Interesting Stuff: Who Knew?

Guanaja Chocolate (You Need to Know About This)

Dear Kid,

Are you familiar with Guanaja (Gwa-na-ha) chocolate? Of course not. Because if you were, you would have undoubtedly shared such information with your mother and I only learned about Guanaja chocolate last weekend in Chicago.

Are you familiar with Guanaja (Gwa-na-ha) chocolate? Of course not.

This is clearly a giant hole in my education. And—being the kind of mother I am—decided it would be wrong of me to let you suffer from the same ignorance gap.

So—obviously—I consulted My Friend the Internet.

If you were to head into the Caribbean and stop approximately 43 miles north of Honduras, you might (if you’d planned things carefully) find yourself on the island of Guanaja.

This might surprise you since not many people aim for Guanaja, but there are several excellent reasons to go there.

The first is that the ocean around Guanaja is home to a gorgeous and enormous coral reef. There are also several beautiful waterfalls. Watch carefully for traffic. In 2006 there were only 3 cars on the island, but by 2011 there were 40. By now there is doubtless a traffic jam.

Apparently (pre-traffic jam), Chris Columbus landed on Guanaja. Here he discovered cacao for the first time and immediately dropped peanut butter in favor of chocolate.

All this according to My Friend the Internet.

The thing is, when you ask MFtI for more information about Guanaja chocolate, you are immediately offered opportunities to purchase Guanaja chocolate. When you protest and suggest history, amount of exports, or any other darn fact is what you’re looking for, the Internet giggles and wipes chocolate off its chin.

The point is Guanaja chocolate exists. One usually speaks of it as 70% Guanaja. If you pronounce it correctly you can look smug and superior, even if you have no idea what you’re talking about.

And even though I have no idea what I’m talking about, I can say with certainty: Yum.

Love, Mom

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Ick. That Can’t True. Can It?

Dear Kid,

Yesterday I heard one of the grossest things I’ve heard recently (and I encounter “ick” all the time). I was told that artificial vanilla flavor comes from the anal glands of beavers.

Ick. That Can't True. Can It? DearKidLoveMom.comUm, what?

The source was highly reliable, but…hmmm….

So I did what anyone named me would do. I turned to My Friend the Internet. Specifically, I turned to Ye Olde Snopes.

The answer (as it turns out) is a bit of “yes” but mostly “no” (so no need to run screaming to clean out your pantry—at least not because of this).

It turns out that beavers use one end of their bodies to eat (and gnaw trees) and the other to do several things including secrete castoreum which they use to mark their territories. When people get hold of castoreum, they use it in perfumes or as a food additive to enhance vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry flavors.

But the use of castoreum in food is pretty rare. There aren’t that many beavers lining up to have their castoreum harvested. In fact, in most beavers consider having humans touch their nether regions rather unwelcome and scream for HR to take action. Hostile work environment! In addition, there aren’t that many humans lining up be beaver milkers. Which means that castoreum is rare and therefore expensive.

The total annual national consumption of castoreum, castoreum extract, and castoreum liquid combined is only about 292 pounds, which works out to an average of less than a millionth of a pound per person in the U.S. That’s pretty dang rare.

So chances are that any artificial flavors you encounter never encountered anything more wild than a test tube.

Love, Mom

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I Have a Piri-What?!

Dear Kid,

Turns out I have a piriformis. But you knew that. 

Just in case you were sleeping the day they talked about it, the piriformis is the muscle that keeps your hips from falling off. It’s located behind one’s behind and helps one stand on  one leg without falling over.

At least that’s what most people use their piriformis for.

I was going to put in a picture of actual muscles, but it turns out I prefer them covered in skin. And often times, clothing. So I chose this muscle model instead.

Some people use their piriformis to cause piriformis syndrome which means (more or less) pain in the back. This is not a recommended use for said muscle because it hurts (and can cause other problems which allow doctors to send their children on wildly expensive educational jaunts).

Not to worry. I don’t have piriformis syndrome, and my piriformis muscle is not causing me any pain.

It seems my piriformis is more or less a freeloader, just hanging around for the good times but not doing any actual work. Which means that while I have no pain (yay) I also have pretty much no stability (we knew that a long time ago).

The piriformis is a muscle in the gluteal region. It was named in the 16th century by Adriaan van den Spiegel, who missed out on a prime opportunity to name a muscle after himself.

I discovered this because a very nice Physical Therapist (and we know what I think of physical therapists) named Julie set up a table at the gym and (gratis-for-free) examined people in the name of Injury Prevention. I like preventing injuries as much as the next person, so I volunteered to have her poke around my muscles.

She found the spots that hurt. (See: Beliefs about physical therapists, above.)

Her first thought was that my hamstrings were too tight. Then she started bending my legs around, discovered that I take after Gumby, and moved on to jabbing her thumbs into my hitherto napping piriformis (at which point I moved on to jumping 6 inches off the table).

She enjoyed that so much that she did it again on the other side which only caused me to spasm and question whether she’d gotten her degrees at the Université de Marquis de Sade.

She gave me some exercises to do on a daily basis (and by daily basis I assume she meant every month or so during daylight hours). I’ve done them twice. At least I’ve done the ones I remember twice. If I remember correctly.

It’s not that I think she’s wrong. It’s just very hard to find time to do them (and by “very hard to find time” I mean I just don’t really want to).

You might wish to study up on the piriformis and how to strengthen it. I hear it’s lots of fun to torture your mother in the name of good health and stability.

Love, Mom

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Five Surprising Facts About Coffee

Dear Kid,

The thing about mornings is that they have a nasty tendency to start before coffee. I’m waiting for someone to figure out how I can drink a cup before I wake up so that by the time I hit my snooze button (for the third time) I’m actually awake and alive.

It's possible to talk before coffee? Not in my world... DearKidLoveMom.comOn the plus side, if I start the coffee before I walk the puppy, it (the coffee) is ready by the time I get back. Not everyone during History had the same luxury. I’m not referring to the lack of Keurig (although that’s sad too).

Surprising fact: Four times in Known History (count them, 4) coffee was banned. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t rogue brewers, but it seems wrong to research them.

Surprising fact 2: Dark roast coffees have a stronger flavor but less caffeine than light roasts. (Roasting burns off some of the caffeine.) Who knew?

Surprising fact 3: In the ancient Arab culture there was only one way a woman could legally divorce: If her husband didn’t provide enough coffee. This seems perfectly reasonable. Divorcing for insufficient coffee, I mean. Not that that was the only reason.

Surprising fact 4: J.S. Bach wrote an opera about coffee. Note to self: Consult favorite opera expert for info.

Surprising fact 5: The first webcam was invented at The University of Cambridge to let people know if the coffee pot was full or not. This seems entirely reasonable.

I need a refill.

Love, Mom

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Three Cheers for Medical Innovations and Stars

Dear Kid,

The medical profession has a breakthrough! That was the big Ta-Da you heard recently.

Now, it’s nothing really important like fat-burning ice cream or hair color that self-colors roots as they grow in.

Medical innovation is written in the stars. dearKidLoveMom.comThis little innovation just keeps people healthy longer and cures things that used to kill people.

The problem has been that people are often not able to take medication for extended periods of time—and many medications have to be taken for (you guessed it) extended periods of time.


More than 200 million people contract Malaria each year and treatment has to be taken daily for weeks. The problem is that most of the people who have malaria forgot to take up residences in near modern hospitals. So they don’t take their medication on time. Or every day. Or at all. Which means the Malaria sticks around.

Enter the innovation.

It looks like a capsule. But once it’s swallowed and lands in the patient’s tummy, it expands into a star or snowflake type shape. The star dispenses medication on schedule and sticks around until the joints that hold the arms to the center dissolves, and the snowflake melts into pieces which are then pooped out. Along with dead Malaria cells.

So this is pretty cool. Doctors can give a patient just one dose and the pill does the rest of the work—for a long time.

There are lots of applications for this technology. Like improving drug studies because so many “patients in clinical trials have serious medication adherence problems that mislead the clinical studies.” I’d never thought about that. We always assume that drug testing is problem-free (apparently not so much).

As I said, this is pretty cool.

Three cheers for great innovation.

Love, Mom

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Hedgehogs and Note to Self

Dear Kid,

Dad’s in “no”-mode again. But it’s ok—I have a plan.

The latest reason for him being in “no” mode is that I want a hedgehog. I saw the reason for not having a river otter in the house (what with not having a river in the house). So I’ve decided we need a hedgehog.

Have you SEEN these adorable little things?

See what I mean? How could you not want one of your own?

A group of hedgehogs is called an array. No one cares. Because they are pretty solitary creatures.

I’ve decided we need a hedgehog. DearKidLoveMom.comA hedgehog carries around between 5,000 and 7,000 quills. Quills? Wait, what? Note to self: find out if quills are very painful.

Their spikes are mostly hollow (which makes them light but strong—which is good because hedgehogs are tiny) and they are not barbed. They shed quills each of which lasts about a year. Note to self: Find out if it hurts to step on a quill.

Hedgehogs, being ideal candidates for glasses which they almost never get, rely on hearing and smelling to figure out what’s going on. When a hedgehog is exposed to a strong smell or taste, he will “self-anoint” which means cover his quills in foamy saliva. Ick.

Hedgehogs are mostly immune to snake venom. Why would I need to know that? I don’t want snakes in the house. Especially poisonous ones.

Hedgehogs (which used to be called urchins before urchins took the name) eat small creatures such as insects, worms, centipedes, snails, mice, frogs, and snakes. Um, centipedes? Not in my house, they don’t.

Hedgehogs are mostly nocturnal. Which is a fancy word for saying they don’t want to play when people want them to.

Note to self: More investigation is warranted.

Love, Mom

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