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. 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 (at the same time in other countries, potatoes were harbingers of Catholicism; as a new food they were associated with outsiders of any ilk). So terror-stricken was the populace that France outlawed their cultivation in 1748.

When the Seven Years’ War broke out in 1756, Parmentier was a 19-year-old apothecary in training. He was drafted and subsequently captured by the Prussians five separate times, which is probably some kind of record. Apparently much bigger fans of starch then their enemies, Prussians fed their French POWs a steady diet of potatoes, possibly because they were cheap and possibly just to demean and demoralize them. Parmentier, evidently an empiricism, came out of pentad of imprisonments having made three observations: (a) he’d survived a potato-heavy diet, (2) he had not been rendered leprous or flatulent, and (d) he still wasn’t Protestant. And so he determined to rehabilitate the potato’s bad reputation.

There is no zealot like a convert, but this reclamation project required more than perfervid passion; it required someone to prove that every good scientist is “half PT Barnum and half BF Skinner.” In a masterstroke of marketing and reverse psychology, Parmentier insinuated the potato in French life by simply…pretending like potatoes were important. The linchpin of this strategy was planting potatoes in a roadside plot, surrounding it with elaborate fencing and hired guards. But that wasn’t the trick: the trick was having the guards go home at night. Thinking the crop must be valuable, interlopers would sneak in and steal some tubers.

Parmentier also targeted the royal court.  He convinced the king to give potatoes royal endorsement by wearing a potato flower on his lapel. He staged swank dinners comprised entirely of potato courses, to demonstrate that potatoes weren’t simply the food of the poor. The potato also earned some credibility 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 role in world history, and I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read this article about the potato’s outsize influence the arcs of 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 stuck to googly eyes or mustaches—and children had to steal a potato from the pantry to perform facial surgery.

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. By 1949, though, the boom was on: two chickens in every pot, two cars in every garage, all consumption conspicuous, food waste lost in the blinding glare of so much chrome trim. The toy was a hit, with attachments given away in cereal boxes—at least until Hasbro came calling in 1952. Lerner sold them the rights, and Mr. Potato Head soon became the first toy advertised on television.

Things got real weird.
Things got real weird.

Things hummed along until 1964 when complaints about “rotten mustachioed vegetables” and “tetanus boosters” made their way to government regulators. Forced at first to dull the pushpins for safety, Hasbro quickly 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). Mister Potato Head was enshrined in the toy hall of fame in 2000, and if you poorly translate it you end up with: 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:

  • 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
  • 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, apparently a glory hound even by regal standards, got so into the practice that he would “touch” more than 1000 people at a time. In the early 1700s, King George I called the application of touch “too Catholic” and the practice was abandoned.
  • 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!'”
  • 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 enslaved people) 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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