I'm a general science and nature teacher, with interest in many topics including history, ethnobotany, geometry and measurement. I try tying all those subjects into my lesson plans. I gave a TED talk about science teacher-training I did in Afghanistan, over a period covering 10 years and 12 trips. I have led many teacher workshops for organizations such as UC Berkeley, National Teachers of Mathematics, National Science Teachers Association, Girl Scouts of America, and others. I patented a protractor which makes life easier for students to understand angles and geometry, with lesson plans. I have a passion for learning!
Materials needed: face plate (made in Sundial part I), protractor, glue, BBQ skewer, cardboard scrap, cardboard rectangle large enough to hold sundial/BBQ skewer arrangement
Now that you have made the face of the sundial, you need to set it. That requires two pieces of knowledge about where you live. In this brief lesson, we will discuss your latitude.
You can find your latitude by googling “latitude your town“, or you can check a map. The face plate of your sundial must be angled to that same angle. There are a number of interesting ways to make this happen depending on your sundial design. For instance, I have made jiffy sundials from folded postcards of the place I’m visiting. Here is one easy way to use your latitude angle:
Make a hole in the very center of your sundial face with a thumbtack.
Insert a BBQ skewer, having a tight friction fit. The skewer will be your gnomon. The gnomon casts the shadow. “Gnomon” is Greek meaning one who knows.
Prop the other end of the BBQ skewer against a triangle which you cut from cardboard. The triangle will be a right triangle (one angle is 90 degrees) with your latitude angle positioned as shown in the drawing below. Make sure you have the triangle positioned correctly. Apply a strip of glue to the triangle and glue it to the skewer. Optional: Leave a small extending point below the triangle. You can use this small point to stick the skewer into a slab of cardboard as a base for your sundial and move it around more easily.
For example, my latitude in San Francisco is 38 degrees. See the drawing to look at the correct angle position.
The friction fit of the skewer in the face plate will hold the face plate at the correct angle. The friction fit will also hold the skewer at a 90 degree angle to the face place – which is necessary for correct shadow casting. You can double-check that 90 degree angle by putting a square piece of cardboard under the gnomon.
There is one more step: finding true north. That will be addressed in the next lesson. Apologies for the simple sketch; I will replace it later with a photo.
The shadows sweeping across a sundial’s face tells far more than the time. It marks our latitude and longitude, tells us our position in relation to Polaris the North Star, whether the sun has passed through an equinox, and whether the sun is near its zenith in mid-summer or has dropped to its lowest arc in the heart of winter.
Most of us can delight in the knowledge that we have lassoed the sun for a clock when we make a sundial. Even children in kindergarten laugh to see how a shadow marks the hour for recess or a snack. But the study of sundials can pull you deeper and deeper into joyous realms of knowledge: astronomy, geometry, seasons and equinoxes, magnetishm and the north pole, art and poetry, latitude and longitude, time telling around the world, carpentry.
Shadow and sun clocks have been in use over many parts of the world thousands of years. Ancient examples in Babylonia and Egypt were mere sticks in the ground. These sticks evolved into great obelisks, sun temples, sundials, navigational tools, implements used in solstice rituals, and timepieces for the common citizen. Sundials graced buildings, gardens, wrists, necks, fingers and even gravestones. Until the 1700’s, sundials were relied upon for accurate time, and helped navigators find their way across endless oceans.
You can make a sundial that tells accurate time. It will give you correct solar time, without the fudge factors built into modern watches or cellphones to make our lives more standardized. The directions included in this series of sundial lessons will teach you how to correlate true sun time with modern devices. But it is always the sundial that is correct; your cellphone or computer that is off!
The subject matter is simply too great for one lesson, so I have divided it into several. But you’ll want to get started now, because this equatorial sundial does something special on the equinoxes and one is just around the corner on March 21.
Protractor, 4″ (approx) square card stock or cardboard, pushpin, crayons or colored pencils (optional but nice), pencil, pen
Make the Sundial faces. I have put all the photos below, to make reading faster.
Use a pencil to lightly draw two diagonal lines across the card stock to locate the middle. Mark that point neatly but darkly because it will be your beginning point. The diagonal lines will not be used further.
Use a push pin to make a hole through the center point.
Drop a noon line from the center point to the “bottom” of your square. This line must be exactly perpendicular to the bottom edge, or your sundial will not work. Remember, a perpendicular line will have a 90 degree angle. Use a protractor for this step.
Use a protractor to measure 15 degree angles on either side of the noon line. These are the hours lines (photo will help). Mark 9 angles/hour lines on each side of noon, but do not label them yet. Do the same thing on the other side. The noon line must drop to the same edge on both sides. Read these notes first:
Note 1: Why 15 degrees? If the sun travels 360 degrees during a 24-hour day, you divide 360 by 24 to find that the sun travels 15 degrees each hour.
Note 2: Draw as many hour lines as daylight would permit on each side. For instance, you’ll probably need 6 hour lines on each side of the noon line during the winter, (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) but you will need more during the summer.
Note 3: There are two sides to this protractor because one side is read during summer and the other side read during winter. More on this later; just draw the hour angles now.
I have shown how to use two types of protactor to draw these lines. Since many students have difficulty using the standard protractor, my husband and I patented another type of protractor and that one is deep red. You can obtain one of these protractors by contacting me, but the standard protractor can be used.
Label one face “Summer” and the other “Winter”. The photos will provide other labels you need to add. The labels may seem to be reversed but do as shown.
Now label your hours as shown below on each face. Again, the hours may appear to be reversed but they won’t be once you orient your sundial in a later step of the lesson.
I absolutely love this geometric puzzle, which I first discovered when reading a book by Martin Gardner. Martin Gardner, in turn, had been introduced to me by my husband David. Martin Gardner was a long-time contributor to Scientific American; he wrote about mathematic and scientific curiosities. Such things were fun for my husband, and myself. I hope you’ll enjoy this puzzle as much as we did!
Sam Loyd was a chess player and puzzle creator at the turn of the 20th century. Some of his puzzles, such as Get Off the Earth, were sold as novelty items. Count the number of Chinamen on the puzzle above. You’ll see the arrow is pointed to “NE” on the globe. Then rotate the arrow to “NW” and one of the Chinamen has disappeared. Where did he go?
You can recreate this puzzle by printing and cutting out the two pictures below and assembling them with a brad.
This is a type of vanishing puzzle. Parts of the 13 original Chinamen have been cunningly redistributed so that there are only 12 when you rotate the circle. It helps understand this if you take some playdough and create 13 worms. Then distribute parts of the 13th worm over the remaining 12 worms.
Here are some other examples vanishing puzzles using the same principle.
One practical application of a vanishing puzzle might occur to you when the airport clerk says you have too many pieces of luggage. “You’ll have to pay an additional $200 for that 5th piece of luggage…unless you can divide its contents among the other 4.”
“Residents mined and traded salt” The sign offered little information, but I wanted to know more. Ruins of an ancient Anasazi settlement were huddled into a cliff above a sinkhole full of green water and leeches. “Where did they mine salt?” I asked a ranger. He directed me to nearby Camp Verde. “Look for Salt Mine Road and just keep driving. You’ll see white mounds.” So I was off.
These mounds had been worked in historic times. Lumber and twisted railroad ties lay on the ground. I strode up the mound and scooped up the white powdery material, then tasted it. It wasn’t table salt as I knew it, but did have a taste of salt mixed with … something else. Dirt was liberally mixed with the salt. Was this material good for health? Was it sodium chloride (table salt) or something else? How was the dirt removed before eating? Or was it removed?
Crystal structure of sodium chloride could provide some clues. Common salt crystals are cubic. (Not in your salt shaker, as the crystals have been ground to a powder). As I continued to wander, I discovered a salt seep and water running from it. Where the water dropped over a rocky ledge, salty icicles hung. These were pure mineral so I broke off a few icicles and placed them in an empty coffee cup I was carrying. I would analyze these later. I peered closely at some crystal fragments drying in the sun. They weren’t cubic; the white crystals were slender needles. By the way, exploring can be messy. My feet sank unexpectedly into deep goo near the salt creek, leaving my shoe behind. I dug around for it; then walked back to my car with mud peeling off my legs. I washed off in what happened to be a historic irrigation ditch down the road.
Experiment: grow crystals
Here’s how to analyze those crystals and discover what they might be. You can do this experiment with many common substances: salt, epsom salts, sugar. Dissolve clean grains in pure water. Start with 1/2 cup of water and dissolve as much powder as the water will take. If you heat the water first, you will be able to dissolve more powder because hot water dissolves salts more easily. Stir until theThen pour the solution onto a cookie sheet with rims to keep it from running off. If you line the cookie sheet with black construction paper, the crystals will be more visible but that’s optional. Put the cookie sheet near a window where it will get indirect sunlight and wait for the water to evaporate. Crystals will be left behind. I learned the hard way not to put the cookie sheet under direct hot sunlight. Evaporation will proceed so rapidly that good crystals don’t have time to grow. But this could be another experiment! Put one tray in the heat of summer sun and another in bright but indirect light near a window. Compare the two.
Observe the shape of the crystals. If they’re cubic, you have sodium chloride. If it’s needles, you may have magnesium sulfate. (epsom salts).
Experiment: Clean dirty salt
If you don’t have clean crystals, you’ll have to remove the dirt first. How to do this? Dissolve the material, dirt and all, in water and pour it through a filter. I use paper towels or cloth in a colander. Then you can proceed as above. You can also try growing crystals using dirty salt/powder. How are they different from the cleaned substance?
How did the ancient Anasazi clean the salt? They had no paper towels, colanders, and possibly no cloth as we know it. Think about this. Perhaps they let the “salt” water solution sit in a pot until the dirt settled out, then poured off the liquid for evaporation. Did they have flat stones for an evaporative surface? Or did they mix the salty solution into their foods? Or eat the salt with the dirt included?
What were the effects of eating magnesium sulfate? This mineral is actually important for many cellular functions and is sometimes used as a laxative. There are rarely negative side effects from eating it, but using it in place of salt may have left a salt deficiency in Anasazi diets. Sodium chloride is vitally important for survival. If they weren’t getting it from the “salt” mine, what other sources of salt were available? Meat and blood are one source. Some desert plants contain salt.
NOTE: The term Anasazi is outdated, but I use it here because it is still widely understood. Today’s Hopi Indians are descendants of the “Anasazi” so ancestral Hopi is a better description of cliff dwellers at Montezuma’s Well.
Vertigo: the sensation of spinning or whirling. The sensation can be associated with balance problems. A friend of mine woke up dizzy several nights ago. “I had trouble walking without feeling like I was going to fall down,” she said. Her doctor had diagnosed vertigo and given her some exercises to do. “Boring! Boring!” she complained with a chuckle.
“Maybe boring, but helpful,” said her husband who came in with his cellphone buzzing. It was an alarm to remind him when it was time for her to do her exercises. Calcium crystals in her inner ear had likely become dislodged somehow. They are critical in maintaining balance. Always ready with a joke, I shook my head rapidly back and forth: “Is this the exercise?” I asked. “Close,” her husband said. My friend demonstrated the real exercises, turning her head to the side and holding it in position for 30 seconds before turning it even further and repeating. “Just boring!” she groaned.
This started me thinking about balance and some experiments. These are geared with children in mind, but adults have fun doing them, too.
Are you in balance?
Stand with feet slightly apart. Are you in balance now? How can you tell? (you feel solid and fixed in position) Now stand on one leg. Are you still balanced? Perhaps, but not immediately. How can you tell you’re not in balance? What can you do, to help become safely balanced on one leg? You need to re-center yourself so that you are standing over your center of gravity or center of balance. Sometimes it helps to throw an arm to the side. Where is your center of gravity when you’re standing on two feet? (right down the midpoint of your body). Where is it when you stand on one leg? Why can it help to hold an arm out to the side?
Now try this (good party trick, too!). Tell a friend you’ll give them a sack full of gold if they can only pick it up without falling. Put the “gold” or other treasure on the floor and demonstrate picking it up. Simple! Can you do it, if you keep your knees straight and your feet unmoving? Yes. Now position them against a wall as shown, with the treasure in front of them. Ask them to pick up the treasure without bending their knees or moving their feet – or falling. It is impossible. Why? To discover the answer, watch a person carefully as they bend to pick up an object without the constraint of staying against the wall. What do you notice? How does your body change so that you keep your balance?
I led the previous experiment with a group of giggling Afghan students in Kabul. I offered them an American penny if they could pick it up. How they tried to cheat, laughing uproariously: moving away from the wall, using their arms against the wall to stabilize themselves. I let them each have the penny afterward.
Consider how type rope walkers balance themselves. Examine these photos to see how they do it.
In the lower two photographs, professional tight ropers use bars to broaden their mass and/or to lower it. Broadening your mass (spreading it out) makes you less likely to tip or rotate off your center of balance. Lowering your mass lowers your center of gravity, which is another method stabilizing yourself. When I was learning to roller blade down hills, I found myself naturally bending my knees to keep low to the ground. Lowering my center of gravity helped stabilize me. Weights on the end of tight rope bars aid in spreading and lowering the mass of the tight rope walker.
A caterpillar and balancing butterfly
Cut two of these patterns from medium weight cardboard. Shoebox cardboard is perfect but others will work, too. From one of the butterflies, cut out the center portion and decorate it to look like a caterpillar. Find its center of gravity and balance it on your finger. Then try balancing it by placing only its nose on your finger.
Color the remaining butterfly as you wish, or use a photo to color a butterfly you’d like to study. Find its center of gravity and balance it on your finger. It should be easier to balance than the caterpillar. Why? Then try to balance the butterfly by its nose on your finger tip. Can’t do it.
Tape a penny on the underside of each wing in the position shown. Now you should be able to balance the butterfly by its nose on your fingertip…your nose…your toe…your ear…a pencil tip. Why?
We’ve discussed how distributing weight can help tight rope walkers balance. But of course those aren’t necessary for humans to run, jump, walk, stand, or even walk on tight ropes. Our hearing, sight, sense of touch and air movements all send messages to the brain. The inner ear sends its own messages. The inner ear has three canals, lined with hairs and containing fluid and calcium crystals. As you move, the crystals brush against the hairs. Get this: (amazing, I think!) One canal senses up and down movement of your head, one senses tilt, and the other senses sideways movement. How glorious is that?
So, back to my friend with vertigo. After a day or two, the condition went away. She had done her exercises as asked. Did the exercises get her inner ear crystals in the proper condition, or did time just do its healing work? I don’t know but I’m glad she’s feeling better. Now I’ll see if I can get her to undertake tight rope lessons.
Update: African long distance runners and center of gravity
Kalenjin runners from west Kenya, tend to have tall lean bodies which may help them win marathons. Their ankles, far from their center of gravity, are thin. It has been theorized that thin ankles make it easier for them to move their legs…as opposed to stockier body types that have thicker ankles. Allen’s Rule is a scientific theory that suggests people who live in warmer climates, such as the Kalenjin, have long thin bodies. People who live in colder climates, such as Inuit, have developed stockier bodies.
I unrolled a length of black felt and gave her a piece of tailor’s chalk. “Follow me outside. But be quick,” I added. “Solar noon is about to happen.”
Shadows are so much fun to have in your drawer. I used to have an entire collection of them, which I would take to elementary schools. Those have been lost during my several home moves, so I decided to start a new collection. Now I asked my friend, “How long do you think my shadow will be?” “Well, it will be short since it’s noon. Maybe you won’t even have one.” She eyed my yardage. Then we went outside. I looked at my watch: 11:59 a.m., exactly solar noon.
I unrolled the fabric and stood so that my shadow fell on it. My friend began tracing it with the chalk. She had to move quickly because the shadow began shifting away from her tracing. Luckily, it was noon, when the shadow moves slowest. If we’d been working at sunset, she wouldn’t have been able to keep up. When I had caught sunset shadows for my previous collection, two of my children would trace frantically to beat the sun as it advanced and my shadow slid out from under me. “Oh, Mom,” they would complain. “Why do we have to do this?” I had interrupted their computer game.
On winter solstice, the sun carves its lowest arc across the sky. A low angle meant shadows would be longer than on any other day of the year. I’d purchased 3 yards of felt at the fabric store the previous night and even that wouldn’t be long enough to capture my shadow. I had to cut off a piece of fabric from the excess folded part and use it to extend the fabric. Even I was surprised at the length of my shadow: it was approximately 10 feet!
Now my friend’s husband Mike joined us. “What is the angle of the sun now?” he wondered. “Can you measure it from your shadow?” Yes, you could. My vertical body and the length of the shadow created a right triangle. The angle of the solar height could be computed from this. The angle cast by a stick and its shadow on a summer solstice several thousand years ago is the means used by Eratosthenes to calculate earth’s circumference. That will eventually be another lesson plan!
Mike took out his cellphone and used an app to find true north and we marked its line directly on the shadow for reference. I was surprised, but shouldn’t have been, to find that my shadow was pointing due north, directly toward the north pole. At noon in the northern hemisphere, shadows will always point true north, which is why taking noon sightings were so important for mariners in the days before geo-positioning satellites. (You can have fun confounding people by asking them if they can make their shadow reverse direction, pointing in the opposite direction. Often, they will try repositioning their body before they realize it’s impossible and then they will ask why it’s impossible. We all know that shadows move as the day goes on. Why can’t you get it to point south? North of the tropic of Cancer the sun is always to our south, meaning that shadows will always point northward)
Think of all the ways shadows can be used! Really, the list is endless. Sundials, moondials, Marsdials. Shadows give you an idea of the quality of light in pictures and are used to create realism in cartoons and paintings. As above, shadows can give direction and help determine latitude. Shadows have helped astronomers identify craters on the moon. Over 2000 years ago, Eratosthenes used a noon shadow at summer solstice to determine the circumference of the earth.
What is “solar noon?” That’s when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. It would be easy to say, “when the sun is directly overhead” but that’s not true on most parts of the earth. Where I live at latitude 38 degrees north, the sun will never be directly overhead. And, solar noon is rarely at 12:00 on our watches. Time zones have put our watches out of sync with the sun. To find the “watch time” that corresponds to solar noon, you can look at the NOAA website or merely google solar noon on the date in which you are interested. It was a coincidence of factors that made solar noon nearly the same as clock noon on this latest solstice 11:59 p.m.
What is “true north”? That is the line that runs directly to the north pole, or to the north star at night. It is not the same as magnetic north. because the magnetic north pole is to the east of the true north pole. True north is the one used for navigation. The difference between true north and magnetic north varies from place to place and is computed as an angle. At latitude 38 north, the difference is a whopping 15 degrees. Before cellphone apps, you could use a compass to find magnetic north, look up the angular difference on a table; then use a protractor to redraw the line. Of course, you can still do this. Pay attention to the direction of the angle! Since magnetic north is to the east, the true north line will be rotated to your left.
The best time to take standardized shadows is on the solstices and equinoxes, but any time is fun. Best to take each shadow at solar noon for accurate comparison among them. So much fun! Use felt because it doesn’t ravel when cut. I like to decorate my shadows with embroidery.
Here is a familiar science lesson. I include it here because it correlates nicely with a previous lesson about using alkali to process corn. An alkali is a caustic or corrosive substance such as lye or powdered lime that is added to soil. As a caustic substance, it can help break down the coatings on corn. As lime, it helps lower or neutralize the acid in some soils. Thus, two important uses of alkalies are to break down difficult material, or to react with acids.
A gentle alkali is baking soda. A dangerous alkali is lye. The difference between the two is their position on the pH scale. The pH scale rates the acidity or alkalinity of a material. High pH can burn your skin and mucous membranes. Low pH can be used in baking. But how do you know the pH of a substance? Litmus paper, purchased at lab supply stores or some garden centers, will give you a reading. However, you can make your own litmus solution. This lesson shows you how.
Commercial litmus paper is soaked in a solution of water and lichen species. When you dip the paper into a liquid to be tested, the paper changes color. Match the color with the key that comes with the litmus paper and you’ll discover the pH value, ranging from 0 to 14. Low numbers are for acids, high numbers are alkali, 7 is neutral. The more extreme the number, the higher the acidity or alkalinity. Different litmus papers have different color values, but the numbers are standard.
Here is a simple pH scale:
Make Your Own Litmus Solution or Paper
Chop or tear leaves of purple cabbage. Put into a large pot and cover with water. (Note: the water source could make a difference. Tap water is generally neutral, which is what you want. Well water may start off being alkaline or acidic, which will affect the results of your homemade pH test.) Bring the water to a boil; then allow it to cool. Strain out the cabbage leaves and discard. Keep the water, which will be blue. This is your litmus solution.
Distribute the solution among several clear glasses. Keep one for comparison. This will be your “neutral”, unchanged solution and it represents #7 on the pH scale. Add a small amount of a substance you wish to test, into each of the other cups and stir. The color will change due to the acidity or alkalinity of each substance. Pink to deep red are acid; green to yellow are alkaline, also known as “basic.” Arrange the cups in order of color on each side of the neutral cup and you have your own litmus color scale. Be sure to label each cup.
Make litmus paper
Soak paper towel strips in the solution and allow them to dry. The color changes are not as dramatic as the litmus solution. You can drop liquids onto the paper, or dip the paper into liquids you want to test. If you want to test a powder, or soil, mix it with water first. Again, make sure your water is neutral.
Standardizing your tests
It is impossible to be completely accurate with the cabbage juice indicator, but you can approximate the standard pH test. Test the items on the standard test (graphic above) and note the color you get with the cabbage juice indicator. Either take a photo of your solution and then write the pH number on the photograph, or try to match the color with crayons/colored pencils. Keep these for future reference.
Don’t be limited by the items on the standard pH scale! Try all sorts of powders and liquids you find around your house. So much fun!
An experiment that didn’t turn out the way we anticipated (but we learned something important):
I taught this subject to a group of Kabul university chemistry students. The class was held in a hotel conference center. I instructed students to get a large pot of boiling water from the hotel kitchen. The hotel kitchen had just finished serving lunch to students and staff. Students were delighted to learn they could make their own litmus solution because litmus paper was difficult to come by, but purple cabbage was readily available from street vendors. The indicator solution was rapidly made, but the test colors kept coming out wrong. Everything was testing too alkaline. I decided the human dishwashers in the kitchen hadn’t rinsed the pot sufficiently after washing. It still had soap residue in it, which is alkaline. I was somewhat insulting of their care in rinsing pots and thought ruefully of the lunch we had just eaten, cooked in those same pots. Then it occurred to me that the well water serving the kitchen – and all of Kabul – might be alkaline itself. I checked this with local geologists who told me that the famously good Kabul water came from wells sunk deep into limestone layers. The limestone filters the water but adds alkali to it. Then I asked a physician whether this could be a cause of kidney stones that many residents had. “Yes,” he said. “Alkaline water can cause them.”
I was so excited by something I learned yesterday that I stayed up long into the night on my motel internet reading about it.
Here’s the back story. I’m traveling cross country looking for a new home and exploring along the way. In Arizona I stopped at Jerome, a once-ghost-town that is now an artist colony. Jerome was a copper mining town perched high on a mountain slope. Because the town began slipping down the slope, and for other reasons, a company town Clarkdale was built in the Verde valley below. Had to visit that! A sweet little town full of Craftsman homes built around a square…and a great copper museum inside the old high school!
The display that caught my attention was about copper’s ability to destroy microbes. Who’d a thunk? Maybe everyone else knew this. The museum curator told me that many metals disrupt microbes but that copper is possibly the best. A scholarly article I read explained that copper releases electrically charged particles (ions) when a microbe lands on its surface. A microbe includes viruses and bacteria. The ions punch holes in the surface of the virus and destroy the rna and dna inside, so it can’t reproduce. (See my earlier article about hand washing and the corona virus).
This is one reason some hospitals use copper doorknobs. The old high school itself had copper door knobs. Copper reduces infections. Why don’t more health centers use copper? It is expensive.
This article doesn’t yet include photos or citations because I’m using my iPad and I haven’t figured out how to paste them. I also can’t do experiments while traveling but here is an idea for an activity:
Moisten some bread and allow it to sit in a bowl for a few days until it is moldy. Then place some pure copper wire across part of it and see what happens. Is mold considered a microbe? I’m not sure. A piece of copper pipe or sheet of copper would be better. Why not use a penny?
My dad, known as CJ, grew up on a poor farm in central Indiana. His ancestors had lived in North Carolina and he still thought of himself as a southerner. He spoke often of the food he ate as a child, no doubt carried along with his ancestors when they migrated from North Carolina to Indiana in what is known as “the great migration.” A staple in his childhood diet was cornmeal mush, or simply mush. Here is a recipe for it, adapted from the website All Recipes:
1 1/2 cups Cornmeal, 2 1/2 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt. Put all three ingredients in a heavy pan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly to prevent burning. When the water has been absorbed and the meal all incorporated, remove from heat. Serve as a sweet cereal with cream and maple syrup or as a savory dish.
Simple! Now compare that recipe to a recipe called sofki, traditionally developed by native Muscogee Indians in the southern United States and eaten perhaps for centuries before encountering Europeans. This recipe is adapted from the website https://mvskokecountry.online/2018/01/21/osafke-safke/
Place about three pounds flint corn in a bucket of water and let stand until kernels are soft. Drain the kernels and pound in a mortar while still wet. Remove any large or hard chunks. Put the ground grains into a kettle with three times the amount of water. (1 part grains to 3 parts water). Bring to a boil, watching carefully to avoid burning and stirring as necessary. When the mixture comes to a hard boil, add kvpe-cvfke, a drop at a time until the corn turns a slight yellow. Continue to boil, stirring often, until the liquid thickens and the corn is soft. Serve as a sweet cereal or as a savory dish.
Both recipes use ground corn and boiled water to create a mushy dish. Can you spot the difference in ingredients? One recipe led to a widespread disease in the American south, and the other prevented it. The difference is kvpe-cvfke, the Muscogee word for hardwood ash water. The disease it prevented was pellagra.
Hardwood ash water is created by dripping and straining well water through a bucket of hardwood ashes. That water then has an alkali in it, sometimes known as lye. Adding lye water to the corn as it cooked unlocked a vital nutrient: niacin. You encounter corn treated with lye if you buy hominy or hominy grits in the modern supermarket. Regular corn meal has not been treated this way. That’s not a problem if you eat a balanced diet, but poor white southerners often relied on corn as a staple in their diets and may not have supplemented it with enough fresh vegetables or meat. Lack of niacin in their diets resulted in pellagra, a disease that could cause the “four D’s”: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death.
It is interesting to note that Spanish explorers encountered corn being prepared this way by Native Americans. Spaniards introduced corn and corn meal to Europeans and European Americans but left out the important alkali process, also known as nixtamalization. Indiana, where my dad grew up, was rich in the tradition of eating cornmeal products. Corn was easy to grow in the farmlands created by cutting down vast forests. Grist mills were common on the creeks and rivers, and were a source of income for mill owners. It was easy and relatively inexpensive to take corn left over from feeding the hogs, to the mill for human consumption.
The discovery of the benefits of niacin and the prevention of pellagra makes for interesting reading. During the early decades of the twentieth century, the source of pellagra was at first thought to be germs. But the germ couldn’t be found and infection didn’t pass from one person to another. Still, the germ theory held on. A researcher Joseph Goldberger discovered that a balanced diet prevented and cured pellagra, but searched in vain for the reason. His suspicions of diet-caused pellagra were scoffed at. In one set of experiments, he fed dogs a diet rich in cornmeal such as the diet pellagra sufferers ate. The dogs weren’t interested in the food, so he added brewers yeast to stimulate their appetite. Dogs who ate cornmeal supplemented with brewers yeast did not get pellagra; other dogs did. It turns out that brewers yeast is rich in niacin. The missing element had been found.
How did scientists learn that adding lye to corn releases niacin? That calls for more research on my part.
You can try both recipes above to explore taste differences, or you can buy hominy grits from the supermarket and compare it to regular cornmeal grits (often known as polenta). For a more authentic Hoosier recipe, buy coarse ground cornmeal from an operating gristmill. Polenta is an excellent and tasty dish and I certainly prefer the name to cornmeal mush. Just don’t eat it exclusively.
Do It Yourself
I drove to a local Mexican grocery store over Christmas and perused their goods. Many Mexican chefs cook up tamales for the holiday and they do it from scratch. This calls for corn which has undergone the nixtmalization process. I bought a bag of corn and a container of “Cal” displayed alongside. Cal is calcium hydroxide, used in place of wood ashes or lye, to treat the corn. Online information says that Cal is less caustic than lye and gives the corn a better flavor. In a sign of the times, none of the store clerks knew how to use these ingredients. The butcher, a man who spoke only Spanish, was able to confirm that I had the right ingredients, via an interpreter who was mystified by the entire exchange. I heard a customer laughing about the difficulty of buying canned hominy at groceries that didn’t cater specifically to Mexicans. She was buying a can, so I asked her if she knew anything about using cal to create your own. She laughed, “Oh, you’re asking the wrong person! I didn’t even know you could do it yourself. Good luck!”
Naturally, I wondered how Cal compared with hardwood ash and lye as a caustic agent. I bought lye from a grocery store (near enough: drain opener containing sodium hydroxide), Cal from the Mexican grocery, and (hardwood) walnut ash from my fireplace. Then I used the cabbage juice indicator test to find out which was the most caustic. See my lesson on that subject! NOTE: lye/sodium hydroxide is EXTREMELY POISONOUS AND CAUSTIC TO SKIN.
Rinse corn and remove any chaff. Drain through a colander.
In a non-reactive pot, mix water and lime over high heat until lime is dissolved.
Add the corn and bring to a boil for 15 – 20 minutes.
Remove pot from heat, cover, and let soak overnight.
The next day, drain the corn through a colander and rinse. If making hominy for posole, remove hulls at this time. The hulls are the little brown tips which can be rubbed or picked off.
Place corn in a bowl and cover with water. Allow to soak for 5 – 10 minutes moving the corn kernels with your fingers and then rinse again. Repeat this process one more time. This will ensure all traces of lime are washed away.
Drain the corn through a colander and you’re done. Homemade nixtamal!
Here is an excellent website about niacin, vitamin B3; it’s uses, etc.
My husband David first read about the Mt. Diablo tarantulas in the San Francisco Examiner Sunday edition. With his characteristic vigor he exclaimed, “Got to go see them!” and within the hour we left with our three kids. It was October and that’s when male tarantulas go wandering to find mates. The day was hot, the folding hills of Mt. Diablo golden. “Look there!” David exclaimed as we drove up Northgate Rd. He had spotted our first tarantula casually crossing the pavement.
We crouched down on the centerline to admire it; then picked it up with cupped hands. Our youngest son Clive held his arm out so the spider could walk up it. We held hands underneath to catch the spider should it fall. We knew that tarantulas are not poisonous to humans and were highly unlikely to bite. Perhaps we shouldn’t have picked it up but we were careful and soon enough we set it on its way unharmed.
This is what I hoped would happen on my trip to Mt. Diablo yesterday. The hills were still golden in the autumn light, just as they had been before. An added delight was that the elevation was high enough that I was above the smoke line from the California wildfires. I did not see any tarantulas, although I did see a female tarantula nest. The silk surrounding the hole indicated that she was still inside. The silk makes it easier for her to slide inside and out. Had she already mated? I don’t know. I’d read that she puts a web of silk over her hole when she’s ready to mate. The male taps on this webbing to announce his presence.
I spoke to two park personnel about where I might see tarantulas. One told me “They are everywhere!” but the gentleman at the visitor center said he’d seen only one this year. “I think there are fewer tarantulas than there used to be. And now they seem to come out more in August and September than in October.” He added, “And they don’t like direct sunlight, so you’re more likely to see them in the evening or morning.”
I hiked several trails and stayed until after sunset, even briefly considering sleeping in my car overnight (outside the park entrance) to see if I found any early next morning. I hadn’t paid for camping, although I will next time. The campground was open and there were several vacant spots.
I would highly recommend this field trip, even though I didn’t see tarantulas. The park is lovelier than I remembered: vast acreage of beautiful oak covered hills and tremendous views from the peak. There are other reasons to go, too. I will talk about them on another post. Next year I will go in September and camp.