Saturday, November 28, 2009

Invasion of the Tartars

Thanksgiving morning, my mom sent me to the grocery store. She had been tasked with making lemon pie but realized that she lacked cream of tartar, an ingredient that makes the difference between good, fluffy lemon pie and sucky, flat lemon pie. So I went and picked it up from that swarming zoo of a supermarket, all the while wondering why this particular item was called cream, since it’s a powder, and why it’s called tartar, since it has apparently nothing to do with the seafood sauce or raw beef

The internet, as always, has explained it all. Drop dead, Clarissa.

According to Merriam-Webster, cream of tartar is a salt, so why it gets to be known as a cream is a complete mystery to me. (Full disclosure: I took Physics AP to pass out of high school chemistry, so there’s much about chemical classifications that I don’t understand. Most of these are cooking-related, like why baking soda gets to be a soda.) This particular sense of the word tartar comes from a term that the Online Etymology Dictionary traces back to the Greek word tartaron, meaning “a substance encrusting the sides of wine casks.” According to Merriam-Webster, there’s essentially no difference between this byproduct of fermenting grape juice, sometimes known as bitartae of potash, and the product now sold as cream of tartar. And it makes sense that cream of tartar is a wine byproduct that helps pastries rise, since yeast, which is also used to turn baking one-stories into high-rises, is an integral part of winemaking.

Also, if you think about it, the notion of crud accumulating where it’s not supposed to also works for dental tartar. It should be no surprise, then, that the two words share the same etymology.

So what’s the deal with tartar sauce? The soundalike has no relation, in either the verbal or culinary senses. The sauce — defined by Urban Dictionary as “the gay version of mayonnaise” — seems to come from the Tartars, who inhabited Tartary, the region that once spanned the region between the Caspian Sea, the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. (These people, now known as the Tatars, survive today. Charles Bronson was apparently one, so good for him.) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term Tartar originated in the fourteenth century in reference to the hordes of Ghengis Khan — which included some people now known as Tatars, but lots of others as well. The Mongols themselves allegedly called themselves the Tata, though the resulting term Tartar may have been influenced by the Latin Tartarus, “hell,” presumably by the way they conducted themselves. By the seventeenth century, the term could just refer to a “savage, rough, irascible person.” Regardless, the pickles-and-mayonnaise recipe seems to be historically tied to Turkish people and not Mongolians.

Sometimes spelled tartare sauce, the phrase is first recorded in French, which also gives us tartare in the sense of steak tartare, “highly seasoned ground beef eaten raw.” Curious, then, that the legacy of the Tatar people would be seafood sauce and raw steak, but it’s more than a lot of people can claim. Also good to know: the sauce and the steak have no connection with dental crud.

Food and words, previously:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Before Pug-Beagles Walked the Earth

A quick update to my long-delayed word-of-the-week series. Lovers of designer dogs should know that I won’t be writing about the kind of animal that usually comes to mind when one hears the word puggle. No, the subject of this post is a little harder to love.

image courtesy of ugly overload

See? That little scrunched up whatchamacallit ball is a baby echidna — cute in its own way but probably less-than-appealing to the trophy pooch crowd. And this baby echidna and his fellow echidnitas would probably be pretty pissed to know that that there’s another species trotting around and being called puggles.
puggle (PUH-guhl) — 1. a baby monotreme. 2. a mixed breed of dog created by mating a pug and a beagle.
That’s right. Long before the term became associated with pug-beagles, it referred to baby monotremes — that bizarro order of egg-laying mammals that includes platypi, echidnas. I first encountered the word in this June 8 New York Times article on the wonder that is the echidna. Here is the sentence: “They lay leathery eggs, as reptiles do, but then feed the so-called puggles that hatch with milk — though drizzled out of glands in the chest rather than expressed through nippled teats, and sometimes so enriched with iron that it looks pink.” Lovely, no? (I have a previous entry on the monotreme habit of milk-sweating, in case you’re interested.)

If you’re Googling the term puggle, expect a hell of a lot of canine-related articles and not too much on the history of original definition of the term. The Wiktionary page, however, claims that the original puggle comes from the Australian verb puggle, meaning “to clean drains.” According to Wiktionary, “English settlers in Australia would puggle to get rabbits out of holes and sometimes find an echidna,” with the source of this possible etymology coming from a November 11, 2000, broadcast of the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Radio National Science Show. And I guess if you pulled out a baby echidna from a pipe and didn’t know what it was, I guess puggle is as good a name as anything else. Obligatory Simpsons reference: That’s an odd name. I’d have called them chazzwazzers.”

Incidentally, I checked Wiktionary’s list of baby animal names to see if some unfortunate species’ young was coincidentally called pekapoos or goldendoodles. Thankfully no. However, I did learn a few new ones: cria (a baby llama, vicuna or alpaca), leveret (a baby hare), and parr (a baby salmon).

Previous words of the week:
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Wanderer of Time

A scan from Final Fantasy VI: Yoshitaka Amano art of Terra in her Magitek armor.


Dreamy, really.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Pixelated Boob by Any Other Name

A preface: This does start out being just about video games, but eventually I get to boobs. Video game boobs, to be specific, but boobs all the same.

Way back when, I put up a post here on name oddities in video games. No, not that one. I mean the one about how three of the bosses from Street Fighter II exchanged names when Capcom translated the game for English-speaking audiences. It’s never been explained officially, as far as I know, but I agree with the notion that Capcom wanted to avoid possible lawsuits resulting from similarities between one of these boss characters, an African-American boxer named M. Bison, and the real-life African-American boxer Mike Tyson. (Really, would you want to enrage the guy?) Given that the original Japanese version had already recorded the voice samples — particularly those of the announcer, who would say things like “M. Bison wins!” or “Such and Such a Character versus M. Bison!” — it was easier to just shift the names so that M. Bison became Balrog (appropriate for a bruiser), Balrog became Vega (appropriate for the guy from Spain), and Vega became M. Bison (kind of a lame name, really, for the game’s big bad).

Back in the day, Street Fighter II “inspired” a whole host of similar games featuring combatants from many lands competing in globe-crossing martial arts tournaments. One of these has been rattling around in my memory for years, only vaguely recalled from the days little me used to play it at a pizza place where I grew up. This game was one of the paler Street Fighter II imitations, to be sure. The only clear memory I had of it was the presence of a scantily clad female fighter from Egypt stuck with the odd name Chaos. I finally Googled her and found that the title of the game was Martial Champion, which, it should be noted, is a pretty lame title for anything. Chaos, however, was there — indeed looking petty darn Egyptian, if because she was wearing a sexy Halloween version of a pharaoh costume instead of anything an actual Egyptian person would wear.

image credit: system 16

And here she is taking on the other female fighter, Rachael, your all-American girl-next-door who also happens to be ninja.

image credit: system 16

In the above image, they’re fighting on Chaos’s stage, which like Chaos herself looks stereotypically Egyptian. Why then, I wondered as a kid and wondered again now, is her name Chaos? Reading the Wikipedia page for Marital Champion, however, I found out. And the reasoning is similar to what prompted Capcom to switch around its Street Fighter II character names. What I didn’t remember about the game’s line-up of playable characters is that it also included a Chinese fighter — that special kind of hopping Chinese vampire, it turns out, even though I wouldn’t have known what one was at the time — who was saddled with the equally improbable name of Titi. In the Japanese version of the game, Chaos and Titi’s names were reversed, with Titi being a very sensible name for an Egyptian princess whose full name might be Nefertiti. and Chaos befitting the evil dude. But why the stateside switch? I presume the names ended up how they did in the international versions of Martial Champion simply because they didn’t want a lady fighter to have a name that would read similar to titty. Thus, the Egyptian princess got stuck with the name Chaos, for no apparent reason, and the freaky chaotic vampire got Titi. I suppose the vampire should have been happy that Titi wasn’t named Melonie, Busomania, or Princess Sweatercows.

So that theoretically explains that. But odd, isn’t it, that a scantily clad character can show her assets but not have a name that reflects those assets? I’d say that titty is an inappropriate enough word that the company that created this game, Konami, would have wanted to avoid the association, even if the name still does exist in the game, now attached to a male character. Still, it’s an odd notion that the mention of a slang term for breasts would somehow be worse than, say, the expanse of cleavage being revealed by Martial Champion’s other female character, Rachael. Practically no one remembers this game and the characters therein, so any strangeness perceived in Chaos, Titi and Rachael is pretty much a moot point. However, these are issues that persist in video games even today: the seemingly inexplicable name change thing, sure, but more importantly the odd issues of censorship, the whole “You thought this had to be removed but you let this slide?” thing.

One more bit about Martial Champion before I never mention it again: Aside from the Chaos/Titi confusion, the game’s English version seems to have been further doomed by a terrible U.S. marketing campaign. How unappealing — much less inappropriate to the look of the game — is the Martial Champion arcade flyer?

Holy Christ, that’s awful — as seemingly trying to piggyback on the success of Mortal Kombat, with its digitized life action fighters. Way to make a rip-off even more derivative, Konami.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Oswald the Vengeful Rabbit

So since the game actually made it onto Gawker — and not just the Gawker family’s game blog, Kotaku — I suppose I should write something about Epic Mickey, a slightly twisted Disney video game that has me more excited about the round-eared one than I’ve been since I was a kid.

Disney has a long history with video games, going back to a 1981 Game & Watch title, Mickey Mouse. My earliest Disney game memory — and likely that of many people who will read this blog — is 1987 NES title, Mickey Mouscapade, which had Mickey and his ladyfriend hopping Mario-style through various levels, shooting stars (for some reason), fighting villains like the evil queen from Snow White (for some reason) and finally rescuing Alice from Alice in Wonderland (for some reason).

Mickey Mouscapade was great fun at the time, but, in retrospect, the game kind of sucked, even for a first-generation NES title. Easily the worst part was the play control; Minnie follows Mickey around, jumping slightly after he jumps and landing slightly behind where he lands. This resulted in Mickey successfully leaping over those bottomless pits that so often dot the landscape of platformer-style video games but Minnie falling in and plummeting to her death, causing Mickey as well to die (again, for some reason.) Regardless, Mickey definitely has a place in my fond memories of playing video games.

Epic Mickey looks different. Rather than stick Mickey and his Disney cohorts in a bright, shining universe with smiles on every rock, tree and cloud — you know, like where Mario has been living for the last twenty years — the game’s designers have tried to grow Mickey up a bit. Mickey’s new world is a little dark, a little steampunky. Take, for instance, this nightmarish half-robot version of Donald Duck.

Not exactly the same waterfowl that hugs the kiddies at Disneyland, is it? Gaze also at this trippy concept art.

If the in-game graphics of Epic Mickey come close to matching what’s above, then we’ll be in for a treat.

What has me most excited about this game, however, is the news that its big bad will be Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks debuted in 1927, a year before the suspiciously similar-looking Mickey Mouse stole the spotlight.

Money disputes prompted Disney and Iwerks to eventually leave Universal Studios, which maintained ownership of Oswald until 2006. Wikipedia explains that as part of a deal between Disney and NBC Universal, the former traded the latter sportscaster Al Michaels for Oswald. Michaels now workings alongside John Madden at NBC, and Disney finally got the rights to a bunch of old Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon shorts. (I have to wonder how Michaels must feel about this trade. “You, sir, are basically worth the same as an obscure cartoon character that few remember and who looks basically like our current mascot.” Wikipedia notes that Michaels at least publicly had the sense to make a joke about the trade: “Oswald is definitely worth more than a fourth-round draft choice. I’m going to be a trivia answer someday.”) In any case, Oswald is back — and presumably pissed for having been shoved aside for some many years while Mickey lived the good life, being all recognizable even to people who don’t own TVs or have access to movie theaters.

This sort of thing thrills me: a fictional universe with a long history pulling an obscure also-ran from its archives and giving him or her a chance to shine once again. It doesn’t happen often enough, though I suppose superhero comics do it pretty well. Who would have expected Batman’s Jason “Robin No. Two” Todd to be resurrected from the dead? To draw an example from a different form of pop culture, the new Melrose Place wins points for me — even though I haven’t watched it — for bringing back Laura Leighton’s character from the original series, Sydney Andrews, even though she too was once dead as a doornail. It’s fan service, I guess, but it’s something that really clicks with the geeks who know a given universe inside and out. (“They thought of that! That’s what I think of! I feel validated!”) It’s good to know that the people in charge of a given franchise know at least enough about it to appease the experts.

I don’t know how well the game Epic Mickey will be received, but it gets points from me for rescuing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from obscurity. And I look forward to beating the crap out of him at the end of the game.

A closing thought: Mickey Mousecapade’s control issues notwithstanding, I do think that the -capade suffix needs to be used more often.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Ghost in the Sink

Halloween may have come and gone, but the ghosts linger — specifically in the bubbles in the soaking dishes in my kitchen sink. This is one is less scary if you pretend the mouth hole is actually a big round nose. I cannot suggest anything that the two smaller holes could be aside from nipples. Soapy ghost nipples.

bubble ghost

And I swear I will stop blogging about ghosts.