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11 Wild Facts About Animal Crackers

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They’re crunchy like crackers, sweet like cookies, and have been delighting kids around the world for more than a century. We’re talking, of course, about animal crackers, the itty-bitty zoo denizens that are so nostalgic and addictive that they have their own specially dedicated holiday. April 18 is National Animal Crackers Day, and to celebrate this wholly made-up (but wholesomely fun!) day, we’ve dug up 11 tasty tidbits about the bite-sized snack beasts.

1. THE ANIMAL CRACKER WAS BORN IN ENGLAND.

As early as the 1800s, animal-shaped cookies (or “biscuits” as they’re known in the U.K.) were being devoured across the pond. They became so popular that Americans wanted a piece too, and stateside bakers began experimenting with their own recipes. The earliest known of the so-called “animal” recipes to pop up was in an 1870s publication called Secrets of the Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Trade, written by J.D. Hounihan.

2. THERE ARE MANY MANUFACTURERS OF THE COOKIES …

The term “animal crackers” refers to a type of snack and not to a particular brand. In fact, there are several U.S. manufacturers that produce the treats. Stauffer Biscuit Company was the first in 1871, and they’ve been using the same recipe for their version since the turn of the 20th century. Today, more than 40 million packages of animal crackers are sold each year around the world and are exported to 17 countries.

3. … BUT NABISCO’S ‘BARNUM’S’ REMAINS THE MOST POPULAR.

In 1902, Nabisco began selling what they called Barnum’s Animals. Named after one of the country’s greatest showmen, P.T. Barnum, the circus-themed crackers were the first to be sold in a small, snack-size package; before then, all crackers were sold in bulk from a barrel (which is where the term "cracker barrel" comes from).

Meanwhile, Barnum—arguably the most renowned self-promoter in history—wasn’t in on the box that bore his name and, to this day, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus doesn’t get a cut or a licensing fee.

4. THE ORIGINAL BARNUM’S CARTON WAS INTENDED AS A CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT.

The familiar circus-train package, with its bottom wheels and handle on top, has been in play since Nabisco began manufacturing them more than a hundred years ago. Originally conceived as a Christmas gift-turned-ornament, the package was meant to be hung on a Christmas trees by its string. At the time, boxes of Barnum’s Animals crackers cost 5 cents a pop.

5. EACH YEAR, 8000 MILES OF STRING ARE USED IN THE PACKAGING.

Each shift at Nabisco’s New Jersey factory uses approximately 30 miles of string for the handles at the top of the cartons. This translates to a whopping 8000 miles of string a year. Other fun facts: The crackers are kept in a 300-foot-long oven for about four minutes, which means they’re baked at a rate of 12,000 per minute.

6. THERE HAVE BEEN 54 ANIMALS REIMAGINED AS CRACKERS.

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It’s a virtual zoo out there, but Nabisco’s Barnum’s can claim to have developed the most animals of any brand with 37 different creatures over the years. Today, a 2-ounce box of Barnum’s contains 22 crackers featuring 19 different animals.

7. THE LATEST ANIMAL ADDITION, A KOALA, WAS CHOSEN BY POPULAR VOTE.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of their crackers, Nabisco sponsored a name-our-next-animal contest in 2002. The overwhelming winner was the cuddly koala bear, which beat out the penguin, walrus, and cobra as the animal most kids want to crunch into.

8. THE APPEARANCE OF THE ANIMALS HAS CHANGED OVER TIME.

Until 1958, Nabisco's animal shapes were stamped from a dough sheet by cookie cutters, which produced outlines that were rudimentary at best. After rotary dies were installed, the cookies became much more distinct, with engraved designs that revealed a surprising amount of detail. The rotary dies are still used today.

9. THE MONKEY HAS BEEN THE ONLY ANIMAL TO WEAR CLOTHES.

No one has been able to sort out why, exactly, the monkey appears in a pair of pants while all the other animals are au naturel, but it’s a been a hot topic of discussion on internet boards for years. In a 1998 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the clothing conundrum is mentioned in passing, when Oz rhetorically asks Willow, "Do the other cookie animals feel sorta ripped? Like, is the hippo going, 'Hey, where are my pants? I have my hippo dignity.'"

10. A 1990s PROMOTION ENCOURAGED KIDS TO CHOMP ON ENDANGERED SPECIES.

Every child goes for the head first, which was what Nabisco execs were counting on when they revealed a special endangered collection of Barnum’s Animal Crackers in 1995 to benefit the World Wildlife Fund. The 16 at-risk animals featured in each limited-edition jungle-motif box included Komodo dragons, peregrine falcons, Hawaiian monk seals, and Bactrian camels. Greg Price, a product manager at Nabisco at the time, told The New York Times, "What do people like about animal crackers? Biting off the heads! Our hope was that children will line them up, match them up with the names on the box, learn about them and then decapitate them."

11. SHIRLEY TEMPLE SANG—INCORRECTLY—ABOUT THE CRACKERS.

In the 1935 movie Curly Top, pint-sized actress Shirley Temple performed a ditty about the childhood favorite called “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” which Nabisco went on to use for many of its commercials in the following years. In it, she sings the lyric “monkeys and rabbits loop the loop,” but rabbits have never been among the furry friends included in packages of animal crackers—at least not those in Barnum's Animals packages.

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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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Food
15 Rich Facts About Fudge
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You probably know the basics about this decadent dessert: It's rich, it's creamy, and it comes in a variety of mouth-watering flavors. (Red velvet cake batter fudge? Yes please!) But there is plenty more fun trivia to digest. In honor of National Fudge Day, we’re serving up the sweetest morsels.

1. WHEN THE DESSERT WAS INVENTED, IT CHANGED THE PREVIOUS MEANING OF FUDGE.

In the late 17th century, fudge was a verb meaning "to fit together or adjust [clumsily]." Then around 1800, the word was used to mean a hoax or cheat. By mid-century, the use of the term “Oh, fudge!” as a kid-friendly expletive had come into favor, and was often used when something had been messed up. It’s believed that the first batch of fudge was created when someone was trying to make caramels and “fudged” up. The name stuck.

2. IT HAS STRONG TIES TO BALTIMORE.

The earliest origin story for fudge dates back to 1921, when Emelyn Battersby Hartridge, a former Vassar student, wrote a letter describing her introduction to the treat. She claims that while attending classes in 1886, a classmate's cousin living in Baltimore made the dessert, and this was her first knowledge of it. She also mentions a grocery store, probably in Baltimore, that sold fudge for 40 cents a pound.

3. THE TREAT BECAME WILDLY POPULAR AT VASSAR.

Two years after discovering fudge, Battersby Hartridge got ahold of the recipe and made 30 pounds of it for the Vassar Senior Auction. In Vassar, The Alumnae/i Quarterly, they claim the sweet became so favored that “students would make it in the middle of the night, dangerously diverting the gas from their lamps for the task.”

4. STILL, IT TOOK A WHILE FOR COMPANIES TO MASS-PRODUCE IT.

Skuse’s Complete Confectioner was known as a guide for all things dessert—but the first editions of the book, printed in the late 1800s, didn’t include any recipes for fudge. In later editions, they made up for lost time, including recipes for rainbow fudge (food colorings), Mexican fudge (raisins, nuts, and coconut), maple fudge, and three types of chocolate fudge.

5. AMERICANS MAY HAVE STOLEN THE CONCEPT FROM THE SCOTS.

Fudge is thought to be a descendent of tablet—a medium-hard confection from Scotland. The two treats use similar ingredients, but fudge is richer, softer, and slightly less grainy than its European cousin.

6. THERE'S A WORLD RECORD FOR THE LARGEST SLAB.

The 5760-pound behemoth was crafted at the Northwest Fudge Factory in Ontario, Canada in 2010. It reportedly took a full week to make, and while ingredients aren't available for this record, the previous record holder contained 705 pounds of butter, 2800 pounds of chocolate, and 305 gallons of condensed milk.

7. MAKING FUDGE TAKES SOME SCIENCE.

Early fudge recipes were prone to disaster, with one 1902 magazine explaining "fudge is one of the most difficult confections to make properly." With candy thermometers not becoming commonplace for several years, most recipes required boiling and hoping for the best. Eventually more foolproof recipes were created that included corn syrup (which helps prevent the crystallization that can result in a gritty texture) and condensed milk or marshmallow crème.

8. IT'S NOT ALL THAT DIFFERENT THAN FONDANT.

Fudge is actually a drier version of fondant—not the stiff, malleable kind so often seen on cake decorating shows, but the kind found in candies like peppermint patties and cherry cordials. 

9. A TINY ISLAND IN MICHIGAN CONSIDERS ITSELF THE FUDGE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.

There are upwards of a dozen fudge shops on 4.35-square mile Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. (Permanent population on the tourist destination: just shy of 500, per the 2010 census.) The oldest candy shop on the island, Murdick’s Candy Kitchen, opened in 1887, while May's Candy claims to be the oldest fudge shop.

10. MACKINAC ISLAND CRANKS OUT OVER 10,000 POUNDS OF FUDGE DAILY DURING PEAK SEASON.

For production, fudge makers ship in about 10 tons of sugar each week and roughly 10 tons of butter each year. Every August, the island hosts the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival, complete with events like Fudge on the Rocks, where local bartenders craft fudge-y libations.

11. FIRST LADY MAMIE EISENHOWER WAS A HUGE FUDGE FAN.

She even crafted her own recipe—named Mamie’s Million-Dollar Fudge—which her husband, Ike, quite liked. It included chopped nuts and marshmallow crème.

12. THE HOT FUDGE SUNDAE WAS CREATED IN HOLLYWOOD.

C.C. Brown’s, an iconic ice cream parlor on Hollywood Boulevard, was credited for dreaming up the idea to drizzle melted fudge over ice cream in 1906 (earlier sundaes had other syrups, like cherry). Sadly, the shop closed in 1996, but the treat remains popular.

13. THE BRITS HAD A SWEET NAME FOR FUDGE.

A description of fudge, found in the 1920 tome Harmsworth’s Household Encyclopedia, read, “A sweetmeat that hails from America, but is now popular in other countries.” (To be fair, in the UK the term "sweetmeat” is applied to a variety of sweet treats.)

14. AT ONE POINT, YOU COULD BUY A LIFETIME SUPPLY OF FUDGE.

Harry Ryba, known as the fudge king of Mackinac Island, once offered to mail out a lifetime supply of the candy—three pounds a month—to any customer willing to pay $2250 upfront. “A lifetime, being yours or mine, whichever ends sooner,” he said, per The New York Times. Not a bad deal, considering he passed away at age 88.

15. FUDGE CAN KEEP FOR A LONG TIME.

Airtight packages of the confection can be frozen and stored up to a year without losing any flavor, which means that you can feel free to give in to temptation and buy a larger chunk while on vacation this year. And about that lifetime supply…

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