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Pass the Knowledge: The Origins of Your Favorite Condiments

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Next time someone asks you to pass the ketchup, mustard, mayo or Worcestershire sauce, you can wow them with your knowledge of the condiments.


Ketchup
The word "ketchup" comes from the Chinese "ke-tsiap," and if you're wondering why ketchup isn't used in Chinese food, well, there's your story. Ke-tsiap wasn't at all like ketchup. It was a sauce made from pickled fish that frankly wouldn't taste so great on a burger "“ or in our opinion on much else. Nonetheless, it was popular enough to catch on in Malaysia, where it was called "kechap," and Indonesia ("ketjap"), and to be honest it probably wasn't as bad as it sounds; it's been compared to soy sauce. When English and Dutch sailors made their way to the Far East in the 17th century, they "discovered" the sauce and brought some back with them. Homemade versions immediately became popular; Elizabeth Smith's The Compleat Housewife (copyright 1727) called for anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and lemon peel.

Note the lack of tomatoes in that recipe. In the grand East-meets-West tradition of fusion cuisine, someone thought to add tomatoes to ke-tsiap in the early 1700s. The British counterpart of that person, by the way, went another direction and added mushrooms instead; you can still find mushroom ketchup at a few specialty retailers, and The New Joy of Cooking contains a recipe for the homemade stuff. Anyway, in both nations, the spelling also mutated around the same time; the first reference to "ketchup" appeared in 1711. This, too, caught on, and within 100 years or so ke-tsiap had acquired yet another regional name: tomato soy. Teresa Heinz Kerry's great-great-great in-laws started selling a thin, salty version of the stuff in as "tomato ketchup" in 1876, and it was such a hit that eventually they just dropped the "tomato."

Mustard
Mustard, in our opinion, has one of the best linguistic back stories in the English tongue: its name is a contraction of the Latin mustum ardens, meaning "burning wine" "“ presumably because the seeds are spicy and used to be as valuable as the vintage stuff. (The French used to mix mustard seeds with grape juice, which may also have something to do with the name.) Mustard's tastier qualities, however, weren't always appreciated the way they are today. It started out as the ancient equivalent of Neosporin: Pythagoras prescribed it for scorpion stings. His successor, Hippocrates, tried to cure toothaches with it (at least he didn't use something sugary). Later, the stuff had fans among religious types, too: Pope John XXII was reportedly so enamored of mustard that he established a new Vatican position, grand moutardier du pape, which means "mustard-maker to the pope." Conveniently, he happened to know the perfect candidate; his nephew was a moutardier.

Mayonnaise
Our friends at HowStuffWorks have a great, simple retelling of this tale, so we'll let them do the honors: "Mayonnaise was invented in 1756 by the French chef of the Duc de Richelieu. After the Duc beat the British at Port Mahon, his chef created a victory feast that was to include a sauce made of cream and eggs. Realizing that there was no cream in the kitchen, the chef substituted olive oil for the cream and a new culinary creation was born. The chef named the new sauce "˜Mahonnaise' in honor of the Duc's victory."

lea.jpgWorcestershire sauce
Worcestershire sauce was invented accidentally in England by Brits trying to ape what they thought was authentic Indian food. In this case, the demanding diner was one Lord Marcus Sandy, a former colonial governor of Bengal. Having grown attached to a particular flavor of Indian sauce, he recruited two drugstore owners, John Lea and William Perrins, in hopes that they could recreate it based on his descriptions. Lea and Perrins thought they'd make a profit by selling the leftovers in their store, but frankly, the sauce they created had a powerful stench "“ so they stashed it in the basement and forgot about it for two years while it aged into something that tasted much better. (We suspect that in a similar manner, we are harboring the next big culinary phenomenon in the back of our fridge.)

Lea and Perrins sold the stuff to a boatload of customers, literally; they convinced British passenger ships to carry some aboard. Presumably they didn't mention the way they'd come across their secret recipe since it probably would have made most people seasick.

This article was written by Mary Carmichael and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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