Thursday, August 9, 2012

Halvah scholarship

When I have been writing for a while and stop there is a certain inertia remaining, as with a heavy object that continues to roll along, or something in outer space. Occasionally this inertia is expressed in silly bits of writing. For some reason, now forgotten, an on-line discussion I was party to began to discuss halvah, a kind of candy of mid-eastern origin, and this resulted in the following parody of wikiesque scholarship. It’s the kind of thing one could continue forever, but that way lies madness.

The Story of Halvah (excerpted from Masters of Confection, Richard Krumpf, ed., 1975, McGraw-Hill, New York.)

Chaim "Halvah" Hod, 1889-1972, b. Znieczwriercz, Poland, par. Zev & Zelda Vnin Hod; m. Ida Messer (1923) three ch. Peter, (1924) John, (1926) Ira(1928); Hod emigrated to New York, 1903; after working as a seltzer bubbler and a derma machine operator, Hod apprenticed himself to the famous halvah impressario Noachim Karaganovsky (q.v.) in 1910, rising to foreman of the Orchard Street works (1918).With the entry of the US in the Great War, vital supplies of sesame essence from the Ottoman Empire were curtailed, and the halvah industry collapsed. Hod, however, discovered that an acceptable essence could be derived from a byproductof synthetic rubber manufacture, and that halvah filters were proof against deadly mustard gas. Several War Department contracts followed, and by war's end the Karaganovsky concern was the pre-eminent halvah producer in the US.

In 1924, Karagonovsky's failing health (he had contracted sticky lung during the early days in the halvah mines of Lower Silesia) caused him to pass the reins to Hod. In 1925, Hod bought out two smaller producers, founded The Universal Halvah Corporation, and took the company public. He also founded (1927) the Halvah Research Laboratory, in Littleton, New Jersey. In 1931, Jerome Silverman (q.v.), working at the HRL, first described the crystalline nature of halvah, a discovery upon which the entire science of halvonics is based. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1937.

Although Hod had been a life-long Democrat, an anti-trust suit filed against UHC in 1936 and agitation by the CIO among the halvah miners enraged him and he switched parties. He supported Landon in 1936, and thereafter backed a number of right-wing causes. With the outbreak of the Second World War, however, Hod made himself available to the government and was appointed head of the Strategic Confectionary Board. He was a successful administrator, although his project of constructing a bomber entirely out of stressed halvah never got past the experimental stage. Halvah production rose 230% between 1941 and 1945, an achievement for which Hod deserves major credit...

After the war, UHC continued to expand under Hod's direction, branching out into such disparate areas as railroads and plastics. Hod and his wife were active in the New York cultural scene, and the great south wall of Lincoln Center, a mosaic of preserved halvah, was the gift of the Hod Foundation. In 1968, UHC was purchased by Ling-Temco-Vought for $1.9 billion and stock. Hod retired the next year, and devoted the remainder of his life to writing his memoir, _You Shoulda Been There_, published posthumously in 1974.

The article in Who's Who in Sugary Treats covers much the same ground, but deals with the current Hod offspring in more detail. Aficionados will recall that John "Lolly" Hod was the first person to market an all-day-sucker that actually lasted for twenty-four hours, thus obviating a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit for false advertising.

For those interested in halvah itself, its history and uses, there is, ofcourse, J.L. Magruder's magisterial The Technology of Halvah. At 1213 pages this may be somewhat dense for the average reader, in which case, Armand Rothstein's amusing but accurate It's Not Just a Candy may suffice. Halvah is My Life by Preston T. Anderson has some interesting illustrations, but the text is often inaccurate. For example, he states that the double-boiler halvah proving-mill was introduced in Utica, NewYork, in 1914, although the Smithsonian exhibit of halvah technology displays a Petersen-Weigs rotating double-boiler rig with a brass plate clearly marked '1910'! History buffs will wish to consult the large collection of early printed tracts and incunabula at the Hod Research Center in Littleton, NJ. I would especially recommend the account of Sir Ralph Maxwoodie (1507-1569) in his True Historie of a Journey to the Greate Cham, (1527), which many scholars regard as the first mention of halvah in English. The relevant section begins:

'Therein we did see divers Persons of Dress and Equipage most odde, the which when asked, our guide named them, Halvah-thegghs, which meaneth in theyre Tongue, the ones who maketh Halvah. From these ones we purchased for two Sequins a Lumpe of ye Substance about ye size of an Heade-cheese. They do saye that it is wholesome to eate, being sweete, and also that it improves the ardent Humours and maketh the Privy Parts swelle up. It is therefore much used by the Greate Cham and other haughty Personagges at ye Sublime Porte. It is said, too, that ye Women of ye Towne do use it as Unguent for theyre lascivious Sportes; also, ye Drivers of Camels and Asses, feed it to theyre Beastes, to promote swiftnesse of Foote; also that it may be lette dry, and become harde, therafter mixed with Naptha and Eelroote and divers other luciferous Principals, and made into Balles for the Bombards and Culverins of ye Cham his Army, which when hurled at the Foe, do burste in flames. This, though, we saw not. We did partake of it, a little. It is passing sweete, and maketh a great stickynesse in the Mouth, so it is harde to passe down ye Gullet. As to ye efficacie in ye listes of Venus, I cannot saye, for in theyre Graces and saucy Wiles ye Women of this realm surpasseth all others, so that each Nighte our ardent Partes were mayde to perform such Feates as never would I have believed possible had the Soothest Man in all Christendom vouchsafed it mee; so we judged us that the properties of ye Halvah, if reale, had been a superfluitie, and doe us Harme…”

1 comment:

MErhard said...

--It’s often equally interesting to follow up on referenced items at the end of Wikipedia entries, e.g. the following, taken from reference 3 cited in the Wikipedia entry The Story of Halvah (excerpted above):

The term "halva" came into popular usage in the 1930s. The Dictionary of the Way People Talk (needs citation) noted that during the Great Depression (1929-193?), when even basic staples such as bread were scarce, women would often press available foodstuffs such as ground liver and/or chicken, which they would run through a food mill, into the popular ‘loaf’ pans, leaving them to set in the icebox by virtue of inherent natural fat, which had a thick, viscous quality when chilled. However, the result often resembled a particularly unpalatable version of the ultrasweet confection and was so distasteful that the phrase “halva loaf is better than none” sprang into the common lexicon, albeit with a deeply ironic meaning and sarcastic tone.
Likewise, many would be surprised to know that the folk song “Hava Nagila,” typically heard at Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, began life not as the Hebrew translation of “let us rejoice” but as “Halva Nagila,” halva from the Arab word meaning “sweet,” thus “sweet rejoicing,” although the word form “rejoicing” is incorrect . (The sound of "hava" to English-speaking ears being barely distinguishable from the English phrase “have a,” however, led to the now-common parting phrase, “have a nice day,” literally, “let us nice day,” but with the intended meaning, “let us have a nice day.”) The melody, which uses the Phrygian dominant scale and is a variation of the moderately lascivious “hora” circle dance, is most beloved by non-Jewish people (who as such have little opportunity for repeated hearings) as well as those who revel in semi-nasal harmonies.

Who knew?