Party Yak Issue #012
June 16, 2005

"Yak, yak, yak. That's all I do. If it has anything to do with great party food, I yak about it because the food is the life of the party."

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In this issue:

Feature Article: Fireworks and Other Happy Recipe Mistakes

Great Party

Fireworks and Other Happy Recipe Mistakes

The History of Fireworks, Gunpowder Ingredients,
and Chocolate Chip Cookies

History is filled with mistakes. Some of them turned out all right. The history of fireworks is tied to the history of gunpowder ingredients. It goes something like this...

A long time ago in a land far, far away, two Chinese alchemists were trying to create a recipe for an elixir of life. They combined sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal. And honey. You can't have an elixir of life without honey. They were stirring their recipe over an open fire when the mixture ignited. It suddenly flared brightly and exploded, burning their hands, faces, and even the little shack they had stood in. And voila!, or rather, kaboom!, gunpowder was born. Only they called it "huo yao" or "fire chemical."

Although added to the "Do not try this combination again!" list, other alchemists worked to develop the gunpowder recipe, sans honey. (You knew they would.) It was already popular practice in China to throw green bamboo pieces onto a fire so that they popped loudly, loud enough to scare off evil spirits. And it was fun. But it was when the fire chemical was stuffed into the bamboo lengths and thrown onto the fire, with the resulting thunder and lightning, that its potential dawned and "fireworks" soon became part of every important social, religious and political festivity.

After that, gunpowder followed three roads. Besides entertainment, it was used for practical purposes, like mining, and, inevitably, for military purposes. In fact, Roger Bacon, (1214–1294) the scholar and monk credited with perfecting the gunpowder formula, saw in it such potential for war that he wrote the formula in a code that took hundreds of years to break. Interestingly, his formula of 75% saltpeter, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur are the same proportions used today.

But we never did lose sight of gunpowder's potential entertainment value.

Marco Polo eventually carried the invention to Arabia, from whence it made its way to England and elsewhere via European crusaders. But the Italians were the first to commercially manufacture fireworks, the first to establish a school of pyrotechnics, and the first to develop aerial shells with the colorful night-sky entertainment we know today. By the 15th century, almost every country had its fireworks displays.

Fireworks became very popular in England's royal court about then. The first recorded fireworks display there was in celebration of the wedding of King Henry VII in 1486. Queen Elizabeth I soon appointed a "Fire Master of England." In fact, there came to be many Firemasters and fireworkers, always in high demand despite, or perhaps because of, the many tragic injuries and deaths involved. We do love our entertainment. James II was so impressed with his coronation display that he knighted his Firemaster. And fireworks became part of every important social, religious and political festivity.

Later, in the United States, fireworks continued to grow in popularity, and the natives were duly impressed as well. Colonial "firemasters" would cover themselves with wet, green leaves to protect themselves in case of gunpowder accidents. They became known as "greenmen," a term still often used to refer to pyrotechnicians.

It wasn't until the 1830s that fireworks took on modern special effects. Again, those clever Italians discovered that adding trace amounts of certain metals and other additives created certain effects like color, sound, or smoke. Till then, there hadn't been many or any choices.

  • aluminum, magnesium: gold, white
  • strontium salts: red
  • sodium salts: yellow
  • barium salts: green
  • copper: blue
  • titanium: creates sparks
  • calcium: deepens colors
  • zinc: creates smoke
  • sodium salicytate: creates a shrieking, whistling sound

The discoveries go on. And so, more than ever, fireworks are part of every important social, religious and political festivity. So goes the history of fireworks, a fractured history of gunpowder, one of the first happy recipe mistakes.

In more modern times, though several decades ago, was another accidental invention, another happy recipe mistake. A woman was looking for a shortcut to making chocolate cookies. Instead of melting, tempering the chocolate she cut it into bits and stirred it into her cookie dough. What she got was Chocolate Chip Cookies. And are we glad! Personally, I like them soft and chewy, so here's a great chewy chocolate chip cookie recipe for you:

Ultimate Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

3/4 cup butter (or butter-flavored shortening)
1-1/4 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 egg, beaten
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Preheat oven to 375°. In a large bowl, cream the butter, milk and brown sugar together. Stir in the vanilla and egg. Combine the flour, salt and baking soda, and gradually add to the creamed mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and nuts. Drop rounded tablespoonfuls about 3 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes. If you simply must have crisp(er) cookies, continue baking for 1-3 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the cookies cool on the cookie sheet for a minute or two, then transfer them to a cooling rack. Makes about 3 dozen 3-inch cookies.

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