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H2 / Big History

A Brief "Big History" of Salt

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H2 / Big History

Salt is a crucial part of human history. It's embedded in our political history, our language, our bodies, and of course our food. In this trailer for an episode of Big History, narrator Bryan Cranston* gives us a taste of the history of salt:

If that looks interesting, you can watch the whole episode online for free. Not bad, right? (The full version does include three ads.) My favorite part starts around four minutes in, explaining how various roadways have been constructed around animal trails that led to sources of salt, or were created primarily to carry salt. It's a fun way to spend your lunch break! (And you can get lesson plans for Big History, if you're into that kind of thing.)

For more mental_floss coverage of salt, take a look at: What's the Difference Between Table Salt and Kosher Salt?; The Origins of Salt, Pepper & Other Popular Spices; and Dietribes: Salt.

* = I think it's fun that Bryan Cranston, most famous for portraying the chemist Walter White, happens to be the narrator of this show about a mineral. Of course, other episodes cover non-chemical topics.

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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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