As I’m sure most of you, I grew up with the occasional packaged cupcake treat in my lunchbox.  Whether it was Little Debbie’s or Hostess, that chocolaty cupcake with its white squiggle and creamy surprise inside was a lunchtime treat.  Or if you were lucky enough to have a Mom who enjoyed baking, you probably had one of Mom’s yummy, little cakes for your lunchtime dessert.  Cupcakes were child-sized, sweet desserts, which, for the most part, were served only at birthday parties and sold at school bake sales.

Somewhere along the line though that all changed.  I believe it was in 2007 when Oprah waved her magic wand and swooned over the single-serving, glamorous little cakes being sold by Williams Sonoma, adding them to her much sought-after “O” list of ‘favorite things’.  The homey cupcake quickly became one of the trendy foods. The trendy food title was then permanently cemented when Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends indulged in these miniature, buttercream topped cakes on an episode of the cultural phenomenon Sex in the City.  Boom!  All of a sudden a new industry was born.  What were once lunchbox treats were now sought-after designer desserts.  Specialized cupcake bakeries sprang up all over the country.  The Food Network even created an entire baking competition series around them, “Cupcake Wars”.

If you are interested in the history of everyday things, as I am, you may have read about cupcakes being invented here in the U.S. in the late 1800s.  Well, sorry to disappoint, but cupcakes have been around a lot longer than that.  There are actually two schools of thought.  One is that these small, single serving cakes, were derived from the very popular, single-serving mince pies so popular in England in the 18th century.  The mince pies  were baked in miniature, sculpted tin molds and were served displayed on a platter in an artfully-shaped pattern.

Queen’s cakes, spiced pound cakes with currants, were also quite popular.  As the aristocracy tired of  miniature mince pies, they turned to cakes.  Chefs began using the tin molds, or “patty pans”, from baking mince pies to baking Queen’s cakes.   Whether baked in these individual pans or cut out using them, these miniature, iced cakes would also be presented on a platter, forming a variety of elaborate patterns.

Having been made by a craftsman or tinsmith, a set of these miniature mince pie or cake molds would have been very expensive … something the middle and lower classes would never have been able to afford.

A very romantic, but probably unlikely theory, suggests that the baker or head chef would occasionally hold out a little batter from the large lavish cake he was preparing for the Lord of the Manor’s evening dinner, to give a bit of a treat to the staff.  Certainly, not enough for an entire cake, but enough perhaps for a few single servings.  After the aristocracy enjoyed their lavishly decorated dessert cake, the staff downstairs could look forward to enjoying the leftover cake batter, baked in earthenware tea ‘cups’.

The very popular, early 19th century British cookbook author, Maria Rundell, actually suggested baking cakes in ‘little tins, tea-cups or saucers’.  In her book, A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy and Adapted to the Use of Private Families. By a Lady, Mrs. Rundell suggests two ways for baking these miniature cakes “… butter little tins, tea-cups, or saucers, and bake the batter in, filling only half.  Sift a little fine sugar over just as you put into the oven.” or “… butter small patty pans, half fill, and bake twenty minutes in a quick oven.”  [A New System of Domestic Cookery. Maria Rundell, 1808].  It seems to me using “buttered tea cups” would certainly make something called a ‘cup cake’.

The second school of thought for the origin of “cup cakes” is that name for the individual cakes came from the measurement of ingredients required to bake a cake.  Prior to this, measurements were by weight … now they were by volume or “cup”.  These cakes became known as number cakes, or 1-2-3-4 cakes because the easy-to-remember recipe called for:  one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs.  I’m not sure how this simple recipe became associated with individual servings of cakes baked in cups.  For that reason, and because in Great Britain baking is still measured by weight, I’m going along with the first belief.

Wall Street and the Huffington Post report that the “cupcake craze” is over.  But, I’m not convinced.  You can’t go into a shopping district or market place without seeing one, perhaps two, specialized cupcake bakeries.  Even the bakery departments in supermarkets have upgraded their grocery store bakes, selling delectable little treats, individually or prepackaged, in tiny ‘one bites’ up to massive ‘two-handers’.  Every season and holiday now has a festive cupcake specifically decorated for that event.

What once was a simple, little lunchbox treat has grown into a cottage industry.  Customers patiently line up at cupcake food trucks anxious to try some of the creative, and occasionally unusual, flavors which seem to be a very popular trend.  No longer are we satisfied with vanilla.  Now it has to be peanut butter fudge, lemon blueberry ripple, salted caramel apple, banana toffee crunch …. and more.

Maybe Wall Street is right and the frosting has fallen off some of the top cupcake chains, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t become a child again at the irresistible offering of a cupcake.  For me though, there will never be anything better than that little chocolaty treat with the white squiggle on top and the surprise inside!

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References:  Researching Food, Revolvy, Cupcakes, The Atlantic, Food Timeline


In Great Britain, Tuesday is Pancake Day and time for the Great Pancake Race!  All across the country, villages and small towns will be celebrating their Shrove Tuesday by flipping pancakes!

Tuesday is known as Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday.  In French, this day translates to a name I’m sure everyone is more familiar with … “Mardi Gras“.  What day am I talking about?  Yes, the day before Lent.  The day when, as a Christian, you can celebrate and feast on absolutely anything you want, in any quantity you want, because, beginning Wednesday, you must fast.

Wednesday is the beginning of the solemn Lenten season, a time of penance and renewal before Easter.  Sunday starts the three-day celebration period before Lent, which is commonly known as Mardi Gras or Carnival.  In medieval times it was known as “Shrovetide“, with the final day called Shrove Tuesday.  (The name ‘shrove’ comes from ‘shrive’, which refers to the ritual of confessing sins.)

How do pancakes and races fit into all this?  Again, during this Lenten period, fasting was strictly adhered to.  Rich, fatty foods such as meat and fish, sugar, eggs and dairy were prohibited during this solemn time.  For the poor and middle class, food was precious and they did not want to waste a bit.  What dish could they make to use up all these ingredients?  Pancakes.  This humble dish which used all the household’s fat, eggs, milk and sugar ultimately became the symbol of Shrove Tuesday.

At one time, Shrove Tuesday was a very important religious day in Great Britain.  It was a national holiday, a mini Mardi Gras, a time for celebration.  During this time, many events would take place … from football games to cock fighting to skipping rope contests.  But precisely at 11:00am, the village church would ring a bell as a reminder to the housewives that it was time to prepare the pancake batter.  After which, the church would then ring a ‘Shriving Bell’ to call the people to church for the confession of their sins.

But pancake racing?  Apparently, in 1445, in the village of Olney, or so the legend goes, a woman heard the ‘Shriving Bell’ while she was in the middle of making her pancakes.  Not wanting to stop for fear she would burn her pancakes, and still in her kerchief and apron, she ran to the church clutching her frying pan and flipping her pancake.  From that day on, every year, all of Britain celebrates Shrove Tuesday by honoring this woman and her pancake-making prowess by conducing “pancake races”.  The Olney Pancake Race is now world famous.

Although it is no longer a holiday, the bell is still rung today in villages across England and Shrove Tuesday celebrations are everywhere.  If you’d like to enter the now famous Olney race, the rules are very strict.  The race starts promptly at 11:55 am.  Bring your skillet.  Competitors have to be local housewives and must wear an apron and a hat or scarf.  The pancake flippers start at the market place in Olney and race to the Church of St. Peter, flipping their pancakes along the way.

If you don’t live in Olney, don’t be concerned, pancake races are held in most villages across the country.  You’ll see not only housewives, but school children, clerks, clergy and even professionally-dressed businessmen in aprons.  The object of the race is to rundown the street, carrying a frying pan with a hot, cooked pancake in it and flip the pancake at least three times as you run.  The first one to cross the finish line, and serve the pancake to the bellringer is the winner.

Whether you participate in a pancake race or not, I hope on Tuesday you at least uphold this fun tradition and fill your belly with rich, sweet, delicous pancakes!

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References:  This is Church, Historic UK, Wikipedia, Olney Pancake Race, Project Britain


When hubby told me we were going to the theater to see a Pantomime , I thought ‘how strange … a play done silently, without words, just using gestures and expressions’.  Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  In England, a Pantomime is anything but a silent, wordless production.  It is a bawdy, slapstick, over-the-top extravaganza geared to children, with most of the jokes just beyond the children’s grasp.

Pantomimes are traditionally children’s fairy tales, performed around Christmastime in small towns and large cities all over the U.K., for the whole family to enjoy.  Although they can be traced back to the middle ages, they really became popular in the 1700s in the theatres in Drury Lane.  The plot is the same … young love between an innocent, pretty girl and a handsome princely boy, a good queen, or a bad queen and a good or bad demon king, a maternal drag character in outlandish costumes, a clownish physical comedian, children characters, and a chorus of singers and dancers.  This all takes place, of course, in a ‘land far, far away‘.

The comedy is typical English … bawdy, slapstick and silly.  The musical numbers are always outlandish and geared to the local audience.  And, of course, audience participation is a very important part.  Where else can you “boo” the villain as he or she comes out on stage or shout out to the actors “look out he’s behind you” or “oh, no, you didn’t”.  Should you sit in the first few rows of the theater, be prepared to become part of the show.  At our production, the children loved the marshmallows being shot out into the audience, the water pistols, and rolls of toilet paper heading their way.  Where else can you find good, clean, slapstick fun today?

Our “Pantomime” was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs … no, not Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, Dopey or Doc, with which you might be familiar, but rather The Magnificent Seven.  These seven actors were creatively costumed in black cloaks which hid the fact that they were traversing around the stage on their knees.  “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go was replaced by the more topical “you lift us up”.  Yes, Snow White fell victim to eating the poisoned apple, only to be awakened by her one true love, Prince Charming.  But it was the evil queen who stole the show as she flew over the audience on a Pterodactyl.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

We saw many other Pantos advertised during our travels in England this past week, from Jack and the Beanstock to  Cinderella, Aladdin, and Sleeping Beauty.  Pantomime is a thriving business in the UK. during the holidays, with large theaters competing to attract “star” names which, hopefully, will attract a sell-out audience.  And now I understand why.  These productions are a family tradition and children will remember them forever!

Should you ever get the chance to go to a “pantomime” don’t confuse it as I did.  It’s not a silent, gesture-filled production, it’s a bawdy, comedic, over-the-top, musical fairy tale!  And, please, don’t hesitate to go!!


Halloween is fast approaching and the Jack O’Lanterns are everywhere!  It’s amazing to me how this holiday has grown from a simple childhood prank to the huge retail and celebratory event it is today.

The most iconic image associated with Halloween is, of course, the Jack O’Lantern.  But, did you know how these sometimes simple, sometimes elaborately carved pumpkins became associated with the holy day of All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween as it is known today?  There are many holidays in which religion seems to have collided with pagan symbols or icons to come together as one.   What does the Easter bunny, eggs and baskets have to do with the resurrection of Christ?  What does a tree adorned with lights have to do with his birth?  I find the marriage of these iconic images fascinating.

So how did an illuminated, carved pumpkin become associated with the celebration of Halloween?  It’s a long story, let’s start with All Hallow’s Eve …

Many of our holidays originated back when people celebrated the most important event of their life, the harvest.  For Americans, Thanksgiving is the biggest ‘harvest holiday’ celebration.  But in Argentina in February, it is the blessing of the grapes.  In June Bali celebrates the blessing of the rice harvest and in Greece it is the blessing of the sea.  For the Celts who lived in Ireland 2,500 years ago, it was November 1st, their New Year, or the Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’).   Not only did this day mark the official day of ‘harvest’ it signaled the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.

The shorter days and long, dark nights were eerie and forboding to the Celts, and often associated with death.  They believed that on the “eve” before the new year, the line between both worlds opened up and the ghosts of the dead would return to earth.  These ghosts would cause chaos, destroying crops and endangering the harvest.  To ensure the safety of the harvest, the night before the New Year, Celtic priests, the Druids, would build bonfires and make sacrifices to the Gods.  The villagers would often wear animal heads and skins, dance and tell fortunes to ward off the evil spirits.

Meanwhile, in Rome many years later, Pope Boniface IV established the feast of ‘All Martyr’s Day’ on May 13th to honor all Christian martyrs.  Later Pope Gregory III expanded this festival to include not only martyrs but saints as well and he moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st.  Hmmm, have we not heard that date before?  With Christianity spreading throughout the Celtic lands, it wasn’t long before the church attempted to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a church-approved holiday.  As has happened throughout history, the Christian holiday (‘holy day’) eventually merged with the Pagan celebration, with bonfires, parades, and dressing up as saints, angels or devils.

But, wait!  How does a carved pumpkin fit into all this?

Celtic legend says that a very, very frugal man, ‘stingy’ you might say, used to frequent the pubs in his Irish village, but when it came time to pay for his pint, he always had a convenient excuse for not being able to pay up.  Yes, his name was “Jack”.  One evening stingy ol’ Jack tricked the devil himself into paying his tab in exchange for Jack’s soul.  But when the devil demanded his payoff, Jack reneged and before the devil could do anything about it, Jack died.

Jack wasn’t allowed into heaven … and the devil wouldn’t allow him to enter hell.  His soul was cast out into the night with only a burning coal to light his way.  Jack hollowed out a turnip and placed the burning coal inside … left to wander the earth alone, especially on All Hallow’s Eve.

To honor Jack, the Celts hollowed out turnips and created their own lanterns … the ‘Jack of the Lantern’.  And when the people, often children, would go door-to-door during All Hallow’s Eve to pray for the dead and, hopefully, be paid with soul cakes, they would carry their carved Jack O’Lanterns to light the way.

Jack o’ the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad
Light me home, the weather’s bad.

You may learn otherwise about the origin and history of the Jack O’Lantern, but how could you not love this legend.  Although carved gourds have been used in many countries around the world, the Irish are credited with creating these ghoulish creatures, used primarily to ward off harmful spirits.  When the Irish emigrated to the New World, they brought the tradition with them, eventually replacing turnips with Pumpkins.

Happy Halloween everyone!

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References:  Encyclopedia Brittanica, History, Wikipedia, Wikipedia II, Instructables

Mother’s Milk

I am the grandmother of yet another grandbaby … which number it is, honestly, I’ve forgotten.  All that matters is each one is perfect and I love them all.  Their name, however, may occasionally slip away from me (but just for a moment).  While visiting with the new Momma recently, it was necessary to reassure her that she’s doing ‘a wonderful job’ and, ‘yes, it will get easier’.   It was quite fascinating to discuss how many beliefs, ideas and customs have changed since I had my first baby (some 50 odd years ago) to today.  From swaddling to breast feeding to when to introduce solid foods – on and on.  Today, the issue at hand was ‘breast feeding’ … and not necessarily ‘should I or should’t I’, but how there was a time when it wasn’t an issue to be decided by the new mother at all.  Doctors discouraged it, opting instead for the “modern and scientific” way to nourish your newborn … “formula”.

When I think of it now, why was this manufactured substitute for mother’s milk the recommended method and why was it referred to as “formula”.  A name which has stuck to this very day.   Did a marketing genius decide the name “formula” would comfort the then new mother who only wanted to give her newborn all the nutrition and love it needed, or was it just a tag name that ‘stuck’.

It really wasn’t that long ago when, if a new mother did not have milk to nurse her newborn, or did not survive childbirth, there were very few choices.  In Israel, 2000 BC, breastfeeding was considered a religious obligation.  Wet nurses were not only practical, but necessary, and in biblical times, held in very high esteem.  From an Egyptian medical encyclopedia, 1550 BC …

“To get a supply of milk in a woman’s breast for suckling a child:
Warm the bones of a sword fish in oil and rub her back with it.
Or: Let the woman sit cross-legged and eat fragrant bread of 

soused durra, while rubbing the parts with the poppy plant

A recent scene from the PBS program, Queen Victoria, showed Lehzen, Queen Victoria’s secretary, interviewing new, lactating mothers from the village to see who had the largest breasts and could possibly nurse the future heir to the throne for the soon-to-give-birth Queen.  Queen Victoria was never interested in breast feeding any of her nine babies, so a “wet nurse” had to be found for each of them.

The scene was actually quite disturbing when you consider that should the lactating new mother be chosen she would have been required to give up nursing her own infant in order to be available at a moment’s notice to feed the infant of the Queen.  Queen Victoria was not alone in her decision.  For many aristocratic women of those times, this was quite a common occurrence.  Because of the necessity of wet nurses, for some poorer women, it was actually a means of providing an income for their families … yes, a career choice.  But by the early 1900s, with the introduction of modern and scientific ways to feed infants, the career of wet nursing had pretty much disappeared.

Although feeding bottles of one sort or another had been in use in every culture since the beginning of time, it wasn’t until the 19th century when Elijah Pratt invented a functional and successful rubber nipple so that orphaned newborns could “latch” on simulating a mother’s breast.  Now the problem was what to put into those bottles that didn’t result in so many infant deaths.  They needed a “formula”.

Obviously, animal milk (cows, sheep, goats) was the most common source of replacing mother’s milk but nutritionally, it was inferior to breast milk.  In 1865 a German scientist,  Baron Justus von Liebig, suggested that if foods consisted of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, couldn’t these nutrients then be combined to replicate mother’s milk?  He did not challenge the idea that mother’s milk was the perfect food for an infant, but rather he claimed he had succeeded in concocting an emergency food, a “formula”, whose chemical makeup was identical to that of mother’s milk.  Two years later, the Baron introduced “Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies” to the European market and by the next year it was being manufactured and sold in London by the Liebig’s Registered Concentrated Milk Company.

Many doctors began proclaiming these “formula foods” (which consisted of dried cow’s milk, wheat malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate) to be superior to the milk of wet nurses.  With the Industrial Revolution now well underway and many women in the workforce, it’s easy to understand how this now “doctor recommended” infant formula food became so appealing.  Unfortunately, with the lack of necessary nutrients missing, “formula” fed babies did not thrive as babies nourished with mother’s milk.

Baby “formulas” continued to be improved and, with the introduction of evaporated milk in the 1910’s, began to be widely commercially available.  Milk corporations began funding clinical studies which suggested that babies fed with evaporated milk formulas thrived “as well as breastfed babies”.  Soon there were dozens of companies manufacturing these products.  The best known of which was Nestle.  Nestle’s advertisements said it was better for babies than milk, for “impure milk in hot weather is one of the chief causes of sickness among babies.”  Their most effective marketing campaign was giving away free samples.  Another company, Mellin’s, combined this offer with free handbooks on proper infant care.  Not only did these handbooks convince new mothers of the reasons to feed their infants “formula”, they convinced many doctors as well.

By the 1940s, bottle designs had also improved, from those which lay flat with openings on either sides, to those which stood up straight, each with detachable rubber nipples.  Whatever the design, they were becoming very popular, and by the 1950s, the U.S. and Britain welcomed the introduction of heat-resistant upright Pyrex bottles.  These newly-improved, hygenic bottles could be sanitized, adding another layer of safety for newborns.

The aggressive marketing of “formulas” in not only the U.S. and Europe, but in developing countries as well, contributed to a global decline in breastfeeding.  This decline generated negative publicity for many manufacturers of baby “formulas”, and beginning in the 1970s, the movement to promote breastfeeding began.

The controversy of whether to feed your baby naturally or with “formula” was not my intent.   My intention was merely to examine the original question of why do we call this alternative food for mother’s milk “formula”  and why was I never given the choice of whether to nurse my babies or not.  I think I’ve found the answers.

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References:  Food Timeline, Alimentarium, Domestic Geek Girl, The Journal of Perinatal Education,



Have you ever had one of those nights when you’re laying in bed and your head becomes full of the most bizarre, unrelated thoughts.  As hard as you try to toss them aside, you can’t.  Those thoughts just keep coming back into your consciousness … rolling around and around and around.  Well, that’s exactly what happened to me last night.  And, for some reason, the subject was breakfast teas.  Yes, I know … bizarre!   English Breakfast and Scottish Breakfast to be exact.

What kept occurring to me was, “why do they exist?”  Although I’ve traveled through all the wonderful countries of Great Britain, never have I seen (except in grocery stores), been offered or served a “breakfast tea”.  I’ve been served PG Tips, Yorkshire Gold, Barry’s, Twining’s, A&P, Tetley and a variety of unknown bagged teas.  I’ve also been served, on one occasion, a very nice Ceylon.  But never anything for breakfast called “breakfast tea” whether it’s from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t being sold in grocery stores.  Barry’s now has an English Breakfast and Taylor’s even has a Scottish Breakfast.

Here in the States, however, many tea drinkers think you need to start the day with a breakfast tea … most often, English Breakfast, but, of course, if you are a “real tea drinker” then it’s Irish Breakfast.  Why would all of this be running around in my head at 3am?  I don’t know.  But the more I tried to put it away, the more I tried to understand it.

As a tea retailer, my English Breakfast tea … a bright blend of assertive Ceylon and hearty Assam with a burgundy-like Keemun … was by far my most popular seller until that is, customers started asking for something stronger.  They needed a tea that packed the punch of a cuppa coffee … something that would stand up better to milk and sugar.   Knowing that Barry’s packed a punch, I created a tea much like it … a rich, dark blend of high-quality CTC (cut, torn and curled) malty Assams … Irish Breakfast it was!  And it was a huge hit.  But now other customers said it was too assertive, too rich, too dark.  You cannot please everyone, I guess, so back to the blending table.

I felt like Goldilocks and the Three Bears … if the Daddy Bear Irish Breakfast was too strong, and the Baby Bear English Breakfast was too weak, then we needed a Momma Bear.  How about … Scottish Breakfast!

Scottish Breakfast became an even bigger success than English or Irish.  Every customer loved it.  A blend of orthodox full-bodied Assams with just a hint of Ceylons, it struck the right balance between the two.  It held its own with milk and sugar, or dark right from the pot.  It was such a success that orders for 2, 3 and 5 lbs. were coming in continuously.  Customers didn’t want to run out.  Even today, although I’ve closed up shop, I still get requests for “Scottish Breakfast” tea.

But the question still remains unanswered.  With more than 3500 varieties of teas available including Assams, Keemuns, Ceylons, Yunnans, Darjeelings, white teas, green teas, pu-erhs and oolongs, teas from countries all over the world, China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, Japan, then why are breakfast teas still so much in demand here in the States?

And as I sit here this morning enjoying a delicate cup of fragrant, light  Silver Needles with its hint of sweetness, this question remains unanswered and still continues to run through my head.



The Highland Games and Festival has been taking place in New Hampshire for 42 years.  We’ve been in New Hampshire for 24 years … and this was our first visit.  Why we haven’t made it a point to attend before I’m really not quite sure.  Could have been the fact that I was working most weekends.  But, we finally made it.  And, it was fantastic!

One of the  countries largest Scottish festivals, this three-day event, held at the base of Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, attracted visitors from, not only all over the country, but from all over the world (well, the U.K. mostly).   From the sheep dog trials, the whisky tastings, Ceilidh (pronounced ‘kay-lee’) dancing, caber tossing and hammer throws, to the fiddle contests, traditional foods, crafts and music, it did not disappoint.

Tossing the Caber

The highlights for us were the ‘heavy lifting’ games.  These ‘games’ … caber tossing, hammer throws, dead lifts, shot put … are, after all, the reason for the festival.  And Hafthor* was there to participate and break world records.  Who is Hafthor* you are asking?  Honestly, I had no idea either, but he was impressive … not only throwing cabers and tossing hammers, but lifting a car – with four men in it!  This event gave new meaning to the image of “men in skirts”.

The Highland Games and Festival has been held in New Hampshire for 42 years, but the oldest of the Highland Games are believed to be the Ceres Games of Fife which began in Scotland in 1314.  Although competitive games can be traced back to Greece more than 1,000 years B.C., Scottish games are very specific.  They focus solely on strength and stamina, designed to test the endurance of Scottish warriors.  Clan leaders needed to keep their men sharp and ready for battle.  They would build their strength using simple, easily found objects.  A tree trunk would be made into a pole or wooden beam called a “caber”, to be thrown end over end as far as possible.  Heavy, smooth rocks would be gathered from river beds and would be used to lift and throw.  Lead weights would be tossed underhand over a bar more than twice as high as the athlete.  Each event would be assigned points and the competitor who accumulated the most points would, of course, be the Champion.

Highland Sword Dance

I don’t think anything captures the spirit of the Scottish culture more than Highland dancing though.  Dancing was not only enjoyed by men and women at celebrations and feasts, it was also a form of practice for battle.  Warriors needed to be fast and light on their feet.  Imagine the wailing cry of the bagpipes in the background on a cold, damp battlefield as the warriors quickly and silently pounced on their enemy.  Let’s also imagine that same cold, damp battlefield at night … dancing must have been a great way to keep warm around the fire.

As the men focused on competing in games of strength, women began participating in pipe and fiddling contests and the Highland dance competitions.  These ritualistic solo dances have, for so many Scottish migrants around the world, become an obsession.  Of the most famous of these competitive dances, such as the Highland Fling, the Sailors Hornpipe and the Reel of Tulloch, I believe, is the Highland Sword Dance, which depicts the defeat of the enemy with one sword crossed over the other.  If a dancer touches the sword, they are disqualified.

Photo credit to Pam Sullivan

Today, however, women can and do participate in the heavy lifting events.  Shannon Hartnett broke the gender barrier by convincing organizers to allow women to compete in the heavy lifting events, although only against other women.  Hartnett won every competition she entered.

As are shortbread,”Auld Lang Syne”, Scottish bagpipes, kilts and whisky, the Highland Games are a Scottish icon.  The event was great fun, but more than that, it showcased the strength, dignity and pride of a culture that celebrates traditions which transcends time.  You may never get the opportunity to visit Scotland (and I hope you do), but if possible, make the time to visit New Hampshire next September.

The Highland Games and Festival has been held at Loon Mountain for 42 years and you can be sure we won’t miss another one!  It was fantastic!


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References:  Wikipedia, Caber, Highland Sword Dance, Scotland Traditions, Historic UK 

* Hafthor … Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson is an Icelandic professional strongman, actor, and former professional basketball player. He plays Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Why Was the Hatter MAD?

Who doesn’t love the nonsensical story of a bored little girl, Alice in Wonderland?  This classic book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, written by Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) in 1871, has been translated in over 100 languages, has never been out of print and from which 17 movies have been made, the first being filmed in 1903.

I’ve written about Alice before … to mark her 150th Anniversary.  Check out the link if you are interested in learning more.  This time, however, I’m more interested in the less-than-subtle character of The Mad Hatter. You have to admit Carroll’s characters are incredibly delightful and entertaining.  Each character is a vivid portrayal of the people in Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll) world.  As Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, etc. each wrote about people with whom they were familiar, interesting characters who were actually part of their lives. How could you not love the Queen of Hearts (Queen Victoria) or the Cheshire Cat?  Of course, the tea party wouldn’t be complete without the Dormouse and the March Hare.

My favorite, and apparently Tim Burton’s as well, is The Mad Hatter.  But my question is, “why was the Hatter mad?”  In the book, he was never referred to as The Mad Hatter.  He is referred to only as “The Hatter”.   It is certainly apparent, however, with his constant barrage of questions, reciting silly poetry and songs, darting in and out of seats at the never-ending tea party, that he is without a doubt, MAD as a HATTER.   Where did this catch phrase and this character come from?

After visiting a “living history” (their words, not mine) museum this past weekend, I learned that “hat manufacturers” from the 18th and 19th century were ‘mad’, with acute cases of dementia, tremors and the like.  It seems the chemicals used to cure the felt used in hat-making included mercurious nitrate.  And we all now know the dangers of being exposed to mercury.  Mercury poisoning from the prolonged exposure to the vapors of mercury causes uncontrollable muscular tremors, distorted vision and confused speech, not to mention hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.  Dementia was a common ailment for Victorian-era hat makers.  Hence the term “mad as a hatter”.

Theophilus Carter – 1824-1904

Carroll knew one such interesting character by the name of Theophilus Carter, who, it is believed, could have been the inspiration for “the hatter”. Theo wasn’t actually a ‘hatter’ himself, but rather an upholsterer and furniture maker, and a very eccentric and flamboyant one at that.  Often seen standing at the door to his Oxford shop with his infamous top hat perched on the back of his head.  Could Theo have come in contact with mercury vapors while making and upholstering furniture?  Possibly.

How did the process for using mercury to cure felt begin?  It seems that it can be traced back to the Middle East where camel hair was used for the felt material from which fez hats are made. The demand for these hats was tremendous after Sultan Mahud made them fashionable and mandatory for his military.  It was discovered, quite by accident, that the felting process could be hurried up if the pelts were soaked with urine, camel urine to be specific.

19th Century Hat Making

The fashion for felt hats moved north into Europe and with it the manufacturing.  But, camel urine was unavailable.  It is believed that workmen in France, not having camels handy, used their own urine.  Interestingly, one workman in this particular French factory seemed to produce a consistently superior felt. This workman, it was discovered, was being treated for syphilis, with regular doses of a mercury compound.   The connection between the mercury in his urine and the improved fibers of the felt were made and thus began the widespread use of mercury nitrate in felt making.

As a result, mercury poisoning became endemic with hat makers.  Although the hatters were exposed to the mercury fumes in the making of the felt, the wearers were not.  The vapors would have dissipated long before the hat was worn. Needless to say, this process is now banned in the U.S. and Europe.  And now we know why “the hatter was MAD“.

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“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round,
“lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw,
“lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.
I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”


The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot, by Sir John Tenniel.

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References:  Wikipedia, Corrosion Doctors, Alice in Wonderland, American Chemical Society,

The Diminutive Lady Who Ruled the World

I’ve been fascinated by Queen Victoria since watching “VICTORIA” the new Masterpiece series which began on PBS this past year.  Jenna Coleman, who rose to fame as the adorable side-kick on the on-so-popular British tv series, Dr. Who, plays the young, diminutive, but strong-willed Queen beautifully.  The series so intrigued me that when I saw the book, VICTORIA, THE QUEEN by Julia Baird, I just had to pick it up.  Described as “An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire” it is just that.  At 695 pages, it wasn’t a weekend read, but, I have to admit, once I delved into the pages, I couldn’t put it down.

At the age of 18 and just under 5′ tall, Alexandrina Victoria was never suppose to rule Great Britain.  This tiny teenager was actually fifth in line under her father, Edward, the Duke of Kent . When Edward realized that his siblings were not producing any heirs and that the throne might, in fact, become his, at the age of 51 he choose a young woman to wed, who gave birth the following year to the future monarch.  One year later, Edward died and it seemed his vision was to become reality.

Victoria never wanted to become Queen and, as a young girl, when faced with the possibility that this would become reality, would burst into tears.  Sinister plots and threats to kill her always loomed over her head.  Victoria’s mother would never allow Victoria to be alone or play with other children without a guardian, and made sure Victoria had an official ‘food taster’.

Of course, as Victoria blossomed into a young woman and her ascension to the throne became more evident, many a young man sought her hand in marriage. Although some of her suitors were dazed by the possibility of power, her mate had already been selected … by her Uncle Leopold … his son, Albert (yes, her cousin*).

     *Aristocratic families often intermarried.  It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that the medical           establishment began to be opposed to the practice, citing developmental issues.

Potential heirs to the throne were not surviving.  Victoria was next in line.  And it was with the announcement by private courier at 6am on the morning of June 20th of King William IV’s death did this 18 year-old teenager become the “Queen”.

Victoria immediately rose to the job of monarch of this vast nation, despite the thrashing and naysaying of the ministers, clergy and noblemen.  With her very first address before Parliament, strong-willed and determined, Victoria proved that this little slip of a girl, whose feet could not reach the floor when she sat o the throne, was a formidable force, to be respected and admired. But, could she rule alone?  Queen Victoria also needed to be married.

Although the marriage was, more or less, a foregone conclusion, Victoria did fall madly in love with (her cousin) Albert … and he with her.   Despite her concerns about being a wife and mother and not the decisive, powerful, ruling Monarch that she thrived to be, three years after meeting the tall, dark and handsome Albert, they were wed.

The Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, February 10, 1840

Victoria had a fight on her hands, however, because she wanted the intellectual and ambitious Albert to be recognized not just as her husband, but as a well-respected and well-paid, member of her Kingdom.  She also wanted her husband to realize that SHE was the Sovereign and that nothing could stop her from ruling her country.  Slowly, Prince Albert began immersing himself in assisting Victoria with her ever-increasing duties as Queen.  Victoria loved being married and loved being Monarch of Great Britain.  She was devastated, however, to find out, after only a few weeks of being married that she was pregnant.  How was she to balance being a Queen with being a wife and mother?

Nine months later Victoria gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Victoria Adelaide, the first of her nine children. Surviving childbirth at that time was a challenge, with approximately 5 in 1,000 women dying from complications during labor and delivery.  Infant mortality was much higher, about 75 in 1,000.

Within the year, baby number two was on the way and despite her earlier protestations, Victoria was becoming less and less interested in political matters.  Meanwhile, Albert, a dedicated husband and father, took a greater role in handling matters of State, especially regarding slavery, working conditions and education, as well as the arts and sciences. Unfortunately, Albert suffered his whole life with, what we know today as Crohn’s disease.

The royal family divided their life between Buckingham Palace, the Isle of Wight and their beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where they could relax and be at peace. The children were growing and setting off on their own with schooling, marriage, adventures and misadventures.  Although Victoria was strong-willed and well educated, she depended upon Albert more and more, frequently referring to him as her “Lord and Master”. Her confidence as a ruler was slipping and she questioned her decisions.  But as Albert was taking a stronger hold in politics, his health was declining rapidly.  Then after 21 years of marriage, at the age of 42, Albert died.

Victoria was heartbroken.  She did not attend her husband’s funeral and threw herself into mourning, referring to herself not as the Queen, but as the “brokenhearted Widow”.  Dressed now only in black, with no adornments, for four years she was unwilling to appear in public. Then around the fifth year, although Victoria still continued to insist she was weak and feeble, politically, she slowly came back to being the force she was before marriage.

Never again would Queen Victoria wear anything but a simple black frock.  She would go on to rule the then most powerful country in the world until her death at the age of 82.  The “people’s Princess”, Victoria, was the longest reigning monarch until the present Queen Elizabeth II.

Beginning as a young child, Victoria recorded her most intimate thoughts and actions.  She was religious in keeping a calendar of all events, good and bad, to which she looked back on and celebrated continuously.  She was a voracious letter writer, and a very talented artist.  She loved to dance, play the piano and she cared very much about animals.

Edward, Prince of Wales, by Queen Victoria 1843

One of the reasons we know so much about Queen Victoria is because of the very important diaries and letters she wrote.  It is believed that, upon her death, Victoria had written a total of 60,000,000 words (2,500 per day), amounting to volumes of material (most of which have now been edited, some destroyed) which remain in the Royal Archives.

My point in writing this blog was not to give you more information about Victoria the Queen, but to share with you a woman, who, like the rest of us, loved deeply and emotionally, enjoyed fun and laughter, as well as serene, quiet moments, and upon whom extreme responsibility and pressure was forced.  She was not perfect, by any means.  She could be brash and selfish … certainly self-absorbed and obstinate … and battled depression for years.  But, Victoria, like most of us, was fragile and needy at times, and gave of herself, perhaps too much, at other times. Keeping her weight under control was a battle she ultimately gave up on.  She despised racial prejudice and injustice.  She loved to surround herself with beauty.

Yes, Victoria was the ruler of an empire who left a very impressive legacy, but she was a lover, a wife, and a mother, and admittedly not the best mother she could have been.  She was also a strong and passionate lover of her family, her country and the responsibility that was hers.  I think I would have liked Victoria!

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References:  Too many references to mention, but some included:  Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,  Albert Prince Consort, Queen Victoria, NY Times,  History, Julia Baird

Watercress …

I know what you’re saying “Huh, watercress?”  I said the same thing when a dear friend suggested that “watercress”  could be an interesting topic for my blog.  “But, watercress? Whatever could watercress have to do with the U.K. which would make it unique or interesting?” The only association I could make was, of course, tea sandwiches.   But after watching an episode of the fascinating PBS series, VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE, suddenly watercress seems as if it could be an interesting topic.  And now after doing my research, I’m writing about … “watercress”.

Watercress is known to have been growing wild along shallow wetland areas in the Mediterranean since before recorded time.  It has been cultivated in that region since 500 B.C. The botanical name for watercress is “Nasturtium Officinale” or “twisted nose” and with its pungent, mustardy tang, the flavor sort of makes you do that … wrinkle your nose.

Artaxerxes, the king of Persia (Iran today), loved watercress and ordered his soldiers to eat this cruciferous greenery to keep them healthy during their long marches.  The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that this aromatic plant would give you courage, strength and character. Although they didn’t know it then, watercress is rich in vitamins and essential minerals like iodine, sulpher, iron and vitamin C, and it is part of what today we call “super foods”.  I do believe, however, that Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, knew all this when he built his first hospital on the Greek island of Kos alongside a stream where wild watercress grew.  Hippocrates was a strong believer that disease had natural causes and he used various plant-based remedies to treat his patients … referring to “watercress” as the “cure of all cures”.

Watercress is very easy to grow, so as people migrated north, the seeds traveled with them … from the Middle East to Italy, Germany and ultimately to the U.K.  Slowly, British aristocracy began to recognize the value of eating this spicy micro-green.  Scientist, philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon, touted the belief that eating watercress would “restore youth to ageing women”.  The most notable botanist in London, John Gerard, recommended watercress as a remedy for, among other ailments, gallstones and, more importantly, scurvy.  Because of this recommendation, Captain James Cook added watercress in the diet of his sailors, and as a result, was able to circumnavigate the world three times.

The first British crop was grown in Kent in 1808 by an enterprising entrepreneur, William Bradbury, who saw the potential of this diminutive plant.  With each successful crop, he would gather the cress and take it to the London markets to sell.  It was during the Victorian era when the plant’s popularity really soared.   If you’ve been watching the VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE series on PBS, now you know how and when I had that “ah ha” moment.  Thousands of people living in London during the Victorian era were living in abject poverty. Because of the ever-growing population and the huge influx of imported goods, with no money and little work available, women and children took to the streets selling whatever they could to survive.

Watercress Girl by Johann Zoffany

In the center of London was the Farringdon market.  Not as large as Covent Garden, but a rather expansive market for food wholesalers, most of whom were selling watercress to these street urchins, now known as ‘watercress sellers’. Each day, hundreds of watercress sellers, mostly young girls, dressed in rags and shoeless, but armed with their wicker baskets, would line up before dawn at the entrance to this market, waiting for the iron gates to open.  When that moment came, they would run to the stalls to be the first to get their watercress for that day, hopefully before the cress was gone.  Then these young watercress sellers would walk the streets each and every day, regardless of the weather, selling bunches of watercress … to the working man who would eat it on the way to his job, or delivering fresh watercress to the homes of the middle class for their cleansing ‘watercress soup’. Known as the ‘poor man’s bread’ “Fresh wo-orter-creases here” was heard as early as 5am.

One street urchin became a legend in the watercress trade and was nicknamed “The Watercress Queen”.  Eliza James, at the age of five, was given 40 bunches of watercress each day, by her family, to sell to the workers in the factories in Birmingham.  For years, little Eliza would rise before dawn, go down to the factories, selling more and more watercress.  Moving from Birmingham to London, as she grew into adulthood, Eliza’s drive and determination continued.  Still selling watercress, she began buying watercress farms, one after another.  At the time of her death in 1927, Ms. James was the biggest owner of watercress farms anywhere in the world, handling up to 50 tons of watercress in just one weekend.  She was the only watercress supplier to nearly every hotel and restaurant in London, and still with all that success every morning, before dawn, up to the day she died, Eliza James would be at her stall at Covent Garden market selling watercress.  The Daily Mirror reported: “… by selling watercress (this) is surely one of the most wonderful romances of business London has ever known”.

In 1861, the Winchester Railway Company built a new railway to connect London and Southampton.  Although it was primarily a military transport, it also moved goods, mainly watercress … from the nation’s watercress capital of Alresford to London.  The railway transported so much watercress it was soon lovingly referred to as The Watercress Line. Today, thanks to the selfless endeavors of many volunteers, the railway is open as a museum and tourist attraction in the market town of Alresford.

The watercress industry continued to thrive during both World Wars. Watercress was a staple ingredient … in schools, at home, and, of course, at “afternoon tea”.  In the 1940s more than 1,000 acres of watercress were under cultivation in the U.K.  Unfortunately, by the end of the 20th century, less than 150 acres remain.

Realizing the nutritional value of watercress, small U.K. farmers have joined together to bring awareness to this once great British ingredient.  Each spring Alresford, the “watercress capital of the U.K.”, holds a Watercress Festival highlighting this versatile and delicious veg … with cooking demonstrations, watercress eating contests, a parade and, of course, the crowning of a watercress queen.

World Record Watercress Eating Championships 2016 (Image: James Newell)

A promotional campaign, “Not Just a Bit on the Side”, was launched in 2003, in the hopes of spurring interest in this, the original super food. Packed with essential vitamins and minerals, gram for gram, watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas. Current scientific research has shown that the high levels of antioxidants can increase the ability of cells to resist damage to their DNA, helping to protect against the cell changes that can lead to some diseases.  Perhaps Francis Bacon was right!

A big ‘thank you’ to Judy for suggesting this topic for my blog.  I didn’t realize, at the time, how culturally significant watercress actually was to Great Britain.  Needless to say, my curiosity is piqued even more and I’ll be adding watercress recipes very soon.

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References: Cambridge World History of Food, History of Food, BQ Quality Growers, Food Timeline, Wikipedia, The Victorianist, Geri Walton, Watercress Queen, Watercress Festival, Watercress Line