Marlon James' fictional account of the men behind a 1976 attempt to assassinate Bob Marley features a sprawling, gnarly cast of characters. We talk with him about the novel, his approach to writing and what it means to be part of the Caribbean diaspora living in the U.S.
What defines authentic American cuisine? Is it a burger and fries? Grandma’s Sunday pot roast? Or are tacos, spaghetti and meatballs now truly American? Answering this question can be as complicated as defining the diverse cultures that dot the American landscape, but a new web site aims to dig up the roots of American cooking. Kojo sits down with the editors of American Food Roots to find out why we eat what we eat.
- Michele Kayal Food writer; editor of American Food Roots; regular contributor to the Associated Press
- Bonny Wolf Editor, American Food Roots; Editor of NPR's Kitchen Window; Commentator, Weekend Edition
- Liz Davis Owner, The Dairy Godmother (Alexandria, VA)
Baltimore Coddies Recipe
Baltimore coddies are essentially potatoes and codfish. The ones sold in every store in Baltimore through the first half of the 20th century apparently were mostly potato. I use salt cod which needs to be soaked for 24 hours in advance. I’ve included parsley if you feel the need for a fresh herb, but it seems a little uptown for a coddie. My husband the coddie aficionado, ate these when they came out of the frying pan and loved them. He tried them again the next day at room temperature and said they tasted just like those of his childhood. Remember, you MUST have a dab of yellow mustard for the full experience.
Makes 16 to 20 coddies
1 pound salt cod
1 1/4 pounds potatoes
2 tablespoons milk
1 small onion, diced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)
1 tablespoon butter
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Peanut oil (or other high-smoke-point oil), for frying
In a bowl of water to cover, soak salt cod 24 hours, changing water every 6 to 8 hours. In a saucepan, place fish and cover with fresh water. Bring to a boil. Drain. Cover with water again and bring to a boil. Simmer 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and break up with a fork. Let cool.
Peel, dice and boil potatoes until cooked. Drain and mash with milk to desired consistency. Cool.
Saute onion and parsley (if using) in butter until wilted. Cool.
In a large bowl, mix together fish, eggs, potatoes, onions (and parsley, if using), pepper and salt, to taste.
In a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to just below smoking point.
Make cod mixture into golf-ball sized balls and flatten slightly. Place in hot oil and cook until browned. Turn and brown other side. This takes almost no time so watch closely. On paper towel-covered platter, let coddies drain until cooled.
Serve between two saltine crackers with a glob of yellow mustard.
Recipe courtesy American Food Roots.
Brunswick Stew Recipe
The original (1828) Brunswick stew was made with squirrel. Most stew masters today substitute chicken, rabbit or pork. The stew often is produced in large batches for church functions, fundraisers, family reunions and political rallies. This is an adaptation of a family-sized recipe from the Brunswick County Tourism Office. Brunswick stew often is served with cornbread.
Makes 3 1/2 quarts
1 whole chicken (2 1/2 to 3 pounds), split
2 stalks celery, cut in halves or thirds
1 onion, peeled and quartered, plus 1 cup chopped
2 10-ounce packages frozen baby lima beans
3 10-ounce packages frozen whole kernel corn
5 cups water
2 28-ounce cans whole or diced tomatoes, undrained
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper
10 Saltine crackers
In a large pot, combine chicken, celery, onion and 5 cups water (or to cover). Bring to boil then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer 1 hour.
Remove chicken and set aside to cool. Strain broth. Discard solids and return broth to the pot. Let cool.
When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones and discard bones. Add chicken and remaining ingredients (except crackers) to the pot. Simmer, uncovered, for 4 1/2 hours or until stew is thickened and vegetables are very tender. Add water if it becomes too thick. Stir often.
Crumble crackers and add to pot. Cook 15 minutes more.
*Some cooks prefer to add whole peeled potatoes, then mash them and return them to the stew. They say the stew freezes better than with diced potatoes that get soggy.
Recipe courtesy American Food Roots.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. What foods make you think of home? Is it your mom's world famous pot roast, the warm donuts served at your hometown bakery? Or maybe it's the creamy sweet soda you could only get in your part of the country. From Wisconsin frozen custard to Cincinnati chili, we all have foods and flavors that remind us of home. But all too often new jobs, transitions and life in general remove us from those roots. And when it comes to sharing those memories we rely on rusty recollections or frayed recipes to revive them.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut America's food traditions are worth preserving. And four intrepid food writers want you to do it for them. They've created the website "American Food Roots" to get at the heart of why Americans eat what they eat. Through interviews, essays, videos and more, they're exploring America's changing cuisine. It's a tough job but somebody has to jar our collective food memories. And joining us to do just that is Michelle Kayal. She is food writer and editor of "American Food Roots." She's also a regular contributor to the Associated press. Michelle, thank you for joining us.
MS. MICHELE KAYALThanks so much for having us.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Bonny Wolf, food writer and editor of "American Food Roots" and NPRs Kitchen Window. She also does monthly food commentary for NPRs Weekend Edition. Bonny, thank you for joining us.
MS. BONNY WOLFThank you for having us.
NNAMDIAnd Liz Davis is founder and owner of the Dairy Godmother in Alexandria, Va. Liz, thank you for rejoining us.
MS. LIZ DAVISOh, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIGood to see you again. You can join the conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. What foods are truly American in your view? How much does nostalgia play into your cooking today, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Bonny, "American Food Roots" has been called a story corp. meets James Beard initiative. So is this a site where we can submit grandma's famous Sunday pot roast recipe or does there have to be a pretty compelling story behind the pot roast to pass your discerning editorial eye?
WOLFWell, you can certainly submit -- we encourage people to submit anything that they have. But we -- the stories behind the recipes are really kind of what we're after because that's where we piece together what we eat and why we eat it and where we come from.
NNAMDIWell, pardon the pun but you and Michelle both have pretty full plates in your day jobs as food writers and editors, but you also have help from Carol Gunsberg (sp?) who is also a food writer and Italian cookbook author Domenica Marchetti. What's your ultimate goal for this site, Michelle?
KAYALOur ultimate goal with the site is to make it a go-to place where American's can see their food heritage and where we preserve that food heritage and promote American food ways. America, for a long time, was thought of as a place with no food history. And that started to change in the late 80s -- late 1980s and to the point where now I think we are a mature enough nation and mature enough form a culinary perspective to honor our inherent food traditions.
NNAMDII went to the site today, AmericanFoodRoots.com. It is a fascinating site and frankly the most fascinating thing on the site there today was, well, me.
KAYALYou looked great.
NNAMDIBonny, nostalgia plays such an important role in American food and we see it on store shelves every day, whether it's bringing back Doritos taco chips from the 1960s, reviving old soda flavors or returning to more organic farming practices. Do you find a real yearning out there to make long lost recipes and flavors more mainstream again?
WOLFI do. And I think it's not merely long lost recipes, but it's a whole interest in returning to the way things were. It's been called the new domesticity where people want to -- you know, there are all these artisan foods. I just learned about a store in New York that's nothing but artisan mayonnaise.
WOLFAnd we want everything, you know, bacon mayonnaise -- don't even ask. But I think people want -- there is -- between food scares and food safety and concerns about where our food comes from and getting back to the earth, people want to have more connection with what they eat. So I think that this is all part of a real development in interest in American foods. And some of it is nostalgia, but a lot of it is rediscovery of the way things were before foods were so processed.
NNAMDILiz, how does nostalgia play into why you've started the Dairy Godmother and what you serve there?
DAVISWell, when I opened the Dairy Godmother, over 12 years ago, I didn't -- wasn't really thinking about it being a regional food. I am from Wisconsin and frozen custard is original food from the Milwaukee area. I think a lot of Wisconsinites don't even consider it a regional food, but they are extremely surprised when they leave Wisconsin and they find that they can't get it. That's when they realize it's a regional food.
DAVISI wasn't going to be able to go back to Wisconsin to live my life. And so I brought the frozen custard, along with the Wisconsinites to me so that Wisconsin would feel closer to me without me leaving. And it really has become that place for Wisconsinites to come.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 for you to join this Food Wednesday conversation. What food defines where you grew up, 800-433-8850? You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Liz, it's trendy now to transform traditional American dishes into something fancy. You add gruyere to macaroni and cheese, or you serve mashed potatoes shaped like a pyramid. This trend is particularly prevalent in the frozen dessert business where we're seeing a whole industry of ice pops and frozen desserts using ingredients we would never even have dreamed of a few years ago. How are you navigating this at the Dairy Godmother?
DAVISWell, that's very interesting because I don't -- as a food person I'm very interested in pushing the limit on what you can do with food. But I believe that ice cream and frozen dessert places are the most nostalgic of establishments. I don't think there's anybody -- I think if you asked anybody they'd be able to remember going someplace with a grandparent or a cousin or an aunt and uncle to a frozen dessert -- an ice cream or frozen custard place.
DAVISAnd so there's a very strong desire for things to be nostalgic and the same as they remembered them, even the old school flavors like -- that are served regional like teaberry or licorice, very old school. But then you also get a lot of people who are kind of trying to attract attention by putting things like fish in ice cream, that is kind of pushing the envelope in terms of food. So it is kind of a...
NNAMDIPushing the envelope is an understatement.
DAVISYeah, there is kind of a line there between people being super edgy and nostalgic. I err on the side of the nostalgic in terms of the butter brickle and the teaberry and the old school flavors.
WOLFBut some of it -- oh, it's just…
NNAMDIBonny, are there are foods that should just be well enough alone or does every dish have room to grow?
WOLFOh, I think some things should probably be left alone. I was -- we were talking before about regional foods that are very close to our hearts. And I mentioned the Nut Goody, which is a candy bar from Minnesota and sold only in Minnesota. And no one -- and actually I was going to bring you one but the only one I had had -- was some special holiday flavor. And you can't have a holiday flavor for the Nut Goody. It has to be the way it's always been. But I think some of the -- some of it goes over the top, but some of it's great.
KAYALI have a special animosity in my heart...
KAYAL...for any Oreo that is not the original Oreo. No double stuff, no peanut butter, no mint. Just don't mess with the Oreo.
NNAMDIAre there some comfort foods that are better left alone? Give us a call. Should we modernize mac and cheese, put avocado in ice pops, 800-433-8850? What do you feel? You can also join the conversation at -- sending us email at email@example.com or you can join us by going to our website kojoshow.org. You can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow. On now to Chris in Hamilton, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHey, great to be able to talk with you. Potato salad is something that, you know, I think most Americans really enjoy. It seems to be quite regional. I've lived up and down the East Coast and when we lived in New England it was -- we thought rather bland. I'm from a family that's, you know, we call ourselves the Del Marva family, and my girls, who never really were that interested in learning to cook, were dying to know how I made potato salad. And like a lot of recipes or a lot of dishes you have that you eat, you don't necessarily have a recipe, you just make it.
CHRISSo it's kind of a nice experience when your kids stand with you in the kitchen and watch you and work with you and learn how to make something, and then you have the experience of passing the recipe down, as well as enjoying it.
NNAMDIAnd have your kids tried to be innovative, or they simply make the recipe as you passed it onto them?
CHRISNot with potato salad. They have altered some other things. My mother-in-law taught us this delicious arroz con gandules. It's Puerto Rican rice and beans. That's another one you just have to learn how make with someone. But yeah, they've changed some other things up, but there are those family favorites that you just get to share the experience as well as the food.
WOLFI was just going to say that one of the reasons that we -- that American food roots exists is for just this thing, that when you learn -- when a recipe is handed down, often this is done orally, and these -- and they're lost if they're not captured somewhere. So you're -- the rice dish that you've learned from your mother-in-law is something we'd love to know about. As a matter of fact, we want your name, and we want you to do a video.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, I was about to say American Food Roots is an interactive site. The editors would like the general public to submit our own stories and videos that tell a story about the American melting pot, and I should mention that Bonny Wolf is also author of "Talking With My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories." But speaking of changing recipes, Liz, is there a sorbet flavor combination that you have tried that simply did not work?
DAVISI've been in the food business a long time, and I can imagine how things are going to taste pretty much. But once I did make a white peach with lapsang souchong and it did not fly. I actually had to put it down the drain.
NNAMDIYour imagination didn't work.
DAVISBut I would like to say, you guys can see my point that that might work.
WOLFI absolutely can, but I also wondered, Liz, if -- there was a little town in Mexico that on each corner of the central plaza had ice cream sales people, and they had a hundred flavors, shrimp, tequila, corn, and these weren't to be trendy. It was just, I mean, this was 30 years ago.
NNAMDIThese are traditional flavors?
WOLFYeah. So a lot of it is -- and that's what we do too, is bring in people who move here from other cultures. We absorb their...
WOLFSo we're plain vanilla, but...
DAVISYeah, I know. And I respect those guys. But I also do feel that some change is just for shock value in the more -- like a more of a commercial or a restaurant food.
NNAMDIWell, Michelle, as the song goes, everything old is new again. Then American Food Roots recently discovered that an old drink called switchel is making a return. What pray tell is switchel?
KAYALYou know, switchel is one of these fabulous old things that makes so much sense when you hear it. I know about switchel -- the story was written by Domenica -- Domenica Marchetti, our Italian cookbook writer partner, and I discovered switchel a while back. It was a shaker drink. The shakers who worked their own fields, and a lot of them were up in New England. They used to hay and everything, and at the end of a hard day of haying, they would drink this concoction of cider vinegar, water, and molasses, and very often ginger, and this would -- it was like shaker Gatorade essentially.
KAYALYou know, it would rehydrate them, it would quench their thirst, and it worked, and it's really delicious. And what do we have on the site, something -- a Switchel Stormy. It's kind of like...
WOLFI think a Dark & Stormy because one of the companies that brought it back in Brooklyn, were everything is brought back, also used it to make a drink with beer and stout and so -- it's really good and refreshing.
NNAMDISo I can Switchel Dark & Stormy. We're going to take a short break. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll be returning to our conversation on American Food Roots. You can still call though at 800-433-8850. Does your family have a secret recipe that you'd be willing to share? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about American Food Roots. We're talking with Michele Kayal, food writer and editor of American Food Roots. She's also a regular contributor to the Associated Press. Bonny Wolf is food writer and editor of American Food Roots and NPR's "Kitchen Window." She also does monthly food commentary for NPR's "Weekend Edition." And Liz Davis is founder and owner of the Dairy Godmother in Alexandria, Va.
NNAMDIWe've been inviting your calls at 800-433-8850, your emails at email@example.com. We got an email from Jerry in Rockville, Md., who said, "I grew in North Carolina, the home of pork barbeque. As a Jewish vegetarian, I have never tasted it, but I hear that it is delicious." Liz, speaking as we were earlier of vintage American drinks, one of the first things visitors to the Dairy Godmother see when they walk in are bottles of Sprecher soda that line your shop. Tell us a little bit about this drink's Wisconsin roots and why you serve it?
DAVISWell, that's a -- it's a beer brewery in the Milwaukee area in Glendale, and they make a fabulous soda. One of the reasons that there is so much soda companies in Wisconsin is because when prohibition came, the tiny beer breweries closed down and they started making cheese in the little factories, which is one of the reasons there's so much cheese in Wisconsin and/or soda pop. And I remember as a kid there was a pop shop on every corner, and there were no labeling or anything. They were just bottles of brightly colored, returnable bottles.
DAVISSo Sprecher is very -- it's bigger than a tiny pop shop. I don't want them to get mad at me. They're my friends. But they -- we have the Sprecher because it's very nostalgic for people from Wisconsin, and it's a soda worthy of making a root beer float.
NNAMDIOh, well, then it surpasses my test.
DAVISThat's the only pop that we have. Yeah, exactly.
NNAMDIBonny, American Food Roots has a section called "50 States," where you can look up fun facts and features you've collected for each state in the union. Could you share some interesting or even unexpected tidbits you've learned about eating around the country?
WOLFYes. It's unbelievable how many things we don't know about -- we'd love to hear other things that people know. I'm sure you know, Kojo, where most of the country's horseradish is grown.
WOLFWell, Illinois. It's two-thirds of the country's horseradish is grown in Illinois. We think of Illinois, we think Chicago.
WOLFBut it's a very, very agricultural state.
NNAMDIIt's the horseradish capital of the country.
WOLFIt is apparently. And of course, there's frozen custard in Wisconsin, and the Nut Goodie in Minnesota, and barbeque, there are different barbeques in every state, and in Alabama, they have -- Northern Alabama only, they have white barbeque, which is a mayonnaise-based barbeque sauce. Who knew?
NNAMDIWho knew? I certainly didn't. You have two recipes on American Food Roots that are unique to Maryland and Virginia. For Maryland it's Baltimore Coddies that date back to the first part of the 20th century, and in Virginia you've identified Brunswick Stew which was originally made with squirrel. Both of these recipes can be found at our website, kojoshow.org. But I couldn't help notice that Washington D.C. is curiously missing from your "50 States" section. Why, Michele?
KAYALIt is missing because it is unique. We have been trying to zero in on what would be the D.C. food, the iconic D.C. food. Is it a Del Marva food? Is it a soft shell crab with a peanut sauce and Ben's chili?
NNAMDIWe have some answers for you, because we have been asking our listeners to help us decide what a D.C. food would be. And, of course, you can also call us. What foods and food traditions do you think are unique to Washington D.C.? 800-433-8850. We got a tweet from (word?) who said, (unintelligible).
KAYALI was going to say that, yeah.
NNAMDIProject Indi tweets "Just mumbo sauce."
KAYALWe've heard that.
NNAMDIBob Cotter tweets "Fried whitefish swimming in mumbo sauce."
WOLFI like that.
NNAMDI"I don't care if it didn't really start here, we adopt strays all time." And Susan B. asks in a tweet, "Is the jumbo slice the only that we've invented here?" So a few suggestions about what you might be able to get in Washington -- as a contribution from Washington D.C. Mary Ellen is in Purcellville, Va., which I always mispronounce. Mary Ellen, how do I correctly pronounce Purcellville or Purcellville, Va.
MARY ELLENKojo, you need to swallow all of the L's and say Purcellville.
ELLENWe also do it -- Yes.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Go ahead, please, Mary Ellen.
ELLENYou're welcome. I just -- I'm a farmer outside of Washington, and I sell in the (word?) of Washington farmer's market, and I listen each and every week people sharing food nostalgia. Particularly I wanted to tell you about watercress. And I guess because watercress spans so many continents and cultures, but it just cracks me up that people who buy our watercress want to tell me why and where they first encountered it and how they're how going to prepare it. And it is so fun to watch their emotion and learn all these stories.
NNAMDIWatercress. Is that good, or what?
WOLFWell, they're -- on the eastern shore of Maryland, it's the first -- an upland cress is the first thing that blooms in the spring, so it's a very kind of emotionally charged food. But there has been -- there's been a lot of problem with it because pesticides have killed it, so it doesn't come up any more. What kind of cress do you grow?
ELLENWe grow the classic, succulent watercress, and I do grow it hydroponically without pesticides. So possibly that is why it is rare in our community, and people, again, just reach back far into their history to share with me stories about it, as you just did, frankly, with that early spring crop.
NNAMDIMary Ellen, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Scott who writes, "I'm also from Wisconsin and live in Maryland now. I enjoy nothing more than some warm, fresh made lefse which was a staple of my Norwegian families at at every holiday while growing up around west central Wisconsin. Does your guest have any comments on lefse?" Liz?
DAVISWell, I'm pretty much from around the Milwaukee area, and we have a lot more Poles and Germans and Belgians around there. The western part of the state is a little different where I'm from.
NNAMDIShe may not have comments on lefse, Scott, but here's what she does have a comment on. Making do with what you have in tough times can lead to some pretty tasty innovations. Liz, it's my understanding that your family has a war-time recipe for schmaltz brownies that you're eager to try. Schmaltz?
DAVISWell, yes. This is true. We're going to talk about the schmaltz brownies, which I never really thought about until I was talking to the Food Roots people, and I thought, well, yeah, sure, why isn't that a -- that's a very old -- my mom grew up during the Depression, which was followed almost immediately by war rationing. That's a very long period of time if you're in charge of a household. And during the Depression, her Scottish family, not Jewish mind you, used to make schmaltz brownies with rendered chicken fat as the fat.
DAVISYou know, you can't put, you know, garlic or anything in your chicken. But once you really render the fat out of it, you can't really -- it just tastes like fat. It does not taste like chicken fat. And so my mom, even though they were not experiencing financial hardship, still made schmaltz brownies sometimes, and I never really thought about it. I do remember her exact words were, schmaltz is pretty rich, so don't add quite as much as you would butter. So those are direct words -- directly from Kit Davis to you.
NNAMDIFor your schmaltz brownies.
DAVISYou don't -- even I, who am very involved in food, don't realize what food nostalgias are pertinent or important because they're just there. And I think there's a ton of it out there to be mined.
WOLFWe got a email a few weeks ago from someone. We've encouraged people to send in recipes they've lost and we'll help them find them. And this woman wrote in that her grandmother used to make brown bread in a can.
DAVISOh, yeah. My mom did too. Sure.
WOLFWell, I had never heard of this, but -- and it's -- apparently it turns out, and this is appropriate for the 4th of July, it's the -- one of the oldest American recipes. It was something the settlers learned from the Indians who they had very little wheat. It was very scarce. So it was what was called a thirded bread. It was a third wheat, a third rye flour, and a third cornmeal, and they had to steam it in the fire because they didn't have stoves -- ovens. So now it's steamed in old coffee cans, and it comes -- and you can buy it. There's a company that makes it, and you can buy them in the store.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of what's appropriate for the 4th of July, Michele, tomorrow many of us will be firing up the grill, downing a few beers, maybe topping it off with an apple pie. Does this all-American menu bear any resemblance whatsoever to what early Independence Day celebrations looked like?
KAYALNot unless you've got lamb testicles on the grill.
WOLFWell, doesn't everybody?
NNAMDIHow come? What were they doing?
KAYALThe very first 4th of July was celebrated at City Tavern in Philadelphia, which was where the Continental Congress did most of its drinking in between writing the Declaration of Independence and other things. And on the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which we now have come to call Independence Day, the colonies were in the middle of prosecuting this war, and the Continental Congress wanted to put on a good show and say we're a strong nation, and we're independent and all that.
KAYALAnd so they said, let's just have a knock-down, drag-out celebration, and they did it the way that they knew how, which to have this three-course menu that would have been based on Hannah Glasse who was a British cookbook writer.
NNAMDITongues, turnips, and lamb testicles.
KAYALYes. Tongues, turnips, and lamb testicles.
NNAMDIHow'd we go from there to today's burgers and barbeque?
KAYALWell, in those days you would have not have had a picnic. That was something reserved for the upper classes, but as the American Industrial Revolution came along and then people began to have more leisure time as jobs evolved and things, the picnic became the thing to do.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about just all the time we have, except Liz, maybe you can tell us what -- do you have anything special planned for July 4th?
DAVISWell, the shop's going to be open until 8:00 p.m. so that everybody can go see the fireworks then, and we're going with a very nostalgic strawberry flavor of the day for 4th of July.
NNAMDIStrawberry at the Dairy Godmother. Liz Davis is founder and owner of the Dairy Godmother in Alexandria, Va. Liz, good to see you.
DAVISGreat to be here.
NNAMDIMichele Kayal is food writer and editor of American Food Roots, regular contributor to the Associated Press. Michele, thank you for joining us.
KAYALThanks so much.
NNAMDIAnd Bonny Wolf is a food writer and editor and American Food Roots, and NPR's "Kitchen Window." She also does monthly food commentary for NPR's "Weekend Edition." Bonny, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. Happy 4th. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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