Going back to 2000 B.C. vinegar was disdained as a beverage due to its harsh acidic taste, but was soon incorporated into a myriad of foods and other uses, taking its place on the ships of the spice traders.
But perhaps getting a jump on the Chinese were the Babylonians, as recordings start about 5000 BC, when the Babylonians were using fruits to make wine and vinegar, most likely the date palm. (Let’s face it, apples were pretty scarce in Egypt.) Residues have been found in ancient Egyptian urns as far back as 3000 B.C. and, like the Chinese, it was a popular pickling agent. Centuries later, Cleopatra used vinegar daily for her many personal beauty treatments.
The Bible frequently refers to vinegar being used for bathing and embalming, and it was offered to Jesus Christ when he was crucified on the cross. In the Islam traditions, it is thought to have been a favorite of the Prophet Mohammed. Of course the European royalty were not to be left out, using it primarily in food preparation. (They weren’t big on bathing.)
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed apple cider vinegar to be mixed with honey for a variety of health complaints, including lung congestion and coughs. He theorized that vinegar could remove infection by applying it to the wounded area,which was vital for the armies of ancient Greece.
In 218 B.C. the Carthaginian general Hannibal pressed vinegar into service when he crossed the Alps. His troops discovered that heating vinegar then pouring it over large stones would dissolve them, making passage easier for their animals.
The army of King Louis XIII of France, in the early 1600’s, used vinegar to cool off the cannons of his army in their many battles. When applied to the hot iron cannons, it not only had a cooling effect, but cleaned the surface metal, thus inhibiting rust.
Not to be outdone, many armies of the Middle Ages, when some country was always waging war, found that vinegar mixed with sand formed an abrasive material that was great for cleaning armor. (The forerunner of SOS pads?)
European alchemists in the Middle Ages poured it over lead, which created a sweet tasting substance they called “sugar of lead.” It was used into the nineteenth century to sweeten bitter ciders. As we now know, lead is highly poisonous, which resulted in the early death of many cider aficionados. They also learned the hard way not to store lead in metal containers.
In 1721, once again the Bubonic Plague reared its deadly head in many French cities. The French used imprisoned convicts to bury the dead, and the tale goes that four convicted thieves survived exposure to the infected bodies by drinking large amounts of vinegar daily, infused with garlic. Today, Four Thieve’s Vinegar is still sold in parts of France.
Not merely content to invent the pasteurization process for milk, scientist Louis Pasteur also experimented with a natural fermentation process to make vinegar, around the year 1864. It became popular for pickling vegetables and fruits, as well as a meat tenderizer. Vinegar promptly found its way into the first recipe for ketchup by the Henry J. Heinz Company and forever changed the popular condiment.
Imagine a kitchen without at least one bottle of vinegar, but more likely several varieties, including apple cider, red wine and balsamic. As many flavored vinegars continue to flourish, its popularity extends to thousands of other uses, including cleaning agents, pickling, salad dressings and a myriad of others. Regardless of who created it, Vinegar is clearly a staple of the world.