Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Quoth the Raven: Why Is There An Edger Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia?

If you are like me, than the city most closely associated with the literary figure Edgar Allan Poe is Baltimore, Maryland. Poe spent his final days in Baltimore and died under mysterious circumstances. Here is an account of his death by his cousin, Neilson Poe, reprinted in the book Edgar Allan Poe, by Arthur Hobson Quinn and Shawn Rosenheim:

“The [Baltimore] newspapers, in announcing his death, have only told a truth, which we may weep over & deplore, but cannot change. He died on Sunday morning about 5 o’clock, at the Washington Medical College, where had been since the Wednesday preceding. At what time he arrived in this city, where he spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain. It appears that, on Wednesday, he was seen & recognised at one of the places of election in old town, and that his condition was such as to render it necessary to send him to the college, where he was tenderly nursed until the time of his death . . . . He lies alongside his ancestors in the Presbyterian burying ground on Green Street—.”

So perhaps, because he is buried in Baltimore and much of his extended Poe family was from Baltimore, he is most closely associated with that town.

Naturally, I was pleasantly surprised then to find that there was also a Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, which I attended on a recent trip to the city. In my personal historical research I knew that he had strong ties to the city, but was not sure how well-known that fact was. According to the museum, the Allan family, who were tobacco merchants, lived in Richmond. His first job was at the Southern Literary Messenger and he attended the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, in Richmond and also gave a lecture in the city shortly before his death.

Image of the front window of the Poe Museum in Richmond.  Is that some visitor tapping, rapping at my chamber door?

Image of the front window of the Poe Museum in Richmond. Is that some visitor tapping, rapping at my chamber door?

I was disappointed, however, that there was no reference in the museum to the near duel in 1848 that Poe almost had with John Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner, which I wrote about in my book, Pistols, Politics and the Press.  This, in my mind, helps cement Poe as a Richmond literary figure.  The near duel was over public comments made by Daniel regarding the growing relationship between family friend, Sarah Helen Whitman, and Poe. Infuriated, Poe sought to challenge Daniel to a duel over the controversy. According to some eyewitness accounts, Daniel, an expert duelist, called Poe’s bluff. He sent for Poe, who was apparently drunk, to meet him in his office at the Examiner. When Poe arrived, Daniel displayed two very large pistols on his desk and told him that instead of getting the police involved, that they should indeed settle the dispute with a duel. Poe apparently sobered up quickly and the situation was peacefully resolved.

A review of the two-volume works of Edgar Allan Poe, written by Daniel in the March 1850 edition of the Southern Literary Messenger, probably sums up popular opinion of the writer in Richmond at the time of his death:

“These half told tales and broken poems are the only records of a wild, hard life; and all that is left of a real genius, — genius in the true sense of the word, unmistakeable and original. No other American has half the chance of a remembrance in the history of literature. Edgar Poe’s reputation will rest in a very small minority of the compositions in these two volumes. Among all his poems, there are only two or three which are not execrably bad. The majority of his prose writings are the children of want and dyspepsia, of printer’s devils and of blue devils. Had he the power of applying his creative faculties—as have had the Miltons, the Shakespeares and all the other demiugi—he would have been a very great man.”

In short, even though he was a literary master, those who knew him never thought he worked up to his true potential. Some critics are never satisfied.

A Brief History of the Triangle as Solo Musical Instrument

I was chatting with my musician friend in a great café called Le Petite Triangle (said with a haughty French accent) when the subject turned to the triangle as a musical instrument. Since retiring from the saxophone in twelfth grade, I had been trying to find that secret shortcut to musical stardom. Could I be a solo trianglist?


My friend, who is a classically trained violinist, quickly dismissed the validity of the triangle exclaiming, “It’s part of the percussion section.” Of course, he meant that if I ever wanted to classically master the triangle as an instrument, I would have to become a percussionist. However, almost in the same breath he suggested that the triangle did have a type of tonal complexity that should not be taken lightly and could be quite demanding to master.


All jokes aside, that did get me thinking about the viability of the triangle as a solo instrument. Could it be more than a novelty? More than an Ed Grimley punchline? Were there musicians out there who took on the musical discipline of the triangle as seriously as Yo Yo Ma with the cello? If so, were the parts even available for them to play in an orchestral setting?


Could the triangle be more than a one-note instrument?

Could the triangle be more than a one-note instrument?

According to James Blades, author of Percussion Instruments and their History, the triangle in its ancient form had rings strung to the lower bar.


Yet the first mention we find of a triangle in tenth-century manuscript, is of an instrument without rings. A triangle without rings is depicted in the King Wenceslaus IV Bible (late fourteenth century) and again on a mid-fifteenth-century window in the Beauchamp Chapel, St Mary’s, Warwick. This latter triangle with its open corner has a curiously modern appearance, except that at the top angle the steel bar is twisted into a loop through which the thumb of the performer (an angel) passes.


Blades continued:


Like its ancestor the sistrum, the triangle was clearly used for religious ceremonies, quite widely in mediaeval churches judging from the frequency and virulence of the denunciations launched against them, and the necessity every few years to issue another edict prohibiting them. The triangle occurs more often than any other instrument except the cymbals in paintings of Bacchic processions and similar occasions, and angels will often be seen singing and playing a triangle at the same time.


So the triangle has a long and prestigious musical history. However, what of the triangle in its modern form, consisting of a rod of steel, open and slightly curved at one corner and meant to be struck with a steel stick or wooden handle? This was the instrument associated with the masters such as Mozart or Beethoven


According to the book, Modern Music and Musicians, “Beethoven, Mozart and many of classical as well as modern composers, have made use of this little instrument in some of their works. [The composer] Weber has used it prominently Gypsy music, as, for example, in his ‘Preciosa.’”


But in most classical musical pieces, the triangle was relegated to the background. I wanted to know if there was a composer that might utilize the triangle as a solo instrument. Could it be possible?


In my research, I discovered that Franz Lizt composed a piece, Piano Concerto No. 1, which featured the triangle as a solo instrument in the third movement. At last, I had found it, proof that the triangle should be taken seriously. It’s nickname, in fact, is called “the triangle concerto.”


So, armed with this information, I took my discovery to my musician friend. I exclaimed, “Liszt! Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 features the triangle on solo!” He looked at me unimpressed and replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve played that.”


Still no respect, the journey continues.


A Pilgrimage to the Tomb of Chef Boyardee

 When I tell people that Chef Boyardee started his multi-million dollar spaghetti-in-a-can business empire in Cleveland, the reaction I usually get is: “Chef Boyardee was a real person?”

Unlike fictional product icons such as Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, who were invented for marketing purposes, Chef Boyardee, whose real name was Hector Boiardi, was indeed an actual person.

Born in Italy in 1897, Boiardi came to America with the assistance of his brother, who worked in the hotel business.

According to foodreference.com, Boiardi was a hit in the American kitchen from the very start:

Three years later [after coming to Cleveland] he opened his own restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, where his spaghetti sauce was so popular, he was soon selling it in milk bottles for his customers to take home. He was soon producing the sauce in an adjacent building, expanded to include dry pasta and packets of cheese to go with the sauce.

Donna Gabbacia, author of We Are What We Eat, adds further insight:

He decided to can and distribute his sauce, initially packaging it with dry spaghetti and a packet of grated cheese, through his own business Chef Boiardi Food Products Company. Boiardi changed the name of his company (and its product) to Boyardee in the 1930s, mainly to ease pronunciation by non-Italians, as he sought a regional, cross-over market of multi-ethnic consumers. By the late 1930s, Boiardi was successfully selling canned spaghetti to A&P stores and reaching a national market. Boiardi even became a supplier to the U.S. army during World War II, further building a taste for Chef Boyardee among returning GIs.

Boiardi eventually sold his company to a large conglomerate that turned his idea into a multi-billion dollar business that is today owned by Con/Agra. He died in Parma, Ohio in 1985, an icon of American processed food and Italian-American pop culture.

It was the latter that inspired me to make a pilgrimage to his final resting place in order to pay homage. Since he died in Parma, I assumed that he was interred in a Parma-area cemetery. But after careful research, I discovered that he was in fact interred in a Cleveland suburb on the completely opposite side of town in Chardon’s All Souls Cemetery.

Enlisting a friend, we both set out on a countryside excursion in search of the Boiardi mausoleum. After finding our way through several winding roads in the middle of nowhere, we arrived at All Souls Cemetery.

Since we knew it was a mausoleum, we thought that it would stand out in a sea of grave markers and thus be easy to locate.  However, we soon discovered that was not the case.  We had to ask for directions.  Fortunately I had jotted down the cemetery office number on a post-it note just in case. 

Phone call to the staff office: “Good afternoon.  Can you please tell me where Chef Boyardee is interred?”

“One moment,” she replied, “Lot 23 in the Crucifixion Mausoleum under the name Hector Boiardi.”


The grave marker of Chef Boyardee

And so my friend and I made our way to the mausoleum and there he was, placed beside his wife, Helen. After a brief moment of silence and some personal reflection on the legacy of Chef Boyardee, my friend and I said arrivederci to the man, the mausoleum and All Souls. Both of us knowing that we would never look at a can of spaghetti and meatballs in quite the same way ever again.

A Word about SPAM…

With much of President Obama’s early history connected to Hawaii, it has brought to light the state’s unique association with a certain food item: SPAM. 


Yes that is correct, I am not referring to the White House’s new Internet agenda but rather the precooked meat product manufactured by Hormel Foods.  According to SPAM’s official Web site, www.spam.com, over 7 billion cans of the processed meat have been sold worldwide since the food’s introduction in 1937.  Furthermore, most statistics generally agree that Hawaii has the highest SPAM consumption rate per capita in the world. In an online article for Via, a AAA’s traveler’s companion, Constance Hale wrote, “Fiftieth staters consume nearly 6 million cans a year, or almost six cans for every man, woman, and child.  Some call the gelatinous pink pork ‘Hawaii’s soul food.’”


But what is SPAM and why is it so popular in Hawaii?  According to Rachel Laudan in The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, the Hormel Company set out to design a canned meat that was neither tough nor bland. 


To beat the toughness, they ground pork up finely; to give it savor, they spiced it up with salt, sugar, and a variety of other flavorings.  They held a competition for a catchy name: in 1937, a certain Keith Daugneau submitted the winning entry—SPAM (spiced ham)—and walked off with the $100 prize. SPAM  joined and then overtook sardines, luncheon meat, corned beef, and Vienna sausages as a favorite.  All keep well, are quick and easy to prepare, can be stretched with vegetables, and taste good with rice.  In World War II, when offshore fishing was prohibited, SPAM helped fill the gap. 


In fact, because it is vacuum sealed and thus requires no refrigeration, SPAM became very popular with the troops stationed in Hawaii during WWII.  They in turn, introduced it to the island population and it stuck.  Hormel refers to the product on their Web site as, “meat, with a pause button.” 


It is such a signature food for Hawaii that a yearly event in Waikiki, called “SPAM JAM”, attracted approximately 20,000 people in 2008.  In fact, the canned meat is so popular that McDonald’s restaurants in Hawaii carry SPAM products.


One of the favorite ways of eating SPAM is in a sushi-like form called Musubi.  Time magazine reported that when President Obama was golfing in Oahu during the holidays, he stopped for two hot dogs, two sodas and two SPAM musubis.  Peter K. Yamashita, the general manager of the golf course, was quoted in the magazine saying, “You know he’s a local boy if he’s eating Spam Musubi.” 


Incidentally, the runner-ups for SPAM consumption per capita were the territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.   




Musubi: SPAM Chic

Musubi: SPAM Chic

Origin of Doctoral Study

Recently, I submitted my application for doctoral study in history at a major university.  That got me thinking, where did the Ph.D. degree in liberal arts come from and what are its origins? 

A Ph.D., or doctorate, is simply defined as “the highest degree awarded by a graduate school, usually to a person who has completed at least three years of graduate study and a dissertation approved by a board of professors.”


Contrary to popular belief, "The Genius" Lanny Poffo did not have his doctorate.

Contrary to popular belief, "The Genius" Lanny Poffo did not have his doctorate.

So in essence, a doctorate can be seen as a license to teach.  So to get at the heart of why doctoral programs matter, one must delve into the origins of the scholastic movement.


According to George Makdisi, author of The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West: with Special Reference to Scholasticism, the origins of the doctorate can be traced back to the study of Islamic law and the creation of law schools in the early 9th century.  The doctorate was a qualifying license to practice law.


However, it is widely regarded that the origins of the modern university has its roots in 12th century Paris, which received recognition from both secular and non-secular authorities. According to Geoffrey Godbey, author of The Evolution of Leisure:


Its [Paris] was for a ‘Universitas Societas Magistrorum et Scholarium,’ a universal society of masters and scholars.  The meaning of ‘universities,’ as also of ‘collegium,’ was really a corporation or guild.  Guild is perhaps the closest parallel, and universities grew and prospered much as did other guilds throughout this and later periods, and as did unions in the modern period.  The best definition of the university, even today, is that it is a community of masters and scholars. 


So in essence, a doctorate from a particular university “guild” gives this person license to teach undergraduate “apprentices.”


Godbey also suggested that universities and colleges are essentially organized in much the same way today as they were in Paris then.  In fact, universities continue to be an important link to the ideals of early Greek philosophers. As Godbey pointed out: “Recall . . . that in the [Greek] phrase liberal arts, the word liberal refers to liberation from ignorance and from the errors for which we may have a penchant but from which we may learn.


And that, as they say, is history . . . or the history of the study of history. 




Will the Real Benjamin Button Please Stand Up?

Recently I went to see the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Being a student of literature in addition to loving all things movies, I was excited to see this adaptation by Eric Roth, who also wrote the screenplay for Forrest Gump.


Since the storyline of the movie revolves around Hurricane Katrina, I knew that certain liberties must have been taken with the original source material, which was published in the 1920s.  So I decided to compare and contrast the two and see how close the movie was to the original.


What I discovered is that Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button is almost unrecognizable to the movie.  They both share the element of aging in reverse, but Fitzgerald’s Button is born and raised in the “social and financial” elite of Antebellum Baltimore, not New Orleans. He is also born fully grown (with a long smoke-colored beard) and is able to speak quite articulately and considered a type of Southern gentleman.  What Fitzgerald is probably doing here is using Button as a literary metaphor.  In short: Benjamin Button could be seen as an exaggerated symbol of the Southern social elite, a symbol of the Confederate mentality. 


Ironically, in the Fitzgerald story Button is raised primarily by his father (not abandoned) and wears a suit.  He tries to enroll in Yale, but he is rejected.  They wouldn’t take Benjamin Button when he appeared “old” at an Ivy League college, but they’ll take someone with Button’s mentality when he is younger at Harvard.  Remember, Benjamin Button was born in the social elitism of pre-Civil War South. Fitzgerald goes so far as to insinuate that Button is in fact John Wilkes Booth in disguise. (Note: John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland). There is no love story with Daisy as in the movie, Fitzgerald’s Button marries into the blue blood family of Hildegarde Moncrief and they have a boy named Roscoe, not a daughter as portrayed in the film.  Fitzgerald’s Button is the wealthy owner of a hardware company (not buttons) during the Gilded Age and a Brigadier General during the Spanish-American War.  So it would seem, that Fitzgerald is drawing comparisons to all these different elements of American society through the metaphor of the Benjamin Button character.


So all in all, it makes for an interesting short story but would probably make a lousy movie if it were a faithful adaptation.  I was surprised however, how many story similarities there were with the movie version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the movie version of Forrest Gump.  Here is an entry on the blog called “Madeinhead” noting the similarities of the two.  I do not blame Roth, however.  I’m sure he probably turned in a great first draft and a movie producer said something to the effect of, “Not enough explosions, give me Forrest Gump.” 



The real F. Scott Fitzgerald

The real F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why is a Horseshoe Considered Lucky?

American proverb:  “Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades.”


For Chrismukkah, I bought my wife a silver bracelet with a horseshoe charm.  With 2008 being such a rough time for us and others, I thought it was an appropriate symbolic gesture for good luck in the new year.  It did get me thinking, however, why on Earth is a horseshoe, of all things, considered a talisman of good fortune?


According to The Magic of the Horseshoe by Robert Means Lawrence, there are multiple theories as to the origin of the horseshoe as a good-luck charm:


Among the Romans there prevailed a custom of driving nails into cottage walls as an antidote against the plague.  Both this practice and the later one of nailing up horseshoes have been thought by some to originate from the rite of Passover.  The blood sprinkled upon the doorposts and lintel at the time of the great Jewish feast formed the chief points of an arch, and it may be that with this in mind people adopted the horseshoe as an arch-shaped talisman, and it thus became generally became emblematic of good luck. 


The same thought may underlie the practice of the peasants in the west of Scotland, who train the bough of the rowan or mountain-ash tree in the form of an arch over a farmyard gate to protect their cattle from evil.


Lawrence continued: 


The supernatural qualities of the horseshoe as a preservative against imaginary demons have been supposed to be due to its bifurcated shape, as any object having two prongs or forks was form thought to be effective for this purpose.  As with the crescent, the source of this belief is doubtless the appearance of the moon in certain of its phases. 


Lawrence’s conclusions make logical sense and seem to answer the question on a general level as to why a horseshoe is considered a talisman.  But here’s the $64,000 question: Is it considered luckier to have a horseshoe pointed up or pointed down over a doorway?  I was raised with the tradition of the horseshoe pointed up, so the luck wouldn’t run out.  However, my Italian-America father-in-law told me that his family tradition was to hang the horseshoe pointed down, so the luck would pour over those who walked under it.  Which is correct?



It turns out that the folklore of the horseshoe as a talisman often has traditions or characteristics unique to the ethnic background of its origin.  According to the Web site www.luckymojo.com:

In most of Europe, the Middle-East, and Spanish-colonial Latin America protective horseshoes are placed in a downward facing or vulval position . . . but in some parts of Ireland and Britain people believe that the shoes must be turned upward or “the luck will run out.” Americans of English and Irish descent prefer to display horseshoes upward; those of German, Austrian, Italian, Spanish, and Balkan descent generally hang them downward.

So which way is luckier to hang a horseshoe?  Let’s all hang horseshoes and compare notes this time next year. 

What is the Shelf Life of Dried Pasta?

My wife and I were waiting to be seated in one of our favorite Little Italy restaurants, when we noticed jars of dried pasta in glass containers on the shelves (for decoration) that looked like they had been there for years.  We wondered out loud to each other if that pasta would still be good.  She said yes…I said no. 


Many experts agree that the normal shelf-life of dried pasta is two years, presuming it is stored in an airtight container.  One of the biggest problems with long-term storage of pasta is that it will become a breeding ground for bacteria or small bugs. 


However, if the pasta on the shelf was perfectly stored could it still be eaten? According to www.shelfreliance.com, spaghetti could be edible for 10 years in a desperate situation.  However, there’s no telling if the nutritional value would still be maintained.  According to www.containerandpackaging.com, “Pasta will store longer than flour if kept dry. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 10-15 years at a stable temperature of 70°F. Pasta should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.”


However, that is under perfect conditions.  So as much as it hurts me to be right, I would probably say that the pasta on the shelf in that restaurant would probably not be good to eat.

Incidentally, according to the National Pasta Association (www.ilovepasta.org), the American pasta industry was founded in 1848 by Antoine Zerega, a flour miller from Lyon, France. 

Did the Caesar salad originate in Italy?

In the course (no pun intended) of planning Italian themed meals, I have often included the original recipe Caesar salad (with anchovy) as a way to appear more authentic and ethnically correct.  Much to my shock, when watching a Mo Rocca segment called “Hail Caesar!” on CBS Sunday Morning I discovered that the Caesar salad was first popularized in 1920s Tijuana, Mexico by a man named Caesar Cardini.


I, like many Americans, just assumed that the Caesar salad sprung from ancient Roman times when men like Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar ruled the land.  But Tijuana? I couldn’t believe it. 


According to The Italian-American Cookbook, by Galina Mariani, the creation of the Caesar salad was a happy accident:


At Caesar’s Place [the name of his restaurant], on July Fourth weekend in 1924, Cardini, having run out of ingredients for main courses, concocted the salad as a main course, arranging the lettuce leaves on a plate with the intention that they would be eaten with the fingers. Later Cardini shredded the leaves into bite-size pieces.  It was the first main-course salad in the United States, where salads had previously been served only as a side dish.


But wait, if the salad was borne in Mexico what is it doing in an Italian-American Cookbook?  It is because Caesar Cardini was born in Italy and immigrated to Tijuana (near the border) where he could start a restaurant free of prohibition-era restrictions.  Thus, one could say that even though the Caesar salad was born in Mexico, it is Italian in its origins. 


Incidentally, The Italian-American Cookbook insisted that the original recipe of the salad did not include anchovies.  The original-recipe salad still lives on at Hotel Caesar’s in downtown Tijuana.    

Italian-Mexican restaurateur, chef, and hotel owner Caesar Cardini, originator of the Caesar salad

Italian-Mexican restaurateur, chef, and hotel owner Caesar Cardini, originator of the Caesar salad

What would happen if an aircraft accidentally dropped a nuclear weapon?

According to rough estimates, there are at least 30,000 nuclear weapons in existence.  It is probably safe to say that a large percentage of those devices have been transported by air at one point or another.  So what would the government do if a nuclear device was accidentally dropped from an aircraft and didn’t explode?


The answer is: probably nothing.  They would leave it there and do nothing.  Think I’m joking? Think again.


One of my favorite nuclear accidents (there are many) is the accidental dropping of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb off the coast of Tybee Island in Savannah, Georgia on February 5, 1958.  According to reports, the bomb was jettisoned in a mid-air collision and lost somewhere in the Wassaw Sound.  Fifty years and many searches later, they still have not found the bomb.  Seriously. 


Image of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb similar to the one lost in the waters off Tybee Island

Image of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb similar to the one lost in the waters off Tybee Island



According to various reports, the Air Force maintains that the bomb, presumed to be entombed in mud and dirt, doesn’t pose a threat because it is missing a key capsule needed to produce a nuclear reaction.  However, according to Wikipedia, the Air Force maintains that it is probably better to leave the bomb entombed in the mud, because it might explode.  There is logic that Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, can be proud of. 


Wikipedia has a detailed list of military accidents involving nuclear weapons, known as “broken arrows”.  However, just to prove that my Tybee bomb story is not just an anomaly I’ll share another one of my favorite broken arrow stories.


On January 24, 1961, an Air Force bomber over Goldsboro, North Carolina caught fire and exploded in mid-air ejecting two hydrogen bombs in the chaos.  Here is the Pentagon’s official account of the incident:


During a B-52 airborne alert mission structural failure of the right wing resulted in two weapons separating from the aircraft during aircraft breakup at 2,000 – 10,000 feet altitude. One bomb parachute deployed and the weapon received little impact damage. The other bomb fell free and broke apart upon impact. No explosion occurred. Five of the eight crew members survived. A portion of one weapon, containing uranium, could not be recovered despite excavation in the waterlogged farmland to a depth of 50 feet. The Air Force subsequently purchased an easement requiring permission for anyone to dig there. There is no detectable radiation and no hazard in the area.


Nearly 48 years later, the bomb is still there.  Talk about littering.