December 16, 1884 River Horse

Short days from now, families across the nation will gather for the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in its tray, golden brown and delicious, the roast hippopotamus.

Short days from now, families across the nation will gather for the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in its tray, golden brown and delicious, the roast hippopotamus.

Wait…

What?

The story begins on December 16, 1884, the opening day for the World’s Fair, in New Orleans. Among the many wonders on display was the never-before seen, Eichornia crassipes, a gift of the Japanese delegation.  The Water Hyacinth.  Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, its yellow spots accentuating the petals of beautiful delicate purple and blue flowers, floating across tranquil ponds on thick, dark green leaves.

Eichhornia_crassipes
Eichhornia crassipes

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans, and remain viable for 30 years.  Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, the aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”.  Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species, while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small.  The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals, and costs a fortune to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

Kenya_Kisumu_Harbour_Hyacinths_1997ke09b21-768x493
You can hardly find the water, in Lake Victoria’s Kisumu Harbor, Kenya

In the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food, especially, meat.  The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage.  Americans were seriously discussing the idea, of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems.  “Lake Bacon”.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed the “American Hippo” bill, H.R. 23621, in 1910, with enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times.  One Agricultural official estimated that such a free-range hippo herd would produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine waxed rhapsodic about the idea:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

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With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today.  Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The problem is, these things are dangerous.

Major_Frederick_Russell_Burnham
Major Frederick Russell Burnham

The adult bull hippopotamus is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial.  Heaven help anyone caught between a cow and her young.  Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only a little slower than Sprinter Usain Bolt, “the fastest man who ever lived”.

Google the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa”.  You’ll be rewarded with the knowledge that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities, than any other large animal, in Africa.

Be that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

What could be better than taking care of two problems at once.  Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to Louisiana would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos.  The meat crisis would be solved, and America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Captain Fritz Duquesne
Captain Fritz Duquesne

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for the introduction African wildlife into the American food stream, some four years earlier.  A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”.  A “man totally without fear.”  One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.  He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts.  Frederick Burnham was the “most complete human being who ever lived “.

Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duqesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.  Destined to be a German spy and saboteur through two world wars, Frederick Burnham described his mortal adversary, thus:  “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

During the 2nd Boer war, the pair had sworn to kill each other.  In 1910, these two men became partners in a mission to bring hippos, to America’s dinner table.

Biologically, there seems little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast.  Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by one vote, but didn’t entirely go away.  Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

General_Collection_deadzoneOver time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what we’re already doing, as factory farms and confinement operations took the place of free ranges, and massive use of antibiotics replaced the idea of balanced biological systems.

We may or may not have “traded up”.  Today, we contend with ever more antibiotic-resistant strains of “Superbug”. Louisiana spends $2 million per year on herbicidal control of the water hyacinth. The effluent of factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

That golden future of Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination.  Who knows, it may be for the best.  I don’t know if any of us could see each other across the table.  Not with a roast hippopotamus.

December 3, 1586, Spuds

ICYMI – Today, potatoes are the 5th largest crop on the planet, following rice, wheat, maize and sugar cane.  Almost 5,000 varieties are preserved in the International Potato Center in Peru.

The expedition which would end in the Lost Colony of Roanoke began in 1585, financed by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by Sir Ralph Lane. On board was the Oxford trained mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Herriot, the man who would introduce the potato to England on this day, the following year.

The Inca of Peru seem to have been the first to cultivate potatoes, around 8,000BC.

Inca foodWild potatoes contain toxins to defend themselves against fungi and bacteria, toxins unaffected by the heat of cooking.  In the Andes, mountain people learned to imitate the wild guanaco and vicuña, licking clay before eating the poisonous plants. In this manner, toxins pass harmlessly through the digestive system. Mountain people dunk wild potatoes in “gravy” made of clay and water, accompanied with coarse salt. Eventually, growers developed less toxic tubers, though the poisonous varieties are still favored for their frost resistance.  Clay dust is sold in Peruvian and Bolivian markets, to this day.

Spanish Conquistadors who arrived in Peru in 1532 eventually brought potatoes home to Spain.  The first written mention of the potato comes from a delivery receipt dated November 28, 1567, between the Grand Canaries and Antwerp.

Among its other virtues, the potato provides more caloric energy per acre of cultivation than either maize or grain and, being below ground, is likely to survive calamities that would flatten other crops.  Taters quickly became staple foods in northern and eastern Europe, while in other areas remaining the food of peasants and livestock.

parmentier_louis
Louis XVI placing a potato blossom in his buttonhole, 1737

French army pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussians during the seven years war, learning to appreciate the gustatorial delights of the potato while in captivity.

Primarily used as hog feed in his native France, Parmentier was determined to bring respectability to the lowly tuber.  It must have been a tough sell, as many believed that potatoes caused leprosy.  The Paris Faculty of Medicine declared them edible in 1772, thanks largely to Parmentier’s efforts.  He would host dinners featuring multiple potato dishes, inviting such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.  Franklin was enormously popular among the French nobility.  Before long Louis XVI was wearing a purple potato flower in his lapel.  Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair.

Sir Walter Raleigh first introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589.  By mid-19th century, the crop occupied one third of arable land in Ireland. This was due entirely to landless laborers, renting tiny plots from landowners interested only in raising cattle or producing grain for market. An acre of potatoes and the milk of a single cow was enough to sustain a family.  Even poor families could grow enough surplus to feed a pig, which could then be sold for cash.

potato-late-blightCalamity struck Ireland in 1845, in the form of a blight so horrific that US military authorities once considered stockpiling the stuff as a biological weapon.  Seemingly overnight, Ireland’s staple food crop was reduced to a black, stinking ooze.

There followed the seven years’ “an Gorta Mór”, “the Great Hunger”, killing over a million Irish and reducing the population by 20-25% through death and emigration.  Throughout the Irish potato famine, the country continued to produce and export thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce, more than enough to feed the population.

Today, many see the effects of the absentee landlord system and the penal codes as a form of genocide.  At the time, already strained relations with England were broken, giving rise to Irish republicanism and leading to Irish independence in the following century.

Until Nazis tore it down, there was a statue of Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, Germany, giving him credit for introducing the potato. His right hand rested on the hilt of his sword, his left gripping a potato plant. The inscription read “Sir Francis Drake, disseminator of the potato in Europe in the Year of Our Lord 1586. Millions of people who cultivate the earth bless his immortal memory”.

Today, potatoes are the 5th largest crop on the planet, following rice, wheat, maize and sugar cane.  Almost 5,000 varieties are preserved in the International Potato Center in Peru.

In the Star Wars movie “The Empire Strikes Back”, there’s a chase sequence through an “asteroid” field in which some of the asteroids are, in fact, potatoes.

Scientists have created genetically modified potatoes to ward off pests.  The “New Leaf”, approved in 1995, incorporated a bacterial gene rendering it resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, an “international superpest” so voracious that some credit the creature for creating the modern pesticide industry.  Other varieties were genetically modified to resist phytophthora infestans, the cause the Irish potato famine.

Seeming to prefer insecticides and anti-fungal sprays, “food activists” decry such varieties as “Frankenfoods”.  Each time, the improved variety has been hounded out of business.

potato-infographic

In 2014, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co. introduced the “innate” potato.  Rather than “transgenic” gene splicing, the introduction of genome sequences from unrelated species, the innate variety uses a “silencing” technique on the tuber’s own genes, to resist the bruising and browning that results in 400 million pounds of waste and a cost to consumers of $90 million.

In October 2016, NBC news reported that “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved commercial planting of two types of potatoes that are genetically engineered to resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine. The potatoes next must clear a voluntary review process through the Food and Drug Administration as well as get the OK from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency“.

GMO HystericsThe Innate potato produces less acrylamide, a known carcinogen produced by normal potatoes in the high heat of fryers.

This might actually be the first genetically modified variety to succeed in the marketplace, but McDonald’s, possibly the largest potato user on the planet, has already announced that “McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.”

You can never underestimate the power of hysterical people, in large groups.

 

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June 30, 1917 Doughnut Lassies

A correspondent to the New York Times 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”.

The United States entered the ‘War to end all Wars’ in April, 1917. The first 14,000 Americans arrived ‘over there’ in June, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) formed 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.WW1

For a variety of reasons, WW1 was a war of movement in the East.  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 defy description. You must have smelled the trenches long before you could see them.  The collective funk of a million men and more, out in the open.  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.

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

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?”

Doughnut LassiesOften unseen in times of such calamity, are the humanitarian workers.  Those who tend to the physical and spiritual requirements, the countless small comforts, of those in need.

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, in December.

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’.Doughnut Lassies, 2.png

A 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.

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

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.

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

Before 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.  Volunteers with the Salvation Army and others made apple pies and all manner of other goodies, but the name that stuck, was “Doughnut Lassies”.

Doughnut Lassies, 1

A correspondent to the New York Times 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”.

June 3, 1909 History of the Potato Chip

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.

George-CrumAs 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 they didn’t have enough salt.   George Crum, back in the kitchen, doesn’t seem to have been a very nice guy, himself.  Crum thought he’d fix this guy, so he sliced some potatoes wafer-thin, 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 on them, Crum was astonished to learn that the guy loved them. He ordered more, and George Crum decided to add “Saratoga Chips” to the menu. The potato chip was born.

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.Saratoga chips

Lay was a lumberjack, a jewelry salesman, and a peanut salesman, before he went 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.

Herman LayLay 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, the year Frito-Lay merged with Pepsi-Cola to become PepsiCo, Lay’s was the #1 potato chip brand in every state in America.

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 call them “chips made from dried potatoes.” Procter & Gamble said no thanks, instead calling 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.”

The biggest threat that Frito-Lay would ever experience came from the Beer giant Anheuser-Busch, when they 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 Forbes, Americans spent $5.64 billion on potato chips in 2016, more than the GDP of any of the 42 smallest countries, on earth.

Potato Chip Sales Chart 2016

Tom Peters wrote about Frito-Lay in his 1982 book “In Search of Excellence”. They’ll spend $150 to make a $30 delivery if that’s what they need to do, because their customer is counting on them, and they pride themselves on a 99.5% on-time delivery record. It might not make economic sense as a standalone transaction, but the company has a 60% share of the potato chip market, a massive 72.4% in the tortilla and tostada chips segment, and the highest profit margins in the industry. All that in “undifferentiated commodity” categories, in which their closest competitor has 7%.

Frito-Lay practices over-the-top customer service, in contradistinction to what so many companies put us through these days, in our everyday lives. There is a business lesson there, for those who would learn it.

April 7, 1933 A Brief History of Beer

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

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 our cave-dwelling ancestors experienced their first beer, as the result of this process.

Alulu_Beer_Receipt
From Wikipedia: “Alulu beer receipt – This records a purchase of “best” beer from a brewer, c. 2050 BC from the Sumerian city of Umma in ancient Iraq”.

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.

Wine seemed better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate, when Tacitus maligned the bitter brew of Germanic barbarians.  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.

beer-ingredients
“Ancient cultures used an array of ingredients to make their alcoholic beverages, including emmer wheat, wild yeast, chamomile, thyme and oregano. (Landon Nordeman)” H/T Smithsonian magazine

The Pilgrims left the Netherlands city of Leiden in 1620, hoping for rich farmland and congenial climate in the New World.  Not the frozen, rocky soil of New England.  Lookouts spotted the wind-swept shores of Cape Cod on November 9, 1620, and may have kept going, had they had 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…”

Prior to the invention of the drum roaster in 1817, malt was typically dried over wood, charcoal, or straw fires, leaving a smoky quality that 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”.london-beer-flood

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, doggy-style.

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

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.

Prohibition PhotoPortable 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.

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

MoonshineGaining 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.

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 didn’t decrease 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.

Clydesdale, Pennsylvania Ave“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.

Beer toast18 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.

The 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 on April 7, 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.

timeline

December 3, 1586, Spuds

Now the fifth largest food crop on the planet, there was a time when taters were thought fit for no one but peasants and livestock.

The expedition that would end in the Lost Colony of Roanoke began in 1585, financed by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by Sir Ralph Lane.  On board was the Oxford trained mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Herriot, the man who introduced potatoes to England on this day the following year.

The Inca of Peru seem to have been the first to cultivate potatoes, around 8,000BC.

Wild potatoes contain toxins to defend themselves against fungi and bacteria, toxins unaffected by the heat of cooking.  In the Andes, mountain people learned to imitate the wild guanaco and vicuña, licking clay before eating the poisonous plants. In this manner, toxins pass harmlessly through the digestive system. Mountain people dunk wild potatoes in “gravy” made of clay and water, accompanied with coarse salt. Eventually, growers developed less toxic tubers, though the poisonous varieties are still favored for their frost resistance.  Clay dust is sold in Peruvian and Bolivian markets, to this day.

Spanish Conquistadors who arrived in Peru in 1532 eventually brought potatoes home to Spain.  The first written mention of the potato comes from a delivery receipt dated November 28, 1567, between the Grand Canaries and Antwerp.

Among its other virtues, the potato provides more caloric energy per acre of cultivation than either maize or grain and, being below ground, is likely to survive calamities that would flatten other crops.  Taters quickly became staple foods in northern and eastern Europe, while in other areas remaining the food of peasants and livestock.

French army pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussians during the seven years war, and learned to appreciate the gustatorial delights of the potato while in captivity.  Primarily used as hog feed in his native France, Parmentier was determined to bring respectability to the lowly tuber.  It must have been a tough sell, many believed that potatoes caused leprosy.  The Paris Faculty of Medicine declared them edible in 1772, thanks largely to Parmentier’s efforts.  He would host dinners featuring multiple potato dishes, inviting such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.  Franklin was enormously popular among the French nobility.  Before long Louis XVI was wearing a purple potato flower in his lapel.  Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair.

Sir Walter Raleigh first introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589.  By 1845 the crop occupied one third of arable land in Ireland. This was due entirely to landless laborers, renting tiny plots from landowners interested only in raising cattle or producing grain for market. An acre of potatoes and the milk of a single cow was enough to sustain a family.  Even poor families could grow enough surplus to feed a pig, which could then be sold for cash.

Calamity struck in 1845, in the form of a blight so horrific that US military authorities once considered stockpiling the stuff as a biological weapon.  Seemingly overnight, Ireland’s staple food crop was reduced to a black, stinking ooze.  There followed the seven years’ “an Gorta Mór”, “the Great Hunger”, killing over a million Irish and reducing the population by 20-25% through death and emigration.  Throughout the Irish potato famine, the country continued to produce and export thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce, more than enough to feed the population.  Today, many see the effects of the absentee landlord system and the penal codes as a form of genocide.  At the time, already strained relations with England were broken, giving rise to Irish republicanism and leading to Irish independence in the following century.

Until Nazis tore it down, there was a statue of Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, Germany, giving him credit for introducing the potato. His right hand rested on the hilt of his sword, his left gripping a potato plant. The inscription read “Sir Francis Drake, disseminator of the potato in Europe in the Year of Our Lord 1586. Millions of people who cultivate the earth bless his immortal memory”.

Today, potatoes are the 5th largest crop on the planet, following rice, wheat, maize and sugar cane.  Almost 5,000 varieties are preserved in the International Potato Center in Peru.

In the Star Wars movie “The Empire Strikes Back”, there’s a chase sequence through an “asteroid” field in which some of the asteroids are, in fact, potatoes.potato-asteroid

Scientists have created genetically modified potatoes to ward off pests.  The “New Leaf”, approved in 1995, incorporated a bacterial gene rendering it resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, an “international superpest” so voracious that some credit it for creating the modern pesticide industry.  Other varieties were genetically modified to resist phytophthora infestans, the cause the Irish potato famine.  Seeming to prefer insecticides and anti-fungal sprays, “food activists” decry such varieties as “Frankenfoods”.  Each time, the improved variety has been hounded out of business.
In 2014, the J.R. Simplot Company received approval for their “Innate” potato.  Rather than “transgenic” gene splicing, the introduction of genome sequences from unrelated species, the innate variety uses a “silencing” technique on the tuber’s own genes, to resist the bruising and browning that results in 400 million pounds of waste and a cost to consumers of $90 million.

The Innate potato produces less acrylamide, a known carcinogen produced by normal potatoes in the high heat of fryers.  This might actually be the first genetically modified variety to succeed in the marketplace, but McDonald’s, possibly the largest potato user on the planet, has already announced that “McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.”

You can never underestimate the power of hysterical people in large groups.