1600's, Arrant Nonsense, Colonial History, Early American History, History, New York City, NY, Revisionist History

Grub

 

Elegant al fresco dining & social distancing.

 

 

A few days ago, I posted some pictures of a young cardinal, and mentioned that even though the chick had left the nest, its parents would continue their GrubHub deliveries.

That prompted me to look up “grub.” Because reading the big dictionary, that’s the kind of excitement you can have, after months of quarantine.

I’d always thought that grub, in the sense of food, was cowboy slang – kind of surprising to find out, the OED lists its first use as 1659!

I took that as a Sign.

Thinking about 1659 + grub +cowboys . . .

I should write about Old New York, back when it was The Frontier.

 

 

Once upon a time, New York (then called New Netherlands) was the Wild West — a rip-roaring settlement, clearly no country for old men.  Like a colonial version of Dodge City – – cattle grazing, land barons, company stores, unprovoked attacks on Native Americans, gullible hayseeds from Weehawken, etc.

“Hayseeds” have been sticking around since 1577, but “hicks,” “yokels,” and “rubes” wouldn’t shamble along until much later, to provide comic relief, and to hire on as Barney Fife deputies (the ones whose only line is “They went thataway.”)   “Comic relief” wasn’t invented until 1783, and people pretty much just scowled all through the colonial era.

 

 

 

In those bucolic days of yore, Manhattan was a lush, verdant island, a little slice of Edam.

And I thought, they must’ve had cowboys.

But I was wrong.

It turns out to be an example, of just how badly History is organized.

Because according to the big book, there weren’t any “cowboys” to eat the grub in 1659.  That word didn’t ride over the horizon until 1725.

Before that, those folks were saddled with a lame, generic job description, just lumped together with “herders” (1625, from a Dutch word), and shepherds tending their flocks, sometimes by night (without getting paid time and a half).

So, if there weren’t any cowboys, just who was eating this antique grub?  And prior to 1725, did the cows just wander around, unsupervised and untutored, in the streets?

I checked, often they did.

“Milkmaids” (invented in 1552) had a surprisingly strong union, and refused to do any “herding, wrangling, or bovine guidance of any kind.”

Cattle & swine roamed freely for centuries, rooting around in gutters, eating the nasturtiums out of folks’ flower beds, leaving hoof marks on the Bowling Green, and making the tavern floors quite a mess.

With no cowboys to keep order, it was just the Dark Ages, practically, and you really had to watch where you stepped.

 

“Howdy!” The greeting is derived from the old-time, cheese-loving cowboys of New Netherlands, from their salutation “Gouda!”

 

 

Even when History finally had cowboys, and could’ve gotten things organized, it wasn’t that great.  Turns out, the harmonica, which to me, is another essential part of the oater scene, wasn’t invented until 1821, so for almost a century, these old-time cowboys had to lug guitars around, and maybe harpsichords.

And History didn’t think of “chuckwagons” for another forty-five years, so they had to brown-bag it until 1866.

Without chuck wagons, there’s no chance of carrying eggs for a Western Omelette, or ranch dressing for your salad.  “Sandwiches” had been created in 1762, but after hours in a saddlebag, no way they’re going to be in good shape.  Kind of a personal night mare.

If it was me, I’d ride down the interstate until I found a “diner,” but that’s even more recent (1935).  You see what I mean about disorganized history?  Nothing happens in the right order.

 

 

If you’re planning on obtaining an animal this size, it would behoove you to actually read the operator’s manual, and go through an approved cow-owners’ training class, run by a professional cowboy. (“Behoove” from the Old English “behōf,” meaning, to not get underfoot.)

 

 

Anyway, despite these obstacles, New Amsterdam had cattle grazing, out there in Big Sky Country (Manhattan), by 1625.

Amazon wasn’t around yet, but the West India Co. offered Free Cow Shipping, if you purchased land in the new colony (seriously).

There were even (honestly) honest-to-heck prairies in those days, in the Hempstead Plains region of Long Island.

And “desperadoes” (1647) roamed – this is a real reward notice from those days:  “And whereas complaints are made that the Gardens of many persons have been robbed and their Poultry taken away, if there be any one who can give information of the Thieves…he shall be paid five & twenty guilders…”  Yes, there were no trains or banks to rob, but chickens lived in fear.

 

 

Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim. When New Amsterdam was founded, these Puritans had been living next-door in Plymouth for four years already. The Dutch remembered them, living in Leiden for ten or twenty years, and had wondered where the heck they’d gotten to.

 

 

New Amsterdam was a company town, just like Durango, Colorado – full of fur traders & colorful eccentrics, a Wild Bunch, on the frontier. Only half this bunch was Dutch (there were Danes, Swedes, Germans, Walloons, Sephardim, Huegenots, Holsteins, etc.), and it was a tolerant place, by the standards of the time — a wrangling, polyglot-trouble-spot of the good, the bad, the ugly.

And there were all those cows – then and now, The Big Apple was all about the bull market and branding.

 

 

Each year, more people are killed by cows, than by sharks. Cowboys monitor and prevent gang activity, and keep ’em on the straight ‘n’ narrow.

 

 

So by 1659, when people started eating “grub,” New York had all the makings of a good western – prairies, cows, sheriffs (called “schouten” in those days, as in “Fill your hands, and come out schouten!”), soldiers fighting Native Americans, a stockade, and windmills.

As far as I’m concerned, you have to have a clacking, creaking windmill for the right atmosphere, whether you’re filming Hans Brinker or Rio Bravo.

 

 

 

The stockade, along what’s now Wall St, was actually to keep out English & Yankees, not Indians, but again, a great backdrop for a western.  The beer was weak in those days, but a “vaquero” (1519) could have a medicinal shot of Holland Gin, good for arrow wounds, lumbago & sciatica, which you’re gonna get after a long day in the saddle.

But tragically, in its disjointed way, poorly steered, History still lacked chuck wagons, diners, harmonicas, really portable harpsichords, steam locomotives, six-shooters, and cowboys.

 

 

Cowboy’s Lament – the end of free range beef and traditional windmills

 

Sorry to say a discouraging word, pardner, but it’s kinda sad, thinking of those early Dutch herders,  home on the range, making sure the windmills didn’t spook the herd, and yet not considered to be cowboys.  Maybe some of them, who didn’t have horses, would just take the Broadway stage to work.  Glumly setting around the fire, eating their “grub” – probably pickled herrings, maybe a bowl of succotash – washed down by a tankard of warm heiferweizen.

 

And those colonial range riders, darned if they didn’t feel kinda unappreciated somehow, kinda…undefined, you might say, because they weren’t just herders, they were cowboys…but the word just hadn’t sprang into existence yet.  Dang it.

History is just a mess.

 

Yep, lose the fancy duds, trade that lace ruff for a bandana, and this Dutch feller’s ready to ride.  That looks to be at least a ten gallon hat.

 

portrait by Fredric Remington (born in Canton, NY)

 

 

Big hats, big boots, horses, cows, prairies, an addictive tobacco habit, windmills, lack of concern for personal hygiene…they were all set for to be cowboys, just didn’t have the right word for it.

But on a happier note, in the morning, there’d be cardinals singing in the trees, beautiful birds which they didn’t have back in Holland – the cardinal chick was what started this whole discussion, remember?  And about exactly the same time in history that people started eating “grub,” the Dutch also started coffee plantations, in Ceylon, India, and then Indonesia, so the 17th c. cow-herders could at least have a cup of Java with their donuts.

They’d sing an ol’ cowboy lament from the Lovin’ Spoonful, accompanied only by guitar, since there were no harmonicas yet:

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a cowboy in the city

 

Far as I’m concerned, it ain’t a real western without a few windmills.

 

 

When my relatives Out West, roughing it in the Wasatch Range, want to do some real cowboy-style cooking, they build a fire, shovel the coals into a pit, and do Cast-Iron Dutch Oven Cooking

 

A native New Yorker, and cowboy, of New Netherlands descent.  Teddy Roosevelt, at the chuck wagon. Lookin’ kinder ornery, like a man who spotted a saddle sore on his steak.

 

Yep, most a these here pictures are from The Nat’l Gallery of Art,
The Met & the U.S. Library of Congress.
I don’t hold with readin’ much, myself.
It’s jest a sight easier to make stuff up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
travel, Uncategorized

The Town in the Mountains

IMG_2260

 

Two towns in Colorado, linked by an old narrow-gauge railroad, were for me, a discovery of “The West.”

They’re linked by the railroad, and, in my mind, by a really pervasive smell.

I guess everyone knows that our sense of smell is the fastest prompt for our memories — not photos or images, not a snatch of song, not a string tied around your finger.  I should pretend that this Tale of the Western Slope was prompted by immersion in a glass of bourbon and a plaintive tune from the Cowboy Junkies or Merle Haggard, but actually, I was led by my nose, walking by a sulfurous industrial plant in Milwaukee.

“Olfaction,” the fancy way of saying “sense of smell,” in general doesn’t sound like a good thing.  Sounds like a medical condition requiring more roughage in your nasal passages.

And in the case I’m thinking about, this surely isn’t a Remembrance of Things Past, brought on by the scent of almonds and vanilla from exquisite madeleines — the trip I’m remembering today is evoked by a lingering satanic stench of smoke and sulfur, that would not wash out of my clothes.  A truly nasty smell.

One sniff and ol’ Marcel Proust would curl up in a coma.

Or at least, turn up his nose.

And yet, this stink brings to me a really wonderful memory!

I hiked and camped around the Southwest a few years ago with a group from my college, looking at Native American archæological sites, on a route that was rearranged into a zigzag, by all the huge forest fires that year. So I guess the fumes off “Chili Sprinkled With Piñon Ash” might trigger some memories of Chaco Canyon and New Mexico deserts.

actually this isn’t on the Durango line – it was taken in Utah. But good and sooty-looking.

But the area, and smell, that really defined the West for me, was in the Colorado Rockies, around Durango and Silverton.

Durango is a small college town in the southwest corner of the state. We were done camping, and relaxed at the historic, and haunted, Strater Hotel, watching the fires rock the hills around the town.  Durango felt very secure, it’s independent spirit shining through in every local, who cheerfully ignored the fires and gave us friendly greetings.  Summer 2012 Colorado Robbie

 

There were nice places to eat, and we rafted right through the heart of town on a swift-moving little river.

 

The Odor/Memory Link comes into it, when we moved out of town a bit, to Pagosa Springs, soaking in naturally-heated sulfur water, and easing travel-weary bones that had been lying on rocks for a couple of weeks.

The hot springs felt great.  But smelled bad.  The stench of the springs overwhelmed the smoke, and lingered for weeks — all of my clothes continued to reek of sulfur, even after five washings.

So, it was the lingering, pervasive stink of sulfur that, out of the blue, reminded me of good times and the majestic beauty around the little city in the mountains.

Maybe because of the little luxuries we enjoyed after camping — real food, hotel beds, hot mineral springs — Durango just didn’t feel like Out West to me.  There’s a difference between just being in the boonies, and being on a real frontier.

A horse called Banjo. Best side forward, I always say.

Sure, there was a vibe of independent laid-backness, but no sense of The Frontier.  The town did feel isolated, especially when surrounded by forest fires, and the smoke-filled sky was a bit intimidating, but this wasn’t the real deal, it was sort of “The West Lite.” A good way to feign the Western lifestyle like a dude rancher.  Durango was just a brand of cowboy boots they sell at the mall.

Maybe I expected too much because of the name itself, Durango.  Seems like you can’t get more spur-jingling, tobacco-chaw-stained, John Wayne-ish than Durango, the setting for How the West was Won, and a hundred other cowboy epics.

But maybe it was all the westerns and mock-westerns shot up here, A Ticket to TomahawkButch Cassidy and City Slickers, a bandolier-ed Marlon Brando playing Zapata, etc. that have permanently imbued it with the feeling of a two-dimensional stage set.

64106_621401924552042_1134257278_n

So as it turned out, it was up the other end of the Durango-Silverton railroad that made me feel like an intrepid independent frontiersman, on the edge of the Wild West.

IMG_2264

Taking the historic narrow-gauge railway up to Silverton (built to haul gold and silver ore) was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Riding the smoke-billowing old train through the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen was incredible. The route and the train itself were lovely, a step back to a simpler time, when travel was exciting and unpredictable, sometimes luxurious — through the mountains, higher and higher into the heart of the Rockies. Dense forests of pine and fir flanked both sides, with rocky crags and extensions, deep chasms and narrow tracks made the ride into a thrill. I recall watching the train wrap around a curve in the mountain side, with nothing but thousands of feet of rock below us.

As I craned my neck out, branches from the trees clutching the sides of chasms brushed my face, and almost carried away my big-brimmed, dorky-looking hat.  We’d left the forest fires behind, but hot ash from the locomotive would sometimes blow in your face. I didn’t care.

Robbie - Southwest seminar Durango

The view of mountains was interjected with impossibly blue mountain lakes and little streams.  The most magical, picture postcard image came in the form of a mountain stream, cascading under the raised tracks, from one purplish grey mountain top (still capped with snow in late June), with dense pine woods flickering by, partially blocking the view of the mountains on the other side. I was too enraptured to photograph most of it, and the scenic beauty, the day’s warmth, with a nice temperate breeze (although it actually got cold as we rose higher up into the mountains), and the train’s steady gentle rocking lulled me to sleep without realizing it. I was glad someone shook me awake, so I wouldn’t miss the stunning vistas.

At the top of the line, Silverton was not a Durango stage set. It was small. It wasn’t a hip college town. It was just a ramshackle-looking collection of old houses from the long-ago days of the mining boom, and not many people were still hanging on up there.  The little mining town was essentially unchanged from the 1890’s, flanked by some of the largest mountains I have ever seen.  Came back with just a few snapshots – looking at them, the town doesn’t look very striking, or even picturesque, but maybe that’s the point.  It’s just a ramshackle vestige of the past, real, not a duded-up stage set.

582362_621401891218712_231948113_n

Up here, I found a remnant of the true West. New Mexico may have been the desert experience I was hoping for, but here, this was the West of miners, gunslingers, daredevil railroaders, cowboys. Impossibly beautiful mountains and the small frontier town juxtaposed against it’s backdrop made the West seem alive. For a New York flatlander, from a county whose tallest point is a landfill, I was simply blown away.

960283_655882691103965_463670224_n

 

So that’s why the smell of sulfur makes me happy sometimes.

 

Well, he was slouching, too.

Standard