History from
the Bottom Up

How Perfectly Offal

In the midst of this season of overindulgence, I thought I would post about one of my favorite people from history, Catherine de Medici (1519 – 1589), Italian-born wife of Henry II, king of France, and one of her favorite meals: cibreo. This famous Renaissance Florentine dish was a stew made of gizzards, testicles, offal, and rooster coxcombs. Despite her ironclad constitution and robust health, more than once Catherine ate so much of it she nearly died of indigestion.

Catherine de Medicis How Perfectly OffalHere’s the recipe, adapted from this website:

Catherine’s Cibreo

Serves 4  (or 1 if your name is Catherine de Medici)

You will need (but don’t ask me where to get):

¾ pound of chicken livers

3 ounces of coxcombs

1 tablespoon butter

¼ cup of meat stock

4 cock testicles

2 egg yolks

juice of one lemon

1 tablespoon flour

salt and pepper to taste


  1. Wash the coxcombs, then boil them until the outer membrane separates easily when rubbed. Drain and remove the membranes. Cut the coxcombs into pieces.
  2. Clean and wash the livers.
  3. Thoroughly wash the testicles.
  4. Melt the butter, brown the coxcombs, reduce heat and cook until tender. Add some boiling stock if it gets dry. When the coxcombs are almost done, add the livers and testicles, salt and pepper, and cook for ten more minutes.
  5. In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, lemon juice, and remaining broth. Pour over the offal, remove from pan and serve immediately.

Remember: don’t eat too much, no matter how delicious it is!

Motoring Gear

Not long ago, as we were driving to New York, this guy passed us on the highway.

It reminded me of fashions people used to wear when autos first came out. I have blogged before about how the first models were open to the air, so passengers wore goggles and “dusters,” and women often wore big, sweeping, net veils over their hats and faces. Here’s one more picture that I came across in the Library of Congress archives, from around 1910: … Read more

Banes of My Existence

A very long time ago, when I was taking my SATs, I encountered a short, four letter word in the analogy section that I didn’t know: bane. Reader, if you are under the age of 17 and still have SATs to look forward to, by golly I want to teach you what the word means. It means a cause of harm, ruin, or death. In Anglo Saxon it means “murderer.” I guessed wrong on the test, and subsequently started seeing or reading that word every time I opened a book.

As I research poisons (the subject of my next book), I … Read more

The Mill, The Din

Last week, while driving back from Maine, I realized I was passing right through Lowell, Massachusetts, so I stopped by to visit the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.

It’s a pretty awe-inspiring structure, which looms over the town. You approach it by walking across a canal, and then you’re in the enormous courtyard.

The mill workers’ stories have been memorialized in the images of Lewis Hine, and in fictional retellings such as Lyddie by Katherine Paterson and Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop. I include this part of history in … Read more

Goya at the MFA

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I spent several days in Boston, and I was able to get to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Goya exhibit. (Fun fact: on days when the museum closes at 4:45, you can get in free starting at 4 pm—a perfect length of time if you’re just going to one exhibit.)

When Goya (1746 – 1828) was 46, he contracted a mysterious disease that caused him to become deaf. Historians aren’t sure what it was. It may have been a viral encephalitis. It may … Read more

Patently False

In the late nineteenth century, patent medicine makers printed postcard sized advertisements for their products and distributed them to druggists. Most of these so-called trade cards had a picture on one side, and a description of the product on the other. The pictures ranged from imaginative to bizarre to grotesque to racist. Manufacturers were not required to divulge ingredients, and they often made wildly fraudulent claims. Worse still, some of these patent medicines contained powerful poisons. Many were some combination of sugar, alcohol, and opiates.

Here’s a little sampling for you:

 … Read more

Happy Thanksgiving!

Antoon Claeissins,  Family Saying Grace, 1585 |

I am busy shopping, chopping, and cooking for lots of relatives this week, and will resume my blog next week. Have a wonderful holiday, all.

Antoon Claeissins, Family Saying Grace, 1585


Today I’m leaving for the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention, held this year in Washington DC.

Tomorrow I’ll be on a panel  from 2:30 PM to 3:45 PM with five other authors, moderated by Jeff Anderson.


My fellow panelists will be: Erin Dionne, Varian Johnson, Kate Messner, Laurel Snyder, and … Read more

Thanksgiving, Back in the Day

I’m busy planning Thanksgiving dinner, and as I do every year, am frustrated by the tyranny of today’s menu, and my family and friends’ expectations. People are so hidebound nowadays, demanding turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. It hasn’t always been the case. I found a treasure trove of old Thanksgiving menus from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the UNLV Libraries digital collection, and I discovered that Thanksgiving menus in days of yore had so much more variety. Oysters, calves’ feet, turtle soup, and frogs’ legs factored into many of the menu offerings, as did … Read more

A Dangerous Post: Read at Your Peril

Dear Reader, reading this blog post could be very dangerous. Please proceed with caution.

There’s a Monty Python skitcalled The Funniest Joke in the World where a British writer during WWII comes up with a joke so funny it causes people to die laughing. No one can read it and live. Eventually the lethal joke gets translated into (nonsensical) German as:
Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer?
Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!
We see two German soldiers keel over laughing, and the “joke warfare” continues to cut its deadly swath.

Here’s where we enter treacherous waters. Because … Read more

Page 1 of 10312345...102030...Last »