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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!

Revolutionary radishes May 1, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s spring, and spring means garden-fresh radishes at last! Here at Hawk’s Haven, we love radishes, and we like ’em hot—when we bite into a radish, we want it to bite back. We also want our radishes to be crisp and crunchy, not rubbery or woody, and nothing is crisper than a freshly pulled radish.

We not only love eating radishes, we love growing them, too. They’re about the easiest crop there is, after onion sets. (See our earlier post, “In praise of onion sets,” for more about them.) Toss the seed on your garden bed, water it in, watch for weeds, and wait for radishes. End of story! Well, maybe not quite the end: You need to thin the radish seedlings when they come up so the ones you leave in the ground have enough room to make nice, fat radishes. But when you pull up the extra seedlings, you can put them (washed, please) in a salad, leaves and all, for a nice, spicy treat.

Radishes are great veggies for kids to grow, too, because they’re easy, they mature quickly (some in as little as 20-30 days from sowing), and they’re cute and colorful. Whether you plant a classic round red radish like ‘Early Scarlet Globe’, a red-and-white bicolor like ‘Sparkler’ or ‘French Breakfast’, a mix of white, pink, rose, and purple like ‘Easter Egg’, or even a yellow radish like ‘Helios’ (or all of the above!), you’ll get an abundant, foolproof crop.

Now it’s recipe time. But first, why did I call this post “Revolutionary radishes”? Well, the Boston Tea Party may be better known, but it was preceded by the “Root Out the Redcoats” incident, when a mob of outraged Bostonians pelted some British soldiers with radishes as they emerged from Sam Adams’s pub after a night of hard drinking and low tipping.

Actually, I just made that up. I really called the post “Revolutionary radishes” because radishes were a favorite crop of Thomas Jefferson’s at his Virginia home, Monticello. In fact, you can buy seed of a radish he actually grew, ‘China Rose’ winter radish, from the shop at Monticello (www.monticello.org); it’s also available from seed companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seed (www.RareSeeds.com), which sells seed of many other great radishes, too. The Monticello website notes: “Jefferson preferred the scarlet radish, although his garden included salmon, rose, violet and white types,” and says that he often interplanted radishes and lettuces. If you decide to grow ‘China Rose’, remember that it’s a winter radish, which means you should plant it in late summer rather than spring and harvest it in fall.

Okay, back to the recipe. I’ve already talked about one of our favorite ways to eat radishes, after the French fashion: sliced on buttered rounds of crusty baguette. (Admittedly, unlike the French, we prefer these as appetizers rather than for breakfast.) And our friend Ben and I like to eat them whole with (of course) salt. Even our golden retriever, Molly, loves the ends of the radishes (I’m sure she’d love the entire radish even more, but forget that), and the chickens enjoy the greens. Radishes are a family affair here at Hawk’s Haven!

But you don’t have to just eat radishes whole or sliced. You can also use them to make a luscious dip or spread, a great way to put a bumper crop to good use. We were introduced to this recipe by the farmers at our local CSA, Quiet Creek Farm. Thank you, John and Aimee!

                    Spring Radish Spread

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon chopped chives or scallions

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill (leaves, not seeds)

1-2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, drained (optional)

1 cup finely chopped or grated radishes

salt to taste

Mix all ingredients. Cover and refrigerate 1-2 hours. Serve with crackers, on crusty bread (baguettes, rye, sourdough), with tortilla chips, and/or with veggies like carrot sticks or chips, broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes, or even freshly sliced cukes for dipping. Makes about 2 cups.

Yum!!! But there’s another way to enjoy radishes, too, and that’s as sprouts (also fun for kids—I guess radishes are just a kid-friendly food). If you can sprout alfalfa seeds, you can sprout radish seeds: soak, drain, repeat. Just make sure you buy seed that’s organically grown and intended for human consumption! God knows what some seed companies may have used to treat their garden seed, but you don’t want to eat it.

Radish sprouts add a nice bit of spice to salads and sandwiches, but there’s another reason to eat them, too: They’re powerhouses of vitamins and other nutrients. Radish sprouts have, ounce for ounce, more protein than milk, 29 times more vitamin C, and 4 times more vitamin A, as well as 10 times more calcium than a potato. They’re also packed with concentrated phytochemicals that can combat osteoporosis, menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, even PMS! So eat your radishes, boys and girls. They’re good for you!

One of our favorite sites for all things sprout is Sproutman (www.sproutman.com). Interestingly, the variety of radish seed that he sells for sprouting is ‘China Rose’, the very same one grown by Thomas Jefferson. I guess Sproutman must just be a revolutionary at heart. 

                                   ‘Til next time,

                                                Silence       

The Wal-Martization of our national heritage April 5, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben grew up in a history-loving family, and many childhood vacations were spent touring Colonial homes, museums, and other sites of historical import. Thus our friend Ben was green with envy to hear that our friend Sarah had just returned from what to me would have been a dream vacation—touring Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, and Jamestown.

I was just saying to Silence on our recent trip to North Carolina, where we passed the site of Nathanael Greene’s famous Revolutionary battle of Guilford Courthouse, that I hadn’t been back to Mount Vernon since I was a child, and a visit was overdue. And I’ve been trying to pry us out of the hands of relatives so we could spend Christmas at Williamsburg for several years now. (No luck, but maybe this year…)

Anyway, our friend Ben eagerly pressed Sarah for details of her trip, and was horrified by what I heard. Apparently, George Washington’s stately home, his beloved Mount Vernon, has now been dwarfed by a giant visitors’ center plopped right on the grounds, sort of like a giant highway rest area with food courts and tourist info. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the visitors’ center experience and tour the virtual Mount Vernon at the expense of Washington’s actual home. Similarly, Sarah bemoaned the fact that she and her companion weren’t even able to see the actual Jamestown site, only the “tourist-friendly” reproduction.

Our friend Ben is appalled. In today’s world of impersonal furnishings chosen by interior decorators, I suppose it’s easy to lose track of how very personal these homes were to their owners, who often designed the homes themselves as well as personally choosing every book, every bauble, and every stick of furniture. To see the house is to know the owner in a very real way.

Most of the time, the Founding Fathers strike us as larger-than-life and/or cardboard figures, playing out their roles on the stage of history, far removed from us. But when you see that James Madison, whose fragile health prevented him (alone of all the great Founders) from ever leaving the U.S., filled his home, Montpelier, with souvenirs of France; when you see all the ingenious, homely domestic comforts that Thomas Jefferson designed and installed at Monticello; when you see the exquisite scenery hand-painted on the walls of The Hermitage, the supposedly nail-hard Andrew Jackson’s retreat from the world; when you see the grounds of Mount Vernon that George Washington rode over every day he could get away home until he died—when you see all this, any of this, suddenly history takes on flesh.

No matter how much you may have read of their writings, how many biographies, how much Colonial and Federal history, in their homes, and for the very first time, you feel you actually know them. You know their vanities; you know their treasures; you know their pleasures. You know what ultimately mattered to them personally when they could escape the cares of state.

This is living history, and this is why it grieves our friend Ben so to think that now, instead of seeing Mount Vernon’s house and grounds as George Washington saw it, visitors will see a massive, modern building. Instead of enjoying a private home, they will have a box-store experience: not one man’s intensely private vision, but a slickly produced, focus-group-approved, committee-created mass entertainment. The unspeakable offspring of television and Wal-Mart, devoid of individuality, destroying the opportunity to explore and discover on one’s own, to find the meaning at the heart of the experience.

Let me try to show, not tell. Come with our friend Ben across the Atlantic to England for a little time travel. Back in the day, when our friend Ben was a student spending a summer studying archaeology and digging up a bit of Roman Britain, our group took a trip to Stonehenge. The youthful Ben was very excited at the prospect of seeing the great megalithic monument, and was continually looking out the bus window, hoping to catch that first glimpse of the standing stones. Suddenly, across the Salisbury plain, I saw a very strange thing: it appeared to be a cluster of grey marshmallows covered with swarming, multicolored ants. It took our friend Ben a moment to realize that the marshmallows were Stonehenge, and the swarming ants were tourists. How could anyone possibly get a feeling for the place in the midst of that?

Our friend Ben was hugely deflated when the bus pulled up to the site. And then (to steal a line from “Amadeus”), a miracle happened: It began to rain. The colorful swarm subsided to their conveyances, and the dozen or so of us were alone among the stones. For a half-hour, if you were careful, you could walk in the place and not see another face. You were alone with history. At the end of the half-hour, we were loaded back on the bus. As we left, the sun came out. Our friend Ben peered out the window as the bus moved across the plain, hoping for one last glance at what had been a sacred experience. And what I saw was a cluster of grey marshmallows swarming with multicolored ants.

In case Stonehenge doesn’t seem to have much connection to Mount Vernon, my point is this: To be meaningful, personally meaningful, to become real, history requires privacy. It requires quiet. It requires the opportunity to form a personal connection, to create life from fact. If you’re a gardener, when you stand in Jefferson’s vegetable garden, you feel a connection to the man that no amount of reading the Declaration of Independence could ever give you. Looking at Washington’s plain but beautiful Sevres china, you can envision him enjoying the dinners he loved to host in his home. You are where they chose to be, seeing what they chose to do. Time drops away, and you are, for that moment, in communion.

What visitors’ center can give you that?