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.

Monument to John Leland and his impressive cheese press in Cheshire, MA Makeitalready, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

It’s no chili, but I guess that doesn’t look too bad. Kent Wang, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

Nope. That does not look delicious.

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?

Cookie Problem

I have a cookie problem.

Normally, this first weekend of December that’s due to descend upon us would be the time when my family would open up our home for a Christmas party with our wonderful neighbors. Every year, in preparation for that party, I bake approximately four dozen each of at least five types of cookies. If you care to do the math, that’s approximately two hundred and fifty cookies.

This is a dark chocolate cookie I never actually realized was a Christmas tradition, but one son recently informed me it’s his absolute favorite and I apparently have only ever made it at this time of year.

In addition to the cookies, I make homemade peanut butter cups, chocolate covered cherries, Oreo truffles, turtles, chocolate covered pretzels, and a large batch of fudge. I might have a candy problem, too.

It’s a tradition that probably sounds pretty familiar to a lot of you. People have been making special Christmas cookies and desserts since before there was an official Christmas to celebrate. As early as the tenth century, solstice festivals in many parts of the world involved feasting before the long winter ahead. Animals were slaughtered because meat keeps better in the cold than live animals do. Final harvests were brought in. Springtime beer and wine were aged enough to be properly enjoyed. And newfangled spices from newfangled trade routes made interesting sweet treats attainable.

Then along came Christmas with all its many traditions including baked gifts lovingly given to friends, and neighbors, and jolly fat men sliding down chimneys. Actually, leaving cookies for Santa may have been influenced by a pre-Christmas tradition as well, involving the ancient Norse god Odin and an eight-legged horse who would happily exchange small gifts for some treats.

These are Oreo truffles, which we usually just call “Oreo balls,” but that feels rude. They are the favorite of my next door neighbor who, weirded out or not, is going to have to take some off my hands.

But none of that helps me in my current predicament. Because in years that aren’t 2020, I make enough sweet treats to feed my neighbors until they are sick, take plates of goodies to share with friends at church, send snacks to the break room at my husband’s workplace, satisfy my constantly hungry children, gain five pounds myself, and even have enough left over to leave out for Santa on his big night.

Making these treats is a Christmas tradition, among so many traditions we just can’t make happen this year in the midst of Covid. My kids want to make and enjoy them all—all five varieties of cookies and each type of candy—despite the fact that there will be no large gathering of neighbors, no in-person church activities, and a changing work situation that has drastically limited break room treat-leaving opportunities.

And this looms in my near future. Because tradition. Image by silviarita from Pixabay

We can’t even count on Santa to be much help. He’s always forgetting to grab his cookies on Christmas Eve and I end up eating them myself. I can’t blame him. It’s a busy night and most chimneys are probably a tight squeeze.

Yes, I can make smaller batches, but it’s still a lot. And yes, I can deliver some to neighbors, but a lot of people are understandably a little weird about accepting homemade goodies in our current environment.

So, I have a cookie problem, which admittedly might not be the worst problem to have. But it is starting to look like I’m going gain more than five pounds this year.

I Can Can. Can You?

It was the promise of 12,000 francs that first inspired French chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert to experiment with food preservation methods in 1795. Napoleon Bonaparte astutely realized that keeping an army fed was a good way to ensure its success and offered the pretty substantial (my very rough calculation suggests maybe around $150,000 in today terms) reward.

It took fifteen years of effort, but Appert eventually claimed the prize with his method of sealing food into glass jars with cork and wax and boiling them. He then went on to produce the world’s first recipe book focused on canning preservation. It’s called L’Art de Conserver les Substances Animales et Végétales, in case you speak pretty good French and don’t mind a good case of botulism.

When I read that Appert was a confectioner by trade, I pictured this, although it would take a lot more than a sealed lid to preserve candy in my house.

Even though his method heated food to flavorlessness and is no longer deemed entirely safe, Appert was onto something, and earned himself the title of “Father of Canning.” He believed the enemy of food preservation was air exposure, but along the way discovered that it was actually heat that prevented spoilage, a good fifty or so years before the “Father of Microbiology” Louis Pasteur explained why.

While Appert was busy jarring up fruits, vegetables, and in one case the meat of an entire sheep, Englishman Peter Durand translated the process to less breakable tin cans, which only two years later spawned the canned food industry in the United States as well.

Initially slow to produce, and hard to open since the can opener wasn’t invented for another forty years, canned foods eventually lined grocery store shelves. That is until March of 2020, when canned goods became almost as difficult to find as bread and toilet paper.

Ladies at a home demonstration meeting learning that they can can. By Cornell University Library. No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81522280

There are still a few quirky products that don’t seem to get restocked, but food supply lines in my corner of the world have pretty much stabilized by now. I don’t think they were ever seriously threatened, except by the fear of the average hoarding consumer. Still, the combination of barren canned soup aisles and more time spent at home with more people out of work and fewer places to go anyway, has led to a growing interest in food preservation skills.

My local stores now contain plenty of mushy canned peas and spring water packed tuna, but there’s not a Ball Mason jar or Kerr sealing lid to be found, nor can you order a set for a reasonable price from Amazon.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think this is a huge problem. I don’t live on a homestead out in the middle of nowhere and have to rely on my own homegrown preserved veggies and my root cellar to get me through the long winter. But we do have a few prolific apple trees and last fall, my husband canned a whole lot of applesauce, something neither of us had ever done before. It’s been nice to have it throughout the year.

It really is excellent sauce.

It’s been so nice, that I even decided this summer that I would give it a try with some excellent sauce made from our garden tomatoes and some pickled peppers as well. I admit, it’s kind of made me feel like a bit of a superwoman, or like maybe I could live out in the middle of nowhere and rely on my homegrown preserved veggies and root cellar to get me through the long winter.

Home canning surged in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then fell off when refrigeration became more prevalent. The skill enjoyed a brief resurgence in the DIY movement of the 1970s, and it seems to be experiencing a similar resurgence now.

As long as home canners are carefully sanitizing and following recipes and boiling times exactly, I think that’s great. It does maybe concern me just a tiny bit that historically, cases of botulism rise whenever the prevalence of home canning does, and that in 2005 a USDA survey found that 57% of home canners weren’t using safe methods.

And I’m a little saddened that now that I know that, it might take the modern-day equivalent of 12,000 1795 francs to motivate me to trust myself enough to eat my excellent tomato sauce. Maybe it’s not so bad that I can’t find all the lids and jars I want. It’s possible I’m not quite ready to move to a homestead in the middle of nowhere after all.

Stupid Holidays, but Milkshakes

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.

blender
I received this Hamilton Beach blender as a wedding gift more than 19 years ago. To the best of my knowledge it has only ever been used to make chocolate milkshakes.

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.

Father's Day Chocolate Milkshake with Bokeh
I’ll celebrate that. photo credit: marrngtn (Manuel) Father’s Day Treat via photopin (license)

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.

Happy National Chocolate Milkshake Day!

A Super Historically Significant Tour of New Orleans

Hello from summer break!

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.

ww2museum
This museum is massive and still growing.

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.

royalpharmacy
Now the site of Royal Pharmacy in the French Quarter of New Orleans, this is allegedly where the world’s first cocktail was mixed. Except it wasn’t.

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).

cafedumonde
There are a few other places in New Orleans well worth a visit.

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 Oreleander New Orleanite New 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.

 

 

 

Having a Field Day

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.

popsicle
I mean, who doesn’t love a good Popsicle?

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.

lasso golf
By far my least favorite Field Day game of all time. Oh the knots! By Wolff83 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21406979

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?”

icypops
Technically we did not hand out traditional Popsicles on sticks. These are less messy. And they come in blue flavor, which is evidently the favorite among the grade school crowd.

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.

sock-256961__340
Field Day can get all kinds of crazy.

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.

 

Gardening for Beer. Beer for Gardening.

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.

beer-2439237__340In 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.

friendshipbrew
Most of my friends seem to prefer a local-ish craft beer. I won’t argue with them.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Technically, this is a crustacean. That likes beer. photo credit: Wanderin’ Weeta Big pillbug-3 via photopin (license)

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.

gardenbeer
There are bugs in my beer garden. And hopefully, eventually there will be vegetables, too.

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.

A NaNoWriMo Eggs-periment

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.

egg head
16th century egg head Giovanni Battista della Porta. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

egg
I am probably not the person you want sneaking you hidden messages in prison.

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.

laptop
Confession: One of my biggest fears is that I’ll die with an unrevised novel on my hard drive and it will get published. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure my family knows better. Also I’m not famous enough for anyone to care what I have left unpublished. So, you know, thank goodness for that. photo credit: wuestenigel Close Up of Woman’s Hand on the Laptop at the Office via photopin (license)

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.