Failed Research #1: Pasta Salad

I am having a moment where I am legitimately angry with the idea of pasta salad. Bear with me, here; this is going somewhere.

I’ve been generally passively apathetic about pasta salad in the past. But I was talking to a friend about it today and commented that pasta salad is fine if it doesn’t have tomatoes or onions in it (the former ends up with a consistency I can’t handle and the latter I just don’t like). And then it snowballed. Pasta salad is fine if it doesn’t have tomatoes or onions in it. Or anything else that loses its texture. Or if it has a sweet dressing. Or if it’s too dry. Or if it’s too wet. And then it was just this realization that pasta salad is just sucky cold pasta. The noodles are never cooked right, there are like a million ways to prepare it and somehow none of those is especially good, there’s always something in it that is texturally jarring, it’s always too something, and it’s never anything more exciting than “bland”. So now I’m feeling aggrieved by the years of picnic pasta salads and demanding answers as to who (the Midwesterners, I am absolutely certain) is responsible! My Google search went, “who is responsible for pasta salad” like I have been personally attacked (which, incidentally, made Google think that I’m trying to organize a neighbourhood BBQ and have lost track of the fact that Jan is responsible for the pasta salad and/or need a dozen recipes for pasta salad with tomatoes).

Here’s the kicker: I can’t seem to find a good answer. The best information I could find was that pasta salads have been appearing in American cookbooks since at least the mid-1910s, but didn’t gain popularity until the 1980s. A 1916 pasta salad uses a vinegar base and is “folded into whipped cream“, which sounds…hideous. Also, there’s apparently a designation between macaroni salad (mayo based) and pasta salad (vinegar based), which…WHAT? WHY?!?

Whatever we’re calling it, there are no academic sources to be found on this pasta dish that definitely came from somewhere in the Midwest, which makes me as much of an expert on this as anyone. I’m just going to say it came out of the Midwest — because, be honest, where else would it have come out of?* — and be done with it.

*Are you familiar with Cincinnati chili?

I know I’m behind. I’ve been crazy busy and have about a half dozen half-written posts. I’ll get back to them when I get my life back next month.


Lesson #414: Medieval Testicle Removal

A coworker brought me to this lesson when she told me that people in medieval times believed that the left testicle was responsible for female children and, consequently, had a gonadectomy of the left testicle to help ensure a male child.

I know what you’re thinking. That is patently absurd! Sources or GTFO!

Sources for this are…awful. At best, this is a gobbet passed around the interwebs with some uncited small basis in historical fact. More likely, this is the same complete bullshit as the idea floating about the internet that the boiling point of saliva is three times that of regular water.

The best information I can find on this is a single sentence reference to it in a larger response on a page of The Tech Museum of Innovation’s site. But if we look at this logically, it doesn’t make any sense. Even if a bunch of men in medieval Europe — this is an assumption based on the fact that the medieval period in the Eastern world is far more advanced than Europe is — had their left testicles removed, statistically speaking, they still stood a 50% chance of coming out with a female child at the end of gestation. Surely people with some brains would have gotten together and said, “so…that didn’t work” and stopped with the lopping off of testes.

Obviously, I don’t have access to any primary source materials. But lots of places with lots of scholars do. And if there were primary source materials that said, “for a while there, we thought we’d get all boys if we castrated ourselves”, that information would be all over the place. Because the west loves to talk about balls. So let’s just go ahead and take this for what it is — a story that seems good for a light chuckle on the surface while it simultaneously disparages medieval culture for being seemingly lacking in common sense and enforces the patriarchal and historical notion that female children are worth less than male children.

So we’re in agreement then? We’re going to settle on the fact that men in medieval Europe didn’t go about removing a testicle so they could have male children. Cool? Cool.

Lesson #413: Armed Yachts

As promised, this week we take a look at armed yachts. Because it amuses me when disparate things come together to make a frankenthing.

Sometimes when I look into things, I come out of it feeling like I don’t have a good understanding of what the story is. This is one of those times. I think maybe my understanding of what a yacht is not as fluid as it should be. I also think I’m unclear about who actually owns the yachts, particularly in relation to the Royal Yacht Squadron. All the reading makes it seem like membership in certain yacht clubs — in this particular case, those yacht clubs that are part of the Royal Yacht Squadron — means that one’s vessel may be commandeered by a country’s Navy in times of need. So I guess I own the boat until I don’t, but then I might again? But also, these vessels were staffed in ways that suggest that these yachts were not the size of the boats I’m imagining in my head, so how big were they and what function were they serving in peacetime? I have a lot of unanswered questions.

Anyway, the requisition and use of private yachts in times of war has been used by the American, British, and Canadian Navies. The former two used them in both the First and Second World Wars, the latter in only the Second World War. While the British Navy appear to have operated under a volunteer system — in which a yacht-owner would become a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, which could commandeer the vessel at any point — the US Navy appears to have bought most their yachts from the previous owners and then retrofitted them with weaponry. The Royal Canadian Navy seems to have done the same, though they had only a small fleet of a dozen armed yachts.

The earliest reference I can find to armed yachts is a tally of yachts belonging to the Royal Yacht clubs in England in 1846, which the authors of The Royal Yacht Squadron estimate had a total of 530 vessels carrying 1500 guns. These yachts were outfitted with guns anywhere from one-and-a-half pounders to nine pounders. Some World War II era American armed yachts were outfitted with .50 caliber guns. That seem like a lot for a yacht, but, as previously mentioned, my yacht knowledge is nil. So, you know, what do I know? Scholars suggest that arming yachts was a remnant of the days of privateers and piracy — which will come full circle later.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find out how many of the 700 vessels of the Little Ships of Dunkirk were armed yachts because I felt like that would give me a better grasp of exactly what I was looking at, as far as the size of the vessels. Most of what I found was about the historical accuracy of the use of the Little Ships in the film Dunkirk. I could find only one mention of armed yachts, a record of the sinking of the HMS Narcissus off the coast of Dunkirk on 1 June, 1940.

I can find no information on the Royal Yacht Squadron’s website about whether their vessels are still armed, nor whether vessels belonging to the Royal Yacht Squadron may still be commandeered in times of war.

There is actual art dedicated to armed yachts, in case that sort of thing interests you.

Finally, armed yachts are not a historical blip, though obviously there’s a different context for arming yachts these days.

I just wrote a whole lesson about something I still don’t understand at the end of it. This a. must be how astro- and theoretical physicists feel all the time and b. is why I was never good at bullshitting research papers. This post feels like it’s five separate posts that only vaguely connect together, and nothing is clear at all. This is the point in writing where, I’d scrap the entire thing and go back over the research to find a different topic.

Lesson #412: The Shortest War in History

Generally speaking, we’re a fan of conflict around these parts. I guess fan isn’t the right word, exactly, but it makes up literally all of my graduate schooling over three different degree programs. But for all the destruction and resulting problems wars bring with them, they are not always the protracted affairs the likes of say, The Three Hundred and Thirty-Five Years’ War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly, which accidentally lasted 335 years because everyone forgot they were at war. Case in point, the Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted a total of 38 minutes.

The story is a bit like every story you’ve probably heard about colonial powers attempting to control local rulers in Africa and install men sympathetic to colonial interests. In 1893, with newfound control over Zanzibar* after the signing of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, Britain declared Hamad bin Thuwaini Sultan of Zanzibar. Because our man Hamad was pro-British. In 1896, bin Thuwaini died suddenly — most likely because his cousin and successor Khalid bin Barghash poisoned him in order to claim the throne.**

Anyway, after installing himself as his cousin’s successor, bin Barghash went about it like he owned the place, and the British government were a bit, “hang on a moment”. Bin Barhash, undaunted, started amassing his army. By all accounts, the Zanzibaris were surprisingly well armed, though I can find no explanation for how or why this was the case. Meanwhile, Britain were bringing in five warships, mostly as a show of strength, thinking bin Barghash would look at the harbour and think, “this is a spectacularly terrible idea”. Except bin Barghash was fully invested in being the Sultan and instead went, “you’re not actually going to shoot us”, and Britain replied, “well, we don’t want to, but we will“.

When bin Barghash refused to abdicate by 9am on 27 August, 1896, British Men of War positioned in the harbour fired on the palace. By the time the shelling ended 38 minutes later, bin Barghash had escaped out the back door and the 3000 remaining members of his armed forces and civilians yanked down the Sultan’s flag, ending the Anglo-Zanzibar war.

In addition to being the shortest war, it might be the war with the highest death rate per capita. In the course of 38 minutes, 500 Zanzibaris were killed. To give you some perspective, before the civil war began in 2011, the population of Syria was 23 million. At the rate of 500 casualties per 38 minutes, the entire population of Syria would have been wiped out in 1214 days (or a little over three years and four months).

Our friend Khalid bin Barghash got himself to the German consulate — at the time, Germany controlled Tanzania — which secreted him off to Tanzania and refused to extradite him back to Zanzibar. He was eventually captured in 1916 when British Forces went schlepping through East Africa during the First World War. He was exiled on Saint Helena for a while, but died in Zanzibar in 1927, so it’s unclear how much time he was exiled.

I think the most interesting tidbit in this entire thing is that the Zanzibari navy consisted of a single vessel: an armed yacht gifted by Queen Victoria to Hamad bin Thuwaini. Armed. Yacht! Is this a thing? As someone who doesn’t make anything close to yacht money and isn’t pretty or powerful enough to weasel her way in to yacht money circles, my experience with yachts is nil. But it turns out there is a pretty fascinating history of armed yachts, you guys! Join me next week for a look into Commonwealth types arming their yachts.

Back to the topic at hand, there isn’t a lot of solid academic information on the Anglo-Zanzibar War online, but the Wiki page is well-sourced if you’re looking for references. More here and here.

*I’m going to assume that everyone’s knowledge of Zanzibar can be summed up thusly: it’s an island, Freddie Mercury was from there, and there’s a reference to it in a Tenacious D song.

**Lesson 412b: there is no express word for the murder of one’s cousin, despite the fact that there are words for the murder of pretty much everyone else in one’s family. Parricide, which refers to the murder of one’s parents can also apply to other close family members, though I think it rarely does.

The Revolutions Are Coming!

The other week, I mentioned that I would be starting to look at South American history because I know nothing about it. The problem is, when you know nearly nothing about a subject that’s already broad, you also know nearly nothing about where to start.  I figured the best approach was to start with what I know. And I know revolutions.

Right, now’s your chance to bail before I fully nerd out. I don’t get to play with revolutionary theory very often anymore. You’ve been warned.

There was a bit of my brain that went insane over this. Because once you start applying a context you know well to a situation you don’t, it’s a really fun intellectual game of if and how the construct of revolutionary theory — specifically western (and if you’re familiar with the concept of the north/south divide, that also becomes a factor) revolutionary theory — applies to South American revolutions. And where and why they overlap with other revolutions and where and why they differ. There’s a lot to look at, and I am here. for. it.

Starting with Chile in April, I’m doing a monthly series on revolutions! We’re going on a trip around the world to look at the patterns of revolution and see what we can do about sorting out what the fifth generation definition of revolution might be. I had wanted to look at this as my thesis project when I was doing my second MA, but it was WAY too big a topic for the amount of time we had. My advisor told me that what I was staring at was a PhD project. So that idea was scuttled.* I still don’t exactly have the time — thus the monthly aspect — but I have no academic pressures and no deadlines. I learn what I learn at the pace I learn it. Of course, the downside to not having academic pressures or deadlines is that I also don’t have access to academic databases that would be helpful.

BUT! I’m smarter than the average bear. I’m only two years outdated on the academic research because I saved PDFs of every single article I pulled for my initial research phase of that scuttled project. I may also be able to persuade a friend who is taking some extra coursework in tax law to download an article or two for me.

These entries are going to be more academic and more detailed than most of what I’ve posted here. Because I want the challenge of it. You’re free to skip them (I mean, you’re free to skip any and all of my posts, really). They’ll be drier than my normal posts. But if you want to “watch” me work through an academic process, as it were, hang out! See what happens!

*It ended up being about nationalism and violence in second- and third-culture football fans in North America.

Lesson #411: Why September Is Not the Seventh Month

I was doing some things with larger numbers this week. Septillion through decillion large. Which got me onto how September’s name implies it is the seventh of something, but it’s the ninth month in the Gregorian calendar. October is not the eighth month, November is not the ninth month, and December is not the tenth month.

So how did we get here, misnaming our months?

The answer is actually pretty simple. In the ten-month, lunar-based Roman calendar, September was the seventh month of the year and was followed by October, November, and December. Then, when the Roman calendar was replaced by the Julian calendar in the first century BCE, no one thought, “hey…this doesn’t really follow anymore”. Or, more likely, no one listened to the pedants who no doubt raised the very logical question of why we were mis-numbering months.

More on the Roman Calendar here and here.