Curiosity queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Two hundred thirty-one years ago today Thomas Jefferson celebrated his 44th birthday riding a mule over the Alps on his way to Italy. Jefferson’s first official federal position after writing the Declaration of Independence was serving as Minister to France under President George Washington. Jefferson’s job was to grow America’s economy, which he did by forming trade agreements to sell whale oil and tobacco overseas. He also looked for new crops that could be grown in the U.S. and sold in Europe.
One thing he noticed was that the French ate a lot of rice, but they didn’t buy rice grown in America. The French preferred dry or upland rice. American farmers grew “swamp” rice and suffered with mosquitoes and malaria. Jefferson thought that if American farmers switched to upland rice they would not only be able to sell it abroad, they would also be healthier.
Jefferson asked for samples of upland rice from friends, farmers, ship captains who traveled to far off lands, and even the seven-year-old prince of Cochin China. The most prized rice, however, was grown in Italy and banned from export.
Determined to help America, Jefferson rode over the Alps and found the unhusked grain. “I could only bring off as much as my coat and surtout [overcoat] pockets would hold,” he wrote a friend. Under penalty of death, he smuggled it across the border.
Back in France, Jefferson sent rice to farmers in South Carolina and to his farm manager at Monticello, his home in Virginia. He even grew samples of rice in pots on his windowsill when he returned to New York to be Secretary of State.
Unfortunately, the upland rice didn’t grow well in the South and didn’t become a big export for the U.S., but Jefferson was not discouraged. He had already set his sights on another amazing plant that he hoped would be “the source of the greatest wealth and happiness.” Olive trees.
Many years later when Jefferson listed his achievements, along with writing the Declaration of Independence he included his attempts to bring rice and olives to the United States. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” he said, “is to add an useful plant to its culture.”
Celebrate his birthday with a salad made from some of the useful plants he brought to our culture— kale, tomatoes, peppers and chickpeas with a splash of olive oil.
Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!
Peggy Thomas is the author of Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation
Among her other books are:
* For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson
* Snow Dance
* Farmer George Plants A Nation
* Joshua the Giant Frog
* Forensic Anthropology: the Science of Talking Bones
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson - Smuggler!" Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 13 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Teaching the Power of Wonder
Long before we celebrated Halloween, Celtic people in the British Isles honored the dead during Samhain (which we pronounce “SOW-ren”). Some scholars think that Samhain was a Celtic version of New Year’s Eve. It was a holiday filled with ritual. Folks believed that in late fall, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its very thinnest.
To light their way at this dark time of year, they carved out vegetables, and popped glowing coals inside. A popular choice was the humble turnip, which they grew, cooked, and ate, of course.
Why turnips, you may ask? Think! Pumpkins didn’t grow in Europe—they are a New World vegetable. In fact, an old drawing shows how Indians in Virginia grew pumpkins in their villages in the late 1500s.
Why not give turnip carving a try? Order big ones at your farm market. When you first bring them home, they might be hard as rocks. Let them sit out in the open for several days until they soften up a bit.
To carve yourself some examples of the original “jack-o-lantern,” grab the turnips, some tea lights, a small knife, and a pointy spoon. Hold the turnip root tip up. Use a marker to draw the circle for the lid. Then trace or draw eyes, nose, mouth—whatever you’d like.
Now be sure there’s an adult to help you! Use the knife to carve around the circle. Remove the top of the turnip and set it aside. That’s your lid. Use the spoon to scoop out the turnip just like a pumpkin. Be sure to leave a nice thick wall. Then pierce the turnip with your knife and gently carve out the features.
Pop the tea light inside. Find a dark spot. Have the grownup help you light the wick and… LET IT GLOW!
Today, folks grow pumpkins in the Old World, so kids all over Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales carve jack-o-lanterns just like you do. Turnips are out….unless you want to feed the cows.
Kerrie Hollihan's biography of Isaac Newton sheds light on a lot of ideas people thought were mysterious. If you liked the turnip activity, there are lots more in this book.
Kerrie Hollihan is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
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