How Do You Like Them Apples?

It was in 1902 that journalist Kate Masterson, writing for the New York Times, solidified an American symbol and expressed perhaps an over-zealous appreciation for America’s favorite dessert. In response to a British writer’s assertion that one shouldn’t indulge in apple pie more than twice a week, which is probably pretty good dietary advice, Masterson called that pace of pie-eating “utterly insufficient.”

She went on to write that “Pie is the American synonym of prosperity. . .Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.”

Mmm. Heroism is delicious. Image by Pam Carter from Pixabay

That’s a lot of confidence to put into pie, but to be fair, there really is nothing more American than apple pie. Except, that is, for pretty much anything that is actually uniquely American, or even originally American, which pie is not. For that matter, neither are apples.

There’s only one species of apple that is native to North America. That’s the inedible crab apple, from which Johnny Appleseed liked to make hard cider, but otherwise mostly just makes a mess of suburban lawns. The sweeter varieties that are great for pies come originally from Asia from which they made their way to pie-loving Europe, and then into the early days of the American colonies.

Colonists loved planting apple trees and it wasn’t long before there were thousands of varieties growing, with apple trees on nearly every homestead. When America’s first cookbook, American Cookery, was published in 1796, American housewives could find two different recipes for apple pie among its pages.

There are definitely worse problems to have. Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

And they must have used them well because twenty-four years after Masterson extolled the heroic pie, the phrase “as American as apple pie,” began to show up as an expression of the ideals of American motherhood, wholesomeness, and comfort. When American soldiers headed off to World War II, one of their battle cries became fighting for mom and apple pie.

And why not? In a way I suppose it’s fitting. Much of the culture of the American people didn’t originate in North America, either, but is blended together from influences from all over the world into one big, unique pie, with admittedly quite a few different takes on the original one or two recipes.

I’m grateful for that and also for all the literal apple recipes for pies and cobblers and sauces and breads and apple butter and yes, more pie. Like the colonists that came before us, my family planted apple trees not long after we moved into our house. Two of the trees produce a couple dozen lovely sweet apples every year. The third tree produces somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand.

We might even have a jar or two of applesauce left from two years ago, but ours are not this pretty. Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

That might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. We’ve given away apples, welcomed friends to come pick apples, canned applesauce to put on a shelf with last year’s canned applesauce we haven’t gotten to yet, and made our share of pies.

I like apples, and apple pie, but we kind of have it coming out of our ears. I guess maybe that’s a sign of prosperity and heroism and immunity to permanent vanquishment. I don’t know. But I do think that at least during apple season, Masterson was probably right to say that pie only two times a week is utterly insufficient.

Hey also, if you happen to know any great apple recipes, please feel free to put them in the comments. Thanks!

They Really Do Make Everything Out of Pumpkin

It was probably about four thousand years ago that the indigenous arctic peoples of the Inuit, Aleut, and Yupik tribes began using the world’s first kayaks. These early small, versatile boats were covered in animal skins stretched over frames constructed from driftwood or whale bones or any other material that seemed like it might make a good kayak, which most likely did not include giant pumpkins.

At some point in human history, someone looked at this and said, “I bet I could make something like that out of a really big pumpkin.” Edward S. Curtis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The kayak didn’t become a recreational vehicle until much later when in 1866, English barrister and travel writer John MacGregor published his widely read A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe. In it he described the boat design he used to tour the rivers of Europe. Twenty-eight inches wide, fifteen feet long, and weighing around eighty pounds, MacGregor’s boat was made of oak and cedar and featured a rubber canvas over a cockpit. And it was also definitely not made of pumpkin.

Because no one would ever think that a pumpkin might make a good boat. Except that a couple of weeks ago on August 27, Duane Hansen, a sixty-year-old Nebraska man, hopped into a hollowed-out 846-pound pumpkin that he grew himself and floated thirty-eight miles down the Missouri River from just south of Omaha to Nebraska City.

The really weird part about this story is that Hansen’s journey nabbed him a Guinness World Record, smashing the previous record holder’s distance of a little more than twenty-five miles, meaning there was a previous world record to smash.

I think this one is actually crying out to be made into a kayak. Nick Ares, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The sport of pumpkin kayaking dates all the way back to 1996 and soon resulted in the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta in 1999, an annual event held in Windsor, Nova Scotia and originally founded by Danny Dill, the son of the pumpkin grower responsible for the Atlantic Giant Pumpkin.

Sadly, the event has been discontinued for now because of ongoing venue issues, but it has inspired similar regattas in Oregon, Maine, Utah, and a handful of other locations. Previously it has included three categories of races including motorized, paddled, and experimental kayaks, though I might argue the sport is young enough that one might still consider kayaking in a hollowed-out pumpkin a tad experimental, and plenty ridiculous.   

But the event, and the several like it, have attracted thousands of people each year occasionally including celebrities. Mind you, that’s not thousands of participants, because while there seems to be no shortage of people who think pumpkin kayaking is fun to watch, giant pumpkins in the required six- to eight-hundred-pound range aren’t always easy to come by.

That’s the reason it took Duane Hansen five years of dreaming big to finally achieve this gigantic, world record-breaking goal the day after his sixtieth birthday. It took him that long to manage to grow an Atlantic Giant large enough to make the journey.

I don’t think I’ll make it down the Missouri in this thing. Sigh. Maybe next year.

That accomplishment alone seems impressive to me, because I too am growing pumpkins, and they have turned out somewhat smaller than 846 pounds. And this is even more disappointing to me now that I know I could have been paddling a pumpkin down the Missouri River.

Granted, I didn’t plant Atlantic Giant Pumpkin seeds, but I did have a reasonable expectation that my pumpkins might at least be large enough to carve Jack-o-lanterns. Maybe I just need to take a page from Duane Hansen’s book and dream bigger.

Vive le Donut!

1894 brought a great deal of political strife to the nation of France, which became deeply divided over the false conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army captain accused with dubious evidence of passing military secrets to Germany. Dreyfus was finally exonerated in 1906, but by then the incident had already caused the fallout of former colleagues and the rise of an intense newspaper rivalry, which spawned the greatest bicycle race the world has ever known.

This is my game face.

I refer of course to the Tour de Donut in Staunton, Illinois, which has been held annually in July since 1989 as an alternative to the Tour de France. That other silly little French bicycle event has been going on since 1903 when the then newly founded French newspaper L’Auto sought to surpass the previously established Le Vélo by creating its own sensational event and then scooping its rival.

The plan worked. As the circulation of L’Auto grew, Le Vélo went out of business, and with the exception of a few missed years for world wars, the Tour de France has been going strong ever since, as the original and most famous multi-stage bike race in the world. You may have even heard of it.

There was a little trial and error at the beginning, figuring out where the course would go, how many stages it would consist of, how the winner would be determined, and whether or not the bulk of the racing should occur in the dark of night to make violent sabotage easier. It was eventually decided that no, the stages should probably be held in the daylight hours, which has significantly cut down on the cyclist beatings.

Incidences of violence and cheating are rare among the participants of the Tour de Donut, as they are mostly happy and hopped up on sugar.

The rules have changed a lot through the years, as has the course, with the current event (ongoing as I type this) visiting four countries in twenty-one stages and covering about 2080 miles, quite a few of which are mountainy.  

The Tour de Donut has changed course a few times, too, fluctuating between thirty and thirty-six miles through the small town of Staunton and into the surrounding countryside containing a couple of smaller towns, corn fields, and occasionally frustrating hills. It’s a tough ride, for tough people, who like donuts.

Like its French counterpart, Tour de Donut is a multi-stage race, with the ends of stage one and two each marked by donut stops, offering the most serious competitors the opportunity to gain a five-minute advantageous adjustment to their total race time for each donut consumed. The final stage ends at the finish line where cyclists are greeted with much fanfare, awards ceremony, and usually some leftover donuts.

I ride for the tee shirt. And the donuts.

It’s a fun event, and with often more than six times the number of competitors of the race that inspired it, the Donut’s popularity far exceeds the Tour de France. I think that’s mostly because of the donuts. Also, it may be a slightly less challenging race and so might be more accessible to the average casual bike rider.

I have participated in the Tour de Donut twice, once about eleven years ago and then again last Saturday. This year’s thirty-four-mile course started in the rain, with gusty wind, and much celebration. Citizens of Staunton and donut enthusiasts lined the streets with encouraging signs, cowbells, and inflatable donut décor.

By the time it was over, the rain had let up, the air had warmed, and I had a belly full of donuts and a tee shirt to prove that I had participated in the greatest bicycle race the world has ever known.

‘Cause I Eats Me Spinach

As I sit here at the end of January it is stupid cold in my corner of the world. But the sun is shining and the days are starting to get ever so slightly noticeably longer. We’re now less than a week away from letting a rodent who can’t even chuck wood tell us whether winter will last another six weeks or if it will be closer to another month and a half.

All this means is that I am starting to realize that the extra weight I packed on through the holiday season (and the months of pandemic-induced inactivity), isn’t going to be covered by a bulky sweater forever. It has occurred to me that if I would rather not try to squish the extra bulge into a swimsuit when the weather actually does warm up, that I probably need to start eating less cake and more spinach now.

So much iron. Except maybe not that much. But there’s some. nad_dyagileva, via Pixabay.

I guess that’s ok. I do like spinach, at least the fresh kind, and I know that it’s good for me because Popeye once said it’s what “makes hoomans strong an’ helty,” and then his forearms ballooned to three times their normal size.

Rumor has long held that spinach is a great source of iron, though not probably as much as originally thought. The story, or at least a version of it, goes that while German researcher E. von Wolff was studying the iron content of spinach in 1870, he misplaced a decimal point, leading to the conclusion that spinach had ten times the amount of iron it really does possess. So, Popeye creator Elzie Sager chose spinach as the superfood to fuel his hero because of a then sixty-year-old math error.

I encountered this story on a daily calendar that features quirky historical tidbits that I got as a Christmas gift. The accidental overcalculation of spinach iron sure does make for a great story, complete with a lesson in the importance of peer review. But like so many great stories, it’s not really true.

We know that now because of the solid investigative work of Dr. Mike Sutton, who also liked the story a lot before he stopped and thought about it and realized it wasn’t exactly well researched. He explained this in great detail in a 2010 article published in the Internet Journal of Criminology. It’s a pretty good read if you have the time and inclination.

In case you don’t want to read Sutton’s thoughtful work, and you’d rather take the word of a blogger who regularly engages in the type of shoddy research that leads to 150 years’ worth of great stories without much truth to them, I’ll sum it up:

  1. Although there hasn’t been an entirely exhaustive study of the work of E. von Wolff in order to evaluate every decimal point placement, no obvious error of this kind has been found.
  2. There is procedural sloppiness present in the work of some American researchers studying spinach around 1930, which may have contributed to a misunderstanding, and later clarification, of the iron content of spinach.
  3. Popeye claimed to eat healthful spinach because it had so much vitamin A, and under the direction of his original creator, never mumbled a single somewhat incoherent word about iron.
  4. You shouldn’t believe every story you read, even if it comes from a generally reputable source, unless it is supported by a reliable primary source, because everyone loves a good story and sometimes researchers are lazy. Quirky calendar makers and bloggers, on the other hand, are almost always lazy.
  5. Forearm bulge measurement may not be the most useful way to evaluate good health.

Actually, Sutton didn’t make that last point, but I think you can trust me on that one. I’m a blogger and I know what I’m talking about.

I mean, it’s no cake, but that looks pretty tasty. kaboompics, via Pixabay.

So, I will tell you that in my quest for a better swimsuit body, I’ll be including spinach in my diet, because I like it. It makes a great salad and it has some good stuff in it like vitamin K and beta-carotene, which as Popeye almost explains, does provide your massive forearms with vitamin A. It’s also a good source of folate, is low in calories, and high in fiber. And yes, even though it will probably not give you super sailor arms as soon as you eat it, it has some iron, too.

Most importantly, if you replace some of your cake with spinach, you stand a chance of fitting into your swimsuit in a few months.

The Practical Historian Has No Taste

If you had happened to live in 430 BC and you had developed a taste for cinnamon, you’d have to have been awfully wealthy and also pretty lucky, because in 430 BC, the process of obtaining cinnamon was pretty complicated.

According to that great ancient historian Herodotus, the only source of this most flavorful spice was an unknown land where the cinnamalogus bird harvested sticks from the cinnamon tree to build its nest high atop the sheer cliffs of Arabia.

Herodotus, the world’s first practical historian. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s where the Arabian cinnamon traders got their hands on it by luring the birds away from their cinnamon nests with tasty meaty morsels and knocking down the sticks with weighted arrows.

Now, I know you might think this sounds a little far-fetched, or perhaps you are skeptical because you’ve read my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which introduces Herodotus as history’s biggest liar, liar, pants on fire. But consider that the cinnamalogus bird and this curious harvesting method are also documented in the writings of Aristotle, Isidore of Seville, and Pliny the Elder, which, I think, clearly demonstrates that the human tendency to copy and share ridiculous rumors indiscriminately on the internet shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

In defense of Pliny the Elder, he did at least express a little skepticism, suggesting that tall tales may sometimes evolve as a way to corner the market on some commodities. Cinnamon would probably have been worth the effort because it is among those sought-after spices that helped shape the modern world. Spice encouraged trade, which led to cultural exchange (and sometimes conflict), and eventually resulted in greater diversity in every corner of the earth. Because no matter what our differences may be, pretty much all humans like to experience flavor in their food.

For some reason I was picturing this bird as a lot more red and spicy and maybe with flames coming out of its wings or something. At least that’s how I would have drawn it if I’d made it up. Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And that is something I have been made very aware of this past week when in the midst of surging numbers of Covid cases in my corner of the world, “the ‘Rona,” as it’s not so affectionately known around here, caught up with me. Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad case. I had a brief fight with fever followed by muscle aches, fatigue, and a runny nose. By day three, it had morphed into mostly congestion and as that cleared, I suddenly realized I still couldn’t taste and smell so well.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a terrible symptom, but it is a little frustrating when some of your favorite foods just stop tasting the way you want them to. In fact, if my senses of taste and smell weren’t already improving a little bit, it probably wouldn’t be long before I found myself willing to coax a mythical bird from its nest, to then destroy that nest with weighted arrows. Or at least if I found someone who said that’s what they had to do in order to bring some spice back into my life, I might just believe it was worth it.

A Prescription for Winter

In the late 16th century, Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta wrote, in what would become his Historia natural y moral de las Indias, or Natural and Moral History of the Indies, of a locally esteemed New World beverage that was “loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste.”

There is nothing unpleasant or loathsome about this. Image by blandinejoannic, via Pixabay

Acosta’s work is among the first thorough European surveys of Mexico and Peru and he was eerily spot on about a couple of things. For example, he was the first to suggest that the natives of the Americas may have migrated from Asia via a northern land bridge. Acosta also described altitude sickness, after huffing and puffing his way over the Andes, and was the first to attribute the problem to thin and delicate air, “not proportioned to human breathing.” And though he was a man of his time, Acosta was actually somewhat critical of the Spanish mistreatment of the indigenous population of the New World.

But about this loathsome beverage, he was definitely wrong, because he was referring to hot chocolate. We haven’t quite hit our cold weather stride here in my corner of the world yet this year, but it is looming just up ahead in a January and February that, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, promise to be brutal. As much as I am not really looking forward to the nonstop shivers, I will be prepared when they arrive with plenty of hot chocolate on hand.

I might even be looking forward to those cold nights in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa and a good book.

Mine is certainly sweeter than the Mayans enjoyed theirs, which was more likely to contain peppers or corn than marshmallows, but even bitter and evidently spicy, I find it hard to imagine hot cocoa could ever be truly loathsome. The Spanish eventually came to the same conclusion, most likely because the drink was highly valued, and they weren’t about to leave anything valuable behind.

They’d come around by 1631 when Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero published the earliest printed recipe for hot chocolate in his A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. The recipe required a hundred cocoa beans, two chiles, vanilla, anise, cinnamon, almonds, hazelnuts, some annatto, and finally a boatload of sugar.

Bring on the cold!

Just a quick glance at my spice cabinet tells me that these are not necessarily easy to come by ingredients, and at the time, they weren’t all that attainable for the common folk. Still, the beverage was beloved by nobility and was quite the versatile medicine as well. Colmenero suggests it’s good for treating the skin condition known as morphea, for cleaning teeth and freshening breath, for provoking urination, for expelling poison, and for general protection against communicable diseases.

I don’t know about any of that, but I do know that a nice cup of hot cocoa does fend off the shivers and gladden the heart, and that’s enough for me. I’m not going to add chile peppers or corn to my hot chocolate and I may not have anise quick at hand or, strictly speaking, know what annatto even is, but I do have a box full of Swiss Miss in my pantry just waiting for the weather to turn.

How do you like to drink your cocoa?

A Horde of Under-caffeinated Hoarders

On July 24, 1777 Boston merchant Thomas Boylston got what was coming to him. Or at least that’s probably how it was understood by the one hundred or more women who attacked him on King Street. Boston, like most cities around this time in the burgeoning nation, was experiencing a series of food shortages. Both the British and Continental armies frequently requisitioned food and livestock and a lot of women had been left scrambling on their own to manage families, homes, farms, and businesses while their husbands were off fighting a war.

This is a horde. Image by Ahmadreza89, via Pixabay.

Like there are in most good crises, there were those who saw advantage in the struggle. Boylston, who was a cousin to John Adams, was generally thought to be a patriot, and who seriously underestimated the wrath of a whole horde of caffeine-deficient women, decided to hoard coffee in order to drive up the price.

Now, I am not a coffee drinker, but I know a lot of coffee drinkers. Some I might even call obsessive, a category that might even include you. I know it includes the people who make it difficult every single day for me to drive down the access road behind the main Starbucks in my town. I say “main” because we do have more than one. They’re both busy. Always.

This is a hoard. It’s just as scary. Image by Nature-Pix from Pixabay

I mean like winding drive-through line that spills ten cars deep out of the Starbucks parking lot and into the road that I innocently attempt to drive down in order to make my way from one place where I don’t buy coffee to another place where I don’t buy coffee kind of busy. This line, I assume, is filled with people who might have joined in with the women of Boston that marched to Boylston’s business, demanded his keys, and when he refused, seized him by the neck, forced him into a cart and, according to some accounts, spanked him until he complied. He eventually did. The mob then carried off all the coffee and left Boylston contemplating the fact that he’d been beaten up by a bunch of girls. One farmer justified the mob actions by saying, “This is the very same oppression that we complain of Great Britain!”

And this is just coffee. I don’t really get it. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

While that may be a slight oversimplification of the causes of the Revolutionary War, short supplies can make people do crazy things, like hoard twelve years-worth of toilet paper next to the Christmas decorations and model train sets in their basements. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a desperate shortage of coffee right now. Or at least there wasn’t before National Coffee Day yesterday.

To celebrate the day, Starbucks offered a free cup of coffee to any customer who came by with their favorite mug. No need even to spank the barista. The offer was limited to one cup per customer per store, but since there are approximately forty-seven Starbucks stores within an hour of my house, and probably yours, too, coffee drinkers could have kept busy picking up free coffee all day long. Judging by the line spilling out of the parking lot, most of you did.

Chew on This

In 1891, salesman William Wrigley, Jr. moved to Chicago to peddle soap. As an incentive to storeowners to stock his product, he offered free cans of baking soda. When he discovered that the baking soda was the more popular product, he began selling it and using chewing gum as an incentive. And when the gum proved to be the hot item, he became a very wealthy man.

I bet this man could walk and chew gum at the same time. Artist: S. J. Woolf (Samuel Johnson Woolf, 1880-1948)Time, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He wasn’t the first person to crash onto the gum-selling scene, but he was possibly the savviest because Wrigley focused heavily on marketing. In 1915 he was sending free samples to homes all across the United States and had launched a series of newspaper ad campaigns with a wide range of claims about the benefits of chewing Wrigley’s gum while avoiding all those dastardly knock-offs.

Wrigley’s gum was sanitary, long-lasting, and refreshing. Kids loved it and it was good for teeth, stimulated appetite, and quenched thirst. It was soothing after a nice healthy smoke or it could take the place of one if you couldn’t indulge on the job. It eased digestion, relieved stress, and freshened breath. Not to mention soldiers in World War I probably couldn’t function without it. Allegedly.

I question the research, but for some reason I have the sudden urge to chew Wrigley’s gum. Public Domain image.

And you know, some of these claims actually sort of hold up. But one advertisement I found particularly suspicious claims that early man sucked on rocks to moisten his mouth, because he didn’t have gum. Let me tell you, William Wrigley, Jr. might have been a genius when it came to advertising, but his anthropological research missed the mark.

An article published in December of 2019 in the journal Nature Communications squashes the Wrigley rock-sucking theory when it describes a wad of chewing gum that is about 5,700 years old.

Discovered in southern Denmark, this wasn’t the first ancient gum ever uncovered by paleontologists. It wasn’t the oldest either. There’s evidence that some of the people of northern Europe were chewing birch bark tar as far back as 9,000 years ago. The Ancient Mayans, too, chewed chicle from the sapodilla tree, as did the Aztecs who even had elaborate rules of conduct regarding it. For example, if an Aztec schoolgirl popped a chicle bubble in class, she had to immediately spit it out and probably got sent to the principal’s office.

You had me at “purity package.” Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

What’s exciting about this recent gum discovery is that researchers managed to extract from it a complete human genome sequence. The chewer was a woman, though it’s not known why she might have been chewing this particular wad of birch bark. It’s possible she was looking for some pain relief from a toothache or perhaps she was softening it so she could stick it to the underside of a desk.

We do know she was a dark-skinned, blue-eyed, hunter-gatherer who’d eaten duck and hazelnuts for dinner and had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, aka mononucleosis, aka the “kissing disease.” Which might explain the gum.

Although I doubt her gum had quite the sweet taste or breath-freshening qualities of Wrigley’s. It probably wasn’t as sanitary, either. But it was surely better than sucking on a rock.

America’s Big Cheese

On January 1, 1802, then President of the United States Thomas Jefferson became the recipient of what I think is safe to say was probably the best gift ever received by someone who has held the office. After travel by sleigh, barge, sloop, and wagon, a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese arrived at the home of the president.

The cheese came from the good people of Cheshire, Massachusetts who, led by cheese enthusiast (I’m guessing) and Baptist minister John Leland, made the wheel from the milk of nine hundred (non-Federalist) cows in a gigantic press fashioned specifically for that purpose.

The gift, allegedly created entirely without slave labor, served as a show of support and appreciation for Jefferson’s commitment to the complete separation of church and state. What was a controversial issue among religious citizens, was embraced as freeing rather than limiting by Leland and his flock. So, they sent cheese. As one does.

The cheese wheel made quite a splash in the towns it passed through as it traveled five hundred miles over the course of three weeks. When at last Thomas Jefferson saw it, he graciously thanked the gift-givers for their thoughtfulness and accepted it, while also donating $200 to their church because he opposed the practice of presidents accepting gifts.

But what a gift it was! The cheese wheel was even carved with the words of his favorite motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” I mean, who doesn’t love a good motto carved into a giant wheel of cheese?

Thomas Jefferson, a man who could appreciate a good cheese-carved motto. By Rembrandt Peale – White House Historical Association, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=1604678

Not Thomas Jefferson. Despite his Federalist political opponents’ mockery of what they called the “mammoth cheese,” the president proudly had it served at his home for more than two years. Of course, rumor has it that by then, some of it may have gone a little south and ended up at the bottom of the Potomac.

Because as you probably know, cheese doesn’t tend to last forever and big cheeses have to be changed out once in a while.

Yesterday in the United States, we officially changed out the big cheese in the White House. There are a lot of hard-working, thoughtful, cheese-loving Americans who are pretty excited about that. And there are a lot of hard-working, thoughtful, cheese-loving Americans who are pretty nervous about that.

Even though this has been a particularly tumultuous political season, that’s pretty much how it’s always been and yet, transfer of power happens and the nation, for better or worse, rolls forward. Like a big wheel of cheese.

I mean, it wouldn’t be the worst gift. Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

No matter how any of us might feel about the inauguration of a particular new president, I think we can be proud of and celebrate what has become a grand tradition.

To be clear, I’m referring to the peaceful transition of power and not the presentation of giant cheese to the new president, which with the exception of one other occasion involving Andrew Jackson, never really caught on.

But I suppose that tradition could be resurrected. All we need is a well designed press and about nine hundred (non-Republican) cows.

You Can Keep the Oysters

Christmas traditions were a big deal in my childhood home, and we had a lot of them. From the homemade cards my mom designed (and still does) every year, to my dad’s special fudge recipe, to carols sung around the Advent wreath, to a candy cane hanging from the star atop the Christmas tree. And Christmas Eve always meant a big simmering pot of chili on the stove top.

Some traditions never change.

I’m pretty sure this last tradition arose for us because Christmas Eve can get a little rushed as a big family pulls together all the last-minute bits of the holiday, wraps gifts, and tries to get ready for church service in time to get a seat on this most special of crowded occasions. Chili is started early and it can just wait, bubbling away, its flavors melding to perfection, until someone has time to eat it.

And it was something that everyone actually liked. Some of us were purists who enjoyed it straight up, others were picky eaters who preferred the beans separated out (thanks, Dad!), and others piled our bowls high with oyster crackers. What I never knew was that the crackers were a Christmas Eve tradition, too, and a much bigger one than our pot of chili.

I realize that Christmas Eve chili isn’t a thing commonly shared by families in the US, or anywhere as far as I know, but oyster crackers, and the stew they were likely named for, apparently are. All across the United States, especially in the southeast, and even in several other parts of the world, there are lots of people who insist that oyster stew is the dish that announces Christmas Eve is upon us.

The closest I’m willing to get to eating oysters on Christmas Eve.

Oysters were a large part of the diets of early European immigrants in North America, as they were for many of the indigenous peoples, but it was sometime in the 19th century that they became linked with Christmas.

Some oyster historians suggest that it was the influence of massive Irish immigration in the mid-19th century that made the oyster a holiday food of choice. The immigrants, most of them strict Catholics, followed the dietary guidelines of their faith and stuck to seafood on high holy days. Oysters were widely available and even tasted a little like the ling fish that formed the basis of the stew they would have enjoyed in Ireland.

Other oyster historians, because apparently there are at least a few, have posited that the ever-popular oyster was shipped overland to the inner parts of the US, but only after the weather was consistently cold enough to make the journey of edible bivalves possible. That would happen in early December, meaning the first time in quite some time that a Midwestern family could get its hands on fresh-ish oyster was around Christmas Eve.

I’m not sure the two theories are necessarily exclusionary. And having grown up in the Midwest, I think I can safely say that when it comes to eating fish on a high holy day, oysters that have traveled by wagon for two weeks probably aren’t any worse than a giant catfish that’s been sucking on mud from the bottom of the Mississippi River.

Nope. That does not look delicious. Image by jsbaw7160, via Pixabay.

But then I’m not really a seafood girl. I do blame my Midwestern upbringing, and multiple encounters with questionable catfish, for that. When I briefly lived on the west coast in Oregon, I branched out and made peace with some seafood. I quite enjoy crab and most fresh ocean white fish is a tolerable alternative if the menu doesn’t contain chicken. I do, however, remain gleefully unacquainted with the oyster.

Oyster crackers are okay, though, and fortunately I have no religious qualms about eating chili, filled with beef or venison, on Christmas Eve.

I don’t actually do that anymore because the picky eaters among the family that inhabits my grown-up home don’t all like chili. Instead, we make fettuccini carbonara because everyone likes it and it tosses together quickly on a night that usually ends up being pretty busy.

And I suppose it’s okay for traditions to change sometimes. Because this Midwestern gal is definitely not eating oysters.

If you celebrate it, what special holiday dishes do you enjoy on Christmas Eve?