Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Quarter Acre Farm: What do Thomas Jefferson, New Mexico, Wyoming, and...

The Quarter Acre Farm: What do Thomas Jefferson, New Mexico, Wyoming, and...: "Virginia Scharff's new book, The Women Jefferson Loved is out! Yes, you can buy it and be edified, entertained, elucidated, and elevated by..."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Of Roasted Peppers and Founding Fathers

It's one of those mornings when I reflect on Thomas Jefferson's ability to multitask.  The cold, gorgeous weather in Albuquerque means we had a harvest weekend, pulling in the peppers and the herbs and the argula in anticipation of a frost.  Chris made a quiche with pimentos, poblanos and serranos that I roasted.  So fabulous was this quiche, that it won first prize in the savory category at the annual Conservation Voters of New Mexico Pie Contest!  Hats off to the Pie Man.

Meanwhile, THE WOMEN JEFFERSON LOVED went on sale yesterday.  I had the great blessing of a wonderful book talk and signing at Bookworks in Albuquerque.  Thanks to the Yale Club, especially Dora Wang and Alex Hanna, and Flying Star for the reception before, to all the friends, family, colleagues, Jefferson lovers and students (!) who turned out.  Of course, before the book was even released, my friend Carolyn Gonzales, UNM Public Affairs officer, had an angry email responding to her "tweet" of the event, denouncing my "inaccurate book," and its lies about the Wayles-Hemings-Jefferson family (no family at all, this person contends).   I'll soon have a link to the podcast of my talk:  you be the judge.

And it turns out that New Mexico is a perfect place to reflect on the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson.  Is there any place in the country that more fully embraces the complicated, mixed, and carefully nurtured family life that Jefferson and his kin lived?   Looking out at everyone last night, I saw the progeny of a Founding Father worthy of us all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Brave New World

            The idea of a woman casting a ballot would have horrified Thomas Jefferson.  “Our ladies are too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics,” he told a surprisingly assertive Anne Willing Bingham, wishing that pretty lady would care more about her complexion and less about her rights.  Because of guys like him, it took women a century and a third to win the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. 

Woman suffrage was a hard-earned victory.  But it was no guarantee that women would be any wiser or better at voting than men.  Of course, I’m the kind of feminist who believes that women and men were created equally capable of behaving like idiots. 

            I’m also the kind of historian who believes that history matters.  I don’t like it when people engage in the Big Lie, when they throw the past down the memory hole.  Thus this morning’s post, apropos of Virginia Thomas’s recent email to Anita Hill.

            For those who don’t know, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas is the wife of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court.  While Justice Thomas assents in decisions like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, unleashing a flood of anonymous corporate money on the election process, his wife heads up a political action group, Liberty Central, which uses a giant pile of that mystery money to target some candidates for defeat, and to promote others more friendly to their lobbying agenda. My own excellent Congressman, Martin Heinrich, is a thoughtful and hardworking person who makes me believe politics isn’t just for knaves and thieves.  Liberty Central wants him gone.

            If you think it’s a touch unseemly for Ms. Thomas to engage in big money political manipulation while married to one of the Nine, it gets worse.  According to this morning’s newspapers, Virginia Thomas recently left a voicemail message for one Anita Hill, professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, suggesting that Professor Hill apologize for testifying against Mr. Thomas at his confirmation hearings, twenty years ago.  Say what????

            Twenty years ago, Anita Hill defined “speaking truth to power” by braving an onslaught of hostile questions from “moderate” Republican Senators including John Danforth of Missouri and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.  Hill dared to testify that during her tenure as a staff member at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, her boss, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her.  In those days, harassment was ubiquitous, and taken for granted.  Women who complained could expect to lose their jobs and have their reputations destroyed.  Anita Hill had nothing to gain from testifying, everything to lose.

            The Senate confirmation committee gave Hill what harassed women could expect—more ugliness, more grief.  Thomas was confirmed, but many, many women were inspired by Anita Hill’s bravery, swearing that they would not put up with this crap any more.

            And now Ginni Thomas has decided she’s raised enough from corporate sources to put their money where her mouth is, and ask Anita Hill to apologize.  Apologize?  For speaking out against sexual harassment?  Ms. Thomas insists that she’s offering Hill “an olive branch.”  Hill rightly says she’s insulted by the renewed attack on her credibility.  If that’s an olive branch, I’m Clarence Thomas.

            You can’t change history, Ms. Thomas.  Neither can your husband, powerful as he is.  We can’t recall Clarence Thomas from a life term on the Supreme Court, and we can’t stop Ginni Thomas from flinging around dirty money and spewing oleaginous lies.  But we can take a look at Liberty Central’s list of “targets” like Martin Heinrich.  And then we can go write a check, hit the phones and knock on doors, using the power of the ballot box in the name of knowing and learning from history.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Apropos of Historical Fundamentalism

I have been reading Jill Lepore’s learned, witty, sensible book, The Whites of Their Eyes:  The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.  Those of you who teach American history will find it useful (yes, we will all crib stories to try to grab the attention of the guy in the third row who’s looking at a YouTube video of dancing hamsters).   But the thing I like most about the book is Lepore’s concept of “historical fundamentalism.”  People who claim to want to return to the world of the Founding Fathers, who claim that Washington and Adams and Jefferson walk among us, boiling with rage at the idea that the federal government ought to do something about health care, says Lepore, are historical fundamentalists who willfully ignore the reality of both the past and the present.  We should do as the Founding Fathers did, say the historical fundamentalists, with really no idea at all what they did, or even who these guys were. 
            Of course, anyone who wants to go back to the good old days should give a thought or two to cholera, flogging, and such everyday matters as death in childbirth.  Or more narrowly, if you’re just talking about wanting to stick strictly to politics, and to embalming the Constitution as a divinely inspired, unchangeable contract, I confess I am not with you.  I am against slavery and for woman suffrage.
So when I ask, “What would Jefferson eat?” I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that we must eat only as he did.  Or that we can.  Jefferson was, for example, fond of “tongues and sounds,” delicate bits of Atlantic cod that had spent enough time in salt that they needed to be boiled for twelve hours to make them palatable.  For those of you who are imagining something delicious like Spanish bacalao, I’m afraid we have to consider what our species has done to the great fisheries of the North Atlantic.  It’s been a couple of centuries since Jefferson sent to Boston for his fancies.  You might want your crispy cod croquettes now, but you might not get them much longer.
            In the matter of eating, and anything else, we MAY want to follow Jefferson’s lead, or not.  I think it’s pretty interesting to know what he ate and desired and said and thought and did.  I would like to contemplate the words and deeds of this inquisitive and gifted and complicated (and compromised) man as a springboard to our own invention.  It’s a little like knowing all of Jerry Garcia’s guitar riffs, or Charlie Parker’s most famous solo flights, or the songs of the Beatles—none of those fellows were angels either.  We could, of course, engage in musical fundamentalism, ignore their excesses and errors, and try to play the brilliant passages note for note, inflection for inflection, distortion for distortion.  But that kind of stuff is for tribute bands, not people who live to make their own music.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Harvest time

I've been a dedicated organic gardener for thirty-five years, a lover of fresh food forever, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson all my life.  In recent years, like all Jefferson fans, I've worried and puzzled over the contradictions and the cowardice, the secrets and the silences and the sheer stubborn self-indulgence of the man.  More, much more about that later.

But for now, I want to start my musings in this blog with the question that's inspired my own gardens and dinners, more times than I can count:  What would Jefferson eat?

We're deep into harvest time here in New Mexico.   The tomatoes peaked a month ago, the green beans and peaches are long gone, and the air is filled with the savory tang of chile roasting, in market parking lots all over town.  We've roasted and eaten concoctions of four different capsicums from our garden, in combinations of red and green:  sweet bell peppers, poblanos, pimentos, and serranos.  We've put them together with other things, roasted and sautéed and raw:  tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggplant, tomatillos, made enchiladas and stews.  Soon we'll be turning to the root vegetables of winter, and the things we've put by.

But the zinnias, some of them taller than me, are rioting still.  There's still time to savor the last sublime bounty of the garden, and luxuriate in the blessings of the exotic, as Jefferson surely did and would.  He grew all manner of lettuces and bitter greens, because he loved salad.  He exchanged seeds with everybody, and brought back from Europe slips and seeds and plants to try at Monticello.  Some worked, some failed spectacularly.  I had worse luck than he did when I brought back some seeds for gorgeous escaroles I'd tasted in Bologna, creamy whites and pale greens frilled and veined with pinks and purples.  They grew spectacularly, but were so bitter that we dug them up ten minutes after we took our first taste.

When Jefferson returned from France, he asked his Paris majordomo, Adrien Petit, to come to America.  He gave Petit orders for things he'd learned he couldn't live without, things like "parmesan cheese, raisins, almonds, mustard, vinaigre d'Estragon, other good vinegar, oil and anchovies."  Much later, when the juggernaut of financial ruin was bearing down on him, he still sent to Europe for olive or "benne" (sesame) oil to dress the salads he adored.  When gastronomy and economy collided, gastronomy generally won the day.

And so today, I think we'll answer our question by going out to the garden, where years ago, a lone arugula plant went native, and has since given us two seasons of salads, every year.  I don't use much tarragon, but one stolid stem has survived in the herb garden, and I think I'll try it in the vinaigrette.  Like Jefferson, I am a persnickety consumer of imported olive oil, mostly from Spain.  Parmesan cheese definitely.  But what do you think:  raisins and almonds?  Or anchovies?