Sunday, January 08, 2006


Today's fun word is "excelsior", which is a remarkably fancy and exotic name for wood shavings. The entry mentions it was once a trademark, and a historical note from the American Excelsior Co. indicates the stuff dates back to the 1890's. Everything was so much more exciting and melodramatic back then. Even wood shavings.

The name's still a trademark for a font family, but odd and colorful font names are not unusual. Where the original trademark came from is info that doesn't seem to exist on the net so far as I can tell. Determining what, if anything, the word meant before the shaved-wood packing materials industry got their grubby hands on it would probably require a hardcopy investigation, meaning an expenditure of time, effort, and/or money. Hmm.

I understand that the word has a special meaning of some sort in the comic book world. I assume it relates back to wood shavings somehow. It does so far as I know, anyway.

I reluctantly admit to knowing there's also a Star Trek significance to the word.

Today's interest in the word stems from seeing it on an old opera or musical poster I saw recently, I think as the title. Not a lot of info available about this musical either. There's a brief reference to a musical production by that name, the first stage show to employ electric lighting. There's also an opera company in Schenectady, NY, and a hotel near the Garnier opera in Paris, but neither seems to be what I'm looking for. Hmm. One dead end after another.

So this is probably a good time to switch gears, even while sticking with a general theme of "weirdness relating to mundane items". And what could be more mundane than plain old seaweed? Assuming you don't live in Nebraska, or Mongolia, or somewhere, anyway. Well, it turns out that seaweed is no longer just for tripping over on the beach or holding together otherwise-flavorless wads of rice and raw fish. No, our friends across the pond in the Emerald Isle have figured out that you can make wine out of the stuff. Wine of a sort, anyway, although I doubt the French would approve. Here's another reference to a "wine" made partially with a sort of seaweed known as "bladderwrack", also known by its genus, "Fucus". Neither name sounds especially appetizing. I don't know where the word "bladderwrack" actually comes from, but just guessing it sounds like a rather serious diuretic. Seems there's also been some interest in the beverage in Taiwan as well.

Actually there are quite a few search hits that come up on the topic, but the vast majority are fictional references, mostly emerging from the SCA/D&D/fantasy novel/unicorn milieu. Imaginary people and magical beasts can't get enough of the stuff, it seems. This recipe involves bat guano, for some reason. Here's a vaguely Chinese-themed reference from some sort of RPG. A bottle of the stuff figures in this tale of a wayward goldfish. It's just one of many exotic fictional beverages on this list. And another fictional piece where kelp wine shows up. A longer story that mentions the stuff in passing. And another appearance, this time in a fan fiction story about the Monkees.

I had no idea the stuff was so popular, at least in its imaginary version. I'd have thought there'd be at least a few comments in homebrewing or home winemaking forums, either people saying they'd tried it and made a wonderful discovery, or perhaps relating their unfortunate experiences to discourage anyone else from trying such a putrid beverage.

I certainly don't want to harm anyone's rich fantasy life, so please note the following is pure speculation by someone who's never tried the stuff. If you really want to make some palatable oceanic hooch, there are a few problems you're going to need to solve. First, you need something to ferment. The easiest thing would be to do the longstanding "country wine" trick and add a bunch of sugar as your fermentable, with the seaweed basically just as flavoring. Some people regard that trick as "cheating", somehow. A more technically interesting thing would be to figure out how to ferment the seaweed itself. Kelp, for instance, contains a great deal of laminarin, a polysaccharide similar to starch or cellulose. Regular yeast won't know what to do with the stuff -- it's similar to the beta glucans that brewers wring their hands about -- so you'd need to add some enzymes, or find some other way of breaking it down to its component glucose molecules.

If you can resolve that hurdle, there's all that salt and iodine to worry about. Nobody wants to drink salty booze, and iodine is bad for yeast, so you may need to soak it for a while, changing the water a few times to let the salt diffuse out, like if you were getting ready to prepare a country ham, or other food preserved in salt.

And I can't begin to imagine what the stuff would taste like, if you managed to pull it off. Maybe it would help to nibble a bit of excelsior first, to cleanse the palate.

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