The Guy You’re Gonna Call

In 1933, renowned spiritual medium Eileen Garrett entered the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University where she met with botanist turned clinical parapsychologist J.B. Rhine to participate in his quantitative study of extrasensory perception (ESP).

Rhine brought out a deck of cards, specifically designed with his partner Karl Zener for the experiments. Each of the Zener cards contained one of five simple shapes. Ms. Garrett simply had to identify, without seeing the shape on the card, which one Rhine presented her with. The assumption was that an accuracy rate more than 20% would indicate ESP.

Zener Cards [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Zener Cards, used to test for ESP [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few years prior, Rhine had gleefully exposed medium Mina Crandon as a fraud, so no one was more surprised than he when Garratt did identify the correct shapes more than 20% of the time. The medium herself, however, was not pleased with the results, claiming that she would have performed better had the cards not lacked a certain psychic energy.

She would have been better off graciously accepting her results because later testing by other researchers failed to find any ability to correctly identify the cards above that of normal chance. Actually Rhine’s methods attracted a lot of criticism, particularly claims that he inadvertently cued his subjects to the proper shapes on the cards. His results were never verifiable in subsequent tests.

But still, Rhine is credited with coining the term “parapsychology” and with being the first to honestly attempt to study it quantitatively. He continued his research at Duke until the university discontinued its support in the early 1960s and he founded the Journal of Parapsychology, the Institute of Parapsychology, and the Parapsychological Association. There’s no question he made himself into the foremost expert in his field, the guy you would call with all of your parapsychological concerns.

And in 1984, his dedication to his field of study brought him a great honor. In one of the opening scenes of Ghostbusters, Dr. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, uses Rhine’s Zener card methodology to test two students for ESP, torturing a young male student who fares at least as well as Garratt did, and hitting on a pretty young lady who always seems to guess correctly even though she doesn’t.

Hook and Ladder Company No. 8. NO FIRES! and NO GHOSTS! "Ghostbusters Firehouse 2 (2007)" by Daniel SCHNERF - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg

Hook and Ladder Company No. 8. NO FIRES! and NO GHOSTS! “Ghostbusters Firehouse 2 (2007)” by Daniel SCHNERF – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg

Like Rhine, Venkman faces the end of his university funding with grace and increased dedication to his chosen field of study. Rather than wallow in his misfortune, he and his associates move into an old firehouse and establish themselves as the guys you’re gonna call with all of your parapsychological concerns.

Perhaps you think it is a stretch to call this small nod to Rhine a great honor, and, well, of course you’re right. Because it would admittedly be a stretch to call Ghostbusters one of the great cinematic achievements of all time. Or of the 1980s. Or of 1984.

But even if it doesn’t hold up all that well, I was a child in the 1980s and Ghostbusters was surely the closest thing to a scary movie my parents ever let me watch. Because of that, it has formed an important part of my childhood. And maybe of yours, too. If so, you’re in luck.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the original theatrical release of Ghostbusters with (and if you have ESP then you can probably know this already) a theatrical release.

Stay Puft: The monster in your closet since 1984 photo credit: Great Beyond via photopin cc

Stay Puft: The monster in your closet since 1984
photo credit: Great Beyond via photopin cc

That’s right. Starting today and going through this next week, you can celebrate this momentous anniversary by donning your eighties garb and heading to a theater near you to experience the Stay Puft marshmallow attack on New York City in its full big-screen glory.

I think you’re going to do it. I see parachute pants, teased bangs, and a whole mess of ectoplasm in your future. And there’s a fifty percent chance I’m right.

 

I Just Thought You Should Know

On January 13, in the year AD 532 Byzantine Emperor Justinian attended a tense chariot race in Constantinople’s Hippodrome. The competing chariot teams were known simply as the Blues and the Greens, the colors they wore. But these were more than sports teams. They had become important political factions with which the people of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire identified. They had become the face which the people wore to interact with their leaders.

And on this particular January day, the people were angry. Three days earlier, some of the leaders of both the Blues and the Greens organizations were arrested and sentenced to death by Justinian for hooliganism gone too far. When two of the hangings were botched and a surviving representative from each of the Blues and the Greens was carried off to a church to seek asylum, the supporters of both groups united to petition for a pardon for the two men.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a model of the Hagia Sophia which he had rebuilt after it burned in the Nika Riots. By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a model of the Hagia Sophia which he had rebuilt after it burned in the Nika Riots. By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The pardon was denied, but Justinian did graciously plan a new chariot race for everyone to enjoy three days later. That may have been a mistake. From the start of the first race to the end of the twenty-second (of twenty-four), the crowd chanted quests for mercy for their leaders. And then, according to contemporary accounts, the chant shifted to “Long live the merciful Blues and Greens.”

Anyone who has ever been swept up in a sports rivalry will understand that when rival fans find common ground in a sports stadium, it’s time to get nervous. Evidently Justinian knew that. He took off, barricading himself in his palace.

That very night, to the cry of “Nika!” (victory or conquer), the rioting began. Large parts of the city burned and five days later the exhausted Justinian called on his loyal military leaders who successfully herded the rioting mob into the Hippodrome and slaughtered them. The Nika riots were over. Nothing positive had been accomplished. And 30,000 people were dead.

This is not a lighthearted story from history. And I apologize that this is not my typical lighthearted post, but I’ve had riots and the devastation they can cause on my mind lately. You see, I live in the greater St. Louis area. I don’t live in the suburb of Ferguson, but like its citizens, St. Louis is the city I call home and the residents of Ferguson are my neighbors. And I think I can safely speak for a lot of us who live in the area when I say that these past almost two weeks now, have been a terrible emotional strain.

My heart breaks for the family and friends of Michael Brown, who in their eyes was a gentle giant whose possible actions on the day of his death were very out of character. My heart also breaks for the family, friends, and coworkers of Officer Darren Wilson who are struggling to cope with the repercussions of what they see as an atypical action of a good cop. And my prayers are with the investigators charged with figuring out how this all went down to begin with.

But above all, my heart cries out for the people of Ferguson, the Greater St. Louis community, and this multi-colored nation of equals where there is still enough pain and mistrust bubbling beneath the surface that one tragic event can cause us to lash out at each other.

Because the Nika riots weren’t about chariot racing. They weren’t really even about seeking pardon for political leaders. They were about a people who felt they were being unfairly burdened by a government that wouldn’t hear them. They were scared for their futures and spurred on by an opportunistic movement to depose the sitting emperor.

I don’t think the Ferguson riots are entirely about the shooting of Michael Brown. If they were, then the media could move on while the very careful investigation stretches out and the crowds could return home (for many, many of them that’s not Ferguson, or St. Louis, or even Missouri) and await the findings. They could stop tearing apart the streets and keeping the children who should have started school last week, at home and scared.

The riots in Ferguson continue not because a white police officer shot a young black man, but because no matter what the investigation shows were the causes of that incident, and no matter where the blame lands, we live in a nation in which it still isn’t so hard to believe that our racial differences divide us to the point of senseless violence.

I’m choosing to write about this not just because it’s difficult to focus on much else in my corner of the world right now and certainly not because I have answers. But I write because I have been disturbed by the way the media has portrayed the Ferguson situation. In most instances the news has been negative and misleading.

Members of the media have been guilty of rushing to draw erroneous conclusions that have served to inflame passions. Coverage has focused on the unforgivable actions of a militarized police force that in reality has gone out of its way to minimize injuries to protestors even while sustaining injuries itself, often backing down when it seemed safe to do so, clearing streets and business areas where violence appears likely to spread, and, yes, occasionally asking members of the media to (gasp) comply with its instructions.

St. Louis Gateway Arch on a calm summer evening. By Blueberoo1987 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

St. Louis Gateway Arch on a calm summer evening. By Blueberoo1987 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What we haven’t seen much of, and I think, because I live in the area, I hear more of it than the national and international media lets out to the world, is the number of area clergy walking through the crowds to be a calming presence encouraging peaceful protest and discouraging violence.  The media hasn’t focused much on the African American business professionals who mingle with the crowd to spread calm and sense in the midst of anger and fear.

What you may not have seen is the groups of peaceful protestors coming together with police to identify violent and criminal opportunists among the crowd, nor have you been shown the members of MIZZOU’s Phi Alpha Phi black fraternity cleaning up the streets and going door to door in Ferguson to register voters so that its citizens can bring about the change in leadership that will give them a louder voice in their community.

I write because I want you to know that I am proud of this community and of the people in it who understand that further violent or criminal actions only cause more harm. I have hope for Ferguson. It’s going to be a long road, but I believe that when the dust settles and the outside protestors, media, and opportunists go home, it will pull itself up again and stand together as a stronger community with citizens who understand each other a little better. Because I think the people of Ferguson see the damage this continuous rioting is doing and I think bit by bit, they are beginning take their town back from the riots. And bit by bit, they will find more effective ways to heal their wounds.

And I just thought you should know.

Absolute Leisure and Peace

In May of 1906 the Atlantic Monthly published a piece by American nature essayist John Burroughs who wrote of his experience camping in Yellowstone National Park with President Theodore Roosevelt. The trip itself occurred three years earlier in the spring of 1903, but Burroughs begins his essay by explaining that in the time since, he’s not had a moment to sit down and write about it what with all the “stress and strain of [his] life at [home]—administering to the affairs of so many of the wild creatures about [him].”

I can relate to that. I try to post to this blog every Thursday with some new snippet of history and nonsense, but sometimes I don’t make it. And now it has been three weeks since my last post. Summer is especially tough because my sons (7 and 9) are out of school and, well, what with the stress and strain of administering to the affairs of the wild creatures about me, I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

But my family just recently returned from a trip through the Western United States, including Yellowstone and since school started this week, I thought I’d finally take a moment to write about it.

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, though my husband has been to the oldest national park in the world several times, the boys and I had never been. Just judging by the variety of license plates we saw and the number of languages we heard, I’m guessing most of you have been. If you haven’t, and you ever have the opportunity, you should go.

Because it’s weird.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

At least that’s all most people told me about it before I went. And they weren’t wrong. It is weird. It bubbles and boils beneath you and vents its acrid steam and then belches great plumes of water before a crowd that can’t help but gasp and cheer even while realizing that the earth here could actually explode and kill us all.

And then there’s the wildlife. Our first night in the park we camped because we wanted our boys to have that experience. We got our tent all set up and attended an evening ranger program where we proceeded to learn all the ways bears, elk, and bison can and will kill you. Then we slept in our tent pitched alongside trees that had been marked by bears, elk, and bison. We spent our remaining nights in a lodge.

We didn't point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

We didn’t point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

But Roosevelt and his companions largely didn’t. On a brief respite from a westward speaking tour, the president mostly camped in the backcountry. Of course there were no terribly endangered bison to speak of in the park at that time, and as this was early spring, most of the bears were still hibernating, but there were lots of elk and still a fair number of mountain lions and other predators.

It was the animal life that chiefly interested Roosevelt. According to Burroughs, the president, much to the chagrin of those companions charged with his safety, set off by himself as often as he could to enjoy a quiet picnic lunch alongside a wandering herd. Once while coatless and half lathered in the middle of a shave, Roosevelt rushed to the canyon’s edge to watch the treacherous descent of a group of goats headed for a drink from the river below.

Despite the grueling travel over still deep snow in many parts of the park, the sixteen day detour through Yellowstone apparently left Roosevelt refreshed and more determined than ever to advocate for the nation’s natural spaces.

When we were about to leave the park, I admitted to my husband, who had largely planned this trip on his own, that I’d had my doubts about this vacation. It’s not that I don’t like to animal watch and hike. I do, but I wondered if it would hold the attention of our boys or if we would all be tired and cranky and wishing we’d spent a week at the beach instead.

I was pleasantly surprised. They loved it, almost every minute of it. They delighted in the walking past the smelly, gurgling acid pools of a giant super volcano and they loved craning their necks to spot distant elk herds and bird species they’d never seen or bothered to identify.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

We came home refreshed. And I’m delighted to finally take a moment to reflect on the journey. I’m also glad that it didn’t take me the three years it took Burroughs, who defended his slow pace by reminding his readers that he didn’t have the “absolute leisure and peace of the white house” that allowed Roosevelt to write his own reflections shortly after the trip.

Yep. I bet that’s it. If only I were president, I’d have all the time in the world to post. And maybe even to improve my golf swing.

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Follow the Arrows

As the summer wears on, and my children increasingly have trouble entertaining themselves, I find myself struck at the genius of my mother. It was well-known in my house growing up in Smalltown, Illinois, that it was a very bad idea to utter the words, “I’m bored” in front of Mom. Her response would, without fail, be, “Great! The toilets need to be scrubbed.”

photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc</a

photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc

But every so often, if one of us had a friend or two over to play and we found ourselves in a lull, she would take pity on us and come up with these amazingly creative ideas, from fun little games to large scale projects of awesomeness. One of my favorites was a game she resurrected from her own childhood in Even Smallertown, Illinois called an arrow hunt.

The idea was that one person (or one team) would take a piece of chalk and go somewhere in our Smalltown neighborhood to hide. Along the route, the hiders marked a chalk arrow every time they changed directions. The arrow had to be clearly visible, though it could be in an unexpected place, and the final arrow pointed to the spot where the hider(s) would be found.

The game was a hit. It killed a lot of otherwise boring summertime hours, no toilets were scrubbed, and my friends and I discovered all the nooks and crannies of the nearby park and neighborhood landscaping. And I got really good at spotting a trail.

So did pilot Jack Knight on one dark night in 1921 when he completed a successful flight from Chicago to North Platte, Nebraska. This was important for two reasons. First, it was the first (and possibly only) time anyone ended up in North Platte on purpose. Second, Knight’s flight had been a test for the US Postal Service.

A relatively new technology, airplanes offered the promise of efficient coast to coast mail delivery. But navigation was still in its infancy with pilots relying on landmarks to guide them. This meant that night flying was pretty much out.

It's possible this man has no idea where he's going.

It’s possible this man has no idea where he’s going.

That is until someone had the brilliant idea to use postal workers and citizen volunteers to man a series of bonfires along Jack Knight’s dark route. His success led to the (slightly) more sophisticated plan to dot the Transcontinental Air Mail Route from New York to San Francisco with 50-foot steel, gas-lit beacons mounted into giant yellow concrete arrows on the ground.

Each arrow pointed toward the next beacon, around ten miles or so away depending on topography. Congress thought it was a great idea and by 1924 there were giant arrows pointing the way from Cleveland, Ohio all the way to Rock Springs, Wyoming. And because the Postal Service realized there weren’t a lot of reasons to stop in Rock Springs, Wyoming, the route was extended over the next few years, eventually reaching from New York to San Francisco.

air mail route

Transcontinental Airmail Route

Of course it wasn’t long before fancier navigation systems developed and pilots began to feel that radio frequencies were somewhat more reliable than the old fly-real-low-and-follow-the-arrows system. During WWII, the steel beacon towers were dismantled and repurposed, putting a practical end to the dotted Transcontinental Air Mail Route.

But the arrows are still there. Their paint is faded and they may have a few cracks here and there, but many of them that haven’t become the victims of development are still there to be found by the odd eagle-eyed traveler.

So we’re almost to the countdown to the start of school. I am not as creative as my mother and my boys are spending their childhood in Not-So-Small-Suburb, Missouri so even in our very safe neighborhood, I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea of them chasing arrows through the streets. My solution for summer boredom is to plan the big family vacation for the end of the summer, as a reward of sorts, for making it this far. And now I know as we pack up for our trip west, we’ll be following the arrows after all.

Arrows go left. Arrows go right. Follow in the morning, or follow them at night.

Arrows go left. Arrows go right. Follow in the morning, or follow them at night.

 

Ending with a Bang: The Long Weary Road to the Last Out

One hundred years ago, on July 17, 1914, a weary baseball crowd at Pittsburg’s Forbes Field awaited the end of a very long game. For 21 innings the Pirates and the New York Giants battled it out. At last, Larry Doyle of the Giants sent a two-run shot over the wall bringing the game to a score of 3-1, devastating the remaining Pittsburg faithful. It had been a dreadfully long game. Pittsburg’s manager had long since been ejected for arguing a call. The mood was surely solemn. And to top it off, a storm was brewing above the city.

There would be no celebratory fireworks for the Pirates, but there would be an impressive light show when in what has to be the most spectacular baseball play of all time in the bottom of the 21st inning, New York outfielder John Joseph “Red” Murray caught a long fly ball for the third out and was simultaneously knocked unconscious by a lightning strike.

Evidently even God grows weary of baseball after a while.  photo credit: Michael Fienen via photopin cc

Evidently even God grows weary of baseball after a while. photo credit: Michael Fienen via photopin cc

I love baseball, though I’m not a great sports fanatic in general. I only know who won the world cup because my Facebook feed briefly became the hooligan section (Germany, right?). As much as I have tried for my husband’s sake, American football is just beyond me. And all I know about hockey and professional basketball is that they have ridiculously drawn-out playoff schedules that seem to stretch into the next regular season of play.

But baseball captures my attention. So I was thrilled when both of my sons, ages 6 and 9 decided they wanted to play this summer. My 9-year-old had some previous experience. Last summer he played in a non-competitive coach-pitch league where he made some friends, developed some skills, and had a pretty good time. And as a little kiddo he played on a tee ball team where the two biggest highlights of his season were losing a tooth in the infield and handing it to the nearest parent volunteer (who took it quite graciously I thought), and dumping a glove-full of grass on the head of a little girl who had just run to third.

Consider carefully before volunteering to help out with tee ball.  photo credit: courosa via photopin cc

Consider carefully before volunteering to help out with tee ball. photo credit: courosa via photopin cc

Unfortunately this summer hasn’t gone as well. This season we tried a different, competitive league. I’m certainly not opposed to competition. It’s important to learn how to both win and lose well. And the kids have done well will that. But what has broken my heart has been seeing the way that my son and his teammates have been crushed by frustrated and inconsistent coaching and by bad sportsmanship from both parents and coaches (on all the teams).

With only one game to go, we’re nearing the end of the season, and my son doesn’t want to go to practice and doesn’t want to go to the game. I’m going to make him, because it’s a good lesson in honoring commitments, even when it’s tough, but I get it. I don’t really want to go to the game either.

It hasn’t been all bad, of course. He has made some friends, gotten much better at spitting sunflower seeds, and has learned that even in the midst of endless innings stuck in the outfield and pointless arguments between hothead coaches and umpires who aren’t bold enough to toss said coaches from the field, there are bright moments.

His team isn’t going to win first place, but they are well over .500 and my son’s still thrilled when he manages to field the ball well or when he has a good at bat. But I’m also afraid that this kid, who loves to watch this sport as much as I do, may never want to try to play baseball again. Frankly, he’s weary. It’s been a dreadfully long season and going into the last game, against the best team in the league, the mood is solemn and a storm is brewing.

I sincerely hope the game doesn't get called for bad weather because then we'd have to play a make-up.

I also sincerely hope the game doesn’t get called for bad weather because then we’d have to play a make-up.

So although I sincerely hope that none of the players get struck by lightning (and I suppose no coaches or parents either because I am trying to model good sportsmanship), I do hope that there’s something in this last game that sparks his excitement for the sport again and provides him with a good memory to carry into next time.

Nothing will stop this man from catching a fly ball. By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

NOTHING will stop Red Murray from ending a 21 inning game. By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure that Red Murray remembered the game winning catch he made that day in Pittsburg, but his legend certainly lived on. And so did he. Rumor has it he even played in the very next Giants game. In my book that either makes him the most dedicated baseball player ever, or perhaps this the biggest tall tale in the sport. Either way it’s a good story with a great ending.

Oh the Places I’ve Never Gone: A Story of SPAM

I love a good road trip and, I confess, I have a little bit of an obsession. I collect brochures. I don’t mean that I have a basement full of full color brochures from every place I’ve ever visited. That might actually make sense.

I mean that at every hotel, roadside diner, and rest stop, the first thing I do is check out the tourism brochure rack, and I usually pick up at least three or four. Of course I do this in the places where I’m staying for a while, but also in the places I’m just driving through.

 

In case you can't read it, that phone number is 800-LUV-SPAM, so you can get all of your SPAM and SPAM Museum-related questioned answered. I'm sure you have many.

It’s Free! And it has bathrooms. And probably tee shirts.

 

And here’s the strange part, I almost never go to the places in the brochures. But I love to learn about bizarre little tourist sites that get highlighted on those racks. I guess it’s my way of soaking in some of quirkiness of the communities I am privileged to pass through.

There are the standard places like zoos, waterparks, and outlet malls and in this part of the country there’s usually a cave tour or two. Sometimes those are accompanied by interesting stories. But the ones I like best advertise those truly unique places, the ones that are just weird enough that it’s unlikely anyone would ever travel specifically to a particular area just to see them.

My latest find, maybe the best brochure I have ever picked up on a road trip, came from a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota where we stopped this weekend on our way to watch a community theater musical production that featured one of our very talented nieces.

Obviously she stole the show and we were delighted to be there to watch her performance, but I admit, second to that, my favorite part of the trip was the place we didn’t go: The SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota.

Austin is only about a 45 minute drive from Rochester and not particularly out of the way for a traveler headed back to St. Louis, but it was the last day of our whirlwind weekend road trip. We were anxious to head home. And I was the only one who seemed at all interested in going.

Even Big Foot loves SPAM.

Even Big Foot loves SPAM.

How could I not be? First of all the museum is free, so even if it’s not everything it’s advertised to be, all you’ve lost is an hour or so of your time, which you can’t ever get back. Still, how can you say no to a tourist destination that boldly proclaims: “Theater! Game Show! Restrooms! IT’S ALL HERE!”

So since my family wouldn’t be convinced to tour the museum (okay so it’s possible I didn’t try that hard), I had to research SPAM the old fashioned way and just Google it.

SPAM hit the market in 1937 and soon dominated the canned meat industry. A spiced ham product initially made entirely from pork shoulder which had been an underutilized cut of meat up to that point in the company Hormel’s canned meat products, SPAM received its iconic name from a somewhat suspicious contest.

The winning entry was submitted by an actor named Ken Daigneau who also happened to be the brother of a Hormel Foods Vice President. There’s no word on whether or not said vice president was in fact the judge of the contest, but Hormel awarded Daigneau $100 for his efforts and it’s a good thing they did because “ham jello” just doesn’t sing as well.

Though SPAM (which Hormel claims stands for “spiced ham” and not the “something posing as meat” that some have suggested) took off largely as a wartime food, its real boost into the popular psyche came from Monty Python’s famous 1970 SPAM comedy sketch, which period actors with brilliant British accents (I’m sure) reenact daily for a fascinated audience at the SPAM Museum.

Alas, I’ve never been. Still, I do have the brilliant brochure that both splits into detachable postcards with fun SPAM facts so you can conveniently invite your friends from all over the world to a SPAM pilgrimage they won’t soon forget and also features a helpful map placing the museum into geographical context with the World’s Largest Stack of Empty Oil Cans. I haven’t managed to collect a brochure advertising that American travel gem yet, but it’s definitely on my list of sites to not visit.

spammap

10,000 Lakes? Big Deal. Come to Minnesota for the SPAM!

Super Foods of Future Past

In the fall of 1902, twelve healthy young men sat down together in a dining room set up in the basement of the former Bureau of Chemistry in Washington D.C. for the first of many meals they would share. The food they ate was whole and healthy, prepared with the finest ingredients, and calculated to meet the specific caloric needs of each individual. Oh, and it was laced with borax.

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Chief Chemist in the United States Department of Agriculture. Food and drug safety enthusiast. Poisoner of young men.

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Chief Chemist in the United States Department of Agriculture. Food and drug safety enthusiast. Poisoner of young men.

The twelve young men at the table were the first volunteer subjects of a study designed by the Bureau of Chemistry’s Chief Chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley to determine the human health effects of various common additive food preservatives.

Each young hero agreed that for the duration of his participation he would ingest nothing but the food provided him through the study, the only exception being water, which was carefully measured. He also agreed to regular medical examinations, and, of course, he agreed to clean his plate.

Wait, there isn't any radiated spider venom in this, right? I have the weirdest reaction to that stuff.

Wait, there isn’t any radiated spider venom in this, right? I have the weirdest reaction to that stuff.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Americans were as concerned about the chemicals in their foods as we are in 2014. And with no real regulation, it was nearly as difficult to make good family food decisions as it is today amidst confusing regulation and an overwhelming amount of ever evolving and sometimes conflicting health information.

Then along came Dr. Wiley and his “Poison Squad” as they were soon called by the press. They operated under the motto, “Only the Brave dare eat the fare,” rotating through and testing at various times throughout the five year duration of the study: borax, benzoic acid, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, copper sulfate, salicylic acid, and saltpeter.

As soon as a man developed symptoms that inhibited the performance of his daily routine, he was given a minimum of forty days rest during which he ate nutritious food that contained none of the test chemical. But as Dr. Wiley later explained during a hearing before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, the study was necessarily limited because unlike with animal testing, he couldn’t cut open his test subjects and examine their organs. Apparently, they wouldn’t agree to that.

So, I don't know what's in that turkey leg, but I don't think it agrees with him.

So, I don’t know what’s in that turkey leg, but I don’t think it agrees with him.

Still, the study and the publicity that accompanied it, helped pave the way for the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and for the agency that would emerge officially in 1930 as the Food and Drug Administration. The act addressed fairness in labeling more than the elimination of food dangerous food preservatives, but four of Wiley’s test additives are long since gone from American foods, including borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, and copper sulfate.

Thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the poison squad, the food we eat is a little bit safer, which doesn’t seem to do much to ease our minds as we are still at war with all things perceived as unnatural in our foods. Regardless of what diet you subscribe to, be it the Mediterranean, Paleo, Flexitarian, or whatever, the one thing they all pretty much agree on is that you should eat as much real, single-ingredient, “whole” food as you can.

And even the most practical of nutritionists, who caution against adopting a diet so rigid that it’s not workable, agree that this is probably a pretty good idea. But as a mom who does the vast majority of the grocery shopping and as much of the cooking as I can’t get out of, I wanted to know, just what are those whole superfoods my family should be eating?

Turns out Prevention magazine has some suggestions. Actually, there are quite a few lists of the super-est foods of 2014, but I liked this particular list because most of the foods on it were included elsewhere, too, and there were several I’d never heard of before. You just can’t get any more super than that.

Holy Whole Foods, Batman!

Holy Whole Foods, Batman!

A few of my favorite are:

1. Avocado oil – just the oil, not the avocado because it was super a couple of years ago
2. Coffee – some years it’s good; some years it’s bad; this year the price is going up so it’s super
3. Shichimi togarashi – a Japanese spice that is apparently really hot and rich in antioxidants, but way more Hipster-friendly than say, blueberries
4. Salsify – a root vegetable that is low calorie and high in fiber because, you know, it’s a vegetable
5. Za’Atar – a Middle Eastern spice that decreases the instances of foodborne illnesses, kind of like cooking does
6. Teff – a gluten free grain whose biggest claim to healthfulness seems to be that you can’t digest it
7. Canary seed – yep, that’s right, bird seed is a gluten free grain option for people, too, so that in 2014, you have permission to finally eat the way you’ve always wanted to, like a bird. Super.

Um, just no.

Um, just no.

I don’t know what was on the list of super foods in 1906, but I guess I know what wasn’t. Don’t worry, though. No formal follow-up study was ever done on the participants of the poison squad, but anecdotally their health didn’t suffer in the long term. One participant, William O. Robinson of Falls Church, Virginia, passed away in 1979 at the age of 94. I think we have to conclude that his longevity stemmed from the fact that he was so well preserved.