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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

Month

November 2010

Berry Picking

I made a sour cream cranberry pie for Thanksgiving. And it got me thinking about berries…
I started picking blueberries before I ate them. I was a strange kid who loved vegetables far more than fruit. Blueberries were something my mom liked a lot, though, and I happened to enjoy picking them so it worked out well. And I was never tempted to even put one in my mouth. Unlike strawberries, where for every one that went into my box, two went into my mouth, the blueberries went straight from bush to box. Raspberries were a different thing altogether–not only did I hate eating them, I hated picking them, too. In part because my mom would make me get the all the low ones since I was closer to the ground. As an adult, the logic of that set-up makes perfect sense but at the time, it just seemed like she was being lazy. 
The blueberries back in Washington were so large and purpley-blue that you barely had to pick at all to get them to fall into your hand. Even the slightest graze of your fingers and a handful would fall right off. I started going picking with my then-best friend’s family in high school. We went to a farm in the shadow of Mt. Si in North Bend with the most magical name–Bybee-Nims. Who wouldn’t want to pick blueberries at Bybee-Nims? Even if you were like me and hated blueberries, you wanted to go, if for the view of the mountain alone. And so we would go and I would pick 20 to 40 pounds in about an hour and a half with little to no effort.
Now when I live in a place where the berries are few and far between (completely unlike the berry nirvana of the Northwest), I, of course, have learned to love–YEARN even–for blueberries. Figures, doesn’t it?
We do have cranberries, though. Lots and lots of cranberries, but I’m not sure you can ever pick-your-own cranberries from the bog. I’d sure like to try.
Wisconsin’s Cranberry Queen ca. 1947. Harvesting cranberries looks like
fun doesn’t it? Apparently a bikini is required. 

Creating Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is more than a literary work of the early 19th century–it also represents the scientific discoveries and enthusiasms of her time for electricity.

“I succeeded in discovering the cause of the generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation on life matter.” –Victor Frankenstein

In Frankenstein, electricity is seen as the secret of life, able to give life to the lifeless. Shelley merely reflected a belief that was becoming increasingly popular in American and European culture. In her novel, Victor Frankenstein alludes to lightning and to Galvanism as the basis for reanimating a lifeless cadaver. Luigi Galvani had popularized the idea of electricity as an innate force of life, what he called animal electricity. Galvani’s ideas had largely been supplanted in the scientific community by the time of Shelley, but the idea of an internal electrical fire and particularly reanimation remained strong in the public imagination.

Shelley herself mentioned discussing many of the electrical experiments going on in Europe and the United States with her husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. They, like the rest of the public, were especially intrigued with the idea of reanimating the dead. These discussions led Shelley to explore the moral and personal responsibilities of scientific advances in her own writing. She recognizes science as a powerful force but one capable of great harm if left uncontrolled. Victor Frankenstein uses science to create his monster yet it ultimately leads to his demise.

Interestingly, Shelley does not provide much description of the laboratory or the way in which Frankenstein is created. Only two sentences in the book mention lightning and Galvanism, though, spectacular electrical displays with shooting lightning bolts became the standard means for depicting the act of creation in movies.

Black Cherry Cheery

We all have weaknesses and mine is for black cherry soda (I also love black cherry ice cream so there must be something about that flavor). Even after I’ve given up most other sodas, I’ll still happily crack a bottle of black cherry* whenever the opportunity arises. I have standards, though; it has to be in a glass bottle, preferably from a regional manufacturer. Even chemically-flavored water has a taste of place, doesn’t it? Even if that taste of place is just the tastes of the people in that place.



Years ago, my dad and I created a ratings system for these sodas. It wasn’t confined to black cherry–we’d also buy bottles of Nehi Peach, Moxie, KaPow!, and others. But if black cherry was available and we hadn’t tried that particular variety before, that was the first choice. The empty bottles lined the shelves in the laundry room like trophies. The tops of the cabinets were lined with old beer cans, mementos of my dad’s previous tasting adventures. A few still had beer in them for reasons that were always unclear to me. Beer doesn’t get better with age, Dad. Especially if that beer is from the late 1960s as many of them were.

The ratings were taped to the inside of the pantry door. It was a check, check minus, or plus system. Some got a double plus. None were terrible, but some were definitely superior. One of the best was actually not in a bottle at all but on tap at The Pyramid Ale House in Seattle. Fresh, rich, and delicious, it almost makes me wish I still lived there. 
One year, my dad bought the Jones Soda Thanksgiving pack. Filled with sodas tasting of green beans, mashed potatoes, and turkey gravy, it was disgusting and fascinating all at once. Turkey soda tasted just as horrible as you imagine (“meat,” even artificial meat flavor, doesn’t quite refresh like other flavors), though, the corn flavor was oddly delicious. 

The ratings system is still on, even though I’ve moved thousands of miles away. I’ve also branched out to other things, keeping lists of beers, whiskeys, bourbons, and tequilas with my husband. We don’t keep the empty bottles and cans like my dad, but the legacy of lists and tastings lives on.


* Black cherry is an actual fruit, even if it is most commonly seen in artificial products. It’s native to North America and is also known as the wild cherry or wild rum cherry. Straight off the tree, the fruit is often inedible and bitter, which is why it most commonly appears in a highly sugared form.

Recharging my batteries

Why do we say we are “recharging our batteries” when we take a break or do something for ourselves? Or that we “short-circuited” if we can’t remember something?

It turns out that these phrases are directly tied to our enthusiasm for electricity in the 19th century. As I’ve written elsewhere, many scientists, doctors, and the general public came to believe that we all had a set amount of electricity in our bodies that made everything run–called our “vital fluid.” Modern urban living tended to deplete this energy source according to some leading doctors and scientists, our “internal battery” as the analogy went, and, therefore, we needed a “recharge” from a jolt of electricity. Our bodies were essentially electrical machines that could short-circuit and burn out just like any other machine.

Public enthusiasm for electricity by the late 19th was so great that many came to believe that electricity could fix anything! And waiting in the wings to take advantage of that deep desire were any number of doctors and entrepreneurs promising electrotherapy treatments for every dysfunction or ill-feeling you could imagine. Few in the general public completely understood electricity so they relied on manufacturers of electrical devices to educate them. In a world changing so fast with new inventions and technology, it was hard for anyone to know what was possible and probable. Advertisements for electrical devices made boisterous cure-all promises, and people richly rewarded those manufacturers for giving them what they wanted.

Books, entertainment, and even food of the late 19th century showed that the image of the “electric body” wasn’t just a metaphor–people willingly imbibed electricity directly in an attempt to receive all of its benefits. One scientist even compared its effects to that of the sun on the leaves of a plant.

In Europe, researchers studied electricity’s effect on school children. They outfitted a classroom with a high-frequency electrical current that ran for six months. At the end of the experiment, the researchers found that the children had grown an average of 20mm more than those not exposed to the continuous current. Their teachers also reported that they had grown smarter during the experiment due to the “quickening” of their faculties by electrical stimulation.

Popular culture teemed with electrical fads and follies, providing both tangible and intangible signs that linked electricity, and especially the electrified human body, with ideas of progress.

While electricity remains part of the treatment regiment for some diseases today, the idea of a vital fluid made of electricity that needs recharging has since passed out of popular and scientific medical theories. But its mark on our language remains.

Not Bitter on Bitters

Are they too cheap to get a label maker that makes the right-sized labels?

What are bitters? And why is the label for the one I see most often in bars, Angostura, too big for the bottle?

Bitters are a mysterious concoction of herbs and spices used in many cocktails, a mystery far more interesting and intriguing than the Colonel’s blend of seven spices. Sugar and gentian are the only two acknowledged ingredients in Angostura Bitters. The secret recipe was developed in 1824 by Dr. J G B Siegert, a Surgeon General in Simon Bolivar’s Venezuelan army.

Maduro, my favorite bar in Madison has a line of different bottles of bitters, including one with blood oranges and another with peaches. We’ve sometimes ordered one of the specialty cocktails that called for bitters just so we could try one of these unique flavored bitters–all of which also had mysterious origins and ingredients, too. The bottles also mentioned using bitters on food. Food?

Of course, I had to try it.

Despite subscribing to every food magazine and newsletter available, I had never seen a recipe calling for bitters. Angostura’s website has a whole section of recipes, including a pumpkin soup. Being inundated with squash as we are in the fall and winter, soup seemed like the perfect choice.  So I boiled and pureed and then added a few dashes of bitters to the finished soup. To be honest, I’m not sure I could exactly taste the bitters. There was a slight herbal flavor to the soup that may have come from the bitters, but it may also have come from my imagination. I’m highly suggestible. I like the idea of using bitters, though. Besides, it makes everything much more mysterious when you can say it calls for a secret ingredient.


I still don’t know about that label, though.

Anglophilia

There’s just something about the United Kingdom that I can’t get enough of. I’m not sure when it began. In sixth grade, I did my country report on England. I’m not sure any other country was even a contender. I spent months making poster and after poster, until my English homage covered the entire front of the classroom as well as the fronts of the desks where I had carefully taped the 3-D map and word game that asked you to guess the American equivalent to the Britishism (i.e. lorry, boot, loo).

In college, I claimed to be a political science major for a month while I filled out the application to study British politics in London for a month. As soon as we got back, I dropped the double major but not my fascination with that part of the world. My first trip with my now-husband was to England and Wales. An accident? I think not. And where did we go for our honeymoon? That’s right. Ireland (yes, not part of the UK now but still in that magic realm of those isles), Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

Where does this anglophilia come from?

It turns out that anglophilia has a long history in the United States–it’s not, in fact, merely confined to bedrooms in Redmond, Washington. Anglophilia is about admiring England, its people and culture. The Federalists (Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, kind of), one of the first pseudo political parties in our nascent nation, were generally anglophiles, while their rivals, the Democratic Republicans (James Madison and Thomas Jefferson), admired the French. Even as we threw off English authority, England itself retained some symbolic value and a compelling object of attention throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.

Affinity with another nation allows people to feel some release from the burdens of their own nationality. Personally, whenever I feel fed up with American politics, I only need to pull up the BBC or the Guardian on my computer to happily immerse myself in David Cameron’s latest idea. This England in my mind and that of other anglophiles isn’t necessarily a true image of the country, however. Our anxieties and wishes are often imposed on our image of England. Anglophilia owes much of its energy to a backward belief in the aura of the British. The Englishness that Americans love may not exist at all.

The United Kingdom played an integral part in the United States’ history as well as the way we defined ourselves after breaking free. Benedict Arnold once said that “it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love.” Even nations we didn’t want to be a part of anymore yet can’t seem to completely pull ourselves away.

Just Humor Me

The idea of staying in good humor or humoring those around us has an ancient lineage. It actually traces back to Greece and the humoral theory of medicine.

“To begin at the beginning: the elements from which the world is made are air, fire, water, and earth; the seasons from which the year is composed are spring, summer, winter and autumn; the humours from which animals and humans are composed are yellow bile, blood, phlegm, and black bile.” –Galen

For centuries, the idea that an excess of phlegm or of yellow bile could cause illness was an accepted medical diagnosis. The four humours–yellow and black bile, phlegm, and blood–circulated throughout the body and an in balance in one or more were believed to be the cause of illness. The theory began in the 5th century BCE with work attributed to Greek physician Hippocrates (though it was his son-in-law and disciple Polybus who wrote the first treatise that clearly explained the whole idea of the humours) and continued with Roman doctor Galen, who adopted the theory in the 2nd century CE. For the next two thousand years (give or take some disruptions and such like the sacking of Rome), humoral theory explained most things about a person’s character, medical history, taste, appearance, and behavior.

Why? What was so compelling about this theory?

Well, for one, it seemed to unify passions and cognition, physiology and psychology, and the individual and his/her environment. Various parts of the body and the environment caused disease and stirred various emotions and passions. The humours also made sense to many cultures of people who based their earliest stories of creation on four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. Each of the four humours was tied to one of these elements so it seemed a natural extension of what people already knew about the world. Our human need to understand what we are made of, where we came from, and how we work often causes us to resort to structures and traditions that match our intuitions. The theory offered a potent image of substances, particles, or currents traveling through the body from the limbs to the organs to the brain and heart and back. It seemed to explain how the sight of an attractive person could trigger desire, induce a rush of blood in the veins, and increase the heartbeat.

The fall of Rome wasn’t the end of the humoral theory, though. It was more of a shift–to the east to Islam where the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was saved and expanded upon, and to the abbeys were monks preserved ancient texts. (sidenote: In researching my book on apples, I discovered how much of ancient knowledge was preserved in the Islamic and Christian monastic traditions on apple orcharding and fruit growing in general. So it wasn’t too surprising to find that medical knowledge, too, lived on in these same places.)

And so the theory lived on and on, taking on various forms to fit the times but always coming back to the idea of balance and imbalance in the body as the source of illness. The theory only really died with the discovery of the existence of germs in the late 19th century. Not everyone bough the germ theory right away, however, so books based on humoral theory continued into the early 20th century.

Humours now remain mostly familiar in our expressions about keeping balanced and experiencing something with ill-humor. In French, the word for mood is humeur. Many Asian medical traditions are also humoral, based on the idea of energy flows, mind-body connections, and balances between hot and cold, moist and dry. So even if the theory is no longer used to describe disease (at least in the West), the idea of humours still serve as useful and suggestive images in our culture.

A Chaos of People

Collective nouns have got to be one of the strangest and most interesting aspects of English. All of the words mean “group” and yet are specific to the particular thing you are grouping.  Examples include a crash of rhinos, an exultation of larks, a knot of toads, and a pride of lions. 

After staying at a bed and breakfast with a poster listing many of these animal nouns on dining room wall, my husband and I started to come up with ones for different groups of people. And because I like food so much, many of mine were food related. 
Here’s some of what we came up with:
A draught of Germans.
A kebab of Turks.
A sauna of Finns.
A longboat of Norwegians.
A politeness of Canadians. (I love this one)
A pierogi of Poles. 
A fiesta of Mexicans. 
A crumpet of Brits.
A bento box of Japanese.
A kimchi of Koreans. 

Who’s a Quack?


What makes someone a quack? Is he or she actually doing something nefarious or just doing something you don’t agree with?
When I first started reading medical history, I (foolishly) thought the line between a quack and a legitimate doctor were easily drawn. A quack is selling ridiculous medicines claiming to cure everything and bilking gullible people out of money, right? The real story isn’t nearly so simple.
Quack or man with a different idea?

Before the 20th century, medical knowledge was very limited. Those proclaiming themselves legitimate doctors rarely knew anything more than those hawking patent medicines and traveling from town to town. Many doctors engaged in what was thought of as “quackish” behavior, including advertising and putting their name on proprietary remedies. Some quacks even trained at celebrated medical schools or had medical licenses. There really was little scientific evidence separating the two, so calling someone a “quack” became an easy way of targeting those you didn’t agree with for one reason or another. So many people stood accused of quackery that the term lost any real meaning, though not its sting of opprobrium.  
Everyone felt okay excoriating quacks because all were sure they weren’t one. Most of the time, those calling out quacks were those in the medical establishment who belonged to some organization or institution or who had trained in Europe. But sometimes, so-called quacks called out other quacks. What makes someone a quack? Is he or she actually doing something nefarious or just doing something you don’t agree with?
When I first started reading medical history, I (foolishly) thought the line between a quack and a legitimate doctor were easily drawn. A quack is selling ridiculous medicines claiming to cure everything and bilking gullible people out of money, right? The real story isn’t nearly so simple.
Before the 20th century, medical knowledge was very limited. Those proclaiming themselves legitimate doctors rarely knew anything more than those hawking patent medicines and traveling from town to town. Many doctors engaged in what was thought of as “quackish” behavior, including advertising and putting their name on proprietary remedies. Some quacks even trained at celebrated medical schools or had medical licenses. There really was little scientific evidence separating the two, so calling someone a “quack” became an easy way of targeting those you didn’t agree with for one reason or another. So many people stood accused of quackery that the term lost any real meaning, though not its sting of opprobrium.  
Everyone felt okay excoriating quacks because all were sure they weren’t one. Most of the time, those calling out quacks were those in the medical establishment who belonged to some organization or institution or who had trained in Europe. But sometimes, so-called quacks called out other quacks.
Many that the medical establishment labeled as quacks simply disagreed with the medical therapies that had been practiced for centuries, including blood letting. And they had good reason to do so as many of these traditional practices had hurt and even killed people rather than helped them. 
As doctors began to organize into professional organizations in the mid-19th century, one of the motivating factors was to protect people from quacks. These organizations created sharp divisions between “insiders” and “outsiders.” But the ethical and moral grounds for this distinction weren’t nearly so clear, despite claims to the contrary. The medical marketplace was competitive and what these organizations did do was give some doctors a competitive advantage by their membership and illusory claims at standards, although many people found these organizations elitist and, obviously, exclusionary: but that was the point. 
So maybe the better way to think of quacks, doctors, and medical history more generally is to think of the development of the profession as one with many ways to prosperity. Medical men of all kinds were competing for custom, recognition, and financial reward in his own way, each straining to seize the high moral ground in a vicious arena. Some opted for the individualism of the entrepreneur and others opted for the safety and security of the establishment. None were better than the other with the scientific evidence available at the time. Surely, there were a few people who did know that they were peddling nothing more than alcohol and herbs in a jar and wanted to make as much money as possible, but it may not be as many as is commonly portrayed in the literature of the heroic doctor. 

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