Friday, December 2, 2016

The Heartbreaking—And Uplifting—Inside Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

This is an excerpt from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An American Hero, by Ronald D. Lankford, Jr.

I never planned to write a book about Rudolph. He was so much a part of my childhood, so much a part of the kind of Christmas I had grown up with, that I just accepted him as having always been there. It did not occur to me that Rudolph—the modest hero with a secret resource—reflected deeply held American values.

My innocence about the connection between Rudolph and our holiday values started to change a couple of years ago when I was writing about American Christmas songs. One of those songs, naturally, was Johnny Marks's “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” As I began researching, several things occupied my thoughts. Rudolph, as James H. Barnett noted in 1954, was the only new addition to our Christmas lore in a hundred years. While Barnett wrote this in the 1950's, it remains true: as much as we love Frosty and other Christmas critters, none of them have become as central as Rudolph. The truth of this, though, fails to explain why Rudolph was accepted into Christmas lore so quickly. Likewise, it fails to explain how Rudolph's image has remained expansive enough to speak to Americans across—as I write this—seven decades.

The origin of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer also fascinated me. Many people, listening to the song or watching the 1964 cartoon, had completely forgotten Rudolph’s origins as a promotion in 1939 and 1946 for Montgomery Ward. Unlike Santa Claus, Rudolph had no European folk myths to draw from. Instead, he was born in the imagination of copywriter Robert L. May, who was employed by Montgomery Ward. The idea was simply to give away thousands and thousands of copies of Rudolph, in booklet form, at Ward’s six-hundred-plus stores to children accompanied by a parent, drawing the family into the department store for the all-important holiday season. Merchandise, the same kind that accompanies any Disney movie promotion today, would follow.

Despite these commercial origins, children and even parents accepted Rudolph as though he were the genuine article. Folklorists could label the Jolly Green Giant “fakelore” or use the term “industrial folklore” to define the Trix rabbit, but children—learning about the reindeer in books, View-Master reels, a game, a cartoon, in song, and multiple pieces of merchandise—seemed oblivious to academic concerns. Clearly, Robert L. May wrote Rudolph in 1939; equally clear, he wrote Rudolph at the request of his supervisor as a work-for-hire at Montgomery Ward. Likewise, a popular groundswell greeted Rudolph on his introduction in 1939 and reintroduction in 1946; this groundswell was heightened considerably, however, by Montgomery Ward’s giveaway of six million copies of the Rudolph booklet. While we can argue whether commercial or creative forces exerted more influence over Rudolph’s growth in popular culture, both had a role to play. Rudolph’s grounding in both commercial and folk culture produced, I believe, an intriguing paradox worth looking into.


[A 1948 article in Coronet Magazine by Stanley Frankel] begins by returning to May and his four-year-old daughter in the family’s Chicago apartment in the winter of 1938:

On a December night in Chicago ten years ago, a little girl climbed  onto her father’s lap and asked a question. It was a simple question, asked in childish curiosity, yet it had a heart-rending effect on Robert May.
       “Daddy,” four-year-old Barbara May asked, “why isn’t my Mommy just like everybody else’s mommy?

May’s wife, Evelyn, had been suffering from cancer for the last two years. Frankel continued: “The terrible ordeal already had shattered two adult lives. Now, May suddenly realized, the happiness of his growing daughter was also in jeopardy.” Barbara’s question, asked in the midst of the December holiday season, demanded an answer.

Frankel sketches May’s family predicament against the backdrop of dire financial circumstances. In 1938 the Depression remained an economic reality for many Americans. For the May family, doctor’s visits and medicine for Evelyn stretched an already thin budget, putting the family into debt. The Mays’ living space is described as a “shabby two-room apartment,” the kind of place a Montgomery Ward copywriter might inhabit. Clearly Robert May, the skinny, picked-on underdog since early childhood, had missed the opportunities of his Dartmouth colleagues. “Now, at 33, May was deep in debt, depressed and miserable.”

May’s salvation, however, lay close at hand. To answer Barbara’s question he would create a children’s story drawn from the emotional tumult of his own childhood: the story of a young reindeer named Rudolph who had a shiny red nose. Each night, Barbara would ask her father to recite the adventures of Rudolph one more time. Finally, May decided to prepare a rudimentary copy of the book for her as a Christmas gift, writing the poem in verse and mimicking “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Pouring himself into the project, he wanted to provide a worthy gift for Barbara, despite the family’s meager finances. As he prepared the booklet, however, tragedy struck: Evelyn died. Instead of setting the project aside during this period of grief, however, May continued to work on the booklet, determined to finish it by Christmastime.

At this nadir, with May left alone to raise his young daughter, fate intervened. He was invited to an office Christmas party at Montgomery Ward, and while he wanted to stay at home, colleagues persuaded him to attend. He brought along Barbara’s gift and read it to his office-mates that evening. At first they laughed along with Rudolph’s antics—May’s poem seemed like no more than another part of the evening’s fun and games. But as May continued, the crowd settled down and listened quietly. When he reached the end, everyone broke into applause. After several executives requested copies of Rudolph, the young reindeer and May’s future was set on a new course.

Ronald D. Lankford, Jr. is the author of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An American Hero

Monday, November 21, 2016

On the Roots of New England Cooking

By James C. O’Connell,

Most New Englanders assume that traditional regional cooking has been around since colonial times. Yet it was not until the twentieth century, that restaurants explicitly featured these dishes. Earlier menus did not make a fuss about serving specialties like “New England clam chowder” or “Boston cream pie.” The widespread celebration of New England cooking started with the Colonial Revival movement in the early 1900s. The movement championed the Puritan and Revolutionary Era heritage of New England, particularly through preserving historic buildings and designing decorative arts in a Colonial Revival style. 
New England restaurants started to feature “Yankee” pot roast, “Boston” baked beans, and “New England” boiled dinner. The dining ritual of Thanksgiving dinner became entrenched. It was a simple meal of roast turkey and the homely accompaniments of dressing, potatoes, and root vegetables. Cranberry sauce became the traditional fruit relish. The feast concluded with an array of pies, those all-purpose dishes from colonial days. Thanksgiving embodied Pilgrim frugality, which self-reliant Americans adopted as they carved out civilization from the frontier. 

In America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking, Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald observed: “In foods as in so many other cultural expressions, the domineering, once-dominant Yankees, through their own unique blend of myth and magic—brilliantly disguised as an aversion to myth and a disavowal of magic—attempted to create normative America out of plain, frugal New England.” New England cooking conveyed a sense of romance connected with the Pilgrims and the Minutemen.

It is telling that lowly baked beans became such an iconic food. Boston was nicknamed “Beantown,” and the National League baseball franchise between 1883 and 1906 was known as the “Beaneaters.” Baked beans were subsistence food going back to England and medieval cookery. During Puritan times, beans were baked on Saturday to be eaten after church on the Sabbath, when the hearth was cold. Pieces of salted meat were added to the bean stew. By the nineteenth century, salt fat pork was added to white pea beans, and, by the last quarter of the century, molasses became an ingredient. A traditional accompaniment of baked beans was brown bread. Boston brown bread was made from rye and cornmeal steamed in a pudding tin. By the mid-nineteenth century, molasses and, sometimes, raisins, were added. In another generation, brown bread and baked beans had become iconic foods. 

It took awhile for Indian pudding and corn bread to become New England standbys. When the Puritans arrived, they brought with them a predilection for wheat and rye. Rye was easy to grow in New England, but wheat was not. The Puritans considered cornmeal an inferior grain, but corn grew easily and was versatile, so the colonists eventually adopted it. Cornmeal (which often was called simply “Indian” or “Injun”) was made into a pudding, mixed with milk and, later, molasses, berries, or raisins. In the colonial era, puddings were eaten as the main course at breakfast, lunch, and dinner and only became a restaurant dessert in the nineteenth century. 

It is surprising that Indian pudding has persisted at traditional New England restaurants into the twenty-first century while other traditional desserts, like corn starch pudding, hasty pudding, and Tipsey cake, have disappeared. Corn bread (which many think of as a Southern dish) was a traditional food item, which evolved into a regional specialty. It is still served in such landmark restaurants as Durgin-Park and Jacob Wirth.

Yankee pot roast also became a specialty in the early twentieth century. Boiled beef or beef à la mode (stewed rump or round of beef with a dressing or larded with pork or bacon fat) were popular nineteenth-century preparations. After 1900, the cut of beef became “Yankee pot roast.” Corned beef also became a favorite dish, replacing salt pork, which was regarded as less healthful. In many quarters, this dish is called “New England boiled dinner,” and it comes with potatoes, carrots, and turnips. This provenance explains how Irish corned beef and cabbage has little to do with the old country, but was adopted by the Irish, who found it made an economical and satisfying meal when they settled here in the mid-nineteenth century.

Seafood that is celebrated in contemporary Boston did not originally hold the spotlight. Although oysters were wildly popular, clams, lobsters, and white finfish were not. Fish-eating was looked down upon as a Roman Catholic practice. The poorest quality cod ended up feeding the black slaves of the Caribbean. 

Chowder, which was a thick mix of fish, clams, salt pork, and potatoes, was prepared at home, but not much in restaurants.  After 1900, milk was added, creating “New England” chowder. It became a Friday restaurant dish, when Catholic abstinence and Yankee chauvinism enshrined chowder as a regional staple. By the 1920s, clam chowder achieved primacy over fish chowder, probably because canned clams were more convenient to incorporate into chowder than varieties of finfish. 
Lobsters took a long time to become a delicacy. Since colonial times, lobsters had been cheap and abundant. They were considered inferior food and were often served to prisoners. Sometimes lobsters were incorporated into pies, stews, fricassees, and salads. When canning was introduced in the late nineteenth century, lobster meat became available in tins. During the twentieth century, lobsters became upscale food served broiled, stuffed, thermidor, or à la Newburg. 

Culinary historians Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont, in Eating in America: A History, argued that Boston’s seafood dishes had culinary merit: “A unique quality of the historic restaurants of Boston is that almost all of them were dedicated to the New England cuisine, in contrast to New York’s famous eating places, which kowtowed to the prestige of French cooking. Valid gastronomic traditions are almost invariably built around foods locally available, and this was the case for Boston, whose seafood has always been important on its restaurant menus.” 

As interest in New England cooking grew, Durgin-Park and the Union Oyster House, which had been ordinary eateries in the nineteenth century, became major tourist destinations. Lucius Beebe, bon vivant and café society columnist for the New York Herald Tribune and Gourmet Magazine ranked Durgin-Park among the country’s leading restaurants. In Boston and the Boston Legend (1935), he maintained that: 
Durgin and Park’s is not a restaurant; it is a dining-room in the old New England manner. …  You do not dine in the gourmet’s sense there, but you feed magnificently. The bill of fare is long: there are about 15 cuts of steak, and the food simple. An impressive baked potato, buttered and salted to perfection, and a kind of hot tea cake—the specialty of the house—come with every order whether a patron indicates them or not. Usually he  indicates a preference for more. 

The eatery’s main clientele were food market men, quite different from today’s tourist customers. Durgin-Park opened at 4:00 AM and served pie for breakfast. It closed by 8:00 PM. According to Beebe, “patrons sit at long boards as in an ordinary, and in the center of the room the cooks do things with meat and fish and vegetables directly under the professional and highly critical gaze of experienced dealers in these very commodities.” Beebe played up the reputation of the waitresses as incorrigible characters: “The waitresses are great blowsy girls, all good teeth, smiles and affability, with notions of their own as to what patrons ought to eat and ideas of table service that would make the hair of a French waiter captain stand up on his head. Durgin’s is old New England eating at its worst and best.” 

Lucius Beebe also waxed eloquent about the Union Oyster House, comparing it to Paris’s Tour D’Argent. He maintained that “the Union Oyster House has been a cathedral, or more properly speaking, a chapel of seafood, its high altar the oyster bar, its acolytes and priests the white-coated experts who deftly render available and edible its Cotuits and Little Necks, its worshippers the patrons whose mouths water and whose nostrils quiver at the salt odor of lobster broiling on a coal fire in its kitchens.” The house specialties were raw oysters, lobster stew, and clam chowder.

The reason that Beebe and others liked Durgin-Park and the Union Oyster House so much was that the food and ambience had been virtually unchanged for over a century. The Durgin-Park waitstaff offered a colorful, rough-and-tumble style of service.  Before the Civil War, Boston was full of oyster houses, but, by the 1920s, the Union Oyster House was about the only one left.

As travel accounts and guidebooks about Boston proliferated, the reputation of the local food increased. In 1959, Chinese travel writer Chiang Yee, in The Silent Traveller in Boston, wrote that “Boston is perhaps the only city in America to have its name attached to a number of foods,” referring to Boston baked beans, cod, clam chowder and fish chowder. Chiang Yee made the rounds of the city’s most famous restaurants. He described the long queue at Durgin-Park, where he was served “a big plate with two huge slices of roast beef and many other things on it. By the time I had eaten the first slice my eagerness for food was damped.” A “buxom” waitress observed his waning interest in the food, saying: “‘What’s the matter, young man? Can’t you finish your plateful? If you can’t, you should not have come here to waste your money; if you don’t like the food, we want to know why. We don’t like people who don’t like our food.’” She laughed at her joke, then foisted upon him a strawberry shortcake. Chiang Yee went on to eat lobster at the Union Oyster House, where he wore a paper bib imprinted with the image of a red lobster. He sampled roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at Locke-Ober and Parker House rolls and sautéed codfish tongues and cheeks at the Parker House.

The Colonial Revival celebration of traditional New England cooking gave birth to a multitude of neo-traditional inns across New England. These inns were redecorated to fit the aesthetics of the 1920s and 1930s, which cleaned up the designs of centuries past. Most country inns had been shabby hostelries, but they were redesigned to appear like the sort of inn where George Washington might have slept.

Author Mary Harrod Northend romanticized operating twentieth-century inns in We Visit Old Inns (1925): “Here and there around the room were gate-legged, square and rood tables, each one of the old-time tavern type, surrounded by Windsor chairs. Following the custom of olden days, homespun linen covered every table, while maids costumed in aprons and caps of the seventeenth century moved gracefully back and forth as they set the table for our coming repast… The supper was delicious, and how we enjoyed the old-fashioned food served as it was in our ancestors’ time!” 

Traditional New England inns were tremendously popular between the 1920s and 1960s. They were special occasion, white tablecloth restaurants, where diners dressed up. Guidebook pioneer Duncan Hines loved the inns around Boston. In his 1941 guidebook, he recommended more than a dozen of them, praising their décor as much as their food. One of the exemplars was the Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury. Howe’s Tavern in Sudbury claimed to be the oldest operating inn in America, having been opened in 1716. In 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave Howe’s Tavern a new prominence when he set his poetry collection “Tales of a Wayside Inn” there. Henry Ford acquired the historic inn in 1923. Longfellow’s Wayside Inn still serves such Colonial Revival dishes as “Traditional” Yankee pot roast, roast turkey with cornbread and sausage stuffing and giblet gravy, deep dish apple pie, and “Homemade” Indian pudding.

Historic inns clustered in other Revolutionary Era towns west of Boston. Hartwell Farm on Route 2A (The Battle Road) in Lincoln was located in a seventeenth-century farmhouse, conjuring up memories of the beginnings of the American Revolution. Concord’s Colonial Inn was built as a house in 1716. By 1900, it was known as the Colonial Inn and was trading on its revolutionary associations. Seiler’s 1775 House was located in Lexington in the farm house of Benjamin Wellington, the first militiaman to be captured by the British during the military action.

One of the most famous New England inns was the Toll House Inn in Whitman. In 1930, Kenneth and Ruth Wakefield opened a restaurant and inn in a colonial house on the road between Boston and New Bedford. Duncan Hines called the Toll House one of his favorite places to eat. The Toll House served featured codfish soufflé, haddock a la king, and broiled live lobster. Meat dishes were straightforward mixed grill, roast beef, and baked ham in cider.

Ruth Wakefield was particularly good at making desserts. Her cookbook included recipes for 29 cakes, 38 puddings, 28 pies, and 18 candies. Duncan Hines favored the Indian pudding: “It makes my mouth water to think of the baked Injun Porridge as it is prepared at Toll House, Whitman, Massachusetts. That’s the kind of dessert that makes a fellow wish for hollow legs.” Of course, Ruth Wakefield’s most famous creation was the Toll House cookie. In 1937, Ruth invented the chocolate chip cookie by adding a chopped semi-sweet Nestlé chocolate bar to butter cookies. 

During the 1950s, the Toll House Inn was wildly popular, serving 1,500-2,000 customers every weekend. Thanksgiving dinner became such a tradition that diners had to make reservations by mid-May.

The heyday of Colonial Revival inns specializing in New England food lasted until about 1970. After that, some inns became “gourmet” and added French or Italian dishes. Only a few, such as the Wayside Inn in Sudbury and the Publick House in Sturbridge, maintained the classic New England dishes like chicken pot pie, Yankee pot roast, and Indian pudding. Today, regional cooking has morphed into something more creative, where chefs seek to provide an innovative spin to New England foodstuffs and cooking styles.

James C. O’Connell is the author of Dining Out in Boston

Monday, November 14, 2016

Theo Epstein: The New and Improved Billy Beane

By Sheldon Hirsch, author of the forthcoming Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio's Streak: Debunking America's Favorite Sports Myths (April 2017)

Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane received national acclaim in Michael Lewis’s 2003 best-selling book (and eventual movie) Moneyball.  Lewis presented Beane as a modern-day David slaying Goliath, defeating financially advantaged teams with his creativity and a “cache of numbers” as his slingshot. However, Beane’s overachieving A’s never got over the hump: they never won a World Series, they lost seven of eight post-season series (and a wild card game), and they recently took a turn for the worse with consecutive last place division finishes in 2015 and 2016.

Into that void in the young-genius-winning-it-all genre stepped Yale graduate Theo Epstein. Epstein won the World Series as general manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2004 (ending an 86-year Boston drought) and 2007, and again this year as president of operations for the Chicago Cubs (the team’s first in 108 years). Epstein’s no David; quite the opposite, as his Red Sox and Cubs teams had deep pockets — haves rather than have-nots — and he exploited their wealth to good use.  But those titles, particularly the Cubs’ win this season, do not happen without creative thinking on the executive level.

To begin with, Epstein (and others) recognized major errors of Beane and the earlier sabermetricians, specifically their de-emphasis of baserunning and defense. The Cubs were probably the best defensive team in baseball this season, shining in the infield, in right field with Jason Heyward, and (later in the season) with athletic, cannon-armed Willson Contreras behind the plate. Furthermore, manager Joe Maddon often chose his lineup based on the hitting distribution charts of both the opposition and his starting pitcher; for example, he moved super-defender Javier Baez around the infield depending on where the data suggested most grounders would be hit.

The Cubs also ran aggressively throughout the postseason, stealing 11 bases and winning game seven in the World Series with three outstanding running plays: Kris Bryant brazenly tagged up and scored on a short fly to center; later on he scored from first on a double, and in the tenth inning, Alfred Almora advanced to second on a long fly to center.

But the most creative thing Epstein did was to invert the historical thinking about constructing a baseball team. For more than 100 years, baseball has been governed by mantras like “pitching is 90 per cent of the game” or “good pitching stops good hitting.” Yet when Epstein took over a 91-game losing Cubs team in October 2011, he concentrated on acquiring field players rather than pitchers. He used his first round draft picks on outfielder Almora (2012), likely MVP third baseman Bryant (2013), slugging catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber (2014), and promising minor leaguer Ian Happ (2015). He signed outfielder Jorge Soler and shortstop Gleyber Torres as free agents. He even traded away pitchers for hitters: the promising Andrew Cashner for eventual all-star first baseman Anthony Rizzo and two solid starters (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammels) for a minor league shortstop prospect, Addison Russell (another 2016 all-star).
One reason for Epstein’s emphasis on field players in the early stages of rebuilding is the epidemic of arm injuries — particularly elbow injury that requires Tommy John surgery — that plagues modern day pitchers. Their fragile health makes them, in Moneyball parlance, overvalued as high draftees. Field players less commonly suffer career-ending or career-diminishing injuries, and therefore, relative to pitchers, are undervalued as youngsters.

Of course, Epstein knew that he’d eventually need a good pitching staff to win the World Series; here, two factors came into play. First, good luck: in two trades of seemingly zero distinction he acquired Jake Arrieta, a sub-.500 pitcher over three seasons with an ERA of almost 5.50, and minor-leaguer Kyle Hendricks, an unrenowned 39th round draft pick.  Both became superstars with the Cubs; Arrieta won the 2015 Cy Young Award and Hendricks led the national league in ERA in 2016.

Second, after acquiring most of his promising young field players he unleashed the Cubs’ wealth, bolstering his starting rotation with highly rated free agent pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey. That required a Steinbrennian-level investment of 187 million dollars for the two of them (plus another 240 million dollars for free agent position players Ben Zobrist and Heyward), but those acquisitions also owed to the solid foundation Epstein had built on the field. Lester and Lackey (and others) would not have joined the Cubs if they did not see a good chance at a World Series ring. Epstein sold them on the alluring idea that they’d be among the final pieces in the puzzle.

Finally, the depth Epstein had built on the field allowed him to complete his staff by trading prospects Torres and Billy McKinney (and in a roundabout way, Starlin Castro) for stud closer Aroldis Chapman.

Best of all, Epstein has the Cubs set to compete at a high level for perhaps the next ten years. Remarkably, they have six young players already near or at all-star level: the entire infield, Schwarber, and possibly Contreras. Among the starting pitchers, only Lackey (38 years old) and possibly Lester (32) will need to be replaced in the near future. And Epstein can probably do that easily on the free agent market: just as he attracted Lester and Lackey, he has “built it. . . . and they will come.”

Sheldon Hirsch is the author of the forthcoming Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio's Streak: Debunking America's Favorite Sports Myths (April 2017)