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Why Early America Was Obsessed With Wooden Nutmegs

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Although today we’re primarily familiar with nutmeg as a powder that comes in little plastic bottles, it’s actually the pit of the fruit of a tree native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia. Throughout the 18th century, the Dutch controlled the Banda Islands, keeping nutmeg scarce and prices high in international markets. In America, where nutmeg was a popular flavor in 18th and early 19th century cooking, the spice was extraordinarily expensive—so expensive, unscrupulous vendors allegedly tried to replicate nutmegs in wood.

At the time, America’s rural communities were connected by a network of itinerant peddlers, or “hucksters,” who sold household goods. The peddlers were often associated with dishonest dealings (part of the definition of a “huckster” today), and the original “wooden nutmeg” was a euphemism for a general mistrust of such people. Thomas Hamilton, a British traveler who toured America and documented his findings in Men and Manners of America in 1833, said of peddlers in New England: “They warrant broken watches to be the best time-keepers in the world; sell pinchbeck trinkets for gold; and have always a large assortment of wooden nutmegs and stagnant barometers.” In The Clockmaker: Or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville, published in 1839, the main character is called “a Yankee pedlar, a cheatin vagabond, a wooden nutmeg” by an incensed rival.

But were wooden nutmegs real, or a myth used to villainize merchants? In appearance, weight, and texture, nutmegs are very similar to wood. Curious about the practicalities of carving one, I commissioned an artist to make me a wooden nutmeg to see if the time and craftsmanship involved were worth the monetary gain and risk of getting caught. He produced a convincing nutmeg in 30 minutes, which would have been especially realistic if it had been lightly colored with a natural stain. The artist estimated it would have taken him an hour if he eliminated the use of a bandsaw and belt sander for the earliest steps in shaping the nutmeg, and relied only on hand tools available in the 19th century. Although it's difficult to estimate early-19th-century work weeks and salaries with precision, a laborer in the early 19th century might have made about $.08 an hour (based on an average daily salary of about $1 and a 12-hour workday) [PDF]. I’ve estimated that a nutmeg would sell for about the same amount as that hourly wage, based on references I’ve found to British prices at the same time and American prices later in the century. That means the labor may have been worth it.

A newly made wooden nutmeg. Image credit: Douglas Strich

 
However, as a consumer it would have been easy to foil a fake nutmeg vendor: A purchaser could take a small nutmeg grater with them and grate a little of the nutmeg before buying. Either the grated nutmeg would release its signature spicy smell, or the wood would be largely odorless—a clear sign of a fake. But perhaps if the fake nutmegs were mixed in with real ones (as one early reference to the story suggests), the scheme could work—especially if the seller wouldn’t be passing that way again.

In the decade before the Civil War, the wooden nutmeg also became symbolic of the heightening tensions between the urban, liberal North and the rural, conservative South. In the Southern version of the story, Northerners are painted as devious fraudsters. For example, an algebra textbook published by a North Carolinian in 1857 offers this problem: “A Yankee mixes a certain number of wooden nutmegs, which cost him 1/4 cent apiece, with a quantity of real nutmegs, worth 4 cents apiece, and sells the whole assortment for $44 and gains $3.75 by the fraud. How many wooden nutmegs were there?” The same year, The National Magazine quoted a Northerner who said, “I would rather come from that part of the country where the people make wooden nutmegs than to come from that part of the country where the people are fools enough to buy them.”

Although all the wooden nutmeg stories refer to the peddlers as simply “Yankees,” it was in this era that Connecticut unofficially took on the moniker of the Nutmeg State. According to an 1859 source, the nickname was adopted because of the stories that wooden nutmegs “are manufactured there.” It Happened in Connecticut author Diana McCain posits the nickname was adopted much like Yankee Doodle—transformed from an insult into a proud rallying cry.

Soon after the Civil War, stories of wooden nutmegs passed into history and legend. In 1801, the British invaded and temporarily gained control of the Banda Islands. One of their first actions was to remove nutmeg trees and transplant them to other British colonies, including Grenada in the Caribbean—where much of the world’s nutmeg comes from today. Nutmeg prices dropped dramatically by the middle of the 19th century, and dominated the flavors of American food in the 1840s to 1860s. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, 17 mechanical nutmeg graters were patented between 1854 and 1868, an example of nutmeg’s immense popularity and availability.

Now that nutmegs were cheap and plentiful, the era of the wooden nutmeg was over—if it had ever existed at all. An edition of the magazine The Ladies Repository published in 1865 tells one more version of the origin of the story: A fool from South Carolina bought real nutmegs, and upon trying to crack them with a nutcracker, found there was no meat inside. He then accused the seller of selling him fake nuts made from wood. In this case, the magazine framed the narrative as a Northerner versus a Southerner, but the story feels like one that predates Civil War politics, retold and reframed many times. Perhaps all the cautionary tales, insults, and rivalries were spawned not by actual wooden nutmeg trickery, but simply by an oft-repeated joke.

Today, saffron, vanilla, and cardamom are the most expensive spices on the planet—not nutmeg. Because such spices are often hard to grow and labor-intensive to harvest, it’s not uncommon for them to be replaced by cheaper alternatives, like safflower for saffron and artificially produced vanillin for vanilla. Some spices might also be adulterated with cheaper ingredients—oregano can be bulked up with sumac leaves—while others are dyed to improve their appearance. Both methods increase profit margins. But in the 21st century, it’s rare to find the outright brazen fraud of the wooden nutmeg.

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8 Things We Know About Stranger Things Season 3
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[Warning: There are lots of Stranger Things season two spoilers ahead.]

Stranger Things season two is in the books, and like we all hoped, it turned out to be a worthy follow-up to an addictive debut season. Now, though, we’re left with plenty of questions, mysteries, and theories to chew on as the wait for a third season begins. But for everything we don’t know about what the next year of Stranger Things will bring us (such as an actual release date), there are more than enough things we do know to keep those fan theories coming well into 2018. While the show hasn't been officially greenlit for a third season by Netflix yet, new details have already begun to trickle out. Here’s everything we know about Stranger Things season three so far.

1. THERE WILL BE ANOTHER TIME JUMP.

The third season of Stranger Things won’t pick up right where the second one left off. Like the show experienced between the first two seasons, there will be a time jump between seasons two and three as well. The reason is simple: the child actors are all growing up, and instead of having the kids look noticeably older without explanation for year three, the Duffer Brothers told The Hollywood Reporter:

“Our kids are aging. We can only write and produce the show so fast. They're going to be almost a year older by the time we start shooting season three. It provides certain challenges. You can't start right after season two ended. It forces you to do a time jump. But what I like is that it makes you evolve the show. It forces the show to evolve and change, because the kids are changing.”

2. THE IDEA IS TO BE SMALLER IN SCALE.

If the series’s second season was about expanding the Stranger Things mythology, the third season won't go bigger just for the sake of it, with the brothers even going so far as to say that it will be a more intimate story.

“It’s not necessarily going to be bigger in scale,” Matt Duffer said in an interview with IndieWire. “What I am really excited about is giving these characters an interesting journey to go on.”

Ross Duffer did stress, though, that as of early November, season three is basically “… Matt and me working with some writers and figuring out where it’s going to go.”

3. THE MIND FLAYER WILL BE BACK.

The second season ended on a bit of a foreboding note when it was revealed that the Mind Flayer was still in the Upside Down and was seen looming over the Hawkins school as the winter dance was going on. Though we know there will be a time jump at the start of next season, it’s clear that the monster will still have a big presence on the show.

Executive producer Dan Cohen told TV Guide: "There were other ways we could have ended beyond that, but I think that was a very strong, lyrical ending, and it really lets us decide to focus where we ultimately are going to want to go as we dive into Season 3."

What does the Mind Flayer’s presence mean for the new crop of episodes? Well, there will be plenty of fan theories to ponder between now and the season three premiere (whenever that may be).

4. PLENTY OF LEFTOVER SEASON TWO STORYLINES WILL BE IN SEASON THREE.

The Duffer Brothers had a lot of material for the latest season of the show—probably a bit too much. Talking to Vulture, Matt Duffer detailed a few details and plot points that had to be pushed to season three:

"Billy was supposed to have a bigger role. We ended up having so many characters it ended up, in a way, more teed up for season three than anything. There was a whole teen supernatural story line that just got booted because it was just too cluttered, you know? A lot of that’s just getting kicked into season three."

The good news is that he also told the site that this wealth of cut material could make the writing process for the third season much quicker.

5. THERE WILL BE MORE ERICA.

Stranger Things already had a roster of fan-favorite characters heading into season two, but newcomer Erica, Lucas’s little sister, may have overshadowed them all. Played by 11-year-old Priah Ferguson, Erica is equal parts expressive, snarky, and charismatic. And the Duffer Brothers couldn’t agree more, saying that there will be much more Erica next season.

“There will definitely be more Erica in Season 3,” Ross Duffer told Yahoo!. “That is the fun thing about the show—you discover stuff as you’re filming. We were able to integrate more of her in, but not as much you want because the story [was] already going. ‘We got to use more Erica’—that was one of the first things we said in the writers’ room.”

“I thought she’s very GIF-able, if that’s a word,” Matt Duffer added. “She was great.”

6. EXPECT KALI TO RETURN.

The season two episode “The Lost Sister” was a bit of an outlier for the series. It’s a standalone episode that focuses solely on the character Eleven, leaving the central plot and main cast of Hawkins behind. As well-received as Stranger Things season two was, this episode was a near-unanimous miss among fans and critics.

The episode did, however, introduce us to the character of Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), who has the ability to manipulate people’s minds with illusions she creates. Despite the reaction, the Duffers felt the episode was vital to Eleven’s development, and that Kali won’t be forgotten moving forward.

“It feels weird to me that we wouldn’t solve [Kali’s] storyline. I would say chances are very high she comes back,” Matt Duffer said at the Vulture Festival.

7. OTHER "NUMBERS" MIGHT SHOW UP.

We're already well acquainted with Eleven, and season two introduced us to Eight (a.k.a. Kali), and executive producer Shawn Levy heavily hinted to E! that there are probably more Hawkins Laboratory experiments on the horizon.

"I think we've clearly implied there are other numbers, and I can't imagine that the world will only ever know Eleven and Eight," Levy said.

8. THERE MIGHT NOT BE MANY SEASONS LEFT.

Don’t be in too much of a rush to find out everything about the next season of Stranger Things; there might not be many more left. The Duffer Brothers have said in the past that the plan is to do four seasons and end it. However, Levy gave fans a glimmer of hope that things may go on a little while longer—just by a bit, though.

“Hearts were heard breaking in Netflix headquarters when the Brothers made four seasons sound like an official end, and I was suddenly getting phone calls from our actors’ agents,” Levy told Entertainment Weekly. “The truth is we’re definitely going four seasons and there’s very much the possibility of a fifth. Beyond that, it becomes I think very unlikely.”

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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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