The buck stood in the doorway of the dinning room atop a thin layer of leaves. He was hulking, weighing in at 250 pounds, and looked as “natural as life.” A quail pecked at food around his hooves, unbothered by the orchestra pumping in the background or the hungry aristocrats who streamed past, gazing at the majestic animal they would consume—among many others—later that evening. They’d traveled in from Paris, New York City, Vienna, and Montreal. Game was on their minds. They were ready for “Chicago’s Greatest Feed.” 
Long before Charlie Trotter diced vegetables or Grant Achatz picked up a blowtorch—hell, before the railroad companies opened up the Union Stockyards--John B. Drake
turned Chicago into a foodie destination. The Ohio native was an unlikely gastronome, in that he spent virtually no time in a kitchen. Instead, Drake operated hotels, originally in Cincinnati and then as steward (and eventual owner) of Chicago’s Tremont House
, the city’s “first hotel of metropolitan proportions.” 
Between 1860 and 1880, Chicago’s population would more than quadruple, but in 1855, when Drake arrived, it was still very much a frontier town. And it was teeming with game. Hunters didn’t have to travel further than the modern city limits to find an abundant supply of wild geese, turkeys, and prairie chickens. According to Edwin O. Gale’s “Reminiscences of Early Chicago,” a local pioneer once killed a 400-pound bear that occupied a tree near where LaSalle and Adams now intersect. The Tremont’s earliest guests, from the hotel’s front steps, could even shoot shoot ducks swimming in the surrounding marshland. What better way to harness those local resources and
build his reputation in a new city, Drake thought, than by hosting an elaborate dinner party for Chicago’s elite. The menu would feature the region’s finest game, in quantities and variety unavailable anywhere else—Manifest Destiny on a plate, served up by Mr. Drake.
The first meal, in 1855, drew just 40 people. But what started as a relatively modest affair grew quickly in both popularity and culinary ambition. On a Sunday afternoon in 1860, for the fifth anniversary, the proprietors of the Tremont supplied 20 different meats. In 1864, the menu featured 25 cuts. Three years later, Drake served up 26. Literally every newspaper article published about the event included a variation of this phrase: “the dinner is bigger and better than the year before.” Invitations, meanwhile, were rarely turned down. “To be invited to one of these dinners was a sign that a young man had been accepted by the business community,” writes Emmett Deadmon in his book “Fabulous Chicago” (1983). “Which in Chicago was identical with being accepted socially.”
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was both a blessing and a curse for Drake. Like 17,500 other buildings torched by inferno, the Tremont House burned to the ground, and its owner was able to salvage only the money from the safe and a few pillowcases full of silver before the gorgeous structure collapsed. His game dinner, scheduled for the next month, was postponed indefinitely. On Drake’s walk home, however, he passed the Michigan Avenue Hotel at Congress Street (where the Congress Hotel now sits) and noticed that it was still standing. Feeling ambitious, he strolled into the lobby, found the owner, and plopped $1,000 in cash from his moneybox on the man’s desk—enough to cover an advanced payment on the hotel’s lease and furniture. The startled hotelier, convinced the flame would engulf his property like everyone else’s, hastily drew up a contract handing control over to his competitor before fleeing to safety.
Drake was rewarded for his courage. The next morning, when he strolled down to the edge of the burned district, he found the Michigan Avenue Hotel standing along the boulevard, still untouched. Immediately, Drake renamed it the Tremont House and enlarged it by taking in some adjoining buildings. Because so few hotels were still operational, the new Tremont faced very little competition; between 1871 and 1875, Wagenknecht writes that Drake “did a rushing business.” Those new profits allowed him to purchase, in 1874, the lease of the famous Grand Pacific Hotel. They also subsidized his game dinners, a tradition he would resume at a new location—and with renewed enthusiasm—the following year. “The game dinners given heretofore by Mr. Drake at the old Tremont House was one of the features of Chicago and the West,” the Tribune
wrote on November 7, 1875, “and we are glad to see he intends to keep up the custom.”
So were the lucky invitees. For 18 years, beginning in 1875, Drake threw an annual party like nothing the city had ever seen … or would ever experience again. For starters, the guest list was massive. By the mid-1880s, over 500 people routinely attended, including luminaries like former President Ulysses Grant, Gen. Philip Sheridan, and Marshall Field. Every nook and cranny of the Grand Pacific ballroom was covered in flowers, ferns, and smilax, simulating the forest from where their food was gathered. Stuffed birds and fowl were perched above the greenery, their wings outspread. Tables were set with the “daintiest of china and glass” (Tribune
; November 22, 1885). A game piece and an elaborate display of confectionery served as the centerpiece. “In a conspicuous place of honor,” the Tribune
noted in 1888, “was set a cute little black bear cub, harnessed in dainty scarlet ribbon, and was ridden by a squirrel which announced itself the prize ‘bare’ back rider.”
The menu was just as outrageous as the decorations. Under Drake’s exacting supervision, a well-drilled army of waiters—often more than 100—brought out course after course of the rarest meat imaginable
: ham of black bear, leg of elk, loin of moose, buffalo tongue, ragout of squirrel à la Francaise, roasted Sand Peeps. Diners could sample over 40 different animals. It was an orgy of flesh, or a “saturnalia of blood,” as Stefan Bechtel writes in his new book “Mr. Hornaday’s War.” Deadmon pit it more delicately: “The standards of Chicago were those of the gourmand rather than the gourmet.”
What made the later banquets even more impressive was the increasing lengths to which Drake had to go to procure his food. Game was much more scarce in 1890 than it was in 1855, particularly in Chicago, which developed rapidly after railroad companies laid tracks around the Chicago River. Instead of hunting in his own backyard, Drake contacted suppliers by telegraph, who would then kill and ship the animals to Chicago in refrigerated locomotive cars. Each November, the meat would pour in—at great expense—from the Rockies and Catskill Mountains, the shores of the Chesapeake and the swamps of the Carolinas. “A game dinner,” a Tribune
reporter noted in November 1885, “now means a great deal more than an expert shot and a good cook.”
In 1894, “with the glory of the World’s Fair full upon it,”  John Drake decided to discontinue his celebrated game dinner. The advance planning needed to pull all of the ingredients together was just too much for the elderly entrepreneur, who died the following November. Fifteen years later, members of the Union League Club attempted to revive the tradition, throwing a dinner for 300 men that “furnished a menu that compared favorably with those old times” (Tribune
; December 9, 1909).
The reboot lasted just one year. In a letter to a friend, printed by the Tribune
in 1957, Drake-era regular Martha Freeman Esmond said her husband “came home somewhat disappointed,” adding that the Union League’s shindig was “a fair substitute … for those who hadn’t had that privilege” of eating with Mr. Drake.
For those who had, it was only a mediocre imitation.
 New York Times
; November 21, 1886
 “Chicago;” Edward Wagenknecht (1964)
 Chicago Tribune
; November 14, 1894
The original pinball wizard wasn’t deaf, dumb, or blind, but he was lucky.
On a gloomy Chicago day in 1937, Steven Kordek
—who passed away last month at the age of 100—was wandering down Ashland Avenue without an umbrella when the skies opened up. To stay dry, he jumped into the lobby of the nearest building, then occupied by the Genco Pinball Company. The snap decision was serendipitous; Kordek needed work after stints with Idaho’s Forestry Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the gaming firm was in the market for a solderer. Within minutes, a woman on site offered him a job in the factory for 45 cents-an-hour, which he promptly accepted.
Genco made a wise investment. Over the next decade, Kordek was promoted from the production line into the engineering department. In 1947, his bosses assigned him an important solo project: build a game that improves upon the standard design of the day, in which a player would release a ball and then shake the table manually until it landed in a hole. Borrowing an idea from a rival company, Kordek placed two electrified flippers near the drain at the bottom of the board, giving the pinballer more control and the power to shoot the ball up the playing surface rapidly. “Triple Action” was an instant hit, debuting to wide praise at a 1948 trade show. Once manufactured in mass, teens fell in love with Kordek’s innovation, flocking to pizza parlors and arcades with quarters in tow. “It really was revolutionary,” says David Silverman
, executive director of the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore, “and pretty much everyone else followed suit.”
I’d like to say I shot my first pinball game at the Lincoln Mall
arcade, flanked by my Dad and brother on one of our periodic (and beloved) “Men’s Club” nights. Like many Americans born after 1976, it’s more likely I pulled back my first plunger at the adjacent Chuck E. Cheese’s
, a peculiar American institution with a fascinating corporate history.
Chuck E. Cheese’s (originally called Pizza Time Theater) was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell,
well known in tech circles for inventing Pong and founding Atari. The concept, developed over a two-and-a-half-year period in the mid-1970s, was strongly informed by Bushnell’s job experience and personal taste. While in high school and college, Bushnell—an admirer of Walt Disney—worked at an amusement park in Utah, where he took a particular interest in the skill-based midway games set up in between rides. Later in his career, the video game entrepreneur realized that few establishments catered to children who craved the lights and competition of an arcade but were too young to visit one on their own. If designed properly, he figured that a family pizza joint stacked with games could square this circle, allowing young kids to play in a controlled environment while their dinner baked in the oven. In 1976, at the tender age of 33, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million. The next year, his new company opened
its first Pizza Time Theater in San Jose.
The Californians who walked into Bushnell’s restaurant encountered a bewildering sight. Mounted on the wall of the dining room, at “center stage,” sat Chuck, a robot rat with a patterned vest and a thick 'New Joisey'' accent. (The character, voiced by John Widelock, was randomly based
on “Muggs McGinnis,” a pugnacious yet lovable thug who turned up in the 1940s movie series The East Side Kids
.) Chuck, who acted as master of ceremonies, was joined by 15 other pneumatically operated characters, a diverse assortment of personalities who wisecracked and sang two-minute “original” songs from various stages around the perimeter.* There was Pasqually, an Italian chef; Sally Sachet, a disco skunk; Dolli Dimples, a piano-playing hippopotamus; The Beagles, a rock-and-roll quartet; and Helen Henny, a folk-singing chicken. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal
hilariously described the spectacle as “dinner theater for the preteen set.” (March 31, 1994)
Games occupied the rest of the room. Kindergartners jumped onto kiddie rides or into a ball pit. Those with more gaming experience tried their luck at pinball, skeeball, or Atari games like Asteroids. Teens weren’t welcome at all
; as the marketing director told the New York Times
in September 1981, ''if another teenager never sets foot in our stores, that'll be just fine with us.” The only troublemaker these “neighborhood Disneylands” accommodated was the giant rat with the toothy grin on the sign outside.
Shortly after cutting the ribbon at his first restaurant, Bushnell had a falling out with Atari’s new parent company, so he repurchased his San Jose outlet along with the rights to his idea for $500,000. This proved to be a profitable decision. Over the next half-decade, Chuck E. Cheese’s became the hottest restaurant chain in the country, one that Fortune
felt comfortable anointing
(PDF) the “future for the family restaurant business” in its July 1982 issue. Targeting “middle-class suburban areas where there are enough young couples with children willing to spend as much as $20 at each visit for pizza, ice cream, or sandwiches,” (NYT
, September 1981), Bushnell opened up an average of one shop every five days. Visiting Chuck E. Cheese's was less expensive than a trip to an amusement park and more exciting than a comparably priced trip to the cineplex. And by instituting
a token system for his games, kids spent their distracted parents’ money quickly. In 1980, a hotel mogul from Kansas City launched Showbiz Pizza Place,
an enterprise patently modeled after Chuck’s brand. Two years later, amid a national recession, Bushnell’s company registered a 453 percent increase in profit from the same quarter in 1981. Its stock price eclipsed $30 per share. “It's a very high revenue business," one analyst told the Baltimore Sun
in August 1982, "much higher than the average fast food chain.”
Building a sustainable business, however, required Chuck and his friends to convince families to make repeat visits. And Bushnell’s champions on Wall Street failed to make two simple observations about the early Chuck E. Cheese’s: the pizza wasn’t tasty, described by various reporters at the time as “less-than-superior” or “unexceptional,” and a trip to the noisy, rat infested parlor was a horrible nightmare for parents. Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly
(December 20, 1982) describes a typical scene, which is both manic and depressing:"Enter to bedlam: On the right, the "cabaret." A wildlife movie in progress, a half-dozen families consuming pizza in a darkened, cafeteria atmosphere. A tot of two weeps hopelessly on his father's shoulder as Chuck E. Cheese himself, larger than life and possibly twice as threatening to some youngsters, vainly tries to comfort the child. To the left, the "lounge." Again the cafeteria motif but the far corner features canned Beatles music piped through a quartet of dog robots—The Beagles—jerking to some nameless rhythm dictated by their gear and sprocket innards. Childish cries of joy and sorry grow louder at the video game arcade."
To make matters worse, the company built so many restaurants so quickly that the individual franchises were forced to compete with each other directly, making it difficult to recoup the hefty fixed costs—$1 million per store—it took to open up in the first place. In the end, a stressed family might outsource birthday party planning duties to Chuck once every 12 months, but few made the pizza joint a regular dinning destination. It was just too insufferable. “Within two years,” the Wall Street Journal
reported in March 1983, “the entire concept was in trouble.” After patronage dipped** and Wall Street investors dumped 500,000 stock shares in one day, Pizza Time Theater was forced into bankruptcy in 1984. Many of its franchises followed.
But the big rat didn’t go down without a fight. Brock Hotel Group, which owned the derivative Showbiz Pizza chain, bought out Pizza Time Theater shortly after it went under and immediately started rehabbing its image. Right off the bat, McBiz brought in new prizes, expanded its menu, reworked its pizza recipe, and beefed up its beer and wine list. A few years later, the chain ploughed $120 million into a massive remodeling project, giving face-lifts to almost 250 outlets. Most importantly, the firm realized that a sarcastic, creepy rat was probably not the most appealing spokesperson for a themed restaurant. With the help of the Zambrelli LLC advertising agency, the owners traded in Chuck’s trademark tuxedo for “skater-chic baggy shorts” and knee pads. "We need to ratchet up the coolness factor," an executive who worked on the project told Nation's Restaurant News
in 1997. As corny as that strategy sounds, it worked; by 1998, Chuck E.'s parent company was operating more than 300 stores in 44 states and routinely posted record quarterly earnings. There are over 500
today, with more on the way
Bushnell, who spends his time hawking memory games
, is probably happy to see his brand still kicking after 35 years in the game. Sure, it's a stressful place to visit. But parents now have fewer legitimate reasons to deny their kids the pleasure of eating in front of Chuck from Jersey.
*The software program synchronizes voices, body, and facial movements to songs and dialogue offered in original presentations.
**Deep in denial, executives at Pizza Time Theater first blamed their poor performance on the popularity of “E.T.” and then “unusually rainy weather."
For logophiles the nation over, the quarterly update to the Oxford English Dictionary’s Third Edition
is like a small, nerdy holiday. Every three months, editors of the most comprehensive single-language print dictionary in the world add
to its pages “new words and meanings that have made it into common usage.” OMG and LOL, neologisms favored by the pre-teen set, were hot this past spring
. In 2010, OED staffers included several zeitgesity vocables like “tweetup,” “bromance,” and “vuvuzela.” They also embraced a Thanksgiving Day treat with one of the sillier names in American cuisine: Turducken
If one giant bird isn’t enough to sate your holiday appetite this year, the turducken -- an innovative Cajun concoction with a disputed history -- may be just for you. As the portmanteau suggests, it’s a deboned turkey, stuffed with a deboned duck, stuffed with a deboned chicken. Seasoned stuffing is jammed in between each layer of fowl, and the turkey’s skin, including the wings and legs, is then sewn and trussed around the mass of meat before roasting. The result
is an entree that looks like a Thanksgiving turkey but has the consistency of meatloaf and a lot more flavor than the traditional, and often bland, bird of choice.
Like a lot of southern Louisiana specialties, turducken is influenced by 19th century French fare. Aristocrats across the Atlantic loved to eat nested birds, the most outlandish of which was the rôti sans pareil, or “roast without equal," a royal feast organized in 1807 by famed Napoleonic gastronome Grimod de La Renière. (That sucker featured 17 distinct avian varieties.) Acadian exiles subsequently perfected other stuffed dishes like Chaudin, the stomach of a pig filled with smoked pork and sausage, among other aromatic ingredients. But nobody has been able to identify specifically who pioneered this odd regional holiday meal, even though several chefs and butchers claim the invention is theirs.
Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme is most closely tied to the recipe. The longtime proprietor of New Orleans’ K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen maintains that he made turducken while working as a young beef carver at a Wyoming sky resort in the early 1960s. (A recipe for turducken first appeared in one of his cookbooks 25 years later.) But when pressed for details
by a New York Times
reporter in 2002, he would not divulge the name of the Wyoming lodge where he says he came up with the daring idea or the year he actually masterminded the technique. (What’s he hiding?!?) Calvin Trillin, on the other hand, links
turducken to Hebert's Specialty Meats in the tiny town of Maurice, Louisiana. Co-owner Junior Hebert contends that an elderly farmer walked into his shop in 1985 and asked whether or not three birds could be crammed into one meal. The butcher pulled off the feat successfully, sold a few more the following year, and has been shipping out thousands annually ever since. Cajun poultry expert Charlie Faul also takes credit, having “spent years test-tasting various combination of poultry and stuffing,” according to a 1996 Wall Street Journal
While the origin story is still up for debate, the meal’s undisputed champion is NFL mainstay John Madden. For years, the football commentator brought a turkey to his Thanksgiving Day broadcast and awarded a giant leg to the player of the game. On a trip through New Orleans in 1997, a p.r. official for the Saints lugged a turducken up to the play-by-play booth, and Madden was enchanted. “It smelled and looked so good,” he later told the Times
. “I didn't have any plates or silverware or anything, and I just started eating it with my hands.'' During the next five seasons, until Madden stopped announcing Thanksgiving Day games, the former coach and California native would send away for a turducken to award to the winning team, giving the Cajun bird its first major exposure nationally.
Despite the growing hype, turducken has not made major inroads north of the Mason-Dixon line, probably because it’s so damn hard to make. (On top of deboning three separate animals, Prudhomme’s modern recipe
calls for 32 ingredients and nine hours of baking). Instead, some unconventional chefs have taken the general concept of the dish and gone in their own direction. Last year, Angelino Charles Phoenix created
the “cherpumple,” a three-layer cake with an entire pie
baked into each layer. While it sounds intriguing, the gaudy dessert has “little structural integrity in their mid-sections,” so it falls apart basically every time it’s made. Something tells me it won’t show up in the OED’s Third Edition
, or on your Thanksgiving table, anytime soon.
There are “locavores,” and then there is Sean Brock. The Virgina-bred and South Carolina-based molecular gastronomist is performing, in the words
of Burkhard Bilger, “a grand culinary reclamation project,” farming and preparing heirloom greens and grains that literally have not been cultivated below the Mason-Dixon line in two centuries. At his two Charleston restaurants, the second of which was just named best new restaurant
in the nation by Bon Appetit
, watery grits and fried chicken make way for Sorghum-fried green tomatoes and meat off the fatty, dwarfed Ossabaw Island Hog
. It’s “Southern food as conceived by space aliens,” and it sounds totally delicious.
As a poor teen in Coal Country, Brock was inspired by his grandmother, a woman who spent her life in Appalachia collecting seeds that had been passed down her family tree for generations. And in between chores, the wannabe chef would plant himself in front of the television and watch an unlikelier muse, Yan Can Cook
. “I was fascinated by how fast he could chop an onion,” Brock remembers, “So I’d try to do that and throw that shit in the wok.”
I’m sure Brock isn’t the only culinary superstar who was shaped, in part, by the career of Chinese cook Martin Yan. A pioneer* of the televised cooking show, Yan’s “Yan Can Cook” aired weekly on 240 public broadcasting stations in the late 1980s and early 1990s and, with the help of cable syndication, ultimately reached 90 percent of television viewers nationwide. In 30 years on the job, he’s filmed more than 3,000 original episodes. That’s an astonishing amount of slicing and dicing.
While their cooking styles are diametrically opposed, Brock and Yan both grew up humbly and were unafraid of taking risks. At the age of 13, after the death of his father, Yan’s mother shipped her son (and $20) from their home in Guangzhou to live with a distant uncle in Hong Kong. His kin put him to work at a restaurant, where Yan slept, because “there was no room for me anywhere else." He quickly schemed his way into culinary school, earning a scholarship by purchasing and then lugging back to the school all of the ingredients needed for class each day. In 1969, he moved to California in hopes of continuing his education at UC Davis. With no money (again) to pay tuition, Yan approached the dean of the campus’ extension school and offered to start Chinese cooking classes, a skill few people were teaching in the Western Hemisphere at the time. The administration allowed it and Yan’s demonstrations were an immediate hit.
With a food science master’s degree in hand, Yan ultimately landed in Calgary, where he helped a friend open a new restaurant. On weekends, Yan ran a “lunch and learn” program, allowing diners to observe his process before they ate their meals. A local TV producer participated one day and had a blast, so he asked Yan to come onto his talk show as a guest. “I went on once, and they thought I was a little different," he remembers, in this great San Francisco Chronicle profile
, "so they asked me to come back. After the second time, they asked me to do 130 shows.” After batting around
a few potential names -- Wok with Yan, Wokking with Yan, Yan’s Wok -- Yan landed on “Yan Can Cook,” a title he thought best embodied his populist teaching approach. The rest was history.
What made “Yan Can Cook” so popular? For one thing, it’s just fun to watch someone cook in a wok, the round-bottomed pan found in most every Asian kitchen. “You are hearing the oil when it gets hot, you are watching the food changing, you are smelling the aroma as the food cooks. You have total contact with the food, you are using all your senses,” he told the Chicago Tribune
on August 23, 1984. “It is so much more exciting than putting a pot roast in the oven and setting the timer.” Timing helped, too. Although Americans have been eating Chinese cuisine (in some form
) since Cantonese laborers migrated to California in the 19th century, there was a certifiable Chinese food boom
in the 1970s and early 1980s, prompted by the Nixon-inspired “authenticity revolution" and an influx of Asian immigrants following the abolition
of the Natural Origins Formula in 1965.**
Yan rode that wave, using his natural charisma and honed knife skills to teach Americans the basics about the ethnic food they so enjoyed but had no clue how to fix. Aren’t convinced of his entertainment chops? Watch him yuck it up with the audience and then bone a chicken in a thrilling 18 seconds:
Yan, at 62, still travels 250 days a year, teaching cooking classes around the world. He also opened Chef Martin Yan's Culinary Arts Center in Shenzhen, China, where he’s become a kind of cult hero. According to the St. Petersburg Times (July 15, 2009), it’s his hope that “chefs from all over will come to Shenzhen for an intensive program taught by Asian chefs, and will use that knowledge to bolster authentic and regional cuisine elsewhere in the world.”
In other words, Yan Can Cook isn’t done lighting a fire under a new generation of chefs.
*Along with the Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child.
**There are now more than 50,000 Chinese restaurants nationwide, more than all of the fast-food outlets put together.
The only thing presidential hopeful Rick Perry loves more than locking and loading at his racist hunting camp
is running for office. In an insightful profile
for The New Republic
, reporter Alec MacGillis surveyed the Texas governor’s career and concluded that Perry is not really motivated by ideological principles or an appreciation of well-crafted public policy. Rather, he’s moved by “the business of politics: ladder-climbing, deal-making, campaigning, and, most of all, winning.” This explains why a conservative hell-bent on slashing government spending has no compunction about doling out
grants, tax breaks, and contracts to serious campaign supporters like he was Rod Blagojevich on some drunken binge. For Perry and his coiffed ‘do, the game means everything.
If we assume MacGillis’ characterization is accurate, I’m curious what a young Perry -- bored at home in West Texas following college and a stint in the Air Force -- took away from his visit
to Washington D.C. in 1978, when he witnessed the first major protest of the fascinating, controversial, and short-lived American Agriculture Movement
To understand the significance of this jolly band of farmers, an amateur lesson in agrarian economic policy
is helpful. Thanks largely to technological improvements, farmers have gotten better at their jobs over time; between 1948 and 2002, total U.S. agricultural output rose
by a factor of 2.6, while population didn't even double. When suppliers harvest more food than Americans can gobble up in a given year, the surplus exerts downward pressure on prices. That’s good news for families trying to save a few bucks at the grocery store, but bad news for the laborers whose income depends on the sale of those crops. The problem gets worse when thousands of farmers across the country all decide individually that the only way their families can eke out a living is by planting more seeds. What seems like a rational economic calculation in the face of falling prices actually floods the market further, lowering premiums in the process.
For 40 years, beginning during the Great Depression, the United States tried to solve this dilemma by limiting the amount of seed farmers sowed. If American agriculturalists churned out more than their neighbors could chew, the government would simultaneously purchase and store excess grain and pay the farmers to leave portions of their land fallow. This command-and-control system worked reasonably well until the early 1970s, when synthetic pesticides and new machinery overwhelmed the government's ability to minimize agricultural output. “Given such leaps in productivity,” wrote Tom Philpott in his concise overview
of the Roosevelt-era initiative, “it was inevitable that the New Deal paradigm would break down.”
In stepped the Nixon Administration and one of the great names in American political history, former USDA Secretary Earl “Rusty” Butz
. To boost prices, Butz and his colleagues decided they would focus their efforts on the demand side of the equation by opening up foreign markets to U.S. crops. Quickly, he engineered a massive grain sale to the Soviet Union and then pressed farmers to till their bare farmland “from fencecrow to fencecrow.” If his strategy caused prices to dip below the cost of production in the short-term, the free-marketer agreed to make direct payments to the landowners to protect them from falling into debt. A new era was born.
This is where the AAM enters the story. In 1973, with the passage of the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act, Congress established its first set of “target prices” for crops. If the average price for a certain commodity fell below the given estimate, the government would simply write a check to the farmers who grow it. Four years later, with that first omnibus bill scheduled to expire, lawmakers and the Carter White House renegotiated target price levels. Surveys taken at the time showed
that a huge majority of food producers -- whose purchasing power was at its lowest level since the 1930s -- were keen to keep the new law in place so long as target prices were raised. The final legislation did, but only modestly. And that’s when some young American farmers got radical.
That fall, 3,000 small farmers from 24 states convened in Pueblo, Colorado to berate U.S. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland for ignoring their plight. His response -- that they should "just wait a while and things will get better” -- was unsatisfying, to say the least. After the meeting, frustrated farmhands decided to organize the AAM formally. Their sole demand? Establish “100 percent parity,”* described informally as a “minimum wage for farmers.” The movement spread
like a wildfire. Optimistically claiming the support of one-third of U.S. farmers, AAM allies held rallies at statehouses across the country that winter, and even secured a meeting with President Carter on December 24, one that the Washington Post
described at the time as “mostly symbolic.” Their agitation culminated in a giant tractor rally (or “tractorcade”) in the nation’s capital just a few weeks later. The AAM’s resident historian, biased as he or she may be, sets the frantic scene
: AAM's tactics in those early days brought harsh criticism, but also much needed publicity. Farmers learned to tell their story in front of TV cameras and on radio talk shows. Soon the whole nation knew there was a problem, whether they agreed with the farmers or not and whether they condoned their tactics or not. When Congress reconvened on January 18, 1978, 50,000 farmers were in Washington, D.C. to greet them. Again, all of this was done with no formal communications network. On March 15, 1978, 30,000 farmers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in one of the largest farm demonstrations ever. Some farmers from Missouri had brought along some goats, and somehow they got loose just as the parade approached the Capitol. The versatile goats nimbly climbed the steps, the statues, the fences or whatever else they wanted to. Police, not used to herding goats, tried to catch them. The news media barely noticed what the farmers were saying for the antics of the goats.
Though not for lack of effort, AAM leaders failed to initiate a “national strike,” whereby farmers across the States would stop buying equipment and selling produce until their demands were met. But the Carter administration agreed to halt temporarily all foreclosures conducted by the Farmers Home Administration as a result of their actions. Six months after the D.C. fracas, the Post
offered a largely positive assessment of the AAM’s experiment. “What the movement brought can be measured largely in intangibles: a new political awareness for farmers, some small political victories, and a new sense of community among people who pride themselves on their individualism.”
The next winter, a smaller and more aggressive band of AAM members, again riding their John Deere’s, returned to Washington and snarled rush-hour traffic in an attempt to drum up publicity. In just a matter of hours, 19 farmers were arrested, 17 tractors were impounded, and the goodwill AAM officials had generated 12 months earlier was squandered. “This is not a legislative year, and there ain’t much going to happen,” the chairman of the House Ag subcommittee told Scripps-Howard
. “You cannot find the sympathy for them they had last year.” It was the group’s last true moment in the limelight.
These days, it’s large corporate conglomerates who suck up
a growing percentage of the farm subsidies Rusty Butz first set aside. (Archer Daniels and the like then use the government cheese to buy out young farmers who the USDA initially intended to support.) If elected president, it’s not yet clear if Rick Perry -- himself a mild beneficiary
of direct subsidies -- would do anything to alter the status quo. I guess we will just have to wait to find out what lessons he gleaned from 1978.
*Adjusted for inflation, the farmers wanted to earn as much profit-per-acre as their predecessors did in 1910.
Actual things I said to customers leaving the restaurant
I now work at, during my first full shift on the floor:
-- “Enjoy the rest of your dinner.”
-- “If you can’t hail a cab, come back in and grab me.
-- “Have a great day!” (It was 9:45 p.m.)
- “Y’all come back REALLLLLL SOOOON!”*
Speaking of the new gig, I hope that my responsibilities over there won’t cut too much into my (already sporadic) posting schedule here, but it might be a little slower than normal for a week or two as I get my bearings. Apologies in advance.
*I did not actually say this.
Religious Amsterdammers with a taste for flesh might want to stockpile some steaks and encased meats from their favorite butcher shops.
Earlier today, the Dutch House of Representatives passed
a bill that would force all meat vendors to stun animals before they are slaughtered, removing from the law an exemption for Jewish and Muslim butchers who kill their livestock by lacerating the throat, in line with halal
and kosher guidelines. The legislation, which still needs to pass the Senate, was championed by the Party for the Animals
, a tiny single-issue political party lead by the charismatic MP Marianne Thieme
. The 39-year-old lawyer claims there is “worldwide consensus among scientists that animals suffer terribly if they are not first stunned before slaughter,” a position backed up by Farm Animal Welfare Council, a British advisory panel that urged
its government to outlaw the practice in 2003.
Merits of ritual slaughter aside, it’s tough to blame the 1.2 million Dutch Muslims for feeling
like they are being unfairly targeted by small-minded politicians. Just this week, several Dutch ministers announced plans
to cut funding for programs designed to help immigrants. The government, according to Home Affairs Minister Piet Hein Donner, “will distance itself from the relativism contained in the model of a multicultural society,” which is a polite way of saying that Dutch conservatives find foreign stuff scary. Geert Wilders, the xenophobic leader of the Freedom Party, was also acquitted
this week of inciting hatred against Muslims, a decision that some fear
will only heighten anti-immigrant sentiment. And Wilders’ colleagues in government continue to shift the balance of power
to the right on issues like burqa bans and language requirements, mirroring the machinations
of cultural nationalists across northern Europe.
The Dutch national teams of the 1970s famously popularized the style of play known as “total football
,” in which any player can take on the role of any other teammate on the pitch. It’d be swell if Dutch natives carried that democratic impulse into the political realm, too.
If you weren’t aware that Tang
still existed, it’s not your fault. Kraft Foods, which manufactures the breakfast drink mix, hasn’t devoted one dime to domestic advertising in almost four years, and even the 2008 marketing budget was dwarfed by spending for other powders like Crystal Light and Kool-Aid. Travel abroad, though, and Tang is everywhere
. Thanks to an international ad blitz
that promotes new local flavors and smaller sizes, the brand just announced that it generated
$1 billion in sales in the fiscal year that ended this past March. Brazilians are gulping down soursop
Tang, Mexicans sucking up horchata
Tang, and the Chicago-based food conglomerate is raking in new profits as a result.
During Tang’s heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s, the drink maker benefited more from luck than some prescient business decision. Contrary to popular belief, NASA did not invent the substance, which was originally developed in 1957 by William A. Mitchell of General Foods. The product actually floundered in its first few years on shelves, failing to displace orange juice as the nation’s go-to morning citrus drink. Their fortunes changed when astronauts in the Gemini program brought packets on board to mask the taste of the fetid recycled water the capsule’s environmental system was producing. Space exploration was synonymous with progress, and “the glare of rocket engines
could elevate even the most mundane of products to a scientific breakthrough.” Overnight, Tang became hip and heroic without even trying.
It was an opportunity General Foods -- bought out by Kraft in 1988 -- didn’t waste. According to Gerard J. De Groot, author of “Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest
,” “from 1965 to 1973, it was impossible to find an advertisement for Tang that did not mention the astronauts.” Or moon people, apparently. Here’s a goofy cartoon commercial from the early 70s:
Hilarious science writer Mary Roach notes
in her new book on space travel that NASA still uses Tang, “despite periodic bouts of bad publicity,” like when terrorists tried to mix
packets with hydrogen peroxide to form Tang Bombs. Considering that space travel has lost most of its cachet
stateside anyway, Kraft seems wise to keep its focus on developing markets. (H/T Gapers Block)
Oil isn’t the only energizing substance that’s getting more expensive this spring. Thanks to weak harvests (particularly in Colombia) and burgeoning consumption
in emerging markets like China and Brazil, coffee prices have doubled
in the past seven months. Just last week, a pound of beans eclipsed the $3 mark for the first time in more than 34 years, and the cost is not expected to drop
for at least another year. Grocers and retailers have already started passing the burden onto consumers; the company that owns Folgers, for example, has jacked up its sticker price by 23 percent over the last 12 months.
Before long, a trip to Starbucks could be just as costly as purchasing a demitasse of Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive, and arguably strangest, brew. Kopi Luwak is produced on the Indonesian archipelago with the help of the Asian Palm Civet
, a stocky little raccoon-like cat. The beast pussyfoots around the jungle at night looking for the ripest red coffee berries it can find. When it sucks one up, the mammal’s stomach enzymes strip the berry of its coating before depositing the bean onto the jungle floor. Some brave, industrious workers then gather, clean, ground, and roast the beans like their more common cousins. Thus the nickname, “cat poo coffee.” A reporter for the Australian Sun-Herald ventured
into the Sumatran jungle last year to see the process in action: Umul brings out a pot of hot water and unscrews a small jar, spooning out the powdery brown coffee and allowing it to steep and dissolve into the water before adding brown sugar and cinnamon, as is the local way of drinking kopi luwak.I raise the cup to my nose and sniff; it smells thick, like caramel. I take a sip and resist the urge to tell Umul that her coffee tastes like crap, as I know it's something she's probably heard before. I sip again and I'm not gripped by a fit of vomiting, as I was half expecting. It tastes nutty and slightly chocolatey but it's palatable. I let the coffee roll around my mouth for flavour, as if I know what I'm doing.
Because only about 500 pounds of original Kopi Luwak is churned out each year, it can sell for between $30 and $50
a cup in some boutique shops in the States. For the faint of heart, scientists at the University of Florida have developed
a synthetic production method that approximates the civet’s digestive processes but does not require any actual animal defecation. To taste a sample, one must find a shop that works with Coffee Primero
, a Gainesville-based distributor to which the school licensed its patented technology.
When Larry David asked for one of those “vanilla bullshit things,” I don’t think he had Kopi Luwak in mind. But the order might have tickled his fancy, anyway.
I'm cashing in a Christmas gift certificate for a cooking class this morning -- "Weeknight Meals: From Drab to Fab" -- so you'll have to wait until next week for my post on Amish hucksterism. In the meantime, go to your nearest bookstore and pick up this week's edition
of The Nation
, which includes a short piece by me about safe small-dollar loan programs. And then enjoy your weekend!