Monday, November 16, 2009

Toast, joints, mulberry trees

Pehr Kalm, a Swedish-Finnish explorer and botanist, died 130 years ago today. He’s best known for being one of Carolus Linnaeus’s students, and for spending several years in North America seeking out seeds and plants - not least the red mulberry - to bring back and improve agricultural possibilities in his home land.

Kalm was born in 1716, in Sweden, where his Finnish parents had taken refuge during the Great Northern War. His father died weeks after Kalm was born; and a few years later his mother and he returned to Finland (but academics argue over Kalm’s exact nationality). He studied sciences at the universities in Turku and Uppsala, and was a student of the naturalist Carl Linnaeus (dubbed the father of modern taxonomy). Kalm became much interested in the useful application of botany in agriculture and industry.

During the mid-1740s, Kalm was engaged in field research in Sweden, Russia and Ukraine. Then, in 1747 he was appointed Professor of Economic Natural History at the University of Åbo in Turku. Very soon after, though, he set off on a mission, planned by Linnaeus, to collect economically-useful plants - particularly red mulberry for silk worms - in North America.

On his journey, Kalm spent six months in England, before arriving in Pennsylvania in 1748 where he met the leading American naturalists. He made the Swedish-Finnish community of Raccoon (now Swedesboro in New Jersey) his base of operations. There, he acted as a substitute pastor in the local church, and even married the widow of the former pastor. Two major trips took him north, firstly to New York, Albany, Lake Champlain, and Canada, and, secondly, to Canada again.

Kalm returned to Turku in May 1751, where he remained for the rest of his life, teaching and writing. He died 130 years ago today on 16 November 1779. Wikipedia has a good short summary of his life, while a slightly more detailed one can be found at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. has a good biography, too, taken from Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Kalm’s diary of his journey was first published in Stockholm in the 1750s as En Resa til Norra America. This was translated into English by John Reinhold Forster and sold in England in three volumes in the early 1770s. The full English title reads: Travels into North America; containing its natural history, and a circumstantial account of its plantations and agriculture in general, with the civil, ecclesiastical and commercial state of the country, the manners of the inhabitants, and several curious and important remarks on various subjects.

Original copies are available through Abebooks costing hundreds or thousands of pounds, but a 1970s’ reprint can by bought much cheaper. However, the full texts are freely available at Internet Archive. Here are a couple of extracts, the first is actually taken from the BBC’s web pages devoted to a series about Britain - This Sceptred Isle; and the other two are taken from Kalm’s original book as found at Internet Archive.

March 1748
‘Breakfast, was almost everywhere partaken of by those more comfortably off, consisted in drinking tea. They ate at the same time one or more slices of wheat-bread, which they had first toasted at the fire and when it was very hot had spread butter on it. In the summer they do not toast the bread, but only spread the butter on it before they eat it. The cold rooms here in England in the winter, and because the butter is then hard from the cold, and does not easily admit of being spread on the bread, have perhaps given them the idea to thus toast the bread, and then spread the butter on it while it is still hot. Dinner. The Englishmen understand almost better than any other people the art of properly roasting a joint, which is not to be wondered at, because the art of cooking as practiced by most Englishmen does not extend much beyond roast beef and plum pudding.’

24 April 1749
‘To-day the Cherry-trees began to fhew their bloffoms; they had already pretty large leaves. The Apple-trees likewife began to bloffom; however the Cherry-trees were more forward: They likewife got a greenifh hue from their leaves. The Mulberry-trees were yet quite naked and I was forry to find that this tree is one of the lateft in getting leaves, and one of the firft which gets fruit.’

6 May 1749
‘The Mulberry-trees (Morus rubra) about this time began to bloffom, but their leaves were yet very fmall. The people divided them into male and female trees or flowers; and faid that thofe which never bore any fruit were males, and thofe which did, females.’

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