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Ice Capades: Skating Across the Netherlands

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One of the northern provinces of the Netherlands, Friesland, has 11 ancient cities loosely separated by a series of canals and lakes. When the weather gets cold enough, the ice gets thick enough to allow for a huge, nationally renowned skating race through each of the cities.

Called the Elfstedentocht (or in English, the Eleven Cities Tour), the race is a roughly 200 kilometer trek across the frozen landscape and takes, at its fastest, over six hours. For the race to occur, the ice must be at least 15 centimeters thick throughout the course -- which is rare. While the tradition of skating from city to city dates back to 1760, the race was not formalized until 1909. But in the last century, the Elfstedentocht has only taken place 15 times and not since 1997.

The infrequency of the event captivates the collective attention of its host nation, resulting in Elfstedenkoorts -- Eleven Cities Tour Fever -- whenever temperatures approach suitable conditions in the Netherlands. Officials decked out in suits and ties take to the news to give a daily ice update. There may be no better evidence of Elfstedenkoorts than 2012's cold Dutch winter: even though a running of the Elfstedentocht had not been announced, hotels in the area have seen a significant uptick in bookings.

Area officials expected more than 15,000 skaters if the race were to happen this year -- plus more than ten million TV viewers. As of this afternoon, the news doesn't look good. The Toronto Star has the latest:

"A day after organizers ruled that ice is too dangerous for the legendary 200-kilometre Elfstedentocht race with 16,000 competitors to go ahead, hundreds of skaters took to the route Thursday, gliding peacefully through the flat, frozen landscape, their skates making a metallic click on the ice."

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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science
Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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