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Uncommon Facts

The Uncommon Life

37 Enchantingly Uncommon Facts about Unicorns

November 7, 2017

Ever wondered what a Unicorn’s horn is called? Are unicorns real, or is the mighty beast just a myth? How do you catch a unicorn? We rounded up 37 enchanting facts about everyone’s favorite elusive horned horse to make it easy to find everything you’ve ever wanted to know about unicorns in one magical article.

1
The gleaming, magical horn that’s captured our hearts is officially called an alicorn.

2
Alicorn isn’t just the name for a unicorn’s horn. It’s also the name for a horse with wings and one horn.

 

3
While Nessie may still be the Highlands’ most notable mythical creature, the Unicorn is the national animal of Scotland.

 

4
Scots celebrate the majestic equine on National Unicorn Day each April 9.

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The Uncommon Life

Vintage Wisdom: 10 Uncommon Facts About Wine

May 25, 2016

Wine is bottled poetry ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food. ~ W. C. Fields

Whether you’re a sophisticated sommelier or just enjoy a nice glass of vino with friends and a good meal, wine is a storied substance with a fascinating history. It can be daunting to uncork the subject, so to begin, may we suggest this vintage collection of ten uncommon facts?

Wine has a Long History

Wine production began in the Ancient Mediterranean around 6,000 BCE. The mood-altering properties of the alcohol in wine were soon associated with mysticism and religion, from the hedonistic rites of Dionysus and Bacchus to the sacraments of Christianity. But the fermented grape products of the ancient world left something to be desired. Wine as we know it today was born circa 1091 CE with the Cistercian order in Burgundy. They planted grapes at Clos de Vougeot and are credited with organizing vineyard parcels based on how the wine tasted, the modern mode of vintages followed to this day.

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The Uncommon Life

Waves of Wisdom:
9 Uncommon Facts About Sea Glass

April 4, 2016

Imagine that you’re walking along the beach on a gorgeous sunny day when something shimmery in the wet sand catches your eye. At first you think it might be a rock, still glistening from the tide that washed it in. But as you get closer, you see that it’s really more of a gem. Not a gem in the precious stone sense, but in that “Wow, I just found something really special!” way. It’s sea glass–the smooth, frosty product of broken glass left to tumble in the waves.

Collectors scavenge the shores to find these tiny treasures, and some creative beachcombers even turn bits of found sea glass into beautiful jewelry pieces. Since we recently expanded our own collection of sea and beach glass designs, we decided to learn a little more about the glass “gems” at the center of these wearable works of art. Read on for a few of the uncommon facts we found about sea glass.

 

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The Uncommon Life

From Hogmanay to Krampus: 12 Uncommon Facts About the Holidays

December 4, 2015

It seems that the holiday season gets longer every year—commercially, at least—so it’s kind of ironic that the traditions spanning the season once lasted for twelve days. Once, that seemed like a long time. Now, it’s just a portion of the holiday pie that’s served up the day after Halloween and lasts straight through the January sales. So to honor the ancient traditions of the twelve days while you ponder the perfect gift for your Uncle Ralph, we offer this gift of a dozen uncommon facts about this festive season.

The Holiday JournalThe Holiday Journal

1) First, about those twelve days of Christmas. Thanks to the popular carol, many people today think it’s about wooing your true love with a stage full of performers, barnyard animals, and five gold rings. Actually, both “twelve days” and “Christmas” are misleading for two reasons: first, if you count from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, it’s really a full two weeks on the calendar, and second, those two weeks encompass observances well beyond the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The twelve days include delightful, archaic holidays such as Boxing Day, Mother Night, St. Distaff’s Day, and the Feast of Fools, so there’s more packed into “the holidays” than you might expect.

Emergency Clown NoseEmergency Clown Nose

2) Of the colorful highlights of the twelve days now largely lost to history, the Feast of Fools may be most ripe for a revival. Like a combination of April Fool’s Day and Mardi Gras, this fourth day of Christmas was hugely popular in the middle ages as a rare opportunity to party down, despite the Church’s constant condemnation of the occasion. This popular feast day was marked by topsy-turvy social role-playing, colorful mumming, and raucous revelry of every kind. Sound good? Who wouldn’t want to blow off some steam a few days after our contemporary Christmas craziness?

Whiskey Tasting SetWhisk(e)y Tasting Set

3) The sixth day of Christmas—New Year’s Eve—might be considered first in significance in Scotland. There, it’s traditionally known as Hogmanay, a possible corruption of the French au guis menez (“to the mistletoe,” suggesting a Druidic origin). But whatever its name or origins, the celebration is essentially the same to this day—drinking toasts to the old year, counting down to the new, and tying on a few more after midnight. But a wonderful part of Scottish Hogmanay called “First Footing” is less common. In this ritual, the first person to put their foot across a threshold has the honor of bringing good fortune to the whole household. Sometimes, this metaphor for stepping through the door of a new year was accompanied by a handsel, a gift of a lump of coal or a bottle of whisky (no e in Scotland) to symbolize the many gifts of the coming year. Warmth…whisky…who needs a Christmas sweater?

A Grand Treasury of Shakespearean InsultsA Grand Treasury of Shakespearean Insults

4) Traditionally, the end of the twelve days on Twelfth Night was marked by the unpopular task of taking down Christmas decor—packing away permanent ornaments, and disposing of natural ones like evergreen boughs and holly. It was once considered bad luck not to do so by Twelfth Night (we’re looking at you, guy who keeps all his lights up until Valentine’s Day). Seventeenth century poet Robert Herrick asserted that failure to make a clean sweep on Twelfth Night could turn every spine on the holly into a malevolent goblin. But Twelfth Night was not just a warm up to spring cleaning, it came with its own festive traditions like a special Twelfth Night cake. A bean was baked into the cake, and whoever found it in his or her slice was crowned king or queen of Twelfth Night, leading the gathering in songs and games. Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies, was written as an elaborate court entertainment for the season’s-end festivities.

5) So how do we end up with so much greenery to dispose of at that end of the season? Since ancient times, evergreen plants like holly, ivy, and various conifers have been associated with the persistence of life through the cold and dark of winter. Originally, the power of these plants to resist seasonal die-off was seen as magical, so bringing them indoors as decorations was a way to capture some of that vitality during the winter doldrums. The old English carol “The Holly and the Ivy” reflects some of the lore that developed around these plants. But the king of holiday greens, the Christmas tree, didn’t really come on the scene until the seventeenth century. Although it has many ancient origins, including traditions of decorating evergreens during the Roman Saturnalia, the Christmas tree as we know it is a German invention of the 1600s, and didn’t catch on in American until the nineteenth century.

Manzanita Branch With Mistletoe

Manzanita Branch With Mistletoe

6) Among the traditional holiday evergreens, mistletoe has ancient origins as well as a specific, modern function. To the Druids, mistletoe was sacred and central to their rites. A parasitic plant that grows on certain trees (including oaks—also sacred to the Druids) mistletoe means “all-healing” in the Druidic language because they believed it was a cure-all (warning: actually extremely poisonous, so don’t throw mistletoe berries into your holiday baking!). Today, a bunch of mistletoe hung in a doorway becomes a special spot to steal a kiss. The connection between the Druid’s reverence for the plant and this excuse for snogging is unclear, but likely stems from a belief that the plant embodied vitality and fertility, similar to the other winter evergreens. So, next time you catch mommy kissing Santa Claus, you can blame it on a bunch of parasitic weeds.

7) Long before the customary exchange of gift cards and fruitcakes (giving real meaning to the phrase “you shouldn’t have”), giving gifts around December 25th was an important and varied tradition. In the Christian tradition, the custom of Christmas gift-giving is based on the gifts of the three Magi, but there are other precedents for presents. In Sicily, an old woman named Strina brings gifts on Christmas, and her name may stem from the Roman goddess Strenia, whose feast day was marked by the exchange of green boughs (sound familiar?). In a related French tradition, gifts called entrennes are given on New Year’s Day. In Germany and Scandinavia, a gifting tradition called Julklapp involves knocking on doors, flinging wrapped packages into houses, and running away. Sometimes, these gift bombs incorporate marriage proposals (take that, fiancé!). And of course, there’s a certain bearded man in a red suit…

North Pole Dish TowelNorth Pole Dish Towel

8) SPOILER ALERT: Are the kids in bed? If so, read on. The familiar figure of St. Nicholas / Santa Claus / Kris Kringle has as many names and origin stories as he has toy trains and candy canes. For historians, he’s Saint Nicholas of Patara or Myra, a third century bishop from Turkey who was known for anonymous gifts to poor children. But many aspects of European Santas can be traced to the pre-Christian shamans of the Finns and Laplanders—bearded, red-robed figures with jingle bells who climbed the world tree into the sky to return with gifts of prophesy. And like the Christmas tree, Santa wasn’t fully formed as a pop culture phenomenon until the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the detailed description offered by Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”). This complex history may be hard to follow, but it’s also the source of Santa’s enduring power as the main man of the season.

You've Been Naughty Popcorn Coal

You’ve Been Naughty Popcorn Coal

9) But what if you end up on Santa’s “naughty” list at this time of year? Then you just might get a visit from one of his dark counterparts such as the German Klaubauf, Swiss Schmutzli, or Austrian Krampus. Long before they were co-opted by Hollywood, these evil anti-Santas were portrayed in central European lore as sooty, menacing monsters with fiery eyes, red, lolling tongues, and clanking chains—like a cross between a demon and Dickens’ ghost of Jacob Marley. What role do these horrific figures play in the holiday pageant? Simple: scare tactics. They appear to frighten or punish bad little children, giving grave implications to the lyrical warning “you better watch out…you better not cry.” Now, who wouldn’t rather be on the “nice” list?

September Sun Mismatched Socks

September Sun Mismatched Socks

10) Assuming you’ve been nice and remembered to hang your stocking by the chimney with care, you can expect to find it filled with treats on Christmas morning. But why stockings? Why doesn’t Santa put goodies in gloves or dresser drawers? Turns out there are at least two legendary inspirations for St. Nick’s love of hosiery. The first is a tale of the historic St. Nicholas who helped a down-and-out merchant with dowry money for his three daughters. Preferring to act anonymously, Nicholas rode by on horseback and flung three bags of gold down the chimney—they landed in the daughters’ stockings, which had been hung on the fireplace to dry. The other legend comes from the Netherlands, where the Dutch Santa, Sinterklaas, travels the country on his white steed (again with the horses). Dutch children would leave carrots and hay in their wooden clogs for the horse, and Sinterklaas would fill the shoes with small gifts in return. Not stockings…but close.

Glowing Log Lamp

Glowing Log Lamp

11) Those of us without fireplaces have to make do by hanging stockings on doorknobs or shelves, but what about the Yule log? Today, you can enjoy a crackling, digital simulation, but the tradition of burning a special log at Yuletide was central to the traditional celebration of the season. The origins of this practice are obscure, but it clearly relates to the preservation of light and warmth through the darkness of winter. It’s a case of where the practical act of heating a home took on a symbolic dimension of preserving the flame of the sun until its return. Various traditions have developed around this cozy custom, making a reverent ritual of selecting, cutting, bringing in, and burning the Yule log. In fact, the ritual extended to some personifications of Santa and his helpers carrying the ashes of the previous season’s Yule log as a sort of perpetual seed. Pressing “Play” on Youtube doesn’t have quite the same symbolic impact, but it beats setting off your smoke detectors.

Hot Toddy Diagram Glassware

Hot Toddy Diagram Glassware

12) What would the holidays be without a hearty toast or two? The tipsy traditions of the season go well beyond eggnog and spiced winter lagers. Take the ancient act of wassailing, for example—an integral part of rituals meant to bless nature and ensure a good harvest in the coming year. Wassail derives from wase haile or “good health,” and the tradition in Britain involves pouring a spiced cider or ale on the roots of apple and other fruit trees to nourish them symbolically in their dormancy. In time, this expanded to the custom of mummers going door to door with a large bowl of wassail—often carved from apple wood—sharing the brew and offering gifts of song in exchange for alms from each household. As the wassailing progressed and started to include taverns as well as homes, the singing probably got more and more boisterous! The wassailing tradition also encompasses the origin of the term “toast” for a celebratory drink. We’ll toast to that!

Perpetual CalendarsPerpetual Calendars

Finally, it’s worth noting that the twelve days of Christmas originated in part as a calendar correction. In the late sixteenth century when Pope Gregory reformed the calendar adopted from the Roman Emperor Julian, he noticed that ten days had been “lost” due to the imbalance between the true length of the solar year and the number of days on the Julian calendar. By the mid-eighteenth century when the new calendar was officially embraced by an act of the British Parliament, the “missing” days had mounted to eleven. Making these days—known as intercalary—an even twelve represents the twelve months of the year, and in the Christian tradition honors the twelve apostles. Though these days are no longer “lost,” they remain symbolically outside of linear time—a chance to pause, relax, celebrate, and enjoy the many gifts and rich traditions of the season.

Christmas Gifts

 

With grateful acknowledgement to The Winter Solstice by John Matthews, an invaluable resource on the many traditions of the season.

The Uncommon Life

Gorge on Knowledge: Uncommon Facts About 5 Traditional Holiday Foods

November 26, 2015

Popcorn Bowl with Kernel Sifter | UncommonGoods

Many of us will, thankfully, have multiple opportunities to stuff our faces during the holiday season. We thought you might also like to stuff your heads with a few fascinating facts about some traditional holiday foods.

Cranberries

The cranberry was a staple in Native American Indian diets at the time the Mayflower arrived. The Algonquin called them “sassamenesh;” the Wampanoag and Lenni-Lenape word was “ibimi,” which means “bitter/sour berries.” They were one of the foods that natives taught the Pilgrims to cultivate, enabling them to survive. To European eyes, the pink cranberry flowers that bloomed in spring resembled the head of a crane, so they called them craneberries. The slide from “crane” to “cran” has been lost to history.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Author: nigel from vancouver, Canada https://www.flickr.com/people/11652987@N03

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis), British Columbia, Canada. (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photographer: nigel from vancouver, Canada)

Stuffing

Soapstone Pot with Copper Handle | UncommonGoods

Cooks have probably been stuffing foods with other foods since cooking began. Recipes including stuffing appear in the first known Western cookbook, the Roman Apicius (c. 900 AD). The Latin “farcire” (gorge, stuff) became the French “farcir” and the English “farce.” The term “stuffing” first appeared in print in English in 1538.

Sometime during the Victorian era, it was decided by refined elements of society that the word “stuffing” was too suggestive. So, just as a leg of poultry became a “drumstick,” thighs became “dark meat,” and breasts became “white meat,” the euphemism “dressing” became preferred over the original term. We have been uncertain about which is which ever since, but they are one and the same.

Chestnuts

Classic Blue Serving Bowl with Felt | UncommonGoods

Chestnuts are mostly thought of as seasonal treat today, but they have actually been a staple food for millennia in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, in mountainous regions where it was difficult to grow grains. The earliest evidence of human cultivation dates to around 2000 BC. Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe to help fuel their empire-building. The chestnut was a major source of complex carbohydrates on the Continent until the introduction of the potato in the 16th century. Highland Italian peasants still survived on chestnuts for part or all of the year even in the 19th century.

Candied Yams

Olive Swirl Ruffle Serving Bowl | UncommonGoods

Thought to be native to Central America, the sweet potato has been cultivated for at least 5000 years. Ipomoea batatas, the species we make into “candied yams,” was commonly grown in the Caribbean and South America by 2500 BC. (It’s not actually a yam, but the misnomer, from the West African languages in which the verb “nyam” means “to eat,” has stuck.) African slaves in the Americas would roast them in the embers of a fire. When the natural caramelization of their sugars gave them a glassy crust, they were described as “candied.” We would probably all be better off if we had just left them that way, and the much later addition of the mass-produced factory marshmallow, perfected in the 1950s, had never happened.

Green Bean Casserole

Sac A Plat | UncommonGoods

The green bean casserole’s origins are not shrouded in the mists of time. It was invented 60 years ago, in 1955, by one Dorcas Reilly, a home economist then employed in the Campbell’s Soup Co. test kitchen in New Jersey, after an Associated Press reporter called asking for a vegetable side dish.

It wasn’t created in a single stroke of instantaneous genius, but went through iterative development. Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup came out in 1934 and turned up so frequently in Midwestern casserole recipes–including Minnesota hotdish recipes–that it developed a nickname: “Lutheran binder.” Reilly tried versions of these casseroles with corn, peas, and lima beans, but in the end, the green bean’s supremacy was too obvious to ignore. The “Green Bean Bake” burst forth to a hungry, time-pressed world.

The aforementioned Associated Press reporter wrote it up, and the recipe appeared in an AP feature for Thanksgiving 1955. The casserole is now served as part of the Thanksgiving meal in 30 million homes.

Campbell’s now estimates that 40% of the Cream of Mushroom soup sold in the US is used in green bean casseroles. There are gluten-free and paleo versions now, of course.

In 2002, Mrs. Reilly appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. The now-yellowed 8 x 11 recipe card can be found in its rightful place among inventions like Edison’s light bulb and phonograph and Enrico Fermi’s controlled nuclear reactor.

See Our Serveware Collection | UncommonGoods

The Uncommon Life

Brews You Can Use: 10 Uncommon Facts About Beer

October 2, 2015

 

14th Century Beer Stein | UncommonGoods14th Century Beer Stein 

With evidence of brewing dating from 9500 BCE, beer is an ancient elixir with an ancestry almost as old as civilization itself. After water and tea, it’s the third most consumed liquid in the world. So, with a history encompassing over 11,000 years and billions of barrels, it should come as no surprise that the story of beer includes many fascinating facts, astounding ingredients, and colorful characters.

In honor of Oktoberfest, when Munich welcomes thousands of revelers to quaff its best brews, here’s an uncommon look at the history of beer in the form of ten trivial draughts:

Oktoberfest Ale Beer Brewing Kit | UncommonGoods

 

Oktoberfest Ale Beer Brewing Kit

1) Beer was your best beverage bet in medieval Europe, when a drink of contaminated water could be fatal. Beer slogans at the time almost wrote themselves—“Beer: the Cholera-Free Alternative!” But the rise of beer as an everyday staple meant that unscrupulous brewers were prone to cut corners. Enter the Reinheitsgebot—a family of laws governing brewing first introduced in Bavaria in 1516. The best-known part of the law dictates that beer must contain only three ingredients: water, hops, and barley (yeast is essential, but hadn’t been discovered yet). While brewers through the centuries have continued to experiment with other ingredients seeking either distinctive results or cheaper production, the Reinheitsgebot set the gold standard for beer purists, with the diversity of styles stemming mainly from the types of malt and hops used.

Magnificent Multitude of Beer | UncommonGoods

 

The Magnificent Multitude of Beer Wood Engraving

2) But is it healthy? Citizens of the Czech Republic, who consume the most beer year after year (an impressive 150 liters per capita in 2014), would answer with a resounding “YES!” Along with their caloric content, many beers are good sources of B vitamins, which aid metabolism, and silicon, which helps improve bone matrix quality. Also, hops contain an antioxidant that’s been shown to ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So, a beer a day can help keep the doctor away…but everything in moderation, of course.

Beer Tasting Flight | UncommonGoods

Beer Tasting Flight

3) Now, about those calories. Because about 75% of the calories in beer come from its alcohol content (ABV, or alcohol by volume), lower alcohol beers are generally lower in calories. Dry stouts like Guinness (with an ABV of 4.2%), are less likely to make you stout than Belgian ales with higher ABVs. It’s a common misconception that darker beers are “stronger,” and therefore more calorie-laden, when in fact the opposite is often true. On the extreme end of the caloric / ABV spectrum is a barleywine with the intimidating name Snake Venom which boasts an ABV of 67.5% and a yellow warning flag on each bottle neck that resembles police caution tape (for good reason).

HTML Beer Glasses | UncommonGoods

HTML Beer Glasses

4) Drink-on-a-dare beers aside, how do you get your daily dose of restorative, relatively healthy pilsner, lager, or stout? Beer delivery systems themselves provide some fascinating facts. Danish brewer Carlsberg established an “honorary residence” next to its brewery to laud “a man or a woman deserving of esteem from the community by reason of services to science, literature, or art…” Along with his Nobel Prize, physicist Niels Bohr received an invitation to occupy the residence, and lived there for thirty years (1932-62). Better still, the house came with an awesome amenity: a perpetual supply of beer, piped into the home directly from the brewery. Who says science has to be dry?

Beer Towel | UncommonGoods

Beer Towel

5) There are other, longer examples of beer pipelines. The Veltins-Arena, a German football stadium in Gelsenkirchen, boasts a 5 kilometer-long pipeline to supply beer to over 60,000 thirsty spectators at its 100 eateries. And in ale-loving Belgium, the city of Bruges plans a 3 kilometer-long underground pipeline to connect the De Halve Maan brewery to a bottling plant, diverting disruptive trucks from its historic cobblestone streets.

Tankard Stein | UncommonGoods

Tankard Stein

6) Still not convinced that beer should be your beverage of choice? Looking for a divine sign? How about a blessing from a beloved American “Founding Father?” These impulses have encouraged the conviction that Benjamin Franklin once said “beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.” Healthy, historic, and encouraged by such an august figure—how perfect is that? Unfortunately, this beer drinker t-shirt favorite has little basis in fact. Franklin did write a similar sentiment about wine, musing on the miracle of the Biblical wedding at Cana: “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” (letter to André Morellet, 1779). Apparently, this statement has been paraphrased through the years, and “wine” replaced with “beer”—perhaps by someone in the beer lobby with a love of colonial wit.

Das Horn | UncommonGoods

Das Horn

7) Short of “proof that god wants us to be happy (beer drinkers),” there’s a surprisingly long list of saints who bless beer culture. The roster includes Augustine of Hippo, Luke the Apostle, and Nicholas of Myra. If that last one sounds familiar, it’s the St. Nicholas—aka Santa Claus. Other saints have more specific, local associations, such as Arnold of Soissons, the Belgian patron saint of hop pickers. But if there’s one saint-like figure beloved by brewers, it’s Gambrinus. Likely an amalgamation of a Flemish king and other historic figures, Gambrinus is depicted as a jovial, bearded monarch of malt, often bearing a stein or a keg as attributes. The renowned Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell (originator of pilsner beer) honors Gambrinus with their beers of the same name.

Home Brew Journal | UncommonGoods

Home Brew Journal

8) Back to that Bavarian assertion that beer should only have a four-ingredient recipe. For reasons good and bad, brewers through the centuries have thrown other things into their worts. Early American brewers had to improvise with what they had available, adding pumpkin, spruce tips, and verboten adjuncts like corn and rice to their beer. More recently, the craft beer revival has encouraged experimentation that’s scrapped the Reinheitsgebot—with mixed results. This pursuit of novelty includes ingredients from the questionable to the downright revolting: chili peppers, wasabi, mustard seeds, oysters, pizza crust, and coffee brewed from beans recovered from the droppings of a civet. But the grand prize for off-putting beer ingredients must go to the Oregon brewery that used a yeast strain cultivated from the brewmaster’s own beard. Waiter, there’s beard yeast in my beer…

Gold Leaf Upcycled Beer Bottle Tumbler Set | UncommonGoods

Gold Leaf Upcycled Beer Bottle Tumbler Set

9) Whatever its unusual ingredients, no beer can promise everlasting life, but at least one fictional tale casts a beer as a powerful potion and plot device. In Tim Powers’ fantasy The Drawing of the Dark, an inn in Vienna brews a mystical beer called Herzwesten (“the heart of the west”). Tapped only once every 700 years, the beer is a sort of earthy eau de vie, which ultimately helps revive the Fisher King, spiritual protector of the West against an impending Ottoman invasion. This portrayal of beer as a sort of alchemical avatar is a reflection of how highly prized it is European lore, history, and culture.

Beer Jelly Set | UncommonGoods

Beer Jelly Set

10) Bonus: the brewmaster in The Drawing of the Dark is the aptly-named Gambrinus.

Beer Gifts | UncommonGoods

 

The Uncommon Life

It’s Teatime: 10 Uncommon Facts About Tea

September 22, 2015

PicMonkey Collage

We’re saying “So long, Summer,” which means it’s almost time to trade in those nice, cold pitchers of iced tea for steamy cups of the hot stuff. For centuries tea has been one of the world’s favorite drinks, and for millennia it has had a central place in the daily lives and culture of people throughout the world. With the hot, relaxing brew in mind, we’ve put together 10 uncommon facts you didn’t know about tea. Enjoy!

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Tea is perhaps the single best traveled beverage in the world. It was allegedly discovered in about 2737 BC by the second emperor of China after tea leaves blew into his boiling water. It since spread West by way of Turkish traders and East to Japan, and was a major catalyst for the development of trade relations between East and West. Today, tea is the most widely consumed beverage worldwide, after water, and is cultivated in 42 countries, mainly in in Asia, Africa, South America, and around the Black and Caspian Seas – all well represented in the Tea from Around the World Set.

 

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You might think that the need to travel with tea in a rush would be a uniquely 21st Century phenomenon, but it turns out that the scramble to bring tea to market way back in the way back was even more intense than your morning rush. After the British East India Company lost its monopoly on the tea trade with China in 1834 following adjustments to its charter, the tea trade suddenly became a free-for-all. Where there was once no rush, British Company merchants now had to compete with American merchants. Favoring newly designed, swift Tea Clippers, merchants in the 1860s would face off on an ultimate race around the world – beginning in China, ships would set out together and cross the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope, and up the Atlantic to be pulled by tugboat up the River Thames. First to unload their cargo ashore wins! | Tea to Go

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It seems that accidents played a major part in tea-related innovation over the years. The tea bag was originally “invented” by New York coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan in 1904. Though he originally intended them to be single-serving samples of tea, his customers found it easier to brew the tea while still sealed in the small, porous bags. The idea clearly took off – in the US today, the vast majority of tea is brewed using tea bags. The Tea Bag Holding Mug has you covered.

 

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Despite thousands of varieties across regions and cultures, tea all comes from the same plant, and there are really only four varieties – black, oolong, white, and green – as determined by oxidation time after harvesting. Though black has historically been the most popular, the popularity of green tea is growing much faster, likely due to its widely revered health properties. Green tea can benefit weight loss, longevity, skin care, heart disease, cholesterol, tooth decay, depression … you get the idea. | Green Herbal Tea Kit 

 

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Tea leaf reading, or Tasseomancy (cup reading), is thought to have originally originated in China, and began to grow in popularity in Europe when it was adopted by nomadic Romany people in the 18th century, to whom it is regarded as an art form. Unlike some other “mancies,” even those who are not gifted with clairvoyance – like you – are able to read the symbols. Pro tip: use loose leaf tea rather than tea cut from tea bags – the coarser cut “reads” better. And if you see a black cat in the bottom of your cup, don’t take it personally. | Tea Leaf Reading Kit

 

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Despite being mostly water, tea is actually one of the least water-intensive drinks, requiring less water per liter than coffee, beer, wine, or most fruit juices. To put things in perspective, 1,120 liters of water go into producing a single liter of coffee, whereas only 120 liters go into one liter of tea. The Tea Towel is still there for you during those rare spills mid-brew, packing more tea facts to boot.

 

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It’s easy to think of iced tea as an auxiliary form of the beverage, but in the United States it’s actually the main attraction – approximately 85% of tea served in the US is iced! Cookbooks dating back to the 19th century indicate that Americans have been drinking the refreshing, iced beverage for a long time. But no American loves iced tea as much as Georgia state representative John Noel, who introduced legislation on April Fool’s Day in 2003 mandating that all restaurants serve sweet tea in “an attempt to bring a little humor to the Legislature.” Seeing as the bill didn’t pass, the Iced Tea Gift Set would make a great consolation present for poor ol’ John.

 

PicMonkey Collage

The relaxing, versatile aroma of tea makes it a natural additive to soaps – but did you know that you can use it to clean your house as well? Less harsh than cleaning chemicals, the tanic acid in tea can be used to clean and add a luster to weathered hardwood floors. | Tea Party Soap Set 

 

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It’s easy to imagine why tea appears so frequently in 18th and 19th century English literature – from T.S. Eliot to C.S. Lewis and Charles Dikens to Jane Austen, tea came forth as a vital expression of the times and a familiar, daily act that characters engage in. Yet in novels by famous female writers like Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, tea becomes something more: a symbol of female power – and appropriately so. When it was first available in England, tea was only available in coffee houses, which only men were allowed to enter, as the smoke and noise was not fit for a lady. Finally, in 1717, the Twining family opened a tea shop that allowed women – a notable step in the social advancement of English women at the time. | Novel Teas

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Which came first: the teacup or the teapot? The teacup. Though tea has been consumed for thousands of years, the teapot has only had a spot on the table for about 500 years – largely due to changes in the way tea is served. Instead of infusing the leaves, Chinese tea-drinkers originally ground the leaves into a paste that was then dried and made into cakes. The cakes were boiled with salt, rice, ginger, orange peel, and spices, making a kind of tea soup foreign to what we’re familiar with today. As tea brewing became a more refined process, the first “official” teapot appeared in about 1500 in Jiangsu, China. | Glass Teapot with Stand

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The Uncommon Life

Get Your Brain Buzzing: 8 Uncommon Facts About Honey

September 11, 2015

Casey-in-Uniform

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to meet with Casey Elsass from MixedMade and tour his honey infusing and bottling facility, where Bees Knees Spicy Honey is born. Casey is a home gourmand turned condiment entrepreneur who makes Spicy Honey, and it was clear that he had his honey facts down. When I asked him about the odd looking organic debris he had to skim from the top of a massive, 60 lb. bucket of honey, he told me — “that’s pollen.”

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At this point, I chimed in something about how eating local honey is supposed to be good at alleviating allergies, since it can contain some local pollen — but Casey’s “ehhhh, I dunno about that. I think that’s just a myth.” left me second-guessing. When I did my research, I confirmed that this was nothing more than a bowl of Honey-Nut Lies.  Honey is actually made from nectar, not pollen, and flowers aren’t the source of allergy-inducing pollen anyways. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet…

To make up for that blunder, we’ve put together a few of our favorite true honey facts sure to have any honey obsessed foodie buzzing.

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1.) Grin and Bear It

Aside from classic ketchup and mustard bottles, few foods can claim to be as visually iconic in the landscape of the post-war American supermarket as the honey bear bottle. The ursine design was first used in 1957 by the Dutch Gold Honey Company; future president of the company Ralph Gamber allegedly remarked: “a bear likes honey, why not a bear of honey?” Classic. Since plastic was more expensive to produce back then, it was somewhat of a business gamble – but it clearly paid off. America’s favorite bear even has a name too – “Nugget.

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2.) Sweet and Somber

Today, we drizzle honey on a lot of things – toast, cheese, you name it. How about a dead emperor? I doubt that would fly now – would probably be pretty chalky – but the use of honey in burials used to be all the rage. Notably, Alexander the Great is rumored to have been buried in a golden coffin filled with white honey. That sounds pretty excessive, but he had his reasons; as a prized treat, honey was understandably associated with special occasions, rituals, and distinguished persons way back in the way back. Honey also symbolized death in many ancient cultures, presumably in reference to the sweet sustenance that honey would provide to the soul. Plus, honey is the only organic food that will never expire, and thus a likely preservative. I wonder how good ol’ Alex is holding up after all these years?

Where “Nugget” has his charm, the Varietal Honey Flight brings back the elegance of ancient honey, minus all the morbid death stuff.

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3.) Clean from the Comb

Using honey as a beauty and grooming product may be part of the all-natural beauty industry trend, but honey has been used to clean wounds since ancient times due to it’s antimicrobial properties and viscous stickiness.  Today, the US Food and Drug Administration actually recommends a special kind of honey – Manuka honey – for this purpose, since it has the added effect of releasing hydrogen peroxide. Plus, it’ll help the band-aid stay on better.

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4.) The Honeymoon Isn’t Over

While we’re on the sticky subject, ever wonder where the term “honeymoon” comes from? The term dates back to the Medieval European traditions of a newly married couple drinking honey wine (mead) for a full cycle of the moon after their wedding. Mead was thought to be an aphrodisiac – you get the picture. While “mead” might conjure up imagery of Medieval jousting lists and downy, dirty men slurping from tankards, it’s actually somewhat of a universal beverage, surfacing in cultures from Ancient Greece to Sub-Saharan Africa to Imperial China, and likely predating both wine and beer as the first alcoholic beverage due to its tendency to arise naturally under the right conditions.

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5.) What’s the Buzz?

Not only are honeybees industrious – they’re highly advanced communicators, central to which is their excellent perception of time. Biologists have determined that bees relay the location of food sources through a kind of dance code – first cracked by Karl Ritter von Frisch in 1973 – detailing the direction and distance of the flower relative to the sun’s position, by which they are even able to account for the movement of the sun when they tell their tale. It’s almost like a crude form of vector calculus mixed with interpretive dance.

Wildflower Honeycomb | UncommonGoods

6.) Waxing Philosophical (and Mathematical)

The fastidious and colonial regularity of the honeybee is showcased perfectly by the precise uniformity of honeycomb… but why hexagons? Why not another shape? It’s an age-old question, first posed in 36 BC by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro. Since wax is resource intensive for honey bees – they need to eat about 8 oz. of honey to make one oz. of wax – it makes sense that they wouldn’t use a shape like a circle, which would create gaps between cells that would need patching with wax. But why not a triangle or square then? It turns out that a hexagonal structure is the most compact and thus uses the least wax – proved only recently in 1999 by mathematician Thomas Hales. The bees knew it all along…

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7.) Mind Your Beeswax

Bees secrete beeswax from special abdominal epidermal glands. Long coveted by humans for use in candles, beeswax has actually been used as a form of currency throughout history! In 181, when the Romans defeated the neighboring Corsicans, they imposed a hefty tax of 100,000 pounds of beeswax on the islanders. Later, in 4 AD, the Roman Catholic Church decreed that only beeswax candles may be used in church rites. The decree still stands today, but church candles are usually only 5 – 50% pure.

 

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8.) It Takes a Colony

Ecological and agricultural issues surrounding domesticated honeybees have gotten a lot of media attention in the past few years. Honeybee populations seem to be vulnerable where they weren’t especially so before, with die-off rates as high as almost 50% in 2013 due to a mysterious phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD). The causes of CCD are still under investigation, but scientists speculate that the prevalence of crop monocultures – which reduce the variety of a colony’s diet – and increased use of pesticides are at least partially to blame. Bees play an integral part in human agriculture as pollinators, and there’s never been a better time to give bees a home.

See Our Honey Products | UncommonGoods

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