Saturday, February 27, 2016

Civil War Coffee

Quick!  Who became President of the United States because of coffee?  You can check your answer a little later.

Andy Jackson did not owe his presidency to coffee, but he was certainly a man who enjoyed an occasional drink—and I don’t mean coffee.  He understood alcohol and what it could do to the men who drank it.  So, it is not all that surprising that in 1832, as President and Commander in Chief of the Army, he ended the daily liquor ration for the troops.  Instead of whiskey, the men were to get coffee—a tradition that lasts to this day.

This simple step probably saved more lives than you think, not just because it lessened risk for—but by no means protected all—intoxicated men with weapons from the occasional accident.  It was the boiling of the liquid that saved the most lives.  The simple process of making hot water helped eliminate some of the dangers of dysentery and cholera, either of which killed more soldiers in the 19th century than bullets.

Without knowing about germ theory, people noticed the healthful quality of a morning cup of coffee.  A US Army field manual from 1861 even included the helpful advice:   “Coffee tastes better if the latrines are dug downstream from an encampment.”

During the Civil War, the standard Northern coffee daily ration was ten pounds of green coffee per 100 men.  A supply sufficient for two to three days was apportioned into small piles, each issued to a single soldier, who would wrap it in paper, oiled cloth, or rubber bag to protect the valuable commodity.    When possible, each man would bring water to a boil in his tin dipper or a special tiny pot called a ‘mucket’ and add enough of the ground coffee to the hot water to make a single cup of coffee.  How much to add was a constant battle between the availability of a coffee ration and the demands of hunger.

According to long established military tradition, there are five grades of coffee; Coffee, Java, Joe, Jamoke, and Carbon Remover.  The bottom two can only be made by true coffee illiterates; tea drinkers, the US Army, and Mormons.  If you are making your coffee in a tin cup, held with baling wire over a camp fire, using pathogen-laden water, darkened with stale coffee and moldy sugar….you should probably make the coffee strong enough to float a horseshoe.  When the coffee was strong enough, a splash of cold water would be added to the pot to settle the grounds to the bottom of the pot and a cup of coffee could be gently poured into a tin cup.

The standard practice when the coffee was ready, was for the soldier to pour a little onto his tin plate to help clean it, dump it out, and then add hardtack to what remained in the cup.  These brick-hard crackers could not be eaten until moistened in something, and submerging them in hot coffee was probably as beneficial to the soldier’s health as it was to his teeth.  There was a reason the soldiers called hardtack ‘worm castles’.

Try to visualize the scene.  During the war, wherever the Army of the Potomac stopped for the night, it was suddenly the second largest town in the Confederacy.  Hundreds of tiny fires would be lit from scavenged sticks and repurposed fence posts.  Then a strange buzzing noise would fill the air as shared coffee grinders were put to work for the evening meal.

During the Civil War, the army tried to simplify the distribution of coffee by dispensing a form of ‘instant coffee that was a dehydrated essence of coffee and sugar that looked and tasted like petroleum.  Distributed in quart cans, a teaspoon mixed with hot water produced a cup of ‘instant coffee’ that no soldier would touch.   The army rather quickly withdrew this product from distribution.
Coffee was absolutely necessary to the men.  A recent study of Civil War diaries revealed that solders mentioned coffee more often than ‘rifle’, ‘cannon’, or ‘bullet’

By the end of the war, the average Union soldier consumed 36 pounds of it a year!  Most of it was issued green, with the soldiers roasting and grinding the beans themselves, using makeshift tools and improvised methods.  One rifle was even manufactured with a coffee grinder built into the stock!

One Union general even timed his army’s attacks based on when his men had consumed their morning coffee.  As General Benjamin Butler assured another general, “If your men get their coffee early in the morning you can hold.”

In the South, things were not quite so cheery.  After President Lincoln ordered a naval blockade of Southern ports, coffee and tea became increasingly difficult to obtain and the price per pound skyrocketed.  Starting at about $3.00 a pound, by the close of the war, coffee was almost impossible to obtain even at the escalated price of $60 per pound.

This shortage led to the South's inventing a variety of what came to be called ‘Lincoln Coffee’.  The list of coffee substitutes is almost endless.  If it was green and could be grown, then somebody, somewhere used it to make "coffee" by drying, roasting, grinding, and percolating it.  Peanuts, barley, okra seeds, acorns, barley, beans, beets, bran, chestnuts, chicory, corn meal, cotton seeds, dandelion, sweet potatoes, peas, persimmons, rice, rye sorghum molasses, sugar cane seeds, watermelon seeds and wheat berries were just a few of the things tried.  Local newspapers would even publish recipes on how to brew something that just might—kind of—look like coffee.  The most desperate for coffee have to have been the Union prisoners of war in Andersonville, who tried to brew coffee with scorched slivers of wood.

It is safe to say that none of this tasted like coffee unless you had the type of imagination that was brought on by severe deprivation.  A few of these recipes would surface again in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but today the reminder of this ersatz coffee can be found in Louisiana where chicory is still routinely added to coffee.

And the president who owes his start to coffee?  During the Battle of Antietam, a nineteen year-old Sergeant McKinley was mentioned in dispatches when he braved enemy fire by taking coffee and food to the men at the front line.  His bravery under fire earned him the personal friendship of Rutherford B. Hayes and a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant. 

For decades after the war, every politician running for office used his war record, a practice known as 'waving the bloody flag'. The last veteran of the Civil War to live in the White House, McKinley ended the war with the rank of Brevet Major, and for the next thirty years campaigned on the basis of a 'bloody coffee cup'.  If you visit Antietam, there is a monument—thirty-three feet tall—to McKinley and his coffee run.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Papel Picado

Papel Picado, or ‘perforated paper’ is a Mexican handcraft or folk art dating back centuries.  Intricate designs are cut into multi-colored tissue paper using chisels and scissors.  These sheets are hung from strings to form long banners that can hang from houses, across streets, and decorate the walls of rooms.

Frankly, these are one of those things that everyone in the southwest frequently sees, rarely actually notices, and never has any idea that it actually has a namemuch less that its form is the result of influences from around the world.

Present at almost every form of celebration such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals, they can also be found during holidays—especially during the “Days of the Dead”, Christmas, and Independence Day.

An interesting element of this art is the very ephemeral nature of the materials used.  Usually, the art is left to the mercy of the elements and disintegrates in only a few weeks, so there are very few historic examples of this art form.  This aggravates the problem of understanding the origins of this Mexican tradition.

Long before the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs had a tradition of making a form of paper called amatl from mulberry and fig bark.  The Aztecs used huge amounts of this paper and the surrounding villages and conquered tribes paid almost half a million sheets a year to the Aztecs as a form of bribe.  (Those who fell behind in paying their taxes got a one-way trip up the side of a ceremonial pyramid.)

Besides using the amatl for writing and painting, the Aztecs used obsidian knives to cut the paper to produce silhouettes, primarily of a ceremonial nature, and included images of the numerous Aztec gods and goddesses (a practice that was discouraged by their Christian conquerors).  While few examples of the Aztec work survive today, amatl (now usually called amate) made in the traditional method is making something of a comeback today and is prized by artists.   I recently admired, but could not afford, a reproduction volume of Aztec codices painted on amate.

The traditional form of the art changed with the arrival of the Spanish.  China had invented the process of paper making in 105 AD, and by the sixth century, they had developed their own artistic style of cutting paper.  Called jianzhi (cut paper), both the new art form and the method of making paper spread westward across Asia along trade routes.  By 1150 AD, the Moors began making paper in newly conquered Spain.  The Moors, however would not allow graven images, so the art work was limited to geometric designs, and calligraphy expressing scriptures.

Both the knowledge of paper production, and the form of artwork associated with it spread rapidly across Europe.  In Germany it was called asscherenschnitte, in Poland, it was known as wycinanki, and in France it became silhouettes.   And when the Spanish came to New Spain (Mexico), they brought the tradition with them.  The Spanish introduced a new culture, with a different language, religion, tools, and art traditions with them.

In Mexico, artisans abandoned the obsidian blades, and adopted metal chisels that could cut through multiple layers of paper accurately.  Today’s artists may use dozens of chisels, called fierritos, each with a different shape.  They work the paper, much like a leather worker uses his tools, to create intricate designs in the paper.

Shortly after the Spanish conquered Mexico, they took possession of the Philippines.  The Black Galleon of Manila, an annual convoy of goods from the Philippines, brought the merchandise from the Far East to Mexico, and among the silks and porcelain from China, was a new form of fine paper that was often used to wrap and protect the fine porcelain.  Called papel de China (Chinese paper), it proved a perfect medium for carving, for as many as 40 pages could be duplicated at one time.

Note.  This was also the likely origin of the luminarias (the term used in the south half of New Mexico), or farolitos (the term used in the north half of New Mexico) that are used to decorate walkways in front of southwestern homes at Christmas time.  It was probably Chinese paper lanterns that inspired the sand-filled paper bags that hold candles.  The tradition continues to evolve: lately the Spanglish term for these lights has morphed into bag-a-litos (the term used by pendejos gringos) and occasionally the new artificial plastic bags equipped with electric lights are called ‘fake-a-litos’ (the term used by idiotas). 

Today, papel picado is still very popular.  . Much of the papel picado available in today's folk art market comes from the village of San Salvador Huixcolotla, Puebla, which lies southeast of Mexico City.  It is no longer necessary to go to the market to purchase it, since custom banners of any length, proclaiming any message, can be purchased on the internet.

Distressingly, just as the purchase method has changed, the art form has morphed a little, too.  You no longer have to purchase your banners on flimsy tissue paper that will vanish with the next rain or spring wind.  Today, you can buy papel picado cut from plastic sheets that hang from nylon strings.  I have no doubt that somewhere, someone has replaced the sharpened chisels with laser printers that can cut out computer-generated art work.  And the modern form of this “art” will probably last in our landfills far longer than the people who produced it.  The Aztecs could never have begun to imagine that!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

That Sinking Feeling

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt stood at the railing of the stricken ship, fully aware that it had only minutes left to stay afloat.  The heir to the massive Vanderbilt fortune was certain that when it finally did sink, he would die like most of the other passengers gathered alongside him on the crowded, sloping deck.

Just a few minutes earlier, he had believed that he might have a slim chance of survival, because he had put on his life preserver as soon as the ship's steward had advised him to do so.   Both he and Ronald Denyer, his valet, had gathered on the boat deck to wait while the women and children boarded the lifeboats first.

As one of the wealthiest men aboardindeed, one of the wealthiest men in the worldhe was well-known and his face was familiar to most of the first-class passengers gathered around him.  Perhaps that is why a young woman, Alice Middleton, had asked him to help her, and the young child she was holding, to safety.  The poor woman had no life preserver, so Vanderbilt tried to find a crewman who might locate a spare, but every available member of the ship's crew seemed to be struggling in the attempt to lower one of the remaining lifeboats.

With no other recourse (and as dozens of passengers watched), the gallant multi-millionaire removed his own life vest and carefully tied it around the young woman's shoulders as she tearfully clutched the infant to her breast.

Vanderbilt knew that this act almost certainly guaranteed his own death, since--despite enjoying an international reputation as a sportsman--he did not know how to swim.  As the ship's deck continued to tilt, it was increasingly obvious that not all of the ship's lifeboats could be launched before the ship foundered.

As Vanderbilt stood beside his valet, with his eyes fixed on the impossibly cold water he would soon be forced to enter, he had only a few minutes left for personal reflection.  He had followed the news about the building of the RMS Titanic with great interest.  After all, his family had been in the shipping business for generations and--with both business and personal interests on both sides of the Atlantic--he made the crossing several times a year.

Everything he had heard about the Titanic had impressed him:  the ship's size, speed, and opulent grandeur were deliberately planned to compete with the rival Cunard Line's RMS Lusitania.  His friend, J. P. Morgan held controlling interest in the International Maritime Marine which controlled the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic.  Morgan had convinced him to book passage on the great ship's maiden voyage.  The men had each reserved passage in the largest suites, each of which came with such amenities as custom cigar holders and a private promenade deck.

But shortly before the ship left port, J. P. Morgan decided to stay in France to enjoy the sulfur baths and did not sail on the Titanic.  This decision quite literally saved his life.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt had looked forward to the crossing, but before the ship could set sail, his mother had begun having premonitions and nightmares about his drowning at sea.  Though the ship was billed as “unsinkable”, he finally decided to please his mother andat the last possible momentcanceled his reservation, too.  His unclewho was to have accompanied himcanceled as well, but could not claim his luggage before the great ship sailed.

This decision not to sail on the Titanic came so late that Alfred's name remained on the passenger manifest, so that when the first newspaper reports of the ship's sinking were printed, his name was listed among the missing.  This caused considerable grief to his family and friends for several days until telegrams arrived, reassuring them of his safety.

Now, three years later, Vanderbilt knew that his family would not be spared the anguish a second time, for he was sure to be listed (correctly, this time) among the victims of the RMS Lusitania's sinking.  On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, a German submarine fired a torpedo into the shipwhich sank in less than 20 minuteskilling 1,198 of the 1,959 passengers aboard.  Sinking by the bow and listing to starboard, the ship had been able to launch only six of her 48 lifeboats before foundering.

When word of the ship's sinking reached Alfred's wife, Margaret Vanderbilt, she refused to accept the news of Alfred's death.  Locking herself in her suite at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York City, she stated, "I will not believe Alfred is dead until I get conclusive proof."  However, as the days went on and no good news reached her, she eventually had to accept that Alfred was among the lost.  

Even though the Vanderbilt family offered a $5,000 reward for its recovery (a princely sum at the time), his body was never found.  

And I bet you thought this was another Titanic story.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Looks Like a Word

Everyone is familiar with the concept of onomatopoeia—word that is spelled like it sounds.  “Splat” is a perfect example.  This word does not owe its etymology to the Greeks or Romans:  it probably came from some poor writer's dropping his lunch. 

The word “onomatopoeia” on the other hand, is derived from the Greek words for “to make” and “name”—which probably isn’t fair, as the word for onomatopoeia should, by all rights, be an onomatopoeia. 

Most of these words are culturally based, which is why ducks go “wang wang” in China and clocks go “di dah” in Japan.  Cows the world over make some kind of mooing noise, except in Hungary where they go “bu”.  I wonder what sounds Hungarian ghosts make?

These words are often described as a form of poetry.  Certainly, Carl Sandburg thought so—His poem Jazz Fantasia is often cited as the best examples of onomatopoeia in literature:

Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes,
sob on the long cool winding saxophones.
Go to it, O jazzmen.

Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy
tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go husha-
husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

George Eastman was so fond of the sound a camera shutter made—“Kodak!”—that he used the term for his new photography company.  Advertisers have followed his example ever since.  Everyone knows what goes “Plop! Plop! Fizz! Fizz!” and there is probably not a person on the planet who does not know the sound Rice Krispies make in milk.

Even government has gotten into the act.  Several countries have used sounds to promote the use of automobile seat belts.  In England, the campaign was “Clunk, Click, Every Trip”, in Australia, it was “Click, Clack, Front And Back”, and in the U.S., it was “Click It Or Ticket”

Only one business loved these words more than advertisers—the comic book industry.  Bif!  Pow!  Ka-blooey!  Batman practically lived in a monosyllabic world (if for no other reason than the rather short words would fit into a single cartoon panel while expressing both motion and emotion).  The writers quickly learned that the use of onomatopoeia intensified the action of a scene.

In 2002, a writer for DC Comics capitalized on the use of such words by creating a new supervillain by the name of "Onomatopoeia".  In his duels with the Green Arrow and Batman, his dialogue—I bet you are way ahead of me—consisted of single descriptive words.  In one memorable scene, as he shoots the Green Arrow, he softly says:  “Bang!”  While it was meant to be something of an inside joke in the world of graphic novels, the villain was popular with the more literate readers.

Roy Lichtenstein took the onomatopoeia into the world of art in 1963 with his ground breaking painting “Whaam!”  Inspired by a 1962 issue of DC ComicsAll-American Men of War, it is probably his most famous work and shows an American fighter plane firing a rocket into an exploding enemy plane.  (Actually, of course, this piece was fairly derivative of his 1962 painting “Blam” but since the name of that painting used conventional spelling and lacked the all-important exclamation mark, the art world ignored it.)

All of the above are referring to words that are spelled to copy a sound, but as far as I can determine (that means I googled it for about two minutes) there is no noun for a word that looks like what it is describing.  Since the task falls to me, I will do it properly, resorting once again to Greek word roots.  This gives us onomatomalosa, or ‘resemble name’.

I will be the first to admit that onomatomalosa will be a concept that will be used a little less frequently than onomatopoeia.  Actually, after extensive research (I drank two beers) I was only able to come up with three such words.

The first is ‘Bed’.  Okay, I admit that it would be better if we spelled the word as ‘Beeeeed’, but you have to work with you’ve got.  Obviously, the word looks like a bed.

The second word is ‘eYe’.  Yes, I played around with the capitalization a little, but it still works.  And somehow, when I look at the word, it makes me think of owls—smart owls wearing glasses.

I’ve saved the best for last.  ‘Boob’ is a triple onomatomalosa.  Let’s break the word down.  ‘B’ is a top view, ‘oo’ is obviously a front view, and ‘b’ is a side view.

There have to be other such words.  Feel free to add to the list in the comment section below.