Using Arduino for Better Homemade Bread

Drawing of a DIY dough proofing box that is controlled by an Arduino microcontroller
Photograph of homemade proofing chamber for bread dough
The DIY proofing box in use

During the COVID-19 pandemic and run-up to the 2020 U.S. Election, I started watching the Great British Baking Show (a.k.a. Great British Bake Off) on Netflix as a way to reduce stress. When one of the contestants mentioned a “proofing drawer” my ears perked up. Soon I understood that the proofing drawer (a.k.a. warming drawer) as a tool that provided a warm, temperature-controlled environment that would keep a batch of dough happy and growing.

My personal interest in this appliance is driven by the room temperature in my house Berkeley, California, which is usually too cool for most bread fermentation (typically 65 F/18 C)1, but I don’t have space or energy to research and install a commercial proofing drawer.

Evolution of the DIY Proofing Drawer

A few years ago, while living in another house in Berkeley, I also faced the room temperature problem. Full of creative inspiration from the Maker Movement of the time, I built a DIY proofing drawer, using a kitchen cabinet as the container and a 60 Watt incandescent light bulb as the heat source. An Arduino microcontroller with various accessories controlled the temperature in the cabinet. It worked OK, but I didn’t use it much because it was a pain to set up — empty the cabinet, dig out my Arduino stuff, set it up, etc.

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Before 1950, Celery Was an Extremely Popular Restaurant Menu Item

Charts of celery on restaurant menus, data from NYPL

I don’t like celery, so it might have been a defense mechanism when I started noticing it on menu after menu from the late-19th and early-20th centuries1. As I looked through the Buttolph Collection of Menus for food conservation messages on World War I-era menus, it seemed that nearly every menu included celery as a distinct menu item, like the five shown below.

Collage of menus with celery, menus from NYPL
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The Brooklyn Fair To Aid Union Soldiers During the U.S. Civil War

“Anything for me, if you please?” – Post Office of the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, engraving by Winslow Homer in Harper's Weekly, 1964
“Anything for me, if you please?” – Post Office of the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, engraving by Winslow Homer in Harper's Weekly, 1964
“‘Anything for me, if you please?’ by Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, March 5, 1864

Brooklyn, February 1864. A young woman steps up to the Post Office counter and asks “Anything for me, if you please?”

Is she hoping for a letter from a brother, husband, or ‘beau’ who is serving in the Grand Army of the Republic? Is he in the field, waiting for action? Or in a hospital recovering from battle wounds (perhaps from Gettysburg, which took place 7 months earlier)? Or does she have a sister or aunt working as a nurse in a military hospital?

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Examining the Hangover Cure in the Western “El Dorado”: Was Asafoetida Known in the Old West?

John Wayne in El Dorado
John Wayne in El Dorado

For some forgotten reason, I recently watched the 1966 Western El Dorado. It’s one of the better Westerns I have seen, with more humor and a lot less racism than the typical Western (though there’s a short cringe-worthy stereotyping of a Chinese person near the end). The film has a top-notch cast and crew: the great Howard Hawks directing, John Wayne playing a roving gun for hire, Robert Mitchum as a troubled sheriff, and James Caan as a mysterious man from the South with a mysterious grudge (they call him “Mississippi”). The performances are engaging: John Wayne is in full “John Wayne mode” but not over the top, Mitchum gives a laid-back performance that feels more 1960s than 1860s, and Caan is enthusiastic in his supporting role.

Like many Westerns, the central conflict is access to water: a big rancher wants to take a family’s water. The town sheriff (Mitchum) recently had his heart broken by the main female character and has been drowning his sorrows in a lot of alcohol, so he can’t help in the battle for justice against the nefarious rancher and his goons. But when things get really serious, the sheriff needs to sober up.

Mississippi suggests a sure-fire potion to free someone from alcohol’s grip that has a bunch of odd ingredients, including asafoetida (full recipe at Booze Movies). When I heard Mississippi say “asafoetida”, I was quite surprised. It’s something that I completely associate with Indian cooking and not at all with the United States in the 19th century or medicinal use (to be sure, that’s a subject that I’m ignorant about). So I started wondering: Was it put into the script because the word “asafoetida” has an exotic sound that makes it a perfect ingredient for a quack remedy? Or was this ingredient actually known in the U.S. in the late 19th century so that Mississippi could have run across it (in his fictional life)?

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Old Restaurant Menus for Christmas, New Year’s Day, and a Gathering of Bankers

Griswold House 1900 Christmas Menu

The Buttolph Collection of Menus at the New York Public Library is a way to see what people were eating at restaurants in the past. The collection contains tens of thousands of menus, with the bulk from the early 20th century, when the collection’s creator, Miss Frank E. Buttolph, was actively collecting menus.  In this post, I’ll highlight two seasonal menus and a creative menu for bankers.

A Stocking Menu from Detroit

The Christmas Spirit moved the Griswold House’s menu designer in 1900, leading to a stocking-shaped menu. Based on my reading of menus from around 1900, this one is fairly typical. It is loaded with French cuisine, and also has some game (roast canvasback duck and stuffed roast opossum). And celery, of course (restaurant menus of that era often had celery in the salad or appetizer section).

Griswold House 1900 Christmas Menu
Cover and interior of Griswold House 1900 Christmas Menu (a much larger picture of the 1900 Griswold House Christmas menu, ~4 MB)
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Sarah Hale’s Campaign for a National Thanksgiving Holiday

Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale in Woman's record, or, Sketches of all distinguished women

Silhouette portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by Auguste Edouart, National Portrait Gallery
Silhouette portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by Auguste Edouart, 1842, National Portrait Gallery

If you love Thanksgiving, you should learn the name Sarah Josepha Hale.

Starting in 1846 and continuing until her retirement in 1877, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) used her position as editress1 of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine — one of the most popular and influential magazines of the time — to campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday in November. For many years, she wrote two editorials in the magazine explaining the benefits of a national Thanksgiving holiday and encouraging her readers to work for one by pressuring public officials. She also wrote thousands of personal letters (by hand!) to elected officials, to the influencers of the day (other magazine editors, prominent preachers, etc.), and to her wide network of friends and family.

When Hale started her campaign, Thanksgiving wasn’t a new concept in America. Towns, villages and states held harvest festivals that included a late-morning trip to church for a special service, followed by a feast2.  But there was no national Thanksgiving Day.

For example, in the late 1700s, towns on Long Island celebrated Thanksgiving on the first Thursday after the cattle returned from the common pasture. Because the return of the cattle was weather-dependent, the date varied from year to year3. In 1789, President Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that set forth “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” but this was a one-time event.

Hale wanted a national Thanksgiving holiday. To Hale, a national holiday would be a “promoter of this national spirit,” demonstrate the “prosperity and happiness of the American people,” encourage generosity, and add a third patriotic holiday to the national calendar to supplement Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July.

Her campaign achieved a major success in 1863 when President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the fourth Thursday of November 1863 a national day of thanksgiving4. But it was only a partial success for Hale, because it was a one-time declaration, not a Congressionally-mandated national holiday, so her campaign continued until her retirement. Unfortunately for Hale, she didn’t live to see complete success — it wasn’t until 1941 that Congress finally made Thanksgiving a national holiday, the fourth Thursday in November.

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How a 3,930 Pound Cheese Helped Union Army Soldiers During the Civil War

Poster advertising the "3930 lb. cheese" at the 1864 Mechanics' Institute fair in San Francisco
Poster advertising the “3930 lb. cheese” at the 1864 Mechanics’ Institute fair in San Francisco

When I saw #NationalCheeseDay trending on Twitter, I did what I often do on “national days”: I went to my favorite public domain sites to look for interesting and fun images that fit the day’s theme.

I’m glad I went looking on National Cheese Day, because I found a poster with a mysterious headline: “Presentation of the 3930 lb. Cheese! To the Sanitary Commission.”

I had questions: “Why would a giant cheese be displayed?”, “What was the Sanitary Commission?”, “What year was this?”, “What is the Pavilion of the Mechanics Institute?”, to name a few.

Let’s start by cutting this mysterious announcement into manageable chunks. Later in the post I’ll share more details (and there are many more details about the subjects available to on-line researchers).

The 3,930 lb cheese:  That’s a big chunk of cheese!  According to a newspaper report from the time, the great cheese was a cylinder with diameter of 7 feet and height of 2 feet (2.13 m by 0.61 m), for a volume of 77 ft3 (2,180 L). To give a sense of the size, I used my low-level image creation skills to put the cheese behind President Lincoln in a photograph from the era (it’s a few paragraphs below). The cheese cylinder’s width matches the height of Lincoln and his top hat! 1)

The Sanitary Commission:  The Sanitary Commission was a government-authorized — but not government funded! — organization that focused on the health of Union soldiers during the Civil War.  Their funding came from donations by the public.2

The Pavilion of the Mechanics’ Institute: The Mechanics’ Institute is a scholarly organization founded in San Francisco in 1855. It is still around (at 57 Post Street in downtown San Francisco), with their main attractions being a members-only library and lectures.  In the late 1800s, the Institute held annual exhibitions in San Francisco to showcase new technologies, art, quilts, agricultural products, and much more.

Rev. Dr. Bellows:   Henry Whitney Bellows (1814-1882) was a clergyman from Boston associated with the Unitarian Church. He was the president of the Sanitary Commission throughout its entire existence (1861-1878)3.

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Van Gogh’s Olive Tree Paintings

Olive Grove - Vincent Van Gogh (1889) from Metropolitan Museum of Art
Olive Grove - Vincent van Gogh (1889) from Metropolitan Museum of Art
Olive Grove by Vincent van Gogh (1889), Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of my blogging hobbies (“blobbies”?) is using CC Search from Creative Commons and the Flickr Commons to look up images connected to my blogging. This time the search term was olives.

Olives were on my mind after visits to an olive grove and olive oil processing facility. Not surprisingly, the search tools led me to a handful of advertisements and ephemera, but the real gems were Vincent Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings from 1889. Join me below to learn more about this series of paintings.

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What is the First Movie to Mention Pizza?

Google Books Ngram of Pizza - pizza pie, pizza pie 1950-2008

I’m a big fan of old movies — film noir, musicals, the epics of the 1950s and 60s. I recently watched The Band Wagon, a 1953 musical directed by Vincente Minnelli1, one of the last huge and lavish MGM musicals. In a scene that follows the out of town premiere of the “show within a show” that stars Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) and Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), the cast and crew are having a party to reduce their sorrow after the out-of-town premiere did not go well. Soon after Hunter arrives, one of the cast members offers him “some pizza pie.”2

Screenshot from The Band Wagon movie, where Fred Astaire's character is offered pizza pie
At a post-show party, one of the performers in the show offers Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) some pizza pie. Screenshot from The Band Wagon (released on August 7, 1953).

That “Want some pizza pie?” line made me wonder: in which Hollywood movie was pizza first mentioned? Could The Band Wagon be the first one?

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Fish in Japanese Art: Hiroshige’s Woodblock Prints

Ise-ebi and Shiba-ebi by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Tobiuo and Ishimochi fish by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Hirame and Mebaru Fish with Cherry Blossoms by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bora Fish with Camellia by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Medetai and sasaki bamboo by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Kurodai and Kodai Fish with Bamboo Shoots and Berries by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Aji Fish and Kuruma-ebi by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Fugu and Inada Fish by Hiroshige from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Memorial portrait of Hiroshige
Memorial portrait of Hiroshige from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of my favorite genres of art is the 19th century Japanese landscape print, especially the works by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who is best known as the creator of several series that showed famous scenes from Japan, like “53 Stations of the Tokaido” and “Famous Views of the 60-Odd Provinces.”  The subjects of the prints in the series vary between the long and medium view — for example, a rainbow over a the sea, or travelers passing over a bridge.  So when I saw a series of Hiroshige fish prints appear in a Creative Commons CCSearch result, my curiosity was piqued.  What was the story behind the series?

It turns out that prints of animals, fish and plants were relatively rare in Hiroshige’s catalog:  in his 40-year art career, he designed over 10,000 single sheet prints and several hundred book illustrations, with only around 500 having an animal or plant as the subject [the statistics are from Birds and Flowers, a book in the reference list below].

After reviewing a few books about Hiroshige at the local libraries, I found the answer to my question, and it turned out to be straightforward: a poetry guild called Kyokashi hired him to make ten fish illustrations to accompany their poems.  During the design and printing process the poets gave their poems to the woodblock carvers, who added the lettering to a block so it would appear on the final print. 

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