Wherein the Mayans and Aztecs realize the health benefits and sex appeal of big wads of chewing gum.
I’ve never been fond of chewing gum—when I was younger I particularly hated Big League Chew, which let teens slobbering from big wads of gum pretend they were cool adults slobbering from big wads of tobacco. Between the hardened, tacky gobs stuck under public seats and tables to shoe-grabbing goo on the sidewalk, I’ve always found gum to be distasteful.
People throughout history—like people today—have disagreed with me, however, finding gum useful for many purposes. Prehistoric Europeans chewed birch pitch to soften it as a glue for weapons and tools and, as we discussed earlier, ancient Greeks chewed mastic resin as a form of dental care. The Mayans and Aztecs of central America used gum not only for these things, but also for fresh breath and allegedly even “putting on the red light.”
Always Got a Mouthful
The Mayans and Aztecs discovered that diagonally slicing the bark of the sapodilla tree causes it to ooze chicle, a latex resin that when cooked and dried into a chewable substance the Mayans called cha could be used to quench thirst, alleviate hunger and freshen breath (this basic process of harvesting chicle continues today). According to the sixteenth-century Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, chewing chickle was strictly regulated according to the chewer’s gender:
All the women who unmarried chew chicle in public. One’s wife also chews chicle, but not in public…with it they dispel the bad odor of their mouths, or the bad smell of their teeth. Thus they chew chicle in order not to be detested.
Amanda Fiegel (referring to a work by Jennifer P. Mathews) adds, “Sahagún goes on to reveal that adult women who dared to chew chicle in public were viewed as harlots, while men who did so were ‘effeminates.’ (I’m sure major-league baseball players would love to hear that!)” Chewing chicle as an advertisement for prostitution could have really added a new dimension to Sting’s singing: “Roxanne, you don’t have to gnaw on a big ol’ wad of sap…”
Here Come Those Santa Ana Winds Again
Chicle became the basis for modern chewing gum when Antonio López de Santa Anna, former general and president of Mexico, was looking for a way to finance a return to the presidency. Teaming up with American inventor Thomas Adams, the duo attempted to create a rubber substitute but failed. Thomas, stuck with a large supply of chicle left behind by Santa Anna, finally broke through by coming up with a way to convert the resin into chewing gum. After William Wrigley sweetened and popularized gum, we eventually wound up with the bubble-making bane of schoolteachers’ existence.
While most modern gum-makers now use a variety of resins and chemicals to make chewing gum, Glee Gum still makes chewing gum with chicle as a primary ingredient.
Bubblegum music aficionados will recognize the title and first subheading of this post from the 1968 hit “Chewy, Chewy” from the titans of bubblegum, Ohio Express. I’ve always wished Ohio Express had continued a digestive theme with their songs: “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Chewy, Chewy” could have been followed by “Gulpy Gulpy Gulpy” and “Poopy Poopy.”
By the way, I know the Santa Ana winds aren’t named after the former generalissimo—I just liked the way the heading worked.
Image: Fruit Stripe gum sticks (Source).