Monthly Archives: April 2012

How Many Scoops?

So many choices...

One of my earliest memories involves ice cream, and was a drama in 3 very short acts.

The first act began with someone (probably my dad) purchasing a cone for me, and featured the delicious cold sweetness making its way to my mouth.  The second act — the crisis — was when we were leaving the shop:  The ice cream fell off the cone and landed on the floor.  The magnitude of that misfortune was so great, I couldn’t even cry — I just stared at what I had suddenly lost.

The third act was a happy ending.  The store owner gave me another ice cream cone, free of charge.  It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I have savored every bite of ice cream that I’ve had since.

Apparently I’m not alone in my fondness for it.  It may not be literally true that we all scream for ice cream, but according to the International Dairy Foods Association, “more than 90 percent of American households purchase ice cream.”  The total annual production of “frozen dairy” in the U.S. is more than 1.6 billion gallons.   We may need to eat it right out of the carton just to keep up with all that production.

The origins of our beloved dessert aren’t clear.  There are legends that date it to the 2nd century B.C., but there isn’t any factual evidence to support stories like the one about Marco Polo bringing it back from China, or King Charles I of England having a secret recipe for ice cream.

The IDFA states that the first advertisement for ice cream in the U.S. appeared in the New York Daily Gazette in the 1770s.  Until the 19th century, though, there was this limitation on the mass production of ice cream:  How do you keep it cold?

A guy who found solutions to that basic problem was a Baltimore milk dealer named Jacob Fussell, who was a pioneer of the ice cream-manufacturing industry in the 1850s.  At first he used mountains of ice, but over the next couple of decades mechanical refrigeration was developed.

Meanwhile, chefs were experimenting with all sorts of flavors for ice cream.  In her book Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream, author Anne Cooper Funderburg says that by the 1870s, the famous New York restaurant Delmonico’s offered an assortment that went way beyond the basics.  Oh, they had chocolate and vanilla, but they also had ice cream flavors like asparagus and pumpernickel rye bread.  Yes, “blecch” was my reaction when I saw that, too.

So what is the most popular flavor of ice cream?  I was surprised to learn that it’s vanilla, according to the IDFA’s consumption figures.  Even though vanilla is almost a synonym for bland, it topped their list at 27.8%, followed by chocolate at 14.3%.  Rounding out the top five are strawberry (3.3%), chocolate chip (3.3%) and butter pecan (2.8%).

Personally, I favored Rocky Road for a long time, but am currently infatuated with Mint Chocolate Chip.  What’s your favorite flavor?  (And don’t say Pumpernickel Rye!)

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Monet’s Garden

This is how it looked on an overcast day.

You may not know you have, but you have definitely seen them.  It’s not possible you have lived this long without seeing some version of water lilies painted by Claude Monet.

He produced something like 250 paintings of nymphéas, as they are known in French, and these works can be found in museums from Tokyo to Toledo.  They also appear on towels and calendars and keychains and cocktail napkins.  Monet’s water lilies may not be as instantly recognizable as the “Mona Lisa” or Michelangelo’s “David”, but I’d guess they are almost as widely reproduced.

The models for all those paintings were in a pond on Monet’s property at Giverny, a village about 50 miles west of Paris.  He and his wife and kids lived in a rented house there beginning in 1883; his increasing wealth enabled him to buy the house in 1890, when he soon began improving the grounds.

Monet read up on plants and designed an expansive garden.  There is a Japanese bridge in it — you’ve seen those paintings, too (for a reminder, squint at photo above).  Then there’s the pond that is home to the water lilies, which are probably the best known of Monet’s “series paintings”.

He’d had the inspiration to paint the same subject at different times of day and with different points of view.  The west facade of Rouen Cathedral was thoroughly explored in one series, and haystacks in the countryside near Giverny got a similar treatment.

According to art historian H.H. Arnason, Monet’s approach was “an attempt to capture the ephemeral aspects of a changing moment.”  In a way, it was like painting time-lapse pictures — each canvas was sort of a still-frame from a movie (or I guess nowadays we’d call it a “vidcap”).

Especially in the last years of his life, Monet’s garden was his subject matter.  He’d walk out of his house, set up his easel and start painting what he saw:  the garden, the bridge, the pond with its water lilies.

If you’re a fan of his work, Giverny might be a pilgrimage site for you, because Monet’s house and garden are still there.  They are diligently maintained by a staff that follows the instructions Monet wrote for his gardeners a hundred years ago.

It’s an easy side trip from Paris:  Catch a train at Gare St-Lazare, a station that Monet painted on several occasions.  It takes less than an hour to get to the town of Vernon; from the train station in Vernon, there’s a bus that will take you the 4 miles to Giverny.

None of Monet’s original paintings are in the house, but if you’re still wondering what his paintings of water lilies look like, try the gift shop, or anyplace around the village.  Trust me, it’s about as hard as trying to find baseball-related souvenirs in Cooperstown, where baseball’s Hall of Fame is located.

If you can’t find a Monet reproduced on a coffee mug or an apron or something here… well, just hold out a handful of Euros and it will find you.

Giddyup, Seahorse!

A tank at Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, Hawaii

Seahorse racing will never become a popular spectator sport.  There are many reasons for that, not least of which is that they are terrible swimmers.  Your average seahorse can only go a few feet before it has to stop and hang on to something while it rests.

You wouldn’t be able to fill a huge stadium for seahorse races either, since they are only a few inches in height, with the largest variety topping out at 8 inches.  That would make them hard to see from a grandstand.

The truth is, they’re pretty hard to see even when you’re in the shallow water around sea grass beds or coral reefs where they like to hang out.  I’ve been in their habitat quite a bit over the years, but the first time I encountered an actual living sea horse was at the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm in Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

As the name suggests, seahorses are bred there.  By the way, when you’re having that birds-and-bees discussion with your kid, you might not want to confuse them just yet by including the details of how seahorses breed.  It’s complicated, since the daddy seahorses are the ones that get pregnant.

OK, that’s not literally true, but the males do have a brood pouch on their front, into which the female deposits hundreds of eggs.  At some point during that transfer the eggs are fertilized. 

During the gestation period, mom drops by every day for a few minutes to say “hi”, and then swims away.  Dad resumes his quest for food, since he’s eating for several hundred.  In a few weeks, sea ponies emerge from the pouch.

No matter how frisky the seahorses are, they are not reproducing fast enough to keep pace with conditions that are causing the seahorse population to dwindle.  Habitat destruction is a factor, and overfishing is, too.  It’s estimated that as many as 20 million seahorses are caught and sold annually, mostly for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

As far as I know, the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm is not supplying critters for that purpose, but is helping to meet worldwide demand from aquariums and hobbyists.  That cuts down the number of seahorses that are taken from the wild, and is a step toward preventing their eventual extinction.

The people who operate the Ocean Rider aquafarm maintain high standards of hygiene to keep the little guys healthy.  Before we entered, we scrubbed up like we were doctors going into a… well, a delivery room.

The highlight of our visit was a hands-on experience.  It took a little time for the seahorse to warm up to me, but eventually he wrapped his prehensile tail around my little finger. 

Our guide told me that this seahorse was named Barney, and that at age 13, he was the oldest in the aquafarm.  So we two old guys hung out for a while; then Barney paddled away, probably hoping to find a seamare and offer to carry her eggs.

Chance For Windfall Causes Bedlam

William Hogarth, The Rake's Progress (Plate 8) "Scene in Bedlam". 1735 engraving -- The British Museum

When several people recently cashed lottery tickets that made them multimillionaires, perhaps you wondered the same thing I did:  Why were news reports calling their prize money a “windfall”?  In other words, why is unexpected financial gain or good fortune called a windfall, and not something like “luck-apalooza”?

Not wanting to risk losing sleep, I went to my books and looked it up.  There are some authorities who think windfall is an old sailing term, but the most plausible explanation goes back several hundred years and is based on an English law governing rights to timber.

Commoners and certain landowners were forbidden to chop down trees because the Royal Navy had first dibs; they didn’t want future ships being burned as firewood.  There was a provision in the law, however, that if wind blew down branches or uprooted trees, that wood was up for grabs.  So — whatever the wind caused to fall was somebody’s lucky break.

Another word that got used a lot during the lottery frenzy was “bedlam”.  You’ll recall that liquor stores and markets had long lines of ticket buyers and occasionally unruly behavior broke out.  It was much like department stores on the day after Christmas, or Apple stores when a new i-thing is unleashed on the public.  These scenes of noise and confusion are often characterized as bedlam by some breathless reporter.

The derivation of bedlam also goes back many centuries, and refers to a mental hospital in London.  Founded in the 13th century, it was originally the priory (religious house) of the order of St. Mary of Bethlehem, but became a hospital around 1330.  In fact, Encyclopædia Britannica notes, it was the “first asylum for the insane in England, and, with the exception of one in Granada, Spain, the first in Europe.”

Its location in London changed several times over the years, and so did its name.  At some point Bethehem got shortened to Bethlem; the pronunciation became “Bedlam”.

By all accounts it seems to be a top-notch facility now (as Bethlem Royal Hospital), but that was not always the case.  Far from it — Bedlam was notorious for the brutal treatment of its patients, many of whom were chained to the walls.  They received no systematic care; they were simply detained there, and as you might imagine, it was not a quiet place.  The howls of violent patients set off wails from frightened patients, and so on.

The most shameful aspect of Bedlam was that by the 1700s, it had become, in effect, a tourist attraction.  For a penny, visitors were allowed in to stare at the inmates and laugh at their odd behavior.

In our enlightened age, we condemn that sort of insensitivity toward unfortunates who have mental health issues.  We only watch them on television now, and at least the Real Housewives of Bedlam get a windfall for putting their misery on public display.

Game Changer

Earl Lloyd, Syracuse Nationals

Almost 80% of the players in the National Basketball Association this year are African-American.  That is in sharp contrast to 1949, when the percentage was zero.

Back then, NBA franchises included the Fort Wayne Pistons, the Rochester Royals, the Syracuse Nationals, the Minneapolis Lakers.  The players wore shorts that were basically satin briefs, exposing a lot of (white) leg.

In 1950, professional basketball’s color barrier was broken as it had been in baseball three years before.  Even people who aren’t baseball fans know Jackie Robinson’s name and his historic role in changing the game, but ask almost anyone who the NBA’s first black player was and you’ll probably get a shrug.

That may be partly due to the fact that there are three different players who have a claim.  Chuck Cooper was the first African-American drafted (by Boston) and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first to sign an NBA contract (with the New York Knickerbockers).  The first to actually play in a game, however, was Earl Lloyd, with a team called the Washington Capitols.

A 6’6″ forward, Lloyd played in the 1950 season opener on October 31st against the Rochester Royals.  Washington lost 78-70, but Lloyd had a respectable 10 rebounds to offset his meager offensive output of six points.  Cooper debuted with the Celtics the following day, and Clifton played his first NBA game three days after that.

Another reason Jackie Robinson is so widely known while the NBA pioneers aren’t is the degree of sucess he had.  In that first tension-filled season, Robinson was Major League Baseball’s Rookie of the Year — he was among the leaders in several statistical categories, including runs scored and stolen bases.  He went on the be the National League MVP in 1949, was a six-time All-Star, member of a World Series championship team (1955), and was ultimately inducted into the Hall of Fame.

In contrast, Clifton and Lloyd had solid but unspectacular careers, although it is worth noting that Sweetwater Clifton made the NBA All-Star team in 1957.  After being traded to Syracuse, Earl Lloyd contributed to the Nationals’ 1955 championship.  Meanwhile, Cooper played for three teams in six seasons.

Years later, Earl Lloyd also acknowledged the different circumstances the pioneers faced.  “I  don’t think my situation was anything like Jackie Robinson’s,” he said, “a guy who played in a very hostile environment, when even some of his own teammates didn’t want him around.”

Still, somebody had to open the NBA’s door to African-Americans, and as Lloyd told the Associated Press recently, “I’m glad I was part of something that helped pave the way for others.”

Considering that the average salary for NBA players is now in excess of $5 million, those three players paved a superhighway.  It seems unlikely that anyone who plays in the NBA will ever have to follow the path Nat Clifton took when his basketball career ended:  “Sweetwater” spent the rest of his life driving a taxi.