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My 5th Grade Field Trip (or How I Nearly Started a War with Spain)

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The last thing I ever expected to do on a fifth-grade field trip was instigate a trans-atlantic war. Then again, I doubt very many people are thinking seriously about intercontinental politics at age 10. Most of them are just thinking about cookies or something. At the start of this adventure all I was thinking about was hardtack biscuits.

Perhaps I should explain a bit of backstory. At some point, myself, my dad, and a bunch of friends joined an overnight trip to Baltimore harbor to stay aboard the U.S.S. Constellation (accidentally called the U.S.S. Constipation by a younger friend of mine who didn’t understand why that was funny.) The plan was for the ship’s crew (volunteers from the historical society) to show us around and teach us various nautical terms and concepts as well as fill us in on the history of the ship and its interdiction of illegal slavers. Then we’d pile into hammocks and cram together just like the real crew (there were like 200 people doing this, so it really was as cramped as if we were the actual ships crew.)

We started our misadventures immediately. My friend Gabriel unpacked his overnight gear in the hold where we were told we would be staying and then took it upon himself to sign our group up for night watch. Each group on the field trip had to take an hour up on deck to record random happenings in the logbook as some form of sadistic attempt to educate us about how much being a sailor in the old days sucked.

It got worse when they got to the part about having to put up with Kiera Knightly trying to seajack your boat.

Now, to explain the hardtack thing. My dad is a Civil War re-enactor in his spare time, which means that on weekends in the summer he dresses up in period-appropriate uniforms and goes camping with his buddies and their guns. Wait…that just sounds like he’s from Kentucky. What I mean to say is that he sort of takes on the part of an actor in a movie and steps into the role of a Civil War soldier for a weekend. As a by-product of this, one weekend my dad made “hardtack” a sort of bread/biscuit/cracker thing that served as rations for soldiers in the Civil War. In order to let it get to the appropriate level of authentic staleness, he let it sit in the garage for a week or so and then brought it back inside and stashed it in bags, and he always let my sister and I have one because we were young and thought that breaking teeth was fun as long as we got to eat something in the process.

When I arrived for the night on the boat, I got ahold of one of the schedules, and saw that dinner was “hardtack and stew.” I thought that meant I could finally stand out amongst my peer group as “hardcore” because I’d learned how to successfully eat the stuff without requiring hospitalization. All through the history lesson, all through the knot tying, and all through Gabriel’s sheepish admission of when we had to wake up, the only thing on my mind was the manly display of my chewing ability I’d get to show off at dinner.

Use your molars, ya pansy!

After bearing through all of the “educational” stuff people always ruin field trips with, we finally got to dinner. They brought out styrofoam bowls of some kind of beefy soup that came from a can and… saltine crackers? What the crap is this?! Saltine crackers. Oh, no buddy, this is NOT hardtack. I became very offended at the sheer guts these supposed “historical authorities” had in trying to pass off saltine crackers as the manliest cracker in the world. Not only that, but there is NO manly way to eat a saltine cracker! They embody “light tapas” and other words that don’t sound macho. My plan to impress my friends was ruined!

Hardtack. Bah!

After a few more nautical vocabulary lessons it was time for bed. Each of us had been assigned a canvas hammock hanging from the ceiling. Mine was near the aft of the ship (nautical vocab lesson: remembered. Oh yeah…) and unfortunately for me my immediate neighbor was some other kids mom, who slept with her head at my feet and the most unholy stench emanating from her feet, which she stuck in my face all night. Imagine if a fish was rotting, and then someone put lysol on it. It wouldn’t make it smell better, and after a while the lysol would smell like it was rotting too. That was what this woman’s feet smelled like. I tried to move so that my head was no longer near her feet, but by this point I was so crushed in by all the other people sleeping that I couldn’t move. I was trapped in a prison of stink.

By 1:00 in the morning, I was so thankful for my dad arriving to fetch me for watch that I fell onto a coil of rope in my excitement to get out of the hammock, scattering it across the floor and waking up a good fourth of the ship. Oops. The hour we spent on deck was pretty uneventful. Gabriel had a broken arm in a cast, so he spent most of the break writing what I’m sure was a novel in the logbook because he didn’t want to lean his arm on the rail. I took pleasure in making a nearby couple making out on the dock feel extremely awkward by peeking over the side of the ship at them every time they thought I was gone.

To the couple’s great relief it was soon time to return to our hammocks. I rebelled at the notion of a return to my prison of olfactory torment, so I instead opted to sleep on the floor of the ship (or, as the pros called it “the deck”) Several uncomfortable, but thankfully odor-free hours later I awoke and was treated to more saltine crackers and some oatmeal for breakfast. Whoopee.

By now you’re sick of hearing about my tiny woes, and instead are aching to hear how exactly a 10 year old boy managed to nearly start a war. Well, it began at about 10:00 that morning as the crew was teaching us how to load and fire the “parrot gun” or tiny cannon at the back of the ship. You may begin to see where this is going. Previously, they’d made the mistake of not wadding newspaper into the barrel to muffle the sound and had broken several windows on the Hyatt Hotel across the street. This time, they taught us to carefully pack lots of newspaper  into the barrel to prevent the sound from becoming too loud. This also had the effect of creating a giant flaming ball of newspaper that disintegrated before it hit the ground, but nonetheless looked like an enormous fireball had been fired from the cannon.

Pictured: 5th Grade History

This is normally ok, but in the excitement of the crew to shoot the cannon (apparently they’re as much pyromaniacs as historians) they forgot to look where the cannon was pointing when it went off. There was a (still) deafening “BOOM!,” a fireball went arcing through the air, and 100 Spanish dignitaries went diving under the luncheon tables on the Ambassadorial ship immediately in our line of fire. Plates spilled, exclamations of surprise were shouted, and suits were gotten dirty.

To my 10-year-old mind, we’d just declared war. Every story I’d ever heard of ambassadors getting shot at had ended in beach landings, bombing runs, and old people in congress giving impassioned speeches about everything. This was not exactly how I saw my field trip ending, so I spend the remainder of the trip worrying about the best ways to dodge the age requirements from the military. Not until years later did I realize that if I had joined the army I would have been killing people for something that was totally my bad. Oops.

Maybe using this would mitigate the problem?




A Brief History of Pasta

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Today, I’d like to share with you about something which has kept me going the past few months. When all else fails, I can rely on this to get me through the tough, poverty-stricken times. I am of course referring to that wonder-food of undergrads: Pasta. Whether it’s spaghetti, macaroni, or that flat stuff they put in lasagna, pasta has had a long and glorious history of being slurped down the gullet of humanity. Now it is time for the tale of the noodle to be told, to give credit where credit is due, and to give us a new appreciation for this starchy yellow floppy stuff.

Our story begins where most movies made in the 80’s begin: a mystic-looking forest with the caption “somewhere in Asia.”

Just like "Gymkata!"

If this wasn’t what you were expecting than it’s probably because Italy has brainwashed the world into thinking they invented pasta, rather than just being the place that is most associated with it. Sort of like how Americans like to pretend they invented hot dogs, guns, and God. In actuality, the first references to pasta found in history are actually references to a Chinese rice-pasta. This is actually a great foreshadowing of the way the primary consumers of pasta in America (undergrads) think about food. Imagine: it’s late and there’s nothing going on tonight. There is, in fact nothing to do but eat, think about food, and think about how to obtain more food. You’ve had rice for the past six weeks straight and you’re sick of it. So, in a fit of inspired boredom, you mash up the rice into a powder, mix it with water, and pour it onto a hot thing until it cooks. Then, because you’re not interested in being that inspired twice in 24 hours, you just throw some of the leftover rice-scrapings into some water and boil them until they’re soft enough to eat. Voila! Instant pasta! I’m not even going to tell you whether that story was from the perspective of the college students or the Chinese. It could be either one!

The next reference to pasta was in fact from Italy. Just kidding! It actually comes from the Talmud. Yeah, the Jewish religious text. Stick that in your driedel and spin it, Italy!

Those yellow rings are actually noodles.

Yeah, actually the Talmud refers to a dried noodle called itryah, which was pretty normal food at the time of the Talmud’s composition. By the time of the 10th century the Arabs were making pasta called lakasha to sell in the markets. Think of the guys who sell peanuts in baseball stadiums, who walk up and down the stands yelling “peanuts, get your hot, roasted peanuts here!” and replace “peanuts” with “lakasha.” and you’ll get a sense of how Arabic markets work. Very noisy, lots of food, and apparently covered in pasta.

Italy comes late to the party with pasta. While pasta like foods were eaten even before the Roman empire came to power, since they were not actually pasta I don’t count them. Italy does, but they’re biased, and probably grouchy if they haven’t eaten since lunch. According to pasta historians, and such things exist, apparently (I like to imagine that they all look like Mario Batali) modern pasta was probably brought to Sicily by traders from the Arab world. They base this belief on the evidence that the oldest pasta dishes in Sicily contain things like dried fruits and cinnamon, both of which are featured heavily in Arab cuisine and pasta dishes.

Now that pasta had finally reached the Italian world, you’d probably assume that things like lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs were pretty quick in being invented. Actually, there’s one major reason those dishes wouldn’t come onto the scene for quite a long time. Probably after the American revolution, in fact. That reason? Tomatoes.

Heaven help us.

Tomatoes were basically assumed by everyone to be poisonous until Thomas Jefferson rubbed them in the faces of the Colonial scientific world by eating them as frequently as he could and living to a ripe old age. You see, back in the day, people used to eat off of plates made of a poisonous metal called pewter. Since they weren’t eating the plates, this was mostly ok. However, the high acidity of tomatoes caused the plates to dissolve slightly into the tomato juice, resulting in illness or death for the person who ate them. Presumably, the family of the first person ever to die this way blamed the tomatoes for his death because “killed by his dinnerware” wouldn’t look very good on a headstone. Thus, most people assumed the plants were deadly, and wouldn’t have slathered a sauce made of them all over their food.

Popular pasta dishes in their most current forms were brought over/invented in America by Italian and Sicilian immigrants fleeing tough conditions in the 20s and Mussolini in the 30s and 40s. This is also how American pizza was invented, coincidentally.

So there you have it. Invented by the Chinese, refined by the Arabs, adopted and loved by the Italians, and finally mass produced and used to feed poor college students by Americans.

Does anyone else think “Driedel-Spun Chanukah Pasta” would sell really well?