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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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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers’ Movies
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Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers’s movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’ 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS'S WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that featured a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination). 

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. "The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, "Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that."

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen Brothers are plenty fond of The Dude: after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen Brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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