Honest Trailers | Birds of Prey Voice Narration: Jon Bailey aka Epic Voice Guy Written by: Spencer Gilbert, Joe Starr, Dan Murrell, Danielle Radford & Lon Harris Produced by: Spencer Gilbert, Joe Starr, Dan Murrell, & Max Dionne Edited by: Kevin Williamsen Post-Production Supervisor: Emin Bassavand Production Coordinator: Ryan O"Toole
An art historian, a culinary researcher, and a Twin Cities distillery teamed up to recreate the herbaceous drink.
When Nicole LaBouff and Emily Beck first decided to create a modern version of plague water, the potent herbal liquor that early-modern Europeans believed could help prevent epidemics, they had no idea how contemporary their experiment would soon prove. It was spring 2018, two years before a novel coronavirus would lead to the worst global pandemic in a century, and LaBouff was looking for a way to illuminate 18th-century French nightlife.
LaBouff is Associate Curator of Textiles at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), whose holdings include 18th-century period rooms from Paris and Providence, Rhode Island. She wanted to create sensory experiences to bring these rooms to life for a contemporary audience. “What we’re trying to do is get people to understand that real people lived here,” she says. One day she wondered: Why not try booze?
So LaBouff turned to Emily Beck, an Assistant Curator at the University of Minnesota’s Wangensteen Historical Library who specializes in historical recipes. While modern doctors tend to think of food and medicine as distinct categories, for much of human history—and in many cultures today—the two categories were interchangeable. Early-modern European cookbooks were mostly costly, handwritten tomes found in elite households (most people couldn’t read or afford books). They had guides to making everything from poultry to poultices, from pickles to plague water. “I often describe them as early-modern Pinterest, because it’s basically recipes for anything you can think of,” says Beck.
Consisting of dozens of herbs distilled in alcohol, plague waters were a common feature of these cookbooks. Medieval doctors, part of the Galenic medical tradition, believed that illness was caused by imbalanced bodily humors triggered by “miasma,” or foul-smelling air. Aromatics, such as the herbs in plague water, were believed to help counter these smells. A plague outbreak in 1666 England, which killed 750,000 people, reinforced the need for households to be prepared. Even by the 1700s, when boozy nightlife was heating up Parisian parlors, the legacy of regular, catastrophic sickness meant that recipes for plague water shared cookbook pages with more festive intoxicants.
Many early-modern Europeans, says Marissa Nicosia, a Penn State scholar of 17th-century English recipes, made their own plague water in household distilleries, from gardened or foraged herbs. (Nicosia wasn’t involved in the MIA project, but recently did her own research on plague water recipes.) Recipes could call for dozens of different herbs; the one Nicosia recently posted, from 1670s England, called for 27 different herbs, including rue, wormwood, mugwort, and something called “dragons.” The recipe on which Beck and LaBouff hoped to base their recreation, meanwhile, called for two dozen herbs and herbal infusions, including green walnuts, elderflower, juniper berries, and “Venice treacle,” an early-modern apothecary cure that included viper’s flesh, skink bellies, and opium.
When Beck and LaBouff set out to replicate plague water recipes, they realized that—unlike early-modern Europeans—they could not try this at home. Home distillation is illegal in the United States, and the daunting list of aromatics wasn’t available in the grocery store.
The historians turned to Dan Oskey, founder of Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis, to recreate the drinks. Oskey, LaBouff, and Beck combed hundreds of historical recipes, settling on several sweeter, more straightforward options, such as pear ratafia, a fruity cordial, and milk punch, a rum-based brew that had fortified transatlantic sailors. Plague water was the most complicated. When Oskey encountered the recipe’s old-fashioned language, he says, his first reaction was, “What the heck does that mean?”
So Oskey and the two scholars embarked on some culinary detective work. First, they had to figure out which herbs the recipe actually meant. “The name might have changed over time, or it might have been a region-specific name from 400 years ago,” says Oskey. Then, they struggled with historical recipes’ notorious imprecision. “We were trying to determine, What’s a handful? Was it fresh? Was it dry?” he says. A more serious roadblock: Some of the ingredients were unavailable, not approved for human consumption, or even poisonous. A 1667 recipe from The London Distiller, for example, called for ambergris, an aromatic substance that comes from whale intestines. A 1670s recipe, from a home English Cookery and Medicine Book, called for pennyroyal, an English herb since shown to cause liver damage.
“There was a lot of improvising,” says LaBouff. After months of trial-and-error—dropping the Venice treacle, and substituting the herb lepidium for unethical ambergris—modern-day plague water was born. The drink was aromatic and bitter, a “big, fresh, green herb flavor,” says Oskey. “It has this kind of mushroomy, umami quality to it,” says LaBouff. The team unveiled the elixir at the Tattersall Cocktail Room at a March 2019 fete. Guests milled around to music, snacking on early-modern English pastries and sipping milk punch. At the time, the reality of pandemic seemed so distantly historical that the event’s starring cocktail was whimsically dubbed “Plague Party.”
A year later, Tattersall’s cavernous Cocktail Room is empty. The distillery has shut its public-facing operations in accordance with social-distancing guidelines, the result of a pandemic that past party guests likely couldn’t have imagined. Tattersall's distilling rooms, however, are frenetic. Every morning for the past few weeks, while many Twin Cities residents shelter at home, employees enter the premises, keeping a six-foot distance from one another. They work 12-hour days to make a modern version of plague water: hand sanitizer.
Tattersall has converted its facility to make isopropyl alcohol, rather than the ethanol of drinking liquor, for first responders, homeless shelters, and other public services. It’s part of a public-spirited attempt by distilleries around the U.S. to augment the country’s dire lack of medical supplies. The demand for hand sanitizer is so high, says Oskey, that even after producing more than 9,000 gallons of the stuff in the past week, the company still faces a backlog. “Everybody needs it and wants it,” says Oskey. “We can’t keep up.”
There’s an irony, of course, to Tattersall’s transition from artisanal plague water to mass-produced hand sanitizer. While drinking the herbal alcohol likely didn’t help prevent plague, the medieval apothecaries who connected distilling to public health were onto something. They just didn’t realize that rather than drinking alcohol, they could have been using it to clean their hands.
LaBouff finds a kind of comfort in the sudden, uncanny relevance of her research. “It does get you to forge this empathetic connection with people in the past,” she says. “Being in the midst of it now, you experience it in a whole new way.”
“It’s almost an attempt to try to take control over a situation that doesn’t make sense,” Beck says of historic plague water recipes. She sees similar meaning-making attempts today, as COVID-19 throws daily routines, and deeper certainties, into question. “Can I still go to the grocery store? Do I have to quarantine my mail?” Beck asks. “It’s so unclear to people.”
In the midst of this uncertainty, we turn, as our ancestors have always done, to what is familiar and fortifying: food and booze. While both the MIA and public health officials advise against heavy drinking—excessive alcohol use can weaken the immune system and increase vulnerability to COVID-19—plague water recipes reveal that, in times of social crisis, humans have long sought a stiff drink. If you do find yourself having a cocktail while sheltering in place, you’re in good company. “Drinking throughout the day?” says LaBouff. “People were doing that in the 18th century, too.”
From Tattersall Distilling and the Minneapolis Institute of Art
• 1 ounce Green Chartreuse (substitute for Plague Water) • ½ ounce Becherovka (substitute for Aqua Mirabilis) • ½ ounce pineapple juice • ¼ ounce honey sage syrup • ¼ ounce lemon juice
Honey Sage Syrup: In a saucepan, add 1 cup honey, 1 cup water, and 1 tablespoon fresh sage roughly chopped. Cook on medium, stirring until simmering. Reduce heat and simmer five minutes. Cool and strain.
Combine Honey Sage Syrup and remaining ingredients with ice. Shake. Strain. Pour in coupe glass. Garnish with lime wheel.
No matter how they are articulated, ideas about product design nearly always include the maxim, “the experience is the product.” Every interaction is important, especially first visual impressions, which not only represent the product, but the entire company as well. But car design—where engineering and safety considerations are at least as important as aesthetics—would seem to present another challenge entirely. No matter how sleek a table, armchair, or handheld device appears, none of those products have to manage wind shear, protect vulnerable bodies in high-speed collisions, or be expected to haul passengers and cargo. Such functions introduce significant regulation that further constrains the choices a car designer can make.
Cars are tiny houses on wheels, escape pods, and, most importantly from a marketing standpoint, conspicuous status symbols that cost quite a bit of money to make and buy. Given those costs, it’s no wonder carmakers generally play it safe when it comes vehicles destined for mass production. A few, time-tested designs tend to predominate for decades, but every once in a while, weird features from concept prototypes will make it to the market, or a company with a conservative reputation will try something new, sometimes in imitation of their competitors. The results are frequently disastrous.
Take some of oddballs here that Automobile magazine designated as among the “ugliest cars ever made.” Writer Aaron Gold rubs it in with the subtitle, “… and some of them don’t even have good personalities.” Car buyers get the final say on whether a design has mass appeal—so even the ugly Ford Taurus could overcome its visual shortcomings with bullish reliability. Not so the ugly Citreon Ami, which “looks as if its entire greenhouse is being blown back in a stiff breeze.” Hardly an advertisement for a car’s robustness. “Even the French hated it—in 1962 the Ami 6 was outsold two-to-one by the ancient 2CV on which it was based.” To use a marketing cliché, the Ami was New Coke to the 2CV’s status as “automotive icon.”
According to Trayan Stamov, professor of Industrial Design at the Technical University of Sofia, “the task” of a car’s design “is to ‘translate’ in an illustrative form the style and vision of the company.” Whatever could Cadillac have been thinking when they decided to “turn the Chevy Cavalier into a luxury car,” as Gold writes, with their profoundly underwhelming 1982 Cimarron? As an economy car, it’s boring but fine, but “as a Cadillac, the Cimmaron was small, chintzy, and completely lacking in the design artistry and sophistication one expects from an upscale car.”
What exactly determines “sophistication” in auto design? Quality and distinctiveness, for one thing, though the specifics vary across cultures and eras. We know it when we see it, and the Cimmaron ain’t it. There are many basic auto design principles that hold across the industry. For one thing, as Vehicle Design instructor Lee Walton points out, “all surfaces are curved,” even in the boxiest-looking cars. “No matter how subtle the curve, every single surface on any car is curved. To keep design and manufacturing simple, cars tend to concentrate curvature in one direction. Most of the form is horizontal to the ground.”
With this basic brief satisfied, all sorts of invention is possible, though designers stray too far from the mean at their peril. Take the 1974 AMC Matador at the top, “clearly designed as an American interpretation of the classic European sport coupes,” but designed, as so many American cars were in the ’70s, with its curves in all the wrong places. The Matador resembles the stereotypical “consummate ugly American: Fat, excessive, lazy, and gawd-damn proud of it.” One the other end of the spectrum, we have the ’76 Aston-Martin Lagonda, which flattens all its curves, and its entire profile, until it “looks like an 80s-era Chevrolet Caprice that went four rounds with a rolling pin and lost.”
Gold isn’t kind to Chevrolet in his comparisons. Maybe this is deserved, especially when it comes to the one of the ugliest vans ever made, the 1990 Lumina. The “dustbuster van” whose ridiculous form makes one feel like they’re “driving from the backseat” shows how aesthetic fails lead directly to failures of the so-called user experience. In car design the results can range from daily annoyance to deadly catastrophe. And when it comes to realizing pleasing shapes in three, mobile dimensions, the auto industry’s aesthetic missteps—and there are millions of them on roads around the world—are almost impossible to get away from. See more classic eyesores below and at Automobile.
If you’re a longtime reader of my blog, you’ll know that AIs are consistently terrible at humor. Whether it’s a very simple neural net learning to tell knock-knock jokes, or a more-sophisticated algorithm trained on tens of thousands of short jokes, they tend to get the rhythm and vocabulary correct, yet completely miss the point.
In a previous experiment, I trained a simple neural net on a collection of April Fools pranks and noticed that most of them end up being pranks you play on yourself. Figuring that this sort of solo prank might be useful for this year, I tried a much more sophisticated neural net, one that didn’t have to learn all its words and phrases from scratch. The neural net, called GPT-2, learned from millions of web pages. Using talktotransformer.com, I gave it a short list of pranks and asked it to add to the list.
Here are some of the neural net’s suggested pranks.
Self-prank? New hobbies? Performance art?
It often seemed like the neural net thought it was supposed to be doing its best to suggest recipes or lifehacks.
Step 10: Fun in the Shower Fill your bathtub with cold water. Take the jar of sawdust out of the freezer. Dump it into the water and stir to add some texture.