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Soapbox: Digital Interruptions

How many of you have ever heard something like, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you the following important information”? This is a phrase used by radio and television channels in some English-speaking countries to announce emergency conditions. When you hear that, you expect the message to be important enough to warrant the disruption. But most of us grew up (if we had any kind of guidance from parents) knowing that it was rude to interrupt; we learned to wait for an appropriate moment to introduce an opinion or a change in topic.

How many of us like having our concentration or focus ripped apart by someone or something breaking into our reveries or a conversation with a friend? If you’re deeply focused, it is jarring to be interrupted. Once is okay; a dozen times is beyond irritating.

Unfortunately, this bad habit has become a trending behaviour online: You’re watching a video on YouTube, and mid-sentence of the documentary or instructional video, or mid-action of whatever you’re watching, you are suddenly expected to switch focus to an annoying commercial (are they intentionally made abrasive to grab your attention?). Now don’t misunderstand me: I realize that the material on YouTube is free of charge, and someone needs to generate revenue to pay for it all; but does it need to be mid-sentence? Why not wait until an appropriate break in the video? It’s too much work to be digitally polite, apparently. [I just hit Alt + delete at the beginning of every video; it will skip ads with only a hiccup.] For me, this isn’t just an interruption; it’s a rude, deliberate attempt to distract me from my original focus. I don’t know about you, but such ads don’t leave me any desire to hear their message or give them my business; if anything, I’ll avoid their products.

Another digital interruption I’ve noticed on the rise on sites such as Pinterest is the bombarding of my home feed with inane pins: Last week it was Asian teeny bands, or today surfing ads, Cambodian royalty, gossip magazines and paparazzi pins – none of which have anything to do with either my interests or my recent activities. On Pinterest at the moment, my feed is stuffed with useless fluff. I wrote a complaint, and they cleared away the Asian bands, only to have them replaced with the above-mentioned idiocy. To actually find what I’m searching for, my focus is wrenched back and forth. Every. Other. Pin. Guess what? I won’t be on Pinterest as much any more. Facebook did the same thing; I’m not there, and have no intention of going back all that often (the only reason I keep my FB account is to keep in contact with international friends and family).

So what can we do? Do we have to accept this behaviour? No; but raising other people’s children costs time and energy. But it does work: Write a complaint; give feedback when requested or not; block such pins or links as spam (= “misleading and/or repetitive”). This same principle applies to content farms online (e.g. So Yummy, Troom Troom or 5-Minute Crafts): If you come across their videos and watch them, and notice something faked, dangerous, or repetitive (every one of their videos contain one or all of the above), don’t “dislike” or comment – that just tells the algorithm that someone saw it and that it elicited a response; click on the three dots near the video and report it. If you’d like to go farther down this particular rabbit hole, a good place to start is Ann Reardon’s informative videos about debunking fake videos; her husband is a journalist and writer, and puts his investigative skills to good use (if you want to skip her food testing and get straight to the investigation, click to 12:05 in the video).

The internet can be a wonderful place to learn, to do research, and to be entertained; but be aware of the growing trend of subtle manoeuvres by algorithms, digital echo chambers and flashy ads to manipulate your perceptions, opinions, and habits. Take time to act and move around wisely, even if it’s in cyberspace. Discernment may be an old-fashioned concept to some, but it’s a lifeline in the sea of churnalism in today’s world.

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History Undusted: The Dying Art of Sailors’ Shanties

Because the days of Sail are mostly long gone except for re-enactment vessels and small private vessels such as yachts, a great tradition is being lost to the winds of time:  The Sea Shanty.  Shanties were songs sung by sailors; they were sung not only for the entertainment factor, but the rhythms kept the crews in time as they hauled in anchors, drew up sails, tightened ropes, scrubbed the deck, and any number of other duties aboard their ship.  Specific shanties were used for the short haul, the Halyard, Windlass, Capstan, or the Foresheet, because those shanties had the best rhythm to get a particular job done.  Musicians try to keep the songs alive today, but they are a ghost of what they once were, and what they once meant and represented; they were the life blood of any Ship of the Line.

For sheet music, check out The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runiciman Terry.

For an interesting article on shanties, including various video clips with live performances to hear the rhythms and flavour of the shanties, please click here.  Take a few moments to enjoy the songs!  Some of the videos are the songs sung to a series of historical images to do with sailing, so they’re a two fer!

Originally posted on History Undusted, 20 September 2015

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Preparedness

This article* will be longer than usual, but I think it’s an important topic to address. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived the first wave of Coronavirus, lockdown, and have been able to pay your electricity bill! Woohoo! But as the old adage goes, “History repeats itself”; as you can see from the images below, we’re not the first generation to deal with the affects of a pandemic. Such moments of crisis come in various forms: The Black Death, the Spanish Influenza, World Wars, the Great Depression, stock market crashes, slumps and recessions, and now the Coronavirus. Like any challenge, how you respond to it will determine how you come through it. The title, “Preparedness”, means “the state of being prepared”: It’s not about individual actions to accomplish something and check it off a list, but a long-term mentality to develop. The current times caught a lot of people off-guard, and some people and regions are still reeling.

In Britain at the turn of the last century, farming had been in decline because farmers couldn’t compete with the cheaper imported goods; they switched from grains to livestock, and two-thirds of British foods were coming from abroad. In the months before World War 2, the British government realized that, if the very real threat of a German blockade came about, the nation would be in danger of starving to death, so they petitioned people to plant vegetables instead of flowers in their gardens, and for farmers to dust off their equipment and begin planting crops again to feed the nation. They realized that self-sufficiency in a time of crisis is the best remedy for the essentials.

In the past decade or so, there has been a growing trend toward self-sufficiency through things like living off-grid, the tiny home movement, Earthships, living debt-free with minimal possessions and minimal environmental footprint, and growing one’s own organic, non-GMO foods in urban gardens – on rooftops, in vertical boxes, on balconies and on kitchen window sills, or simply moving back to the land and acquiring the skills to return to farming.

Do you know how to grow your own foods? How to get a plant from seed to harvest? I don’t. But we have the greatest tool of any generation: The internet. Such knowledge can be passed on to anyone and everyone via YouTube tutorials, Instructables & Wikihow, and whoever’s willing to roll up their sleeves and learn.

Per Person

Back in March, when Switzerland went into our first lockdown, a friend sent me a list of what the Swiss government recommends as emergency supplies for a week. This list is likely more focused on the scenario of a village being temporarily cut off by an avalanche or landslide, which is a very real threat in some areas here; it’s nevertheless a good starting point of things to think about to prepare for longer crises, such as Covid-19 has faced us with:

  • Water – 3 litres per person per day (extra for house pets, hygiene, etc.)
  • Fruit & vegetable juices
  • Rice, pasta
  • Oils and butters / lards
  • Powdered soups
  • Sugar, jams & honey
  • Bouillon, salt, pepper
  • Coffee, powdered chocolate, tea
  • Dehydrated fruits
  • Pulses (dried or canned)
  • Twice-baked breads, crackers
  • Chocolate
  • Condensed milk, UHT milk
  • Hard cheeses (can be frozen), sausages, dried meats, jerky
  • Special foods for infants and pets
  • Transistor radio, torch (flashlight) & extra batteries
  • Candles, matches, lighters
  • Gas canister for camping lights and / or grill
  • Soaps, loo rolls (toilet paper), hygiene articles
  • Extra prescription medicines, aspirins
  • Bandages, gauzes, salves, first-aid supplies
  • Facemasks, hand disinfectants, disposable gloves

That last item was certainly felt here if you didn’t have it: hand disinfectants went off the shelves fast, and when they returned, they were four times more expensive than before. We had some on hand, so we were able to bridge the gap in the empty shelves and can wait until the prices go back down.

Consider How & What You Eat

Below are a few areas to think about when preparing for times of crisis; some of these points may be logical and daily practice for some of you, but others might not have had someone guiding them:

  • Go through your cupboards and make an inventory of what you have; move the oldest to the front, so that they’ll be used first.
  • Your food budget probably won’t allow you to buy supplies for months all at once, so learn to think ahead as you do your normal shopping: Look for foods you usually eat and buy them double, or in 3-for-2 sales packages. Stock up gradually, and as you cycle your consumption (oldest first), replace them when you can; this will give you buffer room in a time of shortage.
  • Make a list of what you usually like to eat: Cross off the following: restaurants, take-away, deliveries, pre-packaged meals, frozen dinners (they’ll be crossed off for you anyway, come next lockdown…). What do you have left? Those things crossed out will (should) be the first to go any time things are tight financially. Cooking at home is far more economical, healthy, and psychologically fulfilling.
  • Learn ways to store foods longer-term than fresh: Canning, dehydration, freezing, jerky, fruit leathers, etc. The principle of “oldest first” applies to these goods, too.
  • Don’t buy foods you don’t eat. If you’ve never eaten beans in your life, don’t hoard cans of them. Don’t buy things you’ll never use, and use the things you have. If you have foods you’re not sure how to prepare, find out – Pinterest, Google, and dozens of websites will guide you.

I have two dehydrators, and I use them frequently; there are some staples that I always have in dried form – onions, potatoes, dried fruits, tomatoes, etc. The flavour is amazing, and the nutrients are retained during the slow drying process. I store all my foods in bail lid or mason jars (click here to see why); it looks appealing, and I can see exactly what I’ve got. If you’ve never dehydrated, it might be something worth thinking about – if you don’t have space/budget for a dehydrator, there are instructions for doing so in your oven or outside if you live in a sunny, dry environment.

Build Your Resources

What would happen if, for whatever reason, the internet were to go dark, or your connection becomes unreliable? I’ve heard a joke that says Italians can’t speak if you make them sit on their hands, and I think the same could be said that nowadays, many people can’t think without Google or Wikipedia. So build your resources; start getting books on topics like emergency first-aid, foraging plants for your region (and do your local parks have walnut trees, apple trees, stinging nettles or edible greens?), gardening, household repairs, and even novels for a bit of an escape. And add a cookbook or two while you’re at it – e.g. the kinds that show you how to cook on a shoestring budget, how to prepare foraged foods, or how to preserve foods.

During the first wave of the Coronavirus, hospitals here were put onto “triage” mode – that means only patients were getting treated who had life-threatening issues. A broken arm isn’t life-threatening, so you may be stuck with one for weeks on end until your doctor has an opening. Would you know how to treat it in the meantime? A friend of ours here had to experience that first-hand, so be prepared just in case. Hopefully you’ll never need those skills or bandages, but to need them and not have them is worse.

Acquire Skills

It’s fairly inevitable that an economic depression is on the way, with so many businesses and individuals in some countries having survived on the “just now” principle – just enough revenue to pay the bills, with no buffer in the bank account (and many stores were operating on the same principle, which is one reason why shelves emptied so fast when supply lines broke down). Many people will be faced with unemployment; so use the time wisely by learning a new skill or honing a dusty one. The more you learn about a new skill, the more you’ll also learn about yourself. Someone who is motivated to learn something new has more self-confidence, will be more attractive for potential employers, or will even enable you to step out entrepreneurially. It will give you more job flexibility and more enjoyment. Not all skills have to do with monetary gain; some are for pure enjoyment, such as learning to play an instrument, which will bolster your mental health, enabling you to face things more squarely.

Think Outside the Box

What happens if the monetary system breaks down? Remember that adage about history? There have been times in recent history when a country’s currency had become less valuable than wallpaper – and people used their banknotes for that purpose. Banknotes have only been accepted as currency just over 300 years – a blip in history, really. So how were things traded before that? Sometimes with pieces of silver jewellery (called “hacksilver”), or gold, but often it was a matter of bartering – trading skill or service for service or skill: One neighbour might know how to do plumbing, and you might know how to upholster chairs. If you have marketable skills, consider tutoring online or via Skype or Zoom. Essential in this principle is getting outside your comfort zone and getting to know those you live cheek by jowl with. How many people, who live in an apartment building (block of flats) have no idea who their neighbour is, beyond their name?

True, in Corona times social distancing is important; but get to know the neighbours anyway: Talk to them in passing; perhaps even introduce yourself with a short note of introduction, telling them who you are, what you do, and your hopes that community can grow in your building. If you already know your neighbours, let them know that you’re willing to help out – offering help first makes it easier to ask when you need it, and makes them more eager to help in return.

I hope this helps; it’s easy to lose perspective in times of crisis, and the more prepared we are with the essentials, the faster we’ll be able to get our feet back under ourselves, and the more secure and less stressed we’ll be in the long run.

[*The original draft of this article was cleverly DELETED by WordPress’s new editing program in the blink of an eye, with NO draft backup, because they went and messed with a good thing again and completely changed their entire post layout function; apparently they have yet to learn the meaning of the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.]

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From Trash to Treasure

When I’m working on the computer, sometimes I like to have music playing in the background; YouTube has a good selection of long-play pieces. Recently, I was listening to Lindsey Stirling, one of our favourite artists, and she did a video with members of the Landfill Harmonic (you can watch that video by clicking here).

If you haven’t heard of the Landfill Harmonic, it is a group of teenagers living on a rubbish dump in Paraguay; they have been formed into an orchestra – but in a place where a violin would be more expensive than a house and would likely be stolen, their instruments are trash. Literally. Not only have they found new skills through mastering the quirks of their individual instruments, but the project has given them a purpose – a voice that they would otherwise never have had. It keeps them out of gangs, and transports them, even if for only a little while, to another place in their hearts. It has the potential to turn the tide for the rising generation in their area, and that should be enough to inspire all of us to find the hidden treasures in the things and in the people around us. Most of all, it encourages me to never underestimate the power of vision and purpose in and on the human spirit!

Just click on the image below to see a short but inspiring clip about the orchestra:

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Euphemisms: Stupidity

Euphemisms… we use them daily, whether we realize it or not. They abound in English, multiplying like rabbits in every dark corner of life. In fact, they hardly ever multiply in the sunny spots, because we don’t require them there. The very definition of the word confirms that notion: “The use of a word or phrase to replace another with one that is considered less offensive, blunt or vulgar than the word or phrase which it replaces.”

euphemism - Dog, Doing BusinessEvery generation creates new ones, because a parent’s euphemism becomes the general term which is then too close to the original meaning, and so the children get creative with words, and so on. There are a few euphemisms that have remained unchanged over centuries, such as passed away, which came into English from the French “passer” (to pass) in the 10th century; others shift gradually, such as the word “nice”: When it first entered English from the French in the 13th century, it meant foolish, ignorant, frivolous or senseless. It graduated to mean precise or careful [in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Anne Elliot is speaking with her cousin about good society; Mr Elliot reponds, “Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.”  Austen also reflects the next semantic change in meaning (which began to develop in the late 1760s): Within “Persuasion”, there are several instances of “nice” also meaning agreeable or delightful (as in the nice pavement of Bath).]. As with nice, the side-stepping manoeuvres of polite society’s language shift over time, giving us a wide variety of colourful options to choose from.

Recently, my husband and I were talking about the topic, and the specifics of the word stupid came up; so without further ado, here’s a round-up of ways of getting around describing someone as stupid, dumb, or, well, an ass:

  • Thick as a post
  • Doesn’t have both oars in the water
  • Two sandwiches shy of a picnic
  • A beer short of a six-pack
  • A brick short of a load
  • A pickle short of a barrel
  • Has delusions of adequacy
  • Has a leak in their think-tank
  • Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
  • Not the sharpest tack in the box
  • Not the sharpest pencil in the box
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed
  • His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
  • His cheese has slipped off his cracker
  • The light’s on but nobody’s home
  • If you stand close enough to them, you’d hear the ocean
  • Mind like a rubber bear trap
  • Would be out of their depth in a mud puddle
  • Their elevator is stuck between two floors
  • They’re not tied to the pier
  • One prop short of a plane
  • Off his rocker
  • Not the brightest light in the harbour
  • Not the brightest bulb in the pack
  • Has a few loose screws
  • So dense, light bends around them
  • Their elevator/lift doesn’t reach the top floor
  • Dumber than a bag of rocks
  • Dumber than a hammer
  • Fell out of the family tree
  • Doesn’t have all the dots on his dice
  • As slow as molasses in winter
  • As smart as bait
  • Has an intellect only rivalled by garden tools
  • A few clowns short of a circus
  • Silly as a goose
  • Addlepated
  • Dunderheaded
  • A few peas short of a casserole
  • Isn’t playing with a full deck of cards
  • Has lost his marbles / isn’t playing with all his marbles
  • Has bats in his belfry
  • A dim bulb
  • He’s got cobwebs in his attic
  • Couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag
  • Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
  • If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t blow his nose

I’m sure there are dozens more! If you know of any that haven’t made this list, please put them in a comment below!

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Design Undusted: Norman Doors

You have all come in contact with a Norman Door, even if you might not have known that’s what it was called. Remember the last time you tried to go through a push door by pulling on it? That’s a Norman Door. The name comes from Donald Norman who, after spending time in the UK, wrote a book called, “The Psychology of Everyday Things“, later changed to, “The Design of Everyday Things“. Doors are a prevalent example: Every building has them, but they are not necessarily put through any stringent tests of user-friendliness; if the hinges are hung straight, and the door swings one way or the other, that’s usually enough to pass. Donald Norman’s point is that if people are using a product the wrong way, it’s not their fault – it’s poorly designed. He popularized the term “user-centred design” – designs based on the needs of the users, whoever and however many they might be. Below are a few examples of failed designs – either inconvenient to use or just downright impossible. Next time you come across an object with poor usability, you’ll at least know what to call it.

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Nature Undusted: Magnetic (Gravity) Hills

When I was growing up, I went to a place called Silver Dollar City (in Branson, Missouri) several times; it is a family amusement park with rides and various attractions. One of my favourite attractions was a house that played with your mind: It had water running up a drain, floors that tilted at different angles from room to room, and optical illusions that played with proportions and directions in your perceptions. You simply couldn’t trust what you felt or saw while in that house, and when you came out, it took a minute or two to right your bearings again.

But did you know that there are natural anomalies? Throughout the world, there are areas known as magnetic hills, magic roads or gravity hills. Due to the surrounding geography, the road or stream may appear to be going uphill, when in fact it’s going downhill; this makes water look like it’s flowing upward, or cars in neutral appear to be defying gravity by rolling uphill. It’s nothing more than an optical illusion, but such places attract visitors, the curious and the thrill-seekers.

Wikipedia has a list of over a hundred recognized places; chances are, there might be one near you.

To see the phenomena, click on this link to a short YouTube video about New Brunswick, Canada and the history of what was first known as “Fool’s Hill”.

Magnetic Hill

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So Many Projects, So Little Time…

I feel like I’ve been gone for ages – and I guess I have! With the world on hold through lockdown, more than just our social calendar seems to have been turned topsy-turvy. I’m sure I’m not alone in that, but it seems like a lot of routines, such as writing weekly blogs, went on hold as we tried to get our lives back on track through the time of lockdown, of switching to home-office and the changed schedules that brought with it. On one hand, I seemed to have more time on my hands (what with our social agendas being cancelled wholesale), but on the other hand, projects that had been put off wanted tackling. Lockdown is the perfect time to do things like clean out the cellar or deal with household repairs.

One thing I tackled was my craft room: I do a lot of crafts, and I also help people do crafts for projects – whether it’s a personal gift they want to make but don’t know how, or stage props, or repairs to jewellery or baby albums, or making the table settings for celebration dinner parties or anything in between. Because of that, I have a good supply of most supplies I might need. I also do a lot of upcycling crafts – aka tons of plastics, metals, etc. All of that requires space. It went from this…

…to this:

Everything in the cupboard and to the right of it was made in the past 3 weeks. The employees at our local grocery store got used to me raiding their cardboard stacks on my weekly shopping trips! All of the material used was free; to decorate, I used old wrapping papers, magazine pages, old craft book pages, outdated maps, brochures and old music sheets. Handles were made out of everything from old jewellery to cardboard to bottle caps. The boxes atop the dresser (below) were made previously, using beer advent calendar boxes (my husband got the beer, I got the boxes – win-win!).

Now that that sizeable project is done, I’m looking forward to getting back into a full writing rhythm, including blogs! I apologize for my long silence, but as you can see, it wasn’t idle time. While working on paper maché, I was percolating ideas for both my novel and for interesting topics to investigate for this blog – so keep your eyes on this space – there will be more to come soon! 🙂

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Scandinavian ‘magic sticks’ – yeast logs & yeast rings

Here’s a great little piece of history “undusted”: Have you ever wondered what came before sourdough bread, or why it works? Yeast. And the history behind the symbiotic relationship between humans and that little single-celled microorganism is fascinating.

Medieval Mead and Beer

Likely one of the first organisms domesticated by man, yeast was kept at the ready using many different storage techniques throughout history. One of the oldest such known practices are the Ancient Egyptian yeast breads: delicately baked little loaves of yeasty goodness which, when crumbled into sweet liquid, would create a new yeast starter – for beer, or to leaven bread. For most of man & yeast’s history, bread yeast and beer yeast were the same. The user often had a clear preference, either for keeping the top yeast (barm) or the bottom yeast (lees). But this preference seems more random than geographic, as one farmer would prefer the top, his neighbor the bottom and some would save both – and the yeast would be used for anything that needed fermentation.

two unusual yeast wreaths

A yeast ring made out of sheep vertebrae, Gjærkrans HF-00244 (left photo: Hadeland Folkemuseum) and a teethy straw…

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Food History Undusted: Mac & Cheese

As I recently mentioned, we had problems with kitchen moths; the source has been found (dates) – the jar which contained them also isolated them; I played the jar like a maraca and sang “La Cucaracha” as we put them in the compost. We are now moth-free! Woo-hoo!

We really appreciate the advantages of storing everything in glass jars: It looks pretty, we can see exactly how much we have, what we have, and it’s inviting to be creative in meal planning. One of the pasta jars we have contains mini “Hörnli / Hoernli” – the Swiss word for “little horns” and what the rest of the world probably refers to as macaroni. The topic came up as a meal idea, and of course, being us, we got into the historical aspect. Where did it originally come from? Did it arrive in America with Italian immigrants or is it a hybrid dish?

Mac & Cheese History

This image above is nearly sacrilege for many people, myself included – I cannot imagine eating pasta from a can! But just after World War 2, manufacturing of canned goods, frozen meals and the like were coming into their stride as families pieced their lives back together and got on with the business of rebuilding the country and economy; televisions entered the home mainstream in the early 1950s (think black and white, rabbit ear antennas, no remote and 2 channels) – but that’s another topic. Product placement during television programmes and news was a major factor in influencing the purchasing power of the average consumer (product placement may have begun as early as 1873, when Jules Verne’s fame led shipping companies to lobby being mentioned by name in his upcoming novel,  “Around the World in 80 Days”).*

The oldest known reference to a dish that may be recognizable as the ancestor to the modern concoction is from the 13th century, from someone in the court of Charles II of Anjou who was familiar with the Neapolitan court; the dish was basically prepared with sheets of lasagne sliced into small squares, cooked in water and tossed with Parmesan cheese. The American version some might be more familiar with has two claims to ancestry: Either it began as a Connecticut church supper dish known as Macaroni Pudding, or it was brought over from Italy in the form of a recipe by Thomas Jefferson, who also brought back a pasta machine.

So, where was the noodle dish invented that we know today as “Macaroni and Cheese”? Switzerland, of course!

The dish, known as “Älplermagronen” (=”Alpine herders’ macaroni“) in the German-speaking areas and “Macaroni du Chalet” in the French-speaking areas, is made with those Hörnli, also known as “Magronen”, which were dubbed for the horns of the cattle, sheep and goats which the herders tend. The cheese was often a local product from the milk of those very animals, and the dry pasta was easy to hike up to their summer chalets where they slept on the Alps during the summer grazing seasons.

For a good, long read about the history of the pasta, click here for a “BBC Travel” article on the topic – and get a good taste of the Swiss Alps in the meal! And be honest – how many of you have a hankering for Mac & cheese after reading this? Click on the image below for an authentic recipe.

Alplermagronen - Betty Bossi

Image credit: Betty Bossi (the Swiss version of Betty Crocker)

 

*Information source: Wikipedia, William Butcher (translation and introduction). Around the World in Eighty Days, Oxford Worlds Classics, 1995, Introduction.

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