I 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.
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.