Monday, December 30, 2013
While John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich is probably given more credit than history can justify for the invention which has been with us ever since some ancient village baker decided to put something tasty between two pieces of sun-baked flatbread, we can pinpoint some later developments worth celebrating. For one thing, we are pretty sure it was Reuben Arnold, presiding over a delicatessen on New York City’s Broadway who, in 1914, assembled a combination made up of stacks of thin-sliced kosher corned beef, cheese and a special mayonnaise between book-ends of rye bread we call the Reuben to this day. (Don’t forget a healthy slather of horseradish and mustard!)
We also know that Los Angeles lays claim to the first French Dip combo early in the 20th Century, and that the “Saratoga Clubhouse” gave us the so-called Club sandwich in 1894. And as for the ubiquitous Peanut butter and jelly standby, sandwich detectives tell us that back in the day when peanut butter was new and hard-to-find, the good old PB&J was a mainstay of New York City’s high society tea rooms more than 100 years ago! As for the “submarine/hoagie/grinder/po’boy”, there are so many competing versions of a birthing story we lack space to do them justice today.
Enough for plebian culinary trivia when we have a REAL piece of sandwich glory to explore; one which began to pique my interest after a visit to a New Orleans eating establishment a couple of months ago; one that is not on a list of great monuments to the culinary arts one just can’t pass up.
The folks who operate the “World War II Museum” there have cut no corners in anything they have done to make that unique “institute of national pride” a destination worthy of my wish that every American could experience it. I should not have been surprised therefore to sit down to what I expected to be a quick and simple lunch in the 1940s style “Bistro” conveniently situated on the premises, to have one of the most memorable dining experiences – even though a mere lunch – of the much broader food adventures of that three-day sojourn. Knowing that a renowned chef was in charge of the kitchen, I ordered a “Monte Cristo” sandwich, expecting something like an old fashion toasted cheese affair, maybe with some French adornment on the top. What came to me was a two-inch-thick, toasty-crisp casing of batter-fried sourdough slices crammed full of Tasso ham and locally-smoked turkey slices amid melting layers of fondue-type cheese, served with a side of citrus-rich marmalade.
Knowing I would have to make do without the spicy Cajun Tasso and would be substituting a more-available stand-in from Boar’s Head, I decided to compensate by curing, then home-smoking a tied turkey breast in my strategy for perfecting my own approach to the fabled Monte Cristo, which first appeared in Paris cafés around 1910 as a Coque-monsieur (or “crispy mister”).
After curing the turkey breast in a spicy salt rub in the refrigerator for 24 hours, I placed it in my smoker over apple wood for two hours for a cool smoke, then another four hours of a hot smoke until it reached an appropriate internal temperature.
Using two thick slices of bread with a tight crumb structure which I filled with a stack of thinly-sliced turkey, ham and cheese, I dipped the sealed package in a beaten egg before placing it in a pre-heated, thinly oiled skillet to sauté quickly and evenly on both sides. In place of the marmalade, I served it up with my favorite home-made corn relish.
Bingo! I think I have come up with the consummate Monte Cristo.
Friday, December 20, 2013
As one calendar year comes to an end and another is ushered in, one cannot help but attach some significance to this astronomical meridian, and to mark the passage of time from a uniquely personal perspective. Since I am something of a “score-keeper”, I note as I write this column that it is the 29,424th day of my life on planet Earth, and I try – I think – to make each one count. The decision to take seriously Thoreau’s challenge to live more “deliberately” became more deeply rooted by a discovery I happened upon more than 25 years ago. It was then I began keeping my “Happiness Calendar”.
The concept is so straightforward and simple – even a bit “corny” – that it took me awhile to recognize it as a profundity. The idea is to discover and write down one “happy” event each week, taking time at the end of each month to weigh, measure, ponder thoughtfully and write a paragraph or two about the “winner”. By the year’s end, therefore, one has the sweet challenge of narrowing the growing list down to a few favorites; a task by the way, which is a payoff in riches untold, because with it comes the dawning (thundering) discovery of just how much we have been missing previously in our casual stroll through this thing we call life.
Because I have always been a “list-maker”, carrying a few index cards in a pocket had become a daily habit, so my “happiness calendar” entries began humbly with a few words written on-the-spot as it was. In time, some of these mini-notes became entire essays, later short stories to be shared with family members or audiences. Not just “happy things”, but observations seen and heard, profound lessons learned, interesting new words, pieces of new knowledge, the song of a hermit thrush, a single phrase from a piece of music or a bit of unexpected whimsy in a chance conversation; all became fodder for a waiting 3x5 pocket card and a monthly story-line. And the more I perfected my powers of discovery, the more I found my life being enriched by the “little things” going on all around me and every day. Nowadays, I seem to run across something powerful, humorous, eye-opening, mind-bending or just plain too-doggone important to pass up on a near-daily basis, so it has to go somewhere in my “rainbow archives”.
Keeping track of my lifetime list of such “sunbursts of the mind” eventually became an administrative challenge, with index cards overflowing, yet needed so that I could revisit these glimpses into a growing storehouse of memories. A great scholar once introduced me to the idea that our brain is made up of a myriad of file boxes and cubbyholes which we could learn to access by a labeling system of key words. And that became my answer; my “open sesame” to stories numbered in the hundreds, but too important to ever lose sight of. My list of inspiring stories (now digitally recorded) reads like this: Squire’s pig; the field of shoes; Scott’s stone wall; Jalapa sunrise; The new roof; Maxwell’s peas; 25 dollars & a blind dog; Grandma Jarvis’s Carolina Poplar; Shaktolik; Letters from Mary; Della’s peach tree; Fiddler in the woods; The .22 caliber violin; Moose antler Xmas, and more than 200 additional sets of key words, each of which is sufficient to call to mind a ten-minute monologue or a 2000-word short story. And a lifetime of simple adventures I can relive at a moment’s notice.
The Scottish writer and dramatist James Barrie (best known for giving us Peter Pan), once said: “God gave us the gift of memory that we might have June roses in the November of our years”. I believe that to be true. Thanks to my “Happiness Calendar”, I believe I have found a way to help that process along.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
For more than twenty years I have cherished an annual connection with the remote Vermont mountain town of Shrewsbury, situated high above the more populace countryside of the Rutland region.
For many of those years, I was leading a tour of Utahans with whom my wife and I shared a one-week stay at a two-hundred-year-old converted farmhouse “hostelry” known as Maple Crest Farm, operated by the seventh generation of the Smith family. Everything about Shrewsbury is beautiful and historic, and nowhere in all my travels have I found a more happy combination of geography, unspoiled landscape and living history.
One of the photographic “touchstones” over those years has been a rusting 1950s-era gas pump standing sad and forlorn, almost like a cemetery marker, in front of what used to be the town’s General Store, the sign “W.E. PIERCE Groceries” still hanging overhead, and a plug for SALADA TEA still inscribed invitingly across a long-opaque and otherwise empty front window. In a state where the “General Store” is still a hallmark revered and preserved in so many small towns, this “monument” to the past has always left a sad and empty place in my heart as I make the U-turn to leave the northern end of my beloved Shrewsbury.
I learned that until 90-year-old Marjorie Pierce – the last of her family – was forced to turn off the lights and close her doors in 1993, the little store had been the center of town life, Post Office and meeting place for citizens for more than 100 years.
As if peering into a hopeful future, Marjorie performed a final act of generosity, placing the century-old store in the hands of The Preservation Trust of Vermont, an organization devoted to keeping the past alive and honored. If she were alive, Marjorie would be pleased to know that the “seed” that act had sown came to life when 20 years later, the citizens of Shrewsbury, with the additional help of another agency – The Vermont Community Foundation – formed a community cooperative committed to bringing the “sleeping” village store back to life.
On a warm summer day in August, 2009, the lights came on again under the sign W.E. PIERCE Groceries, and a proud Vermont town of 1100 residents came alive as well. For the operation to succeed, it was vital that the combined effort of a lot of people would be needed. Today, 20 people work as unpaid staff, and as if to underline the town’s support, community members donate home-prepared meals for sale in the store every Friday night.
Dimmed and shuttered for 20 years, Shrewsbury once again has a General Store.
As Manager Donna Marzilli told us on our visit to PIERCE’S on our October, 2013 Shrewsbury visit, the fruit and vegetables filling the display cases came mostly from local organic gardens, the eggs from neighborhood chickens and the beef cuts from nearby farms. And wonderful smells led us to the backroom bakery where Rob McKain bakes the breads, rolls, and an array of sweet things that keep the shelves around the classic old wood stove filled and the entire premises wrapped in the yeasty aromas only a hands-on bakery can put out.
If Pierce’s pot-belly stove could speak, there would be 100 years of stories to tell.
Rob McKain prepares his back room for a day of Artisan bread baking
There is something restorative and refreshing to know there are places where the town and the local church have occupied space on the same piece of ground and shared the costs of taxes and upkeep since 1805, and where the local citizens happily give of themselves to bring back to life an old store and a piece of history.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Recently, in the parking lot of a well-known retail giant, I watched a family returning to their waiting SUV. The father and mother were each busy talking on their respective cell phones (and obviously NOT to each other), while several paces away from them strode teen-age “Junior” busily (and expertly) texting on his “hand-held device”. In an age overflowing with technology of all kinds we refer to as “social media”, to say nothing of “game boards” and 50 inch “flat screens” , I sometimes wonder if we are in the process of loosing something important. There comes to mind a piece of verse ascribed to Strickland Gillian which takes me back to my own (long-ago?) youth:
You may have tangible wealth untold, Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be. I had a father who read to me.
I grew up in a family that had no living grandfather but in which a great, great uncle was the resident “patriarch”; a gentleman in a formal vest and string tie with whom our town’s very name was eponymous and who had lived when Abraham Lincoln was the President. His ample lap was my personal university-of-learning, and along with numerous other contributions, he read to me. Daily, prodigiously, and with a devotion that was more than merely avuncular. Together with two older brothers who were a decade ahead of me in age and who were also avid readers, I found myself surrounded by books and people who loved them.
I learned that the pages of a book and the very typeface they contained had a certain touch and smell and feel, that the words coming from the reader’s lips could be seen as well as heard; that the very shape of their mouth held the secrets of word sounds and pronunciation just as facial expressions conveyed changing and recognizable levels of feelings and emotions. Commas, colons, quotation marks and periods became signposts on a roadmap; old friends helping me find my way. Every book was magical to me, even before I was an accomplished reader. A favorite evening card game in our family was “Authors”, a competitive contest in which players had to match up the titles of books with the correct author, and when I was dealt a card that read “William Makepeace Thackeray”, I could easily produce answers like “Vanity Fair”, “Pendenis” and “The History of Henry Esmond”, or I would know that titles like “Ivanhoe” or “Lady of the Lake” would give away the author as Sir Walter Scott.
My first real favorites had to do with the great outdoors and stories of the sea, so Robert Lewis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Jack London were my heroes, as was the noted wildlife writer Ernest Thompson Seton. Charles Nordhoff and his writing partner James Norman Hall gave us the trilogy “Mutiny on the Bounty”, Men Against the Sea” and “Pitcairn’s Island” which I consumed hungrily as well as “Falcons of France” and “The High Barbaree”.
I gained much of my early love for dogs in part from neighboring New Jersey author and columnist Albert Payson Terhune and his books “Lad: A Dog”, “Buff: A Collie”, and “Lad of Sunnybank”.
The Depression years drastically cut into the book business in America, but the advent of so-called “pulp” magazines became a refuge for authors who might otherwise have remained unpublished and a reading public deprived of wonderful stories. Our household profited from this editorial phenomenon, and so I was treated to the works of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Earl Stanley Gardner, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey, their mind-bending words falling like prey into my possession third-hand after my brothers had thrown them aside. And before my reading skills measured up, I didn’t lack for other family members to read to me from those serated-edge mini-books with titles like “Flying Aces”, “Black Mask”, “The Phantom Detective” or the “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine”. (One publisher alone put out 42 titles each month while another distributed a total of more than 300 in that era which stretched from the 1930s to the 1950s.)
As I measure the wonders of the modern days in which I live and the mind-boggling inventory of electronic and satellite-driven conveniences that increasing render book stores and libraries almost obsolete, I feel that I am rich, because I had a family that read to me.
Keeping a generational family tradition alive, Al reads to one of his Great-Grand-children today.
As World War II in Europe was seen to be finally grinding to an end, General Henry H.”Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces wrote a report to the Secretary of War in which he opined: “The week of 20-26 February, 1944, may well be classed by future historians as marking a decisive battle of history, one as decisive and of greater value than Gettysburg.”
He referred to “OPERATION ARGUMENT”, an all-out air assault on “Fortress Europe” which came to be known among those who were caught up in it as “Big Week”, a six-day combined bombing effort of the USAAF and the British RAF conceived and designed to destroy the German Luftwaffe and the industry that supported it, and in the process to wrest air superiority over Germany’s home skies from the enemy. After three years of warfare, Allied planners were convinced that the much-anticipated and anxiously-awaited land invasion of the continent could not be successfully undertaken until this had been accomplished.
American strategic bombers in the form of four-engine B-17 “Flying Fortresses” and B-24 Consolidated “Liberators” in small numbers began to arrive in England under the banner of the VIII Bomber Command in the spring of 1942, flying their first combat missions against targets in Holland in March. They brought with them the American doctrine of “Daylight Precision Bombing” and the revolutionary Norden bombsight which it was believed would make that practice viable. This was in sharp contrast to the British RAF commitment to the concept of Nighttime area or “carpet” Bombing. From the time of Billy Mitchell, U.S. senior commanders believed that the goal of aerial bombardment should be the destruction of the enemy’s industrial and logistical capacity to wage war. The powerful British chief of Bomber Command Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris on the other hand believed that victory would come only when the morale of the enemy’s civilian population caused them to turn against their leader(s) and that the intentional terror-bombing of civilian populations was most apt to bring this about.
This schism in basic strategy strained relations at the highest levels between the otherwise closely-allied commands and hindered what should have been a more coordinated offensive effort. It would be an over simplification to ascribe the U.S. preference to purely humanitarian sentiments, although I believe that played a role; that question would take more paragraphs (pages!) of space than I am permitted here. What is clear is that the British approach killed a lot of Germans, and the U.S. tactics killed a lot of young American airmen. Daylight Precision Bombing worked – but at a very high price in bomber crewmen – more than 45,000. The deadly miscalculation on America’s part was the false expectation that our heavily-armed bombers could defend themselves against fighter attack, to say nothing of the increasingly accurate 88mm German ground batteries.
Finally, in the gear-up for D-Day, the two air commands came together in an artfully-conceived coordinated effort to reduce Allied losses by knocking out Germany’s capacity to build, crew and deploy the Luftewaffe’s Messerschmitt and Focke Wolfe fighters which had successfully denied us control of the air space over Europe. Thus Big Week – “Operation Argument” came into being and into the history books to be written by both sides. In those six days, U.S. 8th Air Force bombers flew 3,000 sorties, the 15th Air Force more than 500, and the RAF Bomber Command another 2350 against selected sites in Germany, where aircraft parts, engines and the planes they would produce were manufactured, while our own fighters and bomber crews shot 500 enemy fighters from the sky. The Americans alone dropped ten thousand tons of bombs, about the equivalent of what the 8th Air Force delivered in its entire first year of operations. At any given time, there would be up to 1,800 Allied bombers in the air, manned by more than 16,000 pilots and crew, winging their way to and from a hundred different bases in England and Italy.
P-51 Mustangs of the 375th Squadron, 361st Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force, 1944.
U.S. Air Force Photo
While there were many losses, there were two miracles that added to the irrefutable success of Big Week. First, ideal weather conditions almost without precedent for that time of year, and the arrival of squadrons of American P-51 Mustang fighter planes with the ability to fly virtually anywhere our bombers had to go – and stay with them for the previously deadly return.
While German ingenuity made possible the continued production of fighter aircraft, the Luftwaffe was never able to replace the prime core of their cadre of experienced airmen lost that week – the six days one historian says which “changed the course of World War II!”
As the Mayflower swung at anchor in Plymouth Harbor on November 19th, 1620, it must have been an uneasy refuge for passengers and crew. Behind them lay three months of delay, stormy seas, severe overcrowding, two deaths and now an unintended landing hundreds of miles farther north than their destination in the “Virginia” territory. Facing a New England winter, with no time to build suitable housing and with their start-up provisions already largely consumed, there was little except their faith to buoy them up. Yet, two hopeful events took place aboard the Mayflower between their arrival and the establishment of the Plymouth community which deserve to be celebrated even today.
First there was the writing and mutual signing of an agreement to become a self-governing colony known today as “The Mayflower Compact”, a constitution voted into law by the common consent of the governed. At nearly the same time – probably on November 19th, 1620 – a son, named Peregrine White was born on shipboard to William and Susanna White, thereby becoming the first English settler to be born as a citizen of America. With them, the couple had brought from London a five-year old son named Resolved. Their father, William had only sixty days to live, since by February of that cold winter, the great dying was well underway, and the young father would be one of 17 who would be laid to rest in that one month. Susanna would in fact be the only widow to survive that deadly pioneering period which saw more than half the Colony sleeping in the graves which soon marked the nearby hillside, women and children being the most numerous.
Under-nourished to begin with and now confined to the Mayflower’s cramped and unhealthy quarters while the men labored ashore to lay out building plans for spring, pneumonia and other illnesses took a terrible toll. Without a dock for small-boat travel, the work crews had to wade ashore, and though the men no doubt benefited from manual labor and fresh air, they were never able to really dry out from daily doses of the cold bay waters.
Somehow, I am struck by the image of that first birth, a harbinger of hope perhaps, in the midst of so much death and suffering during those early “moments” of nationhood there on the outermost shore of a “promised land”. Even the name – Peregrine – has a stirring and hopeful ring to it, arising from an ancient Latin word meaning “wanderer”, “traveler from a distant land”. How fitting that this first offspring of a “pilgrim” people searching for a place of freedom and new beginnings should be heir to so meaningful a cognomen, especially when teamed with a five-year-old brother named Resolved!
Among our Pilgrim Parents a researcher cannot help but find inspiration in first names: Moses Fletcher, Remember Allerton, Humility Cooper, Love Brewster and Oceanus Hopkins to name just a few, (although I have no explanation for Wrestling Brewster and Desire Minter!).
The widow Susanna White remarried widower Edward Winslow, with whom she had five more children including a future Governor of Plymouth. Peregrine went on to be an early resident of Marshfield, Representative to the General Court, a Militia officer and respected citizen. Today, 393 years after his birth aboard an anchored vessel, I pause to editorially call attention to a “traveler from a distant land”, and the much-overlooked birthday of America’s first-born Mayflower citizen.
On November 11, 1620, in the confined space of the “Mayflower’s” main cabin, a handful of pioneer travelers drew up what Winston Churchill would call “one of the remarkable documents in history”, the “Mayflower Compact”.
The sixteenth century was a time of religious reformation and social renaissance, with much of Europe torn by open warfare between governments defending papal power and citizens searching for greater individual freedom. For 80 years, the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands had suppressed freedom of worship, forbidding the Dutch people even to gather together to worship. Finally, in 1597 victory over the Habsburg rulers brought freedom at last, leading Adrianus Valerius to write a hymn in celebration. In its anglicized version (thanks to Theodore Baker), we know it today as We Gather Together. Most of the Mayflower Pilgrims had been enjoying religious refuge in Leyden, Holland, and at some point, the old hymn of freedom also made its way across the Atlantic. Today it is one of several Thanksgiving favorites sung by almost every Christian congregation, growing in popularity particularly during World War I and World War II.
Known to his English contemporaries as a young man of “purity of mind and singleness of purpose” and possessing “a confidence and unobtrusive self-respect which never failed him”, Henry Alford devoted his life to a study of The Bible and his devotion to the clergy, including a position at Canterbury Cathedral. He is best remembered though for his hymn of thanksgiving, Come Ye Thankful People Come, another iconic piece of music with a message reminding us of the deeply religious roots of that November day we call Thanksgiving.
One of the first American women to actually earn a living from her writing, Lydia Maria Child made a name for herself giving advice and counsel to 19th century women, with such titles as “The Frugal Housewife”, “The Mother’s Book” and “A Little Girl’s Own Guide”. A tireless activist throughout her life, she was a fierce warrior for women’s rights, an opponent of American expansionism, and one of the earliest and most vocal abolitionists. She also criticized the treatment of Native Americans, and often found herself in a small minority with her very public views on slavery. After the Civil War, she wrote and edited a book and a newsletter designed to help educate newly-freed slaves.
In 1844, in a work published as “Flowers for Children – Volume 2”, Child included a poem of six verses describing her own memories of a winter visit to her grandfather’s Massachusetts farm originally titled “A Boy’s Thanksgiving”. We know it today for its first line: Over the River and Through the Wood, and it has become so synonymous with the whole Thanksgiving Day institution in America as to take its place as one of the most traditional word- pictures of early American holiday life. It is set against the kind of early winter which visited New England in a climatic era which is still known as a “mini ice age”. (*)
Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Thanksgiving is a time to remember, and to celebrate the “spiritual harvest” which is a part of our unique heritage. As important as roast turkey, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie may be, I would hope that gathering together as families while honoring and strengthening our own set of traditions underline what this celebration is really all about ; a time to be a THANKFUL PEOPLE, who GATHER TOGETHER TO ASK THE LORD’S BLESSINGS.
NOTE: In 1943 a Liberty Ship named the SS Lydia M. Child was launched to serve during WWII.
A wagon load of pumpkins and squash reminds us of the spirit of the harvest and plenty we have observed each Thanksgiving since that first one at Plymouth 392 years ago. Al Cooper Photo
I met Gina in the waiting area of a departure gate in Salt Lake City Airport’s terminal 2, prepared for an hour of airline boredom. The female traveler seated to my immediate right was occupied with a magazine featuring colorfully-illustrated food dishes and recipes. I couldn’t help but notice the page on which she was focused and commented off-handedly about my fondness for a version of that particular menu specialty I had recently prepared in my own kitchen. Thus began what became a passionate and animated discussion surrounding our shared love of food and food history. A native New Orleanian with Italian roots, she ended up writing down a series of recommendations for my stay in that city, and we eventually made our way down the companionway to the waiting aircraft, chatting like lifelong friends. I spotted her once again in the baggage area at New Orleans, and she waved happily to me across a crowd of busy travelers.
Seated with some friends at a picnic table beside the fabled Battenkill River and my favorite covered bridge in southwest Vermont recently, I noticed a lone fly fisherman eating his own lunch at the only other table in that green and lush historic setting. After a shouted comment or two, Kevin introduced himself as a visitor from Australia and joined us. In minutes he and I had discovered a half dozen shared interests, from the Battle of Britain and the varying capabilities of the Spitfire and Messerschmitt, to the development of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, and the merits of fly fishing on various Montana trout streams. Since then we have established an email connection between our respective continents and I have gotten to know his wife Jennifer as well.
I struck up a conversation with a tall, good-looking father of three young children at a Burger King restaurant in Central Utah, after observing the loving way he entertained his obviously-mixed-race young family as they finished their meal-on-the-run. On the pretext of asking him why he wore no wrist watch (a recent phenomenon in this age of “handheld” devices which I have been exploring), I learned that he was a surgeon, and as his Korean-American wife joined us, we found a special connection arising from my wartime experience in her homeland, and my continuing efforts to build cultural bridges between our two countries.
Shirley and I were enjoying an old-fashioned “comfort food” meal in a 1950s-era diner in Manchester, New Hampshire just a month ago, when our attention was drawn to and held by a group of four 30-something women at a nearby table who were regaling each other with flying hands and nearly-continuous laughter. Although too distant to make out their exact words, it seemed obvious to me that some third-party person guilty of some kind of buffoonery was the victim of their salacious but delicious ridicule. As we were leaving, I told Shirley that I was going to “have a word” with them. “Don’t you dare!” my horrified wife warned. But I couldn’t restrain myself. “You ladies are having altogether too much fun” I said as I interjected myself into their conversation, “but I would really like to meet the poor lady you are talking about”! My sly, but sympathetic comment threw them into more gales of delighted laughter, and I dare to believe they would have invited me to join them if circumstances had been different.
And I can’t forget Earl, the dedicated Black taxi driver who picked us up at New Orleans International and delivered us to our downtown hotel, talking to us about his beloved city. “When will you be leaving?” he asked before letting us off. We told him the day, but warned him “Oh, but that will be at five AM in the morning”. “That’s okay. I will be here to pick you up at that time if you like.” And he was, even though he had to borrow his wife’s cab, since his was not available. It was not just about the “fare”; with Earl it was all about keeping his word. He was one of a memorable handful of African-American cabbies, hotel porters and restaurant waiters, who went out of their way to make us feel welcome and “cared for” while guests in their home town.
In keeping with a long-time habit of writing down the things that happen around me almost daily, I have become particularly aware of how regularly my life is enriched by, and how thankful I am for the goodness of everyday people.
I can’t recall when my journey first began, or even where the task of measuring first took root; nor can I deny the fact that it has been a sweet, rewarding and even “glorious” enterprise. While ice cream itself – in all its deserving glory – has been around for a long time, perhaps as early as ancient Greece in the form of flavored ice, the ice cream cone is a different story. The most often cited origin goes back to the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, at which a vendor (or two) introduced scoops of ice cream in cups made from left-over pieces of waffles folded into a conical shape when they ran out of paper ones. I no longer “buy” that story after examining evidence gathered by my friend Mike Exinger (*more about Mike later), giving the real credit to an Italian immigrant and Hoboken, New Jersey street vendor named Italo Marchioni who was selling ice cream in shaped waffle-cone cups to Wall Street pedestrians in New York as early as 1896, and whose patent on that invention was actually granted in 1903 – one year before the St. Louis World Fair! Now that we’ve uncovered the bona fides of the “cone”, it’s time to move on to the glorious dairy magic that fills that crunchy cavity.
While there is much to commend practically any ice cream – even that which starts out in a box-like container in the local supermarket and was likely produced in a continuous-flow production line operation designed for a mass market, often containing dozens of “enhancing” additives and imitation flavors before having extra air whipped in to produce greater volume – I long ago narrowed down my search for excellence to the small batch, “home-made” variety. Characterized by a high butterfat content - usually 14% or more - only natural and very fresh ingredients and direct sale to the customer in “fresh-from-the-press” waffle cones, these uniquely-American masterpieces of creamy opulence are worth every bit of the extra pocket treasure they cost.
New England has long nurtured a love affair with ice cream, and so it is no accident that several of my “winners” can be found there, beginning with Mountain Creamery, in Woodstock, Vermont. Capitalizing on their access to pure maple syrup, their Vermont Maple Walnut is a standout along with Black Raspberry, Toffee Crunch, and Myer’s Rum Raisin – a personal favorite. Moving seaward, we come to the coastal village of Damariscotta, Maine where Round Top Ice Cream has been “bringing them back” since 1924 with a choice of 40 flavors, from among which I discovered another flavor so unusual that I travel extra miles each time I’m in the area, just to renew my acquaintance with the only example of “Ginger Ice Cream” I’ve found anywhere! Not only does it have a fine creamy ginger flavor, but is filled with small bits of real candied ginger. And just one peninsula south of there lies the tourist town of Boothbay Harbor where the Down East Ice Cream Factory hits the proverbial nail on the head with their unbelievably-smooth Kahlua & Bailey’s Irish Cream flavor; a true “one-of-a-kind”.
At the risk of showing bias, I have left the best until last – perhaps because it is three thousand miles away from my starting point and took some time to discover – 200 years behind Lewis & Clark at that! I speak now of Zinger’s Homemade Ice Cream, in Seaside, Oregon, where Mike Exinger and his wife Mona have managed to bring together under one roof a hard-won knowledge of ice cream history, a commitment to creating an all-natural product, starting where other worthy entrepreneurs have left off, and sticking to a winning formula. Mike’s wide-ranging array of flavors all begin with an 18% butterfat base sweetened with organic cane sugar, and flavored with the best and freshest fruits, nuts, cocoa and other natural ingredients in quantities designed for rapid turnover. At any given time, there will be at least 24 varieties on the board, as they rotate through 40 in a season. And when the tourist population of the community eases off toward winter, so too do Mike and Mona; they refuse to work with “leftovers”, and know when THEY need a rest. Once again, my favorite flavor here is Rum Raisin (consistently the smoothest I have had anywhere), although I have to give high marks to a ZINGER specialty – New York Cheese Cake; one more GRAND SLAM hit!
NOTE: Of the ten leading states in per capita ice cream consumption, four are in New England. Utah ranks ninth. Washington, D.C. is the most ice-cream-eating city.
Mike Exinger, proprietor and ice cream-maker-extraordinaire serves up the author’s favorite Zinger’s Rum Raisin cone.
This is a story about a canoe, and an event which reaches back twenty decades, or eight generations of human time in the genealogist’s terms. While it has lain dormant in our nation’s history, it has remained unforgotten in the minds and very culture of a small group of citizens whose legacy is that of a tiny Native American tribe whose roots reach far back in geologic time.
As pointed out in an earlier column recounting the arrival of the Lewis and Clark expedition on the Pacific Coast in 1805, it was with the help of the friendly Clatsop people that they were able to survive during those winter months, and for whom they named the fort they erected there and left as a gift when they departed. The Clatsops were not strangers to Europeans, since they had previously met and traded with ocean-going ships and sailors, a background which invested them with a certain amount of trust in white men as well as familiarity with a language very different from their now-extinct Chinookian dialect.
Despite the friendliness of these native peoples, there was always a sense of tension – at least on the part of the expedition leaders who had less contact than some of their men with the tribe’s hunters and fishermen. The very term “Clatsop” meant “place of smoked salmon”, and it was a local knowledge of catching fish from the sea and hunting game from the woods which had served the Clatsops for so long and now benefited the visitors from the East.
At the center of the Clatsop economy lay their unique ability to convert huge cedar logs into large canoes capable of challenging rough seas and great distances, and the most valuable member of each village was a master canoe carver upon whose handiwork everything depended. Since it took from two to three years of curing, cutting, steam-firing and hand-carving to produce a single craft, such a canoe’s value to a village, let alone the entire tribe was nearly incalculable. Meriwether Lewis had long wished to obtain one of these canoes whose sea-worthiness was legendary, but possessed neither sufficient wealth in trade goods to purchase one nor a comprehension of its life-or-death value to a people whose cultural roots he may not have understood.
Using the pretense of “getting even” with Clatsop hunters he claimed had infringed on elk carcasses belonging to his own men, Lewis arranged for his party to “appropriate” the coveted canoe as they departed the area on their return journey in 1806.
Our library books may have succeeded in overlooking or marginalizing this little piece of history, but not the descendants of those long-ago Native Americans. In fact it has weighed so heavily on their sense of tribal honor that they decided to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark “Corps of Discovery” by producing a “replacement” canoe the old fashion way, at the hands of a present-day Master Builder, to be dedicated and given to a “Canoe Family” at a Potlatch gathering of today’s Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes in time for the 200th celebration. (Even after locating a suitably cured cedar tree log, the build took two years to accomplish.)
After a sacred cleansing ceremony and a prayer of thanksgiving to The Creator, and with tables groaning under the weight of the traditional dinner of salmon, clams, deer, venison soup and huckleberries and a mutual exchange of gifts, the master of ceremonies addressed the hundreds of people gathered around the shiny canoe: “Now the story told by Lewis and Clark Corps. of Discovery, and the Clatsop/Nehalem people about the stolen canoe has been made right and has a good ending”.
An ironic footnote: Despite promises to the contrary, the United States government has never seen fit to grant Tribal Nation status to this small group of Native Americans without whose assistance the Lewis and Clark expedition might well have been a “one-way” adventure.
Overlooking the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon, a reproduction of the traditional canoe of the Salish people greets modern-day visitors. Al Cooper photo
So intrinsic to the culture at the center of their heritage is the cedar canoe, that its profile dominates the official symbol of the Clatsop/Nehalem Confederated Tribes today. Clatsop/Nehalem Confederated Tribes
In a dining “world” in which “fast food” has become practically a national institution, it is refreshing to find one relatively small city where there are more than 1300 restaurants that are not a part of any chain and that actually pride themselves on being “different” from everyone else. Walk down almost any street or boulevard in New Orleans and you will see what I mean. I believe one could sample a dozen examples of so ubiquitous a dish as gumbo from as many restaurants or bistros, and find that they are all good, but all different. Of course that is one of the gastronomic charms of down-home Louisiana cooking to begin with. With three days at our culinary disposal though, we wanted to take our search beyond the “everyday”, and indulge ourselves in some of the acknowledged best-of-the-best.
To understand the history, geography and tradition that combine to make so-called Creole cooking magical we need to examine the origin of the word itself: crear, or in Spanish “to create”,was originally used solely to designate the offspring of Spanish, French and Portuguese emigrants who were born here. In a larger sense, it came to mean a “mixture”. However, when other people of French origin from Canada arrived, they were described as Acadians – a word which eventually was bastardized to “Cajun”. Actually five cultures had a hand in creating the food “umbrella” we call Creole (and Cajun).
The Choctaw Indians passed on their knowledge of how to flavor soups with ground sassafras roots, which the French called filé; slaves arriving from Central Africa brought with them the seeds of the kingumbo plant giving us the thickening power of okra (gumbo) and the art of slow-cooking in iron pots. The French contributed their ability to make a roux of flour thickening, sauces and the art of sautéing. The Spanish added their penchant for combining meat and poultry in the same spicy dish, leaving room for a healthy scoop of rice, and finally the Creoles escaping from the islands of the Caribbean brought with them the heat of the cayenne pepper. Add to this marriage of cooking techniques and cultures the generous “supermarket” lurking in the bays and bayous of Louisiana, and you have the shrimp, crawfish, oysters, turtles, crabs and fish just waiting for the pioneer chef. (One Creole gourmet was heard to say that when it comes to gumbo, “anything that swims, walks, flies, jumps or crawls” is fair game.) And let’s not forget the locally-made French Andouille sausage – a gumbo “gotta have”.
If there is one New Orleans restaurant establishment on every food connoisseur’s “bucket list”, it would have to be Commander’s Palace. First established in 1880, and managed for the last decade by the well-known Brennan family, it ranks among the world’s most highly rated and America’s top 20. Among its kitchen’s honored alumni are such chefs as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. My son and I were extremely lucky to get a reservation there given the brevity of our time window, and we were welcomed by a professional wait staff and an ambience which whispered of a long-established respect for history and tradition.
I started with a soup course which consisted of a demi-serving each of three specialties: a roasted tomato, pepper & chicken bisque, turtle soup topped with a touch of aged sherry, and a gumbo spiked with Louisiana hot sauce. My son went for Louisiana white shrimp wrapped with Tasso ham set off with pickled okra, sweet onions and a 5-pepper jelly. My entrée was a pecan crusted Gulf fish over crushed corn, spiced pecans and poached blue crab, while Chris chose a white truffle, oyster mushroom & Parmesan risotto with smoked mushroom broth. Then, we succumbed to their classic dessert; a bread pudding soufflé pierced at the last minute by the waiter’s spoonful of a hot cream sauce. Later, we were invited to the kitchen where we met Mr. Brennan himself!
We had wisely made friends with our hotel’s Concierge at the New Orleans JW. Marriott, and when we asked him to direct us to a restaurant which was unusual, wonderful, and little-known to the greater public, he managed to get us a table at Clancy’s, an off-the-beaten-path establishment which could easily be mistaken for a typical neighborhood residence by a casual passer-by, but which proved to be a rare uncut diamond for “foodees” such as we. Like Galatoire’s, another New Orleans “secret”, Clancy’s caters to a committed covey of “regulars”; patrons who have their own table, waiter and favorite wine, some of them a second or even third generation of a family-like gemeinschaften. There we were treated to a creamy corn chowder with crab for openers, crowned – for me – with smoked soft shell crab topped with more crabmeat, and for Chris with seared sea scallops so tender they parted with a mere touch of a fork!
To top it off, we enjoyed the frigid pleasure of Clancy’s famous “Ice Box Lemon Pie”.
In the end, there are too many good things to say about New Orleans and all things “Creole” to fit in one column. C’est la vie!
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Europe may have its great cathedrals, England its chiming “Big Ben” and Holland its dikes and iconic windmills, but here in post-colonial America, we still have our indomitable (if endangered) covered bridges. I grew up with them in New England, caught glimpses of some in Iowa and elsewhere, but rediscovered them (in spades!) in Oregon, where a mind-boggling 450 of them once spanned that state’s twisting and near-uncountable rivers, creeks and streams.
Wooden bridges in a moist and rainy climate are apt to rot out in twenty years, but once covered with a well-designed roof they can last eighty years and more. Gifted with some of the continent’s most productive forests and tallest trees, Oregon’s pioneer settlers and those who followed did what came naturally – they built covered bridges, often with timbers of extraordinary length and girth. Situated astride the green and well-watered Willamette valley, Lane county lays claim to 18 of the state’s 50 or more surviving covered bridges, and it was there we hit architectural, historical and photographic pay dirt.
If there is a personal favorite for me from among more than nine examples of the bridge-builder’s art near the town of Cottage Grove, it is the Currin, named for an early settler’s family and spanning the Row River. Built in 1921 to replace an older one dating back to 1883, it utilizes a Howe truss construction and has a span of 105 feet. It is the only Oregon covered bridge to feature white portals and red-painted sides. It will stand out in my photo file for its camera-friendly backdrop and the delicious wild blackberries I will always associate with the hour I spent in its shadows. (In the World Guide system it is number 37-20-22).
Notable both for its unique double-lane design and its size, the Office Bridge at 180 feet is Oregon’s longest covered bridge, connecting the verdant banks of the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River in the timber town of Westfir. Westfir was once a “Company Town”, anchoring a mill site supplying huge timbers for the WWII War effort to the small town embracing its office and resident housing. Floored over with heavy oversize planks set on hand-hewn timbers of unusual dimension, the entire extra-tall structure was designed to accommodate trucks loaded with huge logs and features the only triple-truss Howe design I have ever seen. The second and separate bridge lane was to facilitate the constant and safe foot traffic between mill and office – thus the name. We will long remember the tiny town’s obvious affection for their bridge as we were greeted by volunteers pushing rakes and wheel barrows as they kept it presentable for any visitors who might come along to their remote community with its neat homes and general store. (World Guide number 37-20-39).
At some point in the near future, it is inevitable that we will extend our search to Oregon's Lynn and Douglas counties where another dozen or so historic covered bridges are waiting.
Al Cooper Photos
There are an endless number of reasons to visit the magnetic city of New Orleans, but this time, for me, there was one overpowering one: to experience the National World War II Museum located in the heart of that already-historic city. I use the verb “experience” here in its most explicit and literate sense, because – and especially for a veteran – this is not a typical museum where one gathers a glimpse of works of art or a passing view of some piece of culture. This is where one goes to take part in a gut-wrenching and mind-bending look at a part of our national anatomy so intrinsic to our sense of identity as a twentieth century people that it is both life-changing and indelible.
It is possible that my personal outlook on all this is colored by the fact that I lived through the times so graphically portrayed here, and that I was a participant on the battlegrounds of another war which I see as an interconnected aftermath of what we file away as “World War II”. It is also true that veterans of any of our country’s wars is likely to be more profoundly affected by what is experienced here than any other visitor; and I hasten to add that nowhere will a veteran feel more welcomed and more at home than at this corner of history on Andrew Higgins Blvd. and Magazine street in New Orleans.
Commenced as the “D-Day Museum” on June 6, 2000 thanks to the efforts of the late author/historian Stephen Ambrose whose home was there and who recognized the fact that the “Higgins boats” – the landing craft which were built there in the tens of thousands, and whose genius led to victories around the world were born there - made it the perfect location. The emphasis on the Normandy campaign is still alive and well at the museum, but as the capacity for growth expanded, so too did the vision of the museum’s founders so that today, every facet of WWII from its battlefields to the “Home Front”, from its music to its headlines are brought alive by exhibits and interactive displays.
Without any question, the centerpiece of the museum experience, (and the point at which I think every patron’s visit should begin), is the Tom Hanks 4D masterpiece “Beyond All Boundaries”, a one hour film experience which plays in the “Solomon Victory Theater” at intervals throughout the day. The “recreation” of the D-Day landings and other climactic events of WWII which take place there are dramatically enhanced, not only by sound effects which surround the audience, but sudden bursts of lighting to accompany gun fire and an underground system which shakes the seats of patrons to simulate battle experience. In the course of viewing winter conditions which accompanied the Battle of the Bulge sequence, “snowflakes” actually fall from dark storm clouds onto the audience in the front of the theater.
Another worthwhile experience is the final mission of the USS Tang (SS 306), an interactive recreation of the last sea patrol of the most famous American submarine of WWII, in which the participants – limited to no more than 27 – actually man the sub’s duty stations in the ship’s interior as the action plays out. I filled the assignment of StM1c Ralph F. Adams, age 19 from Camden, N.J. as a torpedo man at station No. 5, where I actually pushed the button launching several “fish”. (The Tang was the only U.S. WWII Sub. from which a small handful of men managed to survive a sinking by ejecting from the bottomed boat.) I do not recommend this experience for all museum patrons.
While most reviewers recommend you plan a 3-4 hour visit, my son and I spent eight hours in our effort to visit and absorb as much of the museum’s sights and sounds as possible, paying special attention to the recorded voices of the real people whose individual stories can be heard by the pushing of a digital button beneath the photo display. Best of all, we had the chance to sit down with a living veteran of the Pacific campaign where we were able to listen to his story and ask the questions they inspired; and to feel of his heartfelt devotion to his country and the comrades now gone but still alive in his untarnished memory.
Even better, I rejoice in having a son whose generosity made this trip a reality for me.
Conceived and built by Andrew Higgins of New Orleans, the so-called “Higgins Boats” or LCVTs as pictured here in the WWII Museum were described by Pres. Dwight Eisenhower as having “won the war for us!” More than 12,500 of these craft carried our men ashore at Normandy and across the beaches of the Pacific.
A B-17 Flying Fortress hangs from the ceiling at the WWII museum where it can be examined from three viewing levels in the main building.
Chris Cooper touches a chunk of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall”, one small piece of a thousand-mile long “impenetrable” phalanx of fortifications the Allies broached at high cost.
Al Cooper Photos