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Why Aren't Bidets Common in the U.S.?

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In a famous scene from Crocodile Dundee, Mick Dundee stands in the bathroom of his upscale New York City hotel room toiling with the bidet, attempting by trial and error to determine what it is and how to use it.

The hotel where Dundee is sizing up the bidet must have been outfitted in European style. The majority of bathrooms in the U.S., including those in the fanciest hotels, often lack a bidet, and encountering one is just as likely to confound someone born and raised in the U.S. as it is a leathery, affable man from the Outback. When there is a porcelain toilet-side wash station installed in a U.S. bathroom, it is often an unexpected extra.

Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia and parts of Europe and South America, people would find it unsettling to enter a washroom devoid of a bidet. As it turns out, the standard practice of something as basic as cleaning up after the restroom varies greatly in approach around the world.

Where there's a will, there's a bidet

The bidet is believed to have originated in France in the early 1700s, which is also where it found its name. Bidet means “horse” in French, or more specifically a “cob,” which is a strong, short-legged horse. For the uninitiated, the term is a visual allusion to how one is supposed to use the contraption. (Furthering the horse theme, Napoleon’s men also likely utilized the bidet to freshen up after long rides.)

One of the earliest-known bidets was installed in the bedroom—these were the days of bedside chamber pots, too—of the French royal family in 1710 by Christophe des Rosiers, who is widely credited as the bidet’s inventor. Pots and bidets eventually moved out of the bedroom, and as technology developed, so did both appliances. In 1750, for example, the bidet was upgraded with a hand pump to allow for spraying.

Since its first days providing cleanliness for French royalty, the bidet has spread internationally. It is considered standard in many European countries, particularly in Italy and Portugal, as well as in South American countries like Argentina and Venezuela. They also are commonly found in Middle Eastern countries and throughout East Asia, especially in Japan. According to estimates, bidets are present in about 80 percent of bathrooms in these areas.  

The American Way

One developed country conspicuously absent from that list is the U.S. Why the bidet never caught on stateside is a bit of a mystery. In 2007, NYU professor Harvey Molotch offered a few theories to The New York Times. Because the fixture was a French invention, it was rejected by the English, and that sentiment drifted across the pond. During World War II, the Times notes, American soldiers saw bidets in European brothels, "perpetuating the idea that bidets were somehow associated with immorality."

Another issue is bathroom size. Most bathrooms in the U.S. aren't big enough for an extra appliance. Whether this prevented the spread of bidets in the U.S. or bathroom size developed as such because extra room was unneeded (the proverbial chicken-or-the-egg debate) is unknown.

One of the most successful bidet models, interestingly enough, was invented in the U.S. in the 1960s by Arnold Cohen, also known as “Mr. Bidet.” As Cohen has said, when he first began marketing his model, 99 percent of people in the U.S. had never heard of or seen a bidet, which made sales stateside for American Bidet Company slow growing. A company named Toto Ltd. saw the potential and repackaged Cohen’s concept as a “washlet” in the 1980s. That hybrid toilet-bidet appliance is now installed in more than half of Japanese homes and, based on 2007 numbers, has sold in excess of 17 million.

Most people reared on the bidet perceive it as unsanitary to skip, while people used to solely paper tend to think similarly about using the bidet. Bidet proponents cite improved cleanliness, more comfort (less abrasion, to get specific) and environmental sustainability as reasons to hop on the bidet. It is estimated that in North America, where paper is the way to go, 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper go to waste annually.

While the opportunity for the clunky, standard bidet to catch on in the U.S. might have passed, manufacturers like Kohler are producing new iterations of the bidet, or at least incorporating underside-cleaning appliances into toilets. The fresh take might just work the bidet into more U.S. homes.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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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