A new issue of the trivia mag mental_floss is on newsstands now, with a new 6° of Ken Jennings column by me. This month’s challenge: to connect wasabi to “kemosabe.” If you like this kind of thing, get more scattershot education from mental_floss, either via their blog or by subscribing to their fine publication. (Their business model is like Grit‘s: I’m gonna choose the shortwave radio if I sell 200 subscriptions.)
Wasabi and Kemosabe
Wasabi, the sinus-clearing condiment that’s served alongside your sushi, is a rare and expensive delicacy in its native Japan. In fact, some chefs hold the wasabi root in such high esteem, they’ll only grate it using a special tool made of angel-shark skin. Here in the West, however, wasabi is essentially a fraud. What you get at your neighborhood sushi bar isn’t real wasabi root, but a cheap paste made from horseradish, mustard, and green dye.
In 1962, Chicago labor leader Stephen Bailey heard that city plumbers were using a fluorescent green dye to trace sewage leaks into the Chicago River, and it set his Irish eyes a-smilin’. Bailey got the bright idea to dye the river in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, and a tradition was born. Every year since then, 40 pounds of vegetable dye have been mixed according to a secret recipe (environmentalists nixed the original plumbers’ dye because it was so oily) and dumped into the Chicago River from a speedboat, giving the river its famous St. Patrick’s Day makeover.
Other than Ireland, the only place in the world where St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday is the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat. Is it all part of Montserrat’s proud Gaelic heritage? Not exactly. While the island was settled by a group of Irish Roman Catholics, the holiday doubles as a way for black Montserratians to celebrate their African ancestors, who organized a slave revolt—albeit an unsuccessful one—on March 17, 1768. Regardless, the occasion has become a magnet for tourists eager to drink green beer in good weather for a change. Sadly, Montserrat’s tourism industry is still suffering the effects of a double whammy: destruction from Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and devastation from the Soufrière Hills volcanic eruption in 1995, which destroyed the capital city, Plymouth, and forced more than 7,000 people (the majority of the population) to evacuate the island.
The volcanic eruption of Thera circa 1600 B.C.E. has long been considered the greatest cataclysm of the ancient Mediterranean. Located in the Aegean Sea, Thera is believed to have ended the mighty Minoan civilization and may even have caused yellow dust clouds as far away as China. What’s more, a new theory suggests that the eruption was also responsible for triggering a tsunami that made Moses’ famous passage of the Red Sea possible.
When the Gioacchino Rossini opera Moses in Egypt made its 1818 debut in Naples, Italy, it had, as the Hollywood types say, “third act problems.” The stage effects for the passage of the Red Sea were so lousy, they inspired more riotous laughter than religious awe. According to one Rossini biography, the composer wrote the chorus “Dal Tuo Stellato Stoglio” just to distract audiences from the crummy visuals. Today, it is one of Rossini’s most famous operatic works.
To non-opera buffs, of course, Rossini’s most famous operatic work is his overture to William Tell. Ever since January 1933, it has provided the catchy to-the-dump to-the-dump to-the-dump-dump-dump melody we all associate with the Lone Ranger—or, as Tonto called him, Kemosabe. Supposedly, the nickname meant “trusty scout,” but Lone Ranger director Jim Jewell later revealed that he lifted the name from Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee, a summer camp his father-in-law used to run on Michigan’s Mullet Lake, just south of Mackinac Bridge. Sorry, kids, but kemosabe is just as faux-exotic as most American wasabi.
(By the way, two interesting-to-me classical music tidbits that got edited out of the final draft: Rossini leaped out of bed and composed the music for “Dal Tuo Stellato Stoglio” in just ten minutes, and the biographer who tells that story is no less than the French novelist Stendhal, author of The Red and the Black.)