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The art of the blog. June 6, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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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.

America’s founding foodies. November 19, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. All of us at Poor Richard’s Almanac are fans of America’s Founding Fathers, especially our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. So I was thrilled to find a book on a recent shopping expedition that combined my love of the Founders with my love of cooking. It’s Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee (Thomas J. Craughwell, Quirk Books, Philadelphia, 2012, $19.95). The subtitle says it all: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.

Jefferson is revered by many as the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and viewed by many as the most intellectual of the Founders. (We think they’ve somehow forgotten Dr. Franklin.) He’s seen by others as the Founding Hypocrite, the man who preached liberty for all while holding (and selling) slaves. He is widely believed to have fathered six children on his slave, his wife’s half-sister Sally Hemings (a claim hotly disputed by his legitimate descendants), yet he freed neither Sally nor her children. He was so addicted to personal luxury that at his death, his descendents had to sell Monticello to settle his debts.

This is hardly the profile of a man who lived by principle. And yet it is Jefferson, his Louisiana Purchase, his Lewis and Clark Expedition, who made America the great nation it became. (Credit also goes to Jefferson’s old political rival, Alexander Hamilton, who envisioned the strong central government that forged the United States rather than a federation of individual states.)

James Hemings, another of Martha Jefferson’s half-siblings, was Sally Hemings’s older brother. Thomas Jefferson thought all the Hemings family were unusually talented, and when he was appointed ambassador to France, he took James Hemings with him. He made a most unusual deal with James: If James learned to cook French cuisine and taught the skill to another Monticello slave, Jefferson would grant him his freedom. It was a promise that Jefferson, if belatedly and reluctantly, kept: James was the only slave he ever freed.

In France, James Hemings learned fluent French and apprenticed with France’s finest chefs. He was chef de cuisine at Jefferson’s mansion in Paris and later at his home in New York (then the capital of the U.S.) when Jefferson became Secretary of State. He taught his brother Peter Hemings the art of French cooking, and after gaining his freedom, cooked professionally in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

James’s story, and his role in bringing French cuisine to America, is given as much play in Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee as the author could give them, drawing on every surviving account to sketch a portrait of the man and his times. The book is obviously also about Thomas Jefferson’s years in France and his lifelong love affair with French food and wine. (One of the most interesting passages is about Jefferson’s tour through France and northern Italy, seeking out and spending time with the great wine producers and wine merchants, and learning everything he could about wine.)

But ultimately, Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee is about French cooking during the reign of the ill-fated Louis XVI, the 32-course dinners, the delicate fare. (A specialty of the time was disguising dishes so they looked like something else, creating an apparently delightful surprise for diners when they cut into a peacock and discovered it was actually a rabbit or fish.) The author’s discussion of the presentation of food (by the time it was ceremoniously paraded to the upper-class table, it was invariably cold) and table manners (forks weren’t adopted by most Americans until the mid-1800s) is the real heart and hook of the book.

If you’re thinking of cooking a la Jefferson, you won’t find much to go on here. You’ll discover the dishes Jefferson and James Hemings introduced to America, such as French fries (known simply as fried potatoes, pommes de terre frites, in France), macaroni and cheese, creme brulee, and a recipe for making coffee. But to find usable recipes, you’ll need to refer to Marie Kimball’s Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book (1938, reprinted Garrett and Massie, Richmond, VA 2004). 

When we think of French food today, we don’t tend to picture mac’n’cheese, French fries, and coffee. Rather than picturing McDonald’s fries, Cracker Barrel’s mac’n’cheese, and Starbucks’ or Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee, we’ll at least imagine Julia Child and her boeuf bourguinon, famous Michelin-starred French restaurants or their American cousins like The French Laundry and Le Bernardin, baguettes and croissants, or luscious French cheeses like Roquefort, Camembert and Brie.

But clearly, while potatoes may have originated in the Americas, those pommes frites dished up by the ton at Mickey D’s, and their trans-Atlantic cousins of fish and chips fame, originated in pre-revolutionary France and were served to royalty at Versailles.

Strange but true: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were responsible for popularizing potatoes in France. They not only ate potatoes, they wore potato flowers in their lapels and hair, creating a rage for all things potato. Fried potatoes really were French fries. If Marie Antoinette had said “Let them eat potatoes” rather than “Let them eat brioche” (an expensive, “refined” bread; she didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake”), perhaps the French revolution would have been averted.

But I digress. If you love food history or early American history, you’ll enjoy a romp through Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee. And if you’d like to see at least one Hemings get his due, this book is a great place to start.

             ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

Wine: The cure for everything?! November 12, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben can’t claim to compete with the likes of Founding Gourmet Thomas Jefferson (see Silence Dogood’s post tomorrow for more on that) when it comes to wine appreciation (or consumption, for that matter). But a glass of a good (or at least drinkable) red never goes amiss. And recently, claims of red wine’s being heart-healthy make it possible to at least attempt to outface self-righteous teetotalers (at least, as long as they haven’t read—correctly—that red and purple grapes and grape juice are just as beneficial, if not nearly as much fun).

As a red wine drinker (“appreciator” and “enthusiast” are a bit too elevated for my relatively untutored palate), I was at least hoping that some part of the health claims might be valid. But I was unprepared for an article I found in the September 2012 issue of a magazine called Departures (www.departures.com) by Colman Andrews, “I’ll Drink to That!” The article, which pointed out that everyone from the Apostle Paul and Hippocrates to today’s preeminent researchers recommended drinking wine for its health benefits, went on (after recapping the work of various medical specialists) to make the following claim:

“Moderate drinking—variously defined as from one to three drinks a day—may measurably reduce the risk of ischemic stroke, thyroid and kidney cancer, lymphoma [both Hodgkins’ and non-Hodgkins’], osteoporosis, arthritis, peripheral artery disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia and the common cold.”

In other words, it’s good for what ails you. Various researchers and medics through the ages have also claimed that it could be used as an antiseptic, an anti-anxiety medication, a cure for urinary tract infections, eye disease, stomach upset, and fever, and a surefire way to boost weight loss and longevity. (I had actually read a separate news story not long before that noted that, with the exception of Seventh-Day Adventists, all groups with notable longevity consumed between 4 and 5 glasses of red wine a day. But this surely isn’t true of two notably long-lived populations, the Japanese and the Hunza, so our friend Ben took the article with a glass of wine, I mean, grain of salt.)

Modern science has isolated at least two components of red wine that might boost its healthful properties, phenols (antioxidant compounds) and the much-touted resveratrol, the longevity booster. But as Mr. Andrews points out, research has also found that you’d have to drink 150-200 bottles of red wine a day to consume a measurable amount of resveratrol, by which time you’d have long since died of other causes, as rock history makes abundantly clear. But at least one enterprising vintner is now fortifying his wines with additional resveratrol, so there’s hope. And studies have shown that drinking wine increases “good” (HDL) cholesterol while reducing blood clotting.

Whatever the case may be for medical claims, there’s no question that a glass or two of wine with dinner promotes congeniality, stress reduction, and relaxation. (As our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, was known to remark, “Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” a comment the equal-opportunity Dr. Franklin was also known to say about beer.) That’s good enough for our friend Ben. Bottoms up!

Good news for history-loving gardeners. March 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a real treat for gardeners who also happen to be fans of Early American history, such as yours truly, our friend Ben, and Silence Dogood. A new book, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Andrea Wulf, Knopf, $30) was released just today, March 29. I was happy to see that Amazon already has it in stock, and you can buy it there for $17.64 (with free shipping, if you add a second item to your order to bring it to at least $25). It’s also available on the Barnes & Noble website (www.barnesandnoble.com).

This is far from the first book about America’s Founders and their passion for agriculture and gardening, as we’ll soon see. But Ms. Wulf, a British garden design historian, has done us all a service by bringing all the “Founding Gardeners”—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, even our own hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin—together in a single volume. And she adds a new spin by focusing on how their travels abroad and exchanges with fellow plant-lovers across Europe enriched their own views of America’s gardening and agricultural potential. (Of the Founders, only the frail, sickly Madison never traveled abroad; Washington didn’t get as far as Europe, but did venture off to Jamaica with his brother Lawrence as a young man.)

We think of today’s internet access, services like Skype, and the Global economy as making today’s world a lot smaller and more accessible than the world of the Founders. But in some ways, this is a fallacy. In their day, everyone who was anyone knew everyone, or at least everyone who shared their interests and passions. True, it may have taken longer to get a letter or package, or to get from place to place. But if you were a well-connected plant enthusiast, you’d be in constant correspondence with everyone from John Bartram, America’s first nurseryman, to the great botanists, plant explorers, nurserymen, and garden enthusiasts across Europe, exchanging plants, seeds, techniques, successes and failures, plant gossip, and, of course, the latest styles.

Let’s say you’d barely made it through elementary school when your father, who’d planned to send you to college but was furious at your refusal to become a minister, instead forces you to go to work as a gopher at the local newspaper. Fed up, at 17 you move to a distant state and end up running a paper of your own, along with creating a number of useful societies and institutions and displaying a passion for experiment and invention that causes you to create a lifesaving device used by everyone, which you decline to patent or trademark and allow to pass into the public domain, profiting not a cent or a sou from your work.

Now, imagine that, your eighth-grade education and lack of social standing—not to mention your irregular domestic situation and acknowledged illegitimate child—notwithstanding, you regularly corresponded with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, President Obama, the Dalai Lama, and pretty much every major figure in science, medicine, technology, literature, music, and philosophy around the world. Possible? Maybe. Likely? Not very. Yet that was Benjamin Franklin, and his contemporaries also had access to the global network of fellow enthusiasts, generalists, and specialists.

I can’t quite see myself—or, say, our friend Ben, with his advanced education, eager mind, and broad-ranging interests—engaging the attention of a Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, or Ekhart Tolle to discuss ideas. Despite our “small world,” there are simply too many of us, and specialization is the order of our day, preventing those who are interested in everything (or even many things) from even finding each other. In today’s world, generalists like Dr. Franklin who were good at many things would be ridiculed rather than revered like folks who kept their interests confined not merely to, say, medicine, but to the most specialized forms of same, such as bariatric surgery.

But I’m straying from the point here. Fortunately, back in the Founders’ day, it was viewed as perfectly reasonable to be, say, a surveyor, soldier, Freemason, landowner, politician, avid plantsman and agricultural innovator, and Father of Our Country, like our first and greatest President, George Washington. Nobody thought it peculiar that someone with Ben Franklin’s stature would take the time to introduce plants like rhubarb to America while off on diplomatic missions.

Anyway, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have added Founding Gardeners to our must-have lists. If you’re a gardener who’s also a follower of the Founders, we suggest that you do likewise, or that you suggest that your local library purchase a copy for its collection.  But let’s get back to the other books on the topic. A quick scan of our collective libraries produced some other books you might be interested in checking out*:

Early American Gardens “For Meate or Medicine” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970, $10)

American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century “For Use or For Delight” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976, $17.50)

Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books (Robert C. Baron, ed., Fulcrum, 1987, $20)

Everyday Life in Early America (David Freeman Hawke, Harper & Rowe, 1989, $9.95)

Colonial Gardens (Rudy F. Favretti and Gordon P. DeWolf, Barre Publishers, 1972, no price)

For Every House a Garden: A guide for reproducing period gardens (Rudy and Joy Favretti, The Pequot Press, 1977, $4.95)

Eighteenth Century Life: British and American Gardens (Robert P. Maccubbin and Peter Martin, eds., Special Issue, College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Volume VIII, n.s., 2, January 1983, $10)

Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America (Colonial Dames of America, Dover Publications Inc., 1995, $3.95)

Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America (James L Reveal, Starwood Publishing, Inc., 1992, no price)

The Art of Colonial Flower Arranging (Jean C. Clark, The Pyne Press, 1974, $8.95)

Farmer George Plants a Nation (Peggy Thomas, Calkins Creek, 2008, $17.95, a wonderful children’s book about, who else, George Washington)

We know we have others, too, but—how embarrassing!—all of us have so many books, we’re just not putting our hands on them right now.

Here are other books I found on Amazon that we need to add to our collections*:

Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man (Mac Griswold, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999, $40)

Colonial Gardens: The Landscape Architecture of George Washington’s Time (American Society of Landscape Architects, United States Bicentennial Commission, 1932, from $52)

Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Gardens at Monticello (Peter J. Hatch, Edwin Morris Betts, and Hazelhurst Bolton Perkins, University of Virginia Press, 3rd ed., 1971, $12.95)

Jefferson’s Garden (Peter Loewer, Stackpole Books, 2004, $21.95)

Thomas Jefferson: Landscape Architect (Frederick Doveton Nichols and Frank E. Griswold, Univeristy of Virginia Press, 2003, $14.95)

Plants of Colonial Days (Raymond L. Taylor, Dover Publications Inc., 2nd. ed., 1996, $5.95) 

Flowers and Herbs of Early America (Lawrence D. Griffith, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Yale University Press, 2010, $24)

Plants of Colonial Williamsburg: How to Identify 200 of Colonial America’s Flowers, Herbs, and Trees (Joan Parry Dutton, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1979, $12.95)

The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1995, $29.95)

Williamsburg’s Glorious Gardens (Roger Foley, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1996, $19,95)

From a Colonial Garden: Ideas, Decorations, Recipes (Susan Hight Rountree, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2004, $19.95)

Whew, that’s quite a wish list. And we’re sure we’re still missing plenty! Please let us know if you have favorite books on Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federal gardening in our Colonies/States that I’ve overlooked!

                 Warmly,

                             Richard Saunders

* Note that prices are list prices, not Amazon prices, typically considerably lower, unless noted.

James Madison’s favorite food. January 18, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben, our friend and fellow Poor Richard’s Almanac contributor Richard Saunders, his girlfriend Bridget and I were having supper last night, and for whatever reason—blame it on Ben Franklin’s birthday—the conversation turned to the Founders and their favorite foods.

You may know that Thomas Jefferson’s favorite food was macaroni, which he first encountered in France. But what about the other Founding Fathers, and most especially James Madison, America’s puniest President?

Madison’s brain was unquestionably the biggest thing about him. Standing 5’2″ (some have claimed he was 5’4″ or even 5’6″, but as his biographers have noted, these folks tended to elevate his height based on how much they admired him) and weighing less than 100 pounds, Madison was also physically weak and prematurely shriveled. It probably shocked early American society when he married the lovely, vivacious widow, Dolley Payne Todd, who became legendary for her lavish style of entertaining, setting the standard for all subsequent First Ladies.

Despite Dolley’s famous cakes, cookies, and other treats, which she prepared herself, we all doubt that she could tempt James to eat much more than a few spoonfuls of gruel or broth. When the Madisons entertained, Dolley sat at the head of the table and carved and served the food so James could avoid attracting attention to his meager appetite. (His sparing eating and drinking habits served him well, though, since despite chronic weakness and ill health, he lived to be 85, the last of the Founders to die.) But, we all wondered, was there anything he actually liked to eat? Or did he spurn Dolley’s renowned French-Virginian cuisine and eat solely to sustain life?

Heading to my good friend Google, I found to my astonishment that there actually was something James Madison loved to eat: ice cream. Ice cream?! His wife Dolley apparently created a rage for ice cream in America, and she had three favorite flavors, apricot, pink peppermint, and strawberry. I’ll admit I’ve never encountered apricot ice cream—though I’m sure it would be delicious—but peppermint and strawberry remain popular favorites to this day. Needless to say, it’s easy to see why ice cream became the rage in the hot, steamy, unairconditioned summers of Washington, D.C. and the Madisons’ native Virginia.

However, there’s another view of President Madison’s favorite foods. According to “The Food Timeline: Presidents’ Food Favorites,” “It is quite possible Mr. Madison’s favorite meal consisted of Virginia ham, buttery rolls, apple pie, and cider.” We observe that they left out a Dolley Madison specialty, coleslaw, which is also a favorite of ours, but perhaps the cabbage was too much for James Madison’s delicate stomach.

Wondering about Washington? The Father of Our Country apparently enjoyed fish, nuts, fruits (including cherries), mutton, and Madeira, a fortified wine like port or sherry. His tastes were simple and his appetite hearty, though he tended to leave the desserts and fancy dishes to his guests. (Check out your favorite Presidents’ preferred dishes at http://www.foodtimeline.org/presidents.)

And what about Ben himself? As you might expect, Dr. Franklin enjoyed a wide variety of fare, including baked apples, rice, and such native American foods as turkey, corn, potatoes, and cranberries. He enjoyed honey and maple syrup, had a yen for pickles, and was especially fond of Parmesan cheese. He also introduced tofu (tofu!!!), rhubarb, and kale to America. And he wasn’t averse to a punch made from rum, sugar, and fruit, as well as being known for a fondness for beer and wine. (After all, he was the guy who said “Beer [or Wine] is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”)

Frankly, we’d have loved to be guests at the Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison family tables. It all sounds good to us!

             ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

No! No!!! It was Ben, not Tom. August 19, 2010

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Egads. Someone came on our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, last night with the search phrase “Thomas Jefferson published Poor Richard’s Almanac.” No no no no no.

Far be it from us to disparage Mr. Jefferson, whose thoughts, inventions and achievements have inspired so many. But excuuuse us: It was our own hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, who published Poor Richard’s Almanack, not President Jefferson. And we can further state that Dr. Franklin’s almanac was the second most popular publication in the Colonies, after the Bible. Many Colonial families only owned two books, Poor Richard’s and the Good Book.

So please, dear reader, don’t deny Mr. Jefferson his due. But please don’t appropriate the achievements of the good Doctor and paste them onto Tom. Poor Richard’s Almanack was a Ben Franklin original, as Ben Franklin himself was the greatest American original.

Long may he wave.

The big cheese. August 1, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. While doing a bit of research for a post I was writing for the SmartKitchen.com blog (I’ll let you know when it’s up for viewing), I came upon the most amazing story. And then I came on something I found even more amazing, and not in a good way. Both discoveries had to do with cheese—a lot of cheese.

I found the first tidbit while trying to find out if cheese was made at Monticello during Thomas Jefferson’s life, and what kinds of cheese he ate. In the midst of my researches, I came upon the strange case of the Mammoth cheese. The Mammoth cheese was a 4’4″-wide wheel of cheese, weighing 1,230 pounds, that was made for Jefferson by a Baptist congregation in Cheshire, Massachsetts and presented to him in Washington in appreciation of his staunch defense of Republicanism (as those who nowadays would be called Democrats were, ironically, then called Republicans).

Now, if today’s Democrats were Jefferson’s Republicans, then who were the Republican equivalents of the day? They were the Federalists. And party fighting was even fiercer at that time than it is today, with such scurrilous and appalling muck being bandied about and printed in the press that no less a figure than George Washington referred to the journalists of the day as “infamous scribblers.”

President Jefferson’s love of luxury, and willingness to pay exorbitant sums to import luxuries, including wine and (as it happened) cheese, from Europe to satisfy his cosmopolitan and gourmet tastes, was well known. And much ridculed by his Federalist opponents. So you can imagine the field day they had with the arrival of the giant cheese. One Federalist mockingly referred to it as a Mammoth cheese, after the fossil behemoth recently described by America’s foremost naturalist, Charles Willson Peale, and the name stuck in the popular imagination: Jefferson himself called it the Mammoth cheese.

Imagine making and transporting such a cheese in 1801, in a world with no factories, no refrigeration, and no motorized transport, from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. (Fortunately, the cheese, which was made in August, wasn’t transported to hot, swampy Washington until December.) The cheese was formed in a 6-foot-wide wooden cider press, a clever solution, since the whey could run out between the slats of the press as more weight was applied to the cheese. It was said that it took the milk from 900 cows to produce the Mammoth cheese. 

The Mammoth cheese wasn’t just a political tribute, or a political weapon. It was one of the wonders of the new Republic. People talked about it with the awe and wonder they would use to describe the elephants, lions and tigers that accompanied the Barnum and Bailey Circus a century later, the first such creatures average Americans had ever seen alive.

After reading this amazing story, I began to wonder if a larger cheese had ever been made. A brief visit with my good friend Google revealed that there was one, and only one, and the world had to wait more than 200 years for it. In May, 2007, the Beemster cheese company of the Netherlands unveiled a Gouda cheese wheel that was over 6 feet wide and weighed in at 1,323 pounds. The cheese was sent on a world tour, including a stop in, of course, New York City. It generated quite a bit of publicity and blog posts from those who went to see it on display at Grand Central Station.

But how times had changed. While the Mammoth cheese was greeted as a marvel, the comments on the Beemster cheese were dismissive: Pretty much everyone was surprised that it wasn’t bigger. Our friend Ben told me that when he went to see Stonehenge, he heard the same remark: “I thought it was bigger.” What is it about us moderns, that a six-foot cheese still isn’t big enough? That a fabulous prehistoric observatory is judged by its size? I say shame, shame on us for a bunch of jaded fools. Think how comparatively impoverished our experience of the world is when nothing impresses, amazes, delights us. We are the losers here.

In case you’re wondering, the fates of the two cheeses were as different as their reception, and this time, President Jefferson’s cheese was the loser. The Mammoth cheese, after hanging out in the President’s larder for four years while making frequent appearances at receptions and state dinners, was “retired”: Rumor has it that its remains were dumped unceremoniously into the Potomac River in 1805.

The Beemster cheese met a far more satisfactory fate: It was melted into the world’s largest fondue as a fund-raiser for charity.

I should note in closing that even the commentors who dismissed the 6-foot-wide cheese for its puny size all were in agreement that Beemster cheese—samples were offered to everyone who came to the display—was delicious. Here in the wilds of scenic PA, I’ve never seen Beemster cheese for sale. But now, I wish I could find it.

                 ‘Til next time,

                               Silence

A cookbook with a past. August 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. No, I’m not talking about Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, now at #2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and still climbing. (Go Julia!!!) Not that I’m not even more thrilled than usual to have bought a first edition at my favorite used book store, The Saucony Book Shop in scenic Kutztown, PA, a couple of years ago.

Actually, I’m talking about a wonderful discovery I made at our local library last weekend. I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I asked our friend Ben to drop me off at the library while he took our black German shepherd puppy Shiloh for a walk at the nearby Kutztown Park. Of course I went to check out the cookbook shelves, and I saw a book that was old in spirit but new to me, The Lewis & Clark Cookbook: Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discovery & Jefferson’s America, by Leslie Mansfield (Celestial Arts, 2002, $17.95 softcover).

Well, if you’re like me, you’d have assumed that a corps of discoverers crossing uncharted America in the first decade of the 1800s would have been lucky to find a piece of venison jerky or a wormy hardtack biscuit to chew on. Not the stuff from which great cookbooks are made! But as I flipped through the pages, I was delighted to see a wide range of recipes that represented some of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites (and remember, he remains to this day the most famous American gourmet of all time), and to discover that Lewis, Clark and company actually enjoyed a wide range of dishes based on native foods during their travels. (Mind you, modern health-obsessed cooks who shudder at the thought of a quarter-pounder will be appalled to hear that, on average, every man in the Lewis and Clark expedition ate 9—count them, 9—pounds of meat a day.)

Corn on the cob is still in season here in Pennsylvania, and since OFB and I both love it, I’ve been trying to cook this Native American crop as often as I can. So in the spirit of Americana and seasonality, I’m going to share the Corn Chowder recipe from The Lewis & Clark Cookbook. Sort of. Being a vegetarian, I’ve given the recipe “the Silence treatment.” To restore it to its original form, add 2 ounces salt pork, finely chopped, and reduce the butter to 1 tablespoon; replace the veggie stock with chicken stock; add 1 teaspoon sugar and omit the curry powder; replace the 1 cup diced yellow summer squash with 1 cup chopped tomatoes; and replace the cup of light cream with half-and-half. Got that?

Want to be really adventurous? If you’re making the vegetarian version, add a tablespoon or two of pumpkin puree, stirring well to blend, when you add the cream and heat through. And/or add a splash of warming apple brandy or bourbon just before serving. Yum! (Don’t try this if you’re recreating the original version, since none of these additions would taste good with the tomato. But for either version, you could also add a cup of minced mushrooms, suateeing them with the onion.)

Ready for the recipe? Here goes:

              Corn Chowder

4 ounces salted butter (1/2 stick)

1 cup finely chopped sweet onions (Vidalia, WallaWalla, 1015, or Candy type)

4 cups veggie stock (any of the boxed stocks are fine)

2 cups corn kernels, preferably cut fresh off the cob

2 cups diced potatoes

1 cup diced yellow summer squash

1 teaspoon salt

1-2 teaspoons curry powder

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup light cream

Melt the butter in a heavy Dutch oven or stock pot. Add onions, salt, curry powder, and pepper, and saute until onions clarify. Stir in the corn and potatoes, stirring briefly to coat with butter and spices, then add the veggie stock. Simmer, stirring often, until the potatoes are tender. Stir in the cream and heat through. Serves four as a meal and eight as a first course.

It’s traditional to serve some sort of crackers with chowder, be it plain old Saltines, Vermont common crackers, beaten biscuits, or table water crackers. Some might be broken into or tossed onto the chowder’s surface, others buttered and eaten alongside. I think the point of this was to add a little crunch, but it might also have been to make the soup more filling in the old hard times. Whatever the case, add or omit to suit yourself and your company.

I enthusiastically recommend The Lewis & Clark Cookbook to you, both for a fascinating glimpse into our past and for some great recipes (including Jefferson faves like Chocolate Pots de Creme, Macaroni and Cheese, Almond Blancmange with Strawberries, and—though not known by Jefferson by that name—Baked Alaska, as well as sturdier fare like Steamed Maple Pudding with Caramelized Maple Sauce, Bread and Butter Pudding with Cherries, Homemade Elk Mincemeat, Cornmeal and Blueberry Mush, Pawpaw Ice Cream, and Venison Shanks Braised with Fennel and Onions). Needless to say, I rushed home from the library, got online, and immediately ordered a copy of the book from Amazon (at discount, naturally). I suggest that, if you love history and cooking, you do the same!

           ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Why DID he call it macaroni?! October 7, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about that beloved children’s song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It all started when my girlfriend, Bridget, and I had dinner at our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s cozy country cottage, Hawk’s Haven, last night.

In typical Silence fashion, Silence has gotten so excited that it’s finally cool enough to use the oven that she can’t stop using it. We were treated to her homemade jalapeno poppers (woo-hoo!) as appetizers, baked sweet potatoes to go with the meal, apple crisp for dessert (with vanilla ice cream and loads of fresh whipped cream, just the way I like it), and a loaf of still-warm banana bread to take home. With the sweet potatoes, Silence served up one of her signature huge tossed salads, broccoli, and her famous Crock-Pot macaroni and cheese. And it was the mac’n’cheese that started us thinking about “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

There are many versions of the famous song, but the version we all grew up with is “Yankee Doodle went to town/Riding on a pony/Stuck a feather in his hat/And called it macaroni.” Bridget, with a forkful of mac’n’cheese halfway to her mouth, looked at it, then at me, and asked, “But why did he call it macaroni?! Or is it just a nonsense rhyme?”

Being a history buff, I actually knew what a Macaroni was, and what the verse was trying to do. But even I was surprised by some of the things I found out when I did a little research. But let’s start with the basics.

The song was, to say the least, not meant to be flattering to poor Yankee Doodle. Basically, it was a British creation, to the tune of the popular children’s song “Lucy Locket,” making fun of the Colonists for being buffoonlike hicks. A “doodle” was an idiot, and a Macaroni was a fop who wore such dandified, outrageously patterned clothing and towering wigs that the cartoonists of the era had a field day depicting these “tulips of fashion,” their tiny hats perched atop their skyscraping wigs like birds’ nests in the upper branches of a tree. So a “Yankee doodle” was a Colonial rube who thought he could aspire to the heights of fashion simply by sticking a feather in his hat. To make matters even worse, he went to town riding on a pony rather than a proper horse. 

What I didn’t know was that the song predated the Revolutionary War. It in fact was created to make fun of the unsophisticated Colonists who fought (on the side of the British, to add insult to injury!) in the French and Indian War. (Two of whom were George Washington, nothing if not fashionable, and Daniel Boone, who would have disdained all fashion rather than trying to “ape” or copy it.) Of course, the British later used it to mock their enemies during the Revolution, and the Colonists defiantly adopted it as a marching song for their troops, so successfully that “Yankee Doodle” is now considered an American classic.

There was something else I didn’t know: “Yankee” was a term first applied to the British themselves by the Dutch! Who’d’a thunk?!

I was in the middle of explaining all this to Bridget when Silence broke in, cutting as usual to the chase. “Never mind that, Richard! Yankee Doodle blah blah blah. What I want to know is, how did macaroni end up being called macaroni, anyway?” 

Hmmm. This turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought. A hasty visit with my good friend Wikipedia suggested that perhaps it shared a root with the Latin “macerate,” to cut or chop up, since, after all, macaroni is cut into fork-friendly lengths. (Unlike, say, spaghetti or fettucine.) But I’m not convinced.

Here’s my theory: If you look at the wig of a Macaroni, you’ll notice prominent elbow-shaped curls along the sides. The Macaroni fashion, like the pasta itself, originated in Italy, and was picked up by upscale young Brits when they traveled the Continent during what was called the Grand Tour and brought back home to astound their friends and confound their enemies. (Well, it was brought back, at any rate.) The elbow-shaped pasta of the same name also made its appearance around this time, and was embraced by trendsetting gourmets like Thomas Jefferson. (Macaroni and cheese, believe it or not, was one of his favorite dishes.) Perhaps the Italians simply named their elbow-shaped pasta after the outrageous curls on their dandies’ wigs. Makes sense to me!

If you have a better theory, please tell me. I’d love to surprise Silence with it at our next get-together!

From Monticello to Margaritaville. August 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood spent the night in Shadwell, Virginia, birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, on Saturday night as we made our way back to Pennsylvania from our beach vacation on Emerald Isle, North Carolina. So of course on Sunday we cruised on over to Monticello, the home Jefferson designed and built for himself and his family on a mountaintop just outside nearby Charlottesville.

Since we have dear friends in Charlottesville, we’re lucky enough to get to see Monticello every couple of years. But if the only place you’ve ever seen it is on the back of your nickels, we enthusiastically suggest that you make it a vacation destination. Charlottesville is a delightful city, and it’s nestled in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains, so you’ll have plenty to do besides tour famous houses. But if you happen to be a history and/or antiques and architecture buff, you can take a presidential red carpet tour and see Montpelier, home of James Madison, and Ash Lawn-Highland, home of James Monroe, as well as Monticello.

Our favorite time to visit Charlottesville is in late October, when the foliage of the Blue Ridge is aflame, but we weren’t about to pass up a trip to Monticello while we were in the neighborhood. And going in midsummer offered an advantage we couldn’t resist: a chance to see Jefferson’s vegetable garden at its peak.

As you all know if you garden yourselves, Thomas Jefferson was a passionate gardener and kept detailed garden notebooks, recording weather data and the progress and flavor of the various varieties of vegetables and fruits that he grew. His two best-loved comments are “Though an old man, I am but a young gardener” and “I cannot live without books.” Our friend Ben and Silence heartily approve. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a private, nonprofit corporation that has owned and operated Monticello since 1923, has restored the extensive vegetable garden and orchard, using the authentic varieties that Jefferson grew, and the well-maintained gardens and grounds are a joy to see. You can even buy seeds and plants and grow some of Jefferson’s favorites in your own garden. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Monticello itself is an architectural jewel. Don’t go expecting a great house—“great” as in huge or extensive—because it’s no bigger than any prosperous Colonial or Federal home, and smaller than many, including Mount Vernon and Montpelier, just to name two. It’s the design of Monticello that sets it apart from all other houses of its era, and from all other houses, period, and it’s the design that has won it the honor of being the only house in the United States that is designated a United Nations World Heritage site. (What’s the significance of that, you ask? Well, another U.N. World Heritage site is the Great Pyramids of Egypt, if that gives you any idea.) 

You’ll love seeing all the ingenious inventions that Jefferson installed in his home, like the dumbwaiters on either side of the fireplace, which conveyed wine up from his extensive wine cellar to his dining room, and the numerous skylights. If Colonial, Federal, and Revolutionary War history is your thing, you’ll love all the busts and portraits of the great figures of the day. (We especially enjoyed the bust and portrait of our hero, Ben Franklin.) There are fabulous hand-drawn maps, Native American artifacts, and American fossils in the imposing entrance hall. And of course we had to love seeing Jefferson’s library, with all the beautiful old books he admired and enjoyed.

One of our favorite parts of touring Monticello is getting to see the basement level, where the wine cellar, beer cellar, pantry, and kitchen (among many other things) are located. Jefferson, the foremost American gourmet of his day, installed a primitive stovetop in his expansive kitchen. (The “oven” was the huge open fireplace at the end of the room.) Like most stoves today, his had four burners, each of which could be individually adjusted to produce just the right degree of heat. But his burners were charcoal-fired! How ingenious.

Our friend Ben eventually succeeded in dragging Silence away from the kitchen—pausing to admire the enormous fig tree outside the kitchen door—and we spent some quality time in the vegetable garden. (Check out the view from the garden! No wonder Jefferson loved to spend time there.)

Then it was on to the gift shop. Silence bought a cookbook (shock surprise, in the immortal words of Ruby Ann Boxcar), Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, by Marie Kimball. No doubt you’ll be hearing more about that in a future post. Our friend Ben also bought a book, The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a travel guide to places of historical interest in the U.S. from Gettysburg to Monticello. I thought it might be a fun way to plan future vacations.

And, of course, we just had to have a few seed packets of Jefferson’s vegetable faves: ‘Carolina’ (or ‘Sieva’) lima bean, ‘Cow’s Horn’ okra, ‘Caseknife’ bean, ‘McMahon’s Texas Bird’ pepper, ‘Red Calico’ lima bean, ‘Anne Arundel’ muskmelon, and ‘Long Red Cayenne’ pepper, as well as sesame and nutmeg plant (black cumin). We didn’t forget our friend, fellow blog contributor, and Colonial coin enthusiast Richard Saunders, either. We found a cool packet of historical replica coins, “American Revolution Coins of 1776,” and a concise compendium of Doctor Franklin’s Wit and Wisdom from Poor Richard’s Almanack for him.

Clutching our bag of treasures, we staggered back to the car and into Charlottesville for lunch prior to hitting the long and winding road to Pennsylvania. And here’s where Margaritaville comes in. The previous night, as we returned from dinner, we had seen that Charlottesville boasts a Cheeseburger in Paradise franchise. Having never been to one and being bigtime Jimmy Buffett fans, we simply had to go and check it out.

If you ever have the opportunity and desire to eat at a Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant, our friend Ben can now tell you that there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the burgers and margaritas are good. Even Silence, a passionate vegetarian, proclaimed that her Southern BBQ veggie burger was the best she’d ever eaten.

The bad news is that there’s pretty much no trace of Jimmy Buffett beyond the restaurant’s name. We’d assumed that there’d be tons of Buffet paraphernalia decorating the restaurant and for sale to Parrotheads and other enthusiasts, that the whole menu would be Buffett-based, and that Jimmy Buffett music would be playing nonstop. Not so, my friends. The restaurant tries for a tiki bar atmosphere with laid-back “beach music,” including an occasional Buffett song, but that’s as far as it goes. If you want a Jimmy Buffett experience, you should go to one of his Margaritaville restaurants—if you’re lucky enough to be in Key West, the Caribbean, Hawai’i, or one of the other tropical locations that hosts one. Please let us know how they are.

From Monticello to Margaritaville, all in the same day. Wonder what Thomas Jefferson would have made of burgers and margaritas? We have a sneaking suspicion that our country’s First Gourmet wouldn’t have approved!

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