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The Not-So-Ancient History of 10 Thanksgiving Dishes

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On Thanksgiving, more than any other day of the year, Americans sit down and eat the same meal as their neighbors and countrymen. It's tradition, after all! But we know our history: most of the Thanksgiving dishes we enjoy today weren't at the original Pilgrims' feast in 1621, or at least not in the way we enjoy them. How did we come up with the modern menu on so many tables?

1. Candied Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are native to the Americas and their consumption goes back about 5,000 years, so it is no wonder they are associated with the American holiday, even though the Pilgrims didn't have them in Massachusetts. But when did we start adding sugar to make them even sweeter than they are? The Old Foodie did some research, and the earliest recipe found is from 1889, in which sweet potatoes are made into candy.

"The candied sweet potato is a Philadelphia confectionery. It is nothing but sweet potatoes carefully boiled and quartered, then candied in boiling syrup, but it is said to be dainty and tender and of a delicious flavor".

By 1895, recipes for sweetened sweet potatoes as a dinner side dish were showing up. Some call these recipes candied yams, although actual yams are a different plant altogether. "Yams" is an American nickname for the softer varieties of sweet potato. Image by Flickr user Selena N. B. H.

2. Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries were probably a part of the original Thanksgiving feast. The Native Americans used them for food, medicine, and even dye. Most importantly, cranberries were used as a preservative because they contain benzoic acid, so they added the fruit to meats and grains to extend their shelf life. General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberry sauce to be served to his troops in 1864, probably to prevent scurvy during the winter. It was first put into cans in 1912 by a company that eventually came to be known as Ocean Spray, a term that originally was used only for their canned cranberry sauce. Image by Flickr user Ernesto Andrade.

3. Brown and Serve Rolls

Although not confined to Thanksgiving, "brown and serve rolls" are sold by the ton by various manufacturers for the holiday. They originated in 1949 when baker Joe Gregor of Avon Park, Florida tried to please his customers who wanted their rolls warm for dinner. He worked on the problem for months until he accidentally produced a batch of half-baked rolls. He left the "ruined" rolls in the oven while he responded to a fire alarm (Gregor was a volunteer fireman) and when he returned, he reheated the rolls and realized what he had produced. Gregor sold half-baked rolls to his customers to take home and finish baking before dinner. General Mills bought the process for $25,000, allowing Gregor to retire from baking. Recipes are available so that you can make your own rolls ahead of time and brown them just before dinner.

4. Apple Cider

It is not known when the first actual apple cider was produced, but the invading Romans discovered it in use in Kent when they invaded England in 55BCE. Cider spread through Europe during the Middle Ages. English settlers brought apple seeds to America, where the trees thrived. Other drinks, especially beer, became more popular, but cider is traditionally consumed in the fall to celebrate the apple harvest. That is how cider, especially spiced cider, came to be associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas. Image by Flickr user aya padrón.

5. Deviled Eggs

The concept of deviled eggs goes back to at least Ancient Rome, when boiled eggs were topped with spicy sauces. Removing the yolks from boiled eggs, adding spices, and then returning them was common in medieval times. The word "deviled" was first used in print to describe a highly spiced recipe in 1786, and came to be used for any food that was "hot" like the devil's domain. Image by Flickr user Generation X-Ray.

6. Roast Turkey

There are only a couple of accounts of the Pilgrim's feast written by participants, and at least one never even mentioned turkeys. The most famous remembrance was written twenty years after the fact by governor William Bradford and was confiscated by the British during the Revolutionary War. It was not recovered until 1854. Meanwhile, turkeys were roasted during the winter months by any Americans who had access to the birds. When the Bradford document became available, roast turkey became associated with the Thanksgiving meal. After all, the birds are much easier to raise on farms than the deer, swans, partridges, and seal meat that were also on the Pilgrims' menu. Image by Flickr user Doug Shick.

7. Stuffing or Dressing

Stuffing animals for roasting goes back to ancient times, with old recipes surviving from the Roman Empire. After removing the organs, the big hole left behind is an opportunity to add seasoning from the inside, and filling the cavity helps to even the cooking over a fire. In modern times, the Thanksgiving turkey is the only large animal that most people ever roast whole in their homes, so the custom of stuffing is linked to Thanksgiving turkey. However, it is often served without ever actually being inside the turkey. Modern instant stuffing is even served with no turkey at all! Stovetop Stuffing was invented in 1971 by Ruth Siems for General Foods (now Kraft Foods). The convenience of instant stuffing was an immediate hit when it was launched in 1972. The company sells around 60 million boxes every Thanksgiving. Image by Flickr user anjuli_ayer.

8. Green Bean Casserole

The green bean casserole that many people serve for Thanksgiving originated in 1955 with a recipe by Dorcas Reilly of the Campbell's Soup Company, in collaboration with Olney and Carpenter, who were trying to promote their french fried onion business. The recipe caught on, and ensured the future of canned fried onions and the trend of using cream soup instead of homemade white sauce. Of course, you can make it from scratch without the processed name-brand ingredients.

9. Mincemeat Pie

Mincemeat, a combination of meat, fruit, and spices not only tasted good to those who developed it, but preserved the meat for later consumption. Believe it or not, early mincemeat pies were baked in a coffin shape! One account has mincemeat brought back from the Crusades in the 11th century. Spiced meat was made into a pie for Christmas. The meat was combined with three spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves) to represent the three gifts of the wise men. The oblong coffin shape was meant to represent the cradle of the Christ child, and a  representative doll was placed on top when the small pies were presented. Another account has the original pies shaped like coffins to represent Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead who was celebrated on the winter solstice. Christians co-opted this tradition along with the other solstice celebrations for Christmas. Over the years, the amount of meat was diminished as we developed other methods of preservation, and now most mincemeat recipes contain only a bit of suet along with apples, raisins, and spices. However, you can still make it the traditional way with this 1796 recipe. Image by Flickr user Bob Travis.

10. Pumpkin Pie

The Pilgrims may have eaten cooked pumpkin, but they didn't have it in a pie. The first recorded pumpkin pie recipe was published in France in 1653, where the fruit was called pompion. It spread to England and then to the New World, where the first American pie recipe (now called pumpkin) was published in 1796. Image by Flickr user sea turtle.

If you want to make your Thanksgiving feast more traditional than it is, you might want to check out these recipes from America's past.

See also: Eat Like the Pilgrims and Manly Ways to Prepare Turkey.

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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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