Thursday, May 29, 2014

Shin Deep in Human Feces: What It's Like to Dig a Privy

     Today is going to be a rare post that’s not about weird foods, obscure horror movies, or my writing.  Instead, it’s going to be about my day job—archaeology.  As you can guess from the title, this is going to be scatological at times, so be forewarned.  So unless you have a strong stomach, you probably don’t want to be eating while you read this.  Also, I hope readers will understand that I’m trying to make this post accessible to both those with an archaeological background, and those with none.
     Before indoor plumbing was invented, or available to the majority of people, most folks used a small structure, usually separated from the main house.  Although the names for these buildings have varied from time period to time period, and country to country, the most common term in my line of work is a privy.  (My personal favorite name is the classy but vague term “necessary house.”)
     As odd as it may seem, privies are enthusiastically sought after by archaeologists.  That’s because they tend to be treasure troves of information.  They usually have quite a few artifacts, such as bottles and ceramics, since in pre-curbside garbage collection days it was often most convenient just to throw out trash in the same place as your, shall we say, personal organic waste.  These artifacts in turn help us to date particular areas, or sites.  Specific bottle and ceramic types were often used during particular time periods.  Sometimes it’s even easier, as it is when they have legible writing stamped or embossed on them.  Some dishes and plates have “maker’s marks” stamped on the underside, and quite often the manufacturer’s years of operation are easily learned.  And occasionally the data is received from the waste remains themselves.  Samples often reveal what people were eating (from seeds, etc.), or even some of their physical ailments (remains of intestinal parasites are sometimes identifiable, for example).
     My first experience with privies came at my field school, at the historic Spencer-Peirce-Little house in Newbury, Massachusetts, which dates back to the late 1600’s.  It was indirect and fleeting, as we sometimes washed artifacts found during a previous year’s privy excavation when the weather prevented us from digging.  Occasionally small pieces of indeterminate soil like matter would float to the surface of our washing pans.  These, we were told, were actually human waste remains.  So a little off-putting, but not that hard to handle.
     The next significant privy experience was many years later, in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.  It was across the street from the Polk County Courthouse, and a small jail.  (During lulls in traffic and when the wind was right, you could hear the catcalls and propositions from the prisoners.)  We uncovered, as I remember, two privies in our trenches.  We excavated these (finding a lot of artifacts) and took a few samples.  At the end of the day a coworker named Dave came up to me and said, “I know this sounds a little strange, but have you seen my bag of poop?”  Fortunately we found this missing sample.
     But by far the most memorable privy excavations were in downtown Buffalo, New York, very near the town’s City Hall.  The entire site dated to the mid to late 19th century and was comprised of several old building foundations and their accompanying yards and outbuildings.  (To “represent,” as the kids say (or as they did about 20 years ago, when my knowledge of slang basically stopped), my home state, we could see the statue of the only New Jersey-born U.S. President, Grover Cleveland, from our worksite.  In addition to being the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, Cleveland is also (as far as I can tell) the only President to ever legally execute condemned prisoners, when he was serving as Sheriff of Erie County in the 1870’s.)  We worked on this job on several different occasions, but this part was done in December.  Since Buffalo isn’t exactly balmy in winter, we had to bundle up, and use PVC pipe framed, wood based, and heavy plastic sheeting walled shelters, which also were outfitted with portable propane heaters.  There were several privies on this job, but I mainly worked on just one.  It started out innocuously.  A trackhoe had removed much of the building rubble above, and we removed the rest by hand excavation.  The first foot or so seemed like regular historic city fill.  Then we got underneath this dirt cap, and into the privy fill itself.  It was pretty disgusting.  Despite the cold (even with the shelter and heater it was still pretty chilly) the odor was rank.  Bad allergies have left me with a very poor sense of smell, but even I found it very pungent.  Luckily, there were no recognizable separate pieces of feces, but the “soil” was still disturbing.  It was a dark brown color, and the texture was soft, and rather like pudding.  I was wearing field clothing, work boots, and double sets of gloves (latex ones and insulated leather ones above) but it was still pretty nasty to think about what I was standing in.  As I recall, we probably had jugs of water and dishsoap to wash with at breaks and especially lunch, but still, I ate things I could eat by only touching the outside wrapper, like a granola type bar, instead of a sandwich or something.  On the plus side, the privy was chock full of goodies.  Many bottles and ceramics.  Visible seeds, which found their way into a sample bag.  Even half of a coconut, which was presumably a rare food item at the time.
     The following summer we came back and did more work in the same general area.  This time, fortunately, the privies we uncovered and dug weren’t quite so literally crappy.  Evidently their grosser contents had been carted away by the men who did this for a living, selling the feces (known politely as “night soil”) to farms as fertilizer.  The remaining privy fill we dealt with seemed much more like regular soil, in every way.  Still packed with artifacts, though, which meant we had our cake and ate it too, if this expression can be applied to emptying ancient outhouses.
     Alas, it was many years ago, so I’m a little hazy on the details, but I do remember a few nuggets we discovered.  We recovered many “Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium” bottles, for one.  It was a different time, clearly—when opium was legal to anyone, without prescription, and even marketed for children.  There was also a bottle which advertised that it was for treatment of “piles,” which is now an old-fashioned (and slightly uncouth, I think) term for hemorrhoids.  The samples revealed that the users suffered from whipworm and hookworm infestations.  Also, to return to the different ideas about drugs over a century ago, the pollen samples indicated a lot of hemp.  One more euphemism I find amusing—at the Christmas party following the winter leg of the job we were given jokey framed awards.  I received the “Best Historic Artifact” award for a nearly intact chamber pot I’d pulled out, which we called a “thunder mug.”
     I worked on several other privies, before and since, but none so dramatic.  But, despite the revolting aspects of privy excavations, I would eagerly do so again if/when I get the chance.  After all, to quote the famous children’s book, “Everybody Poops,” and digging about in the places folks do yields quite a bit of useful and interesting information.
     I’ll end with a few unrelated fun facts of a scatological nature.
1)      Des Moines means “of the monks” in French.  However, the root of this is quite different.  In 1673 Father Marquette met the Peoria Native American tribe near what is now the Des Moines river.  He asked what the name of their rival tribe was, and was told that they were the Moingoana.  Linguists have recently discovered that this was almost certainly an insult, as Moingoana meant “excrement faces.”
2)      I’d heard that the “Thomas Crapper invented the toilet” account was a bit of historic satire.  However, it’s sort of true.  There was an actual Thomas Crapper, an Englishman who lived from the 1830’s into the early 1900’s, who promoted public sanitation.  While he didn’t invent any of the versions of a toilet, his company did manufacture one of them.  Weirdly, the modern slang word “crap” does not come from his name—actually it’s just an older term, and so is a coincidence.
3)      Fossilized pieces of recognizable excrement are known as “coprolites.”  One of the most famous human examples is known as the Lloyds Bank coprolite, which is an unusually well preserved leaving at a 9th century Viking settlement in what is now York, England, which was discovered during construction of the bank in 1972.  In 1991, for insurance purposes, scientist Andrew Jones said, “This is the most exciting piece of excrement I’ve ever seen.  In its own way it’s as valuable as the Crown Jewels.”  If you’re interested in seeing it with your own eyes it’s on display at the JORVIK Viking Centre in York.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Grasshoppers

     Yet again we return to the variety pack of insects I received from ThinkGeek.  Which, based on the number of blog posts I’ve gotten from it, was one of the best, most efficient food purchases I’ve ever made.  On the agenda today is a member of the Acrididae family—the grasshopper.
     First off, I was curious about the relationship between grasshoppers and locusts, if any.  It turns out that there’s quite a bit—locusts are grasshoppers which are going through a particular set of circumstances.  Due probably to overcrowding, scientists think, grasshoppers sometimes start to come together, breed like maniacs, and accumulate in huge groups.  They also tend to change color at this point.  And when I’m talking huge groups, I really, really, mean it.  Some of the largest swarms have covered hundreds of square miles, and are made up of billions of individual animals.  These swarms then often ravage the countryside, consuming basically every crop and plant in their path.  There’s a reason that ancient religious texts include accounts of locust plagues—they can be devastating.  Pesticides and even a fungi bioweapon help, but even up into the present day locust hordes are still nothing to laugh at.
     But humans can give as well as they can get.  Grasshoppers are not uncommon as a food source.  Folks in Mexico and Central America, parts of Africa, the Middle East, and China all enjoy chowing down on them.  In a variety of ways, too.  Grasshoppers are eaten raw, sun dried, boiled, fried, flavored with lime, chile peppers, onions, and garlic, and in soups.  Islamic and Jewish dietary laws forbid consumption of almost all insects, but they both make exceptions for grasshoppers, especially during periods of famine.
     Grasshoppers fare mostly poorly as characters in myths and folklore.  The fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” unfavorably compares the industrious former with the lazy latter.  Another story names unfaithful women as being “grasshoppers” in that they hop from man to man.  And in a less negative way, the character of Caine in “Kung Fu” was called “Grasshopper,” as he was a novice who needed to learn.
     Anyway, the grasshoppers I tried were advertised as being seasoned with bacon and cheeseburger flavor.  They were large for insects, being about 1.5 to 2 inches long, with a brownish green color.  Their texture was crunchy.  And the taste was mediocre.  Much better than the crickets (see February 13, 2014 post), but not especially great, either.  I tried different body parts of them, but it didn’t seem to make any difference.  The bacon cheeseburger flavoring was just a hint.  If they weren’t labeled as such, I might not have indentified it.  I didn’t have a problem finishing the ten or so grasshoppers, but they were just okay.  I wouldn’t have them in that format again.  But, I would be willing to try them prepared in another way, hopefully by pros in a restaurant.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Duck Feet

     A couple of months ago, on the same Washington D.C. trip when I tried sweetbreads (see March 20th, 2014 post), I got a chance to try duck feet.  My friend (Hi Keith) got a sizable to go order from a Chinese restaurant, and they threw in a bonus tub.  When we looked, it turned out to be the duck feet.  I’d heard of eating chicken feet, but not those of ducks.  At the time we weren’t entirely sure that it wasn’t a prank, to see if we would eat them.
     The restaurant wasn’t playing a joke on us, as it happens.  Duck feet are considered a delicacy in some Asian cuisines, including China’s.  Braising or frying them is common, although the ones I got were apparently boiled.
     I also learned a few tidbits about this body part.  For starters, there’s the nomenclature.  Pig’s feet are referred to as “trotters,” and many animals’ feet are called hoofs.  So technically, this post should be labeled duck palmates, as it is for many other aquatic birds.  The Urban Dictionary has a definition for “duck feet” as well, and surprisingly, it’s not a repellent carnal act.  They define duck feet as, “Feet that are just too big, flat, or awkward for regular walking.  Shoes don’t fit properly and dancing is impossible.”  Finally, “I Wish That I Had Duck Feet,” is a book title from one of my favorite children’s authors—Dr. Seuss.  I thought I’d read pretty much everything he’d written, but now I see that I missed at least one.

     Anyway, I tried a duck foot immediately, out on the street, cold.  It was weird looking.  Duck feet are webbed, of course, and that’s basically what there was to eat, along with a thin layer of skin over the bones.  The texture was a little rubbery.  The taste was kind of neither here nor there.  Not bad, but not especially good, either.  I ate a couple that night.  The next day we tried them with a sauce that Keith made (I forget what it was exactly, but some kind of spicy brown sauce). (Edit:  Keith kindly informed me that this sauce, often used for dumplings, was made from rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar.) It was an improvement, but didn’t change the major problem.  People often complain that chicken wings don’t have any meat on them, but duck feet make wings look like entire Thanksgiving turkeys.  Or, to use another food example, it was somewhat akin to getting meat from a whole crab or lobster.  (Only these are very tasty.)  So I would try pre-picked “duck feet cakes,” but eating it off the bone again wouldn’t be worth it. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--The Double Down "Sandwich" from KFC

     The other day I decided to try KFC’s infamous Double Down “Sandwich.”  I’ve included quotation marks, because this food item does not use any bread.  Instead, the bacon and cheese are held together by more meat—two pieces of fried chicken, in patty form.  You read that right—it’s meat filling between more meat.  It’s like the KFC board of directors all got drunk at a meeting and said, “Okay, our restaurant is synonymous with obesity, but how can we up the ante?  Let’s put out something that makes vegetarians and cardiologists literally choke to death on their own bile!”  It was test marketed on April Fools Day, 2010, but has continued, intermittently, up until the present day.  So if it’s a joke, KFC is showing admirable, stubborn, commitment to a bit.
     The Double Down is surely a candidate for the “disgusting” qualification of my blog, but definitely not one for the “exotic” part.  I was surprised to learn that KFC is an even bigger monster than I thought.  It has over 18,000 outlets in 118 countries or territories.  With a few rare exceptions, unless you’re reading this in a northern or central African country, there’s a KFC within your home land.  I didn’t know if there was a KFC nearby my current hotel.  When I checked, it was about a half mile away.  Incidentally, since I’m old I still think of it as Kentucky Fried Chicken, even though it’s been KFC since 1991.  This was changed not for brevity’s sake, or because marketing thought that kids consider initial abbreviations cool, but to avoid the word “fried,” with its negative health connotations.  Because by changing it to an “F” people would get collective amnesia and think it was a health food restaurant, apparently.
     KFC (nee Kentucky Fried Chicken) was, of course, started by the Colonel himself, Harland Sanders.  And although he wasn’t a real military colonel, he didn’t just make this up for himself.  The state of Kentucky grants this highest of honorific titles to its most prominent, valuable citizens.  Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird.  If it’s unofficial, why is “Colonel” the highest?  Why not “General?”  Or “Admiral?”  Or “Prime Minister?”  By a strange coincidence, Colonel Sanders’ grave is the only famous person’s grave I’ve visited, aside from U.S. Presidents buried on their own estates.  I was visiting a friend in Louisville, KY years ago (Hi Jane), and we decided to check out the cemetery he’s buried in.
     To digress one final time (probably), I looked up more information on John Montagu.  I recalled that “sandwich” is said to be named after this 4th Earl of Sandwich the supposed inventor of it, but I didn’t remember much else.  Montagu (1718-1792) led an eventful life.  He was an ambassador, the Postmaster General, the Secretary of State for the Northern Department, and First Lord of the Admiralty.  Alas for him, he evidently wasn’t well respected, nonetheless.  It was said of him, “Seldom has a man held so many offices and accomplished so little.”  His actions as First Lord of the Admiralty during the United State’s Revolutionary War were considered incompetent, and which allegedly helped my country’s bid for independence quite a bit.  So thanks, I guess.  To be fair, some historians maintain his terrible reputation is exaggerated, and due to the accounts of his political enemies.  Even the sandwich story is disputed.  Some say he asked for cold meat between two slices of bread to serve as a quick, one handed, neat meal while he was gambling, while his proponents say he asked for this culinary creation while busy at his work, working.  In the interest of accuracy, some historians (evidently those who specialize in how relatively trivial things got their names) credit the famous Jewish leader Hillel the Elder (110 B.C.—7 A.D.) with inventing the sandwich, while others say it was developed by the poor in Europe during the Middle Ages.  And there are other versions, too.  But rightly or wrongly, John Montagu, or rather his nobility region, gets the credit.
     Anyway, back to the food itself.  The Double Down is bacon and two kinds of melted cheese, with a special sauce, between two pieces of fried chicken fillets.  As you can guess, it looks, and is, pretty ridiculous.  Granted, the Bacon Explosion (see March 6th, 2014 post) is absurd on a grander scale, but that one requires a lot of preparation, while the Double Down is available in about a minute at a drive through lane at a fast food restaurant.  And I enjoyed it.  Not a big stretch, since I adore cheese, love bacon, and generally like fried chicken.  But still, I will admit to a faint shame about this.  I was sort of hoping that I’d find it revolting, so I could avoid being a hypocrite while I mocked it.  But it was tasty, so my conscience hurt a tad, while my palate and belly were satisfied.
     Funny thing, though—it’s not as unhealthy as it would seem.  It has 610 calories and 37 grams of fat (or 460 and 23, respectively, if you get grilled chicken “bread” instead of fried).  This isn’t great, of course, for one quasi sandwich, but it’s roughly akin to or even better than other fast food offerings.  For comparison, a McDonald’s Big Mac has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat.  And their Premium Crispy Chicken Club Sandwich has 620 calories and 29 grams of fat.  Burger King’s Whopper has 670 calories and 40 grams of fat.  But their Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich has 750 calories and 45 grams of fat!  Wendy’s Baconator Single clocks in at 680 calories and 40 grams of fat.  So, I certainly wouldn’t advise making the Double Down a daily part of your diet, but every so often it’s probably not too egregious.  And it tastes good—I’ll probably have one again.  But if you do want to try it, you’d better hurry—in the U.S. it’s listed as only being available until May 25th (and should resume again next spring).  Many other countries have a version of it, but of course their times of availability may vary considerably.    

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Superfoods

     Recently at work the discussion turned to food, as it often does, and for the first time I heard about “superfoods.”  Specifically a grain called quinoa.  Quinoa is billed as being an especially healthy grain, and has recently become more popular in the U.S.  Well, of course I was intrigued.  Luckily, one of the folks talking about it (Hi Tracey) generously gave me a sample, in the form of a granola-type bar.  And not only would I be getting quinoa, but another “super grain” called amaranth.
     Quinoa originated in the Andes region of South America, in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Columbia.  Its history with humans is quite extensive—it was being used between 5,200—7,000 years ago, and domesticated between 3,000—4,000 years ago.  It’s referred to as a pseudocereal, as it’s not technically a grass.  Instead, it’s related to spinach, beetroot, and tumbleweed.  Like some other plants and insects, it has the defense mechanism of tasting like crap to birds, as it contains a bitter outer coating.  Humans tend to find this coating off putting, too, which is why it’s processed before our species consumes it.  Most folks eat the seeds, although the leaves are edible as well.  And what I heard was true—it’s becoming popular in the U.S. as well as China, Japan, Canada, and Europe.  Amaranth is cultivated in Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru again.  Its leaves, roots, and seeds are all edible.  It’s notable for being especially easy to cook and digest.
     But on to the crux of the matter—these grains’ nutritional value.  Both of these are high in protein and are gluten free.  Quinoa also contains significant amounts of iron, phosphorus, and calcium.  Quinoa has more protein than barley, millet, potatoes, and brown rice.  However, it has less protein than legumes and beans.  But still, both qualify as being super grains and superfoods.
     Here’s the problem.  “Superfood” is a marketing term.  It was apparently invented by Aaron Moss in 1998 in Nature Nutrition, and it’s defined as being, “A food that is considered to be beneficial to your health and that may even help some medical conditions.”  Now take a look at some of the other foods that have been labeled superfoods:  seeds, nuts, berries, collard greens, kale, chard, brussel sprouts, broccoli, dark green vegetables in general, salmon, sardines, mackerel, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, peanuts, lentils, beans, some mushrooms, and whole grains.  Or, in other words, pretty much every food in the world except for red meat, sugar, and egg nog.  Furthermore, and this is beginning to be a broken record in my blogs, none of the superfoods have scientifically proven medical benefits.  (Aside from treating starvation, I guess.)
     Anyway, the bar I tried advertised not two, but five supergrains—quinoa, amaranth, oats, millet, and buckwheat.  It was made by Kind, and was their peanut butter dark chocolate flavor.  And the taste was mediocre at best.  It did have a nice moist texture, but it was kind of bland.  I’ve tried many granola-type, grain bars over the years (they make for very portable field lunches), and this was far from the best.  I was able to try some individual quinoa seeds, and they were okay, but not dazzling, either.  The oats helped, but overall the effort was weak.  (I should explain.  I’m kind of mad for oats.  As a kid I used to even eat uncooked Quaker oats dry, out of the box.)  I wouldn’t have this type of Kind again, and probably not the other varieties, either.  Not when there are so many other proven, tastier grain bars for sale.  I’m willing to try quinoa and amaranth in other forms, but I can’t say I’d be that excited.
     Overall then, the topic of this week’s post was quite the bust.  My childish hopes were raised by the terms “superfoods” and “super grains,” and these turned out to be exaggerated just to boost sales.  And, the actual food itself, made out of five so called super grains, wasn’t great to boot.
     To end on a more positive note, though, I do like one of the new labels I learned for this post—calling quinoa a “pseudocereal.”  I’d like to expand that for other foods and beverages.  That weird, plastic-y processed vegetable oil “cheese product” could be renamed “pseudocheese.”  The (usually soy based) vegetarian burgers would be “pseudomeat.”  And light beer would be more properly referred to as “pseudobeer.”