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Editor's Note, January/February 2004

National Humanities Medals

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, January/February 2004 | Volume 25, Number 1

"It's an odd word, humanities," John Updike says. "Science gives us so much of our sense of what we are. There still is a territory that only fiction can touch. No scientist can quite describe the sensations of being alive and the predicament--the bind--of being human."

Robert Ballard looks at the humanities from the vantage of an explorer. "I've always had a passion for history. I think all humans do," he says. "It's all about the opportunity to keep learning. History is a moving target. We don't know where it's going to be next."

Another viewpoint comes from Jean Fritz, who has written books about figures such as Washington and Lafayette for young audiences. "The question I am most often asked is how do I find my ideas?" Fritz writes. "The answer is: I don't. Ideas find me. A character in history will suddenly step right out of the past and demand a book."

The three are among ten recipients of the 2003 National Humanities Medal, which is awarded for conveying the humanities to a larger public. The group includes a television entrepreneur who gave us Big Bird, a professor who is an authority on blacks in antiquity, another professor who opened the field of women's studies, and an editor who provided a venue for voices of democracy often suppressed. The group's range is wide: it includes an essayist on American mores, a defender of traditional values, and an actor who has walked in the footsteps of Mark Twain for fifty years. They were honored at a White House ceremony in November.

How our history is transmitted is a recurring theme in this issue of Humanities. Chairman Bruce Cole sets the tone in a conversation with the irrepressible Mario Batali, who began as a student of medieval Spanish theater and became the chef and owner of Babbo in New York.

"Once you become an elaborate and well-developed culture, anything from Rome or the Etruscans, for that matter, the food starts to become a representation of what the culture is," Batali says. "When the food can transcend being just fuel, that's when you start to see these different permutations."

In the early days of exploring America, food was indeed seen as a fuel. We stop at the encampment of Lewis and Clark two hundred years ago. Each member of the Corps of Discovery ate as much as nine pounds of meat a day--buffalo, wolf, squirrel, or opossum--shot by themselves or traded with the Indians. We offer a recipe on how to cook a bear.

By the turn of the twentieth century, America was taking a more sophisticated view of food, requiring from it not just sustenance but also convenience. The 1904 world's fair in St. Louis introduced the idea of putting meat on a bun and making dessert portable by offering ice cream in an edible shell. And an enterprising man whose name was not Pepper sold fizzy health drinks to go--"Dr" was added to the brand later.

A spate of innovations followed. Clarence Birdseye, working as a fur trader in Labrador in 1914, saw how locals preserved their fresh fish and meat in the Arctic and he revolutionized the food business with flash freezing. Even automobile magnate Henry Ford became involved; he made the American barbecue more practical. When he found that his sawmills in northern Michigan were generating too many wood chips--or so the story goes--he consulted with the inventor Thomas Edison and came up with a method for combining the chips with starch. The result was the charcoal briquette.