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Our Founding Fathers speak. March 27, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to share some wisdom from our Founding Fathers. Normally we quote our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. But the other Founders had a lot to say for themselves, too. So today we’re featuring quotes from George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Note especially the last three quotes by Madison; maybe he had a crystal ball and could see into our times.

From George Washington:

“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.”

“If freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

“It is better to be alone than in bad company.”

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

From Alexander Hamilton:

“Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.”

“A well adjusted person is one who makes the same mistake twice without getting nervous.”

“Nobody expects to trust his body overmuch after the age of fifty.”

“Man is a reasoning rather than a reasonable animal.”

From James Madison:

“Philosophy is common sense with big words.”

“It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.”

“I believe that there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”


Forget about the cherry tree. February 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame. Today, February 22, is George Washington’s birthday, and I’m here to help you celebrate with a little quiz. What do you really know about the Father of Our Country?

If you find you could use a little help with these answers, I highly recommend a little book I found a few years ago called Don’t Know Much About George Washington by Kenneth C. Davis. This little $4.99 paperback packs a lot of information about our first president into a fun-to-read format that the whole family will enjoy. (The cartoon illustrations reinforce the publisher’s intentions of directing the book to 8- to 12-year-old kids. But like so many references aimed at kids, it’s a lot more entertaining way to get top-notch historical information than plowing through a long, serious tome, even for history buffs like me.)

Back to the quiz: As always, you’ll find the answers at the end. But no cheating, now!

1. George Washington was:

a. a surveyor

b. a Freemason

c. a general

d. a president

e. a farmer

f. all of the above

2. George Washington visited which of the following countries?

a. England

b. France

c. Barbados

d. Canada

e. none of the above

f. all of the above

3. Where did George Washington go to college?

a. Harvard

b. Yale

c. William and Mary

d. Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey)

e. Washington and Lee

f. The University of Virginia

4. George Washington’s true love was:

a. Martha Custis

b. Dolley Madison

c. Sally Fairfax

d. Betsy Ross

e. Molly Pitcher

5. George Washington’s false teeth were made of:

a. wood

b. cow’s teeth

c. ivory

d. glass

e. gold

f. porcelain

6. Which of the following are true:

a. As a boy, George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree.

b. To show his immense strength, as a young man, Washington tossed a coin clear across the Rappahannock River.

c. Despite seeing military action hundreds of times and having several horses shot out from under him, Washington was never even wounded.

d. Washington signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

e. Washington’s children were named Martha (known as Patsy) and George Jr. 

f. Washington chose to be buried in his Masonic regalia.

7. George Washington was born and lived in:

a. Washington, D.C.

b. Philadelphia

c. New York

d. Virginia

e. Maryland

f. Boston

8. True or false? George Washington:

a. Said “I cannot tell a lie.”

b. Never smiled.

c. Owned slaves.

d. Powdered his hair.

e. Designed his own uniforms.

f. Died from politeness.

9. George Washington was happiest:

a. At his plantation, Mount Vernon.

b. With his family.

c. Experimenting with the latest horticultural and agricultural advances.

d. On horseback.

e. Entertaining guests at home.

f. In the company of his military attaches.

10. George Washington’s greatest achievement was:

a. Marrying the wealthiest widow in Virginia.

b. Winning the Revolutionary War.

c. Becoming our first president.

d. Freeing his slaves.

e. Walking away from a lifetime presidency.

f. Dying a wealthy man.

And now, the answers:

1. F, all of the above. Like many men of his day, George Washington did many things, and did many things well. The concept of specializing, becoming, say, a computer technician or an MBA and never doing anything else, was virtually unknown in Colonial times. The sparse population meant that almost everyone had to be something of a jack of all trades.

2.  C, Barbados. As a young man, Washington accompanied his older brother and mentor, Lawrence Washington, to Barbados, hoping the balmy climate would cure Lawrence’s consumption (tuberculosis). Sadly, the cure didn’t work. After Lawrence’s death, George ultimately inherited his brother’s plantation, Mount Vernon. Unlike Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and many of the other Founding Fathers, Washington never went to England or France. And though he made a name for himself in the French and Indian Wars, he never made it as far north as Canada.   

3. This is a trick question. The answer is “none of the above.” Like Bill Gates, George Washington never went to college. But there’s no question that he regretted it all his life. His pet project was to have a university established in the capital that would be open to all American citizens, so that none would be denied a college education as he had been. Though Washington himself didn’t live to see his dream realized, eventually American University was established in Washington, D.C. as a direct result of his efforts.

4. The correct answer is C, Sally Fairfax. The young George Washington had the misfortune to fall passionately in love with his best friend’s wife. Though nothing ever came of his infatuation, it lasted through his entire life. Washington eventually married Martha Custis, the extremely wealthy widow of another Virginia planter, Daniel Parke Custis, in what would today be called “the marriage of the century.” Martha’s vast wealth enabled George to set himself up in style. And she and George enjoyed a happy, devoted marriage, despite its essential nature as a marriage of convenience. But it was never the passionate attachment that George fantasized about with Sally, with whom he remained in touch until his death. However, if I had to try my hand at matchmaking, I’d have hooked George up with the tall, attractive, dynamic Dolley Madison. I think they’d have been an amazing pair! 

5. Lack of understanding of dental hygeine caused plenty of upper-class people throughout Europe and the Colonies to lose their teeth at an early age. Unlike the lower classes, who ate whole-grain bread and never got a taste of sugar, the wealthy classes enjoyed the novelties of white bread and sugar without understanding the need to brush their tooth-rotting residue off after eating them. Additionally, the complete oblivion to the concept of nutrition meant that many people of the time were vitamin- and mineral-deficient, which contributed to gum disease and loosening of teeth. By the time he was president, poor George had exactly one tooth left in his head. Over his lifetime, he had many sets of dentures made, including sets from cow’s teeth and hippopotamus ivory. (Yikes! No wonder he never smiled.) But he never had a set made from wood, despite legends to the contrary.

6. The correct answers are  C and F. Washington’s ability to emerge unscathed time and again from a hail of bullets conferred invulnerable status on him and made him an icon to his men. He was never so much as scratched, despite putting himself in the forefront of the action and having several horses shot out from under him. And like many surveyors (and, for that matter, Colonial and European intellectuals of the day), Washington was a devout Freemason, who chose to be buried in the attire of his Masonic rank.  But even the wrong answers have some basis in truth. Though the stories about the cherry tree and the coin toss were invented by a man called Parson Weems in an early biography of Washington, in an attempt to fill in the blanks of his early life, there is no question that he was both incredibly honorable and incredibly strong. He spent his whole life trying to do what was noble and right, and even as an old man, he could defeat any younger opponent in feats of strength and skill. But what about  D and E? Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention, but was unable to be present to sign the Declaration of Independence because he was already in the field engaging the British. And though Washington was a devoted family man, he had no children of his own. Instead, he became a father to the widowed Martha Washington’s two children by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, Martha (known as Patsy) and John Parke (known as Jack).

7. Though the adult Washington spent time in New York, Philadelphia, and the new capital city (then known as the Federal City, only later as Washington, D.C.), he was born and raised in Virginia, and his home, Mount Vernon, as well as his heart, were there. The correct answer is D.

8. The correct answers are C through F, though the others have merit even though they’re not literally true. Washington is not actually recorded by any contemporary as saying “I cannot tell a lie,” and, as we’ve seen, the whole cherry-tree incident was invented by an early biographer. But Washington held himself to such a high standard that he in fact probably never did tell a lie. He wore painful and unsightly dentures that, with his inherent formality, caused him to appear reserved and unsmiling in public. But the private Washington—when alone with his family or his trusted aides—was a different person, laughing, joking, even telling bawdy jokes to his friends and laughing uproariously. Though not exactly a dandy, the tall, admired Washington was always conscious of the need to appear at his best. He did design his own (and his regiments’) uniforms, and he wore his thick, abundant hair long and powdered it rather than resorting to a wig like most of his contemporaries. (We’ll talk about why people felt the need to powder their wigs—or hair—another time.) Okay, you may be wondering about the plausibility of F: How could someone die from politeness? Well, here’s how: Washington loved to entertain guests at Mount Vernon. One day, he’d been riding over the plantation as he loved to do and had gotten soaked in a cold rain. Arriving home to find guests for dinner, rather than changing into dry clothes and making them wait on him, George insisted on sitting down to supper in his cold, wet clothes. He came down with pneumonia and died as a result.

9. This too is a trick question, because the correct answer is “all of the above.” Washington loved his family and his plantation, and was never happier than when puttering around the place, trying out the latest agricultural and horticultural developments, and spending time with his beloved family and close friends. He loved entertaining guests, even if they were what we’d call hangers-on or groupies, folks who showed up unannounced at Mount Vernon just to see the great Washington with their own eyes. As noted, his feelings for his guests ultimately led to his untimely death. And Washington, who grew up on horseback, loved nothing better than to spend a day riding over his land.

10. The correct answer is really “all of the above.” Though his contemporaries—including King George III of England—and historians would tell you the answer was E, giving America an unprecedented example by walking away from a crown and/or a president-for-life appointment, every answer has merit. Martha’s wealth enabled George to set himself up among Virginia’s first families, which helped him achieve prominence.  Winning the Revolutionary War and becoming the young America’s first president need no additional commentary from me. But freeing his slaves and dying out of debt do. Pretty much all the Founders realized that slavery was insupportable, an abomination, and a gross hypocrisy as they ranted on about freedom. But only two of them did anything about it: Old Ben Franklin and George Washington. Ben freed his few slaves during his lifetime, and founded the first abolitionist society in the Colonies. But Washington had a more complex situation. Not only did he, like all Southern planters of his day, own many slaves, but they actually belonged to his wife, Martha. So in a sense, his achievement was greater. He spent many years weaning Mount Vernon off  labor-intensive crops like tobacco so it wouldn’t be reliant on slave labor to produce income. And he made it an article of his will that all the Mount Vernon slaves would be freed (and educated, so they could establish themselves in the trade of their choice) upon Martha’s death. (Rising to the occasion, she actually freed them immediately after his death.) By comparison, that so-called beacon of freedom Thomas Jefferson not only fathered innumerable children on one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, but left them all, including his own children (one was lucky enough to secure his freedom during Jefferson’s life), to be sold into perpetual slavery to strangers after his death. Which brings me to the last point: Jefferson died in massive debt, which he dumped on his heirs, who actually had to sell his beloved Monticello as well as his slaves. This was not at all unusual in an age when it was important to live expensively while completely ignoring the sources of one’s income, such as a tobacco-depleted land. George Washington, by contrast, worked hard to diversify agriculture at Mount Vernon, reduce the need for labor, and get rid of greedy, soil-depleting crops like tobacco. He was also a shrewd speculator, and bought properties with potential as they came on the market. As a result, he left his widow and heirs with a comfortable fortune as opposed to a pile of debt.

So happy birthday, George! There was only one George Washington. But we can all be inspired by his example to make both the most and the best of who we are.

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!


                             Richard Saunders

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

A New Year’s resolution worth making. January 1, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a New Year’s resolution that would benefit every American citizen. As you all know, I’m a history buff, especially addicted to Colonial and early American history. I propose that we all resolve to learn more about our own history this year.

I was prompted to think of this resolution while reading an article in our local paper called “Without history, America is doomed” by Paul Carpenter. (You can read the complete article online at www.themorningcall.com.) The article provided some results of a study by the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, on Americans’ knowledge of American history. I quote:

“More than a third of Americans could not pick the century in which the American Revolution began. Only 42 percent were aware that the nation is a republic. Three-quarters of high school students did not know that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. A third of Americans thought the Civil War came before the American Revolution and more than a third had no idea which country was hit by atomic bombs at the end of World War II. More than half of high school seniors thought Germany, Italy and Japan were U.S. allies in that war.”

Yikes! The Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War?!! And beyond this study, I’ll bet few of us could name all our presidents in chronological (or any other) order, or even all 50 states, much less state capitals. I wonder how many people know the name of the only man to sign all four major documents of the emerging American republic? (Yes, it was our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin. And the documents were the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Alliance with France, and the U.S. Constitution, in case you were wondering.)

But it’s not too late to learn. Good history books make for entertaining reading, and history programs and movies, from “1776” to the acclaimed series on John Adams, make good viewing. I suggest a trip to your local library or bookstore where you can actually look at the books and DVDs to see which appeal most to you in terms of style and content. Used book stores are also great resources for hard-to-find history books, and for films and programs, there’s always Netflix.

I’m sure all of us could use some brushing up on our knowledge of American and world history. My knowledge of 20th-century history is appalling. I checked with fellow blog contributors our friend Ben and Silence Dogood, and though they could answer all the Lexington Study’s questions without difficulty, they also confessed to big gaps in their knowledge of history.

Silence revealed that she was seriously geographically challenged and has yet to manage to name all 50 states, even though she tries about twice a year, much less the Seven Seas, American Possessions, or all the countries on pretty much any continent beyond North America. “I thought for years that the Philippines were off the coast of South America,” she confessed. “It was so humiliating.”

Our friend Ben notes that pretty much all modern history is a mystery to him. “I could tell you all about Iceland during the time of the Icelandic Sagas (about 1000 A.D.), or about Minoan Crete,” OFB says. “But ask me about modern Iceland or, say, Holland, or the Eisenhower or George H. W. Bush administrations, and d’oh!!!”

OFB and Silence agreed to add reading up on history to their New Year’s resolutions. I’m certainly up for it. What about you?



George Washington, Virginian June 13, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. You may recall from our friend Ben’s post “An encounter with history” that last month, we went down to Washington, D.C. to visit Ben’s brother and family and our good friend Susan and had a great time at the National Archives, seeing the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and other documents that shaped our destiny. (And yes, they were the actual documents, on view free to anyone and everyone who takes the time to visit. Wow!) And as if that weren’t enough excitement for one trip, on the way home we stopped at Gettysburg, which neither of us had ever seen, and visited the historic battlefield and town.

At a bookstore in Gettysburg that specializes in history, I found an intriguing cookbook and bought it as a souvenir of the trip (our friend Ben had already bought a couple of books on our hero Ben Franklin and copies of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights at the Archives gift shop to commemorate the visit). Now, I’m a cookbook collector from way back. I’m an intuitive cook who prefers to develop my own recipes, but I love reading cookbooks, esepcially if they manage to tell a story along with the recipes. I have copies of the earliest cookbooks in the English language, as well as the earliest cookbook in any language, the Roman cookbook of Apuleius, and have quite a few Colonial and Revolutionary-era cookbooks. So I was intrigued and thrilled to find The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book in the shop at Gettysburg.

I thought it would be a fun and informative look at the recipes of a bygone era, but it proved to be much more than that. The author, Robert E. Lee’s great-granddaughter, included quite a lot of family lore and genealogy along with the recipes. And yow, did that make me aware of how ignorant I was about Robert E. Lee and, worse, about our first President, George Washington. (Our friend Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame would be so ashamed of me!) 

Despite growing up in the South, I only knew of Robert E. Lee as the head of the Confederate Army, an honorable but doomed Southern gentleman who, despite misgivings, tried to do his best for the Confederacy once it divided from the Union. If pressed, I could probably have named his beloved horse, Traveller. And I knew he was a Virginian. Thanks to Richard and our friend Ben, I also knew that he had graduated from West Point and that President Lincoln had asked him to lead the Northern forces in the Civil War, but he had been forced to decline in order to protect his family and home state. But that was the beginning and end of what I knew about General Lee.

As a result, seeing the Lee family genealogy in the cookbook hit me with the force of revelation. First, to realize that Robert E. Lee was the son of Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, one of the great figures of the Revolution. But then to realize that his wife, Mary Custis Lee, was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and adoptive great-granddaughter of George Washington, who not only adopted Martha’s children by her first marriage but also her orphaned grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis (Mrs. Lee’s father) and Nellie Custis, as his own. In short, the Lees’ marriage was not just a love match but a dynastic marriage among the great Virginia families.

But this brings me to the point of this post: That in fact, the Washingtons were just another great Virginia family. Martha Parke Custis brought George Washington, then considered something of a parvenue, the greatest fortune in Virginia when he married the young widow of the hugely wealthy John Custis. And that’s hard for me to bear in mind. The other great Revolutionaries and Presidents from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, have their historic homes, Monticello, Montpelier, and Ash Lawn, within an easy day’s tour of Charlottesville, where Jefferson designed the University of Virginia. Our friend Ben and I visit our dear friends Cole and Bruce in Charlottesville every year, and often tour these historic homes while we’re down there. It’s not hard to think of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—or those other great patriots, George Mason and Patrick Henry—as Virginians.

But Washington? Somehow, Mount Vernon, far from Charlottesville but close to Washington, D.C., never seemed a part of the South to me, but rather part of the nation, like Washington himself. Even now, I can’t picture George Washington speaking with a Southern accent, even though I’m forcibly reminded that our Nations’ capital was carved from Southern land every time I ride the Metro there and hear the conductor announce the ludicrously named stop, Foggy Bottom, as “FAW-gy BAH-tum!!!” or hear my fellow passengers conversing in honey-thick Southern accents.

Good lord! Washington, too, was a Virginian. Geez, there’s a shock. But he has so transcended his origins in the process of becoming the Father of Our Country that he and Martha and their beloved Mount Vernon no longer seem to belong to any specific place but to all of us equally. It’s only when seeing something like the Lee family genealogy that the reality sinks in.

Okay, maybe (as our friend Ben would say) I’m not the brightest bulb on the string. Especially since my family is also related to Martha Washington—you’d think maybe I’d have had a clue. But oh, no. So the Lee family cookbook was a good reminder. George Washington did not spontaneously arise from the amorphous Colonies to float over our country and become its leader. He was a Virginian, among other prominent Virginians, such as the Lees. Shock surprise, in the immortal words of Ruby Ann Boxcar.

To acknowledge this, I’ll refrain from giving you some of Ruby Ann’s classic recipes, such as—shudder— Cornflake Cookies, Kitty Chitwood’s Slut Puppies, or Dottie’s Secret Sweet-and-Sour Fish Pie. (Velveeta and Government Cheese also play prominent roles in Ruby Ann’s recipes.) I enthusiastically recommend Ruby Ann’s Down Home Trailer Park Cookbook, or any other cookbooks by Ruby Ann or the drink compendium by her drunken sister, Donna Sue Boxcar, but I would never, ever suggest that you actually make or consume any recipe contained therein.

Instead, you might try Robert E. Lee’s favorite cake:

             Mrs. Lee’s Cake

6 eggs, separated

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1 /2 cups flour


1-lb. box confectioner’s sugar

4 tablespoons orange juice plus 1 tablespoon rind

4 teaspoons lemon juice plus 1 tablespoon rind

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour bottoms only of cake pans. To mix by hand, beat yolks light, add sugar gradually, beating until very light; fold in flour, then beaten whites. To mix with a mixer, beat whole eggs 15 minutes in all, starting on low and increasing to high; when soft peaks form, fold in lour. Bake about 20 minutes for 3 layers; less time for more, thinner layers. To ice, fill layers with icing, reserving slightly more of the juice-and-sugar mixture for the top. 

True confessions: I haven’t made it, either. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good! Robert E. Lee apparently loved it. So if you do make it, please, tell us what you think!

              ‘Til next time,


Why is it called the “Capitol”?! May 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to have a little chat with you about those wretched spelling bugabears, “capital” and “capitol.” I’d invited our friend Ben and Silence Dogood out for dinner on their return from a weekend in our nation’s capital, and got quite an earful about their trip (as you did, too, if you read our friend Ben’s post “An encounter with history”). I of course felt that, after a weekend of great Thai food with their friend Susan and platters of gourmet delicacies at our friend Ben’s brother’s house, it was time to sober up with some good old-fashioned pizza.

While we were eating—trying, of course, not to hog too many slices; why is it that no matter how big the pizza, there never seems to be enough?! (“No, please, you take the last slice…”)—and Silence was talking about how beautiful and imposing the Capitol looked silhouetted against the setting sun, I began to wonder. Like you, I remembered that the seat of our Congress was spelled “Capitol,” while the city that housed our nation’s government, as well as all the cities that house our states’ governments, are spelled “capital.” But why?

I decided it was time to find out. Turns out that “Capitol” refers specifically to “a set of buildings in which a legislature meets,” and the spelling derives from the Capitoline Hill in Rome, where the Roman Senate met. (Thank you, Wikipedia!) But how did the Roman hill receive its name? Not from the Senate, you may be sure! Strange as it may seem, the Capitoline Hill was named after a skull (Latin caput, head) uncovered during excavations for a Temple of Jupiter ordered by the fifth king of Rome, Tarquin the Elder, ca. 616-579 B.C. (This was one busy guy—he also was responsible for the construction of the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus.)

If it strikes you as ironic that the Capitoline Hill in Rome and Golgotha, the “place of a skull” where those same Romans crucified Christ, are both named because of skulls found on their sites, let’s just say you aren’t alone. And our Capitol building shares that legacy today. Maybe if our Congressmen were more aware of this history, they’d take their responsibilities more seriously! The name of their building provides not just a link to the past, and a link to life and death via the skull symbolism, but also to God in the form of God the Father (Jupiter) and Jesus Christ. The word “Capitol” is a good reminder of both transience and eternity, and our tenuous place in the balance between them.

Big bucks and silver dollars March 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to resume my discussion of dollars and sense. Ever wonder why we call a dollar a buck? I did, too. So let’s put on our deerstalker caps and follow the money trail to find some answers. As Sherlock Holmes would say, the game is afoot!

Back in Colonial times, America’s money was a mess. The colonies all minted their own money, merchants minted coin-like tokens with monetary value, and everybody used all types and stripes of foreign coinage right alongside the local versions. Lots of people didn’t have money at all, and bartered goods that they raised or made in exchange for goods they needed. (Still a great idea, in my opinion.)

With all this money madness, one coin emerged as the “gold standard” (in quotes because it was actually a silver coin) of reliability. Everyone recognized it, and everyone acknowledged its value. It became the most popular coin in the Colonies. The Susan B. Anthony dollar? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) No: the Spanish dollar.

The so-called Spanish dollar, or 8-reales (“royals”) piece, was a hefty silver dollar minted all over the Spanish colonies of Central and South America as well as in Spain. In Colonial times, the guy on the front was usually King Carlos IV (on the coin, Carolus IIII), though his predecessor Carlos III also showed up regularly. In a time when a dollar was a lot of money, these big coins were often broken up into smaller denominations–into fourths, or quarters (yes, that’s where our quarter comes from), or into eighths (and if you’re reminded of the infamous piratical “pieces of eight,” yup, these were the ones they meant).

Okay, where does the buck come in? Deer meat was pretty popular on Colonial backwoods tables, and deer hides commanded a good price in trade. In fact, a buck’s hide was valued at–you guessed it, a Spanish dollar! To this day, the word buck has lingered in our collective vocabulary as a synonym for dollar. I discovered this intriguing fact just last week while reading Robert Morgan’s biography of Daniel Boone (called simply Boone: A Biography). Mr. Morgan’s knowledge of the period must be encyclopedic indeed. Mystery solved!

But wait, you say. Where does the word dollar come from, anyway? That’s a little easier to answer. Some of the first countries to produce big, standardized silver coins were the German States. They made gorgeous coins called thalers that collectors like our friend Ben lust after to this day. In much of Germany, the thaler was pronounced like “taller.” But in low German, it was pronounced like–you guessed it again–“dollar.”

Just goes to show that, like us, American coinage has a very diverse and international background. And in case you were wondering, the Spanish dollar remained legal tender in the U.S. until 1857, when Congress insisted that everybody use U.S.-minted coinage. (Hey–where does that phrase “legal tender” come from, anyway? That’s a good topic for a future post…)        

Ben’s Top Ten February 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame. It’s a bitterly cold morning here in Pennsylvania–perfect weather for warming up with a steaming mug of coffee and some homespun wit and wisdom. As you may know, my mentor, Benjamin Franklin, wanted to make my almanac a witty and valuable read, since besides the Bible it was pretty much the only book many Colonial-era Americans owned. So he’d make up clever, punchy little sayings and sprinkle them throughout the pages of each year’s edition. You’re sure to have heard some of them yourself: “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “God helps those who help themselves,” and “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”*

So today I thought I’d give you a rundown of Ben Franklin’s best. They’re still worth bearing in mind as we go through our own days. See how many you know! And just to keep things interesting, I’ve thrown in two sayings that weren’t written by Dr. Franklin. Can you guess which ones they are? No cheating, now!

Ben’s Top Ten (Plus Two)

1. A  man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.

2. A place for everything, everything in its place.

3. An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.

4. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

5. Absence sharpens love, presence strengthens it.

6. Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man. 

7. All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.

8. There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

9. Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.  

10. By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

11. Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.

12. Half a truth is often a great lie.    

Did you guess the two quotes that weren’t by Dr. Franklin? They’re # 4 and #8. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is by Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy, and “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it” is by the great Irish wit, Oscar Wilde.

* Ever wonder why going “early to bed” would make a man healthy, wealthy and wise? It might seem like burning the midnight oil would be a better path to success, but Ben Franklin had very practical reasons behind his famous saying. In his day, people lit their homes with candles, and boy, were they expensive, especially the better ones that didn’t smoke and reek of sheep fat. (See for yourself: Turn on a lamp with a 100-watt bulb and see how many candles you have to light to make an equivalent amount of light. And that’s just one bulb!) If you went to bed early, you’d save money on candles. But that wasn’t the only good reason for retiring early. The popular evening pastimes in Colonial times were drinking and gambling. After supper, people would head to a tavern or gaming house or over to a friend’s home and bet money on card games like vingt-et-un, silver loo, and faro. You could lose everything in a night, especially if you were drinking the whole time, which pretty much everyone was. Alcohol consumption in Colonial times was astoundingly high because sanitation had become a lost art, and people rightly believed that it was safer to drink alcoholic beverages than the bacteria-laden water near populated areas. So that’s what they drank from morning ’til night: beer, hard cider, wine, and hard liquor. If you went to bed early, not only would you avoid the national pastime of gambling (it wasn’t just us–it was also all the rage in England and the rest of Europe at the time, and had been imported by the colonists), you’d also avoid one hell of a hangover the next morning. Staggering out of bed and lurching through the day in a fog wasn’t a great way to earn an income, as Ben knew.