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, 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 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. Forty years later, to celebrate the rail line coming through town, they tried again. Having learned their lesson, the 1.5 ton, 13.5 foot circumference monstrosity was assembled in parts, like Voltron or a Ford Model A.
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 pudding unrest. 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, in an attempt to get their share of the pie. 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.
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2. Lest you think dessert-centric riots are the sole 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. One might think the riot was an attempt at redress. But no: after smuggling a barrel of rum into their barracks, a crew of drunken cadets careered around the campus, breaking windows, fighting, firing guns, and being generally disorderly. More than 70 cadets were involved, 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., who I am including because I like the name.
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3. Going back to irregular demonyms, how about the Flemish? One under-acknowledged Flem is Simon Stevin (1548-1620), one of many centuries-ago intellectuals who made seminal contributions to multiple fields. He was three years ahead of Galileo in figuring out that bodies fall at the same acceleration regardless of weight, and a year ahead of Kepler in recognizing that the moon causes tides. He also created notation for decimals and claimed that their use for weights, coins, and other measures was imminent. Of course he was right, we all know that an inch is 0.0833333333… of a foot. His Arithmetic was the first documented Western manuscript with the general solution for the quadratic equation, which had 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 invented 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.
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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 show. Home use wasn’t possible until the mid-1850s, after Peter Cooper—amazing beard-haver and better known as the inventor of the first steam engine in the US—patented a method for “portable” gelatin, dried in dissolvable, and therefore sell-able, sheets. Cooper, it must be said, 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, scratching out a living peddling homebrewed cough syrups and laxatives. Then he and his wife added fruit flavoring and sugar to powdered gelatin: Jell-O was born. It did not succeed, and was sold in 1899 to the wonderfully named Orator Woodward, owner of the Genesee Pure Food Company and marketer of the Grain-O health drink. Woodward, who clearly believed in The Secret, took to marketing Jell-O as “America’s Favorite Dessert,” which was patently untrue. But he also distributed thousands of free Jell-O cookbooks, and handed out free Jell-O molds to people arriving at Ellis Island. Guerrilla marketing worked, Jell-O took off, then hit the big time in 1936 after introducing pudding mixes.
And now turning to a dark time in American history: per wikipedia, “By 1930, there appeared a vogue in American cuisine for congealed salads.” I’m willing to accept fruit salads, sure—throw some pears in your Jell-O. Top it with whipped cream if you’re feeling spicy. But then people began adding savory bits, prompting the company to produce existentially horrifying flavors like celery, “Italian,” and seasoned tomato. I refuse to countenance this. Did any of these things sound appealing, taste good, or look like something other than slag waste from a chemical plant? 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.
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5. The story of redheaded gelatin stepchild Knox is far more interesting than its Cosby-shilled sibling. Charles Knox developed a granulated gelatin in 1890, originally called “Knox’s Sparkling Calves’ Foot Gelatine,” and while I applaud his dedication to truth in labeling, he might have considered a more appealing name. Nevertheless, Knox set about marketing it in comically over-the-top Gilded Age fashion: first buying a motorized balloon-craft and visiting air shows across the country, then buying a racehorse named Gelatine King and offering it as a contest prize.
After Knox died in 1908, control of the company turned over to his wife, Rose. Less showy if more pragmatic than her deceased husband, she shut down all of Knox’s side companies, built a test kitchen to churn out gelatin-centric recipes, and focused her marketing on housewives—since they were the ones using the product. On the first day she took over, she permanently locked the factory’s back door, then used only by women, so that everyone came in the same door. The she fired an executive who proclaimed—accurately, as it turns out—that he wouldn’t work for a woman. Later, Knox employees were granted a five-day work week and two weeks of paid vacation yearly. She ran the company until 1950, when she died at 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. I’m very pro-Knox.