Absinthe, early auto racing, and John D. Rockefeller’s house

Our family loves serendipity, and today was quite full of it.

We had to drive down to Ormond Beach this morning to check out a posh place for boarding dogs. We are planning to drive down to Fort Lauderdale for the International Boat Show later this month (a weekend full of yachts!) and we can’t take our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, with us. In a fit of guilt, we found a puppy amusement park to put him up in.

It’s a little amazing to see what pet hotels have become. This place has private indoor-outdoor suites for dogs, with a swimming pool in the shape of a giant bone and several puppy playgrounds that look like agility courses. Some of the rooms are equipped with webcams so concerned parents can check in on their furbabies anytime they like. The suites also have air conditioning, televisions (so your dog can watch Animal Planet), grooming appointments, daily bowls of ice cream and other treats. Frankly, Sherlock might not want to come home.

The Rose Villa Restaurant in Ormond Beach

We rarely end up in Ormond Beach during the day, so we decided to check out a restaurant I have been wanting to eat at for weeks. The Rose Villa restaurant is in a Victorian house off of Granada Boulevard that was built in the 1800s. It became a bed and breakfast in 1901 and was an adjunct facility for famed industrialist Henry Flagler’s luxury hotel. Celebrity guests who wanted more privacy than Flagler’s hotel could provide stayed there.

The Rose Villa now.
The Rose Villa a century ago.

The walls of the restaurant are decorated with portraits of all of the famous Gilded Age personalities who frequented Ormond Beach, including Flagler, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Willie Vanderbilt, Glenn Curtiss, Will Rogers, Alexander Winton, Barney Oldfield, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Harrison Olds, and Fred Marriott.

You can always tell an interior from one of Flagler’s establishments. This place has some of the same Charles Lewis Tiffany flourishes that you see at Flagler College or the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine.

One of the dining rooms of the Rose Villa.
A portrait of the great Henry Flagler.
John D. Rockefeller, Flagler’s business partner.

A Digression on the Great Industrialists of the Gilded Age and Florida History

Because the Gilded Age is my favorite period of history, I love Florida history. And I have a minor obsession with Henry Flagler.

Henry Flagler was sort of the Donald Trump of his era, with a similar affection for Florida real estate. Flagler was born into poverty and started his life off as a commodities trader (before commodities trading was cool). Along with Rockefeller, Flagler ultimately founded the Standard Oil Company, America’s first true corporation and the largest monopoly the world had ever seen. Flagler and Rockefeller were not immediately successful, as there was not yet an immense market for oil and petroleum products in the mid-19th century. Then the automobile was invented, and the two men became far and away the richest men on the planet. Rockefeller had so much money later in life that he passed out money to strangers and children he met on the street (and, of course, became a legendary philanthropist). This made him very popular with the kids in Ormond Beach. If you ran into Rockefeller or were his caddy on the golf course, you inevitably got a dime.

Nowadays, corporations have platoons of pathetically overpaid lawyers producing documents the size of phone books to manage legal concerns. Standard Oil’s articles of incorporation fit on a single sheet of paper. From this simple piece of paper, a multinational financial empire was constructed.

Standard Oil Company articles of incorporation.

Flagler literally built the State of Florida after the Civil War, linking a series of luxury hotels from St. Augustine down to the Keys with his railroad and “bridge over the sea.” Then he brought down every filthy rich friend he had from the north, and their friends, and their friends’ friends, and their staff, and their interior designers, and their architects. Without his vision, Florida would still be a tangle of jungle with some burnt-out sugar plantations. Flagler was seemingly a swell boss to have, too. He paid relatively high wages to the men willing to work on exceptionally rough construction sites – with sometimes brutal tropical weather and mosquitoes – many of them the descendants of freed slaves, and provided them with housing and food.

Every major city you see on the eastern coast of Florida exists because Flagler was able to recruit both the labor and consumers necessary to have a sustainable economy. He is truly a giant in American history.

Like Trump, Flagler was a lightning rod for controversy and jealousy, and he was a near-constant topic for the hyenas in the media (who were just as bad then as they are now) during his lifetime. Flagler threw over-the-top parties designed to make his self-righteous critics clutch their pearls. He’d make the world’s greatest industrialists dress in drag, for example. Flagler was hauled before Congress a billion times and he did not give two shits about it. The hyenas were going to hyena, but they’d go home to crappy New York apartments and he’d take his personal train to paradise. That was his attitude.

It’s actually something of a useful lesson for current events: History remembers Henry Flagler. It doesn’t remember the people who wrote about him. I’m sure Trump wakes up and reminds himself of this every day.

(Rockefeller, of course, was the diametrical opposite of Flagler, which is probably why they made great business partners. He kept notebook after notebook full of every penny he spent, how much money he gave away, every tiny little thing he did each day and how he could improve. Rockefeller was consumed with self-improvement and extremely religious. It was like he planned to audit St. Peter’s books when he reached the pearly gates. Well, my notes say…)

A Digression on Primitive Auto Racing (That Was Still Freaking Terrifying)

Unsurprisingly, the oil barons’ best friends were automobile industry tycoons. It was this fraternity who brought the sport of automobile racing to the Daytona area. They built the first generations of supercars for giggles, racing them on the packed white sands of Ormond Beach and Daytona. And the people in the town loved it.

There is a replica of Flagler’s supercar garage in the middle of a park on Ormond Beach with the first race cars in them. They pretty much look like someone attached rockets to a Barcalounger. And, boy, did they go FAST:

J.F. Hathaway, a wealthy manufacturer from Massachusetts and a frequent guest at the Ormond Hotel, came up with the idea of racing cars on the beach.

According to two Volusia County history books, A History of Volusia County and Ormond-on-the-Halifax, Hathaway attended bicycle races held on Ormond Beach between 1900 and 1902 while vacationing at the Ormond Hotel.

Hathaway, who drove a Stanley Steamer, noticed that bicycle tires did not sink into the hard sand along the beach. He suggested to John Anderson and Joseph Price, managers of the hotel, that the beach would be a good place to race cars.

From 1902 to 1935, auto industry giants such as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, F.E. Stanley and Ransom E. Olds brought their cars to race down the beach.

In April 1902, two early auto pioneers met for the first race. Olds, founder of Oldsmobile, and Alexander Winton, creator of the Winton automobile, both bolted down the beach at 57 mph – well short of the existing 77 mph world speed record, set the year before by a Frenchman.

No matter. Word got out in Europe and America that Ormond Beach was an ideal speedway. In 1903, the races were sponsored by the American Automobile Association.

Several land speed records were set in those years. Because long distances were needed to set speed records, the course often was extended south to Daytona Beach.

Ormond and Daytona beaches remained a top draw for speed demons until the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah became popular in the late 1940s.

On Jan. 23, 1904, William K. Vanderbilt set the first world record on the beach when he drove his four-cylinder Mercedes at just over 92 mph. The next year, Arthur McDonald drove a 90-horsepower Napier to 104 mph.

In 1906 a Stanley Steamer driven by Fred Marriott was clocked at 127.6 mph. Marriott later was crowned “Fastest Man on Earth” by the Florida East Coast Automobile Association.

Cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield, perhaps the most famous race-car driver in the world at the time, set a new world speed record on the Ormond-Daytona course in 1907. Driving a German-made Benz called the Blitzen, Oldfield flew down the beach at 131 mph.

From 1908 until the end of World War I, racing faded somewhat in Ormond and Daytona. The beach wasn’t in good shape and the war drew attention and resources away from racing. In the 1920s, the racing world turned its attention to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But in 1927 beach racing came back in a big way when Major H.O.D. Segrave ran his Sunbeam Mystery S race car from the Daytona Beach Pier 13 miles south to Ponce Inlet. Segrave, for whom a street in Daytona is named, reached 203 mph as a crowd of 15,000 watched.

The last speed record set on the beach came on March 7, 1935, when Sir Malcolm Campbell drove his car, the Bluebird V, to a speed of 276.82 mph. The car is displayed at Daytona USA, a motorsports museum and entertainment complex under construction at the Daytona International Speedway.

In 1936 the American Automobile Association sponsored the first national stock-car race on Daytona Beach. One of the entrants was named Bill France; he later founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. Several other races were held from 1936 until the start of America’s involvement in World War II in 1941.

The first stock-car race after the war was held in the spring of 1946. France was one of the drivers, and during the race his car overturned. Spectators flipped the car back on its wheels, and France finished the race. The next year, France was again involved in the race, not as a driver but as the sponsor. Then he began planning the construction of Daytona International Speedway 5 miles east of the beach; the track opened in 1958.

The first Daytona 500 was run in 1959 and was won by Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty.

Also in the 1950s, the racetrack in Sebring in south Florida became one of the world’s most famous auto racing venues for sports cars.

Most of the world’s most famous sports car manufacturers – Triumph, Austin-Healey, MG , Jaguar, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Maserati, Ferrari and others – competed at Sebring.

One of the first race cars in history. Like I said, someone attached rockets to a recliner.
(We’ll just call this guy the original Florida Man. He needs a bottle of bourbon and an alligator in his seat with him though.)
America’s richest men racing primitive supercars on the sand of Ormond Beach.
I’m not sure what this is, but it looks like fun.

This is Ralph DePalma, who restarted the competition for land speed records after the upper crust took a break to deal with World War I. He was also responsible for the founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911. DePalma broke the land speed record that year in his Packard V-12 at almost 150 mph.

Rodney did not believe me that they were building cars that could go over 270 mph before WWII. I had to show him that article on my phone in the restaurant. (Don’t underestimate the history nerd!)

The downstairs bar at Rose Villa.

Okay, So Back to the Rose Villa

I cannot recommend this restaurant highly enough. The restaurant serves haute Southern food. You can get fried green tomatoes with lobster, a croque madam, and so forth. This is combined with a menu of proper cocktails.

Since it was still brunch, we started off with deviled eggs, served with pork bellies and chow chow. Elise ordered avocado toast. I ordered a “biscuit benedict” served with freshly made lump crab cakes. Rodney had jambalaya. All magnificent.

The Green Fairy

We started off with a round of Sazeracs. Then we moved on to a round of candied bacon old fashioneds. Also all magnificent.

Then… We learned about the upstairs absinthe bar. The only thing that could improve such an awesome restaurant was a speakeasy.

The upstairs bar.

We’ve had the green fairy before at home, but without the ceremony. Rose Villa really gets into the ceremony. They pour the absinthe, dip a sugar cube in it, set it on an absinthe spoon, light the sugar on fire, and then use an absinthe fountain to drip water over the sugar until the absinthe turns a cloudy white. It is wicked fun to watch.

It cracked me up that the bartender felt the need to warn us that absinthe is a sipping drink and not a shooting drink. We explained to her that we understood that shooting 140-proof liquor is probably a bad idea. You’d be surprised, she said. She had a businessman do it once, and it made him violently ill. He barely made it to the bathroom. (This story is even more hilarious when you eventually learn that the restaurant has a traditional water closet for a bathroom, complete with a rope you have to pull to flush. It’s in a Victorian house, after all.)

For the uninitiated, absinthe is a licorice-flavored liquor that is derived from anise and various botanicals (including wormwood). The drink developed a bad reputation in the early 20th century among social conservatives and prohibitionists, who claimed that the drink was addictive and had dangerous psychoactive properties. They mostly hated the drink as it became a symbol of bohemian culture, being loved by such troublemakers as Vincent van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway. Absinthe was banned in the United States and Europe in the 1920s. Since then, the claims about its dangers have been discredited, and it became popular once more starting in the 1990s. It’s a very, very strong liquor (well, the good stuff is, anyway), but it’s pleasant when prepared properly and will leave your mouth tasting like licorice for hours.

The gardens outside Rose Villa.
I thought this was neat. This is the wall of an alley next to the restaurant. They put a series of mirrors on the wall, and let the vines take over the rest. It gives the alley a creepy fairytale vibe.

The Casements

As we were in the neighborhood, we decided to pop over to see John D. Rockefeller’s house on the Intracoastal Waterway. His house – named The Casements, a reference to its heavy, hurricane-proof storm windows – is a museum now.

The Casements
Rockefeller handing a child a dime. He loved giving his wealth away so much that he gave coins away to random people and strangers he met out in public.

After that, we decided to pop over to the beach and stick our toes in the surf. The waves have been incredible lately, but there were many locals wading in despite the red flags flying from the lifeguard stands. And many crazy surfers.

Florida child.
Nope.

All of this grew out of a trip to a dog hotel. I love living in Florida so much.

The culture wars of late 18th century America

I rather enjoyed reading about the experiences with students at William & Mary that contributed to Thomas Jefferson taking on the project of education reform (from today’s Wall Street Journal):

By this time he had lost all patience with the college in Virginia’s colonial capital, and no wonder. As Mr. Taylor shows in his unsparing account of Jefferson’s efforts to “reform Virginia through education,” William & Mary was becoming, in the decades before and after American independence, a school in name only. Enrollment was declining, the buildings were a wreck, and the students—mostly the scions of Virginia’s slaveholding plantation masters—made the toga-wearing frat boys of “Animal House” seem like scholars of remarkable seriousness and propriety.

Besides taking potshots at one another, William & Mary’s students, over the years, drank and gambled and vandalized the townspeople’s houses. At least once they fired a cannon down Williamsburg’s main thoroughfare. They broke into Bruton Parish Church, shattering the communion table “into a thousand pieces,” according to one of the students, scattered Bibles and prayer books around the church yard, and “bedaubed from one end [of the pulpit] to the other with human excrement.” They even “dug up the body of a female that had been buried for many months,” a Norfolk newspaper reported, “took it from the coffin, and placed it on the floor of an empty house in a situation too shocking to describe!!!”

This is far from the first time American culture has been besieged by a generation of nihilists, and it likely won’t be the last. College is treated like a second infancy now, with ever-decreasing academic and professional standards, but it is not the first time this phenomenon has occurred.

Jefferson’s experiment with raising better kids essentially had two pillars: (1) remove them from the corrupting forces of urban life (that’s why the University of Virginia is in the Piedmont); (2) remove them from the corrupting forces of elites and bring them back to Enlightenment and neoclassical ideals (that’s why the bratty elitists of the Church of England had no influence over his university’s operations). I think there’s a lot of wisdom in both of these notions.

Jefferson’s experience was not all that different from Cicero’s. When Cicero was a youth, Rome was in the middle of a violent (literally) culture war. He was from an aristocratic family with a serious country estate. Cicero went into a period of self-imposed exile from the negative influences of the city and basically waited out his peers returning to sanity.

From his family’s country estate, he gave himself the best home education a young adult could have for and spent a great deal of time practicing rhetoric and the arts of persuasion. By the time events in the city had stabilized, he was well prepared to take his place among political leadership.

I think the cloistered masses reviving classical education in the United States have taken on the same project. You have a lot of people who are removing their children physically and intellectually from toxic cultural influences now. History shows over and over that they will be rewarded for doing so.

The highest ideals of western civilization always recover because they contain very real moral truths. Sometimes a generation has to hit rock bottom in their behavior to recognize them, however.

Why South Carolina was the most important theater in the Revolutionary War

A few days ago, I referred readers to Kevin Honold’s essay on the rewards of studying history. In that essay, he talks about how reading a biography of the Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion as a child kindled his love of history. I had not read much about the famous warrior, so I bought and have been working my way through John Oller’s excellent book The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution.

It takes a lot of effort to write a biography on Marion, Oller notes. Mason Weems wrote a largely embellished biography of Marion in the early 1800s that turned him into a Rambo-esque guerrilla fighter not unlike the protagonist played by Mel Gibson in the godawful, historically inaccurate movie The Patriot. Weems was the same person who gave us the fictional story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree that countless kindergartners have been taught in US schools.

(FYI, absolutely nothing like the church scene in The Patriot happened during the American Revolution, even though it was a brutal conflict for soldiers and civilians alike. I guess in the eyes of a German director, every antagonist is a Nazi psychopath. Also, Colonel Banastre Tarleton – whom Mel Gibson’s military foil is based upon – did not die in the American Revolution at all. He lived 50 years beyond the war to become a member of Parliament representing Liverpool. The son of wealthy merchants from Liverpool, he was an ardent supporter of the slave trade, which was a boon to the shipping industry there. A truly terrible human being, but he wasn’t taken out by the swamp fox and his clan as the film suggests. He was the origin of the “swamp fox” moniker, however. And speaking of slaves, if the film were accurate, the main character would have owned slaves. Marion himself had a favorite black valet who accompanied him everywhere.)

At any rate, one of the things that makes this book so fascinating is Oller starts off with the argument that South Carolina was the most significant theater of conflict in the Revolutionary War.

Living as we do outside of St. Augustine, Florida, I complain a lot about how oddly obsessed with Yankee settlements American history textbooks are. American kids are raised talking about Plymouth and Jamestown, when the oldest settlement (by several decades) in what is now the United States is St. Augustine. St. Augustine was a bustling city before the people on the Mayflower were even born.

This has the effect of making American history seem very small and settlers homogeneous. This behavior is not particularly limited to American history either. When schools teach world history, they usually start with the civilizations that will eventually become relevant to the Judeo-Christian wisdom traditions. There is no attention paid to, say, China or India. There is no curiosity that a vast metropolis that had over a million inhabitants was revealed by satellite imagery of the Amazon rain forest.

Anyway, I digress. Back to South Carolina and the “swamp fox”:

More battles, engagements, and skirmishes were fought in South Carolina during the Revolution than in any other colony. Conservative estimates place the number of combat actions in the state at more than two hundred, a third of all that took place in the entire war. No other colony had as many inches of territory affected by battle: of the state’s forty-six present-day counties, forty-five ended up seeing Revolutionary War actions. Nearly 20 percent of all Americans who died in battle in the Revolution died in South Carolina during the last two years of the war.

Ever since the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the South had been mostly untouched by the conflict, which was famously fought at places such as Bunker Hill, Fort Ticonderoga, Trenton, and Brandywine. But by 1779 the war in the North had reached a stalemate, with the British firmly in control of New York City under Sir Henry Clinton, and the Americans, led by George Washington, camped out thirty miles away in Morristown, New Jersey, desperately hoping for help from a French navy anchored in the West Indies [i.e. the Caribbean]. The last significant engagement in the North had been in June 1778 at Monmouth Courthouse, where Washington and his most dependable officer, Nathaniel Greene, battled Clinton and his lieutenant general, Charles Corwallis, to a draw. But while the Americans were hard-pressed, Britain had grown increasingly weary of war. Its coffers nearly bankrupt and its military stretched thin by an expanded conflict with France and Spain, Parliament agreed to finance one final effort to end the American rebellion.

It came to be known as Britain’s “southern strategy.” Jointly agreed on by Clinton, King George, and Lord Germain, the British secretary of state for America, the plan was eloquent in both logic and economy. The British would begin by occupying and pacifying Georgia, where revolutionary sentiment was weakest among the thirteen colonies. They would then subdue South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia while gathering men to confront George Washington in the North.

Hence you have the fall of Savannah and the long siege of Charleston (Charles Town), where from the Continentals’ standpoint, the war looked finally lost. Most of the locals were desperate to show they were still loyal to the crown. The British believed they could save money by getting Tories in the southern colonies to fight the war for themselves. Oller likens this to the military strategy in the Vietnam War.

It was in the Carolina lowcountry and backcountry that the war would finally change direction, with many casualties.

What I am reading these days

I have a great love of books and film to begin with… But I have to say, I have been indulging in some rather magnificent fare lately.

All Things India

First, I have developed a serious interest in India. (Or perhaps recovered is a better term. I had a Jhumpa Lahiri phase in my early 20s.) I know I have mentioned the fantastic book I finished on the history of curry. Feasts and Fasts is another amazing book by the same author, which uses the history of food as a gateway into discussing the broader history of the Indian subcontinent (and, by extension, the various cultures that have been stakeholders there across millennia). It is so strange to me now to hear the name of a dish and be able to pinpoint the region it comes from and how it ever came to be a thing there. India is high on my list of places to visit now.

Before that, I had been reading about the Mountbatten dynasty via Pamela Hicks’ Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten. (I wish I could recommend this book, but it’s honestly quite painful. Torturous really. If you can imagine Gwyneth Paltrow with all of her name-dropping of celebrities and shallow digressions, but with nabobs, then you have already gleaned all there is to glean from this book.) I am thankful my interest survived.

I started working my way through the series Indian Summers on Masterpiece, which I think is excellent. (Does this series come from the book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire? I am curious, but have not read that book yet.) The show takes place across summers in Simla, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, with a group of the British civil servants and merchants at the time of the British Raj, beginning in 1932. The show follows two plot lines: one with the British and one with the struggle for independence.

Martha Gellhorn

We very much loved touring Hemingway’s house in Key West last year, and since then, I have read a lot of books on Hemingway’s time in Florida and Cuba. And then I started reading the works of Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was an incredible writer in general, but an especially talented war correspondent. Most people, however, know her only as “Hemingway’s third wife.” She met Hemingway at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West (Hemingway’s favorite haunt) while vacationing with her family. Lord, what that woman could do with words. Her books are filled with very nuanced tales of how war and poverty impacted ordinary people.

Hemingway’s house in Key West

The Second Seminole War

I wrote earlier about how I have been studying the Second Seminole War (or, as I like to call it, the Afghanistan of the 1830s) ever since Elise and I decided to hike out to the ruins of a sugar plantation that was torched by Seminoles. My latest book on the topic is The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression. A lot of folks like to make a big deal about the Seminoles resorting to guerrilla tactics, but it’s silly to pretend this was a novel development in American history even then. After all, we have a country because a bunch of colonialists did exactly the same thing to the Brits.

Novels… I’m Trying to Enjoy Fiction (The Struggle is Real)

I am attempting to read a series of novels by H.S. Cross that revolve around the lives of boys and adults at a boarding school in England. I vastly prefer non-fiction to fiction, but these novels are well done and erudite, with is sort of a reward for a life of reading quality non-fiction, no?

A brilliant essay on being obsessed with history

I just had to share this essay in the Hudson Review. You all know that I love history in general and have been on a kick lately reading about Native American history in particular. This essay is one of the best things I have read lately on any subject. It’s ostensibly about the Huron tribe, but the author dwells for quite a while about how he came to love history and the improbable relationships he’s developed with various people who also share his passion. It’s wonderful on so many levels, not the least of which is the observation that some of the best history students are not academics at all.

History is not an American pastime. This is partly due, I think, to the fact that history has long been presented to schoolchildren as a thing from which they are meant to draw “lessons,” as though history were a series of unfortunate incidents involving hot skillets and monkey cages, which, in some ways, I suppose it is. The past is something that maladjusted people “dwell on,” after all. “The belief that history has a present use when properly read,” wrote Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence, “is a mark of the modern temper; whole periods and peoples have done quite well without it,” and that seems true enough. Remembrance is morbid, unprofitable. It’s impractical, impolite in certain company. And plainly, we survive whether we record our deeds and disasters for posterity, or we don’t.

Hahahaha. But it is true. This is one of the things I loathed about studying history in school. So much moralizing about irreconcilably messy events and people. So many caricatures. “What did you learn about humanity from this story?” being asked by people who skipped all the fantastic, unlikely, insane, totally unpredictable details in favor of some tedious and not-wholly-accurate thesis.

The neighborhood was under construction in the summer of 1982, and I scoured the half-built houses for refundable pop bottles and cans discarded by the roofers and framers. Sunday mornings, I filled a sack with empties, arranged the cans on the driveway at home, and stomped them one by one till my socks turned tacky with sour beer and cola. Each empty bottle brought me a dime closer to Francis Parkman’s History of France and England in North America, the two-volume Library of America edition with Prussian blue silk ribbons for page-keepers. The set cost forty dollars, or a couple thousand cans, or several hundred bottles. I grew anxious and mulled schemes to swindle the History Book Club, which would doubtless sell out of copies long before I could steal enough loose change to buy my own.

There were maps in those books, the catalog affirmed, reprints of the very maps that Parkman consulted during his researches. Maps of the Ohio Valley and the Pennsylvania frontier, elegant and spare and unadorned maps depicting big rivers bristling with tributary streams that traced back into uncharted forests where the Oneida fished and hunted bear, where the Tuscarora burned their Huron captives, and where the Flemish Bastard and his renegades made their winter camps, there to drink and plot the next raid on the settlements.

I got the money together. On the day the books arrived, I bought a Hershey’s chocolate bar at the convenience store, returned home and sat down, dizzy and exultant, at the kitchen table with a glass of milk and opened Volume I, Pioneers of France in the New World, Chapter I, “Early Spanish Adventure, 1512–1561,” which chronicled the expeditions of Narváez, de Leon, and de Soto. I restrained myself from racing down the page. To read with patience and understanding was agonizing.

I still feel that way when I get a new book in the mail.

In the mid-1990s, I worked as a plumber’s apprentice in Cincinnati and attended plumbers’ trade school at night. The journeyman I worked with was a man named Derek. Broad-shouldered, mid-thirties, dark good looks inherited form his Italian immigrant mother, Derek was a kind man with a generous and disarming nature, and for this reason he was well liked by the office secretaries and by the other tradesmen. I’d never seen a man show such unabashed joy in his children, two girls. His wife was the only woman but one, he told me, that he’d ever slept with. A man generally wouldn’t confess to such a thing if it weren’t true. He was honest like that. Imposture, I think, simply didn’t occur to him.

Here’s an example. A friend of his was killed in a work accident. On the way to a job one morning, we stopped at the cemetery. For a few minutes, he stood in the rain beside the newly-turned grave and remained quiet throughout the day. After work, back at the shop, he wanted to talk about the dead man, but when he brought up the fact of visiting the grave, the other plumbers ridiculed him, and a hurt look came over Derek’s face, an angry hurt.

That kind of person.

One morning, I arrived at the shop—normally a glum place at that hour—and found Derek happily recounting a story to two plumbers. He was not much of a reader, but someone had given him a book, and he’d been carried away by it. He was talking about the swamp-fighting in South Carolina during the American Revolution. I knew the story, and the book’s title.

Francis Marion, Swamp Fox of the Revolution,” I said.

Derek was astonished, warily so, as though I’d read his mind. “How the hell did you know that?” I didn’t tell him that it was the first book I’d ever read on my own, when I was a kid at Saint James Elementary. For me, it was a wonderful coincidence, but I didn’t say so.

Derek embarked on a book jag. He read books about local history, about the Miami and the Shawnee, about the arrival of the French and English in the Ohio River Valley. As we drove the unmarked van around the city from job to job—sweating water pipe, cutting away disused cast iron at a tear-out job, boiling lead in iron ladles in murky crawlspaces—we talked about the Jesuit Marquette’s voyages, about gauntlets and ordeals; about the indefatigable LaSalle, who paddled the lengths of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, both up- and downstream; Little Turtle, brilliant strategist of the Miami, whose confederacy crushed St. Clair’s army on the banks of the Wabash, inflicting the bloodiest defeat ever suffered by the American military at the hands of Native Americans. We talked about prisoner exchanges and broken treaties; captivity stories; the vanished buffalo of the “Cain-tuck” hunting grounds, the great herds that today exist only on a mural painted on the Newport, Kentucky, levee. And the war chief Blue Jacket who, according to a suspect legend, was a white child adopted by the Shawnee. It was Blue Jacket’s men who routed General Harmar’s army from Ohio and Indiana. He was present, too, at Fallen Timbers in 1794, by which time the Americans—with time, men, and money on their side—had learned the strategic value of burning the tribes’ fields and towns.

You must read the entire thing. It is a sublime meditation for a certain sort of person.

How did curry end up in the Caribbean?

Lately, I have enjoyed reading Colleen Taylor Sen’s book Curry: A Global History. I love cooking and I really, really love history, so this has been an oddly fascinating topic.

Curry is the rare dish that you can pretty much find anywhere in the world. Where we live in Florida, food from the Caribbean is ubiquitous. And in our town in particular – which has a significant Portuguese population – anything even remotely connected to Portugal is everywhere. This includes food from areas of India that had been occupied by the Portuguese after Vasco da Gama. If you go to a Caribbean restaurant, you can order a goat curry. If you go to the Indian restaurant, you can order a goat curry. If you go to an Asian grocery store here, you see Caribbean food brands.

It might not seem all that interesting on its face that folks in the Caribbean ended up with curry. The Caribbean was (and still is) the crossroads of the world. But it turns out that curry did not exactly end up in the Caribbean via trade routes.

Curry ended up in the former American colonies as relatively wealthy Americans imitated everything the fashionable elites in Britain did. As Britain had taken over much of India, Indian textiles and spices became popular in Britain, and they simultaneously became popular in the United States.

Not so with the Caribbean, however. It was the Indians themselves who brought curry to the Caribbean.

With the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and slavery altogether in 1833, there was suddenly a labor shortage in the Caribbean, Pacific Islands, and South Africa. (The last thing former slaves wanted to do after the abolition of slavery was return to the grueling work of a sugar plantation.) According to Sen, the British government established offices in (then) Calcutta and Madras to recruit Indians as indentured laborers. These laborers would agree to contracts of five to ten years, have their basic needs met, and receive small wages. At the end of their contract, they would receive either free passage home or free land in the region where they were working. Most of them chose free land.

As a result of this arrangement, Caribbean islands that had a British presence now have a lot of people with Indian origin. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, nearly half of the inhabitants have ancestors from India. Ditto for Guyana. A small portion of Jamaica is of Indian origin.

Per Sen:

On their arrival, immigrants received daily rations of rice, dal [lentils, peas, or chickpeas], coconut oil or ghee [clarified butter], sugar and salt, turmeric and sometimes salted or dried fish and onions. Substitution was essential, since ingredients such as curry leaves, fresh coriander and mint were not grown locally. The substitute for coriander is a local herb called shado(w) beni that grows wild in drainage ditches. The chili pepper used in Trinidadian curries it the fiery scotch bonnet, so-called because it looks like a little pleated bonnet. In places of spinach-like greens called ‘sag’ in India, Trinidadians and Jamaicans use callaloo, the leaf of the dasheen plant (a form of taro). Callaloo is also the name of a soup cooked with coconut milk, crab, okra, chilies, and herbs.

Each of these countries vary the meats that are used in their curry. Fish curry is popular in Guyana. Jamaicans love goat curry.

A Saturday picking out bonsai trees

Elise has wanted a bonsai tree for about a year now, ever since we met a man selling bonsai on a trip to Key West. We decided to indulge her today and drove out to Schley’s Bonsai and Supplies in DeLand (about an hour away from us). As it happened, the owner was hosting his Summer Bonsai Festival. We learned there’s a club devoted to bonsai in DeLand (and perhaps we might join, though that’s a bit far to go for meetings).

Jason’s bonsai farm did not disappoint. He has table after table of bonsai as far as you can see.

The tables of bonsai are beneath a canopy of these
ancient live oaks, with piles of Spanish moss.
I loved this tree from the Japanese garden, hanging down into a koi pond.

Elise found a bonsai and I did too. This is my dainty little crepe myrtle, which is actually about 25 years old. I put it in the library. Jason said that in Japan there are families that have passed down bonsai from father to son across centuries. Isn’t that incredible to think about?

This is the tree Elise picked out.