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Friday, December 22, 2017

What's Christmas like in Sweden?

One of the library’s book clubs was reading A Man Called Ove by Swedish author Fredrick Backman. Since it’s close to the holiday season, they were wondering how Ove and the other characters would be celebrating. We found the answer on Sweden’s official tourism website and in The Folklore of World Holidays by Margaret Read MacDonald, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler, the Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year’s Celebrations by Tanya Gulevich, and a tongue-in-cheek article about Swedish Christmas traditions by Emma Löfgren for The Local.

The Christmas season begins with St. Lucia’s day on December 13. Families may celebrate by having one of their daughters get up early and serve coffee and baked goods while dressed in the traditional St. Lucia costume of a white dress, red sash, and a wreath on her head with seven lit candles. Towns and schools elect their own Lucias, and a national Lucia is chosen and announced on television.

Swedes celebrate many customs that Americans would be familiar with, such as setting up a Christmas tree and exchanging gifts. It used to be that the gift-giver would write a short verse about what the present contained, but this doesn’t seem to still be widely done. A tradition that has held is the Disney Christmas special, broadcast at 3:00 PM nationwide every year since 1959.

As everywhere, food is an important part of celebrations. A classic Christmas smorgasbord (or julbord) includes herring, sausage, ham, meatballs, rice pudding, and lutfisk, a dish made of lye-soaked dried fish.

Decorations vary from family to family, but often involve candles, Advent calendars, fresh flowers such as hyacinths, and the Christmas goat, or julbock, often made of straw. The julbock is thought to have originated with the goats that drew the Norse god Thor’s chariot. At one point, it was the julbock and not Santa Claus that delivered the gifts. Though Santa has taken over, the goat remains a part of the season. Since 1966, the town of Gävle has built an enormous straw goat at the beginning of Advent, but it’s an irresistible target for vandals and has been burned down nearly every year.

The Christmas season doesn’t officially end until St. Knut’s Day on January 13, at which point the tree is taken down and everything is put away until next year.

Our patrons can see Frederick Backman’s own take on the holidays in his recently published novella, The Deal of a Lifetime.

Friday, December 1, 2017

What’s the white powder on grapes? Is it a pesticide?

You may have noticed a whitish coating on certain fruits. It’s particularly visible on grapes, plums, and blueberries. It’s epicuticular wax, also known as “bloom,” a natural and harmless part of many plants. The coating protects the plants and seals in their moisture. It’s what makes water slide off fresh kale, and it gives blue spruce trees their distinctive color. You can also find in on certain succulents.

Fruit in the supermarket has often been artificially waxed to make it last longer and look more appealing, and because the process of picking and washing it stripped it of its natural protective coat. Sometimes, epicuticular wax from other plants is used. Carnauba wax (which can be found in everything from cosmetics to furniture polish) comes from a species of palm tree that grows in Brazil; the wax is harvested by beating the dried palm fronds. Other petroleum-, shellac-, vegetable-, or beeswax-based waxes may also be used.

According to Consumer Reports, there is concern that the wax coating may help trap pesticide residue. They recommend buying organic when possible and making sure to thoroughly wash produce. In an article from October of this year, Catherine Roberts suggested that soaking fruits and vegetables in a baking soda solution may be effective in removing some pesticides.

We got our information from ThoughtCo, Consumer Reports, The Atlantic, Succulent Identifier, Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center, The Demystified Vine, and The Botanist in the Kitchen. If you want to learn more, Aliza Green’s Field Guide to Produce and Melissa’s Great Book of Produce by Cathy Thomas both give tips on how to buy, store, and use fresh fruits and vegetables, while Richard Gianfrancesco’s How to Grow Food and Barbara Pleasant’s Homegrown Pantry explain how to grow your own.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Is there a difference between seltzer, sparkling water, mineral water, club soda, and tonic water?

One of our patrons bought club soda instead of seltzer and they wanted to know what the difference was. It turned out that they all taste about the same, except for tonic water, even though they come from slightly different sources. We found the answer in several sources, including Epicurious,, and Kitchn.

Sparkling water seems to be an umbrella term that encompasses any kind of carbonated water, but it’s usually used in reference to seltzer or mineral water.

Seltzer is plain water that’s been carbonated to give it fizz. It may also be flavored. LaCroix, Scweppe’s, and Canada Dry all sell seltzers. (On their website, LaCroix maintains that they’re a sparkling water and not a seltzer, alleging that sparkling water is sodium free and does not contain artificial flavor, but other sources did not note a difference.) The word “seltzer” comes from “Selters,” a German brand of mineral water that’s been around since the 17th century at least.

Sparkling mineral water, such as Perrier or San Pellegrino, comes from underground springs and contains naturally occurring minerals. It may be naturally carbonated by gases in the spring or carbon dioxide may have been added. Since it’s typically imported from Europe, it’s more expensive than seltzer, club soda, or tonic water.

Club soda is seltzer with added ingredients that make it taste more like a mineral water. It usually includes sodium bicarbonate (also known as baking soda), sodium citrate, and potassium sulfate.

Tonic water is the most dissimilar. (It’s also the only one that glows under a blacklight!) While other sparkling waters may or may not be flavored, tonic water is always flavored with quinine, a bitter-tasting compound found in the bark of the cinchona tree, and typically sweetened with sugar or corn syrup. Quinine was once used to treat and prevent malaria; the gin and tonic cocktail originated when British soldiers in India were attempting to make their anti-malarial more palatable.

For more interesting uses for sparkling water, Anton Nocito provides recipes for homemade soda and cocktails made with syrup and sparkling water in Make Your Own Soda, available for borrowing at the Newton Falls Public Library or as an ebook.

Friday, November 3, 2017

When did scarecrows first come about?

According to Thom Sokoloski and Jenny McCowan at, Cindy Murphy’s article for Grit and Lori Rotenberk’s article for Modern Farmer, scarecrows have been around as long as people have grown crops, but they haven’t always looked like the ones you might be familiar with. The early Egyptian scarecrows, constructed along the Nile River, didn't look like people at all. Egyptian farmers had a problem with wild quail, so they built wooden frames with nets and had people herd the quail into them. Famers in pre-feudal Japan sometimes used a scarecrow called a kakashi. A kakashi consists of old rags and other bad-smelling items mounted on a pole with bells and other noisemakers and set afire. The smell and smoke would keep birds away.

Ancient Greek and Roman scarecrows were more humanoid. They built statues of their fertility god in their gardens and fields to protect against birds and other thieves. In Britain during the Middle Ages, actual children would work in the fields as “crow-scarers,” knocking together blocks of wood to scare away the birds. Some Native American tribes and early settlers also employed the human bird-scarer technique. With population fluctuations and a need for more farmers to be working the field, this job was passed on from actual people to stuffed sacks gourds for heads, the precursors to scarecrows as we know them today.

Today, farmers can use high-tech gadgets to scare away birds, such as chemicals or ultrasonic waves, but the old-fashioned scarecrow is iconic. In America it is used as a symbol of the autumn, particularly of Halloween, and many towns have festivals celebrating scarecrows of all shapes and sizes. Scarecrows can be used to frighten and to entertain, but they will always be associated with the harvest.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Where do stinkbugs lay their eggs?

Now that fall’s here, stinkbugs are starting to appear inside again. A patron called asking about their lifecycle and reproduction, hoping to catch them before they hatched.

Brown marmorated stinkbugs only arrived in the U.S. in the late 1990s, but they’re a widespread pest now. We found a lot of information online, such as the Washington Post livechat with University of Maryland entomologist Michael Raupp, and pest control websites like and

Stinkbugs like to come inside to stay warm through the winter, but they don’t eat or reproduce until they go back outside in the springtime again. Once the weather gets warm and the days get longer (usually in April or May), you’ll see them appear again as they make their way outside to feed for a few weeks and then mate. A female will be ready to lay eggs as early as five days after mating, according to, and she can lay from 100 to 400 in her lifetime. (We found different figures – it probably depends on the climate of the state where she’s found. A stinkbug in warmer climes will be outside eating and reproducing longer.)

The stinkbugs will only lay their eggs on the underside of leaves. The eggs are barrel-shaped and about a millimeter in diameter. The female lays twenty to thirty at a time and they take four to seven days to hatch. It takes a little over a month for the baby bugs (or nymphs) to grow into full adults – they go through five stages (or instars) before they’re fully grown, each lasting about a week. When they first hatch, they don’t look much like the adult bug. First instar stinkbug nymphs are rounder, resembling ticks, and black and orange in color.

If you come across these eggs or nymphs underneath a leaf, you can scrape them off and drown them in soapy water. (This also works on the adult bugs and keeps them from releasing their smell.) Scientists in New York and Oregon, where the bugs cause a lot of agricultural damage, are experimenting with biological control in the form of samurai wasps. These tiny parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside stinkbug eggs, killing them before they can hatch.

If nothing else, you can take comfort in knowing that stinkbugs only live for about six to eight months, and the bugs bothering you this fall won’t be back next year – but their children might.

Friday, September 1, 2017

What makes tomatoes go from green to red?

We checked several of our gardening and food science books to no avail, although we did learn from Lynn Coulter’s Gardening with Heirloom Seeds that tomatoes, native to South America and members of the nightshade family, took a while to catch on among Europeans.

However, Brian McMahon at MentalFloss, Mandy Kendrick at Scientific American, and the University of Cambridge’s IntoBiology website all had the answer to our question. Chlorophyll makes the tomatoes green and, as they ripen, the chlorophyll begins to dissolve. Lycopene, a chemical in the tomato that has a red color, shows through as the chlorophyll dissolves. As this happens, the tomato will also become sweeter, softer, less acidic, and ready to eat.

Fruits produce a chemical called ethylene in certain conditions, including as they ripen, and other fruit will respond to it. According to Jeremy Dore at GrowVeg and McMahon at Mental Floss, a green tomato in a paper bag with a ripe banana will respond to the ethylene given off by the banana, and it will begin to ripen itself.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Did the eclipse have any effects on the wildlife?

Newton Falls wasn’t in the path of totality for the solar eclipse on Monday, August 21 (though it will be in 2024), so things didn’t go completely dark. The moon only covered about 80% of the sun. However, in parts of Georgia, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon, Kansas, Wyoming, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, the moon covered the entire sun and it briefly appeared to be night.

The moon is simply following its normal path, but when everything suddenly gets dark, some animals are confused into beginning their twilight rituals, according to John Dvorak in his book Mask of the Sun. Frogs and crickets may begin to sing. Chickens will roost, cows will head back to the barn, and bees will return to the hive. Plankton will rise toward the top of the water and trout will head toward the bottom, just as they do at twilight. Once the eclipse is over, the animals resume their normal daylight behavior. Dogs, cats, horses, and deer are among the animals that did not appear to notice the eclipse.