Major Grey’s chutney. Earl Grey tea. The terms are generic, not brand names. They conjure up the 1800s, when English merchant ships plied the seas and the sun never set on the British Empire. Any relation between the chutney or tea and the men they’re named for is shrouded in legend.
Major Grey’s chutney. A sweet and sour relish made with fruits or vegetables, vinegar, sugar, and spices, chutney has been savored in India since ancient times. It takes many forms. Tradition says Major Grey, a 19th-century British officer serving in the Bengal Lancers in India, developed the mango-and-raisin version that bears his name. London condiment company Crosse & Blackwell began to produce it, and others followed suit. Major Grey’s became especially popular in the United States, likely because it is sweeter and milder than most authentic Indian chutneys. As for the major, there’s widespread doubt he ever existed.
Earl Grey tea. Charles Grey, earl and British prime minister 1830-34, never went to China. The earliest known English reference to flavoring Chinese tea with oil from the rind of a bergamot orange is from 1824, in a complaint about using bergamot to cover the taste of low-quality tea. Lore linking the two include that the earl received the bergamot recipe as a thank-you gift from a Chinese tea master; that his wife and/or the later Queen Victoria loved it; that bergamot offset the flavor of well water on the Grey family estate; and that Earl Grey gave the recipe to a partner of the tea company Jacksons of Piccadilly (now Twinings).
Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, unable to find “Earl Grey tea” in print before the 20th century, appealed in 2012 for any earlier references to the term. Contributors found ads from 1884 for “Earl Grey’s mixture.” Sources from the 1850s and 1860s mention “Grey’s mixture” or “Grey’s tea,” perhaps with reference to tea merchant William Grey. The title of nobility may just be a later marketing ploy.
Image: Thomas Goldsworth Dutton, East Indiaman sailing ship Madagascar, built 1837. National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London.
Even before war with Russia, polio was creeping back into Ukraine. Last fall it paralyzed a 17-month-old girl in the northwest. Next it struck a two-year-old boy in the far southwest. Contacts tested positive. Because poliovirus is highly contagious and usually asymptomatic, one case signals a crisis. Polio cannot be cured, only prevented.
The culprit was not naturally occurring poliovirus, which circulates only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but a mutation of a vaccine component that had passed from person to person. Counter-intuitive as it seems, the way to stop vaccine-derived polio is more vaccine. Mutation to a dangerous form takes months. In a well-vaccinated population, the weakened virus in oral polio vaccine dies out for lack of susceptible people to host it. Immunization rates in Ukraine were unfortunately low.
Health authorities in Ukraine, already struggling with a Covid surge, launched a polio vaccination response in February. War with Russia put the drive on hold. Medical supplies are running out. Bombs and battles shift health workers’ priorities. Massive population movements impede services. Refugees may carry virus unwittingly into neighboring polio-free countries.
Do not be surprised if we see more children in eastern Europe paralyzed before this is over. Basic health care is among the many casualties of war.
Image: Poster from Ukraine’s previous polio outbreak in 2015.
Two years ago, a deadly new virus kept us under siege. Barbershops and hair salons in many areas were shuttered to prevent infection. Even after they reopened, some customers were slow to return. Former clients hacked their hair off at home or let it grow out. When I see someone for the first time in a while, I’m often started by hair halfway down the back or re-styled in kitchen experiments.
These changes recall my long-ago fantasy of writing a world history based on hair. Haircuts are virtually unique among visual signs of status and identity. A short haircut is the work of an hour but reversing it can take months. That made it a rite of passage for entry into religious orders and armed forces. It could symbolize membership or belonging, commitment, dedication to God or country, and renunciation of worldly vanity. It might distinguish servants, convicts, and pageboys from aristocrats and freemen. Safer than long hair for factory work and street fights, it became a badge of honor for the London working-class youth who started the skinheads.
How will a hair-based narrative treat our present pandemic? I can imagine a world where “first haircut” conjures up images not only of small children, but of adults emerging from a period of hunkering down for health.
Image: French abbess with oversized scissors cuts the hair from a novice entering the convent. British Library, 1316.
Exploring an unfamiliar trail, I saw plastic sunflowers tucked into cracks in every park bench. Sunflowers adorn murals, sidewalks, billboards, T-shirts, and social media profile pictures. Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, images of Ukraine’s national flower surround us as a sign of our support. Not till summer will the real blooms turn fields as yellow as the lower half of the Ukrainian flag, beneath a clear blue sky.
Big, bright sunflowers have deep roots in Ukrainian art and folklore. Grown for their seeds in Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona for thousands of years, they were introduced to Europe in the early 1500s. They flourished in Ukraine’s hot, dry climate and rich soil. Sunflower seed oil was especially welcome during Lent, when the Orthodox Church forbade eating foods made with animal products such as butter or lard.
Ukraine is the largest exporter of sunflower oil, accounting for nearly half the global supply. Russia comes second, with nearly a quarter. Disruptions to production and trade are having ripple effects on vegetable oil availability and prices worldwide, similar to what’s happening with a different kind of oil at the gas pump. The war touches us all, but most of all the suffering people of Ukraine.
Spring! The song of robins and the throaty call of sandhill cranes lift our spirits with the bounty, beauty, and beneficence of nature. Mother Earth sustains and nourishes us. Barring human interference, she fills our every need.
Last month I mentioned a course on ancient Mesopotamia in connection with marshes. For the Sumerians and their successors, nature was how the gods expressed their anger. Having created humans to dig irrigation canals, gods punished or tried to destroy their irksome creation with storms, plagues, famines, and floods—not for moral failings but for making too much noise. Far from wanting a closer relationship with the deities, people brought prayers and votive offerings to try to fend off their wrath.
Who got it right? Are the wonders of nature the gifts of a loving planet, which needs our tender stewardship? Or mighty, capricious dangers from powers we wish would leave us alone? Both and neither. We have sunshine and showers, blizzards and tornadoes. Earth doesn’t care. How we treat it matters not to the planet but to humans now and for generations to come.
Image: Akkadian cylinder seal depicts the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud, 2300 BC. British Museum.
I was a child when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in November 1956. I only noticed because our parents helped host Hungarian refugees who fled to Pittsburgh, seventy miles north of our home. A student protest had grown into a Hungary-wide uprising against Russian control. Brutal repression by the USSR left thousands dead.
Twelve years later, troops and tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, another Soviet satellite. I had fallen in love with Prague while researching a term paper on medieval Bohemia. A visit deepened my affection. Czech culture flourished in the “Prague Spring” of 1968, with an end to censorship and travel restrictions. I grieved at the Russian-led invasion that August and the clampdown that followed.
This year in Ukraine, it’s déjà vu all over again. Did we misread the Cold War so badly that we thought its end meant an end to Russian aggression? Did we imagine the biggest Russian fault lay in its economic system, abandoned after 1991? Russia’s main threat to the rest of us was an authoritarian, totalitarian regime that used blatant violence to repress dissent and to impose its power over supposedly independent countries. Little of that has changed.
Image: Soviet tank in Prague's Wenceslas Square, August 21, 1968. (AP Photo/Peter Winterbach)
Japan had its samurai. Western Europe, its knights in shining armor. North America, its cowboys of the Wild West. Ukraine, its Cossacks toward the western end of the great Eurasian Steppe. All different, each distinctive to its country or region, these figures of history and legend still shine through their respective cultures.
Cossacks (Turkic for “free man” or “adventurer”) moved from many directions into the sparsely populated grasslands north of the Black Sea, starting in the 1500s or earlier. Some were fleeing serfdom. Some were criminal fugitives. All were welcomed as equals without reference to personal history. Living as a democracy, bound by resistance to authority, they became known as fierce warriors and brilliant horsemen. Legend said a Cossack could catch an approaching bullet with his bare hand.
I’ve read that to tell a child to be brave, Ukrainian parents may say, “Be a Cossack.” If that’s true, recent events suggest Ukrainians have taken that saying to heart.
Vladimir Putin says Ukrainians and Russians have been one people since the early Middle Ages, when Kyiv was a Russian capital. Ukrainians say after centuries of rule by Mongols, Poles, and Russians, their time has come for self-rule. Putin in turn claims Russians in Ukraine need protection. It's all colored by the ambiguous ideal of one nation, one state.
The notion that each people should govern itself seems so obvious that it’s hard to realize it’s relatively new. As late as 1914, in central and eastern Europe and beyond, most folks lived in multi-ethnic empires. Rulers and nobles might speak one language, urban merchants a second, and peasants a third. This began to break down in the 1800s as social mobility increased. Small principalities combined to form German and Italian nation-states. Ethnic minorities in the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires pressed for autonomy. Then a Bosnian Serb nationalist shot a Habsburg archduke and set off World War I.
After the war, a new map of Europe broke the old empires into smaller states based on language, ancestry, culture, and religion. Each people would rule itself. Trouble is, barring isolation or genocide, populations mix. To create ethnic majorities is to create new minorities. They too may demand independence, in smaller and smaller units.
The century since World War I has been filled with ethnic conflict. If ethnic self-determination doesn’t bring unity and a sense of belonging, what does? For Ukraine, I'm at a loss. For the U.S., the best I can suggest is a shared national culture based not on ancestry but on our founding principles, such as equality under the law, a free press, due process, and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
When this question first puzzled me weeks ago, I didn’t realize how many assumptions it holds. That empathy is a gift to the person whose feelings (real or imagined) one feels vicariously. That it is always desirable, at least to that person. That it is either earned by merit or a basic human right. The more I think about it, the more complicated it gets.
The capacity for empathy is innate, one of many unconscious ways we copy those we interact with. Babies cry when they hear a baby cry. Dogs bark when they hear a dog bark. Empathy helps us learn from each other’s experiences, predict others’ behavior, and cooperate. In evolutionary terms, passing on the relevant genes depends more on empathy’s survival value for empathic individuals and communities than for the people whose feelings are mirrored.
Even so, empathy is not always helpful. I don’t want to empathize with the hater or promoter of unfounded fear. Parents calm an anxious child by not getting anxious themselves. I’d prefer my surgeon pain-free and focused, even when I’m distracted by pain. Caring, yes. Understanding, yes. Recognizing another’s humanity, yes. But whether or not empathy is appropriate in any particular case may have nothing to do with deserving.
Image: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Les Noisettes (The Nut Gatherers), 1882. Detroit Institute of Arts.
Anonymous, cruel mockery masquerading as humor didn’t start with social media. A surge in mass-produced valentines in the 1800s, prompted by cost-saving innovations in color printing and postage, included not only hearts-and-lace romance and light whimsy but pain-inflicting nastiness. Unsigned cards mocked gender roles, grandiosity, morals, ethnicity, physical traits, social class, or lack of a spouse. Although numerous, they make up only a small proportion of the Victorian valentines left to us today. Most recipients tore them up or burned them.
“Can’t you take a joke?” is one of my least favorite remarks. It allows no response; if you disagree, you’ve proved the point. On the other hand, affectionate teasing and banter can be welcome. How do you draw the line? Avoiding anonymity may give the surest clue. To paraphrase the old saying, if you can’t say something with your name attached, don’t say anything at all.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.