Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Freezer burn of mammoth proportions

September 19, 2007

mammoth.jpgWhen I first saw this Columbian mammoth skeleton [Mammuthus columbi] at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, my first thought was not, “Hmmmm, I wonder how mammoth meat would taste.” My first thought was more along the lines of whether or not I could outrun one if the situation ever presented itself.

Granted, unlike the sabertoothed cats found in this museum [perhaps more famously known as the La Brea Tar Pits], mammoths were herbivores. Still, they’re distant ancestors of modern-day elephants, also herbivores, who are famously known for being territorial, irritable creatures who will quite suddenly and unpredictably stomp measly little humans to death. And they’re big. Really, really big.

reader_cover.jpgSo, no, my first thought was not how I might prepare a mammoth steak. Apparently, though, that thought has crossed the minds of more adventurous souls, even before the advent of The Flintstones. In the September 14 issue of the Chicago Reader, Cecil Adams tackled this very topic in his always illuminating, always amusing column, The Straight Dope.

As its motto says, The Straight Dope has been “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 [It’s taking longer than we thought].” Every week in the Reader and other publications—and now online—Adams and his crack research team cover a new arcane question from a reader. And they cover it remarkably thoroughly in the far less than 1,000 words of space the column is allotted.

The question in question had to do with a story about members of The Explorers Club thawing out, cooking and eating a prehistoric woolly mammoth [a hairier, slightly smaller cousin of the 13-foot tall Columbian mammoth]. The reader wanted to know if this group or anyone else in modern times had actually done so. The full—and fully entertaining—answer is here.

The short answer is yes, though not as often as many people have bragged. Typical, right? Regarding how it actually tasted, contrary to some highly suspect reports by the aforementioned braggarts, the answer is pretty bad. A Russian zoologist Adams cited tried a bite and said, “it was awful. It tasted like meat left too long in a freezer.” Yeah, about 10,000 years too long.

Adams summarizes beautifully thus: “Let’s keep it simple: frozen meat from tundra = specimen; frozen meat from freezer = dinner. Study the mammoths and eat the burgers, and anyone who craves that great prehistoric taste can wash ’em down with Tab.”

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“It’s not a diary, it’s a journal!”

May 16, 2007

great-fire-london.jpg

Not sure what’s got me thinking about high school this week, but what can you do?

With any luck, everyone remembers a teacher in his or her life who made a difference—or at least imparted something interesting or valuable that stuck in the brain more or less permanently. I’ve actually been very fortunate and had several such teachers. Including one whose lasting effect surprised me later in life. Certainly when I was sitting in Miss Carroll’s English Literature class in high school, I didn’t expect her to make the list.

But make it she did. Twice, actually. The first time was for telling me about Samuel Pepys. Pepys [pronounced Peeps, at least by Samuel’s branch of the family] was born in London in 1633, the son of a tailor and one of eleven children. He rose from these beginnings to become an adviser to King Charles II, the acknowledged “right hand of the Navy” and later, a member of Parliament.

samuel_pepys.jpgOf course, none of this would have made him more than a blip on some doctoral student’s radar screen, except for two things: First, he was a prolific diarist, writing huge volumes of diaries for ten years. Second, those ten years encompassed both the Plague and the Great Fire of London.

Our high school textbook, being a high school textbook, focused primarily on these two major events and Pepys’ description of them as they unfolded, told very much as one would in a diary—or today, perhaps, in a blog. Here’s part of a passage from September 2, 1666, describing the fire’s beginnings: “Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .”

But while the textbook stuck pretty much to such matters as this, Miss Carroll—tall, big-boned, imposing maiden aunt Miss Carroll, with her equally imposing bosom and her crooked toothed smile [somehow appropriate for a teacher of English literature]—hinted at another side of Pepys’ diaries with a twinkle in her eye. It seems Pepys, the great man and knower of kings was also a sometimes petty and petulant man [particularly around his servants] and quite often a knower of women who weren’t his wife. And this being his personal diary, he felt free to record it all.

All of which makes for some fascinating reading. I didn’t pursue it at the time, but Miss Carroll had lodged it in my brain. It bubbled up from time to time until finally one evening, I found a slim volume of excerpts in the library. And more recently, I came upon this wonderful website, Samuel Pepys Diary. It contains excerpts and commentary, by year and by topic. And if you seriously get hooked, it contains the entire unabridged diary, all ten years of it. There’s even a cake recipe for the cake that was being baked in the oven of the King’s baker—the oven that started the fire.

Take a look at this wonderfully personal view of history. And if you end up bookmarking it, thank Miss Carroll and that twinkle in her eye.

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