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Why Does New York City Have Five Boroughs?

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New York City is almost like several cities in one, with many divisions among the millions of people who call it home. Perhaps the most noticeable of these divisions: New York City's five boroughs. The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island are each a smaller government entity within the city's broader system of government. Each has its own borough president and limited governing powers, plus its own culture and reputation, and each overlaps with a county of New York State and has its own district attorney.

Why is this? How did these five boroughs come to be?

Four of the five boroughs correspond to counties that the English etched out when they seized control of the area and created the colony of New York. Their 1683 map includes the counties of New York (Manhattan), Richmond (Staten Island), Kings (Brooklyn), and Queens (Queens, of course). The actual City of New York was limited to the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. The rest of what is now the city was a hodgepodge of rural villages and farming communities, which came and went and sometimes merged over the centuries. Before long, the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn had emerged. These shifts are detailed in "Before the Five-Borough City: The Old Cities, Towns and Villages That Came Together to Form ‘Greater New York,’" an article by Harry Macy Jr., published in the September 1998 issue of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s newsletter.

By the late 19th century, 40 separate municipalities controlled what is now New York, creating a headache for the industrial elites trying to install utilities and move goods by railroad and harbor through the area. According to various articles in Columbia University professor Kenneth T. Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City, lawyer and city planner Andrew Haswell Green argued for consolidation of the four counties into one massive city. He also proposed annexing a valuable chunk of the main land from Westchester County. This became The Bronx.

All towns and cities affected held referendums on the plan. According to the Pulitzer-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, most New Yorkers were keen on the idea, partially due to fear that Chicago would surpass the city as the nation’s most populous. Brooklynites and other residents of outlying areas were hesitant. Newspapers and civic organizations decried the loss of local control and a threat to Protestant homogeneity. But ultimately, the promise of lower taxes via the consolidation of city services—and the bragging rights that came with living in the nation's largest metropolis—won out.

Out of the consolidation of 1898, a city of 3 million was born. The state legislature set up a special committee to draw up a new city charter. Finalized in 1901, according to Jackson’s encyclopedia, it outlined the roles of the mayor, comptroller, and Board of Aldermen. It also created the five boroughs and the office of borough president. The main role of the five borough presidents was to vote on the Board of Estimate, which oversaw budget and land use issues.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Board of Estimate was unconstitutional. The justices reasoned it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because one borough president got one vote, although the boroughs themselves had widely disparate populations.

Since then, the boroughs have had little governing power, and the borough presidents have become primarily boosters, working to organize nongovernmental civic groups and nonprofits. The boroughs are now mostly names on a map—and sources of overwhelming sectarian pride for New Yorkers.

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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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