Lowcountry Shrimp and Grits

Sunset over the Holy City

Despite the best efforts of Old Charleston to maintain a dandified, Romanticist version of the antebellum South, the effort is undone by the fare of the South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The foods of the region reflect the terrior of the deep coastal south–sweet teas for humid days, vast catches of coastal shrimp and the bounty of native maize turned to mushy grits.

Grits are the true measure of one’s acculturation into southern living. When sampling grits in my Old Dominion haunts, there was something in my cold Northerner DNA unable to allow for my comprehension the corn porridge–akin to steel cut oatmeal with none of the charm. Grits in fact are a morning staple, the cereal of the South and as important to the start of a new day as a cuppa joe. And on my first trip to Charleston and into the Deep South, I decided that I needed to come to terms with my northern aggression toward her food and culture.

That aggression of the Civil War era comes out in different ways for the history buff. After all, Charleston was the town that launched the Civil War. Confederate cannon still pridefully point toward Fort Sumter from White Point Park and Gardens. Memorials to fallen Confederates stand in bronze for eternity there.

Quick trip down history lane in South Carolina and Georgia

I was not in Charleston for the history lesson, as I could have enough of that from Manassas to Gettysburg back home. I was here in part to adjudicate a different sort of Civil War–a Civil War of cuisine. After all, the North was raised on the hearty food of its English, German and Dutch heritage. Northerners ate meatloafs and boiled dinners and beans. The war was fought over a lot of things–industrial vs. agrarian, states rights vs. federal control, and slavery vs. abolition. Except for the latter case, the country is still debating over the merits of the others. Based on the northern cuisine, the war might have been waged over who had the better food, but I digress.

Mastering the grits as breakfast food was only the entry level into Lowcountry cuisine. Adding shrimp to the creamy mixture, fried in bacon fat and served not only for breakfast but all day long, was graduate school work. Italians, Europhiles, and most kosher-keeping people would find the combination of milky grits and briny decapod crustaceans a bit difficult to take in one course, if at all. Embracing shrimp and grits then became not only a challenge to my unionist loyalties, but my cultural and possibly religious sentiments as well!

Jestine\'s Kitchen

To conquer those biases, I sought out locales in Charleston that could set this son of Billy Yank right. My first attempt took me to Jestine’s Kitchen, near the location of the old Citadel (now an Embassy Suites) in downtown Charleston.  Jestine’s has a lot of character–a greasy spoon serving up Lowcountry classics such as fried chicken and okra, and “table wine”–the name of their sweet tea. Jestine’s tribute to Shrimp and Grits is only available on Sundays, and well worth it alongside those aforementioned southern staples. Receiving those dishes required a bit of patience, as I had to settle in for a long two-hour lunch to accommodate the slow preparation and delivery. (Nothing comes quickly in the South. Northerners who are accustomed to speeding through a meal are in for a shock. Plan on taking your time in Charleston with everything you do. The locals know why–the heat is such that speed-walking down Meeting Street will leave them swampy and miserable. Going slowly keeps you cool, and forces politeness.)

Shrimp, Gravy, and Grits

In truth, there was nothing to fear in this simple dish. Bacon has a way of augmenting and complementing most foods, and the shrimp were no exception. The grits make for a clean canvas for the shrimp. At first, I thought the dish too dense and hot for the climate (90 degrees in late April) but the airiness of the grits and snowy shrimp seemed to settle easily. Doused with home-brewed sweet tea, I felt the biases of the Union upbringing wearing off a bit.

Greek Revival in Charleston, South Carolina

My trip just starting, and with Jestine’s out of the grits business until next Sunday, I needed an alternate. In the core of downtown, I found the old City Market. Dating back to the early 1800’s the Greek Temple styled-market was the central store for foodstuffs in the city. Today, artisans descending from the African “Gullah” culture weave sweetgrass baskets for sale in the old shop stalls.

Charleston: Charleston City Market - Sweetgrass

Near the old City Market was another Charleston legend–Hyman’s. Now in their fourth generation, Hyman’s row of restaurants (Hyman’s, Hyman’s Express and Aaron’s Deli) also specialize in that Lowcountry fare. Hyman’s has a slight variation on the theme, with a Parmesan sauce on the Shrimp and Grits that could act as training wheels for the northern skeptic. I felt, after Jestine’s that I had evolved my palate to Charleston’s taste and refinements in cuisine, and eschewed the sauce.

shrimp and grits

The irony of Charleston is the irony found in all Southern culture. Cities like Charleston and Savannah try to create a cultural heritage around the “lost South”–those gentry whose gentile civility and hospitality were lost in the Civil War. Of course, that life of privilege was sustained on the backs of an enslaved people. And yet, while those coastal cities of the Deep South retain much of their physical antebellum attributes, the taste of the South is not at all something that would have been familiar to the Calhouns and Pinckney’s and other first families of Charleston. The tastes of the south–of BBQ and pork and Shrimp and Grits–were the foods of the slaves and indentured servants, made from the scraps of the harvest and the gleanings from the sea. To experience Shrimp and Grits in the shadow of “The Holy City’s” elegant town homes and Rainbow Row with that knowledge creates a cultural dissonance that never really resolves, but nonetheless tastes glorious.

Charleston Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Jestine’s Photo credit: jfravel / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Old Market Photo credit: UGArdener / Foter / CC BY-NC

Shrimp and Grits Photo credit: stu_spivack / Foter / CC BY-SA

Gullah Sweet Grass Baskets Photo credit: wallyg / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Hyman’s Grits Photo credit: Tyler.Meyer / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Cannon Photo credit: ATOMIC Hot Links / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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Voice of the Past: Robert Louis Stevenson

robert-louis-stevenson

A celebrity writer in his own time, Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world and every boy their love of peg-legged pirates, adventures at sea and hidden treasure marked with an X on a map. He also gave us Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Less known to Americans may be his poetry, which brooded upon more nostalgic, romantic and sentimental themes.

In his Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896), Stevenson captures the wanderlust of youth, and the bohemian spirit that he cultivated in his personal life. As Scottish gentry, Stevenson could have contented himself with life at university or perhaps as an attorney. Instead, Stevenson roamed his native lands. He then toured the world, lived for a time in the United States, and moved to Samoa, where his travels finally ended. But for all of those past homes, he illuminated why we can never really go home, in these verses from Songs of Travel:

HOME no more home to me, whither must I wander?
Hunger my driver, I go where I must.
Cold blows the winter wind over hill and heather;
Thick drives the rain, and my roof is in the dust.
Loved of wise men was the shade of my roof-tree.
The true word of welcome was spoken in the door –
Dear days of old, with the faces in the firelight,
Kind folks of old, you come again no more.

Home was home then, my dear, full of kindly faces,
Home was home then, my dear, happy for the child.
Fire and the windows bright glittered on the moorland;
Song, tuneful song, built a palace in the wild.
Now, when day dawns on the brow of the moorland,
Lone stands the house, and the chimney-stone is cold.
Lone let it stand, now the friends are all departed,
The kind hearts, the true hearts, that loved the place of old.

Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl,
Spring shall bring the sun and rain, bring the bees and
flowers;
Red shall the heather bloom over hill and valley,
Soft flow the stream through the even-flowing hours;
Fair the day shine as it shone on my childhood –
Fair shine the day on the house with open door;
Birds come and cry there and twitter in the chimney –
But I go for ever and come again no more.

The words capture, for me, that feeling that anyone who has moved far afield of their native land feels, of bittersweet loss. My childhood home sits at the base of a hill in an old Pennsylvania mill town, in a 1950’s era tract of land filled with little ranches. New owners of my grandmother’s home have made their alterations to the old yellow brick pile, noble pines planted by my grandfather are long gone. A dog known only to us is buried in the backyard. Underneath layers of new paint lie the scheme that I knew–a red door and green stoop–replaced with burgundy and a covered porch.

But the people who made that house a home for me are much older or no more themselves.

And in suburban Ohio, another house, once red and tidy, sits cloaked in “greige” and fortified with a foreboding chain link fence. Other homes are still occupied by family, and still others are renovated beyond recognition. Like Stevenson, the change of seasons may brighten those pathways and doorways for new families and new generations, but the energies that made such places home are extinguished and poignantly lost to oblivion.

All that, from the guy who gave us Billy Bones and Long John Silver.

And if those words are not moving enough in prose, English composers adored them as well. Here is Ralph Vaughan Williams send up of Stevenson’s meter:

Robert Louis Stevenson Photo credit: Père Ubu / Foter / CC BY-NC

For All Faiths and None: Washington National Cathedral

Glowing Nave

The flightpath and descent into Washington Reagan National Airport have a cinematic quality. The plane traces the Potomac, coming in above the snaking Capitol Beltway, the rolling hills yielding to urban sprawl. Washington DC is remarkably park-like–nearly 1/4 of all the acreage are parks. Atop the highest rise in the district sits a distinctly out-of-place Gothic pile amid the government buildings in Roman orders, Greek Temples to men of marble, and brick rowhouses in Georgetown. That building is the Washington National Cathedral.

on

The cathedral sits atop Mt. St. Albans, nearly the highest point in the District. You can see the Cathedral from Georgetown, from the airport, and from most points along the Potomac. The edifice dominates the skyline in some cases more so than the familiar Washington Monument or Capitol dome

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When living in DC a few years ago, I lived in the shadow of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul—the official name of the Dom. Once a week, I’d head up Wisconsin Avenue to a smaller chapel on campus, where my chorus would practice under the shadow of the spires. Around 7 PM, the great bells of the carillon would ring for about twenty minutes over this corner of DC–proclaiming the close of the vespers within. I’d wander in the bishop’s English gardens facing out toward the Capitol. The placement of this Cathedral was no mistake–as the house of worship gazes downward on the secular state at its feet–the Capitol dome and Washington Monument appearing as miniature tourist baubles below.

National Cathedral (Washington DC)

Despite the frequency of my visits to this place, I have always found a new revelation in these aisles–whether aesthetic or spiritual. Of the latter, this building was designed as a house of worship first. Yet since the founding of the Cathedral in 1907 by bishops of the Episcopalian church, the nation has changed around it. While still administered by the Episcopal Church (as it always has been–the building is not government owned, nor has received government support), the cathedral offers itself as a national house of worship for “all faiths and none.”

All faiths and none. I find that mission to be rather compelling. Why would a person of no faith need a cathedral? This big church represents the formal “high church” movement of its founders. The cathedral was begun in 1907 and finished in 1990—lightening speed for a cathedral built in the medieval style—almost as fast as American “progress.” In 1907, most Americans were protestant or Catholic. And if an American worshiped something else, that American was not visible in the nation’s capital. By the time the final finial was placed on the tower, America was a lot less WASPy and a lot more diverse. The largest growing denomination in America is “None.” Old Protestant sects like Episcopalians and Methodists are hemorrhaging membership to independent, non-denominational Christian churches. Those churches seemingly scorn the opulence of a cathedral, opting for a stadium and a charismatic preacher in the manner of Joel Osteen instead. The Mormons established a large temple of their own in the DC region in the 1970’s, and the Catholics have their own enormous basilica near Catholic University in Northeast Washington. Amid this splintering, the Washington National Cathedral searches for an open approach.

1969-03-State Funeral for President Eisenhower-09

This is the house, after all, where Presidents and great citizens are given state funerals. The cathedral, perhaps by virtue of being the first big house of worship in DC, is the unofficial “prima inter pares” among her neighbors. And for those with no faith, the cathedral houses art and history and inspiring moments appreciated in their own way.

sunshine on stone through glass

As for the aesthetics of the cathedral environs, the church art progresses from severe to abstract. In doing so, the art reflects the expansive mission of the Cathedral as a national sanctuary. Walking the nave, one can observe the stained glass move from a modern abstraction of color to a severe, formal British Gothic representation in glass. This is because the cathedral’s oldest end is at the altar, and as the century rolled on, the aesthetics changed as well. Old symbolism yield to ecumenical representations of spirituality, rebirth and renewal. Where the older part of the cathedral houses mosaics of the Resurrection, near the front door, tourists find chapels dedicated to George Washington, and stained glass with the moon and the stars as themes.

North mosaic 02 - Resurrection Chapel - National Cathedral - DC

Moon Window at the Washington National Cathedral

Certainly the cathedral founders could never have conceived of the Dalai Lama lecturing in the transept or Crosby, Stills and Nash singing their controversial song “Cathedral” in the nave. The magnitude of change, of cultural acceptance and understanding has weathered the original purpose of the cathedral—diluting it for some and enriching it for others.

Frederick Hart\'s Ex Nihilo, National Cathedral

As a result, the house of worship has a spiritual quality that transcends one interpretation of gospel and creed if one is willing to explore it. Compared to a truly ancient cathedral in Europe, the church is missing saintly relics, imagery, incense, and monks. Yet the church has the relics of secular Americans, like Helen Keller and President Wilson. The open spaces compel a sense of eternity, the high buttressed ceilings create a lofty space where spirits might dwell, the weight of Indiana limestone might persuade you to take a knee or bow a head in reflection.

Woodrow Wilson tomb 04 - South Nave Bay F - National Cathedral - DC

My last experiences in the grand space were over a year ago. On the last Tuesday of each month, the Cathedral places a large labyrinth on the floor of the transept. The labyrinth is drawn on an untreated natural canvas. While the labyrinth maze predates Christianity, the concept of walking a path to sort out one’s thoughts is sympathetic with Christian thought. The Cathedral’s labyrinth is based on the same design found in the Chartres Cathedral in France. A lone flautist plays a chant-like meditation over the long hall, her random pitches and tones resemble no traditional chant and are wordless, but create serenity as the tones dance among the stone carvings and dissipate into the endless spaces in the hall. Here, is spirituality for all faiths and none. And yet despite the diversity of worldviews, the wars fought among the forefathers of our denominations and faiths, here, in this abstraction, people find a bit of what they seek.

Whether the path-takers view is of biblical inerrantcy or ecumenicalism or no view at all, I have yet to witness anyone in the labyrinth who did not leave the maze with a sense of serenity.

IMG_2316.JPG

For those seeking less serious inspiration, the Cathedral’s exterior offers a collection of whimsical grotesques–or gargoyles. Some follow the design of those ancient gargoyles found in Europe. Others take their inspiration from homegrown monsters. Lying on the grass with a set of binoculars, gazing at the carved marble, has its own reward.

Cat gargoyle

Gargoyle

Darth Vader Gargoyle

Washington National Cathedral has found a niche in the spiritual heart of the nation. Its leadership have found ways to appeal to an increasingly diverse country, whose search for meaning can still be found in these cloisters. Where the founders of the Cathedral seemingly desired to use grandeur and heft to impose a particular view, the Cathedral has become a cipher–where the pilgrim sees what they want to see in the limestone and stained glass. That sentiment is better captured in the Tao Te Ching:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

–Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11 [emphasis added]

The National Cathedral Hofstetterized

Lightshow Photo credit: stevehdc / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Aerial Photo credit: Barbara.K / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Nave Photo credit: mikeygibran / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

West entrance Photo credit: ~MVI~ (thesis stressed) / Foter.com / CC BY

Stained Glass Light Photo credit: McBeth / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Hart’s Ex Nihilo Photo credit: AlbinoFlea / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Cathedral Fog Photo credit: dbking / Foter.com / CC BY

Gargoyles Photo credit: bobosh_t / Foter.com / CC BY-SA, Photo credit: vpickering / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND, Photo credit: MollaAliod / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Woodrow Wilson Photo credit: Tim Evanson / Foter / CC BY-SA

Labyrinth walkers Photo credit: A Look Askance / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Resurrection Mosaic Photo credit: Tim Evanson / Foter / CC BY-SA

Moon Rock Window Photo credit: ehpien / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Eisenhower funeral Photo credit: Old Guard Museum / Foter / CC BY-SA

About the Penny-farthing

canstockphoto7401825Author’s Note–Henry’s Eclectic has reached 36 followers! That is 35 more than I ever thought I’d have. Thank you for your patronage. No endeavor starts off without hiccups, and every small victory is cherished. Thank you for your time and readership.

On occasion, I will offer a modest supplement to my usual Tuesday travel recollections. I had great ambitions for the scope of this blog, a sort of internet attic full of odds-and-ends in a steamer trunk. I thought of channeling J.Peterman and Lewis Lapham in design, perhaps even a little Charles Kuralt and Garrison Keillor for nostalgia and Anthony Bourdain when it comes to food. I also channeled the British factotum Ben Schott and the Idler’s Tom Hodgkinson. I would take my reader on a brief essay ride to revel in the little things, especially the obsolete things—like card catalogs, rotary phones and the Game Boy. I will get to those things certainly.

And today, I start with the Penny-farthing—the big-wheeled bicycle that I have made the logo of the Eclectic—a true contraption that may get you where you need to go, conspicuously, and with whimsy. This particular iteration comes from Harper’s Weekly—the old newspaper and magazine dating back to the Civil War.

What is a penny-farthing? Well, it was a precursor to the modern bicycle. It takes it name from two British coins of unequal size—a penny and a farthing. The odd shape of the thing did have practicality—the very large wheel allowed the rider to pick up speed more quickly. The down side was that if you do a face plant off a penny-farthing, you’d have a long distance to go before gravity would force feed you a salad of dirt and grass. Some Victorians actually died from “taking a header” off the top of a penny-farthing.

While odd looking to the 21st century cycling enthusiast, all bicycles had mismatched wheels until the invention of the “safety bicycle” with its two, equal wheels in the 1890’s. By then, the penny-farthing had its day.

velooooooo-vi

My choice of the penny-farthing as a logo has little to do with the bicycle. (What an obsolete wonder though! Someday I will try a penny-farthing, and will post photos for you. ) When I was in my undergraduate years, I had a good friend who was in journalism school. Back in the “web 2.0” days of myspace and email, she made a passing reference to wanting a penny-farthing on her own blog, perhaps as she might have though it the only conveyance that would accommodate her long legs.

Being a bit of a suburban Pollyanna at this time in my life (as that last sentence clearly extolls, given my interest in the bike over the legs!), I had no idea what she was talking about (ever, really. Not for some fault of her own. She was brilliant.) And so in a wikirage, I did find out what this penny-farthing thing was. She went on to become an editor of online magazines of record, and I went on to keep a modest blog as an avocation. In some ways, the blog is already the penny-farthing of social communication, as most attention spans have been whittled to the length of a tweet, or you tube clip. A shame, as the essay remains the most useful tool for conveying a cogent thought with exposition and persuasion that no infographic can topple.

Who would have thought such a passing reference to a clunky, Victorian albatross of a bicycle would linger in the attic space of this author’s mind? It did though and thus a logo and a modest tribute were born.

Penny Farthings Forbidden

Pennyfarthing Logo under license from canstockphoto.com All Rights Reserved (c) 2013

Taking a Header Photo credit: Foxtongue / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

No Pennyfarthings Allowed Photo credit: The Puzzler / Foter / CC BY

A Spanish American Vision: San Diego’s Parks

Balboa Park - San Diego, California

Thou hast seen nothing yet–Cervantes, Don Quixote

I am a fan of counter-factual history, where historians speculate on what our present might have looked like had a critical moment in history panned out another way. What if Washington lost at Yorktown? What if Lincoln was not assassinated? What if champagne was never discovered? When standing in the cities of the American Southwest, I sometimes try to envision what this part of America might have looked like if in 1848, the Mexicans won the Mexican-American War? What might the street scape look like? What might the local culture be?

Don Quijote de la Mancha

Cervantes knew a thing or two about vision and reality. Don Quixote spends much of his story meandering from place to place with visions and concepts that only lived in his mind’s eye. Oddly, in a corner of San Diego, I needn’t imagine it. I can actually stand in a Spanish California–in the stylized Balboa Park and in the Presidio Park of the old Mission San Diego de Alcala.

Visión de Una América Española

The way Americans receive their official history is that the continent was settled by several different nations—France, England, and Spain. France ended up with the north and old Louisianne, Spain with South America, Central America and Mexico, and the British won the North American coast. From 1492 to 1776, the map of the new world began to look like a layer cake of Old France, Old England and Old Spain. From 1776 onwards, the continent that holds the United States is firmly rooted in an English heritage. Or so we are taught. The alternative history—of a Spanish wild west—is omnipresent in the lives of those living in parts of the US that were once Spain, from Tejas to Alta California. While the Atlantic colonists were fighting with the British in the 18th century, across the expanse, the Spanish were setting up missions along their increasing Pacific coastal domains. For Spain, the mission in San Diego was the first toehold on the North American continent, the capital of Las Californias and the westernmost city of New Spain.

San Diego remained a colonial outpost for the viceroy of New Spain, then under Mexican rule, for a little over 80 years. Upon the defeat of the Mexican army in 1849, the United States demanded San Diego and its deep natural harbor for a war prize. San Diego’s development from Catholic mission and Spanish presidio fort to a major ciudad was arrested. San Diego would never drip of the accoutrement of Spanish Rococo like Lima or Cuzco, or have a major square like the Zocolo of Mexico City.

Catedral del Zócalo

“What giants?’ asked Sancho Panza.”

Balboa Park

Winning San Diego for the United States served as a cultural blow to San Diego, seemingly robbed of her Spanish birthright. This cultural crime was not corrected until 1915 with the civic leaders of San Diego conspiring to attract a World’s Fair to San Diego. The city created an enormous tribute to Spanish colonial architecture in Balboa Park. West coast cities were jockeying to attract traffic from the recently completed Panama Canal. As the southernmost city on the Californian coast, San Diego hoped to use the fair as its debut as an international shipping port–the first stop in Pacific America. San Diego recruited top architects to design a Spanish version of a World’s Fairground. While previous iterations of the World’s Fair always opted for neo-classical and Beaux-Arts motifs, San Diego would instead pay homage to its Spanish heritage by building its own Zocalo in Balboa Park.

Panama-California Exposition Buildings

“Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”–Cervantes, Don Quixote

San Diego was not successful in hosting the World’s Fair that year, losing Federal support in favor of San Francisco’s display. San Diego was left with a bunch of plaster palaces bereft of its promised grand party. Undaunted, the city took on the expense, and hosted its own exhibition, followed by another exhibition in the 1930’s, touting the promise of San Diego as a cultural and economic miracle.

To civic leaders of the era, the investment in a massive fairground seemed wise. At the time of the World’s Fair boom, global travel was long and arduous—before airplanes, television and the Internet. What was left in the Expositions’ wake were vast expanses of land filled with combustible structures. Some cities were able to be innovative and reclaim the space. Chicago re-purposed their fairgrounds as part of the University of Chicago. New York’s Flushing Meadows still has remnants of their 1968 fare as a park. And San Francisco’s Palace of the Arts is the lone structure from her exhibition in a city park.

By 1940, San Diego was looking for a way to keep their deteriorating exhibition buildings–and the spirit and whimsy of those exhibitions–preserved. The miracle of Balboa Park is how intact the theme remains. Unlike the lost White City of the Chicago World’s Fair, Balboa Park remains and retains the whimsy of the Exposition. San Diego has reinvented the space with each generation, adding in modern museums, a misplaced replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and reconstructed plaster buildings remade in fireproof cement. And the world-famous San Diego Zoo sits alongside the park.

Family Portrait

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them.”

With that menagerie of fine arts, sun bleached vistas and wild animals, Balboa Park maintains the feel of a World’s Fair–a vast collection of delights housed in Spanish rococo. Don Quixote might find tapas for the culture vulture. However, upon further reflection, the illusion of marble turning into cement, Sancho Panza might see carrion instead. Standing in the great San Diego Plaza de Panama, along the El Campo with the California Tower casting a long shadow over the park, I know that many of these Spanish palaces are made of plaster and cement, not marble. This was no Escorial; this was an ersatz pleasure dome, preserved for promenades.

My usual posture would be to share in the disgust of Balboa Park’s critics, who maintain that the phony cathedrals and palaces are “Hollywood Spanish.” I instead find that charge to be unfair, especially since the buildings were designed by Bertram Goodhue, a leading American architect of his day (Rockefeller Chapel, Chicago; Nebraska State Capitol; Punahou, Hawaii; National Academies of Science, Washington, DC to name a few). I take Balboa not for what it was but for what it has become—the cultural and recreational epicenter of San Diego—a beautiful tribute to San Diego’s Spanish heritage and an adored public space rivaling Central Park in New York.

California Tower, Museum of Man, Balboa Park, San Diego

Museum of Man, Balboa Park

“All of that is true,’ responded Don Quixote, ‘but we cannot all be friars, and God brings His children to heaven by many paths: chivalry is a religion, and there are sainted knights in Glory.’ Yes,’ responded Sancho, ‘but I’ve heard that there are more friars in heaven than knights errant.’– Cervantes, Don Quixote

Despite the amenities of Balboa Park, there is little to be found by way of authentic cuisine. Overpriced museum cafes dot the park. Zoo-sized cokes and soft pretzels can also be had. While in awe, I did find myself tilting at windmills. Where was the real, old San Diego? For all of this pride in her Spanish heritage, Balboa Park did not offer up the real history of San Diego. For that, I’d have to continue on my pilgrimage, toward the Old San Diego, and the remnants of the mission. At four miles away, cordoned off by interstate highways, I called up a taxi to serve as my Rocinante.

Junipero Serra Museum, Presidio Park, San Diego, California

Presidio Park

Artesanias Mexicas @ Old Town

Presidio Park preserves the original grounds of the Mission San Diego. The old stucco Junipero Serra cathedral, terracotta tiles and plain pathways reflect the frontier austerity that those monks may have experienced in their environs. The early city of San Diego grew and thrived around these cloisters, offering locals and tourists a sense of what the old town was.And while some buildings are reconstructions of the old mission, those interpretations more accurately reflect the life and times of the old city.

Old Town San Diego, San Diego, California (4)

This part of San Diego has gritty charm. While Balboa Park is an ideal, the Presidio and old town district offer a dose of reality, as well as local fare. My sojourn takes me to the very ends of the tourist map, into the last precinct of old San Diego. At the Cafe Guadalajara, the tourist can enjoy local cuisine–carne asada and fish tacos–al fresco. And in sunny San Diego, there is no reason to ever eat indoors.

Casa Guadalajara

“Hunger is the best sauce in the world.”–Cervantes, Don Quixote

Touring San Diego’s environs does not require an either/or view. The vast plazas of Balboa Park offer a vision of a Spanish America that never came to be. Yet Balboa Park is very real, and full of delights for tourist and townie. And the Old Town, while a tourist attraction in its own right, does provide both style and substance. Whether in the grandeur of Balboa or the ruins of the Presidio, San Diego offers up both illusion and reality, allowing a visitor to see San Diego through both Sancho Panza’s and Don Quixote’s eyes at the same time.

Balboa Tower Photo credit: Michael in San Diego, California / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Balboa Reflection Photo credit: Osbornb / Foter.com / CC BY

California Tower Photo credit: Mastery of Maps / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Zocalo Photo credit: Felixe / Foter / CC BY-SA

Presidio Park Serra Memorial Photo credit: Ken Lund / Foter / CC BY-SA

Old Town Photo credit: Ken Lund / Foter / CC BY-SA

Terracotta Photo credit: Psicoloco / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Casa Guadalajara Old Town Fish Tacos Photo credit: kimberlykv / Foter / CC BY

Don Quixote Photo credit: rromer / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Voice from the Past: George Washington and FDR on Egypt

George Washington on Mount Rushmore

Egypt remains enthralled in revolution. Since the Arab Spring movement nearly two years ago, the US has a. supported the Mubarak regime, b. supported the democratic process in Egypt, c. supported the result of the democratic process–the installation of an illiberal leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood (a group with sworn enmity for Israel and the US), and d. supported the elected leader over the protest of the original student movement.

The problem with all of this “support” is not what side our political power centers are choosing, but that we are allowing elected leaders to choose at all. Foreign policy and statecraft are rarely the game of the American people. Or rather, blue bloods and elitists tend to play foreign politics without much regard for the will of the general American polity.

George Washington somehow foresaw the problem with choosing allies in foreign lands, and said as much in his farewell address:

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combination and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world, so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense, but in my opinion it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

Windy by modern prose, but amazingly prescient, Washington spelled out a foreign policy of such integrity that it is hard to understand why American leadership cannot emulate his example. In Egypt, our better nature supports the self-determination of all people, yet we should be keen to recognize that some peoples are determined to seek the destruction of Western civilization. Americans generally refuse to understand Middle Eastern politics. The role of the military in Egypt was defined in the Nasser years–over 50 years ago–based on the Turkish model. That model is fairly simple–the military is entrusted with keeping the country from turning into a theocracy, regardless of the electoral will. Americans should be cautious to scorn the Egyptian military’s action–they may be the last thing saving Egypt from turning into another Afghanistan.

However, as Washington said, it is none of our concern, really. Look what entanglement has earned us over the 20th century.

But, if you find Washington a bit naive, then I leave you with the words of FDR, in his reference to a Nicaraguan despot in 1939:

“He’s a son of a bitch, but at least he is our son of a bitch.”

Washington DC: FDR Memorial - 3rd Term

That seems to sum up American foreign policy since FDR. As to the Egypt question, we have yet to find ours. Perhaps we shouldn’t.

Washington Photo credit: jimbowen0306 / Foter / CC BY

FDR Photo credit: wallyg / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Voice from the Past: John Adams

Adamstrumbull

When most people are asked for whom their favorite founding father might be, many Americans lurch for George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Ben Franklin, for all of his wit, is my close second. As for moral consistency, I have always liked the cantankerous John Adams, a man who knew he was the smartest guy in the room and had a time of keeping it to himself. Adams walked the walk when it came to freedom. He didn’t own slaves. He was a master organizer, bringing Washington to the Army and Jefferson to pen the Declaration. Adams also knew a thing or two about how well his foot tasted, squarely placed in his mouth.

Americans celebrate July 4th as the founding of the nation. Adams thought differently, as expressed to his wife, Abigail (my favorite founding mother):

“Philadelphia July 3d. 1776

… The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. — Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. — This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago. But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” [emphasis added]
Call me a purist, but I fondly look to July 2nd to tipple a toast to American Independency. Firstly, because I am pedantic. Secondly, because I can have the monuments and fireworks all to myself.

Happy belated birthday, you old coot.

Uncle Sam I Want You - Poster Illustration

John Adams Photo credit: John Trumbull / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Uncle Sam Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / Foter.com / CC BY