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Archive for February, 2013

During the first decade the United States lived under the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton (on the left) was a political force.  In fact, one could go so far as to say he was the second-most powerful man in the country, a rung or two below President Washington.  A good number of men loved and respected him (including the first President), and a good number loathed and reviled him (including the second, third, fourth, and fifth Presidents) .  But no one could argue with the presence and influence the country’s first Treasury Secretary enjoyed.  If you’ve spent any time on the pages of Today’s History Lesson, you know that to be true.  His legacy, now nearly two-and-a-half centuries in length, still lives with us.

During the second decade, Hamilton’s power began to dwindle.  Some of that was his own fault, some not.  Clearly, the Federalist party (to which Hamilton belonged) was falling out of favor, wilting under the pressure of an Anti-Federalist party led by Jefferson and Madison.  Federalists were under constant attack and in those days, before the “gentleman’s press” had come into being, those attacks were vicious and in numerous cases, untrue.

But Hamilton’s own indiscretions hadn’t helped his situation.  His affair with Maria Reynolds had been made public in the late 1790s, causing him to offer up a well-intentioned, but ill-advised public apology.  Then there was the even more ill-advised attack on President Adams (a fellow Federalist), published in the newspapers shortly before the 1800 election.  At this point, he was still hated by Anti-Federalists, but a good number of Federalists were keeping their distance as well.

By 1804, Hamilton was doing very well in his law practice, but struggling mightily for political significance.  The upcoming governor’s race in New York provided Hamilton with chance to gain some ground.  Aaron Burr (on the right above), the current Vice President, had decided to run for the position.  Of course, the feud between Hamilton and Burr needs no introduction around here.  Hamilton was incredibly worried that Burr would win, so he drafted a letter to his close friend Rufus King, currently the ambassador to England, asking him to run.  Hamilton knew that King might not be able to win the election outright against the firmly entrenched Clinton machine, but maybe he would siphon off enough “Burr” votes to prevent his arch-enemy’s victory.

On the day he wrote the letter, February 23, 1804, Hamilton became the center of attention again, and again, for all the wrong reasons.  The “Clinton machine”, led my New York governor George Clinton (another bitter rival of Hamilton’s), began circulating the report that, way back in 1787 (during the time of the Constitutional Convention), Hamilton and John Adams (then the ambassador to England) had negotiated with King George III to create an American monarchy with one of George’s sons as king.  In return, England would give up Canada, Nova Scotia, and other land holdings.

The story was utterly false.  Yes, both Hamilton and Adams had made statements in the past that, taken on their own, could be seen to favor a monarchical government.  But each man’s overall body of work clearly showed that neither, under any circumstance, wanted to return to that form of rule.  And having England in control of America in any way, shape, or form, was anathema to both men.  But the timing of the story was perfect, as Hamilton was beginning to gain a bit of political traction via his law practice.

Without letting go of his current work, Hamilton began tracing threads to determine the story’s originator.  He was a man that, above all else, treasured his own honor.  People began to detect the smell of gunpowder in the air and pistols at ten paces.

Hamilton was in the thick of it again.  Dates are a bit fuzzy, but I’m going to try put together a proper conclusion to this story on the proper day.

Recommended Reading:  Duel:  Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America – A good composite read on the feud between these two powerful men.  It starts a bit slowly for my tastes, but finishes with a flourish.

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I love to shovel snow.  No, I’m serious.  I really enjoy it.  My goal has always been to get the driveway and sidewalk completely clean after a snowfall.  So I start by removing as much snow as possible.  Then I take a metal scraper out and run it over any places where the snow has been pressed down, whether by feet or car tires or whatever.  Once that’s done, I bevel the snow on the edge of the driveway so it’s all nice and even.  It takes a while, but the results are worth it.

I write all that as though it still happens.  It doesn’t.  I’m no longer allowed to shovel snow.  The surgeon that fixed my back last October put shoveling at the top of the list of no-nos.  So now the neighbors tackle it with their snow blowers or my wife takes care of it.  I watch from inside the house.

The Sahara Desert is the largest desert in the world.  Well, technically it’s not because scientists consider the Arctic and Antarctica to be larger deserts.  I don’t know how they’re deserts, but there are a ton of things I don’t know.  Anyways, the Sahara is about as large as the continental United States, and it’s one of the hottest places on earth, with an average temperature approaching 90°F.  If ever there was a place that it wouldn’t snow, it would be in these vast three-and-a-half million North African square miles.

Oh, but it has snowed in the Sahara.  In January of 2012, the desert got snow.  But it’s pretty rare.  In fact, in my digging around, I could only find two instances when snowfall was recorded:  last year and February 18, 1979.

That first snowfall took Algerians by complete surprise, even though it lasted but half an hour.  And it probably snarled traffic and closed schools, despite the fact that it was gone before sundown.  The really good thing is that the sand trucks probably didn’t have far to go to fill up.  I wonder if the kids knew to have a snowball fight, or make a snowman, or snow angels…I hope so.

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We get our television programming from DirecTV, and our channel lineup doesn’t contain any of the standard movie channels (HBO, Cinemax, etc.), but it does have two channels wholly devoted to food – the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.  The Food Network used to show primarily cooking shows, where people demonstrated how to actually make something.  Nowadays, it’s slipped into more of a “lifestyles” channel, which means a little bit of cooking, and a bunch of advertising of local one-off restaurants.  The Cooking Channel seems to be more the place to go if you actually want to learn how to cook.  At least that’s the way it appears to me.

I’m sure some will argue that I have no idea what I’m talking about, which is probably true.  But outside of Alton Brown and Jamie Oliver, there’s not a ton of cooking shows I really enjoy, so I’m basing my opinions on a rather small sample size.  Anyways, arguing over channel content wasn’t the point of my typing.  Both channels, regardless of what they show you, owe a world of thanks to Julia Child.

It was her culinary skills, her humor, and her bravery that gave rise to the popularity of cooking shows in the first place, and made “channels specializing in food” possible.

In case you didn’t know, one of the first cooking demonstration shows ever was Child’s The French Chef.  It was filmed in black and white in a rather modest kitchen.  And from my perspective, the editing floor was remarkably clean, because it doesn’t appear that anything was cut from the show.  It resulted in what was truly a “reality” show, not the trash we pass off as reality today.

The French Chef, which was first broadcast on February 11, 1963, was full of real-life kitchen goof-ups.  Julia would sometimes forget her place in the recipe she was demonstrating.  She would sometimes mix ingredients in the wrong sequence.  Pans and utensils would, on occasion, be so elusive as to be invisible.  The end product would sometimes look a little strange and, on rare occasions, wound up being tossed in the trash.

And that’s what made the show so incredibly popular.  Through all the real-life “drama” in Julia’s kitchen, viewers learned the basic (and the not-so-basic) techniques to cooking food once thought only achievable by a master chef.  Of course, Julia herself was classically trained in the art of French cooking, but she worked hard to make difficult processes accessible to cooks of all levels.  And we learned that even great chefs get it wrong sometimes, which made us more likely to give it a go ourselves.

Julia herself became a celebrity.  Her lilting voice, that touch of comedian in her, and her adaptability to the changing conditions of the kitchen and a show that was filmed live without editing brought forth a charm that was addicting.  She brandished a cleaver and a mallet, and she talked about “courage of your convictions” as she flipped half a potato pancake on to the stove.  I don’t have a clue what she was like when the camera wasn’t rolling, but she was lovable when it was.

There have been hundred of cooks on television since, some of them really good.  I think of Justin Wilson (the cajun cook that I always thought was hilarious).  That guy Yan who did the show Yan Can Cook.  Of course, Emeril Lagasse.  The Galloping Gourmet and Mary Ann Esposito.  The list goes on and on.  Julia stands alone.

Recently, our local Public Television station dug into the archives and, for a few weeks at least, showed some of those original episodes.  My wife and I watched them, fascinated by how much television cooking has changed.  Yes, there are far fewer gaffes now.  The stars of the shows don’t make very many mistakes because those are edited out.  They don’t look off-set and they don’t drop their dishes.  But they’re not The French Chef, either.

A while back, when I talked about the movie Die Hard, I said that movie sequels aren’t usually as good as the original.  All those cooking shows we watch now?…they’re the sequels to Julia’s masterful original.

Bon Appetit!!

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I’ve watched a couple of shows about panning for gold.  Not those “reality” programs (which probably aren’t real at all), but documentary-style shows where a guy will detail his methods of searching for that most precious and elusive of elements.  I’ve talked about Dick Proenneke on a couple of occasions, and during his stay in Alaska, he often panned for gold, using it to purchase some of the staples he needed in the wilderness.  And then there’s Johnny Horton’s famous song North to Alaska, from which I’ve learned the best locations to search (“where the river is winding, big nuggets they’re finding…“).

So while I’ve never searched for gold (much to the chagrin of my grandmother), I feel I’m more knowledgeable about the process than, well, maybe a two-year-old goat living on a farm in Scranton, IA.

Anyways, I don’t know how big the nuggets were that Sam McCord found (he’s the guy in the song North to Alaska), but they likely paled in comparison to the one found by a couple of prospectors in the opposite hemisphere on February 5, 1869.  John Deason and Richard Oates found what became known as the Welcome Stranger nugget in Victoria, Australia.  Resting just below the surface near a tree, this chunk of gold weighed in at an astonishing 241 pounds.  Yeah, pounds.  After it was fully trimmed out and refined, it still weighed nearly 157 pounds.  That’s one big piece of gold.  And to date, it’s the largest single chunk of gold ever found.

I just checked and, while prices fluctuate, the current price of gold is $1675.80…an ounce.  And 157 pounds is 2512 ounces.  So if I do the math, that totals out to $4,164,393.60.  I don’t know the world in which you live, but in my world, that’s a retirement number.  Deason and Oates were paid $15,000 (give or take) for Welcome Stranger, which seems rather meager, even by 19th-century standards.

North to Alaska…yeah, right.

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