John Green: Hello, and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I'm John Green, and today, I'll be reviewing Hawaiian pizza and viral meningitis. Neither of which I can totally recommend.
Let's begin with Hawaiian pizza, which is typically a pizza topped with pineapple and some sort of ham. Humans often measure time in relationship to important events. The Christian calendar dates from before and after the birth of Christ. The Islamic calendar dates from before and after the Muslim community's journey from Mecca to Medina. The Buddhist calendar dates from the day the Buddha attained enlightenment.
My friend, Phillip, of the brilliant YouTube channel Kurzgesagt, has said that we shouldn't think of ourselves as being in the year 2018 of the Christian era, but instead in the year 1218 of the human era, as dated from the approximate year the first known megalithic temple was constructed. All of this points to one of the big questions about the Anthropocene. When exactly did this current age begin? When did humans become not just the most important species on earth, but a geologically significant phenomenon?
Phillip might say it was when we began intervening in the landscape in lasting ways with our temples. Others say it was the agricultural revolution when we started reshaping the biosphere to better suit our interests, still, others argue that humans didn't really change much until the industrial revolution began mining Earth's resources and reshaping its climate, but for me, we're currently in the year 522 of the Anthropocene. I would argue that Earth's human age began at the precise moment a person living in the old world first tasted a pineapple.
Imagine that the idea of a pineapple doesn't exist. That the word pineapple refers only to pine cones. The voyage you've sent to the new world stuffed it's hold with pineapples, but only one survived the trip. One of the tutors of the Portuguese court recorded the first European pineapple tasting in 1496 writing, "The most invincible King Ferdinand relates that he has eaten another fruit brought from those countries. It is like a pine nut in form into color covered with scales and firmer than a melon. Its flavor excels all other fruits."
Afro-Eurasia and the Americas separated for so long that neither knew the other existed were suddenly on the same globe. A moment fraught with wonder and opportunity and terror and catastrophe. Everything began moving very quickly in what historians now call the Colombian exchange. Cows and guns and smallpox to the Americas. Tobacco, turkeys, and pineapples to Afro-Eurasia.
Of course, I'm oversimplifying, as history tends to. The old and new world had interacted before, and for that matter, the pineapple had also already traveled quite a bit. Pineapples are indigenous to Southern Brazil, but by 1500, humans had taken them to the Caribbean, Central America, and Southern Mexico. Before the first pineapple came to Europe, there were no horses in America, no cassava in Nigeria, no tomato sauce in Italy, no bananas in Brazil, and no potatoes in Ireland. The typical Hawaiian pizza contains old-world foods, wheat, ham, and cow cheese, as well as new-world foods, tomatoes, and pineapple.
Like all pizza, it was impossible until the planet's two worlds became one, but it was also impossible for several centuries after the Colombian exchange began. First, because Europeans initially believed tomatoes to be poisonous. Although they'd been cultivated and eaten in what is now Mexico for at least two millennia. Tomatoes were sometimes called the poison apple in Europe, partly because of bad botany, and partly because wealthy Europeans did sometimes die after eating tomatoes. It eventually transpired though that the tomato was only indirectly responsible.
The fruits acid would leach red from rich peoples pewter plates causing sometimes fatal lead poisoning. The tomato didn't become popular in Europe until the late 19 century, thanks in part to Napoli's pizza invented around 1880. It took the pineapple almost as long to become a widespread global phenomenon, but mostly due to cost, not lead poisoning. Unlike tomatoes, pineapples only grow in warm climates. They were introduced to India as early as 1550 but weren't successfully cultivated in Europe until the late 17th century.
Their rarity combined with the challenges and expensive shipping made pineapples ridiculously expensive. At the end of the 18th century, a single pineapple in the Eastern United States could cost $8,000 in today's money. They became symbols of extravagant wealth which is why you'll often see pineapples and paintings commissioned by aristocrats.
They were far too expensive to merely eat of course, as detailed in Francesca Bowman's book, The King of Fruits, the pineapple was mostly used as a table decoration and only eaten once the fruit began to rot.
The story of the pineapple is in many ways the story of the Columbian exchange. It was a valuable commodity cultivated almost entirely by colonized or enslaved people. The literal fruit of their labor exported by wealthy colonizers to be consumed by even wealthier aristocracy. This economic inequality built into European pineapple production and consumption did not go unnoticed at the time. In 1799 a concerned pineapple consumer wrote, "What right has one man to eat a pineapple for which he gave a Guinea, when another is starving for want of a half penny worth of bread?".
That question still resonates as most global pineapple production continues to rely on low-wage labor. The globalism of pineapple pizza in particular goes even deeper, stretching across much of the world because Hawaiian pizza was invented in 1962, in Canada by a Greek immigrant who was inspired by Chinese cuisine to put a South American food on an Italian dish.
That went on to become most popular not in Hawaii but in Australia where at least according to a survey printed in pizza marketing quarterly, pineapple is the single most popular pizza topping, and yes there is a magazine called Pizza Marketing Quarterly. It comes out once a month. Sam Panopoulos immigrated to Canada from Greece when he was 20-years old. He ran a restaurant in Ontario called the Satellite with his three brothers, where they cooked a lot of American Chinese dishes which often mixed sweet and savory flavors.
They also made pizza at the restaurant and Sam started experimenting with toppings. Adding canned pineapple along with ham proved really popular. He called it Hawaiian pizza because that's where the canned pineapples we're from. As Panopoulos well knew, mixing sweet and savory goes back a long way in many culinary traditions, but the thing is pineapples aren't only sweet. In the 17th century, Richard Ligon called the taste of pineapple violently sharp.
Charles Lamb called pineapple eating pleasure bordering on pain and not without cause pineapples are the only natural source of the enzyme Bromelain which basically eats your mouth while you chew it. Then there's the fact that tomatoes themselves have a fair amount of sugar and most pizza sauces contain added sugar. It's debatable and God knows it has been debated whether the acid sweetness of pineapple makes pizza a more balanced dish or whether it's extreme flavor profile overpowers everything else in the pizza. I try not to have an opinion on other people eating preferences but personally, I find pineapple on pizza to be a bit overwhelming, which come to think of it, is also how I feel about the hyper-efficient human-centered world that makes pineapple on pizza possible. It's all more than I can effectively process.
Hawaiian pizza doesn't taste good or bad to me so much as it tastes a lot. A lot of sweet, a lot of acid, a lot of salt, a lot of savory. I often feel the way pineapple pizza tastes like to me. I don't know if things are good or bad but I know that they're a lot, which can make it easy to yearn for a simpler time. Of course, when we were in that simpler time, there were reasons we chose complexity. For starters, we wanted more available calories because we were hungry, but we also wanted the freedom to choose, to make from the raw materials of the earth foods that weren't just edible, but interesting.
You can say a lot of bad things about pineapple pizza, but you can't call it boring. Still, I'm not sure I really need to eat a dizzying array of flavors to be mindful of the dizzying experience of life here in the year 522. I give Hawaiian pizza two stars.
[music] After the break, we'll discuss viral meningitis, but I want to turn now to the first words of Hamlet, in which one Danish guard says to another, "Who's there?" It's a great first line in a play that's not only about who was there but also about who one is. Anyway, the other guard refuses to give his name anxiously responding, "Nay, answer me and unfold yourself." At which point the first guard says what amounts to a password, "Long live the king," which is what these days we would call a somewhat insecure password.
To be effective passwords must be hard to guess harder, for instance, than a kings' guard using the password long with the king, but usually, the harder a password is to guess, the harder it is to remember. Then some data breach renders your one good password insecure, or you have so many passwords that you lock yourself out of accounts trying to get them. You do not have to live like this, my friends, because of Dashlane.
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Let's move on to viral meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. It's usually caused by a single strand of RNA called an enterovirus. One of the weird things about viruses is that they aren't really alive. They're just single strands of RNA or DNA floating around and they can't replicate until and unless they find a host cell to hijack. They're inert until they come into contact with life but then they do become alive. The cells they've hijacked, spread and respond to stimulus and metabolize energy, and so on.
Viruses remind me that in some ways, life is more of a continuum than a duality. Yes, viruses are not living, but then many bacteria also can't survive without hosts, and weirder still many hosts can't survive without bacteria. All life is dependent upon other life. The more you zoom in to what actually constitutes a living being, the harder life becomes to define. The symptoms of viral meningitis vary, but they can include stiff neck, fever, nausea, sensitivity to light, as well as a profound unshakable understanding that viruses are not merely inert.
Then there is, of course, the headache, slightly off topic but Virginia Woolf wrote in On Being Ill, that it is, "Strange indeed, that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would thought would have been devoted to influenza, epic poems to typhoid, odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache, but no." She goes on to note, "Among the drawbacks of illness as a matter for literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Leah has no words for the shiver, and the headache."
Woolf had migraines, so she knew this poverty of language firsthand but anyone who has ever been in pain, knows how alone it can make you feel. Partly because you're the only one in your pain and partly because it is so infuriatingly and terrifyingly inexpressible. As Elaine Scarry argues in her brilliant book, The Body in Pain, physical pain doesn't just evade language, it destroys language. Whatever pain achieves, she wrote, it achieves in part through its unshareability through its resistance to language.
I can tell you that having meningitis involves headaches, but that will do nothing to impart an understanding of the language destroying consciousness crushing omnipresence of that headache. All I can say is that when I had viral meningitis in 2014, I had a headache that made it impossible to have anything else. My head didn't hurt so much as myself had been rendered inert by the pain in my head. I really think it is impossible to communicate the nature and severity of such pain. As Scarry put it, "To have pain is to have certainty, to hear about pain is to have doubt but right, you get a headache"
Unlike meningitis caused by bacteria, viral meningitis is rarely fatal and usually resolves on its own within 7 to 10 days, which sounds like a reasonable period of time to be sick, until you're actually inside of it. Sick days do not pass like well ones do like water through cupped hands. Sick days last, when I had the headache, I felt certain I would have it forever. The pain of each moment was terrible but what really made me despair was the knowledge that in the next moment, and the next, and the next, the pain would still be there.
For many people, including me, the initial period of illness is followed by several months of occasional headaches, which arrived like earthquake aftershocks. Over a year or so, my headaches grew more infrequent. By now, they've almost entirely subsided, and I am left permanently grateful for feeling the way I used to feel all the time. I became sick with meningitis in early August of 2014, just after returning to Indiana from a trip where I visited both Ethiopia and the conference in Orlando, Florida.
My neurologist told me, I probably caught the virus in Orlando, because and I'm quoting him here, "You know, Florida." I spent a week in the hospital. Although they couldn't do much other than keep me hydrated and treat my pain. I slept a lot. When I was awake, I was in pain and I mean in pain inside of it. Of course, aside from the fact that it doesn't usually kill you, there is nothing to recommend about viral meningitis. As Susan Sontag wrote, "Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning."
The virus that spread through my spinal fluid had no meaning. It did not replicate to teach me a lesson. Any insights I gleaned from the unsharable pain could have been learned less painfully elsewhere. Meningitis, like the virus that caused it wasn't a metaphor or a narrative device, it was just a disease. We want our lives to be stories that make sense. We are hardwired to look for patterns to make constellations from the stars.
When I was sick, people would say to me, at least you're getting a break from all that work, as if I wanted a break from my work. Or they'd say, at least you'll make a full recovery, as if now was not the only moment that the pain allowed me to live in. I know they were trying to tell me a story that made sense, but it doesn't work if the story isn't true. When we tell those stories to people in chronic pain, or those living with incurable illness, so often we end up minimizing their experience, we end up expressing our doubt in the face of their certainty, which only compounds the extent to which pain separates the person experiencing it from the wider social order.
The challenge and responsibility of personhood, it seems to me is to recognize personhood in others, to listen to others pain, and take it seriously, even when you yourself cannot feel it. That I think really does separate human life from the quasi life of an enterovirus. I give viral meningitis one star.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Anthropocene Review, which was written by me, produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas, and edited by Stan Mellor.
If you'd like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at email@example.com or find us on Twitter or Facebook. If you'd like to help our podcast, please tell your friends about it or write a review.
My favorite fact that didn't make it into today's reviews. A Scottish Earl in the 18th century was so proud of his gardener's ability to grow pineapples in the not terribly tropical climate of Scotland, that the Earl built a 45 foot tall [unintelligible 00:20:01] shaped like a pineapple. Beware false idols, my friends, for they will taste sweet and sharp. Thanks again for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed. We leave you today with the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf's voice.
Virginia Woolf: Our business is to see what we can do with the old English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new order so they survive, so that they create beauty, so they tell the truth? That is the question.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.