• Saturday, March 08th, 2014

Emma Curtis developing marshmallow recipes in her lab in Melrose, Massachusetts, in about 1915

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in North Shore Sunday in February 2007.

When state senator Jarred Barrios tried to have the Fluffernutter sandwich banned from school lunches last year, he elicited howls of outrage, and for a good reason.

The Fluffernutter sandwich is more than a beloved memory of childhood, it’s a local tradition. Wikipedia lists it as an example of New England cuisine, alongside the noble baked bean and clam chowder. It’s even more local than that for the North Shore, because the active ingredient, Marshmallow Fluff, is made in Lynn by the Durkee-Mower company, which was started by two Swampscott High graduates, H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower.

A little digging reveals that there’s more to Fluff than meets the eye, however. The Fluff people didn’t invent the Fluffernutter (just the name), our Fluff is not the only Marshmallow Fluff, and at one time, marshmallows were a health food. Take that, Senator Barrios!

Tastes terrible, cures everything

Our story begins with the humble marsh mallow, a flowering plant whose sap swells and forms a slippery gel when it is mixed with water.

Sound appetizing? The ancient Egyptians thought so; they mixed marsh mallow juice with honey to make special candy that was reserved for the pharaohs and the gods. The Roman scholar Pliny believed that a daily drink of marsh mallow juice would prevent all diseases, and if you were already sick when you got that news, it would also cure most illnesses. While not going to quite that extreme, doctors and healers prescribed the slimy juice to soothe sore throats and irritated skin well into the 20th century.

The change from health food to junk food occurred in Paris in the 1850s, when pharmacists began whipping up the juice with sugar and egg whites to make a light, foamy cure for sore throats. People liked the new product and started eating it like candy. By the end of the century, gelatin had replaced the marsh mallow juice, and the world began enjoying mallow-free marshmallows.

So, just as Grape-Nuts contains neither grapes nor nuts, Marshmallow Fluff is lacking a title ingredient.

In the early 20th century, a time when people believed any food could be improved by a white sauce, marshmallow frostings and sauces were popular dessert ingredients. Home cooks made their own marshmallow crème, either by mixing up the marshmallow ingredients from scratch or by melting down store-bought marshmallows and combining them with a sugar syrup. Neither method was quick or easy.


Category: Food, Melrose  | One Comment
• Monday, January 20th, 2014

Alice White and Margaret Beard

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Melrose Human Rights Commission‘s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Dinner on January 20, 2014.

We’re all familiar with Rosa Parks, the black woman who wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus, and thus sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Tonight, I’m going to tell you about someone who inspired Rosa Parks: Alice Linfield White, the principal of the school she attended as a child. Here’s what Rosa Parks said in her autobiography:

What I learned best at Miss White’s School was that I was a person with dignity and self-respect and I should not set my sights lower than anybody just because I was black. We were taught to be ambitious and to believe that we could do what we wanted in life.

Alice White spent the last years of her life in Melrose. She lived at 314 Main Street, at the corner of Main and West Wyoming. She volunteered for Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. And she was a member of this very church, First Congregational Church.

Many of you know Amy Spollett. When she was a little girl, Amy not only saw Alice White speak at this church, she met her and talked to her. So many of you in this room tonight are only two degrees of separation from a remarkable civil rights pioneer.


Category: History, Melrose  | One Comment
• Sunday, July 14th, 2013

I posted this on Facebook this morning but I’m re-posting here because some people couldn’t read it. I usually keep politics out of this blog, but this is about more than just politics. It’s about keeping the faith.

OK, I am officially outing myself as old. I was born in 1960. My husband is even older—he was raised in the South and remembers seeing “white” and “colored” bathrooms. I remember a friend of mine giving me a tour of Indianapolis in 1980, driving me around a golf course and saying “If they see us, they’ll throw us out. This is a whites-only golf course.” (I’m white, my friend is black.) Loving vs. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court asserted the right to mixed-race marriages, was decided when I was in third grade.

Things change. Twenty years ago, I would not have dreamed that same-sex marriage would be allowed, even commonplace. But here we are.

This past few weeks have been terrible, with the Supreme Court striking down the Voting Rights Act, repressive abortion regulations being passed in Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina, the House of Representatives dumping food stamps from the farm bill, and now the George Zimmerman verdict, which, while it may have been correct on the legal merits, is obviously a miscarriage of justice.

So what do we do? Yell, scream, leave the country?

No. Stand your ground. Here are five things you can do in the next week to fight back.

1. Register to vote, if you haven’t already.

2. Send a letter to your local elected officials. If you live in a state that has a Stand Your Ground law or laws that interfere with women’s medical choices, let them know that you find this unacceptable. Write your Congressman and senator and tell them that it is essential to fully fund SNAP. If enough people speak up, they will listen.

3. Make a donation, however small, to a progressive organization: Battleground Texas, Planned Parenthood, Common Cause, NAACP.

4. Get involved. Join an organization, one of the ones named above, or maybe your local League of Women Voters, which fights for fair elections and voting rights for everyone.

5. Talk. Write. Post on social media. Attitudes change slowly, but they do change, and a big part of that is hearing other people articulate the better way. Be respectful—you won’t change any minds by yelling or name-calling. You might change someone’s mind by pointing out an angle they haven’t considered before or telling a story that humanizes the issue. When I was growing up, gays were “queer” and you could smoke anywhere. Social norming has turned both those issues around. Make it work for you.

And here are a couple of things you can do in the next few months:

1. Make plans now to vote in the next election. People tend to skip non-presidential elections, but state and local officials actually have a much greater influence over your every day life.

2. Work to empower other people. Volunteer to help with voter registrations or drive voters to the polls on election day. If you can take Election Day off, look into being a poll worker—they are often in short supply.

3. Repeat 2-5 above. Write, donate, work, talk.

4. Most important, keep love in your heart. Bad laws such as Stand Your Ground and abortion restrictions are born of hate and contempt. You only have to listen to the people espousing them to hear the venom. Be the opposite. Be generous and open-hearted. If nothing else, you’ll have a better time and make more friends. But hopefully you will also help swing the pendulum, however imperceptibly, away from these hate-filled laws.

Don’t let your anger fizzle out without a result. Turn it into action.

• Tuesday, January 01st, 2013

Sixty years ago, sometime in the night of December 31, 1952, or the early morning of January 1, 1953, Hank Williams died, cold and alone, in the back seat of his Cadillac. The world is a poorer place for his leaving it so early.

Hank died long before I was born, but his music is in my bones. When my father was growing up in inner-city Chicago, he listened to Hank on the WLS Barn Dance; when I was growing up in Indiana, he would play Hank’s records at night, after we kids went to bed. I’d lie awake and listen to these songs about crazy hearts, faithless love, and bedding down with the family dog after a fight with the missus, songs that opened a window into a strange and rather interesting world of adults behaving badly.

(Check out this post at Robot 6 for a fragment of a Hank Williams bio-comic and an intriguing insight into the inspiration for some of his songs.)


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• Saturday, August 11th, 2012

When people think of CERN they generally think of the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs particle and maybe black holes or even the Illuminati. But for the people who work there, CERN is also a place.

I think the best way to describe CERN and the nearest town, Meyrin, is “ugly buildings in a beautiful landscape.” That isn’t entirely fair. Many of the CERN buildings are utilitarian rather than elegant, and they have been refurbishing them over the years. Meyrin is an outcrop of horrible concrete apartment blocks that look like they were all built at once during the architectural nadir of the 1960s and haven’t aged well. But if you look out a window at CERN, or if you cross the main drag into the old part of Meyrin, you’re suddenly in a picture postcard. And life there has a special quality all its own.

So here are some pictures my husband took of CERN and Meyrin on his most recent trip, in June.


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• Saturday, July 21st, 2012

This is one of a big stack of travel brochures that I acquired when I was about 10. I don’t remember where I got them, but I do remember being fascinated by the oldness of them. I still am, so I figured they would make good post fodder.

Let’s start off with Rapid City, Gateway to the Black Hills of South Dakota, copyright 1932 by the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce. This is a full-size magazine-style brochure that touts the many delights of the Black Hills and features some spectacular double-page spreads (which, unfortunately, my scanner is too small to handle). The front cover brings us right into the period, with its bright red tourist bus, a woman in a pleated skirt and heels taking a photo with a box camera (viewfinder on the top of the camera), and a man wearing a cap apparently fleeing down the road. The scenery is lovely, but it looks like this photo, like many of the color photos, has had extra color laid on with a heavy hand. One interesting compositional touch was the photo editor’s decision to crop the photo in such a way that a tree and a dead tree trunk run vertically parallel to the spine of the book, blocking the diagonal movement of the dirt road but also looking uncannily like a printing flaw or a bad crease.

According to the brochure, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife spent the summer of 1927 in the state game lodge in Custer State Park. Coolidge was out of office by the time this brochure came out, but I guess having a president pick your state for his vacation getaways is something of a feather in the cap. I never realized how handsome he was until I saw this picture—I picture all presidents of that era as portly and gray-haired. Coolidge died in 1933 of a heart attack.


• Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Here’s a fascinating puzzle.

I get the bare bones of it. My grandfather was the village doctor in Ireland from the 1930s to about 1980, a time when Ireland was much more puritanical than it is now. Memory is selective, of course, and people who think that sex was invented in 1968 have a lot to learn. The fact that there was a need for this, even in a small town in an intensely Catholic country, speaks volumes.

What I don’t get is what this was supposed to accomplish. Everyone in the village knew everyone else, so it’s not like these rings would fool a lot of people. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that a woman who was pregnant outside of marriage would go elsewhere to have the baby, so the ring could be a way to save face.

It does seem like an uncommon bit of kindness to give the girls these rings. I assume my grandmother was behind that. Although she raised her children pretty strictly, she understood human nature. I wonder, though, how many of these she gave out, and whether she took them back again afterward, and if there was a supplier somewhere who made cheap gold rings just for this purpose. There’s a whole backstory to this, in other words, that I suspect has been lost forever.

• Saturday, January 01st, 2011

This book fascinated and terrified me when I was a child. I loved reading it and re-reading it, but I knew the stories would unnerve me enough that I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.

Looking back at it now, I wonder why that was. The stories aren’t that scary, and the storyteller, C.B. Colby, didn’t even claim that most of them were true. Many are drawn from urban legend (there are two “vanishing hitchhiker” stories in the book), folk tales, or local history, and a few are simply speculation—could there be flying saucers? Could aliens somewhere in space be watching our TV shows—or could scientists be picking up theirs?

Perhaps because I was so terrified by it, Strangely Enough has wedged itself into my memory in many odd ways. Mention Yonkers to me, for instance, and the mental picture that name conjures up is a flying saucer. David Lockhart’s matter-of-fact line drawings somehow made this book seem even more sinister than it already was.


Category: Books, South Bend  | 11 Comments
• Friday, December 31st, 2010

My grandparents lived in a big house in the village of Louth, seven miles south of Dundalk and just a few more miles south of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I remember it as being huge, almost a mansion, although it really wasn’t; it was bigger than the house I grew up in, though, and had a stately staircase, a drawing room, an enormous kitchen, and an actual scullery. My grandmother always had a cook (Mrs. Finnegan in my day) and a maid (who was never referred to as such—always by her first name).

There were seven children in my mother’s family, and they always had assorted other relatives living with them, especially during the war, when my grandmother’s siblings left London and stayed in Louth to avoid the bombing. So I could never figure out how they got by with just one bathroom. I guess it was a more Spartan time.

The bathroom was big and bright, painted white, with a claw-footed tub, a pedestal sink, and a most peculiar toilet—the seat was wooden, and the tank was overhead. You flushed by pulling a chain. There was only a limited supply of hot water, and when there was a drought, which happened several times during our summer visits, there was no water at all. During those times, we took turns cranking a big water wheel in the back yard to draw water up from an old well, and then brought it up in a bucket to flush the toilet.


• Thursday, December 02nd, 2010

OtherWiseManWhen we were kids, my father used to read us A Christmas Carol aloud, a stave each night, while my mother baked Christmas cookies in the kitchen. By the time we were teenagers, though, we had too much to do, and too little patience, for this nightly ritual. We all liked the idea of it, but we seldom had the time to sit down, calm our racing minds, and just listen.

Dad understood that, and he would have liked to read us another, shorter book instead: The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke. He really loved this book, but it wasn’t as comfortingly familiar as A Christmas Carol, and Van Dyke’s flowery, roundabout Victorian style had us nodding off after the first page, so we never did make it all the way through it.

Last year, on Christmas morning, I read the book for the first time. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Buried in all that description is a really lovely Christmas story, one that closely parallels my father’s life and the lessons I learned from taking care of him in his last years.