Not that Pope Innocent: Revisiting the fruit cake’s bad rep and the Butter Letter

You may or may not have heard, but the Magna Carta comes to HMNS on Feb. 14, 2014 — because nothing says romance like an 800-year-old legal document.

I was researching the Magna Carta for our educational programming and had performed an Internet search looking for more information on correspondence between Pope Innocent III and King John (whose relationship is integral to the history of the Magna Carta for a number of reasons; you’ll just have to come to the exhibit to find out why).

I, however, was not specific enough in my search terms, so I found information on a different Pope Innocent and a different letter — this letter was titled, “The Butter Letter” or the “Butterbrief.”

Distraction ensued. “I must know more,” I thought. So here’s the story I discovered:

We all know that the fruit cake has always had a bad rep (and how it has survived this long with everyone making fun of it is a mystery). The stollen, a German fruit cake, was developed in the mid-1300s, and has been served at Christmas time from its conception. But it wasn’t very tasty for a number of reasons, including the fact that you were not allowed — by Church decree — to use butter OR sugar. Blech.

fruitcake

Advent was a period of penitence and strict fasting. Part of the rules for fasting included the restriction of “luxury items,” including sugar and butter, and the lack thereof made baked goods taste awful (seriously, what’s even the point of baking without butter and sugar?).

In Medieval Saxony (now central Germany), Prince Elector Ernst and his brother, Duke Albrecht, decided they just couldn’t take it anymore. They had to have tastier baked goods.

So what do you with a problem like bad baked goods? Write to the Pope!

It took them FIVE popes to have their pleas answered!  Pope Innocent VIII sent them  a response — known as “The Butter Letter” — which granted the use of butter for their baked goods without having to pay a fine … but only for their household. The Pope was clever and put a condition in the letter stating that others could use butter for cooking, but whenever butter was used, a donation had to be made to help with the cost of constructing the Freiburg Cathedral.

Saxony figured out a work around to this problem in the 16th century, when the lot of them became Protestant.

Over time, however, stollen has become a delicious, sugar-covered confection and so we decided to taste this little piece of history for ourselves. Allison went to Angela’s Oven in the Heights and picked up a loaf right out of the oven and brought it to work. The baker allowed Allison to take some pictures of the final steps.

Modern fruit cake with lots of sugar.

Modern fruit cake with lots of sugar.

Holiday baked goods from  Angela's Oven.

Holiday baked goods from Angela’s Oven.

Oh history, how tasty you can be! Lecker (which means “delicious” in German)!

The Iceman Stuffeth: 20 stocking stuffers under $20

Forget the fruit cake – get your family and friends something they could actually use for the holidays! Here are 20 items under $20 for everyone on your list (including you) from the Museum Store:

1. FOR THE CARBIVORE: Pastasaurus

“There are too many dinosaur references in my kitchen,” said no one, ever. Liven up your space with this ingenious pasta server! Your guests will be so entertained by your serving ware they’ll hardly notice your terrible cooking.

2. FOR THE SWEET-FANGED BAKER: Fossil Food Silicone Cupcake Baker

Do you have a vicious sweet tooth? Tired of trampling children as you dash for that last delicious cupcake? With these delightful trays you can make all the cupcakes you want and more! The fossil mold at the bottom is more of a warning than decoration: “If you don’t want to end up like these guys (extinct) keep your claws off my cakes!”

 

3. FOR THE 3D ENTHUSIAST:  3D Dino Cookie Cutters

They make you see every 3D movie that comes out. Give them a reason to stay home once in a while! Heck, with these, they can even recreate their own Jurassic Park — complete with T. rex, Brachiosaurus, Triceratops and Stegosaurus!

 

4. FOR THE SEXY MATHEMATICIAN: Mathlete Button

Everyone can see your brawn, but what about your brain? This button says, “I’m good at math, and that’s sexy.”

 

5. FOR THE TECH-SAVVY WINO: Save Wine Stopper

For when you just need to hack life … it just makes sense.

Also, this bottle opener, because you’ve got to get to the wine to save it.

6. FOR THE BOOKISH LUSH: Chem. 101 Flask Book

You give off a shy, quiet vibe but know how to have fun. Whether you’re in the library, park or attending a family event, you can maintain your bookworm reputation while having your own party!

7. FOR THE DEVOTED CAFFEINATOR: Caffeine Molecule Mug

Allows you to perfectly measure the ridiculous amounts of caffeine you use to power your body. Natch.

 

8. FOR THE DAREDEVIL(ISH): Climber Tea Infuser

You live life on the edge, but sometimes want to sit back and relax with a nice cup of tea – you’re just classy like that. This tea infuser captures the spirit of exploration, and heck, if it can have an adventure in your mug, there’s no reason why you can’t on your couch!

 

9. FOR THE PERIODIC FASHIONISTA: Houston Elements Tee

Looking good is simply elemental in this stylish tee. Perfect for a stroll through the museum, to the lab or to buy your new Bunsen burner.

 

10. FOR THE LONELY ELECTRIC CAR ENTHUSIAST:  Nikola Tesla Finger Puppet

Tired of long commutes by yourself? Love your electric car? Bring Tesla with you for a fun-filled ride! And if you really want to make it a party, you can bring along his friends Madame Curie, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Leonardo DaVinci, Galileo Galilei, and Charles Darwin.

 

11. FOR THE DEFENSIVE GAMER: Space Intruders Drink Markers

Perfect for the gamer in your life! Or yourself. If you hold arcade games close to your heart, show everyone just how dedicated you are with these drink markers.

 

12. FOR THE THIRD WHEEL: I Love Nerds Button
Have a third wheel weighing you down? Tired of setting them up on dates only to find out your matches aren’t nerdy enough? Get them this badge of honor, announcing to the world their undying devotion to nerds — it’s sure to attract the perfect mate!

 

13. FOR THE GIRL YOU USED TO BURN ANTS TO IMPRESS: Red Glitter Ant Ornament

Remember when burning ants used to be the only way you could say, “I love you”? Well, now you have more pizazz (and are being investigated for arson…). So these decorative ornaments are sure to light a new fire in her heart with a nostalgic longing for those youthful days.

 

14. FOR THE WHOVIAN: Dr. Who Mug

You’ve been wanting your own TARDIS for a long time, haven’t you? Well, here’s your chance! Use this mug as you travel through space and time with your favorite brew.

 

15. FOR THE FORCEFUL STAR WARS FAN: May the F=Ma Be With You Backpack

Tired of choosing between science and science fiction? This bag combines the two seamlessly (except the ones holding the bag together) with witty simplicity — perfect for carrying beakers to the lab or as an overnight bag for a stay on the Millennium Falcon.

 

16. FOR THE WISE TRAVELER: Einstein Luggage Tag

Luggage tags say a lot: where you’ve been, where you’re going, and now, insights from one of the great minds if the 20th century. You’re on a mission to find your place in the universe. At least with this tag, you won’t have to worry about finding your luggage.

 

17. FOR THE MODERN CAVEMAN: Arrowhead Laser Pointer

Neanderthals ain’t got nothing on you! Perfect for presentations or tormenting your cat, this laser pointer is a precision tool for the modern caveman.

 

18. FOR THE PALEO-DIETER: Tricerachops Mug

Tired from running between CrossFit and work? Tough Mudder wore you out? What you need is Tricerachops! Let’s face it: you’re dedicated to the paleo diet — now go all the way! This mug will show you how to get the perfect cut of dino meat. Make our hunter-gatherer ancestors proud.

 

19. FOR THE ARTSY ENVIRONMENTALIST:  Paper Watch

They care about the environment and leave their own unique stamp on everything — why not this watch, too?

20. FOR THE FUTURE SPACE EXPLORER: Zero-Gravity Fridge Rover

The final frontier: the back of the freezer. No one’s ever made it back from the icy edges of the universe — but that doesn’t scare you, not with your Zero Gravity Rover! Dare to go where no one has gone before: to freezer burn and beyond.

Order online from our Museum Store by Tues., Dec. 17 for delivery before Christmas, or call 713-639-4665 for pick up and expedited delivery options.

2013 Holiday Gift Guide is Here!

2013 Holiday Gift Guide

Pick up a conversation piece. Give a smart gift. Or just scare the cat. Give it, receive it, OWN IT.

Click here to peruse our exciting 2013 Holiday Gift Guide. And feel good about yourself knowing that 100% of the proceeds benefit the museum’s educational programming. Something to warm your heart this holiday season: the HMNS Holiday Gift Guide.

Make the magic happen: How a gift to the Museum is a gift to everyone

One of the recent and more popular exhibitions at the HMNS was called Magic! The exhibition was unusual in that it not only included artifacts, but also showcased live performances by real magicians. Magic! ended more than two years ago in September 2010, but did the magic really end with the exhibition?

Let me explain what I mean.

First, the obvious: We’ve all heard the stats in the news. Science test scores in the United States lag behind those in other countries. And unfortunately, cuts in education budgets have had a damaging effect on our schools. In too many cases, schools simply don’t have the resources to provide what students need in order for them to master the necessary skills, especially in science and math.

That’s where the Museum comes in. HMNS is dedicated to bridging the gap between the need for a scientifically literate population and our schools’ sometimes inadequate resources. Science education is at the very heart of everything we do. Our programs for students and educators are heavy into STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math. Just look through the education section of our website or flip through the Educator Guide to browse the almost 50 courses that are offered to students and adults.

HMNS Summer CampsBut the Museum offers more than science courses. HMNS offers experiences which make science magically come alive in a way that piques curiosity. Walk through the Morian Hall of Paleontology and you can see more than 400 specimens that stimulate the imagination, triggering visitors to speculate about what it was like to see these giant creatures roam the Earth (and in the case of our Giant Ground Sloth, greater Houston!) Stroll through the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals and you can marvel at the precious gem stones and hundreds of minerals, each one a unique specimen. Enter the Cockrell Butterfly Center and you’re transported to a tropical rainforest with thousands of fluttering butterflies, beautiful tropical plants and a waterfall, to boot.

HMNS’ magic is obvious, but here’s what you don’t see. Our Museum has more than 45,000 members who get free access to the Museum’s permanent exhibit halls. And in order to make the Museum accessible to everyone in our community, our permanent exhibit halls are free to the general public every Thursday afternoon from 2 to 5 p.m. during the school year and 3 to 6 p.m. during the summer. The Museum website contains not only general Museum info, but also free grade-appropriate and TEKS-coordinated curriculum guides for educators and receives more than one million hits a year.

Group Photo!Working behind the scenes are just 159 full-time employees and 169 part-time staff. These are the folks who work to create and care for all of the collections, the permanent and traveling exhibitions, Giant Screen Theatre movies, adult education lectures, cultural feasts, youth education classes and outreach courses, scouting programs…and the list goes on and on (and on). In fact, the Museum provides almost 2 million services each year, and of that more than 595,000 are for students. Pretty impressive, right? Here’s the conundrum.

In the real world, if you go to the grocery store for milk, you pick up a carton of milk and pay for it. The price you pay covers what it costs for the store to provide you with that carton of milk. So, it stands to reason that if you go to the Museum to view an exhibition or attend a lecture or watch a movie, the price of everyone’s ticket purchases should cover the costs that the Museum incurs providing those services.

But the reality is that they don’t. This year, tickets sales will only account for about 40 percent of the Museum’s revenue. So how can the Museum continue to provide an astounding 2 million services annually?

It’s up to you to make the real magic happen.

If each person reading this post decided to support the Museum, their support and the support of others like them would help us continue to make science accessible and provide critical educational programming that makes a positive impact in our community and beyond.

And supporting the Museum is easy. You can:

(1) Become a member. Benefits include free access to all the permanent exhibit halls and discounts on everything the Museum has to offer — including all the shiny goodness at the Museum Store.

(2) Give the gift of membership. It’s a gift that keeps on giving and is way more fun for Uncle Bob and Aunt Lisa than another tie or a new bathrobe.

(3) Donate. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law. That means every penny supports the Museum and its programming. Learn more by clicking here.

So at this, the most wonderful time of the year, make a little holiday magic of your own by supporting the Houston Museum of Natural Science.