June Blog; The Summer Solstice

June Blog; The Summer Solstice

There are, as we all know, four dates in the solar calendar that return, year after year.  The two equinoxes – the vernal (spring) and autumnal (fall) equinoxes.  And two solstices – the winter and summer solstice.  The equinoxes are easily understood:  On those dates, we have equal amounts of day and night, 12 hours apiece.  The solstices are the shortest and longest days of the year, marking the beginning of winter and summer.  Of course, that’s not precisely true, at least insofar as our marking of time is concerned:  On the last Saturday in October, when daylight savings time ends, the day is 25 hours long, but that can be dismissed as human meddling.

Solstice comes from the Latin; it literally means “the sun stands still.”  On June 21, 2016, the tilt of the earth maximizes the amount of daylight hours we will enjoy.  We will have fifteen hours and ten minutes of daylight on that day.  That day will be longer in Connecticut than in Washington, DC, which won’t even be fifteen hours long. And Miami’s longest day is only thirteen hours and forty-five minutes.  The amount of daylight, of course, depends on one’s latitude; the higher the latitude, the longer the day.

 And the longer the sunset.  According to The Washington Post, “because the summer solstice features the shortest night of the year, the sun also doesn’t drop as far below the horizon.  The sun’s apparent path tends to curve below the horizon instead of dropping quickly, causing longer periods of twilight both before sunrise and after sunset.” Keep that in mind; weather permitting, June 21 is a wonderful evening to find a view of the setting sun, a sight that will last longer than on any other day.

So if that is the longest day of the year, why isn’t it the hottest day?  The warmest days of the year generally comeafter the longest day of the year, a month afterwards in fact.  In New England, the warmest days come in late July.  Part of the reason for that are the oceans; they tend to warm up and cool down more slowly than land, so we continue to warm up even after that longest day.

On noon, on June 21, the sun will be directly above the Tropic of Cancer.  On December 22, the winter solstice, it will be directly above the Tropic of Capricorn.  Why is it called the Tropic of Cancer?  Why did Henry Miller name his two books after those two latitudes?  I cannot answer the second question (though it makes me wonder, did you read them?).  But, as for the first question:  “Tropic” comes from the Greek, trepein, meaning “to turn.”  When the sun reaches those two points, it “turns,” it begins to reverse directions.  They were first named two millennia ago; then, on June 21, the sun was in the Cancer constellation in the sky, and on December 22, the Capricorn constellation.  However, that was true 2,000 years ago, not today.  Today, the sun is in Taurus on June 21, and Sagittarius in December.  So why are they not the Tropic of Taurus and Tropic of Sagittarius?  Great question.  Along with the matter of Henry Miller, we’ll save that question for another day.

The Side Bar by Joseph McDonagh is a monthly blog of random topics on local interests. Joe is a writer posing as an independent insurance agent. His interests include the Red Sox, healthcare, etymology and linguistics, history, and the cultivation of democracy. Contact Joe at josephpmcdonagh@gmail.com
May Blog: It’s All About That Cheese

May Blog: It’s All About That Cheese

There might, oddly, be no more American dish than macaroni and cheese.  And yet, quite obviously, its origins aren’t American, but Italian.  Or French.  Okay, European.

Let’s start with the origins of pasta, and the famous story that pasta was introduced to Italy by Marco Polo, who brought it back from China.  Well, maybe not.  There are references to a kind of pasta, cooked by boiling, in a section of The Talmud written in the Fifth Century AD.  Some suggest that during the Arab invasions of Sicily (in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries) pasta was introduced to Italy.  Marco Polo, who returned from China in 1295, had described some Chinese noodles as being like lagana, a Roman word that describes a noodle made from wheat.

The name macaroni comes from a Sicilian term for kneading forcefully, with energy.  The making of pasta was typically a daylong effort, with the dough being kneaded with the feet.

The first known recipe for macaroni and cheese dates back to 13th Century Italy.  A recipe called “de lasanis” appeared in Liber de Coquina (Book of Cooking), using fermented dough cut into two-inch squares, cooked in water, and tossed with grated cheese.  A French cookbook from the 14th century, Forme of Cury, offered a dish called makerouns, which combined (according to food52.com) thin pastry dough, cheese, and butter.

Many suggest that Thomas Jefferson should be credited with bringing macaroni and cheese to America.  In 1787, returning from France, Jefferson brought back a pasta machine, which he felt he could improve upon. It appears that he (or his cousin, Mary Randolph, who served as hostess while he was president after his wife died) served macaroni and cheese at a state dinner, while he was president.  A guest at the time (according to www.thenibble.com) reports that he was served “a pie called macaroni,” which was probably the baked version.  But – and here is where the story gets even more interesting – it is quite likely that the chef who actually created this dish for Jefferson while he lived in Paris was James Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves and brother to Sally Hemings, believed by many to have been the mother to a number of Jefferson’s illegitimate children.  James Hemings was freed by Jefferson in 1796, but one condition of obtaining his freedom was that James train his brother Robert to replace him as chef in the Jefferson household.  It was no doubt Robert who actually prepared the “pie called macaroni” in 1802.  Yet it was Mary Randolph who was credited with the recipe; in 1824, Randolph published The Virginia Housewife, which included her (or Heming’s?) recipe for “macaroni and cheese.”

Whatever, we are blessed in the Hamden area with a number of restaurants that offer their own marvelous macaroni and cheese dishes.  At the recent 2016 Hamden Regional Chamber of Commerce Expo, Eamonn Ryan’s The Playwright offered his delicious lobster macaroni and cheese (Cellentani pasta and cheddar cheese parmesan cheese sauce).  Mickey’s Restaurant offers, on his bar menu, “Mickey’s Macaroni & Cheese,” featuring Swiss, Cheddar, American, and Parmesan cheeses.  Eli’s on Whitney has two versions, one with pulled pork, one without. Side Street Grille offers their Steve Jobs Fired Mac & Cheese; and new to Hamden Wood n Tap offers a great Mac n Cheese dish.  There are probably many more, so go ahead, indulge a little!

The Side Bar by Joseph McDonagh is a monthly blog of random topics on local interests. Joe is a writer posing as an independent insurance agent. His interests include the Red Sox, healthcare, etymology and linguistics, history, and the cultivation of democracy. Contact Joe at josephpmcdonagh@gmail.com
April  Blog: The Nutmeg State

April Blog: The Nutmeg State

Connecticut’s nickname — well, one of them — is “The Nutmeg State.”  Why?  We are certainly not a state that grows nutmeg.  Well, it goes back to Connecticut’s commercial and shipping interests.  Ships laden with spices from Asia, South America, Africa, all came to Connecticut first.
Nutmeg comes from a tropical evergreen tree (which sounds like an oxymoron to me).  The trees grow in the Spice Islands, in Indonesia, and can grow to over 60 feet.  The fruit of the tree, according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, is a “pendulous drupe.”  The fruit itself is eaten by the locals; inside the fruit is a crimson-colored aril, surrounding the seed itself.  The aril is called mace, and it too is a spice.


A nutmeg tree can produce fruit three times a season.  The nutmeg seed is dried, over a two-month period, and then broken open to reveal the mace and the nutmeg.  The mace is peeled off from the nutmeg kernel, “flattened into strips, dried, and sold either as whole (blades) or finely ground powder” (this from nutrition-and-you.com).  The nutmeg kernel itself is also dried, for weeks, until the whole nutmeg can be heard rattling inside the kernel.  When the shell is finally cut open, the shriveled nutmeg kernel is dipped in lime juice, to prevent it from seeding and to protect it from insects.  The final product resembles wood.  In fact, there were rumors that Connecticut merchants would put nutmegs in the top and bottom of a barrel, filling the rest with fake wooden replicas.  And it’s just as likely that the customers — southerners, in this report from mentalfloss.com — didn’t understand that to eat a nutmeg, it must first be grated.


It was over nutmeg (well, other spices as well, but nutmeg was the most prominent one) that the Dutch and English fought for many, many years.  Those two European powers were international competitors, particularly in pursuit of spices of all kinds.  Finally in 1667, a treaty was signed, the Treaty of Breda.  The Dutch got back various spice-producing colonies in the East Indies (including the final nutmeg-producing colony in the British Empire), and the British – among other things – got New Netherlands.  You know it by its current name, New York.  And yes, the Dutch thought they got the better end of the deal.


So what is the big deal?  Well, the Chinese and Indians knew that nutmeg could help with digestion, and have a calming influence on the brain.  And it turns out, nutmeg has some psychoactive elements within it, similar to mescaline or ecstasy.  Doubt it?  Read “My Nutmeg Bender” by Wayne Curtis in The Atlantic from a few years ago.  Mr. Curtis quotes from A Dictionary of Hallucinations (if you are interested, amazon.com says they have one copy available) that nutmeg is “reported to mediate visual, auditory, tactile, and kinaesthetic hallucinations (notably the sensation of floating).”  Curtis reports that Malcolm X, in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, said that “a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers.”  But Curtis’ own experience with nutmeg – he swallowed a few teaspoons of freshly grated nutmeg, washing it down with water – wasn’t quite so pleasant.  Though he did say that he found the shingles on his neighbor’s house suddenly quite amusing.


Oh, right, Connecticut.  Certainly “The Nutmeg State” should now seem a more attractive nickname than “The Land of Steady Habits,” a nickname we earned (according to connecticuthistory.com) in the early nineteenth century from our propensity to “repeatedly [elect] the same officials to high office.” And then there’s “The Constitution State,” a title that was officially endorsed by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1959.  That one is based on the notion that the United States Constitution was inspired, in part, by the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, signed on January 14, 1639.  The Fundamental Orders were adopted by the communities of Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield, establishing a representative government.  You can find the Fundamental Orders online, and there are fascinating aspects to them. They establish the process for electing two “generall assemblies or courts,” and a “gouerner.”  The oath of office for said gouerner is something we might consider re-adopting:  “I, being chosen to be gouernor within this jurisdiction…doe swear by the greate and dreadfull name of the everliuing God, to promote the publicke good and peace of same….”


March Blog: In Like A Lion

March Blog: In Like A Lion

March is a month of significant dates.  In any month of March, there’s March 14 (Pi Day), which last year carried more significance because Pi, taken out longer, is 3.1415 — thus, March 14, 2015.  And this year, March 14 is, for Orthodox Christians, the first day of Lent.  March 15 is of course the Ides of March.  There’s March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.  And March 20 is the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring, falling this year on Palm Sunday.  The following Sunday – I suppose I should point out, only in the Western Church, not for Orthodox Christians – is Easter.  It would take me way too long to explain why Orthodox and Western churches don’t celebrate Easter on the same day.


Every month has an Ides, not just March.  The Roman calendar included months of 28 or 30 days, more or less like ours, but their months were timed to coincide with the phases of the moon.  The first day of the month coincided with the new moon, and was called calends.  The first quarter moon fell on the fifth or seventh day of the month, and was called nones. And the ides of the month fell on the 13th or 15th day, around the time of the full moon.  But the Ides of March was special (even before Julius Caesar’s problems), because March was, in the Roman calendar, the first month of the year, so the Ides of March was the first full moon of the year.  (Remember, that’s why they are called September, October, November, and December, the seventh through tenth months of the year by their names per the Roman calendar).  In fact, one of the things that prompted Caesar’s assassins was his decision to change the calendar, making January the first month of the year, and adding ten days to the 355-day calendar, in 46 BC, two years before he was assassinated. Caesar did that by proclamation, and it wasn’t a popular decision.


Around the Ides of February, in 44 BC, the soothsayer Spurinna told Caesar that he’d found a very bad omen, a bull without a heart.  Most believe that Spurinna was engaging in poetic license; a good soothsayer was essentially a good gossip, someone who had his ear to the ground, and there was plenty of grumbling about Caesar’s dictatorial ways.  Nor was it quite clear why a bull without a heart necessarily meant trouble for Caesar.  Spurinna didn’t warn Caesar about the Ides of March, he simply warned him that the next 30 days might be dangerous.  The date-specific “beware the Ides of March” prophecy was poetic invention, by William Shakespeare.


But Caesar was indeed assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC; the conspirators included Cassius (the fellow about whom Caesar says, in Shakespeare, “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look;/He thinks too much, such men are dangerous”), Brutus (“et tu, Brute!”), and Decimus.  According to Barry Strauss, author of The Death of Caesar, it wasn’t Brutus who betrayed Caesar, but Decimus.  Decimus was Caesar’s closest friend, had dined with him the night before his death, and it was Decimus who persuaded Caesar to leave his house that morning, against the wishes of Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia.  Brutus was central to the conspiracy, but it wasn’t his betrayal that was most surprising.  By the way, no, Caesar never did say, “Et tu, Brute!”  In fact, Strauss is pretty sure that Caesar fought back, fiercely, before succumbing.  More surprising, and more central to the murder, was Cassius; it was he who spoke to Brutus, early in Julius Caesar, encouraging Brutus to join him in the conspiracy to kill Caesar.  “Men at some time are masters of their fates/The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves/That we are underlings.”  Cassius was complaining about Caesar’s imperial actions, perhaps including that calendar revision business, and the lack of will to confront Caesar.  I guess we can be grateful that we don’t have friends like Brutus, Cassius, and Decimus.