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.