“Is it really unlucky to have peacock feathers in the house?”

Cover for Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.In her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose casually states that having peacock feathers in the house is bad luck. I had never heard that before, so of course I wanted to know–do peacock feathers really bring bad luck?

The answer, as you might expect, depends on where you’re from.

If you’re a superstitious Westerner, yes. Peacock feathers are thought to be unlucky. 

In the article, Bird Superstitions, British Bird Lovers explains that having peacock feathers in the house is thought to both bring bad luck and doom any unmarried women living in that house to spinsterhood.

It’s also considered a bad idea to use peacock feathers as a prop or part of a costume in a theatrical production. Apparently, many a veteran stage director and actor has at least one sordid tale to tell of stages that fell apart when peacock feathers were included in the performance.

The Western prejudice against peacock feathers might have originated in the early Mediterranean.  According to British Bird Lovers, the eye markings on the feathers reminded early Mediterranean people of the evil eye of Lilith, the she-devil they blamed for any child’s unexplained death. Bringing peacock feathers into your home was tantamount to inviting Lilith into your family to wreak her havoc. Why would you do that?

Or maybe it started because Mongol warriors wore peacock feathers into battle, which made the Eastern Europeans who encountered those Mongols associate peacock feathers with bad luck.

Over time, the original reason for the superstition has faded, leaving Westerners with the general sense that having peacock feathers around is unlucky.

On the other hand, in India, China, and Japan, peacock feathers bring good luck.

According to the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia, Hindus associate the peacock with Lakshmi, a benevolent deity who represents patience, kindness, compassion, and good luck. Peacocks (and their feathers) are thought to symbolize those positive qualities as well.

Peacocks are also sacred in Buddhism. For Buddhists, the peacock symbolizes purity and openness. White peacocks symbolize nirvana.

As a result, instead of being afraid of the eyes on peacock tail feathers, folks in India, China, and Japan are much more likely welcome them as an extra set of eyes protecting their homes from danger.

Peacock walking by a frozen lemonade stand

Spotted last summer at the Brookfield Zoo — bringer of prosperity and healing or harbinger of doom? (Photo: Shala Howell)

As with pretty much everything else in life, your stance on whether or not peacock feathers belong in the home depends on your perspective.

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(Not at all) Wordless Wednesday: Fractal Cauliflower

Look what we found at the Farmer’s Market a week or two ago:

Close-up of the pale green fractal sprouts on a Romanesco broccoli

Photo: Michael Howell

At the time, we called it a fractal cauliflower, but I’ve since learned it’s not a cauliflower at all. It’s actually Romanesco broccoli.

It’s shaped like cauliflower (more or less), but it tastes like broccoli (mostly). I can hear The Ten-Year-Old’s Uncle Phil from here: “Worst of both worlds.”

We actually like broccoli though, so we roasted it using our go-to broccoli recipe, and it was fabulous.

I can’t wait to see what surprises the winter farmer’s market holds for us next week.

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Another year gone already?

Well, you’ve done it again. Spent another year reading Caterpickles, and I am profoundly grateful for it.

I know what I was curious about this year, so I thought it would be more interesting to spend some time today seeing what you were curious about this year.

Here are the top 10 posts from 2017: 

10. “How can you tell the difference between a white weasel and an ermine?”

9. “Why do pale people get more moles? (Caterpickles consults the dermatologist)”

8. “Why is a watermelon red inside?”

7. “How does a storm glass work? Part One: The Pondering”

6. “What did people think caused earthquakes in the olden days? Part Two”

5. “Why do goats have four stomachs?”

4. “How do we reset the storm glass?”

3. “When is Santa’s birthday?”

2. “Why does it rain fish in Honduras every year?”

1. “How long can jellyfish sting after they are dead?”

Fun fact: That jellyfish entry is also the most popular Caterpickles post of all-time.

Most popular post categories:

  • Science
  • Nature
  • Can we do that sometime?
  • Ask the iPhone
  • Santa Claus

Most popular Wordless Wednesday post: 

StormGlassUpdate7-2017

(Photo: Shala Howell)

 

Most popular book review:  

It’s really hard to parse which “What’s The Ten-Year-Old reading this week?” post was the most popular, since for the most part, the book reviews on Friday all fit on the home page and very few people click through to read them on their own page. But here’s one that in hindsight seems particularly significant:

(Hint: One of the books mentioned inspired The Ten-Year-Old’s Halloween costume.)

So, what did I learn from this? 

You really like the questions about science and nature, so I’ll write more of those sorts of posts in 2018. You also really seemed to enjoy the experiments, so we’ll do another experiment or two. Oh, and it looks like I need get an earlier start on the Santa questions next year. You started searching for those answers immediately after Thanksgiving.

Finally, while it’s hard to pinpoint a particularly popular book review, Fridays in general are really popular days. Apparently you like keeping tabs on The Ten-Year-Old’s reading habits, so I’ll keep doing the Friday book round-ups in 2018.

Now it’s your turn. What would you like to see more of on the blog next year?

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Caterpickles’ Year in Books

Caterpickles’ year in books, as summarized by Goodreads.

I’ve been using Goodreads on a personal basis for years now. Last year, I decided to set up a separate Goodreads page to track the books my daughter and I have reviewed on Caterpickles. They are sorted onto shelves according to the age my daughter was when she read them.

It’s important to note that these are not all of the books my daughter read in any given year. These are merely the ones she asked me to tell you about on Caterpickles.

Still, the next time you’re in the market for a book to share with a child ages 4-10, feel free to pop over to the Caterpickles Goodreads account and see what my daughter was reading at that age and what she thought about it.

A sampling of some of the books The Ten-Year-Old enjoyed this year.

Check it out, and if you’re on Goodreads, befriend us.

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Wordless Wednesday: Something’s different about Christmas in California

Photo: Shala Howell

Can’t quite put my finger on it, though.

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Merry Christmas, from all of us at Caterpickles Central

May your Cat TV be merry and bright this holiday season!

Vintage Christmas Card (Public Domain)

Thanks for spending time with us at Caterpickles this year.

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“What’s a sugar plum, and why does it get its own fairy?”

Label for Santa Claus Sugar Plums from the U.S. Confection Company, 1868. (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The holidays have finally struck here at Caterpickles Central. I wasn’t entirely sure it was going to happen this year, seeing as how there are still flowers blooming outside our front door, but I chaperoned The Ten-Year-Old’s field trip to see The Nutcracker last week, and now I’ve got questions about sugar plums dancing in my head.

First up, what is a sugar plum, anyway?

I have it from a reliable source (my daughter’s fifth grade teacher) that a sugar plum is not simply a sugared plum. In fact, the traditional confectionary known as a sugar plum didn’t contain any actual plum at all. The name plum comes from their shape, not their contents.

Although modern recipes call for sugar plums to be made of dried fruit, traditionally, sugar plums were simply little nuts, seeds, or spices covered in a hard sugar coating. The result was a candy very similar to today’s Jordan Almonds.

Sugar plums were the TUMS of their time

In a shocking twist, sugar plums, also known as comfits, started life as a medicine to treat indigestion. Invented by Arab apothecaries, comfits made their way to Europe by way of Genoese and Venetian sugar traders. They were especially popular in Tudor England, where they, along with a glass of spiced wine, were the digestive aid of choice for Henry VIII after one of his gut-busting feasts.

Why do sugar plums have their own fairy in The Nutcracker?

If sugar plums were originally medicine, why did they get their own fairy in The Nutcracker? I mean, it’s hard to imagine the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater choreographing a production to celebrate the digestive comfort of a well-timed dose of Pepcid Complete.

One answer might be that sugar plums are a particularly tasty form of medicine. They are much more like candy than medicine, really. A particularly difficult to make and therefore expensive candy that only aristocrats could afford to have on a regular basis.

Although the ingredient mix is simple — a bit of caraway, coriander, or chopped almond at the center of a hardened sugar coating — sugar plums are made using one of confectionary’s most tedious processes — panning.  In panning, the seed, spice, or nut at the heart of the sugar plum is placed on a pan over heat. The confectioner keeps the pan constantly in motion while she slowly pours sugar syrup over the centers, allowing the layers to harden between pours. Creating a nice thick sugar coating requires 30 coats of sugar. Completing a batch of properly coated sugar plums could take hours, or even days.

Today, machines do most of the work for us, which is why one Jordan Almond looks much like another, and we can afford to eat as many of them as we wish. But in 1609 when Sir Hugh Pratt published his recipe for sugar plums in “the arte of comfetmaking”, panning by hand was exceptionally tedious, and that drove up the price of sugar plums into luxury territory.

As a result, aristocrats might have snacked on sugar plums after meals, but the average European child would have enjoyed their sugary goodness only on special occasions — like, say, a family’s Christmas Eve celebration, such as the one described in Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Having a dancing fairy dispense sugar plums in a time of relative sugar plum scarcity would have seemed magical indeed.

There could be other reasons, though. By the time Tchaikovsky composed his ballet, the word plum had come to mean anything delightful or desirable. That alone could have been good enough to justify the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

There could also have been something in Tchaikovsky’s source material that mandated the sugar plum fairy. Tchaikovsky based The Nutcracker on a story by Alexandre Dumas, which in turn was based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s rather grim 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King.” I haven’t read either Dumas’ story or Hoffman’s original tale, so I can’t say for certain yet.

Because of that, I’m not ready to declare this half of the question solved. But the holidays are looming and The Ten-Year-Old is clamoring to give Alton Brown’s lovely modernized recipe for sugar plums a try.

Knowing the final answer is going to have to wait.

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Wordless Wednesday: It’s starting to look like Christmas around here

Photo: Shala Howell

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Almost Wordless Wednesday: How to make a writer happy

My first documented evidence that someone who doesn’t know me read my book came in via Twitter this week.

Very exciting!

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“Can cats smell stress?”

The Ten-Year-Old takes Canelo for a tour of our back yard. (Photo: Shala Howell)

I can tell my daughter is growing up because she’s starting to experience a bit of emotional turbulence again. She knows we love her regardless, but sometimes she’s not sure about our cat, Canelo. He is not always patient with her erratic moods.

One afternoon after a rough day at school, The Ten-Year-Old tried to calm herself down by picking Canelo up for a hug. He was having none of it.

The Ten-Year-Old was disappointed when Canelo ran off instead of giving her the reassuring head-bonk she was looking for, but as always, her curiosity won out. “Mommyo, can cats smell stress?”

I didn’t know.

Can cats even tell when we’re stressed? 

Everyone from Catster to the BBC agrees that cats can tell when their owners are going through periods of stress. Some even go so far as to say that our own stress may have a detrimental effect upon our cat’s health. But very few put forth any sort of explanation for why this is true.

In her article for the BBC, Robin Wylie speculates that over time cats become attuned to their owners’ emotional gestures. They connect our smiles with positive rewards–happy owners are more likely to spoil their cats with treats and snuggles. As evidence for this, Wylie points to an admittedly small study of 12 cats and their owners led by Moriah Galvan and Jennifer Vonk of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Published in the January 2016 issue of Animal Cognition, the study found that while cats didn’t seem as attuned to human emotions as dogs, cats were more likely to want to be near their owners when those owners smiled, and to avoid them when they frowned.

Another earlier study, led by Dr. Isabella Merola from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Science in the UK, tested the reactions of 24 cats when placed in a room with their owner and a strange, anxiety-provoking object — in this case, an electric fan to which plastic green ribbons had been tied. The study found that the cats looked at their owner’s faces while evaluating how to react to the fan.  Cats paired with calm, smiling owners appeared less anxious about the fan, although none of the cats approached it.

These studies seem to show that cats pay attention to our facial expressions, but are our faces really the main source of information for our cats?

Back in the day when I had two cats, Mulberry would scratch and hiss at Cozy when he came home from the vet. When I asked my vet about it, he told me that Mulberry was reacting to the fact that Cozy smelled wrong. Things would go back to normal, he told me, once Cozy smelled like himself again. And they did.

Turns out, cats have 200 million scent receptors in their noses, making their sense of smell by far their most important source of information.

If cats are so sensitive to smell, it seems likely that they may be reacting to the scent of our stress, and not just the facial expression of it.

So, does human stress have a smell?

According to the writers at Healthy Women, three things make a human sweat: heat, exercise, and stress. What’s interesting about this is that the mechanism for producing sweat under stressful conditions is different from the mechanism that produces sweat in reaction to heat or exercise.

Sweat from heat and activity is produced by the eccrine glands, which are located all over our body. They produce a thinner, typically odorless, sweat designed to help us cool down.

Sweat from stress originates in the apocrine glands in our armpits.  Sweat created in the apocrine glands is thicker and full of fat and proteins. The bacteria on our skin love to feast on apocrine sweat, breaking it down into fatty acids and ammonia. That process is why armpit sweat smells so much worse than exercise- or heat-induced sweat.

George Preti, Ph.D. is an organic chemist who researches the origin of human odors at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. In an interview with Men’s Health writer Alisa Hrustic, Preti pointed out that animals also emit an odor when they are stressed. He thinks that odor may act as a warning to their peers that something dangerous is happening.

If we humans with our inferior noses can smell the difference between heat- or exercise sweat and the funky stuff we sweat in our armpits while stressed, I have no doubt our cats can as well.

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