The rarest marble in the world? November 13, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Benjamin Franklin, Dave McCullough, David McCullough, Dr. Franklin marble, JABO, machine-made marbles, marble collecting, marbles, Poor Richard's Alamanac, Sammy's Mountain Marbles, Steve Sturtz
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Our friend Ben isn’t talking about the marble that is used to make kitchen countertops, palaces, and sculptures here, but about the round glass marbles, the so-called “toy” marbles, revered and collected by folks like me.
On my computer desk is a “Dr. Franklin” marble, named after our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin. It was created in a marble run sponsored by Steve Sturtz, “Dr. JABO,” produced at the JABO plant in Marietta, Ohio, one of the last marble producers in the U.S. (with the iconic Marble King), and created by the preeminent machine marble-maker of all time, the legendary Dave McCullough. (Check out Sammy’s Mountain Marbles for his latest amazing creations.)
“Dr. Franklin” is a beautiful, complex creation, with brilliant opaque orange, opaque pink, and glittery black aventurine suspended in a clear matrix. It’s spectacular. But it’s also rare. There are probably fewer than 50 Dr. Franklin marbles in existence, certainly fewer than 100. They are one of the most beautiful marbles our friend Ben, a rabid marble collector, has ever seen. I love marbles, I have many jars and boxes of marbles, but the Dr. Franklin is the only marble I showcase.
Thank you Dr. Franklin, thank you Steve, thank you Dave, and thank you to the crew at JABO that made these marvelous marbles. As the Marines’ motto goes, the few, the proud. The rarest marble in the world?
Batting 2000. October 9, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac blog
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It’s hard to believe, but today’s is the 2,000th post for our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. On behalf of all of us, and of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, our sincere thanks for your support and encouragement from Day 1 to today. We look forward to sharing many more thoughts, discoveries, observations and recipes with you in the days, weeks and years to come!
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
Wretched Daylight Savings. September 25, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, daylight saving time
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It’s almost 7 a.m. in our part of scenic PA, and it’s still pitch-black outside. Thank you, Daylight Savings. How is anybody supposed to get up and function in the dark (unless they’re an Orc or vampire)?! This is not good for our biorhythms and health, to say the least. Night: sleep. Light: wake up. How hard is that to understand evolutionally?
Our friend Ben is forced to admit that it was our own hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin, who first came up with the concept of Daylight Saving Time. But he did it as a joke, people, a joke! And now, unfortunately, the joke is on us, as our ever-more-intrusive government has made it our reality.
I’m sure old Ben would be mortified, or at least enjoying a chuckle at our expense and thinking of a witty remark to put in his Philadelphia newspaper or next almanac about people’s gullibility and government stupidity.
I’ve read many times about how harmful working second- or third-shift jobs is to people’s mental health and health in general, because they disrupt the body’s natural rhythms. And now the government is mandating the disruption of every single citizen’s natural rhythms by extending Daylight Saving Time way past the boundary between dark and light. What were they thinking?! And how dare they intrude on private life in this way?
Happy Constitution Day! September 17, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Constitution Day, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison, U.S. Constitution
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to wish you all a happy Constitution Day! In honor of the occasion, I’ve whipped up a little quiz so you can test your knowledge of the Constitution. Try it and see how you fare! As always, I’ll reveal the answers at the end of the quiz. But no cheating, now!
1. The U.S. Constitution was signed on this day, September 17, in:
2. Who was President when the Constitution was signed?
a) James Madison
b) Thomas Jefferson
c) George Washington
d) Benjamin Franklin
3. Who is called The Father of the Constitution?
a) Thomas Jefferson
b) George Washington
c) James Madison
d) Gouverneur Morris
4. The Constitution was based on:
a) The Magna Carta
b) The Articles of Confederation
c) The Virginia Plan
d) The New Jersey Plan
5. Where is the Constitution housed?
a) The White House
b) The Library of Congress
c) The National Archives
d) The Smithsonian Museum
6. How many states were there when the Constitution was signed?
7. What document did the Constitution replace?
a) The Declaration of Independence
b) The Bill of Rights
c) The Articles of Confederation
d) The Colonial Charter
8. How does the Constitution begin?
a) “It is hereby declared…”
b) “We, the duly elected representatives of the various States of the Union…”
c) “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”
d) “We the People…”
9) Which state refused to send representatives to the Constitutional Convention?
a) New York
b) Rhode Island
10) Who gave the closing speech after the Constitution was signed?
a) George Washington
b) Benjamin Franklin
c) James Madison
d) Thomas Jefferson
Now it’s time for some answers. Ready? Here you go:
1. The answer is b), 1787. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1791, and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed in 1803.
2. This is a trick question; the answer is “none of the above.” There was no office of the President when the Constitution was signed in 1787; the Constitution itself established the office. Our first President, George Washington, wasn’t elected until 1789.
3. The answer is c), James Madison, whose passionate support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights helped bring them into being. The Constitution is also partially based on the Virginia Plan that Madison drafted, and he coauthored The Federalist Papers to win public support for the Constitution. But the title could have also been bestowed on Gouverneur Morris, the most undervalued of the Founders, who actually wrote the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson is The Father of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington is, of course, The Father of Our Country.
4. Another trick question; the correct answer is “all of the above,” with quite a few other ingredients tossed into the stew for good measure.
5. The answer is c), the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which also houses the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Articles of Confederation, the Treaty of Paris, an early copy of the Magna Carta, and many other important documents. It’s well worth a visit next time you’re in D.C.
6. The answer is a). There were still just the original former Thirteen Colonies (now states) in 1787 when the Constitution was signed. The next state admitted to the Union was Vermont, in 1791.
7. The answer is c), the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781. The Articles of Confederation gave more power to the individual states at the expense of a strong central government. It lacked provisions for an executive or judiciary branch, a bicameral legislature (i.e., separate Senate and House of Representatives), or means of raising Federal taxes. The Constitution rectified these omissions, creating the strong central government we have today and paving the way for the Federal Income Tax. Thanks, guys!
8. The answer is d), “We the People.” If it were written today, it would probably be more along the lines of “In accordance with Provision 746-B of the…” Sigh.
9. The answer is b), Rhode Island. Like many States’ Rights advocates, Rhode Islanders opposed a strong central government, fearing that it would be dominated by larger, more powerful states and by urban rather than rural interests. This same states-versus-feds conflict fueled the Civil War, and you can still see it in action in today’s Libertarian Party and “tea parties.” The most famous patriot who championed States’ Rights was Virginia’s Patrick Henry, who refused to attend the Constitutional Convention, saying he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia [where the Convention was held], tending toward the monarchy.”
10. The answer is b), our very own hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin. We find this entirely fitting, since there wouldn’t have been a Constitution—or an America, for that matter—if it hadn’t been for old Ben’s diplomatic skills in persuading King Louis XVI to act against his own interests (as subsequent events conclusively proved) and support the Revolutionaries against a fellow monarch. Ben Franklin was also the only Founder to sign all three of America’s seminal documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris (which established peace between Britain and America after the war), and the Constitution. Go Ben go!!!
Do you feel smarter now? For more Constitutional fun, head over to the National Constitution Center’s website (http://constitutioncenter.org/FoundersQuiz/) and take their “Which Founder Are You?” quiz! I’m James Madison. No big surprise, our friend Ben is Ben Franklin. And can you guess who Silence Dogood is? Turns out, she’s James Madison too, even though when we compared notes she answered a lot of the 11 questions differently than I did. (Silence was a bit—well, a lot—disgruntled by this. She says she wanted to be Alexander Hamilton or George Washington or Gouverneur Morris. Sorry, Silence.) Let us know who you are!
A nice way to wake up. August 4, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Ben Franklin maxims, crystals, morning people, night owls
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Silence Dogood here. If, like me, our hero and blog mentor Benjamin Franklin’s maxim “Early to bed, early to rise” doesn’t exactly resonate with you, every little thing you can do to make getting out of bed in the morning a more pleasant experience is a good thing.
One of the most pleasant ways I’ve found is to hang crytals in the window. I don’t mean crystals like quartz, but rather, faceted glass like the crystals on a chandelier. You can use real chandelier crystals from antiques stores or flea markets, or, as I did, buy modern versions in gift shops or New Age shops. The advantage of buying them in gift or New Age shops is that they come in colors, they’re highly faceted (which is critical, as you’ll see), and they’re often pre-strung for hanging with smaller crystals on the string.
I have three crystal strands, one amber, one purple, and one pinkish-rainbow-colored, hung one on the other in an East-facing window. And when the morning light hits them, they cast dozens of beautiful rainbow droplets of light on the walls and ceilings of the room. This continues for several hours, and I can make the droplets spin and dance over the room if I gently push the lowest crystal once to set the strands moving. All three crystals are highly faceted, since the more facets, the more rainbows each crystal throws off.
This is a beautiful, entertaining, inexpensive light show. Since my goal is to motivate myself to get up and moving, my crystals are in a window in my home office rather than the bedroom. I need to get on the computer and start writing, after all, not have yet another excuse to dawdle in bed enjoying colorful patterns on the walls and ceiling. But think how magical it would be for a child to wake each (sunny) morning to rainbow splashes on his or her bedroom walls and ceiling! If your child’s bedroom has East-facing windows, I’d highly recommend it.
Meanwhile, back to working on the “healthy, wealthy and wise” part of old Ben’s maxim…
‘Til next time,
Road food done right. June 15, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: car trips, healthy road food, road food
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Silence Dogood here. It’s finally summer, road trip time. And you know what that means: road food. You know what that means—the snacks and drinks you take in the car to keep yourself from starving and dehydrating between stops. It seems like an easy excuse to indulge in greasy and/or sugary treats and sodas, since hey, how many road trips do you take a year? You’re on vacation! Go for the Big Gulp, M&Ms, and BBQ potato chips!
Our friend Ben and I love our road trips, and we love our road food. But we don’t love grease and sugar hangovers, and we don’t love spoiling our appetites for “real” food.
So before we hit the road, I go grocery shopping. My secret weapons: A cooler and a recyclable grocery bag, plus a disposable trash bag. We load up the cooler with “cool-paks” (which we can refreeze in those little hotel fridges on the way). Of course, the goal is “finger food” that can be unwrapped and easily eaten in a moving car. So here’s what I get to keep us feeling spoiled (but not sick) on our trips:
* String cheese and mini Cheddar cubes or squares. There’s nothing like a couple of these neatly wrapped cheeses to fill you up and give you a protein boost on the road. We like our cheese with flavor, so super-sharp Cheddar and string cheese with jalapeno is the way to go for us. Of course, these live in the cooler between snacks.
* Pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds), nuts, and/or trailmix. More protein and mineral powerhouses, assuming you don’t get “trailmix” that’s really candy in disguise. Stick to mixes of dried fruit, nuts, and seeds, and skip anything with chocolate or yogurt coating or, God forbid, candies (sorry to hit on you again, M&Ms; I really love your almond version, but sheesh, I just can’t). Sunflower seeds would be great, too, we just prefer the nutty flavor of pepitas. If you’re counting calories, a handful of any of this stuff is plenty: It will fill you up (especially combined with a cheese stick or two).
* Crackers. I like to have my handful of pepitas or nuts with my cheese and apple slices, but OFB likes to alternate with crackers. So I make sure we have healthy versions on hand, like Rye Crisps and the new Triscuits made from brown rice and red beans. Yes, they’re good! Assuming you have cheese with them. (Otherwise, like any cracker, they’re a bit dry.)
* Apple slices. Sounds crazy, but groceries now carry containers of pre-sliced apples. I assume they’ve been treated with lemon juice or vitamin C or citric acid so they don’t brown, but they don’t. I’d never buy these at home, but for a road trip, I go for them. Juicy apple slices are perfect with cheese, nuts, and/or crackers. Yum! Obviously, these live in the cooler, too.
* Popcorn. I used to get the Smartfood popcorn with white Cheddar, and yes, it is really, really good. But now there’s a patriotic brand with three versions, featuring George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and (er, I forget the third). This popcorn is low-cal, super-good, and hey, as passionate fans of Colonial and Federal history, how could we resist? We tend to favor the version featuring our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, but George’s popcorn is really good, too.
* Veggie chips. These dried veggie crisps can range from Terra Chips’ excellent assortment of potato-chip-like slices to whole crispy, dehydrated green beans and okra. The key here is to make sure they’re adequately salted. See below.
* Salt and pepper. Travel-sized salt and pepper can be a lifesaver when dealing with road food. At home, we use high-end stuff like fresh-cracked pepper, Himalayan salt, Real Salt, and Trocomare, but on the road, I carry the simple picnic salt and pepper set available for 99 cents at any grocery. It can make all the difference between blah and yum.
* Ready-to-eat veggies. Broccoli florets, baby carrots, red, yellow and orange bell pepper strips, celery sticks, even bagged Romaine: Fresh veggies are the antidote to road bloat. I pack plenty in the cooler, and tend to eat them plain, but OFB prefers…
* Hummus. That would be a carton of hummus, your favorite brand (we tend to favor ones with roasted garlic or kalamata olives). Full of protein and good-for-you ingredients, hummus is a nutritional powerhouse, and it makes you feel full while you’re snacking on crudites. Yes, you could buy whole-wheat pita and eat it with your hummus. But really, fresh veggies are so refreshing when you’ve been on the road.
* Tzatziki. If you’re not so big on hummus, this luscious Greek yogurt-garlic dip is irresistible, and mercifully is available in groceries everywhere; look for it where the hummus abides. Great probiotics, protein, great flavor: Who could ask for more?! When I’m dining in a Greek restaurant, I like my tzatziki served with hot, buttery Greek pita, but on the road, it’s very refreshing and nourishing with your choice of veggies or greens. (Try dipping Romaine leaves in tzatziki, yum!!!) Obviously, hummus and tzatziki need to live in your cooler between snacks.
Oops, I’m forgetting the drinks. And trust me, I’m always thirsty. OFB’s a good guy when it comes to drinks: bottled water works just fine for him. Not so for me, I hate water (it’s tasteless). So I have to run around looking for unsweetened black or green tea with lemon before every trip. Ever try to find unsweetened tea in convenient holder-sized bottles in a grocery or convenience store? Good luck with that. Fortunately, it is possible in some health-food stores. It’s certainly not fun to pay the price, but at least you’re not dealing with sugar or artificial sweetener poisoning.
Finally, there are the extras: napkins, straws, and Kleenex. We’d never leave on a road trip without them. Yes, they’re disposables, but that’s why we always carry those disposable trash bags.
So, what do YOU eat on road trips?
‘Til next time,
The art of the blog. June 6, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, infamous scribblers, James Callender, Jules Witcover, news, reporting, Thomas Jefferson, William F. Buckley
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Our friend Ben read an op-ed piece yesterday by Jules Witcover in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, titled “Journalism’s golden age is far behind us.” (Check it out in its entirety at http://www.themorningcall.com.)
Mr. Witcover’s point is that, nowadays, anybody can set themselves up as an instant expert, whether they know what they’re talking about or not, and air their views online, in print, or on the air. He also points out that in the past, reporters were supposed to at least try to be impartial and unbiased, to the extent that it’s possible for anyone to set aside his or her own beliefs. But now they blatantly shill for their own political parties and stands, and some of them are even professional campaign managers.
Admittedly, long before Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, there was William F. Buckley. But unlike today’s hate-mongers, Buckley didn’t pursue an agenda of hate. He was brilliant and well-educated, and he knew whereof he spoke. He didn’t claim to be always right; rather, he simply offered to pit his mind and morals against those who held different views, and let the audience decide. My passionately Democratic mother adored the conservative Mr. Buckley and enjoyed watching his iconic show.
But I digress. As a blogger, what captured my attention was Mr. Witcover’s description of blogging: “With the advent of the Internet, the art of the blog has flourished. A blogger has an unlicensed license to offer all manner of views, speculations, rumors or just plain fantasies to a receptive audience, with or without forethought.”
This is, of course, true. But it has always been true in America, where free speech is a right, even if “free” isn’t “true.” Back in the day, George Washington was so incensed by the libelous, scandalous reporting of such newspaper journalists as James Callender that he referred to them as “infamous scribblers.” Many were no better than today’s paparazzi, chasing down scandals to titillate their readers: Alexander Hamilton’s adulterous affair, Thomas Jefferson’s long-standing relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.
Even Ben Franklin, our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, didn’t bat an eye at making up humorous or salacious “news” to spice up his paper. Mind you, Ben didn’t libel real people; his were all fictitious, and often served up a lesson in common sense along with their misdeeds.
Which brings me back to Mr. Witcover and his despair over the state of today’s “reporting,” be it in blogs, on Twitter, or in so-called news panels populated by political hacks. Ultimately, as was the case back in President Washington’s day, it is up to us to be informed readers, viewers, and listeners. It is up to us to filter out what is true from what is biased reporting, reporting that favors an agenda over the truth. It is up to us to understand when a report presents a partial truth, because the whole truth isn’t known or a study is premature or flawed. We are ultimately responsible for what we believe, and why.
We’re also responsible for what we read, see, and hear, and why. If we’re addicted to Stephen Colbert or The Pioneer Woman or Dr. Phil, that doesn’t mean we’re watching them to learn more about life. There’s a difference between entertainment and information. Let’s bear it in mind.
Lovely lentil salad. June 4, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, recipes.
Tags: America's Test Kitchen, lentil recipes, lentil salads, lentils
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Silence Dogood here. Let me say upfront that I love hot lentil dishes, and every color of lentils from green through brown, yellow, orange (“red”), and black. Give me a spicy Indian dal and rice, hearty lentil stew and cornbread, or vegetarian moussaka with Greek-spiced lentils instead of ground beef, and I’m ecstatic. Spicy lentils and feta in phyllo rolls? Oh, yum. What a take on egg or spring rolls!
But I admit that I’d never heard of cold cooked lentils until I discovered a wonderful winter salad at a local restaurant, Cafe Santosha, a couple of years ago. The salad featured a bed of mixed greens topped with cooked and cooled beluga lentils (small black lentils named for their resemblance to caviar), beets, crumbled feta cheese, walnuts, and pickled sliced red onion. It was dressed with a simple vinaigrette. And it was totally addictive!
Still, for whatever reason, it never occurred to me to try my hand at making a lentil salad myself. Maybe it was just because Cafe Santosha was ten minutes from my house; maybe it was because I didn’t think our friend Ben (a notorious beet-hater) would like it.
Whatever the case, an e-mail from America’s Test Kitchen the other day changed my mind. It featured a recipe for a lentil salad with kalamata olives, fresh mint, and feta cheese. The recipe was easy to make and disclosed the Test Kitchen’s solution for making sure that the lentils were cooked through but still held their shape. This is critical for a cold lentil salad (as opposed to dal or lentil stew or a lentil soup), but it’s super-hard to achieve if you boil the lentils on the stove, even for a short time. Your goal for a lentil salad is firm, plump, but tender lentils.
The Test Kitchen recommended a two-step process. It suggested first brining 1 cup of dried green French lentils (picked over and rinsed) in 4 cups warm (110 degrees F.) water with 1 teaspoon salt for an hour. Next, it told you to drain the lentils and add them, with 2 cups water, 2 cups chicken broth, 5 smashed and peeled garlic cloves, 1 bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to an oven-proof dish. You then put the covered dish on the middle rack of your 325-degree F. oven and bake for 40 to 60 minutes, until the lentils are tender but still remain intact.
Unfortunately, the directions didn’t say whether you were supposed to serve the lentils hot, at room temperature, or chilled. They just said to drain the lentils well after cooking and discard the garlic and bay leaf, then add 1 large minced shallot, 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted kalamata olives, and 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, stirring well to blend. Pour over the lentil mixture 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil whisked with 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, mixing well to coat, then sprinkle over 1/4 cup (1 ounce) crumbled feta cheese.
Er. I’m a vegetarian, so I knew that I’d have to substitute veggie broth for the chicken broth. And while I was at it, I thought I might try a few other switch-ups as well. As usual, I couldn’t find my bay leaves (darn it, I know they’re around here somewhere), but I’ve found that basil and mint pair really well in salads, so I used basil instead.
I happened to have fresh mint leaves on hand because a stand at our local Kutztown farmers’ market sells them and watercress (yum). And wonder of wonders, I had two large organic shallots in my allium bowl (which is always brimful with sweet onions, “red” salad onions, garlic, and the like; here at Hawk’s Haven, onions are us). I decided to add chopped scallions (green onions) as well to punch up the onion flavor. And I’d gotten a Greek olive “salad” (mixed pitted green and kalamata olives with some red bell pepper in vinaigrette) at the farmers’ market as well, so I decided to use that instead of straight kalamata olives.
Of course, I’d only begun to mess with the recipe. I had a container of cubed feta on hand, and hey, there’s no such thing as too much feta, right? So rather than crumbling on a measly ounce, I figured I’d use it all. And rather than white wine vinegar, I decided fresh lemon juice would hit the spot (though any one of my citrus-infused white balsamic vinegars would have been perfect, too, I just thought I’d go for the basics this time).
No thanks to OFB, I forced myself to leave beets out of the equation. But I couldn’t resist serving up this lentil treat on a bed of fresh mixed greens (courtesy of a local Mennonite farm stand). I decided to serve the lentils at room temperature, and to add luscious yellow cherry tomatoes for added color and flavor. If I’d chosen to serve the lentil mix hot, I’d have paired it with basmati rice and served the greens, tomatoes, and etc. as a side salad.
While we’re talking about this recipe, let’s not forget the wise words of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, whose maxims inspired us to create Poor Richard’s Almanac. “Waste not, want not” came to mind as I read the America’s Test Kitchen instructions to toss the garlic, bay leaf, and broth after baking the lentils. Why?! Here you’ve made a perfectly delicious base for lentil soup.
Instead of tossing my soup stock, I saved some of the cooked lentils and added them back into the broth, retaining the smashed garlic cloves. I’ll make OFB and me a delicious soup by adding diced tomatoes, chopped baby ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes, a diced sweet onion, and sliced carrots. It will make a great supper with hot-from-the-oven cornbread and a big, crunchy salad topped with hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and pepitas (roasted sunflower seeds). Or instead of cornbread, I might broil some slices of black bread with caramelized onion and shredded Gruyere cheese… hmmmm… yum!!!
‘Til next time,
Think he’ll friend me back? May 13, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Benjamin Franklin, blog humor, Colonial history, George Washington, Martha Washington, Mount Vernon
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood went to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, yesterday. It was the first time I’d been back since I was a child.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the architecture, the majestic setting, the fact that it was the home of our first and greatest President, or even that it was the seat of my own relative Martha Dandridge (Custis Washington), that impressed the youthful Ben. Yes, I loved Colonial history and architecture even then. But no amount of history or achitecture could compete with the stench rising up from the (then) foully polluted Potomac River. It was basically the only memory I took away from my childhood visit to this historic site.
Mercifully, it’s been decades since the Potomac has been cleaned up. Now joggers, cyclists, walkers, and picnicers enjoy trails along its banks, often with their families and dogs. Not a whiff of foulness and rot rises from the river. Instead, the whirr of power boats, the honk of towboats, and the majestic sight of yachts and cruise ships brings your attention to the great expanse of water that, legend has it, as a young man George Washington hurled a silver dollar across to show his strength.
Looking across what seems like miles of water, this story seems as much a legend as Washington cutting down the cherry tree as a child. (“I cannot tell a lie.”) Yet it was supposedly witnessed. And certainly the young, athletic, 6’4″ Washington (he had shrunk to “just” 6’2″ in his 60s) prided himself on his prodigious strength.
If you think this feat unlikely, consider that the young athlete Benjamin Franklin regularly swam across the mighty Delaware River in Philadelphia for exercise, something few Olympic swimmers would consider doing today (and not one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted).
History affirms Ben’s wholesome swims, quite a slap in the face to the picture of the portly elder statesman. And Ben in his youth was not only a vegetarian but a teetotaler, denouncing the consumption of alcohol and advocating drinking water instead, a radical (and probably misguided) idea in an era when raw sewage was dumped in the streets and polluted the wells, rivers, and other water sources.
The general populace may have been ignorant as to why, but they were right that drinking water could kill you. No wonder they drank massive quantities of alcohol—beer, small beer, hard cider, grog, ale, wine, fortified wine like Port and Madeira, sparkling wine, wine punches, rum, gin, and so on—from morning to night. God forbid that you should drink a drop of that sickening, polluted water!
But I digress. As a Colonial history buff, I was probably a bit more aware of George Washington the man than many visitors to Mount Vernon the day Silence and I came. I knew how tall he was, and that only that other great Founding Father, Gouverneur Morris, was as tall; I knew he had numerous sets of false teeth made, but they were made of ivory and human teeth, not wood. I knew he was a great gardener, farmer, and botanist, as well as a statesman, and I was aware not just of his keen interest in agriculture but of all the innovations he implemented on the Mount Vernon estate.
I knew he had the foresight to abandon growing tobacco, a nutrient-greedy and labor-intensive crop, on his land and turn it to more sustainable crops two hundred years before the idea caught hold with other American farmers. And I knew that he freed his slaves on his death, something Ben Franklin had done well before his death, but that Thomas Jefferson never did, his will requiring them to all be sold off to settle his massive debts, along with his home Monticello and all its furnishings, leaving his heirs with nothing. Washington by contrast not only left his widow and heirs well provided for, but also provided funds for the education and fortune of his freed slaves.
What I didn’t know, and what the tour of Mount Vernon told me, was that the house at Mount Vernon was made of wood, and that George Washington had had the planks planed, varnished, painted, and then covered with sand so that they resembled set stone. He also had the roofing shaped from wood to resemble Italian ceramic tiles, and painted red to match them. I can’t imagine the upkeep this would have required, but as trompe d’oeil (fool the eye), it was brilliant.
But there was something else I didn’t know, and it came as quite a shock. I knew that George Washington’s inherent courtesy caused his death. On a cold December day, he’d gone riding as usual over the lands of Mount Vernon to see how the plantation was faring. Rain, sleet and snow drenched his garments and soaked him to the skin. But Washington, who never regarded the weather or his own typically robust health, never thought to turn back. After a long day in this bitter weather, he returned to Mount Vernon.
Upon arriving home, Washington saw that his guests had already assembled for dinner. As punctilious a host as he was a commander, he refused to consider detaining them by changing into dry clothing. So he sat there, chilled to the bone, in wet, frigid clothes, for hours, entertaining his guests. By the next morning, he felt that he’d caught a chill. But colds and the like meant nothing to a man who’d never been sick and had emerged unscathed from barrages of bullets that had riddled his uniform and killed the horses he was riding. What was a little cold compared to that?!
Unfortunately, today’s doctors think that he caught a rare but horrendous bacterial throat infection. I’d always assumed it must have been a high fever that killed him so quickly in his prime, but the evidence says otherwise. Apparently a bacterial infection of the epiglottis caused the first President’s throat to swell shut and killed him by suffocation. (Contemporary accounts of doctors and slaves attempting to give him liquids and his being unable to swallow them tend to bear this diagnosis out.)
This would have been a horrific way to die, but comparatively quick, given the so-called medical treatments of most of the doctors of the day. (And of course they did bleed George Washington four times between the onset of his illness and his death, weakening him further. No doubt it was only his robust constitution that allowed him to hold on through the bleedings rather than dying like most people who were bled.)
But the real sorrow was that the account pointed out that, had antibiotics been known in Washington’s time, he could have been quickly cured and might have lived at least 20 years longer, like his contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The Father of Our Country died too soon, and pointlessly.
But there was something else our friend Ben didn’t know about Mount Vernon: That it was and remains the graveyard of George and Martha Washington and generations of other Washingtons. You can visit the crypt and pay your respects to the Washingtons. I had no idea. Thank goodness the site was preserved and not turned into townhouses or an industrial complex! Good grief. To think that a tour of Mount Vernon also includes a visit to George Washington’s actual grave! Yow. You can look into the crypt and see two plain marble sarcophogi. One bears the seal of office, carved into the marble, and says simply: “Washington.” The other is completely plain. It says: “Martha: Wife of Washington.”
Clearly, for a generation for whom George Washington was peerless, that was enough.
I’d love to end this post here, but I have to add one poignant and one humorous comment picked up during our trip. First, when I asked the hotel clerk, a pleasant, competent young man, how to get to Mount Vernon from our hotel in nearby Falls Church, VA (for those who think Washington and environs are somehow offshore, they’re actually in Virginia, George Washington’s home state), he seemed a bit bemused. As with all check-in desk clerks, he was very used to recommending restaurants and directing travelers. But this time, he was stumped. “Ah, ahem, is that a city in Maryland?”
Well, no. It happens to be the home of the Father of our Country. But of course, who wants to be rude? I thanked the desk clerk and turned to our maps.
Now for the humorous part. When Silence and I were lining up for our tour of the mansion, we overheard a woman saying to her son, “They want me to friend George Washington on Facebook. Do you think he’ll friend me back?” Oh, oh, oh. Classic! But if George were here, I wonder…
Words of wisdom. May 9, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: aphorisms, Ben Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, Charles H. Spurgeon, wit and wisdom
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Apparently, our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, had a 19th-century imitator. But this man, a British Baptist minister, didn’t simply crib Ben’s sayings, as our friend Ben discovered this morning while reading a piece from The Week called “15 less-than-inspirational quotes from a book of moral advice” (read them all on TheWeek.com).
I was intrigued by the title of the article and assumed it would be poking fun at some outdated moralist’s misguided ideas. Instead, the Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon had a wealth of commonsense wisdom of his own to impart, in Dr. Franklin’s famous homespun style. Here are my favorites:
“Eggs are aggs, but some are rotten; and so hopes are hopes, but many of them are delusions.”
“Expect to get half of what you earn, a quarter of what is your due, and none of what you have lent, and you will be near the mark.”
“Make as few changes as you can; trees often transplanted bear little fruit.”
“It is far better to work with an old-fashioned spade that suits your hand than with a new-fangled invention that you don’t understand.” [Yeah! Go, Luddites, go!!!]
“It is true you must bake with the flour you have, but if the sack is empty it might be just as well not to set up for a baker.”
“Every minnow wants to be a whale, but it is prudent to be a little fish while you have but little water.”
Wow. I think Ben Franklin would agree.