Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure

I'm lucky to live in a city whose library has a summer reading program for kids and adults, so I was eager to get reading and claim my free pizza or whatever this year's prize is. The first book I tackled was Matthew Algeo's Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure, which nicely combines my love of presidents with my love of road trips.

I first learned about this book while listening to the DC Improv's "Headliner of State" podcast, although apparently a lot of people already knew about it because I've been running into references to the book everywhere. I hate when I'm late to a history-based trend.

Anyway, Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure covers a trip Harry and Bess Truman took from their home in Independence, Missouri, to New York City shortly after Harry retired to private life. The former president thought he would be able to drive across the country incognito, but it seems he was a bit misguided in that thought. He and Bess were recognized almost everywhere they went, and the media couldn't get enough of it. They were inundated at almost every gas station and diner along the way, and at one point a local police officer got wind of their impending arrival and arranged to have them pulled over for a photo op.

At first all this attention struck me as rather sweet, but after a while I started to feel frustrated for the Trumans. Can't the poor couple just eat in peace? But Harry mostly took it all in stride, diligently signing autographs and posing for pictures.

The book covers the trip itself, but it also covers events happening at the time (like the Rosenberg executions), the history the American road/road trip experience, and the individual histories of some of the places where the Trumans stopped along the way. Algeo recreated the trip, stopping at hotels and private homes where the Trumans once stayed, and talking with diner owners and gas station attendants who interacted with Harry and Bess. The book is part 1953 road trip, part early-2000s road trip. 

Some Amazon reviewers seemed annoyed that Algeo would insert himself into the narrative or give "boring" updates about what happened to the places the Trumans visited. I, on the other hand, loved that. I found it fascinating to learn what became of various people and locations involved in the original trip, and I didn't feel that Algeo's personal experiences detracted from the Trumans' story at all---just the opposite.

The book includes some great anecdotes, like how a resident of Richmond, Indiana, had once sabotaged Martin Van Buren's wagon, causing him to break down outside of town in 1842. Algeo explains a lot about Truman's financial difficulties following his presidency since ex-presidents didn't receive pensions (or security details) at the time, and how in 1912 Andrew Carnegie had offered to pay future ex-presidents $25,000 a year. (The "future" ex-president designation would exclude then-current ex-president Teddy Roosevelt, who Carnegie wasn't particularly fond of.) My favorite anecdote in the book is about a dinner the Trumans had at a popular New York City restaurant, the 21 Club. It was a hotspot for the elite, and "shortly after the Truman party was seated, New York Governor Thomas Dewey arrived." 

I think my mouth literally dropped open.

Needless to say, reading the book gave me a hankering to visit the Harry Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, which is about eight hours away. My kids recently did really well on an even longer drive to Disney World, but I'm not sure the prospect of seeing Harry Truman's kitchen holds as much appeal as seeing Mickey Mouse, so it might have to wait a while.

Incidentally, I did visit the Truman museum once before, many many many years ago on my first major road trip. I had just graduated from high school and was driving from Cleveland to Southern California, where I was going to be attending college. I noticed a typo on the museum's exhibit about Pearl Harbor. (It quoted Franklin Roosevelt as calling December 7, 1941 "a date that will live in infamy" instead of "a date which will live in infamy"). I wrote them a letter about it because even back then I was a pedantic snot. (Full disclosure: There is a small chance that actually occurred at a different presidential museum---possibly Eisenhower or LBJ---but I'm 99% sure it was Truman.)

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure was an enjoyable, informative, and often humorous read that helped bring to life not only Harry Truman but also the bygone era of classic American travel before the predominance of impersonal (albeit efficient) interstates and chain fast-food restaurants. Pick this up as a companion to your summer travels, or to inspire you to take a trip of your own.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Patriotic Jello

Okay, this isn't presidential, per se, but it's close enough: Patriotic Jello! And just in time for the Fourth of July.

This looks complicated, but it's actually really simple. It takes a few hours to set up, obviously, but the hands-on time is only about 15 minutes.

I first stumbled upon the concept of "stained glass Jello" in a Food Network Magazine a few months back. I was dying to make it, but my Aunt Cathy always makes the Jello for family gatherings, and she was hosting the next major event: Easter. Imagine my surprise when I asked what I could bring to dinner and she suggested Jello. Score!

Easter Jello
I used the recipe and technique from this website to make a multi-colored concoction, which was really fun and tasty. Everyone was so impressed that we spent a large portion of Easter dinner discussing other ways this Jello could be utilized, and that's where I hatched the idea for July 4th Jello.

This recipe only uses two colors of Jello vs. four, which means you can use two larger 6-oz boxes instead of the smaller 3-oz boxes.

Here's what you'll need:

  • 1 6-oz box red Jello (I used strawberry)
  • 1 6-oz box blue Jello (I used berry--I'm not sure if there are other options)
  • 2 packets of unflavored gelatin
  • 1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk (NOT evaporated milk!)
  • Containers for chilling the colored Jello
  • A bundt pan
  • Star-shaped cutters
  • Cooking spray

You'll need to do this in a couple steps, but like I said, it's really easy. (I've put the main steps in bold so you can scan through more easily.)

Start by mixing the red jello with 2 cups boiling water, then repeat with the blue jello in a separate bowl.

Pour each color into containers to chill. You don't want the Jello to be too deep because you'll be cutting these into thin stars later. I divided each color into two Rubbermaid storage containers that I had very lightly sprayed with oil to help them unmold later.

Let those chill until set, a few hours or overnight.

Before you unmold those, mix together your white jello:

  • Pour 1/2 c COLD water into a bowl and sprinkle the two packets of unflavored gelatin on top. 
  • Let that bloom for a few minutes, then add 1.5 cups of boiling water and mix it together. 
  • Mix in the can of sweetened condensed milk.
  • Let this cool for a while at room temperature.

While that's cooling, unmold the blue and red Jello onto a cutting board (dipping the containers into hot water for a few seconds can help loosen the Jello if necessary).

Then the fun part: Cutting the stars!

I had gone to the craft store to buy a star-shaped cookie cutter, but the only solo one they had was really big. I found a set of four star-shaped cookie cutters, but only the smallest one would have worked. Better than nothing, though. Then I stumbled upon a set of six star-shaped fondant cutters. Perfect! I wound up using the third-smallest ones for the main stars, and also the smallest ones for some of the "scraps." Any scraps that were too small for stars got chopped up to be "fireworks."

Next it's time to arrange the stars in the (lightly oiled) bundt pan. You'll want these to stand up so each slice of Jello will have a star in it. At first I tried standing them up individually but they kept falling over. Eventually it occurred to me (der!) to stack a few together and then set them in. That worked much better! I alternated blue and red stars.

Once the bottom was filled, I still had a few big stars left over so I arranged them flat against the edges so that (hopefully) they would show through on the sides. I arranged some of my smaller stars so (also hopefully) they would show up, too.

Then I just threw in the other scraps.

When I was done with that, my white mixture was still pretty warm, and the last thing I wanted to do was melt my lovely stars, so I went and watched an episode of the Simpsons. By the time that was over, the white gelatin was cool enough to pour.

Pour the white gelatin in slowly and gently so you don't disturb anything too much. If you have any jagged bits of colored Jello sticking out, you can push them down so they won't poke out the bottom later on, although I'm not sure how necessary this really is.

Then it's back in the fridge for at least a few hours, or overnight.

When it's time to unmold, again, dipping the pan in hot water for a few seconds can help. Put your plate/serving disk/whatever on top of the pan and then flip it over and wiggle it around until the Jello releases. (A tip I read about: sprinkle some water on your platter first so that in case the Jello isn't centered, you can more easily slide it into place. Jello is surprisingly immobile otherwise.)

See the stars???
Finally, slice into it! I was really happy with the stars on the outside and on the inside. A few of the smaller stars showed up, too, which was cool.

My kids loved this. My 8-year-old wouldn't stop squealing, "It's so cute, I can't eat it!" although eventually she did break down and eat it. Then she and my 5-year-old used their fingers to dig out the stars, so that was great.

This Jello actually tasted a lot better than the Easter one, also. The Easter one was good but because of all the different flavors (grape, lime, strawberry, and orange) it tasted a bit like a bowl of Froot-Loops. The strawberry and berry of the Fourth of July Jello go together much better. It was really tasty!

Now, go forth (Fourth?) and make some Jello for your next barbecue. Our Founding Fathers would be proud.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Presidentress Turns 2!

Happy second anniversary to me and all of you!

I feel bad that I haven't written much lately but I have some stuff planned, including an upcoming William McKinley-inspired cocktail! Also, I was just mentioned in a post by Plodding Through the Presidents, although I think he stretched his definition of "May" a bit.

For now, let's do my annual round-up of most popular posts. Sadly, I can't find my most popular posts of the year, per se, but the list is different than last year's so I guess it's largely the same thing.

The post How Ronald Reagan Destroyed My First Celebrity Crush is the only holdover from last time, slipping from #1 to #5. I'm still waiting for someone to get me an autographed photo of Barry Bostwick.

At #4 this year is Donald Trump Refrigerator Poetry. You can download and print for free your very own set of words that will allow you to create pretty much any Trump speech. (Note to self: create a booster pack that includes "covfefe.")

This year's bronze medal goes to Thomas Jefferson's Killer Sheep. Why? I have no freaking idea. I mean, it was a cool post, but I can't explain what circumstances made it my third most popular post of all time.

On the other hand, I can explain all too well the circumstances that put The Cubs, Trump, and Armageddon in the second spot this year. I don't want to say I called it, but... (In fairness, I guess it's still too early to say whether the Cubs indeed won the last pennant ever. We'll know in a few months.)

And the most popular Presidentress post of all time is...DIY Presidential T-Shirts! Are throngs of people making Herbert Hoover shirts? I'd like to think so, but this one's popularity rests on hundreds of people on Pinterest pinning the post (alliteration!) because of the Disney designs contained within. I'm tempted to wear my Hoover shirt when I go to Disney World next week.

So that's it. I look forward to another year of sharing presidential history with you.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Possum-Filled Taft Zine

My first introduction to the concept of a "zine" was way back when I was in high school and Sassy magazine would feature one each month. They always seemed to be really edgy, music-oriented things, and I wasn't an edgy, music-oriented kid, so I'd read about them with cautious fascination and then I'd move on.

After that, I never gave much thought to zines until a few weeks ago when I somehow became acquainted on Twitter with a cartoonist named Mike Rosen, who has created (with some other artists) a zine about William Howard Taft, something I could definitely get behind!

Mike sent me a copy of the zine, "Carnival of Knowledge" (Issue 1...I hope there are many more). The booklet is more than 20 pages long and chock-full of actual information about Taft, plus a lot of fun stuff, all presented in a visually appealing, easy-to-read format.

There are recipes, including one for Roast Possum with Sweet Potatoes. That will ring a bell if you're familiar with the tale of the Billy Possum. If you're not familiar with the Billy Possum (and if you didn't click the link I just provided), you'd be intimately familiar with it by the time you're done with this zine. The whole possum-saga is laid out in comic-strip form, and Rosen's depictions of the possum are hilarious. Mainly the possums look like crazed, rabid rodents in top hats, but there are a couple that look like a 1920s Disney-style possum. They're completely brilliant...and disturbing.

Like Taft himself, the zine is jam-packed with possums, including a "Hidden Possum" search (there are 19, but I've only found 18 so far) and a Billy Possum coloring page.

Other features include a piece on Pauline Wayne (the Taft presidential cow) and a word search featuring words and phrases like "mustache" and "Department of Labor." There's a drawing of Taft as a luchador (he was a wrestler in college---though not a Mexican one) with different wrestler-nicknames like "The Bathtub Behemoth," "Taft the Shaft," and my favorite, "The Thriller Who Was Governor in Manilla." I laughed out loud at that one.

I think my favorite part, though, is the Taft paper doll, complete with a suit, a judge's robe, an old-timey striped bathing suit, and---best of all---a bathtub!

The artists are still working on a website for their zines, but you can find Rosen's work here.

Continuing with the presidential-possum theme, Rosen has also created a cartoon featuring Herbert Hoover and a possum, which you can see here.

If you know of any other Presidential-possum-related stories be sure to pass them along so we can get more of these brilliant cartoons.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

I don't read a lot of fiction--especially supernatural fiction--but when a Facebook friend recently posted about a new book called Lincoln in the Bardo, I knew I needed to look into it. The New York Times bestseller is based around 11-year-old Willie Lincoln's death in the White House and how Abraham Lincoln reacted. But that's only part of this story. From the publisher's review:

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

I was concerned about the "terrifying" aspect because I'm not into thrillers. I was, however, intrigued by the "hilarious" aspect, and also the fact that many reviewers talked about laughing out loud one minute and crying the next. I'm all for emotional roller coasters. I decided to give the book a try.

Lincoln in the Bardo is...weird. The narrative is told from various perspectives. Some chapters are composed of eye-witness accounts (some real, some fictitious) of Abraham Lincoln and his White House, and of Willie, his illness, death, and funeral. Most of the chapters are told from the perspective of the various ghosts inhabiting Willie's cemetery. Willie himself (in ghost-form) gives some input, and we even hear the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln through the ghosts who inhabit his body when he goes to visit.

The story is as much about these other people/ghosts as it is about Abe and Willie--probably even more so--although Willie plays an important, if inadvertent, role in their lives...or afterlives. The ghosts lead seemingly mundane existences and are oblivious to (or in denial of) the fact they are dead. It took me a while to start to empathize with the three main narrator-ghosts, but eventually I became quite enthralled with them and their own struggles. By the time the book ended, I wished there were more.

As to the laughing, crying, and terror, I didn't experience any of them. There were some very touching moments, especially surrounding Willie's death, but none that made me cry (and I cry pretty easily). There were also some pretty funny parts that made me chuckle internally, but nothing that made me laugh out loud. As for terror...no. This is a supernatural story, but not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination. The ghosts aren't necessarily all friendly, but none of them are dangerous or scary. The book might keep you up at night due to heavy thought, but not due to horror (and I say that as someone with a pretty extreme fear of death).

Despite taking a while to get used to, Lincoln in the Bardo is a fairly quick read. It's also thought-provoking and remarkably heavy for also being remarkably light. Like I said, it's weird, but in a satisfying way. If you're looking for something a little different, it's definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Hamilton in Chicago, Part 2

If you're anything like me, you're just a wee bit obsessed with Hamilton. I don't blame you.

Back in November my mom and I went to see Hamilton in Chicago, and this past weekend I went to see it again, this time with my oldest son and with my BFF Becky and her husband Sean, who flew in from Baltimore for the day. You might remember Becky from such blog posts as Our Whirlwind Hamilton Tour of New York and The Millard Fillmore Presidential Library.

I wrote a post about my first viewing of Hamilton here. This time, most of the cast members were the same, and my impressions of them were pretty much the same, too, so I won't rehash. There were two changes, though: This time Angelica was played by understudy Aubin Wise instead of Karen Olivo. Becky was bummed because she'd really wanted to see Karen Olivo in the role, but I thought Aubin Wise held her own and did an excellent job.

The other major change was that Wayne Brady played Aaron Burr. I'd known this in advance because it was kind of big news when his casting was announced. I've always liked Brady on Whose Line is it Anyway? and, frankly, I think he's hilarious. I'd never seen him in anything more serious, though, and I wondered how he'd do in a role like Burr.

In five words: Wayne Brady Stole the Show. From the moment he opened his mouth, he was phenomenal.

In a way, he was almost too good. I don't want to say Wayne Brady's Burr overshadowed Miguel Cervantes' Hamilton, but...he did. More than ever before, I wanted to say, "It's okay, Aaron Burr! I forgive you! Forget about Alexander Hamilton. Please, just sing some more!" That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it was surprising and left me feeling a bit uneasy...though in a good way.

If you haven't seen Hamilton yet and have a chance to catch it in Chicago while Brady is performing (through April 9), do it! Easier said than done, I know, but it's well worth a try.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Presidential Penis Nicknames

I need to start by apologizing in advance. To all of our dead presidents, to my friends, to my family, to you, to humanity: I am deeply sorry.

I've been thinking about this post on Presidential Penis Nicknames for longer than I care to admit. In many ways, the idea for this post is what spurred the creation of this blog in the first place. You see, a couple years ago a friend of mine sent me a message on Facebook asking if Warren G. Harding had sex with his dog.

Ordinarily I'd be shocked by such a suggestion, but I knew the basis of the question. Jon Stewart had recently done a segment involving Harding, and he very matter-of-factly implied that Harding used to have sex with Laddie Boy. I want to say that Stewart was clearly kidding, but apparently this one seemed, somehow, almost plausible?

Nonetheless, I assured my friend that although Harding and Laddie Boy were very close, they did not (to the best of my knowledge) have sex with each other. I did take the opportunity to tell her that Harding had nicknamed his penis "Jerry" because I never pass up opportunities to mention that. She asked if I knew the nicknames of other presidents' penises, and that led to a flurry of speculation and also to the realization that I needed a blog.

So here we are.

As it turns out, we do know the nicknames for two presidents' penises: Harding's and Lyndon Johnson's, referred to as "Jumbo" of course. The rest are shrouded in secrecy, as they should be. But that doesn't mean I can't take a guess. It turns out that the presidents' own nicknames often make great penis-names. Sometimes campaign slogans or important events during their administrations work. You get the idea.

So...I made a list. Note that I have not included any living presidents because: 1) It feels wrong (not that Clinton's hasn't gotten plenty of press), and 2) I didn't want to think about Donald Trump's penis. Most of these should be relatively self-explanatory, or at least easily searchable, but in a few instances I've included links. Some presidents' willies get two nicknames because how can one choose between "Old Public Functionary" and "Ten-Cent Jimmy" for James Buchanan's bits? And just to be clear, one of William McKinley's nicknames really was Wobbly Willie.

George Washington Vernon (give it a minute)
John Adams Colossus of Independence
His Rotundity
Thomas Jefferson Long Tom
James Madison His Little Majesty
James Monroe Jeremiah Jingle Bolloc
Cocked Hat
John Quincy Adams Publicola
Andrew Jackson Old Hickory
Martin Van Buren The Little Magician
William Henry Harrison Hard Cider
John Tyler His Accidency
James K. Polk Young Hickory
Zachary Taylor Old Rough and Ready
Millard Fillmore Teacher’s Pet
Franklin Pierce Handsome Frank
James Buchanan Old Public Functionary
Ten-Cent Jimmy
Abraham Lincoln The Rail Splitter 
Andrew Johnson The Grim Presence 
Ulysses S. Grant Unconditional Surrender
Rutherford B. Hayes Samuel Tilden
James Garfield  Roscoe Conkling
Chester A. Arthur Prince Arthur
Grover Cleveland Big Steve
Benjamin Harrison Little Ben
William McKinley Wobbly Willie
Theodore Roosevelt The Big Stick
The Trust-Buster
William Howard Taft Big Bill
Woodrow Wilson The Schoolmaster
Warren G. Harding Jerry*
Laddie Boy
Calvin Coolidge Even Silenter Cal
Herbert Hoover The Chief
Franklin Roosevelt Arsenal of Democracy
Harry Truman The Bomb
The Hell-Giver
Dwight D. Eisenhower Operation Overlord
John F. Kennedy Jack
Lyndon Johnson Jumbo*
Richard Nixon Tricky Dick
Gerald Ford Warren G. Harding
Ronald Reagan The Gipper

*Actual nickname

There you have it. I almost hate to ask, but feel free to submit your own nicknames and maybe I'll consider them for an addendum or something.