In 1936, a man by the name of Earl Prince invented a machine that could make five milkshakes simultaneously. Made possible by the newfangled freon-cooled refrigerator systems, his “Multimixer” represented the greatest leap forward in milkshake-making since Steven Poplawski’s 1922 invention of the blender. Eleven years before that, Hamilton Beach made a drink mixer, which was soon put to good use making milkshakes at soda fountains everywhere.
But Prince’s machine was a welcome leap forward because what the American public had come to realize in the forty-seven years since the word “milkshake” first slipped into the English language, was that this thick, chilly beverage was awfully tasty.
Late nineteenth century milkshakes were similar to eggnog in texture and usually contained alcohol. In the early 1900s they received a family friendly facelift with the exchange of whiskey for ice cream and malted milk.
By the time Earl Prince created a way to produce a lot of milkshakes in short order, lending the ability of the then barely emerging fast food industry to get in on the trend, the public was clamoring for them.
I prefer the hand-dipped variety created in a trusty blender. Preferably made with chocolate. Still, I can appreciate the innovation that allows for speed because sometimes you just gotta have a milkshake.
And that’s why I was not disappointed to discover that today, September 12th, is a very special made-up holiday here in the United States. Today is National Chocolate Milkshake Day.
I will be the first to admit that here in the US we are maybe a little too obsessed with the stupid holiday. One online source for all things made-up suggests there are more than 1500 weird national holidays that some guy somewhere invented for some probably very silly reason.
But as far as ridiculous made-up holidays go, this is one I can get behind. I’m not sure how far this day of observation stretches back into history, but it’s at least a few years. I have to assume someone made it up because either he owned a shop that sold killer chocolate milkshakes and was looking for a way to drum up some publicity or because he lived near a shop that sold killer chocolate shakes and he was hoping for a discount.
Either way, I’m happy for an excuse to dust off the old blender and celebrate this most excellent day with a chocolate milkshake. Or maybe five.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am going to do my best throughout these summer months to post in this space at least every couple of weeks. The last two have been busy. My kids are now eleven and fourteen, which means two things. First, they don’t really need me to entertain them all the time, but second, they do need me to drive them places. All. The. Time.
We’ve also been adventuring as a family when we can squeeze it in. Last week, we loaded up the family truckster and embarked on a quest to strike another state off the list for the kids by spending a couple days in New Orleans, Louisiana.
And this is the point at which any serious history enthusiast and blogger would impress upon you that the National World War II Museum in New Orleans is amazing and is well worth the trip. She’d surely mention the care with which a variety of perspectives on the war are portrayed though artifacts, interactive video, and personalized stories throughout the many visually stunning exhibit halls. She might even attempt to communicate the overwhelming emotional response visitors have to this museum, including shame, sorrow, joy, and pride.
But this isn’t that kind of blog. Instead, I’m going to write about cocktails.
Because after visiting the World War II Museum we decided to take a carriage tour of the French Quarter and learned from our wonderful guide that the Big Easy is also sometimes referred to as “the cradle of civilized drinking.”
If, like me, you’ve ever spent any time on Bourbon Street, then you might, like me, question the use of the word, “civilized,” but what is meant is that New Orleans considers itself the original home of the cocktail.
The story, as I heard it, involves a man by the name of Antoine Peychaud who in 1841, opened Pharmacie Peychaud in order to sell his special herbal remedy cleverly called Peychaud’s Bitters. Like Mary Poppins a century later, the druggist discovered that a spoonful of sugar can be helpful when getting people to take their medicine, especially when combined with water and spirits and served in an egg cup called in French a coquetier.
With the increasing importance of the coffee house social scene throughout nineteenth century America, and the simultaneous discovery that without a large dose of cream, twenty-seven packets of sugar, and a Starbucks logo, coffee is actually kind of gross, Peychaud’s concoction in a coquetier became the cocktail. This, it turned out, was a much more entertaining beverage to enjoy with a gathering of know-it-all friends sharing silly stories from history.
And while it does seem there is some truth to this one, like most silly stories from history, it has been a little embellished by carriage tour guides over the years. New Orleans is definitely the original home to many cocktails, including the hurricane and a bunch I’ve never heard of because I drink cocktails almost as often as I drink coffee (which is almost never).
The city is not, however, the originator of the word “cocktail,” which appeared in print in the US for the first time in New York as early as 1803 and according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, probably got its start in England where it had more to do with perking up the back end of a horse than it did with raising the spirits of a self-medicating New OreleanderNew OrleaniteNew Orleanan citizen of New Orleans. The cradle of civilized drinking is also probably not the home of the original cocktail party, which according to Wondrich, might have been hosted by George Washington. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.
Still that doesn’t stop the rumor that tour guides throughout the city work hard to perpetuate. New Orleans is even the home the Museum of the American Cocktail, where I suspect you can learn all about Antoine Peychaud. I wouldn’t know, because this history blogger spent most of her time at National World War II Museum. And it really was well worth the visit.
In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson was just being a kid in Oakland, California. He was outside playing and had a glass filled with flavored soda water and a stirring stick. Then in a move that would surprise no mother ever, when it was time to go in, Frank left his concoction sitting on the ground outside for the whole chilly night. In the morning, the boy found that the contents of the glass had frozen with a great stir stick handle stuck down inside.
Through the years, Frank continued to make his frozen treats, delighting his friends, and eventually his children. In 1923, he sold his “Eppsicles” to the enthusiastic public at a park in Alameda, California. I imagine it was something of a stampede, because nearly a century later, Frank’s accidental frozen concoction, renamed “Popsicle” by his children, remains a staple summertime treat, adored by children and at least one PTA mom who has definitely put in her time.
Last week, in the final few days counting down to summer break, my youngest son participated in his last ever field day. And because he will officially be a middle schooler next year, this was my last field day as well.
I’ve written about Field Day before. It’s that most dreaded of events on the grade school calendar, when the entire day is dedicated to outdoor games I am convinced P.E. teachers dream up only to punish parents for the hours and hours of torture inflicted by their children throughout the school year.
For years, I have filled water balloons, chased playground balls, and untangled lasso golf ropes. I have soothed hurt feelings, tracked down lost activity passports, and broken up arguments about who tripped whom in the three-legged race. All of this I have accomplished while holding sunglasses, water bottles, tubes of sunscreen and whatever childhood detritus emerges from a bulging pocket.
This year marked my seventh field day at this school, not counting the years when I volunteered on two separate days because I had a child in both the younger and older grades. I arrived early, hoping I might have a greater opportunity to choose which activity I would lead—hopefully nothing with complicated rules, or whining children, or the need to take off shoes.
Then a miracle occurred. The school counselor responsible for checking ids, clearing background checks, and assigning tasks looked at me and asked, “Would you like to hand out Popsicles?”
I was so stunned I could hardly speak. At first I only nodded, the glorious sensation spreading through me like glitter spilling across the craft table and cascading onto the floor. “Yes,” I managed to whisper at last. “Yes, I can do that.”
The only problem with Popsicles is that they melt, and so there is a narrow window for frozen treat distribution. Because of this, the children have to line up more or less all at once. Some might call it a stampede.
But we had a good system. The lucky mom assigned to popcorn duty (a parent of sixth grade twins who had certainly paid her dues over the years) was set up next to me. We suspended popcorn operations during the popsicle window so one of us could hand out the treats while the other marked off the Popsicle spot on each activity passport. We also cleverly convinced an unwitting student teacher to stand over the trashcan and help kids open their treats.
And then it was over.
There was no arguing. The kids were all happy to get a yummy frozen treat. I didn’t have to hold anyone’s water bottle, chase any playground balls, or frantically search for a wayward, wet sock.
Afterwards I helped the popcorn mom with her distributions and we chatted about how much we have loved our grade school with its dedicated teachers, talented administrators, and great support staff. Neither of us will miss Field Day.
After he was finished handing out treats to a sunny California crowd all those years ago, Frank Epperson filed a patent for his Popsicle in 1924. Soon, Frank’s accidental frozen concoction was one of the most highly sought treats on Coney Island and at Field Day, where after seven long years, this PTA mom finally caught a break.
Nearly four thousand years ago, someone living in what is modern-day Iraq etched into a clay tablet, instructions for making beer. Part recipe and part hymn to the Sumerian goddess of beer, the etching is the oldest written recipe so far discovered. And the one thing we can know for sure is that people have been making beer even longer than that.
Though the precise beginning of beer has proven tricky to pinpoint, researchers have found evidence of it from as far back as ten thousand years ago, around the time the human lifestyle began to shift from hunting and gathering to farming and domesticating.
In the late 1980s, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Dr. Solomon Katz first suggested that the accidental discovery of beer might have even been the driving force behind that shift. Basically, he theorized that when humans left wild wheat and barley outside the cave to get wet, the resulting dark liquid, when mixed with natural yeast in the air, made early man overly confident and inclined to watch football.
Dr. Katz explained that it could have been a desire to find a stable production method for beer that drove humans to plant some seeds and stay a while, beginning the long tradition of plopping onto a barstool and drinking oneself stupid.
One observation that supports the theory is that in some of sites of the earliest Neolithic villages, researchers find plenty of evidence for the presence of grain, but very little for the cooking of it, indicating that beer may have predated bread as a grain-derived food source. Also, astute anthropologist that he is, Dr. Katz has pointed out that cultures all over the world have long gone to great efforts to obtain and produce mind-altering substances. In other words, people like beer, and probably always have.
Personally, I’m not a big fan. I might drink a beer from time to time when a social occasion calls for it, but I have never particularly enjoyed the taste and would almost always prefer a glass of wine or, more often, a Coke.
But I have lots of friends who really enjoy beer and do things like hold beer tastings and talk to each other using words like dry-hopped, cask conditioning, and adjuncts (which apparently does not refer to the part-timers in the English Department, who coincidentally, also tend to like beer).
These are generally the same friends who turn up their noses at a can of Budweiser and then roll their eyes at me when, at their insistence, I take a sip of their favorite microbrew and say something profound like, “Yep. That’s beer alright.”
So, even though it provided a great deal of nutrition and a safer way to consume water and was possibly a major catalyst that launched humans toward life as we know it today, I don’t have a lot of use for beer. Or at least I didn’t until this past week.
Much like our ancient forefathers thousands of years ago, I am a gardener. Also, like them, I mostly do it by trial and error and am not always good at it. This spring, as my baby plants have tried to push their way through the lush soil in my garden boxes, something has been nibbling away at them. The culprit, I believe, is the sowbug.
Better gardeners than I may insist that these funny pill-shaped bugs are not my problem, but I have performed a pretty thorough study (meaning I Googled it) and have found that these little monsters, while not a problem for larger, established plants might just munch their way through tender young shoots. And apparently one way to deal with them is to get them rip-roaring drunk.
After carefully considering my pest control options for about five minutes, I decided to buy some beer. I went with a craft variety because I don’t know if, like my friends, roly poly bugs are beer snobs and my fresh green beans are worth it. I set shallow dishes of the stuff throughout my garden beds and waited.
It turns out, these critters like beer as much as our ancestors did and they will go to great lengths to get it. As their bar-haunting distant cousins drown their sorrows in beer, great numbers of the sowbugs just drown. I suspect the smarter ones are already trying to figure out how they can make more of it themselves in a sustainable, and possibly less lethal, way.
As I watch this seemingly innate drive for beer, I am convinced that Dr. Katz was onto something. Not every anthropologist agrees that beer was the greatest driving force for giving up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, citing things like climate change and population growth as other plausible explanations. Still, most admit beer may have been a factor. It seems then that gardening is for beer, and beer is for gardening.
Sometime in the mid-1500s as the Spanish Inquisition held a firm grip on Naples, Renaissance man and notable genius of cryptography Giovanni Battista della Porta discovered a useful little trick. Several of his clever friends had been imprisoned for presumably not being quite Catholic enough and della Porta needed to get messages to them.
Everything that entered through the prison walls was carefully checked, with the exception of food deliveries. So, della Porta allegedly used a combination of vinegar and alum to write messages onto eggs. The special ink disappeared when the eggs were boiled, but the letters transferred through the semi-permeable shell and imprinted themselves on the membrane of the egg.
All della Porta’s nerdy heretic friends had to do was to carefully peel the egg, read the message, and eat the evidence. Not bad, and definitely more subtle than writing “Hoppy Easter” in white crayon before dyeing, which is how I usually convey secret egg messages.
Now I’ve found plenty of references to this little eggs-periment (see what I did there?), but what I haven’t been able to discover is what the messages might have been, or how della Porta’s friends knew to look for them, though I suppose if you peel and egg and discover words on the white, you probably go ahead and read them.
Were these escape plans? Tricks for correctly answering inquisitors’ questions to secure release? Clever microfiction featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison? Egg salad recipes? Alas, the world will likely never know, because egg messages rarely last very long.
But there are lots of words that go unread in the world, and not just the brilliant ones languishing between the covers of small potatoes authors you’ve never heard of. Just this past month thousands of writers joined in on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and produced millions upon millions of words, many of which are brilliant, and a lot of them will never be read.
Because this was a sprint, and for many it was probably a slog. Some writers made it to the finish line of their goal (or will in the next thirty-eight hours) and many did not. I’m happy to be among those who completed the challenge, but what I can tell you is that you will never see most of the words I wrote.
They might as well be written in invisible ink on an egg white. Of course, they are here in my computer, all 50,000+ of them, waiting for me to trim and polish and hard boil. Only after I’ve done that will I allow anyone else to start peeling back the shell and reading them.
It’ll be a while. I’m excited about the book I just spent a huge number of hours drafting, but it’ll be many times that number of hours before I manage to turn it into something I’m proud to share. For now I’ll set is aside and let the hastily scribbled words soak into the eggshell while I change direction for a bit and write something completely different. Maybe I’ll see if I can put together some microfiction. I have a great idea for a story featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison using only a bowl of egg salad.
Obviously a star student, Hazzard took this suggestion a very large step further and suggested not eating at all. At her Olallia, Washington health institution the diet consisted of tomatoes, asparagus, and orange juice. Not much of them, either. And yes, people paid for her advice and medical supervision. While her patients starved, Hazzard subjected them to numerous enemas and deep, painful massage. Because health.
Fortunately today, more than a hundred years later, this kind of extreme health fad looks terribly alarming and we can all breathe (and eat) easy because we’d never fall for something like that.
Except that of course we might. Every year health books flood the market, tell us what to eat or not eat, and gain devoted followers. Some are written by physicians or otherwise credentialed experts. Others come from celebrities and/or charlatans. All should probably be read with a healthy dose of skepticism and caution.
I’m not usually a big follower of fad diets and health crazes, but I admit I recently tried one of the more popular eating plans of today. After seeing the numerous praises of several friends who had successfully completed the Whole30 plan, I decided, kind of on a whim, that I’d give it a try.
If you’re not familiar with it, basically it requires that for thirty days you strip your diet of dairy, soy, grains, legumes, refined sugar, most food additives, artificial sweetener, alcohol, and fun. I admit when I first read what it actually involved, I was a little skeptical that I could—or would ever want to—do it. But it didn’t appear to exclude any major nutrient categories and I like a challenge. Also, my husband said he’d do it with me. We looked at it as a way to alter how we approach food choices and to hopefully kick off a lifetime of healthier decisions.
And it kind of worked. The best part about the program that I’ve found so far is now that it’s over, and I’m starting to reintroduce some of these foods, I am discovering my taste for them has changed. I made it through about four ounces of my favorite diet soda the other day before I dumped the rest because it was gross and it made my stomach hurt, and I’ve definitely discovered that I feel better when I consume fewer grains. There probably will be some lasting changes to my diet as a result of the program, which is kind of cool.
But here’s the thing. I recognize that I might sound like some sort of crazy food disciple, and I’m really not. Because no one in all of human history, no matter how many celebrities have endorsed his or her bestselling book, has perfected the human diet. And if your first inclination is to run out and try the fad diet you read about on a history-ish blog then let me be the first to say to you, STOP IT.
We aren’t all the same, and we don’t all function best on the same diet. I do, however, think it’s fairly safe to say that we should all eat, at least more than the occasional tomato, asparagus, and orange juice. I might not even recommend skipping breakfast, but what do I know?
I’m a writer, not a healthy eating guru. And while I might be able to make a few bucks and gain a huge following with a book on the scientific principles and imaginary health benefits of the fried cheese and Snickers bar diet, I’d rather write about mummies.
It turns out Linda Hazzard probably shouldn’t have been anyone’s healthy eating guru either. In 1912 she was convicted of manslaughter. She only served two years in prison, though fourteen people died while following her fasting plan. Then in 1938, Hazzard herself became number fifteen, which I suppose is kind of poetic.
When she was a little girl Caroline Shawk dreamt of being an artist. She painted. She drew. She sculpted childish figures with clay from the creek. By age twelve she had won her first art award for her fine wax flowers. Then in 1862 when she was twenty-two, she married a railroad worker named Samuel Brooks, and that was that.
Except it wasn’t. Within a few years she and her husband had moved to a farm near Helena, Arkansas and, an artist to her core, Caroline found a new medium calling to her. Many of the farm wives around her, in order to better attract customers for their butter, used molds to makes their product into simple decorative shapes. Of course Caroline thought she could do better and she began carving intricate shapes by hand.
It wasn’t long before people started calling her the Butter Lady, and wondering what weird, wonderful artistic butter piece she’d come up with next. Then in 1873, she read King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz and was so moved by the character of Iolanthe, she created a sculpture of the blind princess.
Dreaming Iolanthe was a masterpiece. It was displayed, on ice, at a gallery in Cincinnati to a great deal of success. Even the New York Times took notice, with one critic writing that “no other American sculptress has made a face of such angelic gentleness as that of Iolanthe.”
Brooks created another version of her Iolanthe that exhibited at the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia, where she also participated in public demonstrations of her impressive, albeit kind of weird, skill. The artist went on to create great wonders, exhibiting her butter work in Washington DC and even in Paris. Eventually, she gained enough financial success from butter that she managed to transition to marble, but Caroline Brooks had inspired the imagination of countless (or at least a few) budding young artists, who took the fair circuit by buttery storm. So began the super weird tradition of butter sculptures at state fairs throughout the Midwest.
In the 1980s, another young girl who dreamt of creating her own form of art stood in the dairy building at the Illinois State Fair, her eyes wide as she took in the wondrous site of the traditional annual butter cow sculpture, and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Can I ride the Ferris wheel now?”
And folks, that young girl grew up to write about some of the weirdest things she came across on a weekly blog that was part history, part humor, and now occasionally, part butter.
Growing up in Central Illinois, I went to the state fair almost every year, and without fail, I felt myself drawn to the dairy building, to gaze upon each year’s buttery bovine masterpiece.
I don’t get to attend the fair this year, which is ongoing through this weekend, but I do have several dear friends, including my sister who knows me pretty well, who made sure I saw pictures of this year’s cow.
I’m grateful to them. This has been a busy month for me, getting kids ready to head off into a new school year while preparing to launch my own unique art into the world with the release of my debut historical novel September 6th. I don’t know that my book will garner as much attention as the masterful works of the Butter Lady, but maybe someday the New York Times will take notice. A gal can dream, right?
I’d like to say a special thank you to my friend Dee Dee, who graciously agreed to let me share her photography talents on this post so that you, too, don’t have to miss this year’s Illinois State Fair butter cow.