Sunday, March 06, 2016

Following Captain Cook

I was on a crowded bus heading north, my husband beside me, when the driver said "And on your right is Cook's Inlet." My mind blew up. Captain James Cook and his crew had actually sailed the Resolution into that bay--the very first Europeans to have seen it. And here I was, driving along its shore myself, a faint drizzle marring what would be a rather blurry photo. All of a sudden I was there, aboard the Resolution, awestruck by the way the land rose directly up from the sea, how the mist shrouded some but not all of ridges. I stayed in this state of suspended historical animation for the entire Alaska cruise, from Seward to Vancouver.
We began our Alaskan adventure in Anchorage, after an easy non-stop five-hour flight. (It took us 14 hours and 4 planes to get to Acapulco last January so we already were in heaven.) The Anchorage Museum, outside of which we would pick up our bus to Seward and the cruise ship, had on exhibit a fabulous homage to Captain Cook and his third voyage: Artic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage. It was brilliantly done, with original paintings, diaries, and other items on loan from Australia, England, and other places, as well as items from the museum's own collection. As a curator of rare materials who often mounts exhibitions, I was green with envy at the custom made cases and exhibit stands, the custom interpretative maps and models. My husband found it very amusing as I went around the exhibit mumbling "we have that," we have that, too," "Oooh, I wish we had that one," "Look honey, we have that at home!" The Bell Collection is super when it comes to Cook materials, but we don't have any of the original drawings or watercolors that were part of this exhibition. The image featured here is by artist John Webber: A Man of Oonalashka. From James Cook, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. London: G. Nicol and T. Cadell, 1785. Bell Library Call# 1785 Co  You can find it and other images in our online exhibition: Captain Cook's Voyages of Discovery.

Alaska is the most moving and beautiful place I have ever been. It was also the most surprising--from the world-class cuisine at Seward's The Cookery to the sparse population of even the largest of its few cities to the local history about which I was appalling ignorant. On March 30, 1867, the U.S. government, in the person of Secretary of State William Seward, reached an agreement with the Russian empire to purchase Alaska for more than $7 million. Called "Seward's Folly," opposition to the purchase didn't really die down until gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896.

The people of Alaska, descendants of the indigenous population and transplanted "southerners" alike, work hard to keep that history alive and to share it with visitors. Our visit to Skagway immersed us in history from the very beginning, when we boarded an old trolley car, converted to wheels, for a tour. 

Our tour guide posing at Reid's tombstone.
Our tour guide shared a variety of fun facts, history, and local sites, from the cost of a gallon of milk -- $7.00 -- to the story of the shootout between Frank H. Reid, a local businessman and city surveyor and outlaw Jefferson "Soapy" Smith in July of 1898. Control of the town was at stake.  Smith shot Reid, who died of his wounds eight days later.  We also saw Sarah Palin's childhood home.

I was hoping to see a lot of wildlife, but the weather often made visibility poor--if they were there, we didn't see them.  We did see amazing scenery at every turn, including this and other glaciers. 

Despite the distance of time, it was easy to picture Cook and his crew in every bay and along every shore. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

About Polar Bears

Today is International Polar Bear Day. As far as I can tell, this is a "holiday" created and promoted by Polar Bears International, a conservation organization dedicated to the preservation of polar bears and the environment in which they live.

I've always been a fan of bears, beginning with my well-worn childhood teddy bears. I had two. A very small one I must have received as an infant that I literally hugged to pieces, and a larger one that I managed to keep intact until I was about 17. For the life of me I cannot remember their names. I know they had names because I always name my stuffed animals. My brothers started giving me teddy bears for birthdays and Christmas in my early 20s; my husband added books and I've purchased a few small bears myself, so now I have quite a collection. These furry, sometimes well-dressed, creatures live on my bookshelves. And lest you imagine a few tidy bookcases in a den or study upon which sit an equally tidy row of small stuffed bears, think again. I'm an academic. There are bookcases in the entryway, bookcases in the living room, bookcases in the large unnameable room on the other side of our kitchen bar that, while it does contain our large kitchen table, also has a desk, love seat, easy chair, end table, and exercise bike, bookcase on the landing going up to the second floor, bookcases in the bedroom, bookcases in the tv room, bookcases in my office, and a host of bookcases in the basement family room. Teddy bears can be found both upstairs and downstairs. I keep a couple of especially cuddly ones on the lower shelves of one of the family room bookcases so they are within easy reach of the great-grandchildren. They know where they are, particularly the three- and four-year olds. My fascination with teddy bears led me to the Teddy Bear Museum of Stratford-upon-Avon in England in the early 1990s. Some of this collection is now housed at the Polka Theatre in London, but there is also a Teddy Bear Museum in Dorset that has a wonderful collection, including a 1906 bear created on the original 1902 US pattern by Morris and Rose Michtom: "Teddy's Bear." Their website includes a short history of the origins of the teddy bear.
I'm a fan of real life bears, as well, and the Bell Library collection of which I am curator, contains several images of polar bears, in addition to narrative accounts of them. This image of a polar bear diving into the water was captured from our collection to use on our December open house invitations a few years ago. What we cropped out of it was the boatload of men aiming rifles at the bear, about to make his escape. The first recorded sighting of the polar bear was in 1556 by British navigator William Burrough(1537-1598). Nearly 30 years later, another British expedition led by John Davis (1550?-1605), searching for the Northwest Passage, saw four polar bears on what is now Baffin Island, just north of the Arctic Circle in 1585.
Captain Cook and the crew of his third voyage (ca. 1777, northern Pacific) encountered polar bears, as well. Artist John Webber captured this polar bear; the image was published in James Cook, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. London: G. Nicol and T. Cadell, 1785. The James Ford Bell Library has an extensive collection of published Cook material; many of the volumes are lavishly illustrated.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Black History Month

Education has played an important role in this national holiday, starting with its precursor, Negro History Week, in 1926. Black History Month has been soundly criticized on a number of fronts, including the charge that it is racist and that the history of a race cannot and should not be relegated to a single month. However, in the spirit of George Santayana's (1863-1956) famous quote: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," Black History Month helps us to focus attention on several aspects of our history that we must not forget.

In 1772, John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), a soldier of Dutch and British parents, left his home in the Netherlands to travel to Suriname, on the northeast coast of South America,as a brevet captain with a corp of 800 Dutch volunteers. These volunteers joined the troops at Fort Amsterdam to attempt to quell marauding bands of escaped Black slaves that had established themselves in the eastern part of the colony.

Stedman was in Suriname for five years. While there he kept a journal and several diaries, wrote letters, and made watercolor sketches of what he saw and what he felt about it. He used these observations to craft a more formalized account of his time there, which was published by the radical British printer, Joseph Johnson, in 1796, with engravings based on Stedman's watercolors by William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi.

The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Slaves of Surinam contains vivid detailed descriptions of all aspects of life in the colony. While Stedman has been viewed as more sympathetic than most to the plight of the slaves, his sympathy is colored by both his status, his gender, and the times in which he lived. Nevertheless, his Narrative has been and continues to be the subject of intense study, particularly in Britain and the Netherlands.

The James Ford Bell Library is fortunate to have Stedman's diaries, journals, letters, and five of his original watercolors, as well as his own copy of his handwritten manuscript produced prior to publication. We have digitized all of this material; it is freely available through the University of Minnesota Libraries' UMedia Archive: Stedman Archive. Anyone visiting the Bell Library in person also is welcome to view and use these materials for research.

The James Ford Bell Library has extensive resources in the slave trade between Europe and the Caribbean and South America, with lesser holdings related to slavery in North America prior to 1800CE.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Just What is a Maraschino Cherry?

While I was baking Christmas cookies in December, I started wondering about the origins of our neon red maraschino cherries.  I did a little research and discovered that American maraschino cherries are actually a result of US government intervention in trade.

The Marasca cherry, a type of cultivated Morello cherry from Dalmatia, was used to create the popular Maraschino liqueur, using a method of distillation developed by Venetian Giuseppe Carceniga and later perfected by Francesco Drioli, a Venetian merchant. In 1759, Drioli founded the Fabbrica di Maraschino in Zara, the capital city of Dalmatia, to produce the liqueur on a massive scale. By the end of the 18th century his liqueur, bottled in green Murano glass, was famous worldwide and he held privileges and royal warrants from courts across Europe.

Whole cherries preserved in this liqueur, also popular throughout Europe, were known as maraschino cherries. These preserved cherries were extremely expensive as an export product and when they finally made it to the United States in the late 19th century, they could only be found in expensive fine dining establishments. The introduction of Prohibition in the U.S. in 1920 made true maraschino cherries even more difficult to obtain. Coincidentally, research conducted at Oregon State University by Ernest Wiegand led to the production of preserved cherries without alcohol. Although the USDA had, in 1912, decreed that maraschino cherries were “marasca cherries preserved in maraschino,” following prohibition and under pressure from the anti-alcohol lobby, it changed its definition.

From 1940, maraschino cherries have been officially defined in the U.S. as “cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and packed in a sugar syrup flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor." I think that's rather sad. Fortunately, “real” maraschino cherries are still available from Luxardo, a firm established in 1821 as a rival to Drioli. These imports are still expensive, but I’ve ordered some and look forward to trying them—although I must confess I quite like the neon red ones I put in my cookies.

While waiting for my cherries to arrive, I did purchase a bottle of Maraschino liqueur, which still comes in a green glass bottle, but is now marketed as Maraschino Luxardo and produced by the firm of that name. To my mind, it falls into the same category as grappa and aquavit, produced in a similar fashion with a similar taste; it's also 32% alcohol by volume--not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, around the neck of the bottle I purchased was a small brochure that contained some cocktail recipes. My favorite is the Aviation, which has it's own Wikipedia page.

Friday, January 01, 2016

First Post

It's New Year's Day.  My husband and the cat are napping and, while I, too, have eaten too much junk food this afternoon, I've not yet reached the point of carb-induced coma, so I thought it would be a good time to start my blog. Quiet and no cat on the keyboard -- I give it about 10 minutes.

We had a quiet Christmas this year.  My sister and my brother and his family came over for dinner on Christmas Eve.  It's been a tradition for the past 7 or 8 years, with only a couple of misses due to weather or illness.  This year my sister's son and his fiancé couldn't make it and we missed them;  they've been dating for several years but just recently became engaged. 

Dinner with my family is a pretty casual affair, so this year I stepped it up a bit and served a "fancy" vegetable.  Along with the honey-glazed ham, cheesy potatoes, salad, and burned-on-the-bottom crescent rolls (I always forget to put them in the second oven instead of the very hot oven that roasted the ham and potatoes), I served french cut green beans that, amazingly, were a big hit! I did find it sad that my nieces and nephews had never seen a french cut green bean. I defrosted the green beans, tossed them with thyme, salt & pepper, and lemon-infused olive oil, then heated them through in a skillet.  Delicious!  If I were making this for company or taking the dish to a pot luck, I'd add sautéed slivers of sweet red peppers and chopped scallions, green and white bits -- also in the lemon olive oil -- to the beans, perhaps topping with some toasted chopped pecans or bread crumbs and slivered almonds.  Although I must admit that the slivered almonds take me back to a rather nightmarish casserole topped with them that one of our neighbors gave my Dad when Mom was in the hospital having my baby brother --  same brother who was at the table on Christmas Eve.  My father, who was a superb cook, dished it up, took a couple of bites, looked at our faces, and tossed it.  I think we ended up enjoying french toast instead....

Well, the cat has arrived to help me write, so I will wrap up this first post with a note about another first that is in keeping with this holiday season:  the first map of the Holy Land printed in Europe following the creation of Gutenberg's press. The map, creator unknown, was included in a large chronicle called the Rudimentum Novitiorum, printed in Lübeck, Germany, in 1475 by Lucas Brandis.    

The map is a wood block print with Jerusalem at the center, 8 wind heads lining the edges, and an out-sized crucified Christ dominating a small hill labeled "Calvaria" or Calvary.   More information about this map and the chronicle can be found on the James Ford Bell Library's web site: and the library will have the book on exhibit through January 31st.  If you're in the Twin Cities this month, stop on by.