Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Not Beautiful

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My boys and I built our first garden behind the garage of our previous house. We never had a bumper crop of anything there; the corn cobs were tiny, the carrots shrimpy. The best we did is a couple of pumpkins one year in time for Halloween.

This spring I built three beds at our new house. Unlike our last garden, I was less laissez-faire with my investment: I watered and weeded and shooed away deer and squirrels. The results were mixed. While the tomatoes grew more than five feet high, they never produced a viable fruit; friends complained they had worms in theirs, and my pal Christina warned me that birds will eat them during drought — and we’ve been in a drought since June. I have fifty feet of pumpkin vines but no pumpkins. We harvested one solid crop of arugula and basil before the cucumber plants took over the bed and blotted out the sun.

And the cucumber themselves? I never knew cucumber plants grew so large or aggressively. The exclosure fence around the bed became a trellis which they promptly scaled and summited with their tendrils. A little research told me they are distantly related to pumpkins, which explains the similar broad leaves and steroidal growth. The fruits grow like the balloons of a balloon artist, beginning as tiny gherkins on the vine then inflating from one end to the other. We’ve been eating cucumbers in our salads all summer, minus the edible wax of the store-bought variety.

On Monday I clipped the last half-dozen from the withering plants. In each case I had left the fruit attached to mature a little longer as it had some odd disfigurement I hoped would go away: a kink in the hose here, an uninflated finger there. Finally I acknowledged I had to harvest them or they would rot on the ground. They taste as great, warts and all, as the model cukes.

But if I was selling cucumbers commercially, these ugly ducklings would have wound up in the garbage. In the European Union about 30 percent of food grown by farmers is thrown away because it looks weird, even though it is unspoiled and perfectly edible. That percentage is comparable to the amount wasted by the US and other nations around the world. Back in 2014 my friend Baylen Linnekin interviewed Maria Canelhas, a representative of the organization Fruta Feia (“Ugly Fruit”), which fights against food waste. Canelhas explained the EU regulations behind it:

These rules basically group fruits and vegetables into classes, depending on the size, colour and other appearance characteristics (such as stains on the peel). Regarding fruits, you have class “extra,” class I, and class II, and each of these classes have a minimum size, that’s determined by the calibration standards. On another hand, you have classes grouping fruits according to their coloring. Regarding vegetables, you also have classes that group them according to their size (minimum calibration) and colour.

So what happens is that consumers started to prefer fruits and vegetables from the class “extra,” class I, or class II with high calibrations. When noticing this trend, distributors and supermarkets started to buy from the farmers those classes only, leaving the others out. This explains the difficulty that farmers are facing trying to sell these fruits and vegetables, resulting in a huge amount of food waste. Nowadays, distributors and supermarkets aren’t buying the less appreciated classes, so consumers don’t have the choice to buy them, because this food isn’t even arriving on the market.

Not so coincidentally Baylen has a new book out tomorrow about how smarter government regulations would reduce this kind of waste and encourage sustainability.

Biting the Hand That Feeds UsBiting the Hands that Feed Us introduces readers to the perverse consequences of many food rules. Some of these rules constrain the sale of “ugly” fruits and vegetables, relegating bushels of tasty but misshapen carrots and strawberries to food waste. Other rules have threatened to treat manure—the lifeblood of organic fertilization—as a toxin. Still other rules prevent sharing food with the homeless and others in need. There are even rules that prohibit people from growing fruits and vegetables in their own yards.

Blurb writers John Mackey and Joel Salatin can’t both be wrong! I’ve already pre-ordered my copy, which I can’t wait to read while munching a gnarled-cucumber sandwich. Have you? UNSUBTLE HINT: CLICK HERE.

The Loss Leader of Life

Seems to be growing well.

Every New Year I vow to attack this blog with great vigor, resolving to update it at least once a week with reports of my adventures and successes which I assure myself are many and sundry. And for a while this goes as planned. Then summer arrives and I am reminded of the projects and endeavors I swore to do as I peered at the yard through rime-laced windows and it all goes out the door. Figuratively. Literally.

Which is how it should be. There are only so many days in a year, only so many of which are warm and pleasant, and I am less grasshopper than ant. Over at UncMo my friend Christina, who is a thousand times more articulate than I am, has recently embraced the freelancer lifestyle in which “every hour has to be accounted for.”

The upshot is, every hour is billable to something. Your livelihood. Your loved ones. Your sanity. Your soul. Remember that’s always true, whether you’re freelance or not: Every hour is billable.

So running and paddleboarding and building and maintaining gardens and manufacturing tiki bars with the sons and performing various minor household upgrades and binge-watching Jessica Jones and working for money and sometimes — sometimes! — actually writing something for submission has not left much time for dear old bloggy. And yet at odd moments I have tightened a few gaskets. I reorganized the Clips page to highlight the good stuff. I truncated my biography on the About page. (True story: more than one venue has identified me as an “archaeologist” even though I haven’t performed practical archaeology in 14 years. I prefer short one- or two-sentence bios to accompany my byline, and always justified my longish About page for those who took the trouble to click over to learn more about me. Alas, this seems to have confused some people who think studying archaeology as an aid to one’s historically themed writing is the same as doing it as a profession — so out went the education along with other superfluous details). I still don’t know what to do with the Genericons in the lower right corner; I don’t like them but haven’t found a substitute.

The garden smells of basil, the arugula is as light and sweet as cotton candy, and the pumpkin vines are already out of control. I PRed a 5K last month. The garage sports a fresh coat of paint. The Sound is warm and perfect for swimming.

 

Beer and Loathing

Justin Fleming, co-owner of Kelly Green Brewing Co.
Justin Fleming, co-owner of Kelly Green Brewing Co.

I have a story at Atlas Obscura on how state licensing in New Jersey allows microbreweries to circumvent municipal liquor laws. The result: beer in my historically dry hometown of Pitman:

Drinking alcohol was never really illegal in Pitman–you just had to cross the town line to get it. While the state regulates alcohol in New Jersey, municipalities control the issuance of liquor licenses. Pitman has never issued licenses, resulting in an orbit of bars and package-good stores just outside the border. But in 2012, New Jersey amended its laws to allow microbreweries to sell their beer for consumption on the premises. Since these brewery licenses come from the state government, the microbreweries don’t require a local license to operate. In other words, they don’t actually need the town’s permission to make and serve beer.

Pitman is an odd place. Economically depressed, in my lifetime it’s never been able to capitalize on its main asset, which is its compact and navigable downtown. A big reason for this has been its pigheaded refusal to allow restaurants to serve alcohol. Pitman was commercially successful in the 1950s and 60s but when nearby malls began sucking shoppers away to Glassboro and Deptford, Pitman refused to adapt. It’s perfectly laid out to reinvent itself as a dining destination (something done by the Connecticut town I now live in) but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to entice quality restaurants when they can’t pair an IPA with a crab cake or a bottle of red with a steak, so instead Pitman’s downtown is a motley of pizza parlors and takeout joints which cater solely to locals, rounded out with thrift shops (I counted three) and other low-rent stores. If you’re from out of town, there’s no reason to visit Pitman — you’re better off going to Deptford mall-land and eating at a chain restaurant because at least you can have a drink on a Friday night. I mean, it’s not like a French restaurant is suddenly going to open in Pitman.

At least until Kelly Green arrived. The hesitancy that has hobbled Pitman for decades — one leg stuck in Glory Days, the other in economic reality — seems to be fading. One fourth-generation Pitmanite said to me, “I think Pitman owes its values to being dry.” Some values they are, too: few jobs (especially for teens), reduced assessments, diminishing property values. When Pitman began, temperance was rationalized for social reasons, as erroneous as those were; but now it has become a thing-in-itself, something justified because it’s always been. I’ve read enough newspapers and documents to recognize there was a problem with alcoholism and drunkenness in 19th-century America, although it was never the root of evil the Carrie Nation crowd believed it was — rather, it resulted from the grinding conditions of the time. Prohibition was a solution to an effect instead of a cause. Now we just keep it around for nostalgia’s sake.

Broadway Theatre, est. 1926, Pitman, NJ.
Broadway Theatre, est. 1926, Pitman, NJ.

Anyway, I love Atlas Obscura and I’m thrilled they pubbed this story. I had been a fan of AO’s encyclopedia for years before finally joining in 2013, pushed over the edge by inaccuracies and untruths in their entry for Pleasure Beach — somebody was wrong on the Internet and I had to fix it! Later I was surprised they had nothing on any of the ghost towns in the Pine Barrens (those could fill an encyclopedia all their own) so I added Batsto. Eventually I want to add a few more Nutmeg sites but in the meantime I check their encyclopedia before every trip. Since David Plotz came onboard, AO has been publishing news and features as well, and their wry editorial voice is an anodyne to most travel sites. You can find me over there as JDK.

Laughing Last

I’m always amazed by the lack of awareness displayed by officials and executives when speaking with the press. Case in point: this recent interview in UConn’s newspaper The Daily Campus with UConn president Susan Herbst, who displays all the charisma of a Gila monster when asked about closing the satellite campus in Torrington:

Constable: There are those who argue the university set up the Torrington campus for failure, in terms of drawing down its faculty, in terms of drawing down its student enrollment and—

Herbst: Did you go the board meeting?

Constable: I didn’t have the chance to, because—

Herbst: Yeah, I think you need to talk to Sally Reis. Yeah. She’s been managing it, and she explained all that. And we have made tremendous efforts there in marketing all different kinds of apertures and venues. The demand is not there, and we did not set up the place for failure. And it is unfortunate that people use that kind of rhetoric, but I ask you to study the issues before you come here. You know, so, did you talk to Sally?

Constable: I’m merely asking the question.

Constable reiterates this conversation is for the graduation issue and is meant to be a transcribed conversation with Herbst.

Herbst: Yeah, so I would talk to Sally. Stephanie Reitz, did you talk to her about the issue at all?

Constable: Just looking for perspective, is all. So you don’t believe the university set up the Torrington campus for failure?

Herbst: Absolutely not. But I would not— yes.

Constable: That’s all I was asking.

Herbst: Yeah— probably better— yeah— I hope that in the future, you can look at all the university says and does and talk to the right people before you ask that kind of question.

Look at all the university says and does and talk to the right people before you ask that kind of question — I cannot count the number of times I’ve interviewed someone who has said something almost identical to me. Translation: Don’t challenge me, just parrot the official doctrine in our press releases. Rather than use the interview as a chance to confront the opposing narrative and articulate UConn’s argument for closure, Herbst swings for the reporter. I love how Constable throws Herbst a life preserver by stopping the interview to explain it will appear as a word-for-word transcription but Herbst ignores him in favor of tying more cinder blocks around her ankles. I can only imagine what her deputy chief of staff was thinking as he overheard this exchange, no doubt while trying to climb out a nearby window unnoticed:

Constable: The Co-op has been an institution at the university for a very, very long time. There were questions about its ability fiscally sustainable in the long term for some time. Looking at the Storrs Center bookstore location – folks over at the Co-op would say they were forced into it despite the fact that they knew it would put them in a position to make the fiscally unsustainable. Did the university make a decision that ultimately resulted in the Co-op not being able to remain its bookstore?

Herbst: No, and we have communicated a lot on this subject, yeah, we’re done. (Looking at deputy chief of staff Michael Kirk) You have anything to add?

Constable certainly asked loaded questions but, again, Herbst was completely oblivious to the opportunity to counter criticism. The real punchline is that Herbst coauthored a book on how mass media shapes public opinion. I guess if you can’t do, teach; but if you can’t do that either, then go into administration.

Owning Alexander

Colonial Williamsburg has pubbed a new book documenting the experiences and thoughts of black interpreters at CW. What is it like to consciously and willingly portray, five days a week, an African-American in the time of slavery? I can’t imagine the tightrope.

But encountering slavery in any manifestation can be awkward for black or white audiences.

Black guests are sometimes uncomfortable confronting what some consider a humiliating aspect of the past that should be forgotten, not memorialized. “Many people,” said Greg James, “don’t want to be reminded of people beaten, lashed, and currycombed… But would history be true without it?” …

Any person might judge the performance as too harsh a portrayal, or too understated. One minute an interpreter might be viewed as minimizing the cruelty of slavery; the next minute he or she might be viewed as exaggerating it.

Author and CW archaeologist Ywone Edwards-Ingram will lead a discussion of the book, The Art and Soul of African American Interpretation, at CW later today, followed by a signing.

I’m always intrigued by individual reactions to early American history and how, through a mix of celebration and criticism, we each make our separate peace with it, especially the awful parts. How do we integrate history into our worldviews? Which parts do we emphasize, which parts do we blur? So I’d much rather read Edwards-Ingram’s book than, say, another screed from an obnoxious academic telling us how we should feel about history:

Since the turn of the millennium, historians have lambasted the phenomenon of Founders Chic as a fundamental distortion of history. Placing the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era meant that popular histories exaggerated the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes. Yet much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine. It’s as if the only problem with Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Ron Chernow is that they didn’t write to a hip-hop soundtrack.

I’m not sure when I initially became aware of Hamilton but my first reaction was, It’s like The Wiz but for early America! Mrs. Kuhl and I, both being history buffs living 60 miles outside of Manhattan, agreed to go see it, only to be stymied by the then $600 tickets (they’re now going for $1,000). At this point we’ll probably have to wait for the movie but my feelings for Hamilton haven’t changed. In either case, black artists took something that is white as hell — The Wizard of Oz, the years of the early Republic — and interpreted it through their own experiences. It’s an ownership of something that, in its original version, conspicuously excluded people like them. It’s their separate peace.

But to academics like Ken Owen at The Junto, there’s a right way and a wrong way to interpreting Hamilton, and liking the play is definitely wrong:

Hamilton appears to use history more as a comfort blanket than as a serious means to enhance popular understanding of the American Revolution. That is something I find particularly concerning, because Hamilton (and its race-conscious casting) has often been held up as an example of how to modernize Broadway, or how to shift popular discussion of the American Revolution in a more progressive direction. At almost every turn, however, the historical philosophies underpinning Hamilton prioritize the Founders Chic model. … Insofar as it does raise progressive questions, it does so in only the most muted way—and in a way that allows a casual observer to retreat to the same comforting, comfortable narratives they would find on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble.

Meow! There you have it: “progressive direction,” “progressive questions.” For all his complaints preceding this graf, Kitty Owen’s real grudge is that Hamilton doesn’t fulfill his political ends. To the academic left (which, let’s face it, is all of academia outside an MBA program), the correct perspective toward art is a Soviet one where singing and dancing is permissible as long as the rest is social realism. Later in the comments, when a reader notes that as art Hamilton encourages viewers to ask questions about history, Owens replies, “Are they getting people to ask the right questions, though?” The dummies in the mezzanine can’t be trusted to arrive at their own conclusions, Owens believes; the proper responses are the ones dictated by snobs like him.

Still, Owens’s opinions aren’t nearly as stupid as Lyra Monteiro’s, who whined that regardless of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the casting, “It’s still white history.” This is the same cretinism that would segregate black history to 28 days a year. Black and brown Americans own Alexander Hamilton just as much as I own Martin Luther King, Jr. because all of us live today in a world molded in part by those men. There’s no black history, there’s no white history — there’s only American history and how we as Americans individually come to terms with it.

Lest this post devolve into complete fist-shaking, Owens says one thing I do agree with, which is, “it is dishonest of [popular] authors to pretend that their work isn’t reliant on a broader community of [academic] scholars.” He’s right. I don’t hate academics; in fact, I’m thankful to them. I just wish many of them would drop their egotistical claims to being the sole proprietors of our stories.

Schemes of the Blackest Dye

Next Thursday I’ll be a panelist at the Fairfield Museum for a discussion of espionage in Connecticut during the Rev War. I’ll be joined by UConn’s Rachel Smith, who dissects the show TURN at her blog, TURN to a Historian, and Black Rock historian Robert Foley.

From Nathan Hale to the Culper spy ring to conspiracies big and small, Connecticut and the coast of Long Island seethed with skulduggery in large part because only about two-thirds of the population felt the red, white, and blue — the rest still pledged fidelity to the House of Hanover. Smedley and friends once caught some Loyalists on the Sound who, upon interrogation, confessed a “Scheme of the blackest dye”:

John McKey of Norwalk later testified that on April 15, a Charles McNeill of Redding approached him saying that a colonel in the British army had in his possession lieutenant’s commissions for each of them. The British were galvanizing the loyalists into a fifth column to be called the Royal Americans. Their first job was to construct an intelligence network that would relay information about Continental troops to the British.

Plots! Treachery! Whaleboat battles! Next Thursday, April 7, at the museum. It’s free! modestly priced!