Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thanksgiving with a Twist

Every once in a while, I encounter a story so amazing that I can't wait to tell everyone I know, to stop strangers on the street just to spew amazing facts at them. In a way, I guess that's kind of what blogging is---spewing stories to friends and strangers---and I'm going to take advantage of that now.

A few weeks back, I found one of those amazing stories. While I was on a plane on my way to a conference, I read an article in Mental Floss magazine about how Thanksgiving used to be more like Halloween, with kids dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door asking for food and treats.

At first I didn't believe it. I consider Mental Floss a credible source, but I had never heard of this practice and I suspected maybe they were planting the seeds of an urban legend. (People have been known to do that before. I'm still not entirely convinced the Billy Possum story isn't an elaborate hoax.) But when I got home I googled it and found several other sources, including the New York Public Library, confirming such a thing, and libraries don't lie.

So that's this all about?

Well, back in the 19th century, destitute people would go door-to-door asking for help for Thanksgiving. Some kids, being enterprising twerps, I guess, started dressing as beggars and doing the same thing. When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday, cities began hosting masquerade balls. Then in New York City, people just went crazy with the idea and held parades for Thanksgiving/Evacuation Day (commemorating the day British forces left Revolutionary New York), complete with costumes and drunken revelry.

Although adults would eventually stop participating with costumes, the tradition for kids was firmly in place. The "Ragamuffins" would dress up and walk around their neighborhood demanding food or money. In New York, at least, Thanksgiving was sometimes known as "Ragamuffin Day," and although the practice seems to have been concentrated there, kids in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities apparently participated in this tradition, too.

At first people thought this dressing up and begging was cute, but eventually it got to be a hassle in New York, with aggressive kids harassing people on the street. People would heat up pennies until they were red-hot, then throw them into the street to watch kids scramble to pick them up and then howl in pain. Ah, the goodwill of the holidays!

Eventually educational and civic organizations started sponsoring parties and parades so kids could still dress up but without the annoying harassment (and probably to protect them from molten pennies).

Then the Depression came, no one had spare food or change anymore, and the tradition started to die out. According to the Mental Floss article, the tradition basically ended there, but according to the New York Public Library account, the tradition stuck around a bit longer in certain boroughs of New York. Commenters on that article state that kids continued the practice in some areas into the 1950s and '60s. There are a lot of people saying they thought they were crazy because they'd tell stories about dressing up and going door-to-door on Thanksgiving, and people would tell them surely they meant Halloween. Another person tells of a friend who moved from New York to a wealthy Houston suburb in the 1960s. Because the family moved just prior to Halloween they didn't have a chance to go trick-or-treating in October, so the mom sent them out "as usual" dressed as beggars on Thanksgiving, causing their new neighbors a lot of confusion (and causing embarrassment for the family).

This is an amazing story that I'd share on this blog anyway, but I might have found a way to make it extra-presidential, too. Although kids initially dressed as beggars in tattered clothes, eventually the costumes expanded to include homemade or store-bought masks and costumes. These included patriotic masks like Uncle Sam, and things like police officers, clowns, and whatnot.

I found an old Martha Washington mask for cheap on ebay, so I bought it for my "random presidential crap" collection. Could this be a Ragamuffin Day mask? I have no idea, but I'd like to think so.

Now, when you gather around the table this Thanksgiving, you can regale everyone with the tale of Ragamuffin Day. If you really want to bring back an old tradition, throw on a costume, knock on your neighbor's door, and demand food.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cooking with the Presidents: JQA Pumpkin Bread

If you haven't noticed, fall is upon us. Like any good American, I've been craving pumpkin stuff, including pumpkin bread. Unfortunately, all the recipes I've tried lately have...been lacking in one way or another.

When I stumbled upon a recipe for John Quincy Adams' pumpkin bread, though, I felt like it was divine intervention, or at least worth a try.

Confession time: I've never used fresh-roasted pumpkin to make pumpkin everything. I've always used cans (of pumpkin puree---not pumpkin pie filling; I have some standards). I've been wanting to roast my own pumpkins, though, and I figured a John Quincy Adams recipe gave me the perfect excuse.

I guessed that one small sugar pumpkin wouldn't give me the two cups of mashed pumpkin I needed for the recipe, so I bought two. But then before I got around to making this, one of them went all gross and squishy on me, so I was down to one. In a way that was a good thing, because dealing with the slimy innards was a lot more time-consuming and disgusting than opening a can.

I wound up with about 1 1/4 cups of pumpkin, so I basically halved-plus-somed the recipe, meaning I halved everything then added a bit more. It was very scientific. I did stray a bit when it came to the ginger and sugar. I added the full amount of ginger, and didn't add any extra to the halved amount of sugar. That wasn't done for health reasons or anything. It just seems that recipes call for way more sugar than they needs. I felt bad second-guessing John, but whatever. I also didn't add more than the halved-amount of eggs because that would have been impractical.

Anyway, to make the recipe as I did, you'd need:

1 3/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 TBSP cinnamon
1/2 TBSP nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ginger
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
A little less than 1/2 c. water
1 c. pureed pumpkin (cooked or canned)

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Add the other ingredients and mix until incorporated.

Pour batter into one or two loaf pans, depending on how big you want your loaves.

Bake about an hour (probably longer for one large loaf), cool, and enjoy!

In the end, I had wound up with enough for two decent-sized loaves. I had planned on sharing one with relatives who live down the street, but...that didn't happen. (Sorry, guys.)

The end result? Really, really good. The bread was moist and flavorful yet mild. This is the pumpkin bread I've been looking for. Thank you, John Quincy Adams!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hamilton: The Musical

Several months ago, a friend told me about Hamilton, a largely hip-hop musical about, obviously, the life of Alexander Hamilton. The show debuted Off-Broadway in February and then on Broadway in August. I thought the idea sounded awesome, of course, but until I heard the soundtrack last week I didn't realize just how awesome it is.

I've listened to the soundtrack five or six times in the past week, and I keep finding various songs from it stuck in my head. The good news is that you can also get these songs stuck in your head---for free! They're all available on YouTube, or you can stream the soundtrack for free if you have Amazon Prime. Or buy it. But listen to it somehow, because the lyrics are intelligent, the music is fantastic, and the songs tell a thorough story on their own, without your needing to see the performance (which I'd love to do sometime, but that involves going to New York).

If you don't have time to listen to all 46 tracks right now, here are some of my favorites.

This is one of the first numbers, taking place on the eve of the Revolution. It's kind of long but it's catchy and sets up a recurring theme. Alexander Hamilton says, "I'm not throwing away my shot," in this case referring to his chance to take part in the uprising. But the idea of not throwing away one's shot recurs through the musical, sometimes figuratively and sometimes more literally, referring to the act of someone shooting his gun far off-target in a duel. (No spoilers!)

My favorite numbers might be the ones performed by King George III, who comes off as a jilted ex-boyfriend. This one, in a more pop-music style than the other songs, is a hilarious love letter to the colonies, claiming that they'll soon realize their mistake and return to him:

Finally (for this post, not for the musical), I like how this number does such a good job expressing the animosity between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Plus it actually makes interesting the debate about whether or not the federal government should assume the states' debt:

Seriously, if more of American history were presented as a rap battle, people wouldn't find it so boring.

Now go listen to the rest.