Month: April 2019

We Must Not Lose Our History

Like many other people around the world, I spent quite a bit of time this week watching news pictures of the fire that struck Notre Dame Cathedral. For almost everyone who has visited Paris, and millions who have never been there, Notre Dame is immediately recognizable.

Notre Dame Cathedral 2019

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Notre Dame several times. My first visit was during the 1950s when I went on a student trip to Europe. We Americans were overwhelmed by the beauty and history of Paris. Buildings, streets, the whole city seemed so old and yet still alive and important. It was a revelation. This was only a few years after the end of World War II, when Notre Dame became the centerpiece for the liberation of Paris and the end of the war. We could still remember the newsreel pictures of American troops being welcomed by tearfully joyous French civilians.

Notre Dame 1944

Every time I went back to Paris and visited Notre Dame, the church was more crowded with tourists than the time before. Memories of the war became one small part of the centuries of history enshrined in the church. Looking at the overwhelming light and beauty of the rose window, it was easy to understand how it must have brightened the lives of people, both Parisians and others throughout the centuries. The events that window cast light on—the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots and the coronation of Napoleon—linger on in memories in the building alongside the memories of nameless soldiers coming back from wars, families bringing babies for Baptism, and refugees trying to build new lives in a strange city.

But more important, the cathedral has welcomed thousands of visitors over the years and given them a glimpse of a past that still lives and influences us. The sculptures, the stained glass, the votive candles flickering along the side altars. Every visit reminds us of the people who visited the cathedral and were awed by the experience just as we are. The past comes alive in places where so many people have experienced some of life’s major events. William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We recognize the reality of the past—our past and the past of humanity—when we visit places so rich in history. Notre Dame Cathedral is an important part of the heritage of all humankind and we cannot afford to lose it.

It is not only the heritage of our own societies that enrich us. Visiting heritage sites around the world binds us together in our common human history. When I visited Angkor Wat in 1999,  I was overwhelmed by the evidence of a past world I had never known about.  I recently reread the journal I kept during that visit.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Today we went to a temple complex that is being overgrown by the jungle. The banyan trees in particular send their roots into the crevices in the stones and force the stones apart. Many parts of the temple have fallen to the ground. The stone faces of the Buddha statues peer from the tops of devastated towers. A group of soldiers who were guarding the site were cooking a frog over a tiny fire. They had killed the frog that morning and it is considered wrong to kill a creature and not make use of it–lack of respect.

On our way back to the hotel we drove around the Angkor Wat complex and began to get a better sense of the whole place, although my knowledge is still sketchy. I have an impressionistic feeling about the glories of the crumbling ruins, the huge, smiling Buddha faces, the graceful figures of the dancing girls, and the parades of war elephants and troops. The surroundings haven’t changed much over the centuries, it seems, and that adds to the sense of their antiquity. It’s like walking into a preserved world of the past. We walked through what seemed like acres of temple property, along stone paths and up crooked stone steps around the walls of the complex, which are carved with scenes of Cambodian life from the thirteenth century. Banyan trees push up through the stones.

Both Notre Dame Cathedral and Angkor Wat are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They remind us all of a past that will never be completely recovered but will continue to resonate with generations of people to come. They commemorate the universal experiences of life and death, birth and burial. In recognizing them we acknowledge the common life of all humans and the events we all share. We must not lose these reminders of the past. They are worth rebuilding, no matter how long that takes,  because they enrich all of us.

Who’s Feeding the Immigrants?

We have all become accustomed to seeing pictures on our screens of the crowds of asylum seekers on America’s Southern border. We tend to focus on the woebegone faces of women and children who stare at the cameras and into our hearts. It’s easy to forget that this isn’t the first time the country has been coping with crowds of people trying to find safety within our borders. A hundred years ago we were facing a rush of people entering at several ports, the largest one was New York where Ellis Island was the entry point for immigrants. And somehow all of them were processed, fed, and sent on their way. The government contracted out restaurant services to people who found profit in the lucrative business. Here is a 1913 report.

Immigrant family at Ellis Island

“The contractors who feed the immigrants on Ellis Island in New York harbor run the largest restaurant in the world. Eight cents a meal is the regular price there; 8 cents for breakfast, 8 for luncheon, and 8 for dinner. American plan. The detained immigrants are entitled to three meals a day, and 40 nationalities pass through the portals of the land over which Miss Liberty stands in her green gown smiling down on all alike. One week last summer brought 30,000 immigrants to the Island–Dutch, Slav, Croation [sic], Pole Magyar, Greek, Russian, Italian–all with a liking for different cooking. It was the biggest reception of newcomers Miss Liberty has had in any week since 1907. Each one is taken into account in the enormous kitchens where more meals are prepared in a day than anywhere else in the country. ..A thousand at one meal is not unusual; 5,000 meals a day are only an incident of the rush season. The contract calls for 1,000,000 meals a year, and the price for supplying them is $80,000. At 8 cents apiece the profit for the contractors is less than a cent each–a matter of mills. Just how many depends somewhat on the prices asked by farmers–on the general supply and demand.”
—“Serve 8-Cent Meals: Ellis Island Contractors Run Largest Restaurant in the World,” from Leslie’s Magazine, Washington Post, October 28, 1913 (p. 6)

During the 19th century, and especially in the years after the Civil War, thousands of immigrants poured into cities and towns. These newcomers joined the thousands of farmers and other rural people who moved into cities. All of them added to the changes in America’s food habits. Housewives had to make do with store bought food instead of family-grown animals and plants. And soon teachers, news reporters and middle-class people in general were deploring the bad habits of working people in the cities when it came to food.  

Over the years, a number of reformers have tried to help Americans learn how to cook healthier, inexpensive food to feed their families. Back in 1883, when America was suffering through one of its worst depressions and many people were unemployed, a woman named Juliet Corson decided she could help people eat right by teaching them how and what to cook. Born in 1841, Juliet leaned to cope with poverty when her stepmother kicked her out of the house and told her to earn her own living. Juliet became a librarian at the Working Woman’s Library and discovered how difficult it was to feed a family on small wages. She started giving cooking lessons to women and then to children in New York City and soon began writing books about cooking and household management.

Her most successful book was called, believe it or not—Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families—and she gave away an edition of 50,000 copies. It was even reprinted in a daily newspaper. The menus she included were wholesome with easily available ingredients. The book suggested meals such as rice and milk for breakfast and corned beef and cabbage for dinner. It included tips for choosing meat and vegetables at the market. Many readers were delighted with the ideas and thanked Corson profusely, but, as always, not everyone was pleased. Some union leaders objected to the book’s distribution on the grounds that if the bosses thought workers could feed their families so cheaply, there was no need to raise wages. It seems as though you can’t win when you give advice about what people should eat.

Food may seem a steady, solid part of our lives, but it has been constantly changing and is still changing as Americans come from more varied backgrounds and cultures. I found much of the information I include here on a fascinating website about food history called Food Timeline. It includes articles and references to the food used by native Americans,  how food has been served and eaten through the centuries, and how it was distributed in various specific places like Ellis Island and on military bases.

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