It was a cold, rainy day around three weeks ago – March 29th to be exact. For reasons unknown, I decided to go to New York City as I often do on the weekend, despite the miserable weather and nearly record-breaking rain totals.
I’m fond of notebooks, and have spent more hard earned money on them than I’d like to admit, so I decided that I’d visit a few stationary stores. After leaving Kate’s Paperie in Soho empty handed, I walked by a seemingly homeless woman as I headed up Lafayette Street towards the Spring St subway station.
She gave me a double take.
“Excuse me,” she said when I was a few feet past her.
I stopped and looked back, silent but raising my eyebrows as to say yes.
“Is…is that weed?” she uttered, her voice trailing out on the last word as if a mere whisper would erase the absurdity of smoking marijuana in Manhattan of all places.
“Nah,” I laughed, most surprised at not having been asked for money.
“I was gonna ask you for some,” she said as I walked away.
I don’t smoke – not even cigarettes – and what she mistook for a joint was actually a chew stick.
I’ve been chewing these sticks on and off (usually off) since my freshman year in college, and you can’t imagine the looks and questions I have gotten from amazed young children to perplexed police officers and everything in between.
They can even change the perception of a person. In fact, I didn’t use them in France as, with my beard and fashion being more jeans, t-shirt, and Nikes than high european fashion, the sticks made me look even more like I was straight off the boat from the Magreb – which has its consequences.
But what are chew sticks?
Though it does appear to be a common twig, the ones most commonly sold in the United States are made from the licorice root.
Their use is nothing new, as chewing sticks have been around for quite some time as a precursor to the toothbrush. While people like me use them for a simple, tasty habit akin to biting ones fingernails, oral hygiene was the goal 4,000 years ago by the Babylonians, as well the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, ancient Japanese, and countless other cultures. Chew sticks fell out of fashion in the Western world around 300 years ago but they continue to be used today throughout Asia and Africa. Various types of sticks are used in different regions.
In the Middle East, the most common sort of chewing stick comes from the arak tree, while in some parts of West Africa orange and lime trees are used. In Sierra Leone it’s African laburnum, and in India neem trees are standard. Black Americans once used senna root – yes, senna, which tea-lovers will recognize as the powerfully antibacterial herb and laxitive.
Nowadays, we know that they are far more than toothbrushes. Aside from having a good taste, many sorts of chew sticks, including licorice root and the aforementioned senna, are known for their health benefits. According to a piece in Afro Style Mag,
research suggests that there are inherent medical benefits in chewing sticks. The research points to the possibility that chewing sticks are full of medically helpful properties. Some of these…are things like abrasives, detergents, antiseptics, astringent, fluoride and enzyme inhibitors. Other studies have indicated that chewing on these sticks can be as effective as using toothbrushes and toothpaste to clean both gums, teeth, freshen breath, and are even good for head and stomach problems. In fact, the World Health Organization has recommended the usage of Miswak because the tree itself has antiseptic properties and is comparable to other oral disinfectants and anti-plaque agents used today. Another more modern use for chew sticks is smoking cessation. It is reported that using a chew stick may reduce the need for a cigarette and may also slow the potential for weight gain while one is trying to stop smoking…In addition, extracts of other sticks have proven to possess antibacterial and anti-fungal properties (as well).
Scholarly publications concur with these statements, warning that, like everything, licorice root is best consumed in moderation. I guess it’s a good thing that I only use licorice sticks on and off.