Take a Walk, Ya Scurvy Dogs

A couple weeks ago, I had a run-in with a pirate. It was a sunny, post-tropical storm day in Charleston, South Carolina, a place that takes great pride in its pirates. We’d been in the area to celebrate the wedding of a niece and decided to take in a little bit of the colorful local history.

That’s when the pirate showed up. He was everything you’d expect with tall boots, a real sword, and a trusty parrot sidekick named Captain Bob. He knew everything there was to know (or at least everything I’d ever think to ask) about the swashbuckling personalities that graced the waters from North Carolina to Barbados during piracy’s Golden Age.

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Eric the pirate and Capt. Bob of Charleston Pirate Tours.

We walked with our pirate companion quite a few city blocks and along the oceanfront park where convicted buccaneers were once hanged for their crimes. This same site today still hosts scores of Charlestonians engaging in unsavory acts. Like yoga.

But the true treasure of the experience was the vast knowledge shared about real people from history including Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate who gave up a life of privilege in Barbados to play pirate with his hired friends. And Anne Bonny, a society girl gone wild, with a preference for scallywags. And that most famous of all pirates known sometimes as Edward Teach, or less commonly as Edward Beard, or more commonly as Black Beard. Boy, that guy didn’t turn out to be quite what we (or Wikipedia) thought.

You might begin to wonder how I, a respected practical historian, could simply trust the word of a pirate, not necessarily assumed to be the most honest of men. But I think I did mention he had a parrot, right? Also, never once did he utter the sound Arrrr.

 

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My only previous encounter with live pirates, at the St. Louis Renaissance Fair. These were somewhat less concerned with historical accuracy.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. He did say it once, when he informed us that to the best of his knowledge (and that of everyone else that knows about these things) pirates didn’t actually say Arrrr.

That, along with that uniquely gruff Piratey accent and the stubborn reluctance to correctly use a possessive pronoun or conjugate the verb “to be,” is an entirely fictional construct, popularized mostly by British actor Robert Newton in his role as the one-legged Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island.

It turns out that though they were probably a little more well-versed in nautical terms for boat riggings and sea monsters than was the average landlubber, pirates most likely talked like, well, guys of their era. Their language, like ours, was shaped by their various heritages and experiences, and would not have been particularly uniform.

And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that no pirate ever said the words “Shiver me timbers!” without getting laughed off the plank.

 

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Actually plank walking has a somewhat dubious history, too. Illustration by Howard Pyle, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Now I know that like me, this revelation must concern you somewhat. After all, International Talk like a Pirate Day is rapidly approaching (on September 19, which you no doubt already knew) and you haven’t a thing to say.

The holiday, begun sort of unofficially in 1994 by two guys playing racket ball and talking like guys of their era, became slightly official when columnist Dave Barry gave it a rousing stamp of approval in 2002.

What started as friends having a little fun irritating the heck out of their coworkers, has blossomed now into a truly international event prompting (if you can believe the handy pirate map on the holiday’s official website) perhaps dozens of organized events designed to annoy the heck out of way more people’s coworkers.

But beneath all of the irritation, the day really is about having fun, together with your friends, talking like average guys of your era, the kind of guys who think that pirates said things like, “Arrr, treasure I ain’t got nor knows wheres, but ye be cutthroats and ye better serve up yer peace or I’ll feed ya piecemeal to the rats, ya scurvy dogs.”

So join in the fun and celebrate the day like Long John Silver would, says I. Plunder some booty, shiver some timbers, and irritate the heck out of your coworkers with your creative grammar and imaginative slang. But if you ever find yourself in South Carolina, look up Charleston Pirate Tours and take a walk with Pirate Eric and Captain Bob. I promise it’ll be worth ye the hour, me mateys.

 

A Post for Every Season

In 1958, seventeen-year-old American high school student Robert G. Heft needed to find a good project for his history class. Realizing that his nation might be on the cusp of something important, Heft decided what he would do was address the obvious problem presented by admitting two more states to the then 48-state United States.

Young Heft spent twelve hours (probably the night before the project was due), using a yard stick and his mother’s sewing machine to carefully produce a new American flag design featuring 100 hand-cut stars, fifty on each side of the blue section.

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The new flag was raised on July 4, 1960 above Fort McHenry where Francis Scott Key famously penned the words that would one day be set to the most difficult tune on the planet for anyone to carry, though that doesn’t stop scores of drunken baseball fans from trying. photo credit: My favorite flag in the world. via photopin (license)

Bleary-eyed, he presented his project to his teacher Mr. Pratt, who promptly awarded him a B-. But young Heft had worked really hard and he wasn’t satisfied with the grade so he complained to his teacher, who sighed and finally agreed that he would give the project an A as soon as Congress accepted Heft’s design as the new American flag.

What was most likely meant as a dismissal, Heft took as a challenge. So in January of 1959, when Alaska became the first new state admitted to the Union since Arizona in 1912, he started to get excited. When later that same year, on August 21, Hawaii became number fifty, Heft held his breath in anticipation. Because he, along with somewhere around 1500 of his fellow citizens (all desperate to improve their history grades), had submitted unsolicited new designs for the flag. President Eisenhower himself called Heft to inform him that his design had been chosen.

It’s a great story, because it’s that of a relatively powerless young person, working hard, taking a chance, and achieving success against the odds. In a way it feels a little like the story of the United States itself.

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And super stylish hats. Let’s not forget those.

We Americans love our flag. Mostly, of course, we love what it represents, freedom and sacrifice and that fierce American pride instilled in us at birth. Many of us fly flags at home and we put the stars and stripes on ties and tee shirts and coffee mugs. We hoist our flag on Memorial Day at the end of May in honor of the men and women who have sacrificed to protect all that it represents. We display it again on July 4th, in honor of the original declaration of American attitude.

And thanks to a movement derived from the lesson plans of a creative Wisconsin teacher in 1885, whose school celebrated the flag’s birthday on June 14 (the 108th anniversary of the adoption of the stars and stripes), we now also fly it for Flag Day.

What this means is that in addition to showing our patriotism, we also get to be incredibly lazy. Because from the end of May to the beginning of July, it is perfectly appropriate to feature your stars-and-stripes front door decoration, candy dishes, and knick-knacks. And really, who’s going to say anything if you start at the beginning of May when you finally put the Easter bunnies away, and stretch it until the scarecrows come out in, say, September.

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Heck, I’m so patriotic, I might just leave this up all year.

No one. Because you are patriotic. And if they do say anything, then clearly, they are not. If you want to be really lazy patriotic you might even stretch your flag-themed paraphernalia through Veteran’s Day in November, by which time, it is nearly acceptable to swap it for Christmas decorations. I recommend snowmen because they’ll last you well into Lent.  

That, my friends, is how you become the envy of all your neighbors, because you always have such beautiful seasonal decorations in your home, while they can’t seem to find the time for such nonsense. Maybe they just aren’t as thoroughly patriotic as you.

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Rest assured, even the addition of more states won’t render this centerpiece any  less delightfully patriotic.

And the best part about all this wonderfully American stuff is that the number of stars doesn’t particularly matter. So if in a few years, there’s a 51st state, your oh-so-starred-and-striped paper-weight should weather the storm just fine.

Of course the flag itself will have to change in that case, but it’s okay because Robert Heft has us covered. He did retrospectively get his A on his project and went on to become a teacher and even served as mayor of his little Ohio town. When he passed away in 2009, Heft also held copyrights to flag designs with fifty-one through sixty stars. Just in case.

 

 

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A Fine Specimen of a Novel Except for not Having a Head

On September 10, 1945, a farmer by the name of Lloyd Olsen was expecting his mother-in-law for a visit and so he set about doing the unsavory work of killing a chicken for dinner. He scooped up a young rooster scratching and pecking its way through the barnyard and dealt the fatal blow.

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Mike the Miracle Chicken posing with his head. Photo via http://www.miketheheadlesschicken.org

Except that it wasn’t. The rooster staggered like any freshly killed chicken might, but unlike most, this one never stopped. Astonished, Lloyd decided not to serve the determined bird for dinner that night and the next morning found it sleeping soundly with its phantom head tucked under its wing.

The farmer knew at that point he had a genuine oddity on his hands. With an eyedropper he managed to feed his headless wonder chicken, whom he named Mike, a mix of grain and water. Soon, the Olsens and Mike were headed out on tour across the country, delighting sideshow crowds with what Lloyd referred to as “a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head.”

A group of skeptical headless chicken experts at the University of Utah agreed with him. It seems when Lloyd lopped off Mike’s head, the farmer somehow managed to miss the jugular vein and a very lucky clot kept Mike from bleeding out. With most of his brain stem still attached (though the larger part of his head would soon reside in a jar), Mike was still a remarkably healthy rooster. It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to the average chicken farmer,  but it turns out chickens (which have bird brains to begin with) don’t actually need great deal of brain power to get by.

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You might be surprised at how little is going on in there. Or then maybe you wouldn’t be. photo credit: Cock a Doodle #%& via photopin (license)

Mike lived quite happily, raking in a tidy little sum for the Olsens (his would-be murderers), until he finally managed to choke to death eighteen months later in a motel in the middle of Arizona. But don’t be sad, because Mike’s determined spirit remains alive and well in his hometown of Fruita, California where every year on the first weekend in June, they celebrate the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival.

That’s right. This very weekend (since I’m sure you don’t have better things to do), you can hop over to Fruita and run a 5K or participate in a disc golf tournament. If you have a prize chicken of your own (headless or not), you can enter it into a poultry show, or you can try your hand at rooster calling, chicken dancing, or peep eating.

Because people will celebrate pretty much anything.

For example, just a few of the quirky celebrations you could attend in the United States this summer include: the Mosquito Festival in Clute, Texas, the Humongous Fungus Festival in Crystal Falls, Michigan, and the Road-Kill Cook off Festival in Marlinton, West Virginia.

I think that’s great. It’s all in good fun, and I do love a good quirky celebration (except for maybe that last one). And in fact, I’m doing a little celebrating of my own. If you visit this blog often, you may have noticed, it looks a little different since the last post. More changes are coming in the near future, but for now, I am using a moderately fancier theme, and if you look to the top, there is a new page as well: “Coming Soon! A Book!”

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A book galley. Without a head.

I am delighted to announce that this fall (maybe as early as October), I will finally become a traditionally published novelist, a goal I’ve been working toward for a very long time.

I hope you’ll take a moment to click on the new page, celebrate with me, and maybe even sign up to receive an occasional e-mail about the progress of the project and some other fun stuff. I won’t be holding a mosquito calling contest (which just sounds like a bad idea) or crowning anyone “Miss Roadkill” (or “Miss Practical Historian” because that tiara is all mine). But I will be letting readers in on some exclusive content that I’m sure you’d hate missing out on even more than you’d hate missing the opportunity to don your mask and snorkel to attend the Underwater Music Festival in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The book, a historical novel, has no official title yet, because my publisher and I haven’t yet agreed on the perfect fit, and it has no cover yet because the brilliant graphic designer I’m working with is patiently awaiting a title so he can finish his lovely design. But I assure you that what I do have is a fine specimen of a novel except for not having a head.

While the truth of the existence of Mike the Headless Chicken has occasionally been called into question, despite the testimony of several of Utah’s finest headless chicken experts, I assure you, the book really is coming soon. And headless or not, I think  it’s worth celebrating.

Santa Claus: A Fat, Jolly Kleptomaniac with a Raging Coke Addiction

In 1931, Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom was approached by the Coca-Cola Company to reinvent the image of Santa Claus. The artist had a lot to work with. The legend which had begun with the generosity of a 4th-century bishop was Americanized by Washington Irving in 1809.

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Coke and Santa Claus, forever linked by the efforts of Haddon Sundblom. That’s effective advertising.

In 1823, thanks to the poetry of Clement Moore (maybe), he became a jolly elfish figure with magical flying reindeer.  During the American Civil War, artist Thomas Nash gave St. Nicholas his more familiar name. Santa Claus became an enthusiastic Union supporter dressed in fur from head to toe.

American artists Rockwell, Wyeth, and Leyendecker captured the essence of Santa Claus in the early 20th-century. The jolly fat man received a fur-trimmed stocking cap, wide black belt, black boots, and a large bag of toys. This is also when red and white became his undisputed favorite colors.

By the time Sundblom got hold of him, Santa already resembled a Coke can in the American imagination. But Santa was still elfish, stern, and a little bit too much like a random fat guy in a funny suit. Evidently, that didn’t make people want to run out and drink Coca-Cola.

Sundblom solved the problem by recruiting his neighbor, a fat, jolly salesman, to model for him. The result was a magical looking image of a warm and friendly man people the world over began to identify with. For thirty years, Sundblom breathed life into his Santa. He played with toys, relaxed by the fire, and pilfered the Christmas feast from the refrigerator.

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A jolly Sanata demonstrating for an innocent child that it’s perfectly okay to snag a drink from someone else’s fridge without asking permission. By User:Husky [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
All this he did with a warm smile and a bottle of Coke. The images captured the imagination of the world, even in nations where “Santa” was more often portrayed as a wiry bishop. The rumor spread that Sundblom and Coca-Cola invented the iconic red and white suit of the American Santa Claus.

But it isn’t exactly true. What they did was standardize Santa as a fat kleptomaniac with a friendly face and a raging Coke addiction. And Christmas has been all the jollier ever since.  

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Creeptastic. Seriously. photo credit: Elf on a Shelf Playing with Knives via photopin (license)

 

My kiddos have outgrown their Santa years, and thankfully we never got into that creeptastic Elf on a Shelf thing. But they appreciate the magic of the legend, and they’ll have a hard time getting to sleep on Christmas Eve. Because our stockings are still hung by the chimney with care, and my boys know St. Nicholas soon will be there.

He’ll be jolly-ish as he assembles surprises late into the night (maybe we could use an elf on our shelf). He’ll drink the Coke left for him on the hearth because he’ll need the caffeine. And before he stumbles bleary-eyed into bed, he might even raid the fridge.

Sparkly, Gluten-free Love, and other Reasons we may not get Valentine’s Day Quite Right

I don’t care much for Valentine’s Day. And it’s not just because I spent two days crafting sparkly paper sharks with working clothespin jaws to hold packages of Goldfish crackers for my children to give to their classmates, only to receive a note home the day before the party reminding parents that treats must be peanut and gluten free and all treat labels must be submitted to the school two weeks in advance.

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Stupid shiny sharks.

I don’t actually have a problem with expressing love with a sweet note or a gift. I think remembering to do that from time to time can be really important in a relationship.

And I know Americans will do our fair share of celebrating. In fact, according to a recent National Retail Federation poll, we plan to spend an average of $133.91 on candy (peanut and gluten free, approved two weeks in advance), cards, and gifts, which translates to about $13.7 billion as a nation. A poll by the American Express Spending and Saving Tracker predicts the total will be closer to $37 billion and that half of American engagements for the entire year will occur on Valentine’s Day.

The whole thing stems from the legend of St. Valentine, a 3rd Century priest who was beheaded by command of Roman Emperor Claudius II. Known as Claudius the Cruel, the emperor had strong military aspirations, but was alarmed to find that his soldiers didn’t always share his enthusiasm. He decided the reason must be that their hearts, and their attentions, were at home with their families. The solution was simple. He banned marriage.

Claudius II, the first man to throw an "I hate Valentine's Day" party. By =*File:5305 - Brescia - S. Giulia - Ritratto di Claudio II il Gotico - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 25 Giu 2011.jpg: Giovanni Dall'Orto.  derivative work: Cristiano64 [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
Claudius II, the first man to throw an “I hate Valentine’s Day” party. By Brescia – S. Giulia – Ritratto di Claudio II il Gotico – Foto Giovanni Dall’Orto, 25 Giu 2011.jpg: Giovanni Dall’Orto. derivative work: Cristiano64 [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the young lovers of Rome, many of whom appealed to St. Valentine to marry them in secret. A sucker for romance, Valentine did marry them. Lots of them. Until Claudius found out and had the priest beheaded on February 14, 270-ish.

Okay, I admit, that’s kind of a cool story of standing up for love in the face of a blood-thirsty emperor. It’s the kind of heroic thing that ought to be commemorated. Of course, if the legend is true, and since there were at least three different saints named Valentine, and it’s not entirely clear which the story is attributed to, let’s just say it’s suspicious, then there’s still the reality that February 14th is the day in which the champion of love was beheaded.

I suppose that by celebrating love on a dark day, we honor the man who died for his belief in it. But when I think about what the legend really suggests, that love and the commitment of marriage and family is worthwhile, I’m not sure we’re celebrating it right.

 photo credit: Pink and orange roses via photopin (license)
I honestly don’t think I can listen to another commercial about how even if I say I don’t want roses for Valentine’s Day, I really do want roses for Valentine’s Day, without wanting to hit someone over the head with that free glass vase.
photo credit: Pink and orange roses via photopin (license)

If we are to believe commercials, sitcoms, and Lifetime movies (and why wouldn’t we?), then Valentine’s Day is an incredibly stressful holiday. If you have a special someone in your life, then we are led to believe that your actions, or inactions, on February 14th will make or break your relationship. If you happen not to have a special someone to send you overpriced roses, then you are required to spend the day horribly depressed. Even my seven-year-old is stressed about the day, concerned that if he gives his Valentine sharks to the little girls in his 2nd grade class, “it might give them false hope.”

I just don’t think all the crazy to-do is what the St. Valentine legend is all about. Instead, I think it’s about recognizing the kind of love that demands commitment and hard work, that requires two people to grow and change together, to consider one another always, and to demonstrate appreciation for one another without prodding from a greeting card commercial.

We are going to be eating these things for a very, very long time.
We are going to be eating these things for a very, very long time.

Now I’m not going to throw an “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party and I certainly don’t fault you if you’re among those who will be spending $133.91 (plus a little more to make up for my considerably smaller contribution). I did spend two days constructing sparkly shark Valentines and I will probably find some small way to acknowledge the day because I own a heart-shaped pan and Valentine’s Day really is the one time each year when I get to use it.

Perhaps I’ll bake a peanut- and gluten-free cake and then my family will know that I love them. Or maybe it will be a heart-shaped, gluten-filled extra gooey chewy brownie with peanut butter frosting.

Superglue, Bailing Wire, and Candy Cane Goo

If you were to walk into my parents’ house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights and topped with the same lighted, multicolored star my parents have had for as long as I can remember. At this point I’m pretty sure the star contains more bailing wire and superglue than original material and still it’s held together mainly by the sheer will of Christmas spirit. Well, that, and maybe a little sticky candy cane goo.

The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.
The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.

I don’t remember when it happened because I had to have been very small at the time, but the story goes that as the family worked together to decorate the Christmas tree, my eldest brother, who is easily the tallest in the family, was teasing my sister, just two years younger and quite a bit shorter.

As she was always the most zealous keeper of holiday traditions in our house, I suspect she had been giving him a hard time about his tendency to clump the tinsel and to think little of the proper spacing of candy canes as he threw them randomly on the tree.

So he did what any young teenage boy might and stretched up beyond her reach to place a candy cane on the star. He expected it to irritate her. Instead, she was delighted. We all were. Somehow it seemed like the perfect touch to finish off the tree that primarily featured lumpy clay and Popsicle-stick-ornaments constructed by little fingers. And every Christmas since, the tree has been topped with the same (kind of garish) star and a single candy cane.

Because regardless of what religious symbolism a Christmas tree may hold (a hundred different sources will provide a hundred different interpretations), it should represent childhood and good Christmas memories.

At least that’s what Queen Charlotte, the German wife of England’s King George III, seemed to think. When she married in 1761, Charlotte spoke no English (though she learned quickly) and brought with her several German customs, one of which was the setting up of a decorated yew branch at Christmastime.

Christmas trees, or some version of them, had been part of German tradition since at least the 16th-century, when legend credits Martin Luther with the first. The claim of the legend is almost certainly false, but historians do generally agree that the first Christmas trees emerged from the general vicinity of Germany.

Queen Charlotte was certainly fond of the tradition and quickly transformed the private family yew branch celebration of her childhood into a spectacle like none the English nobility had ever seen. Then in 1800, she took the tradition to a whole new level, inviting the children of Windsor to a party featuring at its center an entire yew tree loaded with, according to one contemporary biographer, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

He makes no mention of Queen Charlotte topping the tree with a star or a candy cane. Of course since there’s no definite evidence that the candy cane was invented until a hundred years later, I can give her a pass on that one.

Queen Victorian and Prince Albert gathered with their family around the Christmas tree.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert looking very stylish around the Christmas tree.

What is clear is that the tree was a hit and Christmas trees started popping up in some of the noble households over the next few years, until in 1848, The Illustrated London News featured a woodcarving of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around their Christmas tree. After that, everyone wanted one. When the picture was run two years later in the American publication Godey’s Lady’s Book, the tradition caught fire (sometimes literally) in the United States as well.

Ours is not yet held together by bailing wire and hot glue, but give it time.
Ours is not yet held together by bailing wire and hot glue, but give it time.

Queen Victoria and her Prince Albert often get the credit for popularizing the Christmas tree, but the honor may more appropriately belong to Queen Charlotte, who knew that there are some traditions worth preserving.

So if you were to walk into my house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights, decorated with lumpy clay and Popsicle-stick-ornaments, and topped with a (kind of garish) multicolored, lighted star and a single candy cane.

What weird little traditions do you follow and wouldn’t dream of celebrating Christmas without?

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.

Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.
Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.

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.

Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.
Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.

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.

Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!
Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!

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'm kind of partial to the bald eagle myself.  photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc
I’m kind of partial to the bald eagle myself. photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

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.

Praying for KitKats

I don’t know how it is in your neighborhood, but mine is starting to get pretty spooky. Mummies, skeletons, and witches peek out from behind trees jumping, unwelcome, into my periphery. I love my neighbors, and they love Halloween, so I won’t really complain, but I admit, I’m not a big fan of this holiday coming up tomorrow.

As far as I can tell, fear isn’t a particularly enjoyable sensation. I have never understood the point of haunted houses or scary movies. I don’t like being startled. And I really don’t like nightmares.

Aren't you a little old to be Trick-or-Treating?   photo credit: abbynormy via photopin cc
Aren’t you a little old to be Trick-or-Treating? photo credit: abbynormy via photopin cc

But even though all of that is true, my family still observes Halloween, because I really do enjoy handing out candy to all of the creatively costumed kids and to the crowds of tiny Disney Princesses. As long as they don’t ring the doorbell past bedtime, I can even appreciate the clearly-too-old-to-participate teenagers that cut eye holes in their moms’ best sheets and show up on my doorstep.

My kiddos are all set, too. Their costumes have been pieced together and we’ve developed a plan for warm layers underneath because, of course, the meteorologists tell us that Halloween night may be bringing our first freeze of the season and I have worked too hard on these costumes to simply have them wear their coats.

I mean, I don't want to brag that I'm the best mom in the world or anything, but an awful lot of love went into that mask.
I mean, I don’t want to brag that I’m the best mom in the world or anything, but an awful lot of love went into that mask.

All that’s left is for me to figure out what the heck we are going to do with all that candy. Because, as I mentioned, my neighbors seem to love Halloween and I love my neighbors, so I will not refuse their generosity.

But trick-or-treating is kind of a strange tradition, isn’t it? It’s generally assumed that the practice is derived from the Celtic festival of Samhain. Observed as far back as at least 2000 years, Samhain marked an important seasonal transition and a time when the spirits of the deceased were believed to walk the earth again.

Since it’s probably not smart to presume all wandering spirits are friendly, gifts of food (mostly KitKats, I assume) were often left for them by the living who also cut eye holes in their moms’ best sheets or donned Disney princess dresses so any unfriendlies might not notice them.

800 years later, when the Church decided to Christianize the Celts, Samhain became a problem. It’s really difficult to overcome superstition and the desire to give KitKats to tiny Disney princesses. What the Church decided to do was commandeer the holiday and transform it into Hallowtide, a festival encompassing All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day, from October 31 to November 2.

Because what wandering spirit wouldn't appreciate this?  photo credit: Andrew _ B via photopin cc
Because what wandering spirit wouldn’t appreciate this? photo credit: Andrew _ B via photopin cc

Instead of fearing evil wandering spirits, the holiday became about honoring and praying for the departed. By the 11th Century, the Church had come to be pretty cool with the idea of dressing up as angels, demons, and Disney princesses as a part of the celebration and soon the tradition of “guising” emerged. Children (and probably a few neighborhood teens who were clearly too old to participate) knocked on doors, often with a song, to beg for food or money in exchange for prayers offered up for the dead. The beggars became known as “soulers” and the treat most often given was called a “soul cake.”

Soul cakes were small and round, often with crosses marked on the top. I can’t find a recipe, but rumor has it they were sweet cakes with things like ginger, raisins, and not nearly enough KitKats in them. I’m betting that’s why the tradition has evolved from “if you give me a treat, I’ll pray for you” to “if you don’t give me a KitKat I’ll egg your house.”

Where's my KitKat?  photo credit: katerha via photopin cc
Where’s my KitKat? photo credit: katerha via photopin cc

But the soul cake does give me an idea of how I can deal with the massive amount of candy that will be entering my house tomorrow night. I’m going to take a lesson form the early Christian Church and commandeer my children’s candy bags (after letting them eat A LOT of candy on Halloween night, I promise) and re-purpose as many of the sweet treats as I can into baked goods that I will serve to friends and neighbors during the coming, more cheerful holiday season.

I have been scouring the Internet for recipes that will help me do just that. My favorite so far is this one for KitKat Cookie Bars. If you know others, please feel free to share. And keep in mind that if you don’t, I just might egg your house.

Drinks with the Devil Lead to Puking Pumpkins

This morning I’ve been living the stay-at-home mom’s dream. I took my children to school, covered my kitchen table in newspaper, and carved jack-o-lanterns. Okay, maybe it’s not every stay-at-home mom’s dream, or even mine, though I’m pretty sure my kids think I make them go to school just so I can play with their toys all day long.

Remember when we were kids and we had to do this with just a spoon and a steak knife. And bandaids.
Remember when we were kids and we had to do this with just a spoon and a steak knife. And bandaids.

I really did borrow their carving tools because I haven’t carved a pumpkin on my own since my oldest could manage to rub pumpkin guts in his hair, but tomorrow are the fall parties in my sons’ classrooms and while I did manage to dodge being put entirely in charge this time, I volunteered to help.

And no fall party would be complete without a few Jack-o-lanterns, that bizarre Halloween craft that traces its roots back to a not-so-nice wandering spirit named “Stingy Jack.” According to an Irish tale, Jack was a ne’er-do-well who had a run-in with the devil, a much more famous ne’er-do-well.

Because he was such a good guy, Jack invited the devil to join him for a drink. The devil agreed and even said he’d pay the bill when Jack suggested that the devil turn himself into a coin from which he could later transform back, thereby cheating the bar owner out of the price of the drinks. As soon as the devil transformed, Jack grabbed the coin and placed it in his own pouch next to a small cross he had presumably stolen from someone much nicer than himself. The devil was trapped and Jack only agreed to release him for a promise that he’d leave Jack his soul.

pumpkindrill
Don’t worry, my boys will get to carve they’re own pumpkins, too. They might even get to use Dad’s tools.

Some versions of the tale claim that Jack trapped the devil in a tree with similar results, but regardless of how it happened, the years went by and Stingy Jack died, as nearly all ne’er-do-wells eventually do. Of course, because of his ne’er-do-well ways, Jack didn’t make the cut for Heaven. The devil wouldn’t take him in either and so Jack found himself stuck. Not knowing where to go, he asked his old drinking buddy for directions. In answer, the devil flashed him what I have to assume was truly a devilish grin and tossed Jack a burning ember from the eternal fires of Hell.

Jack wasn’t too bothered. He simply placed the ember in the trusty old turnip he happened to be carrying with him into the afterlife, because that seemed like a pretty good folklore-y kind of thing to do. And ever since then, we’ve been carving vegetables because, well…because…um…

So it turns out this story might not really address the history of today’s jack-o-lanterns at all. There’s not even much evidence that the tradition is particular Irish in origin. Jack’s story is similar to tales from around the globe, used to explain the ghostly phenomenon of ignis fatuus, or the eerie lights that sometimes appear at night over marshy areas and, like a newborn’s smile, are often attributed to gas.

The Māori people of New Zealand were carving gourds to use as lanterns as early as 700 years ago, and it worked pretty well. On a night when little ghouls and goblins are running through the streets, it seems like a good idea to light their way. The practicality of the carved gourd as a way to see where one was going and ward off the evil of the night eventually merged with the spooky tale of Stingy Jack and the Jack-o-lantern we know and love was born, maybe as recently as the early 19th century.

So today the jack-o-lantern is a staple of Halloween décor and of fourth grade classroom fall parties, where it’s featured in the “puking pumpkin” experiment. How could I not volunteer to help with that!?

Uh oh. These pumpkins don't look like they're feeling so well.
Uh oh. These pumpkins don’t look like they’re feeling so well.

After the party tomorrow afternoon you can check out a video of the puking pumpkins on my Facebook page.

The Cheese is Old and Moldy

In the summer of 1987, Paddy Coughlan and Dan O’Conner got to work digging peat on a farm near Glenahilty in Ireland’s Tipperary County and found a little more than they expected. The two men worked together to extract their mysterious find, which turned out to be a 100-pound block of 1,400-year-old cheese.

So just picture this, older and boggier. photo credit: abbyladybug via photopin cc
So just picture this, older and boggier. photo credit: abbyladybug via photopin cc

An exciting find to be sure, especially if you happen to have a box of crackers handy, but Coughlan and O’Connor didn’t. They contacted archaeologist Tony Candon, who, though pretty psyched about the find, was also fresh out of crackers. He did, however, identify the find as cheese (or possibly butter) and declared it quite likely edible, preserved as it was by the cool, acidic, and anaerobic conditions of the bog.

For nearly 27 years, it was a really impressive discovery. Then in February of 2014, archaeologists published the findings from the excavation of a 17th-century B.C. cemetery in the Taklamakan Desert in China’s Xinjiang region. What they found was about 200 well-preserved mummies, each with a little chunk of 3,600-year-old yellow cheese hanging around its neck. Though there’s secondary evidence that cheese has been around some parts of the world for more than 7000 years, this is the oldest actual cheese that’s ever turned up.

I mention this, not because I am particularly knowledgeable about cheese (I’m certainly not), but because today happens to be National Moldy Cheese Day. As far as I know Hallmark hasn’t produced a card for this one yet and you might be hard pressed to find it printed on a wall calendar, but nevertheless today is, without question, the day when we’re all supposed to take a moment to appreciate moldy cheese.

Because this is sort of a history blog, I scoured Wikipedia for at least a couple of minutes to see if I could discover the origin of the strange holiday. I failed. But I think given the importance our ancestors placed on cheese (a convenient snack for the deceased or a 100-pound treasure to be buried in in the back yard for safe keeping), we can assume that Moldy Cheese Day has been around for a while, just like the forgotten slice of American sizzling on the middle school blacktop or that block of Swiss growing fuzzy in the back of your refrigerator.

Vieux-Boulogne, the world's stinkiest cheese, according to two Camdon University studies in 2004 and 2007. Grant money well spent I'd say. photo credit: noodlepie via photopin cc
Vieux-Boulogne, the world’s stinkiest cheese, according to two Cranfield University studies in 2004 and 2007. Grant money well spent I’d say. photo credit: noodlepie via photopin cc

And there’s no question that there are folks among us today who are crazy about cheese. Foodies rave about various stinky cheeses with rinds washed in this or that briny solution. They speak of aging processes and of textures and flavors described as earthy or meaty. There are die-hard cheese eaters out there who can’t wait to devour the smelliest cheeses they can find, not even shying away when the odor is described as similar to that of sweaty feet.

This defies explanation. Just...no. photo credit: cdw9 via photopin cc
This defies explanation. Just…no. photo credit: cdw9 via photopin cc

My guess is that Helen Lucy Burke is one of these die-hard cheese fanatics (not to be confused with the Green Bay Packers cheese-head fanatics, who are even more peculiar). Ms. Burke threw caution to the wind and sampled the 1,400-year-old bog cheese where it’s now kept at the Roscrea Heritage Centre in Tipperary. She described the flavor as unpleasant, though not quite revolting, similar to a dried Wensleydale cheese, which I’m pretty sure I’m never going to eat.

But perhaps you are braver than I am. If you are, you can celebrate Moldy Cheese Day by branching out and trying something new, or, if you want, rumor has it you can cut the fuzzy parts off that lump of Swiss and eat it without worry.

Personally, I think I might celebrate by cleaning out my fridge.