A roundup of the trivial, featuring giant puddings, demonyms, food riots, gelatin, Jell-O, and Flemish polymaths…
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1. I’ve always thought a good Jeopardy category would be demonyms (the name for citizens of a particular locale), because the irregular ones are such a delight—Liverpudlian, Glaswegian, Haligonian, Novocastrian, …Dutch. The unofficial demonym for people from the town of Paignton, on the southeastern coast of England? Pudden-eaters.
The name is not metaphorical: Dating back to the 13th century, Paignton loves itself a good pudding. The people of Paignton prize their pudding, placing pudding upon a pedestal; plainly, in Paignton, pudding prevails. What sets the Paignton pudding apart? Its mass. In 1819, for example, the town attempted to cook (erect? what is the proper verb?) a 900 pound pudding, which boiled for four days in brewer’s furnace but came out raw in the middle. To celebrate the rail line coming to Paignton forty years later, they tried again. Having learned their lesson, this 1.5 ton, 13.5 foot circumference monstrosity was assembled in parts. Like Voltron, but with dessert foods.
The pre-pudding meal, a gathering of nearly 20,000, went off without a hitch. But before the pudding could be ceremonially tucked into—I assume they planned to smash a bottle of champagne on it—the gargantuan dessert tower achieved critical density, went Type II supernova, and left behind a white dwarf composed of electron degenerate matter that swallowed the entire town, which is why you can’t find it on any maps today (note: not actually true). Actually, the cider-drunk crowd began clamoring for their slice of the ur-pudding, and “guards” began cutting off chunks to hand out, hoping to quell the brewing pudding fervor. The back of the crowd, apparently concerned that 3,000 pounds of dessert wasn’t going to be enough, began pushing, shoving, swinging fists, and brandishing fenceposts. A pudding riot ensued, and nary an ounce of pudding remained, though the postmaster said that “greasy parcels” were leaving the town for weeks afterward.
Despite the clearly agitating nature of such giant puddings, Paignton has constructed and consumed several more gargantuan desserts since the riot, all without incident.
Brief list of unofficial demonyms for US states: Connecticutensian, Arkansawyer, Goober-grabber (Georgia), Egyptian (Illinois, for some reason), New Hampshireman/woman; Pennamite (Pennsylvania); Swamp Yankee (Rhode Island); Sandlapper (South Carolina); Masshole. My favorite demonym? Denizens of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan are called Moose Javians. Please also see this list of puddings, a top-10 wikipedia page.
2. Lest you think dessert-centric riots are solely the province of Englishmen, I would point you to the Eggnog Riot of 1826 (also known as the Grog Mutiny). West Point cadets were displeased to learn that, due to the banishment of alcohol, their yuletide eggnog would be whiskey-free. You might assume the riot, then, was an attempt at redress. Not quite: after smuggling a barrel of rum into the barracks, a group of cadets proceeded to get lit up, which was followed by them drunkenly careering around the campus, breaking windows, yelling, fighting, firing guns, and being generally drunk and disorderly. More than 70 cadets were involved one way or the other (twenty were court-martialed), including future CSA president Jefferson “Jeff” Davis, future CSA generals Hugh Mercer and Benjamin Humphreys, future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Archibald Campbell, and a cadet named Thomas Swords Jr., which, great name.
3. Going back to irregular demonyms, how about the Flemish? One under-acknowledged Flem is Simon Stevin (1548-1620). Stevin fits that broad category of centuries-ago intellectuals who made seminal contributions to multiple fields. For example, he was three years ahead of Galileo in figuring out that bodies fall at same acceleration regardless of weight, and a year ahead of Kepler in recognizing that the moon caused the tides (though the first suggestion dates back to 150 BC). He created notation for decimals and suggested that the use of decimals for weights, coins, and other measures was imminent (of course he was right, everyone knows an inch is 0.08333333333333… of a foot. And the hogshead, don’t forget the hogshead.). His Arithmetic was the first documented “Western” manuscript with the general solution for the quadratic equation, which had actually been solved 1000 years earlier by Indian mathematicians, but please go right on believing the Enlightenment was on the vanguard of human knowledge. He also created the land yacht, but died in 1620 after falling overboard from the test model and being devoured by a land shark.
My favorite Stevinism was his breaking from the traditional Latin and using Dutch in scientific manuscripts. This was not arbitrary: he’d undertaken a linguistic analysis of European languages, and found that Dutch had the highest number of concepts that could be expressed monosyllabically, making it the most efficient language.
4. The world produces just over 800 million pounds of gelatin every year. Approximately 92% of that goes towards ballistics gel dummies used on Mythbusters. The remaining 8% goes to Jell-O (note: all numbers both approximate and made up).
The use of gelatin in food dates back centuries, when chefs to the fabulously wealthy would use jelly molds to create elaborate, extravagant, intricate foodstuffs. Just for the show of it. Cut to 1845, when Peter Cooper (amazing beard-haver and better known as the inventor of the first steam engine in the US) patents a method for “portable” gelatin that was dried into dissolvable—and therefore sell-able—sheets. And, let me tell you, Cooper changed the game for semi-solid, non-Newtonian desserts. No longer was making gelatin a days-long affair of boiling deer antlers, calf knuckles, and fish bladders. Well, actually it still was, just not for the consumer.
In 1897, Pearle Bixby Wait was a struggling druggist, laboring to sell his homebrewed cough syrups and laxatives. But that year he and his wife added fruit flavoring and sugar to powdered gelatin and gave birth to Jell-O. It was not an immediate success, and the company was sold in 1899 to a man with the wonderful name Orator Woodward, then owner of the Genesee Pure Food Company and marketer of the Grain-O health drink (I think it contained grains, but can’t confirm it). Woodward began calling Jell-O “America’s Favorite Dessert,” which was patently untrue, began distributing thousands of free Jell-O cookbooks, and handed out free Jell-O molds to people arriving at Ellis Island. Of course all this worked; and things really took off in 1936 when they introduced pudding mixes.
Now, to turn to a dark time in American history: as per wikipedia, “By 1930, there appeared a vogue in American cuisine for congealed salads.” Fruit salads, sure, but then people put savory bits and pieces in jell-O molds, prompting the company to produce horrifying flavors like celery, “Italian,” and seasoned tomato. Did any of these things taste good, or for that matter “turn out” in anything approaching the promised form? No, no they didn’t. Jell-O is also the official snack food of Utah, because for some reason Mormons love it.
Actual Jell-O flavors, current and past: bubble gum, celery, coffee, root beer, candy cane, cotton candy, pumpkin spice, plain.
5. It turns out that the story of redheaded gelatin stepchild Knox is far more interesting than its Cosby-shilled sibling. Charles Knox had developed a granulated gelatin in 1890, originally called “Knox’s Sparkling Calves’ Foot Gelatine.” He set about marketing it in comically over-the-top Gilded Age fashion: he bought a motorized balloon-craft, named it Gelatine, and traveled the country, visiting air shows. He bought a prize racehorse, named it Gelatine King, raced it, then offered it as a contest prize.
In 1908 Knox died and control of the company turned over to his wife, Rose. She was considerably less showy, considerably more pragmatic, and considerably more business-savvy. She shut down all of the Knox’s side companies, built a test kitchen for churning out gelatin-based recipes, and focused on selling gelatin to housewives, since, after all, they were the ones using it. On the first day she took over, she permanently locked the back door of the factory (then used solely by women), so that everyone came in the front. Then she fired a top executive who complained—accurately, as it turned out—that he wouldn’t work for a woman. Later, Knox workers were given a 5-day work week and two weeks of paid vacation. She ran the company until 1950, when she died at the age of 93. And while Jell-O was using Jack Benny as a spokesman, the Knox company was producing pharmaceutical-grade gelatin for use in the first gel caps.