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The cochineal is an odd sort of bug. The female lives her life in a spot on a nopal cactus, or prickly pear. As soon as she hatches, she buries her mouth in the cactus pad and starts sucking. She will live, breed, and die on that spot, parasitically attached to the cactus beneath a bit of cottony fluff. The males have wings and lead more exciting lives, flying about in search of females. But the price for their mobility is a one-week lifespan—their mouthparts deteriorate, and they starve. The female, not much bigger than the head of a pin, lays her eggs on the cactus and continues to feed. Her offspring, if they are not blown by the wind to another nopal, crawl only as far as they must to find a place to dig in, and the cycle repeats. Keep reading . . .
Conquistador Girolamo Benzoni, one of the first to taste the spicy Aztec beverage called cacahuatl, wrote, “It seemed more a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity. I was in this country for more than a year and never wanted to taste it, and whenever I passed a settlement, some Indian would offer me a drink of it and would be amazed when I would not accept, going away laughing. But then, as there was a shortage of wine. . . .” Keep reading . . .
When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898 and prepared to invade Cuba, the army faced its worst nightmare. A war in the tropics promised massive epidemics of typhoid and yellow fever beyond anything Americans had experienced. These murderous diseases had ravaged the Western Hemisphere for centuries, killing more than a hundred thousand people in the United States alone. The new science of bacteriology offered some hope for a breakthrough, so the Surgeon General ordered Major Walter Reed, the army’s leading bacteriologist, to try to solve the mystery of how these scourges spread. Keep reading . . .
Lie #1: Most colonial Americans were illiterate, so shop signs had to have pictures on them. Shop signs and inn signs with pictures were no doubt helpful to people who couldn’t read, but mass illiteracy does not account for their use. Keep reading . . .
There are more myths about the origins of ice cream than flavors at Baskin-Robbins. Debunking them is among the jobs of the Historic Trades cooks at Colonial Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace kitchens. They concoct eighteenth-century versions of the frozen treat in front of guests every month.
Some sources say the ancient Romans invented ice cream, others that Marco Polo brought the discovery back to Italy from China. All agree that Catherine de Medici introduced the French to ice cream when she married the future King Henri II. Not to be outdone by Europeans, some Americans have said ice cream was first made by Martha Washington, or brought to this country from France by Thomas Jefferson, or invented by First Lady Dolley Madison at the White House. By dint of repetition, these entertaining tall tales go unchallenged—at least until they reach the Governor’s Palace kitchen. Read more . . .
Sometime after the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, they learned from the Pequot Indians of an edible berry called ibimi, or “bitter berry.” The Indians mixed these berries with dried venison and fat to make pemmican, a long-lasting, portable fast food for hunting trips or trade expeditions. Ibimi berries are red, and the juice worked nicely as a red dye. They served, too, for a poultice for healing wounds because, raw, they have an astringent effect that reduces bleeding. The story goes that the Pilgrims, who had never seen such a fruit, were struck by the ibimi flower’s resemblance to the head and bill of a sandhill crane and so named them crane-berries. This, however, sounds suspiciously like one of those Parson Weems fables about chopping down cherry trees—charming but fictional. Keep reading . . .