Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thomas Jefferson Leads a Horticulture

Thomas Jefferson has clearly arrived in the world, as he's got his very own wiki. I discovered this today as I combed the Internet to bring you a story with intrigue...and vegetables.

Who loved vegetables more than TJ? Nobody, that's who. He described meat as "a condiment to the vegetables which constitute my principal diet." Dude loved his salads, and meals at the White House during his Presidency were multi-course affairs full of all manner of delicious plants. An avid gardener, Jefferson experimented with exotic vegetables at Monticello, including a good number of new plants collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, and all kinds of crazy squashes and vegetables imported from Italy. He's often credited with introducing broccoli to the United States, though it never really caught on in the U.S. until after World War I (and with some Americans, like 41st president George H.W. Bush, it never caught on).

Jefferson's lifelong love of horticulture must have tied into his desire to make the new nation more visible on the global scale by discovering and cultivating new exports. In the Southern states, an important cash crop was rice, and when he visited the court of Louis XVI in 1785, Jefferson wanted to convince the French to buy more American rice. Carolina rice hadn't been selling so well in France. Jefferson thought that maybe this was due to the fact that it looked different from the European varieties they were all used to, though whether it was intrinsic to the particular breed of rice or had to do with the way the rice was cleaned and prepared, Jefferson wasn't sure. So he resolved to figure out how to improve it, and that meant a trip to the rice center of Europe - Lombardy, Italy. The variety of rice, called Piedmont, that was grown there did very well in France. The secret to their awesome rice was carefully guarded - the penalty for taking whole husks out of the country was death.

This didn't stop Jefferson, though. He stuffed some unhusked Piedmont rice into his jacket pockets and arranged for a muleteer named Poggio to smuggle some more from Lombardy to Genoa, in hopes that maybe cross-breeding the rice with the Carolina rice would produce a variety more palatable to the French.

As it turned out, he risked life and limb for pretty much nothing. Italian rice was cleaned just about exactly the same way as the American rice, and it didn't even taste that much better. In fact, farmers in Carolina hated the Piedmont rice, and were afraid that crossing it with their own rice would ruin their crops. It turned out there wasn't anything weird about their rice that made the French not buy it, anyway, it was just that it was expensive due to the fact that it came to France via British middlemen. Jefferson urged farmers to send their rice directly to France, and everyone was happy, except maybe the British.

Later on, Jefferson also experimented with rice from Egypt, West Africa, and the Dutch East Indies, and tried for years to get rice from China and Vietnam, enlisting the help of everyone from sea captains to deposed Eastern royalty. He grew various types of rice in flowerpots on his windowsill to test its tenacity. Man knew his rice. Of course, he was Thomas frickin' Jefferson -- he knew pretty much everything.

Here's a sketch from The Daily Show, all about Jefferson and his vegetables, starring Steve Carell.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ask Not What Friday Links Can Do For You

I promise a new feature next week. And my promises are worth at least as much as any political candidate's.

For now, links.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Hail to the Friday Links

Happy Presidents' Day Weekend, everybody! In honor of getting Monday off from work, here's a special all-President edition. (Okay, fine, 90% of the content in this blog is president-related. I try to make a special effort not to have that happen, but what can I say? Childhood obsessions die hard.)And finally, here's some awesome video of eighth president Martin Van Buren playing Halo. Sort of.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Pimp My White House

I often wonder why I'm so obsessed with Presidential trivia. I suspect it's partly about all the cool stuff you get to do when you're President. And no, I don't even mean all the leader-of-the-free-world business. I mean getting to live in that gigantic, awesome house with that giant awesome office (and hey, the commute couldn't be any better!). Not that I would ever want to be President - the way I see it, the White House is a very necessary perk to keep people interested in what is indubitably one of the hardest jobs anybody could ever have.

Various presidents over the years have lent their own recreational touches to the White House's already glamorous facilities. Here are a few of the more pimpin' ones.

John Quincy Adams's Billiard Table - As a youngster, JQA spent some time in France while Dad negotiated the Treaty of Paris. It was likely there that he developed a passion for billiards. Shortly after becoming president, he had a table built so he could play at home to unwind.

At the time, though, popular sentiment about billiards generally ran to the "trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool" school of thought. In fact, when JQA was up for re-election, Andrew Jackson's people derided Adams for enjoying such an ungentlemanly and altogether ...French pastime.

Calvin Coolidge's Mechanical Horse - Originally a gag gift of sorts, Coolidge kept this bizarre little apparatus in a dressing room next to his bedroom. He only tried it out once someone basically dared him to, and he found that he actually loved it and couldn't get enough. To the amusement of Mrs. Coolidge and various White House visitors, he rode the mechanical horse frequently throughout his presidency, always while wearing his hat, but not always while wearing clothes. (Yeah, not that Silent Cal was an unattractive man, but the visual of him riding the mechanical horse in his underwear is not one my mind needed to conjure. Thanks, Internet.)

The mechanical horse didn't remain at the White House after Coolidge's presidency. He couldn't part with it. So it went home with him when he moved out, and it can now be viewed in his museum in Northampton, Massachusetts. Its descendants can be found in country-western bars throughout the nation.

Harry Truman's Bowling Alley - The first bowling alleys in the White House were built as a birthday gift for President Truman in 1947. Turns out Harry would probably rather have had a new bike or a Red Ryder BB gun - neither he nor Bess were very into bowling. (I know the President, being the quintessential "man who has everything," is probably kind of hard to buy for, but really? Nobody bothered to ask him what he wanted?) He let his staff use it, though. In 1955 the bowling alley was moved into the basement to make room for some copy machines.

Though Truman had little use for it, the White House bowling alley was finally fully appreciated four presidents later, when avid bowlers Richard and Pat Nixon moved into the White House. President Nixon had the bowling alley rebuilt and outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, and used it often.

Dwight Eisenhower's Movie Theater - Well, okay, the movie theater was actually first built during the FDR administration, and screenings had occasionally been held at the White House practically since the dawn of motion pictures. But Ike was the one who really made the theater the pimptastic hanging-out spot it is today. He's the one who installed four enormous cushy armchairs in the first row - all the better to kick back while he watched the westerns he adored.

Subsequent presidents have also made frequent use of the theater - Jimmy Carter hosted frequent regular screenings, as did Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who is reported to be a particular fan of the Austin Powers movies. (That explains so much.) Not so much of a movie buff was Lyndon Johnson, who mostly just liked to watch a 10-minute documentary about himself.

But there was something else LBJ couldn't get enough of...

Lyndon B. Johnson's Fresca Tap - Shortly after he became President, LBJ gave up drinking alcohol, and replaced it with another vice - the refreshing citrus sparkle of Fresca. Which I totally understand, as it's very delicious.

Adjacent to the Oval Office is a small private lounge where the President can go to take a break, catch a quick nap, or even just hide to freak out the Secret Service guys. Originally designed for the Eisenhower administration, it's outfitted with a couple of comfy chairs, some TVs, and direct phones to all the most important aides. LBJ liked it for more informal, one-on-one meetings, and to make it feel more like home, he had a "Fresca" button installed right next to the "Coffee" button, so he could get a glass of his favorite soda whenever he wanted.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone. See you tomorrow for the obligatory links roundup. Until then, crack open a Fresca and think of LBJ.

Friday, February 8, 2008

All Quiet on the Friday Links Front

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The SCOTUS Guide to Picking Up Chicks

This handsome young fellow pictured at right is named Joseph Story, a former member of the House of Representatives, and a Supreme Court justice from 1812-1845. He was only 32 years old when James Madison appointed him to the court, and remains the youngest person ever appointed to the nation's highest court.

When Story assumed his spot on the bench, his boss was legendary Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall's chief concern as Chief Justice was court unity. He was the first to recommend that the Court pass down one single opinion rather than each justice assembling his own opinion. He also felt that all of the justices should become as familiar as possible with each other's personalities and habits. To that end, he introduced the idea that all of the justices should live and dine together in the same boardinghouse during the six weeks a year that the court was in session. (William Rehnquist recounted an amusing anecdote about the court's dinners together in this 2001 speech.) According to Story, "the Judges here live with perfect harmony, and as agreeable as absence from friends and from families could make our residence." By the way, I think it would be incredibly awesome if they still did this. (And made a reality show about it.)

But those weeks in Washington weren't entirely about discussing the Constitution. Even Supreme Court justices need a little recreation. So they didn't just work together, live together, and eat together -- they also partied together. In a letter to his wife during his rookie year on the Court, Joseph Story recounts the following:

Two of the Judges are widowers, and of course objects of considerable attraction among the ladies of the city. We have fine sport at their expense, and amuse our leisure with some touches at match-making. We have already ensnared one of the Judges, and he is now (at the age of forty-seven) violently afflicted with the tender passion. Being myself a veteran in the service, I take great pleasure in administering to his relief, and I feel no small pride in remarking that the wisdom of years does not add any thing of discretion to the impatience, jealousies, or doubts of a lover.

I'm not sure which justice he's talking about here - the one who's 47 at the time of the letter is Thomas Todd, who was happily married at the time to James Madison's sister-in-law. If I had to guess, I'd say Bushrod Washington, but I really haven't got much to go on there, except that he is near that age. Wikipedia doesn't seem to have much about most of these guys' marital status. I guess they figure if we wanted to date them, that ship sailed about 200 years ago.

But a special note to ladies of the 21st century: if you're ever out drinking in Washington, I hear David Souter is single. Just don't offer to buy him a Diet Coke. You will only confuse him.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Ungainly Mass of Friday Links

Finally, speaking of John Adams, how psyched are you for the HBO John Adams miniseries?