April Fools' Day has always held a special place in my wack-o heart. As a kid, I was forever playing pranks. But I thought I hit the motherlode when, at the grand age of nine and lying in bed the night before April Fools', the thought of putting salt into the sugar bowl hit me. To a nine-year-old it felt like the most hilarious idea in the world and, of course, one never done before.
Mom and dad woke up and ate breakfast first so they would be the victims, and I was surprisingly thrilled at the thought of my dad dumping a teaspoon of salt instead of sugar into his coffee, stirring it around and then taking a big gulp. Or my parents sprinkling salt over their porridge, pouring on the cream and then eating a big spoonful. Ick — it would be excellent!
So I jumped out of bed and, following my inner prankster, crept down the hall past all the closed bedroom doors that separated the sleepers from the rest of the world, including the skinny little kid about to pull off her first big April Fools' joke.
April Fools' is coming up this Sunday, so if you've never enjoyed a good prank you've got plenty of time to plan. One of the easiest venues is around that most universal junction of all things social, cultural and vital — food.
But first, a short tour around the idea of the day itself, thanks to Jack Santino and his book, All Around the Year.
Many of the days we now mark with fun and tomfoolery — like April Fools' — originated close to winter solstice. It's no coincidence they all fall in spring, nor that they cross-connect.
Around the winter solstice, ancient Persians celebrated by turning things on their head for 12 days, such as masters and slaves exchanging places. The Romans continued the topsy-turvy tradition with Saturnalia, another 12-day winter feast.
The idea of inversion carried on in medieval times as the Feast of Fools on December 28, when peasants dressed as clergy and led donkeys into church as a parody. Other central and southern European carnivals were also marked by inversion, like carnevale in Venice ("carn" from the Latin for "flesh", and "vale" or "val" from "levar", "to put away"). Masked revellers, often drunk and rowdy, mocked social institutions like the church or their masters, all with permission in a condoned blowing off of steam.
The Feast of Fools was eventually banned in the 1400s, but you can't keep a good thing down. It is still with us in the revelry of New Year's Eve and in the pranks of April Fools' Day, or All Fools' Day, as it is known elsewhere — both names echoing the original.
Some historians also pin the practice of playing jokes on April 1 to the reformed calendar. When Charles IX of France adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1564, New Year's was switched from March 25 to January 1. Still, there were those who insisted on maintaining the old New Year's Day which, in certain parts of France, stretched as a festival from March 25 to April 1.
Those who didn't "get it" — the ones stuck in the old ways — were sent mock gifts on April 1 in derision, and were called April fools or April fish. Poisson d'Avril is still the name for April 1 in France, where you try to pin a paper fish on the back of some poor unwitting sot as part of the fun.
But this also belies the fact that Iranians have been playing jokes on each other on the 13th day of Narouz, or Persian New Year, for about the last 2,500 years, which echoes our starting point and confirms one thing — everybody loves a good prank.
In the food department, the old salt/sugar switch remains one of the easiest to pull off, but the elaboration of ruses is only limited by imagination
One of the most convincing pranks of all time — in fact, the most convincing ones usually have media involvement — was the famous BBC show on April 1, 1957 when the news program, Panorama, featured the bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. It was brought on, said the respected anchor, Richard Dimbleby (yes, that was his real name), by an unusually mild winter. The accompanying footage showed young women plucking strands of spaghetti from very plausible spaghetti trees.
That item is from a wonderful book that still speaks to my inner nine-year-old, The Museum of Hoaxes, written by Alex Boese and based on material he stumbled on when he was doing his PhD on the history of science.
Visit his website at www.museumofhoaxes.com/ for more cool April Fools' pranks, including a piece from last year's UK Metro Herald that said, in the name of recycling, they were going "edible" with future editions made from cornstarch, complete with vanilla.
As for your foolish fun, you can branch out from the salt/sugar routine in style using a number of resources. Familyfun.go.com shows how to make a goofy dinner using peanut butter candy logs for chicken nuggets, candied peas and carrots for the real thing, and ice cream with caramel sauce for mashed potatoes with gravy. Tastykitchen.com/recipes explains how to make meatloaf cupcakes with creamed potato icing that look like the real (sweet) deal.
All these food inversions remind me of the culinary creations that seminal photographer and surrealist, Lee Miller, came up with later in life. After becoming a gourmet cook, she would call up friends for a feast then sit them down to a table laden with Muddles Green Green Chicken, which really was green; a "goldfish" which was actually a cleverly cooked and garnished three-kilo cod; or meatloaf dyed vivid purple.
So inspiration abounds — the rest is up to you. As for my long ago April Fools' prank, it was my dad who was the fall guy. I'll never know how he really reacted at 7 a.m., but later that night when he got home from work, he was generous enough to have a good laugh, give me a pat on the head, and tell me that I really did have him fooled.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who has great respect for genuine fools.
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