This week, I did a major shopping at a couple Asian food stores; I stocked up on the ingredients I know, and some I didn’t; I like to get things I’ve never heard of, and do a bit of research on how to use it in cooking; things I picked up in that category are Iranian Kashk, which is a tangy fermented, yoghurt used as a condiment; canned palm hearts, which make a nice topping on desserts; and fermented black beans, which can be used in a variety of Asian dishes, including in a black bean sauce. I also bought several fresh vegetables and herbs to dehydrate and turn into a greens powder for adding flavours to dishes (I have a more usual greens powder with standard greens, like cauliflower leaves, spinach, etc. that I use daily).
One of the herbs I used was acacia leaf: When I opened the package, a pungent, sulphur-like smell hit me, and I wasn’t sure I’d use it. But when I began de-leafing it (much like you would thyme, though carefully as it’s got some vicious thorns!), it began to smell like mint! As I added lemongrass, Thai water spinach and other herbs, you can imagine the cacophony of fragrances in my kitchen – which filled the house as they dehydrated.
So what does this have to do with licorice? Well, one of the fresh herbs I also processed was Thai basil; I’d never used it before, and when I opened the packaging, a wave of anise- or licorice aroma hit me. And as usual, that set my mind off, thinking about the history of licorice!
Licorice is a flowering plant native to parts of Asia and Europe; its scientific name, Glycyrrhiza, comes from Greek and means “sweet root” (the linguistic roots are related to words like glycerine and rhizome); it is the ingredient that gives the signature flavour to black licorice, though today anise oil is often used as a substitute because the Glycyrrhiza can have toxic effects if ingested too much.
In looking into the history of this flavour, I came across a fascinating documentary: Ostensibly, it covers the history of the Switzer Licorice candy company. But in truth, it’s a fascinating historical insight into the history of Irish immigration, social unrest, the Irish famine, Irish revolution and exile, union labour foundations, World War 1 through the eyes of a family, the economic upheavals of war, rations and the company’s creative solutions, the history of sugar, post-war recovery, the Great Depression, the American Dream, candy-making, the rise of a family from Kerry Patch (the Irish ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri) to the suburbs, the history and development of St. Louis, and the demise of a family company resurrected by later generations. All in a 55-minute video!
To watch this fascinating slice of history, click here. To check out the company’s website, click here.
I hope you enjoy this short history, and while you’re at it, enjoy a piece of licorice!
I like to highlight, or “undust” figures or circumstances from history that few may have ever heard about, but that deserve to be remembered. Bessie Coleman is one such figure from history: In her life that was cut short, she made a difference by going against the norms and following her dreams, regardless of the limitations put on her by society because of her race and gender.
Born in January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, as the tenth of thirteen children in a sharecropper family, she worked in the cotton fields and attended a small, segregated school. She was not only African American but also had Cherokee heritage through her mixed-race father. Despite her humble beginnings, by 18 she’d managed to save enough money to attend one term of college at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Oklahoma, which was probably the closest university that would take a young black woman in the early 1900s. With no funds left, she moved back home, working and saving her money. At 23, she moved in with her brothers in Chicago, Illinois, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop; there, she heard the tales of World War I pilots, and her dream was born.
At the time, American aviation schools had no place for either African Americans or for women, but she was encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, to study abroad. He publicized her story in his newspaper, and she received the financial support to pursue her dream from a prominent African American banker, Jesse Binga, and from the Defender.
She took a French language course in Chicago, and in November 1920, she travelled to Paris to earn her pilot licence. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman as well as the first Native American to earn a pilot license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She then spent the next two months learning more from a French veteran pilot near Paris. In September 1921, she sailed back to America and became a media sensation.
With civilian commercial flights still a thing of the future, she would have to earn her money as a “barnstorming” stunt pilot. The skills needed to fly dangerous stunts were beyond her scope, and still out of her reach in America, so she again returned to Europe, where she trained in France. From there she went to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. At his company in Germany, she received further training from one of the company’s chief pilots. Returning once again to the US, she finally launched her career in exhibition flying.
“Queen Bess” was a popular draw for the next five years. She used public attention to engage audiences in promoting aviation and battling racism; she refused to take part in any aviation exhibitions that barred African Americans from attending. At one point, she was offered a role in a film, “Shadow and Sunshine.” She accepted, hoping that it would help her raise enough money to open her own aviation school. But when she learned that the first scene would portray her in ragged clothes, she walked off the set – her principles would not allow her to spread the disparaging image most whites had of most blacks.
Her goal was not just flying, but to make a difference in history; unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see just what a great influence she would have: On 30 April 1926, a faulty plane went into a dive and spin at 3,000 feet above ground; on the way down, Bess was thrown from the plane and killed on impact. Later, it was found that a wrench used to service the plane had been forgotten inside and had jammed the controls.
Posthumously, her name is honoured through the renaming of streets (including three in France), of roads near airports (including one at Frankfurt Germany’s international airport), a public library in Chicago, schools, aviation-related companies and wings of airports, scholarships, a US postage stamp (in 1995), a cartoon character, and she has been inducted into several halls of fame for both women as well as aviation; and last but certainly not least, she has a geological feature on the southern hemisphere of Pluto named in her honour, Coleman Mons.
Lieutenant William J. Powell dedicated his book, Black Wings, to her. His sentiment is summed up well in a quote: “We have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut in space, carried a photo of Bessie Coleman with her on her first mission.
What I find most inspiring about her story is not only her unwavering determination to reach her goals, but that throughout her life, she found people willing and able to support her in accomplishing it: Without the idea encouraged by a publisher to look beyond the borders of America and promoted in his newspaper to raise support, without the teachers in Europe investing in her skills (how many inter-war pilots could say they’d been trained by top war ace pilots?), and without the financial support given at a time she needed it, her dreams might have remained unfulfilled, or too long in the making – those parameters needed to make her into a pilot who inspired future generations shifted drastically with the outbreak of the Second World War.
In Esther 4:14, Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, tells her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” In the brief window of time that Bessie reached for the heavens, she may not have lived to see her legacy, but her life and death were not in vain.
Depending on where you are in the world, right now you’re feeling the effects of our global village more or less than others. Here in Switzerland, the Corona Virus is headline news. We’ve had a few cases here – 43; the government has issued instructions on how to sneeze properly (into your sleeve “elbow” or into a tissue), to stay home when sick, and to cease greeting rituals (here, that would involve either hand-shaking, three kisses on the cheeks, or hugs). Gatherings of over 1,000 people have been banned – goodbye, sports fan sections and exhibitions. Below that number, lists of participants must still be kept to trace any spread to a patient zero. This includes our church; it was strange not to hug people, and to checklist who attended. It might be just a matter of time before facemasks are commonly worn in public (they’re sold out here, but I’ve yet to see someone wearing them in public).
The global village is also felt in the breakdown of the chain of supplies for goods; many shelves in our supermarkets are empty. If tin cans are made in some outback area of China that has now been quarantined by the Chinese government, then companies canning foods in Europe don’t get the wares they need to keep their factories running – as soon as one interruption happens, it breaks the steady flow. If enough shelves empty, people begin to panic and hamster supplies. Remember Y2K? The panic induced by the media, in the end, came to nothing. Yet the media are once again being panic mongers by continually focusing on this issue. What else is happening in the world? I have no idea, because the Corona Virus has taken over the world press. What I do know is that this is now the new reality; we’ll just have to get used to it and get on with our lives.
Illustration credit: Mayo Clinic website
While I take all of this as seriously as it needs to be taken and find some of these measures sensible in any case of sickness, even the common cold, I am also a lover of history – so let me put the present crisis into a larger context:
The World Health Organization (based here in Switzerland, by the way) estimates that worldwide, annual influenza epidemics result in about 3-5 million cases of severe illness and about 291,000 to 646,000 deaths. That’s the old, run-of-the-mill flu, something that most of us, if not all, have had once (or even multiple times) in our lives.
The Covid-19 flu strain (known as the Corona Virus) is 10x likelier to be fatal.
The Spanish flu, which struck just after WW1 (and which is related to the Swine flu of 2009), killed an estimated 40-50 million (but could have been as high as 100 million). The common name is a misnomer: The reporting of the flu in Allied countries and in Germany was suppressed by wartime censors to avoid damaging already-low morale, but the newspapers were allowed to report cases in other countries, such as Spain. As a result, people thought the flu was heaviest there or had even begun there; thus, the common name. To put that in perspective of the Great War, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I is estimated to be about 40 million.
Going further back, the Black Death killed 50 million people in the 14th century (1346-53) – that was roughly 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time. It reset the economic and social structures, ending centuries of feudalism with its systems of lords, vassals and fiefdoms; it also killed off a disproportionate number of priests as they were infected while helping the sick (as well as the fact that they lived in closed communities). This necessitated a restructuring even of the church in some countries, opening the way for lay preachers and access to the Bible for common people (that’s a whole other topic).
These statistics shouldn’t induce panic; on the contrary: It shows us that life goes on. We should take precautions and practice sensible hygiene – washing hands when we come home from shopping or work, using hand disinfectant* when out, keeping distance as much as possible between ourselves and strangers when out in public, avoiding crowds of people, and avoiding physical contact with people outside the immediate family. But in the end, it is what it is; we can do what we can do, and no more. [* In case hand disinfectant is sold out in your area, you can make your own: Proportion into a pump or squeeze bottle 1/3-1/2 aloe vera gel (as close to 100% aloe vera as you can get), 2/3 rubbing alcohol or any alcohol with 60% vol. or more, and a few drops of essential oils for scent.]
How we respond to the present crisis will show our mettle; there’s no need to panic, to hoard, or to isolate ourselves behind closed doors. Hopefully, the current climate of raised awareness will linger; that it will teach people to consider others (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been greeted with three kisses, only to be told after the fact that the other person is sick! I’d rather be warned and be able to have a choice in exposing myself or not, thank you very little…) and to generally adopt more hygienic practices even when sick with a common cold.
For me, far more important than the outward circumstances is the heart of a community that manifests itself in times of crisis. If we could look into individual communities in those past ages, we would almost certainly see people supporting others; groups who united to help the families affected. The human stories would most certainly be inspirational. There are numerous contemporary examples of natural disasters in which people have pulled together, whether locally or internationally, and helped the helpless. I can think of a dozen people in our church who would cook meals or run errands for those who are sick, and I’m sure there are far more people out there willing to step out of their own isolated, daily bubbles – and that’s where such a crisis becomes a blessing to communities, in the long run.
History can be confusing sometimes, especially if it’s distant – beyond our own experience. Who’s who, who did what, and what the consequences were can all seem a bit vague. The analogy below, put into a relatable context, may help you visualize an important bit of world history; I don’t know who came up with the original piece, but it’s brilliant! I’ve made several additions here and there, but otherwise, it’s someone else’s work – if anyone knows who originally came up with this analogy, please let me know so that I can give credit where credit is due!
If World War I were a Bar Fight
Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria’s pint. Austria demands Serbia buy it a whole new suit because of the new beer stains on its trouser leg. Germany expresses its support of Austria’s point of view.
Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit.
Serbia points out that it can’t afford a whole new suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria’s trousers. Russia and Serbia look at Austria. Austria asks Serbia who they’re looking at. Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone. Austria inquires as to whose army will help Russia make them do so.
Germany appeals to Britain that France has been eyeing Britain, and that it’s unwise for Britain not to intervene. Britain replies that France can look at whoever it wants to, and that Britain has been watching Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it? Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action anymore. Britain and France ask Germany whether it’s looking at Belgium.
Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper. When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone.
Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium and Luxembourg, who had been minding their own business at the end of the bar. France and Britain punch Germany; Austria punches Bosnia and Herzegovina (which Russia and Serbia took personally); Germany punches Britain and France with one fist and Russia with the other. Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over.
Japan calls from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there.
Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria. Australia punches Turkey and gets punched back. There are no hard feelings, however, because Britain made Australia do it.
France gets thrown through a plate-glass window, but gets back up and carries on fighting. Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out, suffers brain damage, and wakes up with a complete personality change.
Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway. Italy raises both fists in the air and runs around the room chanting. America waits until Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool and pretends it won the fight all by itself.
By now all the chairs are broken and the big mirror over the bar is shattered. Britain, France and America agree that Germany threw the first punch, so the whole thing is Germany’s fault. While Germany is still unconscious, they go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.
Everyone went home, leaving Germany to pout on the floor planning on how to get even.
Originally posted on History Undusted, September 2015
It’s been a while since I last blogged; sometimes, life just takes over, but I’m back into “normal” life (though that’s usually just a setting on my washing machine). My husband and I just returned from a week-long wedding in Francavilla al mare, in the region of Abruzzo, Italy; the groom was from England & Chile, and the bride was from Switzerland – so it wasn’t a typical Italian wedding by any stretch of the imagination; it wasn’t a typical wedding period. Languages flew faster than seagulls at the beach resort where we were staying; you could hear English, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romansch, French, Swiss-German, High German, Danish, and a host of other tongues – and those were just the wedding guests. What made the wedding even more special was the mix of people: The groom was Daniel Ilabaca, co-founder of the World Parkour and Freerunning Federation, so most of the guests were from that scene; his wife Paula is a good friend of ours who’s lived with us off and on over the years, and we got to know him and the work they do through her. Near the hotel is a permanent Parkour installation on the beach, and at the wedding reception, a slackline was set up on the beach for the guests (whether walking the line or not, we all enjoyed it!). If you’re not familiar with Parkour, or what a slackline is, click here for a video; you’ll see the slackline at 1:10.
I’ve lived in Switzerland for over a quarter of a century; in all that time, we’ve never gone into Italy except the border areas around Como or South Tirol, so a road trip down to the east coast, roughly level with Rome, was a new experience. While there, we experienced a few cultural differences. The saying When in Rome, do as the Romans has never been closer to home than this trip!
The first thing we noticed on Italian streets is the Italian way of driving: Italians love their cars, so you would think they wouldn’t risk life and limb with their driving tactics. I say risk, but that’s obviously not how they see it: In any other country I’ve lived in, a general rule of driving is one car length’s distance per 10 km of speed – this gives you reaction time. But in Italy, regardless of how fast you’re driving, you will have a driver relentlessly glued to your tailpipe. My family history gives me little patience for idiots on the road, dare I say it – for drivers who endanger others with their way of driving. But in Italy, we observed several surprising things over the course of our trip:
The traffic, even on stretches of motorway around densely populated areas, flowed uninterruptedly and swiftly. The only times we had to stop on the motorways were when we queued for their toll gates. We didn’t see one accident, and the roads are smooth. Swiss roads tend to be clogged with tons of traffic on narrow roads (less space between the mountains and antique towns to spread out a wide motorway) and construction zones at the slightest hint of a pothole in the road. What usually takes us under three hours to drive home (e.g. from Lugano) took us over five hours this trip (for those of you into numbers, we averaged 84 km/hr in Italy, and 44 km/hr in Switzerland…)
Speed limits are just a suggestion there; if you’re not going at least 15 km over the number on the road sign, you’re obviously going too slow. Not even the presence of a police car on the road slowed them down.
Tailgaters appear out of thin air. Even in the backwaters of the Italian countryside, without a car in sight, within ten seconds of getting on a road, we had someone so close that we couldn’t even see their front license plate in the rear-view mirrors. We began making up reasons for this behaviour; our most logical one is that Italians are family-oriented, and they just didn’t want us to feel lonely.
Italians are famous for their food; for the most part, we ate excellent meals at restaurants, but just like anywhere else, sometimes food can be indifferent. The ravioli at Restaurant X might not be anything to write home about, but the ice cream? That’s where they really excel! Any flavour you can think of, they probably have it somewhere. Even cheesecake ice cream that really tastes like its namesake!
Did you know that there’s a German-speaking part of Italy? South Tyrol (also called Trentino-Alto Adige) used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but was given to Italy by the Allies during the Treaty of London in 1915 – a “perk” to entice Italy to join their side in the war. This area now has 18,400 hectares of orchards, making it the largest contiguous apple-producing area in the EU. Driving through the area, we now know where the apples we eat come from – and that their farming practices are organic, rejecting the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
A week in our neighbouring land gave us a small taste for the diversity and beauty of northern and central Italy; it won’t be our last road trip!