August 6, 1940 A Different Kind of Courage

By the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  For twenty-eight months these guys guarded their seed bank, without eating so much as a grain.

In 21st century America, “diversity” is often seen as that overly PC tendency, leading the backdrop of every political speech and college recruiting poster to feature all those smiling faces, in just the right mix of race, sex and color.

In the world of plant biology, diversity can literally mean the difference between feast and famine.

The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century resulted from the failure of a single crop. The direct cause was the water mold Phytophthora infestans, but the real culprit might have been the over reliance on a single strain of potato. A million Irish starved to death and another two million departed, never to return, in a country starting out with barely 8.4 million in 1844.

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Phytophthora_ nfestans (late blight) on tomato

The Irish potato famine was just one of 120 such calamities to afflict humanity in modern times, resulting in the starvation death of hundreds of millions. Blight, climate disruption and insects are but a few of the causes. Often, the only solution was having enough food-source variety that no single crop failure could lead to starvation.

Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov was a Russian botanist and plant biologist.  Vavilov witnessed the death of millions of Russians in three such famines, and devoted his life’s work to the improvement of wheat, corn and other food crops necessary to sustain a global population.

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Nikolai Vavilov

Over a lifetime of study of phytopathology and plant immunity, Vavilov organized expeditions and collected plant specimens from every corner of the world. Traveling over 5 continents and 64 countries, “The world’s greatest plant explorer” taught himself no fewer than 15 languages so that he could speak with native farmers, collecting more seeds, edible roots, tubers and fruit specimens than any person in human history.

 

There is hardly any part of our modern day understanding of crop diversity, that doesn’t go back to the work of this one man.

Nikolai Vavilov was a man of pure science.  Not so his young protege, Trophim Denisovich Lysenko. The younger man was a political opportunist, an apparatchik and crackpot who rejected the natural selection and plant genetics of Gregor Mendel, in favor of a cockamamie theory which came to be called “Lysenkoism”.

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Trophim Lysenko

Lysenko placed great confidence in the pseudo-scientific theory of environmentally acquired inheritance, by which parent plants pass down to their offspring,  characteristics acquired through use or disuse during their life cycle.  By this theory, rye could transform into wheat, wheat into barley, and weeds somehow transmuted into edible food grains.

 

In 1928, the previously unknown agronomist from peasant background performed experiments in “vernalization“, claiming to triple or quadruple wheat crop yield by accelerating the life cycle of Autumn-seeded winter wheat varieties.

Intense exposures to cold and humidity including direct seeding into snow-covered, frozen fields were known since 1854 to produce marginal increases in crop yield, but nothing remotely similar to Lysenko’s claims.  Nevertheless, Lysenko was hailed as a hero of Soviet agriculture, particularly in light of the disastrous collectivization efforts of the late 1920s.

echist1As Stalin’s Soviet Union imposed the “terror famine” of 1932-’33, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasant farmers known as the Holodomor.

Lysenko dove into a variety of agriculture issues with “helpful” solutions such as plucking leaves from cotton plants, cluster planting trees and outlandish & unusual fertilizer mixes. A shameless sycophant and toady to Communist ideology, Lysenko gained status among party officials with one harebrained proposition after another, following one after another, far too quickly to be disproven by the patient observation of reputable scientific method.

At this time, the hottest ideas in plant genetics were emerging from biological studies of Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Lysenko used his increasing influence in party circles to denounce such scientists as “fly-lovers and people haters”, denouncing the lot of them as “wreckers” who were purposely trying to bring about the downfall of the Soviet government.

Scientific research into plant genetics was dead in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

855c4322c0bca57a84dde41308bad993As director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Lysenko put his theories to work, with unsurprisingly dismal results.  He’d force Soviet farmers to plant WAY too close together, on the theory that plants of the same “class” would “cooperate” with one another, and that “mutual assistance” takes place within and even across plant species.

There had to be a reason why Stalin’s agricultural program wasn’t working. There had to be scapegoats.  In a 1935 speech, Lysenko compared dissenting biologists to peasants continuing to resist Soviet collectivization policies, denouncing traditional geneticists as being “against Marxism”.  Josef Stalin himself was in the audience, and jumped up clapping enthusiastically, calling out “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko. Bravo.”

The gloves were now off. Lysenko and his chief ally Isaak Izrailevich Prezent savaged Lysenkoism’s opponents, including his former mentor, himself.  Over 3,000 mainstream biologists were fired, “disappeared” or even executed, among them Nikolai Vavilov.

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Botanist Nikolai Vavilov’s mugshot. Note the several deep scars on his right cheek, indicating severe beatings sustained by the scientist in prison

On August 6, 1940, Vavilov was on expedition in Ukraine, collecting specimens when he was snatched up and driven away in a black sedan, his staff helpless to intervene. Vavilov was sentenced to death in 1941 with sentence later commuted to twenty years.  It didn’t matter. In January 1943, this man whose scientific work was at least as important as that of Norman Borlaug, starved to death in a Soviet Gulag.

Nikolai Vavilov had collected some 220,000 specimens of edible fruits, seeds and tubers over the years, which now sat in a Leningrad basement. 120,000 additional specimens were added to the hoard from other collectors, bringing the entire cache well into the tons of edible plant material.

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‘Third Degree Interrogation’ from Drawings from Stalin’s Gulag Illustration: Danzig Baldaev

On September 8, 1941 the German Wehrmacht completed its encirclement of the city.  The siege of Leningrad lasted for twenty-eight months.  Hunger soon took hold and, before it was over, more than a million Leningrad residents starved to death.

Soviet authorities had ordered the removal of art from the Hermitage prior to the siege, but not these botanical specimens.  Scientists couldn’t know where their leader was, or even whether he yet lived.  They locked themselves in the basement with their trove and took turns standing guard, protecting future food crops and the survival of untold millions, yet unborn.

USSR-Stamp-1977-NIVavilovBy the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  These guys had stood guard over their seed bank for twenty-eight months, without eating so much as a grain.

The verdict against Nikolai Vavilov was set aside in 1955, one of thousands of reversals of Stalin era death sentences. Vavilov’s reputation was publicly rehabilitated by the 1960s.  In time he would come to be seen as a hero of Soviet-era science.

 

Trofim Lysenko would outlive his benefactor Stalin, and retained influence into the era of Nikita Khruschchev.  Lysenkoism was officially renounced in 1964, the bureaucrat denounced by physicist and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov. “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists“.  The disgraced apparatchik died in 1976.  It took Soviet media two days to so much as mention his passing, with a small notice printed in the broadsheet, Izvestia.

In the funhouse mirror world of the Soviet Union, the future was always known.  It was the past, that was subject to change.

Still home to the largest collection of plant genetic material in the world, the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg was scheduled to be razed in 2010, to make way for luxury housing.  Scientists from around the world petitioned Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to rethink the decision, and not destroy the largest collection of European fruits and berries in the world.  At this time, the decision is undergoing “further study”.

For all the good it did the institute’s namesake, long-since murdered by the malignant ideology he had spent his life’s work, attempting to serve.

But hell, he got himself a postage stamp, in 1977.

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Timeline of Genetics and Science in the Soviet Union
Feature image, top of page:  Soviet Propaganda, Arkady Alexandrovich Plastov Threshing on the collective farm
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August 4, 1693 Drinking the Stars

The Roman Rebublic built on and improved what the Greeks had begun, creating their own God of Wine and calling him Bacchus. It was the ancient Romans who first developed the concept of Terroir, “tare WAHr”, the notion that regional climate, soils and aspect (terrain) can effect the taste of wine.

1-armeniaThe oldest winery for which archaeological evidence exists was established around BC4100, in present-day Armenia. The Egyptian Pharoahs were producing a wine-like substance from 3100BC for use in public ceremonies, due to its resemblance to blood.

Archaeologists discovered a 3,700 year old wine cellar in the north of Israel.  Phoenecian traders plied the Mediterranean from the shores of the Middle East to Gibraltar, transporting grapevines and wine in ceramic jugs.   Traders introduced wine to the ancient Greeks sometime around BC800, who then began to perfect the beverage, even naming a God of the grape harvest: Dionysus.

alexakis-history-of-wineSounds like a great job, as Greek Gods go.

As the Greek city-states rose in power, viticulture and wine making traveled the eastern Mediterranean with Greek armies, into Sicily and the boot of Italy, and north toward Rome.

wine history

The Roman Republic built on and improved what the Greeks had begun, creating their own God of Wine and calling him Bacchus. It was the ancient Romans who first developed the concept of Terroir, “tare WAHr”, the notion that regional climate, soils and aspect (terrain) can effect the taste of wine.

bacchus-12The legions of Rome expanded the Empire across Europe from modern day France and Germany into Portugal and Spain.  Everywhere the Legions went, vineyards were soon to follow. To this day, some regions are said to have more ‘Terroir’, than others.

Wine seemed better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate, and Tacitus maligned the bitter brew of Germanic barbarians.  Nevertheless, letters home from cavalry commanders of the Roman Britain period (ca AD97-103), include requests for more “cerevisia”.

Muhammad directed the “Righteous” to abstain from alcohol sometime in the seventh century, but promised “[R]ivers of water unaltered, rivers of milk the taste of which never changes, rivers of wine delicious to those who drink…” in heaven.  (Surah 47.15 of the Qur’an.)

Local production of rustic beers continued well beyond the collapse of the Roman empire, while the monasteries of Europe became prime repositories of viticulture and wine making technique.

The wines of medieval and renaissance-era Europe tended to be almost universally red and almost always, still.  The in-bottle refermentation that gives “sparkling” wine its ‘fizz’ was a problem.  Fermentable sugars were frequently left over when weather began to cool in the fall, particularly with the white grape varietals. Refermentation would set in with the warm spring weather, converting bottles into literal time bombs. Caps would pop off and wine would spoil. Sometimes the whole batch would explode, one pressurized bottle going off in sympathetic detonation with the other.

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Pierre Perignon entered the Benedictine Order at the age of 19, doing his novitiate at the abbey of Saint-Vannes near Verdun and transferring to the abbey of Hautvillers in 1668.

On August 4, 1693, the date traditionally ascribed to Brother (Dom) Pérignon’s invention of Champagne, the monk is supposed to have said “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”.

hautvillers-vineyardsThe story is almost certainly a myth, a later embellishment to the story.  During his 47 year career, Pérignon went to considerable lengths to eliminate bubbles from his wine.  Dom Pérignon never succeed in that goal, yet he did make bubbly wine a whole lot better, using corks for the first time to prevent the escape of carbon dioxide, and perfecting a ‘gentle’ pressing technique which left out the murkiness of the skins.

It is almost certainly Dom Pérignon who perfected the double fermentation process. He was an early advocate of natural farming methods we would call “organic”, today.  Pérignon insisted on “blind” tasting, not wanting to know what vineyard a grape came from prior to selection, and strictly avoiding the addition of foreign substances, insisting that all blending take place at the grape stage.

Dom PerignonPérignon didn’t like white grapes because of their tendency to enter refermentation. He preferred the Pinot Noir, and would aggressively prune the plants so that vines grew no higher than three feet and produced a smaller crop. The harvest was always in the cool, damp early morning hours, and Pérignon took every precaution to avoid bruising or breaking his grapes. Over-ripe and overly large fruit was always thrown out. Pérignon never permitted grapes to be trodden upon, always preferring the use of multiple presses.

In 1891, the Madrid Agreement established among the European powers, that only sparkling wines from a certain region in northeast France may be labeled “Champagne”.  The principle was re-asserted in the Treaty of Versailles ending WW1, providing protections for a French wine industry which had, ironically, been saved and literally rebuilt from the ground up by grafting “inferior” American root stock onto French vines.

But that must remain a story for another day.

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1890 cartoon from Punch depicting the Phylloxera aphid, which all but obliterated the French wine industry.

That American companies like Korbel, Cook’s and others may continue to call their bubbly wines Champagne is due to the United States’ Senate never having ratified the treaty formally ending WW1, back in 1920.  The United States entered the Madrid system in 2003, but the Champagne name dispute, remains unsettled.

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Benjamin Franklin, born nine years before brother Pérignon’s death in 1715, is supposed to have said “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” That’s close, but the quote seems to come from a letter to André Morellet dated 1779, in which the Founding Father wrote  “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy“.

Either way, I enthusiastically approve Mr. Franklin’s message.  Cheers.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 30, 1917 Doughnut Lassies of the Great War

Men stood in line for hours, patiently waiting in the mud and the rain for their own little piece of warm, home-cooked heaven in a world full of misery.

For a variety of reasons, the eastern front of the “War to end all Wars” was a war of movement. Not so on the Western front.  As early as October 1914, combatants were forced to burrow into the ground like animals, sheltering from what Ernst Jünger called the ‘Storm of Steel’.

Conditions in the trenches and dugouts must have defied description. You would have smelled the trenches long before you could see them. The collective funk of a million men and more, enduring the Troglodyte existence of men who live in holes. Little but verminous scars in the earth teaming with rats and lice and swarming with flies, time and again the shells churned up and pulverized the soil, the water and the shattered remnants of once-great forests, along with the bodies of the slain.

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By the time the United States entered the ‘War to end all Wars’ in April, 1917, millions had endured this existence for three years. The first 14,000 Americans arrived ‘over there’ in June, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) forming on July 5. American troops fought the military forces of Imperial Germany alongside their British and French allies, others joining Italian forces in the struggle against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze capable of swallowing grown men, even horses and mules, alive.

Captain Alexander Stewart wrote “Most of the night was spent digging men out of the mud. The only way was to put duck boards on each side of him and work at one leg: poking and pulling until the suction was relieved. Then a strong pull by three or four men would get one leg out, and work would begin on the other…He who had a corpse to stand or sit on, was lucky”.

On first seeing the horror of Paschendaele, Sir Launcelot Kiggell broke down in tears. “Good God”, he said. “Did we really send men to fight in That?”

kalamazoo-gazette-newspaper-0518-1919-wwi-donuts-salvation-armyOften unseen in times of such dread calamity, are the humanitarian workers. Those who tend to the physical and spiritual requirements, the countless small comforts, of those so afflicted.

Within days of the American declaration of war, Evangeline Booth, National Commander of the Salvation Army, responded, saying “The Salvationist stands ready, trained in all necessary qualifications in every phase of humanitarian work, and the last man will stand by the President for execution of his orders”.

These people are so much more than that donation truck, and the bell ringers we see behind those red kettles, every December.

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Lieutenant Colonel William S. Barker of the Salvation Army left New York with Adjutant Bertram Rodda on June 30, 1917, to survey the situation. It wasn’t long before his not-so surprising request came back in a cable from France. Send ‘Lassies’.

wwi-doughnut-girls-7A small group of carefully selected female officers was sent to France on August 22. That first party comprised six men, three women and a married couple. Within fifteen months their number had expanded by a factor of 400.

In December 1917, a plea for a million dollars went out to support the humanitarian work of the Salvation Army, the YMCA, YWCA, War Camp Community Service, National Catholic War Council, Jewish Welfare Board, the American Library Association and others. This “United War Work Campaign” raised $170 million in private donations, equivalent to $27.6 billion, today.

roads_donutGirl2‘Hutments’ were formed all over the front, many right out at the front lines.  There were canteen services.  Religious observances of all denominations were held in these facilities. Concert performances were given, clothing mended and words of kindness  offered in response to all manner of personal problems.  On one occasion, the Loyal Order of Moose conducted a member initiation. Pies and cakes were baked in crude ovens and lemonade served to hot and thirsty troops. Of all these corporal works of mercy, the ones best remembered by the ‘doughboys’ themselves, were the doughnuts.

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Helen Purviance, sent to France in 1917 with the American 1st Division, seems to have been first with the idea. An ensign with the Salvation Army, Purviance and fellow ensign Margaret Sheldon first formed the dough by hand, later using a wine bottle in lieu of a rolling pin. Having no doughnut cutter at the time, dough was shaped and twisted into crullers, and fried seven at a time on a pot-bellied wood stove.

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The work was grueling. The women worked well into the night that first day, serving all of 150 hand-made doughnuts. “I was literally on my knees,” Purviance recalled, but it was easier than bending down all day, on that tiny wood stove. It didn’t seem to matter. Men stood in line for hours, patiently waiting in the mud and the rain for their own little piece of warm, home-cooked heaven in a world full of misery.

doughnuts-top-sliderBefore long, the women got better at it. Soon they were turning out 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts a day. An elderly French blacksmith made Purviance a doughnut cutter, out of a condensed milk can and a camphor-ice tube, attached to a wooden block.

It wasn’t long before the aroma of hot doughnuts could be found, wafting all over the dugouts and trenches of the western front.  Salvation Army volunteers and others made apple pies and all manner of other goodies, but the name that stuck, was “Doughnut Lassies”.

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June 2, 2017 – Salvation Army employees Cheryl Freismuth (l) and Susan Klyk (c) celebrate the 100th anniversary of the “Doughnut Lassies” of WW1 with student Catie McDougall (r). H/T The Detroit News

One New York Times correspondent wrote in 1918 “When I landed in France I didn’t think so much of the Salvation Army; after two weeks with the Americans at the front I take my hat off… [W]hen the memoirs of this war come to be written the doughnuts and apple pies of the Salvation Army are going to take their place in history”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 3, 1909 Chips

The business model discussed in Tom Peters’ book involves over-the-top Customer Service, in contradistinction to what so many companies put us through in our everyday lives. There is a business lesson there, for those who would learn it.

As the story goes it was 1853, at an upscale resort in Saratoga Springs New York. A wealthy and somewhat unpleasant customer sent his fried potatoes back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too soggy, and didn’t have enough salt. George Crum, the cook, wasn’t the most pleasant of guys himself, and thought he’d fix this customer. He sliced some potatoes as thin as a dime, fried them up and doused the hell out of them, with salt. Sending them out to the table and fully expecting the customer to choke, Crum was astonished to learn that the customer loved them. He ordered more, and George Crum decided to add “Saratoga Chips” to the menu. The Potato Chip was born.

moon-chips

Herman Lay was a brilliant marketer, even from a young age. Born on this day in 1909, Lay opened a Pepsi Cola stand on his front lawn at the age of 11. When the city ballpark across the street was charging ten cents for a Pepsi, Lay charged a nickel.

lays-ad-SA_Steve-FlickrLay became a lumberjack, a jewelry salesman, and a peanut salesman, before going to work for the Atlanta based Barrett Potato Chip Company. He traveled the Southeast during the Great Depression in his Model A Ford, selling chips to grocery stores, gas stations and soda shops. When the company’s owner died, Lay raised $60,000 and bought the company’s plants in Atlanta and Memphis.

By this time, potato farmers had developed a low moisture “chipping potato”, because other types tended to shrink too much in processing. Other inventions like the mechanical potato peeler, the continuous fryer and sealed bags helped “chippers” of the 30s and 40s ship their products farther than ever before.

af4b972207c32a8a204f0fb49da95bc2Lay began buying up small regional competitors at the same time that another company specializing in corn chips, was doing the same. “Frito”, the Spanish word for “fried”, merged with Lay in 1961 to become – you got it – Frito-Lay. By 1965, Lay’s was the #1 potato chip brand sold in every state.

Procter & Gamble figured out how to put a potato chip in a can, using dehydrated potato flakes and calling them “Pringles”. Potato chip manufacturers lobbied Congress to prevent the new snacks from being called “potato chips” and Federal officials offered Pringles a compromise, allowing them to be called “chips made from dried potatoes.” Procter & Gamble said no thanks, instead branding their product “potato crisps”.

Ironically, P&G would later sue to have Pringles declared NOT to be a potato chip, to avoid millions in British Commonwealth taxes levied on products “made from the potato, or from potato flour.”

very-rare-eagle-snacks-anheuser-busch-company-light-up-sign-beer-man-cave-4f181742a519d9197bae9887b2c6db25The biggest threat that Frito-Lay would ever experience came from the Beer giant Anheuser-Busch, when the company introduced their “Eagle” line of salty snacks in the 1970s. It made perfect sense at the time, a marketing and distribution giant expanding into such a complementary product category, what could go wrong? Frito-Lay profits dropped by 16% by 1991 and PepsiCo laid off 1,800 employees, but Eagle Snacks never turned a profit in 16 years. Anheuser-Busch put the company up for sale in 1995.

According to the Snack Food Association’s 2012 state of the industry report, Americans spent $9 billion on potato chips in 2010, more than the gross domestic product of the bottom 57 countries, on earth.

global-savory-snack-market-2006-550Tom Peters wrote about Frito-Lay in his 1982 book “In Search of Excellence”. The company will spend $150 to make a $30 delivery if that’s what they need to do.  Their customer is counting on them.   While a transaction like that doesn’t make economic sense, the company prides itself on a 99½% on-time delivery record.  Frito-Lay has the highest profit margins in the industry and a 60% market share in an “undifferentiated commodity”, in which their closest competitor has 7%.

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The business model discussed in Tom Peters’ book involves over-the-top Customer Service, in contradistinction to what so many companies put us through in our everyday lives. There is a business lesson there, for those who would learn it.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 6, 1933 New Beer’s Eve

The night before Prohibition was repealed, April 6, 1933, beer lovers lined up at the doors of their favorite public houses, waiting for their first legal beer in thirteen years. 

Given the right combination of sugars, almost any cereal will undergo simple fermentation, due to the presence of wild yeasts in the air.  It seems likely that our cave-dwelling ancestors experienced their first beer, as the result of this process.

Starch dusted stones were found with the remains of doum-palm and chamomile in the 18,000-year old Wadi Kubbaniya in upper Egypt.  While it’s difficult to confirm, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern says, “it’s very likely they were making beer there”.

Chemical analysis of pottery shards date the earliest barley beer to 3400BC, in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

beer-ingredients

Tacitus maligned the bitter brew of Germanic barbarians.  Wine seemed better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate.  Nevertheless, the letters of Roman cavalry commanders from the Roman Britain period, c. 97-103 AD, include requests for more “cerevisia“, for the legionaries.

In North and South America, native peoples brewed fermented beverages from local ingredients, including agave sap, the first spring tips of the spruce tree, and maize.

Pilgrims left the Netherlands city of Leiden in 1620, hoping not for the frozen, rocky soil of New England, but for rich farmland and a congenial climate in the New World.   Lookouts spotted the wind-swept shores of Cape Cod on November 9, 1620, and may have kept going, had there been enough beer.  One Mayflower passenger wrote in his diary: “We could not now take time for further search… our victuals being much spent, especially our beer…

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Prior to the the drum roaster’s invention in 1817, malt was typically dried over wood, charcoal, or straw fires, leaving a smoky quality which would seem foreign to the modern beer drinker.  William Harrison wrote in his “Description of England” in 1577, “For the wood-dried malt, when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of colour, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke“.

Smoky flavor didn’t trouble the true aficionado of the age.  When the Meux Brewery casks let go in 1814 spilling nearly 400,000 gallons onto the street, hundreds of Britons hurried to scoop it up in pots and pans.  Some even lapped it up off of the street, doggy-style.

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1,389 were trampled to death and another 1,300 injured in a stampede for the suds, when someone thought the beer had run out at the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, in 1896.

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The 18th amendment, better known as “prohibition”, went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. For thirteen years it was illegal to import, export, transport or sell liquor, wine or beer in the United States.

Portable stills went on sale within a week, and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of rhine” or “blocks of port”. The mayor of New York City sent instructions on wine making, to his constituents.

Smuggling operations became widespread, as cars were souped up to outrun “the law”. This would lead to competitive car racing, beginning first on the streets and back roads and later moving to dedicated race tracks.  It’s why we have NASCAR, today.

Moonshine-Cars

Organized crime became vastly more powerful due to the influx of enormous sums of cash.  The corruption of public officials was a national scandal.

Gaining convictions for breaking a law that everyone hated became increasingly difficult. There were over 7,000 prohibition related arrests in New York alone between 1921 and 1923.  Only 27 resulted in convictions.

download (65)Finally, even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, had to announce his support for repeal.

It’s difficult to compare rates of alcohol consumption before and during prohibition.  If death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption never decreased by more than 10 to 20 per cent.

FDR signed the Cullen–Harrison Act into law on March 22, 1933, commenting “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”  The law went effect on April 7, allowing Americans to buy, sell and drink beer containing up to 3.2% alcohol.

A team of draft horses hauled a wagon up Pennsylvania Avenue, delivering a case of beer to the White House – the first public appearance of the Budweiser Clydesdales.

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“Dry” leaders tried to prohibit consumption of alcohol on military bases in 1941, but military authorities claimed it was good for morale. Brewers were required to allocate 15% of total annual production to be used by the armed forces. So essential were beer manufacturers to the war effort, that teamsters were ordered to end a labor strike against Minneapolis breweries.  Near the end of WWII, the army made plans to operate recaptured French breweries, to ensure adequate supplies for the troops.

18 states continued prohibition at the state level after the national repeal, the last state finally dropping it in 1966. Almost 2/3rds of all states adopted some form of local option, enabling residents of political subdivisions to vote for or against local prohibition.  Some counties remain dry to this day.  Ironically, Lynchburg County, Tennessee, home to the Jack Daniel distillery, is one such dry county.

Beer toastThe night before Roosevelt’s law went into effect, April 6, 1933, beer lovers lined up at the doors of their favorite public houses, waiting for their first legal beer in thirteen years.  A million and a half barrels of the stuff were consumed the following day, a date remembered today as “National Beer Day”.

So it is that, from that day to this, April 6 is celebrated as “New Beer’s Eve”.  Sláinte.

For every wound, a balm.
For every sorrow, cheer. 
For every storm, a calm.
For every thirst, a beer. – Irish toast, author unknown

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

March 25, 1914 Borlaug

Most of us remember the names, of the great monsters of history.  Who remembers the name of the man who saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

Too often, history is measured in terms of its monsters.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive a single vote.  Josef Stalin deliberately starved as many as ten million Ukrainians, in a “terror famine” known as Holodomor.  Pol Pot and a Communist cadre of nine – the Ang-Ka – killed between 1.7 and 2.5 million fellow citizens of 1970s Cambodia: about a fifth of the population.  Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million of his own people, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest twenty-nine million.

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From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, from Enver Pasha to Hideki Tojo and Leopold II of Belgium, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls.  Most of us remember the names, of the great monsters of history.  Who remembers the name of the man who saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

Today, we live in a time and place where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) writes “The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and accordingly has high obesity rates; one-third of the population has obesity plus another third is overweight”. 

It wasn’t always so.  In 1820, 94% of the world’s population lived in “absolute poverty.” The American economic historian and scientist Robert Fogel, winner (with Douglass North) of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote that: “Individuals in the bottom 20% of the caloric distributions of France and England near the end of the eighteenth century, lacked the energy for sustained work and were effectively excluded from the labor force.”

It’s hard to get our heads around the notion of “food insecurity”.  I’m not talking about what’s in the fridge. This is the problem of acute malnutrition, of epidemic starvation, of cyclical famine and massive increases in mortality due to starvation and hunger-induced disease.

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Norman Borlaug

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born this day in 1914, on his grandparents’ farm near Cresco, Iowa.  The boy’s grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug, once told the boy “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.”

A farm kid educated during the Great Depression, Borlaug periodically put his studies on hold, in order to earn money.  As a leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps working with unemployed people on Federal projects, many of his co-workers faced near-catastrophic levels of hunger.  He later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”.

Borlaug earned his Bachelor of Science in Forestry, in 1937.  Nearing the end of his undergraduate education, he attended a lecture by Professor Elvin Charles Stakman, discussing plant rust disease, a parasitic fungus that feeds on phytonutrients in wheat, oats, and barley crops. Stakman was exploring special breeding methods, resulting in rust-resistant plants. The research greatly interested Borlaug, who later enrolled at the University of Minnesota, to study plant pathology under Stakman.  Borlaug earned a Master of Science degree in 1940, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, in 1942.

Borlaug attempted to enlist in the military following the attack on Pearl Harbor, but his application was rejected under wartime labor regulations.  He was put to work in a lab, doing research for the United States armed forces.

136250-004-46BB7BC1Between 1939 and ’41, Mexican farmers suffered major crop failures, due to stem rust. In July 1944, Borlaug declined an offer to double his salary, traveling instead to Mexico City, heading a new program focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology.

“Pure line” (genotypically identical) plant varieties possess only one to a handful of disease-resistance genes. Random mutations of rusts and other plant diseases overcome pure line survival strategies, resulting in crop failures. “Multi-line” plant breeding involves backcrossing and hybridizing plant varieties, transferring multiple disease-resistance genes into recurrent parents.  In the first ten years Borlaug worked for the Mexican agricultural program, he and his team made over 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. Mexico transformed from a net-importer of food, to a net exporter.

In the early sixties, Borlaug’s dwarf spring wheat strains went out for multi-location testing around the world, in a program administered by the US Department of Agriculture. In March 1963, Borlaug himself traveled to India with Dr. Robert Glenn Anderson, along with 220lbs of seed from four of the most promising strains.

norman-borlaugThe Indian subcontinent experienced minor famine and starvation at this time, limited only by the US shipping 1/5th of its wheat production into the region in 1966 – ’67.  Despite resistance from Indian and Pakistani bureaucracies, Borlaug imported 550 tons of seeds.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestselling book The Population Bomb, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich said, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971…India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

He could not have been more comprehensively wrong.

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Borlaug’s initial yields were higher than any other crop, ever harvested in South Asia. Countries from Pakistan to India to Turkey imported 80,000 tons and more of seeds. By the time of Ehrlich’s book release in 1968, William Gaud of the US Agency for International Development was calling Borlaug’s work a “Green Revolution”. Massive crop yields substituted famine and starvation with a host of new problems. There were labor shortages to harvest crops, and insufficient numbers of bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor. Jute bags were needed, along with trucks, rail cars, and grain storage facilities. Some local governments even closed school buildings, to use them for grain storage.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, for his contributions to the world food supply. The man’s name is nearly synonymous with the Green Revolution.

bios-newAccording to former Director General of the International Water Management Institute David Seckler, “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa.”  The Rockefeller and Ford foundations withdrew funding, along with the World Bank.

Well fed environmentalist types congratulated themselves on their “success”, as the Ethiopian famine of 1984-’85 destroyed over a million lives.  Millions more were left destitute, on the brink of starvation.

Borlaug became involved in 1984, at the invitation of Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation (now the Nippon Foundation).  Sasakawa wondered why methods used so successfully in Asia, were not being employed in Africa. Since that time, the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) has trained over 8 million farmers in SAA farming techniques.  Maize crops developed in African countries have tripled, along with increased yields of wheat, sorghum, cassava, and cowpeas.

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Norman Ernest Borlaug died of Lymphoma in 2009, at the age of 95. Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil paid tribute, saying “Borlaug’s life and achievement are testimony to the far-reaching contribution that one man’s towering intellect, persistence and scientific vision can make to human peace and progress”. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described Borlaug as “… a towering scientist whose work rivals that of the 20th century’s other great scientific benefactors of humankind”. American author and journalist Gregg Easterbrook wrote in 1997, “[The] form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.

The world population when Ehrlich released his book in 1968, was about 3.53 billion.  Today, that number stands at 7.6 billion and, when we hear about starvation, such events are almost exclusively man-made.  The American magician and entertainer Penn Jillette described Norman Borlaug as “The greatest human being who ever lived…and you’ve probably never heard of him.”  Let that be the answer to the self-satisfied and well-fed, environmentalist types.

 

“I now say that the world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.” – Norman Borlaug, 2000

 

March 3, 1634 Watering Hole

In early colonial America, tavern keepers would put out an “Ale Stick” or “Ale Stake”, a wooden pole with a bush of barley tied to the top, informing thirsty travelers that sustenance could be found, inside.  Sometimes a hoop of woven barley hanging outside, would tell you that you had arrived.

Despite seemingly inexhaustible supplies of pristine drinking water, colonists to the New World were first and foremost Englishmen, every one of whom understood that drinking water could make you deathly ill. The connection between sanitation and the boiling to make beer was ill understood, but everyone knew. Those who drank beer and ale didn’t get sick.  The brewhouse was an indispensable priority in every new settlement.

The earliest settlers to Jamestown, Virginia neglected the brewer’s art. Their first pleas for relief from England, included advertisements seeking “two brewers’ to join them.

When Pilgrims fetched up on the shores of Cape Cod and the later Plimoth colony in 1620, it was not in search of a beach vacation, but because of dwindling beer supplies.

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Today, much of the bay has been filled in and developed, forming the core of downtown Boston. This is the Shawmut Peninsula, as it looked during Cole’s time.

Little brother Benjamin Franklin describes his earliest experience working in his brother’s print shop, with frequent reference to fetching ale for the journeyman printers.

Beer and ale were dietary staples in the era, a source of nourishment as well as refreshment. Infants drank beer and it was especially recommended for nursing mothers. Many households added a small brewing room to the outside of the building, so that the heat and risk of fire associated with brewing and cooking could be kept outside of living quarters. To this day, the lower rooflines of these “brew rooms” can be found, jutting out from the sides of the oldest American homes.

In early colonial America, tavern keepers would put out an “Ale Stick” or “Ale Stake”, a wooden pole with a bush of barley tied to the top, informing thirsty travelers that sustenance could be found, inside.  Sometimes a hoop of woven barley hanging outside, would tell you that you had arrived.

Samuel Cole was an early settler in the Massachusetts Bay colony, arriving with the Winthrop fleet in 1630 and establishing himself on the Shawmut peninsula.  Four years later, he opened the first house of entertainment in Boston, calling his place “Cole’s Inn”, established March 3, 1634.

Taverns were common in England from as early as the 1200s, where women called “Ale Wives” would fetch beer, wine, mead and ale for the guests. Though lodgings were a common feature of the ale houses of the time, it would not be until the early 1700s that Colonial taverns commonly offered such amenities.

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Later taverns posted elaborate signs, carved from wood, stone, or even terra cotta, and hanged from wooden posts mounted to the building or to a nearby tree. Barley, the universal symbol for beer, remained a common feature of such signs, and continues in use on the labels of many brands sold to this day.

download (17)The signs of the time frequently included horses, indicating that lodgings and stables were available. Many such establishments came to be called after such signs, and names such as “Chestnut Mare” and “White Stallion” were common.

Today, a Google search of the term “Black Horse Tavern” yields some 1,090,000 hits.  Cheers.

“Filled with mingled cream and amber
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chambers of my brain –
Quaintest thoughts — queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away;
Who cares how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.” – Edgar Allen Poe

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.