Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Customs, Culture and Traditions (2)

Right Angle Club 2017
Dick Palmer and Bill Dorsey died this year. We will miss them.

Uncorking the Past

Patrick E. McGovern PhD

The Right Angle Club was recently visited by Patrick E. McGovern, PhD. Scientific Director, Biomolecular Archaeology Project, Adjunct Professor, Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Anthropology. Author,"The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages; "Rediscovering ancient fermented beverages throughout the world."

Professor McGovern calculates that alcohol has been used as an intoxicating beverage for over 2700 years. Because our species began in Africa, that's the place you first find evidence of booze. As a matter of fact, the Milky Way is just filled with loose alcohol, with millions of gallons floating around its center, so alcohol has probably been around for eons longer than we know. Alcohol is just a step of fermentation away from sugar, so it has probably been bubbling around almost as long as life.

The association of yeast fermentation with cell life has fascinated at least one other Penn Professor (Doug Wallace), who feels mitochondria are pieces of plants which have somehow got incorporated into animal cells, and probably account for the limited carbohydrate metabolism in animal forms, concentrating an unusually large proportion of cancer transformations in the process. If so, it's a mixture of good and evil, like so much of life.

Alcohol Fermentation

So if it's so easy to transform carbohydrate into alcohol, it figures, the dominant beverage will be fermentation of the local dominant carbohydrate. For the most part that's rice in the Orient (beer), fruit in central Asia (wine), and a tribe's favorite beverage tends to endure as long as they stay in the same region, eating the same food. I was tempted to ask about the beer-wine divide along the Rhine River but decided not to veer too far from archaeology or chemistry. The spread of potato-generated vodka seemed abstraction enough for the lunch-time entertainment of gentlemen who do lunch together, ride the train together, and occasionally venture into off-color jokes and games of chance.

We did sample Dr. McGovern's own private stock, a mixture of wine, beer, and mead. Quite tasty.

Originally published: Friday, February 10, 2017; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019