Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature's Animal Ambassador
If I asked you what grain is the most harvested in the world, you’d probably answer either wheat or rice. But the answer is actually corn, more accurately called ‘maize.’ This nutritious crop that originated in Mexico feeds not only people but also animals around the world. We’re used to the wonderfully tender sweet corn harvested in late summer and early autumn, but most maize is actually field corn, more starchy than sweet and used as animal feed or to make cornmeal and flour.
For a long time, biologists puzzled about the origins of this important crop. There is no wild plant that looks anything like modern corn, which is actually a giant grass. The closest relative is a scrawny branching plant with hard dark seeds called teosinte. It seems a huge jump from teosinte to corn, yet geneticist George Beadle found in the 1930s that corn and teosinte have the same number of chromosomes and could be crossbred to produce hybrids. With the limited tools available at that time, Beadle deduced that only about five genes were involved in creating the differences between teosinte and corn.
Fast forward to modern times, when scientists can look directly at DNA and analyze every detail of its structure. We now know that Beadle came very close to the truth—about five regions in the DNA seem to control the major differences between teosinte and corn. For example, these two plants look so very different, yet just one single gene turns a branched plant into a single stalk, like a stalk of corn. Another single gene controls one of the most dramatic and certainly most important traits for farmers—the nature of the seeds and their stalk. In teosinte, each seed has a hard covering. Just one gene eliminates the hard covering and produces a stalk bearing exposed seeds, like an ear of corn.
Scientists now use maize as a perfect example of two major ways evolution happens. One way is through major sudden jumps, like the change from a branching plant to a single stalk. The other is the more gradual kind of change that has led to the thousands of different kinds of maize grown by farmers today. There are probably hundreds of varieties of sweet corn and thousands of varieties of field corn. Think about that the next time you bite into a nice crunchy taco made from a corn tortilla.
Corn was a very important crop for homesteaders in the American West, used both to feed themselves as well as their animals. Read about it in Homesteading: Settling America's Heartland, revised and expanded edition, Mountain Press, 2013.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Amazing Maize." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Amazing-Maize.
During the Civil War, soldiers loved to eat and to sing. One of their favorite songs was about food they hated: “Hardtack, Come Again No More!” It was a parody of composer Stephen Foster’s popular 1854 tune “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Hardtack was a thick cracker that formed the men's basic ration. Nearly every soldier received nine or ten every day. Hardtack lived up to the “hard” part of its name. Soldiers often had trouble crunching the rock-like crackers and gave them nicknames such as “teeth dullers,” “sheet-iron crackers,” “jawbreakers,” and so on.
According to a popular joke, a soldier bit into a piece of hardtack.
“I found something soft!” he told his comrades.
“What is it?” they asked.
“A nail!” he replied.
To make hardtack easier to eat, soldiers often bashed the crackers with the butt end of their rifles. They scooped up the crumbs and mixed them with bacon grease and salt pork to make a kind of mush called skillygalee.
Hardtack had another nickname: “worm castles.” Worms frequently burrowed into the crackers. To get rid of those little wrigglers, soldiers dunked the crackers in hot coffee. The hardtack fell apart and the worms floated to the surface. Sometimes the men had contests to see whose hardtack had the most worms. Reportedly, the record was 32!
Not everyone threw the little creatures away, though. One soldier explained that “They eat better than they look, and are so much clear gain in the way of fresh meat.”
If hardtack had all these problems, why was it such an important part of the soldiers’ daily diet? First, it was easy and inexpensive to make. Every day 3 or 4 million crackers popped out of bakers’ ovens and were shipped to the armies in the field.
Second, hardtack hardly ever spoiled. In 1898, U.S. Navy sailors in the Spanish-American War chowed down on hardtack baked more than 30 years earlier during the Civil War.
Third, the crackers didn’t weigh very much. Soldiers could carry enough hardtack in their backpacks to eat for several days.
Soldiers joked that they could stitch together crackers to make a bulletproof vest, though it’s doubtful that anyone actually did. Maybe they should have. In 2010, college students performed an experiment by firing pistol shots into chunks of hardtack. They were astonished to find that the crackers stopped the bullets!
© Jim Whiting, 2014
Jim Whiting has written 250 nonfiction books. He's known as Washington State's most prolific children's book author.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Hard Crackers in Hard Times." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/hard-crackers-in-hard-times.
Today is International Waffle Day!
It originated in Sweden, probably due to confusion between the Swedish words Våffeldagen (Waffle Day) and Vårfrudagen (“Our Lady’s Day”), which also falls on March 25. Vårfrudagen marks the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus Christ. Despite this coincidence, International Waffle Day has no religious significance. In Sweden, the date is the traditional start of spring and Swedes (and many people throughout the world) celebrate by—you guessed it—eating waffles.
Historians date the origin of waffles back to the ancient Greeks, who cooked flat cakes called obleios between two hot metal plates. In the 1200s, an unknown European craftsman invented plates with the honeycomb pattern that characterize waffles. Waffles reportedly came to the New World in 1620 with the Pilgrims.
Americans also celebrate National Waffle Day on August 24. On this date in 1869, Cornelius Swartwout received the first U.S. patent for a waffle iron. Designed for use on top of coal-burning stoves, it consisted of a cast-iron griddle and cover joined by a hinge. A handle and clasp prevented the cook from being burned. When the batter was poured in, it would cook for a few minutes and then the iron would be flipped over to cook the other side. The widespread use of electricity in the early 1900s resulted in the development of the electric waffle iron, making it easy to produce one of the most popular breakfast foods.
Waffles have another distinction. About 1971, University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman was experimenting with new soles for running shoes. He wanted something to provide traction and stability, yet lighter in weight than current models. Looking at his wife’s waffles gave him an idea. He poured rubber into her waffle iron and let it cook for a few minutes. He removed it, let it harden, then cut it to the proper shape. His experiments ruined the waffle iron, but they resulted in a new shoe called the Waffle Trainer. Bowerman joined businessman Phil Knight, one of his former runners, and founded the Nike Shoe Company to market the Waffle Trainer. The shoe created a sensation among runners of all levels of ability. Today Nike is almost synonymous with running shoes and other athletic footwear.
By Sarah Albee
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Do you like ketchup? Maybe relish is your favorite condiment. Well, people in the ancient world had a favorite condiment, too. It was called garum. The ancient Greeks couldn’t get enough of it. Later, the Byzantines loved it, too. But garum was most popular during ancient Roman times. (The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BC to AD 476, so they must have gobbled down a lot of garum.)
The problem with garum was that making it could be an extremely stinky process. Garum makers were told to move their factories to the outskirts of the city, although probably no one enforced this.
The Romans dumped garum onto practically everything they ate. Should you be curious to try garum yourself, I’ve written out the recipe for you. You’re welcome.
Garum is actually quite nutritious—full of amino acids, proteins, and vitamin D from all that time in the sun. And the rotten sludge left at the bottom is also highly nutritious, so you can save that for another use. Try spreading it on toast!
(c) Sarah Albee, 2014
A Roman banquet
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Something's Rotten in Rome." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/somethings-rotten-in-rome.
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