tubular trivia roundup

Time to round up obliquely tube-related trivia, including potato zealots, vegetable toys, consumption, aqueducts, and Captain America…

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Parmentier, examining
Parmentier, examining

1. Born in 1737, Antoine-Auguste Parmentier is a man known mostly for potatoes. Let me back up: in the mid-1700s, for reasons I can’t precisely figure but am sure were spurious, the French abhorred potatoes. Potatoes were suitable only for hogs, had no nutritive value, were bland, flatulence-inducing, lust-inducing, carried leprosy, and were Protestant (weirdly, in other countries, potatoes were harbingers of Catholicism—they were new to Europe and thus associated with outsiders). In fact, so hated were potatoes in France that their cultivation was outlawed in 1748.

When the seven years’ war broke out in 1756, Parmentier was an apothecary in training and was drafted to the military. He was then captured by the Prussians five times. Apparently big potato fans, the Prussians fed their French POWs a diet of potatoes to demean and demoralize them.Evidently an empiricist, Parmentier came out of the war having made three observations relevant to current beliefs about potatoes: a) he’d survived a potato-heavy diet, 2) he hadn’t been rendered leprous, and d) he still wasn’t Protestant.

There’s no zealot like a convert, but bringing the potato to France required more than perfervid passion. Parmentier’s effort to encourage change public opinion on the potato is further proof that every good scientist is “half PT Barnum and half BF Skinner.” In a masterstroke of marketing and reverse psychology, he insinuated the potato into French life by…acting like potatoes were important. He planted potatoes in a roadside plot and hired guards, but that wasn’t the trick; the trick was telling the guards to go home at night. People immediately snuck in to take the now defenseless tubers for themselves.

Parmentier also worked the royal court, eventually convincing the king to give potatoes royal endorsement by wearing a potato flower on his lapel. He staged swank dinners comprised entirely of potato courses—potatoes weren’t simply the food of the poor. The potato further insinuated itself when it helped many French citizens not starve to death during a 1785 famine. Then, in 1789, Parmentier published his magnum opus: “Treaty on the cultivation and the use of potato, spud and Jerusalem artichoke.” The French never looked back.

A true man of letters, Parmentier’s contributions to society were not entirely tuberous. He pioneered methods for extracting sugar from sugar beets, examined wheat rot, studied breadmaking (e.g., a 1777 paper “Recommendation to good urban and rural housewives on the best manner to bake bread”), implemented one of the first smallpox vaccination systems, and, it’s said, “took an active part in recommending economical soups.” In his own words: “The potatoe has now none but friends, even in those districts from which the spirit of system and of contradiction seemed to have banished it for ever.” A bit more on Parmentier here and here.

File photo: potato
File photo: potato

France wouldn’t have been able to outlaw the potato, nor feared it so, if it hadn’t been cultivated for centuries by the Inca, for whom it was a central crop and from whom it was plundered and brought to Europe. The potato, it turns out, played a significant historical role—I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read this article about the potato’s influence on the course of world history, a phenomenal excerpt from Charles Mann’s 1493. And if you have not already, an Ebert-style two thumbs way up to 1491.

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2. Here’s something I didn’t know: Mr. Potato Head was initially BYO potato. They sold the face attachments—pushpins and with googly eyes or mustaches attached—and the child would pilfer a potato from the garden and perforate it with oversized ears.

George Lerner came up with the idea in the early 1940s, but it didn’t catch on due to concerns about food waste during wartime rationing. But by 1949 the boom was on for those of means: two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage. All consumption was conspicuous, and food waste lost in the blinding glare of so much chrome trim. The potato-head attachments were initially given away in cereal boxes, but in 1952 Hasbro came calling, and Lerner sold them the rights. Soon Mr. Potato Head became the first toy advertised on television and a bestseller.

Things got real weird.
Things got real weird.

Things hummed along until 1964 when complaints about “rotting mustachioed vegetables” and “my kid has a lacerated esophagus from swallowing pushpin googly eyes” met the new vigor of government regulators. Forced first to dull the pins, Hasbro eventually caved and began including a plastic potato in the box. Later offshoots included Mrs. Potato Head, Brother Spud, Sister Yam, Oscar the Orange, Pete the Pepper, Cooky the Cucumber, and Dr. Squash Skull (not really on the last one); it was enshrined in the toy hall of fame in 2000. Mister Potato Head poorly translated: Herr Kartoffelkopf, Señor Papa Cabeza, Monsieur Tête de Pommes.

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3. Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, has plagued humans for millennia with such ruthlessness that it’s been called “Captain Among these Men of Death.” Almost universally, no matter the language, tuberculosis is called consumption, though one literal Chinese translation refers to it grimly as “corpse disease.” Some notes on the history of TB:

a) It’s been identified in Egyptian mummies—Akhenaten and Nefertiti probably died of it. It’s described in Indian Vedas from the 1500s BC and Chinese medical texts from the 400s BC, and Hippocrates said it was the most common illness in ancient Greece. Archaeological research has found variants of the bacteria in bodies more than 9000 years old.

Genetic analysis suggests that “modern” tuberculosis originated in Africa about 5000 years ago, from where it rapidly spread—even to South America. How did it get across the ocean? I’m glad you asked, because the answer is: seals. Those monsters!

a genocidal maniac
a genocidal maniac

b) In the middle ages, tuberculosis often caused growths on the lymph nodes—a horrifying disease called scrofula, from the Latin meaning brood sow. It was also sometimes called the King’s Evil. Kings were ordained by god, so it was held they could cure illness through application of the “royal touch.” Because scrofula usually healed on its own, and because it was so common, the “king’s touch” often appeared to work. Henry IV got so into the practice that he would “touch” more than 1000 people at a time like a total glory hound. In the early 1700s, King George I called the application of touch “too Catholic” and the practice was abandoned.

c) In London, the disease was so ubiquitous that sunken cheeks and wan pallor were seen as status symbols—in part because prior to the 1860s or so, the disease was thought to be hereditary. Lord Byron: “I should like to die of a consumption. … Because the ladies would all say, ‘Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying!’”

d) Through the 1800s the most common treatment was rest and relaxation at spas and sanitaria. But if resting the body was good, how about resting the tubercular lung itself? In the late 1800s, therapeutically administered pneumothorax—lung collapse—was a frequent treatment. Famed pugilist John L. Sullivan made money on the side by administering pneumothoraxes to consumptive patients through application of a straight jab to the solar plexus (note: not really). It wasn’t until 1944 that the antibiotic streptomycin was used to treat TB.

More info here and here.

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4. Why is it that when we think of famous tunnels, we think of the Chunnel but not Hezekiah’s tunnel? The latter is a ⅓ mile aqueduct under the city of David, built on the orders of King Hezekiah to ensure the town’s water supply under the threat of a siege. The cool part is that it was built, oh, about 2800 years ago, and is the first known tunnel built from opposite ends and meeting in the middle. That’s trickier than it sounds, and may have been done by making the tunnel shallow enough for diggers to be guided by people banging on the ground above them; an inscription describing this procedure was found in the tunnel in the 1880s. You can still visit—and wade through—the tunnel.

Now consider the Tunnel of Eupalinos, built about a century later on Samos, a Greek island in the Aegean. The Greek tunnel, like Hezekiah’s, was built as a defense against siege, but was further underground and twice as long. To ensure the two sides of diggers met in the middle, Eupalinos employed geometric principles: as they approached each other, both sides angled, rendering their paths non-parallel and thus guaranteed to intersect. Which was a clever thing to do, considering it was two centuries before Euclid and his geometry was born. No records are made of the number of workers (most likely slaves) involved in boring the tunnels, nor how many died doing so. You can still visit that tunnel, too.

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5. Finally, the doom tube of dr. megalomann:

Welcome to the Doom Tube
Welcome to the Doom Tube
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