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Was Elvis Actually Any Good at Karate?

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Like all of us, Elvis Presley's life was marked by different stages. Unlike the rest of us, his stages are crisply defined like action figure special editions. There's Rockabilly Elvis, Army Elvis, Cowboy Elvis, Hawaiian Elvis, and, of course, Karate Elvis. Whereas some of these identities were contrived or merely parts he played, Elvis had a legitimate love of and passion for karate. But was he actually any good at it?

Elvis's decades-long karate biography goes like this: He first started training while stationed in Germany (Army Elvis, 1958-'60) with a man named Juergen Seidel. Upon returning to America, he met Ed Parker, a kenpo master, at a karate demonstration at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The two became friends, and Parker taught Elvis on and off until Presley's death in 1977. In Memphis, Presley earned his first-degree black belt in 1960 under Chito-Ryu stylist Hank Slemansky. Later, Elvis trained in a Memphis dojo under Master Kang Rhee, who bestowed upon him a seventh-degree black belt, before Elvis opened his own center, the Tennessee Karate Institute.

There's a little bit of a debate within the karate community over The King's skills and the veracity of his seventh-degree black belt. Whenever doubt is raised, people who knew or trained with Elvis always defend him. It's also worth noting, however, that Elvis tended to surround himself with pro-Elvis people (and disparaging Elvis just don't fly, mama).

Al Tracy, one of Ed Parker's pupils, writes that Hank Slemansky really forced Elvis to earn his black belt because of a rash of phony celebrity black belts during the late 1950s. This apparently culminated when Ricky Nelson—who was, by all accounts, terrible at karate—was given one by instructor Bruce Tegner. Because of this, Slemansky put Elvis through a rigorous six-week training program to justify his belt. After Presley passed, Slemansky told Parker, "The kid ain't pretty, but he's tough and he's a Black Belt." (Which is an odd thing to say because Elvis was, in fact, very pretty.)

Wayne Carman trained with Elvis under Master Kang Rhee in Memphis and wrote an entire book about the experience, Elvis's Karate Legacy. In it, he documents how he met Elvis and brought him to the dojo ("Elvis wants some of his security people to learn the nunchakus"), Elvis's quirks ("He was the only person I ever saw wear boots into the dojo"), and his peculiar training methods ("When Elvis...practice[d] self-defense demonstrations, he insisted on using real firearms. Most everyone used wooden guns, but not Elvis"). Most of all, he remembers Elvis as a passionate martial artist. "In martial arts, he wasn't Elvis, the Entertainer. He was Elvis, the Black Belt, with 15 years' experience," Carman writes. "That was impressive to all of us, since there weren't many karate practitioners in the country with as many years in the art."

Despite this, the book still casts some doubt on Elvis's seventh-degree honors. Naturally, a Cadillac is involved:

"Elvis, who believed seven was his perfect number (there are numerous instances in the Bible to this being God's number), really wanted his seventh-degree black belt. Trouble was, Kang Rhee couldn't promote him higher than he himself was...

"One day, Kang Rhee called a meeting of the black belts and brought up this dilemma. He said, 'Elvis wants his seventh-degree belt. What can we do?'...

"You see, in order for this to take place, we would have to vote Kang Rhee his eighth-degree belt. In the days that followed, however, the promotion took place. Heck, Elvis was so persuasive and you wanted to help him so much...I would have probably done the same thing. Elvis was promoted to seventh-degree...

"Elvis's gratitude upon his promotion is obvious. After class, Elvis gave Kang Rhee a Cadillac."

Still, Carman maintains that Elvis was a talented martial artist, right until the end of his life. "Elvis really looked sharp that last time I saw him," he says. "His technique was crisp and powerful and his movements were graceful."

Carman also recalls a time when the singer had to use his skills while performing at the Las Vegas Hilton: "During the show three men jumped on stage and rushed the entertainer. Elvis' security team, thinking fast, jumped into the action. The Hilton stage soon took on the appearance of a Hollywood film set brawl. People were flying everywhere. Elvis was still punching and kicking even after the dust settled." (Efforts to find news clippings about this onstage melee in a packed Las Vegas amphitheater were unsuccessful).

In 1974, Kang Rhee and Carman helped Elvis shoot footage for "The New Gladiator," a karate documentary that was never released. Presley wanted to use the film to propel karate into the mainstream's consciousness. "Elvis had sketched out a handwritten script of how he wanted the documentary to go," Carman says. "Elvis estimated the film would gross nine million dollars within the first month after it was released. Of course, those were astronomical figures for then, but the star's drawing power might have pulled if off." Elvis didn't follow through on his plan, but the initial footage (narrated by Wayne Carman) survives on YouTube. It acts as the only real empirical evidence of Elvis's karate skills, so you can watch and determine for yourself whether or not he was actually any good:

Perhaps the question shouldn't be, "Was Elvis Actually Any Good at Karate?," but rather, "Will we see someone teach karate like Elvis ever again?"

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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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