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Leather Balls and 3,000-Year-Old Pants Hint at an Ancient Asian Sport


They were found in the Yanghai Tombs in modern-day Northern China.

A little over 3,000 years ago, a roughly 40-year-old man was laid to rest in a cemetery in what is now the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. He was wearing fancy pants. Possibly the oldest trousers in the world, they had an enlarged crotch area, indicating he spent a lot of time on horseback. A pair of red leather boots completed the ancient ensemble.

But perhaps the most curious component of the grave was a leather ball, around the size of a human fist. When it was excavated in the 1970s, no one knew how old the tomb was. Now, the leather balls have finally been dated to approximately the same period as the pants. The results were published in the open-access Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“We can now confirm that these three leather balls from Yanghai are the oldest leather balls in Eurasia,” says Patrick Wertmann, an archaeologist at the University of Zurich and lead author of the recent study. “They were life tools, used for play or useful training.”


The grave in question is just one of 3,000 found at Yanghai, in the Turpan Basin. Since 2003, just over 500 of the graves have been excavated, and three of them—including the tomb of the well-to-do horseman—yielded the balls, two of which were marked with a red cross.

In the first millennium BC, Yanghai was home to a sophisticated community of horseback riders. Wertmann says they were some of the earliest horse domesticators in the area, and that the presence of the balls—and the depiction of horseback ball games elsewhere in China—suggests that the balls may have been used for sport. The Yanghai Tombs, as they are known, span nearly 1,400 years, and most have been well-preserved. The most recent date to the Han Dynasty, or roughly the 2nd century. The site offers archaeologists a glimpse of what mattered to these ancient riders, from their riding trousers to their red-leather boots.

“The whole Turpan Basin is like a treasure trove because of the climate conditions,” Wertmann says. “It's extremely hot and extremely dry. For us as archaeologists it’s really good, because all these organic materials are naturally preserved, including textiles, leather, wood, and also the human animal and plant remains that are not usually preserved in archaeological contexts.”


The balls—which are stuffed with wool and hair, wrapped in treated rawhide, and crimped closed on top—look a lot like large soup dumplings. They’re half a millennium older than other excavated balls from Eurasia, according to Wertmann. At least one of the balls had strike marks and had apparently burst open, perhaps after it was struck in a game. The red crosses—which also show up in later Chinese art depicting stick-and-ball games—may have been painted to help the tan balls stand out from the brown landscape.

The balls were no joke. “They’re actually really hard,” Wertmann says. “You could compare these leather balls from Yanghai with modern baseballs.”

More recent art from elsewhere in China shows polo-like games being played on horseback with sticks. Curved wooden sticks were also found in some graves in Yanghai, though they are younger than the leather balls, so the two were not necessarily used in tandem.


“I appreciate how cautious the authors are in their interpretations of these balls, essentially saying we cannot determine based on current evidence that these balls can be linked with polo,” says Jeffrey Blomster, an archaeologist at George Washington University who has worked on numerous ball-game sites in Mesoamerica, and who is unaffiliated with the recent paper. “While we cannot say for sure what kind of game, or even activity, was performed using these balls, the fact that all three are nearly the same size suggests a similar use for all three.”

With thousands of graves left to excavate at Yanghai, archaeologists may learn more about the exact purpose of these balls. The elements of sport are there, and for the researchers who study them, the game’s afoot.

When Ships Are Abandoned, Stuck Sailors Struggle to Get By—and Get Paid


“We are satisfied with little, but even that little is impossible today.”

When Captain Alexander Ovchinnikov took over command of the ship Gobustan in Istanbul, the term “COVID-19” hadn’t been coined yet, "quarantine" was the stuff of apocalyptic science fiction, and few people outside of China knew where Wuhan was. It was December 25, 2019. Ovchinnikov, 39, was still on that ship through the summer, along with 11 other crew members: The second engineer was Russian too, the cook was Ukranian, and the rest were from Azerbaijan. At least one had been on board since October 2019, and none of them had received a salary since January. The crew of Gobustan had been stuck since June 16 in the Italian port of Ravenna, on the Adriatic Sea. "We live like in prison. We get up, have breakfast, do some routine activities, then we have dinner and go to bed," said Ovchinnikov. Their days were all the same and the stillness was shaken only by cleaning and maintenance activities. Sure enough, the ship was clean as a whistle.

A few hundred yards away, another vessel, Sultan Bey, captained by Eldur Abdurakhmanov, 42, of Azerbaijan, had been in the same situation. The ship is smaller than Gobustan, but both fly the Maltese flag and, more importantly, are owned by the same company, Palmali Holding. This large Turkish-Azerbaijani shipping company sank into a deep financial crisis after the arrest of its founder and owner, Mübariz Mansimov Gurbanoğlu, on March 15, 2020.

In the Mediterranean Sea there are now more than 15 Palmali ships stuck in ports, as if in suspended animation, having been seized by creditors. Many of them still have sailors aboard. In Italy there are five: the two in Ravenna, plus two in Sardinia (General Shikhlinsky and Khosrov Bey) and one near Venice, Zeinabaldyn Tagiyev. In Beirut, several sailors of Captain Nagdaliyev have been stuck since May 12—just half a mile from the giant warehouse explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020. And the origin of that disaster was yet another ship abandoned by its owner, Rhosus, which had arrived in Beirut in 2013 with a cargo of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate and a ballast of debt. The Rhosus crew was trapped for a year before they were released. The cargo went into a warehouse and the ship itself sank to the bottom of the harbor. That cargo later fueled the largest non-nuclear, human-made explosion in history.

According to the International Maritime Organization database, since 2004, 438 ships have been abandoned worldwide, and with them more than 5,700 sailors. The reasons are almost always the same: shipowners, mired in financial difficulties, simply disappear. Commercial ports, often far from city centers, inaccessible to unauthorized personnel, and in some cases rife with corruption, are like parallel worlds. When crews are stranded in financially strapped countries or in war zones, the sailors are at risk of plunging into desperate poverty, outside of the view of the world.

The men on board Gobustan and Sultan Bey experienced a muted view of pandemic lockdown. Being isolated already, they faced very little chance of infection, but their lives were still disrupted. They couldn’t set sail, and they couldn’t even set foot on the ground since April, both because they are not citizens of the European Union and because ports are limiting the number of permits due to the pandemic. "Since the outbreak of the epidemic we can no longer move from here. It is very important for a sailor to go ashore every now and then, to eat something different, to take a walk,” said Ovchinnikov. “We are satisfied with little, but even that little is impossible today.”

The owner of the ships, the Azerbaijan-born Gurbanoğlu, was one of the richest men in Turkey, at least until he was arrested after having been accused of participating in the failed coup against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016. Gurbanoğlu claims to be the victim of a conspiracy, but the sailors cared little for these "land stories." They all said the same thing: "We just want to get paid. And then go home." Ovchinnikov wanted to return to his small town on the Don River, which flows into the Sea of Azov and take his girlfriend out to dinner. Azar Babayev, 55, Sultan Bey’s chief engineer, had been working on ships for 30 years, but he had never been away from his home in Baku, Azerbaijan, for so long. He hadn't seen his two sons for more than a year. "When I come back, I will spend the two weeks of quarantine sleeping in bed," he joked. "Then I will go for a walk together with my family."


"After 10 months on board, what should I do? Go back to Baku and tell my wife and children 'I'm sorry, but I haven't brought any money home?’ No way. I will only leave when someone brings me my money," said Jalal Mammadov, chief officer of Gobustan. But that's a difficult plan. Carlo Cordone is a man whose task is to try to make the sailors understand that.

If the 26 people on board the two ships in Ravenna had food to eat, water for drinking and washing, and access to internet and television, it was thanks to people like Cordone, president of the Ravenna Seafarers Welfare Committee, a former sailor with a volcanic character. In addition to not paying salaries, Palmali was not providing water, food, or the fuel necessary to run everything on the ship, from electricity to running water. Almost $60,000 had been provided to supply Sultan Bey. Cordone raised this money by asking for donations from city hall and charities, and drawing funds from the Port Authority and other institutions. Thousands more had gone to supply Gobustan as well.


"But you can't go on like this. You can't live on charity forever. The seafarers must do only one thing: Ask for the seizure of the ship for their unpaid wages, get it from the judge, and go home,” Cordone explains, often interrupting the conversation to take one phone call or another. “They must rest assured about this, I tell them every day. As soon as the ship is sold at auction, they will be the first to be compensated. But it can take a year, to be optimistic." However, as he knows, sailors are not easy to convince. In Venice and Oristano, where charities and local authorities have been ensuring the survival of abandoned crews at their own expense, the sailors do not want to leave without the money they’re owed. All of the crews stuck in Italian ports are also assisted by Paolo Siligato, an inspector from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), the international union for seafarers.

On Gobustan, even as Palmali offered to pay for 1,320 gallons of fuel, the men on board were willing to sign the document to begin the seizure—at least until Palmali made them an offer. They would get four months of back pay—less than half of what they were owed—and could go home, with no ability to ask for any more of their lost salary. In October, they took the deal.


The seafarers on Sultan Bey, on the other hand, were less combative or resentful toward the shipowner. "That's because they had less arrears," says Cordone. The crew, after loading sunflower seeds in Reni, Ukraine, went on strike in Istanbul at the end of June because Palmali had already failed to pay $106,000 owed to them. The owner of the cargo—not Palmali—had gone ahead and paid the seamen to see the goods delivered, and then started the process of seizure to recoup its funds. So those on Sultan Bey were owed less, but they still held their ground, and only at the end of October they signed the seizure papers and were allowed to return home to await their full missing wages. "Someone even told me that he [was] willing to stay even without electricity on board,” Cordone says. “Do they want to eat canned meat with a candle on their head? I will never allow that: Their dignity is in first place.” He had finally managed to convince the crew.

This was not the case for the 12 men originally aboard Captain Nagdaliyev, stranded in Beirut and owed $250,000 in wages. For 10 days the crew was without fuel and food. Asked via Whatsapp how they managed, one sailor replied, "It's very simple: We started fishing and then we cooked using the coal we had on board." But they couldn’t wash themselves because they were without generators, so the pumps didn’t work. The explosion on August 4 made their mood worse. "That day I thought the end of the world had come,” the sailor continued. “Since then the port has been militarized, we live in a state of strong psychological discomfort and we want to leave.”


The two Russians and the 10 Azerbaijanis aboard Captain Nagdaliyev finally got some help, and variety in their diet, from the ITF, which paid for a supply of food, water, and fuel for at least a few days. "The shipowner was responsible for these men. It is a scandal that he ran away and abandoned them,” says Mohamed Arrachedi, network coordinator for the Arab world and Iran for ITF. “The flag country, Malta, also has obligations to them, but it keeps telling us that it is dealing with it and so far we have seen nothing concrete." Currently in Bilbao, Spain, Arrachedi explains on the phone that it would not normally be the task of the ITF to supply the crews, but has done so "for humanitarian reasons," and that after the explosion in Beirut, "The sailors are more worried than before because they see that there is a state of emergency around them. Even just to bring drinking water on board, you have to refuel outside, because there is not drinking water in the port." Most recently, eight of the sailors were allowed to leave, while four had been required to stay on the ship so that it would not be completely unmanned.

The presence of the ITF in this part of the world, where some countries do not allow union activity at all, "is very recent and when a crew contacts me, often the situation is already very serious, therefore more difficult to solve." Arrachedi’s goal is the same as Cordone’s: to get the seizure of the ship from a judge, send the sailors home, and then get them their money, maybe in a year or two.

Meanwhile, in Ravenna, Cordone continues to curse the bureaucracy—he is now struggling against the jungle of rules and obligations surrounding the pandemic, which complicates even putting the sailors on a plane to take them home. He, Arrachedi, and many others like them will continue to work hard to provide hope for the seafarers abandoned by their employers, ignored by governments, and seemingly forgotten by the world.

How to Recreate Your Lost Family Recipes, According to Historians and Chefs


It may not be just like grandma’s, but with observation and a little research, it’ll be pretty darn close.

Michael Twitty was leading a conversation on African diasporic food when the woman he was speaking to broke into tears. Twitty, a food writer, historian, and historical interpreter, had just explained that the word for “eat” in Wolof, a West African language, is nyam. The woman, a Massachusetts resident from an African-American and Puerto Rican family, had a lingering memory of her mother and grandmother repeating the word “nyam” during meals. But she never knew that the word was a direct connection to Africa.

For Twitty, who has devoted his life to tracing the roots of African-American cuisine, these moments of revelation are common—and electrifying. “You almost faint because you know who you are,” Twitty says. “No one can take that away from you ever again.”


Twitty has traveled from the American South to West Africa, using a mix of historical documents, participant-observation, and oral history to unbraid the complex culinary strands of the African diaspora. Through his writing and his workshops, he helps other African Americans understand the roots of their families’ culinary traditions, which centuries of slavery and white supremacy threatened to sever. Each bowl of okra soup or snippet of kitchen-table conversation is an ark from the past, a missive from the difficult, joyful story of how the community has come to be where it is today. “Between the pain and the celebration, the culture is created,” he says.

While Twitty’s work is especially meaningful to Black Americans, he says this kind of inquiry can connect participants of all backgrounds to their pasts, and to each other. “I see people really begin to connect the dots” between their family cuisines and those of other cultures, says Twitty of his workshops.

Like Twitty, Seattle-based chef Melissa Miranda has drawn on memory and kitchen observation to connect to her family’s culinary history. She worked with community elders to create a series of pop-up dinners celebrating local immigrant moms, then established her restaurant, Musang, based on her family’s cuisine. “The restaurant that we opened, it’s just Filipino food based off our childhood memories,” she says.


You, too, can use sensory memory, oral history, and historical detective work to better understand, or to recreate, family or cultural dishes that you connect with. Whether you have a trove of recipes in your naani’s handwriting, or just a lingering memory of a tia’s tres leches cake, you can apply insights from chefs and culinary historians to cook family recipes that hold special meaning to you, even if the elders who originally made them are gone. I spoke to Twitty, Miranda, and Veronica and Dayana Salazar, the mother-daughter team behind the Bay Area’s El Huarache Loco, about how they bring their own family flavors to life—and how you can, too.

Draw From Memory

When Veronica Salazar immigrated to San Francisco, she brought memories of her family’s Mexico City restaurant. The recipes weren’t written down; family members learned through observation. In San Francisco, Salazar drew on these memories to cook and sell Mexican street food, eventually working with food incubator La Cocina to launch El Huarache Loco.

In 2019, she worked with her own daughter, Dayana Salazar, to publish the family’s recipes for a popular salad and for caldo de gallina, or hen soup, in the La Cocina cookbook. Translating her intuitive cooking style to precise measurements was a challenge. “It was hard for me when they told me, ‘You have to make a recipe,’” she says. “We don’t do that. We just know the flavors.”


Even if you didn’t grow up in a restaurant, you can also use sensory memory as a starting point. Focus on the dish you’re interested in recreating. When do you remember eating it? What did it taste like? Smell like? Look like? Do you remember the sights, smells, or sounds in the kitchen as someone created it? What places, people, and traditions do you associate with the dish? What did you feel emotionally when you ate it? Have you ever tasted anything similar to it in a restaurant or at a friend’s house?

Take notes about everything you can recall. It’s okay if this is stream-of-consciousness; the point is to get your memories down on paper. These notes are the beginning of your recipe.

Watch and Learn

Musang was born from a pop-up dinner series Melissa Miranda called “No Cookbooks Allowed,” in which she and her sous chefs recreated recipes they learned by watching local Thai-, Vietnamese-, and Filipino-American moms cook. “I think observation and listening were really the best tools,” Miranda says. Watching and learning paid off: The moms liked her recreations.

If you know community elders who cook food similar to the dish you want to recreate, ask if you can watch them in the kitchen. (If it’s not possible or safe due to physical distance or social-distancing requirements, ask them to keep on video chat or speaker phone while they cook.) Observation can provide nuance that a written recipe can’t, especially for dishes that have been passed down.

Miranda advises asking for tips and tricks and asking open-ended questions, such as, “Would you mind showing me how you would do this?” You can take a video (with their permission) or take notes as they cook. Above all, absorb the sights, sounds, and, if possible, smells of the kitchen.


Twitty also interviews and observes community elders in his research. He suggests asking for details like how long they’ve been eating a particular dish, who first made it for them, and what memories they associate with it. In the kitchen itself, he advocates a fly-on-the-wall approach. “I don’t get into somebody’s face the first time,” he says. Instead, he asks if he can help with kitchen chores while watching their process. “I want to respect the fact that they are, in that moment, a master.”

Research the Context

A culture’s cuisine is like a woven tapestry: Each ingredient or technique is a thread that connects to the intricate whole. Take, for example, Twitty’s childhood memory of his Southern grandmother, who poured hot sauce onto her greens from an old 7-Up bottle with a pricked, rusted metal lid.

When Twitty researched the culinary history of what is now Ghana, he found records from a French Huguenot slave trader—a “disgusting person”—who had written about the region’s food. The trader remarked that local people loved “cabbage,” a stand-in for all leafy greens. Twitty’s memories of his grandmother’s greens and hot sauce clicked into place. “I just went, ‘Wait a minute, here are the pieces,’” he says. When Twitty tested his DNA, he also found a genetic connection to contemporary Ghanains. That bowl of greens wasn’t just his grandma’s idiosyncratic habit; it was a breadcrumb trail from the American South to West Africa.


You can use similar context clues to trace your own food memories to their historical origins. You can research: Where would your ancestors have gotten the dish’s ingredients? What meaning would those ingredients have held for them culturally? How did migration, conflict, or changes in technology affect how those ingredients were used? What other descriptions or recipes of the dish exist in food blogs, or in contemporary or vintage cookbooks?

If you already have a recipe or a specific dish in mind, this kind of inquiry can help you better understand the meaning behind each ingredient or step. If you’re trying to recreate a recipe from scratch, researching the broader historical context in which your ancestors cooked and ate can help you identify ingredients and techniques that would have been important for them.

If you only have a vague memory of your aunt’s polpette di asparagi, but you know her parents immigrated from Sicily to the Bronx in 1920, you can fill in the gaps in your knowledge by researching how Sicilian immigrants cooking in the style of la cucina povera brought a taste for asparagus to Arthur Avenue.

Develop (and Trust) Your Intuition

Dayana Salazar was seven years old when she began helping her mother, Veronica, in the kitchen. “It was so natural to me,” Dayana says. When La Cocina’s cookbook launched in 2019, containing Veronica’s recipes, Dayana, then in her mid 20s, was tapped to travel to Detroit to cook for a book event. That was when the doubts set in. “A couple days before I went to Detroit, my mom was like, ‘It’s on you,’” Dayana says. Nervous, she took a notepad into the family’s restaurant kitchen to watch and record her mother’s bean recipe in case she forgot.


But when it came time for Dayana to cook in Detroit, she didn’t have time to follow the recipe step by step. So she winged it. The end result was so good that guests wanted to know how she did it. “I don’t know,” Dayana told them. “I was just going by taste.”

That elusive quality—taste and intuition—is often the key ingredient that can turn your meatballs, barbecue, or noodle soup from good to the spitting image of your great-grandfather’s.

For Twitty, intuition in the kitchen comes from interacting with a cuisine over time. “People don’t want to hear that there’s a part of the cooking that takes a while to get,” says Twitty. Yet intuition requires developing a relationship, and not just with the food itself, but with how food fits into a group’s values and way of life. “Our tradition values far more than techniques,” says Twitty of African-American food. “It values the meaning behind the food, the use of the food to create social cohesion and foster cultural memory.”

If you didn’t grow up in the kitchen, you can still develop that intuition with practice. The more you cook and watch others cook, the more you’ll develop your own ability to “go by taste.” Similarly, recreating a recipe may mean not just cooking the dish, but cooking it in the context your ancestors enjoyed it, whether on Christmas Eve or for funerals. “You have to spend a lifetime doing this,” Twitty says.

Don’t Get Hung Up On Authenticity

The dishes Melissa Miranda and her collaborators serve at Musang are inspired by the Filipino food they grew up eating. But each dish contains a special twist: chicken adobo that’s roasted rather than braised, or a Filipino-style take on the Italian-American Feast of the Seven Fishes. “We’re authentic in terms of flavors, and not traditional in terms of how dishes are presented and cooked,” says Miranda.

That’s created confusion among some diners. “There have definitely been some elder Filipinos who have come in and said, ‘I don’t get it,’” says Miranda. But for Miranda, authenticity is more about flavor and feeling than about doing a literal rendition of every dish. This approach has impressed the most important critics: Her parents love the restaurant.


When you’re searching for that elusive taste from your memories, you may worry that you’ll never achieve precise authenticity. Twitty says that’s okay. For his historical interpretations, Twitty dresses in period clothing and cooks with the antebellum implements of his enslaved forebears. It’s “an act of devotion to my Ancestors,” he writes. Yet, Twitty says, authenticity is less about the correctness of the ingredients or tools than about the feeling behind it. “The spirit of the food and who you cook it for is the most important part of authenticity.”

Cooking has always been about time, place, and season. You live in a different era, and likely in a different place, than your ancestors. You have access to a different set of ingredients, even to a different sense of taste. There may be gaps in the historical record, or parts of your family history that you can never know. Rather than being frustrated with the information you don’t have, you can reflect on what historical factors created these gaps in knowledge—an approach that Jessica B. Harris, a food historian of the African diaspora, has called “studying the silences.”

After all, sometimes the dishes we canonize as authentic are simply things our ancestors picked up along the way. Twitty, who is Jewish, tells a joke about a mother who cuts brisket a particular way. Her daughter cuts it the same way; then her daughter. When the granddaughter asks the grandmother why, assuming the technique is a time-honored tradition, Bubbi says, “Because it didn’t fit the pan.”

Pass It On

Recently, Twitty was at his cousin’s house, spinning stories for the children. He told them about their grandmother, who made the best fried chicken in the world, and about their great-grandparents, who skipped meals so their kids could eat during the Depression. “I’m the memory of the family,” Twitty says.

Family culinary history is chronicled in our tales and written records, but it also lives in our senses and our bodily rhythms. Your food history is in the way you bring roti to your mouth, with a flick of the wrist just like your grandfather’s; the way you put hot sauce on your greens; the way you cut your brisket, in the shape of a pan that has long since ceased to exist.

However your recreated pasta con le sarde, okra soup, or pozole comes out, the simple act of cooking and sharing connects you to those who came before you, and those who will come after. For Twitty, cooking boils down to this relationship of stewardship. “I know it,” he says, “And I pass it on.”

The Quest for Appalachia's Wild Ginseng


The plant is imperiled by overharvesting, and locals are racing to preserve it—and its economic potential.

This piece was originally published in Undark and appears here as part of our Climate Desk collaboration.

Iris Gao keeps a ginseng root in her office. It’s fixed on black velvet with three other bleached-brown specimens, all of them twisty and otherworldly and protected by glass in a shadowbox frame. This particular root, says Gao, was more than 40 years old when it was plucked out of the Tennessee soil; you can tell because of the more than 40 gnarled rings on what she calls its neck.

As a biologist at Middle Tennessee State University, Gao has researched many medicinal plants, but for the past few years, her interest has centered on Panax quinquefolius, or American ginseng. In the lab down the hall from her office, among rows of workbenches and sterile hoods, Gao drapes tinfoil over plastic bottles of ginseng cells and leaves them to vibrate in a machine. She soaks pale powdered ginseng leaves in solvent in a water bath before sending them off to another lab to analyze their chemical content. She stores human cancer cells at a cool 37 degrees Fahrenheit in preparation for an experiment analyzing whether ginseng can combat malignancies.

While such research calls upon the tools of today’s modern laboratory, the ultimate goal is to tap into a deep cultural force in Appalachia. For centuries, diggers have tromped into the woods in this part of the country to pull up ginseng roots and sell them for $500 to $1,000 per pound to middleman buyers, who in turn sell them to China, where ginseng is prized as a curative.

But both this storied plant and this practice are imperiled by overharvesting, an issue that could worsen this year thanks to COVID-19. Ginseng has long been prized in folk medicine for its purported health benefits, which have been borne out by scientific studies on the plant’s anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, and some researchers are worried that the pandemic could heighten Chinese demand for this plant. But even before this potentially tumultuous year, stakeholders in Appalachia, like Gao, have been racing to preserve ginseng and its economic potential.


A key component of their strategy is forest farming, which entails intentionally planting seeds in forestland and harvesting them responsibly instead of either growing them in cultivated plots that may require pesticides and fertilizers or randomly yanking them from the woods. There are plenty of landowners in Appalachia with forested properties, and scientists believe that encouraging those landowners to plant ginseng could create economic opportunity while reducing pressure on the overharvested wild stock. Gao’s research might open up an additional frontier: Ginseng is typically an end-point crop, harvested for its roots, but Gao is studying whether its spiky-tipped leaves also contain ginsenosides, the compounds that determine the plant’s medicinal value. She hasn’t published numbers yet, but preliminary findings indicate that the leaves might contain even more ginsenosides than the roots. Scientists hope that this kind of research will transform ginseng into an annual crop and reduce the time farmers need to invest before they see a return.

But in their push to spread the word about forest farming, green-leaf harvesting, and other conservation strategies, Gao and her fellow researchers are butting up against a myriad of opponents. They need authorities, who often lack the will, knowledge, or resources, to recognize ginseng’s value. They need Chinese consumers to realize that forest-farmed plants are just as potent as their wild-harvested counterparts. Crucially, they also need to reach so-called sang hunters and potential forest farmers.

These farmers are typically poor; a 2019 study published in Biological Conservation showed that the percentage of households in poverty in an Appalachian county is one of the top indicators for ginseng harvesting. And sang hunters hail from a culture that has traditionally distrusted authority. Many of them point to perceived injustices that benefit the monied and powerful: universities receive tax exemptions for their lands; fracking and mining companies rip up the landscape with seeming abandon; and the government bans ginseng hunting on public lands, arresting sang hunters who break the law while failing to seriously prosecute the theft of ginseng from private property.

“If these people were empowered instead of regulated, and given information instead of rules, it would be a whole different ballgame,” said Eric Burkhart, an ethnobotanist at Penn State University. “Ginseng would be recognized as a crop across Appalachia,” instead of as an endangered plant that just happens to grow in the forest and has no connection to the economic or social life of the region’s residents.


While forest farming might not be a panacea for all ginseng hunters, the current status quo is not sustainable. Gao is worried about the fate of ginseng, and so is Burkhart. He fears a worst-case scenario: The government, trying to protect the wild plant, will ban exports to Asia. This would spike prices, leading locals to hunt wild populations to extinction and making forest farmers prime targets for theft. The result would be a disaster, for plants and for people.

“The fate of ginseng,” Burkhart said, “is intimately tied to what we do in this moment.”

The connection between Appalachian ginseng and the Chinese consumer market stretches back centuries. For a botanist like Burkhart, this connection is not a surprise: The temperate zones of eastern Asia and eastern North America are home to similar plants, one of which is ginseng. Asian and American ginseng plants belong to the same genus, though they have slightly different leaf shapes and chemical components.

According to a journal article in Economic Botany, in the early 1700s, a French priest traveling in China wrote a letter to a fellow clergy member describing ginseng’s popularity in China, where it had been used for centuries as a tonic, stimulant, and fertility booster. By the end of the 1700s, ginseng hunters had swarmed into the Appalachian Mountains, spurred by the demand for the herb in China, where the government had prohibited wild harvesting of the overtaxed crop. 21,000 metric tons of American ginseng were sent overseas between 1821 and 1983, but even in the late 1800s, ginseng was already overharvested in the United States as well, and entrepreneurial farmers started cultivating this finicky plant.

These days, much of the ginseng consumed in Asia is grown as a large-scale cultivated crop in Wisconsin and Ontario. And Chinese customers can readily purchase ginseng tea packets bearing a “Made in Wisconsin” label. But wild ginseng remains valuable. It contains higher levels of ginsenosides than large-scale cultivated ginseng and is also seen as a status symbol; beautiful, intricate ginseng roots like the ones in Gao’s office are given as gifts and displayed as artwork, and they tend to fetch a much higher price in Eastern Asia, up to 25 times more per pound than cultivated ginseng. Not only do the large operations produce lower-potency ginseng and make less money per root, they also don’t keep money in the pockets of the little guy. Even though there’s not much direct competition between large operations and small-scale farmers, often these big operations don’t benefit the blue-collar Appalachians whose families have been hiking out to hunt sang for generations.

One such sang-hunter is Lloyd Shelton. Shelton, who lives at the foot of a hill near the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, grew up tromping into the woods to search for the plant. In his house, Shelton keeps pictures of a previous year’s haul, showing dusty boxes of dried roots spread out on colorful fabric, as well as a framed six-prong ginseng that he found years ago. Finding a plant with four prongs or above is the equivalent of shooting a 10-point buck, said Shelton.

Shelton also tends a patch on the hillside behind his home, where, in May, ginseng tangles with purple and yellow flowers and shiny dark-leaved bushes. This technically makes him a forest farmer. In fact, many sang hunters, steeped in centuries of tradition, are forest farming: They just wouldn’t call it that. According to a survey funded by the Pennsylvania state government and collected over an eight-year period, about 28 percent of root sellers said that at least some of the ginseng they had sold as wild was actually wild-simulated, meaning that it was harvested in a forest farm environment, either from forest land that they owned or state-owned land where they planted seeds.


When it comes to buying planted ginseng, middlemen are infamous for price gouging. “They know damn well that they’re going to turn around and sell it as wild,” Burkhart said.

But accurate marketing brings its own set of challenges. What does wild-simulated even mean? Where is the line between wild-simulated and wild? Burkhart’s Chinese colleagues have been studying labeling in China, and as it turns out, consumers are often confused.

Nailing down definitions, therefore, might create an opportunity by drumming up more demand for intentionally-managed, forest-farmed ginseng, especially if researchers succeed in showing that it contains the same level of ginsenosides as its wild counterpart. After all, no one tracks exactly where wild-hunted ginseng comes from, and no one knows the soil conditions of every single swath of the Appalachian forests. Jeanine Davis, an associate professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University who works at an extension school in western North Carolina, says that when she studied bloodroot, another forest botanical, she discovered heavy metal and arsenic contamination at various wild sites. And Burkhart says that Chinese consumers are starting to shy away from the large-scale farmed version of the plant.

“There is an evolving awareness, just like there is here with farm-to-table and with shade-grown coffee. That’s happening in China, too, with a lot of different products,” Burkhart said. “They want to know that this stuff is not being grown in a pesticide environment.”

“Here's a nice specimen,” said Burkhart, roaming through a forest outside Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, Penn State-owned land south of State College. Over the past decade, he’d purchased seeds from Ontario and Wisconsin farmers and planted ginseng here, and the maturing plants were tucked among ferns and muddled with Virginia creeper. At this time of year, late June, the ginseng was starting to bloom with small white flowers in umbel-shaped clusters. In July, it would flourish its red berries and finally, in the autumn, its leaves would yellow, signifying that its roots were ready for harvest.

Burkhart flicked a jumping plant louse off one of his plants. Overhead, Japanese larch created a canopy for the sugar maples, which are a prime indicator species for ginseng. An indicator species is a tip-off for the environmental conditions in a specific place, and the presence of these maples indicated that the soil beneath the ginseng was calcium-rich: Sugar maples pull calcium through their root systems and recycle it through their leaves onto the forest floor every autumn. It’s thought that ginseng needs calcium to promote those invaluable ginsenosides.

To the uninitiated, both of Burkhart’s sites look like forests, just a jumble of brown and green, but they are actually forest farms, and the point is to test assumptions about the best growing environment for ginseng and to provide a learning site where people can find inspiration for their own plots. On a second site, Burkhart pointed to several indicators for ginseng: black cohosh and rattlesnake fern, which has been called “sang fern” or “sang pointer” for more than a hundred years because sang hunters recognized that it often appeared with ginseng. Burkhart says that they were right — sang fern was found side-by-side with ginseng in 75 percent of sites.


Burkhart published a paper about this in 2013, outlining how would-be Pennsylvania ginseng farmers can use plant indicators to identify calcium-rich sites where ginseng could flourish. He found 243 species that were associative with ginseng, and he hopes that this knowledge can help forest farmers select the proper places to plant their ginseng. The trick with forest farming is, if you find the right spot, you don’t have to invest that much labor.

“Before you know it, your kids grow up,” said Burkhart, looking down at the prim white blossoms peeking through the groundcover.

To preserve this mystical, traditional plant, locals, scientists, and government officials are all trying to work together. Burkhart and Iris Gao, for their part, both run programs and workshops for local farmers, diggers, and buyers. But all the stakeholders have a long way to go before they’ve established the necessary trust, knowledge, and reciprocity with traditional sang hunters in Appalachia.

Even the terminology used by researchers and reporters can alienate these ginseng hunters. For example, ginseng thievery is common, and the term “poaching” is sometimes used in the press to describe the act of sneaking onto state lands and pulling roots illegally. Lloyd Shelton was busted for this crime years ago, by a state park ranger named Tim with whom he now plays bluegrass music. But “poaching” connotes stealing something that already existed from the wild. The word does not adequately cover what happens to a forest farmer when a bad actor finds out about his or her private crop, which is devastating economic loss.

“If [thieves] found my patch, they’d be in hog heaven out here, digging it up,” said Joe Boccardy, a ginseng farmer in western North Carolina.

Some ginseng farmers cite Larry Harding as a cautionary tale. Harding is a ginseng farmer in Maryland who had his farm filmed for a 2014 reality show called “Appalachian Outlaws,” a two-season History Channel endeavor that sensationalized the lives of ginseng harvesters in the region. Perhaps because of his involvement with the show, or because of the attention the show brought to ginseng in general, thieves targeted Harding’s farm.

“Appalachian Outlaws” and their ilk don’t do any favors for the thievery problem. Critics of these shows say they give enterprising crooks ideas while also romanticizing Appalachia as an outlaw-riddled Wild West. A description for the show declared that Appalachia is a place “where 401Ks aren’t built on mutual funds, but on ginseng, animal furs, and moonshine.” When Michelle Bouton, an herbalist from Johnson City, Tennessee, talks about these shows, you can practically hear her hackles go up.

“Showing that on TV has the exact opposite effect of what we’re trying to do,” Bouton said. “It encourages people to scour the mountains and pull up everything they can, even if it’s the very last plant in their county.”

These TV shows speak to that larger issue of trust and reciprocity: Many outsiders either don’t know about ginseng or don’t care, and many are not willing to invest resources and time into this plant. For his upcoming paper on wild-simulated ginseng sold as wild, Burkhart used confidential surveys in cooperation with the state of Pennsylvania. He points out that there’s a missed opportunity for states to use their records for better communication and as a way to reach ginseng farmers, many of whom fear that the states’ records will somehow be used against them.

“Most of the locals here hate Penn State,” Burkhart said. “Because they own 7,000 acres of forestland down here that are tax exempt.” He also points out longstanding resentment over the creation of Smoky Mountain National Park, a swath of land where, in an effort to protect the vulnerable plant, ginseng hunting is now illegal. These locals are told they can’t pull roots in land where their grandparents hunted, because of conservation, but they’re given nothing in return.


Jeanine Davis, the researcher at North Carolina State University, said that when she first started her job 30 years ago, she walked into an uneasy relationship between the state and the locals. Her colleagues warned her not to drive a truck with government plates into certain regions.

“You’re going to end up with bullet holes in the truck,” Davis recalled.

Things have improved as Davis has cultivated relationships. But in order to maintain that trust, the researchers pushing for forest farming need to tread carefully. “People that wild-harvest ginseng and other herbs, most of them aren’t land-owners. They might live in a little house or a mobile home park,” she said. For them, wild ginseng will remain an important source of income—particularly during hard economic times.

The solution, Davis says, might be arrangements with landowners or with the forest service. For example, she knows a doctor who bought land outside Asheville with the stipulation that he had to let an old man continue to hunt sang on the property.

Burkhart echoed Davis’ caution, saying that if a small-scale ginseng farmer wants to keep their enterprise as a hobby rather than a codified, official farm, then he’s not going to force them.

“People here disdain government enough to begin with,” he said. He added, “A lot of ginsengers are outlaws by their own definition. That cultural divide is at the heart of ginseng.”

“From here all the way to where we started is covered in ginseng,” said Joe Boccardy, pointing to a forested hillside. It was late September on Boccardy’s rolling farm, with Snake Mountain jutting up in the middle distance and tawny trees dropping leaves to the ground. As Boccardy crossed electric fences and a rooster moaned in the distance, he explained how ginseng got ahold of him at least 20 years ago, when he was working as a roofer while attending college at Appalachian State University. At that job, he met a man named Doug, an old-school sang hunter, who took Boccardy into the woods to search for the plant.

“One day I remember, I felt like, I’m going to find ginseng. And there it was,” said Boccardy, who says the plant suppresses his hunger and clears his thoughts. Spotting a patch of sang in the wild, he explained, “is like finding Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the forest.”

A few years later, Boccardy bought 30 pounds of ginseng seeds for $600 from an acquaintance while working in the saw palmetto industry in Florida. He planted these seeds on his farm and has been cultivating the plant ever since.

Boccardy dreams of someday selling bottles of moonshine with a ginseng root floating in each one, a novelty item for tourists. But in general, he’s selling green leaf. Now, Boccardy and his daughters pick leaves, cool them in a refrigerator, slow-dry them in a dehydrator until they crinkle, and then store them until they have enough to sell—usually for about $150 a pound.

Boccardy used to be an inspector for the Forest Grown Verified Program, which was started in 2014 by a nonprofit accredited organic certifying agency as a method to increase consumer confidence and pricing for forest-grown botanicals. The program, now administered by a different nonprofit called United Plant Savers, usually includes between 20 and 30 farmers every year. But Boccardy says he’s worried that the program, beset by leadership change and COVID-19, is only treading water.

“Forest Grown Verified—it needs to survive,” Boccardy said. “That, to me, is the only thing we have to protect this type of trade in endangered plants.”

To protect those plants, Iris Gao isn’t just researching whether leaves are more powerful than roots; she’s also dabbling in cloning. Over in the agriculture lab, Gao, who was wearing a homemade black facemask with a cloth ginseng root sewn onto it, explained that yet another ecological concern about ginseng is that if Appalachian farmers buy seeds from the big farms in Wisconsin and Ontario and throw them down in the forest instead of planting seeds from their native regions, their ginseng, suited for conditions in specific regions, might not flourish.

“Tennessee ginseng has a very unique profile,” said Gao. “This is not surprising. The chemical profile of a medicinal plant [is] related to a local environment where it grows, the climate, the soil, the geography, the water, everything—it’s not a surprising that Tennessee ginseng is different from New York ginseng.”

To address this issue, Gao is micropropagating, or cloning, ginseng plants, a practice that’s already common in industrial agriculture. In a sterile hood, Gao uses a hole puncher to remove a tiny chunk of a leaf or stem. She places that chunk on a bed of nutrients encased in a plastic plate, where the stems and leaves can regenerate.

“You can stimulate this part of the tissue to produce callus [tissues],” said Gao, pointing out what looked like crystalized cauliflower florets growing in the plastic plate. “This callus has the potential to become an embryo. And then the embryo can germinate, can develop a shoot and a root and turn into a whole plant.” Once these cells generate a shoot or root, Gao sends them over to the greenhouse, where they grow into plants. Eventually, Gao hopes that she can give these plants to Tennessee forest farmers.

Green-leaf harvesting instead of root harvesting, science-backed forest farm management, and micropropagation of local stock could all help preserve the ginseng industry. But even so, this plant, its self-described cult-like enthusiasts, and the families that have built tradition and income around it for generations are not yet out of the woods. Gao related a story she heard from a ginseng friend of hers in New York, who’d cultivated two wild patches for 30 years. He visited these patches twice a year for all those decades, but in 2020, when he ventured into the forest, they were gone.

“It’s in danger,” Gao said. “We want to do what we can do to save this plant and to use it sustainably”—to make sure, she added, that the plant is still here for future generations.

Bake This Luxurious 19th-Century Thanksgiving Pie


Marlborough pie is "a glorification of everyday apple.”

“Tell me where your grandmother came from and I can tell you how many kinds of pie you serve for Thanksgiving,” the food writer Clementine Paddleford surmised in her 1960 book, How America Eats. Around Boston, she wrote, “four kinds of pie were traditional for this feast occasion––mince, cranberry, pumpkin, and a kind called Marlborough, a glorification of everyday apple.”

A single-crust pie of stewed apples in a custard fragrant with nutmeg, citrus, and sherry, Marlborough pie originated in England as a custard pudding and crossed the Atlantic with early English settlers. It has since embraced its Americanness as another take on the beloved national dessert: apple pie.

The practice of putting apples in a custard and baking in a pastry base is at least as old as 1660. An Eater article cites Amy Traverso’s The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, which traces the first iteration of Marlborough pudding to a recipe in The Accomplisht Cook, an English cookbook published that year. It called for a whopping 24 egg yolks mixed with cinnamon, sugar, salt, melted butter, “some fine minced pippins” (tart apples used in cooking), and minced as well as sliced citron, all poured into a pastry-lined dish. The recipe was strikingly similar to the Marlborough pudding recipe in the first known American cookbook, published in 1796: Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery.


So, is it a pie or a pudding? It’s both, says Sarah Ramsey, lead interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, that recreates rural New England of the 1830s. “Pie and pudding in the 19th century are very interchangeable, depending on how they’re served,” she says. “Because this is a custard-based dessert, it would technically be considered a pudding. But because it has a filling that has to be poured into something else—like a pie crust—in order to have it form and cook, it is also a pie.”

Ramsey is one of the costumed historians in charge of operations at one of Sturbridge Village’s many houses. Here, Marlborough pie is a staple at Thanksgiving, where visitors can watch it being made, although only the employees at the Village may partake in the joy of eating it.

“Marlborough pudding is probably one of the favorites of everyone in the Village,” says Ramsey. “It has a really nice, light flavor. It probably disappears the most on the table.”


The exaltation of Marlborough pie to the 19th-century Thanksgiving table features in the American writing of the time, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Edward Everett Hale. In her 1869 book, Oldtown Folks, Stowe wrote that around Thanksgiving, “Pies were made by forties and fifties and hundreds, and made of everything on the earth and under the earth … huckleberry pies, cherry pies . . . apple pies, Marlborough-pudding pies—pies with top crusts, and pies without—pies adorned with all sorts of fanciful flutings and architectural strips laid across and around, and otherwise varied, attested the boundless fertility of the feminine mind, when let loose in a given direction.” “It seems she was batty for the stuff,” John T. Edge writes of Stowe’s pie obsession before quoting the above excerpt in his book Apple Pie: An American Story.

Marlborough pie was extremely popular in 19th-century New England, considered an indulgent treat as well as an ingenious use for apples nearing spoilage. “It was special because it was both more labor-intensive and more expensive to make than other pies of the time,” says Ramsey. “The sherry was probably coming from Spain. Nutmegs were coming from Indonesia, lemons from Sicily. Finding the ingredients could be tricky at the time.”

When an apple custard pie got the Marlborough moniker remains a mystery: Its nomenclature may be owed to a town of the same name in England, or Massachusetts, or both. To make matters more confusing, it is also sometimes known as Deerfield Pie (presumably after another Massachusetts town). A gloomier conundrum is why there’s sorrowful little Marlborough pie to be found in the Anglo-American culinary lexicon today. In fact, Clementine Paddleford’s explanatory preface suggests that even in the ’60s, the pie was not ubiquitous. Few establishments serve the pie today, although home bakers have kept it alive in the culinary imagination. In England, the celebrated chef Rick Stein serves Marlborough pudding at his Marlborough restaurant every fall. Stein’s redolent update on the traditional British recipe, topped with glazed Italian meringue and served with warm custard, contributes a portion of the sales to a local food pantry.

Ramsey attributes Marlborough pie’s faded glory to the added labor of cooking the apples down and the fear of custard scrambling as it bakes. But pie aficionados who’ve baked a conventional double-crust apple pie will find this a far simpler affair, with the potential to be a bigger hit for its subtle creamy sweetness, the bright tang of lemon, and the warmth from the sherry and spices.


Marlborough Pudding (Pie)

Adapted From Old Sturbridge Village's Recipe

Yields one 8-inch deep-dish pie.

1 pie crust
6 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup stewed, pureed apples (Though it varies by size, this typically requires around 4 apples.)
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup sherry
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup white sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoon grated nutmeg (or to taste)

1. Prepare the pastry.

Use whatever pastry recipe you’d like to create the single crust. I used this recipe from Deb Perelman’s blog, Smitten Kitchen. At Old Sturbridge Village, the crust is rolled from a mixture of just flour, water, and butter. I mixed flour, salt, and sugar with cold cubes of butter by hand until crumbly, then added just enough ice-cold water to bind the dough.

Divide the dough into two balls. Wrap and freeze one for a rainy day, then use the other one for the Marlborough pie. I refrigerated my pie dough for an hour, to let the gluten settle and the dough hydrate evenly. This prevents the crust from shrinking in the oven, and rolling out cold dough keeps the fat firm and ensures a flakier crust when baked.


2. Prepare the custard filling.

Melt the butter and leave to cool. Next, prepare the stewed apples. Sarah Ramsey cautions against using store-bought applesauce, which is typically made with Red Delicious apples that aren’t as flavorful as the heirloom apples she recommends using. “If you wanted to be historically accurate, you could go with Macoun or Baldwin apples,” she says.

Peel and dice the apples, transfer them to a pot, and add just enough water to cover them. Boil until they’re soft. I simmered mine for about 30 minutes. I also added a few dashes of ground cinnamon with no regrets. Strain and mash the apples when they’re done.

Squeeze the lemon, remove any seeds, and add the juice to 3/4 cup of the stewed apples. Add the sherry (I used Harveys Bristol Cream, which is produced in Spain and bottled in England), cream, and sugar, and mix until well incorporated. Some 19th-century recipes add rose water or orange-flower water, instead of sherry. Next, add the melted butter, blending well. Finally, beat and fold in the eggs.

3. Assemble for the oven.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Roll out the pie crust into a deep (roughly 1½ to 2 inches deep), 8-inch pie plate. At Old Sturbridge Village, the pie plate is made on-site, as part of their signature kiln-fired redware pottery. I had only a shallow 9-inch tart pan, resulting in some leftover filling. (I used it to make scones, substituting the heavy cream and egg in this scone recipe with the leftover custard.) I refrigerated the lined pan for another hour, but no refrigeration takes place at any stage at the Old Sturbridge Village kitchen.

Add the grated nutmeg to the custard and spoon everything into the pastry-lined pie plate. Bake for 15 minutes at 400°F. Reduce the heat to 350°F and bake for another 45 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. I always place a baking tray or a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom rack to catch any spills. (Note: Next time, I might blind bake the crust—lining the unfilled crust with foil, weighing it down with coins or dried beans, and baking at 375°F for 10 minutes or until just lightly brown—to prevent a soggy bottom, which was a little bit of an issue with mine, although not to the detriment of flavor or enjoyment.)

Cool before serving. I served mine with sliced apples and a cloud of whipped cream.

For Sale: A Hidden Trove of Correspondence With Bob Dylan


The papers of Tony Glover, "musician's musician" and journalist, include many other luminaries as well.

Tony Glover, in the estimation of at least one esteemed critic, was one of the best harmonica players in all Minneapolis, where an impressive folk music scene had emerged by the 1960s. “I couldn’t play like Glover or anything and I didn’t try to. I played mostly like Woody Guthrie and that was about it,” wrote fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan in Chronicles: Volume 1, his 2004 memoir. “Glover’s playing was well known and talked about around town, but nobody commented on mine.”

It wasn’t long, of course, before Dylan skipped town for New York City, and we all know how that went. For many years, however, the famously enigmatic star sustained an unusually close relationship with Glover, who stayed behind in Minneapolis, and was not only an admired blues musician but also an accomplished music journalist. Before he passed away in 2019, Glover cultivated a substantial and highly personalized collection of Dylaniana, principally correspondence between the two that cast the legend in a more intimate (though still highly idiosyncratic) light. Some 169 items from Glover’s archives, extending well beyond Dylan to other giants of classic blues and rock, will hit the block at Boston’s RR Auction in November 2020. At press time, the highest bid (over $10,000) belonged to a book of poetry signed by its author—The Doors’ Jim Morrison—inscribed “to Tony Glover.” Other major signatures in the collection come from Jack Kerouac, Patti Smith, and Joan Baez, to name a few.


Second in the bidding, behind the Morrison book, is a January 1962 letter to Glover handwritten by Dylan upon a recent arrival in New York. “Hey hey hey it’s me writing you a letter,” begins the note from the future Nobel laureate. “Back now in that city and thinking of all that whistling harmonica music you are making back there in that dungeon hole gets me thinking and talking to my good girlfriend about the harp player I knowed—I looked high and wide and uptown and downtown for that book you wanted and I feel so bad, I can't find it,” Dylan continues, sadly without naming the elusive book. After discussing some gigs and financial woes, Dylan concludes, “My girlfriend says that you don’t sign your full name to friends so—Me, Bob.” This is the kind of thing that simply sat in Glover’s archives for decades, a hidden glimpse behind a carefully crafted veil of celebrity.

“You just don’t see” handwritten letters from Dylan, says Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of RR Auction. “You just don’t see autobiographical details in Bob Dylan’s own handwriting”—handwritten lyrics aside. Even more rare than these letters is a recording and transcription of a 1971 interview Glover conducted with Dylan, intended for Esquire but ultimately never published. (Ironically, in light of this auction, lengthy snippets were printed 49 years later in Rolling Stone, in a piece by historian Douglas Brinkley.) In the interview, Dylan candidly discusses why he didn’t keep his birth name (Robert Zimmerman); his notorious performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where fans booed him for going electric; and the comparative merits of George Harrison and John Lennon. Most enticingly and decidedly on-brand, Dylan himself picked up a pen and edited the transcript of his own remarks. On one page, which Livingston calls “a piece of art,” Dylan crosses out an entire section and simply writes, “It’s not real.” On another, he corrects his own lengthy self-assessment with a pithy, classically Dylanesque suggestion: “My work is a moving thing.”


As was Glover’s. His wife, Cynthia Nadler, met him in the 1990s, when these rock 'n' roll adventures were in “the ancient past.” Glover, still working as a musician, rarely spoke of his famous friends. If it came up naturally in conversation, she says, he might share that he’d played harmonica onstage with the Allman Brothers Band, but he was otherwise busy making his own new music. (She recommends "Elegy #2" and "Uncertain Blues," both from Ashes in My Whiskey, for unacquainted listeners.) She didn’t know about much of the Dylaniana in her own home until after Glover died. Some of it, inconspicuously stored in boxes, could easily have been thrown away if she hadn’t taken a closer look.

And it's a good thing Nadler lifted those lids. Glover, Livingston explains, belonged to that first generation of college-aged students, in the 1960s, who began to engage with and revive an older folk blues tradition from the American South. Indeed, included in this collection is a letter from the bluesman Brownie McGhee, describing his collaborator Sonny Terry, whom Glover was researching. It’s work like that that helped bridge McGhee’s generation with Glover and Dylan’s. And it will be vital for what Livingston calls “the next bridge” following in their wake.

Georgia's Love-Hate Relationship With Joseph Stalin


The Soviet leader's home country is a battleground for dueling interpretations of history.

In the corner of her house museum in Gori, Georgia, 77-year-old Nazi Stepanishvili sits at a meeting point of the religious and the revolutionary. To her right are images of the Georgian saints, crowned with golden haloes. To her left are portraits of Joseph Stalin, the Georgian-born autocrat who presided over the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953. Where they meet above her head, an image of a young Stalin, dressed in white and depicted as an Orthodox saint, stares out.

“I’m a believer and a communist,” explains Stepanishvili. These images are part of a collection of Stalin memorabilia she has collected from around the globe over the past 30 years. “If I have money, I always invest in Stalin’s items,” she says. “I may not buy medicines or bread, but I’m going to buy Stalin’s things. I feel like the richest person because I have what I love. This is my wealth.”

More than 60 years after Stalin’s death, he is still venerated by many in Georgia, formerly known as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Here in his hometown of Gori, four statues of the “man of steel” stand in public venues, his name graces the main avenue, and a centrally located museum—better described as a shrine—uncritically celebrates his legacy. The museum uses a collection of relics to depict him as a secular saint, and a small, easily overlooked corner is the only testament to the crimes he committed. The place is visited by hordes of tourists every year.


Gori is a battleground for dueling interpretations of history. In 2010, under cover of night, the pro-Western government of Georgia removed the largest Stalin statue in the city, sparking local backlash. The following year, the Georgian legislature passed a “Liberty Charter” banning the public display of totalitarian symbols. Recently, however, Stalin effigies have returned to Georgian villages, such as Zemo Alvani and Telavi. In Gori, local citizens supported by the Communist Party have repeatedly tried to reinstall the large Stalin statue in the city center, and have even funded the construction of a new pedestal. In this small country caught between a Soviet past and a potential future in the European Union, Stalin has become a kind of Rorschach test, a canvas onto which different generations project their diagnoses of the country’s ailments and prescriptions for its success.

Stalin is remembered by some older citizens as a local son, a powerful modernizer, and a crusader against fascism. “He’s our boy,” explains Mayor Konstantine Tavzarashvili, a lifelong Gori resident. To Georgians like him, Stalin lived the ultimate underdog story, rising from small-country origins to take control of a superpower. He is also respected as a leader who industrialized the region. “Stalin inherited a nearly medieval country and left it with nuclear weapons,” Tavarashvili says. Perhaps most importantly, says Stepanishvili, “Stalin kicked Hitler’s ass.” (Stalin’s forces decisively repulsed the Nazi invasion of the USSR and went on to invade Germany; approximately 26 million Soviets died in the process.) Each year on May 9, residents celebrate Victory Day by parading through the streets displaying communist and Stalinist symbols. Stepanishvili participates in the festivities and also celebrates Stalin’s birthday in December, when she traditionally kneels and drinks a toast to his portrait in her museum.


This image of Stalin is worlds away from the violence and tyranny he represents to many young Georgians. Nostalgia for the Soviet leader “has something to do with the pride that the big guy was born here—no matter whether the big guy was good or bad,” explains Elene Khoshtaria, a member of the Parliament of Georgia. Khoshtaria’s grandfather and his brother were both executed during the Great Purge of 1937–38, and other members of his family were shipped off to Siberia.

“Stalin was a dictator and should not be a role model for me or for anyone else,” says Janna Odiashvili, a tour guide who shows visitors the “other side of Gori.” She is quick to point out that Stalin’s regime executed and exiled thousands of Georgians, particularly the country’s cultural and political intelligentsia. Teona Panqvelashvili, an activist who fought against a 2015 campaign to return the Stalin statue to the city center, also condemns Stalin’s involvement in the creation of the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After Georgia gained independence from the USSR in 1991, these territories seceded from Georgia with Russian backing, sparking bloody ethnic conflicts and a new Russian occupation of the separatist regions.

Anti-Stalinists see the man as a symbol of ongoing Russian aggression against Georgia. “We are often asked, why are you fighting against Stalin? He’s a dead man,” says Panqvelashvili. “But we are not fighting against Stalin—we are fighting against Russian propaganda.” Khoshtaria, the MP, argues that Russia “wants all its neighbors to be under its influence,” and calls the Russian Federation “the biggest obstacle to Georgian statehood.” They see the deification of Stalin as part of a Russian campaign to influence Georgia.


Gori has been on the front lines of this conflict since at least 2008, when Russian forces bombed and then briefly occupied the city. Now, the surrounding areas house settlements of refugees evicted at gunpoint from their homes in neighboring South Ossetia. “In this city bombed in 2008 by the Russians, we should not have a main avenue named after Stalin,” says Panqvelashvili. She supports a campaign to rename Stalin Avenue for Maro Mamukashvili, a nurse who was killed when the Red Army invaded Georgia in 1921.

The older generation’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union seems to stem from a dissatisfaction with the present, and the memory of policies such as guaranteed employment and housing, along with relatively low prices. “I don’t like this government,” says Stepanishvili. “I don’t like the prices. It’s so expensive. I don’t like the injustice. We had a happy childhood.” Eighty-two-year-old Valeri Sukhishvili, the founder of a local university, also believes the past was more egalitarian. “Now everyone comes from their personal interests and neglects the common values,” Sukhushvili says, as he sits among bottles of Georgian wine and liquor emblazoned with Stalin’s visage. “I’m heartbroken that we achieved the independence that we were dreaming about for so long, and that we have not been able to build a country.”


The aging members of the Communist Party of Georgia meet every Saturday in a dingy side room near Stalin Avenue, watched over by a portrait of the man himself. They still hope to see his statue return to downtown Gori. “There are statues of Reagan, there are statues of [former Azerbaijani dictator Heydar] Aliyev. Why can we not have statues of Stalin? What did he do wrong?” Stepanishvili says.

On the other side of town, in brightly-lit campaign headquarters, young representatives of a pro-Western opposition party, the United National Movement, want the statue to remain lying face down in the weeds of the government facility, where it currently resides. That way, “people can go and see what history does to dictators,” says party official Ani Baliashvili. She also argues that his remaining statues should be removed from public spaces, and that the museum celebrating Stalin should instead commemorate his victims. Right now, there are no concrete plans to do either. When coronavirus restrictions are lifted and the borders reopen, Stalin’s museum will likely fill with tourists all over again.

Nina Vaxanski contributed reporting to this story.

In Sydney, a Cafe Serving Aboriginal Food Brings Comfort and Challenges


Nyoka Hrabinsky, an Aboriginal ethnobotanist, is turning “bush tucker” into brunch.

For Nyoka Hrabinsky, growing up in Queensland, Australia, “bush tucker” was a delicious part of everyday life. Of the native foods that have sustained Aboriginal communities for millennia, “wallaby was my favorite. Swamp turtle was my other favorite,” she says. A member of the Yidindji people, Hrabinsky grew up “on country”—in her community’s traditional land—watching her elders, learning to cook game, and harvesting the sour fruit of Australia’s native Davidson plum.

Now an ethnobotanist, Hrabinsky researches indigenous plants at the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre. At the same time, she shares the flavors of her childhood, as well as those of Aboriginal communities across the continent, at the Lillipad Cafe in Sydney, which she owns with her husband, Laszio Hrabinsky.

The cafe’s menu showcases native Australian ingredients in classic brunch dishes. Favorites include bacon and eggs drizzled with a Davidson plum syrup and house-made muesli with cinnamon myrtle, macadamia nuts, and wattleseed. Wattleseed, harvested from acacia trees, brings an “earthy, chocolatey, hazelnut” flavor, says Hrabinsky, while cinnamon myrtle is a native plant with spice-scented leaves. Another favorite is the gangurru burger, made of kangaroo meat seasoned with wattleseed, pepperleaf (an aromatic herb), saltbush (a native plant that secretes salt in its leaves), bush tomato relish, and finger lime mayonnaise. Using the word “gangurru” rather than “kangaroo” was a conscious choice: it’s the Guugu Yimithirr word for the animal, which British colonists heard and misinterpreted in 1770 as “kangaroo.”


The Lillipad Cafe is one of a handful of indigenous-owned cafes and eateries increasingly bringing native flavors into the Australian mainstream. Restaurateurs such as Hrabinsky, Yvette Lever of the Tin Humpy Cafe, and Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo, a caterer and founder of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence’s hospitality training program, are on a mission to educate the broader public about Australia’s native foods while passing on traditional knowledge to indigenous youth.

“When we’re in school, we get taught about Captain Cook,” the first recorded European to land on the Australian continent, says Lever. In focusing on indigenous flavors, Lever says she’s helping bring Aboriginal Australians back into Australia’s European-centered historical narrative through the “indigenous foods, flavors, and tastes of our lands.” As part of this effort, Lever hosts indigenous youth nights at Tin Humpy and sells work by Aboriginal artists. Van-Oploo, meanwhile, trains indigenous chefs, who help her create high-concept cuisine with native Australian ingredients such as pepperberry-seared kangaroo carpaccio and crocodile ravioli.

For Hrabinsky, preserving indigenous cuisine requires restoring Aboriginal peoples’ relationship to traditional foodways and ecosystems. As a student, she studied horticulture, then worked as a park ranger. But she felt disconnected from the community. “When I was a ranger, I didn’t really get to work with a lot of traditional owners on their land,” says Hrabinsky. (Traditional owners are the indigenous residents and stewards of specific regions across Australia.) “For me, it just didn’t quite fill the hole inside.”


That hole came, partially, from the legacy of European colonial genocide that forced generations of Aboriginal Australians from their homelands. For over 200 years, European invaders barred Aboriginal Australians from their traditional cultivation practices and kidnapped indigenous children to place them in white homes. “Growing up in aboriginal communities can be really tough, because there’s a lot of trauma,” says Hrabinsky.

While Hrabinsky grew up speaking a mixture of English and Kokoberra, a language local to what is now Queensland, not all indigenous Australians were able to maintain their ancestral connections. “Our language was demolished,” says Van-Oploo, a Gamilaroi elder, who says she only knows a few Gamilaroi words. The ongoing emotional, spiritual, and economic trauma caused by the loss of land and culture have resulted in persistent poverty and alarming rates of incarceration among indigenous Australians.

Hrabinsky was determined to break this traumatic cycle. So she joined the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre as a research assistant and mentee of Gerry Turpin, a Mbabaram man and an elder in Australian ethnobotany. Working with Turpin, Hrabinsky discovered a more healing approach to land management, one that foregrounded indigenous sovereignty. Unlike much of Western scientific exploration, Turpin, Hrabinsky, and other TIEC partners only enter traditional lands with permission, and they base their projects on the needs of the community. “We go on country to store traditional knowledge, but it’s only if the traditional owners want to share that knowledge with us,” says Hrabinsky.


The pair’s work includes conducting botanical surveys of native plant species. Over the last few years, Hrabinsky has worked with traditional owners in Cape York, Australia’s northernmost peninsula, to map ecosystems and record local knowledge about native plants. Because of the forced alienation from indigenous knowledge, the groups Hrabinsky works with sometimes have lost traditional plant names, as well as information about their usage. Hrabinsky and Turpin do archival research, using field notes from early colonial encounters with indigenous Australians, to recover knowledge that has been subsequently lost, and give it back to the people who created it.

Meanwhile, at the Lillipad, she shares this botanical heritage with visitors from all backgrounds in the form of playful dishes. The eatery is the sister restaurant of a cafe in the northern Australian city of Cairns, where Laszio worked while Hrabinsky pursued her career. The owner of the original cafe was not indigenous, and the menu didn’t emphasize indigenous flavors. A few years ago, however, the owner offered to support the couple in establishing a second Lillipad location in Sydney. They accepted the offer, but added their own indigenous twist to the menu in order to fill what they perceived as a lack of native-inspired dining.

“We tried looking around for indigenous places to eat, and either it’s expensive fancy restaurants or nothing at all. We really want to make it accessible for everyone,” Laszio says.


In recent years, as businesses such as Lillipad have thrived, non-indigenous Australians and international tourists have grown ever more interested in bush tucker-inspired meals. But colonial attitudes toward traditional cuisine remain.

These attitudes came to a head on January 25, 2020 at the Lillipad Cafe, when Hrabinsky and Laszio introduced their kangaroo burger. The date was meant to coincide with the January 26 holiday marking Britain’s declaration of sovereignty over the eastern Australian seaboard. “Westerners would call it Australia Day,” says Hrabinsky. “But we like to remember it as Invasion Day, because it’s not a very nice memory for First Nations people.” The couple had spent months developing the burger, even consulting Van-Oploo in the process.

Soon after the burger was unveiled, however, a non-indigenous, vegan customer took offense. At the time, wildfires were raging through Australia, killing over one billion animals, including many kangaroos. The customer claimed that serving kangaroo was therefore irresponsible and unsustainable, and a wave of complaints surfaced against the cafe online.


Yet these complaints were unsupported. Kangaroos are actually at risk of overpopulation, with many culled every year. The Hrabinskys had sourced their kangaroo with care and consultation with traditional owners. To Hrabinsky—and to the many vegans and sustainable food advocates who came to her defense—the critique was a bitter reminder of a colonial legacy stigmatizing Aboriginal culture and food. “The kangaroo thing is an example of people lacking knowledge about traditional food,” Hrabinsky says. “It became quite a racial thing.”

But the Lillipad didn’t back down. The gangurru burger still enjoys pride of place on the cafe’s menu, a reflection of the thousands of indigenous Australians who continue to rely on the animal as a staple food.

Whether she’s helping fellow indigenous people preserve botanical knowledge through her field research or putting wattleseed on salads at the Lillipad Cafe, Hrabinsky feels the same thing: a sense of connection to her community’s past, and the hope that she can be a vehicle for a brighter future. “It’s filling a hole in my heart,” she says. “And it’s giving back to my people.”

How Berlin Is Reckoning With Germany's Colonial Past


It starts with renaming streets and landmarks, but will take much more than that.

It’s difficult to imagine today what colonial, Prussian-era Berlin looked like, as one walks around the city’s central district, now dominated by the block-shaped architecture of the old East Germany. But that’s exactly what activists and community organizers are trying to get people to do, to see Germany as it was when the country was among the 13 European colonial powers, plus the United States, that carved up Africa among themselves. The site of Otto von Bismarck’s office and residence is on Wilhelmstraße, and it's where the man called the Iron Chancellor opened the Berlin Conference in November 1884. It was there that, in just a little more than three months, most of the borders that still divide Africa today were decided.

Brandenburger Tor is a commanding presence of old Berlin, the famed gate built in the 18th century by order of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II, whose name marks a street that runs perpendicular to the monument. It’s a popular spot for tour groups, as a gateway to other notable Berlin landmarks: Tiergarten, a lush park filled with statues and monuments dedicated to figures such as Goethe and Beethoven, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a five-minute walk south. The city is also overlaid with a number of statues, plaques, and street names that conjure a more overlooked aspect of its past: colonialism. This history is still widely unknown: not taught in schools, lacking significant memorials. But in recent years, there has been a strong push from activists, organizers, and historians to change this.


Bill is a journalist and historian who’s lived in Berlin for almost 20 years. He’s using a pseudonym so he doesn’t draw negative attention from German funding bodies for his critical Anti-Colonial Berlin tour—one example of the city’s activist push to present a more complete picture of its past. He begins the tour at Brandenburger Tor by highlighting some of the lesser-known but prominent Afro-German figures of the anticolonial movement. They lived and worked in the country at a time that is often portrayed as overwhelmingly white, underscoring the idea that individuals and socioeconomic movements had been working to dismantle colonialism since its inception.

Bill talks about people such as George Padmore, who was born Malcolm Ivan Meredith Nurse in Trinidad. A Pan-Africanist writer, activist, and communist, he is among the figures who confronts the myth of a racially and politically monolithic German history. Padmore had joined the Communist Party when he moved to the United States in the 1920s, before relocating to Hamburg in 1931, where he cofounded the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers.

“Black workers from all over the world could fight together in Africa, in the European diaspora, in the New World,” Bill says. “They even published an international newspaper called The Negro Worker, which was based out of Hamburg.”

Padmore fled Germany after his offices were ransacked by ultra-nationalist gangs in 1933, during the rise of the Nazism. He eventually went on to become a theorist of the African independence movement, and later advised Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of an independent Ghana.


While Germany may not have had as many colonies or subjects as Britain, France, and Belgium, it did participate in the trade, ownership, and genocide of enslaved people, in places such as Groß Friedrichsburg, a Brandenburg-Prussian trading post based in the Gold Coast (Ghana). From that fort, Germany traded nearly 30,000 enslaved people to the Americas, before the site was sold to the Dutch West India Trading Company in 1717.

Germany’s role in colonialism, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is often overshadowed by the Holocaust. But that wasn’t the first genocide of the 20th century—that took place in Namibia, formerly known as German South West Africa. From 1904 to 1908, an estimated 75,000 Herero and Nama people were shot, starved, tortured, and died in the world’s first death camp, on Shark Island. There, German colonial forces exterminated 80 percent and 50 percent of those ethnic groups, respectively. It was an atrocity for which the German government recently offered €10 million in compensation, while also announcing a €600 million expenditure to reconstruct the palace of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prussian imperial leader ultimately responsible for the genocide.

“The connection between the genocide in Namibia and the Holocaust is interesting on a lot of levels,” says Bill, in front of a building on Wilhelmstraße where the office and residence of Bismarck once stood. “On the one hand, there’s a lot of personal continuity,” he says. “A lot of people who orchestrated the Namibian genocide later played a role during the Nazi regime. They got their start working in colonial expeditions.”

Tiffany Florvil, a cultural historian of 20th-century Germany and author of Mobilizing Black Germany, sees that continuity as well. “They don’t recognize that the architects of the Holocaust, [people such as] Eugen Fischer, are talking about the Nama and Herero people in degrading and derogatory ways that were then later applied to Jews. He was a big honcho pushing his pseudo-scientist views to propel Nazi ideology to justify the exclusion and then the extermination of Jews.”


In fact, Fischer, an anthropologist, went to Namibia to study phrenology, the debunked science that used skull size to draw conclusions about psychological and intellectual differences between ethnic groups. Not only were more than 3,000 Herero and Nama skulls sent to Germany for study at universities, sold as keepsakes, or displayed in museums, but many of them were boiled, cleaned, and prepared by Herero and Nama people themselves.

“The creepy thing is that it’s a very small minority of these skulls that ended up in [museum] collections,” says Bill, on the way to the tour’s final stop. “Untold numbers ended up in people’s attics and private collections. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to be cleaning out grandpa’s attic and to find a human skull just lying around.”

Rather than spurning colonizers such as Fischer, Berlin’s “African Quarter” in Wedding, a neighborhood with a high concentration of Black residents, honors them with street names. Lüderitzstraße, for example, is named for Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz, the founder of German South West Africa (Namibia). Nachtigalplatz is named for Gustav Nachtigal, the founder of the German colonies in Togo and Cameroon. And Petersallee is named for German Imperial High Commissioner Carl Peters, founder of former German East Africa, now Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania. The latter used local girls as concubines, destroyed whole villages, and routinely hung rebellious locals for treason. After his monstrous activities were made public in 1896 by socialist politician August Bebel, he was dishonorably relieved of his position, but evaded a final sentence by relocating to London.

“[Peters] was recalled from his post and left in disgrace,” says Bill. “I cannot emphasize this enough, not for committing mass murder, but because of his personal behavior while committing mass murder.”

Wedding isn’t the only place with colonial monuments. A 26-page document compiled by AfricAvenir International, a Berlin-based nonprofit, reveals dozens more, all over the city—from Wissmannstraße, named after colonial administrator Hermann Wissmann in Neukölln, to Otto von Bismarck Platz, Allee, and Straße, to Takustraße, which commemorates Germany’s even lesser known colonial expeditions in Asia. Tahir Della, of the nonprofits Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland and Decolonize Berlin e.V., is one of numerous Afro-German people who are currently fighting to change that.

For years, Della and countless others have been pushing to change these racist street names and advocating for a public acknowledgement of the country’s colonial past. The former has seen some recent success. The latter presents a bigger challenge.

Lüderitzstraße will soon be named after Cornelius Frederiks, a Namibian resistance fighter, Nachtigalplatz will be named after Cameroonian King Rudolf Magna Bell, and Petersallee will be split up and given two new names, one for Namibian independence fighter Anna Mungunda and the second to Maji-Maji-Allee, after the Maji-Maji Rebellion, which took place in the early 20th century in what was then German East Africa.

“These are things people didn’t even think about five or 10 years ago,” says Della. “But we’re past the point of no return now.”

He believes that Germany’s current attitudes, institutions, and structures are built upon a legacy of racism that most Germans simply don’t know anything about, which he finds frustrating, because it’s a history that continues to support racism and disenfranchise Black people living in Germany today.


“This [ignorance] is a continuation of history, from colonialism, to fascism, and modern times. It’s very important to bring these things together,” he says. “Without the concentration camps in Namibia, Germany could not have imagined the Holocaust. They are connected.”

Perhaps the biggest indication of a shift in public attitude happened in August 2020, when the Mitte district council announced that it would finally rename Mohrenstraße or “Moor Street” (commonly abbreviated to M-Strasse) to Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße, after the Afro-Prussian noble of the same name, who was born in Ghana and sold into slavery before becoming Germany’s first Black scholar.

It’s a start, but Decolonize Berlin e.V. says that it’s not enough, and not a truly critical examination of Germany’s colonial past. That’s why the city of Berlin has now agreed to fund a city-wide project to encourage this reflection through education, memorials, and events, scheduled to run through 2021.

“We need decentralized memorials all over Germany and Europe to confront people, but also to make it visible, so that people can access [that history]. The Stolpersteine is a good example,” he says, referring to the project that has placed thousands of brass pavers into footpaths throughout European countries such as Germany, Norway, and Czechia in front of the homes from which the Nazis forced people, including Jews, Sinti, Roma, and homosexuals. “These [anti-colonial] memorials should be all over Berlin.”


Della wants their project to offer a stark contrast to colonial memorials all over the city, showing what many hope to be a more complete picture of Germany’s history, one that honors the suffering and resistance that is just as much a part of the country’s story.

Florvil would like to see some of Berlin’s colonial landmarks renamed to honor more of the Afro-German activist women as well, such as Katharina Oguntoye and Marion Kraft, who have fought and continue to fight for greater awareness.

“There are countless women in the movement who have done amazing things,” she says. “Seeing that on a street corner has so much significance on a variety of levels. That would be so symbolic for many people.”

While a tour isn’t enough to decolonize a massive city, it does represent a resource in the ongoing spatial politics of race, history, and the path that Germany claims it wants to take toward a more inclusive society.

“To decolonize this city means acknowledging that whiteness is not the norm,” says Florvil. “To challenge the status quo of European representation, it means a reckoning with colonialism, a reckoning with the legacies, and erasing whiteness from a landscape that’s been constructed as white even though it's never been completely white.”

Found: The Jousting Yard Where Henry VIII Took a Nasty Tumble


Researchers have located the site of an accident that rattled England’s many-wived widower.

A short ferry ride east of London, a picturesque lawn welcomes visitors to the sprawling grounds of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. At night, a bright green beam of light projects over the lawn, illuminating the Prime Meridian from the Greenwich Observatory up the hill. Five hundred years ago, this scene looked quite different. Back then, the lawn was a tiltyard, a rectangular field used for jousting and comprised of layered plaster and gravel, topped with sand and split down the middle by a wooden barrier called a tilt. The jousting ground was a little larger than Trafalgar Square, and King Henry VIII regularly competed there, until a bout in January 1536 ended with the king thrown to the ground and unable to speak for two hours.

The tiltyard was long thought to be on a particular portion of the property on the basis of some Tudor bricks found there in the 19th century, while a rail tunnel was dug under Greenwich. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Greenwich has pinpointed the precise location of the yard and the remains of the structures that surrounded it—about 300 feet east of where they expected to find it, and six feet below the modern-day grass.


The team was led by Simon Withers, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Greenwich, who happened upon the research project at a rather fancy party he wasn’t keen on attending. There, Withers was introduced to Jane Sidell, an archaeologist and the Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Historic England, who suggested he have a look for the yard from the Tudor-era palace. “It's just one of those things,” says Withers. “You go to the wrong drinks and end up finding a palace.”

Today, the tiltyard—the first permanent one in England—is adjacent to the Queen’s House, the country’s first Palladian building. But in 1536, the jousting ground was a focal point among several structures—a banqueting house, a theater (aptly called the ‘disguising house’), and the armory, all now gone—that made Greenwich Palace, where both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born, one of the king’s favorite residences. (The tiltyard was a major basis for its appeal, too: One year, Henry hosted his Christmas party out there, according to a 16th-century historian.)


Using ground-penetrating radar, Withers’s team searched for the wooden barrier that splits a tiltyard and prevented jousting opponents from colliding as they sought to knock each other off their mounts. That may have been picked up by the radar, though excavations would be needed to confirm it. But running the equipment (which looks like a lawn mower from “The Jetsons”) over the lawn, the team found other evidence: an octagonal foundation, which they believe is the base of one of the two viewing towers that once presided over the ground. The radar survey also picked up evidence of another near-circular foundation—possibly the southern viewing tower, a 19th-century structure from the Royal Naval School—as well as backfilled bomb craters from the Second World War and several structures that weren’t in the architectural records the team consulted.

“The survival of remains of one of the tiltyard towers was known, but the radar survey has shown up tantalizing glimpses of additional structures, although it's not possible to date them with certainty,” writes Sidell in an email. “The towers were significant, brick-built structures, several storeys in height, for the privileged members of the court to watch the jousting.”


Bluff King Hal’s injuries and tumbles have long fascinated scholars, some of whom attribute the king’s stark behavioral changes (and a mightily wounded ego) to a jousting mishap. In 2016, a team of neurologists from Yale University revisited documents pertaining to the king’s health and pointed to several moments when grievous head injuries may have occurred. Two were jousting incidents, including one in 1536: The 45-year-old monarch sustained a particularly dicey injury when he fell off his armored horse in the tiltyard, and then the horse fell on him.

Afterwards, the king was said to be “without speech,” which the researchers took to mean knocked out. That reading is somewhat controversial—but if it's right, speechlessness would have been an ominous sign. “When you’re trying to gauge how severe and injury is, how long someone is unconscious determines how severe the head injury is,” says Arash Salardini, a cognitive and behavioral neurologist now at UT Health, San Antonio, and a co-author of the 2016 paper.

After the injury, Henry’s attitude shifted—he became forgetful, and would abruptly fly into fits of rage. Of course, it’s difficult to map behavioral changes in a king who died nearly 500 years before modern medicine, who had plenty of stress on his plate in procreating an heir and running the country, and generally wasn’t the most benevolent ruler throughout his life. Moreover, “he was a bit killy-killy before the accident, so it's not fair to say it completely changed him,” Withers says. “One thing that definitely happened is that his leg ulcerated and moving and walking became difficult.”


It also may have left him feeling a little vulnerable. “What can be overlooked in this, I think, is the way in which the fall might have affected Henry emotionally,” writes Joanne Paul, a historian at the University of Sussex and an expert on early modern England, in an email. “He had always been proud and confident, as young, healthy men with power and privilege often can be,” Paul continues, noting that the fall may have unlocked “a desire to overcompensate and a sensitivity about his masculinity and mortality.”

Whatever happened in Henry’s head may never be fully known. But now, the place where it happened has been found—and these days in Greenwich, there’s no more horsing around.

What I Learned About a Pioneering Black Cookbook Author by Cooking Her Recipes


Little is known about the first African-American woman to publish a cookbook.

The author's book of poetry about Malinda Russell, Grimoire, was published in September 2020.

From the moment I held the reprint of Mrs. Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cookbook: Containing A Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, I was smitten. The 39-page volume is the first known cookbook written by a Black woman: Russell was born in eastern Tennessee to a mother whose family had been freed in Virginia, and, during the Civil War, left behind her pastry shop as she fled to Michigan, where she wrote A Domestic Cookbook. An original copy, which was rediscovered by culinary curator Janice Bluestein Longone, resides in the University of Michigan’s Clements Library.

Beyond a scant autobiographical prelude, though, we know few details about Russell’s life, which is sadly common. Faced with incomplete archives, many scholars, writers, and artists have invented creative means to envision the world of underrepresented, “minor” subjects. Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals blends factual analysis and narrative nonfiction to paint a textured portrait of the unsung and overlooked. Captivated by Russell’s unique story, I scoured her recipes for clues and prepared them in the same way blogger-turned-bestselling-author Julie Powell cooked through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My desire to recover her distinctive voice and fill in archival gaps inspired Grimoire, my poetry collection that is also a conversation between Russell and a 21st-century mother and cook.

African-American cookbooks are a tremendous resource for communicating the experiences of everyday Black life across time. Writers such as Russell and Abby Fisher, the author of What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, etc (1881), confirm that Black cooks were far more than support staff for their white employers, many of whom wrote cookbooks claiming or misrepresenting their recipes. When I first encountered sepia images of Russell’s pages in Toni Tipton Martin’s The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, I wondered: Who was her audience? Are the “ladies” she refers to her white clients, or other free women of color? And who was Fannie Steward, the Black cook who trained her?


We may never fully know the answers to these questions, but the recipes in A Domestic Cookbook offer a rare and tasty glimpse into the life of a free Black woman entrepreneur before and after the Civil War. Russell’s oeuvre is surprisingly continental. Few of her dishes resemble Southern cuisine or recipes typically credited with African or African American influences, such as peach cobbler or sweet potato pie. Russell likely catered to the taste of white families with disposable income and aspirational taste. Although she modeled her style after Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824), a popular cookbook that emphasized household organization, she added her own flair. Perhaps she took private delight in including recipes for blanc mange, a custard similar to a panna cotta, and a Charlotte Russe cake, a complex French confection created in the 1820s. Contemporary cooks recommend assembling this no-bake cake from prefab ladyfingers, but Russell’s recipe, one of the longest in her book, requires chilling the Bavarian cream in the snow.

Russell takes for granted a moderate level of expertise. Some recipes are simply a list of ingredients reading like a technical challenge from The Great British Bake Off. A novice wouldn’t know where to begin when faced with a one-sentence recipe for “Bride’s Cake” that calls for 24 eggs beaten to a stiff froth and baked with “gradual heat.” The “receipts,” as she calls them (using an archaic word for recipes), include an extensive assortment of cakes, puddings, sweet breads, and cordials; a few extravagant main dishes such as “Potted Beef” or “Calf’s Head Soup”; and preserved fruits, pickled veggies, and medicinal elixirs to soothe common ailments. (Early cookbooks often contained home remedies for rheumatism, toothaches, or hair-coloring.)

In my attempts to revive her creations, I stuck to the sweets. I see myself as more of a baker than a cook: an inheritance from my maternal grandmother, Hattie Cochran, who taught her two daughters some, but not all, of her secrets. My mother can replicate her seafood gumbo from a three-page, hand-written recipe. But the scrumptious, savory dumplings in her chicken stew? Impossible. Monkey bread baked in a Bundt pan? No dice. Like the scattered family histories of many of slavery’s descendants, these are lost recipes.


Recipes, like certain poems, are often comprised by imperatives: take this, whisk that, or add a generous pinch. Underlying the instructions is a veiled threat: If you deviate, you may not get what you want. Russell raises more questions than she answers. Tucked in between directions for “Graham Cakes” and “Mrs. Roe’s Cream Pie,” she advises: “first heat the oven hot enough for cooking, set in my cake, and open the door; and for a common sized cake leave the door open for about fifteen minutes, and for a large one about twenty minutes. When the cake begins to raise, close the door.” My gas oven’s temperature fluctuates wildly. If I followed Russell’s lead, the results could be disastrous. Still, her sparse invectives leave room for improvisation. Her invitation to open the oven was a dare I couldn’t resist.

Ultimately, my recipe re-ups had uneven results—my cake had the density of sweet bread—but I painted a fuller, permanent portrait of her life through poetry. In a poem about how dessert can be a salve for separated lovers, titled “Things to do with Ginger,” I remixed “Soft Ginger Cake” as “Sponge Cake soaked in coconut rum spangled with shards of crystallized ginger.” Another poem, “Liberian Ballad,” recreates her courtship with Anderson Vaughan, her husband of four years, against a backdrop of African repatriation. At 19, she planned to emigrate to Liberia, where she hoped to become a “valuable citizen.” During the Civil War and Reconstruction, thanks to the efforts of the African Colonization Society, a subset of African Americans returned to the African continent. Russell was brave enough to attempt an Atlantic crossing, but abandoned her travel plans following a robbery. I imaginatively transport Russell and her new husband into the pastoral vista of the promised land portrayed in Augustus Washington’s landscape View of Monrovia from the Anchorage (1856). The ballad is the perfect form for their abridged romance. Instead of beginning a new life in Liberia, Russell ended up in Michigan as a widow with a young son to support.

We have no idea how her husband died, but we can grasp her desperation. Making her way across Union lines in the midst of the Civil War was incredibly dangerous. On her journey, Russell recounts being “attacked several times.” In my poem “The Robbery,” I highlight her tenacity as she outwits a “guerrilla party” by hiding her “hard-earned wages” in her petticoats. Despite her free status, as woman of African descent, Russell’s civil rights were not recognized by U.S. courts. The 1857 Dred Scott decision confirmed that the protections and privileges of U.S. citizenship did not apply to Black Americans. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act encouraged entrapment of freedmen and women without regard for their papers, like Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave.

Once she arrived in Paw Paw, Michigan, with her disabled son, it took gumption to decide to publish a cookbook. Each page of A Domestic Cookbook reflects her resourcefulness and conviction. We can’t trace how many copies she sold, but we believe her when she tells us that “a great many ladies have wished to know how I have such good success making my cakes so light.” Writing Grimoire was also an act of faith. Would these poems, spun from autobiographical slivers, express emotional, if not factual, truths? By recording and publishing her recipes, Russell had the audacity to envision a future in which Black women would create and improvise with confidence. I sought to capture her adventurous spirit, the urgency of balancing her own desires with the needs of her son, and the breadth of the cosmopolitan palate displayed in A Domestic Cookbook.


Tracing Russell’s journey complicates easy assumptions about the lives of early African Americans. Race and gender rendered her a non-person in the 19th century, and yet she managed to communicate with authority. Koritha Mitchell writes about how Black women have had to rely on “homemade citizenship” in the face of what she calls “know your place aggression.” Russell applied the same aptitude used to perfect her culinary skills to negotiate a place for herself in an inhospitable nation. Despite the loss of a thriving business, she reinvented herself as an author. In sharing her knowledge, she shrewdly hoped to sustain a life for herself and her son.

Following Russell’s instructions more than 150 years after she published A Domestic Cookbook, I honor her labor and realize the courage it took to claim a place for herself as a professional. Adapting and sharing her “receipts” was a generative process that expanded my creative and culinary repertoire. Resurrecting Russell’s dishes through poetry allows me to sample an edible past and recover a culinary legacy that extends beyond the kitchen.

See America's National Parks—Before They Were National Parks


Landscape photography like this helped create the National Park system.

In 1861, photographer Carleton E. Watkins lugged his custom-made oversized camera, designed to shoot on unusually large glass plate negatives, measuring 18 by 22 inches, to Yosemite in California. It was roughly 2,000 pounds of photography equipment that went with him, on the backs of mules, through the challenging terrain. His “mammoth” photos, using a difficult wet-collodion process, of such wonders as El Capitan, Mariposa Grove, and Cathedral Rocks, revealed an exquisite bit of Eden to viewers, especially those on the East Coast. “These earliest photographs of Yosemite resulted in a body of work that was to shape one of the early acts of environmentalism in U.S. policy,” writes Bob Ahern, Getty Images’ Director of Archive Photography, in an email. It was believed that the images of Yosemite influenced President Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864, which protected the land to “be held for public use, resort, and recreation,” and would lay the foundation of the country’s National Park System.


Over the years, Watkins returned to Yosemite seven times to photograph its grandeur, and his distinctive images won him international acclaim and awards. A fire at his studio during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, however, destroyed most of his work. But a part of Watkins's legacy lies in a drawer of the Getty Images Archive. “With enlargers not being developed until much later, the set of [Watkins’s] photographs now preserved at our Archive are original contact prints—prints produced in direct contact with the [glass] negative,” says Ahern. “And through this process Watkins has skillfully and artfully distilled the sublime beauty of Yosemite into just 18 by 22 inches of gold-toned albumen print.”


Yosemite National Park celebrates its 130th anniversary in 2020. As Watkins’s photos influenced the future of Yosemite, Ahern believes landscape photography can have a real world impact—one that is even more important today. “Photography has the power to inspire change in terms of how we treat our environment and for this reason, has never been more critical," he says. "As the world faces unprecedented challenges around climate change, I cannot think of a more pressing time to photograph our impact on the natural environment.”

Here are other alluring views—by a number of other photographers—of natural wonders that would eventually become part of the U.S. National Park system.


There Are Way More Copies of Newton's Masterwork Than Anyone Thought


A new global census doubles the number of known copies of the scientist's treatise on gravity and more.

The impact of Isaac Newton’s scientific work is legendary today, and now it appears that his groundbreaking treatise of 1687 reached a wider audience during his own time than was previously thought. The tome, known as the Principia, transformed human understanding of celestial and terrestrial forces, providing a mathematical basis for the movement of planets, moons, and comets, as well as objects on Earth. A new archival census has more than doubled the known number of first editions of the book, including the first ones located in Asia.

“The Principia is perhaps one of the three most revolutionary books of ideas in the last 500 years, the others being those by Darwin and Einstein,” says Mordechai Feingold, coauthor of a paper on the effort, published in the Annals of Science, and a science historian at the California Institute of Technology. “Newton was the first one who basically managed to unify the celestial and terrestrial fields under a single law—the law of universal gravitation.”

Nearly 200 first editions of the Principia were newly identified in the survey, bringing the total known number to 386. The volumes cover 27 countries on five continents, including Africa and Australia, with many residing in the libraries of major universities or in national libraries. (The authors hope that the census, which they deem preliminary, will draw out more private owners of early editions.)


Nine copies turned up in Japan, likely the result of 20th-century book collectors and scholars acquiring them, says census coauthor Andrej Svorenčík. He was surprised to discover a copy in his home country of Slovakia, in a library full of rare books, and another in the library of a Swedish high school founded in the 16th century. “I have so far found only one castle library with a copy,” he notes—the opulent Nové Hrady chateau in Czechia—a onetime private collection that is now state property.

Until now, the size of the Principia’s first edition had been thought to be small—around 250—based on a 1953 census that put the number of copies at 189. That figure partly reflects a long-held notion that the book, formally titled the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), was virtually incomprehensible outside of a small circle of expert mathematicians. But the new census suggests that the hefty volume, at 500 pages and written in Latin, may have had a broader audience.

“We want to mitigate the notion that this is a book nobody read,” says Feingold. He and Svorenčík now estimate that the first-edition run numbered between 500 and 600 copies.

Behind the pages of the Principia, in which Newton laid out his three laws of motion, is an intriguing history that involves the astronomer Edmond Halley and other eminent figures. Most famous today for the comet that bears his name, Halley sought Newton’s input on the shape of planetary orbits, a question that Halley and his colleagues had been puzzling over. Excited by Newton’s answer (an ellipse), and even more so by a paper he later sent to show his calculations, Halley pushed Newton to write the Principia, then funded its publication and was key to promoting it. (Newton’s work enabled Halley to accurately predict that a comet observed in 1682, 1607, and 1531 would return in 1758. It did.)

After seeing the book through the printing process, Halley sent Newton—then at the University of Cambridge—20 copies, “bound in calves’ leather,” to share. Halley also took it upon himself to present copies to influential people, including England’s King James II, Royal Society President Samuel Pepys, and German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who is commonly credited to have co-invented calculus at the same time as Newton. A copy also likely went to Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and a respected astronomer and mathematician.

With time, copies of the Principia (which Newton revised for a second edition in 1713 and a third edition in 1726) traveled beyond the spheres of science and learning in Europe. “In the 19th century, early copies arrived in South Africa and Australia, when people from England moved to those colonies and brought their libraries with them,” says Svorenčík, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mannheim in Germany. Educational institutions in the United States also started to expand and acquire important books from Europe.


A collector’s item by the 19th century, first editions of the Principia have fetched impressive prices at auction, including the record for a printed scientific book: $3.7 million, at Christie’s New York in 2016. (The copy reputed to be the presentation volume for King James II sold for $2.5 million at Christie’s in 2013.)

It has also made the Principia a target of theft. In the early 1990s, a copy was stolen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 2017, a copy valued at nearly $1 million was found to be missing from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh—part of a stunning $8 million heist conducted over 25 years. (Fortunately, a rare-books seller in London recovered that volume from a buyer after learning it was stolen.)

Such a precious book of knowledge also carries intangible value. “In a sense, the Principia unified all the work that was done for the previous hundred years,” says Feingold. “It took Newton to put together the ideas that Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes had put forth insofar as heavenly bodies are concerned, to realize that the Earth is a planet like any other planet and there’s a mutual attraction between all those heavenly bodies.”

How German Librarians Finally Caught an Elusive Book Thief


For decades, often using a fake identity, he stole antique maps worth thousands of dollars each.

On the afternoon of February 21, 2006, Norbert Schild sat down at a desk in the reading room of the City Library of Trier, in western Germany, and opened a 400-year-old book on European geography. Working quickly, Schild laid a piece of blank white paper on top of the book, took a boxcutter from his lap, and discreetly sliced out a map of Alsace from pages 375 and 376.

Schild hadn’t noticed that the desks of two librarians, who were normally tasked with locating books for readers, were raised about three feet above the floor—giving them a clear view of his movements. They approached Schild and asked him what he was doing.

“It was worth a try,” Schild told them. He tossed his library card down on the table and hurried out of the building, taking the map with him.

Stunned, the librarians went to the director of the City Library, Gunther Franz. A mustachioed specialist in the history of the book, Franz gathered two witnesses from the reading room and filed a police report. He also emailed German libraries with a warning. Schild had introduced himself as a historian, Franz wrote, and was of medium height with a stocky build, unkempt blond hair, prominent jewelry.

In his email, Franz dubbed Schild the Büchermarder, or “book marten.” Martens are carnivorous mammals that often steal bird eggs and are notoriously difficult to get rid of. The nickname stuck.

Almost 300 miles away, at a library in Oldenburg, a small town close to the North Sea, Klaus-Peter Müller read Franz’s email. His face went pale. He knew Norbert Schild.

The so-called book marten had been a regular visitor at the Regional Library of Oldenburg, where he had introduced himself as a doctoral student focusing on historical travel literature and atlases. Müller recalls talking with Schild about his research. “I was completely unsuspecting,” he says.

Müller and his colleague, an eloquent younger librarian named Corinna Roeder, went through their records for information about Schild’s visits. Most of it had already been destroyed: Oldenburg, like most German libraries, follows strict privacy policies. But they had one clue. Schild had last visited the library in the fall of 2005. He’d planned to come back, and the books he’d requested had been set aside.

Müller and Roeder began combing through the volumes. Two of them, including a valuable Spanish geography tome, were unharmed. The third, Louis Renard’s Atlas van Zeevaert en Koophandel door de geheule Weereldt, a sea-and-trade atlas from 1745, seemed fine at first glance—but then they looked closer.

Schild had cut out nine maps, including Renard’s rendering of the entire known world and intricate illustrations of southeast Asia and the Hudson Bay. He’d also cut out the appendix, which included the list of those maps. As if that weren’t enough, he’d also taken a pencil and numbered the remaining maps in tiny writing on the upper right-hand corner, in the manner of a professional archivist. Only an attentive reader would notice what was missing.

“I was sitting there, and I could hardly breathe,” Roeder recalls. “He was really a professional.”

Roeder filed a report with the Oldenburg police. (She later estimated the damages at between $44,130 and $48,800.) At the recommendation of an acquaintance, she also scoured online auctions for maps that could have come from the Renard book. She compared sales photos with the distinctive coloring, size, paper yellowing, and wrinkles of the Oldenburg atlas, and emailed antiques dealers, asking about the provenance of the maps on sale.

By Easter, Roeder had narrowed her search down to two sellers. On a sunny day in early May, 2006, Roeder and her colleague Klaus-Peter Müller climbed into the Oldenburg Library’s red VW Golf and drove off in search of the missing maps. “We felt like we were in a road movie,” Roeder says.

Roeder and Müller drove the 300 miles from Oldenburg to Ghent, Belgium, with Renard’s damaged atlas in the back seat. The maps at the first auction house, they soon realized, didn’t match. The size and surface of the paper was different; the missing Oldenburg original had been in better condition.

After a night in a hotel, they drove another 60 miles to Breda, Holland, where they visited Antiquariaat Plantijn, a small, well-kept antique store. Dieter Duncker, the proprietor, was considerate and spoke excellent German. He showed Roeder and Müller the documents in question. They examined the pages and took measurements.

“The four maps fit,” Roeder says with a pause, “perfectly to our atlas.”


Roeder and Müller were not the only librarians who recognized the name Norbert Schild. In 1988, Schild allegedly made off with a series of illustrations of the Rhine river from the University and Regional Library in Darmstadt. In 2002, a newly restored 1616 book by the philosopher and astronomer Johannes Kepler went missing in Bonn.

Within a month of sending his email to German librarians, Franz had gathered a list of 20 institutions that believed that Schild had stolen pages from their books. On one occasion, Schild allegedly introduced himself as a freelance arts journalist.

At the University Library in Munich, Sven Kuttner, the head of the department of old books, also received Gunther Franz’s email. In 2005, Schild had spent months in the library, claiming to be a scholar working on a bibliography of historical maps from 1500 and later. Nearly 50 books that Schild had examined were missing pages. Kuttner remembers Schild’s large rings, which he now believes had sharp edges or were used to conceal a tiny knife. “He was always making eye contact,” Kuttner says. “Back then we didn’t think much of it.”

Kuttner filed a police report and banned Schild from the library. He also purchased a scale that is accurate to a hundredth of a gram. The library now weighs rare books immediately before and after use.

After collecting accounts from librarians across Germany, Franz forwarded the allegations to the state prosecutor’s office in Bonn. An investigation had already been opened, in response to the 2002 theft of the Kepler book. Franz felt confident that charges would result. Though Schild had been active since at least 1988, Trier was the first time he had been caught “in flagranti.”

During their trip to Breda, Roeder and Müller were also optimistic. The antique map seller agreed that his pages looked like an excellent match for the missing Oldenburg documents, and he told the librarians that he would take them off the market and cooperate with an official investigation.

Duncker had purchased the maps in February 2006, at a flea market for historical illustrations in Paris. A gaunt German—probably not Schild—had approached Duncker and offered to sell him the four maps for €5,000. They didn’t exchange invoices, names, or contact details.

Some librarians criticize antiques sellers for their see-no-evil approach to historical documents. “If they don’t see anything suspicious about the book, like a library stamp, then they don’t ask where it originated,” says Roeder. When asked whether he believes the pages he purchased were stolen, Duncker answers, “How should I know exactly?”

Like it or not, there is significant international demand for antique maps. René Allonge, a lead investigator with Berlin’s art crimes unit who worked Schild’s case, says, “You think, ‘Who would bother with this? Can you even make money with it?’ Yes. There is a market.” One librarian estimates that in the late 1990s, Schild could have earned about 200,000 Deutsche Marks, or more than $100,000, per year from his alleged thefts.

All over Germany, librarians waited for the Bonn state prosecutor’s investigation to proceed. But they never filed charges against Schild. The evidence was largely circumstantial: While libraries could show that Schild used the damaged books, they couldn’t necessarily prove that he was the one cutting out the pages. A search warrant executed at Schild’s home on November 22, 2002, turned up “tools of the trade,” such as bibliographies and lists of historical materials at Germany libraries, but no actual stolen maps. Prosecutors in Bonn were busy, and the stakes may have seemed low—old books, not human lives. The charges in Trier—where Schild was caught red-handed—were dropped due to negligibility, after damages were estimated at just €500. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office in Bonn declined to comment.

Corinna Roeder didn’t give up on the Renard atlas. In December 2008, realizing that the investigation had stalled, she began negotiating with Duncker privately for the return of the maps. When they failed to agree on a price, Duncker sold them elsewhere.


Without the support of law enforcement officials, Germany’s librarians embarked on a game of cat and marten with Schild that lasted another 13 years. In that period, Schild visited at least 15 more libraries all over the country. Twenty-two years after his first visit, he made an appointment to visit the University Library in Darmstadt. The librarians set a trap, but Schild didn’t show.

“I still regret that,” says Silvia Uhlemann, the head of the historical collections department there. That same day, Schild appeared in Düsseldorf instead. As libraries got organized, Schild allegedly began using pseudonyms and working with accomplices.

Through his lawyer, Schild declined to comment for this story unless Atlas Obscura paid for an exclusive interview.

In July 2017, Schild, this time calling himself a history professor emeritus, visited the library of the University of Innsbruck, in the Austrian Alps. After he left, a librarian named Claudia Sojer plugged Schild’s name into a library newsletter and came across the warnings. She looked through the book Schild had studied—a 1627 volume by Johannes Kepler—and realized that an engraved world map, valued at €30,000, was missing. (She had been in the room with Schild, but had left briefly for a bathroom break.) Finally, prosecutors in Schild’s home district of Witten, near Bochum, managed to bring him in front of a court on charges of theft.

Schild was now 65 years old, and his reputation as a book thief dated back over 30 years. The trial took place in April 2019. The alleged book marten had a white mustache, wore a blue blazer, and walked with the aid of a purple crutch. He told local reporters, “The charges are ridiculous,” and said that he had been looking forward to the trial.

In the courtroom, Schild sipped Diet Coke, speaking only to say that the map was already gone by the time he accessed the Kepler book. His lawyer argued that the document could have been stolen by anyone, including a library employee. A search warrant failed, again, to turn up anything at Schild’s house.

The proceedings revealed a cache of new information about Schild. He was once a salesman of industrial equipment. He has three grown children and has been married four times. His lawyer told the court that Schild had been dogged by financial worries, often taking on odd jobs to keep himself afloat.

As it turned out, Schild had been convicted of more than a dozen prior counts of theft and fraud. He usually got off with a fine or probation, but he did serve one jail sentence of a year and a half, in the early 2000s. The judge on the 2019 case, Barbara Monstadt, sentenced Schild to one year and eight months of jail time without the possibility of parole.

Corinna Roeder wishes that a similar sentence had been handed down sooner: Fines and probation didn’t stop Schild. Just days after he was caught red-handed in Trier, Schild appeared at a library in Halle. “How much mischief do you have to make to be punished, and then stop doing it?” asks Roeder.

Schild is currently appealing. “The evidence is all circumstantial,” his lawyer said after the verdict. Schild has not yet begun his sentence, and the legal proceedings are currently on hold due to his ill health: He says he is suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

A photograph of Schild, looking roguish in a suit and tie, still hangs in the Regional Library of Oldenburg. It’s on a bookshelf behind the information desk, next to the printer and some dictionaries. The photograph is out of the way and unmarked, and could even be mistaken it for a keepsake. Only library staff know that it’s a warning.

My Hunt for the Original McDonald's French-Fry Recipe


Veteran line-cooks, experts, and die-hard fans tell the story of the fries that birthed an empire, then disappeared—until now.

From Julia Child to Paul Bocuse to James Beard, some of the biggest names in food history are also people who have professed their love for the same french fry—a french fry that, in no exaggerated manner, birthed an empire. A french fry that no one has eaten in more than 30 years.

McDonald’s original french fries were cooked in beef tallow. For that fact, they were bullied out of production by a well-funded, well-intentioned businessman and self-proclaimed health advocate named Phil Sokolof, who unknowingly dethroned what many fans claim was the greatest french fry to ever meet mass production. “The french fries were very good,” Child said in a 1995 interview, “and then the nutritionists got at them . . . and they’ve been limp ever since . . . I’m always very strong about criticizing them, hoping maybe they’ll change.”

Child never lived to see McDonald’s fries return to their former glory, and sadly, and there’s no indication they ever will. That’s why I set out on a quest to find the original recipe.

My hunt for the lost McRecipe took me up the corporate ladder and to obsessive corners of Reddit. I spoke to fast-food experts, super-fan museum curators, and a 79-year-old former employee of the very first McDonald’s. After weeks of digging, I procured a recipe for the original fries that one fast-food historian believes to be the real deal, one I recreated several times to ensure its legitimacy. I sweat over hot tallow, bled from cutting perfect shoestrings, and literally got pulverized salt in those wounds. But according to at least one expert, I have reason to believe the recipe I’ve uncovered is authentic.

Before you recreate a masterpiece, it bears knowing from whence it came.


Ben Stacks was an employee at Richard and Maurice McDonald’s seminal location in San Bernardino, California, “from the summer of ’54 right up until I got a draft notice in ’60,” he tells me over the phone. If anything, he knew the original fry too well: On Saturdays alone, he processed 1,000 pounds of them—all of which were sold and eaten that day. “Kids I grew up with just lived for McDonald’s to open,” he says, “they’d ride their bikes over just for the fries.”

To the best of Stacks’s memory, the fries were made as such: Locally sourced Idaho russet potatoes were peeled, chopped, and rinsed of excess starch in a shed behind the restaurant. The prepared shoestrings sat in cold water until an hour before frying, at which point they were drained and dried before being tossed into a hot vat of 100 percent beef fat. “Cook ’em, salt ’em, sell ’em,” says Stacks. “They were wonderful. You could get a good hamburger any place—nothing special about those—but those french fries were really wonderful.”

The fries caught the attention of Ray Kroc, then the company's milkshake-machine salesman. Stacks says he was working the day Kroc first visited. “He was curious as to how in the heck we wore out his [milkshake] machines as soon and as often as we did,” says Stacks. With lines around the block, their milkshake machines never got much of a break and the belts often blew out within weeks. “And that’s when Kroc had his vision.”


It’s important to note that at the time, few fast-food operations were even attempting fries. According to Adam Chandler, the author of Drive Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom, World War II soldiers returning to the United States from France and Belgium ushered these exotic fried potato strings into the American culinary consciousness. But Chandler says that fries were too labor intensive and difficult to execute in a consistent, commercial manner. While most burger joints made do with potato chips, “the McDonald brothers had a secret,” he says. They used their desert setting to their advantage, curing potatoes for several days in the desert air before processing them. “They had this extra crispness to them that made them better than any fry you’d ever had.”

What few were even attempting, the McDonald brothers were nailing. Kroc wanted in, and he knew if he were to succeed, it would be on the back of those fries. “The fry would become almost sacrosanct for me,” Kroc later wrote in his autobiography, “its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously.” By 1955, Kroc bought the franchising rights from the McDonalds brothers and started building what would slowly become his empire.

As McDonald’s branches crept across the nation, Kroc ensured the superlative fries would stay so at scale. As Malcolm Gladwell reported in the New Yorker, Kroc armed field men with hydrometers to ensure the potatoes met ideal water content and solidity levels, developed his own potato-curing method that didn’t require a desert, and even hired an engineer from Motorola to design a “potato computer” that calibrated fry oil temperature to deliver consistently cooked fries. He tinkered with the frying oil as well, developing a secretive, cost-saving mixture of beef tallow and vegetable oil termed “Formula 47” (after the original 47-cent McDonald’s meal).


By the end of the 1960s, there were 1,000 McDonald’s franchises across the United States. It was the largest fast-food company in the country, and its fries in particular attained iconic status. Albert Okura, fast-food devotee and CEO of the California-based Juan Pollo restaurant chain, worked at Burger King from 1970 to 1978. “All we did was monitor McDonald’s,” he says, “we copied everything they did. But nothing came close.” His love of McDonald’s, sparked in his youth, would eventually lead him to found the unofficial museum of McDonald's memorabilia at the site of the very first McDonald’s in San Bernardino.

One by one, competing brands began cooking their fries in beef tallow as well, hoping to approximate what slowly became the gold standard in french fries, according to Chandler. “McDonald’s original fries took hold in such a way that when someone said ‘french fry,’ everyone thought of the same thing,” he says.

In all likelihood, Phil Sokolof himself at one point loved the very fries he would come to destroy.


In 1966, at age 43, Phil Sokolof suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him. The lithe industrialist—who’d made his riches selling construction supplies—never even smoked, but was, as he wrote in 1991, “a student in the greasy hamburger school of nutrition for [his] first 43 years.” His cholesterol was over 300, comfortably in the danger zone for heart attacks. Lack of self-control aside, it was fatty foods that nearly killed him. Thus, when he emerged from the hospital, he did so on a one-man mission to fight Big Fat.

Between 1966 and 1990, Sokolof spent around $15 million fighting against the use of fatty ingredients in foods across the United States. He founded the National Heart Savers Association with his own money, pushed Congress to declare April “Know Your Cholesterol Month,” and took out full-page ads in newspapers smearing major food brands for their ingredients. He called himself “the little guy from Omaha”; papers called him the “Fat Fighter” (though “Fat-Fighter” might have been more apt). After strong-arming major players like General Foods, Kellogg’s, and Nabisco into changing their recipes, Sokolof set his sights on the Golden Arches.

“McDonald’s, Your Hamburgers Have Too Much Fat,” a full-page ad in the spring of 1990 squarely declared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers under the sensational headline “The Poisoning of America.” McDonald’s fought back: “The papers just didn’t check the facts,” McDonald’s attorney Joseph Califano told the AP in 1990. The ads persisted, with billboards in Times Square and Super Bowl commercial spots. McDonald’s stood their ground. “The ads are so absurd, they are starting to be tiresome,” spokeswoman Melissa Oakley told a reporter, adding that legal action was not out of the question.

Tensions came to a head on live television in the summer of 1990. McDonald’s senior vice president Dick Starman squared off with Sokolof on Good Morning America. Sokolof gave no quarter, raining nutrition-based blows on Starman as the fast-food exec stumbled over increasingly nervous rebuttals. “They just took chicken skin out of their Chicken McNugget three weeks ago. Tell them about Egg McMuffins. Tell them about your beef tallow in your french fries,” said Sokolof, to which Starman could hardly fit a word in edgewise. Sokolof effectively berated the largest fast-food company on the planet, to its face, for all the world to see. On July 23, 1990, McDonald’s quietly changed their long-held french fry recipe.

As Chandler points out, however, Sokolof’s smear campaign came as part of a broader national reckoning: “You can pinpoint a lot of the changes that happened in the American diet to that era,” he says. With the obesity epidemic entering the public consciousness at the turn of the 1990s, fast-food players big and small were all scrambling to meet demands for healthier options—a series of efforts that, according to Chandler, failed at every turn. Domino’s Pizza introduced low-calorie, “light toppings” (“those obviously bombed”); Wendy’s launched a salad bar (“no one wanted it”); Burger King introduced the BK Broiler grilled chicken sandwich (“never really stuck”); and aside from ditching beef tallow, McDonald’s introduced their McLean Deluxe (“a huge flop once people found out there was seaweed derivative in it”). This was the era, Chandler points out, when Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC, “because ‘fried’ was such a pejorative.”


While Sokolof’s victory dealt a blow to the corporation, it wasn’t exactly a win for consumers, either. Exchanging beef tallow for pure vegetable oil in high-temperature frying introduced consumers to a different and arguably worse dietary threat than saturated fats: trans fats, which, as we now know, are a major cause of cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, and weight gain. Despite the best intentions, Sokolof ultimately made a bad problem worse, one that McDonald’s has spent decades trying to fix. They’ve bounced new ingredients in and out of their frying oil to reduce the levels of trans fat, claiming today to have essentially eliminated them from their fries.

What we are left with is a distant echo of the famed original fry. “They’re still considered to be some of the best fast-food fries there are,” says Chandler, “even if they’re a shell of what they once were.” According to their website, McDonald’s fries are now cooked in a mixture of soybean and canola oil. This recipe ultimately leaves their fries with a flat, beanie flavor that lacks the salty crunch that made them famous. Their suppliers add hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk, whose meaty-tasting amino acids impart a “natural beef flavor” upon their par-fry oil, but it’s not the same. “I still eat at McDonald’s twice a week,” says former employee Ben Stacks, “but I miss those original fries. They stayed tasty longer.” Indeed, if modern McDonald’s fries aren’t eaten immediately, they soften into a mealy texture that settles on the palate like wet dust.

Chandler told me over the phone that “McDonald’s is the place we eat when we’re taking a break from being virtuous.” In essence, Sokolof sought to enforce virtuousness upon the American public and, by extension, the halls of American food history. McDonald’s folded—but we are not McDonald’s. We can reclaim virtueless-ness. We just need one small recipe.

I knew the original recipe had to be out there somewhere. It was simply too ubiquitous to have disappeared. It took several weeks of sleuthing, cold-calling, and taste-testing, but much to the chagrin of Sokolof’s memory, I have reason to believe my efforts uncovered an authentic recipe for the exiled original.

Many online recipes for do-it-yourself original McDonald’s french fries leave something to be desired. Some call for meticulous freezing techniques, others call for factory-produced frozen fries. Some do call for frying rinsed, shoestring russets in straight beef tallow, but unless you grew up with Ben Stacks, these were not the “cook ’em, salt ’em, sell ’em” McDonald’s fries of your youth. Whatever Kroc had done with Formula 47, he’d kept it close to corporate’s chest. Albert Okura gets it. “He wouldn’t give out the recipe. He couldn’t. If someone knew exactly how to do it they’d be copied.”

To this day, McDonald’s still won’t give it up. I contacted McDonald’s Golden Archives, located just outside of Chicago and staffed by two archivists who are responsible for preserving the corporation’s history. No response. I reached out to Hamburger University, McDonald’s training facility also just outside of Chicago. No response. The only corporate office that responded was McDonald’s press wing, who was gracefully “not able to provide [the recipe] at this time.” Incessant badgering got me, predictably, nowhere.

But of course, it wasn’t the corporate pencil-pushers who knew those fries best anyway. They probably never set foot in a commercial kitchen, let alone made anything from the McDonald’s menu. It was the line-cooks and their managers who handled the food, folks who knew the fries like the backs of their hands, folks who might divulge.

I took it to Reddit, asking about the long-lost recipe in r/MimicRecipes. What I found was that someone had divulged—a lot.

I was promptly directed to an online PDF titled “McMenu: Do-It-Yourself McDonald’s Restaurant Recipes,” which claimed that its 33 pages of recipes were “based on the old McDonald’s production methods of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.” There are recipes for everything from the Big N’ Tasty, to Egg McMuffins, to the signature Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce—and, of course, McDonald’s original fries, with beef tallow—all written in first person to exhausting detail.

I contacted the owner of the website that hosted the McMenu PDF, thinking it had to be the original author. “I was never a manager of a McDonald’s,” responded Ben Shaw, a software engineer from New Zealand, “and those aren’t my recipes.” He earned 15 minutes of fame on national news back in 2005 by trying to sell some free McDonald’s coupons on New Zealand’s equivalent of eBay. He stumbled across the McMenu PDF online and re-posted it to his website, “just trying to ride that 15 minutes a bit more, but I still can’t remember where I found it,” he told me.

While the actual author remains anonymous, they claim within their McRib Sandwich recipe to have managed a McDonald’s franchise while the McRib was still in its experimental stages. With the McRib introduced in 1981, that puts our mystery author in charge of a McDonald’s franchise well before Sokolof’s campaign. If this is true, the McMenu PDF author would have been producing hundreds of pounds of original, beefy fries every workday for years. Chandler himself couldn’t discredit the trove. “I believe in the McMenu PDF because its devotion to the cause is so apparent,” he says. “If you told me it were a lie, I wouldn’t believe you.”


For being the most fussed-over fries in history, the McMenu recipe is pretty straightforward, but you may need some new kitchen tools.

In making french fries generally, consistency in fry shape is paramount: If they’re all different widths, they’ll cook unevenly. I suggest something like the classic Benriner mandoline, which aside from featuring an adjustable blade that allows for cutting ideal fry shapes, is a commercial kitchen mainstay and will serve you well outside of fry-making. (Side note: Cutting yourself on a mandoline is bad, but cutting yourself on the fry setting of a brand-new mandoline is worse. Commit to each cut as best you can, and if the spud gets stuck halfway, gently knock the end of the mandoline into your cutting board to nudge it through.)

Unless you already have a deep-fryer, you’ll also need a thermometer to know when to drop the fries into your oil. Be sure to find one that goes all the way to 400° F (most standard meat thermometers run to only 250° F or so). You can find the right instrument in most kitchen-supply stores or, as ever, online.

The other item you may not have already is the key ingredient: beef tallow. I found some at a local butcher shop, but you could also check the oil section of your nearest supermarket. Worst case scenario, it’s also available (but not necessarily as affordable) online.

Once you have the right tools, it’s a classic brine and double-fry. A sugar bath will give the fries a subtle sweetness that sits nicely under the beefy umami, while double-frying allows the fry to cook all the way through before crisping the outer edges (single-frying, generally speaking, runs the risk of burning the skin before the insides are cooked). The recipe doesn’t call for it, but I recommend pulverizing the salt with a mortar and pestle to get a fine, even coating on the hot, finished fries (if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can roll a tin can or any hard, round object over a pile of salt to get the same effect). So without further ado, here is the closest thing to the original McDonald’s beef tallow french fry recipe the universe has to offer.


Beef Tallow French Fries

Adapted From “McMenu: Do-It-Yourself McDonald’s Restaurant Recipes”

Yields two medium-sized orders of fries.

2 large russet potatoes
¼ cup white sugar
2 tablespoons white corn syrup (Karo)
1–2 cups hot water
6 cups Crisco shortening
¼ cup beef tallow
Salt to taste

1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into shoestrings. They should be about ¼ inch x ¼ inch in thickness and about 4 inches to 6 inches long.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and hot water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Place the potatoes into the bowl of the sugar-water and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. While they’re soaking, pack the shortening into a deep-fryer. If you don’t have a deep-fryer, any sauce pot or dutch oven will suffice as long as you have an appropriate thermometer. Heat on the highest setting until the shortening has liquefied and reads between 375° and 400° F.

4. Drain the potatoes then dump them into the fryer (be careful, it will be ferocious). Nudge them around to make sure they don’t stick to one another. After 1 to 1 ½ minutes, transfer the potatoes to a paper towel–lined plate. Let them cool 8 to 10 minutes in the refrigerator.

5. While they’re cooling, add the beef tallow to the hot shortening and bring temperature back to between 375° and 400° F.

6. Add the potatoes and deep-fry again for 5 to 7 minutes or until golden brown. Again, nudge lightly to keep them from becoming one mega-fry. Remove and place them in a large bowl, sprinkling generously with salt and tossing to mix the salt evenly. Serve hot and enjoy.


Done properly, the McMenu PDF will leave you with a pile of commercial-ready, golden-brown, pre-Sokolofian shoestrings. As for taste, it became clear on my first bite why it took $15 million to put them out of production. Where modern fries are bland and leave my mouth with the aforementioned uneasy beaniness, the McMenu PDF fries pack a serious punch that left my palate screaming for more. A subtle, beefy umami saddled neatly next to the underlying sweetness from brining. The crisp, browned edges provided an audible crunch. The insides retained a sweet, buttery texture. My only complaint was that I had to stop eating and photograph them. They are hands-down the best fast-food fries I’ve ever eaten.

As for authenticity, I personally wasn’t alive to try McDonald’s original french fries before 1990, so cannot attest to the veracity of the McMenu fries’ flavor—but Chandler was, and does. “As soon as I tried a few of them, I was back in my mom’s Volvo 240 station wagon [in 1988], waiting for my sister to get distracted enough so I could steal her McNuggets.”

Without a blessing from the Golden Arches themselves, I’ll never know if I’ve uncovered the true original recipe, and after speaking to Okura, I realize “true” here may be a moving target. As McDonald’s expanded, he says, corporate would have necessarily adapted the fry-making process to meet the scale of supply. Of course, there is a chance that the McMenu PDF recipe was at one point the true recipe. But as for when, that secret lies with Ray Kroc.

The Small Goat Breed That’s a Star of Urban Farms


“If you’re thinking about getting a dog, maybe get a goat instead.”

Until recently, Emily Scherer raised goats in the heart of Denver. They lived in a 33-foot pen on her quarter-acre lot. She used their manure to fertilize vegetable plants whose produce she sold at a stand in her front yard. One goat, she says, produced enough milk for her family of three.

Her goats were a special breed: the Nigerian Dwarf, ideal for urban farming.

“They’re my favorite animal,” Scherer says. “Goats don’t bark and they can live outside and their manure is actually useful.”

Fully grown, a Nigerian Dwarf goat is as big as a medium-size dog. The breed tops out at about 85 pounds, but many are 50 pounds or lighter. None are taller than two feet. First imported from West Africa in the 1930s, the breed has become one of the most popular dairy goats in America, kept in all 50 states. Nigerian Dwarf goats have a reputation for their small size, yes, but also their docility, friendliness, intelligence, blue eyes, coats that vary widely in pattern and color, and rich milk. For many urbanites and suburbanites with limited land, the breed brings the dream of backyard livestock within reach.


Critically, Nigerians don’t need much space. “Because of their diminutive size, they really don’t need a whole lot of pasture like you would for a cow, and that’s why they’re so popular with hobby farmers,” says Ann Alecock, show chair of the Nigerian Dairy Goat Association. “They’re more of a browser than a grazer.”

In many cities, the opportunity to raise goats is new, and not just because the Nigerian Dwarf has become readily obtainable only in recent decades. Many cities have legalized goats within the last 10 or 15 years. In Seattle, a watershed moment came in 2007, with a victory notched by Jennie Grant, founder and president of the Goat Justice League.

Back in the aughts, a neighbor reported Grant’s illegal goats. So Grant, who raises Nigerian Dwarfs crossed with other breeds, contacted her city councilman. Sure enough, the city soon passed a measure allowing for the keeping of small, hornless goats, such as the Nigerian Dwarf (though some Nigerian Dwarfs have horns). Other cities have seen similar grassroots efforts, some drawing from Grant’s book, City Goats, which covers topics including working toward legalizing goats in your community, milking, and cheesemaking. Today, miniature goats can be kept in cities across the country, including Phoenix, Austin, Pittsburgh, and San Diego.


Nigerians are one of two popular diminutive goats. The other is the pygmy, which is more often a meat goat. For its size, what really sets the Nigerian apart is its prolific production of fatty milk.

“Their milk components, protein and fat, are only rivaled by the Nubian [goat],” says Clare M. Staveley, a Western director of the American Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Association and a veterinarian who kept a herd of Nigerian Dwarf goats on Curbstone Valley Farm, near Silicon Valley, until recently evacuating with her goats due to wildfire. “With the right genetic selection, this breed can produce 1,200 to 1,700 pounds of milk [per year] on a modest diet.” In one day, a Nigerian doe can produce a few quarts of milk.

This milk ranges from 6 percent to 10 percent fat, which is excellent for cheesemaking, and one factor that drew Staveley to Nigerian Dwarf goats. Alecock, who keeps 50 to 100 Nigerian Dwarfs on 500 acres in Illinois, believes their milk is ideal for mozzarella and feta. She also makes a “Velveeta” that, when melted, she explains, has the consistency of queso.


Hayley Gillespie decided to raise Nigerians on her urban property, Art Farm Austin, after tasting mató, a Catalan cheese. “Once I came back from Spain after trying that cheese, I did some research, and that’s when I said I’m getting goats,” she says. She describes Nigerian Dwarf goat milk as rich and creamy, almost like half-and-half. She adds it to her coffee every day.

Her goats have become locally celebrated. “Everybody in the neighborhood knows that goats live here,” she says. “It has been a really amazing way to meet neighbors.” She trades milk and mató-style cheese to neighbors for homegrown produce, such as loquats, oranges, and tomatoes. The goats also enhance her small urban farm’s ecosystem. On fallow land and around her fruit trees, she spreads “a really heavy dressing of goat manure,” she says. “I definitely want to keep all that organic matter on the property.”

Nigerian Dwarf goats can provide more direct financial boons. Most of all, babies, often born as triplets and quadruplets, tend to fetch high prices. Alecock says she put her daughters through college largely by selling Nigerian Dwarf offspring. Milk, too, can create added revenue streams. In Denver, Scherer started a Nigerian Dwarf “herd share.” Subscribers paid a donation for goat feed. In return, they got fresh milk.

Recently, Scherer had to sell her goats when she got a new job. “They’re a lot of work,” she says. “The traveling factor is hard. It’s hard to find a house-sitter who’s goat-savvy.”

Still, Nigerians tend to be quieter and more agreeable than other goat breeds. “They’re sweet natured, good for kids, and very intelligent,” says Alecock. “I can go outside my milk parlor and just call a name, and they know it’s their turn to come to the milk parlor and they jump on the stand. When they’re done, they get an animal cracker and jump off, then I call the next one.”


When a leaf blows across her farm, Alecock says, “they all run after it—like it’s a potato chip or something.” A single herd can have goats of many different colors: black, white, chocolate, coffee, and seemingly every shade of brown, some goats with two or three colors. Patterning varies widely. It includes patches, stripes, moon spots, mottling, or some combination of these, or even just a plain solid color.

On top of their compost and dairy potential, Nigerian Dwarf goats, their owners often say, make great pets. “This breed is so gentle and sweet and small,” Gillespie says. “They have tons of individual personality. If you’re thinking about getting a dog, maybe get a goat instead.”

In Rwanda, Learning Whether a ‘Smart Park’ Can Help Both Wildlife and Tourism


It’s taken a lot of outside help, but a national park has come back from the brink.

Emmanuel Kalisa helped kill a lion, one of the last in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, around 2002. Lions often mauled cattle owned by local herders such as Kalisa, who grazed their livestock in the park. “I heard lions every night,” he says. “I woke up shouting and threw burning sticks.”

So Kalisa and other locals poisoned the feline predators to protect their cattle. He also recalls when a group of men chased a fleeing lion. The big cat jumped and broke a man’s arm before another killed it with a spear. Kalisa remembers shaking with fear. Eventually all 300 or so lions that had once roamed Akagera were wiped out.

After Rwanda’s devastating 1994 genocide that killed at least 800,000 people, Akagera became a conservation wasteland. Refugees and settlers moved into the park, and it became a free-for-all hunting ground. Kalisa and others farmed and grazed their cattle on its land. Between poaching and habitat encroachment, there was little wildlife left.


Today, Akagera has been dramatically transformed: a thriving national park just two hours by car from Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Rwanda is famed for the rare mountain gorillas in its northwest, but Akagera is on the eastern side of the country, bordering Tanzania, so it offers an entirely different habitat. The park is now the only one in the country to host coveted “Big Five” megafauna: elephants, rhino, leopards, buffalo, and lions. Giraffe, zebra, antelope, monkeys, and more than 480 bird species also reside within Akagera’s 430 square miles, which includes papyrus wetlands. The reimagined park had the fences, patrols, and local participation that are necessary for some successful wildlife parks, but it is also employing novel technology to protect itself.

The big changes began around 2010, when Rwanda’s government partnered with international conservation group African Parks to manage Akagera. Some 15,000 tourists visited in 2010, compared to more than 41,000 in 2019, says Sarah Hall, Akagera’s tourism and marketing manager. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the park closed for three months, but reopened in June, and has seen tourists slowly return.

African Parks, based in South Africa, is known for reviving troubled national parks. The nonprofit worked to strengthen Akagera’s security, brought in anti-poaching dogs, purchased better field equipment, and hired and trained more rangers. The number of patrols increased from about 1,500 in 2011 to more than 5,400 last year.


Since 2013, poaching has dropped dramatically, which led to a wildlife revival that once seemed inconceivable. In 2017 Akagera reintroduced 18 black rhinos from South Africa. In a conservation milestone, the first rhino calves were born in the park a year later. As for lions, seven were reintroduced to the park in 2015. Today there are at least 35 of them prowling Akagera’s highlands, grassy plains, and forests.

Akagera’s rhinos—a particular target of poachers for their horns, and a lure for tourists as well—have special rangers and trackers who monitor them daily. The Howard Buffett Foundation even donated a helicopter to the Rwandan government for rhino patrols. The work to keep them safe is “a bloody headache,” jokes Jes Gruner, Akagera’s park manager, but worth it.

Fences, more patrols, and reintroductions are all part of the park-rehabilitation playbook, but Akagera is also using a distinctive new technology to help even the odds against poachers. In 2017, Akagera became the world’s first “Smart Park” when it tested and installed a telecommunications network called LoRaWAN, or Long Range Wide-Area Network for securely tracking and monitoring just about anything in the park.


Poachers can potentially intercept the conventional radio signals parks use to track animals but the low-bandwidth LoRa signals are relayed on a private, closed network on various frequencies, making them harder to crack. The network also runs on solar energy and is cheaper than satellite tracking technology.

Akagera partnered with Dutch conservation technology group Smart Parks to install LoRa receivers on towers throughout the park. (Smart Parks is the result of a merger between the Shadow View Foundation and the Internet of Life.) LoRa sensors, which vary in size and can be small enough to fit in one’s hand, can then communicate with towers to track the location of rangers, vehicles, equipment, and more. In 2017 they collected more than 140,000 location updates per day. Next year the park plans to install 100 sensors to monitor tourist vehicles as well, says Hall.

At Akagera headquarters, park manager Gruner stood in a control room with large screens and sleek monitors that display activity in the park. “Since you have the technology backbone installed, LoRa can almost be applied to anything from weather sensors and fence monitors to trackers for people, and wildlife,” Gruner later explains. “The options are endless.”


LoRa can help track the precious rhinos themselves, since the sensors can be small enough to insert into their horns. Some of Akagera’s rhinos are currently monitored with LoRa, GPS, and VHF technology. Akagera is also planning to test LoRa for monitoring elephants and lions, which are currently tracked through GPS and VHF radio frequency monitoring. LoRa technology can also be used to monitor everything from water and vehicle fuel levels to fences.

“Potentially, the impact can be transformational,” says Sport Beattie, CEO of conservation group Game Rangers International, which is piloting LoRa in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. The technology can help rangers expand their monitoring reach and reduce operational costs, says Beattie.

But the technology does have drawbacks—including its batteries. “The minute we can get the battery to be small enough and reliable enough to last at least two years with regular transmission, this technology will definitely be the new form of tracking,” says Gruner. At present, non-rechargeable batteries in some sensors may last only a few months, according to Smart Parks, or up to 18 months, according to Akagera. LoRa is also is difficult to use in mountains and rain forests because signals are easily blocked, adds Gruner.


LoRa networks also require significant capital investment. Akagera’s LoRa system initially cost about $250,000 and was funded by donors and the park, but needs ongoing maintenance. Funding for the park comes from the government’s Rwandan Development Board, as well as Howard Buffett Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Doen Foundation, Stitching African Parks Foundation, and the Wyss Foundation.

LoRa is just one tool “to help solve the conservation conundrum,” says Beattie. “Time will tell, but I am confident it is definitely the right way forward.”

Smart Parks also has LoRa systems in other wildlife parks in Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya, Zambia, and Namibia. The technology clearly works best “once a park has established fundamental basics, such as efficient management, decent infrastructure, security patrols, and fence works,” says Laurens de Groot, cofounder of Smart Parks.

That could be the hard part, but those are the elements that set the stage for success in Akagera. Rwanda’s government provided the $2 million to build a vital electric fence that separates wildlife from livestock and people.


Kalisa, the cattle herder, still lives near Akagera and still hears lions roaring, but without fear, thanks to the 75 miles of solar-powered electric fence along the park’s boundaries. “As long as there is a fence, I don’t mind,” he says. “There is no more conflict.”

Today, Kalisa’s son works as an Akagera park ranger. Local jobs and the benefits of tourism have also put Akagera in a strong position to maintain its positive trajectory in stability and security. In 2010, Akagera had 59 employees, compared with 273 in 2019. Most of them, like Kalisa’s son, are from surrounding communities. That increase in staffing has corresponded to a decline in poaching. Last year, 51 poachers escaped or were arrested, compared to 318 in 2011, according to the park.

As useful as technology such as LoRa can be, human connections are even more fundamental. Akagera’s outreach team works with the local community to reduce conflict with wildlife and teach people about conservation, including teaching herders to make corrals to protect their livestock and prevent attacks in the first place.

And then there’s the practical accommodations that come from knowledge of the landscape and wildlife. “Don’t plant maize next to the dam,” is one example, says Gruner. That’s a good way to avoid unexpected encounters with Akagera’s huge, hungry hippos, and one that doesn’t require any technology at all.

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A Tale of Survival, Wrapped in a 19th-Century Reindeer-Skin Sleeping Bag


Twenty-five travelers departed for the Arctic. Six made it home.

In 2013, Barnum Museum curator Adrienne St. Pierre discovered what she described as a “rather decrepit old cardboard box” in the museum’s offsite storage facility. Inside was a huge ball of russet animal skin, noticeably aged and with loose bits of fur poking out in wayward tufts.

Intrigued, St. Pierre brought the box back to the Museum, and carefully began unfolding the fragile leather in order to identify it. Stitched together from caribou skin, the object bore a stained label whose faded handwriting finally revealed its purpose and history: “Sleeping bag,” it read, “from the Greely Expedition (U.S. Steamer Bear sent to their rescue.)"


The seemingly ordinary lump of fur had been part of one of the best-known expeditions of the late 19th century, a wild survival story and a landmark in environmental science.

Exploration culture was popular by the 1880s for good reason: a foreign expedition had long been part of the standard toolkit for eager colonizers, an attractive venture for ambitious explorers and their financial backers, and popular with a reading public who liked true-life adventure tales in their morning papers. In an effort to leverage exploratory fever for the sake of science, 11 countries combined to declare 1882-1883 an “International Polar Year.” These nations launched 14 coordinated expeditions to explore the polar regions and collect synchronized data on climate, geography and astronomy.


As part of this project, an American expedition led by former Union Army officer Lieutenant Adolphus Greely established a Polar Year station on Ellesmere Island, off the northwest coast of Greenland. The team built a long rectangular structure with space for bunks, dining, bathing, and collecting scientific measurements, named it Fort Conger, and set in for two years of study. Arctic research was hard work (one does not envy the man who had to sit in the outhouse-style data collection shed) but gratifying. The crew ran experiments, hunted musk oxen and seal for fresh meat, and explored their surroundings, venturing farther north than anyone had ever been.


Things seemed to be going well, but the ship route to Ellesmere was only accessible for a short time during the summer. The rest of the time, ice blocked the passage, and ships ran a substantial risk of being trapped and broken if they tried to pass at the wrong interval. The expedition’s success depended on ships being able to reach the party with supplies and refreshed rations each August. One ship was due to re-supply the team in August 1882, and another would bring them home the following summer. Neither ship arrived—one could not pass the ice, and another sank after being crushed.


Frugality and seal steaks could no longer save the day, so the U.S. Navy was ordered to retrieve the Greely expedition, no matter the cost. The Navy procured sledging equipment and frozen meat, and re-fitted two hunting ships for the journey, so that one could continue if the second was damaged or destroyed. Greely’s men had taken sleeping bags made from buffalo skin; the Navy ordered caribou hide from Sweden to make better allowance for the punishing Arctic weather. The Barnum Museum’s bag was sewn on these orders, as a roughly eight-foot-long pouch of reindeer skin with the fur on the inside.)


Desperately short on rations and despairing of rescue, Greely and his group abandoned post in August 1883 and made it 200 miles south to Cape Sabine, where they hoped to access supply caches or rescue ships. They built a makeshift shelter using a boat for a roof, and expected to stretch their meager 40 days of rations as far as March of 1884.

Rescue did not come until June. When the Navy rescue ships arrived (with the Museum’s sleeping bag aboard) they found seven men huddled in a single shredded tent, the few survivors of Greely’s original crew of 25. A succession of men had died of cold and starvation as rations disappeared, and before long the crew resorted to eating their sealskin shoes—and considering cannibalism to survive. Greely himself shot one of the party for stealing food.


Wrapped in reindeer skin and shock, Greely and five of his men remained when the relief party returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (Another member of the expedition died on the return voyage.) Because media had made a sensation of the dramatic survival story, various and sundry items from the ship soon made their way to eager souvenir-seekers. The story remained so popular that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair featured a diorama of the survival scene.

In 1890, with the expedition and its breathless media coverage still fresh, the showman (and 21st-century karaoke icon) Phineas Taylor Barnum was considering his lasting legacy. That he would choose a museum as a final project may seem surprising to people who know Barnum only for the circus, but according to Barnum Museum director Kathleen Maher, it is entirely appropriate. “Barnum’s lifelong mission was instructive entertainment,” she notes, “and few people realize the depth of his contribution to the modern museum model.” Barnum, whose American Museum first brought him to fame, built his last museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut as a celebration of American ingenuity, and a gift to local scientific and historical organizations lacking a permanent home. The caribou sleeping bag was donated by the family of a local Navy veteran in 1890, a year before Barnum’s death and three years before the museum opened.


The sleeping bag is still kept at the Barnum Museum, where it represents the Greely expedition’s contributions to modern science. The expedition collected information on broad swaths of geology, geography and climate – recording daily and even hourly measurements on temperature, precipitation, barometric readings, tides and the contours of the polar day. Amid some of the worst conditions imaginable, the expedition crew went to great lengths to preserve their data and instruments, intent that their research should survive even if they did not. Their findings serve as a valuable baseline in the modern understanding of global climate change.

According to St. Pierre, this connection to the present is perhaps the sleeping bag’s greatest significance. “I was intrigued by the idea that a tattered, 135-year-old reindeer-hide sleeping bag could be made relevant to today’s audiences, who may be very familiar with the phrase ‘global warming’ but not realize how climate science—in fact how our understanding of climate as a global system—came into being,” she says. “I suspect many people have an ‘ah-ha’ moment when they learn about the Polar Year. It was revolutionary!”