Muffins – a short history

After perusing my fellow TAO crewmember Vegar’s blog recently I thought perhaps his historical interest would be piqued by research by Professor Bruce Ambrosius McFoster of the University of Woolamaloo’s Department of Arcane Historical Facts.

It is well-know that Vegar’s ancestor’s, the Vikings, were, when not busy pillaging coastal communities, outstanding sailors, explorers and traders. They travelled vast distances – as far as the Mediterranean – making the sea truly the super-highway of the time, carrying both goods and ideas. Or in some cases both.

The new research showed that a group of Viking traders were once blown off course from what is now the French Mediterranean coast and were forced to the shores of North Africa. Never ones to miss a chance to turn mishap into opportunity, the Vikings soon found new goods to trade for in the soukhs of North Africa. While recuperating there, they found a local foodstuff which these hairy-bottomed Norsemen enjoyed immensely; a small cake, sweet and filling, with enough calories for an entire afternoon’s pillaging. Being unable to wrap their rough-bearded mouths around the soft-syllabled name the locals gave the delicacy they named it after the market where they first found it: mhou-a-fian, which, in the language of the time meant ‘There is no God but Allah, but a good cake comes a close second’.

The returning Vikings brought back both samples of the cake and the recipe with them from their trip. They introduced it first to the south of France, where it became know as ‘la mouaffine’, which roughly translates as ‘those pesky Arabs are Godless creatures but they make a bloody good cake’. Travelling the sea highways of the Dragon Ships and the slower rural rutted roads of Europe the idea spread slowly over the succeeding years. By the time of the Enlightenment coffee shops were de rigeur and Samuel Pepys and Daniel Waterhosue were often to be seen supping the devilish brew from the New World while eating the perfect accompiniment to it, ye Muffine. A trend had been set which continues to this day.

This much the Professor has uncovered with his diligent research which has taken him to cake and pastry shops on four continents. His last point is, admittedly, only conjecture however: he believes that the Norse expeditions to Vindland, or what we now know of as the new World, were actually a deliberate attempt to find coffee beans to have with their pastries. Many brave Vikings died in this noble quest. Sadly the Professor is now added to this list since his overly-diligent research has taken a toll on his health. The stress and strain of years of hard academic detective work, the ridicule by some of his peers (who support the competing fairy cake hypothesis) and thousands of miles of travel all conspired to destroy the man’s health as he pursued his dream of knowledge. Well, that and heart failure brought on by eating 652,419 muffins and associated cakes, all accompanied by coffee. Farewell, professor – we honour your name and your commitment to academic truth and the advancement of human knowledge (and waistlines).

So next time you enjoy a muffin, pause and think about the unlikely confluence of historical accidents, inter-cultural exchanges and linguistic borrowing which brought us to the modern muffin.

Next week Doctor Hagar from the University of Woolamaloo’s Department of Historical bearded People explains his new hypothesis that Norse culture was not broken by the advancement of Christianity, like Imperial Rome, but because the Norse raiders became too porky on a diet of seal blubber, mead and muffins to go raiding anymore.

And now we shall speak no more of this subject since poor Vegar has been taking a fair bit of stick over itand has been a good sport :-). And he’s spot on in his new piece on the blurb on books cover – and yes, it is very nice when you see quotes from one of your own reviews being used on the cover to help sell a book by a writer you really enjoyed. And since the TAO crew do it for the love of it rather than for cash, it is nice to know we do perhaps make some difference.

“The horror…The horror of it all.”Colonel Kurtz (Brando), musing on the amorality of a supposedly honourable soldier’s actions during war.

Watching Rumsfeld squirm tonight in front of the Senate committee investigating the torture and abuse of POWs in Iraq – at times by non other than former First Lady Hilary Clinton – was interesting and disturbing. What was more disturbing was the reaction of the small, rural West Virginia town where the female soldier grinning in many of the photographs lives in a trailer park. A lot of the rank and file of the US army comes from poor towns like this – they don’t get much of a shot at the much-vaunted American Dream and the forces are a way out for many. Understandably this leads to many of the locals in these areas being extremely loyal to their fellows in active service.

However, when the BBC crew interviewed many of these folk most were of the opinion that she hadn’t done much wrong as was just being scapegoat by her superiors and that the blame lay further up the chain of command. While I would agree that the blame should indeed run right up the chain of command – all the way to the top, especially since the Commander in Chief had already alluded to disregarding the Geneva Convention which every civilised nation adheres to after 9-11. But this does not excuse our poor country gal from her actions either. Look at those pictures – she’s bloody laughing at the misery she and her fellow grunts are inflicting on other people. She’s enjoying it. Saying the blame lies only with those in authority above them is like the tired old defence of the junior demons at Nuermberg: I was only obeying orders. In other words, I ain’t responsible for my own actions…

Now while I want to see those above these folk castigated and charged for breaching human rights this in no way excuses our West Virginia girl, regardless of how sweet her family say she really is. Only following orders is no excuse when they involve illegal actions. And as was quite deliberately shown by the Allies – including, ironically, America – at Nuremberg, and then later in the Balkans, everyone who commits these offences will be due to stand in front of a human rights court, from heads of state and generals to police and prison guards.

One of her home town citizens commented that it would all blow over. He actually said that hey, look at all the bad things in WW1 and WW2 – no-one show pictures of those any more or talks about them. Well, except for a mountain of books, thousands of hours or documentaries… All this in the anniversary of D-Day – no-one talks about those times anymore! In other words, he is saying bugger it, everyone will forget about it if we let it go.

This is worrying in two ways. First of all because I fear all too many people, especially the bigoted and ignorant, don’t follow history, just as he says. One of the main reasons, I suspect why we end up repeating so much of it again and again. The second is because one of the things that creeps like the British National Party do is to try and eradicate and deny horrific human rights abuses from history to make their own bigoted viewpoint appear more justified and palatable. Amazing what some people will do in the name of ‘right’ and ‘patriotism’.

Meanwhile those of us who do still read history realise speaking softly and carrying a big stick may no longer quite cut it.

Revenge fantasies

Warm weather. Ah, one of the drawback of warm, sunny days of spring and summer – the noise-polluting wanker brigade. Noisy neighbours seem worse because their windows are open, your windows are open, the music is much louder… And as for fucking wankers in cars with the DUM DUM DUM DUM mindless repetition of bad dance music blasting at full volume from their cars. Usually a crappy wee car with the stereo turned up very loud as if to compensate for the paucity of the vehicle and the spotty young Herbert driving it (usually with a baseball cap). And with the windows all open it is soooo fucking irritating to everyone they pass. But what do they care? Consideration of others is not something that has ever entered their psyche.

Don’t get me wrong, I like loud music – I’m a rock fiend for Alice’s sakes! But I try not to blast it too loud around other folk because it’s not right to inflict it on everyone else against their will. A little consideration. So the slow-moving traffic I walked past tonight on the way home with the baseball-hat wearing Ned with the most dreadfully unoriginal dance music thumping out of his windows pissed me off. And I couldn’t help but look at those open windows and think, why not make them work for me? And so I decided to add CS gas canisters to my Utility Belt. Pull pin and toss through the window…Ah, sweet revenge fantasies, how they help me make it through the day…

Dress Dwarves

One of my regulars at the SF Book Group and a chum of Charlie Stross’ was in yesterday buying one of the excellent Sookie Stackhouse Vampire Mysteries from me. She explained she had missed the recent meeting because she is knee deep in wedding preparations. As she is having a Victorian period dress made it somewhat limits her range of movement and she thinks a short walk down the aisle is as much as can be managed in one of those dresses.

I explained to her, using my vast historical knowledge, that she had misunderstood Victorian dress design. She is not supposed to walk – the voluminous basket hoops of the huge skirt is designed to allow space for a concealed dwarf. The lady is mounted on an early form of roller skates and the hidden dwarf pushes her along under her enormous skirts, signalling the dwarf directions by twitching her right or left leg muscles.

Naturally this gave a graceful, floating motion to Victorian ladies. Gentlemen of the time assumed that Ladies of Quality were obviously superior, graceful creatures and the ladies and their dressmakers maintained the illusion by concealing the secret of their locomotion (and the dwarves). Of course, the ladies had to take great care not to sit down while the dwarves were still underneath them.

As the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian era the dress design changed once more and the dwarves soon found themselves out of work in large numbers. This period coincides with the mass emigration of a goodly number of dwarves from Britain and the Empire to America, where many found gainful employment working for P T Barnum. Their descendants today have often found themselves back under heavy clothing once more as they don costumes for various George Lucas movies, but it seems unlikely that fashion will see a return to dwarf-powered roller-skating ladies in large dresses.

All of which historical curiosities brings me neatly to a new book released by HarperCollins this week called Mutants. It is a history of human genetic mutations and has on the cover one of the famous 16th century ‘wolf children’ – a little girl in period costumer at a Royal Court who, along with her family, were entirely covered in hair, even more than Robin Williams. This is thought to be one of the sources of the werewolf myth. The book also contains other charming tales, such as the lady with a supernumery breast (a spare one on her thigh, apparently). Sounds like my kind of book. Still, for a history of mutants and freaks I still think you can’t beat Tod Browning’s 1932, little-shown Freaks. The director of Dracula had started his career as a carnie working the freak shows traversing America in the early and mid 20th centuries and used a number of his old chums, all real-life freaks, in the film. It is not often shown today, probably because TV and cinema managers are worried they may offend someone, which is a shame as it is a classic. Altogether now: “one of us, one of us, one of us” (chanted as the freaks take revenge on the trapeze artist who mocked them by disfiguring her and making her too into a freak).