It was many moons ago in Ireland that I learned an important lesson about American history—namely, that Americans of my age know far less about it than we might have thought.
I was having a pint of Guinness in a second-floor bar in Dublin overlooking Trinity College. On a vast expanse of lawn some white-clad young men were playing cricket, a bat-and-ball sport that makes about as much sense as astrophysics, unless, of course, you’re from the British Isles. A man sat down on the bar stool next to me, ordered a pint, and began telling me about cricket. I knew it was a lost cause, namely because his version of the English language sounded so much different than mine.
He could tell I was an American—probably because my version of the English language sounded so much different than his. Besides that, only in America is cricket not widely played, just one of the things American of which I wasn’t aware. He proceeded to tell me of many more.
I’m not sure if I ever got the man’s name, although I’m assuming it was either Sean or Seamus. He was well-versed in American history and politics, although he demonstrated that his grasp of the American population (the vast majority of which can trace its roots to the Auld Sod) or its geography was lacking.
I told him I lived in Los Angeles, to which he gleefully asked if I “might be knowin’ me cousin Mary Murphy in San Francisco.”
It was a ha-ha moment.
I’m not much of a history buff, as it were. Like most of my generation, I studied the required texts throughout my school years but not much more. It took my reading of Jim Welch’s Fools Crow (1986), a story about the U.S. government’s war against the Plains Indians, and Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994) for me to fully understand that General Custer was a no kind of hero. It was well after my school years before my coming to question that the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus was ridiculous since indigenous people were here to greet his landing parties.
The genocide of Native Americans was not merely glossed over in the public schools of the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t even mentioned.
Of course, what can one expect from a system that taught us that hiding under our desks would protect us from nuclear fallout? Or for that matter, taught us to buy into the Cold War theory that was our own government’s paranoid propaganda campaign?
I am an ardent history buff of the music of jazz and its origins, most of which are found in the history of African-Americans. My education has been an on-going, self-taught endeavor for well over fifty years. It’s difficult for me to imagine why jazz, this country’s original art form, is barely taught in the schools. And when it is taught, it’s mostly in the realm of performance—which provides little to no connectivity to its history or its creators.
I’m sure that Montana’s moronic U.S. Representative, Matt Rosendale, a real estate developer from Maryland who moved to Montana, bought a Stetson hat, and labeled himself a rancher, would find that the teaching of jazz in the public schools is a no-no. It violates his racist beliefs. He is, after all, vociferously opposed to the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which in simple terms he probably can’t grasp, is just history with an unfortunate name.
History has no prejudice or bias. It is pure and absolute, yet still worthy of critical thought and consideration. What has happened has happened, its representation adding prejudice and bias where there should be none. It can be revised—based, like science—on new information that comes to light. It also may be revised to suit a perceived need, or amended to do the same. It is an unacceptable practice. The New Deal programs of FDR, for instance, are demonstrated by statistical analysis, yet vilified by political biases.
I find myself to be drawn more deeply into history, perhaps because I have seventy years’ worth of my own behind me. I keep discovering things about which I never knew, and am constantly challenged by information about which I was misled.
I recently had the great privilege of writing the program notes for this season’s Bozeman Symphony. Although my interest has been jazz, I trained as a classical musician. A few of the orchestral pieces being offered this season I have performed. I discovered that while I might know their symphonic forms and structures, I knew little of the history or context of the piece and its composer.
At Interlochen Arts Academy, we were taught to focus on performance. There was little, if any, context explained regarding the composer or the times in which he lived. I guess I could have discovered such on my own, but I didn’t.
When the assignment from the BSO came, I blew the dust off my Grout’s The History of Western Music, consulted a bit with Google, and delved into history.
The experience opened an astonishing new world of wonder.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
GRILLED ROMAINE SALAD
This is a delightful salad that I frequently served at my restaurant, Adagio.
1 Tbs. minced shallots
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
5 tsp. Champagne vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Combine the ingredients listed above in a lidded jar and shake well to mix.
3 heads romaine lettuce
1 bunch small radishes
2 hard-cooked eggs
1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
Trim romaine and halve each head lengthwise, leaving enough root base to hold the halved head intact. Slice the radishes as thinly as possible and place in ice water. Finely chop the eggs.
Combine the breadcrumbs in a small saucepan with the olive oil. Stir to coat well, season with salt and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the crumbs have darkened and toasted, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Grill the romaine on a stove-top grill pan over high heat, cooking just long enough to sear, 1 to 2 minutes to a side. (Char broiling is preferred.) The heat must be intense so as to char the lettuce but not allow it to wilt too much.
Arrange lettuce on a platter, season lightly with salt and spoon a generous tablespoon or so of dressing over the top. Repeat until all the romaine has been cooked and added to the platter.
Distribute the thinly sliced radishes over the top. Scatter the chopped eggs. Spoon over more of the salad dressing, scatter the toasted breadcrumbs and serve.