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Tobacco: the inedible plant that has accompanied meals for centuries

Not everything that happens at the table has to do with eating, the act of sitting together to share meals is indeed a social event and it provides the perfect opportunity to share, relax, talk and bond.

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) and its many varieties have been used for medicinal, religious and recreational uses (and abuses) for thousands of years. It is one of the many products of the Columbian exchange.

The dried and burnt Nicotina leaves have been used in the Americas for more than 3000 years and there is vast evidence of its cultivation in the Aztec empire and it was used as an entheogen, meaning for spiritual and religious purposes although its recreational use was quite common.

In the the “General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún” also known as Florentine Codex in the Book IX related to the merchants, Sahagun relates how smoking was a social ritual in feasts offered by the Aztec ruling class and this indulgence was accompanied by refreshing cocoa drinks.

After the introduction of tobacco (and tobacco smoking) in Europe its trade forged large fortunes, in England smoking became highly fashionable in Elizabethan times, Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the Queen’s favourites a well-known tobacco enthusiast is commonly cited as the person responsible for popularising smoking.

According to Samuel Pepys, it was in Winchcombe St. Peter (Gloucestershire) where tobacco was first cultivated after its introduction into England, in 1583. But its cultivation was prohibited by Charles II in 1655 because it affected the trade economy.

Once tobacco joined the global market in the 16th century, its production, trade, distribution and retail businesses were all part of a complex and lucrative business.

In London, clay tobacco pipe makers produced pipes by the thousands, many of them disposable but also many werre fine and luxurious items, engraved with symbols and anagrams.

MrD and I picked up these pieces last year during a walk along the Thames riverbank ritght infront of the modern Tate

MrD and I picked up these pieces last year during a walk along the Thames riverbank ritght infront of the modern Tate

Such was the vast production of pipes that a casual walk along the Thames riverbank is enough to find dozens of pieces of broken pipes and many other archaeological objects that date back to Roman times.

So, it is important to remember that not all plants that have been obsessively cultivated and consumed have an alimentary purpose.

Tobacco remains particularly close to the eating habits of many cultures -against all odds- specially for its many negative effects on the health of the consumer. But smokers or non-smokers we can all agree that sometimes the less obvious products affect our cultural habits in ways we could have never had forseen.


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