Magpies and Bananas

Korean magpieI am a magpie for facts. I’m not sure if all writers are–I don’t know all writers, for one thing. But well before I became a writer, I was collecting facts, things that (as near as I could tell) no one but me cared about. My friends humored me, my teachers forgave my occasional wanderings into (for example) the effect of William the Conqueror’s marriage on his foreign policy (my English History professor was baffled but intrigued when I proposed that as a topic for a paper). But I digress. As usual. Cause I’m a magpie, see?

Fortunately, I am married to a guy who understands this about the woman he married. The downside to this is he assumes I know everything, and will ask me random questions about things of which I know nothing, and act surprised and a little disappointed when I tell him so.  “But you’re my Little Talking Book,” he croons. Which makes me wonder what a jury of my peers would consider justifiable homicide.  On the other hand, the guy gives me books on all sorts of interesting topics, just because he knows me well enough to know that I’m easily distracted and amused by oddments of information.  A couple of years ago he gave me a book on the medical and social history of the heart called The Sublime Engine.  This year it was a book called The American Plate.

Plate!Did I say the man knows me? The American Plate is a book about the development of American cuisine from pre-Columbian Native American foods to, well, now.  And it’s delightfully jam-packed with factoids.

Take, for example, the impact of Eagle Brand Condensed Milk. When I was a kid I thought this was a slightly fusty ingredient for foods my grandmother might have made (my mother was a terrific cook, but had some odd snobberies, and condensed milk was one of them). I had not realized until I read this book that condensed milk was a luxury product that was hugely important in the history of American food. The milk didn’t spoil. It was higher in calories than regular milk, slightly sweetened, and safe to give babies (in the mid-1800s there were many incidences of children poisoned by bad milk, especially poor kids in cities). During the Civil War it was delivered to soldiers as a field ration; because it was canned and virtually unspoilable, the War Department bought it in bulk. It required 20,000 gallons of fresh milk a day just to fill that contract. And after the war the soldiers brought news of this great innovation home with them, making condensed milk a household staple. I look at my pumpkin pie differently, knowing all that.

Or consider the banana. The banana didn’t gain much traction in the U.S. until the invention of refrigerated shipping (without refrigeration bananas spoil far too rapidly). Once the technological challenges were met, Americans discovered the banana, and they liked it. Doctors applauded the vitamins and — even better — the clever germ-free packaging it came in (remember, this was at the beginning of the 1900s, when muckraking journalists were exposing the truly horrific conditions in which a lot of American food was manufactured, and the public became justifiably anxious about food-borne contaminants). While the banana was taking over the US, fruit-wise, Theodore Roosevelt was sending troops to Central America in support of the United Fruit Company, and in support of America’s expansionist dreams (I believe this is where the outmoded term “Banana Republic” came from). Here’s the detail I love: during this period the United Fruit Company had an agent meet every Ellis Island ferry that docked in Manhattan. The agent distributed a banana to every single immigrant who arrived. For many of the immigrants the banana was a new, exotic object, and they ate them peel and all. “Welcome to the US! Have a banana!”

This book has information on roast turtle (like hayrides and clam bakes, you’d go off with a bunch of friends for a turtle roast in the countryside); about Lincoln’s favorite cake and Eleanor Roosevelt’s scrambled eggs, the rise of quiche, and the mystery that is pasteurized American processed cheese (apparently it’s made from–or used to be made from–unsold leftover pasteurized cheddar which was repasteurized and treated so it would have a nice long shelf life).

See what I mean? For a fact-magpie, this book is catnip.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Magpies and Bananas — 13 Comments

  1. I often tell people that I have a mind filled with the trash of centuries — and one day I really must take out the garbage.

    Little bits of info — so shiny!

  2. My spouse treats me the same way, expecting me to know something about anything — which actually isn’t true. But I’m good at making up, er, speculation, about what I don’t actually know anything , , , ,

    It is more than vexatious not knowing everything!

    Love, C.

    • But if we knew everything, where would be the delight of finding out something new?

      I can see your spouse asking you obscure things because, well, you should know, shouldn’t you?

  3. My god, are we all married to the same man? My husband kept on coming to me with oddball questions, which I would absently answer. Then I discovered he was doing online quiz contests, and cut him off.
    But I am still a ragbag of factlets. I was in the Metro the other day, and across the aisle from me was a group of young adults. They were playing a quiz game on their smartphones, and the cry went up: What was the Indiana Jones movie where he met Sean Connery? They chattered about this for a while and then I piped up: The Last Crusade. Right, of course, and then I got roped into the game.

  4. I like facts, but I think I’m even more of a magpie for ideas. That’s one of the reasons I love the Internet: I get to stumble across new ideas during my morning check of email, social media, and the news. Of course, some mornings these finds get out of hand and I never get to anything else, but I at least usually get the ideas written down somewhere, with some notes explaining how they might work in an essay or story or blogpost.

    It also explains why I’m always acquiring nonfiction.

    BTW, I’m so adopting the term “magpie” to explain my behavior!

  5. I have been looking at that book in our local store. Maybe I’ll succumb after all, after this endorsement.

    But with respect to turtles, does it speak of calapash and calapee? (Why yes, I am rereading Patrick O’Brian.) And with respect to condensed milk, did you never try a condensed-milk sandwich? It is of course possible that our family invented them, but I’m reluctant to believe that…

    • Chaz, you (as usual) intrigue me. How does one make a condensed-milk sandwich? Cook it down into poor man’s dulce de leche? (Which autocorrect turns into dulce de leech…I’m not eating at autocorrect’s house any time soon.)

  6. Mad – take ordinary sliced supermarket white bread, two slices. Spread those with butter. Open your tin of condensed milk, take a tablespoon and dollop a couple of spoonsful into the middle of one slice. Smear it towards the edges, slap the other slice atop, cut in half and eat tolerably quickly, trying not to squeeze. For it will certainly ooze all over your fingers and dribble down your shirt, but Nestle’s UK brand is thick enough not to run to hell-and-gone before consumption. I’m unfamiliar with Eagle Brand (and not proposing to resurrect the sandwich of my youth; like the sugar sandwich, it exists only in memory and can stay there. The marmite-and-cheese sandwich, on the other hand, I might revisit, just because…)

    • Now that sounds like British food — high carb!
      I have tried making dulce de leche by simmering the can. The manufacturers warn not to do this, probably for insurance reasons, but everybody ignores them, and it does work great.