Sunday, October 30, 2011


Let’s open Fibber McGee’s closet and see what falls out - hey folks, watch out - that’s a fork! says that the kitchen fork goes back to the ancient Greeks.  I’d think it went back to the first ancestor of ours who found a pointed, forked stick came in handy for grabbing his chunk of meat out of the fire. Table forks didn’t come into regular use until the seventh century, and it took several centuries more for the use of them to spread across Europe. The tool of choice - not counting fingers - was always the knife. Anyone who could afford even a crudely made knife used it to cut and then bring food to his mouth. In days of old when knights were bold, it became less and less desirable for folks to come armed to the table. It made for some nasty dinner hours. Thus the fork, handily provided by a genteel host or hostess, came into favor.

Forks started out two-tined, like the forked stick, and then tines were added to make handling food that much easier. In the Victorian era’s spirit of invention where dining became an all-evening event, the upper echelons of society came up with all manner of forks. They did it because they could, and because it provided a bit of one-upmanship in a time when it sometimes seems like that was all those folks had for amusement. I suppose it did make serving and eating easier. One wouldn’t want to eat the meat of an oyster with a dinner fork, or serve a slice of roast beef with a pickle fork, now would one? 

With all those forks - not to mention spoons and knives of various sorts - the Victorians also came up with what they decided was the proper setting for a table: knives and spoons to the right of the plate, forks to the left, glass ware of all kinds, starting above the point of the knife and working to the right, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.  There were rules for the placement of salad dishes and bread plates, for wine and water glasses, for side dishes and centerpieces. No wonder Upstairs needed all that help Downstairs. It became good manners - and also a good idea - to wait until your hostess took the first bite of any course: you could look to see what fork she used and then do the same without fear of embarrassment. It’s still a good idea today, though now we use table and serving forks of a lot fewer sizes.  Even at a state dinner at the White House they don’t eat as many courses as did some of those elite Victorians, but if you get invited to one and are unsure of the table protocol, be sure to watch the First Lady.

I’m not sure if it is a step in the right direction, but today they’ve come up with the ‘spork’: a utensil combining a spoon and a fork. And then they went a step further to deliver the ‘sporf’. This last one combines a fork, a spoon, and a knife. I think I’d be dribbling my soup through the ‘tines’ of either utensil, or slicing my cheek with the knife part of the sporf.  Until I’m on a rocket ship to Mars where space is at a premium, I think I’ll pass on those.  

Heaven help us, there’s even an Ode to the Fork.  In a spirit of silliness, I googled “ode to the fork” and, I kid you not, up popped a very poor poem with that title.  It reads like a columnar run-on sentence, but someone - the poet is not named - felt passionate enough about his fork to pen an ode to it.  Ah well, I do suppose that such a sturdy, utilitarian object deserves some recognition.  We use it with hardly a thought for its presence: there is no National Fork Appreciation Day, alas.  So give a passing ‘thank you’ to your fork as you have your dinner this evening, and tell this tale to the other folks at the table.  If nothing else, it will make for some interesting conversation.

Addendum: I just read a marvelous, much more extensive essay on the fork. Sara Goldsmith has written The Rise of the Fork, and I do recommend it to you.   June 20, 2012 


Tuesday, October 18, 2011


As a born and bred New Yorker it seems strange, but I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty.  I may have seen it way off in the distance, if you can see it from the Brooklyn to Staten Island ferry, that is.  Even then, I was on the ferry only several times when I was about twelve years old, in the pre-Verrazano Bridge days. I probably wasn’t aware that the statue was there: the ferry trip was much more exciting. Typical New Yorker, I lived there but missed a lot. But then I remember that I wasn’t just sitting around twiddling my thumbs – I had a lot going on.  I did once get up to the top of the Empire State Building, but that’s another story.  On with the essay.

The eighteenth of this month marks the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.  First conceived in 1865, 145 years ago, it had a hard time aborning. Frederic Bartholdi first got the notion from a law professor who thought it would be a great idea for the French and Americans to get together to raise a monument to American Independence. Yes it was a great idea, but what with one thing and another, a war, design problems, and financial setbacks, the work on the statue didn’t begin until the 1870’s. 

By the first Centennial of American Independence, Lady Liberty’s forearm and the torch were on display in New York City’s Madison Square Park. Two years later, in 1878, the head was on display in Paris. After a bit of fuss gathering the funds in America for the base, the body and its parts were finally united and raised and dedicated.

We all know about the French connection, but here are some facts, some arguable, surrounding the statue that may interest many of you, especially if your origins are in:
        Egypt - the body of the statue was originally conceived by Bartholdi for a lighthouse to be at the entrance to the Suez Canal. Obviously, it was never built, but it was to be in the form of a robed Egyptian woman, holding a torch aloft.

San Carlo


        Italy and Germany - Liberty’s 151 ft. construction, copper sheets hung as a curtain wall on an armature, is in the same method as the Colosso de San Carlo Borromeo, a 77 ft. statue of St. Charles Borromeo in Arona, Italy on the shores of Lago Maggiore (I've been to this one, and it is quite imposing.); and of the 87 ft. Hermannsdenkmal memorial to the ancient Germanic hero Hermann, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

Norway - The copper for the cladding was mined in Visnes, Norway. For a while this fact was in dispute because no records of the purchase could be found, but spectrographic analysis performed in 1985 confirmed it. Strangely enough, in 2007, a bike was commissioned from Orange County Choppers (O.C.C.) by the company licensed by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to handle commemorative items made from materials salvaged from the 1986 restoration of the statue. Among other salvaged pieces they used, O.C.C. had most of the bike plated in copper from some of the original copper saddles that held the cladding sheets to the armature.  I think this bike, after touring around the country, finally would up on display on Liberty Island. Nevertheless, I still file this one under "why wouldja?"

        New York and New Jersey - though the island where the statue stands is federal property, it is actually in New Jersey. Sorry, New Yorkers! Just the docks are in New York (close, but no cigar!), so transport to and from Liberty Island, formerly Bedloe’s Island, is handled by the City of New York. Starting in 1986, the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the statue, New York began using the icon of the statue on its license plates. Though it was a minor faux pas, nobody minded much. They changed the design in 2001.

Way back in history when few people could read, symbols, like pictures, were worth those thousand words. In these days of big corporate logos and emoticons we regularly use only a few national symbols: the flag, and the bald eagle, and Lady Liberty herself, but nowhere near the symbols that are there to be deciphered on the statue and base. From the thirteen original colonies represented by the thirteen layers of granite for the base, to the seven seas and seven continents represented by the seven points on her crown, they packed in a whole lot of symbols.  Today these may strike some as being a bit hokey and contrived, but the meanings are still strongly representative of us and our history.
The full name of the statue is “Liberty Enlightening the World”.  The torch and arm was the first part Bartholdi built. Were it the only part built it would still be as strong a symbol for America as the entire statue is today.  Lady Liberty strides forth, her torch held high, to light the way for the world.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


“Ya vi elsker dette landet”
               “Yes, we love this country”
This is the first line of the Norwegian National Anthem


October 9th is Leif Erikson Day. Let us now celebrate the Scandinavian stalwart - and he had to be stalwart to sail in one of those open Viking ships - who, as far as we can tell, brought the first Europeans to North America.  You can set up a fine debate among those favoring the Celts or the Phoenicians or even the Israelites as being the first, but it is sure as shootin’ that Leif Erikson’s early eleventh century voyages beat out old Chris Columbus in the late fifteenth.
              Leif was born a Norwegian in Iceland, and was the son of Erik the Red, that consummate salesman who named a not-too-green land Greenland, to entice settlers there.   Unfortunately, Leif couldn’t do the same sales job for Vinland, and the settlement lasted only a short while.  If it had prospered, we’d all be speaking Norwegian today.

Well, as it happens, we speak a lot of Norwegian or Old Norse words today:  starting the alphabet we have aloft, anger, awe, bylaw, cake, egg, gun, husband (but not wife), knife, law, odd, race, run, lots of S-words such as saga, score, shirt, skill, sky, starboard, and steak, on to take, trust and, of course, Viking.  There’s quite a list if you care to look further.  They all merged with the rest of the contributors to our English language, making it one of the richest and hardest to learn in the world.

Truth be known, you could celebrate things Norse on almost any day of the year. October 9th was chosen for Leif because on that day in 1825, the immigration ship ‘Restauration’ arrived in America from Stavanger, Norway.   One of the most wonderful people I ever knew emigrated from Norway.  She was my mother-in-law,  Mary Mortensen.  A lovelier, more gentle, giving woman there never was, unless, according to my husband, it was her own mother, Anne Tonnessen.   It was in honor of these two ladies that Frank and I ventured to Norway back in the eighties.   We visited their home in Ny-Hellesund, an island in off the southern tip of the country.  We visited the Statsarkivet, the state archives, where we researched the family and came upon some interesting entries.  Among them were the beautifully handwritten records of both their births.  

We visited Stavanger, the home port of that first immigrant ship, and found it a bustling town.  It is now home to much of Norway’s off-shore oil industry.  They build the drilling platforms in Stavanger, and they are truly huge.   On our Norwegian trips we visited the coast from Oslo, down around the southern tip at Kristiansand, on up to Stavanger. Then further north to Bergen, port for the late-middle-ages Hanseatic League, and the home port of the Hurtigruten, pronounced hurtie rooten,  literally ‘the express route’ or hurry or hurtle route. (See, you could understand that!).
The Hurtigruten ships, ours was the MV Midnatsol, take an eleven-day cruise along the Norwegian coast.  Carrying the mail, passengers, and freight, they sail beyond the Arctic Circle to the northernmost town of Kirkenes and back again, stopping at wonderful towns along the way.  Before the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, it was eerie to be able to see over into Russia from Kirkenes.  It was also strange to realize that, far north as it is, Kirkenes is further east than Constantinople. 

The Gokstad Ship
Our stalwart Leif and his companions braved the seas in those very open long ships.  We saw the Oseburg ship and the awesomely beautiful Gokstad ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.  The Gokstad ship has places for thirty-two oarsmen.  They say a ship of the same size usually carried around forty men, but could carry up to seventy people.  Can you imagine all those people on the cold Atlantic in an open boat?  It gives me the shivers just to think of it. 
The Norwegians have given us many things in addition to their contribution to our history and our language. There’s the aerosol spray and the cheese slicer, both very handy inventions.  Of course you know about the humble paper clip. Simple, but elegant.  
Simple, but elegant could also describe those great penny loafers we all wore way back when.  I’m sure you remember Bass Weejuns - that’s short for Norwegians, of course - still the best loafers around.
So now when you see that other beautiful red, white, and blue flag - the flag of Norway - remember Leif Erikson and the wonderful Norwegians.

 “Ya vi elsker dette landet”