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Tracking the Origins of 7 Pirate Stereotypes

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Ahoy, flossers! Most fictional pirates fit a standard mold: everyone expects them to be eye-patched parrot fans with puffy Seinfeld shirts, swilling from jugs of rum while yo-ho-ho-ing below deck. Between hunting for buried treasure and sailing the seven seas, these caricatures kill time by making scallywags walk the plank. Also, they say “Arr!” a lot for some reason.

Why does everyone buy into this image? As Talk Like a Pirate Day 2015 drops anchor, let’s explore a few buccaneer stereotypes and where they came from. 

1. PARROT OWNERSHIP

A good percentage of the things we all associate with pirates trace back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Published as a serial between 1881 and 1882 (and in novel form one year later), it’s been the guiding light for every buccaneer story from On Stranger Tides to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

Treasure Island also made celebrities out of its characters—especially Long John Silver and “Captain Flint,” his faithful parrot. Stevenson hinted that the bird was an homage to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). Stranded on a desert island, Defoe’s protagonist goes for over 20 years without human contact and relies on a talking avian for company.

The literary pirate-parrot link has a slight basis in truth. Granted, the food supply was often low on many vessels, making pets a luxury that most buccaneers couldn’t afford. Nevertheless, seamen of the 16th to 18th centuries did frequently capture exotic animals as souvenirs. Since parrots sold for high prices in London’s markets, pirates were known to round them up. Stephen Haynes—a despised pirate captain—bribed high-ranking British officials with live ones.

2. WEARING EYEPATCHES

There’s an ingenious explanation for why pirates might have worn eyepatches. But this doesn’t mean that they actually used them.

Adapting to darkness can take the human eye as long as 25 minutes. During a pirate raid, if you’re walking around in pitch-black gloom below deck, those are 25 minutes that you might not have. Strapping a patch over one eye for an extended period keeps it dark-adjusted and ready for immediate use in low-light conditions. What a brilliant strategy!

Alas, the hypothesis has one fatal flaw. By buccaneer fashion standards, eyepatches were rare accessories. In fact, the only gentleman of fortune who unambiguously wore one was Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, a famous Arabian ruler and pirate. Having lost an eye in combat, he donned a patch.

The whole eyepatch-touting buccaneer concept was likely inspired by a revered non-pirate. At the 1794 siege of Calvi in Corsica, Lord Horatio Nelson sustained a serious facial blow that cost him the use of his right eye. To draw attention to this handicap, artists began painting the naval officer with an eyepatch (something he probably never used). Nelson’s heroic exploits turned him into a living legend and, over time, the public subconsciously started associating eyepatches with acts of nautical bravery.

3. FLYING "SKULL & CROSSBONES" FLAGS

The foreboding design goes way back: during the bubonic plague outbreak in the Middle Ages, it was used to symbolize death. By the early 1700s, buccaneers had started sewing skulls and crossbones onto black flags (a Caribbean terror named Emanuel Wynn may have kicked off the trend). Believe it or not, these sent a peaceful message. Unfurling a black flag of any sort meant that if a vessel surrendered its goods, the outlaws were willing to spare her crew. No such mercy accompanied a red flag. Sailors utterly dreaded this signal because it warned that the pirates were ready to slaughter every man aboard.

Of course, pirates—unlike, say, the Royal Navy—didn’t follow rigid style guidelines. While black skull and crossbone flags were popular, some captains used very different emblems. Thomas Tew (a.k.a. “the Rhode Island pirate”) went instead with an arm holding a cutlass. And Blackbeard scored extra points for creativity by choosing a horned skeleton that was clutching an hourglass while spearing a big crimson heart.

As far as what we call pirate flags, they were colloquially known as “Jolly Rogers,” but historians aren’t sure why. Some say the term descends from “joli rouge,” French for “red flag.” Others point out that “Old Roger” was the devil’s nickname in 18th century England, so perhaps “Jolly Roger” is a corruption thereof. 

4. MAKING PEOPLE WALK THE PLANK

At best, plank-walking deserves to be regarded as a historical footnote. Trustworthy accounts of it actually happening are very scarce. We know that when Caribbean pirates seized the Dutch ship Vhan Fredericka in 1829, her captured sailors did indeed meet this terrible fate. Seven years earlier, the captain of Blessing (a Jamaican sloop) was forced off a plank’s edge and shot before he could swim back.

Still, cases like this are—by a wide margin—the exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, pirates kept their prisoners alive as hostages. And if a captive needed to be disposed of for some reason, tossing him overboard was a good deal easier.

In the world of Treasure Island, however, walking the plank is more common—Stevenson’s bestseller references the practice twice. Perhaps he’d read about American pirate Stede Bonnet, who was said to have made his prisoners walk the plank, but no extant records back this up. 

5. HOBBLING ON PEG LEGS

The cliché was probably single-handedly (or should we say “single-leggedly?”) cemented by everyone's favorite pirate, Long John Silver, and a famous literary sea captain. But more on that in a second. Stevenson could’ve based the character upon any number of real-life peg-leg owners. Francois Le Clerc, for example, once commanded a fleet of eight huge vessels and 300 seamen. During a spat with English forces in 1549, he lost a leg and seriously damaged an arm. Le Clerc later made a name for himself by stealing from the Spanish, who called him “Pie de Palo” or “peg leg.”

A more likely candidate wasn’t a pirate at all, but one of Stevenson’s close friends. At the tender age of 19, tuberculosis claimed young William Ernest Henly’s left leg. The limb was amputated a bit below the knee and its owner spent the rest of his life with a wooden substitute. An esteemed journalist and poet, Henly is best remembered for writing “Invictus,” which ends with the defiant stanza “It matters not how straight the gate/ How charged with punishments the scroll/ I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.”

But weirdly, Long John Silver might not have used a peg leg (at least very often) in the book. He's clearly described as managing a crutch with "wonderful dexterity" under his left arm, and most of the early illustrations show him missing the leg entirely. Which makes sense, as he's described as the one-legged man. The peg leg was probably an addition of certain movie adaptations—possibly influenced by a literary sailor who definitely had a peg leg: Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick, who is described as having an ivory leg.

6. BURYING TREASURE

Pirates weren’t squirrels. When these criminals came into possession of some loot, they did what most criminals do: spend it immediately. Burying treasure together would have been a risky, inconvenient trust exercise to say the least.

Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that—like plank-walking—historical documents about buried treasure are almost nonexistent. We’d probably never link buccaneers with this practice at all if a notorious captain hadn’t stashed some loot underground. His name? William Kidd.

On one occasion, the Scottish pirate buried a sum of gold and other valuable items that were collectively worth about £20,000 (over $1 million in today’s dollars) on Gardiner’s Island—which sits near the forks of Long Island. Following his arrest in 1699, this cache was recovered. Kidd’s execution took place on May 23, 1701, yet the man’s legacy is still very much alive, thanks in no small part to long-lived rumors about an even bigger treasure of his remaining undiscovered somewhere.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold-Bug” (1843) revolves around this notion, with the main characters using a cipher to hunt down Kidd’s lost bounty. Treasure Island blatantly rips off the premise, substituting a map for the cipher. As Stevenson himself admitted, “I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe.” When all’s said and done, good writers borrow, great writers steal.

7. YELLING LIKE GRAVEL-THROATED ENGLISHMEN

In the golden age of piracy, British, French, German, and even Jewish buccaneers terrorized the oceans. So—with apologies to a certain holiday—the belief that they all spoke with a uniform “pirate dialect” is beyond ridiculous.

Treasure Island again deserves the blame here, but this time, we’re talking about Disney’s 1950 movie adaptation. Actor Robert Newton didn’t just give an inspired performance as Long John Silver—he fundamentally changed the way people think about pirates. Over 96 minutes, the man hollers and growls through an overblown West Country English accent. As linguist Molly Babel told the Vancouver Sun, “Speakers of [this] dialect tend to emphasize their r’s… They tend to replace ‘is’ and ‘are’ with ‘be,’ and indeed, use the word ‘arrr’ in place of ‘yes.’”

Newton was subsequently typecast in 1952’s Blackbeard the Pirate and 1954’s Long John Silver. Both performances came with a reprise of his harsh piratical voice, elevating it into a full-blown stereotype that’s still thriving today. If ye be celebrating Talk Like a Pirate day this year, raise yer glass in his honor.

All photos courtesy of iStock

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11 of the Most Extreme Junk Foods Ever Created
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It should come as no surprise that National Junk Food Day is traditionally celebrated on July 21—smack dab in the middle of the dog days of summer, when the streets run thick with ice cream trucks and county fairs boast the kind of fried treats that can only be described as “awesome” (both in the modern sense and the more dated, whoa, we are in awe of that usage). But National Junk Food Day shouldn’t be celebrated with commonplace junk food; oh, no, it deserves something far bigger and better. So save your potato chips and chocolate bars for another day, and get ready to try some truly wild treats.

1. THE KFC DOUBLE DOWN


KFC

Perhaps the most unexpectedly clever way to create a new extreme junk food item is to turn a non-junky foodstuff into something that just oozes calories and decadence. Fried chicken giant KFC knew that—and played it up to major effect—when they introduced the KFC Double Down to America back in 2010. The sandwich foregoes the most traditional aspect of any sandwich (the bread!) and substitutes two fried chicken filets. In between the two pieces of chicken? Bacon, two different kinds of cheese, and the Colonel’s “secret sauce.” There’s no room for a bun here, folks.

2. PIZZA HUT'S HOT DOG STUFFED CRUST PIZZA

We may associate items like fast food pizza and hot dog-stuffed anything with all-American palates, but cheesy juggernaut Pizza Hut saw things a bit differently. In 2012, the chain introduced a pizza with a hot dog-stuffed crust to our neighbors across the pond, treating their UK customers to the kind of taste sensation some people might have had literal nightmares about. Is it a pizza? Is it a hot dog? Somehow, it’s both—and yet something much more.

3. FRIENDLY'S GRILLED CHEESE BURGERMELT


Friendly's

Once again, a wily restaurant chain took a normal food item—in this case, a hamburger—and amped up its junk factor by doing away with something as commonplace as buns, in favor of an entirely different (and, yes, very junky) item. In 2010, Friendly’s rolled out its very own spin on the Double Down, slamming a regular old burger between not one, but two grilled cheese sandwiches. Who needs buns when you can have four pieces of bread, gooey cheese, and unfathomable amounts of butter?

4. GUY FIERI'S CHEESECAKE CHALLENGE

Whiz-bang chef Guy Fieri has long drawn ire for his more wild culinary creations, but what sets his cuisine apart from that of other junk food aficionados is his steadfast dedication to the key elements of any extreme item: size and odd combinations. Fieri’s “Guy's Cheesecake Challenge” is currently on the menu of his Vegas Kitchen and Bar, but it’s easy enough to replicate at home: Just halve a cheesecake, throw it on a plate, and douse liberally with hot fudge, pretzels, and potato chips. (What, no bacon?)

5. DENNY'S FRIED CHEESE MELT


Denny's

In August 2010, Denny’s introduced the Fried Cheese Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with fried mozzarella sticks. Yes, it was served with both French fries and a side of marinara sauce, because it’s important to eat vegetables with every meal.

6. DUNKIN' DONUTS'S GLAZED DONUT BREAKFAST SANDWICH


Dunkin' Donuts

If you’ve ever hit up your local Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast and found yourself stumped when it came time to decide if you wanted a donut or a breakfast sandwich to get your morning motor revving, Dunkin' Donuts came up with a brilliant culinary brainstorm in 2013: the fast food favorite unveiled a breakfast sandwich that used glazed donuts as “bread,” wrapped around bacon and peppered egg.

7. JACK IN THE BOX MUNCHIE MEAL

What Jack’s Munchie Meals lack in creativity, they more than make up for in pure, unadulterated size and content. Each Munchie Meal—there are four total—features a massive sandwich (from the Stacked Grilled Cheese Burger to the Spicy Nacho Chicken Sandwich, and all sorts of wild fried things in between) accompanied with two beef tacos, “Halfsies” (a combo of fries and curly fries), and a 20-ounce fountain drink. These intense snack boxes are still available at most Jack in the Box locations, but you’ll have to wait until after 9 p.m. to procure your very own.

8. PIZZA HUT CHEESY BITES REMIX PIZZA

Apparently, there’s nothing that Pizza Hut loves more than using its crust as a delivery system for other junk food items. The hut that pizza built may have crammed hot dogs and hamburgers on to their pie sides, but there was something special about the Cheesy Bites Remix pizza. It featured fried cheese pockets stuffed with three different varieties of extra junk, from spicy seasoning to cream cheese and sesame to mozzarella and parmesan.

9. DEEP FRIED BUTTER

County and state fairs have long been hotbeds (sizzling, oily hotbeds) of wild, deep-frying invention. Dunking things in batter and then tossing them into a vat of oil is a nifty way to turn almost anything into a delicious crisp pocket of junky decadence, perfect for utensil-free eating—but that doesn’t mean that everything needs to get the deep-fried treatment. While deep-fried Oreos may be a stroke of brilliance, deep fried butter is just plain madness. Here’s a quick test: If you wouldn’t eat something if it weren’t deep-fried, don’t eat it if it is deep-fried. When was the last time you ate an entire stick of butter? See? Point proven.

10. THE BACON BUN BURGER

Not content to have a bacon sandwich between two chicken filets? Is a grilled cheese bun replacement not for you? Then try making your very own hamburger buns out of bacon. Carbs are bad for you, right?

11. FRIED ICE CREAM SANDWICH

The Florida State Fair is the proud home of the first fried ice cream sandwich, a junky treat that bears a name that doesn’t even begin to explain what it holds between its buns. It’s not a fried ice cream sandwich so much as a bacon cheeseburger (technically a sandwich) topped with a ball of fried ice cream. It might be a good meal for multi-taskers—no need to worry about dessert—but it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing good for anything else.

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10 Things You Didn't Know About the Fourth of July
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With 242 years of tradition behind it, the Fourth of July is one of America’s most cherished holidays. It's when we celebrate our nation's mythology with a day off, a backyard barbecue, and plenty of fireworks. But with all that history, you'd be forgiven if you didn't know quite everything about July 4. So from the true story behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to some staggering hot dog statistics, here are 10 things you might not know about the Fourth of July.

1. THE DECLARATION WASN'T SIGNED ON JULY 4 (OR IN JULY AT ALL).

John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumbull [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons

It might make for an iconic painting, but that famous image of all the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress huddled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 1776 signing, isn't quite how things really went down. As famed historian David McCullough wrote, "No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia."

It's now generally accepted that the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed on the Fourth of July—that's just the day the document was formally dated, finalized, and adopted by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2 (the day John Adams thought we should celebrate). Early printed copies of the Declaration were signed by John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to be given to military officers and various political committees, but the bulk of the other 54 men signed an official engrossed (finalized and in larger print) copy on August 2, with others to follow at a later date. Hancock (boldly) signed his name again on the updated version.

So if you want to sound like a history buff at your family's barbecue this year, point out that we're celebrating the adoption of the Declaration, not the signing of it.

2. THE FIRST CELEBRATIONS WEREN'T MUCH DIFFERENT THAN TODAY'S.

After years of pent-up frustration, the colonies let loose upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III and later melted it into bullets; the King’s coat of arms was used as kindling for a bonfire in Philadelphia; and in Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their royal foe.

Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year, as the July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:

"The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal."

There were even ships decked out in patriotic colors lining harbors and streamers littering city streets. Once you get past the mock funerals and rioting of 1776, modern Independence Day celebrations have stuck pretty close to the traditions started in 1777.

3. EATING SALMON ON THE FOURTH IS A TRADITION IN NEW ENGLAND.

The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July began in New England as kind of a coincidence. It just so happened that during the middle of the summer, salmon was in abundance in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time. It eventually got lumped in to the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.

To serve salmon the traditional New England way, you'll have to pair it with some green peas. And if you're really striving for 18th-century authenticity, enjoy the whole meal with some turtle soup, like John and Abigail Adams supposedly did on the first Fourth of July. (You can still be a patriot without the soup, though.)

4. MASSACHUSETTS WAS THE FIRST STATE TO RECOGNIZE THE HOLIDAY.

Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as an official holiday on July 3, 1781, making it the first state to do so. It wasn't until June 28, 1870 that Congress decided to start designating federal holidays [PDF], with the first four being New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This decreed that those days were holidays for federal employees.

However, there was a distinction. The Fourth was a holiday "within the District of Columbia" only. It would take years of new legislation to expand the holiday to all federal employees.

5. THE OLDEST ANNUAL FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION IS HELD IN BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND.

Eighty-five years before the Fourth of July was even recognized as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Billed as "America's Oldest Fourth of July Celebration," the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785.

The festivities began just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and 2017 will be its 232nd entry. Over the years the whole thing has expanded well beyond July 4; the town of 23,000 residents now begins to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, all the way through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade. What began as a "patriotic exercise"—meaning church services—has morphed into a cavalcade of parades, live music, food, and other activities.

6. AND THE SHORTEST PARADE IS IN APTOS, CALIFORNIA.

From the oldest to the shortest, the Fourth of July parade in Aptos, California, is just a hair over half a mile long. Taking up two city blocks, and measuring just .6 miles, this brief bit of patriotism features antique cars, decorated trucks, and plenty of walkers. Afterward, there's a Party in the Park, where folks can enjoy live music, food, and games.

7. THERE ARE AROUND 15,000 INDEPENDENCE DAY FIREWORKS CELEBRATIONS EVERY YEAR.

Fireworks burst over New York City.
JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, around 15,000 fireworks displays will take place for the Fourth of July holiday (even if some aren't exactly on July 4). Though pricing varies, most small towns spend anywhere from $8000-$15,000 for a fireworks display, with larger cities going into the millions, like the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular at around $2.5 million.

8. WE'LL EAT AN OBSCENE AMOUNT OF HOT DOGS.

Around 150 million, to be more specific—that's how many hot dogs will be consumed by Americans on the Fourth of July. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that amount of dogs can stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.

In 2016, 70 of those dogs were scarfed down by Joey Chestnut, who won the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition for the ninth time.

9. AND WE'LL SPEND BILLIONS ON FOOD.

Americans will spend big on food and drinks this Fourth. Big to the tune of around $7.1 billion when all is said and done, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $73 per person participating in a barbecue, outdoor cookout or picnic.

Then comes the booze. The Beer Institute estimates that Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their Fourth celebrations, and more than $450 million on wine.

10. THREE PRESIDENTS HAVE DIED, AND ONE WAS BORN, ON THE FOURTH.

You probably know that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They're not the only presidents to have died on the Fourth, though; James Monroe—the nation’s fifth president—died just a few years later on July 4, 1831.

Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country's 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.

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