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.
At 7:15 on the morning of June 12, 1962, the guards of Alcatraz prison made a surprising discovery. During the night, three inmates had escaped the allegedly escape-proof prison. Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it out of their cells, onto the roof of the prison and into the San Francisco Bay without detection. The escape required teamwork, resourcefulness, and a great deal of cleverness.
And it turned out these guys were pretty clever. They drilled out the ventilation systems in their cells, work performed mostly by hand with rudimentary tools, though for a while they did attempt to use a makeshift drill run by a vacuum motor one of them managed to come by.
Using soap and toilet paper they fashioned crude paper-mache dummy heads painted with supplies from prison craft kits and topped with hair harvested from the prison barber shop. These they placed in their beds in order to avoid early detection.
With glue they stole from the prison glove factory, they joined pieces of rubber raincoats to make a raft and life vests. They may even have converted a concertina into a bellows to aid in the inflation of the raft.
Really, if these men had applied their ingenuity and resourcefulness to more societally accepted occupations, they probably could have done well for themselves, and spent significantly less time in prison. But it’s a fascinating story, certainly worthy of a book and a Clint Eastwood film.
I’ve had escapes on the brain lately. It’s a hot trend right now in education and entertainment. Patterns for classroom “break-out” boxes have spattered the Internet and full, themed escape rooms have been popping up across the country. They’re all pretty similar, requiring participants to gather clues and decode puzzles to solve problems, open locks, and escape the room within a time limit.
When my oldest son turned 13 recently, I decided to design an escape room for him and his friends, based on the quirky and beloved British sci fi show Doctor Who, which they all seem to love. If I were a different sort of blogger I would offer a step-by-step, photo-illustrated how-to guide to constructing your own Doctor Who escape room, but I’m not nearly ambitious enough to be that kind of blogger. Still, if you’re interested and want details, drop me an e-mail.
It was a big success, and so about a week and a half later when I got the opportunity to go to an escape room myself, I thought it might be nice to see someone else’s version. Along with my sister and my husband, I was “locked” into a room designed to look like an attic and tasked with opening a secure treasure box. We had an hour and no idea where to start.
Fortunately, we’re a good team of pretty resourceful people. And we’re also fairly clever. We uncovered our treasure and made it out of the room with twelve minutes to spare. The boys in the Dr. Who room were not quite as quick, but to be fair, their team consisted of six thirteen-year-old, hyperactive boys. Cleverness can only compensate for so much. They did make it out in about an hour and fifteen minutes with some occasional redirection.
Morris and the Anglins made their escape, too, becoming the only people to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Of course there was never any physical evidence that they managed to survive the cold water of the Bay and make it all the way to the freedom they wanted. Enough circumstantial evidence turned up to suggest to the FBI that the men perished in the attempt, and that became the official finding. Even so, it was an impressively clever escape.
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.
First of all, I have mixed feelings about writing this post. Secondly, today, October 12th, is the 525th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas, representing the most influential event in the “Age of Discovery” and the irreversible beginning of arguably the largest population and cultural shift to ever alter the dynamics of human history.
It’s kind of a big deal.
In 1792 on the 300th anniversary of that day, the city of Baltimore erected what it claims is the oldest American monument to the famous Italian explorer. A couple of months ago the monument was defaced as part of an anti-racism demonstration you can view on YouTube if you want.
Columbus Day has been celebrated in various forms since around the time that monument went up, but Colorado became the first state to adopt the official holiday in 1905. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12th a federal holiday in honor of Columbus, a day that eventually came to be observed on the second Monday in October to better accommodate long weekend big deal furniture sales.
Today, that Monday is recognized not only by low, low prices and zero percent financing on five-piece living room sets, but also with large parades, closed banks, and empty mailboxes, because frankly we can all use a break from the furniture store advertisements.
But in the last few years, the day has also been marked by protest. In cities across the nation, the debate rages about the value of historical monuments that commemorate any kind of messy history and Baltimore’s is not the only Columbus monument to meet up with vandals.
And this brings me to my mixed feelings about writing this post. I have made no secret about the fact that I don’t want this to be another space of controversy on the Internet. I really don’t. There’s enough negativity out there and it would be nice if there are a few places where we can take a break from all that.
Still, this is a history blog (kind of), and more than that, it’s a blog that claims history as mostly story, directed by a few verifiable facts and a little made up nonsense. So I’ve decided it’s time to explore this highly contentious issue.
Because there can be no argument (well, I’m sure there could be, but to the best of my knowledge no one has made it yet) that upon meeting the natives of the Americas for the first time, Christopher Columbus wrote of them in his journal that they seemed to be pretty nice folks who would make wonderful slaves.
I sincerely hope that makes all of us feel morally icky.
I also have no problem with states like Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, North Dakota, and Oregon choosing not to recognize the holiday or to use the day instead to honor Native Americans or whatever feels appropriate to them. In fact, I applaud efforts to re-evaluate the way we view and interpret historical events. I think we learn a lot about ourselves and ultimately become better people when we do that.
But I’m also in favor of furniture sales and of the large celebrations of Italian heritage and patriotism for which many American cities use Columbus Day. Even though our school district does not take the day off, it doesn’t bother me that many still do. Again, Columbus’s voyages ushered in a gigantic shift in the course of world history. It was kind of a big deal.
I think that’s what these monuments that people get so upset about really honor. I think they remind us of the shifts, of those moments in history when the world changed, in some ways for the better and in some ways not. That’s the thing about stories. They can be told and viewed from different angles and even the ugly ones often contain nuggets of beauty.
Actually I would argue that all of our history contains some ugliness, but much like an individual may look back at past mistakes and be grateful for the way he or she has been changed by them, those big deal moments have also led to a great deal of beauty as the world has moved through and looked back at them.
I hope as a society we continue to have conversations about how we view and discuss the stories from our past. It’s probably healthy to re-evaluate the ways we honor or remember or criticize the figures that represent moments of great shifts. And I hope we don’t spend so much time angrily tearing apart our history that we lose our ability to view it from different perspectives.
Instead, I hope we remember to look at all of it, and to take the time to sit down together on our new bargain living room sofas to discuss and consider both the beautiful and the ugly, even if we have mixed feelings about it.
In 1947 in the West Bank, not far from the site of the ancient city of Jericho, some teenage shepherds made an exciting discovery while tending their flocks and maybe also behaving a little like teenagers. One of these young men tossed a rock into an opening on the side of a cliff and heard a suspicious crashing sound. When the young man and his companions investigated, they discovered a collection of large clay jars, at least one of which contained the teenager’s rock, and seven of which contained the first texts discovered in the collection that came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The discovery sparked a race of both Bedouins and archaeologists to scour the area for more, and eventually eleven nearby caves yielded hundreds of ancient texts that include portions of nearly every book in the Old Testament (and a complete copy of Isaiah), additional prophecies, descriptions of sectarian rules, military strategy, and poems of thanksgiving, among numerous other writings that have kept archaeologists geeking out for the last 65 years.
That’s all pretty great stuff, but I think the most intriguing discovery is what’s known as the Copper Scroll, found in March of 1952. It’s appropriately named because while all the other manuscripts found in the caves are written on parchment, this one is etched into copper sheeting. Its contents are pretty different from the other scrolls, too, because this one describes the world’s greatest treasure hunt, claiming to lead to what some estimate is over a billion dollars in silver and gold.
If you happen to be a first century Middle Easterner, familiar with the area, the clues are pretty simple. Each includes a general whereabouts (on the island that can only found by those who already know where it is), a specific spot (in the cupboard under the stairs), a depth for digging (as specified on a medallion last seen in a tavern in Nepal), and the treasure to be found (your body weight in gold, assuming you weigh the same as a duck). If you are a fluent reader of ancient Hebrew sprinkled with a little bit of Greek and a few typos, you might find they resemble a list of modern day letterbox clues.
In case you’re unfamiliar with letterboxing, it’s a treasure hunting hobby, in which people hide small, waterproof containers planted in clever outdoor (mostly) hiding spots and post clues online to help others find them. The containers each include a unique hand-crafted rubber stamp and a log book. When the seeker finds it, they stamp a personal book with the find and mark the box’s log book with their trail name signature stamp. Then they record the find online where they also warn the next letterboxer of the nearby nest of rattle snakes.
A friend of mine introduced me and my boys to the hobby last spring. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, but if you happen to speak letterbox, you’ll probably have an easier time. I’ve found about ten boxes, and failed to find several more. Most of my successes have come when my friend is with me because having planted many herself, she knows the lingo and has hiked most of the trails already, not to mention she possesses a significantly sharper sense of direction than I do.
Some of the clues are straight forward (once you learn some of the basics, like that SPOR is an acronym for Suspicious Pile of Rocks); others consist of word puzzles or are written in Elvish. Some clues are visible only to those who’ve logged a certain number of finds or who are personally acquainted with the planter and have been given a code word. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some clues were even etched into copper and hidden in a cave somewhere in the West Bank.
I’m sure I hike past five or six for every one I discover. But I have a good time, and though I’ve never found a duck’s weight in gold, I did once find a particularly fancy pants eagle stamp with a gold ink pad.
And I’ve had way more success than those who have attempted to find the Copper Scroll treasures. Despite plenty of expeditions and a few unverified claims, no one has found any of the treasure yet. There’s debate among scholars about whether or not the treasure truly exists, and if it does, who planted it, and maybe even whether it can be found at all by someone who doesn’t already know where it is. But if anyone ever does find this fanciest of treasures, I bet the finder will be a letterboxer.
My family and I took advantage of the recent long holiday weekend to spend some quality time together making fun of each other. At least they made fun of me. Or as my husband likes to say, I made the fun. They just pointed it out.
We took a warm sunny day to pile into the old family truckster and drive out to a shooting range in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri to go trap shooting, a first for me and my sons. It was a fun afternoon, and I can see how people could get really into the sport.
William Carver certainly did when he moved out West in 1872 to practice dentistry in Nebraska, a profession he didn’t stick with for long but that lent him the nickname “Doc.” Instead, he took up trap shooting, and soon discovered he could make a pretty good living at it if he were good enough.
And he was good. Like really good. He toured the country and by 1879 even set sail for Europe where, according to biographer Raymond Thorp, he showed off his exceptional skills to the Prince of Wales and many wealthy patrons during an extended engagement at the Crystal Palace.
Referred to in the New York Times as “the man who can put a bullet through a silver quarter while the coin is flying through the air,” Doc Carver could have plausibly claimed the title of greatest shooter in the world, but one challenge remained. Because there was one shooter who might have been said to be better. And allegedly, the up-and-comer Carver had a hard time convincing champion Captain Adam Henry Bogardus (who was both a pretty darn good shooter and the perfector of the glass ball and trap that had been serving to save the world’s passenger pigeon population from the sport) to accept a match.
In 1883, Bogardus finally did accept and the two faced off with a shoot in Louisville, Kentucky. Doc Carver won by one bird in front of a crowd of 1000. But as disappointing as the loss may have been to Bogardus, the match-up had its advantages. Soon both shooters received a hefty endorsement deal from George Ligowsky, inventor of the clay pigeon and trap that would serve to save the world’s glass ball population from the sport, and a lot of innocent fields from being littered with shards of broken glass.
What Ligowsky proposed, and paid handsomely for, was a series of 25 matches throughout the United States between the two champions, using the new clay pigeons. Doc Carver won nineteen of the matches, sealing his claim that he was good at the sport. Like pretty darn good. I guess it makes sense, this desire to prove oneself against someone else of great skill. It’s what drives a lot of athletes toward success and continues to push sport accomplishments to greater and greater levels.
What I can’t figure out is why it would be important to prove oneself against a person who has no particular interest or who has never demonstrated skill in a sport. Before this past weekend I had never been trap shooting in my life. Neither had my sons, but they were kind of excited about the idea when my husband (who has been trapshooting before) suggested we give it a try.
At first I was thinking this would be a great guys’ day out and I would have the house to myself so I could read a good book. Like a really good one. But then my youngest started to get a little nervous, suggesting he didn’t think he’d be very good at it, and maybe he shouldn’t go.
So, I sighed and did what moms do. I set aside my really good book, piled in the car with the family to head out to a gun range in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri, and I literally gave it my best shot. In fact I gave it a lot of my best shots. I even tried really hard to follow my sons’ very helpful advice and aim. I didn’t hit a single clay pigeon.
Not even one.
But I was an encourager. As my boys struggled (a lot less than I did) and then started to hit their targets more often than not, I cheered them on and became the butt of the jokes. Because I’m good at that.
As far as trap shooting goes, my sons are pretty good. My husband is really good (though maybe not yet to the level of pretty darn good). And, well, I’m not bad at releasing the clay pigeons.