March 27, 2011

Bigfoot on the Beach

This weekend Tony and I went up to Newburyport for a day trip. It's such a great town - beautiful colonial architecture, charming stores, and a great location on the ocean.

However, ask anyone who's ever read Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, or any other New England gothic writer and they'll tell you this: quaint small towns are always full of weird surprises.

Just off the coast of Newburyport at the mouth of the Merrimac river is Plum Island, an eleven mile long sandy barrier island. The north part of the island has a small beachfront community, but the southern part is largely undeveloped and includes the Parker River Wildlife Refuge.

We didn't see any Hellcats, but who knows what's hiding in those marshes?

In the summer it's a popular place to go the beach, but on a cold March day we found the Wildlife Refuge empty and desolately beautiful. We climbed up an observation tower that overlooked the marshes and explored the walkways that wind through them.

We saw a few geese and ducks, but no other wildlife. But in April of 1978, four young people had a very different experience in the exact same spot. They saw some wildlife they didn't expect.

After climbing the observation tower and hanging around for a while, they heard some strange clicking sounds coming the marshes. They thought they might have been from a bird, but oddly none could be seen.

The clicking sounds were followed by some high pitched screaming. Again, no birds or animal were visible. Things were starting to feel a little creepy, so they hurried back to their car. It was the only one in the parking lot.

The marshes were beautiful and more than a little desolate...

As they were driving north back towards Newburyport, someone emerged from the bushes and ran across the road. Someone, or something?

The figure that crossed was huge, 7 feet or more, very wide, all black from head to toe. It was a little hunched forward as it walked upright. I noticed its arms were longer than average and they swung as it walked. It took only three steps to cross the road.

As quickly as it appeared the creature was gone. The teenagers slowed down the car and saw the path it had trampled through the bushes, but they couldn't see the creature itself. They quickly drove back into town.

That's the end of the story. As in so many Bigfoot sightings, the creature erupts into view and then vanishes. The witnesses get just a brief exhilarating flash of the unknown.

Tony and I didn't see any monsters, but in such a bleak and isolated setting I wouldn't have been surprised if we did.

Who's that crossing the road up ahead?

If you want to read more Bigfoot stories like this one, you can find them on the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization website. It's organized by state and county so you can find the stories from your own hometown. Just don't read it before you head into the woods, or even the beach!

March 22, 2011

Witch Cake - A Recipe You Won't Like

Here's a funky little recipe from the 1600s that I doubt you'll like. It's for something called witch cake. The secret ingredient? Human urine.

Back in February 1692, some of the young girls in Salem Village were acting strangely. Puritan girls were definitely supposed to be seen and not heard, and these girls were really causing a commotion. Among them was Betty Parris, the daughter of Salem Village's minister.

William Griggs, the local physician was called to take a look at them. Maybe he could explain why these young ladies were acting out. His diagnosis? Witchcraft! Someone had bewitched the young girls!

Now, if you were to go to your doctor today and get a weird diagnosis for your kids you'd want a second opinion. The villagers felt the same way, but they didn't have easy access to multiple physicians.

Instead, a local woman named Mary Sibley suggested the Parris's slave Tituba make a cake out of rye meal moistened with urine from the bewitched girls. After the cake was baked (imagine what the kitchen smelled like!) it was fed to a dog, who was to be studied for signs of bewitchment. If it acted strangely after eating the cake, it was proof the girls really were under the influence of baleful magic. I suspect any dog would act strangely after eating a cake made with urine.

Although witch cake probably sounds strange to contemporary readers, believe it or not there was a theory behind it. The Puritans (and many other pre-industrialized people) believed that because witches directed their magic towards a person's body, the magic would also be present in the products of that person's body. Therefore, if someone had evil magic operating on them that magic would also be in their blood or urine, and could be passed onto anything that consumed them (like a dog).

The witch cake operates similarly to the witch bottle, but the witch bottle was used as defensive magic while the witch cake was used merely to prove there was witchcraft present.

Strangely, there's no record of what happened to the dog who ate the witch cake in 1692. The girls didn't improve, however, and eventually accused Tituba of being one of the witches tormenting them.

I found a lot of this information from various places on the Web and also in Marion Starkey's book The Devil in Massaschusetts.

March 13, 2011

March Weather Folklore

I think most people are familiar with the old saying about March weather, "In like a lion out like a lamb." If you're not, the meaning behind it is that if the month begins with awful weather it will end with good weather.

Clifton Johnson included the proverb in What They Say In New England, his 1890s collection of folklore. Did it spread across the country from New England? It seems possible, since this area used to be the cultural center of the United States. (It's hard to believe now, but New England was like the Hollywood of pre-Industrial America!) The saying itself is of British origin and has been found in printed English works from the early 1600s.

Given the giant snowfall northern New England got earlier this month, I'd say March has indeed come in like a lion. Let's hope it leaves like a lamb - gentle, fuzzy and with lots of little green growing things.

Who's it going to be, the lion or that lamb?

Johnson recorded a corollary statement which is much less well known: "In like a lamb, out like a lion." In other words, if March starts with pleasant weather it will end poorly. When you add these two proverbs together, you get an accurate picture of New England weather as spring approaches. Some of it is going to be lousy, some of it good, but you just don't know what's happening when. Wear layers and carry a good umbrella.

What They Say In New England also contains this bit of wisdom about March: "A peck of March dust is worth a bag of gold." That one is a bit more cryptic for a modern reader. According to Johnson, if dust is blowing around in March it means the wind is drying up all the mud. If the mud is dry farmers can plant their crops early and possibly get a bigger harvest. Hence, dust = gold!

I haven't seen any dust yet, so I'm holding off the planting. I'm not sure how much credence to give to this weather lore anyway. What They Say... also claims that if you kill a beetle if will bring rain. That's definitely not true, so please don't kill your local beetles!

March 09, 2011

How Tough Is Your Indian Pudding?

As some of you might know, I’m a big fan of Indian pudding. I can’t get enough of that spicy/sweet/mealy dessert!

If you don’t know what Indian pudding is and are embarrassed to ask, it’s a Colonial-era pudding made from corn meal, molasses, spices, salt, milk and usually eggs. It's named Indian pudding because the Puritans called corn meal “Indian meal.”

A post I wrote two years ago still gets lots of hits, so clearly there are other fans of Indian pudding out there. Rejoice, Indian pudding fans. Today’s post is for you!

Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known as an abolitionist and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but this Connecticut native wrote several other novels. Some of them contain interesting pieces of New England folklore. For example, her 1859 novel The Minister’s Wooing is set in Newport, Rhode Island and contains this cryptic piece of dialogue. It’s uttered by a young woman discussing her skills as a potential wife:

“I’ve been practicing on my pudding now these six years, and I shouldn’t be afraid to throw one up chimney with any girl.”

I like how she says “up chimney”, rather than “up the chimney.” It reminds me of when I was a kid and I’d ask my mother where Dad was. Ninety percent of the time her answer was “Down cellar!”, which is a New England way of saying down in the basement.

Watch out for the pudding! Photo from a site about the history of chimneys.

However, I wasn’t alive in 1859 so I don’t understand why girls would be throwing puddings up the chimney. Well, according to Mrs. Stowe there was a tradition that “no young lady was fit to be married till she could construct a boiled Indian-pudding of such consistency that it could be thrown up chimney and come down on the ground, outside, without breaking.” The Minister’s Wooing is actually set in the 1790s, so Stowe is describing something that was probably told to her by her parents or grandparents.

Was this an actual tradition, or did someone pull a fast one on Harriet? I might say she’s the one pulling a hoax on her readers, but that seems unlikely because she seems very sincere in her devotion to Indian pudding. At one point in the novel she rhapsodizes about its “gelatinous softness, matured by long and patient brooding in the motherly old oven.” I don’t think someone who wrote that would knowingly lie to us!

On the other hand, that same softness she raves about would seem to preclude throwing it up and out a chimney. Wouldn’t it need to be really bouncy and tough to survive that? To settle this question, I’d ask my readers with fireplaces to give this a try. To make things easier, boil your pudding in a bag or maybe cheesecloth, like the characters in The Minister’s Wooing do. They don’t bake it in a dish. Perhaps that’s the secret to a bouncy pudding?

I wish I could say I unearthed this crazy factoid myself, but I actually read it in America’s Founding Food: the Story of New England Cooking by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald. It’s a great book!