Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

SEPTEMBER 11, 1680: THE UNFORTUNATE ROGER CRAB

THE UNFORTUNATE ROGER CRAB

Seventeenth century England was not without its share of eccentrics, folks who were not the sharpest arrows in the quiver. Roger Crab may certainly be categorized as one of them, although his misfortune at having his skull split open while serving in the Parliamentary Army might provide some excuse for his eccentricity. The unfortunate Crab was sentenced to death after the incident (for having his skull in the wrong place at the wrong time?), but his sentence was later commuted and, upon his release, he became a haberdasher of hats.

His wandering mind somehow happened upon the idea that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food or to drink anything stronger than water. Determined to pursue a biblical way of life, Crab sold all his hats and other belongings, distributing the proceeds among the poor. He then took up residence in a makeshift hut, where he lived on a diet of bran, leaves and grass (the 16th century equivalent of a kale and edamame diet), and began to produce pamphlets on the wonders of diet.

“Instead of strong drinks and wines,” he wrote, “I give the old man (referring to his body) a cup of water; and instead of roast mutton and rabbit, and other dainty dishes, I give him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran and turnip-leaves chopped together.”

mad-hatterJust as Crab persecuted his own body, others began to persecute him. He was cudgeled and put in the stocks. He was stripped and whipped. Four times he was arrested on suspicion of being a wizard. He bounced from prison to prison until his death on September 11, 1680.  Fortunately, our modern society treats its vegetarian eccentrics much more humanely.

Some scholars believe Crab was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter.

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows, Part 1: Bessie and Cora

I really don’t know why my mother took me to see Bessie and Cora.  Perhaps she was worried about the future, my future, and the future was Bessie and Cora’s forte.  These two sixty-something ladies shared a bungalow on the upper end of D Street, a bungalow from which they told fortunes, mostly to the young women whose husbands were off trying their best to wind down World War II.

Bessie and Cora were twins as well as fortunetellers.

Although they looked very much alike, they were not identical, which made life much easier for Wilhelm, Cora’s husband, who also shared the bungalow and whose eyesight and mental prowess had been waning since about 1939, so that it was difficult enough for him to identify his wife as it was.

Bessie and Cora each took a slightly different spin on divining the future:  Bessie was an avowed palmist; Cora dabbled in tarot, tea leaves and the other trendier methods.  Bessie was pragmatic; she gave her clients nuts and bolts information to help them cope with the near-term future.  Cora was a blue-sky seer; her flights of fancy took her clients into a distant romantic future filled with dark strangers and great wealth.

My mother took me to see Bessie and Cora twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays while she went to do her part for the war effort — I was never sure exactly what — I always assumed it was riveting airplanes, but that’s probably just a romantic notion I picked up later in life.  And so, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my future was in the hands of Bessie and Cora.  It didn’t take too many Tuesdays and Thursdays for me to completely read their meager library of children’s books and lose interest in the fortune telling paraphernalia that had outlived its usefulness and had been consigned to a cardboard box in the back hallway.

And how many times can you hear your future foretold?  I would be a good student, and if I studied hard, become very smart and eventually successful  — that’s what Bessie saw in my palm.  She held my palm tightly, looked at it sternly, her features as hard as the marble bust of Beethoven that watched from an upper bookshelf.  (I could never understand Wilhelm’s confusion.  The sisters did look very much alike, but even though their physical features were the same, Bessie’s were hard and Cora’s were soft — an incredible difference that should have been obvious to everyone, even Wilhelm. Bessie looked just as much like Old Marble Beethoven as she did like Cora.  At least I thought so.)  Bessie’s divination of my future never wavered; it was exactly the same on the third Thursday as it was on the first Tuesday, so I quickly gave complete control of my future to Cora.

Soft-featured Cora spread out her tea leaves and told me that someday I would fly in very fast airplanes to faraway places where I’d meet fascinating people — kings, queens, archdukes, emirs.  She consulted her cards to discover that I would, when I reached a proper age, have rendezvous with women as beautiful as Rita Hayworth, as lively as Carmen Miranda, as mysterious as Marlene Dietrich.  The bumps and contours of my ten-year-old head revealed that adventure also lie ahead — hidden treasures, Himalayan treks, maybe even a trip to Mars.  It was a wonderful life that Cora had planned for me, but even her big wide wonderful world of the future grew tiresome in time.

Wilhelm wasn’t particularly impressed by his wife’s or his sister-in-law’s prowess at prognostication.  Whenever the subject came up, he’d just snort and say:  “The future.  It’s just a bunch of tomorrows, pretty much the same as today.”  For a while I enjoyed sneaking up on Wilhelm to see how close I could get before he knew I was there.

continued

Just a Bunch of Tomorrows is included in Naughty Marietta and Other Stories

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Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JULY 7, 1104: IT’S OUR PLEASURE, YOUR BACON

IT’S OUR PLEASURE, YOUR BACON

England is not without its share of quaint ceremonies, many dating back to medieval times. One of the more unusual of these is the Dunmow Flitch which had its inception in Little Dunmow, Essex, during the 13th century and gravitated from there to Great Dunmow (a larger venue perhaps). The custom was a celebration of marital bliss in which a lucky couple who could satisfy judges of their own would be rewarded with a flitch of bacon, basically half a pig.

To win the flitch, the couple must prove that they had lived for a full year in a state of wedded euphoria, never uttering a harsh or quarrelsome word, nor shooting even a nasty glance in the other’s direction. No negative thought or a hint of regret could enter their minds. And if they had the opportunity to do it all over — well, you get the drift. If the judges were convinced:

“A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave:
For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,
Tho’ the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own.”

The happy couple were then paraded around town with their flitch of bacon and a lot of ballyhoo.

Were you to think this a very difficult way to procure a flitch of bacon, you’d be spot on. From the 13th century until the 18th century when the custom died out, there were, strangely enough, only six recorded winners. And according to an unreliable source, one of the early winning couples was a ship’s captain and his wife who hadn’t actually laid eyes on each other for the year after their wedding. Another couple, successful at first, had the flitch taken away from them after they began to argue about how it should be dressed. Yet another couple failed when the husband, who took part reluctantly, had his ears boxed by his wife during the questioning.

The custom has been reintroduced sporadically over the years. It is currently held every four years and was last held in July 2016.

Maybe If They Hadn’t Had To Slice Their Own Bread

“The greatest thing since sliced bread” is high praise indeed, denoting the ultimate in ingenuity, a hallmark of good old American know-how, a real “Wonder,” if you will. Sliced bread? Really? How important can sliced bread be?

Well, for example, in 1943, U.S. officials imposed a ban on sliced bread as a wartime conservation measure for reasons known primarily to U.S. officials. Why not just cut off everyone’s right arm? A letter from a frantic housewife to The New York Times was typical of the reaction:

I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast.  Without ready-sliced bread, I must do the slicing for toast—two pieces for each one—that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!

Sliced bread, specifically a loaf of bread pre-sliced by a machine and packaged for consumer convenience, made its debut on July 7, 1928, and was hailed as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped” (they couldn’t really call it the greatest thing since sliced bread). It was produced by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, as “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread.”

Kleen Maid was followed by the Holsum Bread brand, used by various independent bakers around the country. And in 1930, Wonder Bread started marketing sliced bread (or a plastic replica of it) nationwide, and the rest, as they say in the bread world, is history.

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JULY 5, 1937: SPAM CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE

SPAM CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE

Chopped pork shoulder meat, with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch just for spam2fun, and sodium nitrite to give it chemical balance – who in 1937 would have thought such ingredients might add up to one of the most ubiquitous meat products known to the world. In 2007, the seven billionth was sold. Sure, McDonald’s has sold more burgers, but they don’t come in a can. Spam do.

Known as in some circles as a precooked luncheon meat product and in others as mystery meat, Spam has probably been the butt of more food jokes than any other product. Its pervasiveness led to the lending of its name to junk email.

World War II saw a huge increase in the use of Spam. Replacing fresh meat, it was served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and called “ham that didn’t pass its physical” or “meatloaf without basic training.”  After the war, a troupe of former servicewomen, the Hormel Girls, toured the country promoting the eating of Spam as being downright patriotic. The show went on to become a radio program all about selling Spam.  Hawaiians eat the most Spam per capita in the United States. It’s even sold at Burger King and McDonald’s.  Hawaii holds an annual Spam Jam in Waikiki during the last week of April.

 

In 1963, Spam was introduced to schools in South Florida as cheap food and was even used for art sculptures. It was so successful that Hormel Foods introduced Spam in school colors, the first being a blue and green variety that is still used today.

The North American home of Spam is Austin, Minnesota – “Spam Town USA.”   It’s home to the Spam Museum, celebrating the history of the Hormel company, the origin of Spam and its place in world culture.  Austin is also the location of final judging in the national Spam recipe competition. Competing recipes are collected from winning submissions at the top forty state fairs in the nation. And there’s a restaurant with a menu devoted exclusively to Spam – “Johnny’s SPAMarama Menu.”

Don’t you want to run right out and buy a can?

 

Born July 5, 1958, Bill Watterson:

ch-academia

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JUNE 4, 1411: THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE

THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE

Even in 1411, the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon had been making cheese as long as anyone could remember.  And all because a young man was lured away from his lunch by a fair young maiden. Or so the story goes.

The cheese-making folks of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon were probably the only ones making the tangy, crumbly sheep’s milk cheese with its distinctive veins of green mold. Nevertheless on June 4, 1411, French King Charles VI granted them a monopoly for the ripening of the Roquefort cheese.

What makes Roquefort Roquefort is its aging in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Popular legend suggests that the cheese was discovered when a young man eating his lunch of bread and ewe’s milk cheese spied a hot young woman in the distance. Naturally, he ran off to pursue her, leaving his lunch in the cave. Legend leaves the results of his amorous pursuit to our imaginations, but his appetite must have been somehow satisfied since he didn’t return to the cave for several months. When he did, the mold present in the cave – Penicillium roqueforti to be exact – had done an ugly duckling number on his lump of cheese transforming it into a cheese of beauty. The bread, however, was another story.

The French take their wine and their cheese seriously. A ruling in 1961 decreed that although the Roquefort-sur-Soulzon method for the manufacture of the cheese could be followed across the south of France, only those cheeses ripened in the natural caves of Mont Combalou could bear the name Roquefort. Today, its production involves some 4,500 people who herd special ewes on 2,100 farms in a carefully defined grazing area. In 2008, 19,000 tons were produced, with 80% of it consumed in France.  It’s a laborious process — 4,500 folk dropping their 4,500 lumps of ewe’s milk cheese and running off in hot amorous pursuit of 4,500 other folk.

 

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

November 16, 1620: Kansas in August

After having lived for months on board ship in cramped, dirty, smelly Corn vintage woodcut illustrationquarters, the Pilgrims finally sailed into Provincetown Harbor in November of 1620. On November 16, a group of 16, led by Myles Standish (also known as Captain Shrimp behind his back, being a tad short of stature) set off to explore the nearby environs.

They found fresh water at a place called Pilgrim Springs. (It wasn’t called that at the time they arrived.) Then at the top of a hill, hidden in a teepee, they found a cache of a funny sort of food — long ears with tidy little rows of yellow kernels. They called it corn and promptly stole it. The hill itself they called Hill Where We Stole the Corn from the Natives. That being quite a mouthful, it quickly got shortened to Corn Hill.

From this point the long historical march began to “I’m as corny as Kansas in August” and high fructose corn syrup.

What, you’re shouting — they just up and called it corn?

Yes kids, they did, but it’s really not that a-maize-ing (sorry). The word corn to Europeans at the time simply referred to grain, any grain. In England, wheat was “corn,” in Ireland oats were “corn” and in Indonesia rice was “corn.”

Today, Americans, Canadians and Australians are the only ones that call the yellow ears corn, To most people, it’s maize as in “I’m as maizy as Kansas in August.”

 

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

November 14, 2006: Wings on a Pig

When the first Pig Stand opened, it was a restaurant like no other that had gone before. The year was 1921, the onset of the Roaring Twenties. Americans were in love with their pigstandautomobiles. More than eight million Fords and Oldsmobiles and Pierce Arrows roamed newly created highways.

Located on a Texas highway between Dallas and Fort Worth, the Pig Stand catered to those automobile folks – the first drive-in restaurant in the United States The restaurant’s owner, Dallas entrepreneur Jessie Kirby, reckoned that all those drivers would flock to a roadside barbecue where they could drive up, fill their faces with good Texas vittles, and drive off, without ever stepping out of their automobile. “People with cars are so lazy,” said Kirby, “they don’t want to get out of them.”

Kirby was a showman who knew how to attract customers. The Pig Stand had a red-tiled pagoda-like roof set on a rectangular building framed of wood and covered in stucco. As a customer was pulling in, teenage boys in spiffy white shirts and black bow ties would dash over to the car, hop onto the running board, and take an order – before the driver even came to a stop. For this derring-do, the servers were given the nickname carhops. Food historians credit the Pig Stand with the introduction of deep-fried onion rings, chicken-fried steak sandwiches, Texas Toast and high cholesterol.

The Pig Stand was a big hit with hungry drivers, and it soon became a chain, through one of the first franchising arrangements in restaurant history. Pig Stands popped up everywhere. By 1934, there were more than 130 of them in nine states, sporting the slogan “America’s Motor Lunch.” And dinner – Pig Stands boasted that more than 5,000 people enjoyed pig sandwich dinners every evening in Dallas alone. Pig Stand drive-ins soon replaced male carhops with attractive young women on roller skates, but maintained the formula that had got them this far: good-looking young carhops, tasty food, and speedy service – all in the comfort of your automobile.

Wartime gasoline and food rationing took its toll on the Pig Stand chain. And then came McDonald’s.  And Burger King.  And Wendy’s. By the end of the 1950s, all of the Pig Stand franchises outside of Texas had closed. And by 2005, only six remained in the state. Then on November 14, 2006, state officials closed the last two Pig Stands restaurants for unpaid sales taxes. And an icon oinked off into the Texas sunset.

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

September 11, 1680: The Unfortunate Roger Crab

crab-1Seventeenth century England was not without its share of eccentrics, folks who were not the sharpest arrows in the quiver. Roger Crab may certainly be categorized as one of them, although his misfortune at having his skull split open while serving in the Parliamentary Army might provide some excuse for his eccentricity. The unfortunate Crab was sentenced to death after the incident (for having his skull in the wrong place at the wrong time?), but his sentence was later commuted and, upon his release, he became a haberdasher of hats

His wandering mind somehow happened upon the idea that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food or to drink anything stronger than water. Determined to pursue a biblical way of life, Crab sold all his hats and other belongings, distributing the proceeds among the poor. He then took up residence in a makeshift hut, where he lived on a diet of bran, leaves and grass (the 16th century equivalent of a kale and edamame diet), and began to produce pamphlets on the wonders of diet.

“Instead of strong drinks and wines,” he wrote, “I give the old man (referring to his body) a cup of water; and instead of roast mutton and rabbit, and other dainty dishes, I give him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran and turnip-leaves chopped together.”

mad-hatterJust as Crab persecuted his own body, others began to persecute him. He was cudgeled and put in the stocks. He was stripped and whipped. Four times he was arrested on suspicion of being a wizard. He bounced from prison to prison until his death on September 11, 1680.  Fortunately, our modern society treats its vegetarian eccentrics much more humanely.

Some scholars believe Crab was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter.