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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Essay: It’s Who We Are—A Stoked Meditation on Truth, History, and Dr. Pepper

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Today I was locked out of the house. Keys inside. Two house-mates on the road. One busing tables at a floating restaurant down on the river. But what a day to be locked out! Eighty-five degrees. Everything blooming. First hot day of the new spring. And I was prepared—just back from a long bus-ride to town that had acquired me four cans of Dr. Pepper—my favorite—and one slightly used paperback copy of James Michener’s Centennial, his Colorado book.

I grew up in Southern California but I spent every summer of my kid-life with my grandparents in Colorado. Theirs was the Colorado Michener writes about in Centennial; cattle land, Indian land, a good place.

My grandparents lived in a well-kept farm house on the outskirts of a town called La Veta, which is in Huerfano County at the foot of the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the northern edge of the Cuchara River Valley. The town covers approximately 1.2 square miles and, as of 2007, it had an estimated population of 856 people, which is small even for small towns.

Local legend goes that around the time La Veta was incorporated, the people of the Ute tribe put a curse on it that said the town would never gain or lose population. And from what I’ve seen, it hasn’t.

photo from floydmaud'did's flickr
photo from floydmaud’did’s flickr

Now, as kid-memory goes, La Veta is only available for reference in flashes of imagery, sounds or smells. Grasshoppers the size of your finger. The poultry and Kool-Aid smell from the pantry. Guinea hens pecking in the yard. The grassy plateau above the house where my grandfather found arrowheads. I can see the stump where they killed the rooster for supper and I can see the hen house, which was always clean and had a smell like fresh straw and sawdust. I also remember the voice—but not the face, for whatever reason—of my summertime-best-friend, Jace, who would later assume a kind of mythical childhood heroicness in my memory. He’s a cowboy now. Still lives in town.

I remember the grownups sitting around the porch slapping mosquitoes and talking about the violent war between the bottling plants (where’s the history of this?) And I remember the air, fragrant with grass clippings, dust, and livestock. I’ve lived in a lot of places, but La Veta has stuck with me all these years—and that’s why I picked up Centennial.

Starting a new Michener book is a good moment. If you’ve read his work, you go into it knowing you’re about to be plunged into LIFE, generations of it, usually a thousand pages plus. Of course Michener isn’t high literature. It’s storytelling, and it’s history—on equal terms. Which isn’t to say it’s badly written. Just don’t go in expecting Proust. (And, let the record show, I’ll take Michener’s endless fiction over Proust’s endless remembrances any day.)

Michener’s good because he gives me what I need. I ask a lot from the books I read. I want solid, natural writing and not a lot of art. I want visual imagery, believable dialog (it has to read like people talk) and an engaging story that tells me something about why we’re here, how we got here, who we are, what we’re doing. Just like Sophocles did with Antigone—illuminating his own nation’s problems by digging into antiquity—I want to be given answers and truth.

Sitting on the bus home I imagine I looked insane getting through the first few pages, laughing out loud—not because it’s funny, and it is, but because Michener set it up so well, and so accessibly considering the very un-pop-literature turn I knew it would take. And you know this if you read enough Michener. You know he’s going to sabotage the narrative with dense, slow-plodding, highly-detailed history. You have to be ready for this, and if you are, it’s as rich and decadent an experience as reading somebody artsy like Nabokov or the Symbolists.

Centennial begins in Georgia. Dr. Lewis Vernor, a professor of history at an unnamed university, gets a call from one of the section editors at US Magazine in New York who—I’m condensing 37 pages here—commissions him to spend a few months in the small town of Centennial to research its history as factual backing for a double-issue article on the place that will embody “nothing less than the soul of America… as seen in a microcosm.”

At this point I’m hooked. I’m hooked because I can guess what happens next. Vernor will fly to Centennial and then suddenly we’ll rocket back into the past—in this case three billion, 600 million years—and then we’ll start—methodically, patiently—working our way back to the present.

The book’s acknowledgment section is divided into categories of researchers Michener tapped for the book, and it gives a good overview and syllabus of what you’re about to read. They are, in order: geology, paleontology, early man, flint knapping, Indian life, early St. Louis, Old Lancaster, Oregon Trail, Fort Laramie, cattle trails, ranch life, sugar beets, birds, Denver Stock Show, Mexican-Chicano problems, dry-land farming, cattle industry, guns, railroads, irrigation, and Appaloosas.

After the introduction it begins with the land: “When the earth was already ancient, of an age incomprehensible to man, an event of basic importance occurred in the area that would later be known as Colorado. To appreciate its significance one must understand the structure of the earth, and to do this, one must start at the vital center.”

After a general geological breakdown of the entire effing planet (seriously, right?) we begin following the area’s early inhabitants—prehistoric mammals, proto-horses, dinosaurs, mammoths, beavers—and then the Indigenous people and European settlers. And that’s where it really gets good. Because how big do your problems feel when you see people dealing with the same B.S. hundreds of years before you were born? But see, that’s a trick question. The natural inclination might be to say they feel smaller, and maybe they do. But maybe they feel bigger. Maybe you feel connected to everything and everyone in this great, sad, long-running narrative and struggle of being HUMAN and LIVING and LOVING and DYING while the world goes about its business around you. And isn’t that what we’re all here for anyway? To find some commonality and meaning in the midst of meaninglessness? I love it! It kicks me in the teeth and re-writes my inner-plan and I love every minute!

So, Michener, this one’s for you; for your wit and eye for detail; for your patience and for your love of AMERICA. I love it too. It’s who we are.

BIO: Adam Gnade's (guh nah dee) work is released as a series of books and records that share characters and themes; the fiction writing continuing plot-lines left open by the self-described "talking songs" in an attempt to compile a vast, detailed, interconnected, personal history of contemporary American life. Check out recent writing here and songs here. Contact: adam@asthmatickitty.com

Essay and Recipe: The Great Fall of the California Abalone Industry and How I Saved the World

Monday, August 10th, 2009

I grew up in the fishing industry. My dad owned seafood restaurants and fish markets and worked as a commercial diver, brine shrimper, and rock cod fisherman on an endless array of skiffs, dingies, bass-boats, cabin cruisers, Bayliners, and small charters. A full white-trash fleet. Boats rotting in the weeds. Boats on blocks like dead cars.

He finally hit his stride when he got out of the restaurant side of the business, hired a crew of abalone divers as independent contractors, and set up a processing plant that served as the midpoint between the divers and the restaurants. The company was called Ocean Floor Abalone.

photo from malibudivers.com

photo from malibudivers.com

In the plant, my dad, a small crew of Mexican men, and myself (on summer break) shucked the abalone from their shells, removed the gut sacks, cut off the lips, and ran the bodies through a meat slicer. Next step–a very physical but delicate step I was never allowed to take part in–was beating the steaks with custom-made pounding mallets until they were tender enough for the snooty chefs at the pricey French bistros and upscale Manhattan and San Francisco seafood joints we delivered to.

photo from abalonediving.com

photo from abalonediving.com

Then came the Withering Foot Syndrome (aka Withering Abalone Syndrome), a bacterial disease which hit local abalone and caused the senate to impose a moratorium on commercial harvesting along the California coast in the late ’90s.

In a 2004 retrospective, California Diving News’ Michael Doran wrote, “According to catch data available dating back to before World War I, the huge numbers of abalone being taken during the 1930s through the 1960s were dropping off precipitously starting in the 1970s. Withering Foot Syndrome in the 1980s and 1990s was like the straw on the camel’s back, in terms of decimating populations that were already dramatically reduced due to commercial fishing and sport diving.”

The supply choked off, abalone became a delicacy and priced itself out. With California out of the picture you could still get product imported from Mexico and Australia but no one could afford to eat it. At 70, 80, 90 bucks a plate abalone dropped off the map as pop-cuisine.

Compounding this were the Japanese corporate processors who got into the game, mariculture-farmed their abalone, and undersold the Americans with a smaller, inferior product freed up of commercial size restrictions. Abalone, at that point, was more or less done. At least for us, for my family.

For a while we experimented with a faux abalone steak my dad created called “Wavalone” (meat from the California Turban Snail or “wavy top shell”) but the jig was up. Within months we would sell our walk-in freezers and warehouse, give up our license, and close the doors on Ocean Floor Abalone.

I don’t think my parents were sad to see it go but, in a way, I was. Abalone was all I knew growing up. As a man you became an abalone diver and you were tough and you wore a big sun-bleached beard and hung out dockside all day drinking beer and talking about sharks and otters and guns with your pals. You lived off the sea and you took no BS from anyone and you earned your way honestly.

photo from latimes.com

photo from latimes.com

As lives went, it was better than most.

photo from thejohnharding.com

photo from thejohnharding.com

Of course everybody involved lost their livelihood after the moratorium. Some switched to sea urchins. A lot moved inland and disappeared.

photo from the thejohnharding.com

photo from thejohnharding.com

Now, I won’t romanticize California abalone divers as epic figures or heroes or even noble savages. There were a  lot of mean, misanthropic bastards in their number, real evil characters, but there were also a lot of good ones and I miss ‘em.

I’m sure my dad misses them more.

photo from fotothing.com

photo from fotothing.com

Coinciding with the basic time-line, but not at all related to the fall of the California abalone industry, I had a bit of a crisis of mortality and took a vow of self-described “unharm.” No more hunting, which I did a lot of, no fishing, and, most importantly, no eating animals. It was hard on my parents, since seafood was the nutritional cornerstone they’d raised me on, but they dealt with it okay and now things are cool.

But I’m getting away from myself. What I want to end with here is how I saved the world by accidentally synthesizing a vegan abalone recipe last week.

Long story short, I was cooking supper, I went into the basement for a sec, got distracted by a magazine, and came up later to the smoke alarm going off and a burning meal on the stove. And that’s where the whole thing blossomed. Spontaneous miracle. Vegan abalone. Stumbled into it. Tastes fantastic.

photo from biojobblog.com

photo from biojobblog

Okay, preparation. This is a weird one because there’s no real cooking here beyond basic heatin’ up. It’s just a little careful frying and then the placement of the proper proportion of ingredients to make the chemistry correct.

I don’t know what it is about the following ingredients but put ‘em together and you have the closest non-abalone abalone I’ve ever had. Oh, and don’t deviate from the ingredients and directions. I’ve varied the recipe and general preparation design a couple times and it doesn’t have the same magic. Stick with the S.O.P. Which is …


Traditional picnic-style hamburger buns (nothing fancy)
Annie’s Goddess Dressing (8oz bottle, original flavor)
Boca Original Chik’n Patties


Easy as it gets. Fry the bun and patty in a pan greased with vegetable oil (cheap stuff, not olive oil or anything good) until the bun is golden and the patty starts to blacken. This is important. Burn it for a second or two. The bun will only take a minute, but you need to cook the hell out of the patty to make it work. And it should be greasy. A dry patty might be healthier but the taste will be wrong.

When the patty is nice and fried up, serve with a couple pieces of spinach, a thin slice of tomato, a squeeze of lemon (onto the patty itself), and a generous dose of salad dressing.

photo from Uncle Henry's online

photo from Uncle Henry's online

Now, sure, that sounds like a faux-chicken sandwich–and it is. But it’s also abalone. The difference is in the chemistry. My theory is it’s the breading tanged up by the lemon and tahini in the salad dressing then offset by the spinach and tomato. Though the flavor of the bun helps for some reason. Whatever it is, it tastes like the real thing–and I grew up on the stuff . We were neck deep.

photo from esterobayabalone.com

photo from esterobayabalone.com

Maybe I’m off base. It’s been years since I’ve had real abalone but the taste stuck with me … mild, slightly buttery, almost tough but not, brightened up by the breading (Progresso), and usually served on sourdough with lettuce (which for whatever reason doesn’t work as well as the hamburger bun and spinach for this version.)

Oh, and drink recommendations. Very important. Domestic beer. Nothing fancy.

Post-script: This piece is dedicated to abalone diver Elwin O. “Win” Swint, killed off the coast of Santa Rose Island while diving. Banjo player, bronze artist, ex-Navy Sea (underwater demolitions), classical literature enthusiast, Win was a good man. He made a lot of enemies, but he also had friends and I am proud to count myself and my parents in the latter. This one’s for you, Win…

photo from the Santa Barbara Independent

photo from the Santa Barbara Independent

BIO: Adam Gnade's (guh nah dee) work is released as a series of books and records that share characters and themes; the fiction writing continuing plot-lines left open by the self-described "talking songs" in an attempt to compile a vast, detailed, interconnected, personal history of contemporary American life. Check out recent writing here and songs here. Contact: adam@asthmatickitty.com

DIY Guide to Being a Crab

Friday, April 17th, 2009


I’m not a crab and I’m sure you’re not either but I recently got a little insight into what it’s like to be one. Like us, James Michener isn’t a crab but he won the Pulitzer for fiction (Tales of the South Pacific, 1948) and his 1978 historical epic, Chesapeake, is a damn fine thing. And then there’s the crab, but we’ll get to him in a second.

Michener’s book documents the lives of four families over the course of more than 300 years (1583-1978) alongside the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a big read; nation building and colonial expansion and political upheaval all set to the quiet rhythms of the bay waters. Over the course of 1082 pages (I’m on 832) you get a saga of American life at its most panoramic and real and messy. Economical dynasties rise and fall. Great men and women establish themselves as masters of their space and trade only to succumb to illness or musket balls–or age.


The book is an inspiring thing to get caught up in; all that trying and failure and hope. We see first-hand the Quaker shipbuilders and iron-hot abolitionists; seasonal hunting cycles and pro-slavery sermons. War comes like a big steel-toe boot and stomps flat everything then, like an aside, revitalizes a snuffed-out human spirit. Industry furthers expansion and breaks old ties. Racism spits its poison then slips back under the skin and festers until the infection is too widespread for anything but eruption (and it does, with a wild, pus-sputtering fury.)

It’s a grounding piece of work–and it’s humbling. The center of it, of course, is the main character, the bay. Throughout, it’s a sweeping geographic love poem, from ol’ James M. to Mama Chesapeake’s dirty salt/fresh waters.

And she has crabs. Haha, right, yeah, but no. The Chesapeake Bay is full of them. I’ve lived on her banks twice before and I’ve seen ‘em in action… black mud crabs, hermits, the brave little fiddler with his big ol’ slugger thug arm, even that nasty prehistoric mofo the horseshoe crab (which isn’t actually a crab and is closer related to the tick, spider, and scorpion families.)

from taipeitimes.com

from taipeitimes.com

But it’s the blue crab I want to talk about here, specifically their moulting period, which blew my mind when I read about in the book.

I grew up in the fishing industry. My father was a commericial fisherman and abalone diver before the California coast abalone morarium was imposed (Senate Bill 463, 1997) so I know all about moulting. But I never really thought about it; never really broke down what exactly it means and the steps by which it happens.


Here’s what Michener had to say about the day “Jimmy” the blue crab shed his shell: “Swimming easily to the bottom of the bay, he found a sandy area, a place he would never have considered for a moult in normal times, and there began his gyrations. First he had to break the seal along the edge of his present shell, and he did this by contracting and expanding his body, forcing water through his system and building up a considerable hydraulic pressure that slowly forced the shell apart, not conspicuously, but far enough for the difficult part of the moult to proceed.

“Now he began the slow and almost agonizing business of withdrawing his boneless legs from their protective coverings and manipulating them so that they protruded from the slight opening. With wrenching movements he dislodged the main portion of his body, thrusting it toward the opening, which now widened under pressure from the legs. He had no skeleton, of course, so that he could contort and compress his body into whatever shape was most effective, but he did continue to generate hydraulic pressures through various parts of his body so that the shell was forced apart.

“Three hours and twenty minutes after he started this bizarre procedure, he swam free of the old shell and was now adrift in the deep waters of the bay, totally without protection. He had no bony structure in any part of his body, no covering thicker than the sheerest tissue paper, no capacity for self-defense… And yet, even at his most defenseless moment his new armor was beginning to form. Eighty minutes after the moult he would have a paper-thin covering. After three hours he would have the beginning of a solid shell. And in five hours he would be a hard-shelled crab once more, and would remain that way until his next moult.”

That’s on page 814 but you should read the whole book. It’s worth your time.

BIO: Adam Gnade's (guh nah dee) work is released as a series of books and records that share characters and themes; the fiction writing continuing plot-lines left open by the self-described "talking songs" in an attempt to compile a vast, detailed, interconnected, personal history of contemporary American life. Check out recent writing here and songs here. Contact: adam@asthmatickitty.com

1906 San Francisco Earthquake Commemoration

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

Oakland Museum of California http://www.museumca.org
Description of 1906 Earthquake Exhibition

About 100½ years ago a 7.8 magnitude earthquake (with some estimates placing it as high as 8.3) shook the San Francisco Bay Area, toppling buildings in what was then the American west coast’s largest city. Even worse though, a fire broke-out that ultimately devastated 80% of San Francisco and killed at least 3000 people. To commemorate this disaster, the Oakland Museum of California held an exhibition this summer from April through August. I was able to ride my bike over there and participate in the exhibit during its final week.

Unique displays included:
* Old tents that families had lived in after their houses had been destroyed.
* A shaking platform “ride” that simulated a 4.5 quake that half-tempted me into thinking that earthquakes are “fun.”
* Trolley transfers from 5:12am April 18th 1906 (the exact moment of the quake).
* A display titled “Make Your Own Seismogram” which involved something that looked like a large weighing scale, an invitation to jump on it, and a read-out at eye-level that indicated the “magnitude” of your jump on the Richter Scale. (I didn’t get to try this—some hefty people were hogging it!)

Some reasons why the fire got out of control:
* The water mains that supplied all the fire hydrants were broken during the quake. Only one at the top of a large hill (corner of Church & 20th St.) worked. Because it continued to work, some consider it a miracle, and each year descendants of the firemen hold a ceremony in which they spray-paint this “miracle fire hydrant” golden.
* The San Francisco fire chief was killed during the initial earthquake—a building collapsed onto the fire department’s roof as the chief and his wife slept in their bed.
* This fire chief was one of two people in the entire city that had access to dynamite, but he was the only one who knew how to use explosives in order to set-up proper firebreaks. Supposedly, the other guy with dynamite access started detonating explosives sort of randomly which did more harm than good (it caused the fire to spread and people were even thrown into the air!). It turned-out he was drunk. Eventually, someone sober and qualified was given access to the dynamite—an effective firebreak was finally created by dynamiting the entire street of Van Ness!