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America’s founding foodies. November 19, 2012

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



The typo hunters. August 6, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben discovered last night that some benighted soul had come onto our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, through the following search engine phrase: “what gets monarcks atenchen.” Not being a monarch myself, I’m afraid I can’t answer the question, but as a writer and editor, I can say that such egregious misspelling certainly got my attention. It also reminded me of a book review I’d just read in a “new releases” promo from Amazon.

The book in question is called The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time. It’s not often a book on language, grammar, spelling and punctuation gets published, much less gets media attention—Eats, Shoots and Leaves comes to mind—but our friend Ben is willing to bet that The Great Typo Hunt is headed for the bestseller lists. That’s because it’s an adventure and a quest, in the Arthurian sense, as well as a look at the state of American English in the era of “r u down wiv that.”

The quest: To seek out and correct typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors wherever they were found. The Amazon review says it better: “Armed with markers, chalk, and correction fluid, [authors Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson] circumnavigated America, righting the glaring errors displayed in grocery stores, museums, malls, restaurants, mini-golf courses, beaches, and even a national park.” (Which, as it happened, got them hauled into court for defacing federal property and violating, sic, “criminal statues.” In my day, our friend Ben has seen a number of so-called statues that I would rate as criminal, but I digress.)

In other words, we’re talking about a classic road-trip book here, a recounting of what one reviewer called “a Strunk & White Odyssey.” Sounds like a fun ride and a fun read as we follow the two “grammar vigilantes” around the country. Our friend Ben enthusiastically recommends it to everyone who’s wished there was a marker handy when coming upon yet another sign that says “it’s” when it means to say “its.”

The Great Typo Hunt, by Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson (Crown, 2010, $23.99 list price, $14.39 on Amazon)

The Miracle at Speedy Motors May 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I just finished reading the latest novel in one of my all-time favorite series, Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and I wanted to share the fun with you and urge you to read it, too.

The Miracle at Speedy Motors has it all: The principals, No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency founder Precious Ramotswe; the formidable orphanage matron, Mma Potokwane (secretly my favorite character); the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Mr. J.L.B. Matakone; and Mma Ramotswe’s right-hand woman, Mma Makutsi. All our favorite supporting characters, living and dead, are there as well: Mma Ramotswe’s beloved late father, Obed Ramotswe, her hero, Sir Seretse Khama, and her brutish first husband, Note Mokoti; Mma Makutsi’s fiance, Phuti Radiphuti, and her arch-nemesis, Violet Sephotho; the shy wanna-be detective, Mr. Polopetsi; the orphans Mma Ramtoswe and her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matakone, adopted, Motholeli and Puso; the incorrigible apprentice mechanic Charlie. And, as faithful readers have come to anticipate, the largely inanimate cast that plays as great a role in the stories as the characters themselves: the tiny white van; Mma Potokwane’s famous fruitcake; Mma Makutsi’s large round glasses and talking shoes; the inevitable cups of red bush tea; cattle herds; and, of course, Botswana itself, last in this list but certainly first in the books.

(Incidentally, I have written Alexander McCall Smith via his website and begged him to write a No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Cookbook, featuring the top secret recipe for Mma Potokwane’s locally celebrated fruitcake as well as Mma Ramotswe’s favorite dishes. I was told that his publisher had suggested this, too, so we may yet see a cookbook. I’ll definitely add it to my collection!)

Needless to say, plots and counter-plots abound, and I’m not about to give them away. I’ll just say that my favorite scenes both involved Mma Ramotswe, Mma Potokwane, the tiny white van, and the famous fruitcake. Ha!!!!!

I’ve loved the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series ever since I first stumbled on Blue Shoes and Happiness in my local library. Let me hasten to say that I’m no mystery fan. I love Sherlock Holmes, because of his marvellous character and the fact that most of his mysteries were intellectual puzzles rather than gore-dripping slaughterhouses disguised as books. I love Tony Hillerman’s mysteries because of his descriptions of the Southwest and the Navajo and Hopi lifeways. (And, okay, Jim Chee is hard to resist.) But usually, I pass mysteries by and wonder how people can sleep when they’re reading them. (Red Dragon, anyone?)

But the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is not about blood, guts, and mayhem. Its gentle mysteries hark back to Holmes, when a mystery meant a puzzle, not a murder. Its characters are memorable and lovable. Mma Ramotswe has a heart big enough to hold all Botswana. The stories are filled with gentle (and sometimes laugh-out-loud) humor. (Our friend Ben has said that he always knows when I’m reading one because he can hear me laughing.) Instead of celebrating violence, these delightful novels celebrate the few things that really matter: love, loyalty, friendship, family, gratitude, generosity, appreciation. The ability to take little and make much out of it, because the “much” is a state of mind.

If you’re already a fan of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, let me just say that, to my own delight, The Miracle at Speedy Motors is my favorite book in the series (so far). It’s always a thrill to see that a favorite author has made his or her series stronger rather than petering out as the novels continue. Thank you, Mr. McCall Smith! Go to your local library and put yourself on the waiting list right now, while you’re thinking about it. And if you’re not familiar with the series, you have a real treat in store! Check out a few of the earlier books, put on the tea kettle, and get ready to lose yourself, then find yourself richer than before.  

               ‘Til next time,