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The Food that Built America

Seamlessly blending historian interviews with dramatized re-enactments, The History Channel’s three-part series on The Food that Built America offers a surprisingly riveting look at what might sound like some mundane topics.

A few things I learned:

  • Tomato ketchup, historically known as tomato catsup, is a tomato-based variety of “catsup sauce”, other varieties of which include fish-based sauce and walnut-based sauce. The original purpose of all of these “catsups”, tomato catsup included, was to mask the unpleasant flavor of rotting meat, as most meat at the time was not kept very well, but people felt compelled to eat it anyway, rather than let their expensive food go to waste.
  • The Heinz Company, purveyor of quality tomato catsup, successfully lobbied the United States government to establish and enforce food preparation regulations, in order to push out of business low-budget competitors who were making inferior tomato catsup on the cheap.(Perhaps had Heinz done this first, meat would not have been served rotten, and we never would have needed tomato catsup in the first place!)
  • The Kellogg brothers developed breakfast cereal initially as a quasi-medicinal product, to help people suffering from poor digestion and other stomach ailments. (Maybe from eating too much rotten meat?) One of their patients was C. W. Post, who “borrowed” the idea and launched breakfast cereal to the general public. William Kellogg eventually followed suit as a competitor, though his doctor brother was at best reluctant to market their “medicinal” breakfast food as a commercial product.
  • Milton Hershey launched his chocolate business before he had even figured out how to make chocolate, including building housing for employees and hiring an executive salesman to market something that did not yet exist. He was confident that he could develop a usable recipe, and that, once that part was compete, milk chocolate would be a runaway success.
  • In the midst of the Great Depression, when many people lacked the resources to buy much food, Hershey halved the price of his allegedly protein-rich, peanut-filled Mr. Goodbar chocolate, touting it as a meal substitute with the same nutritional benefit as a pound of meat.

The series was enjoyable to watch, well-acted, well-produced, and left me both wanting to learn more about the origins of these everyday products, and maybe wanting to eat some more of them.

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American Airlines: This Page Has Taken Flight

I was recently trying to book a flight on American Airlines using accumulated miles/points. Every time I got to the end of the booking process, I reached a page that said “This Page Has Taken Flight”, and I lost all of the booking information I had entered thus far.

Eventually I found the solution on a web forum posting. Apparently, despite having flown on American Airlines many times, my account had gotten into a state such that my home address was not on file. Entering my home address into my account details enabled me to complete the flight booking.

This error message was very mysterious, and nothing about it even remotely suggested what the problem was. Sharing this tidbit here in case it helps anyone else!

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The Forgotten Founding Father

I just finished reading The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall’s biography of Noah Webster.

Preceding President Trump’s “America First” campaign by some 230 years, Webster was an adamant supporter of breaking from European influence and promoting development of resources within the United States:

At dinner, [George] Washington happened to mention that he was looking to hire a young man to tutor his two step-grandchildren—Nelly and Wash Custis, then living at Mount Vernon. He told Webster that he had asked a colleague in Scotland to offer recommendations. A stunned Webster shot back, “What would European nations think of this country if, after the exhibition of great talents and achievements in the war for independence, we should send to Europe for men to teach the first rudiments of learning?” Immediately grasping Webster’s point, a humbled Washington asked, “What shall I do?” But even before he had finished his question, the General himself knew the answer. Out of respect for the emerging new nation, he would restrict his job search to Americans.

If we are ever tempted to look at the current state of United States politics and pine for the good old days of the 1830s, we might remember that Webster was pretty distraught back then too:

He detested President Andrew Jackson as the second coming of Jefferson. In the 1832 election, he supported the third-party candidate William Wirt, as he no longer wanted anything to do with either of the major political parties. By 1836 … he also looked down on his fellow Americans: “I would, if necessary, become a troglodyte, and live in a cave in winter rather than be under the tyranny of our degenerate rulers. But I have not long to witness the evils of the unchecked democracy, the worst of the tyrannies. . . . We deserve all our public evils. We are a degenerate and wicked people.”

The impact of humans on the environment was also a popular topic in Webster’s time:

Ever since the Revolution, numerous writers had taken the position that American winters were becoming milder. These advocates for the eighteenth-century version of “global warming” included Thomas Jefferson, who had addressed the question in his Notes on Virginia; Benjamin Rush; and Samuel Williams, a Harvard historian. The man-made cause was allegedly the rapid deforestation of states such as Vermont. Webster challenged his predecessors on the basis of their lack of evidence. Noting Jefferson’s reliance on personal testimony rather than hard data, Webster wrote disparagingly, “Mr. Jefferson seems to have no authority for his opinions but the observations of elderly and middle-aged people.” Though Williams, in contrast, did engage in some statistical analysis, Webster convincingly argued that he had misconstrued the facts at hand. While Webster acknowledged that winter conditions had become more variable, he maintained the America’s climate had essentially remained stable….

The work of compiling his American English dictionary apparently demanded intense concentration. In one house, “to make sure that he wouldn’t be disturbed by the children, he packed the walls of his second-floor study with sand.” In another house, the construction of which he personally oversaw, “Webster had double walls installed in his second-floor study.” Adding mass to the wall and constructing two layers of walls both remain recommended tactics for sound isolation today.

The story of Webster’s life itself was fascinating to learn about, but perhaps just as interesting are the various side remarks about the people and places he encountered. In this book we learn bits of history about New England states; the founders of familiar cities and organizations; and details about Revolutionary-era battles, pamphleteering, and government development from a more personal perspective than usual.

What about the implication of the book’s title? Was Noah Webster a founding father of the United States? Others certainly appear more instrumental in initiating and developing the foundations of the country, but Webster clearly played a major role in supporting the new republic through a prolific number of articles and numerous speeches. Webster’s role may have been more supportive than creative, but that does not diminish his importance.

As usual, I read a paperback edition, but as the cover became worn from being stuffed into the back of the seat in front of me on several airplane trips, I thought a digital edition might have been nice too, at least for reading as a travel passenger.

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Nixon Now

IMG_2938I was recently at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. Having never before taken the time to learn much about Nixon, my impression of him, molded by superficial academia and mass media, was that he was corrupt, disgraced, and most definitely a “crook”.

Perusing the exhibits, I learned for the first time about what might have been one of the best presidents in United States history. His accomplishments both within the country and in relations with other countries are numerous and impressive. Why has his reputation been watered down to Watergate? Even there, it seems that what actually happened is not be as bad as what the general public has been led to believe. Nixon himself offered in 1978:

Some people say I didn’t handle it properly and they’re right. I screwed it up. Mea culpa. But let’s get on to my achievements. You’ll be here in the year 2000 and we’ll see how I’m regarded then.

Now in 2018… it seems that he remains best-known for Watergate.

He also had some amazing campaign songs:

Thanks to the great exhibition displays at the museum, I look forward to learning more about our 37th president. Happy Election Day!

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The Greatest Love

819925-R1-013-5At our 2008 wedding, Jennifer and I had my cousin Hannah McDonald sing the Harlan Rogers composition The Greatest Love (with lyrics later added by Phil Driscoll). In celebration of our ten-year anniversary, we at Atmosphere Control Productions have published a single of this song, retaining the original drum track from the wedding (courtesy of Carl Albrecht), along with updated keys, guitars, bass, and vocal tracks. Available as a digital download now from iTunes, Amazon Music, CDBaby, etc. Buy a copy today! Better yet, buy a thousand!

And Happy 10-Year Anniversary to Jennifer! I love you very much!

See also: original instrumental version from 1986 by Harlan Rogers with Koinonia