Friday, November 21, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #96: Why Do We Eat the Things We Eat for Thanksgiving?

If you’re reading this in the United States, Thanksgiving Day is nearly upon you/us. (If you’re reading this in Canada, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving, and if you’re reading this in Europe, yes, we really do eat that much, and no, we don’t do it every day. Honest.) If you’re the red-blooded American I know you are, you’re fixin’ to chow down on turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, stuffing and Waldorf salad.

Wait, was it just my family that served Waldorf salad? See, this is why I don’t go home for Thanksgiving anymore.

But you probably never gave much thought to why we eat the specific things we eat on Thanksgiving. You probably just assumed that we eat the same things the Pilgrims ate at the First Thanksgiving. But while the Pilgrims definitely feasted on some unspecified “wild fowl,” we have no way of knowing that it was turkey. They also didn’t eat potatoes, or pumpkin pie, and probably didn’t eat cranberry sauce – if they did, they would have sweetened it with maple syrup because granulated sugar wasn’t a thing back then. Don’t even get me started on the Waldorf salad.

In fact, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at the first Thanksgiving feast ate a lot of venison, thanks to the generosity of the Wampanoag chief, who donated five deer to the feast. The “wild fowl” they ate could have been turkey, but since wild turkeys are aggressive, hard to catch and kind of stringy, they probably ate pheasant, goose or duck instead. They also probably ate a lot of fish and seafood, onions, nuts, beans, a cornbread dish known as boiled bread, and squashes of all kinds, including pumpkins, most likely stewed with butter, vinegar, and spices.

So, if the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag ate random birds, venison, fish, and boiled things for the first Thanksgiving, why do we eat turkey and pumpkin pie? Well, obviously because pumpkin pie is much, much better than boiled pumpkin slurry, duh.

There are different theories as to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Some feel that the choice was a practical one – turkeys are perhaps the only birds large enough to satisfy the American appetite, I mean, feed the entire family. Turkeys are also native to the Americas, and were apparently almost our national bird, which would have made Thanksgiving interesting indeed.

Others point out that Scrooge gave the Cratchit family a turkey at the end of A Christmas Carol, a book that was published right around the time that enthusiasm for the creation of a national Thanksgiving holiday was building. I never actually read A Christmas Carol because fuck that, so this was news to me.

Yet another theory holds that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition originates with Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, of whom I have written before. The editor of Lady’s Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, Ms. Hale is credited with single-handedly nagging Thanksgiving into existence by writing letters to Congress, the governors of every state, and five Presidents. In her 1827 novel Northwood: A Tale of New England, Ms. Hale wrote of a roasted turkey as the centerpiece of a fictional Thanksgiving meal. The meal also included “a huge plum pudding, custards, and PIES OF EVERY DESCRIPTION,” Mom.

No mention of Waldorf salad, however.

Image by Nillerdk

Hale took things a step further, detailing the preparation of Thanksgiving turkey in her annual November editorials. It would take the 20th century, and the advent of convenience foods, to bring such dishes as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie to our modern Thanksgiving tables.

While cranberry sauce was served at Thanksgiving meals as early as 1623 – two years after the first Thanksgiving in 1621 – cranberries grow in New England, and like most berries, they don’t keep well. Thanksgiving was originally a New England tradition, but as it spread across the country thanks to the efforts of Ms. Hale, cranberry sauce did not initially go with it. It wasn’t until 1912 that the inventor of canned cranberry sauce, Marcus Urann, came on the scene and left his mark on both Thanksgiving and the cranberry industry. The innovation made it possible for Americans around the country to enjoy “cranberry sauce” on Thanksgiving Day, and I’m using quotation marks around that because I grew up with homemade cranberry sauce, I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with you people.

It almost made up for the Waldorf salad.

By the mid-20th century, the pre-packaged food revolution was under way, bringing such Thanksgiving staples as stuffing (made with stuffing mix), green bean casserole (I don’t know what that is either because I grew up eating string beans that my grandmother grew, stringed while watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and canned herself) and pumpkin pie – made with canned pumpkin puree. Now everyone can have Thanksgiving, even those of us who don’t want to spend half the day doing whatever it is you need to do to a pumpkin to make it fit into a pie shell.

I don't even know what is wrong with you people.

Image by Rick Kimpel 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Charles Manson Is Getting Married, But I’m Still Single

By now you’ve heard the news – 80-year-old convicted mass-murderer Charles Manson has been granted a marriage license to wed his TWENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD fiancĂ©, Afton Elaine Burton, or, as Manson calls her, Star. Charles Manson has found someone who is willing to marry him, but I – an attractive, educated, well-traveled woman who can cook at least five things – am still left searching halfheartedly for love once in a while.

Oh well, I guess it could be worse – I could be marrying Charles fucking Manson.

The future Mrs. Manson told CNN that she and Manson already consider themselves husband and wife, even though “the paperwork hasn’t gone through yet.” 

The couple hasn’t set a date for the wedding yet. In fact, it seems like Ms. Burton had some trouble getting Charles Manson to commit to marriage – and now I need a minute because that, dear readers, is a phrase I never thought I’d ever type. Wow.

Anyway, as I was saying, Manson was apparently reluctant to marry, having gone on the record in December 2013 to call rumors of his impending wedding to Ms. Burton “a bunch of garbage.” Personally, if someone asked a guy I was planning to marry if we were really getting married and he replied that it was a bunch of garbage, I would stop planning to marry him, but what do I know, I’m not marrying Charles fucking Manson.

Ms. Burton first started corresponding with Charles Manson when she was 17. Later, she moved from her parents’ home in Illinois to Corcoran, CA to be close to Charles Manson’s prison, where she has been visiting him since 2007 and dating him since she was 19. I'm not sure, but I think this might mean that Charles Manson is this girl's first love. What's she going to tell the next guy? You would think being Charles Manson's widow would make you undateable, but somebody married Amy Fisher so I guess it takes all kinds. Burton talks to Manson on the phone “almost every day,” according to CNN, and visits him on the weekends. Because Charles Manson is serving a life sentence, the pair won't be able to enjoy conjugal visits when they get married -- if they go through with it, that is. Personally, I’ve got my money on Charles Manson getting cold feet.

Even though she won’t be able to have conjugal visits with an 80-year-old man (her loss, I’m sure), Ms. Burton wants to marry Charles Manson because she believes he’s innocent and wants to work on his release, and there are “certain things next of kin can do,” like access documents and information about his case that, she believes, would allow her to prove his innocence. When asked by an incredulous CNN reporter if she was in love with Charles Manson, Ms. Burton responded that she was, to which the reporter replied, “People get married for all kinds of reasons.” AHAHAHAHAHA.

Ms. Burton and Charles Manson’s other followers – holy shit you guys, Charles Manson still has followers, plural! – insist that all he wants to do is save the trees, which is noble and all, but when you’ve masterminded the murders of seven people, I think that harms your credibility as an environmentalist a bit. In her downtime from working on proving Charles Manson’s innocence, his fiancĂ© maintains his websites, which I’m not going to link to or visit, because I’m afraid to.

The parents of the bride will not be attending the wedding. They have made it clear to their daughter that Manson won’t be welcome in their home, although somehow I don’t think that will be an issue. Ms. Burton’s father, Phil, told the Daily Mail he and his wife would never disown their daughter, “no matter what she does in her life.” There are still parents tossing their gay kids out onto the street, but this guy can bring himself to stand behind his daughter even though she’s marrying Charles Manson. There’s a lesson to be learned here, folks.

And shockingly, it's NOT "don't hang around with Charles Manson." Although, you know, don't.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #95: World’s Tallest Birds

I came up with this idea because one of my search keywords this week was “list of tall birds,” which means that someone happened upon my blog this week in their search for tall birds. I have no idea why a search engine would bring them here, as I have never blogged about tall birds before, but I am about to rectify that oversight and hopefully, in the process, rake in some of that sweet, sweet tall bird traffic.

You probably already knew that the tallest living bird is the ostrich, a bird native to Africa that can grow as tall as 9.2 ft (2.8 m) and weigh more than 345 lb (156 kg). The ostrich is also the fastest flightless bird, capable of reaching speeds up to 40 mph (70 km/h). It also lays the largest eggs in the world; its eggs can weigh up to 3 lb (1.4 kg), and can be eaten, although I’d imagine you’d need a pretty big frying pan for one of those. Cracking open an ostrich egg is a bit of an ordeal, too, according to this YouTube video in which a lady carefully taps her ostrich egg endlessly with the edge of a knife until she’s finally able to crack a small hole in it and pry off the top.

The ostrich bears the dubious distinction of being the second most likely bird to kill you, and not from high cholesterol. Though ostriches will usually run away if they can, they will attack to defend their young or territory, which they do by kicking at you with their powerful legs and large claws. In the town of Oudtshoorn, South Africa, the “Ostrich Capital of the World,” two to three people each year are seriously injured or killed by ostriches. Domesticated ostriches are just as territorial and violent as wild ones, which may at least in part explain why a single ostrich egg costs between $45 and $90 depending on its size, although that website I linked to does make allusions to a “bargain” egg that you probably don’t want to eat.

In many countries, especially South Africa and the United States, ostrich racing is a popular pastime. Some ostrich jockeys hitch the bird to a special cart, but it’s possible to fit an ostrich with a saddle and ride it, though Wikipedia notes that the birds are “harder to manage than horses.” You see examples of both these riding styles in this Dutch newsreel from September 1933:

If the ostrich is the world’s second-most-deadly huge bird, you may be wondering which enormous bird is the world’s deadliest. That bird is the southern cassowary, a species native to the rainforests of northwestern Australia and New Guinea. This bird can grow to more than 6’3” tall (190 cm) and weigh up to 187 lb (85 kg), so it is bigger than me, though not by much.

Although the cassowary is no more aggressive than the ostrich, it will still attack when it feels threatened – and since their natural habitat is in an UNESCO World Heritage rainforest, tourists often approach them and try to feed them, a gesture that, in general, does not go over well. Though urban legends that describe the southern cassowary as capable of disemboweling a human with one slash of its 4.7 inch (12 cm) claw are untrue, the bird can inflict some nasty injuries and is capable of killing an animal as large as a horse. The northern cassowary, the third largest bird in the world, is very similar to the southern cassowary, except for its accent and slightly smaller size.

I will cut you.

Image by

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #94: What Was the Greatest Thing BEFORE Sliced Bread?

It’s Friday again, and you know what that means – it’s time for another Fun Friday Facts! As some of you will be aware, I sometimes ask my readers to suggest a topic for this column. Reader @VikingtotheMax (aka my friend Mark) wanted to know, “What was the greatest thing BEFORE sliced bread?”

If I had to guess, I would have said it was latex condoms, which were invented in the early 1920s, several years before sliced bread, but I would’ve been wrong. The greatest thing before sliced bread was wrapped bread. Yes, I know, it’s rather anticlimactic.

But etymologists (those are the scientists who study the origins of words and phrases, not the ones who study bugs – those are entomologists) believe that the phrase “greatest thing since sliced bread” refers to a back page ad placed in the daily newspaper in Chillicothe, Missouri on 6 July, 1928. The ad touted the Chillicothe Baking Company’s new bread slicing machine, which it purchased from Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, the visionary who invented pre-sliced bread. The ad claimed that the advent of pre-sliced bread (or as we call it now, pre-sliced bread) was the “greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” The first recorded use of the idiom occurred in a 1952 interview comedian Red Skelton (if you know who that is, you might be too old for the Internet) gave to the Salisbury Times, a Maryland newspaper, in reference to the newfangled invention of the day, television.

It was only after many setbacks that Rohwedder finally managed to sell his bread-slicing machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company in 1928. He first invented the automated bread slicer in 1912, but bakers of the era rejected the device, claiming that customers would want to be doing their own bread-slicing, please and thank you. Clearly, Rohwedder was ahead of his time.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Rohwedder lost not only the blueprints but also the prototype for his bread slicing machine in a fire in 1917. No quitter, Rohwedder was willing to jump right back on the sliced bread horse, but couldn’t convince investors to fund the revival of the project. It wasn’t until ten long years later, in 1927, that Rohwedder was finally able to produce another working model of his bread-slicing machine, but by this time, the world was ready.

This may be the very bread-slicing machine in question.

Sliced bread quickly became popular, as customers loved the convenient, uniform slices. It would take another innovator, baker Alexander Taggart, to distribute sliced bread on a nationwide scale. Taggart was a baker from the Isle of Man. His father had been a baker before him, and his father was a baker before him. Taggart immigrated to the United States after the Civil War, starting his first bakery in 1869. He teamed up with another baker, Burton Parrott, to open Parrott-Taggart Baking Company. They would go on to found the United States Baking Company, which would later merge with the National Biscuit Company, to form Nabisco. Though Taggart and Parrott continued to sell their baked goods under their own name, it would be this affiliation with Nabisco that would help them make history.

On 24 May 1921, Parrot-Taggart Baking Company introduced Taggart’s Wonder Bread, today known simply as Wonder Bread. In 1930, thanks to Mr. Rohwedder and his stubborn refusal to give up on his dream of eating pre-sliced bread in spite of long odds and much criticism, Wonder Bread became the first loaf of sliced bread to be distributed nationally.