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The Slave Gardener Who Turned the Pecan Into a Cash Crop

By | December 14, 2017

Pecan trees, armored with scaly, gray bark and waving their green leaves in the breeze, grow in neat, uniform rows upon the Southern U.S. landscape and yield more than 300 million pounds of thumb-sized, plump, brown nuts every year. Native to the United States, they’ve become our most successful home-grown tree nut crop. Hazelnuts originated here too, but they come from a shrub, which can …

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Why We French Canadians Are Neither French nor Canadian

By | December 7, 2017

Whenever my family visits Québec, people other than our relatives are surprised to hear Americans—even our grandchildren, ages five and six—speak fluent French. They’re amazed to learn that French is our mother tongue and that we also speak English without a French accent. Likewise, if we leave our native New Hampshire to travel elsewhere in the United States, we get blank stares upon mentioning that …

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When Burlap Underwear Was Fashionable

By | December 4, 2017

In 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge visited Chicago, the ladies of a Presbyterian church presented him with a set of pajamas made from flour sacks dyed lavender and finished with silk frogs and pearl buttons in appreciation of his program on economy and thrift.
It seems surprising now, but once the use of cloth feed bags for clothing and household items was a part of …

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What Calvin Coolidge Didn’t Understand About Native Americans

By | November 30, 2017

During the summer of 1927, Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States, was formally adopted into the Lakota nation. The ceremonies took place in Deadwood, South Dakota, with the prominent Sicangu Lakota activist and teacher Chauncy Yellow Robe presiding. Yellow Robe’s daughter placed an eagle feather headdress, a potent symbol of Lakota culture, on Coolidge’s head. The tribe also gave Coolidge a Lakota name—Wanblí …

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Why Americans Love Diners

By | November 27, 2017

Driving north on Route 95 through Connecticut, I noticed a billboard advertising a local diner. Its immense letters spelled out: “Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free and Diner Classics.” I knew a seismic shift had occurred when Blue Plate Specials—hands-down favorites for nearly a century such as meat loaf, hot turkey sandwiches, and spaghetti and meatballs—were last on a list of diner offerings.
Over their long history, diners …

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How Norway Taught Me to Balance My Hyphenated-Americanness

By | November 20, 2017

During the year I spent studying at the university in Trondheim, Norway, I sometimes learned more about my own country than Norway. One day, in my immigration studies class, my professor David Mauk, who hailed from Ohio, asked, “What does it mean to be American?”
I braced myself to hear the usual stereotypes from the news from the Norwegian students in my class. Then the …

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Can a Corrupt Politician Become a Good President?

By | November 16, 2017

“Who you are, what you are, it doesn’t change after you occupy the Oval Office,” President Barack Obama said during the 2016 election campaign. “It magnifies who you are. It shines a spotlight on who you are.”
But at least one man was transformed by the presidency: Chester Alan Arthur. Arthur’s redemption is all the more remarkable because it was spurred, at least in part, …

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The Southern Writers Who Defined America

By | November 13, 2017

Tell about the South. What’s it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?
           —Shreve McCannon, to Quentin Compson
Struggling in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to field these questions, flung at him by his Harvard roommate on a snowy evening in 1910, the young Mississippian Quentin Compson plunges into the history of …

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The “Crying Indian” Ad That Fooled the Environmental Movement

By | November 9, 2017

It’s probably the most famous tear in American history: Iron Eyes Cody, an actor in Native American garb, paddles a birch bark canoe on water that seems, at first, tranquil and pristine, but that becomes increasingly polluted along his journey. He pulls his boat ashore and walks toward a bustling freeway. As the lone Indian ponders the polluted landscape, a passenger hurls a paper bag …

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When Variety Theaters Tantalized the Frontier West

By | November 6, 2017

In the spring of 1897, Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review published an exposé of its city’s thriving red light district—known as Howard Street. The newspaper lingered on distasteful scenes in variety theaters with names like the Comique or the Coeur d’Alene: Places where a man could pick up a game of keno, watch a show, and—for the cost of a drink—enjoy the flirtations of “waiter girls” in …