My blog posts will be about a wide range of subjects (this blog is ‘a little about everything). All of them will appear in reverse order on this page, and you are welcome to scroll through. However, you may be interested in only certain subjects. To read those without having to search through them all, you can click on a category heading located at the top of each post, or a tag link found at the bottom of each post. The categories will be subjects such as Gardening, Poetry, Cooking or general Blog Posts. The tags will be sub-categories, such as Seasonal (Gardening), Poetry Author (such as Emily Dickinson), Recipes, and other similar sections. Clicking on those links will give you just the posts from that category or tag. At the beginning this will be a small number for each group, but hopefully it will make navigation easier when there are more listed here.
It’s the standard question for every kid – What do you want to do/be when you grow up? Once you get to be an adult, you quickly realize that the question never has a final answer, you simply change the ending – next year, in five years, in ten years. When I was a kid, the answer to the question was ‘I want to run the Smithsonian Museum.’ (I don’t think I was quite that ambitious, but hey, go big or go home!) Really, it was more about what I wanted to do, instead of where. I wanted to talk to anyone about anything they were interested in, and as a child, the Smithsonian Museum seemed like the place that had something of everything.
As an adult, the answer to the question hasn’t really changed; I still want to learn everything I can, so that I can have a conversation with anybody about their interests, and be able to contribute to the conversation. I started my career with a degree in history, and moved into the museum profession soon after. I worked for Old Salem, a living history museum, for over 20 years (not the Smithsonian, but turns out I really like living in North Carolina). Now I am looking at new career options as a graduate student in Library and Information Science at UNCG. To be honest, I think I’m still working toward my goal as a kid. Working at a library means helping people find information they want and need, and I can’t think of anything more interesting than that!
Ok, so this is a longer post than I planned, but hopefully it holds your attention. I expect a lot of people will think it can’t possibly be fun to study weights and measurements, but I promise you, it really is! There is a lot of interesting trivia, and its not just that the US doesn’t use the metric system like the rest of the world. In this post, I am going to link to a lot of different sources, but hopefully I can convince you that this subject is worth reading about!
Weights and measures are actually more important than we think. Its not just that we use them everywhere, they also help society run smoothly. The first writing that has been found was used to keep track of weights and measures, so that people knew how much was paid and owed for goods, services, and taxes. It has been assumed that writing was developed to keep track of these things in settled groups of people, the first ‘civilizations’, at least as we judge them today. So it is hard to overstate how important weights and measures are to a society. In just the last few years, scientists have officially begun to shift away from a physical thing to represent the prototypes of weights and distances, to a mathematical calculation based on universal constants. If this sounds a bit crazy, just consider why they need this. In a physical object, such as an official object to identify a kilogram, there is some loss or gain of mass over time (in terms of atoms- these are some small numbers, folks!), no matter how carefully it is stored. With the need for the absolutely precise measurements needed by today’s standards, basing units of measurement on something that never changes is essential! This change was just approved in 2019, after years of work to establish the calculations. If you want to read up on this, here is a link to a story on Vox about the process.
This brings up a particular point about the metric system, and the United States still using imperial weights and measures. The ‘Imperial’ system is based on our use of the British-style weights and measures, with all of its inconsistencies between types. (What inconsistencies? Just consider how many ways you can divide an inch – by thirds, fourths, eighths, sixteenths. Then look at the pound, as compared to volumes, etc. That is a lot of different types of conversions!)While it is true that the basic system is hundreds of years old, there were almost uncounted ‘imperial’ systems in use until the mid 19th century, and they all differed not just by country, but also by the product being measured, and even by the city of original shipment. Basically, there were a lot of differences! In the 1790s, the new French Republic wanted to use the same system across its territory. The result was the metric system. So the metric system is older than you might think. It is also what our imperial system is based on today, after a treaty in 1875. You can read about the history of this creation in Pys.org.
Oh, you thought we didn’t use the metric system? Well, actually, yes we do. All our weights and measures are based on those metric prototypes that are being recalculated now. So really, even though you might think you are working with inches, feet, ounces and pounds, actually, your numbers are all percentages of centimeters, meters, grams and kilograms. A pound is 0.453592 of a kilogram; there is no other definition of it in science, no ultimate prototype pound. And if you wondered why everyone else has come around to this system, its because it actually is a lot easier to calculate with than the imperial system. And I know, everyone wants to say ‘No, our system is easier!’ But really, we already had this argument, and the other side won, it just took a long time to convince everyone.
In 1792, the new constitutional government of the United States had to make a decision about creating a new national currency. Under the previous Articles of Confederation, each state ran its own monetary policy, and rates of exchange across the new country were based on the British pounds, shillings, and pence (even though the most common coin used was Spanish; trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg on complications to monetary policy!). When the federal government had the chance to start fresh, the decision was made to push everyone to switch to a new system based on a decimal system. What does a decimal system mean? It means we use base 10 for calculating money divisions, so 100 pennies is 1 dollar, and so on. What does this sound like? You guessed it, meters and kilograms! 100 centimeters is 1 meter, 1000 grams is 1 kilogram. All in base 10, because it makes calculating and conversions much easier. (Can you guess why base 10 and base 12 are so commonly used? It’s right in the palm of your hand; well, actually your fingers. Ten fingers makes base 10 natural. Now look at the fingers-not thumb, you count with that- of one hand, and the number of segments in each finger – 3 X 4 =12.) If you want some in-depth mathematics, The Story of Math is a great documentary on the development of numbers, counting, and why it is so important. It can get pretty complicated, but it’s still a really good series. (You can find it on Amazon Prime, but the link I have here is to the Films on Demand catalog, which is available to most people through public and academic libraries.)
However, don’t think that the new system put in place for money in 1792 was adopted quickly! Oh, no, they didn’t want to change any more than we do today. As a result, from the 1790s through at least the 1820s, and in some areas into the 1840s, there were plenty of people still using the old money calculations. I have personally looked at store account books from the 1820s that have (what I presume is) a younger clerk using dollars and cents for a sale, and the next entry the sale was recorded in pounds and shillings. And for every shilling, you had to calculate 12.5 cents, and then do all the conversions to total the accounts at the end of the day in dollars. Even later, in the mid 1800s in New York (and I will promise to update this blog when I relocate this source) I have read a newspaper letter to the editor from a citizen who stated that if stores and companies would stop using base 12 for product packaging, maybe people would switch over to the decimal system for money completely. Poor man, he would still be disappointed in us today. When was the last time you bought 10 eggs at the grocery? (The reason for packaging by the dozen in English products? Because there were 12 shillings in a pound, and that made products easier to calculate packaging divisions for selling. Why 13 in a ‘baker’s dozen’? Because in the 16th century English bakers were under-weighting their bread, and instead of risking a hefty fine for an under-weight dozen, they just threw in an extra one.) So you see, it is really hard to get people to change once they get used to something, especially a system they use every day.
If this has gotten you curious about the history of weights and measures, or you want to see some of those many different Imperial weights and measures that were used before metric, one of the better sources I have found is from a professor of mathematics at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Russ Rowlett is retired, but his Dictionary for Units of Measurement is still up, and provides a great, easy to understand list of weights and measures from antiquity to today, as well as conversions where possible. If you are like me, it’s fun just to read. But I have also used it for research when needing to understand primary source material from the 18th century. If you are interested in currency history, try the American Numismatic Society or the U.S. Currency Education Program. And finally, if you really want to see how long a group known for accounting, money, and business can hold on to a system long after it is out of use, just take a look at the New York Stock Exchange. If you ever wondered why the ticker at the NYSE used fractional divisions of stock (instead of decimal divisions) until the beginning of this century, it dates back to the old weirdness I mentioned about the states using British accounting and Spanish coins. Spain divided its peso, or milled dollar (which America based our dollar size on) into 8 reales. Spain minted a lot more gold and silver coinage than anyone else during the 1600s and 1700s, so everyone used their coins, including us. New York state didn’t like the quarter division of the American dollar that was decided on in the 1790s, so they stuck with the 1/8 Spanish division into the late 19th century. The NYSE didn’t change it’s use of fractions until 2001! (What is 1/8 of a dollar? – 12.5 cents. And the Spanish reale was called a ‘bit’, so 2 bits was equal to a quarter. See how much fun this is?)
In this post, I am going to recommend a couple of documentaries about two of my favorite subjects, astronomy and language. I have watched both of these videos numerous times, and they always make me happy and tear up at the same time, as well as being just really good documentaries. Both of these videos are available on NCLive through most public and academic libraries. However, if you are not in North Carolina, you can check your own public library video streaming and DVD collection. The astronomy documentary, The Farthest, can also be found on PBS Passport. And currently the language documentary, Breaking the Maya Code, is on Amazon Prime.
I’ll start with The Farthest – Voyager in Space released in 2017, which is a film on the building, launch, and travel to the outer planets by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. It is one of the best astronomy videos I have ever watched, and I really like documentaries and films on astronomy. The format includes commentary by some of the scientists who worked on the project, together with still photography, contemporary video, and a great music score that weaves into a whole that is both informative and entertaining. The film captures the epic scale of the achievement, but also makes it personal to the people that worked on the project, emphasizing the human aspect of the search for answers through science. While it has a lot of good science information in it, the emotion it conveys about why we reach for the stars, and strive to know what is outside our planet, is a constant theme of the film. If you want to feel optimistic about the human species, this film can give you hope. (2 hour film)
The second film I want to recommend is called Breaking the Maya Code (2008). Like the above documentary, it is one that combines interviews of linguists with a really good narrative and great pacing. The music score can’t compete with The Farthest, but other than that, it is an excellent documentary. The subject of this film is the effort to translate the Maya glyphs found in ancient Central American cities, after almost all books of the writing were destroyed during the Spanish Conquest. As a historian and a new librarian, I find this documentary painful when considering how much was lost when European colonists destroyed so many books of the Mayan people during the 1600s. However, it is also uplifting to see some efforts being made to return the writing to those Mayan descendants now living in southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, especially since their modern language is what gave the clues to translating the ancient writing. The film follows the beginnings of the efforts to translate the carvings of the Mayans by Europeans during the 1800s, then goes back to the reasons for the loss of the language. From there, it picks back up with the efforts in the 20th century to figure out the complex Mayan language and translate it to better understand the Mayan culture. One of the most fascinating parts of the film is how the invention of the fax machine and the photocopier made such a difference in the speed of understanding. Even before the advent of the internet and its coordination of scientific discovery across the world, these two machines helped researchers to collaborate in their efforts. That cooperation and the use of many minds to make progress is inspiring for the future. And the last part of the video, about the schools in Guatemala that are teaching Mayan writing to its children, is a wonderful use of historical knowledge to help a people connect with the past that was taken from them. All in all, a great documentary to watch for anyone. (2 hour film)
I will be the first to admit that I often just read poetry for its own sake; I rarely read up on the poet and their life. Mostly this is because I believe that poetry speaks to each person differently, and it really doesn’t matter what the poet intended the reader to feel, or what the poet’s viewpoint was. Poetry is like paintings, you can enjoy them for themselves, you don’t need to study the artist to have an opinion or enjoy it. So I had never read up on Edna St. Vincent Millay, even though I like several of her poems. What I will say about the two poems I picked out to include on this blog is that once you know that Millay wrote and published them at the beginning of the roaring ’20s (that is, the 1920s), you can easily see why they were popular as soon as they were published!
The reason I like both First Fig and Second Fig is that I would probably never be this kind of person, but I can see the appeal. There is something about those who throw caution to the wind and just live that is interesting, and if nothing else entertaining, to those of us who are more realistic in our lives. I like that feeling the poems give of acknowledging the problems, but still enjoying the ride. It’s not exactly the same, but there is a similarity to someone like Alex Honnold, the Free Solo climber who climbed El Capitan without ropes. (I highly recommend the documentary, it is quite good. And for anyone who doesn’t like heights and thinks it might be a problem- I can say that it didn’t bother me at all, and I have a lot of problems with high places.)
For those who do like reading biographies, and wonder about Millay, a quick bio of her can be found on Literary Ladies Guide.
First Fig My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends - It gives a lovely light! Second Fig Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand! Edna St. Vincent Millay, A Few Figs from Thistles, 1921
So, it’s been a few weeks since I posted. This is what happens to me when I am devoting my writing inspiration to graduate classes! I had intended to post this a little over two weeks ago, so it’s a bit late. However, the season for being kind to bees and other pollinators is all year long. That means you can use these suggestions for any time you are considering planting or taking care of plants in your yard.
About 10 to 15 years ago, we started to plan our decorative plantings a bit more carefully. Like most people, we had picked out flowers we liked, and included a lot of perennials. (If you don’t like taking care of plants, but you do like having them around, native perennials are the best choices; you are mostly limited to seasonal maintenance in the spring and fall.) At that point, I started working more with planting and gardening at the museum I worked at, and researching native plants became a bigger part of my job. As a result, I started looking at using them more at home as well. I am at best a lazy gardener; the less work I have to do for upkeep, the happier I am. I will do a lot of pre-planning to keep from doing maintenance, and I don’t use pots at all, because you need to water them every day, or even twice a day, in the southern heat. For that reason, the more I read about native plants, the better I liked them. Picked to suit a space, they need less watering, less weeding, and provide more for wildlife than any hybrid or non-native species.
The ability to provide spaces and food for pollinators is what I am going to concentrate on for this blog post. Most of the showy, constantly blooming annuals that you can purchase at a plant store are no good to bees and other pollinators. The effect of hybridization often reduces the production of nectar for many plants. The other problem is grass. When people grow grass that looks like carpet (often by using pesticides and herbicides) it decreases the amount of food that pollinators have available to them. While that type of lawn may look good to human eyes, to a bee it looks like a desert.
This is what a bee and other pollinators would consider a nice lawn. It has some grass, but there is a lot of other ‘weeds’ mixed in, many of which are the earliest blooming flowers in the spring. I saw honey bees for the first time this spring in mid-March. By early April, there was enough blooming in the lawn that honey bees, bumble bees, and and native bees like miner bees were getting a lot of nectar from the broad-leafed weeds in the lawn. I know that a lot of people don’t like these type of plants in their lawn. However, you can really see the benefits of them in the spring, before a lot of the flowers that people like to plant have started blooming and you see how many pollinators are using them. The flowers in the photos are from a plant called ground ivy. I will be the first to admit that it doesn’t look the best in the yard, and it will send out runners to plague your flower beds. However, I have made peace with my need to get rid of it just because I don’t like its looks. For me, it is more important to create areas for local pollinators, especially since I need them for food production. I think that is a fair trade-off, especially since it allows me to continue to be a lazy gardener!
When it comes to other ways to help the different species of bees and other insects, there are a number of ways to plant for them throughout the year. Native species of plants will only bloom for certain periods of time during the year, so having a variety that blooms over the span of the growing season takes some planning. My mother and I have looked for plants native to North Carolina, and concentrated on making sure the variety covers March through to late October. There are also lists of plants that are popular with pollinators, and you can pick types that appeal to you and the bees. The best resources to find these plants are usually local Ag Extension agencies or native botanical gardens. If you don’t mind waiting a little longer, seeds are a very economical option for planting. Personally, I don’t like wildflower mixes that you can find in chain seed stores. Often, those seeds might be native somewhere in the US, but not necessarily your area. If you have a huge area you want to plant, they might work, but if you buy several different seed packages of local wildflowers, and mix them up yourself, you’ll usually get a better result. An added benefit is that most native annuals will reseed themselves, no need for you to plant new each year (I told you I was a lazy gardener). For those in NC, a good source of information on native plants is NC State University Extension or the Botanical Gardens at Chapel Hill. If you are wanting to look up plants or resources in other states, one of the best options is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas. This site has information that covers all of the US, and you can look up plants by a wide variety of options, such as state, color, size, type, and many others.
In addition to plants, bees can use a few other things, especially if you are trying to help their survival year-round. Leaving some open dirt is good for miner bees and other native bees that use it for nest building. Dead wood, brush piles, and the dead stems of plants left on instead of cutting away in the fall, are also good ways to help pollinators (and other wildlife) have a place to stay over winter or build nests in the spring. If you have a bird bath, put a rock in it that sticks halfway out of the water. This allows bees and other insects to drink during the dry times; they need a way to walk up to the water without falling in, and most bird baths are too deep.
There are also bee houses for native bees that don’t build hives you can put up (just make sure you have some dirt/mud around for them to use). We put one up just this spring, and got it up just in time for the bees to start using it. You can see one of the bamboo openings already closed up with mud beside the bee sticking its head out. This was just three days after we put this house up near the vegetable garden. There are already about 20 openings covered in 3 weeks, so the house got put up just in time! (This is a miner bee. The bees have liked the smaller bamboo openings this year!)
If you want to find out more about pollinators, and how to help them survive and thrive in you yard, the Xerces Society is a good source for information. They have advice for general plantings, pollinator needs, and even a certification system for those wanting to spread the word about a commitment to cultivating pollinators. There is also a lot of information about attracting butterflies, and specifically the monarchs. Here’s another advantage of being a lazy gardener – longer lawns and leaf litter help fireflies, since they spend the daytime at the bottom of grasses and in leaf piles. There is nothing like looking out in the early evening in late May to see the first fireflies rise from the yard and woods. It signals the beginnings of summer! There are a lot of ways to help cultivate pollinators around you. And don’t worry about bees around your house (unless you are allergic to bees; you’ll have to decide what you feel safe doing where you are spending a lot of time outdoors). Those bees don’t care anything about you when they are looking for flowers. (I’ll write a post later this summer about how to avoid wasps, yellow jackets, and others considered dangerous; hint, they’re really not when you consider what they are looking for at different times of the year). As long as you don’t get in their flight path, aren’t swatting at them, and avoid smelling like their food source, they will leave you alone. (Avoid flowery perfumes, shampoos, and sugary smells if you plan to be outside with the bees; if you do, it’s not their fault if they come take a look!) I’ve stood watching bees at flowers from less than a foot away, and they never paid the least attention to me. Watching bees is one of the great pleasures to having a pollinator garden.
I am one of those people who like to try a lot of different crafts (hence the name of this blog-A Little Bit of Everything!), and a number of years ago I decided to try making those really decorative Easter eggs called pysanky (all the pictures on this post and in the Gallery are eggs I have made). There are actually a lot of eastern European cultures that decorate Easter eggs, and the word pysanky is particularly Ukrainian. I have tried a number of other ways to decorate Easter eggs, and I’ll describe them below. Pysanky are one of the most elaborately designed forms, and it takes more time and equipment than many others. First, let me give a short history of coloring eggs for Easter. Eggs as a symbol of the renewal of spring goes back centuries, and while it is now associated with the Christian Easter, the tradition predates Christianity. Dyeing those eggs different colors also has a long history, and scratching a design into the dyed surface probably dates back just as far in time. It would be hard to document when exactly decorating eggs with multiple dyes in patterns using wax began, but it also has a long history. There was even an early form of the Easter bunny in Germany, called the Osterhase (Easter hare); a painting of the Osterhase carrying a basket of dyed eggs has been found in Pennsylvania from 1810 (link to image). PAAS egg dyes weren’t sold until 1893, when new dyes could be produced and sold in tablet form, and dissolved in water and vinegar. Like many traditions that were done on a smaller scale before the 20th century, the industrialization of materials and shipping allowed Easter egg dyeing to be done on a large scale. While more people were dyeing eggs, the skill and time to create the more intricate designs made that tradition stay confined to a smaller group of people.
The dyes used to color eggs before the mid-19th century were similar to dyes used for other products, using concentrated plant, animal, or mineral colors that could be made at home or purchased in the store. The production of the modern aniline dyes using coal-tar as a base began in the 19th century, but the wide use of them for most dyes didn’t really take off until the second half of the 1800s. Some of the commonly purchased dyes for eggs were cochineal, madder root, and turmeric. Other colors came from cooking at home, such as red cabbage juice, spinach juice, and onion skins. Some of these colors are ‘fugitive,’ meaning that they fade over time (sometimes a very short time if left in sunlight). Others last a long time if they are protected from strong light. I have tried all of them, and there are different techniques to using each dye to get the best results. Some work better hot, others work best cold after aging overnight, and many need vinegar as a mordant (a substance that allows the dye to stick to a surface). You can also get good results from combining certain colors to get others, just like you would with paints. For instance, red cabbage juice actually gives you a wonderful blue (as long as it ages 24 hours before use) but if you add yellow turmeric to it, you get green eggs. When I worked at the museum, we would do egg dyeing for Easter, and over time I experimented with many of these dyes.
The easiest one to try without too much effort is to use onion skins. You need a lot of yellow or red onion skins, but if you are using onions regularly in cooking just save the dry skins in a bag. You can dye the eggs by boiling them with the onion skins for a deep orange, or add vinegar and iron (just put in an iron vitamin) to get a dark brown. Or you can soak the onion skins and wrap them around the egg in layers, using string to hold them on the egg, then simmer for up to 1 hour or leave in the dye overnight. After the eggs cool, unwrap the onions skins and you will have a tie-dyed egg!
If you boil the egg for at least 30 minutes to an hour, and make sure it is stored where air can get to it (not in a plastic or styrofoam container), it will usually dry out inside over several months to a year, and can be kept indefinitely. The inside will gradually become a hard center, so you need to be careful not to shake it (I have broken them by not being careful, as the hard center acts like a little marble inside). I have seen decorated eggs, kept carefully, that are over 150 years old.
If you want to try something that takes a bit more time, you can scratch off the dye to create a picture on the egg. This works best with a single dye color, and the darker the dye, the better the design will show up. This can be done with most dyes, because the dye sits on the surface of the egg and scratching it with a pin will reveal the white of the egg below the dye. You want to make sure to boil the egg before doing this, and you need to get the feel for how hard to scratch with the pin, but you can get elaborate designs if you are willing to take the time. (This egg is dyed with red cabbage juice.)
Another technique is to use a straight pin to apply beeswax to a boiled egg, by heating the head of the pin in a candle flame and scooping up a small amount of beeswax, then creating a design on the egg before dyeing it. The wax will preserve the white color below it, and you melt off the beeswax to reveal the design. (This egg was dyed with madder root.)
Pysanky uses multiple dye colors with beeswax to preserve sections of each layer of color. In this technique, you gradually apply the dyes starting with the lightest color, then proceeding through to the darkest to create a finished design that can be very elaborate. The wax is applied using a tool called a kistka, which is a small funnel attached to the end of a handle. The funnel is heated in a candle flame, then used to scoop up beeswax. You then use the narrow end of the funnel to apply the wax to the egg, creating simple to elaborate designs with the wax. Any dye under the wax will not be dyed with the next colors. Other than the steady hand needed to apply the wax, the main skill with this technique is planning the design. You have to create the design knowing which color each part will be, and make sure to apply the wax in the order of the dye colors. You can’t go back to a lighter color once the darker dye has been applied. Pysanky design books give the instructions for which designs to apply with wax after each dye bath. At the end of the process, you gently heat the wax to melting point, and wipe it off to reveal the design (I’ve done this with just a candle flame, but you can also put it in an oven set on 100 degrees). If you would like to try to make pysanky, I recommend this website by a family who originally came from Ukraine and now sells dyes, design books, equipment, and even finished eggs.
There are some poets that I like best, and Stephen Crane is one of them. For most people, they have more likely come across Crane when they had to read his most famous novel in high school, The Red Badge of Courage. For me, I like his poetry better than his books and short stories. He wrote a lot, especially when you consider that he died at the age of 28 in 1900 (wikipedia.com). What I like about his poetry is similar to why I like Emily Dickinson so much; they both pack a lot of meaning into a few words. I can read their poems over and over, and each time I enjoy how the words go together with the emotion and meaning. To me, the joy of reading poetry is like the idea behind the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Poetry that is written well can put more than a book’s worth of meaning into a very short space. I like rhyme and pattern, and a lot of people think poetry has to have those two elements. Stephen Crane doesn’t have rhyme, and many would not consider it to have a pattern either. For me, the ideas expressed are the pattern, and they are excellent. I’ll have some more posts that include other poems by Crane that I like, but this one is probably my favorite. If you are interested in reading more about and by Stephen Crane, this link is for a wikisource on his poetry and books, and this is his Wikipedia page.
A man said to the universe: "Sir, I exist!" "However," replied the universe, "The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation." Stephen Crane War Is Kind & Other Lines, 1905
Just to provide a little update on a new podcast I am looking forward to from Vox website. This is the one that I recommended from November, that is a science based podcast on unknown questions of science. I really liked their teaser episode that I linked to in that post, so I wanted to pass on that they are starting up the full podcast on March 10. I am going to embed their trailer here, but check them out on the website if you like weird science.
A quick discussion about my new header pic for recipe blog posts. I am still getting better at putting pictures at the top of my blog posts, and I also want to be very careful about copyright law. I either use Creative Commons pictures, or I use my own pictures on this website. For the blog posts that I have with recipes in them, I have created a new header picture to use of a receipt book I made when I worked at the museum. I think a lot of people might be a bit confused as to why it says Receipt instead of Recipe, so I thought I would do a quick explanation of the difference. Up until the mid 19th century, cookbooks had receipts, not recipes, in them. A lot of this had to do with cooking over a hearth. There was simply too much variability in cooking conditions to give specific instructions for how to cook. The authors had to be vague on instructions to take into account all the different conditions that might be present. The type of hearth being used, the wood type, the cooking vessels, the time of year (weather, humidity, temp, type of raw ingredients available, etc) would all create very different options for the home cook. Even today, most cooking shows will give instructions on how to test your oven temp with a good thermometer if your baking times are different than stated, and everyone who has cooked on different surfaces (gas, electric, and especially induction) knows how different they can cook for the same dish. Multiply these variables by several factors and you get the problem for the authors of 18th century cookbooks. So instead of a recipe with specific instructions, you had a receipt that listed the items you needed and guidelines for cooking them. There were often substitution options for different spices, vegetables, and containers, heat instructions such as a ‘slow’ oven vs a ‘quick’ oven, and the all purpose ‘cook until done’ for time. All of this meant that a cook needed to be skilled in understanding how a receipt would be applied for a particular kitchen and time.
If you want to see a typical 18th century receipt, here is one from England, describing how to make Pigeons in Paste–Fill the belly of the Pigeon with Butter, a little Water, some Pepper and Salt, and cover it with a thin light Paste, and then to put it in a fine Linen Cloth, and boil it for a time in proportion to its bigness, and serve it up. When this is cut open, it will yield Sauce enough of a very agreeable Relish. The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director, Richard Bradley, 1736. Try giving that to today’s cook and see what they say about it! After years of experience reading and using this type of receipt, I could make this without too much trouble, but I wouldn’t want to serve it to guests the first time I made it. However, this gives a good example of the types of instructions in a published 18th century cookbook. If you were to look at a manuscript cookbook, you might have even less. I have seen major ingredients left off that I know are part of it, because the writer assumed they would remember the obvious ones and didn’t need to record them.
So that is the difference between recipe and receipt. For my own cooking, I still look at recipes like I do receipts. They are more strong suggestions to achieve a particular outcome than they are strict rules. I am always happy to change things I don’t like, or want to do a different way. This is why I am a good cook, but only a reluctant baker. Baking is much less forgiving of guesses and ‘good enough’ measurements. Personally, I consider cooking an art and baking a science, though I am sure that bakers might disagree!
Recently, I made up a yearly batch of mushroom soup. I know that sounds a bit strange, but I am not a big fan of canned mushroom soup. I love mushrooms, but don’t think that is really what you get in those cans. A good mushroom soup is full of mushroom bits, and can be used for just about anything, from a regular soup on a cold day to the sauce for beef or chicken cooked in a crockpot. When I make mushroom soup, I buy about 4 pounds of various mushrooms (you can often find mushrooms for $1 or $2 off a pack in the grocery, when they need to be sold quickly; I lucked out this time and was able to buy all of the ones I used like this). Wash and chop them up, dice up about 2+ cups of onions, 2-3 cloves of garlic, use homemade veggie broth to thin, blitz them with a stick blender, and you are good to go! I make this big batch, then freeze it in pint bags for use over the next year. I made about 12 pints in February (here is the gallery link for pictures.) If you are wondering about the homemade veggie broth, I make that too, because I think all canned and boxed broth tastes metallic (yes, I am picky about my food, my mom grows a lot of vegetables, and I love to cook, it works out). I use a vegetable broth concentrate recipe I found on the Test Kitchen website that works great, no cooking required. You just use a food processor to finely puree the raw veggies, put it in wide mouthed jars, and freeze. Use only as much as you need with boiling water. (Link here.)
All of this is to say that while I was making this soup I remembered researching 18th century cooking when I worked at the museum, and reading the recipe for Portable Soup. Generally, most people today think that convenient mixtures for quick cooking are completely modern, but there were a lot of tricks to make cooking faster, especially when you didn’t have the convenience of a freezer (I love a big chest freezer!). Canning that uses the type of lids that home canners use today didn’t start until the technique for Vulcanizing rubber was invented around the mid 19th century. Canning in a tin can was invented a bit earlier, in the last decade of the 18th century. Actually, if you ever want to look into that history, it dates back to a competition created by Napoleon Bonaparte, who wanted to have an easier way to feed his army on the move, but didn’t want to pay the research costs for development (sound familiar?). So he challenged anyone who wanted to try for a prize of 12,000 Francs to create a better way to preserve food. While glass containers with corks were used at first, tin cans were used after the 1810s, probably because they were less breakable for their chief market, the military (though you had to use a chisel and mallet to open the cans). However, before this, and indeed after due to the expense of early 19th century canned foods, most people used a variety of methods to preserve foods at home. For travel, dried was best, and if you wanted a good flavored soup that was easy to fix during travel, portable soup was one of your best choices.
Portable soup is the 18th century version of bullion, and could be called soup glue. Hungry yet? Actually, the process is time consuming, but not all that different than what has to be done today to get the same result. Basically, you cook down the meat and various flavorings until all the collagen in the meat has turned to gelatin, strain the liquid, then continue cooking to evaporate as much water as possible and dry the resulting ‘glue’. Break up the dried gelatin into smaller pieces and store in a cool, dry tin with paper in between layers, and this portable soup could be used as the quick base for any soup. Travelers, soldiers, anyone who carried the dried bullion could boil water and add whatever else they had available. Soldiers could use broken up hardtack to cook like dumplings in the broth, or rice, dried roasted corn, or beans could be cooked in the soup base. If there was dried meat available, it could be rehydrated and added to the soup as well. Much more tasty than just using water, and pre-salted too! Portable soup didn’t have to be for travel, it could also be a time saver in the home kitchen, and could be very useful during summer, when it would be much better to limit the amount of time you had to cook over a fire. In case you are curious about a recipe, I am going to include one from 1841, and some of the instructions from an English cookbook from 1796. The 1796 cookbook, written by Hannah Glasse, was one of the most popular English language cookbooks sold during the 18th century. That recipe is very long, and much more detailed than the one from the American cookbook.
Portable Soup–Take beef or veal soup, and let it get perfectly cold, then skim off every particle of the grease. Set it on the fire, and let it boil till of a thick glutinous consistence. Care should be taken that it does not burn. Season it highly with salt, pepper, cloves and mace – add a little wine or brandy, and then turn it on to earthen platters. It should not be more than a quarter of an inch in thickness. Let it remain until cold, then cut it into pieces three inches square, set them in the sun to dry, turning them frequently. When perfectly dry, put them in an earthen or tin vessel, having a layer of white paper between each layer. These, if the directions are strictly attended to, will keep good a long time. Whenever you wish to make a soup of them, nothing more is necessary, than to put a quart of water to one of the cakes, and heat it very hot. The American Housewife, by an Experienced Lady, 1841.
To Make Portable Soup–Take two legs of beef, of about fifty pounds weight, take off all the skin and fat as well as you can, then take all the meat and sinews clean from the bones, which meat put into a large pot, and put to it eight or nine gallons of soft water; first make it boil, then put in twelve anchovies, an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves an ounce of whole pepper black and white together, six large onions peeled and cut in two, a little bundle of thyme, sweet marjoram, and winter savory, the dry hard crust of a two-penny loaf, stir all together and cover it close, lay a weight on the cover to keep it close down, and let it boil softly for eight or nine hours, then uncover it and stir it together; cover it close again and let it boil till it is a very rich good jelly . . . [and then strain it and let cool, skim off the fat and settlings, simmer it again for several hours, let cool, spread out thin to dry for 8 or 9 hours, and you’re done; not exactly a fast process!] The Art of Cooking Made Plain & Easy, 1796.
Icdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmeal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltter be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas thghout sopeling was ipmorantt!
You might have seen this internet meme before; if you haven’t and it looks like gobbledy-gook, it works a lot like the Magic Eye images. The harder you try to figure it out, the worse it gets. If you are having trouble reading the above, don’t try so hard. This will be harder for non-native readers of English, but if you stop trying to read each word because it looks strange, and just let go and get started reading the first bit, it comes a lot easier (at least, I found it so). The reason I am putting this up is because it goes to my inner language geek. Just recently, I came across this (which I had originally hung in my office at work) and I had the time, so I looked it up to see if it actually came from Cambridge. Funny thing is, its the exact question someone from Cambridge asked! The answer, apparently, is that no one really knows who this originated from, though there has been linguistic studies into similar areas, and studies of how people learn language and how the brain translates words.
One of the professors who has worked in the Cognition and Brian Sciences Unit at Cambridge wrote up a blog post where he gives the history of the research into language learning he has found, and possible links to this meme. He does show how there are some tricks to the above process, which means that you can’t just use any way to mix up the internal letter order, and that the sentence design itself has a lot to do with how it can be read. He has also added all the different languages this meme has been created in. Some written languages do not work as well with this design (such as Chinese), because the structure of the writing doesn’t work the same as many of those based in Europe. However, some do, and the blog poster, Matt Davis, gives a good run down of the types of written languages he has found examples in. I am providing a link here for you, so you can read his studies yourself if you are interested. He last updated it in 2003, so it has been around for a while, but the information is still good, and very interesting if you are like me! Link Here.
Featured Image in Creative Commons-“Zine Study XIV: [language]” by Shawn Econo is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/