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April 30, 2024 10 mins

Some people are always cooking up curious things. The two subjects of today's tour through the Cabinet did just that—with explosive results.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild.

Speaker 2 (00:12):
Our world is full of the unexplainable, and if history
is an open book, all of these amazing tales right
there on display, just waiting for us to explore. Welcome
to the Cabinet of Curiosities. Science and magic may seem

like opposites, but they've always been very close friends in
the ancient world. Religion, superstition, philosophy, and mathematics were all
intersecting fields of study. In ancient Greece and Persia. For example,
thinkers who practiced astrology also broke new ground in geometry.
In the modern age, we tend to keep the natural
and the supernatural separate. After all, science we can cured

disease and fly to the stars. Isn't that magical enough?
But for Jack Parsons, one of the pioneers of rocketry,
enchantments and experiments literally went hand in hand. Jack was
born on October second of nineteen fourteen in Pasadena, California.
His childhood was a lonely one, and he spent more
time with comic books and Jules Verne novels than with

other kids reading science fiction, Jack could dream of escaping
his life in the suburbs to explore the galaxy. As
he got older, he focused on how to get there
in real life. By the age of twelve, Jack had
found a kindred spirit in Edward Foreman, another boy who
loves science fiction. The two engage themselves in typical safe
preteen boy activities, namely creating their own rockets out of

aluminum foil and fireworks. Around this time, Jack also got
interested in magic in the Saint pulp magazines, where he
read sci fi stories. He also found incantations to summon demons.
They didn't necessarily work when he tried them, but it
did spark his interest in the occult. In nineteen thirty three,
nineteen year old Jack went to work at an explosives.

Speaker 1 (02:06):
Plant, where he got a crash course in the chemistry
behind making things go boom. Armed with ingredients stolen from
the factory, Jack and Edward's backyard experiments became incredibly advanced.
At the time, the field of rocket science was treated
like science fiction. The Chinese had first developed rockets in
twelve thirty two and used them as weapons against the

invading Mongols. Rocket Tree hadn't really advanced much since then. Sure,
some scientists had proposed that rockets might one day be
able to reach outer space, but in the early nineteen
thirties that seemed like it was a far off possibility.
Rockets weren't even being studied in universities except for a
very small group of students. At cal Tech. Jack and

Edward met one of those students, a guy named Frank Molina,
and the three began pushing the boundaries of rocket science.
Scientists at cal Tech dubbed them the Suicide Squad for
how often they blew things up on campus. But between explosions,
Jack Parsons made great strides. He invented a new type
of rocket fuel, a breakthrough that would eventually help humans

get to the Moon. As the Nazis ramped up their
rocket research for use for long range explosives, the Suicide
Squad's experiments became important parts of the war effort. Jack, Edward,
and Frank created their own company, Aerojet, which eventually became
NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. In nineteen thirty nine, the same
year that Parsons co founded the Jet Propulsion Lab, he

first encountered a new religion called Thelema, a mix of
occult traditions, philosophy, and magic. Thelima was the brainchild of
the infamous magician Aleister Crowley. At the core of Thelema
was one concept, do what thou wilt, meaning you have
the freedom to follow your desires. Under Crowley, Themalites practice
free love, performed magical rituals, and lived a life of excess,

and of course, Jack was hooked. For the next few years,
Jack worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab, trying to achieve
his dream of reaching the stars. At nights, he would
use magic for the same purpose, leading rituals, participating in
dark masses, and worshiping the sun. These practices didn't make
him popular with serious scientists or with the US government.

The FBI actually investigated Jack, and he eventually lost his
security clearances. By nineteen forty four, the Jet Propulsion Lab
had forced him to resign, worried that his less than
savory actions might damage the company's reputation, and by nineteen
forty nine Jack was penniless, scraping by making explosives for
Hollywood Special Effects. On June seventeenth of nineteen fifty two,

Jack Parsons was experimenting with chemicals in his garage in Pasadena.
When it's believed that he dropped a tin of volatile compounds,
the resulting explosion ripped through the garage, killing Jack. He
was thirty seven years old. Jack Parsons was a conundrum.
He was a brilliant scientist and a devout magician. The
same dry that caused him to reach for the stars

also compelled him to cross the veil into the spirit world.
But maybe Jack's dual interests weren't totally at odds. After all,
you can't make a scientific breakthrough without a little magical thinking.

If you're a fan of fine dining, you know these
days it's only half about the food, right. Modern restaurants
are desperate to provide unique experiences, whether that means dining
next to wild animals, inside remote ice caves or in
total darkness. Heck, at this very moment, companies are racing
to sell you dinner at the edge of space. And

this trend isn't exactly new. We can trace it back
to Tudor England. That's the period of British history right
after the Late Middle Ages, and it's the moment when
a chef with a unique flare vision appeared on the
culinary scene. His name was Robert May, and he had
pretty much the exact biography that you would expect a
prodigy restaurant tour The son of a private chef, he

grew up in the kitchen and was employed as a
cook at the tender age of ten. As a teenager,
he spent five years in Paris studying European cuisine. He
returned to England at the age of twenty one and
immediately began working in the kitchens of the tutor aristocrats.
With his talent and experience, May probably could have made
a good living sticking to the typical dishes of the day,

but he wasn't interested in the typical. He wanted to
give his guests an experience that would stay with them
long after the meal was done. May was particularly inspired
by the medieval feasts of England's past, when royals would
dine at long tables way down with more food and
wine than they could stomach, serenaded by minstrels and heckled
by court jesters. He wanted to recreate that feeling of spectacle,

but update it for a new age. For what he
was a man dinner and a show wouldn't be enough, No,
his dinners would be the show. May began developing feasts
around breathtaking spectacle, which he lovingly called triumphs and trophies
in cookery. They were often as dangerous as they were exciting,
and nothing was off limits. For one dinner, he created

a pastry castle and a ship outfitted with tiny functioning cannons.
When his staff lit the fuses, the cannons fired, filling
the dining hall with smoke and the odor of gunpowder.
And another feast, he hollowed out eggshells and filled them
with rose water, then distributed them around the tables. Dinner.
Guests soon started hurling the fragile eggshells at each other,

causing them to burst and fill the room with perfumed water.
He particularly loved incorporating live animals into his dishes. Pie
crusts would be filled with live birds and frogs. When
guests cut into the crust, the animals came flapping and
hopping out onto the table, knocking over candles and started
the guests. These feasts, as you might imagine, were a sensation,

and for the next fifty years, Robert May toured the
country dazzling nobles and aristocrats with his taste for spectacle.
But as he turned seventy one, he started to think
more about his legacy. He realized that his feasts were
inherently transient things, and worried that his work would soon
be forgotten. So he did what all good celebrity chefs

do once they've hit it big. He wrote a cookbook.
It was called The Accomplished Cook and it was a
massive tome. And while May had made his career working
for aristocrats, his book had something for everyone, with approachable
dishes right alongside more aspirational ones. Like his spectacle feasts,
May's cookbook was ahead of its time in many ways.

He organized his recipes into logical categories, provided woodprint reliefs
of the dishes, and even included a self portrait inside
the front cover. These elements would eventually become typical of
recipe book, and they made The Accomplished Cook an overnight bestseller.
The book became a major self promotional tool for Robert May,

cementing him as one of the most significant chefs of
his age. So while it was ostensibly a recipe book
of European dishes, it can also be read as a
template for a celebrity chef, one part creativity, two parts talent.
Fold in lots of hard work and a heaping spoonful
of showmanship and mix it all together and you've got history.

I hope you've enjoyed today's guided tour of the Cabinet
of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, or learn
more about the show by visiting Curiosities podcast dot com.
The show was created by me Aaron Mankey in partnership
with how Stuff Works. I make another award winning show
called Lore, which is a podcast, book series, and television show,

and you can learn all about it over at the
World of Lor dot com. And until next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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