Once Yaupon a Time



Buckle up, because no sooner than you start telling people how much you’ve been enjoying your Yaupon, someone is going to pipe up and say “Why would you drink that? Don’t you know it makes you vomit?”  It is classified as Ilex vomitoria, after all. Depending on your personality you could take the defensive route (“Really? Did you throw up when you tried it? Oh, you never tried it? Thought so”), or the educational route (“As it turns out, this assumption is merely based on an observational mistake”) or maybe you’d prefer to just lock eyes with them in perfect silence except for the sound of your defiant, satisfied slurp of Yaupon that translates to: “Cool story, bro.” 


Here’s a cool story. One that explains how Ilex vomitoria got the short end of the stick in the name game. The natives of what is now the Southeastern United States used to drink a strong brew of Yaupon, made from roasted leaves and an hours-long steeping process, which often included other herbs and ingredients. Drunk from a ceremonial shell cup, after fasting for several days, they would imbibe large quantities in a short period during a purgative element of their ceremony. Purging was an integral part of cleansing the body and the spirit before battle, business transactions, and important decision-making. It’s debated whether the strong brew or one of the additional ingredients actually caused the vomiting, whether the speed of drinking caused it, or whether vomiting was induced manually and intentionally as part of the ceremony.

Another speculation (and the way more dodgy and fun version of the story) is that William Aiton, the botanist who gave Yaupon its classification, was an employee of the Ceylon Tea Company and was bribed to throw shade at Yaupon since it proved such a strong competition to the market.  Why would anyone pay money to have tea imported when it was growing right in their backyard? In order to boost the market, they had to besmirch the competition. In fact, other botanists who had observed Yaupon gave it many other different names, but none that suggested it was an emetic. Alas, William Aiton’s classification Ilex vomitoria was the one most widely and officially accepted. Thanks a lot, Bill.  Even though it’s more of a fringe herb now, some botanists, bloggers, and local foragers TODAY are still carrying on with the idea that Yaupon makes you vomit. Imagine how damning this taxonomical misrepresentation was at the height of its use! Regardless, we’ve downed enough Yaupon to declare this myth officially busted. 

 

If the name wasn’t enough of a bad rap for Yaupon, it quickly became unpopular in overseas trade and in European-influenced US culture. It was seen as a poor man’s drink, something wild and uncivilized, a common weed and a nuisance. It wasn’t bourgeois enough for high society, and it wasn’t rare enough for whoever the hipster version of the early settlers was. It remained a non-commercial and hyper-local brew for those who lived with it and harvested it with their own hands. Today, that’s the cultural shift we’re looking for. That’s the goal. We WANT what’s here, we want connection to the landscape, we want local, we want ethical and sustainable. You can’t trick us with a fresh fad or a noxious name. Yaupon is back on the table. 


 

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