Friday, November 23, 2012

From the Vaults: Thanksgiving Retrospective (socialists, eels, eating pregnant insects, a shot and a brew, more)

Most years, I've offered some little posts about Thanksgiving and history. This year, rather than scribbling together a new one, I'll just offer a roundup of past musings and amusements.

• from 2010: "13 December 1621: The 'Fortune' Sails from Plymouth to England (and why the Pilgrims were neither 'socialists' nor 'capitalists')"

• from 2010: "Thanksgiving Miscellany": mini link dump of music, food, activities

•  from 2010: "The Annual Thanksgiving History Buffet": What's for dinner: eels and sweet potatoes. And were the Pilgrims dangerous socialists? Come on!

• from 2009: "Thanksgiving Day": brief note on teaching students about Thanksgiving, and how to contextualize the original event in the larger flow of Colonial history. Plus: links! on holiday traditions, myth and fact.

• from 2008: "The Inevitable Thanksgiving Piece": food, facts, myths. "The only demonstrably present meats . . .were 'ducks, geese, and venison.'" What Europeans called cranberries were pregnant insects. A shot and a brew: Pilgrims and Native Americans drank a lot and fired guns (not recommended today).

[this one somehow got put back in the drafts folder]

Those Darned Illegal Immigrants (the Pilgrims)

From the office door.

The traditional tale of the Pilgrims (a name by which they did not refer to themselves) and their arrival in America was a simple one. Nowadays, we would probably start by asking, "what were they thinking?!" i.e. what made them think that they could sail across the ocean and just establish themselves on a distant land to which they had no historical connection and that was already inhabited by others? The answer from their point of view was at the time just as simple and self-evident as ours. The historian's craft (to cite the title of Marc Bloch's classic work) consists in attempting to bring the two together.

Since the issue of immigration and immigration reform remains topical (not least in light of the apparent coalescence of a new Democratic coalition), here is a selection of cartoons chronicling the appearance of this theme in Thanksgiving and related humor of recent years.

it all started with Columbus

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pardon Me! Another Thanksgiving Piece

The eternal question: what to write about for this year's Thanksgiving piece?

I haven't systematically scanned the news yet, but so far, no distinctive stories or memes seem to be rising to the surface: just the perennial banalities, with the admixture of the topical pieties, from surviving Hurricane Sandy to the welcome end of fighting between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza. The ever sardonic former-punk-turned-White-House-reporter Julie Mason wisely called for a moratorium on such crap (at least on social media) but she knew she was just spitting in the wind. (This embarrassing piece of pablum by Jody Rudoren of the New York Times can serve as a cautionary example to those who refuse to heed Julie's sage advice.)

President Obama duly pardoned the White House Turkey (after predictably making social-media history in a predictably trivial way by allowing the public to decide—by means of a Facebook poll—which turkey to save); yes, apparently that's what all the new media are good for. As Mason observed on satellite radio a few days ago, the President is not really a man of the people, and has little sense of humor and much less interest in the turkey pardon than his dim-witted but more jocular predecessor. Can't believe that anyone thought this was worth six minutes' of the President's or the nation's time. It's just painful to watch. Do so at your peril: You'd be better off smoking a cigarette.

Given that TV and video watching shortens your life more than smoking does: For sheer perverse delight, I far prefer this infamous train wreck of a ritual from 2008 involving the inimitable Sarah Palin. There are some surprises for her.  Just watch. Slate has the backgrounder. Their video source has vanished, but you can see the footage here. Now there's a turkey.

(Although the distant origins of the turkey-pardoning practice date back to Lincoln, it was Truman who formalized it.) In any case, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were not amused.

And finally, there is this "Hipster Thanksgiving." It seems disturbingly realistic in many ways. In fact, only the urban architectural setting in the outdoor shot convinced me that it had not been shot right here in the Happy Valley.


If all this drives you to drink as well as overeat, I note that the neo-cocktail craze, which shows no signs of abating, has answers. Along with the usual advice—which can be summarized as: drink what you like rather than what you think you are supposed to drink, and remembering that some white wines, such as Rieslings, go with everything, and, given the robustness of the overall Thanksgiving menu, a hearty archetypically American red Zinfandel is perfectly appropriate with the "white meat" of a turkey—we thus find interesting suggestions for mixed drinks appropriate to the season.

This year, some holiday cocktail recipes go fairly far toward not just matching tastes of drink and food, but actually incorporating elements of the food into the drink mixture. "Pilgrim Punch" includes honey, spices, cranberries, and Belgian wheat beer. "Pilgrim's Pumpkin," as the name implies, contains pumpkin purée, along with the liquors, spices, and fruit juices. "Cranberry Thanksgiving Pie" mixes Cruzan rum, Curaçao, and egg white along with spices, maple syrup, and juices (including cranberry; but no whole berries). Another selection of American inventions recommended by our Canadian neighbors includes "Pumpkin Egg Nog" and "Pumpkin Spice Margarita."

Like President Obama's turkey ceremony: not my taste, but if you enjoy it, more power to you. I'll stick with a basic couple of wines and a re-viewing of that Palin video.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Electoral Collage (and a big block of cheese)

The Amherst presidential election results were not surprising:
  • Obama: 83%
  • Romney: 13%
  • Stein (Green): 3%
  • Johnson (Libertarian): 2%
Our presidential vote was very similar to that of Northampton (82-14) and Pelham (82-15), though noticeably more lopsided than Hadley's (69-29). All of these western Massachusetts towns, though, tilted more decisively toward the President than did the Commonwealth as a whole (61-38).

It was a similar story in the Senate race, in which we opted for Elizabeth Warren over Scott Brown (80-20 % vs. statewide: 54-46).

Indeed, the presidential results were similar to those of 2008, when Amherst tilted for Obama vs. McCain by 87 to 10 percent.

All this would seem to fit our image (caricature?) and self-understanding as the hyperliberal "People's Republic of Amherst." It is true that we, like many of our neighboring towns, opposed the War of 1812, whose 200th anniversary we are (sort of) marking this year. Governor Strong (a Northampton man) rejected the initial presidential request for troops to serve outside the boundaries of the Commonwealth and called up the militia only in 1814, when the threat of British invasion became acute. Indeed, there was fear that New England might secede over the War (sort of puts our current radical activism to shame, doesn't it?).

However, this antiwar movement had little if anything in common with the modern spirit of pacifism, protest, and resistance that prompts residents to proffer resolutions on world affairs at Town Meeting. Rather, although the Governor's reluctance derived at least in part from a constitutional argument about war-making powers, the heart of the issue was material interest. New Englanders were not enthusiastic about British policy, but they soon proved to be even less enthusiastic about  President Jefferson's anti-British embargo on foreign trade, which, as they saw it, threatened to devastate their businesses. Economic interests diverged along lines of region as well as class. (Then, as later, it was "the economy, stupid!")

It is thus easy to forget that our reputation as a bastion of leftist "progressivism" is, historically speaking, a rather recent phenomenon, which began only with the massive growth of the University in the 1960s.  In 1956, we liked Ike much better than Stevenson (3154 to 1071 votes). And during roughly the first half of the century, when even local candidates ran as representatives of formal political parties rather than as individuals, Democrats were a distinct minority. The 1958 rolls listed:
  • Independents 2091
  • Republicans 1753
  • Democrats 642
In the 1960 presidential election, in which turnout reached 92 percent, Nixon bested Kennedy by 2716 to 1789 votes. All members of the Select Board belonged to the Republican Party. Clearly, it's not your grandfather's Select Board anymore.

When, soon after this year's presidential election, a spoof Twitter account referencing President Bartlet of the "West Wing" television series, suggested sending a "big block of cheese" to President Obama and his staff, I could not help but think of the historical antecedents.

The West Wing incident in turn alluded to the giant, 1,400-pound cheese that admirers sent to President Andrew Jackson, who finally managed to dispose of it by giving it to 10,000 representatives of the common people at a public reception in 1837. There was, however, an even earlier precedent.

As MassMoments, the daily historical feature of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, reminds us, back in July 1801:
the Berkshire County town of Cheshire made a 1235-pound ball of cheese and shipped it to Washington, D.C. as a gift for the newly-elected President, Thomas Jefferson, who was a popular figure in western Massachusetts. When news of the "mammoth cheese" reached the eastern part of the state, it caused consternation. Jefferson had won the presidency by defeating John Adams, Massachusetts' native son. Westerners were more in sympathy with Jefferson's vision of a nation of independent yeoman farmers than they were with the strong central government advocated by Adams and his supporters in the Federalist Party.
In 1800, it seemed, Jefferson, the advocate of a traditional economy and small government, was the favorite of western Massachusetts. The Embargo and War of 1812 made some rethink that choice. In 2012, Barack Obama, the advocate of a more robust and activist government, won the votes of the Commonwealth. In 2012 as in 1800, however, Massachusetts residents rejected their (in the present case: quasi- or pseudo-) native son and voted for the presidential candidate who, they thought, best represented their interests.

The recent campaign was singularly unedifying on an intellectual, moral, and political level, the more so when one considers how the six billion dollars spent to sway, in essence, a handful of cantankerous, self-absorbed, passive-aggressive voters in a handful of swing states, could have been better spent. And so we have come full circle. It seems safe to conclude: Politics in America has long been and probably always will be (sorry, can't help myself) irredeemably cheesy.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Weird Wild Weather Redux

I was going to mention the following item earlier anyway, but now I have a new and unwelcome reason to do so.  While sorting through some of my old Select Board papers this summer, I came across the October 2011 issue of The Beacon, the monthly publication of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

A piece by Robert Marinelli of the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association warning of "Dangers associated with storm cleanup" began: "Massachusetts has endured a number of significant storms in 2011 and will certainly see more adverse weather conditions before the year is over. "

Little did we know.

The piece was of course published in September, as a guide to the coming month. The destruction it referred to was thus from the summer tornadoes and Hurricane Irene. Little did we know what we would experience when "Snowtober" hit and crippled the region, leaving many of us without utilities for a week.

At the end of September 2011, I myself was still looking backward (particularly from the standpoint of historic preservation) to the summer emergencies, as well as to the so-called Great Hurricane of '38, the first major tropical cyclone to strike New England since 1869. It even (somewhat perversely, it always seemed to me) lent its name to our local high school sports teams. (I don't think we'll find any Louisiana, New York, or New Jersey varsity teams calling themselves "The Katrinas" or "The Sandys.")

But there was an earlier and even closer precedent. On 10 October 1804, a so-called "Snow Hurricane" struck the Commonwealth. It caused such widespread damage that it rendered parts of the landscape unrecognizable and, by destroying the forests, set back the shipbuilding industry by decades.)

I thought it would be interesting to mention the Beacon piece this year as a way of recalling last year's experience, but as warnings of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy mounted, it came to seem even more eerily and ironically prophetic.
 Fortunately, we in the event dodged a bullet. Damage and disruption from the storm in the town, and in our area in general (vs. even other parts of Massachusetts or Connecticut), were minimal. Still, the fact that my fellow Select Board member Diana Stein lost a tree, which, in falling, in turn caused her to lose a car, reminds us that it doesn't take much to shatter our world of comfort and complacency. And it was in large measure luck as well as geography that spared us from the fate of New York and New Jersey.

The other good news was that the Town demonstrated it had learned from last year's experience. We handled last year's emergencies relatively well but in the process also discovered areas for possible improvement. To be sure, we were not ready to install a new generator at Town Hall this October, but the emergency response team was otherwise fully prepared. Communication, including use of social media and cell phone alerts, was improved. The Department of Public Works promptly cleared roads of fallen trees. And although over 1000 customers lost power, Western Massachusetts Electric Company restored it in all cases by the next morning.

Disaster preparedness remains among the highest priorities for Town administration and government, and we were glad to be able to use this year's scare as a chance to improve response techniques in principle without having to test them in practice as people suffered.