Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gobble gobble, indeed

Thanksgiving in my family has never been a huge event -- just the parents, my sister and me, with the rare guest (I think I might have invited the college boyfriend once or twice). In fact, it's one of the things I'm thankful for most of the time. Very little stress is involved, unless my mom gets caught up in something she absolutely has to try for the first time, and it doesn't work out. The rest of us don't really care. For the most part, we're all just happy enough to get the standard meal and relax with each other.

Growing up, I felt that we were kind of abnormal in that we didn't have a million people over, or that we didn't all go to my grandmother's house for a big gathering. Somehow, it didn't seem quite American for it just to be us four, in our own house, no guests, but as I got older, I started seeing the wisdom of it. I could never figure out why it is that so many people (women, mostly, I've observed) have to make everything perfect and declare the whole day ruined if the cranberry sauce comes out runny or someone forgets to bring something. Isn't the whole point supposed to be around gratitude and togetherness?

That's not to say we didn't have our unusual aspects -- things that really would have made us weird. When I was 10 or 11 years old, my father took the wall oven out of the kitchen. I think he said there was a gas leak or something, but the bottom line was that he deemed it unsafe. That left a big, gaping hole in the wall, and true to my mom's chronic procrastination, the hole never got filled with a new oven. She had grand ideas about redoing the kitchen, and to this day, there's no oven and a decor that could be the tableau of a Smithsonian exhibit about Eisenhower-era suburban life.

After a bit, the parents bought a combination microwave/convection oven which did a nice job of cooking a turkey, albeit spinning on a carousel in an oven on a microwave cart. It was the period between the gas oven's departure and the advent of residential nukers that created the issue.

My parents were big fans of the Weber grill, the kettle-like structure that was noted for being a true revolution in traditional backyard cooking. The neighborhood kids thought it looked weird, compared with their parents' traditional grills, but my dad, ever the scientific thinker, knew better. The shape and lid of the Weber would more evenly distribute heat from the charcoal, as air circulation could be more ably controlled by vents in the lid and kettle. He was truly a man ahead of his time, or at least ahead of the Luddites down the street.

So the question at Thanksgiving became: do we splurge and go out to a restaurant for dinner, or do we use the Weber grill? Being both cost-conscious and resourceful, the parents opted to go for the grill. I don't know what's more embarrassing to a pre-teen and teen girl: that there's a big, built-in-oven-sized hole in the kitchen cabinetry, or that Mom and Dad are wrestling with a 15 pound turkey in front of a charcoal grill in the backyard on an overcast, 45-degree day in November. Never mind that they'd be doing the traditional stressed-out Thanksgiving bickering about the right way to do things. To their credit, though, the bird always came out okay, even in the years when it rained or hailed Dad had to set up the Weber in the garage and leave the door open. You can imagine how novel that looked on Christmas day.

Now, of course, you hear a litany of stories about outdoor Thanksgiving cooking. There's the famous turkey deep-fryer that demands a backyard for use. And any number of celebrity TV cooks talk about the wonderful flavor imparted by roasting a bird over an open flame. Mom and Dad truly were ahead of their time.

Yeah, it was embarrassing to be different when being like everyone else was so important. But then I wouldn't have the story to tell. That said, I really wish they would get that kitchen redone, or at least get a new oven. The trusty convection oven broke, and my mom brought the turkey over yesterday to cook. I'm not sure how she's warming it up today, but no doubt there will be another good story.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If history exists in a vacuum, does it really exist?

Capitalizing on the good weather while it lasts, I made a trip up to Paterson last week to check out the Great Falls and environs. While I've visited a ton of historic spots in New Jersey, Paterson had yet to make the list, for reasons I couldn't fathom.

For those not familiar with the city, it was America's first planned industrial community, conceived by Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the Treasury, among other things. Counter to Thomas Jefferson, who saw America's future as largely agrarian, Hamilton believed that the country's best chance for economic independence was through industry. If we could manufacture our own products, from our own resources, we'd have little need for imports from our former European rulers. With others who felt likewise, he was instrumental in the creation of the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, or SUM, which then built Paterson's industry.

Through a clever system of raceways, the Great Falls of the nearby Passaic River provided hydropower to run mills and factory turbines. Eventually, the city became home to the Colt gunworks, the Rogers Locomotive works, and a variety of textile mills. In fact, Paterson was known for a long time as Silk City due to the strength of that industry within the city. Thomas Edison located one of his Illuminating factories there, as did the Wright-Curtiss operation that built the engine for the Spirit of St. Louis.

Over time, the series of water raceways was replaced by a more efficient hydroelectric plant near the falls that continues to serve the local power grid. And as suburbanization populated the area upstream of Paterson, a good portion of the Passaic's water was shunted off for other purposes. Now on most days, the Falls, while still impressive, are but a trickle of what they were over 100 years ago.

Paterson itself continues as a gritty, working-class city, though much of the industry has left the same as it has in many US cities. A productive artists' colony now makes its home in some of the mill buildings, and there's been some effort to preserve the history that's all around. In fact, Congress recently voted to fund a management plan for the area, which earlier was designated a National Historical Park. With any luck, that will bring much-needed attention -- and tourist dollars -- to the city. There are a lot of National Park geeks who would visit a phone booth in a remote corner of Nebraska if it were on the Parks list (I should know. I'm one of them.)

It's really pretty astounding that Paterson hasn't gotten more attention, given its location, Hamilton's involvement, and the impact of its founding on Americas economic history. Perhaps the industrial aspect was what held it back as a tourist attraction: how many people make it a point to visit gritty, working-class cities? In an upwardly-mobile, striving culture like ours, how many people want to be reminded that there are people still pushing their way up the ladder? Paterson has long been home to recent immigrants -- people who don't necessarily speak the language, and have different traditions. We all know how that makes some people nervous. Most of all, though, I think people just don't know it's there.

There's a great little welcome center near the Falls, and when I visited, I was welcomed by a city resident who was a wealth of information. He spent about an hour with me, outlining history of Paterson's founding, interesting facts about Alexander Hamilton (i.e. had things gone differently, he might have been our first African American president. Yes, you read that right. His mom was Creole.), the best local restaurants, and American traditions that have their roots in the city. As we talked, I couldn't help but wonder why in hell nobody knows any of this.

New Jersey's Department of Tourism is missing the boat on Paterson and a host of other locations around the state. Barely funded, the department doesn't seem to have its marketing act together, and historic sites are suffering for it. For a while I've been entertaining the thought of starting a tour company that would bring the state's hidden history to life, but I find myself in a bit of a quandary. I see the potential of New Jersey history as as great product, but I don't know if there's enough of a market for a tour business to be profitable. In this state, we spend a lot of time bemoaning that we're in the shadow of New York or Philadelphia, much like the younger brother of the high school quarterback who keeps trying to tell the football coach that he's a pretty great running back, himself. Beyond marketing the shore and Atlantic City, the state doesn't seem to see the point of standing on its own. Sure, we'll always be dependent to an extent on those cities, but there's got to be a way to use some of that to tell the uniquely New Jersey story. What does it mean to be the middle ground? This state's residents suffered greatly during the Revolution distinctly because we were that midpoint between the two colonial cities. There's a story to be told there, but the powers that be don't seem to recognize that.

It's all pretty depressing.