The Unexpected Legacy of the Carob Seed

As those of you who also read my newsletter already know, My Own True Love and I recently got back from a ten-day tour in Sicily. The tour focused on food, not on history, but you can’t keep history nerds from noticing history, especially in a cultural melting pot like Sicily, which at various times was controlled by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, Goths and Vandals, the Byzantines, Muslims from North Africa, Normans, and Spain.

Our first day in Sicily included a walking tour of Palermo, on which we were introduced to the carob tree, and more importantly from my perspective, the carob pod.

Most of us know carob as an unsatisfactory substitute for chocolate—made by drying, roasting and grinding the pulp found inside the pods— that was foisted on us in the name of health. In addition, the seeds are the source of a widely used thickening agent that is used in commercially prepared foods, including ice cream.

That is not what caught my attention, however. In the days before standardized weights and measures, carob seeds were used by traders around the Mediterranean as a standard for weighing small valuable items, particularly gemstones. The story is that the seeds are relatively consistent in size: 0.2 grams or 1/150th of an ounce.* Certainly they were readily available throughout the Mediterranean, where the tree is commonly found. The average weight of the carob seed, once known as carats, from the tree known as Ceratonia Selequia,** became the standard measure for gemstones: the carat.**

Who knew?


*Scientific studies demonstrate that this isn’t necessarily true.

**Pronounce Ceratonia with a hard c, as is proper in Latin, and the relationship will be clear.

From the Archives: Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds and the History of Radio Broadcasting

You’ve probably heard this story before:

On October 30, 1938, a 23-year-old theatrical boy-wonder named Orson Welles caused panic among radio listeners with the Halloween episode of his Mercury Theatre on the Air: an adaptation of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds.(1) Actors played the roles of correspondents who broke into an on-going [fake] radio program, seeming to report live as Martians invaded and destroyed the real life town of Grovers’ Mill, New Jersey. As the fictional invaders began to move toward Newark and then New York City, these “correspondents” told their audience that they were reporting from military command posts and from the roof of a broadcasting building in Manhattan.

Some listeners believed the show was a live broadcast and panicked, even though the opening of the show made it clear that the one-hour program was a drama.(2) A Princeton study published in 1940 claimed that six million people heard the program, and 1.7 million believed it was a real news broadcast. (Subsequent scholars question both numbers.)

As for me, I’ve always wondered why anyone would believe the broadcast was real, but as I learn more about radio in the 1930s it makes more sense. Radio was relatively new—the first national broadcast networks in the United States were incorporated in 1926 (NBC) and 1928 (CBS). News broadcasts were even newer, and infrequent. Stopping a program for “breaking” news was almost unheard of.

The growth of Nazi Germany changed the nature of broadcast news The first “news roundup” from multiple locations occurred in March, 1938, in response to the German invasion of Austria. Working on short notice, with serious technical difficulties, Edward Murrow and William Shirer of CBS cobbled together a half-hour of American newspaper correspondents commenting on the invasion from London, Vienna, Berlin, Paris and Rome.  Listeners were enthralled.

When the Munich Crisis broke out that September, both NBC and CBS upped their coverage, broadcasting live from Europe 147 and 151 times respectively over the course of three weeks. Back in the United States, CBS’s primary news reader, H.V. Kaltenborn (3), held the story together for his listeners in 102 broadcasts that ranged from one-minute bulletins to two-hour marathons in which he simultaneously translated speeches from French and German. America stayed glued to the radio throughout the crisis.

The crisis ended, but the role of radio news was changed. Local radio stations increased the time they devoted to broadcasting the news and networks scrambled to expand their overseas coverage.

As a result, when Welles broadcast The War of the Worlds a month after the crisis in Munich, he reached an audience that was newly attuned (literally and metaphorically) to radio news, but was not yet sophisticated enough about the medium to tell fact from fiction.

(1) Am I the only one to just now notice the juxtaposition of Orson Welles and H.G. Wells in this event? Meaningless and yet curious.

(2) One scholar suggests that some people missed the beginning because they were channel surfing. Let this be a warning to you.

(3) I hadn’t heard of him either until I started working on this book.  At the time, he was a Big Deal.


Around the World in Eleven Years

And speaking of memoirs about living in Nazi Germany, as I believe we were, allow me to introduce you to Around the World in Eleven Years, possibly the most unusual memoir of the period.

Published in 1936, the book was purportedly written by eleven-year-old Patience Abbe with occasional input her younger brothers Richard, and John. According to family lore, as reported in Abbe’s obituaries in 2012, the book was inspired by their mother, actress and former Ziegfeld girl Polly Abbe, who transcribed the children’s stories. Around the World in Eleven Years tells the story of the children’s nomadic childhood in Europe, following their father, photographer James Abbe, from France to Germany, Austria, Russia and England, returning “home” to the United States for the first time when Patience was eleven.

The book was an immediate best-seller, going through sixteen printings in its first year, perhaps because readers were eager to read what the reviewer in the Los Angles Times described as a “chronicle of rollicking kids” that smoothed the edges off the increasingly difficult news from Europe.*

James Abbe was one of the best known photographers of the 1920s and 1930s. He originally made his name as a stage and film photographer with portraits of Hollywood stars such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Gish. In the late 1920s James turned increasingly to photojournalism. His work included an exclusive photo session with Stalin in the Kremlin, documenting the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and images of the Spanish Civil War.

While there is no doubt that at least one adult, and probably several, edited Patricia’s stories, they retain a child’s eye view. Around the World in Eleven Days offered readers an innocent but sharp-eyed counterpoint to James Abbe’s photographs. In it, “I, Patience” described a Nazi march, in which her mother got entangled and crossing the Russian border with her father’s negatives wrapped around her brother’s bellies so the Soviets didn’t seize them. She talked about going to school in Nazi Germany, where they had to salute their teachers and say “Heil Hitler!”, and in Russia where she learned a communist version of “London Bridge is Falling Down.” She also shared her impressions of the people they met, including Sigrid Schultz:** “Aunt Sigrid is a little lady with golden hair and blue eyes and beautiful teeth. She is always smiling...She helps lots of people and speaks four languages. She is also very chic and always had parties and Mamma used to go to them all the time.” Sigrid Schultz in a nutshell.

Once back in America, the Abbe family traveled cross country from New York to Hollywood, where they finally made their home. Instead of meeting politicians and foreign correspondents, they met movie stars. (Patience once danced standing on Fred Astaire’s shoes for a photo shoot.)

Patience (or possibly Polly) ended the book with their dreams for further travels: “We would go to China. Richard wants to see the gold on the King’s house in China. Johnny wants to see the robber. I, Patience, want to see everything.” Hard to disagree with that, Patience.

**Just to put it in context here are a few high points, or low points, in the news in 1936 for those of you who don’t have the chronology in your head:

❦ March Hitler sent troops into the demilitarized Rhineland zone and renounced the Locarno, finally destroying any illusion that Germany would honor the Versailles treaty. It was Hitler’s first military action.

❦ May Italy conquered Ethiopia.

❦ July The Spanish Civil War began.

❦ August Berlin hosted the Olympics, presenting a whitewashed view of Nazi Germany to the world

❦ Also August In Russia, the dramatic trials began that would develop into Stalin’s first round purges, known as the Great Terror

❦ October Hitler and Mussolini signed the first of several treating, creating the Rome-Berlin Axis

Not a good year, with worse to follow.  (In a recent post I promised to try to use "horticultural dingbats" here on the blog.  I found they were too fussy to replace asterisks but are a more gentle choice than "bullets" for a list.  Though bullets might be the appropriate choice for this particular list.)

** You knew there was a reason I read this book.