What Is Catnip and Why Are Cats Crazy For It?

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istock

Your cat probably knows it as Catnip or Catmint. But the stuff that drives your kitten crazy goes by the Latin name Nepeta cataria, and it's a member of the genus Nepeta (derived from Nepete, the Italian town where catnip was first cultivated).

When a cat smells catnip it usually licks, chews, rubs against and rolls around on the plant, as well as salivates and meows. This reaction lasts for about 5 to 15 minutes, and then the cat loses interest and needs about two hours of "reset" time before it can have the same response. Amazingly, catnip doesn't hold power over all felines. Response to catnip is genetically inherited, with about 70 to 80 percent of cats exhibiting the typical response to the plant. Of those, kittens younger than six months and very old cats are less likely to respond.

But why does the plant hold such power over your cat? The secret to catnip is nepetalactone, a volatile oil stored in tiny bulbs on the leaves, stems and seedpods of the plant. When nepetalactone enters a cat's nasal tissue, it binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium. Sensory neurons are stimulated and cause neurons in the olfactory bulb to send signals to the brain. Once the brain gets involved, things get a bit murky because we still don't have a complete neurological explanation for cats' behavioral reaction, but the prevailing theory is that nepetalactone mimics a cat pheromone.

Besides amusing our pets, is there any use for catnip?

Research from the early 1960s suggested that a mouthful of nepetalactone for insects that bit into the plant kept them away. Later experiments found that catnip oil had the same repellent effect as 10 times the amount of DEET, sparking the emergence of several "natural" insect repellants using nepetalactone.

Catnip also has a mild calming effect on people, and folk medicine prescribes it as a treatment for migraines, indigestion, insomnia, colic and toothaches.

Why Do We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving?

gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images
gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images

While it’s possible—even probable—that pumpkins were served at the 1621 harvest festival that’s now considered the predecessor to Thanksgiving, attendees definitely didn’t dine on pumpkin pie (there was no butter or wheat flour to make crust).

The earliest known recipes for pumpkin pie actually come from 17th-century Europe. Pumpkins, like potatoes and tomatoes, were first introduced to Europe in the Columbian Exchange, but Europeans were more comfortable cooking with pumpkins because they were similar to their native gourds.

By the 18th century, however, Europeans on the whole lost interest in pumpkin pie. According to HowStuffWorks, Europeans began to prefer apple, pear, and quince pies, which they perceived as more sophisticated. But at the same time pumpkin pie was losing favor in Europe, it was gaining true staple status in America.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written and published in the New World colonies. Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin pudding” cooked in pastry crust. Simmons’s recipes call for “stewed and strained” pumpkin, combined with a mixture of nutmeg, allspice, and ginger (yes, it seems our pumpkin spice obsession dates back to at least the 1500s).

But how did pumpkin pie become so irrevocably tied with the Thanksgiving holiday? That has everything to do with Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor who is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” In her 1827 abolitionist novel Northwood, Hale described a Thanksgiving meal complete with “fried chicken floating in gravy,” broiled ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and—of course—pumpkin pie. For more than 30 years, Hale advocated for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, writing regular editorials and sending letters to five American presidents. Thanksgiving was a symbol for unity in an increasingly divided country, she argued [PDF].

Abraham Lincoln eventually declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (to near-immediate outcry from Southerners, who viewed the holiday as an attempt to enforce Yankee values). Southern governors reluctantly complied with the presidential proclamation, but cooks in the South developed their own unique regional traditions. In the South, sweet potato pie quickly became more popular than New England’s pumpkin pie (mostly because sweet potatoes were easier to come by than pumpkins). Now, pumpkin pie reigns supreme as the most popular holiday pie across most of the United States, although the Northeast prefers apple and the South is split between apple and pecan, another Southern staple.

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What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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