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Why Do We Eat Chocolate Bunnies at Easter?

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As far as holidays go, Easter is second only to Halloween in American candy sales—that’s a lot of chocolate bunnies.

Easter—the most spiritually significant holiday of the Christian calendar—has always been heavily associated with symbolic foods, from lambs to egg-rich celebratory breads. Rabbits, however, are not mentioned in the scriptures that recount Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And chocolate, a New World food, was not even accessible to the masses until the mid-1800s. So how did chocolate bunnies come to dominate the Easter basket scene? It’s a thoroughly modern mash-up of commerce, confectionery, and immigration.

The observance of Easter includes some elements adapted from pagan traditions celebrating cycles of new life in the springtime, and one of those is the rabbit, an animal known for its crazy-high fertility. “Although adopted in a number of Christian cultures, the Easter bunny has never received any specific Christian interpretation,” says the Encyclopedia of Religion.

Ostara, the Germanic pre-Christian fertility goddess, apparently kept a hare as a sidekick. The word for “Easter” (Ostern, in German) is derived from her name, and her namesake festival was held around the month we now call April. Germans came to embrace the fictional character Oschter Haws (or osterhause), a rabbit who delivered eggs to children at Easter. Supposedly, the first recorded mention of osterhause was in the medical notes of a Heidelberg physician in 1684 (he discusses the drawbacks of overeating Easter eggs). 

The Easter Bunny Museum in the now-defunct Center for Unusual Museums in Munich showcased examples of 19th century Easter rabbits made of cardboard, wood, or fabric, and some had removable heads to allow for hiding candy inside (these would be the forerunners to chocolate bunnies). 

At the same time, the middle classes of the Western word began enjoying the chocolaty fruits of progress. “The Industrial Revolution changed chocolate from a costly drink to a cheap solid food,” write historians Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe in The True History of Chocolate. The craft of making the smooth-textured solid chocolate we’re familiar with today requires many steps, and those were not possible without mechanization; the first eating (as opposed to drinking) chocolates appeared in Europe in the mid-1800s.

As eating chocolate became more accessible, Germany rose as a center of molds. Anton Reiche of Dresden, one of the best-known manufacturers, created all sorts of highly detailed tinplate molds for chocolate, and not just in the form of rabbits.

Our friend the chocolate bunny had yet to cross the Atlantic, though. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America says that “the Pennsylvania Dutch imported the Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, who delivered colored eggs to good children." One of the better-known early sightings of chocolate rabbits in America was in 1890, when Pennsylvania shopkeeper Robert L. Strohecker featured a five-foot chocolate rabbit in his drugstore to attract business at Easter. This became a thing: A 1927 photograph captured two young boys flanking a mighty 75-pound chocolate rabbit in front of Florian’s Pharmacy in St. Paul, Minnesota (the owner happened to be the son of German immigrants). And after that long journey, chocolate rabbits of more manageable proportions eventually became an Easter staple.

This piece originally ran in 2016.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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