Wednesday, December 21, 2011


This will be my 78th Christmas, and as I think back over the unwinding years, I am aware that my greatest treasures are to be found in family, friends and an overflowing legacy of wonderful memories; that the fancily-wrapped and colorful packages ordinarily found beneath a Christmas tree count for relatively little in the long view of things. They are, of course, part of a set of traditions that should remind us that the acts of giving and receiving should be intrinsic to a life well lived. While it is difficult to remember specific gifts, there is one which touched my life so deeply that it remains resolutely unforgettable.
            A cold Siberian wind blew snowflakes into my tent as our Squadron mail clerk knocked and entered, bearing in his gloved hands a sizeable brown paper-wrapped parcel. “You must have friends in high places Sergeant; I don’t know how someone managed to break all the shipping limitations with a box that weighs twenty-four pounds!”
            It was December, 1952 and we were days away from the 20th Christmas of my life, my principal companions at this time the nine other G.I.s who were my tent mates, surrounded by the roar of non-stop gun fire and the intense cold of a Korean winter north of the 38th Parallel. The mysterious box proved to be loaded with every conceivable kind of gourmet food item, from smoked oysters and anchovy-wrapped capers to imported Italian sausages and tins of Russian caviar, along with more mundane but equally welcome biscuits, cakes, candies and cookies. And a beautiful Christmas card signed: “John Showalter, Rochester, Minnesota”. Tears still come to my eyes at the memory, more than 60 years afterward, not because of the caviar, but because of the story behind the unexpected gift.
            With my orders to East Asia stuffed in a pocket of my B-4 bag along with leave papers, I was standing just outside the main gate of Sampson AFB in western New York State with my eyes facing north and my hopeful thumb extended. After 18 months of making this 250 mile journey, I was an experienced hitch-hiker with time-proven travel strategies. Even if lucky, the trip would take at least ten hours and require a dozen or more generous drivers to negotiate the numerous towns and cities through which I had to thread my way. Heading home for the last time from a U.S. base, I was surprised when a car traveling along NY Rte. 96A toward Geneva almost immediately stopped. It was a shiny newly-minted De Soto sedan with a well-dressed middle-age man behind the wheel. When asked about my destination, I mentioned the city of Auburn, knowing from long experience that it was best to use “leap frog” tactics in wending my way across the width of largely rural and suburban New York State before the age of Interstate thruways.
            “That will work out fine for me”, the traveler said, “Auburn it is”.
            It wasn’t long before I learned that my companion, whose name was John, owned a bottling company in Minnesota and was between sessions in a week-long business convention and was out to see the Finger Lakes Region. In time, he learned that my eventual destination was actually in Central Vermont and that I was on my way home for the last time before shipping out for Korea.
            After an hour of warm and spirited conversation, and as we were approaching the town of Auburn, John asked me to pull out a folded road map from the car’s glove box, open it up and point out Randolph, Vermont – my home town. He thought for a few moments before speaking again.
            “I have an idea. I’m on my own for two days with nothing in particular to do, and I’ve never seen New England. What would you think if instead of dropping you off in Auburn we just kept going?”
            Thus began an eight-hour interlude which I could never have imagined, and an act of unmitigated kindness which blessed not one, but two lives. By the time we pulled up at the end of the farm driveway in Brookfield, Vermont, after 250 miles and a memorable steak dinner with all the trimmings in Albany, there was hardly a detail of either life which had not been warmly shared and heartily discussed. And a “greenhorn” of nineteen had been nourished by a brief friendship which would never be forgotten. That was the real gift, of which the unexpected Christmas box which somehow found me months later in faraway Korea was only a reminder. To this day I still don’t know how he tracked down my exact location. Sadly, and despite several attempts to reach him in later years, I was never able to say the personal thank you that still rings like a Christmas bell in my heart.
            Wherever you are in the Great World beyond this one John Showalter, THANK YOU from the bottom of my still-remembering heart!  And. . . MERRY CHRISTMAS 2011!

Thursday, November 24, 2011


You can no longer even find the town of Coytesville on a map of New Jersey; it has long since been absorbed into the sprawling collection of ambiguous and ever-changing bedroom communities serving as way stations for New York City commuters. But in my circling mind it looms ever larger in importance. Founded and laid out in the early 1800s by my maternal great-grandfather, its’ very name is eponymous with one of my own and its imprint lies deep in my spiritual DNA. For the first 14 years of my life it was my home, and my own mother, like her own, had never known any other; with family roots imbedded in the same sod on which Washington’s rag tag army had encamped in its most desperate days and whose musket balls and cannon shot I could find untouched beneath mere inches of forest duff.
            I thought of this once again as another Thanksgiving celebration came and went, surrounded by three generations of my own posterity, not one among whom has ever walked where I played hide-and-seek beneath arching oaks which were two hundred years old, now doubtless paved over by “progress”.
             One of my Thanksgiving Day memories is of a local tradition which saw neighborhood children dressed in colorful costumes roaming the streets and ringing door bells, usually armed with a cast-off purse or money bag, asking “Have ya anathin’ for Thanksgivin’?” Usually small coins or other treats were happily handed out from stacks waiting just inside every doorway for the playing out of a much-enjoyed event known as “Ragamuffin Day”. As a kid I assumed that “ragamuffins” were universal; that they inhabited the streets of every American community during this festive season. Only years later would it dawn on me that this was not true; that ragamuffins and their colorful antics had been born in New York City’s Brooklyn neighborhoods where European families had settled, and from which the observation would branch out only to nearby enclaves – obviously to my own. Popular in the 1930s and 40s, it would die out in postwar years, and would remain only a fond memory for folks of my generation who had lived there.  Interestingly, historians looking back on the ragamuffin parades which took place in New York City in those largely-forgotten days believe that the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had its birthing with those costume-clad clown-like ragamuffins of bygone times.
                        My favorite dictionary defines the word tradition as “the passing down of elements of culture and time-honored practices from generation to generation”. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the belief that traditions – whether family-centered, locally-born or widely held – are the glue that binds us together, and endows us with a sense of identity that clings protectively in good times and in bad. I, for one, take comfort from the notion that if our parents and grandparents could return for an ethereal visit to our 21st century family, they would recognize us as their own, and find reason to take pride in the things they passed down to us. I sometimes feel - on special occasions - that they even sit at our table with us.
            While I try hard to convince myself that we live in the best of times, and that even better days are still ahead, there is part of me that laments the loss of the kind of closely-knit and caring neighborhoods of the past many of us grew up in, and I find comfort in the words of the great Scottish poet and thinker James Barrie who wrote “God gave us the gift of memories that we might have June roses in the November of our lives”.  
 From the archives of the New York City Library, a Thanksgiving card from the 1920s pictures a pair of Brooklyn “Ragamuffins”. It is believed that immigrants from Europe may have brought with them a tradition once observed in connection with “St. Martin’s Day”.

Al Cooper can be heard at 4:00 PM each Monday on Cedar City’s 590AM Talk Radio with his “Provident Living” program.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Americans have a sense of humor. And I am constantly reminded of that endearing truth wherever I happen to be traveling. It finds its way into the names of towns and villages in every state and I have filled a notebook with examples – from Alligator Lake, Pumpkin Cove, Hardrock Candy Mountain, and Mosquitoville, to Sow-and-Pig Island, Picked Chicken Hill and Yankeetuladi.
             In a small Ohio town, I pulled to the curb to enjoy a tailor’s sign which, with Biblical good humor promised “As Ye Rip, So Shall We Sew”; and I know of a purveyor of female attire with the name of “Maggie’s Drawers” where the owner indicates when the store is open by flying a pair of old fashioned bloomers from a clothes line over the front door. A restaurateur I know still proudly maintains a sign suggesting “Eat Utah Lamb: 10,000 Coyotes Can’t Be Wrong!”, or another in coastal Oregon proclaiming “Friends don’t let friends eat farm-raised salmon”.
            Then too, down-home people and the villages they call “home” often delight in erecting roadside displays designed with nothing more complicated in mind than a desire to engage the smile-and-laugh mechanism of those passing by.  With my camera at the ready, I have gained much pleasure from observing and recording their very-American style of Roadside Whimsy.

In an area where signs beginning with the word “NO” tend to detract from a leisurely afternoon walk, it is both refreshing and amusing to run across so subtle a reminder as this one on Monhegan Island. Thank you for proving there are ways to say “No” with a smile.

 The Autumn harvest season seems to inspire the artist slumbering somewhere in each of us, and this small-town family takes obvious pride in bringing visual pleasure to those passing by on “Main Street – USA”.

 Stumbling upon this monument to wit and fancy in the high country of Utah gave us an excuse to pause, take a needed breath of fresh mountain air, and laugh out loud. Someone took time and effort in order to grant us an unexpected guffaw.

 Not all art springs from an artist’s paint, brush and pallet. The particular artist who lives in a humble retirement house behind this exhibit brings wit and whimsy to life with a cutting torch and the rusty remnants of a changing world.

 One man’s junk is another man’s inspiration, and has the power to entertain thousands just passing by.

If this retired piece of London history could speak, I would love to hear the stories it could tell. Today, it sits silently in an Oregon corn field.

All Photos by Al Cooper 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


     The old Vermont farm house at the foot of the Northfield Gulf overlooking a murmuring trout stream known as Ayer’s Brook was a busy place in October and November.  Wagonloads of cut and split maple firewood tumbled into the waiting woodshed where canoe-shaped halves of freshly-killed  hogs hung in the frosty air ready to be cut and wrapped. Wheel barrow loads of Green Mountain potatoes, Northern Spy apples and Danish Ball-head cabbages were wheeled into the underground root cellar, while bacon slabs and hams slow-smoked over corn cob-and-apple-wood-fired outdoor pits. Last of all came the cargo of winter squash from the curing ground of old hay next to the worn-out garden; giant blue hubbards with their armor plated warts, along with buttercups, acorns baby pie pumpkins and assorted cousins, on their way to an unheated but dry upstairs attic room to provide appreciated main meals, soups and desserts for the long months of winter ahead.  An old New England tradition? A-yuh. But a whole lot more.
            A member of the botanical family cucurbita  maxima – except for pumpkins, which are in the sub-order c. pepo – the winter squash is one of the oldest food cultivars (actually a fruit)  native to the American continent.  In one form or another, they were being grown in Central and South America as early as 8000 years ago, and their cultivation has been traced back at least 2700 years among native tribes of the northeastern United States where they were known by the name askutasquash (literally “food which can be eaten raw or cooked”) in both Narragansett and Algonquian languages.
            High in Vitamins A and C, and good quality fiber, it is one of a small handful of very nutritious native foods which can be grown, preserved and easily transported through all the seasons of a year. In early cultures it was one of the sacred triad known as “the three sisters”, both because of its natural complimentarity to maize corn and beans, and because the three have a symbiotic relationship in cultivation: The corn stalk provides a pole for the beans to climb, and protection from the sun for the squash, while the beans fix nitrogen in the soil without which the corn would deplete the ground they all depend on. The large squash leaves act as weed-control and cool the ground surface on hot days.
            Squash was prized for the long-keeping quality of its food power, for the high nutrition hidden in its dried seeds, and for the added attraction of its large edible blossoms. What’s more its flesh could be dried for use as a light-weight and portable travel food.  Native American farmers practiced “rotation culture”, growing each crop on ground not planted to the same cultivar the previous year, thus enhancing soil fertility and discouraging predator insects.
            Winter squash are high on our list of storage foods, with Buttercup types a favorite for their sweet, deep orange flesh for baking, Sweet Meat, larger and a great combination of keeping and eating qualities, Butternut, the best squash for soup-making, and Acorn, wonderful for stuffing. If our family was larger, we would certainly go for Hubbard types, the best of all “keepers”. Another good choice for size is the Banana squash, often sold in pre-cut pieces in the markets. We look for fruit which has field-cured with a hard outer skin, is blemish-free and with the stem intact. They will keep best in a cool (50-60 degree), dry, dark location, with spaces between them. We eat the buttercups first, monitoring their quality weekly.
            All told, winter squash has to rate as one of the real WONDER FOODS given to the world by America.

Caption for title photo:
A dazzling variety of long-keeping and tradition-filled winter squash tantalize visitors to a Utah farmers’ market, the genetic offspring of a fruit which has been with us for more than 8000 years.

Al Cooper Photo
Al can frequently be heard talking about food history on his weekly radio show, at 4:00 PM Mondays on KSUB 590