Bryan: November 2008 Archives

Thanksgiving Oysters

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Thumbnail image for main_oysters.jpgSeveral years ago at a friend's house in DC, we kicked off an annual habit of martinis and oysters before the big Thanksgiving meal. He and I shucked them ourselves -- my first time to wield an oyster knife -- and in spite of the fact that said friend sliced the side of his hand open that afternoon, we've repeated the habit every year since.

This year, for a much smaller dinner party, I ordered three dozen oysters from Wild Edibles: a dozen each of Wellfleets, Piper Coves, and Kumomotos (the former being hard to tell from one another, I thought, and the latter being almost a desert oyster -- a tiny little pocket of oystery goodness -- and a surefire crowd pleaser). The majority martini: a Plymouth Gibson.

Maybe it was the fact that we lived at the seaport when we first moved to New York, or maybe it was hanging out with a group of friends who occasionally got hankerings, around 2 a.m., to catch a cab up to Blue Ribbon in SoHo before they closed at 4. (Okay, we only did that once. More frequently we've stopped in at Shaffer City or, in our new neighborhood, Ed's Lobster Bar, which has the best lobster roll in the city, hands down.) Maybe it was reading Joseph Mitchell essays about the seafood-fueled adventures of Old Mr. Flood one too many times, but we've made it a habit to acquaint ourselves with local and imported varieties, differences of East vs. West Coast, and to order them in other parts of the world: Amsterdam, the south of France, or imported from New Zealand when we're in California. We've often lamented the days when New York's own oyster beds ruled the local roost.

In spite of having read and even taught sections of Mark Kurlansky's The Big Oyster -- his entertaining and informative history of New York City from the bi-valve's perspective -- I didn't realize that our current Thanksgiving tradition was merely resuming a long-standing tradition in New York and New England. Especially during the heyday of New York's oyster production (during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the city's waters produced around 700 million oysters a year) East Coast cookbooks unanimously and prominently featured oysters on the T-day menu.

Take this example from a turn-of-the-century cookbook, for instance:

Thanksgiving Dinner.
Like Christmas, Thanskgiving has its own bill of fare which has not been varied for many generations. Roasted turkey, pumpkin, mince and apple custard pies are served in almost all parts of the United States. A heavy breakfast, with chicken pie, and a late dinner are common rules. If shell-fish are in good condition, serve oysters on the half-shell or oyster cocktails as first course; if not, serve a clear soup. The turkey may be stuffed with oysters, or oyster sauce may be used in place of giblet sauce, or scalloped oysters may be served as a side dish. Oysters seem to be a part of the Thanksgiving dinner. Pumpkins, corn, nuts, fruits and bitter-sweet are the choice decorations.

Oysters on the Half-shell
Consomme a la Royal
Celery, Olives
Roasted Turkey, Oyster Sauce
Cranberry Jelly
Potato Croquettes, Cauliflower
Chicken Pie, Scalloped Oysters
Lettuce and Apple Salad, Water Thins
Toasted Crackers, Cheese

The food history timeline from which I took this menu first associates oysters with the Thanksgiving meal in 1620s, though the trend seems to have taken a real upswing in the Gilded Age and endured -- at least in the cookbooks sampled -- until around WWII. What happened then? They probably became too much of a luxury, I suppose, and in the city, the local beds were long since polluted and harvested into depletion.

At the moment, the reseeded beds in New York's harbor are good for cleaning up the water only: we probably won't see these beds yield edible oysters in our lifetimes. But as for me and my house, we're doing our part to bring the oyster back to its traditional place on the Thanksgiving menu, even if it means expending a little fuel to get them there. 

Pre-Thanksgiving Roundup

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This photo, if the folks at Swapatorium are right and it was taken in 1932,  shows Felix the Cat at the ninth annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Felix, the first of the Goodyear-designed oversized balloons that helped make the parade famous, had debuted in 1927. In early years, the balloons were released at the parade's end and the lucky souls who found them deflated days later could bring them to the department store to exchange for a gift.

For more on the parade's history, including more of the Swapatorium photos (which were discovered at an estate sale in Texas a couple years ago), check out the Bowery Boys' Thanksgiving podcast from last year. A bevy of other links on the parade's history (including sneak peaks at 2008 balloons) can be found here. Info and advice on viewing this year's parade here.

The city's Department of Parks and Recreation has several family programs planned for the weekend, some of which will be historically oriented.

For more T-day history flashbacks, check out this clip of the 1984 parade, featuring Tim Conway pimping Cabbage Patch Kids, which had stormed the holiday markets the previous year and would bring in something like $2,000,000  in '84 alone. Warning: this clip may scare small children. Or their parents.

Final tidbit: Did you know New York was the first state to make Thanksgiving an annual holiday? Happened in 1817. Take that, New England! More on T-day general history via the History Channel.

City of Tourists

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On_the_Town.jpgThis morning's Times reviews the current revival of the musical On the Town, playing through the weekend at City Center as part of a city-wide celebration of Leonard Bernstein's 90th birthday. Originally on Broadway in 1944 -- in the midst of the Second World War -- the musical follows three American navy men through a 24-hour shore leave in the city. They are eager tourists, quick to orient themselves ("the Bronx is up and the Battery's down") and to make hot pursuit of the reigning Miss Turnstiles, whose picture is prominently displayed in the subway.

In the opening lecture of Writing New York we show a montage of film representations of the city, including a clip from the 1949 feature film adaptation of the musical. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munchin play the sailors:

(Later in the semester we show the final sequence from Tim Burton's Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which quotes the line about the Bronx and the Battery when Johnny Depp introduces Christina Ricci to a fabulously overdrawn 1800 New York.)

Considering this production as a WWII artifact (the current revival, like the wartime original, begins with the Star Spangled Banner) has me thinking, too, about the figure of the tourist in New York City literature. In lecture, I've often talked about the figure of the tour guide -- the Virgilian character, the flâneur, the person who provides access to the city's darkest corners for armchair tourists reading urban fiction. I've thought often as well about representations of tourists in the nineteenth century, from the country rube Jonathan in Royall Tyler's The Contrast (who has various tricks played on him by some scheming city servants) to the country cousin in Benjamin Baker's Glance at New York (a working-class entertainment), who also gets fleeced at every turn to the delight of the audience.

At what point, though, do we witness a shift that places the tourist figure center stage, as in On the Town? What is the particular appeal of that trope? Would this shift possibly signal the moment when urban entertainment in the city becomes a tourist industry rather than a pastime or entertainment for locals?  Or is there something appealing in being a local, seeing the city on stage (or page, or screen) through a tourist's eyes?

The sequence from On the Town reminded me of one of the most touristy things I did last holiday season.  A relative who'd been planning a trip to town had to cancel  at the last minute and as a result we found ourselves with half a dozen tickets to the Rockettes' Christman Spectacular, something we probably never would have gone to on our own. One of the pieces in that exquisitely bizarre production that transforms a family-friendly leg show in an instant into a nativity scene (with the dancers now in drag as bearded wisemen hauling live camels across the stage to find the baby Jesus) is a ride on a tour bus that echoes, faintly, the Bernstein number:

Watching this live I had no doubt that we were witnessing something like the Las Vegas version of New York, absolutely designed for tourists to reassure them that they had, indeed, seen all the important sights. Why else use one of those obnoxious buses as a prop, except to remind the audience that just yesterday they were doing the same thing?

Not that our readers are the chattiest bunch, but I wonder if others can think of stories or plays that put tourists in the lead roles. When would this tradition have started? And is it designed purely for the pleasure of tourists themselves?

Call Me Barack

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I know the election is over and we're supposed to be getting back to history as usual, but there's no way we're not blogging this.

Yglesias thought what set him apart was his comic book collecting, and I'll agree that's cool. (But Spidey? Conan? Not earning points with this DC kid.)

What makes this man great is his choice for favorite novel: Moby-Dick.

[Begin weird English professor victory dance.]

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Common-place, the online journal of early American history and culture, has a special issue up this quarter on early American politics. Among its features is a joint interview with Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, a prolific historian couple formerly of University of Tulsa and now of Louisiana State. Burstein recently published a biography of Washington Irving, focusing on the political context for the emergence of his career; Isenberg recently published a biography of Aaron Burr. The Common-place interview focuses on ways in which the two men's histories and careers, both based in Manhattan, were entangled. It begins:

How does one speak of Aaron Burr and Washington Irving in the same breath?

Burstein: First of all, they shared the island of Manhattan for a good many years. Washington Irving was the youngest in a large family of merchants with both literary and political ambitions. The brother with whom he was closest, Peter, ran as a Burrite for the New York Assembly and was the editor of the Burrite newspaper, the Morning Chronicle. The oldest Irving brother, William, served two terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican. John Irving, a lawyer and later a judge, hung out his shingle at the Wall Street address that Burr had recently occupied. Washington Irving, trained in the law, briefly worked there, too. Just before his first voyage to Europe, in 1803, twenty-year-old Washington had breakfast with Burr and absorbed his advice on how to profit from his time abroad.

Isenberg: Burr's appeal to the Irvings was the same as his appeal to other young New Yorkers looking to rise in society by attaching themselves to a politician sympathetic to their ambitions. Burr was a patron of the arts--the patron, for instance, of the well-known artist John Vanderlyn; Washington Irving was an incurable theatergoer and theater critic in his New York years and would pal around with painters and poets all his life. His brother William, the congressman, belonged to a literary society and wrote doggerel poems that formed companion pieces to his soon-to-be-famous brother's occasional pieces. In a letter to his daughter Theodosia, who was Irving's age, Burr, when vice president, eagerly praised the young writer's satirical essays about Manhattan society.

For the rest of the interview click here.

Roundup Postscript

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Alex Ross has this to say, in light of the spontaneous singing in Union Square the other night (see his original post if you want more links to follow):

A quick search of YouTube reveals that young crowds across the country broke into the national anthem in the early morning hours. You can find videos for the East Village, Times Square, Berkeley, Portland OR, Amherst, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Madison WI, and Harvard Yard (with band), among others. Two obvious conclusions: 1) contra Palin, the entire country is "pro America"; 2) increased support for music education would be nice.

One more musical angle: Bob Dylan announced the outcome of the election by playing "Blowin' in the Wind."

If you're like me at all, you've been thanking your favorite deities (or Barack Obama, whichever you prefer) that you haven't heard Sarah Palin's voice in the last several days. If you can handle it, though, check out this final note, so to speak, on the Couric interviews, also courtesy of Alex:

Post-election Roundup

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Highlights from some of my favorite bloggers' reactions to the news that we won the election:

Jeremiah Moss, from Jeremiah's Vanishing New York (my favorite anti-gentrification blog), has a great account of the spontaneous parades that could be heard roaming below 14th street until 3 am on the 5th. He was at Union Square for the sing-along I posted a video of the other day. From his post, composed around 2:30 in the morning:

In the streets of New York, crowds are still cheering, shouting "Yes, we can!" Cars honk their horns. People bang pots and pans. They cannot stop. Don't want to stop. When the announcement came over the television that he had been elected, cheers erupted from the streets. A crowd gathered on 8th Street and 1st Avenue, taking over the intersection. Police pushed them back here and there, but otherwise left the celebration alone.

People in cars stopped and the crowd rushed to shake their hands and kiss them through open windows.

Garbage men riding the backs of honking trucks waved and pumped their fists.

City bus drivers honked and slowed down so passengers could stick their hands from the windows and high-five the people on the street.

At Union Square, the park was packed. People climbed lamp posts and hoisted flags atop. We sang God Bless America. We chanted "U-S-A" and "Yes, We Can" and "O-Ba-Ma!" Strangers hugged and kissed strangers.

The celebration went on and on, a wave that rose and fell, then rose again, for hours and hours. Down side streets and avenues, in pockets of jubilant people.
For Jeremiah's photos of the night -- a fantastic set of images -- click here.

Alex at Flaming Pablum (which has its own recurring feature on NYC's Vanishing Downtown) has my favorite rubbing-it-in image:

Alex also has one of my favorite Obama/pop culture mashups as part of his GOTV post:


(Sidenote: As his penchant for Bowie imagery would suggest, Alex is a serious 70s rock aficionado, with a specialty in the NYC downtown scene. If you wander over to his site, don't miss his series of posts on NYC in rock videos and on album covers. I thought I'd throw that in since I know some of our readers share similar tastes.)

Gowanus Lounge collects accounts and photos of Obama celebrations in Brooklyn; Gothamist reports on arrests from one such street party in Williamsburg. (h/t to Jeremiah for the last two.)

Meanwhile, our friend MaNNaHaTTaMaMMa posts on intergenerational euphoria spilling over into other areas of life.

Are there other accounts from NYC blogs you think we should know about?

Change You Can Listen To

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p181483s.png Have  you voted yet? Well, what are you waiting for?

If you're searching for thematically appropriate music to listen to while you read political blogs all day, you won't do better than WFMU's Electile Dysfunction stream. If you don't know WFMU, it's Jersey City's freeform radio station, now celebrating its 50th year serving the NYC area (and now the globe, thanks to the intertubes). No one does better or more eclectic themed playlists.

At the moment, DJ Hatch -- formerly of WNYU -- is finishing up a set. Click here for the stream; you can also check here for the entire day's schedule, which will be archived and available to listen to whenever you get a hankering to remember this historic freaking day! (Did I already remind you to get out the vote??)

And, as an update to yesterday's post: Hey, Lurkers! That was supposed to be a lurker amnesty post. Thanks to the folks who piped up with suggestions. Keep them coming! We also want to know who else is out there, how you found us (was it the recent feature in the Manhattan User's Guide? one of our classes?), and what we can do to make this a place you want to peek in on more regularly.

So let us know who you are. Yes, you can!

horses33.jpg The popular 33 1/3 series from Continuum has a new call for proposals posted on its blog.

We've mentioned before our affection for the series, especially those volumes that move beyond memoir or criticism to offer something like a cultural history of the time and place a particularly seminal record was created. We even asked our students in Writing New York last year to buy Joe Harvard's volume on The Velvet Underground and Nico, one of the albums (along with Patti Smith's Horses) we include on the course's syllabus. We conceptualize that unit as "From the Beats to the Punks."

I've long had in mind a couple titles I'd propose to 33 1/3 if given the chance -- and now that it's here I'd like to put the question to friends, former students, and whomever else may be reading this (we know have more readers than people who comment). That's right! Consider this a lurker amnesty post: we want to know what albums you think should be recognized as cornerstones or records of important moments or movements in the city's cultural history.

Tip: the series has until now enforced a policy of publishing only one book per band, but given that they're dropping this rule (!), feel free to suggest albums for bands already in the series. The full list of published and planned volumes is here.

Can't think of key NYC albums? Maybe New York Magazine's recent feature on the New New York Canon will prompt you.

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