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?
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)?
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.
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.
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.
When you’re looking for something hearty and warming as days become shorter and colder, consider the Japanese dishes called nabemono. These “simmered dishes” are often cooked in one pot (called a “nabe”), sometimes in the middle of the dining table over a portable burner. In the West, the most famous nabemono is probably sukiyaki — beef and vegetables cooked in a broth of soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), and other flavorings. All over Japan, you’re likely to see steaming pots of another famous nabemono called oden in convenience stores during the colder months (and, of course, oden makes plenty of appearances in standard restaurants and at home, and on some phones you’ll find an oden emoji).
A nabemono that I like to cook at home is a stew of root vegetables, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms and squash in a flavorful broth enriched by umami-packed miso and kelp-mushroom stock. One might call it a “supercharged miso soup,” as it’s much thicker than that generic cup at the Japanese restaurant and packed with vegetables.
It’s 1944, you’re a bomber pilot in the United States Navy, flying missions over Southeast Asia. It’s a dangerous job, but you’ve got a great crew: there’s Knute, a.k.a., “Swede”, the navigator, a quiet, big-hearted 18-year old blonde kid from northern Minnesota; Tony, the bombardier, a tough-talking street hustler from Brooklyn who’s really a Mama’s boy; Larry, the tail gunner, a farm boy from Kansas; Bobby, the co-pilot, a laid-back kid from California; Leonard, a.k.a. “Glasses,” the radio operator, a nerdy college student from Vermont, who operates the radio. Everyone picks on Leonard because he’d rather read books about Southeast Asia during off-duty hours than hit the bars.
On one mission, you hear an awful sound to your left: the sputter, sputter, sputter of an engine going out. Your plane starts losing altitude, and when it’s clear you won’t make it back to the carrier, it’s bail out time, and soon you’re parachuting onto unknown territory. You have a general idea of where you are and where you need to go to reach safety, but your emergency rations aren’t enough to feed you on your long journey to safety.
That nerd Glasses might be your life line. One of his interests is botany — he’s always looking at plants on the base — and so his flying kit includes a book called Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific. And so now the crew knows which plants are food — and which are poisonous — as they make their way across the jungle to a safe haven.
The little fictional lead-in above sets up one of my recent finds in the Internet Archive (via Flickr Commons). While looking in the Flickr Commons, Google Books and Hathi Trust for images of the Moringa oleifera plant, I ran across an ink drawing of the moringa plant in a book from the U.S. War Department that was published in 1943 (I also found the beautiful 19th-century painting that I used in my post about Moringa Leaves). Reading the introduction, I learned that the book was written for members of the U.S. military to help them survive on their own (“live off the land”) if they were separated from their unit or escaped from a prisoner of war camp.
The book provides a guide to edible plants in the Pacific Theater (Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Indo-China, Thailand, Burma and eastern India). Chapters focus on classes of plants: ferns, grasses, palms, tubers, seeds, greens and fruit. There are also sections on poisonous plants and “plants used to stupefy fish.”
Chain restaurants played a critical role in expanding Mexican food’s popularity across the USA 1. And so Arellano spends many pages discussing their rise (and fall, in some cases).
As I read those sections, the restaurant counts caught my attention — a chance to make charts! So I wrote down what I saw in the book, and later went to the library and internet to find more data. Annual reports were on-line for Taco Bell and Chipotle, and often had restaurant counts. For the smaller or departed chains of Chi-Chi’s and El Torito, my internet searches brought me to the company profiles at Funding Universe and an article in Louisville Business First.
Although the dataset is incomplete, I thought it worthwhile to post what I have — perhaps a commenter will fill in the blanks or suggest other chains that should be charted. (For an autosized view of the chart, visit the my chart of Mexican restaurants at Tableau Public.)
Taco Bell’s major growth was in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, reaching a peak near 7,000 locations in 1999. Chipotle’s year after year growth continues and they plan on opening new stores (although the company’s food safety issues hurt their revenues, its effect didn’t have much impact on the location count). Both Chi-Chi’s and El Torito hit their peaks around 19902.
One other factoid from the annual reports is a breakdown of where people buy Mexican food. The 2002 Annual Report from Taco Bell’s parent company (Yum! Brands) claims that market share for Mexican quick service restaurants was 72% for Taco Bell, 18% for independents, and 10% for 4 other chains3.
One of the many interesting ingredients in the Japanese pantry is konnyaku — a versatile, low calorie food with a highly distinctive texture. It’s rubbery and springier than even finger jello1.
Also called “devil’s tongue jelly,” konnyaku is more or less flavorless until it is simmered in broth, and so it is almost always part of a dish that has a flavorful broth or dressing. Besides soaking up the flavors of the broth, it provides an interesting textural element to stews and soups — for example, in the vegetable stew recipe below, you get soft vegetable, soft vegetable, soft vegetable, some fairly soft tofu, and then springy, resilient konnyaku.
The calorie label is a bit hard to believe: a 9 ounce (255 gram) package has only 30 calories, just 0.12 calories per gram, compared with a carbohydrate’s 4 calories per gram or a fat’s 9 calories per gram. The reason for this is fiber: the magic of konnyaku is that it form a resilient mass of fiber with nearly no starch, fat or protein.
Konnyaku is made from the root of the Amorphophallus konjac plant, which is peeled, boiled, and mashed, before a coagulant is added to cause the paste to set into a gel. Sometimes hijiki (a sea vegetable) is added for flavor, nutrition (calcium), and color. (The konnyaku in the photo above contains hijiki — the konnyaku noodles in the photo below do not.)