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GP 9 August 2006: Summer Reading: Elegant Getaways

Armchair Travel.  The Madonna Lilys have never stood taller, their legions lending some grandeur to the front beds, coming just after the large blossomed hibiscus flowers, that stared down all predatory insects, have faded away.  The Madonnas, we are told, must avoid the mid-day sun, but instead are thriving in these record temperatures.  Thirsty humming birds and oversized butterflies are keeping them company. 

It’s a glorious, fertile summer, but hot as Hades in these United States and throughout Europe.  The way to see the world in 2006 is in the comfort of an armchair, cuba libre in hand to celebrate Fidel Castro’s leisurely journey towards his eternal rest, with some reading close by that takes one to distant states of mind. 

Never Give Up.  In the 3-way election of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt and his Progressive Party took a pounding, coming in well-ahead of the moribund Republicans under Taft, but a couple of million votes behind Woodrow Wilson.  We thought he had spent the rest of his life tasting the bitterness of this defeat.  Not so, we learn in Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: as usual, he just took on another humongous challenge.  This marvelously written book captures again his journey on the Amazon, and then down the ‘River of Doubt,’ later also known as Rio Teodoro and, officially, Rio Roosevelt, til then an unknown 1,000 tributary of the Amazon.  Once again, he conquered all in his path: 

On the afternoon of May 19, 1914 … Roosevelt triumphantly entered New York Harbor on the steamship Aidan, all flags flying….  Every watercraft in the harbor that had a whistle blew three long, joyful blasts. 

Roosevelt, laid low, always got up: it is this resilience that still makes him so interesting to us.  It’s the same characteristic that makes Miss Stephanie Day so intriguing, as she battles cancer. 

Lewis Ginter’s Richmond.  It’s hard to realize that Richmond, bruised as it seems these days, had an elegant past.  But if you’ll poke around, remnants of its greatness are buried beneath the soot.  The Jefferson Hotel.  Ginter Park.  They all came about, because of Lewis Ginter, a transplanted New Yorker who made several fortunes, fought for the Confederacy and massively invested in the city as the town’s wealthiest citizen.  People don’t much know about him today, and even local histories only have tidbits about him, though at his death, he was so revered that his obituary covered the front page of all the papers.  From the Civil War until his death, he was into everything that made Richmond great.  Fragments of this can be found in Lewis Ginter’s Richmond, a thin, locally published monograph that hints at how elegant he was: 

Ginter went from selling toys to merchandising fine linens.  During closing hours he wrapped the linens in packages of his own design.  It was said that the packages sold the linens as much as the fine material from which the linens were made. 

Ginter sought a similar lifestyle and built his ‘Westbrook.’  The home was a Victorian-style structure and contained a tower in which he had a private circular barbershop on the third floor….  At the back of the main hall was a set of fourteen electrical buttons which Ginter used to summon his various vehicles.  The buttons were labeled for the broughman, landau, cabriolet, carriage, open carriage, several kinds of buggies, the ‘Westbrook’ wagon, a saddle horse and a jumper. 

It is stunning to realize that in city after city across America we had Ginters who created greatness, but are long since forgotten.  Where are they now that we need them? 

France Apart.  Day to day, most of us think France is Paris, peopled by pompous, bombastic suits straight out of Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors.”  But the provinces are quite different, the citizenry often quite a bit more interesting.  It would be a different France, if power were not so hoarded at the center.  Lately we have been learning about Jura and its wines. 

A good introduction is a rather lengthy, needs-to-be-edited  (like all Times articles) essay by Eric Asimov entitled “Surprise from the Jura, Jagged in a Velvet-Smooth Universe,” August 2, 2006, pp. D1 and D8: 

The Jura defies many expectations, nowhere more so than in its wines.  The leading whites have a nutty, sherry-like aroma….  Almost singularly among wine regions, the reds are usually served before the whites in the Jura because they are lighter in texture. 

The Jura is a bucolic green bowl between Burgundy and Switzerland….  Roads came fairly late to the region; canals never did. So the Jura evolved … in relative isolation…. 

But with their best lots of savaging, Jura winemakers permit evaporation, and as room develops in the barrel a film of beneficial yeast forms over the surface of the wine….  Jura winemakers tend to bridle at the comparison with sherry. 

Not all French wine comes out of the same barrel, just French perfumes. Vive la difference! 

Getting to Indonesia.  In 1982 James Oseland invited Tanya Alwi for coffee in North Beach (maybe the Caffe Trieste).  And that’s how he got to Indonesia.  A college student from the suburbs and a son of a copier salesman, he’d only been as far as Mexico.  But she said, “Why don’t you come to Indonesia after the summer is over….  You can stay at our house in Jakarta over the summer vacation.”  That’s how a film student began to learn about Indonesia and, as an adult, to make his way into food as editor of Saveur.  It also gave birth to Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.  In this part of the world, at the origins of spice, we discover what separates the bland from the beautiful today, be it pepper, or nutmeg, or cinnamon, or fresh ginger.  This is what brings back taste to a long, hot summer which would otherwise drain the soul. 

Rejecting the Global City.  Economists tell us that we now owe our vitality to a string of global cities dotting the globe, which, in character and impulse, are more alike each other than the countries in which they reside.  London, then, is taken to have more in common with New York, than with Liverpool.  If that’s so, more the pity, because one size does not fit all.  The interest lies in the utter contrast of one metropolis to the other.  For the same reason, we have come to reject the International Style in architecture, which is both sterile and little suited to the complexities of people reckoning with life on the ground. 

Far more compelling and valuable in the post mass market economy is the sherry taste Asimov discovered in Jura’s wines, the hotel like no other Ginter planted in Richmond, the River of Doubt Teddy Roosevelt traversed in Brazil, or soto, a spiced chicken soup topped with bean sprouts and fine chopped celery greens Oseland uncovered in East Java. We want to know about uncommonality.  As we said in “Rum and the Fancy Food Show,” both business and enjoyment today are fueled by one-of-a-kind experiences. 

P.S.  One inveterate traveler and comrade-in-arms has just taken a trip through central Asia.  We will try to cajole him into sharing his bus ride with us. 

P.P.S.  Of course, there are a host of reasons for not stirring from your home this summer, reasons that go beyond the heat.  You remember the old chestnut: “Whenever the urge to exercise comes over me, I sit down til it passes.” 

P.P.P.S.  You will derive some amusement from reading John Hunter Gardner’s December 15, 1963 account of the Gardner family.  Daniel, one of his grandfather’s brothers, had an interesting life, in the shadow of Ginter: “During his life he served as School Trustee for Henrico County, Senior Warden of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, and for a period was a special deputy sheriff for the County.  Being a cripple he did not serve in the armed forces of the Confederacy, and after the war he was employed as personal secretary by Major Lewis Ginter.  He died in that employment.” 

Daniel’s service may be the high note of the Gardner family, since John Hunter finds the subsequent history of this clan and of the South to be something of a trial.  “If I be permitted to paraphrase the poet Gray, this is the short and simple story of one of the poor families of the Southland.  Nothing to be ashamed for and very little to be proud of.  Today, 100 years after the economic structure of the region was wrecked, its foundation destroyed, and the only assets of its people, [land and slaves] wiped out and redivided, those of us who survive have much to be thankful for, and to hope for the future.”  We suspect you cannot understand the South unless you understand that it has many Gardners and but a very few Ginters.

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