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Christopher Boffoli

The Secret Lives of Kitchen Spices

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Christopher Boffoli

There’s a warmonger, a cure-all, and a former currency in your cabinet. Do you know which is which?

CINNAMON STORKS

In ancient times, the origins of cinnamon were a mystery to the Western world, and Arab merchants wanted to keep it that way. To hike up the price, they spun an elaborate tale, claiming that giant birds collected cinnamon sticks from far-off lands and used them to build nests on cliffs. To get the precious sticks, traders laid out massive chunks of ox meat, which the birds grabbed and carried to their nests. But because the slabs were so large, the nests would collapse, allowing the clever merchants to collect their prize.

Europeans bought this story until the late 1400s when the Portuguese found the real source of cinnamon—lush groves in Sri Lanka. Once they’d figured it out, the Portuguese struck a deal with the Sri Lankans to monopolize the trade and built a fort there to protect their assets. They were displaced by the Dutch in 1658, who were subsequently displaced by the Brits in 1796. But by then, the trees had been exported worldwide, so there was little need to fight for a cinnamon fix.

THE POWER OF CUBEB COMPELS YOU

With notes of allspice and clove, cubeb comes from a plant that’s a close relative to black pepper, and it tastes somewhat similar. So it’s no surprise that cubeb was used as a cheap stand-in for its far more expensive cousin during the Middle Ages in Europe and through the 1800s in the U.S. Today, cubeb is rarely found outside Indonesian cuisine, but it’s a key ingredient in a ritual far more interesting than dinner: exorcisms.

In his 17th-century book Demoniality, Italian priest Ludovico Maria Sinistrari recalls that cubeb did wonders for a “young maiden of noble family, who was tempted by an Incubus that appeared to her both by day and by night.” He tossed a few kernels of cubeb into her bedroom, and “the Incubus came, but never dared enter.”

THE GREAT TEXAS SALT FIGHT

OK, we know it’s not technically a spice, but bear with us—this is good! First extracted from briny spring water in Romania in 6050 BCE, salt’s use as a food preservative allowed the local population to flourish. On the other hand, salt has also sparked more than its fair share of wars and revolutions, even on American soil. When Judge Charles Howard formed a “Salt Ring” in 1877 to gain control of the dry salt lakes near the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, the Mexican-Americans who’d been living there and collecting salt for free decided they didn’t want bland food imposed on them. So they rioted.

Twenty Texas Rangers swaggered in to clean up the mess, but they were no match for the rebels, who disarmed and ousted the Rangers, killing Howard in the process. At that point, the settlers were allowed to keep their salt, but the flats soon fell into disuse after railroads started bringing in cheaper salt from Kansas in 1881. Nonetheless, the Rangers are still bitter about the experience—it was the only time in history they were forced to surrender.

DEATH BY (FAKE) SAFFRON

The saffron you sprinkle on your paella is the most expensive spice in the world, fetching as much as $1,000 per pound. And for good reason: Saffron comes from the stigma of a sterile flower that no longer exists in the wild. The saffron we eat is the result of 3,000 years of breeding that began in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Stranger still, a pound of saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers—enough to cover a football field—and would take days to pick.

Throughout history, saffron has been lauded as a cure-all. In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great took saffron baths to soothe his battle wounds. During the 14th century CE it was a go-to treatment for outbreaks. Even today, recent studies show that saffron can help treat Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, depression, and an array of other ailments. No wonder counterfeiting has been such a problem over the years. In the 1300s, Germany enacted the Safranschou code, which made saffron tampering punishable by death. One convicted tamperer was roasted over a fire of his flavorless saffron.

24-KARAT PEPPER

Grow a Piper nigrum shrub, pick its red berries, boil them until they turn black, dry them in the sun, and you’ve got pepper—the most popular spice in history! Long before shakerfuls hit every diner in America, pepper originated in the mountains of India, where it was referred to as “black gold.” This was a misnomer—pepper was worth more than its weight in gold, and individual peppercorns were even accepted as currency at the time, and it wasn’t just India.

In Dutch, the term “pepper expensive” is used to describe something extremely pricey, which explains why the country waged war against the Portuguese in the 1590s to get a piece of the trade. The spice remained costly for centuries. Even in 19th-century England, shady suppliers would dilute pepper, mixing in charcoal or floor sweepings to stretch its street value. Since then, however, pepper’s price has plummeted as it became more widely grown. As for the stuff you’re sprinkling on your scrambled eggs, don’t worry—it’s pure.

ENGLAND’S NUTMEG SWINDLE

Nutmeg wasn’t just valued for its sweet, nutty taste—Europeans once wore bags of it around their necks to ward off the Black Plague. (It’s possible it worked, since the spice repels fleas!) For centuries, the Banda islands of Indonesia were the only place nutmeg trees grew—a perfect opportunity for a monopoly, which the Dutch snapped up in the 1600s. After occupying the islands, the Dutch started a brisk business, making sure to douse any nutmegs they sold in lime so they couldn’t grow elsewhere.

The plan would have been airtight if it weren’t for the tiny Banda island Run, which continued trading with the English. Although Holland and England had signed a peace treaty in 1619, Holland decided to invade Run and took over the island in 1666. A year later, Holland appeased the British by trading the exotic island of Manhattan for Run. As historian Giles Milton quipped, although the war “robbed England of her nutmeg, it gave her the biggest of apples.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers’ Movies
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Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers’s movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’ 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS'S WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that featured a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination). 

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. "The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, "Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that."

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen Brothers are plenty fond of The Dude: after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen Brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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