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This "Zonas Adhesive Plaster" was in the first aid kit Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, took on their 1931 survey flight to the Orient. Since they were traveling over vast expanses of uninhabited territory where medical attention would be hard to find, even a small injury could have been fatal. Always meticulous planners, Charles and Anne considered this and took a first aid kit to treat small wounds.
A vacation flight with "no start or finish, no diplomatic or commercial significance, and no records to be sought." So Charles A. Lindbergh described the flight that he and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were planning to make to the Orient in 1931. Their choice of route, however, showed the feasibility of using the great circle to reach the Far East.
The Lindberghs flew in a Lockheed Sirius low-wing monoplane, powered by a 680-hp Wright Cyclone. The Sirius had been designed in 1929 by John K. Northrop and Gerard Vultee, and this model was specially fitted with Edo floats, since most of the Lindberghs flight was to be over water.
Their route took them from North Haven, Maine, to Ottawa, Moose Factory, Churchill, Baker Lake, and Aklavik, all in Canada; Point Barrow, Shismaref, and Nome, Alaska; Petropavlosk. Siberia; and on over the Kurile Islands to Japan. After receiving an enthusiastic welcome in Tokyo, they flew to China. They landed on Lotus Lake near Nanking on September 19, thus completing the first flight from the West to the East by way of the North.
At Hankow, the Sirius, with the Lindberghs aboard, was being lowered into the Yangtze River from the British aircraft carrier Hermes, when the aircraft accidentally capsized. One of the wings was damaged when it hit a ship's cable, and the aircraft had to be returned to the United States for repairs.
Their next venture in the Sirius came as a result of the five countries' interest in the development of commercial air transport. In 1933 Pan American Airways, Imperial Airways of Great Britain, Lufthansa of Germany, KLM of Holland, and Air France undertook a cooperative study of possible Atlantic routes. Each was assigned the responsibility for one of the following areas: New Newfoundland to Europe via Greenland; Newfoundland via the great circle route to Ireland; Newfoundland southeast to the Azores and Lisbon; Miami, Bermuda, the Azores, and Lisbon; and across the South Atlantic from Natal, Brazil, to Cape Verde, Africa.
Pan American was to survey the Newfoundland to Europe via Greenland route. Ground survey and weather crews in Greenland were already hard at work when Lindbergh, Pan Am's technical advisor, took off from New York on July 9 in the rebuilt Lockheed Sirius, again accompanied by his wife, who would serve as copilot and radio operator. A Sperry artificial horizon and a directional gyro had been added to the instrument panel since the previous flight, and a new Wright Cyclone SR1820-F2 engine of 710 horsepower was installed. Lindbergh's plan was not to set up a particular route but to gather as much information as possible on the area to be covered.
The Jellinge, a Danish ship, was chartered by Pan Am to maintain radio contact with the Lindberghs in the Labrador-Greenland-Iceland area. The ship also delivered advance supplies for them to Halifax, Saint John's, Cartwright, Greenland, and Iceland.
Every possible space in the aircraft was utilized, including the wings and floats, which contained the gasoline tanks. There was plenty of emergency equipment in case the Lindberghs had to make a forced landing in the frozen wilderness.
From New York, the Lindberghs flew up the eastern border of Canada to Hopedale, Labrador. From Hopedale they made the first major overwater hop, 650 miles to Godthaab, Greenland, where the Sirius acquired its name-Tingmissartoq, which in Eskimo means "one who flies like a big bird."
After crisscrossing Greenland to Baffin Island and back, and then on to Iceland, the Lindberghs proceeded to the major cities of Europe and as far east as Moscow, down the west coast of Africa, and across the South Atlantic to South America, where they flew down the Amazon, and then north through Trinidad and Barbados and back to the United States.
They returned to New York on December 19, having traveled 30,000 miles to four continents and twenty-one countries. The information gained from the trip proved invaluable in planning commercial air transport routes for the North and South Atlantic.
The aircraft was in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City until 1955. The Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, then acquired it and transferred it to the Smithsonian in 1959.
The locals know them as “zogue-zogues." These little guys live in the central-southern area of the Brazilian Amazon and have orange tails, light gray foreheads and dark ocher beards covering the throat and bottom half of their faces, reports Environmental News. Until recently, the little red-hued primates were unknown to science.
Researcher Julio César Dalponte first noticed the uniquely colored animal in 2011. He suspected that it was a titi monkey, a primate group common to South America that live in trees and grow to between nine and 18 inches. But he didn’t recognize his specimen as one of the over 30 identified species.
After several data-collecting expeditions, a team of scientists published a study deeming the animal a newly identified species of titi. They named it Callicebus miltoni, or Milton’s titi monkey, after the Brazilian primatologist Dr. Milton Thiago de Mello.
The primate’s habitat is at considerable risk. Ranging through the “lowland rainforest between the Roosevelt and Aripuanã rivers and south of the Amazon River,” according to Environmental News only about 57 percent of the monkey’s habitat is protected.
Much of the rest of its homeland faces the highest rates of deforestation in the Amazon, due in large part to the soy and cattle industries. The monkeys are also—perhaps most—threatened by development projects planned by the Brazilian government’s “plans to construct several new hydroelectricity dams, including one on the Roosevelt River, and an extended road system within the Amazon,” writes environmental news agency Monga Bay.
The monkey are unlikely to to migrate to safer grounds: they are not known to swim or travel over mountains.
"It will take more than luck if we are to keep making scientific finds like this,” said researcher Felipe Ennes Silva, one of the study’s authors. “The rainforest is under threat like never before, and it will take dedicated, hard work – not just by conservationists but by the government and every other sector of society, too – to make sure that this forest ecosystem can continue to support a wide diversity of life and help regulate our planet’s climate.”
Humans are naturally afraid of the dark, mostly because it can cloak myriad dangers. But take a closer look, and it turns out many of the creatures that go bump in the night are adorable, resourceful and awe-inspiring. Now fossil studies suggest that the very first mammals may have been born into darkness.
Today a wide variety of known animal species are nocturnal, mostly active at night, or crepuscular, mostly active at dawn and dusk. These behaviors offer three main advantages: reduced competition for resources with daytime critters, protection from heat and water loss in arid regions and a way to hide from predators or find unsuspecting prey.
Photographer Traer Scott became fascinated with night-dwellers while watching moths fly near her porch lights on summer evenings—and then thinking about the bats that prey on those moths. In her new book, Nocturne: Creatures of the Night (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), Traer highlights the diversity of nocturnal species around the world, offering a glimpse at birds, bats, spiders and other animals that most humans rarely see.
While nocturnality makes sense for those animals and many others today, how or why it first emerged has been unclear. One prevailing scientific theory was that nocturnality evolved in early mammals as a defensive strategy to escape the jaws of predatory dinosaurs, which were mostly active during the day. But according to research recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, being nocturnal may have been the status quo for the common ancestor of all mammals.
The new finding hinges on an ancient group of reptilian proto-mammals called the synapsids, which arose during the Permian period, some 320 million years ago. Dimetrodon, a massive sail-backed reptile that went extinct 40 million years before the dinosaurs arrived, is probably the most well known synapsid. This group of animals endured throughout the Carboniferous and Jurassic periods before giving rise to the first true mammals some 200 million years ago.
To test the assumption that mammals became nocturnal to avoid becoming dino dinner, researchers from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the W.M. Keck Science Department in California turned to 300-million-year-old synapsid fossils. They analyzed scleral rings, or circular bones that cradle the eyes of some animal groups (you might have encountered them when eating a whole fish, for example). This ridge has disappeared in mammals, but it was present in our synapsid relatives.
In species living today, the size of those rings in relation to the animal’s body size corresponds with eye function and light sensitivity. Just as nocturnal animals today tend to have large eyes, so too would those of the past, the team thinks. They analyzed the eye dimensions and functions of scleral rings from 38 synapsid fossils representing 24 species. Nocturnality, they found, actually has a “surprisingly deep” evolutionary origin, likely evolving in synapsids more than 100 million years before mammals even appeared.
It might be that nocturnality evolved for the exact opposite reason scientists previously assumed, the team says. Breaking down the results, about half of the herbivorous species they analyzed seemed to adhere to a daytime lifestyle, compared to just 6 percent of the carnivores. Nocturnality, in other words, seems to have been a favorite strategy of predators that took advantage of darkness to sneak up on sleeping prey.
Those animals’ ability to operate under the cloak of darkness makes them no less vulnerable to human threats, however. In her book on nocturnal animals, Traer notes that many nocturnal species today are suffering from habitat loss and degradation, including from light pollution:
“Owls, bats, raccoons, and other nocturnal animals with specialized night vision can lose their ability to see properly in heavily light-polluted areas. This decreased vision affects their ability to hunt and forage and can put their lives in immediate danger if they are unable to see approaching predators.”
It sits like a dark, faceless plastic mask, more like a prototype for a Star Wars film.
Eight inches high and made of black Bakelite, Isamu Noguchi’s Radio Nurse is not only a modern design that fits in with his monumental stone sculptures for which he is known, but the 1937 artwork is also the first working baby monitor.
As one of the objects in the Smithsonian’s current retrospective “Isamu Noguchi: Archaic/Modern,” it has found a fitting home. The Smithsonian American Art Museum hosting the show was originally the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Noguchi submitted a patent application for the Radio Nurse covering the appearance of the receiver and was granted a design patent (D108,837).
It’s one of several patents he was granted that augment the exhibition of 74 works from the artist’s six-decade-long career, largely drawn from New York’s Noguchi Museum, that show his innovations in design—some of which endure today.
Despite its futuristic Art Deco design and fulfillment of what would prove to be a desirable parenting aid, Radio Nurse, a commission from the Zenith Radio Corporation in response to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping earlier that decade, did not succeed because its radio frequency overlapped with car radios and garage door openers.
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Trinity by Isamu Noguchi, 1945 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Untitled by Isamu Noguchi, 1958 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Untitled by Isamu Noguchi, 1986 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Space Blot by Isamu Noguchi, 1982-83 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.. Skyviewing Sculpture Maquette by Isamu Noguchi, about 1980 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Slide Mantra Maquette by Isamu Noguchi, about 1985 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. This Tortured Earth by Isamu Noguchi, 1942-43, (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Serpent by Isamu Noguchi, 1946 and Spider Dress, 1946 (original image)
Image by © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. An installation view of Isamu Noguchi's Serpent and Spider Dress, 1946 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Sky Mirror by Isamu Noguchi, 1970 (original image)
Image by Photo by Shigeo Anzai. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Sculpture Finding by Isamu Noguchi, 1979 (original image)
Image by Photo by Soichi Sunami, image courtesy the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. Model for Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars by Isamu Noguchi, 1947 (no longer extant) (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Rocking Stool in Wire Form by Isamu Noguchi, 1954 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Radio Nurse by Isamu Noguchi, 1937 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Pregnant Bird by Isamu Noguchi, 1958 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Red Lunar Fist by Isamu Noguchi, 1944 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Monument to Ben Franklin by Isamu Noguchi, 1933 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Magic Mountain by Isamu Noguchi, 1984 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Leda by Isamu Noguchi, 1942 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Leda by Isamu Noguchi, 1928 (original image)
Image by Photo by Gene Young. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Grey Sun by Isamu Noguchi, 1967 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Lunar Table by Isamu Noguchi, 1961-65 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. E=MC 2 by Isamu Noguchi, 1944 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Gregory by Isamu Noguchi, 1945 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Cloud by Isamu Noguchi, 1959 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Black and Blue by Isamu Noguchi, 1958-59, fabricated 1979-80 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Atomic Haystack by Isamu Noguchi, 1982-83 (original image)
Image by Photo by Kevin Noble. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Age by Isamu Noguchi, 1981 (original image)
Image by © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Installation view of Noguchi’s Akari Ceiling Models E,1954,L8, 1976 and B,1955 (original image)
But some other of Noguchi’s designs were much more successful. His 1950s Akari light sculptures that blended the simplicity of ancient Japanese Chinese lanterns with the modernism of electricity continue to be manufactured as high-end design, but also in an array of knockoffs.
Also on display in “Archaic / Modern” are examples of the artist's wire form tables and stools, and a kidney shaped Freeform Sofa from about 1948, as well as a walnut and glass Coffee Table, first introduced in 1948—and all still being manufactured.
Just as the artist didn’t see a difference between the ancient and the modern futuristic forms, Noguchi spent his career blending art and design.Isamu Noguchi at Machu Picchu, 1983 (The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York)
Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi was raised and educated in Japan, Indiana, New York and Paris—a background that made him “among the first American artists to think like a citizen of the world,” says Betsy Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
As well known as he became for fine art and for monumental stone works like the 1967 Grey Sun, Noguchi remained fascinated by inventors and industrialists like Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford, who he once called the true American artists.Isamu Noguchi, 1968. Russell Lynes, photographer. Russell Lynes papers, 1935-1986 (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
Dakin Hart, the senior curator at the Noguchi Museum, says, “Thirty or 40 years ago, doing any kind of commercial work was seen to undermine serious work of the sculptor.”
“Even his dealer Arne Glimcher at Pace Gallery said he spent his entire career—50 years he worked with Noguchi—trying to protect Noguchi the sculptor from Noguchi the designer in order to maintain a market position,” says Hart, who organized the exhibition with Smithsonian American Art Museum curator of sculpture Karen Lemmey.
“But of course almost all of his great sculptural work came out of his work as an industrial designer,” Hart says. “So often genius in one area is just the imported conventional wisdom from another field. Noguchi was brilliant at doing that.”
Indeed, many of his most successful sculptures blended the traditions of, say, a stone Japanese fountain, with modern technology that allowed water to run continuously through it as he does in The Well. Likewise, his Red Lunar Fist combined a bioluminescent chunk of crystal-bearing cave work with elements of an electric wall lamp. It is featured prominently on the cover of the accompanying catalog.
But his Akari light sculptures—with various patent applications on display—were his most popular and enduring creations. Using paper, bamboo and metal, Noguchi created a series of lamps that combined the inventions of the 20th century with Chinese paper lantern traditions that date to 230 B.C. The lamps continue to be updated, currently with LED lighting, which is something the artist would have appreciated, Hart says.
“The Akari form was all about proving a theory,” he says, “which was that washi paper, which was made from mulberry bark, could naturalize electric lighting. That was his hope. If you passed electric light through paper you could get something that felt like daylight again.”
“That was the excitement for him—naturalizing a newer technology into something that felt real, that felt connected, that felt of the natural world,” he says.
It was such a perfect combination, of course it was copied at the most popular household design stores.
“It’s infuriating what has happened to this idea,” says Lemmey. “Of course the best ideas are often imitated. There’s so much subtlety to these Akari lights—the mulberry paper, the bamboo, the tradition. You could substitute a metal dowel and lower the price, but there’s an authenticity to it. And he saw the sale of it supporting his studio museum.”Patent Number Des. 182,037 (United States Patent and Trademark Office)
Of the latter, the tables feature a base and top, which is not resting on the wire stem, but held together by tension, like a bicycle wheel. His patents from February 1958 explore how they work.
“They look so simple, but they’re really not simple,” Hart says of the table designs. “The structural rigidity of it comes from the fact that they’re strung together like a bicycle wheel.”
“Up to its limit, it works very very well,” he says. “But if I sat on this, all the wires would just collapse in a circle.”
There were also problems with his invention of a rocking stool of a similar design. “It really rocks, so there were some accidents,” Hart says. “People would use it as a step stool—not a good idea.”Radio Casing (Radio Nurse) Patent, Isamu Noguchi, approved March 15, 1938. Patent number Des. 108,837 (United States Patent and Trademark Office)
Like the Radio Nurse, not all of Noguchi’s design inventions came to pass. “He was obsessed with designing the perfect ashtray,” Hart says. But his patent application for one that featured fingers as if out of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture wasn’t accepted by the patent office.
The Radio Nurse, used in combination with a crib-side box called the Guardian Ear, was at first accepted enthusiastically by Zenith, which commissioned it.
“Zenith was the Apple of the '30s,” Hart says. “It made all of the cool new products that people wanted in their home.”Martha Graham dons Noguchi’s Spider Dress while standing on his Serpent in the 1946 production, Cave of the Heart (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1932 followed by the arrest, trial and execution of Richard Hauptmann in the subsequent years, created interest in a device that would better keep track of children in the home. But not just any box of wires.
“What the president of Zenith realized was that he needed something people would be proud to have in their living room,” Hart says. “It had to be good design. And it was widely received that way. It was exhibited and won design awards.”
But despite a few years of manufacture, it failed.
“The radio frequency technology that it used interfered with regular radios and the new technology of the time, which were for electric garage doors,” Hart says. “Signals were being crossed. It actually meant that driving by in a car you could pick up the transmissions of the Radio Nurse on your car radio.
“Which was the exact opposite of what it was trying to do, because it was sold as a security device,” he says. “But anybody driving by would know there’s a baby in that house.”
Still, he adds, “as a formal thing it’s neat because he did what he usually does, which is be able to synthesize three really interesting things: the traditional kendo mask, the bamboo sword fighting practice mask, with a period nurse’s cap, which still looked a little bit like a wimple, and of course, it’s a robot head. It’s an automaton. So it’s synthesizing together three really different figures of authority into something that feels purposeful and a little bit severe, but hopefully not terrifying.”
It wasn’t until another generation that the kind of baby monitors used today came onto the market.
And when a vintage Noguchi Radio Nurse came up for auction in 2008, the price was a surprising $22,800.
"Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern” continues at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. through March 19, 2017.
Tiny particles and troublesome gases in the outdoor air are ultimately responsible for some 3.3 million premature deaths annually, according to a comprehensive new look at the health effects of air pollution.
The data suggest that globally, more people die from outdoor air pollution than from malaria and HIV/AIDS combined. And if there is no change to our current control measures, outdoor air pollution could cause around 6.6 million early deaths each year by 2050.
“Air pollution appears to be a very significant source of premature mortality,” the study’s lead author, Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, said this week in a telephone press conference.
Low-altitude ozone and fine particulates in the air have been linked to heart disease, strokes, respiratory illnesses and lung cancer. But global data on this pollution has been lacking because air quality is not monitored in many parts of the world.
Lelieveld’s team combined atmospheric modeling with population data and health statistics to create estimates of air pollution levels, where it was coming from and how many people it was killing.
Particulates can come from natural sources such as dust as well as unnatural ones, including burning wood and charcoal, large-scale power generation, vehicles and agriculture. Agriculture may seem like an odd source of air pollution, but fertilizer and domesticated animals both produce ammonia, which mixes with other types of emissions in the atmosphere to produce particulates.
The source of the particulates—and thus deaths from air pollution—varies from region to region, the study demonstrates. In the United States, for instance, where air pollution accounts for some 55,000 deaths annually, traffic and power generation are big contributors. In the eastern half of the country, the combination of agricultural fields and dense cities and suburbs combines to produce many deaths, Lelieveld says.
But the majority of deaths from air pollution occur in China and India, mostly from residential heating and cooking, which is often inefficient and produces a lot of particle-filled smoke. Researchers already knew that this type of pollution, when breathed indoors, causes around 3.5 million deaths. But Lelieveld and his colleagues found this source is also a huge contributor to outdoor air pollution, responsible for killing another million people globally.
“You cannot stop people from eating and cooking, but you can provide better technologies,” Lelieveld said during the press conference. He noted, however, that though inventors have tried to lessen this source of pollution with more efficient cookstoves, it has often been difficult to convince people to give up their traditional methods.
Lelieveld admits that his group’s dataset is not perfect. For instance, there is some research that shows that black carbon—the main component in soot—is worse than other types of particulates. If that is true, than the scope of deaths from various sources of air pollution would change. But Lelieveld and his team hope that their research will help guide governments in creating better control measures.
Evidence that such measures can reduce deaths comes from another study published today in Nature Geoscience. Dominick Spracklen of the University of Leeds and colleagues looked at the health impact from a reduction in fires linked to Amazon deforestation. They estimate that fewer fires lessened airborne particulates enough to prevent some 400 to 1,700 premature deaths in South America each year.
“Is there ajiaco today?” That was the first question my grandfather Julián would ask when he entered any of the Cuban restaurants spread across Miami. In quick succession he would ask it of the host who was seating us; he’d ask it of the busboy who was passing by; he’d ask it of the waitress before she distributed the menus.
If ajiaco was on the menu, usually as a rotating weekly special, he’d be rewarded with a bowl brimming with smoky cuts of pork, chicken, flank steak, and a dry cured beef called tasajo, along with rounds of starchy corn, golden sweet squash called calabaza, and plantains at every stage of ripeness. The broth could be light, or dense with the tropical root vegetables and tubers that had dissolved into it.
For my grandfather, it was everything he could want, flavors that evoked large family dinners and weekends spent on his ranch outside Havana where the guajiros (farmhands) would prepare large rustic stews. If more people turned up, a few more vegetables would be added so there would be enough for everyone. The next night it would be simmered down for a light soup. Then those leftovers would be milled together to make a smooth purée the following day.
I was never part of this life in Cuba. For me, ajiaco was an unfamiliar blend of rough brown vegetables and strange cuts of meat. My grandfather praised the tenderness of tasajo, but I saw little appeal in the dried beef covered in a thick layer of orange fat we’d find in the grocery store. It was a blind spot in my defiantly Cuban upbringing, like when a Spanish word eluded me but the English one was screaming in my ear. Though I can’t say that I appreciated ajiaco growing up, I did sense that it was fundamentally Cuban, something I should enjoy eating but didn’t. I never wanted to disappoint my grandfather by letting on that I didn’t like it. I hoped to spare him another reminder that we weren’t in Cuba after all.
Many years later, when I was writing a book of Cuban recipes, my research led me to the island, where I believed ajiaco could be the key to fully understanding Cuban cuisine. But what I found was that, like so many traditional dishes, it was more often talked about than tasted. Simpler versions could still be managed, especially in the countryside if there was immediate access to ingredients, but shortages persisted. Beef, in particular, was a rare commodity that was largely out of reach for most Cubans. Ajiaco had become a recipe of subtraction—but it didn’t start out that way.
According to food historian Maricel Presilla, when the Spanish came across the island’s indigenous Taíno population preparing the stew in clay pots over a wood fire, they would have recognized their own olla podrida, albeit with very different ingredients: Small game, like hutias (a local rodent), iguanas, or turtles; simmering with native vegetables like yuca, malanga, boniato, corn and squash; and seasoned with the burnt orange seeds of the achiote plant, which grows wild on the island. Its name came from the caustic peppers, or ajíes, the Taíno used for added heat. Although the elements of the concoction have changed since those times, its primacy as one of the few recipes with roots stretching back to pre-Columbian times is unquestioned.
In a recovered journal from the mid-1600s, maintained by a servant named Hernando de la Parra, early descriptions of ajiaco show a pronounced Spanish influence. Small game was replaced with the fresh meats and salt-cured beef from the livestock the Spanish introduced to the island, including cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. But the indigenous roots and tubers, corn, and achiote were still present, as was casabe, a flatbread accompaniment made with shredded and dried yuca. Although de la Parra concedes the dish was largely consumed by the indigenous population, he notes that Europeans quickly became accustomed to this new way of eating, even to the point of forgetting their own traditions.
The push and pull between Old and New World ingredients would continue throughout the brutal years of colonization. Columbus’s second voyage in 1493 brought the sour oranges and limes that would become the basis of creole marinades. Onion and garlic were combined with indigenous peppers to form the trinity at the heart of traditional Cuban cooking. Plantains and yams called ñames arrived from West Africa soon after and were closely associated with the large African population brought to the island as slaves to toil in mining and agriculture, and to supplement a Taíno labor force decimated by famine and disease. Though it’s unclear exactly when these foods were added to the stew, all these ingredients were listed when ajiaco recipes were finally recorded in 19th-century cooking manuals.
Despite the intense social stratification that existed, ajiaco was one of the few dishes that seemed to cross all barriers—a peasant meal ennobled by its origin story. In Viaje a La Habana, a memoir published in 1844, the Condesa Merlin Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo chronicled her return to Cuba after several years in Europe.
Noting the dichotomy that existed among elite, native-born Creoles, she describes the show they made of serving hyper-refined European delicacies to guests, while taking comfort in familiar, tropical foods in private. She rejects an aunt’s efforts to present her with an elaborately prepared French recipe, choosing a simple ajiaco instead, asserting, “I have only come to eat creole dishes.”
For the emerging Cuban-born aristocracy, flush with capital but facing volatility both in sugar markets and politics (the revolution in Haiti at the turn of the 18th century sent shock waves), the European style of cooking projected wealth, stability, and cosmopolitan sophistication. There are 19th-century descriptions of parties where ajiaco was served, but only if no foreign guests were present. Tropical ingredients and ajiaco in particular became synonymous with Cuba’s roots and a growing drive to embrace them.
As Cuba moved toward independence from Spain in 1898, the shaping of a national character grew in importance. In the decades that followed, poets, writers, and academics looked to better define the country’s identity. Ajiaco, with its blended, or mestizo, culinary heritage, became a favorite metaphor in the criollista movement, which embraced Cuba’s Indian and black heritage.
Most famously, the preeminent anthropologist Fernando Ortiz compared all of Cuba to an ajiaco: “This is Cuba, the island, the pot placed in the fire of the tropics…. An unusual pot, this land of ours, just like the pot of our ajiaco, which must be made of clay and quite open,” wrote Ortiz in a lecture delivered at the University of Havana in 1939 and published in 1940. “And therein go substances of the most diverse types and origins…along with the flush of the tropics to heat it, the water of its skies to compose its broth, and the water of its seas for the sprinklings of the salt shaker. Out of all this our national ajiaco has been made.”
Not only did he celebrate the confluence of Taíno, Spanish, and African cultures in the making of ajiaco, he also cited other surprising influences, including Eastern spices introduced by Chinese laborers and mild peppers brought by immigrants fleeing revolutionary Haiti. He even pointed to Anglo-American ingenuity, although with ambivalence, for simplifying domestic life and producing the metal cookware that replaced traditional clay pots used for making the stew.
It wasn’t the final savory result that made Ortiz see Cuba in the cauldron but the process of cooking—varied cuts of meat disintegrating after a long simmer, and vegetables and fruits added at certain intervals to create new textures—a “constant cooking” that was always evolving, creating something new.
It’s harder to know what Ortiz would have thought of this quintessentially Cuban dish establishing itself on the other side of the Florida Straits. But for many Cubans in the diaspora, the longing to connect to their country is fulfilled at the stove. The ritual of finding the right ingredients—the roots that are at the base of the stew, the special cuts of beef or pork, the plantains in various stages of ripening—are ways to experience the island from afar.
Ajiaco has a place in my life, too. My grandfather’s yearning for the dish awakened my curiosity. I now take comfort in the flavors, learning something new with each attempt at the recipe, and never taking a single spoonful for granted.
Image by Ellen Silverman. Ajiaco is prepared in every manner of kitchen, including this one in a 1920s home in Havana. (original image)
Image by Ellen Silverman. What goes into a pot of ajiaco depends on what’s available. (original image)
Image by Ellen Silverman. Home cooks in Havana will typically buy ingredients at market stalls or from the ubiquitous bicycle carts. (original image)
Image by Ellen Silverman. Calabaza squash is a key component of the stew. (original image)
Image by Ellen Silverman. Cachucha peppers are in the stew’s sofrito sauce mixture. (original image)
This version of ajiaco comes from Miguel Massens, a young Cuban-American chef.
FOR THE MEATS
½ pound tasajo de res (smoked, dried beef)
2 pounds bone-in, skinless chicken thighs and drumsticks
½ pound flank steak or brisket, cut into 1-inch cubes
½ pound bone-in aguja de cerdo (pork collar bones), pork ribs, or ham hock
¼ pound boneless pork loin, trimmed of any excess fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
FOR THE VEGETABLES
1 pound boniato, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
1 pound malanga, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
1 pound yuca, peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch rounds
½ pound ñame (or white yam), peeled and quartered
2 ears corn, shucked and cut into 2-inch rounds
2 large green plantains, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
2 large yellow plantains, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
1 pound calabaza (sold as West Indian pumpkin), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 chayote, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
FOR THE SOFRITO
5 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ cup freshly squeezed sour orange juice or lime juice
¼ cup loosely packed fresh culantro (found in Latin markets), finely chopped
¼ cup achiote oil
1 medium yellow onion, minced
5 cachucha peppers (also known as ajies dulces), stemmed, seeded, and diced
1 large cubanelle pepper (also known as Italian frying pepper), stemmed, seeded, and diced
1 small fresh hot pepper (habanero, Scotch bonnet, or tabasco), stemmed, seeded, and minced (optional)
Lime juice to taste
Soak the tasajo to remove some of the salt, changing the water twice, at least eight hours at room temperature or overnight. The next day, drain the tasajo and rinse well under cold water.
Add the chicken, flank steak, pork collar bones, and pork loin to a heavy eight-quart stockpot with five quarts of water and simmer until tender, skimming off any impurities that rise to the top, about one additional hour.
Add the boniato, malanga, yuca, ñame, and corn to the pot and continue to cook covered until the root vegetables are just tender, about 20 minutes. Add the plantains, calabaza, and chayote and continue to simmer until tender, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Replenish the water if needed. Allow the stew to cook at the stove’s lowest setting until the meat falls from the bone and shreds easily, 30 to 45 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare the sofrito. Using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, salt, black pepper, and cumin to form a smooth paste. Stir in the sour orange juice and culantro and set aside.
Heat the achiote oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cachucha peppers and sauté until the onion is translucent, six to eight minutes. Add the garlic mixture and combine with one cup of broth and one cup of root vegetables taken from the stew. Mash the vegetables into the sofrito and simmer until well blended, about five minutes. If using, add the minced hot pepper to taste. Add the entire sofrito to the stew and simmer an additional 10 to 15 minutes.
Adjust the seasonings to taste. Remove the chicken bones and pork bones from the stew. Ladle the stew into individual bowls and sprinkle with lime juice. Serve with warmed casabe (yuca flatbread) and fresh lime wedges.
From The Cuban Table, by Ana Sofía Peláez and Ellen Silverman. Copyright © 2014 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.