What constitutes a diet drink?

Written by Solveig Roervik

While transcribing the Ann Fanshawe manuscript, I came upon a drink called a diet drink. Because of the way the ingredients were suspended in liquid, the recipe resembled a modern herb tea, but in two other manuscripts I transcribed, other “diet drinks” had differing methods of creation, from brewing, suspending and boiling to a combination of these. Although the OED defines “diet drink” as “a drink prescribed and prepared for medicinal purposes” (1a), the styles of preparation involved seem in practice to be vastly different. These varying approaches made me question why they were all called diet drinks, what connected them, and if the method of creation had something to say about its medicinal effects on the humoral body. Did the recipes have any ingredients in common? And how are these ingredients activated or tempered by the method of its creation? After addressing these questions, I propose that diet drinks can be said to help alleviate the conditions caused by an excess of coldness and/or dryness, and the recipes’ methods maximise the warmth and moisture of the ingredients.

The diet drinks that I found address four conditions — kidney stone, scurvy, rickets, and dropsy — by attempting to rebalance the amount of moisture and heat in the body. John Gerard explains these conditions in The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes, connecting the conditions to a possible imbalance of moisture. The stone is a hard mineral concretion, “the stone of the kidneies” (238), which Thomas Cogan recommends treating with warm and moist ingredients, like asparagus (45). Gerard goes on to describe scurvy as “that plague and hurtful disease of the teeth, gums, and sinewes, … being a depriuation of all good bloud and moisture” (401). While the dropsie seems like an outlier because it’s a condition where the body retains too much moisture, the blockage causing the extra liquid retention can be broken up by hot and dry ingredients like saxifrage, which according to Gerard causes “one to pisse freely,” releasing the extra liquid (1048). (Even though saxifrage is hot and dry, it can be used in a wet medium to release the water retention.) Humorally, conditions from kidney stone to dropsy could be balanced out with warmth and moistness, which can explain the usage of medicinal liquids in curing these conditions.

Since these conditions are linked humorally, how do the methods used affect the medicinal properties of the drinks? In the Receipt book of Margaret Baker, the “Diet drinke for the Scuruie” is boiled, increasing the level of heat of the ingredients and liquids (front endleaf 3, V.a.619).[1] Cold water itself could disrupt the balance of heat in a vulnerable body, like a body that has just exercised; Cogan instead recommends a drink with warm properties, because it’s less disrupting for the temperatures (236-237). In addition, the recipe uses wormwood, which can help with “open[ing] the liver and spleene: which vertues are chiefe, for the preservation of health” (Cogan 61). Both wormwood and boiling increase heat in the drink, and give a relief to the aching mouth caused by scurvy.

In the “Diett Drinke” recipe in the Ann Fanshawe manuscript, the ingredients were not boiled, but rather suspended (7, MS7113). The herbal tea is a delivery mechanism for hot and dry ingredients to clear the blockage causing the dropsie. Gerard says the herb Galingale, which is included in the recipe, “help[s] the dropsie”, where Galingale “[is] of an heating and drying qualitie” (31). This diet drink is the only one I came across that doesn’t require any sort of alcoholic beverage, like ale or wine, which is interesting as wine is said by Cogan to be “hot in the second degree… and it is dry according to the proportion of heat” (238). Why would water be used, with its coldness, instead of using wine which has the hot and dry qualities needed to cure a dropsie? Here, humorally hot ingredients are delivered by a cold vector, implying a mixture of cold and hot ingredients can also be curative for this condition.


The second diet drink found in the Fanshawe MSS, “A Receipt of a Diet Drink for the Stone” (78, MS7113) contains fewer herbs compared to the previous recipes: only ashen keys, parsley, saxifrage roots, and malt (which is helpful as the recipe goes through a brewing process). Saxifrage is explained by John Gerard as “hot and dry in the third degree”, helping it “break… the stone in the bladder and kidnies” (1048). Like saxifrage, the process of brewing itself increases heat and dryness, showing the doubling effect of ingredients and method, which relates to the condition it was to alleviate. And there is still more doubling in the recipe’s methods, as the drink is first boiled, then brewed in the sun — building methodological heat upon heat from the ingredients, which is opposite to the previous diet drink.

The most complicated recipe of the group is a brewed “diett Drinke for the Ricketts” found in the Receipt book of Rebeckah Winche (74, V.b.366). This recipe has an interesting addition of large raisins, “reasons of the sunne”, which according to Cogan are hot and moist, channeling the heat of the sun into the ingredients themselves (109). It is a rather complicated process to make this drink: first it is boiled, then brewed, some of it is then consumed, before being bottled and brewed a second time. As it is consumed at different stages of fermentation, the drink experiences variations in alcohol content. Cogan explains how levels of hotness and moistness vary with age, as wine is usually hot and dry in the second degree, but “if it bee very old, it is hot in the third degree, and must, or new wine is hot in the first” (238). Both ingredients, like raisins, and the methods, like brewing, build upon themselves to increase the heat in the drink.

Based on these recipes, I propose that diet drinks can help alleviate the conditions caused by an excess of coldness and/or dryness, where the recipes’ methods maximise the warmth and moisture of the ingredients. While one of the recipes uses hot ingredients in a cold medium, the other recipes build the heat and/or wetness in the ingredients upon the heat produced in the methods. Although the definition of diet drink is focused on its medicinal purposes, I would argue that diet drinks are also focused on correcting the imbalance of heat and/or moistness in the body.

Works Cited

Baker, Margaret. “Receipt book of Margaret Baker.” LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection. Ca. 1675. Web. 04 Apr. 2017.

Cogan, Thomas. The Haven of Health. Fourth Edition. London: Anne Griffin for Roger Ball, 1636.

“ˈdiet-drink, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 4 April 2017.

Fanshawe, Lady Ann. “Recipe book of Lady Ann Fanshawe.” Wellcome library. Ca. 1651-1707. Web. 04 Apr. 2017.

Gerard, John, et al. The herball or Generall historie of plantes. London: Printed by Adam Islip Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1636.

Winche, Rebeckah. “Receipt book of Rebeckah Winche.” LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection. Ca. 1666. Web. 04 Apr. 2017.

[1] Instead of cold water, Cogan recommends alcohol or drinks with warm properties like a “hot posset” as “they use in Lancashire” (236-237). Cogan also talks about the boiling of whey, and how clarifying milk affect its properties (255). Boiling could also at the period be a way to check the purity of a liquid, like water, where clean water had “little skim or froth in boyling” (237).

Solveig Roervik is a student of Dr. Nancy Simpson-Younger at Pacific Lutheran University.

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