Forget the Bunny: A Case for the Easter Fox

With Easter Sunday nearly upon us, it’s probably time we talk about rabbits. I have a complicated relationship with these admittedly adorable creatures. My first favorite stuffed animal was a floppy-eared bunny I received at Easter. My youngest son, too, has a stuffed bunny that is near and dear to his heart, enough so that when he was younger, there were many nights of frantic searching for “Bunny,” who always managed to disappear at bedtime leaving behind one inconsolable little boy.

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Just look at that twitchy nose. He’s up to something. photo credit: emraps my kid’s face via photopin (license)

And then there’s the Easter Bunny, one of a very few species of mammals to lay eggs, and the only one known to lay eggs filled with candy. This creature is also commonly classified as a rarely seen and likely nonexistent animal (like Big Foot), a creeper sent to spy on naughty children (like the elf on the shelf), or a guy in a scary costume that makes small children cry in the middle of the mall commons (like our favorite jolly fat man).

But where does this strange critter come from? The answer to that may be as hard to find as a favorite stuffed bunny at bedtime (make sure you check outside in the wet grass next to the play set). There are references to the Easter Bunny as early as the 16th century in Germany where it seems likely the tradition was born.  

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The only bunny I’ve ever liked.

And speculation that rabbits and hares became linked to the holiday because they are the animals most closely associated with the pagan goddess Ostara, traces its roots back to the connection of the goddess with the Christian holiday. That connection was first postulated by the 8th century monk and (practical) historian known as the Venerable Bede, who a lot of scholars now think probably just kind of made it up.

That didn’t stop Jacob Grimm (of fairytale-telling fame) from spreading the rumor in 1835, nor does it slow the annual onslaught of internet claims that Easter is little more than the Christian commandeering of yet another pagan holiday (which, even according to quite a few pagan scholars, it’s not).

But that still doesn’t explain why a bunny brings a basket of eggs, a common symbol of fertility and new life, to hide for the kiddos on Easter. All we really know is that the tradition seems to come out of German Lutheranism in various forms, all involving the hiding of colored eggs by an animal. The species of the egg-bearer varied by region, showing up sometimes as a rabbit, but in other places as a rooster, a cuckoo, a stork, or a fox. Eventually the rabbit won the day. By the time German immigrants began arriving in large numbers in America in the 1700s, they brought the Easter Bunny with them.

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Well, I’m fond of this one, too. Now that my son is getting older, it doesn’t hippity hop through my yard much anymore, but I didn’t really mind. Except at bedtime.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have a complicated relationship with bunnies. On the one hand, they are adorable.  And on the other hand, I hate them. Because while the Easter Bunny brings candy, plain ol’ bunnies hippity hop through my neighborhood with impunity.

These monstrous little nose-wigglers descend every spring to destroy my carrot, beet, and lettuce crops, decimate my blueberry bushes, and even nibble the life out of the new little tree shoots that have done nothing to deserve this harsh treatment. The demons dig ankle-spraining holes in my yard (never once having the decency to leave a candy-filled egg inside) and relentlessly taunt my dog who is well-intentioned, but too slow to catch them.

EasterOzzie
My poor dog would like to add another argument against the Easter Bunny.

So here’s my proposal. Let’s go back to the Easter Fox. Foxes are shy enough you rarely see them. They’re also kind of cute, but much easier to say no to when your son begs for one as a pet, and they will pretty much leave your beet crop untouched. Also, in the wild, though foxes do not lay eggs (and neither do bunnies, in case you weren’t clear on that), they do tend to steal and occasionally hide them. Also (and I think it’s safe to say this is the most important point) adopting the fox as the official mascot of Easter would effectively put an end to all this “Hoppy Easter” nonsense.

So it just makes sense. Or at least it makes as much sense as the Easter Bunny.

Popcorn for One

This past Saturday night, I did something new and wonderful. My husband spent the day with an old buddy of his and my children both attended an event Saturday night, so I found myself with some time on my hands at the end of a long, stressful week.

I thought about using the time to get some more long, stressful work done, but then I remembered that Beauty and the Beast was showing at the movie theater nearby and that I kind of wanted to see it, and no one else in my family did.

So, I bought a ticket and went to the movies by myself for the first time ever. Maybe it’s strange that a nearly forty-year-old American 21st century woman had never had that experience, and maybe you go to the movies by yourself all the time, but this was a first for me.

I bought some popcorn that I didn’t share with anyone. And when the person sitting beside me had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie, it wasn’t my problem.  In fact, once the lights went down and the movie started, I didn’t even notice the people next to me, because not one of them whispered to me, spilled his drink on me, or buried his eyes in my shoulder at the scary bits.

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Just one, please. With the perfect amount of butter.

I never entertained the fleeting thought that I should have chosen a different film because my movie-going neighbor clearly wasn’t enjoying this one. I just watched as the story of Belle and her Beast overwhelmed my senses and the stress of the week melted away in the dark auditorium.

And maybe that’s how it should be. After all, movie watching hasn’t always been the group activity it is today when movie-goers tend to grab their families, their sweethearts, or their rowdy group of friends, split a giant tub of popcorn, and sit back to enjoy the show.

When, on May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison first unveiled a working prototype of his laboratory’s Kinetocope, about 150 women gathered round to enjoy the experience, one at a time. The women were attending a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and among them was Mina Edison, wife to the famous inventor.

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Edison Laboratory’s Kinetoscope, what a movie theater looked like in 1891. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The device these ladies got to see was a large box with a small peephole in the top so that one person could peer inside and see a picture that moved. Edison (and more so his assistants, William Dickson and team) wasn’t the only one making progress toward moving pictures at the time, but when the ladies got a chance to look into the box and see William Dickson waving his hat at them, it was certainly a wholly new experience for them.

And it happened to the right group. Because the National Federation of Women’s Clubs had been developed to support women’s organizations engaged in improving lives through volunteerism. These were some hard working ladies, tackling some of the biggest civic issues of the day including women’s suffrage and child welfare. They had likely come to the conference exhausted, in need of encouragement and empowerment, and also rest and refreshment.

Though the moving picture they saw lasted only a few seconds, I have to assume they enjoyed their moment of solitude and focused entertainment, when in the midst of all these many people, each lady got a turn to see Dickson’s picture greet only her.

The experience caught on. Edison’s team also patented the Kinetographic Camera and by autumn of 1892, the movie viewing system had been fitted with a nickel slot and was headed into production. The first public Kinetoscope viewing parlor opened in New York in April of 1894, and soon the machines were in several major cities and in traveling exhibits throughout the United States. Folks lined up with their nickels, often paying a whole quarter to spend a few minutes jumping down a line of movie boxes to view a series of very short films.

Personally I’d find that a little frustrating and I’m glad that film soon moved into a bigger venue that could accommodate a larger audience. If not for that, we’d never have come to enjoy the hilarity of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or gotten to listen to rustle of hundreds of newspapers unfolding at the boring part of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or squirm in discomfort when an infected someone sneezes in the crowded movie theater during Outbreak. And we’d never miss a pivotal scene in order to accompany a kid to the bathroom.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still enjoy going to the movies with my family and friends. I think I even prefer it most of the time, but this is definitely an experience I will repeat when I get the chance. The movie was good. It’s a familiar story (my friend Pat recently wrote this fascinating post showing the Beast through the years), but it was well done with talented actors, strong voices, and plenty of Disney magic performed just for me. Most importantly, I did not leave in the middle to go walk with anyone to the bathroom. And my popcorn was just the way I like it.

A Highfalutin Riot: Fighting for the Right to Party at the Ballet

On the evening of May 29, 1913, many upstanding ladies and gentlemen of Paris, those with an appreciation for high culture and fine art, headed to the recently opened Théatre des Champs-Elysées for a night on the town. What they’d come to witness was  Rite of Spring, a highly anticipated performance by Les Ballet Russes, choreographed by the often controversial Vaslav Nijinsky with music composed by the unconventional Igor Stravinsky.

It’s unlikely any of those in attendance could have anticipated engaging in a shouting match with fellow ballet goers, being beaten with their neighbors’ canes, or having the peculiar rhythm of the music tapped out on top of their heads by the normally well mannered folks sitting behind them. But those are just the types of things that happened during what became perhaps the most notorious performance in ballet history.

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Riot-worthy ballet costumes. I guess. Rite of Spring Dancers. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From almost the moment the first note sounded, the audience appeared uncomfortable and soon discussions broke out about the discordant music and the aggressive movements of the dancers in wild costumes, portraying disturbing pagan scenes. It seems some in the audience appreciated such a fresh performance while others found it to be an assault on the tasteful traditions of ballet and music composition.

Soon the disagreements turned to shouting and cane whacking, allegedly requiring police interference by Intermission and settling into a full on riot before the end of the performance.

At a ballet.

As I’m sure you know if you’ve visited this blog before,  I’m super  kind of occasionally thorough in my research, so I did listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I composed this post, and I have to say, I’m not sure I really get it. Bear with me here, because I am not qualified at all to be a music critic, but I do know what I like and don’t like. The Rite of Spring, while discordant and strange in places, strikes me as really beautiful at other times. And probably not riot-worthy.

But much more qualified music critics, some of whom consider this Stravinsky’s greatest work as well as one of the most influential compositions of the 20th century, often point out that it was a huge departure from the musical expectations of its time.

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Does this look like a man who would inadvertently cause a riot? Igor Stravinsky. Photographer: Robert Regassi. Publisher: J. & W. Chester, publisher, no author listed (Miniature essays: Igor Stravinsky) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So maybe I do get it, at least a little bit. Music does after all have the potential to elicit strong emotional response. That’s the reason I tend to skip around on my iPod a lot looking for the song I’m in the right mood for, even if I don’t know what that is until I hear it. And it’s also the reason that in the family iTunes account, we have set up a bunch of different lists for cleaning, family dance-offs (not an infrequent occurrence at our house), and settling down before bed.

Each of us has our own individual list, too, and sometimes we do get into arguments about which one we should listen to while prepping dinner. There’s a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, so it isn’t always a big problem, but each of us (except for me, obviously) has our little quirks. My oldest son favors classical movie scores and great guitar riffs (tolerable), but also has an unfortunate taste for electronica. My youngest is often happy with Metallica, but still enjoys a “good” bagpipe tune. And my husband, a man I admire for so many reasons, has a regrettable and inexcusable love for the Beastie Boys.

But despite any disagreements, we still turn on the tunes. And I imagine the highfalutin folks at that first performance of Rite of Spring eventually returned for more of the ballet. And actually, there’s a little mystery surrounding this high society riot anyway.

For such an unusual event, there’re not a lot of good reliable details. What we do know rests on the eyewitness accounts of some of the performers and a few of those in attendance; and given that eyewitnesses are generally not all that reliable, it’s possible that some exaggeration may have occurred over the years.

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This man, however, might tempt me to embrace my crazy. Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz By bakameh (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
And while both Stravinsky and Nijinsky were upset by the event, Sergei Diaghilev, wealthy entrepreneur and founder of Les Ballet Russes, reportedly said of the scandal that it was “just what [he] wanted.” Because controversy sells, and a ballet rumored to have started a riot, will likely sell out. There were no reports of further violence erupting at any of the remaining performances.

So it’s possible Rite of Spring didn’t really make people embrace their crazy as much as we’ve been led to believe. Still, I gotta say, when my husband occasionally decides to fight for his right to party and cranks up the Beasties, I think I could probably find myself willing to whack someone over the head with a cane.

And speaking of things totally worth getting overly worked up about, tomorrow I will be sharing some exciting news with the folks who are signed up on my e-mail list. If that isn’t you, and you’d like it to be, you can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

Recipe for Spring: Start with 1.4 %Egg Yolk. Add Brain Freeze.

When he took on the office of the President of the United States in 1801, Thomas Jefferson brought with him his love for ice cream. Having most likely gotten his favorite ice cream recipe from his time serving as Minister to France, Jefferson often had the dessert served in what would, after a few years and a fire, come to be called the White House.

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Just a hint of a smile in this portrait…I bet he’s thinking about ice cream. Thomas Jefferson, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jefferson accomplished a lot in his political career, but contrary to rumors that suggest otherwise, he did not introduce ice cream to the United States. He did, however, probably contribute to the spread of its popularity, and his handwritten recipe is the oldest of its kind known in the US.

It calls for cream, of course, and sugar, vanilla, and plenty of egg yolks. I’m sure it was good, and if you want to try Jefferson’s recipe, you can allegedly do so while visiting Mount Rushmore where the National Park Service will be happy to sell you a cone.

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When we visited Mount Rushmore a few year ago, we had no idea we could have eaten Thomas Jefferson’s way back ice cream. Guess we’ll have to visit again. Mount Rushmore, National Park Service, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

But according to the FDA, what you’ll be eating won’t technically be ice cream, which is defined as a frozen dessert containing at least 10% milkfat, a maximum of 100% overrun (the amount of mixed in air), and less than 1.4% egg product. You’ll have to call it French ice cream, or frozen custard instead.

It’s the eggs that make the difference, as most American ice cream recipes now forgo eggs all together in order to make production cheaper and handing easier. Custard is generally served fresh, and is stored at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream. And custard has a much lower overrun, making it denser (upside down frozen custard has been holding onto spoons since long before Dairy Queen’s Blizzards) and creamier and, often, much more delicious.

You can trust me on this because we St. Louisans know a thing or two about frozen custard, which outside of the return of baseball(and yes, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speak for all of us) is our favorite sign of spring.

Finally this week, spring has sprung here in Missouri. It happened officially this past Monday, but all the unofficial signs have begun arriving, too. The temperature reached into the 80s (it didn’t stay there, because Missouri), tornadoes have touched down, the dog is shedding EVERYWHERE, and the seasonal frozen custard stands are finally open.

This last one matters most to our family, and especially to my nine-year-old son. We pass one of his favorites every day on the way home from his school, and every day I have to decided whether I will stop to get an after school treat or whether I will explain to him why it’s not a custard day.

Obviously we stop much less often than we don’t, but he never fails to ask. Fortunately this stand, like many in the area, closes in late November and doesn’t open again until early to mid-March, so I get a few months off from this tedious conversation.

But now it’s open, and my son is relentless. What can I do? He’s a St. Louis kid. And he loves his frozen custard.

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Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. “It really is good, guys..and gals.” By The original uploader was Indrian at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The Midwest fell in love with this creamiest of frozen dairy desserts in the 1930s. The first machine designed for producing frozen custard was about ten or twelve years old at that point and had already taken the Jersey shore by storm, but no one loves the stuff as much as Midwesterners (the true cultural center of the nation).

The city that grabbed hold the most enthusiastically is Milwaukee. Since Wisconsin is made of dairy cows and ice, it was a natural fit. Today that city calls itself (unofficially) the frozen custard capital of the world and boasts that it contains more frozen custard stands per capita than any other city. Good for them.

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Our favorite local treat is Fritz’s Frozen Custard, a St. Louis tradition since 1983.

I mean no disrespect to my Milwaukee friends when I say this, but we have an arch, and a better baseball team, and Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, named by celebrity chef Bobby Flay as the best dessert he’s ever eaten. Ted Drewes has been a part of St. Louis since 1931, and as they say in their extremely clever catchphrase, “It really is good guys…and gals.”

My son and I don’t drive past a Ted Drewes every day on our way home from school, but just because our stand is less famous, doesn’t mean it’s any less beloved. And most importantly, it’s now open for the season.

We’ve already made our first stop for rich, creamy, frozen dairy deliciousness complete with more than 1.4% egg yolk, consumed so enthusiastically that my son gave himself his first brain freeze of the spring. I think Thomas Jefferson (coincidentally my favorite historical president, only partially because of his love for frozen custard) would be proud.

 

Corned Beef and Cabbage and Something about Snakes

Last week I got to do something fabulous. I took a quick girls’ trip to Florida with my sister, cousin, and aunt. And I did not take my kids or my husband. Not that I don’t like traveling with them. They’re really fun people. But this was a special trip to celebrate my sister’s birthday by hanging out on the beach and watching some baseball.

We went to Jupiter, Florida, spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals (and the Florida Marlins, but nobody cares), where we attended three games, played on the beach, explored a lighthouse with the most amusing tour guide I’ve ever encountered (but that’s another post), witnessed a rehabilitated sea turtle get released into the wild, ate a lot of cheesecake, and had, generally, a really great time.

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Okay, so it wasn’t strictly a girls’ trip. Of course we had to take Steve the traveling sock monkey. He’s a huge fan!

And even though I didn’t take him with me, I could not have enjoyed such a trip without the efforts of my wonderful husband who rearranged his busy work schedule to hold down the fort for a few days, getting the kids to and from school, managing homework, keeping up with all the activities, and cooking dinner.

It’s this last part I may appreciate the most, because while I was gone, he cooked corned beef and cabbage. It’s a dish a lot of Americans will be preparing tomorrow in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, even in spite of the fact that it falls this year on a Friday in Lent and at least the dedicated Catholics among us should probably stick to fish.

I confess that not being particularly Irish, nor even the tiniest bit Catholic, I’ve never really known a great deal about Saint Patrick. I just know that if you don’t wear something green on March 17th, someone somewhere will feel compelled to pinch you and that if you cook corned beef and cabbage in my house while I’m home (or possibly in the same state), your fate will be much worse than that.

It turns out history doesn’t yield up a whole lot of reliable information about St. Patrick, either. We know that he was born in Britain sometime in the last half of the 5th century, that he arrived in Ireland as a slave at age sixteen (possibly kidnapped by pirates), made it back home six years later, and had a vision calling him back to Ireland as a missionary, where he proceeded to do all kinds of legendary things like preaching with shamrocks and driving out snakes. That’s where his story gets a little muddy, and may (as some historians suggest) get combined with another missionary known as Palladius who was in Ireland in the early half of the 5th century.

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Though we don’t know for sure, it seems likely enough St. Patrick may have used the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity, since Ireland actually has shamrocks. Unlike snakes, which Ireland never did have. Not even green ones.[Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the lack of concrete details sure doesn’t stop us all from gettin’ our green on, even though the color more historically associated with this saint is actually blue. Historical stuff does tend to yellow with age, and Chicago goes to all that trouble to turn their river disgusting green, so I guess I’ll allow it.

The tradition that I can’t tolerate, however, is corned beef and cabbage. And frankly, I shouldn’t have to. Because Saint Patrick is as likely to have eaten corned beef as he is to have driven all of the snakes from Ireland (which, according to fossil records, never existed there in the first place). In fact, historically, Irishmen in general never ate much beef, the meaty part of their diet tending to be primarily salted pork.

If we really want to celebrate St. Patrick and all things Irish, then it’s bacon we should be eating. Now that I could get behind.

It wasn’t until the great influx of Irish immigrants into America in the 19th century that corned beef became a St. Patrick’s thing at all, and that’s only because the meaty part of the American diet tended to be more beefy. Relatively cheap beef brisket was readily available to Irish Americans who settled in large numbers alongside the kosher delis of their Jewish neighbors, and so they convinced themselves, their descendants, and green beer-guzzling Americans from all walks of life that corned beef and cabbage is a good, Irish-y idea.

But it’s not.

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I’m not a total party pooper. I will wear this ridiculous hat while not eating corned beef and cabbage.

Still, Americans will fire up their crock pots, stink up their houses, and line up in droves to eat corned beef and cabbage tomorrow. And I’m sure those lines will include a lot of Irish and/or green beer-guzzling American Catholics throughout the country where many local dioceses (though far from all) have granted dispensations to their parishioners who wish to partake.  

I can honestly say there’s not enough green beer in the world to make me want to participate in the tradition, and because I married a very smart and thoughtful man, I don’t have to. He had his corned beef last week. By the time I got back from my trip, the house had thoroughly aired out. Had it not, I’d not have hesitated to head back to the beach.

The Ear-splitting Crack of My Broken Backyard Dreams

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Bahamas. He hoped he would find gold, spices and silks, and a faster trade route to China. What he found instead was fertile land, an easygoing and hospitable people, and hammocks.

When he returned to Spain from that first voyage in March of 1493, Columbus brought with him a few of the people, a little gold, some tobacco plants, and, most importantly, some hammocks. Because, as everyone knows, hammocks are one of the greatest things in the world.

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Surely the highlight of any Caribbean voyage. Or possibly a view of my backyard. photo credit: shizham Tenggol Island via photopin (license)

By then, Natives of Central America had been using hammocks constructed of bark and plant fibers for around 500 years already, and though Columbus never did discover his direct water passage to the east, hammocks were certainly not a bad find. Europeans took to them right away, particularly finding them useful aboard ships.

And today, they are widely used for swinging in the light breeze suspended from two trees beside a white sand beach while sipping a piña colada. Or, possibly, in that great imaginary beach that exists in my suburban backyard.

When my husband and I bought our first little house, a few years into our marriage, it came with two posts in the backyard, perfectly spaced for a hammock. Obviously, we had to install one. We each spent many happy naps swaying in the backyard, often while cradling our oldest son who was a baby at the time. Because as perhaps the not-so-surprising research of skilled hammock scientists now tells us, human brains go to sleep faster while rocking. Apparently that’s even true of grownup human brains.

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Now that’s livin’ photo credit: crowdive Audrey and the hammock via photopin (license)

Unfortunately the next house didn’t have a convenient place to install the hammock, and when we thought about hanging it in the house after that, we discovered that while we’d been neglecting to use it, a colony of ants had discovered that they, too, enjoyed spending time in a hammock, though I don’t know that any skilled hammock scientists have studied that.

It took us an embarrassingly long time to get around to replacing it, but when we moved to Missouri a few years ago, we decided it was time. Last fall, my husband dug holes, poured concrete, and secured the strong posts. Then we hung the hammock and made a discovery that may have escaped the notice of the highly skilled hammock scientists: children in the middle grade to pre-teen range don’t seem to be soothed by the rocking motion in quite the same way. In fact, they may have the exact opposite response.

Because to my children, the hammock quickly became something to jump on and try to shove one another off. I get it. As much as I enjoy a nice nap, their way sounds fun, too. But, it turns out that may not be the best approach to maintaining strong, stable posts.

The first post snapped within two weeks. My husband was pretty cool about it. He shrugged and said he’d thought there was a troublesome knot in the post and wasn’t particularly surprised. He replaced it and all was well. Then winter came.

It’s been a mild one, with lots of spring-like breaks, so we haven’t put the hammock away, though it’s obviously not seen a lot of use. But this week the boys decided to give it a swing.

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An actual view of my backyard and the sad state of my hammock.

I wasn’t outside when it happened, but I heard the spectacular ear-splitting crack as the second post broke, followed by the cries of a very upset (though thankfully unharmed) boy. My sons tell me they weren’t jumping or wrestling on the hammock at the time. And I believe them, though I’m sure there was jumping and wrestling involved prior to the moment one of them laid back only to find himself landing on the ground.

This time my husband wasn’t quite as cool about the whole thing. He didn’t yell, but there was a sad look in his eye when he sighed and said he didn’t think it was worth replacing. Actually, what he said was, “They’re why we can’t have nice things.”

So I suppose, at least for now, you won’t find a hammock in our backyard. Or an imaginary white sand beach. You also won’t find gold, silk, or spices, or a direct water passage to Asia. But you can still find easygoing and hospitable people. And maybe even the occasional piña colada.

 

 

 

Tree-Tapping Squirrels and Ooey, Gooey Deliciousness

In 1557, French cartographer André Thévet published Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique, an account containing a number of tales of the New World, gathered from men who’d been there. One of those men was Jacques Cartier, today credited with establishing a foothold for France in North America, laying claim to the country he named Canada, and for possibly being the first European to discover the ooey, gooey, deliciousness of maple syrup.

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Jacques Cartier, dreaming of drinking maple syrup. By Theophile Hamel – Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Well, it might not have been in an ooey, gooey form, but evidently Cartier relayed the tale to Thévet of a tree resembling a large European walnut that when felled, released a sugary liquid “as tasty and as delicate as any good wine from Orleans or Beaune.” Cartier’s party quickly filled several pots with the sweet sap and had they boiled it in those pots, they would have wanted some pancakes to go with it.

Native Americans in the area had been tapping maple trees during the Sugar Moon (the first full moon of spring) for enough years for several legends to have arisen around the practice, and North American squirrels had been doing it for even longer.

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The squirrels may have been at it longer, but we do it better. photo credit: looseends sap season via photopin (license)

Europeans may have been late to the party, but they proved just as enthusiastic.Widely used as concentrated sugar during the 17th and 18th centuries, at around the time of the American Civil War, maple sap was largely replaced as a sweetener in American cooking by imported cane sugar. And so ooey, gooey, delicious syrup became the maple product of choice for most people (and probably squirrels).

It makes a good glaze for salmon or adds a lovely sweetness to barbecue sauce. It’s great in salad dressings, with bacon, or drizzled over nuts. And according to Yale-trained chemical engineer Edward Cusslerawarded a 2005 prestigious (sort of) Ig Nobel prize for his super science-y studyyou can even swim in it. But the best thing to do with it is to pour it over a big stack of soft, fluffy, warm, and buttery pancakes.

That’s just what my family will be doing next Tuesday. While some people may be donning masks, throwing beads, or eating cakes with a plastic baby trinket baked inside, we’ll be marking Shrove Tuesday with the traditional pancakes, smothered in ooey, gooey, syrupy deliciousness.

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Clearly up to no good. photo credit: kennethkonica “Didn’t you see the STAY AWAY sign?” via photopin (license)

Chances are, that deliciousness will come from trees in Canada, which produces about 75% of the world’s supply of maple syrup. And fortunately, they’re not going to run out anytime soon, thanks to the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, which is a real thing. Despite a notable robbery in 2012 in which 1000 tons of syrup vanished (I have to assume wily squirrels were somehow involved) and was only partially recovered, the reserve holds more than 12,000 tons of syrup in three separate warehouses throughout Quebec.

That’s probably just a little more than Cartier’s men gathered all those years ago. Now, the reserve is also a little controversial, because it’s essentially a cartel designed to control the Canadian syrup market and maintain higher prices. But it also means that if there’s a bad year for maples, my family can still observe Shrove Tuesday in style, with a big stack of soft, fluffy, warm, and buttery pancakes, smothered in ooey, gooey, syrupy deliciousness.