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How Bone Broth Got its Early Start From 19th Century Beef Tea

Actually, the bone broth trend began centuries ago.


Unless a person has actually been living in the Museum of Natural History’s Paleolithic exhibit, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that bone broth has crested triumphantly into the national dining spotlight as the latest cure-for-what-ails.

Flowing forth from the current culinary climate’s skepticism towards gluten and the rise of the Paleo diet (which encourages dining like our meat-and-berry-gnawing caveman-bro ancestors), bone broth has become the latest tonic aimed to settle the stomachs—and consciences—of both "clean" eaters and the dubiously curious.

The subtle variations (if any) between bone broth and its more familiar counterparts stock, consommé and bouillon aside, what bone broth lacks in ho-hum sepia-toned aesthetics it more than makes up for in almost evangelical fanfare regarding its purported health benefits. Crafted by—you guessed it—boiling bone-in meat for 12 to 48 hours (the addition of aromatics like onion and garlic are optional), the gelatinous proteins and nutritional nuggets locked away inside the bones are unleashed while cooked down, ready to be poured into the cups of anxious fans as a slightly gelled, sippable elixir.

Broth aficionados swear that the drink provides them with a laundry list of health benefits, including increased energy, better sleep, plumper skin, stronger joints and an improved immune system. 

The concept of broth as salve is nothing new, with chefs and writers alike quick to point out how varying takes on the slurpable liquid transcend cultural bounds. There’s the Japanese tonkotsu, a pork bone broth which serves often as the basis of ramen. The Maldives have garudhiya, an age-old tuna-based broth. And of course, there’s the mom-approved connection between umami-laden chicken noodle soup and staving off a winter’s cold. None, however, is a closer kissing cousin to today’s bone broth trend than beef tea.

Brodo in New York is responsible for igniting the current bone broth craze. [Photo by Cat Yeh]

The first recorded instance of beef tea (which is exactly as it sounds) as a beverage can be found in a 1760 edition of the Dublin Courier, in which it is exalted as a hearty, health-focused drink. "When it is cold, decant a pint [of beef tea] from beef, which looks like a light infusion of fine green tea," the paper writes. "[It] has a very grateful flavor, and is more strengthening than stronger broths."

The majority of recipes for beef tea from the early 1800s call for a cut of rump meat (it’s always rump meat) boiled down for roughly one to two hours with water and maybe a sprinkle of salt. By the 1860s, though, recipes began to add in textural components and mild aromatics including slivers of butter, "button onions" (pearl onions), clove and a pinch or two of salt for good measure.

...beef tea is perhaps the cleverest means by which to extend the shelf life of this all-important, nutrient rich commodity by—essentially—diluting it.

While it’s safe to say that most home cooks in Dickensian England weren’t exactly experimental culinary demi-gods, there’s something undeniably resourceful, inventive and almost reverent about beef tea’s earnest simplicity. The British experimented with many methods for stretching out the livelihood of their most precious victual (potting, drying and pickling meat), but beef tea is perhaps the cleverest means by which to extend the shelf life of this all-important, nutrient rich commodity by—essentially—diluting it.

The recipe is almost alarmingly familiar and, strangely enough, practically on trend today. Except for a shorter boiling time and a bone-versus-meat-only argument, beef tea and bone broth are almost identical in their preparation methods, means of consumption and—in many instances—their purported benefits.

While beef tea was consumed in homes on a regular basis, it was mostly considered a beverage for the unwell, with the drink often called "invalid" beef tea in reference to its popularity as a sick ward remedy. If you think hospital food is bad today, the quasi-wellness-inducing culinary options of yesteryear will make you squirm. Doctor-approved "health-boosting" diets in the 1800s were severely limited, with a regimen of milky pudding or grains muddled with wine, two frequently doled out "cures." 

For the truly sick, though, beef tea reigned supreme. The drink was ladled into cups by the gallon for seemingly lost-cause cases, baffling doctors and nurses (who had yet to discover the science behind vitamins and minerals) as to why it seemed to help patients’ conditions.

"Beef tea may be chosen as an illustration of great nutrient power in sickness." -Florence Nightingale
"Beef tea may be chosen as an illustration of great nutrient power in sickness," noted Florence Nightingale in 1860. "There is a certain reparative quality in it—we do not know what—as there is in tea; but it may be safely given in almost any inflammatory disease...where much nourishment is required."

In many cases, it was treated like a miracle cure when nothing else worked to keep patients alive, and was treated with the same kind of magical thinking that is currently swirling around the bone broth trend.

"Everyone will be struck with the readiness with which certain classes of patients will often take ... beef tea repeatedly, when they refuse all other kinds of food," recounted well-known 1850s physician Dr. Christison. "This is particularly remarkable in the case of gastric fever in which little or nothing else besides beef tea has been taken for weeks ... the result is so striking. What is its mode of action? Possibly it belongs to a new denomination of remedies."

Of course, nothing gold—or trendy—can stay. By the 1880s, beef tea began to get serious blowback from the medical community, who believed it to have little nutritional value and perhaps even be dangerous for those ailing.

"[We do not know] whether beef tea may not very frequently be actually injurious, and whether the products of muscular waste, which constitute ... beef tea, may not under certain circumstances be actually poisonous," wrote Dr. Lauder Brunton in 1880.

The hype-trend-blowback cycle for the latest health food fad might not be as old as our prehistoric ancestors, but it’s definitely nothing new.

Some doctors also believed, curiously, that beef tea and the consumption of urine held similar medicinal benefits.

Even as its reputation as a nutrient-packed super-drink faded, there was still some belief that beef tea—instead of being fortifying—could work as a stimulant. Some doctors also believed, curiously, that beef tea and the consumption of urine held similar medicinal benefits.

"[Regarding] the non-nutritive, but valuable stimulating powers of beef tea ... it will be interesting to note some facts proving that similar properties have long been known as pertaining to urine," Brunton mused. "In South America, urine is a common vehicle for medicine ... and is spoken of highly as a stimulant in malignant small-pox."

The popularity of hospital and at-home beef tea may have waned as the years clicked on and the understanding of remedies vastly improved, but its homey, comforting essence easily became ripe for repackaging.

Facebook/Bovril

In 1870, a Scottish chemist named John Lawson Johnston was tasked by Napoleon III with delivering one million cans of beef to the troops during the Franco-Prussian War, which quickly revealed itself as a logistical nightmare. Putting his scientific (and, perhaps, historic) know-how to good use, Johnston created a product he called "fluid beef" that proved to be easier to transport.

The drink was, essentially, beef tea.

The company branded itself "Bovril" in 1886 and has since become synonymous with English identity, winding its way into pop culture, tea kettles and the thermoses of soccer fans across the country for decades.

Bovril, alongside more traditional beef tea preparations, served as a mealtime staple on the front lines of World War I for English soldiers, contributing to the hail-hardiness of the men, but also gout and boils brought on by excessive protein in their diets. The company’s advertisements have inspired a cult following of collectors, and Bovril remains one of the few products (much less beverages) to be officially endorsed by a Pope.

Today, Bovril is omnipresent, and perhaps best known as the preferred beverage to fend off winter chills when visiting soccer stadiums from Arsenal to Aston Villa, where the beefy potion peps up fans.

If history is any indication, it’s not too farfetched to imagine our current bone broth trend may follow a similar path as beef tea, migrating from extraordinary health-tonic to sporty sipper in just a few cultural turns of the dial.

So when Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys are sitting courtside at the Knicks game sipping cups of bone broth, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Lead image from Wikimedia Commons

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