Pretty expensive pieces of equipment. Saw them for 1000kr.-1500kr. a piece, but these came with all the original contents and in mint condition.
Untill... one evening... while I was at the local scoutinggroup, I found one. It was the scouting's medical kit.... or something that should be one. The lid had black marker pen writings all over it, the leather straps at the front had been torn and the contents were hopelessly mess up and sometimes very dated. So I made a deal with the groupleader; I'd take that old raggedy bag and would return another one, clean, intact, scout proof and sorted out. He agreed!
At home I immediately set to work, trying the bag and its possibilities. It was a lot bigger than anticipated! I shoved in a set of messtins, a hobostove and pot, a full firstaidkit, a foldingmug, binos and a lot of small stuff.... and I had room to spare! I really had misjudged its size. I can easily carry a full daykit in it, yet the broad leather carryingbelt does not dig into the shoulder, like those thin canvas straps did. But still one would feel it after a days hiking.
The bag is made out of a high quality canvas, to which I added new leather straps and added a cowskin piece on top of the lid, concealing the writing and hopefully give some water repellency. The bag itself measures 32x29x11cm, it has a sturdy leather, adjustable strap and the interior is divided into 2 larger pockets in the front, 2 larger pockets in the back, with one of them holding 2 small pockets in the back. In between there is room to spare. None of them can be closed however.
This bag has become my standard daypack. It rides comfortably on my lower back, is within easy reach and access and it is quiet. No snaps popping or velcro tearing up the silence.

The Swedish army M36 gasmaskbag
Or gasmaskväska m36

Another Swedish surplusbag from this era is the gasmaskbag. It is by far the smallest of the lot and I got that one for a special purpose; to hold a Swedish army messkitset. I figured it might just ne big enough and that little pocket on the front might hold the bottle... Well, wrong.
The bag is just a hint too small for that. The messkit fits sort of, but the rigid leather bottom is just too narroiw to allow the kit to slide all the way to the bottom. Still you can close the bag. But with the kit in place, you can not add the bottle to the pocket. A few more cm's circumference and it would be a perfect fit! Ahh, well... can't have it all, can ya? It measures 25x23x7cm.
The bag itself is kind of stylish, because or despite its ugliness  and what you see is basically what you get; a sturdy canvas bag with a thick, rigid leather bottom, a small pocket on the front and metal studs and leather straps for closing it.
The shoulder- and wastestraps are canvas. Mine has a brown leather bottom, but I saw them with green leather bottoms too.
It'll have to go too...


 The Swedish army/Hemvärnet M40 ammobag

And finally the star of my shoulderbagshow these days..... A Swedish homedefence ammopouch.
I stumbled across it but accident, never having seen one before or since and this one has it all! The materials, the size, the pockets.....
In due time I will need to replace the leatherparts, since they have become quite dry and brittle or maybe I'll just leave it as it is and alter the other one, which is broken and incomplete as it is. It misses one part of the carryingstrap, yet has a nicer darker greyish green colour. I might add a beltclip and wax it too.
 They cost me a whopping 3kr. each. That's 31 eurocents or 39 dollarcents....
As you can see they are basic, no nonsense canvaspouches, 1 single leather closingstrap in the front and an adjustable leather shoulderstrap. Measurements: 27x23x8.
The interior is made up of 2 large compartments over the entire width and 3 smaller pockets against the back. I guess the first held the ammoclips and the latter were for tools. So now they hold those small items I think necessary; compas, sharpeningstone, firesteel.
I added the containers for displaypurposes only, since carrying food in it is not an option. No room. It does have room for a pair of gloves, a gatheringbag, noteblock and pencil and other tidbits.
Chances of overloading this one are practically non existent...

And as a bonus I'll throw in my own, selfmade shoulderbag. It is made out of canvas shelterhalf leftovers and I tried to show some of the characteristics of those shelterhalves, like buttons&holes, markings and even a rope eyelet. Size is about 35x35 and it is flat. The "W"-marking happens to be the first letter of my last name...
I use it, when I am working, harvesting potatoes and such. It doesn't really matter if it gets dirty or damaged. It was more of a learning, funproject that is now being put to use.

Friday, December 12, 2014

One year No Plastic by Rob Greenfield

Given my sentiments on the overabundance of plastics in our world, I thought I'd share an interesting item I found on the internet.
I share many of the points of view presented...

Merren Tait  is simply incredible. She went a year without plastic and afterwards a few of my friends told me I should interview her, so I did.  By the end of my interview with her I had already fallen in love with her mind.  She is simply brilliant and sees the world in a way most people never will. It’s obvious to me how intelligent she is and how well thought out all of her actions are.  That is greatly admirable to me.  Dedication like she’s shown changes you forever and I can certainly relate to her experience, especially from Off grid across AmericaThis interview with Merren is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to reduce their impact on the environment and live a life full of happiness, health, and freedom.

Rob: What’s the deal with plastic?  Why should anyone avoid using it?
Merren: The key thing about plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade. It will break down, but it will never completely dissipate which means it’s incredibly harmful to the environment as it performs as a toxin, leaching into soil and waterways. This means that every piece of plastic ever produced still exists in some form in the world. Considering that we’re collectively producing over 225 million tonnes of plastic a year, there’s a frightening amount of plastic pollution happening.
Rob: Many of my friends are gung-ho about recycling but they don’t understand how resource intensive recycling is.  They think they are doing a great thing for the environment when they recycle.  What would you say to someone who thinks this?
Merren: Recycling is a poor answer. It could be likened to an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but it barely performs as a stretcher as plastic can only be reproduced into lesser quality products. The shelf life of recycled plastic is unfortunately very finite. And don’t forget that by buying any kind of plastic (recyclable or not) we are indirectly supporting the petro-chemical industry, of which plastic is a by-product.
Rob: Could you explain why reduce comes before reuse and recycle in the 3 R’s?
Merren: Recycled plastic has a fairly large environmental footprint. Most of the Western world’s recyclable plastic is shipped offshore, mostly to China, and even then not all that plastic is destined to be recycled. If there is no market for a new product, the plastic is landfilled.  Reuse is not a great answer if you value your health. Plastic leaches toxins, and this is accelerated once the integrity of the plastic is compromised (which reuse will do). A lot of plastic reuse occurs around food consumption; reusing grocery bags, snap lock bags, plastic food containers designed for single use like take away containers, so the potential to affect your health through plastic reuse is very real.
So there are several key issues associated with ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ and ultimately by choosing to simply reduce your purchase of plastic, you are not supporting an industry that is incredibly harmful.
Rob: Tell me a little bit about how you got here.  When did you start to care about how your life impacted the earth and why?
Merren: While I’ve always valued the environment, it’s only been in the last few years that I have become really conscious of how wasteful the modern, Western lifestyle I have been brought up in is. When I moved away from the bustle of the city to a slow-paced small town with a green ethos, I guess I had the time to reflect on my behavior as a consumer, and I was encouraged by the shared values others around me had. I initially sought to make Raglan a plastic-bag free town, but when businesses showed absolutely no support I thought there might be another way to encourage local consumers to change their behavior, something that would have a greater impact on throwaway plastic use. Plastic Free July was a wonderful answer.
Rob: Could you please explain the premise of your year without plastic?
Merren: I happened on a trailer for a documentary about the tragic effect plastic pollution has on an albatross colony. It was called, Midway: Message from the Gyre and it was profoundly affecting. I wanted to find out what people were doing in order to curb plastic pollution and my Google search threw up an initiative called Plastic Free July in which participants pledge to avoid using single use plastic for all or part of the month of July. I thought it would be a challenge that people in my community would be receptive to, but thought I needed to do something a little dramatic to promote it and give it a high profile. So I decided to challenge myself to not buy any plastic (not just the single use stuff) for a whole year. It worked; Plastic Free July has just had its second successful year in my hometown.
Rob: Compare the first day and the first month of your year without plastic to the last month.  Did it get easier?
Merren: I was pretty well prepared. It was not something I felt I could walk into cold turkey, so I spent a lot of time researching alternatives before I began. I thought my discoveries could assist others so set up a blog that runs more like a plastic-free website for anyone wanting to reduce their plastic use; I actually think my year got harder towards the end as all the things I couldn’t purchase before started to become a temptation.
Plastic Purge – Things Merren removed before the challenge
Rob: Was there anything you had to go without that you could not find a plastic free alternative for?
Merren: Wine. That was hard. All wine in New Zealand comes with screw caps. Under the lid, the seal is made from polystyrene. I really love a glass of wine with dinner, but I guess in the scheme of things it’s not much of a hardship to do without.
Rob: What was your social life like during your year without plastic?
Merren: Yes it certainly presented some difficulties. Thankfully people were supportive, so the difficulties were practicalities as opposed to conflicting ideologies. My friends were good about taking away any plastic they bought into my house with them, and understood that I was very restricted with my choice of food and beverage when I was hosting or asked to contribute to meals etc. Being plastic free made hosting unexpected guests challenging. The majority of my food had to be fresh, and I simply didn’t have snack or quick and easy food available to prepare.
Plastic items that Merren had to do without replacing for one year
Rob: What were the hardest items to find a plastic free alternative for?
Merren: Some medicinal items and anything to do with the health of my cat. If you look closely at the landfill I accumulated during my year you will see blister packs and specialty cat food for my hypo-allergenic cat. I had decided at the outset that health would be an exception to the rules I set myself, but I tried my best to avoid plastic packaged health products anyway. I found most alternative medicines have plastic somewhere in the packaging too.

Merren’s Landfill
Rob: What are you going to use now that you had to give up during the year without plastic?
Merren: Dental floss. I will continue with most of my plastic-free habits, but I really value my teeth.
Rob: If you were the minister of plastic what would you change worldwide?
Merren: That’s easy. Ban the production of single use plastic would be foremost, starting with plastic bags. Second on the list would be to prohibit plastics that are proven to be detrimental to health like ones containing PBA.
Rob: What is more evil- conventionally grown unpackaged tomatoes or plastic packaged organically grown tomatoes?
Merren: That is a tricky one. I have no faith in plastic (especially soft varieties) in terms of the toxins that they could leach into food; plastic is not inert and is linked to cancer and infertility among other health issues. And of course then there are waste issues. It is very difficult to say yes to plastic over a non-packaged product.
Rob: What are the 5 most important steps that we can all take to live a life with less plastic?
1. Be prepared to be inconvenienced. Plastic exists to make our lives easier, so if you want to really make a change you will have to allow things to be a little harder sometimes. This might mean leaving your full shopping trolley in the store and returning to your car because you left your reusable bags in the boot. It also means planning ahead. It can be difficult to grocery shop off the cuff if you don’t have bags with you or if you are in a rush and don’t have the luxury of time to make considered choices.
2. Ask your grandma: the best way to think around plastic problems is to remember there was a time before plastic. Plastic has only been in common usage since the late 1970s so talk to someone who’s a generation or two older than you and find out what they used.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask. As consumers, we have a lot of power because the bottom line is that producers want your money. I did a lot of asking in terms of plastic packaging being removed, or avoided altogether, or alternatives to plastic being sought, and never once got a no. The more we demand change, the more likely change will happen.
4. Make some essential purchases to implement small change: a reusable coffee cup, a reusable water bottle, reusable shopping bags.
5. Find a food store that has bulk food. You will be able to fill your own bags and avoid the plastic packaging that can’t be recycled.
Rob: Besides plastic, what are the five most important steps we can all take to live a more earth friendly.
1. Be resourceful: can you fix it? Can you make or adapt something that will fulfill the same function? Can you borrow it? Do you really need it? It’s easy to fall in the capitalist trap of buying something we think we need because it’s the easiest thing to do.
2. Take the time to enjoy the place where you live: if we value and appreciate our environment (whether it be the city or wilder, greener places) we will treat it with more respect.
3. Use your democratic rights to affect change: be very considered when you vote in local and national elections. Do your research and find out who has the best environmental policies.
4. It’s not easy being green: we would all love to live the most efficiently that we can, but the reality is that our modern lifestyle, infrastructure, financial constraints, time constraints etc mean it’s not that simple for many of us. So focus on making small changes at a time and celebrate the little stuff.
5. Lead by example: never think that your small action won’t have any impact. What you do will have an effect on those around you, and the cumulative effect on the environment will be so wonderfully valuable.
Rob: What were the greatest lessons or take-aways you got from your year without plastic?
Merren: That there are an incredible amount of people that want the same thing as me; a world without unnecessary plastic. It has been very motivating and also reassuring that we are moving in the right direction. In the time that I have been plastic-free, a healthy number of local governments have moved to ban plastic bags, including a city where materialism and consumerism are upheld; LA. How inspiring!

source; Rob Greenfield's blog

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What if money was no object....

I found a similar post on about a short video/speech by philosopher Alan Watts and it gave me goosebumps!
I felt the need to share that video and thought, but found the longer version of that video on youtube.
So here it is... 

Listen good... 
Listen like you mean it!

The answer for me?
I would not change a thing. I am happy with the choice(s) I made, yet not always equally happy with the consequences. It sure would be nice to stop living on the economical edge of a knife, but I guess there's a big lesson in there too, since it remains....

Monday, December 1, 2014

a real manly drink!

This one has been sitting in my to-publish-list for a while and now the season is upon us again, I felt it would be appropriate to share it with you all.

‘Tis the season for hot cocoa.
At least it is for red-cheeked children who are looking to warm up after coming in from a well-spent snow day.
And for lady folk curled up in a blanket watching The Shop Around the Corner.
But a man, he’s sitting by the fire in his leather chair, drinking a properly manly drink like black coffee, or scotch, perhaps.
Such is the perception of cocoa these days. It is but a sweet confection a man might drink a few times each year, if at all.
For thousands of years, however, it was quite a different story. While we tend to think of chocolate today in its solid form, for nine-tenths of its long history, chocolate was a drink – the first true chocolate bar as we now know it was not invented until 1839. In the thousands of years before that time, chocolate was seen as an invaluable, sacred, even magical beverage — a symbol of power, a privilege of warriors and the elite, and a satisfying tonic that was consumed daily and offered the sustenance needed to tackle virile challenges.
Contrary to its ho-hum, sometimes even junk food-y reputation, real chocolate is an incredibly complex substance, containing 400-500 different compounds. Among those compounds are several with mind and body boosting benefits:
  • Caffeine – a stimulant present in small amounts, depending on the type and amount of chocolate ingredients.
  • Theobromine – a mild stimulant distinct from caffeine which provides the lion’s share of chocolate’s kick and energizes without greatly activating the central nervous system the way the former does. It also enhances mood, dilates blood vessels, can lower blood pressure, relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchi in the lungs, and can be used as a cough medicine.
  • Tryptophan  – releases the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
  • Phenylethylamine – functions similarly to amphetamines in releasing norepinephrine, which increases excitement, alertness, and decision-making abilities, and dopamine, which releases endorphins (natural painkillers) and heightens mood.
  • Flavonoids – antioxidants which may improve blood flow to the heart and brain, prevent clots, improve cardiac health, and act as anti-inflammatories.
Chocolate has also for centuries been rumored to be an aphrodisiac.
In short, hot cocoa is a powerful elixir – one which boosts mood and vitality and combats stress, anxiety, and pain. For good reason is the chocolate tree’s scientific name — Theobroma cacao— ancient Greek for “food of the gods.” For what other drink tastes great, is filling in nature, and stimulates mind and body?
No wonder then that this beverage, far from being a kiddie drink, has been a favorite of rulers, warriors, and explorers for centuries.

A Note on Terminology: Hot Chocolate vs. Hot Cocoa

While hot chocolate and hot cocoa are often used interchangeably, they’re not actually the same thing. Chocolate begins as cacao seeds (often referred to as cocoa beans) that grow in pods on the bark of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. These seeds are then fermented, dried, and roasted. The shells are removed, leaving the cacao nibs. The nibs are crushed into a thick paste called chocolate liquor (despite the name, it does not contain alcohol), which is made up of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The ancient peoples of Mesoamerica mixed this paste with water to make a highly-prized beverage.
Before there was Red Bull…there was cocoa.
Chocolate was made this way and consumed almost entirely as a drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented a process that could separate out most of the fat — the cocoa butter — from the chocolate liquor, leaving a dry cake that is then pulverized into cocoa powder. Before undergoing this “Dutching” process, the nibs are treated with alkaline salts to neutralize their acidity, mellow the flavor, and improve the cocoas’ miscibility in warm water.  The end result is “Dutch cocoa.” “Natural cocoa” is that which does not undergo this Dutching process.
To make quality solid chocolate, cocoa butter is re-added to the chocolate liquor, along with other ingredients like sugar, vanilla, and milk.
So, hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, either Dutch or natural, and hot chocolate is made with little pieces or shavings of solid chocolate. The latter is sometimes also called “drinking chocolate.” Both are delicious.

Drink of the Gods: Chocolate in Ancient Mesoamerica

The earliest cultivation of cacao can be traced to ancient Mesoamerica, in which it served a religious, financial, and nutritional purpose.
The drink that was made with cacao, xocolātl, wasconsidered sacred by the Mesoamericans and used during initiation ceremonies, funerals, and marriages. Cacao beans were also used as currency. Because cacao was both currency and food, drinking chocolate was like sipping on cash — kind of like lighting your cigar with a hundred dollar bill – and for this reason was a privilege mainly limited to elites.
Cacao was cultivated and consumed by the Olmecs and Mayans, but is most famously associated with the Aztec civilization. Montezuma the II, who kept a huge storehouse of cacao (supplied by conquered peoples from whom he demanded the beans as tribute) and drank 50 golden goblets of chocolate a day, decreed that only those men who went to war could imbibe cacao, even if they were his own sons. This limited chocolate consumption to royals and nobles who were willing to fight, merchants (their travels through hostile territory necessitated their taking up of arms), and warriors. For the latter, chocolate was a regular part of their military rations; ground cacao that had been pressed into wafers and could be mixed into water in the field were given to every solider on campaign. The drink provided long-lasting nourishment on the march; as one Spanish observer wrote, “This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”
All Aztecs thought of both blood and chocolate as sacred liquids, and cacao seeds were used in their religious ceremonies to symbolize the human heart – harkening to their famous ritual in which this still-beating organ was torn from a sacrificial victim’s chest. The connection between blood and chocolate was especially strong for warriors, and it was served at the solemn initiation ceremony of new Eagle and Jaguar knights, who had to undergo a rigorous penance process before joining the most elite orders of the Aztec army.
In peacetime, chocolate was an after-dinner drink, served along with smoking tubes of tobacco, much in the way modern gentlemen once enjoyed brandy and cigars after a meal (and still do). The Mayans liked their chocolate hot, the Aztecs liked it cold, but all Mesoamericans preferred it foamy – a quality that was accomplished by pouring the chocolate back and forth from a bowl held high into one below (a large, foam-creating swizzle stick was added later through a Spanish creolization of the practice).
Mesoamerican chocolate, unless honey was added, was also bitter. To this strong, bitter brew was added a great variety of spices and seasonings, such as ground up flowers and vanilla. The Aztecs were especially fond of adding chili pepper, which gave the drink a delightful burn going down. Maize was often added to stretch the chocolate and turn it into a more filling gruel, but this version was considered inferior to the pure, potent variety.

The Beverage of Movers and Shakers in Europe

When chocolate was brought back to Spain in the 17th century by conquistadors, it quickly spread throughout Europe, where it continued to be considered a luxury and a drink of the elites. Originating on the continent from Spain, and more expensive than coffee, chocolate was seen as southern, Catholic, and aristocratic, while coffee was viewed as northern, Protestant, and middle-class.
Chocolate was a popular beverage among monks and priests; Jesuits ran some cacao plantations in the New World. According to the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, many of “the first recipes using cacao beans came from a 12th century Cistercian monastery, Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Piedra monasterio. Extant documents indicate that by 1534 it is already a staple in the monastic kitchen. According to tradition, a Franciscan friar, Fray Jerónimo de Aguilar, who had traveled with Cortéz, gave a recipe and some beans to Don Antonio de Álvero, the Abbot of the Monastery. As depicted in this photo – located at the Monasterio de Piedra – Cistercian communities, even to this day, often have a room located above the cloister, known as the chocolatería, used specifically for the preparation and enjoyment of chocolate.” Interestingly, the popularity of drinking chocolate among Catholics led to sometimes fervent debate over whether it was a drink or a food, and thus whether it could, or could not, be consumed during times of fasting.
Yet with the Spanish revival of the Mayan practice of drinking chocolate hot and the welcome addition of milk and sugar, the beverage soon won converts from many corners – many of whom began to give the ancient drink some twists of their own. The addition of cinnamon and black pepper was popular, as was ambergris, a solid, fatty substance found in the intestines of sperm whales, and musk, secreted by the glands of the Himalayan musk deer (and believed to be an aphrodisiac). Other drinkers experimented with throwing orange peel, rose water, cloves, ground up pistachios and almonds, or egg yolks into the brew.
Chocolate was drunk in large cups at Spanish bullfights, and began to be served across Europe both at dedicated “chocolate houses” and at coffee houses, where members of the upper class gathered to sip hot beverages, gamble, and discuss the pressing philosophical and political issues of the day. In England, each establishment was typically associated with one of the Parliamentary parties, and often turned into full-on gentlemen’s clubs. For example, the Cocoa-tree Chocolate House, located on St. James Street in London, was patronized by the Tory party, and then became the Cocoa Tree Club; eminent men like Jonathan Swift and Edward Gibbon were members. Mrs. White’s Chocolate House, another Tory establishment, was created on Chesterfield St. in 1693; it was famous not only for its chocolate but as a notorious center of gambling – the gaming room was nicknamed “Hell” and patrons placed bets on everything from elections to which raindrop would make it to the windowpane first. The chocolate house moved to St. James Street in 1778 and transformed into an official, and highly elite, gentlemen’s club. Over 300 years later, it is still around and now simply called White’s. The club’s rolls have included three monarchs and a huge consortment of other royals, nobles, and prime ministers.

Fueling Expeditions to the Ends of the Earth

With its hot, filling, rejuvenating qualities, cocoa has been an essential staple on all the major expeditions to the North and South Poles. Explorers and their teams of men would drink cup after cup of it as a bulwark against the morale and strength-sapping task of trudging across an icy, austere landscape.

The daily ration for Robert Falcon Scott’s trek to the South Pole: 450g biscuit, 340g pemmican, 85g sugar, 57g butter, 24g tea, 16g cocoa.The sugar was mixed into the cocoa, and Scott said, prevented the men from wanting to kill each other. As a side note, these rations only provided each man about 4,500 calories a day, at least 2,000 less than is needed for sledging, which is why the men starved and died on their return from the Pole. Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the Pole, and actually gained weight on the way back, brought five times as much cocoa.
During Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, he had his men drink hot cocoa five nights a week. Each evening when they stopped for supper, they warmed up one pot of what they called “hoosh” — a thick stew made with pemmican (dried beef and fat) and hard biscuits – and a pot of cocoa. They washed the former down with the latter. While as one of his men, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, recorded in his dairy, “Many controversies raged over the rival merits of tea and cocoa,” and some of the men preferred the former, Scott preferred cocoa for its milder stimulation. As Cherry-Garrard noted, “the warmth of your hours of rest depends largely on getting into your bag immediately after you have eaten your hoosh and cocoa,” and having to get out of the bag during the night, exit the tent, and expose one’s peppermint stick to the cold was not a thought anyone relished. Scott compromised by allowing tea two evenings a week. He also had his men drink cocoa in the mornings to get something substantial and invigorating in their stomachs while minimizing bathroom breaks on the march.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard (right), a member of the Terra Nova Expedition, was asked by Scott to man-haul a sledge 60 miles to Cape Crozier to retrieve an Emperor penguin egg. The men became pinned down by a blizzard, their tent blew away, and they laid in their sleeping bags exposed to the falling snow and -40 degree temperatures. It was so cold, Cherry-Garrard shattered most of his teeth because they chattered so hard. The men returned to the base camp a month later exhausted and frozen and were revived with cups of cocoa. In his account of the horrific experience, The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry-Garrard mentions cocoa no less than two dozen times, saying, “there was always plenty to be had,” and calling it “the most satisfying stuff imaginable” and “the most comforting drink.”
In 1989, when American explorer Will Steger spent 220 days traveling almost 4000 miles in the first dog-sled traverse of Antarctica, he and his international team of five others went through 2,070 cups of Swiss Miss.

Hot Cocoa on the Front Lines

Beginning with the Aztec warriors, chocolate and cocoa has been included in military rations for centuries.
During the Revolutionary War, officers often breakfasted on chocolate and members of the Continental army were given a monthly allotment of chocolate according to rank; colonels and chaplains received four pounds of chocolate, majors and captains three pounds, lieutenants two pounds, and so on. This chocolate ration was created by smooshing prepared cacao nibs into a cake. With their pocket knives, soldiers would shave pieces of the cake off into a pot of boiling water. The resulting drink was considered rejuvenating, and much of the chocolate available went to hospitals to help the sick and wounded get their strength back.
The invention of cocoa powder made “chocolate” easier for soldiers to carry and prepare while on campaign. But during World War I, before true field rations had been invented, troops were often supplied with hot cocoa by YMCA volunteers. In a time where the military had not yet developed its own morale, welfare, and comfort services, the YMCA took on this role, sending 25,000 volunteers to military units and bases from Egypt to France. Among their many services, “Red Triangle Men,” as they were called, set up comfort huts and canteens, often quite close to the battlefield, where soldiers could come for food, smokes, and cup after cup of piping hot cocoa after a firefight.
YMCA canteen in Egypt.
A “Y” man serves hot chocolate in the Toulon Sector, March 22, 1918. Said one solider, the cocoa made them “feel like new men.”
“Once again the Ypres Salient was resounding with intense artillery fire. The British regulars had blown up six giant craters in the enemies’ lines at St. Eloi and the Canadians were holding the captured territory. But the ground was held at great cost. Our men were returning wounded, broken, and weary. In those days both the man and the dug-out were needed. Early and late he toiled over a troublesome gasoline stove to prepare hot cocoa for the wayfarers. A constant stream of heroes came down the road. “Walking patients,” men who had not been too severely wounded, in the head or arm, were sent from the trench dressing station to the field dressing station lower down. Some who passed by had been buried by “Rum Jars”; others were victims of shell concussion, but most of them had been struck by shrapnel and were faint with loss of blood. Wounds had taken all the “sand” out of them, and the hot cocoa was a welcome tonic for the weary and wounded marchers.” -Young Men, Vol. 43, 1917
During WWII, new kinds of combat rations were developed, including the C-Ration. The C-Ration was a two-can meal, consisting of an M-unit – an entrée, like meat stew — and a B-unit – bread and dessert. The latter originally contained 5 hardtack crackers, 3 sugar tablets, 3 Dextrose energy tablets, and a packet of beverage mix (instant coffee, powdered lemon drink, or boullion soup powder). In 1944, the beverage list was expanded and a disc of sweetened cocoa was added to the choices.

Cocoa mix was added to the C-ration in 1944.
In the years after the war, the C-Ration was modified and revised and went through several subsequent variations. In 1954, the C-4 was released, which added, among other things, sugar and non-dairy creamer to the mix. Soldiers often used one package of each to enhance their cocoa.
C-Rations were phased out in 1958, although Vietnam soldiers continued to receive cases of them marked with dates from the 1950s. To replace the C-Ration, the military developed the “Meal, Combat, Individual,” or MCI, which included more variety than its predecessor. Four different B-unit cans were available, including the B-3, which contained 4 cookies and a packet of cocoa mix. Cocoa packets were prized and nonsmokers would trade their cigarettes (4 were included in the MCI’s “Accessory Pack”) for them. Some of the men would add the cocoa to their coffee to make a mocha beverage. If they were out of cocoa, the men would heat up water inside a can, chop up their Tropical Bar (a heat resistant chocolate bar that came in their sundries kit) into the water, and add a packet of creamer and sugar to make a hot and satisfying drink.
Cocoa mix is still included in MREs, which began to replace MCIs in the 70s and 80s.

Celebrate the Holidays (and Beyond!) with This Virile Elixir!

If this post has you hankering for a cup of cocoa, here are a few tips to get the most out of this virile beverage.
Dark chocolate has as much as three times more flavonoids than wine and green tea, and cocoa powder has more of them than solid dark chocolate does. However, because the alkalizing process that Dutch cocoa undergoes saps 60-80% of its flavonoids (although cocoa is so high in them that actually still leaves a whole lot), you may want to look for natural cocoa to get the most potent dose. Prepared cocoa mixes also oftentimes contain more sugar than cocoa, so add a little sugar or a natural sweetener (like stevia) to an unsweetened variety as desired. Mark, of Mark’s Daily Apple, drinks it as a rare holiday indulgence (he’s not a proponent of regularly consuming dairy) straight up in his milk, arguing that the leche adds enough natural sweetness on its own. Unfortunately, studies have shown that dairy may inhibit antioxidant activity and absorption in the body, so if you’re looking to get those benefits, you may just want to mix it in almond or coconut milk, or straight up in hot water. You can even create a truly potent tonic using raw, ground-up cacao nibs, just like a proper Mayan. (Bonus: cacao nibs are an excellent source of magnesium, which naturally helps boost testosterone – perhaps there’s something to the old idea of chocolate as an aphrodisiac after all…)
Of course, as mentioned at the start, antioxidants are not the only benefit of chocolate, and its feel-good properties are only enhanced with a little sugar and milk at the proper time. Like on a backpacking trip, or, say, while riding the Polar Express. Can I be the only one who thought as a boy that the mention of “hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars” was one of the most memorable parts of that book?
Mmmm, I think I’m going to make a creamy mug and go sit down by the fire. Eat, or as it were, tear your heart out, Aztec warrior.

The surprisingly manly history of hot cocoa