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 

Friday, November 11, 2011


         It says much about America and those who have served her in uniform through generations of time, that our honored war dead lie in at least 24 military cemeteries in foreign lands. Altogether 124,917 American soldiers, sailors and airmen rest in other countries, to which can be added another 80,000 who were never found or were lost at sea in foreign service, including more than 8,000 still “missing” in Korea alone.  30,922 who died in WW I are buried in eight official sites in France, along with 93,245 who lost their lives and ended up there with them in WW II. The military cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy is one of the most visited, and beautifully-maintained with 9,387 at rest there. Sadly, the most neglected and nearly-forgotten of our war-dead lie in a cemetery near Manila in the Philippines where more of our uniformed warriors came to rest than anywhere else.  With grave markers obliterated by time, weather and volcanic ash, their number is believed to exceed 17,000.
            In recent years, survivor families have traveled by the millions to visit and research these sacred burial sites and to find a connection with memories that refuse to sleep.  They often find hidden stories.
            One of the most unusual and poignant of stories tied to such places has come to light from historians visiting a small but lovely burial ground near the Belgian town of St. Symphorien close to the village of Mons where fierce fighting between invading German and defending British forces took place in the course of WW I –“The Great War”.  It is proof that FACT often trumps FICTION.
            With the war only days of age, Britain’s first action in August 1914 was about to take place near the town of Mons, and 16-year old Private John Parr, of Finchley, North London, a former golf caddy who had lied about his age in order to join up was about to ride into the history books on a bicycle. He had not yet been given a helmet and may not even have been issued a weapon when he was sent to scout enemy movements on his two-wheeler. In a vast killing ground that would see one million British Empire soldiers dead before the U.S. came to their aid three years later, young Private Parr became the first Allied battlefield statistic. In a makeshift cemetery in the town of St. Symphorien, he would be buried by the Germans who had won the day. (His family would not be officially notified of his death for many months afterward and would learn of the exact circumstances only after the war had ended.)
            When, with more than 10 million dead, the two warring sides finally met to talk about armistice terms four years later, they came to an agreement at 5:00 am on November 11, 1918.  For reasons never completely understood, they determined that the fighting would officially come to an end at 11:00 am – as if there was something magical or symbolic about the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”.
            This matter of six hours would prove to be more than symbolic for Private George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers, who had somehow, miraculously survived four years of nearly continuous mortar, cannon and rifle fire, poisonous gas attacks, trench warfare, sickness and death from all sides only to die from a sniper’s bullet 90 minutes before the magic hour of eleven. At age 40, the husband and father of two became the last British soldier to die in “The Great War”.  
            Private Ellison, the last Brit to die in WW I would end up in what happened to be the “next burial site available” in the German cemetery in St. Symphorien, directly opposite the grave of Private John Parr who had been the first.

 Caption for title photo:
An American flag with a French “Thank You” marks a G.I.’s resting place near Omaha Beach, Normandy.

 In the company of 284 German soldiers and 229 fellow Britons, the body of Private John Parr, the first Allied casualty of WW I lies in the cemetery at St. Symphorien a few feet from that of Private George Ellison who survived all but the last 90 minutes of that war.