Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ancient Roman Chewing Gum

One of the things I love about researching the Ancient Romans is how much like us they were. Did you know Romans even had a version of chewing gum? It was called mastic or “mastiha” (in Greek: μαστίχα). Here is a story about MASTIC.

A few years ago my husband and I were spending Christmas in Athens while I researched my tenth Roman Mystery, The Fugitive from Corinth. One evening, after a delicious meal of meze and chicken, the waiter brought us a complimentary digestif. The clear liqueur was served in a tiny shot glass. At first I thought it was an Italian drink called grappa. But as soon as I tasted it I knew it was flavoured with mastic! Mastic is a resin which only grows on the Greek island of Chios. The waiter said I was the first tourist to guess what it was.

I knew what it was because I had found some mastic nuggets in a shop on the island of Kalymnos the previous summer while researching my 9th Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes

Mastic is hardened drops of sap from a type of evergreen bush called the lentisk tree found only in certain parts of Chios. The resinous nuggets are the original chewing gum. In fact, mastic is the root word of masticate meaning to chew.

When I first found a little round plastic box of them on Kalymnos, I hesitated to try one. But I bravely popped it in my mouth and began to chew. It tasted like... mastic. I can best describe it as a sweet cross between cumin and carrot. The nugget was translucent when I put it in my mouth, but after chewing it for a minute or so, I took it out and examined it in surprise: the translucent, pale yellow nugget had turned white and opaque, and looked exactly like modern chewing gum.

In Roman times, doctors recommended that patients chew mastic gum to freshen their breath and calm stomach upsets. People today chew it for the same reasons.

In ancient Rome and Greece, people did not wear deodorant and many must have had rotting teeth. We know from the 1st century AD poet poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (AKA Martial) that some Romans had such bad breath that they added perfume to their wine! Others chomped mastic gum to freshen their breath. Some Romans even used toothpicks made from slivers of mastic. Here is an epigram (a two-lined poem) which  Martial wrote about a toothpick made of a bird's feather and not of mastic, which proved some were made of mastic:

This toothpick is only made of the feather 
that helps a bird in flight, 
It’s not as good as mastic, 
but will keep your teeth clean and bright. 

Martial also wrote this short poem, about a bald man who pretends to pick his teeth with a mastic toothpick so people won't realise he is toothless:

That man who lies lowest on 
the middle couch [the place of honour] 
he of the bald head with its three strands 
of hair and dribbles of perfume, 
who picks his loose mouth 
with shaved sticks of mastic,
he is a liar, Aefulanus... 
because he has no teeth!
(Martial VI.74)

You can still buy mastic gum today in some specialty Greek or Turkish shops. I have found sugar-free packs at Greenfields on Crawford Street in London. And of course you can buy them on Amazon. But the ones in my picture up at the top of this post are the raw drops, just like the Romans would have chewed.
ELMA mastic gum from Chios via Greenfields, 35 Crawford St, W1H 1PL
See if you can find some mastic gum and chew it. Some specialist ice-cream shops occasionally sell this flavour, too. Mastic is the taste of ancient Rome!

[The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome. Season One of the BBC TV series is still available on iTunes.]

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reading "Pirates"

6th grade students from Lebanon Middle School in Connecticut have been reading The Pirates of Pompeii this term. As part of their coursework, they were asked to write letters to me. I was hugely impressed by the standard of their writing. Here are a just a few of the many outstanding excerpts from their letters, a testiment to Mrs. Violette's creative lesson planning!

Hello, my name is Kayla... and I am in Mrs. Violette's sixth grade reading class. We have just recently finished your wonderful book, The Pirates of Pompeii. I loved reading this great page turner and my grades have been excellent on the tests and questions Mrs. Violette has assigned. As our final project for this novel we are writing to you about how we felt about your book and more... My favorite character was Flavia because she was a brave and intelligent girl... When I read that Flavia lurks around gathering information and got kidnapped I couldn't believe she wasn't the least bit fearful, unlike me, who would be scared out of my mind if a bunch of goons came and stole me from my family.
(from Kayla's letter)

My class has been taking quizzes on the reading as well as doing comprehension questions and character charts. I pass the quizzes easily, because your writing is deep and memorable. Everything about it is exhiliarating and flowing. The questions are easy because when I need evidence I want to go back and reread and take in everything I missed. The character chart was the hardest piece of work to do because everything you need is spread out throughout the reading.
(from Ethan's letter)

I saw that the Romans, even back then, acted similar to how people act in times of disaster. This is showed when Kuanto and the other pirates take a simple job and turn it into a money making business by taking advantage of the vulnerable and start kidnapping innocent children to sell just to make extra money. This reminds me of when New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the people were stealing from each other.
(from Andee's letter)

I can make two connections between my life and the novel The Pirates of Pompeii. One connection that I have with this book is that I can relate to Felix, Nubia, and Lupus's passion for playing an instrument. These three characters play beautiful music while celebrating, entertaining, and bringing joy to others. I also love playing an instrument, the clarinet. Playing the clarinet allows me to celebrate many occasions in life as well as cheer people up. Another connection between my life and your book is that I can relate to the fear and terror Leda experienced being locked in a chest. When I was five years old I climbed into a chest for fun, and my sister and her friend closed the lid and sat on top of it so that I couldn't get out. I was uncomfortable, scared, and confined in a small space just as Leda was in the story. Although we were both closed in the chest for different reasons, we were both helpless and unsure of when we were going to be set free. These two personal connections helped me to imagine myself in the lives of these characters.
(from Brandon's letter)

Out of all the characters, Lupus is my favorite. He reminds me of a little monkey climbing trees and looking for adventure. The part of the book that made me laugh is when Lupus stood on top of the rock and held up the wax-tablet saying "let's go find Nubia ourselves". That made me laugh becuase in my mind Lupus looked like a little superman saving the day... I also relate to Flavia. I love adventures and climbing trees. I actually climbed a tree and fell down and this kid I didn't even know caught me and now we are best friends. I also make good plans like Flavia. The plan of going to Felix's was genius. I came up with a plan to sneak into my grandpa's house one day to throw him a surprise birthday party which is not easy because he has dogs that bark a lot and he basically stays inside all day.
(from D'Lanie's letter)

When we read a book in reading class, we have a certain schedule to follow so we read a few chapters at a time. We had a week to read chapters 1 to 7. In addition to our reading assignments we had comprehension questions and a "reading check" to make sure we read the book and understand what we read. My grades on the comprehension and "reading checks" ranged from 90 to 100. I think by my grades you can tell I enjoyed the book immensely... I learned the names for different rooms of the household and public areas. A triclinium is a dining room and a solarium is a room in public baths used for resting, reading and beauty treatments. Finally, the most interesting piece of information that I learned is what it was like for the people and slaves of Pompeii after the eruption of Vesuvius.
(from Ally's letter)

When I read The Pirates of Pompeii I felt like I was really experiencing the mystery and was solving it with Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus. I felt like I was kidnapped and was experiencing the life after a huge volcanic eruption, and living in a tent with lots of other survivors and being able to enjoy it through music and friendliness... You write your books so well! I loved your book The Pirates of Pompeii! It will always be one of my favorite books. It was my favorite book to read this year in class. I will read the other books in your series... I hope you have a great 2011!
(from Katy's letter)

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Rango Cheatsheet

Impress your friends and family by identifying these film references in the animated Western film Rango!

It starts off by breaking the 4th wall. Various characters use their forefinger to draw a square (the "fourth wall") no less than three times in the film. There are also lots of self-conscious screenwriting terms and phrases like "Every story needs a hero", "What our story needs is conflict", "It is metaphor", etc.

Here are the film references I spotted starting from the beginning:

Cat Ballou/Blazing Saddles: musicians singing story are visible to us and to the players in the film.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: when Rango is flung against a windscreen

Big Lebowski: Chameleon/rock creature sounds like Jesus Quintana ("dios mio!")

Sergio Leone's "No Name" Trilogy:
(Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and GB&U)
Spirit of the West = The "Man with No Name" i.e. Clint Eastwood
Rattlesnake Jake = Lee van Cleef
Good, Bad and Ugly (GB&U) = bird's cry used to bleep swear word
Once Upon a Time in the West = squeaky windmill from opening sequence

Django: the gattling gun in Rattlesnake Jake's tail

Star Wars IV: visual echoes of Mos Eisley Cantina in the Saloon
ALSO the fight in canyon is like final Death Star canyon sequence

Jabba the Hut (Star Wars IV) & Buford the Barkeep (Rango)
True Grit: Rango calls little girl Priscilla "Little Sister"

Jurassic Park: dinosaur/bird uncovers someone on the toilet

Chinatown: Ned "The Mayor" Beatty mimics John Huston's villain AND
Chinatown: theme of water in desert, drowned man in desert, etc...

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: hero is a fraud

High Noon: hero discards badge/star

Apocalypse Now: bats/helicopters fly out to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries"

There are also references to Ghostbusters, Planet of the Apes and Deliverance. (See the comments below... and add your own!)