January 24, 1935 It’s Beer Can Appreciation Day

Today as we gather to celebrate National Beer Can Appreciation Day, January 24, 2021, let us pause in solemn reverence to contemplate the meaning, of such a day as this. Sláinte.

The early brews of Egypt and Mesopotamia were transported in clay vessels called “amphorae”.

Wine was better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate leaving beer, to the barbarians. Even so, letters from cavalry commanders of the Roman Britain period, c. 97-103 AD, include requests for more “cerevisia“ for the legions.

Wooden barrels replaced the clay of antiquity in the early centuries AD made by skilled artisans, called “coopers”.

Glass came into use in the early 1700s, the same thick, black glass used for wine and hard liquor. Twist-offs were a thing of the distant future in those days and bottles were sealed, with corks or caps.

The screw cap came into being in 1870 thanks to English inventor Henry Barrett, but there were problems. Glass was heavy to transport over long distances, and easily damaged. Inspecting for cracks and chips and cleaning for re-use was both time consuming, and expensive. There had to be a better way.

Breweries toyed with the idea of canning beer since the early 1900s, but not without challenges. A can must survive pasteurization while containing pressures up to 80psi and still deliver a product, that was fresh and tasty. The metallic afterbite of early attempts was enough to repel even the most devoted of beer drinkers.

Prohibition put an end to such efforts, but not for long. Pabst and Anheuser-Busch both bet on an end to Prohibition by the late 1920s and asked the American Can Company, to help figure it out.

The answer was a polymer coating called Vinylite, a material familiar to anyone who’s ever handled a vinyl record. Early tests by Pabst proved favorable but major breweries were reluctant to commit, without a real-world test.

Like most smaller breweries, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company of Newark New Jersey was badly hurt, by Prohibition. When American Can offered not only to install a canning line but to pay for a test, it was an easy decision.

In June 1934, two cans each were delivered to 1,000 homes in Richmond Virginia. 91 percent gave the beer can, a “thumbs up”. 85% said it tasted more like draft, than bottled beer

On this day in 1935, Krueger went on sale all over the city. The beer can was born.

These weren’t the paper-thin cans we think of today. They were thick, heavy flat tops requiring a ‘church key’ to open, the can itself weighing in an at a ¼-pound apiece.

Krueger got their canning line paid for, but other brewers were still tooled up for bottles. New production lines were expensive. The answer came in the form of a “cone top”. With no need to upgrade equipment, the style appealed to smaller brewers. J. Heileman was the first to roll out a cone top in 1935 followed by Schlitz, the first national brewer to do so. The cone style remained popular until 1960 when the big nationals drove many of the regional guys, out of business. The cone top faded from use.

A beer can revolution came about in 1963 in the form of a pull tab or “pop top”, easy opening can. The Pittsburg Brewing Company was the first to use the pull tab on its flagship Iron City brand. Schlitz was the first of the nationals. By 1965, 75% of all beverage cans produced came with pop tops

These things were pure, unmitigated evil. Pop tops by the millions began to appear on beaches, lakes and parks, each one a self-contained, locked and loaded anti-personnel weapon lying in wait for the next bare foot. Pets and wild animals alike limped away with mangled feet or died after ingesting the things. There’s barely a child or teenager alive in the 1960’s, who doesn’t have a horror story about stepping on a pop top.

I blew out my flip flop
Stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home”.
Jimmy Buffet

The answer came in 1975 in the form of “Stay Tabs”. First introduced by the Falls City Brewing Company of Louisville, Kentucky, stay tabs have changed almost not at all since that time and remain the state-of-the-art for nearly all carbonated beverages sold, to this day.

So it is we celebrate “National Beer Can Appreciation Day” this January 24, 2021. May it be a day filled with good health and hearty celebration. Sláinte.

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

December 11, 1970 A Green Revolution

“The green revolution has an entirely different meaning to most people in the affluent nations of the privileged world than to those in the developing nations of the forgotten world.” – Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution


King Leopold II. Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters. The ten worst dictators of the last century-and-a-half account for the loss of nearly 150 million lives. Most of us remember their names. Most of them.

But who remembers the name of the man who Saved the lives of SEVEN times the number, of those destroyed by this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

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We live in a time and place where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can report “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.” American economic historian and scientist Robert Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote: “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.”

For the modern mind, it’s difficult to embrace the notion of “food insecurity”.  We’re 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.

Nels Olson Borlaug once told his grandson Norman, “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.” An Iowa farm kid educated during the Great Depression, that same young man periodically put his studies on hold, in order to earn money.

He was Norman Ernest Borlaug. As a Civilian Conservation Corps leader working with unemployed people on CCC projects, many of his co-workers faced persistent and real, hunger. He later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”.

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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 which 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.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Borlaug attempted to enlist. His application was rejected. Uncle Sam had other plans for Norman Borlaug. He was put to work in a lab, doing research for the United States armed forces.

Between 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 where he headed a new program focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology.

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“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 back-crossing 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 220-pounds of seed from four of the most promising strains.

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The 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.

American 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.” He went on: “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.”

The man 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 Ehrlich’s book released in 1968, massive crop yields had substituted famine and starvation, with a host of new problems. Like labor shortages at harvest and insufficient quantities of bullock carts, to haul it all to the threshing floor. Jute bags were needed along with trucks, rail cars and grain storage facilities. Local governments even closed school buildings, to use them for grain storage.

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In three years, the world increase in cereal-grain production was nothing short of spectacular. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Director William Gaud called it, a “Green Revolution”.   Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1970, protesting that he himself was but “one member of a vast team made up of many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers – mostly small and humble…”

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Norman Borlaug works with Chinese agricultural leaders, 1974

As a newly crowned Nobel Laureate, Borlaug said in a December 11 lecture before the Rockefeller foundation: “[T]he first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”

With mass starvation or widespread deforestation being the only historic alternatives, the “Borlaug Hypothesis” introduced a third option, that of increasing yields on existing farmland.  The work however, was not without critics. Environmentalists criticized what they saw as large-scale monoculture, in nations previously reliant on subsistence farming. Critics railed against “agribusiness” and the building of roads through what had once been wilderness.

David Seckler, Director General of the International Water Management Institute said “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.”

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Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1970

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations withdrew funding, along with the World Bank. Warm and well fed environmentalist-types congratulated themselves on “success”, as the Ethiopian famine of 1983-’85 killed over 400,000. Millions more were left destitute, on the brink of starvation.

Borlaug shot back, “[S]ome of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Borlaug became involved in Africa at the invitation of Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, who 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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When Ehrlich released his book in 1968, the world population stood at 3.53 billion. Today, that number is more like 7.8 billion and, when we hear about starvation, such disasters are almost exclusively, man-made. The American magician and entertainer Penn Jillette once 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 man’s smug and well-fed critics.

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December 3, 1586 A Food Fit for Peasants, and Livestock

Among 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.

In time of plenty, it is an act of conscious will to imagine the process of starvation. Not the hunger of the mind nor even the body but that sustained state of deprivation which brings with it, the slow and agonizing end of life.

The first phase. The body turns inward converting glycogen stored in the liver, into fuel. Glucose. The process lasts only a few hours and then comes the breakdown of fats, and proteins.

The second phase can last for weeks as the liver metabolizes fatty acids into ketone bodies, used for energy. Proteins not essential for survival, are consumed.

These first two phases take place, even during moderate periods of dieting and fasting. The third phase begins only after prolonged periods of starvation. The body’s fat reserves are now depleted. Muscle tissue is consumed, for fuel. Cell function degenerates as the sufferer becomes withdrawn, listless, increasingly vulnerable to disease and infection. Some experience distended liver and massive edema seen particularly in children…the swollen belly, the cruel and superficial illusion that such youngsters are in fact, well fed. Few die directly from starvation but rather collapse of organ function or cardiac arrhythmia brought about by severe imbalance. Or opportunistic infection, afflicting a body no longer able to defend itself.

The process is over in as little as three weeks or as long as seventy days.

“Marasmus, a form of protein-energy malnutrition occurring chiefly among very young children in developing countries, particularly under famine conditions, in which a mother’s milk supply is greatly reduced. Marasmus results from the inadequate intake of both protein and calories; persons with a similar type of protein-energy malnutrition, kwashiorkor, do not obtain enough protein but still consume a moderate number of calories”. H/T Britannica

Massive hunger events are as old as recorded history, when our early ancestors first abandoned hunter-gatherer lifestyles to build agricultural settlements. Scientists believe the 100-year drought beginning in 2200BC may well have collapsed the old order from Egypt to the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley and the Indian sub-continent. Evidence of an intense and sustained period of aridity may be found from Andean glacier ice to Italian cave flowstone to the Kilimanjaro ice sheet.

The final collapse of the Roman Empire in Italy brought about by the sack of Rome in 476, led to a sustained period of plague and famine. The population of Rome itself fell by some 90 percent.

The next 800 years saw no fewer than 40 worldwide starvation events. The Great Famine of 1315-’17 killed 7.5 million in Europe alone, at a time when worldwide population is estimated, at 450 million.

Enter, the lowly spud.

The Inca of Peru appear 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 tract. 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 arriving in Peru in 1532 eventually brought potatoes home to Spain.  The first written mention of the tuber comes from a delivery receipt dated November 28, 1567, between the Grand Canaries and Antwerp.

The English expedition destined to 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 who returned to the British Isles this day in 1586, with Columbian potatoes.

Among 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, learning in captivity to appreciate the gustatorial delights of the potato.  Primarily used as hog feed in his native country, 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 potatoes 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 King Louis XVI himself, was wearing the purple potato flower in his lapel.  Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair.

Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589.  The crop occupied one third of arable land in Ireland within two generations, due 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, tragically based on but a single strain, collapsed into a black, stinking ooze.  The seven years’ “an Gorta Mór”, “the Great Hunger”, killed over a million Irish and reduced the population by 20-25% through death and emigration. 

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.

Dublin Memorial remembers the Irish potato famine of 1845

Until Nazis tore the thing down, there was a statue of Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, Germany, giving him credit for introducing the potato. The explorer’s 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”.

Not until the “Green Revolution” of Norman Borlaug, could cereal grains even compete. 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.

Scientists have created genetically modified potatoes to ward off pests.  The “New Leaf”, approved in 1995, incorporated a bacterial gene rendering the plant resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, an “international superpest” so voracious that some give the critter credit for creating the modern pesticide industry. 

Other varieties were genetically modified to resist phytophthora infestans, the cause of 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.  Approved for human consumption in 2015, the Innate might actually be the first genetically modified variety to succeed in the marketplace. McDonald’s, possibly the largest potato user on the planet, announced that “McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.”

In October 2018, the “Non-GMO Project” classified the J.R. Simplot product as “High-Risk”. You can never underestimate the power of hysterical people in large groups.

Fun fact: Some of the “asteroids” filmed in Star Wars Episode V The Empire Strikes Back were, in fact, potatoes.

November 16, 1959 Pepsi’s Navy

Coca Cola’s 1985 introduction of “New Coke” has been described as the “marketing blunder of the ages” but, what really turned business rivalry to blood feud, was when Pepsi bought it’s own navy.

Coca-Cola was first introduced in 1886. Pepsi appeared seven years later, in 1893. The most famous rivalry in the soft drink business really heated up in the 1930s, when Pepsi offered a 12-oz. bottle for the same 5¢ as Coca Cola’s six ounces.

The Coca Cola Company’s flagship brand had a 60% share by the end of WWII, but that declined to less than 24% by the early 80s. Most of the difference was lost to Pepsi and their “Pepsi challenge” blind taste test promotions, of the late 1970s.

Coca Cola’s 1985 introduction of “New Coke” has been described as the “marketing blunder of the ages” but, what really turned business rivalry to blood feud, was when Pepsi bought it’s own navy.

Alright, it didn’t happen quite that way but, still. The company did have its own navy. Not a little one, either. In 1990, Pepsi owned the 6th largest navy, in the world.

Permit me to rewind, just a bit. The “Cold War” experienced a period of thaw in 1959. Chairman of the Council of Ministers Nikita Kruschev came to visit President Eisenhower in the White house, and the two agreed on a bit of cultural exchange. A display of each civilization for the benefit of the other’s citizens.

So it was the American National Exhibition came to Moscow in the summer of 1959 followed by a Soviet display, in New York.

An argument broke out between Vice President Richard Nixon and Leader Kruschev, over the benefits of Capitalism vs Communism. A heated debate really, it was July, and the Soviet leader looked thirsty.

Pepsi Cola VP Donald McIntosh Kendall thought it was a swell idea, to offer the man a Pepsi. That’s Kendall, pouring, below. That drink was a propaganda coup, the image itself a victory, so much so that on this day in 1959…nothing happened. The “Sound of Music” opened on Broadway. I don’t know, maybe they were all distracted, but one thing is certain. Nikita Kruschev loved him a Pepsi

The exhibition opened the way to the Soviet market for several American companies including IBM, Dixie-cup, Disney and…you got it…Pepsi. That image was a coup for Kendall as well. Within a few years he was CEO and, in 1972 Pepsi negotiated an exclusive marketing agreement, for the Soviet consumer. Coke was out. Pepsi was in. It was the first popular consumer product to make its way to the soviet consumer, a market which would come to be worth $3 Billion, with a capital “B”.

There was a problem however, in the form of payment. The Ruble was no good on the international currency exchange. There had to be a more…umm…liquid form of transfer.

Vodka.

The Russians had tons of the stuff, and so it was agreed. Pepsi would be transferred in exchange for…Vodka.

The system worked so nicely that “Stoli’s” become a household word but, by the late 80s, it was time to renegotiate. Pepsi had 20 bottling plants on Soviet soil. Vodka wasn’t about to pay for all that. Did I mention the USSR was a $3 Billion market for sugary, bubbly water?

It happened by this time, the Soviet Union was looking to get rid of surplus equipment from the Cold War, including a Destroyer, a Cruiser, 17 Submarines and a Frigate.

So it was, at least for a time, Pepsi became owner of the 6th largest navy, on the planet.

Lucky for Coke, the Cola Wars were destined to remain cold. Ice cold. The Pepsi Fleet was sold to a Swedish outfit, for $3 Billion worth of scrap. Donald Kendall left this world on September 19 of this year but we must give him the last word, in this story.

According to his New York Times obituary Kendall once quipped to Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to President George H. W. Bush: “We’re disarming the Soviet Union faster than you are”.

March 9, 1914 Chef Boy-Ar-Dee

From catering the wedding reception of a President to feeding millions of GIs in World War 2, the most familiar face on your supermarket shelf was no figment of an ad-exec’s imagination.

He’s one of the most familiar faces on the supermarket shelf, right up there with Aunt Jemima and the Pillsbury Doughboy. That smiling, grandfatherly face with the red bandana and the tall chef’s hat. Like those other two a fictional character, the product of some brand development meeting, produced by the art department and focus-grouped by panels of consumers. As the story goes, the face behind the spaghetti and meatballs is the amalgamation of three names, the men behind the company:  Boyd, Art and Dennis.

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Only in this case, Boyd, Art & Dennis are the fictional characters.  The face you remember pulling out from your old Dukes of Hazard lunchbox was quite real, I assure you. I’ve been best buddies with one of his relatives, for nigh on fifty years.

Some 25 million legal immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, among them Ettore Boiardi, Born in Piacenza, Italy, in 1897.  By age 11, Boiardi was assistant chef at “La Croce Bianca“.  The boy moved to Paris and then to London, honing his restaurant skills along the way.  He arrived at Ellis Island on this day in 1914, age 16 and following his brothers Mario and Paolo to the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel in New York.

ChefboyardeepicThe Plaza Hotel menu was heavy on the French in those days and Ettore began to add some Italian. A little pasta, a nice tomato sauce.  Before long, he was promoted to head chef.

According to his New York Times obituary, Boiardi was so talented that President Woodrow Wilson chose the man to cater the reception for his marriage to his second wife Edith, in 1915.

After World War 1, Boiardi supervised a homecoming dinner at the White House, for 2,000 returning soldiers.

Boiardi’s spaghetti sauce was famous by this time.  Ettore and his wife Helen opened a restaurant in Cleveland in 1926, Il Giardino d’Italia (The Garden of Italy), patrons often leaving with recipes for his sauces and samples, packed in cleaned milk bottles. It wasn’t long from there before the two were giving cooking classes and selling sauce, in milk jugs.

c0fe58bf08775b6d7bc79e7c0940259c-mainMaurice and Eva Weiner were patrons of the restaurant, and owners of a self-service grocery store chain. The couple helped develop large-scale canning operations. Before long Ettore and Mario bought farm acreage in Milton Pennsylvania, to raise tomatoes. In 1928, they changed the name on the label, making it easier for a tongue-tied non-Italian consumer, to pronounce.  Calling himself “Hector” for the same reason, Ettore said “Everyone is proud of his own family name, but sacrifices are necessary for progress.”

Meanwhile back in New York, Paolo (now calling himself “Paul”), made the acquaintance of one John Hartford, President of A&P Supermarkets. The Chef Boy-Ar-Dee company, was on the way.

he-was-awarded-the-gold-star-for-his-civilian-service-during-world-war-two-1502824369During the Great Depression, Hector would tout the benefits of pasta, praising the stuff as an affordable, hot and nutritious meal for the whole family.

World War II saw canning operations ramped up to 24/7 with the farm producing 20,000 tons of tomatoes at peak production and adding its own mushrooms, to the annual crop. The company employed 5,000 people producing a quarter-million cans, a day.  Troops overseas couldn’t get enough of the stuff.  For his contribution to the war effort, Hector Boiardi was honored with the Gold Star for Excellence, by the War Department.

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Such rapid growth is never without problems, particularly for a family business. Hector sold the company to American Home Foods in 1946, for the reported sum of $5.96 million.

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Boiardi family meeting, hat tip FoxNews.com

Boiardi stayed on as company spokesman and consultant until 1978.  Forty years later, Advertising Age executive Barbara Lippert named the 1966 Young & Rubicam “Hooray for Beefaroni” ad patterned after the Running of the Bulls, as the the inspiration for Prince Spaghetti’s “Anthony” series and the famous “Hilltop” ad for Coca Cola.

One of the great “rags to riches” stories of our age, Hector Boiardi continued to develop new products until his death in 1987, amassing an estimated net worth of $60 million dollars.  He is survived by his wife of 64 years and the couple’s one son, Mario.  His face may be found smiling back from your grocery store shelf, to this day.

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December 16, 1884 Lake Bacon

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Left uncontrolled, water hyacinth quickly becomes a hazard to navigation

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.

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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”.

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.

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.

the-hippopotamus-is-considered-to-be-the-most-dangerous-animal-5981600.pngBe 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.

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 “.

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Frederick Russell Burnham

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“.

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Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne

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.

Over 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.

27232.jpgThat 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.

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April 7, 1933 A Good Time for a Beer

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.

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.

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“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

PilgrimsandbeerclipThe 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”.

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.

Khodynka Field

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.

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

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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.

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.

Beer_bootleggerFDR 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.

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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.

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 to this day as “National Beer Day”.

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

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December 23, 1884 Lake Bacon

The meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami

Only hours from now, families will gather from across the nation, 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?

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Water Hyacinth

On this day in 1884, the World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair was beginning its second week, 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.

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”, an 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.

Eichhornia_crassipes_field_at_Langkawi

During 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:  “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”.

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.

All well and good.  The problem is, these things are dangerous.

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

To search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to learn that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal, in Africa.

p-hippo-1_1467398cBe 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.  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 men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for the introduction of 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 Russell Burnham (left), Fritz Joubert Duquesne (right)

Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla 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, Duquesne 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.

Duquesne was 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“.

in-1910-President-Roosevelt-supported-a-bill-that-would-have-released-hippopotamuses-into-Louisiana-to-eat-an-invasive-plant-species-and-to-provide-delicious-hippo-bacon-to-hungry-AmericDuring 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 is 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.

Hippo Steak

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote, but never entirely went 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.

Over 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.

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

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’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when the roast hippopotamus, got there.

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.

 

 

December 11, 1970 The Man who saved a Billion People

It’s hard to get the modern head around the notion of “food insecurity”.  We’re 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.

All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters. The ten worst dictators of the last 1½ centuries account for the loss of nearly 150 million lives. Most of us remember their names. At least some of them. Who remembers the name of the man who Saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

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We live in a time and place where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can report “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.” American economic historian and scientist Robert Fogel, winner 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 the modern head around the notion of “food insecurity”.  We’re 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.

Nels Olson Borlaug once told his grandson Norman, “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.” An Iowa farm kid educated during the Great Depression, Norman Ernest Borlaug periodically put his studies on hold, in order to earn money. A Civilian Conservation Corps leader working with unemployed people on CCC projects, many of his co-workers faced persistent and real, hunger. Borlaug later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”.

norman-borlaug1Borlaug 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 which 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.

Between 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 where he headed a new program focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology.

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“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 back-crossing 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 220-pounds of seed from four of the most promising strains.

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The 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.

American 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 went on: “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.”

Ehrlich 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, massive crop yields had substituted famine and starvation, with a host of new problems. There were labor shortages at harvest, 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. Local governments even closed school buildings, to use them for grain storage.

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In three years, the world increase in cereal-grain production was nothing short of spectacular, dubbed a “Green Revolution”.   Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, protesting to be only “one member of a vast team made up of many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers – mostly small and humble…”

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Norman Borlaug works with Chinese agricultural leaders, 1974

With mass starvation or widespread deforestation being the only historic alternatives, the “Borlaug Hypothesis” introduced a third option, that of increasing yields on existing farmland.  The work however, was not without critics. Environmentalists criticized what they saw as large-scale monoculture, in nations previously reliant on subsistence farming. Critics railed against “agribusiness” and the building of roads through what had once been wilderness.

David Seckler, Director General of the International Water Management Institute said “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.”

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Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 11, 1970

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations withdrew funding, along with the World Bank. Well fed environmentalist-types congratulated themselves on “success”, as the Ethiopian famine of 1984-’85 destroyed over a million lives. Millions more were left destitute, on the brink of starvation.

Borlaug fired back, “[S]ome of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Borlaug became involved at the invitation of Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, who 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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The world population when Ehrlich released his book in 1968, was about 3.53 billion. Today, that number stands at 7.7 billion and, when we hear about starvation, such events are almost exclusively, man-made. The American magician and entertainer Penn Jillette once 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.

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“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

October 20, 1937 Albert’s Swarm

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes.

Between 1932 and 1943, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder published a series of eight novels, a fictionalized autobiography based on the childhood experiences of a 19th century pioneer and settler family. Third in the series is the best known, Little House on the Prairie, the subject for a television series running from 1974 to ’83.

In her fourth book, Wilder tells of the time when grasshoppers wiped out a much-anticipated and badly needed wheat crop, laying so many eggs that all hope was gone for the following year, as well.  On the Banks of Plum Creek, published  this day in 1937, told the story of “Pa” having to walk three-hundred miles east to find work on farms, which had escaped the plague of grasshoppers.

There are something like 11,000 species of grasshoppers in the world, the familiar, plant munching insects of our summer fields.  They are vegetarian creatures with polyphagous food habits, meaning they’ll eat just about anything, if the need arises.

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Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, photographed in 1870s, Minnesota

Usually a solitary creature, only a few species will become locusts, the “gregarious” phase of the insect’s life cycle characterized by swarming, migration, and accompanied by explosive growth in population.

The two years in Wilder’s story, 1874 – ’75, are among the worst swarms on record for the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus.  

M. Spretus finds its home in the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but outbreaks of the insect have caused farm damage as far away as Maine in the period 1743–’56, and in Vermont during the administration of President George Washington.

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition, vast herds of American bison stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. Historians estimate 30 to 60 million of the creatures, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring twelve-feet long. A minimum of sixty billion pounds of biomass, needing something to eat.

The western artist George Catlin estimated that, by 1841, some two to three million of the creatures had been slaughtered for their hides. Bison populations came under increasing pressure as natives acquired horses and guns, but the real slaughter began with the Indian wars and “hunting by rail”, when every dead buffalo was seen as a dead Indian.  By the late 1880s, only a few hundred individuals remained alive, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A mountain of bison skulls

With the bison gone and a new wave of vegetation, there arose a new and very different multitude, to feed on it.

During the 19th century, farming expanded westward into the grasshopper’s favored habitat, triggering massive outbreaks in their numbers.  Locust populations exploded to varying degrees in 1828, ’38, ’46, and ’55, affecting areas throughout the West and upper mid-west. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–’57 and again in the last year of the Civil War.  Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and ’74.

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Illustration of egg-laying females, from 1877

Population blooms of two years are typical, as eggs laid in year one tend not to thrive as well as their parents.  At its height, farmers reported finding up to 150 egg cases per square inch, each containing 100 eggs or more.

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states.  It was a rolling flood, the size of California and Maine, put together.

The numbers are so far outside of human experience, they are hard to get your head around. For a little perspective, a million seconds is about twelve days. A Billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. A Trillion seconds ago, the oldest known clay object was fired to ceramic in the earliest oven.  It was 29,000, B.C. ”

Albert’s Swarm” was the largest such assembly of organisms in recorded history, estimated at 12½ Trillion individuals.

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It was a biological wildfire, a living blizzard that blotted out the sun, 12½ trillion insects each the size of a child’s finger, and each driven to eat its own weight.  Every day.  All in, Albert’s Swarm is estimated to have weighed 27½ million tons.

As the continuous track of a bulldozer moves ever forward, the leading edge of the swarm would alight to rest and eat, only to pick up the rear, a few days later.  In this manner, the swarm would cover ten miles or so, in a few weeks.

One farmer reported that the locusts seemed “like a great white cloud, like a snowstorm, blocking out the sun like vapor“.  Even the sound was horrific, rising to a scream and rolling over the land like some evil tide, the whirring and rasping cacophony of billions of mandibles borne aloft to eat, almost literally, everything in sight. Native populations could and did, move.  For prairie settler and pioneer families, home was on the farm.

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes. Standing crops were the first to go, and then the root vegetables, potatoes, carrots and turnips, eaten out of the ground. Throw a blanket over your garden to protect even that little bit, and they would eat the blanket. Fence posts, saddles, nothing was off limits.  These creatures would eat the wool, right off of your sheep.  At its worst, the locust horde was known to eat the clothes off of people’s backs.

Trains were literally stopped in their tracks on uphill stretches of rail, unable to gain traction for the grease of millions of tiny bodies, ground beneath their wheels.

rocky-mountain-locust-1Farmers used gunpowder, fire and water, anything they could think of, to destroy what could only be seen as a plague of biblical proportion. They smeared them with “hopperdozers”, a plow-like device pulled behind horses, designed to knock jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, or even sucking them into vacuum cleaner-like contraptions.

Still, it was like trying to turn the tide, with a shot glass.  Missouri entomologist Charles Valentine Riley came up with a recipe to eat the damned things, seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. Some bought the recipe, but many felt they “would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures”.

In 1877, a Nebraska law required everyone between the ages of 16 and 60 to work at least two days eliminating locusts, or face a $10 fine. Missouri and other Great Plains states offered bounties: $1 a bushel for locusts gathered in March, 50¢ in April, 25¢ in May, and 10¢ in June.

map-from-the-locust-plagueAnd then the locust went away, and no one is entirely certain, why.  It is theorized that plowing, irrigation and harrowing destroyed up to 150 egg cases per square inch, in the years between swarms. Great Plains settlers, particularly those alongside the Mississippi river, appear to have disrupted the natural life cycle.  Winter crops, particularly wheat, enabled farmers to “beat them to the punch”, putting away stockpiles of food before the pestilence reached the swarming phase.

Today, the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct.  Several grasshopper species swarm as locusts on every continent in the world, save for North America and Antarctica.   The last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain Locust was seen in Canada, in 1902.

Feature image, top of page:  A child swings a broomstick at a 4-mile wide swarms of locusts, plaguing Argentina.  H/T Business Insider