Monthly Archives: September 2010

Mayonnaise Gets Smeared

"Mommy, where did I come from?"

As I was preparing this little essay about the origins and uses of mayonnaise, alarm bells went off in our newsroom.  It seems that a load of boxes full of mayonnaise jars fell off the back of a truck on a highway in Japan.  This incident (9/27/10 — I didn’t make this up) caused a pile-up involving several cars and a couple of motorcycles.  Before long the condiment was spread all over the roadway, making it more slippery and dangerous than when it snows, according to one witness.  No one was seriously injured, but the highway was closed for five hours.  And, my goodness, what a waste of oil, egg yolks, and vinegar.

The reason I happened to be thinking about mayonnaise in the first place was not quite that dramatic.  Sally and I recently bought some pommes frites at a Belgian food stand, and the fries came with a dollop of mayonnaise, not catsup.  I had forgotten that mayo is the preferred dip with fries in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as parts of Oregon and Idaho.  I have also read that it is used in Japan as a topping on pizza, so maybe that dumped load wasn’t such a waste after all.

There are several theories about the origin of mayonnaise, but the prevailing one takes us to the Balearic Islands, off the coast of Spain.  You may be familiar with Mallorca and Ibiza and Formentera as places to park your yacht, but perhaps you didn’t know that the main town on Menorca is called Mahon.

It was at Mahon in 1756 that the French won a battle and snatched Menorca away from the British.  Supposedly in celebration of that victory, the general’s chef whipped up a little something special — the recipe for the sauce was what we now call mayonnaise.  Actually the locals, who speak Catalan, called it maonesa; the French frenchified it to mayonnaise.

There’s another story that the name comes from an old French word for egg yolk, but I don’t see any harm in letting the little town of Mahon have some credit.  The current residents make shoes and imitation jewelry for a living; they never cashed in on the tremendous demand for mayonnaise as an ingredient in tartar sauce and potato salad.

The first commercially prepared mayo in the U.S. was sold in 1905 at a delicatessen on Columbus Avenue in New York City.  The deli was owned by a guy named Richard Hellman; his wife Nina was in the back room, making batches of the stuff.  By the way, mayonnaise doesn’t have as much cholesterol as you might think — only 2% of your daily allotment in a single serving, which our government has determined is one tablespoon.

Still, it might be wise to keep these precautions in mind:  If you’re at a picnic and the mayo has been sitting in direct sunlight for several hours, it’s a good idea to just skip ahead to dessert.  And if you’re on a highway behind a truck hauling mayonnaise, be prepared to hit your brakes and swerve out of its way.

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The Ashcan School

Robert Henri, "Snow in New York" (1902), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Michelangelo hated Raphael’s guts.  Van Gogh severed his relationship with Paul Gauguin, along with part of his own ear.  I mention these examples to illustrate the point that not all artists who are categorized together actually got along.  Even though we are encouraged to think of them collectively, the High Renaissance artists didn’t necessarily meet after work for wine spritzers.  The Post-Impressionists weren’t into group hugs.

There were some who were friendly to each other, of course, and some even selected the fraternal name for themselves, as if they were a service club or a motorcycle gang.  The self-named Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of 19th century painters and poets, were pretty good pals and shared common artistic goals.  Their work, by the way, was as affected as the title they bestowed on themselves; as far as I’m concerned, the PRB seemed to think that “art” was short for “artificial”.

In most cases, the designations applied to artists were imposed by critics or historians.  The intention is to help us see the similarities of themes and techniques that artists used, so nearly everyone gets stuffed into some category.  You have your Baroque painters, your Cubists, your Barbizon School, your Fauves (“Wild Beasts”), your Mannerists, and so on.

In the early part of the 20th century, several American painters whose work had appeared at the same exhibition got a verbal slap from a critic:  He dubbed them “The Ashcan School”.  It’s sort of a cool name, don’t you think?  There are a couple of reasons why that insult was hurled at them.  One had to do with their subject matter, which was definitely not pastoral scenes or pretty tableaux from mythology.  They painted gritty scenes of poor neighborhoods, mostly in New York City; they depicted life in tenements and slums.

Another critic sputtered that their colors appeared to be scraped from the bottom of an ashcan.  It’s true that most of the Ashcan artists painted with a dark palette, but considering the subject matter, delicate pastels wouldn’t have been a good choice.

So who were these guys?  They only exhibited together once (in 1908), and referred to themselves then as The Eight;  most of them are unfamiliar names now.  The most influential member of the Ashcan School — although not necessarily the most talented — was Robert Henri.

He had been born Robert Cozad, but when he was young his father was involved in a homicide, so it seemed prudent to change his name.  Robert selected Henri as his new surname.  Instead of the French pronunciation, though, he insisted on pronouncing it with a long I:  Hen-rye.  His colleagues in the Ashcan School included William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John French Sloan, and perhaps the best known member of the group, George Bellows.

Henri urged his students to “forget about art, and paint what interests you in life.”  That approach generated some highly original work, which inevitably scandalized the art establishment of the time.

I think Henri’s dictum is probably good advice for writers, too, which is why this blog goes spinning off in a lot of different directions.  I’m just writing about what interests me in life… and I’m grateful that you have come along with me.  Where shall we go next?

One in a Billion

One of the Shorter Lines

The population of China is 1.3 billion.  It’s hard to comprehend just how many people that is until you have visited the World Expo in Shanghai and stood in line behind all of them.  OK, it wasn’t really all of them; on the two days we visited the Expo recently, the attendance figure for each day was a mere 394,000.  It just seems like more people when you are crammed together for hours at a time in 90° heat and 90% humidity.

Here’s another way to look at the very large number of people who are attending the Shanghai Expo.  Close your eyes and imagine all the spectators who saw all the major league baseball games last year:  Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field… all 30 parks, for the entire 2009 season.  All right, do you have that mental picture?  That was roughly 74 million people.  When the 2010 Shanghai Expo closes on October 31, the total attendance will, in all likelihood, exceed that.  Estimates are that 80 million will have visited during its six-month run.

Lines at some of the pavilions have been as long as 9 hours.  Yes, nine!  Sally and I couldn’t get into the host country’s pavilion, because in order to do so, one has to have a reservation.  To get a reservation, one has to show up several hours before the park is even open.  And then, reservation in hand, wait some more.  No, thanks.

We did wait for forty-five minutes in the line for the United Kingdom pavilion until we realized that we were still a couple of hours from the door.  I have no idea what was inside, but whatever it was, I couldn’t justify a three-hour wait.  Well, maybe if Prince Charles was there in person I might have toughed it out, just so I could ask him, “Dude, what were you thinking!?”

Almost two hundred countries are participants in the Shanghai World Expo.  The big ones — U.S.A., France, Italy and so on — seem to use these events to buff up their image, stressing their technological innovations and creativity.  Many have impressive multimedia presentations, or 360° movies of their scenic attractions.

The smaller countries are there just to let people know they exist.  We had a pleasant visit with a young woman named Alexandra in Liechtenstein’s exhibit.  She encouraged us to take the bus to her country (it has no airport) and spend at least one night.  “Just come to the town square of Vaduz, call out ‘Alexandra!’, and I will show you around,” she said with a smile.  Judging from Liechtenstein’s film presentation, it appears to be worth a visit.

The same could be said of Dominica, which is not to be confused with the Dominican Republic.  Thanks to two nice guys at Dominica’s exhibit, we learned that it is located in the Lesser Antilles, not too far from Barbados.  And that they have a rum factory right on their island.

Every country probably has its own reasons to put money into events like this, and host cities have met with varying degrees of success.  The one Paris held in 1889 is the reason the Eiffel Tower exists; Seattle built the Space Needle for its World’s Fair in 1962.  On the other hand, the one in New Orleans in 1984 — officially known as the Louisiana World Exposition — declared bankruptcy during its run.

The legacy of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo will be the all-time attendance record for these events.  The huge crowds are what I’ll remember about it, anyway.  That, and the thunderstorm that dumped buckets of rain on us.  My clothes will probably be dry any day now, but I’ll always have the memory.

Out the Door

It’s time for a hiatus here at Tom Reeder’s Blog.  As it happens,  the entire editorial staff will be heading out on a research assignment for a couple of weeks.  It will be eerily quiet in the office corridors of TRB, no doubt — the clatter of word-processing equipment replaced by the pacing of our guards from Shoot First Security Services.

New posts will resume in mid-September, but in the meantime you are welcome to browse through the archives.  There may be earlier posts that you missed or that you’d like to re-read, such as “Wow Moments” (10/11/09), which elicited several thoughtful comments.  If you haven’t weighed in on that topic, we’d love to hear from you.  (Bear in mind that the comment moderator is also temporarily absent.)

Other articles that might be worth your time are “Psst.  Hey, Buddy — Wanna Buy a Rembrandt?” (5/6/09), “One for the Books” (7/15/10), and “Chapter One” (6/25/09).  Or feel free to type a word or phrase into the search pane and see what pops up.

Thank you for checking in here from time to time.  When I return, I know I’ll have more stories that I’ll want to share with you, so come back soon!