Devil's food cake

Of the many trivially traumatic food-related experiences I remember from my childhood, there’s one in which I was served something billed as a “devil’s food cake” (which I had always understood to mean chocolate cake) that turned out to be red, and whatever associations the color red may have with the devil, I knew that red was not the color of chocolate and therefore not what I wanted to be eating. Tears likely occurred. (This pales in comparison to my key lime pie story—about which, the less said, the better.) But ever since then, I’ve been vaguely suspicious of the term “devil’s food.” Chocolate cake is very near the top of my list of favorite desserts, but I expect my chocolate cake to be called chocolate cake and to look like chocolate cake.

With that decades-long bias in place, I performed my obligatory web searches to find out exactly what it is we’re supposed to be celebrating (or eating, if there’s a difference) on National Devil’s Food Cake Day. And perhaps I’m the last person on Earth to realize this, but I discovered that “devil’s food” refers to a particular type of chocolate cake that’s darker in color but lighter in texture than conventional chocolate cakes (and, apparently, moister too, sometimes due to the addition of coffee). I also learned that the name comes not from an association with the color red, but rather as a contrast to angel food cake, which is (of course) white. Well, OK then. Let’s go make some.

However, I was also not dreaming about the red cake. It appears that in some periods and some parts of the United States, the term “devil’s food cake” was indeed used as a synonym for what most people now call red velvet cake. That cake, despite its non-brown color, does in fact contain chocolate, and although modern recipes achieve the red hue using food coloring, the color originally came from cocoa powder that was not Dutch processed, as nearly all of it is today. I guess that makes me feel better about it, but all the same, I’ll take my devil’s food cake the way I take my coffee—black.

Image credit: By Maggio7 from Troy, MI, US (Devil’s Food cake) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Putting the muse back in museum

There are two kinds of museums: museums where I get sleepy after about an hour of looking around, and museums of interesting things. I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course: all museums contain things that are interesting to someone. But interesting is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I don’t get terribly excited viewing, say, Italian Renaissance paintings—even though I appreciate the quality and emotional depth of the art in principle. After looking at a few dozen of these, I slip quickly into a “been-there-done-that-time-for-a-nap” mood. On the other hand, a science museum can keep my attention indefinitely, while it has exactly the opposite effect on my wife, who will gladly ponder the da Vincis and Raphaels for hours on end.

I’ve been to dozens, maybe hundreds, of museums in my life, ranging from massive institutions such as the The Louvre and the British Museum to the tiny Voodoo Museum in New Orleans and San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique, a collection of mechanical games and arcade amusements from the early 20th century. For me, what makes a museum interesting is not its size or fame but its ability to capture my imagination with things I’ve never encountered before. More often than not, this rules out the big, impressive museums of art, natural history, and the like.

Are You Amused?
More to my liking are museums that hark back to the original idea of a museum—a place where someone goes to listen to the Muses…or to be amused in the sense of engaged, fascinated, or amazed. Early museums were gathering places for scholars, containing as they did rare artifacts that provided insights into a wide variety of people, places, and ideas. A couple of centuries ago, it was fashionable in some parts of Europe for wealthy, well-traveled men to keep a “cabinet of curiosities”—a collection of rare and exotic objects from around the world—with which they could impress their friends and prove their sophistication. Some of these cabinets grew into rooms, and later on developed from private collections into public institutions of their own. But as travel became easier and less expensive, many of these curiosities began to seem less curious. The primary role of a museum shifted to that of a place for keeping valuable art and historical artifacts safe, while making them available for public inspection.

But a few institutions kept alive the idea of displaying an eclectic collection of amazing objects from around the world in order to delight, inspire, and entertain visitors. Among the best examples are the dime museums from 19th-century America. Taking their name from their standard admission price, dime museums displayed bizarre, frequently grotesque specimens such as shrunken heads, two-headed animals (dead or alive), and other real or fabricated oddities of nature. They also featured live performances of many kinds, mostly in the vein of circus sideshows—the goat boy, the bearded lady, and so on. Part of the very appeal of dime museums was that visitors never quite knew how seriously to take any of it: if the things were real, they were impressive; if they were fake, they were still impressive, but for a different reason. Before movie theaters appeared, dime museums were some of the best and most economical entertainment an average citizen could buy.

Something for Everyone
Today, you can still find descendants of the dime museum in operation, such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museums, which carry on that legacy in numerous cities around the world. Although they’re cheesy and touristy, they serve the all-important function of making visitors go, “Wow, I never imagined there could be such a thing!”

Ever since the days of show-and-tell in kindergarten, I’ve had a fondness for learning about new and interesting things, so eclectic collections like dime museums strike my fancy. But there’s another whole range of museums that focus very narrowly on just one kind of interesting thing. It just so happens we have a list of 43 Weirdly Specific Museums, with entire collections devoted to objects such as antique pharmaceutical supplies, toilets, bricks, and Pez dispensers. There are hundreds of other examples, too—some tending toward the absurd and others with a more serious educational focus. But all of them meet an important need—showing visitors things they can’t find just anywhere, and exposing them to interesting ideas that are outside their normal experience. (There’s also at least one museum that comes to you: the aptly named Museum of Interesting Things in New York.)

The Virtual Museum of Interesting Things
You may not have realized it, but you’re standing (or sitting) in a museum right now. That’s how I like to think of Interesting Thing of the Day: an intriguing collection of more or less random curiosities—carefully catalogued, displayed, and described for your enjoyment. You don’t have to travel far to visit this museum; it’s conveniently located just about everywhere. As in any other museum, our exhibits change regularly. In order to keep visitors coming back, we sometimes rearrange our galleries, move certain pieces into or out of storage, or rework exhibits to keep them current. Each time you return, you’ll see some old things, some new things, and perhaps a renovation or two.

As your curator, I spend my time locating new items for the collection, researching each object’s background, and writing descriptions that help to interpret and explain the exhibits. Interesting Thing of the Day is not, for the most part, about the bizarre or the unbelievable. It’s more like show-and-tell from a cabinet of curiosities that’s large enough to encompass ideas, historical events, other museums, and even things that might not exist. It’s here to amuse you—in the very best sense of the word.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 1, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A dinosaur skeleton at a museum

Museums pop up frequently here on Interesting Thing of the Day—unsurprisingly, in that they are by definition places set aside for the exhibition of interesting things. So, I don’t need a special excuse to visit a museum, but if you do, you’re in luck! The International Council of Museums has designated May 18 as International Museum Day, and every year since 1977 museums around the world have held special events on this date. If there’s a museum nearby that you’ve been itching to visit, today’s the day!

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A Dutch woonerf

Using uncertainty to calm traffic

The Dutch word is woonerf, which sounds like it should be a type of foam ball; its plural is woonerven, which sounds a little bit like “unnerving.” Curiously, both of these notions strike amazingly close to the heart of this novel concept for making roads safer for pedestrians (including, naturally, children at play). Often translated into English as “living street,” “living yard,” or “home zone,” a woonerf is a paved street area shared by cars and pedestrians. Counterintuitively, its safety is a byproduct of its ambiguity; despite (or, rather, because of) an almost complete absence of signs, traffic signals, road markings, or even curbs, cars drive more slowly and fewer accidents occur.

Safety in Danger

When I first read about this concept in Wired years ago, I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the notion that one could make roads safer by making them appear to be less safe. But the idea isn’t new, and it isn’t just some crazy theory. Since at least the 1970s, towns in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe have been successfully modifying their roads and sidewalks to conform to this new model of traffic management, and in more recent years, the idea has begun to take hold in more and more North American cities too. Some early Dutch woonerven employed signs, speed bumps, and obstacles (such as benches or large planters) to force cars to slow down, and though that worked, drivers found these measures annoying. Modern versions of the concept follow a “less is more” principle that respects all users of a street and encourages (positive) interaction between motorists and pedestrians.

When a car approaches an intersection with no crosswalks, signs, or other indications of where exactly to go, its driver becomes confused—and slows down in order to figure it out. When a street or intersection is designed in an intentionally ambiguous manner, drivers automatically look for cues in the faces of people standing, cycling, or sitting nearby. This eye contact enables all the road’s users to negotiate their turns and positions in the flow of traffic. It replaces strict rules and separation with psychology—and it works. In many of the cities where living streets have been developed, fatalities and serious injuries from traffic accidents have decreased dramatically.

In the Zone

Traffic engineers who have studied the effectiveness of these “second generation” traffic-calming measures suggest that the clear separation between car areas and pedestrian areas—along with the extensive signs, lights, signals, and lines that are so ubiquitous on the roads—have contributed to a false sense of safety. Whatever traffic laws may say, drivers are easily lulled into an impression that they always have the right of way. And that is one of the reasons so many pedestrians are injured; drivers can simply zone out. (I am speaking, by the way, as a pedestrian who was once hit by a car due to a zoned-out driver.) Without that illusion of safety, drivers are forced to pay more attention.

A living street is certainly not always an appropriate design. A heavily traveled eight-lane thoroughfare in a downtown urban area is not going to yield to this approach, nor will a freeway. And that’s as it should be. Cars are very good at getting from place to place quickly, and no one is suggesting that children should be able to play safely in the middle of an interstate highway because the cars are only going 15 mph (25kph). However, in residential neighborhoods, small towns, and reasonably confined urban and suburban areas, living streets may be a better solution than photo radar, speed traps, and rigidly enforced traffic signs. The challenge is changing our assumptions about how roads are designed—and accepting the uncertainty that follows from a lack of rules. For most of America, that’s a hard sell.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 18, 2005.

Image credit: Erauch [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

I regret that I cannot participate in Bike to Work Day, in that I work at home and don’t own a bike. If it were not for those two minor complications, I would absolutely bike to work today. The City of San Diego is aggressively adding new bike routes and bike paths, and indeed plans are afoot to turn the street I live on into a bike boulevard. Despite being a non-bike-owner myself, I couldn’t be more pleased at all the efforts to reduce motorized vehicular traffic and give cyclists better and safer opportunities to get from place to place. If you have a bike, a place of work that is not home, and a reasonable distance to commute, I hope you’ll consider biking to work today (and as often as you can).

Image credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day