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Malted Milk: Its Cool History : Beverages: William Horlick thought he was inventing health food. Hah.


Who speaks for the malt? The malted milkshake occupies a safe but basically humble position in the soda fountain repertory. Probably nobody downing a malt--whether the classic '30s and '40s foamy variety or the post-'50s semi-frozen sort--suspects its colorful and downright heroic history. Disease! Starvation! Prohibitionism! The South Pole!

Technically speaking, malt is a mixture of sugars produced from starch. The thing that converts the starch is an enzyme with the silly-sounding name gibberellin, which is secreted by grain as it sprouts. Eventually the enzyme action is stopped by roasting the malt, which also caramelizes some of the sugars and produces attractive toasted flavors.

Mostly malt is fermented and turned into beer or whiskey. However, malt sugars are easy to digest, and 19th Century doctors often prescribed malt for children and invalids. There were problems with it, though. In liquid form it tended to ferment, and for years every attempt to produce a stable dried form of malt failed.

The man who succeeded in making malt powder was William Horlick, an Englishman who emigrated to Chicago in the 1870s. His process consisted of drying malt extract with wheat extract in a vacuum. He called the resulting product Horlick's Food, patented it and set up a business in Racine, Wis. (where he also married a woman who must have been a cousin--her maiden name was Arabella Horlick).

Doctors blessed his name and prescribed their patients Horlick's Food, which made a tasty drink when mixed with milk. However, in the late 19th Century, cow's milk was often unwholesome. Before modern refrigeration and pasteurization (which did not become universal until the '40s), milk was commonly infected with diseases, such as the dreaded tuberculosis. The 19th Century expression "the summer sickness" referred to diseases spread by milk.

Horlick was unhappy about this, so he conceived the idea of making a form of Horlick's Food that wouldn't have to be mixed with milk. In 1882 he perfected the process of drying milk right along with the wheat and malt, making a product that only needed to be mixed with water.

It was a convenience food as well as a health food. Travelers carried it to the tropics, the Himalayas and the Poles. Horlick's Malted Milk Tablets were renowned as a cheap, reliable food during the Depression, when they were a standard item in school and work lunch pails. Even as late as the '50s, members of the Depression generation often made sure to keep malted milk tablets in the pantry for emergencies.

All of these attractions would have made Horlick's business a success, but as it happened, there was another factor at that particular time as well. In the late 19th Century, the Temperance Movement was constantly trying to wean men away from saloons. One bright idea along these lines was the milk bar, also known as the ice cream parlor or soda fountain, where only ice cream and nonalcoholic beverages were served.

Malted milk was a natural for the soda fountain. It was not only nonalcoholic but regarded as healthful. American taste turned a health food into a pleasure food, as it would later do with peanut butter and granola.

With tens of thousands of ice cream parlors making him a wealthy man, Horlick became a public benefactor. He donated a school, a hospital and a park to the city of Racine. He supported wholesome youth movements like the Boy Scouts.

And probably out of a sense of gratitude to the Scandinavians of Wisconsin, he donated to many Norwegian causes. When King Haakon of Norway made him the first American to receive the Order of St. Olaf, it was because Horlick had been one of the principal backers of Roald Amundsen's expedition to find the South Pole.

If you look at a map of Antarctica today, you will find proof. About 125 miles from the Pole--a little closer than the Wisconsin Range--you will find the Horlick Mountains. The man to whom ice cream had been so good is memorialized in the continent of ice.

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