Josna Rege

443. An Ill Wind (or, A portent and two strange things)

In Food, health, Nature, seasons, Stories on October 19, 2019 at 12:18 am

Two straight days of rain and powerful northeasterly wind gusts have followed hard upon Indigenous Peoples’ Day, traditionally the time of year when the fall colors are at their peak in this part of the world. The winds subsided somewhat today and gave way to watery sunlight, but not before large tree limbs, branches, and thick masses of sodden leaves had been flung across our garden and throughout our neighborhood. Hoisting the shades after returning from work yesterday, I was horrified by the carnage outside. One or more large tree limbs seemed to have been felled in our neighbor’s garden and then driven through the bordering trees into ours, knocking down the bird feeder but thankfully, missing the house. On the other side, a massive pine-tree limb with many side branches and needles had snapped off from somewhere so high that I couldn’t locate the source, and lodged itself spike down into our back lawn. It took me quite a long time to drag all the branches down into the little copse at the bottom of the garden, retrieve the bird feeder from underneath the pile, and break off and wheelbarrow away the smaller branches from the massive pine-tree carcass, which I eventually managed to heave off the lawn to the edge of our lot.

The night before had been a harrowing one, with a brief power outage followed by rapidly fibrillating lights, howling winds so strong that I was afraid to open the door, and one crash that was so ear-splitting that I withdrew from the living area and into the inmost recesses of the house with a failing flashlight in one hand and candles in the other. On the way to work there were signs of the storm everywhere, with a downed powerline threatening death by electrocution to all who ventured near it  and fallen trees on the main road forcing a slow, circuitous detour through scenic country roads. I was nearly late for Climate Emergency, a teach-in my students were attending as part of our annual Sustainability Fair. Fittingly, one of the faculty scheduled to give the presentation was unable to make it to the teach-in because his route to work was impassable. Later, I read that what had hit us had been a bomb cyclone or ‘explosive cyclogenesis.’ and that it had wreaked havoc throughout the Northeast United States.

Today was a new day, dawning sunny and dry, as I have already mentioned, with only a light breeze punctuated from time to time with residual gusts. I washed and filled the birdfeeder, cleaned out the mass of leaves from the bird bath, went for a little walk around the neighborhood, and set up my laptop at the kitchen table with a nice cup of Darjeeling tea. On a short outing to mail a letter I had stopped in at my favorite thrift shop and found an L.L. Bean jacket for Andrew and a set of six oval dinner plates, ideal for tortillas and chiles rellenos, dosas and crepes, and the German apple pancake (so delicious that we have made it three times in the past 10 days). Before it got dark I popped over to our elderly next-door neighbor’s, whose pawpaw trees had lost almost all their fruit in the storm. It turned out that he had already picked a large bagful of them yesterday, so he sent most of my two trays back with me.

Home again with plates and pawpaws I gloated over my prizes. The pawpaws went in the fridge until we could work out what to do with them, but a little internet search promised a pawpaw meringue pie in our near future. Then I turned the dishes upside down and looked them up: “HLC fiesta USA,” soon translated as the Homer Laughlin Corporation’s fiesta line of dishes manufactured between 1936 and 1969, then between 1969 and 1973 with new colors, and, after 1986, a line of reproductions. What fun! I was about to look up whether ours were the vintage line, but thankfully an early dinner intervened, looking a treat on the new plates. This mellow fall Friday was just what the doctor ordered after a hectic, sleep-deprived workweek, and slowly (slowly is the operative word) preparing me to get back down to work with my batteries recharged.

But the mood was about to change.

As Andrew and I were sitting peacefully at the dinner table savoring the tortillas, black beans, and guacamole arrayed fetchingly on our new dinner plates and watching the late afternoon shafts of sunlight sloping through the trees and the last few birds swooping down on the feeder, the neighborhood tomcat loped along the slate walkway past the birdbath, carrying something shadowy in his mouth. Now this cat is a nuisance—massively marmalade, perpetually and extravagantly bedraggled, with a reputation for aggression continually reinforced by the stories that circulate about his exploits. When we first moved into this house a year or so ago it had lain empty for three months, and this fellow had moved onto the back terrace and claimed it as his own, stretching his body luxuriously against the sun-warmed wall like a feline Jabba the Hutt, eyes glinting menacingly at all who dared enter his peripheral vision. I kept well away, and it was a long time before the terrace was ours—or at least, ours when it wasn’t his.

This afternoon we did a double-take as this fellow crossed our field of vision, intent on his bloody business, which turned out to be the disposal of a limp, freshly-killed gray squirrel so large that his tail swept the ground as the tomcat carried him away. Now squirrels are a bit of a nuisance, and we go to considerable lengths to keep them away from the bird-feeder, but they don’t do anybody any harm. Used to seeing the squirrel as the largest creatures in our garden’s microhabitat, it was shocking to see its lifeless body being carried off by a much larger predator. I stared, frozen in place, then jumped up to try to get a photograph, but it had slunk out of sight and I spotted it just in time to see its tail and motheaten hindquarters disappearing through a gap between the overgrown holly bushes.

That put a bit of a damper on the day. We finished our meal in silence, and repaired to the living room, where Andrew stretched out on the couch in his new jacket and I tried to cheer myself up by slicing and eating the ripest of the pawpaws (a bit of an acquired taste, perhaps, but it reminded me of the custard-apples in our garden in India) and returning to my internet search of Fiestaware. But everything seemed to have taken a strange turn.

radioactive Fiestaware

The first thing I found out was that my Fiestaware might be worth thousands of dollars, especially the vintage line. Apparently Andy Warhol had collected the red and blue Fiestaware, and though ours were plain-Jane ivory, I hoped that they might be a find. I scrolled down the search results, looking for the Old Ivory plates and more information on how to date them, but instead I came upon a deeply disturbing webpage from Oak Ridge Associated University entitled Radioctive Consumer Products. The connection to Fiestaware? Clicking on an icon depicting brightly colored dishes I was taken to an article of the same name which revealed that  between 1936 and 1943 the glaze on the original five colors of Chinese red (aka Fiesta red) and blue, green, ivory, and yellow dishes contained uranium oxide made from natural uranium. Uranium? It has been estimated that a single plate contains 4.5 grams of uranium (Buckley et al, cited in “Fiestaware ca. 1930s”). Apparently, the article said, in 1943 Homer Laughlin’s natural uranium was commandeered for the war effort and the company suspended the use of Fiesta red (now going by Mango red) until 1959, when they found that they could substitute depleted uranium; which was used until 1973, when it was discontinued.

What***?!?! At first I hoped that the Fiesta red dishes were the only dangerous ones; but no, it seems, easily detectable amounts of radiation emanate from all of the dishes in that era, my only consolation being that the levels from the Fiesta red are “head and shoulders above the ivory.” Small comfort, given that there is no safe level of radiation and the article took pains to explain that the radiation exposure associated with this dinnerware targeted consumers via “three principal pathways”: gamma rays to the body emitted by the dishes, beta particles from the glaze striking the hands, and “ingestion of uranium that has leached into food that has been in contact with the ceramic glaze.” Gulp.

Now my only hope was that the dishes gleaming malevolently on my kitchen counter were part of the post-1973 line, with no resale value but also no radioactivity.

Feeling suddenly rather bilious, whether from thoughts of the uranium or the pawpaw I had just ingested, I returned to my web browser to close the window; but not before my eye fell upon a set of results from my earlier search for information on pawpaws; in particular a Wikipedia article on Annonaceae,  commonly known as the custard apple or soursop family, which includes the American pawpaw. At the very bottom of the article was a section entitled Toxicology, consisting of three sentences:

The compound annonacin in the seeds and leaves of many Annonaceae including soursop (Annona muricata), is a neurotoxin and it seems to be the cause of a neurodegenerative disease. The disorder is a so-called tauopathy associated with a pathologic accumulation of tau protein in the brain. Experimental results demonstrate that the plant neurotoxin annonacin is responsible for this accumulation.

What***?!?! I couldn’t stop at Wikipedia so I looked further, hoping for reassurance. It was not forthcoming. I found a 2012 article on PubMed from the journal Neurotoxicology, entitled Annonacin in Asimina triloba fruit: implication for neurotoxicity. You can read it for yourself; I’m no scientist, but it doesn’t look good. I finished up with a series of posts on a fruit-growing site in which horrified horticulturalists were responding to this news. One of them vowed, perhaps a bit histrionically, “no pawpaw shall henceforth pass my lips.”

But what about those two trays of pawpaws chilling in our refrigerator? Andrew suggested hopefully that perhaps we could put them in the deep freeze until we could definitively confirm their safety or toxicity. But we had done that for years with a large biscuit tin full of Jelly Babies during the mad cow disease crisis in Britain around the turn of the millennium in the hopes that cow-based British gelatin would be pronounced safe. (Sadly, they eventually had to be thrown away, not because we had a definitive answer, but because they were well and truly old. And nothing is more disappointing than stale Jelly Babies. Well, almost nothing.)

My finds had left a decidedly bad taste in the mouth. No doubt I ought to have stayed indoors all day and buckled down to my unfinished work. Hope springs eternal, though. The British say, It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. When you work your way out of those double negatives, it could suggest that something positive might yet emerge from my wasted afternoon. Perhaps the winds will have changed direction by tomorrow. But they are more likely to be portents of still stronger winds to come. Returning from distractions to the very real climate emergency, there’s no time to lose.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents






  1. Yikes!#&!
    Quite a fitting story for the rapidly approaching “Season of the Witch.”
    (I like your table’s center piece of the tiny pumpkin perched on the turtle trivet.)

    • Thanks, Anna! Yes, come to think of it, it does befit the time of year. Glad you like the miniature pumpkin; maybe I’ll look for a miniature cat to go with it. . .

  2. Jojo, I’m so grateful for your blog; this post is particularly good IMHO. Digressive question: should the apostrophe in Indigenous People’s Day maybe be, like, Peoples’ ?? (And could you infer that perhaps I have too much time on my hands?)

    Love, ~Steven


    • Hi Steven! You’re quite right, it should be Peoples’ and thank you for the correction–embarrassing error on my part! In my view, it’s never a waste of time to set such things straight. Thank you for your kind comment and be well. J

  3. I hope further research or, better still, discussion with live experts — the ‘live’ descriptor being pertinent — will help allay fears over what you may or may not have ingested over the last little while, Josna. Is this what they mean by ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, that is, dangerous to one’s mental balance? I’d certainly be a little, um, anxious finding out what you’ve just been describing.

    • Thanks for your concern, Chris, and your gentle reminder that one would go crazy if one believed everything one read on the internet! I hope it was clear that the piece was intended to be humorous, despite having serious content. Actually, I flip-flopped on the tone, starting out to write a comic piece, but then realizing that, of course, the biggest portent of all wasn’t the cat crossing our path but the unusually high winds that felled the trees in our garden. So I edited the closing paragraph after I had already posted it to return to the climate emergency. (Still, I’m not going to eat off those plates again until we’ve established their dates; or eat any more of those pawpaws, which we picked up from the ground anyway.)

  4. All I can add is, “Uh-oh!” However, as my little brother once said to me in a garden of my childhood, “Cheer up, Marianne! Life is Joyful!”

  5. At least you only ate one and you didn’t eat it off of your radioactive plates. Maybe you can sell them for $1,000 and pass the poison on. Or bury both plates and paw paws in a new landfill at the bottom of your garden. The world is a mess, from homestead to the outer reaches. Be thankful none of those branches fell on your house!

    • Thanks for the perspective, Kristin! Yes, the world sure is a mess, and none of us is spared. We did eat off our (possibly) radioactive plates, but only once. I like the idea of a burial (and the idea of making a fortune off them is diabolical! 😉 Yes, the house was spared. I sure am thankful for that! x J

  6. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Isn’t it so sometimes also that a little bit of a bad thing can be good for you…?

    Who knows, you. May have just unlocked a recipe for prolonged life!

    Taco tuesday on radioactive plates with pawpaw pudding for dessert.

  7. In the deep recesses of my mind, I do remember hearing of the radioactivity of Fiestaware. It’s a long-held and well-kept secret. Buyer beware! Glad you discovered the issue, though. Hope you’re well my friend.

    • Ahh, those recesses. I didn’t know about Fiestaware’s hot secret until just now. Apparently the biggest offender of the colors was called Radioactive Red–quite a tip-off! When we lived with Mike Hill in New Mexico (back in 1978-9) Andrew bought a geiger counter. We must recharge/replace its battery and put it to use on these dishes. We’re hanging in here. You? Sounds as if you’ve both taken to your new habitat like ducks to water! xxo

      • Have you seen “Dark Waters” yet? Teflon: another household product of evil.

        • No I haven’t yet, Anne. But yes, I do believe that Teflon is an evil household product and I steer well clear of it. If food burns and sticks to the pan I soak the pan in water and then scrape it off with a handy-dandy silicon pot scraper that I found years ago in a hardware store in Portland, Maine.

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