Monday, September 23, 2019

Maine on a Half Shell: That Other Local Shellfish - Part 1

This is the first of a two-part and slightly revised version and expanded version of a lecture I presented before the New Gloucester (Maine) Historical Society on September 19, 2019.

I am not certain when I ate my first oyster, be it cooked or nude (raw). I was born and raised in the Midwest - Wisconsin mostly with its dairy farms and breweries. Lots of cows, hay and corn; plenty of milk, cheese, and beer. You get the picture. We did have the Great Lakes and their bounty, but where I grew up we were hundreds of miles from the closest oyster beds.

This is not to say that oysters did not occasionally pop up on a menu, especially Oysters Rockefeller, or oysters on a half shell (some say "in" a half shell) in some of your fancier restaurants in Milwaukee or Madison, or even Chicago - my hometown - whenever we ventured that far. But folks in Wisconsin seemed to prefer a simple Friday night fish fry and all the yellow perch and walleye you could eat. If I did go somewhere fancy to eat on a holiday or on a special occasion, I was content with a shrimp cocktail or maybe some pickled herring. I even had snails a couple time and enjoyed them just fine. But oysters. They seldom entered the picture.

I attended college for most of my undergraduate career in Florida where my Midwestern culinary horizons were greatly expanded, including an introduction to other types of seafood not sold in supermarkets or served in restaurants back in the Midwest; at least not five decades ago. Grouper, mackerel, red snapper . . . the list goes on. These new discoveries were delicious. It was also during this time when I began to eat lobster, although unless it was a special occasion when the offering was a Maine lobster served at a restaurant, one was more than likely treated to a Caribbean spiny lobster from local waters between midsummer and early spring. Although oysters were harvested in Florida, I would not discover them until later.

It was during the year I attended a German university and traveled throughout Europe in the early 1970s when I began trying all sorts of foods I had never had before. There were fermented Vietnamese century eggs and other street foods consumed in a back street on Paris’ Left Bank. Or sampling live snails although there was some doubt they were still alive when you ate them. Herring in aspic? Oh, the list goes on and on. More importantly, my diet in Europe also included the delicious North Sea flat oysters harvested from the expansive tidal flats along the Dutch, German, and Danish coasts which could be purchased at the daily market in the center of Freiburg where I did most of my shopping. They were over harvested and further thinned out by the invasive Pacific oyster although efforts continue to restore the native flat oysters.

So I had a taste for oysters when I returned from Germany to Florida and discovered that the Sunshine State, as well the Gulf of Mexico coastlines of Mississippi and Louisiana produced some of the finest tasting oysters in North America. Back then oysters grew like weeds down in the Gulf and were still grown wild for the most part versus farmed oysters, and were relatively affordable. The lower salinity levels of the Gulf also protected wild oysters from certain diseases in a way that hasn’t happened in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere. My favorite Florida oysters are those from the waters near Apalachicola, on the eastern Panhandle, which is the last place in the United States where, by law, wild oysters are still harvested by tongs from small boats. Still, during frequent visits to north Florida I love to drive over to the Gulf coast at Cedar Key where you can find me slurping down trays of local Pelican Reef (Eastern) oysters on the half shell arrayed over crushed ice . . . with a drop of Tabasco sauce, a dab of horseradish, and a few wedges fresh lemon.
Pelican Reef Oysters at Cedar Key, Florida

I moved from Florida to Tucson for graduate school. Yes, it’s in the Arizona desert and it is not known for seafood although there is good seafood not far away in Southern California, and even closer, in Mexico, and some of it made it up to the better restaurants around town. Being a graduate student, I tended to seek out less expensive fare. But no oysters to speak of; at least I never ate them while living out West to my recollection. It was probably not until 1976, shortly after SallyAnn and I moved from Tucson to Maryland with easy access to the Chesapeake Bay, that I finally got into the habit of eating wild oysters . . . and a raw one to boot . . . which were at the time plentiful, harvested by trawl and hand tonging, and relatively cheap. And there has been no looking back since. I will occasionally eat oysters cooked - roasted or fried usually - but my default preference is freshly shucked bivalves served on the half shell . . . and yes . . . with a drop of Tabasco sauce and a little dab of horseradish and some freshly cut lemon wedges. That’s all you really need and we are talking about a feast fit for the gods! I became an official ostreaphile . . . an oyster afficionado.
Chesapeake Bay is not a bay at all but actually a tidal estuary, the largest in the US, where fresh and salt water mix to medium salinity. It was long considered the "Napa Valley of oysters. While wines have terroirs, oysters are defined by "meroirs" determined by water salinity, temperature, the types of algae present in the water, and seabed characteristics. These all factor into an individual oyster’s flavor. There are only five unique species of oysters in the United States – Pacific, Kumamoto, European Flat or Belon, Olympia, and along the Gulf of Mexico, all the way to the waters of Maine and the Canadian Maritime, including the Chesapeake Bay, the best know in the common Eastern Oyster – Crassostrea virginica which has many different market names –"Wellfleets" "Blue Points" "Dodge Coves" – depending where they are harvested. They are all the same species yet oysters differ from state to state, from river to river and even from cove to cove.

The Chesapeake Bay oyster beds were dense throughout, and the local bivalves flourished in the warm waters along the indented shoreline and various tributaries – especially the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the Choptank in Maryland, and the James and the Rappahanock in Virginia. Oyster rocks, or reefs, were so abundant that they presented a hazard to shipping in and out of Baltimore. Chesapeake oysters grew plump and sweet and forty years ago you could buy a bushel and not break the bank. Alas, the local watermen have harvested this apparently inexhaustible resource for over two centuries until today there are virtually no more wild oysters to harvest in the Chesapeake Bay. All the best now come from aquaculture operations in Virginia tributaries. In fact, 95% of all oysters consumed in the world today are farm-raised. And they are no longer cheap or as easy to come by. You can imagine my consternation. 

Part 2 will discuss this Marylander’s thoughts on the evolution the Maine oyster.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Sunny Morning with Bright Blue Skies . . . 18 Years Later

On that fateful morning of September 11, 2001 I was at my desk just three short blocks from the White House as my colleagues and I followed the unfolding of those tragic events in New York City. And while we and much of America watched in horror as two commercial airliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 carrying 59 passengers and crew, was hijacked by five terrorists after its departure from Washington’s Dulles International Airport and deliberately crashed into the west side of the Pentagon at 9:37am. The plane struck the building at the first-floor level while traveling at 345 mph, and debris and fires penetrated the three outermost rings of the building. The building was severely damaged, and one section at the impact site collapsed. In the meantime a third plane crashed into the rural hills of western Pennsylvania as it flew toward another unsuspecting target in Washington.  In the aftermath, I joined thousands of others crowding the streets and sidewalks of downtown Washington as we made our way out of the city on foot, the smoke of the burning Pentagon rising into an otherwise cloudless blue sky.
Who can ever forget?  September 11, 2001 was a day when everything changed in the United States, if not the entire world.   Since then we have been bogged down in a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan in which more Americans have sacrificed their lives.   Osama Bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda mastermind of the 9/11 atrocities is dead and his organization in shamble yet we still live on the brink, awaiting what surely will come next.

We need to stop living in fear.  A year ago I said it was seventeen years later it was time we finally put our best face forward again as a country.  Another year has gone by and I fear we have yet to do that.  And as I look around me I see no real effort to do so in the foreseeable future.  On September 11, 2001 it seemed as if time stood still.   We tried to catch our breath and understand what was happening and why.  It’s time to start breathing again.  It’s time to take our fate in our own hands again.   It’s time we regain our moral compass and start acting like the great nation we were before that sunny morning with bright blue skies.  It really is up to us.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Enjoying Currywurst - Another German Dilemma?

There are several dilemmas, or at least potential dilemmas, facing our German allies these days. There is the threat of an economic recession and what the future will bring when long-serving Chancellor Merkel steps down in 2021. What will Germany’s role be in a post Brexit European Union? There is the growing problem of immigration and the threat of a far right political resurgence, especially in the states of the former communist German Democratic Republic [GDR/East Germany]. The list continues to grow much to the consternation of the German government and the German people. There is one dilemma, however, that has not received much media attention but is always on a German’s mind. What is the proper way to eat a Wurst, the traditional German sausage in its various manifestations?
Up until the early post World War II years a Wurst should be eaten with a knife and fork when consume at home or in a restaurant. And they are frequently served as Imbissbuden [street food, or take out], along with freshly made sauerkraut and/or carmelized onions and with a generous dab of stone-ground mustard. As a student in West Germany in the early 1970s, I often stopped by one of the several Schnellimbiss fast food wagons situated on the Marktplatz surrounding the minster in Freiburg in Breisgau. They served a variety of WurstBratwurst, Knackwurst, Weisswurst, Bockwurst, and others – in this traditional way nestled between two halves of a freshly baked Brötchen [small bread roll]. Call me a purist if you want, but that is the way I always preferred to eat a German Wurst.
Yet things have changed a great deal in Germany over the past five decades. The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall have fallen and the two German states have reunified into the dominant economic power in Europe. And Germans now seem to prefer the Currywurst variant over the more traditional version. This is a steamed and then fried Bratwurst
[pork sausage with or without it skin, or Darm] which is cut into small portions and seasoned with a curry-based tomato sauce and then dusted with a few shakes of curry powder and/or other spices. It is usually served with a small wooden fork and a side of pomme-frites. 

The story goes that the Currywurst was first invented by Herta Heuwer on September 4, 1949 in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. It was the year the two postwar German states were founded and Heuwer had obtained ketchup, curry powder (and some say Worcestershire sauce although there is some debate about this) from a British soldier among those occupying the city after the war. She used the ingredients to season Bratwurst at her Schnellimbiss located at the corner of Kantstraße and Kaiser-Friedrich-Straße in Charlottenburg. She later patented her sauce as "Chillup" in 1951 and opened additional stands around West Berlin. The original food stand remained opened until 1974 and the last of the Heuwer Schnellimbiss stands shuttered five years later. There are now over two thousand Schnellimbiss locations throughout Berlin alone where Currywurst is served, and it popularity has spread and Currywurst stands are now ubiquitous throughout Germany.

So popular is this newer variant that a German Currywurst Museum [Deutsches Currywurst Museum] opened in Berlin in 2009. Dedicated to the history and cultural phenomena of this now iconic German dish, the museum was located at Schützenstraße 70 in central Berlin adjacent to the former Checkpoint Charlie transit through the Wall into East Berlin and the GDR near where Herta Heuwer operated one of her Schnellimbiss. It once welcomed over 350,000 visitors annually before it closed permanently in December 2018 when its original lease expired. There are plans to transform the former museum exhibits into a traveling exhibition serving as an cultural ambassador telling the world about this unique German dish. Only time will tell.

On return trips to Germany, and enjoying curry dishes in general, I began to sample Currywurst in its many variations and quickly developed an appreciation for the classic Bratwurst version (with its slightly crunchy skin) slathered with thick (never runny) curry sauce with a side of fries and a dab or two of mayonnaise for dipping. Even better with a cold bottle of the local beer to wash it all down.

During my most recent visit to Berlin I vowed to sample Currywurst at several of the Schnellimbiss throughout the city well-known for this local fare. I won’t mention them all by names . . . there are just too many . . . and some were better
than others and some were exceptional; Best Worscht, on the Leipziger-Platz just south of the Brandenburg Gate, to name just one. I went back there more than once. I also returned to my old stomping grounds in Freiburg where I visited the Schnellimbiss wagons on the Marktplatz just as I did during my student days there. I found that the Currywurst had replaced the various types of sausage with onions and sauerkraut as the preferable offering among their customers. The times, they are a changin’.
Today the Currywurst celebrates its 70th anniversary and to commemorate Herta Heuwer’s first offering the Berlin State Mint has issued a silver alloy coin featuring a pair of Currywurst covered in sauce and pierced with a wooden fork with the image of Frau Heuwer in the background. I am still torn between the grilled Wurst served with sauerkraut, onions and mustard served cradled in a small roll, or the spicy Currywurst with a side of fries and mayonnaise. I guess for each of us it come down to a personal preference, or whatever strikes our fancy at any particular moment. Both variants are tasty and beyond satisfying. So I guess there is no dilemma after all. Which is good; the Germans have enough on their hands at the moment.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Wienermobile and Whistles Redux

Driving up Maine Route 26 on our way to far northern New Hampshire for a long weekend, we passed through the town of Oxford where we chanced upon the Wisconsin-based Oscar Mayer Wienermobile which was touring through southern Maine.  I had an immediate flashback to my younger days in Wisconsin and my first memorable encounter with the iconic Wienermobile.  I have very fond memories of Oscar Mayer hotdogs in my youth. Hot dogs and Oscar Mayer went together.  Our refrigerator was always stocked with its hot dogs and other sliced sandwich meats in packages displaying the familiar red and mustard yellow Oscar Mayer logo.  Who could pass up a chance to reconnect with those distant yet fond memories . . . and to find out if it was still true . . .  “If I was an Oscar Mayer Wiener, everyone would be in love with me.”

But what is so special about the Wienermobile?  In 1912, the company began to use a Model T Ford to deliver meats in and around Chicago, and in 1936 it came up with a new marketing strategy . . . using an automobile chassis onto which an oversized body in the shape of a hot dog was affixed. Dubbed the “Wienermobile,” this 27-foot motorized hot dog originally traveled around Chicago promoting the company’s “German-style wieners” and  the wholesome goodness of its meats.  

I got up close and personal with the Oscar Mayer Company (which is now a division of Kraft Foods and probably owned by the Chinese if you look deep enough), in the summer of 1965, when my family moved to Maple Bluff, an insular suburb of Madison, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Mendota.  Prevailing winds out of the east would bring with them a redolent reminder of the company’s packing plant - the scent of countless cookouts and breakfasts gone by. The kids of the corporate chairman, a great grandson of the original Oscar Mayer, and the then company president were my classmates at Sherman Junior High School which stands almost in the shadows of the packing plant.

I had heard of and seen pictures of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile when I was a youngster, but it was during my time in Madison that I saw one up close for the first time at a fall festival held at Tenney Park.  I had always thought that there was one Wienermobile driven by the one and only Little Oscar. That is how it all started out, anyway.  As it turned out, by the time I had my first encounter of the Wienermobile kind, it was one of a growing fleet of Weinermobiles piloted by a phalanx of Little Oscars.  And on that day in Tenney Park I discovered that the father of one of my other classmates was a member of the Little Oscar fraternity and in command of the Wienermobile on site.  At the end of the day, I had the honor of riding with my friend and his dad on the trip back up Sherman Avenue to return the Wienermobile to its garage near the packing plant.  As a parting gift, Little Oscar (at least the one I got to meet and talk to) gave me my very own Wiener Whistle cast in the image of the iconic Wienermobile.
Now the Wienermobile fleet is crewed by “Hotdoggers” trained at Hot Dog High, in Madison.  It has been updated and modernized several times over the years.  Al Unser took one of them on a test lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1988 and clocked speeds in excess of 90 mph.  Now, that is a fast wiener in anybody’s book.  In these hard economic times a wise shopper tends to select store brands over the big name products.  I seldom buy Oscar Mayer products anymore, but every time I see the familiar logo I think back to the old days and the backyard cookouts and the Wienermobile with Little Oscar at the wheel.

So there was the Wienermobile parked in a Walmart parking lot in Oxford, Maine.   More sleek and modern than I remember it, but there was no mistaking what it was.  So we stopped, chatted briefly with a pretty young Hotdogger who was packing up and preparing for the trip to the next stop on its tour.  She presented us with new Wiener Whistles as we took a few photos for the scrapbook.

As we pulled out of the parking lot to continue our weekend road trip with the Wienermobile right behind us, my wife and I broke into song.

Oh I wish I were and Oscar Mayer Wiener.
That is what I’d truly love to be.
For if I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener,
everyone would be in love with me.

I guess it really is true.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Rest of the Story - Looking Toward Portugal Through Another’s Eye

 . . . this last lip of American land
  – Jack Kerouac

When I first launched this blogspot back in December 2008, and it was barely a week old, I began receiving a number of inquiries regarding the significance of its title. Why was I looking toward Portugal?  And from what vantage point?  Both good questions and the answer was no big mystery.

In reply to these early queries I pointed out that I had been gravitating to the coast of Maine since the late 1980s, and during these trips I often found myself standing on that rocky shoreline, looking out to sea and pondering what lies beyond the far horizon.  Gazing in a general easterly direction from the Maine coast, you will see nothing but the rolling expanse of the Gulf of Maine toward the southernmost extension of Nova Scotia.  Yet, if you continue across the Atlantic you will eventually arrive on the northern shores of Portugal somewhere near Oporto.  Doing this I was constantly reminded of Jack Kerouac’s observations when he stared out across the Atlantic from the shores of Long Island (he naturally gravitated to America’s two coasts) – “this last lip of American land.”  Writing in On The Road (1957): “Here I was at the end of America . . . no more land . . ., and now there was nowhere to go but back.”  Doing this I guess we are reminded of our limitations, but we are also offered a hint of what might be if we only choose to look beyond those far horizons.  I could have been satisfied with “Looking Toward Nova Scotia,” but I liked to think there was far more to consider beyond.

As it turns out, an artist by the name of Bo Bartlett gave a name to what I had been doing all these years.  At the time I made this discovery Bartlett divided his time between the coast of Maine and Puget Sound near Seattle.  Bartlett, like Kerouac, is drawn to America’s two coasts.  (He has since moved from the Seattle area to his hometown of Columbus, Georgia,)  “Still Point,” his summer home and studio are situated on Wheaton Island  which forms the small village harbor on Matinicus Island.  He refers to the seaward side of his island as “the Portugal side,” and so I attribute “Looking Toward Portugal” to him.  It seems only fair.

Bartlett and I, however, are not the only ones who have over the years been looking eastward from America toward Portugal.  I was recently doing some photo research online and I came across a collection of hand-colored postcards dating from the 1920s depicting various scenes on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts.   One of them immediately caught my eye . . . a view of beach dunes covered in vegetation with the sea beyond.  “Looking Toward Portugal from the Eastern Shore of Nantucket Island, Mass.” is printed across the bottom of the card.  The Eastern Shore of Nantucket includes several of the island’s more remote beaches. 

The scene depicted on this postcard is more than likely Siaconset - known locally as Sconset - Beach which is located at the eastern most tip of Nantucket Island some six miles from the island village.  It is noted for its broad beaches bordering dunes and sandy bluffs.   Surf can be heavy with strong currents.

Further research turned up a postcard dealer on the island who sold me a pristine copy of this very card.  When it arrived a few days later I felt compelled to learn more about the card and the person who created it.  It turns out to be a fascinating story.  This postcard is a facsimile of a hand-painted original black and photograph taken by H. [Henry] Marshall Gardiner who was born in Canada in 1884 and who circa 1890 moved with his family to Detroit, Michigan.  His father, William Henry Gardiner, established a photographic studio there, and a short time later opened a second studio on Michigan’s Mackinaw Island to cater to the summer tourist trade.  The family bought a winter home in Daytona, Florida, in 1904, where the elder Gardiner marketed photographs of Florida to the ever growing tourist market there. 
The younger Gardiner followed in his father’s footsteps at a relatively early age and learned many of his photographic techniques from him.  One major difference, however, was his use of more advanced gelatin dry plate technology whereas his father generally used wet collodian negatives.  Later in his career he turned to rolled film negatives which were cheaper and easier to use.  He also saw the efficacy of operating his own successful photographic business centered on the tourist on Mackinaw Island and in Florida.  He assumed control of his father’s business in Daytona in October 1935 upon his father’s death.  
Gardiner also traveled to Bermuda early in his career where he produced a series of beautiful hand-tinted photographs which he sold to island tourists.  This distinctive technique was popularized in the United States by Wallace Nutting, the father of early 20th century hand colored photographs.  Gardiner soon began to produce hand-tinted colored photographs of Mackinac Island and Florida, and the technique became his true photographic legacy to this day. 
Gardiner also traveled to Nantucket Island, situated off the coast of Massachuset’s Cape Cod, around 1910 and this discovery served as a key influence on his evolution as a photographer and the development of hand-tinted photography as an art form.  The island was still very much a rural backwater with a year round population just over 2500, no where near enough to sustain photographic business despite his efforts to make it work.  But he never lost his interest in and love for this island and over the next three decades, until his death in 1942, he continued to document Nantucket’s architecture, as well as the countryside, its beaches and seascapes, and island inhabitants, producing framed and unframed hand-tinted color photographs.  Smaller postcard facsimiles were produced by the Detroit Publishing Company using their patented "Phostint" printing process.

It was not long before Gardiner’s photographs were becoming collector items, especially those of Nantucket scenes, and as time has passed they are scarce and command premium prices.  Gardiner's postcards are widely collected. Unlike his hand-painted photographs which can command a premium price today, his Nantucket colored postcards (and even a few of his more rare black and white postcards) are much easier to find on the market and they are more affordable.  Approximately three dozen of his best Nantucket images have been collected by the Nantucket Historical Association and are the subject of H. Marshall Gardiner’s Nantucket Postcards 1910-1940, edited by his daughter, Geraldine Gardiner Salisbury, in 1995.

Looking at this postcard and thinking about Gardiner’s photographic career I am reminded of “The Rest of the Story,” a weekday ABC Radio Networks program hosted by Paul Harvey beginning in May 1976.  They were interesting factual revelations on a wide variety of subjects and people which were not revealed until the end of the program which concluded with Harvey pausing then saying “And now you know the rest of the story.”  I wonder if perhaps this image was the inspiration for Bo Bartlett’s reference to the eastward view from the “Portugal side” of Wheaton Island of the coast of Maine.  I am quite certain the views are similar regardless.   This same Maine coast has become for me a place of solitude, solace, and inspiration.

Looking out to sea from “the Portugal side” of my own life, I ponder what lies beyond that meeting of water and sky.  I realize that my grand search will never be over.  Certainly not in my lifetime.  I will always return to that “last lip of American land.”

And now you know the rest of the story.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Closing One Door, Opening Many Others

Today marks the final Sunday service at Twinbrook Baptist Church, in Rockville, Maryland.  For several years it was my home church which my wife and I attended regularly.  It was a long drive for us every Sunday morning and our attendance consumed much of our Sundays when all was said and done.  But we did not resent the time spent there because we loved . . . we still love . . . our fellow congregants and we believed strongly in the progressive mission of a truly Christian church.

Twinbrook Baptist Church was established in a new residential subdivision of Rockville in 1956 by Reverend John Laney and a number of young couples who shared a vision of racial and gender equality at a time when it was not foremost on peoples’ minds in  postwar America.  A “Fellowship of the Concerned.”  The mission of the new church was very simple - “To bring Christ and the church to those who have been turned off or turned away.  We represent hope to the hopeless and provide an environment that is safe, open to questioning and discussion, free from judgment, and full of Christ's love.”
Reverend Laney spoke out passionately in those early years favoring predominantly white churches that were accepting black members.  He supported the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and his struggle for racial equality while also speaking out in opposition to America’s military adventures throughout Southeast Asia.  Twinbrook Baptist Church steered a course independent and divergent from that of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.  In 1960, when the SBC suggested that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” it was Reverend Laney who objected to such blatant anti-Semitism, publishing a retort in local Baptist publications in Washington, DC, stating categorically that such a God “would be a God who would have listened to the silent Christians in Nazi Germany while turning a deaf ear to the millions of Jews who cried out from the concentration camps and the gas chambers of the Holocaust . . . I cannot conceive of a God who would eagerly listen to Jerry Falwell and Bailey Smith but who would not tolerate a prayer from such great souls of the recent past as Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel.”  Bold words from an American Baptist minister in 1960.

As a result, for more than six decades Twinbrook Baptist Church has always stood tall, often taller than the rest, and rose to every challenge to champion unity and acceptance among those less fortunate.  It stood with those who found themselves outside of a fair and equal social equality, and in doing so it left its indelible mark on its neighborhood, on its community, and on the basic precepts of true Christianity . . . something it seems to me we are in dire need of these days as evangelical exceptionist “Christianity” seems to hold sway over much of the nation and the powers that be in Washington and in various statehouses. 

This is one of the reasons my wife and I found a home at Twinbrook Baptist Church.   We were both raised in the Methodist church.  We were baptized in the Methodist church.  Together we attended a small liberal arts college in Florida affiliated with the Methodist church.   Like many in our generation, as we moved away from home and began to establish careers and start families, it was easy to put spiritual matters and questions of faith further down on the pecking order, and we strayed away from the church for several years.  Then, in 1982, we bought our first house following the birth of our son, and we attempted to reestablish our connections with our Methodism.  Unfortunately, the church we selected in our neighborhood was in the throes of its own collapse, and when it finally did, we never looked for an alternative. 
It was in 2007 that my wife joined one of her best friends, who grew up at Twinbrook where her parents were founding members, in a Habitat for Humanity build in western Maryland as part of the church’s regular mission program with that important organization.   She was quickly attracted to the church’s dynamic pastor and many of the church members, and as a result we began to attend occasional Sunday services and celebrated the congregants as kindred spirits with similar liberal to progressive values and goals enjoyed by a close-knit faith community.  Once I retired in 2010, we began to attend more regularly and soon we decided to join the church.  Shortly after we did, however, the pastor decided to step down, and eventually left the ministry entirely.  It was then, in my humble opinion, when the church’s decline began to accelerate.  It had long been in a slow decline as older members passed away and children who grew up in church moved away.  But there was a strong and active core that kept things going.  And we liked that and found a new spiritual home there regardless of the slowly dwindling numbers.

We had a temporary pastor whom I liked, but going in we knew she was a place holder until the congregation was able to call a new pastor to the pulpit.   The process continued for several long and painstaking months but we eventually settled on another  dynamic pastor who was committed to the church’s existing liberal and progressive principles – a church found on the principle that it was a safe place for people of color and other marginalized groups.  She was also a local and national advocate for the LGBTQ community, and she pledged to raise the standard of welcoming and affirming Christianity and to make Twinbrook Baptist Church a sanctuary where the LGBTQ community would not only feel safe, but also welcomed.  The church was officially “out,”  incorporating the rainbow colors into its logo.  There was a sign on the front lawn declaring “All Are Welcome Here. Really!”  Its members marched in annual Pride parades.  So why did the LGBTQ community not come?  A few showed up, but almost none of them stayed.  
Perhaps the most disturbing result of this shift in direction was the number of core members who decided to leave the church and worship with a more traditional pastor and congregation.  And the attendance at church services and events continued to dwindle.  Some new members - straight and otherwise - would occasionally come, yet very few of them stayed. It was not long before we came to the painful conclusion that the church was dying faster than we wanted to admit.  And it was not happening only at Twinbrook.   Regardless of denomination,  congregations are shrinking across America as former worshiper are distancing themselves from organized religion.  So what to do?

Twinbrook could have continued to dwindle until there was nothing left.   No more members and no money left in the bank.   What a sad legacy to just disappear after six decades without a trace.   The numbers and the money were dwindling and it was time to decide whether this would be the ultimate fate and legacy of Twinbrook Baptist Church.  The decision was a loud and resounding “no”!   There must be some way to make some good come out of this difficult situation.

Two years ago the congregation began to ask itself serious questions about survival and various option to sustain it.  Perhaps a part-time pastor?  A smaller, less informal place of worship?  More effort into outreach ministries?  Still, the reality of a fast dwindling membership would not support these options.  The decision was to accept its fate and close with dignity and to share its remaining largesse with others. 
For the past 14 years Twinbrook had been sharing its sanctuary and common areas with Centro Cristiano Peniel, a large and thriving Spanish-speaking congregation.  Over the course of several months an arrangement was put in place to allow this congregation to purchase the entire church building outright at far below the fair market price.  The closing of one church ensures the survival of another.   What better legacy can there be?   CCP will continue to allow the existing daycare center and other Twinbrook-sponsored mission projects to remain in their spaces pursuant to existing arrangements.  In addition, Twinbrook is donating more than $1 million of the proceeds from the building’s sale to dozens of local organizations sharing its liberal values – a diabetes clinic and hospice care, emergency housing funds, Habitat for Humanity, local  school lunch programs, LGBTQ youth programs and other local community initiatives and non-profit organizations.  Add to these Baptist organizations such as the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.
Personally, it is sad to see the doors of Twinbrook Baptist Church.  For those of us who worshiped there, whether it was for 63 years or just a year or two, it will always hold a special place in our hearts.   As one door close, dozens of others are opened.  The legacy of the Fellowship of the Concerned will continue.  May its gifts be a lasting benefit to all.  And after all, isn’t that what faith is really all about?

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Still Asking Alice

At this hour 50 years ago today Jefferson Airplane took the stage at the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, New York . . . and the rest is history.  There is Jack Casady's bass riff, Jorma Kaukonen's mystical smile, and Grace Slick's blissful expression throughout.  Five decades later we are still asking Alice what the dormouse said . . . and feeding our heads when we are feeling small.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Keeping a Notebook

I just finished rereading Joan Didion’s essay "Keeping a Notebook," which appears in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. "Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether," she writes. "Lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss." Perhaps this is true. My 94 year old mother has kept journals off and on throughout her lifetime, and has been writing daily entries in one for the past 20 years at least. I have learned my journal etiquette and religiosity from her.  
"Why do I keep a notebook at all?" Didion continues. "The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in a way that any compulsion tries to justify itself."
Reading Didion I am reminded of why I keep notebooks of my own . . . many of them. They are an archive of thoughts and recollections, containing everyday rumblings evidencing no particular intent. There are ideas for things I want to write eventually; memorable quotes and citations resulting from my reading and researches; lists of things to do and see; letters to write and why. "Keep a notebook," Jack London tells us in "Getting Into Print" (Editor, March 1903). "Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain." More importantly he tells us why. "Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory." This is especially true as we grow older and more forgetful. Such is my own case. "Why did I write it down" Ms. Didion asks? "In order to remember, of course, but what was it I wanted to remember." That is always a good question and one I ask myself as I page through one or another of my notebooks dating back a few years.

I always have a notebook of one sort or another with me. You will find me writing in it while commuting, or having a meal or a drink by myself. Whenever I have a few spare moments with nothing else to do. Ms. Didion likes to recall a memorable culinary event or an engaging dinner partner; a particular meal or a newly discovered libation. Even a recipe for a meal yet untried. I have done this more often than one can imagine. There have been times when I have been asked if I was a food critic. Perhaps I should have played along and scored some "comped" meals and drinks? 
And how many notebooks do I have you ask? At last count they number around 150 volumes dating back to 1969 and at present I am adding 2-5 volumes annually. Each volume can contain anywhere from 75 to 150 pages. And I write very small to boot so you do the math. And this number does not include numerous logs and notebooks full of research notes for one project or another compiled over a 32 year career as a historian employed by the US Department of Justice (the old one with an honorable reputation, and not the current one seeming hell bent on circumventing justice rather than guaranteeing it . . . but I digress . . . that is a subject for another notebook). There are also the notebooks/journals containing research collected for my doctoral dissertation thirty plus years ago, as well as those full of research notes and draft sections of manuscripts for other projects on a wide variety of topics: Thomas Wolfe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Steinbeck, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Lloyd Wright, et al.. There are a few notebooks containing poetry written over four decades. And how can I forget the three massive ringed binders containing the hard copies of the almost 500 essays posted here at Looking Toward Portugal over the past eleven years. Add to all these the countless notes scribbled on scraps of paper, notepads, napkins, telephone call reminders and buck slips, and various other items in various folders that were meant to be transferred to one notebook or another but never were.
From time to time my wife will ask me what I plan to do with all of this detritus of a historian/writer/journalist for whom everything is worth saving for that time when it will become important and necessary. As Philip Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post reminded us, "Journalism is the first rough draft of history." I believe this to be true. So what will become of all of this largesse once I shed this mortal coil, this veil of tears? Like any historian or writer, I would like to think that these dozens of notebooks might serve as a crucible for new ideas and theories that others might to some small degree find useful, or at the very least entertaining. They do contain observations of historical and cultural events over several decades of the 20th and 21st centuries. So who really knows? I will nevertheless continue to jot and scribble regardless. It’s what I do.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

It Was the Summer of 69

Oh, when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I'd always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

      -- Bryan Adams
I don’t know if they were really the best days of my life, but at the time that summer of 1969 certainly ranked pretty high. It was an eventful time, fair to say a tumultuous time in our history. A lot happened then. Some of it good. Some of it bad. Almost all of it memorable.

In early June the last episode of "Star Trek" aired on NBC. And President Nixon announced that he was bringing 25,000 US troops from Southeast Asia. This seemed very important at the time as I had recently turned eighteen years old and I was graduating from Maine South Township High School in Park Ridge, Illinois. Shortly thereafter my family moved to suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I spent a couple weeks out in Southern California and in Texas before I went to work at a summer job to earn money for college in the fall.

There was some pretty awesome music to listen to on the radio driving to and from work and on weekend trips back to Chicago to visit my girlfriend at the time. My God, the Beatles were still together! Their song "Get Back" topped the charts for a few weeks (it would appear on the "Let it Be" album the following year). And how can I forget the Stones and "Honky Tonk Women," the King and "In the Ghetto," Dylan’s "Lay Lady Lay," The Youngbloods and "Get Together," or the Guess Who’s "These Eyes"? The Fifth Dimensions’ cover of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," from the musical "Hair," was in high rotation that summer as was "Good Morning Starshine," from "Oliver," and "The Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet." Of course, there were also songs I would have preferred to forget altogether – "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies, Tommy James and the Shondells’ "Crystal Blue Persuasion" (which still get some radio play even today), Jackie DeShannon’s "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," or Andy Kim’s cover of the Ronette’s 1963 hit "Baby, I Love You." Later that summer almost a half a million people converged on a small farm in Bethel, New York, for what became known as the Woodstock music festival which featured such legendary artists as the Who, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Joe Cocker, CSN&Y, and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (both of whom would die at age 27 the following year) would come to define an entire generation of young Americans.

One song,"Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (who also performed at Woodstock) captured the summer’s darker side.
I see a bad moon a-risingI see trouble on the way
I see earthquakes and lightnin'
I see bad times today
. . . . .

I hear hurricanes a-blowing
I know the end is coming soon
I fear rivers over flowing
I hear the voice of rage and ruin

Later that June there was a violent confrontation outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village between gay rights activists and the New York City police which signaled the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement in the Unites States. Almost a month later the headlines were reporting a fatal accident on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island, after which former Senator Ted Kennedy received a two-month suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the accident during which Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign worker for the assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy, drowned. The darkest moment perhaps came later in the summer when Charles Manson and several members of his "family" went on a two night murderous rampage in Los Angeles which claimed the lives of eight innocent victims, including the actress Sharon Tate. At the same time Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm, struck the Mississippi and Louisiana coastlines with winds over 200 mph and 20 foot tides, killing over 250 in its wake. A bad moon rising indeed.

This past week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first manned mission to the surface of the moon on July 20, perhaps the highlight of that eventful Summer of 69. Two months earlier the Apollo 10 mission was a dress rehearsal for the Eagle, the lunar landing module . . . everything but the actual landing. It also transmitted the first color pictures of Earth from space. Apollo 11, carried Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, and crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon and the entire world sat in front of its televisions watching that first small step for man, that giant leap for mankind as Armstrong left the first human footprint on the moon. Six lunar landings would eventually follow. That night, after watching the landing at my girlfriend’s house in Park Ridge, I drove home to Milwaukee, stopping along the way to stare up into the night sky and imagining what all this would mean for the future.

And now, fifty summers later, I am sitting at my kitchen table staring out at a lake in Maine. I am 68 years old, I have been married almost 45 years to a wonderful life companion, and I have a grown son I am very proud of. I look back on a long and satisfying professional career. There have been many days over this wide expanse of time I can consider as some of the best of my life. Yet those few weeks of the Summer of 1969 will, whether they brought joy or sorrow, remain fresh in my memory forever.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Being Vacilando

Travels With Charley - Penguin Classics
Driving through northern Maine in the late autumn of 1960, John Steinbeck reflected on his planned road trip of discovery across America, still in its infancy. He recalled that the Spanish have a word that has no plausible counterpart in the English language. It is the verb vacilar, its present participle being vacilando. One might be tempted to translate them as "to vacillate," or "vacillating," but it does not mean this at all. This would imply that one has no goal or purpose in mind. If one is vacilando, it means that he or she - the vacilador - has a general inclination toward a place but is going nowhere in particular at the moment nor is there great care given to whether or not one actually arrives. Steinbeck tells his reader that this has become a state of being throughout Mexico and recalls walking the streets of Mexico, "We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and the diligently try to find it."

A vacilador appears to be very much similar to the flâneur in France; one who does not expect to arrive at any particular place with any specific plan in mind. In Steinbeck’s instance, he and his dog Charley wanted to travel to the northern most point in Maine, on the Canadian border, before beginning his long westward trek across the northern tier of states to his native California. Which roads he would ultimately take, which places he would visit, and whatever would occur along the way . . . and when and if he would complete the journey, would remain a mystery.

As I spend my summer in Maine, I look forward to exploring more of the state’s lesser known points of interest. Where I will go, and what I will choose to explore . . . and when I will eventually post my thoughts here, is anyone’s guess. Life is an enigma.

John Steinbeck. Travels with Charley: In Search of America. New York: The Viking Press, 1962.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

What July 4th is REALLY About

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Still Missing John Haines (1924-2011)

Today would have been John Haines' 95th birthday. John, who passed away in Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2011, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of a career naval officer. As a boy, Haines attended school in Washington, DC while his father was stationed at the Washington Navy Yard.

After serving on a navy destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II, Haines studied at American University and the National Art School, both in Washington, and the Hans Hoffmann School of Fine Art in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

In 1947, Haines left Washington and eventually homesteaded acreage along the Richardson Highway approximately 68 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. It was here that he spent much of the next four decades running his trap lines and living off the land while trying to realize his artistic talents evolving from the visual to the literary arts, and his experiences in the Alaskan wilderness were the inspiration for his early poetry collections - Winter News (1966) and The Stone Harp (1971), the essay collection Living Off the Country (1981), and the memoir The Stars, the Snow, the Fire (1989).

Haines came back to Washington in 1991-92 as Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence at the George Washington University, and visited Washington frequently during the last two decades of his life. He also taught at several other colleges and universities; his last academic appointment was as an instructor in the Honors Program at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

His later books included New Poems 1980-88 (1990), The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer (1993), Where the Twilight Never Ends (1994), Fables and Distances (1996), A Guide to the Four-Chambered Heart (1997), For the Century’s End: Poems 1990-1999 (2001), and Descent (2010).

Haines was honored for his writing, receiving the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Western States Book Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bellagio Fellowship, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Congress, and the Alaska Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, among others. He was also named a fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1997.

I met John as a Jenny McKean Moore fellow at George Washington University in 1991 and we remained good friends during the final two decades of his life. He was a guest in my home during his visits to Washington, and I look back with particular fondness on the days he and I spent together in Big Sky, Montana in the autumn of 2004 following the release of A Gradual Twilight: An Appreciation of John Haines which I edited and which was published by CavanKerry Press.

So Happy Birthday, John! I still miss you.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Strawberry Season in Maine!

One of the first things we look forward to each summer when we arrive in Maine in late June is our attendance at the annual Strawberry Festival sponsored by the local historical society here in New Gloucester. This year is no different and last night we headed over to the First Congregational Church in the Lower Village along with summer friends and neighbors as the festival celebrated its 44th year. We have been vacationing in Maine for the past 31 summers, and have spent the entire summer (June - October) here for the past decade. What better way to actualize the belief that one truly can go home again.
And strawberries are on everyone’s minds this time of year. The strawberry season in Maine is all too short. The best time to pick them is typically during a three to four week period between mid-June and mid-July, with the height of the season right around the July 4th holiday. Unfortunately this year spring has come late with a great deal of rain and the harvest is running about a week behind schedule here in Cumberland and Androscoggin counties.

The earliest varieties were harvested only a week or so ago, and the local pick-your-own operations at the nearby Gillespie Farms, part of New Gloucester’s Pineland Farms Produce Division (just a mile or so from our summer cottage) is just getting underway. Gillespie’s is one of the memorable local PYO farms, cultivating 300 acres with a variety of fruits (strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries), sweet corn, and vegetables for wholesale and direct purchase. Its PYO operation is open during the growing season from the first strawberries in June through the last of the high bush blueberries in August. My wife always looks forward to a few early mornings picking a flat of strawberries. This season barely opened in mid June and there were very real concerns that the harvest would not arrive in time for the local festivals held around the Pine Tree State.

Disappointment was averted when last night the Historical Society served up "scrumptious" local native strawberries served over frozen custard from Hodgman’s stand, a summertime institution in the Upper Village since 1946, and fresh-baked biscuits, all of this topped off with genuine whipped cream. We gathered in the church’s Vestry Community Room where we were entertained by the dulcet tones of the Hall Family Band which this year stood in for the perennial Berry Berry Good Band. A good time was had by the hundreds who showed up.

Summer is here now and we look forward to seasonal weather and successful harvests before autumn descends on northern New England in September. Now I’m waiting for the fresh corn to be picked. It’s looking great.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Remembering Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

Today would have been Anthony Bourdain’s 63rd birthday. He took his own life in a hotel room in the small village of Kaysersberg, in eastern France, on Friday, June 8 as he was approaching his 62nd birthday. Shortly thereafter I posted a personal tribute to the man who taught me a great deal about how to enjoy food and travel, especially in cultures and with cuisines unfamiliar to me.

It has taken me some time to understand and express the impact Bourdain has had on me. He seemed, even when his responses bordered on irreverence, that he enjoyed life to the fullest. To paraphrase his close friend Anderson Cooper of CNN, Bourdain was always up for an adventure, and more importantly, sharing it with his legion of loyal readers and viewers. So why did he choose to end it all?

Writing in his book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (2010), Bourdain implored people to open their minds and travel the world. "It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn. Maybe that's enlightenment enough — to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go." We watched him as he traveled here and there while eating pretty much anything placed in front of him, whether it be an uncooked warthog anus in Namibia, or the most carefully prepared haute cuisine in New York or Paris. They read and listened as he boisterously opined about what he did not like, yet he was passionate about that which made him happy – the places, foods, and people he deeply cared for – as he continued on his quest to parts unknown and food untasted. "He was an explorer who removed degrees of separation from the world's sociological arithmetic," wrote Drew Magary in GQ last December. "A man who was always, in his words, hungry for more."

It has been a year since Anthony Bourdain left us. I still grow melancholy when I think there will be no more culinary adventures, no more of Bourdain’s brash claims mixed with considered opinions. Since his death I have gone back and watched many of my favorite episodes of his shows, and I have reread many of his books. I can’t help but smile as I watch Bourdain wander here and there, tasting and relishing this and that. Yet the melancholy always returns.

Many who knew Bourdain personally, and more who never met the man, have agreed since his death that he meant a great deal to a great many people and that what he gave to all of us cannot end with his passing. A few weeks ago, two renowned chefs and close friends - José Andrés and Eric Ripert, who was with Bourdain in France when he took his life – announced that today would be declared "Anthony Bourdain Day" during which friends and fans alike can remember and celebrate what he meant to them. They were also encouraged to share their memories under the hashtag #BourdainDay. So permit me to share again what I posted in the wake of Bourdain’s passing:

Talking and writing about Bourdain helps keep his memory alive and vital. Still, there is that dull, empty spot down deep that just won’t go away. Perhaps Paula Froelich, a journalist and author who once dated Bourdain , said it best. "I just think it's lonelier without him in the world." It really is.


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Anne Frank at 90

Anne Frank was born on this date in 1929 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.  Had she lived she would have turned 90 years old.  But we will always remember her as a smiling 15 year old girl who dreamed of one day becoming a writer.

Most people think of her as a young Jewish Dutch girl living in Amsterdam, but she was actually born in Germany and immigrated to Holland with her family when she was four years old.  She retained her German citizenship.  They remained happy in their new homeland until 1940, just shy of Anne’s 11th birthday, when Holland was attacked and occupied by the armed forces of Nazi Germany which quickly enacted laws restricting the rights of Jews.  Anne's father tried to obtain asylum in the USA or Cuba but was unsuccessful.  Stripped of their German citizenship they managed to somehow survive in Amsterdam until the summer of 1942 when Anne’s older sister Margot was ordered deported to a labor camp.  The family and a few friends went into hiding in a secret room which Anne’s father had prepared at  Prinsengracht 263. 

Anne received a small diary on her 13th birthday, shortly before her family went into hiding, and over the next two years recorded her thoughts and feelings.  She dreamed of becoming a writer; writing and publishing stories, and even a novel.  Such dreams for a young girl hiding with her family in fear for their lives.

Their hiding place was discovered and stormed by the German Security Police on August 4, 1944.  Following their arrest and interrogation the family was sent to the Westerbork transit camp in northeastern Holland.  In late September they were  transported to Auschwitz, in Poland, arriving there three days later.  Miraculously Anne and Margot were spared from the gas chambers during the selections on arrival.   They remained at Auschwitz until late October or early November when they were transported with thousands of others to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.  Both sisters died there during an outbreak of typhus in the spring of 1945. 

Only Anne’s father survived the war.  He returned to Amsterdam to discover that Anne’s diary has been saved by his secretary.  Upon reading it he knew what he had to do.  


I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!

The first copies of the now famous diary were published in June 1947.  It remains one of the most important reminders of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.  Today her diary is read in 70 different languages and warns the world of the dangers of anti-Semitism and racist discrimination . . . a valuable lesson in today’s world.  Thanks to her diary, Anne Frank continues to live in our memory today.