In November of 1493, intrepid Italian Christopher Columbus ruined pizza when, on his second voyage to the New World, he discovered piña de Indes, or Indian pine, which the Carib people called ananas, because it’s not a pinecone and they lived nowhere near India.
What he found was a spiky headed fruit that Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, writing in 1513, called “the most beautiful fruit of any of the fruits I have seen” and what today we know (thanks in part to Columbus) as the pineapple.
Sugar hungry Europeans generally thought this discovery was pretty neat, and almost immediately they began attempting to cultivate the pineapple a little closer to home. That proved pretty tough, because a tropical climate is something Europe definitely doesn’t have.
It was the Dutch that discovered the trick first, probably because the Dutch West Indies Company had a stranglehold on the pineapple importation business. And it may have been economist and businessman Pieter de la Court who, by the late 17th century, did it best in his innovative hot house that kept the soil and air temperatures in the range most conducive to pineapple cultivation.
Of course De la Court is remembered today not so much for his pineapple cultivating prowess, but rather for his writings in support of a thriving free market and his general disdain for the Caribbean shipping monopoly held by the Dutch West Indies Company. It seems likely then that he may have succeeded with the pineapple out of spite.
Coincidentally, I assume spite is the same reason otherwise seemingly reasonable people sprinkle pizza with a fruit described by 17th century English Botanist John Parkinson as tasting “as if Rosewater, wine, and sugar were mixed together.”
I admit pineapple is not my favorite fruit. It’s fine for garnishing fruity drinks when you’ve run out of cocktail umbrellas, but I just find it too sweet unless it’s cut with something a little less cloying. And no, I don’t mean tomato sauce, cheese, and ham. Yuck.
Actually, I think early pineapple enthusiasts in both Europe and America of the 18th and 19th centuries might have been on to something when they tended to see the pineapple as more decorative than consumable. Importing the perishable tropical fruit from the Caribbean was costly, often prohibitively so. If a host could get his hands on one to place in the middle of an elegant table display, it was sure to impress.
The pineapple then became a symbol of hospitality, gracing not only table displays, but also frequently as a feature of art and design. And if the Internet’s favorite pineapple rumor can be believed, the fruit was even available to rent for a special occasion, only to be later sold to the extremely wealthy who could actually afford to eat it.
By the early 1900s, James Dole had come along and begun his Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later the Dole Fruit Company), which soon made canned pineapple widely available, for a long time supplying more than 75% of the world’s pineapple needs. And now it’s so easy to get hold of, we even put it on pizza. Just to be clear, by we, I mean people who evidently have no taste buds and who are definitely not me.
So really maybe James Dole should get the blame. I suppose I can let Columbus off the hook for this one.
In October of 1951, the beloved sit com I love Lucy aired for the first time and, according to the most extensive research I could accomplish in five minutes, became the first television show to air as reruns. Now nearly seventy years later, you can still probably catch them from time to time. And that’s good, because even a little dated, they’re still pretty funny.
So to show my appreciation for the innovative thinking of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and maybe also a little because it’s still November and I am not yet finished with my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo goal, I am going to participate in the noble tradition of the rerun.
Originally posted on November 20, 2013, this is my favorite practical history post about Thanksgiving. A fair number of readers have discovered this little corner of the blogosphere over the last four years, so for many of you this will be brand new old material. And those who have read and possibly vaguely remember it, will hopefully still enjoy a chuckle or two. Just no spoilers!
A Shocking Turkey Recipe
The holiday season is nearly upon us, beginning here in the US with Thanksgiving next week. And if, like us, you’re hosting family for the big day that means it’s time to make plans for your turkey. We tend to prefer the Alton Brown brine method at our house, but I bet a fair few hosts are thinking of getting up at the crack of dawn to continually check and baste their birds until they are roasted to golden brown perfection. Other more adventurous sorts may be considering rigging up a deep fryer and spending the holiday at the hospital being treated for third degree burns.
But history suggests there may be an even better (and possibly more dangerous) way.
In 1750, before he famously tied a key to a kite string and invented the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin hosted a Christmas dinner party. Interested as he was with exploring the properties of electricity, Franklin decided to educate and entertain as well as feed his guests. His theory was that by electrocuting his roasting turkey, he could produce a more tender meat.
And he wasn’t wrong. In fact, his discovery is still important to the meat industry today, but it did come at a the expense of some personal pain and humiliation. As he was setting up an electrical jack he had designed specifically to meet all of his poultry electrocution needs, the plucky inventor received a pretty good shock himself. The gathering of witnesses to the experiment-gone-wrong reported a flash of light and a loud crack.
Whereas I would have tried to pretend the incident never happened and certainly would never mention it again (Okay that’s not true. I’d totally blog about it), Franklin wrote about the failure to his brother just two days later. In the letter he describes in detail how the event made him feel, which was more or less bad. Numb in his arms and on the back of his neck until the next morning and still achy a couple days later, Franklin seems to have decided that electricity, though hilarious, is not necessarily something to trifle with (chalk up one more important discovery for Franklin). He makes no mention as to whether or not he felt tenderized by the experience.
Now I can hear the objections already: “But, Sarah, that can’t be right. Benjamin Franklin was a friend to the turkey. He had great respect for it and even fought for its adoption as the symbol of the United States of America.” I hear you, Dear Reader. And I understand your concern. I, like many of you, was an American school child so I am familiar with that story. If you don’t wish to have your image of Benjamin Franklin as the great turkey advocate shattered, then feel free to stop reading at this point and assume that I’m just full of it.
But for those of you who want to know what’s what, I’m going to share the real story with you. Even though Benjamin Franklin was a part of the original committee charged with choosing a design for the Great Seal of the United States, he recommended a rattlesnake to represent the young nation. Not once did he suggest a turkey.
The idea that he did comes from an unrelated letter to his daughter written some years later when he was serving as an American envoy in Paris. To give some perspective, this was two years after the official adoption of the Great Seal, and six years after Franklin had served on the committee, again, making no mention of the turkey. He wrote the letter in response to his daughter’s question as to his opinion of the newly forming Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternity of officers of the Continental Army.
The society, founded in May of 1783, adopted for its symbol a bald eagle, claimed by some to look somewhat more like a turkey. Though Franklin didn’t oppose the society and eventually accepted an honorary membership in it, what he did not approve was the desire of some to make membership hereditary. This, he claimed, established an “order of hereditary knights,” which contradicted the ideals set forward by the newly formed republic.
But to openly mock or question the intentions of the brave men whose leadership had won the United States its freedom was simply not Benjamin Franklin’s style. Instead he focused on the turkey-eagle:
I am…not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red coat on.
I have to assume that despite his reference to the farmyard, Franklin would not wish the symbol of our nation or its high ranking officers to be the comically large-breasted domesticated flightless bird that graces our Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps he meant to suggest wild turkey, which is a full flavored, barrel-aged, American original that tends to give one courage. Or perhaps he meant the wild turkey, which hunters suggest is a slippery foe, difficult to sneak up on and evidently tricky to electrocute.
Whatever his true intentions, I think it is clear that though Benjamin Franklin was certainly a great American who helped to shape the United States and provide all of its half-blind citizens with bifocals, he could also, at times, be a bit of a turkey.
I hope you enjoyed this encore performance! Since next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the US, I will be engaging in another grand tradition borrowed from the television industry and preempting my blog post for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. See you just in time for the December sweeps! That’s a thing, right?
By 1796 the United States of America had a Constitution, fifteen states, a snappy flag, and a growing political divide. It certainly wasn’t everything a young republic would need, but it was a start and the gaps would be recognized and filled in over the next many years by an industrious, inventive, and fiercely determined population. Perhaps more than anything else, what a new nation needs is an identity, the building blocks of a shared, unique culture.
And also cupcakes.
It would be another thirty-two years before Noah Webster’s thoroughly American dictionary made its way into the world to assert ‘Merican standards over an inherited language, but before that, in 1796, another American stepped up to fill in an important cultural gap.
That’s when Amelia Simmons, about whom little is known beyond her self-identification as “an American orphan,” compiled and published what’s believed to be the first American cookbook. Up until that point, cooks in the US with access to unique local ingredients like maize, turkey, and “pompkin,” had to settle for English cookbooks full of English recipes for pies and puddings that sadly aren’t at all what their names imply to the modern American palate.
In her book, American Cookery (plus a subtitle that’s almost longer than the book) Simmons includes many traditional English dishes and cooking methods. She also includes several with an American twist, like squash and pumpkin puddings, Indian slapjacks, corn cakes, roasted turkey with cranberries, and “A nice Indian Pudding.”
And also cupcakes.
Though she didn’t coin the term (that didn’t happen until 1828 in a cookbook compiled by Eliza Leslie), Simmons did include recipes for both “soft cakes in little pans,” and “a light cake to bake in a little pan,” possibly the earliest written references to the cupcake.
I bring up the cupcakes because yesterday was National Chocolate Cupcake Day here in the US. If you forgot to celebrate, don’t worry. National (plain ol’) Cupcake Day is still coming up on December 15. I actually didn’t celebrate, or at least not in the traditional way, which I assume is to eat a chocolate cupcake.
It’s not that I don’t like chocolate cupcakes. I think if you’ve read this blog for very long, you’ve probably seen plenty of evidence that I do. Still, when I saw the “holiday” was coming up, I began to wonder if a cupcake is itself really a thing to celebrate. I suppose I always thought of this compact little treat as celebratory rather than celebration-worthy.
Cupcakes are for birthdays and baby showers and blogiversaries. They express congratulations when someone wins the lottery, or snags first place in the national juggling championship, or finally lands that book deal. At this point in our history there are entire cookbooks containing nothing but cupcake recipes and bakeries dedicated to making nothing but these most celebratory little cakes. And if you have a few staple ingredients in your pantry, a coffee cup, and a microwave, the Internet will be happy to tell you how to solve that late night cupcake craving without changing out of your pajamas.
Cupcakes are for just about anything, really, which makes a day for celebrating them seem a little over-the-top to me, and a day dedicated to just one flavor of them downright silly.
So what I decided to do instead is to make National Chocolate Cupcake Day a holiday in which I don’t eat a cupcake. I spent the day remembering the time when this dessert was an occasional treat that meant something truly special, and even served to fill a cultural gap in a burgeoning nation. I reflected back on a time when a great cupcake was a little harder to come by and I could fit into my skinny pants.
It was a good day. In fact, I’m thinking I may abstain from eating cupcakes for a while, at least until I can fit into those skinny pants again. Or I get a book deal. Then I’d really have something to celebrate.
Between the years of 1503 and 1508 in Touraine, France, artist Jean Bourdichon, at the direction of Anne of Brittany, two times queen of France, spent a lot of time sprinkling pumpkin spice in the queen’s prayers. What the queen recruited the artist to do was illustrate Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, a book filled with prayers, monthly calendars, and religiously themed images.
For the work, the artist focused on painting more than three hundred plant species represented in the Royal Gardens, one example of which may be the first known illustration of the pumpkin, a plant native to Mexico and transported to Europe after the first voyage of Columbus to the New World.
And what that means is that in the course of about sixteen years or so, this one plant, with its basketball fruit, went from unknown to worthy of royal attention half a world away. It’s probably not hard to imagine why.
Pumpkins aren’t exactly hard to notice, and as anyone who has ever allowed a Halloween Jack-o-Lantern to decay in his garden could tell you, they’re certainly not hard to grow. Archaeologists have found evidence of pumpkins as a food source as far back as 7000 BC in Mexico and there is a long history in Native American cultures of using pumpkin seeds medicinally for treatment of parasitic infections and kidney disease. Today they are touted as a sleep aid, heart healthy snack, anti-inflammatory, and cancer-fighting super food.
I don’t know if all those claims can be substantiated. What I do know is that at least in the United States, it’s not fall until every product on the grocery store shelf has been pumpkinized (which I’m confident will soon be a word defined by Miriam-Webster).
Each fall, stores are taken over by the pumpkin and its accompanying spices. No longer is pumpkin relegated to pies and prayer books, with the truly market-savvy adding more inventive (and often revolting) options each year, including: Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, Pumpkin Pie Kit-Kats, Pumpkin Pie Spice Pringles, Pumpkin Spice Chewing Gum, Pumpkin Spice Candy Corn (though to be fair, it is not the pumpkin spice that makes this product revolting), pumpkin spice pasta, liquors, yogurt, pudding, peanut butter, donuts, soaps, and shampoos. And every year I try an embarrassing number of these freshly pumpkinized products. Because everything is better with pumpkin, right?
So I think trend-setter Jean Bourdichon was on to something. He was bold enough to think outside the traditional religious artwork of his day and add to it the one thing that makes everything better. Or worse. But I suppose there’s no way to know until someone pumpkinizes it.
Today marks the anniversary of a legend. It was on August 24, 1853 at an upscale resort in Saratoga Springs when the resort’s chef had had enough. One especially picky customer kept sending his French-fried potatoes back, insisting that they had been cut too thick. After several attempts to please the customer, George Crum decided to get a little passive aggressive. He sliced the potatoes razor thin, fried them, and then seasoned them with extra salt and probably a little bit of attitude.
As so often happens when we take the passive aggressive approach, it turned out the customer didn’t really receive the message. He loved Crum’s crispy potato chips and raved about them so that soon other customers requested them as well.
There are similar recipes from cookbooks in the early 1800’s so Crum’s probably wasn’t the first potato chip in history, but he has become a part of an invention legend that may even be a little bit true, if perhaps embellished somewhat over the years. The dish was a hit and a few years later, Crum had opened his own restaurant, which featured a basket of salty chips on every table.
I love stories like this, the ones that tell of the accidental discovery of something great. Potato chips of course swept the nation, becoming one of America’s favorite snack foods. And by the 1980s, people were using the phrase “all that and a bag of chips” to describe something that was great, plus even a little bit better.
Potato chips have been on my mind lately because my kids have been back in school for about a week now. With that comes the early morning scramble to get everyone out the door breakfasted, clothed (in vaguely weather-appropriate clothing, not necessarily matching because if they aren’t going to take the time to care then I’m certainly not), tooth brushed, and with a packed backpack, signed homework planner, water bottle, snack, and lunch that yes, often includes a bag of chips. Don’t judge.
One week in, the morning school routine has gone really well so far, which is especially great because we’ve added a new complication into the mix. For the first time in a long time, I have started teaching an English class at a local college and so I also have to get out the door breakfasted, clothed (so far my choices have pretty much matched), tooth brushed, and with a pack full of books, lesson plans, a water bottle, and maybe the occasional bag of chips. Don’t judge.
I realize there are a lot of families that live this reality every day of the week, but since I have spent the last few years only staying home to write, it’s new for us. And at least so far, I kind of love it. I am enjoying being back in a classroom and among interesting colleagues talking about thinky kinds of things. I don’t know my students well yet, but so far most of them have managed to get out the door, dressed (hopefully also breakfasted and tooth brushed) and to class on time ready to learn, which is all I ask at this early point in the semester. I have high hopes that at least a few of them might learn a thing or two.
Since this is my first semester back in the classroom after a long absence, I am taking my time and only teaching one section. That also gives me a chance to reestablish my writing routine that has slipped into near nonexistence over the course of the summer. So far that’s working pretty well. It’s the best of both worlds, really. It might even be all that and a bag of chips.
On September 12, 1683, after two long months of siege by the Ottoman Empire, the city of Vienna, Austria was rescued by the largest cavalry charge in history. Led by King Jan Sobieski III of Poland, the large combined force freed the city, a victory that became a turning point in the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars, a conflict already spanning nearly 300 years.
To say the people of Vienna were grateful would perhaps be an understatement. And legend has it that at least one Viennese baker took it upon himself to thank the king with a unique gift. The baker rolled a special bread into the shape of a horseshoe, boiled it, then baked it, so it would form a nice crust, and offered it King Jan, calling it a beugel, the German word for stirrup. King Jan took the gift, smeared it with cream cheese and lox and declared it gishmak.
Well, that’s the persistent legend anyway. Actually the bagel, which does seem to have come from that general region of the world, predates the Battle of Vienna. Bagels are first mentioned in a list of “Community Regulations” in Krakow, Poland, dated 1610, where they are a suggested gift for mothers in childbirth, which, as far as I’m concerned, would have been way better than ice chips.
Some bagel historians (a highly competitive field, obviously) suggest the bagel may be a direct descendent of the soft, doughy pretzel produced in German monasteries from the twelfth century or so.
But however the wonderful chewy, crusty, traditionally Jewish, round bread came to be, it became a staple of the Polish diet and eventually found its way into New York (where they take their bagels very seriously), Chicago, and in 1983 to Carbondale, Illinois.
It’s true that Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University, probably had bagels before 1983, but that was the year the Winston Bagel cart opened for business and introduced the world, one college student at a time, to the ultimate grilled bagel sandwich.
As an alumna of this esteemed institute of higher learning and a former frequenter of Winston Mezo’s weekend bagel stand, I was a little saddened to hear of Winston’s retirement this past weekend. It’s the end of an era at the old alma mater.
After a stint in the military, Winston arrived in Carbondale, in his words, “to sober up.” A recovering alcoholic, sober for 35 years, Winston served bagels, wisdom, and really bad jokes to the student population throughout all of that time.
His bagels became legend in the little college town and far beyond as students he encountered spread across the world. Before I left for school as a fresh-eyed 18-year-old, I was given this sage advice by another student: “Order a Winston bagel with everything, except the ingredients you absolutely cannot tolerate. Trust me.”
And it does take some trust, because fully loaded, Winston’s bagels (grilled over charcoal while you listen to some bad jokes), include: butter, cream cheese, cucumber, apple slices, garlic powder, cinnamon, raisins, chopped onions, sunflower seeds, and bacon bits. I always ordered mine without onions and raisins. And it’s one of the most delicious combinations on the planet. Trust me.
I had a full schedule this past weekend or I might have made the trip to Carbondale to have one last bagel grilled by the man himself. Instead, I joined SIU alumni around the world and fired up the grill to make my own.
Though it lacked the charm of the bad jokes, the bagel was every bit as delicious as I remember. It tasted like college and memories. And it tasted like the kind of food you might make for a king who just delivered your city from a long siege, and for whom you are especially grateful.
There’s a nice article about Winston and his bagels in a recent edition of the university paper, the Daily Egyptian. I wish the bagel man well in his retirement. SIU will miss him.
In the early part of the fourth century BC, a historian by the name of Ctesias returned to his native Greece after traveling through India and Persia, where he served a number of years as physician to the royal court. When he got home, he set to work writing about his travels in his great works Persica, which like many of the era’s works of history is somewhat dubious in nature, and Indica, which among other things, describes India’s native unicorn.
The unicorn, he wrote, was as large as a horse, with blue eyes, a red head, a white body, and a horn on its head measuring at least a foot and a half. It was also very strong and lightning fast.
Ctesias offers us the first written account of this elusive animal, but he certainly wasn’t the only “scholar” to write about it. Among those who mention the beast are Pliny the Elder, Saint Isidore of Seville, and Marco Polo. The unicorn even gets a nod in some translations of the Bible (I’m pretty sure the LSD translation is on the list).
Of course none of these writings seem to be eye-witness accounts, and the descriptions vary (some may more closely resemble a rhinoceros, which definitely is real), but for a good part of human history, there was little doubt of the unicorn’s existence. Its horn has been pulverized to make an antidote for poisons, it’s been used as a religious symbol of purity, and it’s even graced symbols of state.
Today’s unicorn is a little sleeker, a little sparklier, and a little more make-believe (though I hear Animal Planet is planning a show called Hunting Unicorns, which will air just as soon as they find Bigfoot). The unicorn of today also seems to have a hard time holding on to its lunch (which I have to assume is made up primarily of Skittles) because the creatures are frequently depicted puking rainbows.
I have to wonder if that’s what Starbucks was hoping to call to mind when they introduced their Unicorn Frappuccino last week. The multi-colored sugar bomb lasted only five days, and was even sold out at many stores faster than that, proving as difficult to catch as the unicorn itself.
I’m certainly not complaining. As a more or less non-coffee drinker, I have one Starbucks order I’ve convinced myself I enjoy when I occasionally have to meet up there, and the Unicorn Frappuccino isn’t it. But if they were still making them, then for the purpose of thorough research I suppose I would have gotten one just to take a picture. I might even have tried a sip so as to not anger the barista who just spent the last hour making 437 of them and is starting to take on a strange pink and blue hue.
So I didn’t catch a unicorn myself, but for a few days there I sure did hear a lot of rumors of their existence. I see from the Internet buzz that some Starbucks stores are now offering a Dragon Frappuccino made with green tea and magic and probably also a lot of sugar. I think I’ll pass on that one as well, but perhaps you’d like to try it.
If you tried the Unicorn Frappuccino, I’m curious, what did you think? Should Starbucks bring it back and make it a permanent offering, or did it make you puke rainbows like a unicorn?