Friday, March 31, 2023

Two Ways

We covered the Holocaust in class this week.

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. This is an American history class, after all, and the Holocaust was a European event. I devote much more time to it in my Western Civ class. But it was the reason for a significant chunk of the total deaths of World War II – a war the United States played a major role in winning – and there are too many ignorant fools out there trying to pretend it didn’t happen at all, so it has to go in there somewhere.

History: the real stuff matters.

We covered the basics – what it was (a systematic attempt by the Nazis to eliminate anyone they felt didn’t deserve to live), the categories of the targets (mostly Jews, but also Slavs, Romany, Socialists/Communists, LGBTQ people, dissenters, resisters, and so on), and the total death toll (somewhere around 10,000,000 to 12,000,000 or so). They all had names, but we don’t know all of them.

Any estimate of the total dead in World War II that doesn’t have at least six zeroes at the end of it is an outright lie, by the way. We don’t know to the nearest million how many people died as a direct result of the war, let alone anything more precise. All we know is that it was a lot. World War II was the single biggest collective endeavor in human history and by far the deadliest, which says something about us as a species.

Whenever you cover the Holocaust, however briefly you do it, the inevitable question comes up: how did this happen? The subtext of course is: could this happen again and how would we recognize it?

Students want the answer to be complicated, difficult, hard to replicate. They want to know that the Nazis were evil, soulless monsters – which are, after all, rare and often easy to spot. They want some reassurance that this is a historical event, safely in the past.

Sometimes the proper role of a historian is, in fact, to make students uncomfortable.

Because the simple fact is that while the Nazi leadership had a much higher than average percentage of soulless monsters and the Nazis did in fact commit astonishing acts of pure unadulterated evil, the run of the mill Nazi was just some guy, boring to the point of banality. Most of them weren’t monsters even if they were doing monstrous things, and that’s a far more frightening fact when you think about it. You don’t need monsters to do evil. You just need people, in all their messy reality.

If you ever want to look deeper into that, you should start with Hannah Arendt’s brutally disturbing book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (she coined the phrase “banality of evil” after all), and Stanley Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority. Good luck sleeping for a while after that, though.

Furthermore, not only is it not complicated but also it isn't something safely confined to the past.  It has happened since. It happened in Cambodia in the 1970s. You could make a case that it happened in Rwanda in the 1990s too.  It can happen again.

It’s not even that hard to do, really.

You start with a strongly authoritarian political party in search of scapegoats for the ills of the nation, one they can blame for all the nation’s troubles and use to rally the rubes behind them. They usually choose a small, relatively powerless, often already disliked and suspected outgroup since those are easier to isolate and persecute. For the Nazis this was the Jews. Other authoritarians focus on other groups.

You then launch a massive and vicious campaign to dehumanize them. You accuse them of being unnatural, of being an affront to whatever version of God you happen to worship this week, of being a crime against Nature by their very existence. You accuse them of all sorts of heinous and largely unverifiable crimes, often without – and sometimes despite – evidence. Evidence doesn’t matter when emotions run high and you’re just whipping up hatred at this point. You don’t need evidence. You present them as a threat to the social order, to the economy, to the existence of the family as traditionally constructed. Won’t someone think of the children, you cry. Children are always a good battering ram to use when you want to knock despised people over, after all, even or especially if it is your own people who are the greatest actual threat to children. You make this outgroup into Threats.

Once that’s had some time to make an impact, you start to pass laws stripping them of human and civil rights. You restrict their movements. You tell them they can’t get married. You limit the jobs they can have and the places they can live and the things they can do in their spare time. You deny them access to appropriate health care and to education. You turn them into second class citizens and then you take away their citizenship. You make them Outsiders.

And once you’ve turned this group into Outsiders and Threats, it goes one of two ways.

Either it will be stopped by people who remember how it ended the last time.

Or it will proceed.

Those are your choices.

If you think this is pure history, safely confined to the past, you’re not paying attention. We in the US are watching this play out live in front of us with the current violent hysteria whipped up by the Republican Party over trans people. Trans people are being dehumanized – pretty much every step described above has been part of the GOP rhetoric for months now, perhaps even years. And you’re seeing a flood of restrictive legislation being shoved through Republican state legislatures designed to strip basic human and civil rights from an already disliked and suspected outgroup that would prefer just to live their lives harmlessly, without interference.

Honestly, if you want to see threats to children, the real “groomers” and sexual abusers, statistically you should be looking at youth pastors and scout leaders. But since those people reliably vote Republican, this gets overlooked and excused.

There are only two ways this goes, folks.

Where do you stand?

Take a position, because to stand neutral is to side with the oppressor. Don’t sit there. Don’t wave your hands. Take a position.

As for me, I am a goddamned American patriot. My family has been here for almost two hundred years. I have at least three ancestors who fought on the correct side of the Civil War, for the Union created by the Founding Fathers and against the treason of the South and the human slavery it was based on. I literally have a PhD in the Founding Fathers and have devoted my life to the true history of this nation. This is a great nation, with great virtues and great flaws, and if you don’t acknowledge both halves of that you’re missing things.

During World War II, the United States gave medals to my ancestors for shooting Fascists, and I will be damned if I will disgrace their memory by supporting it here now.

And if the GOP doesn’t want me to call them Fascists they should stop doing the things the Fascists did. Keep in mind the recent speaker at CPAC – the right-wing agenda-setting conference that is held every year to set the goals for the GOP – openly discussing the “elimination” of transgender people. That kind of language is pure Nazi, and he was applauded for it instead of being run out of town on a rail the way he should have been.

Fuck them sideways with a Buick.

Today is the Transgender Day of Visibility, and this cis-het guy is going to support them to the best of my ability. If the GOP wants to turn this country into a rerun of the Third Reich they can damn well go through me to do it. It's my country too. 

I have no illusions as to the scope of my personal influence on the world. If I ran the world it would be a much different place. But I will make my stand and do my part. I can do no other.

Happy Transgender Day of Visibility to those who celebrate.

May your future be a kinder and more supportive place than it is now.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Uncle Ed

My Uncle Ed passed away last week.

He was my uncle in that vague Italian sense of someone who is related to you and older than you are but working out the actual degree of relationship would take too long to explain and wouldn’t matter anyway because Uncle will do just fine.

He and my Aunt Rita were together since the late 1950s – he was part of that original group that centered around my mother’s extended family back when they were all in high school, a group that also included my dad. Rita and Ed were married not long after that – before my parents were – and for most of my early life they lived about thirty miles away in one of the northern suburbs of Philadelphia. Oddly enough we didn’t see them very consistently – we’d go year or two without visiting and then there’d be a rush of visits and then the cycle would start over. I’m not sure why. We always enjoyed the time spent together.

Uncle Ed and Aunt Rita 
at my parents' wedding in 1963

If there is one thing I will remember most about him it would be his sense of humor. He enjoyed things. He was, for example, the man responsible for the fact that Kim and I shared our first apartment with a giant stuffed tiger (which we named Ed in his honor). We took pictures of it dressed up for various holidays the first year we had it, and I think he got a kick out of that. It later became a much loved plaything for Oliver and Lauren when they were little.

The memorial services will be Saturday, a long way away in Philadelphia in the middle of the semester so I will be remembering him and celebrating him from afar.

If you think of it, raise a glass to a good man who was loved by his family and will be remembered well.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

News and Updates

1. Mr. Watts passed away earlier this month. He was an indelible part of my childhood and he will be missed. May his memory be a blessing.

2. His was not the only passing this month, unfortunately. More on that later.

3. In other news we’re all ready for Spring Break down at Home Campus, except for those of us who teach for more than one campus and therefore have had random spring breaks all month, which in practice means never quite having a spring break because no matter what campus is currently on break there’s always another one that isn’t. I don’t think this plan was very well thought out.

4. My job has had its ups and downs of late, which I suppose is how jobs go really. So far the ups are winning, at least.

5. I’ve read two different books since I completed the Bull Cook journey and I’m still not sure if my brain has recovered fully. Ol’ George packs quite the literary punch, he does.

6. If you’re not furious at the increasingly overt slide into Fascism that the American right wing is dragging the rest of the country along with them right now you’re not paying attention. This is a perilous time to be an American, and I don’t know where it will end up.

7. On the other hand Kyiv still stands, so not all of the lamps in the world have gone out.

8. Somehow I managed to turn my tongue into hamburger while eating lunch yesterday and you really don’t notice how much you use that particular organ in everyday life – even if everything you do is entirely G-rated – until that happens. Fortunately I’m not much of a drinking man, as I can’t imagine what a good whiskey would do to me right now.

9. I am making slow progress on getting my financial house in order, mostly by trying to find other people to do that for me. If all goes well I will soon be able to subcontract out that entire portion of my life and live off the interest of my vast wealth as a historian, which can be accomplished as long as I live in a shoebox down by the river and learn how to digest grass.

10. The Flyers continue to be an entertaining if not very successful team to watch, which is fine. It’s shared time with family.

11. Our brackets continue to be busted, but we’re hanging tough. Going into the second round Kim was winning on points with 45 to Oliver’s 41 and my 38, but Oliver had 10 teams still standing to Kim’s 7 and my 6. I’m pretty much guaranteed not to win this, but I’m going to have fun watching it all go down in flames.

12. I am hoping that this summer will have few if any demands on me, as I could use some down time. This is, of course, nonsense, as I will no doubt fill it with some assortment of the four large projects and several hoped-for activities that I have lined up, so really who am I fooling. There will be much busyness and it will be exhausting and memorable and that’s just how it is.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Watching the Bracket Unfold

We decided to try our hand at filling out brackets for March Madness this year, as we usually do.

Right now it’s me, Oliver, and Kim at home. None of us really follow college basketball. I know exactly one fact about this year’s college basketball season – that Alabama has a player who has been credibly accused of some fairly serious crimes but they’ve decided that they’re not going to suspend him because such things don’t matter when you’re dealing with star athletes, particularly in a televised tournament. This one fact puts me ahead of both Kim and Oliver, who didn’t have much time to pay attention to the sport this season and doesn’t follow it at all in any season, respectively.

So it’s going to be a pretty even match among us.

Kim made her picks pretty much at random. I generally choose mine by a number of criteria, which are in descending order of importance, 1) did I attend this university? 2) did someone I know attend this university? 3) is this university from the Philadelphia area? and, if all else fails, 4) would I rather visit this university’s town or their opponent’s? I usually pick the Ivy League team to win their first game but forgot to do that this year, so naturally they did win, which seems fair. Oliver, for his part, decided to look up every team’s mascot and made his picks on that basis. It is, all things considered, the most systematic method of the three of us.

We’re almost through Round 1 and so far it’s been ugly for our brackets.

Both Kim and I have half of our Final Four already eliminated, though I still have my national champion pick as an option. Oliver still has all four of his still viable, but the night is young. Kim has picked more winners than either Oliver or I so far, but as we progress in the later rounds she may be at a disadvantage as more of her later round picks are gone already.

Honestly, we could wrap this up by Sunday night.

At some point there will be Valuable Prizes awarded, as soon as we can be bothered to figure out what those might be. We live in Wisconsin. There may well be cheese involved.

We don’t watch the games. Kim enjoys basketball but finds it a bit stressful since she was one of the stats people for her high school teams and still has this feeling that she should be keeping track of things. Oliver has no interest in the sport but finds the tournament amusing. As a hockey and soccer fan I just get bewildered by a sport where teams routinely score a hundred points in increments of two. Something is missing here.

Also, beyond the “put the ball into the net” aspect of the game I just don’t understand basketball. A few years ago when Wisconsin made it to the championship game we found ourselves in a hotel in Ohio with nothing to do but watch them play one of their early round games. Lauren enjoys the game, so at least there was that. I watched, and there were three consecutive plays – one of which was called a foul on the defense, one on the offense, and one on neither, and I will swear to you now that you could superimpose the replays and there’d be no daylight between them.

So mostly I just check the scores and tally the wins and losses.

I’m enjoying the upsets. Princeton won, an Ivy League 15 seed beating the sports factory 2 seed Arizona. Fairleigh Dickenson won, a 16 beating the 1 seed Purdue, only the second time a 16 has beaten a 1. You have to celebrate these sorts of things before the chalk takes over and the favorites restore order. Nobody less than an 8 seed has ever won this thing, after all.

So we watch our brackets and see how it goes.

Rah, sportsball!

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Taking the Bull by the Horns, Part 5 and Last

I have reached the end of Bull Cook, and it has been every bit the adventure I thought it would be from the beginning.

When I first started this project my friend Eric – perhaps a bit bewildered by the sheer Gish Gallop of nonsense George Herter had produced for me to pass along, which is a not unreasonable position – suggested the possibility that this was all some kind of put on, a character that George was playing. There is, after all, a long tradition of such things in American culture. And to be fair, he doesn’t look like the sort of guy who would say a lot of the unhinged things he said and be serious about them. He looks almost reasonable, in fact, as you can see in this New York Times photograph.

Why he had a photo in the New York Times is an interesting question, but like most things George-related I’m just going to let it slide. There is no answer to that question that I would find comforting, so there is no point in asking.

But even at that early point in my project, I didn’t think that was the case.

Because while the United States does have a long tradition of people playing characters, it has an even longer tradition of cranks. Of people who are sincerely out there on their own little mental islands, shouting frantically at passersby while adamantly refusing any suggestion that they might be in need of assistance and who sound almost reasonable until you actually listen to them. 

We like cranks in this country. The inordinately self-assured, the know-it-alls at the corner of the bar, the quixotic and the damned – we as a culture have a soft spot for such people. This is after all the country that gave an appropriately royal sendoff to our one and only emperor, Norton I, who had his imperial throne in San Francisco from 1859 to 1880. The locals treated him well and accepted his currency and pronouncements, and when he died more than ten thousand of them came to the funeral to pay homage.

It gets us into trouble at times, particularly when the cranks get taken more seriously than they should be. Charles Pierce’s book Idiot America spends a lot of time on this downside of the American tolerance for cranks when they get into positions of cultural or political power. “America has always been a great place to be crazy,” he observes. “It just used to be harder to make a living that way.”

Yet George Herter not only made a living at being a crank, he thrived at it. He took over his father’s dry goods store in 1937 and turned it into the precursor of Cabela’s, selling hunting and fishing gear by mail and, eventually, in brick and mortar stores. It went bankrupt in 1981, but that’s a pretty good run. Bull Cook went through fifteen editions in its first decade and is still readily available more than sixty years after it was first published.

So hat’s off to George, a crank in the grand American tradition and the author of quite possibly the most insane cookbook ever published. I don’t know if I will ever try any of the recipes in there, but it was a ride worth taking.

For this final installment I read through the sections on Desserts; How to Dress Game; Wine, Beer and Liquor; and Helpful Hints. It has to be said that he calmed down considerably after the sheer unbridled weirdity of the Sandwiches and Vegetables sections, but even so I learned a few things that I probably would not have learned anywhere else. There is even a chance that some of them are true.

You never know.

So here you go, one last ride through the Technicolor mind of George Herter.

1. George was absolutely convinced that there was a conspiracy of flour manufacturers to prevent ordinary home cooks from making anything worthwhile. Throughout the section on Desserts he complains that flour companies will only sell “all purpose flour” rather than the bread flour, pastry flour, cake flour, or high gluten flour that you really need to do anything worthwhile. He actually has an entire entry entitled “Why It Is Impossible for Modern Women to Bake Well,” laying all this out in detail – that baking was something designated as women’s work seems not to have occurred to him as at all controversial – and he comes back to it in about half the recipes in the Dessert section. Once George latched onto an idea he was not the sort to let it go.

2. Donuts – or “doughnuts,” in the spelling that was popular at the time – are a purely North American item. “Europeans have never learned to make doughnuts,” he complains.

3. Not for George the desserts that involve pouring brandy onto something and lighting it on fire. “All this does is to waste good brandy,” he says.

4. One of the desserts he offers is Bananas Alexander the Great, which he builds up with a full page introduction on both the history of the banana and a biography of Alexander (“When he was only twelve years old he pushed his teacher Nectanebus into a pit and killed him. Maybe present day teenagers are not so bad after all”). Alexander, he assures us, was a connoisseur of all things banana-related. In the end, the big reveal is that this grand dessert is just bananas mashed together with milk and honey. Great.

5. You may think that Dom Perignon is most justly celebrated for his invention of champagne, but George is here to tell you that it is instead for his invention of an hors-d’oeuvre consisting of crackers with butter, cheese, and celery salt on top. This is to go with the champagne, of course.

6. Say what you will about his misguided admiration for the Confederacy, George minces no words on the evils of slavery. I’m not entirely sure how he managed to reconcile those things, but there you go.

7. “In New Orleans a drink is served today called Cafe Brulot. It is of fairly recent origin and is simply a drink dreamed up to look fancy and clip the tourists for a fancy price. It is strictly a tourist trap drink and contains among other things orange, lemon, cloves, and, of course, flaming brandy. I suppose there are poorer drinks, but they would be difficult to find.”

8. George is adamant that lemon does not belong in tea. I suspect my mother would have had a few choice words with him on this subject.

9. The section How to Clean Game has a total of three entries – how to clean a snapping turtle, how to clean game birds, and how to sharpen a knife. I am not sure how these three made the cut and other things did not, but then I learned through this process not to examine George’s decision making too closely. There is no win there.

10. The section on Wine, Beer and Liquor is second only to the Meats section in length, which tells you a bit of George’s priorities. And it has to be said that the part devoted to Wine is easily the most sober and least psychotic part of the book, ironically enough. There are very few manic rants about historical figures, most of the unsubstantiated opinions are actually relevant to the subject at hand, and overall it reads more like an actual cookbook than any other part of Bull Cook. It is thus easy to overlook the baseline weirdness that comes from George’s firm belief that you can make wine out of pretty much anything. Grapes. Flowers. Dandelions. Fruits and berries. Rhubarb. Bananas. Tea. Potatoes. Parsnips. Mangolds (which I had to look up – they’re related to beets). Carrots. Oats. Maple Syrup. On and on. It all goes into the fermentation tanks and out comes wine.

11. Vermouth, he confidently asserts, is just poor quality white grape wine flavored with cinnamon. I am not sure what brand of vermouth he is buying, but I’m assuming it is no longer sold.

12. My favorite wine recipe was “Calamity Jane Wine,” which contains two pounds of “old potatoes,” two and a half pounds of carrots, one pound of rhubarb, three and a half pounds of sugar, five quarts of water, brewer’s yeast, and no mention whatsoever of how exactly this gets back to the Old West entertainer Calamity Jane beyond the general sense of misfortune that you get from thinking about it.

13. Although his recipe for mead – entitled “Viking Virgin Wine” – comes close in a close second.

14. It’s when he shifts to Beer that George reverts back to form. He starts with a brief and vaguely plausible history of beer in human history, noting that it has been independently invented in pretty much every human culture including the Americas. “Columbus,” he says, “while exploring Central America in 1502, was given corn beer by the Indians. They should have given him poison.” Go ahead, George, tell us what you really think.

15. He is not a great fan of the mass-produced American beers that were available to him in 1960 when this was published, as he finds them too weak. “The only thing strong about American-made beer, ales or malt liquors is the strong taste of the cheap chicken feed most of it is made from.”

16. Yet he likes Budweiser. Go figure.

17. Throughout this section – and particularly the parts devoted to various hard liquors – George is at great pains to introduce each recipe with the stern warning that it is (or was at the time) illegal under federal law to make any of this in your own home, but that he just wanted to include the precise, highly detailed steps needed to do it anyway purely for historical purposes. I’ll bet he wrote the copy for the Wine Bricks they used to sell during Prohibition, too.

18. There are apparently two ways to produce whiskey. You can use a pot still, in which case you get a pretty fine drink out of it. Or you can do what most whiskey distillers do and use a patent still, which is “fine for making paint solvents but poor for making whiskey.” Your call.

19. London Dry Gin is a lie.

20. At the end of this section George helpfully includes not only a number of recipes for specific drinks, but also an entry entitled, “How to Avoid Alcoholism and Still Drink,” in which he advises you to a) water down your drinks, b) never drink on an empty stomach, and c) drink as slowly as you can. Honestly, I’m not sure that’s going to help.

21. The martini, George says, is the most popular drink in the United States, and in 1960 he may well have been right about that. He attributes this to the fact that “Americans want an escape from reality and use Martinis as an anesthetic not actually a drink.” There is a simple reason for this – at least there is for the anesthetic part (the escape from reality part he leaves as an exercise for the reader). The reason why American martinis are better at numbing than actually tasting is that “the way Martini drinks are made in America they are about the poorest excuse for an alcoholic drink that you could possibly find, actually no better than drinking Sterno canned heat strained through bread, the national drink of the bum jungles.”

22. George is a big fan of Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans, home of the Hurricane – a drink that is perennially popular with college students as it is sickly sweet and provides a very good rate of Alcohol Per Dollar Spent. George recommend using Hawaiian Punch in yours. He also likes the atmosphere there. “In the group singing and drinking room, it is the only drinking room in the world where one minute everyone may be singing some ribald song so ribald that it would not even be tolerated in the whore houses of Hong Kong and the next minute Silent Night.” Sounds like New Orleans hasn’t changed much, really.

23. The final section, Helpful Hints, is a grab bag of things that didn’t really fit anywhere else even by George’s loose standards. The opening entry is "How to Make French Soap," and speaking as someone who ran a homemade soap business for seven years, all I can say after reading George’s recipe is No. Just, no.

24. Other entries include “Never Drink Coffee After Eating Peppered Fried Eggs or Soft Boiled Eggs,” “Red Pepper Good for Radiation and Upset Stomachs,” “Apples as a Tranquilizer,” “How to Prevent Toxic Action of Barbecued Foods” (a warning about the evils of charcoal), “How to Make Colorful Fireplace Flames” (this involves tossing in copper sulphate now and then, though keep it away from kids as it is poisonous), and the “Indian Method of Quitting Smoking.” Something for everyone, really.

25. The final entry, entitled “In Case of a Hydrogen Bomb Attack You Must Know the Ways of the Wilderness to Survive,” is your basic survivalist inventory of goods and skills that never once addresses the question of why, exactly, one might want to do that in a larger sense. I’ve taught a class on the atomic bomb since 1998 and if I have learned anything from that experience it is that the question of whether you would want to survive such an attack is not a simple one to answer. But George is nothing if not a straight-ahead damn-the-torpedoes full-frontal-assault kind of thinker, so good for him.

And now I take my leave of George Herter and Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, having faithfully reported many of the notions and assertions contained therein. I confess I’ve developed a certain fondness for the old crank, but I can’t say I’m sorry to be moving on to other things.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Taking the Bull by the Horns, Part 4

I’ve made it through both the Sandwiches and the Vegetables sections now, and it has been an experience.

Of course, so is getting hit in the head by a line drive.

Admittedly reading Bull Cook is a lot more fun than being on the losing end of a well-hit baseball, but the side effects are not all that different – confusion, disorientation, and a general sense that something has happened but you’re not sure whether you should be glad about it or not. It depends on whether the first baseman caught the ball on the deflection, I suppose.

The Sandwich section is where this really goes off the rails, in part I suspect because there’s just not that much else to do there. Honestly, how many times can you say “Get a roll and put stuff in it” – occasionally varied by “and then fry it” – before you snap? And then you get to the Vegetable section and, well. Yeah.

Just to get a flavor of what a George Herter recipe is like, I want to reproduce one in its entirety here. This one is called Spinach Mother of Christ, and according to the one friend I have who actually knew about this book before I started this project (Hi Karen!) it makes a great dramatic reading at social gatherings. It has pretty much everything you could ask for in a George Herter recipe – unfounded confidence, random opinions, unwarranted familiarity with a historical figure, a story that isn’t even remotely plausible in either its general outlines or its remarkably specific details but has enough correct details that you can’t quite dismiss it out of hand, and a recipe that is simple enough that you kind of wonder what all the fuss is about. I am not sure if the Pope knows about this particular recipe or not, but just in to be sure, the next time I visit Italy I am going to drop a copy in the suggestion box at St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m sure there is one somewhere there. It’s probably right next to Michelangelo’s Pietà.

Aside from its theological implications, this is a pretty typical example of what you will find in Bull Cook.


Spinach Mother of Christ

The Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, was very fond of spinach. This is as well a well known fact in Nazareth today as it was 19 centuries ago. Her favorite music was that of the crude bagpipes of the time, and this also is a well known fact.

Her recipe for preparing spinach spread with Christianity throughout Europe. On the eve of Christ’s birth in the cave that was called a stable, Her only meal was spinach.

The early European immigrants from Germany, France, and Italy nearly all brought this recipe with them. This is a recipe for people who like a mild garlic flavor, it definitely is not for people who do not like some garlic.

This recipe cannot be made from canned spinach. Canned spinach in no way resembles fresh or frozen spinach and in my opinion is fit for neither man or beast.

Take six quarts of fresh spinach and carefully remove the heavy stems. If you use frozen spinach take two boxes. Boil the fresh spinach five minutes – no more. If you boil spinach too much it completely loses all of its original taste. If you use frozen spinach place it in boiling water. With a fork break up the frozen blocks as soon as possible. After the blocks are broken up and the spinach loose boil it for 1 or two minutes – no more or it is worthless. Take and put three heaping teaspoons of butter in a frying pan and melt it. Chop up four cloves of garlic and put them into the melted butter. Fry them with medium or low heat until slightly brown. Frying the garlic in butter entirely changes its odor and flavor making it quite mild. Take the drained spinach and mix in the butter and fried garlic. Salt and pepper to taste. Originally the spinach was then pestled to make a puree. Today take your food mill and pass the spinach through it making it into a puree. Serve as a main dish with bread and butter or as a vegetable with a regular meal.

Today in Belgium and Germany a little nutmeg is sprinkled over the top of the puree. This however was not in the original recipe.


Don’t you feel better knowing this? I know I will never go to a Christmas Eve church service again without thinking of Popeye the Sailor Man.

Along with this, I have also learned the following:

1. “Cheese on bread should never be fried until melted.” Oh, no. No, no, no. Shots fired. Has this man never heard of a grilled cheese sandwich? This cannot stand.

2. Did you know that the name “New Orleans” was meant as a homophobic joke? Now you do. “Nouvelle Orleans was named for Louis Philippe duc d’Orleans the French regent at the time [of settlement]. The duke was well hated in France and the name Nouvelle was used as a pointed jab, the word Nouvelle in French is a feminine word and not used with a masculine name, made him out as a complete fairy.” Do you think George actually understood what goes on in New Orleans? Or France? It does raise some questions.

3. On the other hand he notes rather pointedly that Hernando Cortez and the other conquistadores were “murderers” whose behavior toward the Aztecs was unacceptable, so there is that.

4. George’s admiration for the Aztecs does take him to some strange places, though. “At this time the Aztecs were killing about 20,000 people a year as sacrifices to their gods. They were also eating the victims. Do not frown upon this, as the French, Hollanders, Danes, and Germans not too many centuries back were also cannibals all along their coastal areas. Meat was scarce and they ate each other to vary a tiresome menu of fish and mollusks.” I will admit that the “boredom” theory of cannibalism is new to me. Also, I’m now a bit more suspicious as to the provenance of some of the meat recipes from earlier in the book than I was before.

5. One of the first recipes in the Sandwich section is called Sandwich Dora Hand, named after an Old West singer. It takes George slightly more than three full pages of text to get to what is essentially a fried fish sandwich with pickles and onions, but it’s an entertaining ride. The opening sentence of the recipe says, in its entirety, “I do not wish the people who made and are making American so called ‘historical movies’ for television and theaters any bad luck but if they would all drop dead it would be better for everyone.” George is not a fan of Hollywood, as he has made clear on many occasions before this, so you the reader will glance over this sentence with familiarity and resignation before realizing that he’s only just warming up here. Once he climbs down from that particular tree you get a history of Dodge City, KS as both a cattle town and food mecca – it apparently had a number of the finest restaurants in the Old West, all of which served ice cold beer – and then half a page on the history of gunfighting in the 19th century interspersed with commentary on the exact ethnic heritage of the British Isles (“The Picts were the only true British people, like the Indians are the only true Americans”) and a few words of practical advice on the best way to win a gunfight should you find yourself in one (remember: accuracy, not speed). A half page on the life of Dora Hand herself comes next – her ancestry, biography, singing skills, and tragic love life – followed by her dastardly murder by one James W. (“Spike”) Kennedy, who was then hunted down and killed by pretty much everyone who mattered in the Old West all at the same time. Only then do you get the actual recipe for the sandwich, followed by a plea to remember poor Dora. “She was a fine woman.”

6. Never one to shy away from controversy, George enters the linguistic quagmire that is the origins of the quintessential American expression “OK,” with both arms swinging. He insists it comes from the French “Aux Quais,” which the good people of New Orleans used to signify anything arriving or departing properly from the docks. This is not the most far-fetched thing in this book, when you get down to it.

7. George was not a great fan of Disneyland, and after a paragraph complaining about it – for some reason included toward the end of a recipe for burritos – he rather quietly notes that “I am in favor of giving some land back to the Indians, they didn’t do such a bad job with it at all.” Take that, Walt.

8. Somewhere toward the end of a recipe for Sandwich Holy Night (chocolate and red currant jelly on bread) – a recipe which is devoted almost entirely to the history of the Christmas carol Silent Night and the sad treatment of the local priest who actually wrote it by his parishioners and the priests and bishops over him – George sneaks in the observation that “I have always said that Heaven will never be over crowded with Christians.” Looking around at the naked right-wing partisanship and performative cruelty of the people shouting loudest about their “Christian” faith here in the US these days, I can’t say I disagree.

9. When not questing for the Holy Grail, King Arthur was “one of the best pudding cooks of his time.” Maybe that’s what he needed the Grail for? To hold pudding? Who knows.

10. George provides a surprising number of recipes for toast.

11. Do not under any circumstances allow George Herter to serve you Caesar Salad, a recipe he is absolutely sure was invented by an Italian immigrant cook in Chicago IL in 1903 and certainly had nothing to do with anyone in Mexico. His version contains, among other things, croutons fried in beef fat, bacon, mustard, raw eggs, and Swiss (never Parmesan) cheese, and I was reading along thinking that this was strange but at least within hailing distance of acceptable boundaries until he got to the part about frying some of the lettuce. I have no idea what would possess an adult human to fry lettuce.

12. Along with his culinary expertise, George also considered himself an ethnographer and thus we come to the following in a recipe for boiled corn (a food that really doesn’t need a recipe and George therefore had to find something else to discuss to fill up the space allotted): “The Mohawk Indians are descended from the Celts and are cousins to the Irish, Scotch, Bretons, and Welsh. … The balance of Indians come from the Mongolians which makes them cousins to the Chinese.” I suspect this would come as a great surprise not only to the anthropological community but also to the Mohawks themselves.

13. Nobody in Europe likes popcorn.

14. While George was quite vocal about the evils of slavery – an ongoing problem in the world of 1960, he notes, and a general failing among the nations of the world (“There is not a nation in the world that is doing one thing to stop the ungodly slavery that is still going on”) – he nevertheless was a great fan of the Confederacy, in large part because Southerners were apparently very good at baking potatoes and that has to count for something. George has firm Opinions about potatoes. He is highly partial to red potatoes, the kind that were used by the Indians. “The white potatoes,” he says, “were promoted commercially by white men. They grow larger than the red skinned potatoes and hence are more profitable to grow. Some names for them are Russets, Idaho Bakers, etc. They have been promoted as a baking potato, mainly. Actually they are good for nothing. … Don’t let them fool you.” You have been warned.

15. Thomas Jefferson was a better cook than president.

16. Have you ever looked at a recipe and thought, “Oh, no. I am not going there.” This is why I am not going to be discussing the recipe for “Titty Sauce Yams” any further. You can look it up on page 204.

17. Despite being raised in Minnesota George is not a fan of the wild rice that is grown there. “It is a long grained dark brown rice that when cooked tastes exactly like cooked barley,” he complains. “Blind folded you cannot tell the difference between it and cooked barley. It is the poorest eating rice in existence. Actually to me it tastes like mud from a pond and barley mixed together. No one ever ate it. Not one settler or Indian ever bothered with it at all as they knew it was no good for eating.”

18. In a remarkable display of biological wishful thinking, George spends nearly a page explaining “how to make shallots from onions.” Basically this means planting and replanting the same onions for several years running in order to get a shallot in the end, which is a marvel of genetic engineering if you think about it.

19. If you ever get to San Francisco, don’t go to Fisherman’s Wharf on George’s account. Nobody fishes there and the boats don’t come in with fresh fish and the restaurants are all just “phony atmosphere.” In a caption under a photograph of a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf, with a seagull perched scenically in front of it, George observes “The sea gull would be better eating than some of the food served on the wharf.” He does make an exception for the sourdough bread, though.

20. When he says “French fry” something, George means “deep fry.” Once you figure that out a lot of things make a lot more sense. There is only one oil suitable for deep frying, however. Soybean oil is not it – it is good for mixing paints and making linoleum. Cottonseed oil is for making plastics. Corn oil is also good for plastics and also baking. Olive oil is fine on salads. Lard is okay if you render it yourself but store bought is just foul. Margarine is shameful and should not be used for anything. No, if you want to fry anything you need beef fat.

21. French fries are best when sprinkled with powdered mustard. You heard it here first.

22. George also has very firm Opinions on potato chips, particularly when they should and should not be served. “People like potato chips with a cold snack or a hot dog,” he says, “but not usually with a hot meal unless they are losing their mind.” As he would know.

Next: Desserts

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Taking the Bull by the Horns, Part 3

One of the things that really strikes you as you read through Bull Cook is that George Herter really had no particular plan in mind when he wrote it.

Oh, sure, he organized the book into sections – Meats, Fish, Eggs, Soups, Sandwiches, Civil Defense, and so on – and he’s not a bad writer in a structural sense so you can see how one idea kind of follows the next. But every time you read a recipe you get the very strong impression that he just kind of dove into it with a general topic and a devil-may-care attitude, confident that whenever he reached the end of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth he would have accomplished whatever it was he set out to do even if he had to define that goal retroactively.

Because some of these recipes are really a wild ride.

Consider, for example, the recipe for Fish Antony, which covers slightly more than a page of text.

George starts out with a four-paragraph biography of Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, who was born in the Dutch city of Delft in 1632, over three centuries before this book was published. After an introductory paragraph about Van Leeuwenhoek’s early life you get two paragraphs on what is generally considered by most historians to be his claim to fame – the invention of the microscope and the discovery of microscopic life forms in a drop of water, something that truly astonished Europeans of the day. And then George pivots to a fourth paragraph about how Van Leeuwenhoek was “a great fisherman and fish eater” and also “was one of the first to raise garden peas in Holland.”

This is followed by one rather long paragraph, almost as long as the four biographical ones combined, on the history of peas, from their origins in “Northwest India, Afghanistan, and the mountains and plateau of Ethiopia,” through the medieval and Renaissance period in Europe.

Returning to Van Leeuwenhoek, we get two paragraphs on his gardening skills and the invention of this recipe, which – after all that – turns out to be boiled fish with mushroom sauce and peas, spread on toast. George heartily recommends the use of Campbells Cream of Mushroom soup.

He then wraps things up with a paragraph that mostly discusses tuna and why it is just the foulest thing in the seas. George is nothing if not a man of Opinions, all of which he delivers with the confidence of an Old Testament prophet at a dance club.

Then he moves on to the next recipe.

The recipes in general are not all that complicated – really, most of them are at the “Cooking for College Students” level, the sort of thing a worried grandmother might offer to her wayward 18-year-old grandson in the hopes that he will neither starve nor burn down his dorm. Some are more involved, of course, but most of them are pretty straightforward.

And along the way you learn some things. I do not guarantee that those things are true. But they are certainly things, and generally interesting in the liberal arts sense of the term, the way three-headed frogs are, um, interesting.

So here are a few things that I learned in the Fish, Eggs, and Soups & Sauces sections, numbered for your convenience.

1. Caviar is not Russian but Mongolian, introduced to Europe by Genghis Khan himself, “the mightiest ruler the world has ever produced” and the man who also introduced buckwheat flour and pancakes to Europeans as well because when you’re slaughtering enough people to alter the global climate (which is true, by the way) you do work up a fearsome appetite.

2. Carp is toxic to mink, humans, and other fish.

3. St. James the Apostle invented a recipe for boiled clams and George is very happy to share that with you. Indeed, as I will cover in a later post, George does seem to have had an in with most of the important figures of the Old and New Testaments. It’s probably good that they had so many Fish recipes, and I’m sure I’ll get back to this point when we cover Loaves.

4. “The Scandinavian people both Norwegian and Swedish are great lovers of fish tongues, and consider them a great delicacy.” Let’s unpack that simple declarative sentence for a moment, shall we? First, we’ve limited Scandinavia to Norway and Sweden, which no doubt comes as a surprise to the Danes and Finns, let alone the Icelanders. Second, it does leave open the question of just how many fish tongues one needs to make a decent meal. The recipe that follows does not say – it just says to boil them or “French fry” them (do the Scandinavians fry things that way or is there a Swedish fry method?) and serve with catsup, mustard, and/or horseradish. How big are fish tongues anyway?

5. If you want pickled fish, however, you cannot just go to the store. “To get real pickled fish,” says George, “you must go to small towns along the coasts of such countries as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. Here you must be invited into the home where the woman of the house makes her own pickled fish.” So good luck with that, gentle reader! Fortunately, George has managed to cadge the recipe that apparently all of these women use and he presents it here. It’s actually one of the more complicated recipes, with a pile of spices, several rounds of vinegar and salt, and for some reason a packet of gelatin (he recommends Knox).

6. The restaurants in Seattle suck. “Most of them sell atmosphere, not food, and at very high prices.”

7. George has very firm Opinions about the oysters you can get in Seattle and the sorts of people who buy them. “The smallest ones are from Olympia and are called Olympia oysters,” he says with a certain amount of justification. “These tiny oysters are only about as large as a quarter. They bring $5.75 a pint wholesale [which would be a bit more than $30 in 2023]. Because of their small size some people think that it is smart to eat them. Actually they are the poorest quality of oyster grown anyplace in the world and have practically no taste at all. If you order them it just shows your stupidity about oysters.” So there.

8. He is also not a fan of Antoine’s in New Orleans – the recipe for Oysters a la Rockefeller is basically a negative Yelp review of the place punctuated by pictures and followed by the recipe that George felt they should have used had they known better – but he does like Galatoire’s.

9. San Diego has no noticeable traffic problems but Phoenix is a mess. How this fits into a recipe for abalone is not clear.

10. Even after reading a couple dozen recipes that George claims were inspired by food in New Orleans – either in honor of it or in reaction against it, either way – I’m still not sure if he liked the place. This is not helped at all by the photograph of The 500 Club on Bourbon Street, which is captioned, in its entirety, Bourbon Street, New Orleans, is a blend of fine old lace iron work and nude women. You could go either way with a caption like that, I suppose.

11. The section on Eggs is all of three pages long and contains pretty much nothing of note except for the first mention in the book of anything relating to nutrition, where he declares that Eggs King Louis IX – eggs mixed with lemon juice and onion powder and then fried to a custard consistency – can be substituted in place of mayonnaise in salads because it “has practically no calories.” This appears on page 131.

12. George is not a fan of French cooking in general, however much he likes specific examples of it. “A great many of the words used to describe recipes in French cooking mean nothing at all,” he complains. “Many of the words are strictly phony conjured up to simply give a very ordinary recipe a fancy name to falsely try to impress people.” These are literally the first two sentences of his section on Soups & Sauces, so you know you’re in for a ride given the prevalence of sauces in French cooking.

13. Consomme Royale – a recipe that calls for both canned and frozen mixtures of peas and carrots, as well as bouillon cubes, Bovril, cinnamon, and macaroni – is a seriously manly soup in George’s eyes. “Nothing sissy about this soup,” he says. This is why men lead shorter lives, you know.

14. Also in that same recipe, we discover that “cinnamon is imported pine bark.” Really, I got nothin’.

15. Speaking as someone with Italian heritage, his recipe for spaghetti sauce is pure blasphemy and I am deeply shocked that the entire Roman pantheon did not rise up from wherever it has been banished to for the last couple of millennia and strike him down in his kitchen for it. It starts poorly, with lard, an ingredient that has no place here. It rights itself a bit with tomato paste (a 6-ounce can and “no more,” which is rather restrictive), oregano, garlic, onion, and perhaps bay leaf. And then it goes off the rails completely with nutmeg, horseradish mustard, and celery salt. He also recommends Swiss cheese on your pasta. There is no coming back from this.

16. Despite this, George retains the unshakable confidence of an Instagram influencer (and you know he would have both hated and been exceedingly good at that) and this becomes truly obvious in his discussion of Bechamel Sauce, which he and he alone knows how to make. “Almost invariably persons who write or talk about Bechamel actually have no idea at all what they are talking about,” he complains. “They copy the recipe from a cook book, the author of which, likewise did not know the true recipe either and just made bad guesses. Even the so-called finest cook books do not have the true Bechamel sauce recipes.” If you’re interested, it consists of butter, flour, and cold milk. Salt and pepper to taste. Now you know.

17. In what is probably the most quoted section of this book other than the introduction where he lays out his plans, George discusses homemade mayonnaise. Or, more accurately, he discusses the one and only way that his recipe for homemade mayonnaise could possibly fail, which is tied intimately to the nature of the preparer and not something that George personally had to worry about. “If you are a woman,” he cautions, “do not attempt to make mayonnaise during menstruating time as the mayonnaise will simply not blend together at all well. This is not a superstition but a well established fact well known to all women cooks. … There are countless facts in everyday living that will always remain a complete mystery.”

You know, it’s hard to think of where even to begin when confronted by a statement like that. Has he tested this hypothesis? Without getting his ass kicked? How? There’s your complete mystery right there, really. And the thing is, by the time you get to this paragraph you’re 149 pages into the book. You’ve been reading along with all of the various and mounting oddities in this book thinking, despite the cumulative psychological toll, that “Yep, I’ve got the hang of this now, I am fully Weird Certified and an Experienced George Reader at this point and nothing he says will shock me” and then – BAM! – he hits you with this gem and you sit there in your chair staring into the middle distance with a dazed expression like you just went two rounds with Smokin’ Joe Frazier in his prime and wondering if it is too early in the day to commence serious drinking to get past this or whether “too early” is a meaningful concept in light of what you just read with your own actual eyes. I think I’ll stick with Duke’s.

18. Anti-pasto was invented by a drunk cat. After the mayonnaise bit, this almost seems normal.

19. Roquefort – which is George’s term for blue cheese in general, though he does differentiate varieties from time to time – was invented by a “sorceress” named Jehenne Muret roughly a decade before the birth of Christ. She lived in a cave.

20. The finest mustard in the world was made by Lucrezia Borgia and it’s just a shame about the poisoning thing is all.

Next up: Sandwiches, in which things well and truly go off the rails.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

News and Updates

1. I’m still working my way through Bull Cook. I’ve made it through the sections on Fish and Eggs, and am now in the Soups and Sauces section. The quality commentary that I signed up for has not diminished. There will be further installments here, oh yes there will.

2. This week has been entirely devoted to Committee work down at Home Campus, with a short interval devoted to the care and feeding of undergraduates. On the whole I think I prefer the latter, but it has to be said that the former has had some rewards.

3. We’re currently in the “melt” phase of our winter, which has oscillated between snow/ice storms and spring-like temperatures. Yesterday it was so mild when I left work that I forgot my jacket in my office. This is not how March 1 in Wisconsin is supposed to work, folks. Meanwhile Los Angeles had a blizzard, there are tornadoes and hurricane-force winds in Texas, last year was again one of the hottest on record (something that gets said pretty much every year these days) and Yellowstone National Park is closed because there has been too much snow even for them. I suppose I should be glad that nothing is on fire like it was a couple of years ago. Good thing the climate isn’t changing, because otherwise I’d be worried.


4. I am one of those people who is still playing Wordle, because it is fun and makes the day that much better. My completion rate is now an almost perfect bell curve – usually 4 tries, then sloping off to 3 or 5, and occasionally 2 or 6. Statistics FTW!

5. The State of Florida has descended into overt Fascism and nobody seems to care. Il Doofus the Governor has openly declared he will use state power to force corporations such as Disney to say only what he approves of them saying. There is legislation in process to force historians to teach right-wing propaganda instead of actual history and which arbitrarily bans a whole category of study that right-wingers have declared to be offensive to their delicate snowflake sensibilities. And their persecution of a powerless outgroup is following the precedents set in 1930s Germany so closely that they might as well have taken notes. Welcome to the party of “freedom” and “small government,” right?

If Republicans want me to stop calling them Nazis they need to stop doing the things the Nazis did.

6. Meanwhile a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that there is a bill in the Texas legislature that would ban Shakespeare’s comedies. Oh they think it’s about banning drag shows but the way it’s worded it would also cover a great many other things including some of the finest plays in the English language. I’m not entirely sure why drag shows have suddenly become the popular thing for Fascists to complain about but there it is. Honestly, the most dangerous thing about a drag show is that a conservative white man with a gun might show up.

7. On a lighter note, I was watching a soccer game a couple of weeks ago and saw something I’d never seen before. One team had kicked the ball out of bounds so an injured player could be attended to, and when play resumed the other team put the ball into play and was about to kick the ball back to the first team – a sporting gesture that isn’t in the rule book but which is universally honored across the game, from what I can tell. Except that one asshole on the first team charged in, stole the ball, and scored. This caused friction between the teams, shall we say. His own coach chewed him out in front of the entire stadium. When play resumed after that, the first team simply stood by and watched the other team score to cancel out the offending goal and then the game resume for real. It was the right thing to do.

8. Oliver and I have been watching the Flyers a fair amount of late despite the fact that they are in free-fall toward the bottom of the NHL. They’re a desperately out-manned team working hard to keep up with more talented squads and they’re actually kind of fun to watch that way – they don’t lie down. At this point in my life all I ask of sports is to be entertained.

9. Here is an excerpt from English As She Is Spoke, chosen at random from the back where the short paragraphs for further study are listed, for Lucy:

A man one’s was presented at a magistrate which had a considerable library. “What you make?” beg him the magistrate. “I do some books,” he was answered. “But any of your books i did not seen its. – I believe it so, was answered the author; i make nothing for Paris. From a of my works is imprinted, i send the edition for America; i don’t compose what to colonies.

This is the quality content you come here for, admit it.

10. I spent one evening this week at a recruiting event for our campus at one of the local high schools, answering advising questions that my colleague was kind enough to translate for me and thinking, “yeah, I really do need to learn Spanish.” Someday. Not today – I’m barely keeping up with things as it is. But someday.

11. The new grocery store in town sells guanciale! There will be carbonara!

12. On that note, do you know how old I am? I’m “let’s check out the new grocery store!” years old.