Monday, December 30, 2013

Enjoying Television Series with Some History

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.
I love history, and I love to watch television shows that deal with history.  It seems that great series come in waves; we have had some great shows from the 70s, British comedies from the 80s, and what seems to be the HBO Golden Age.  PBS Masterpiece Theatre has been a constant presence for great shows with an historical slant for decades.  Perhaps, my bias shows, but many of my favorites are British in origin and aren’t necessarily the most historically accurate. 

Upstairs, Downstairs & Downton Abbey

These are two different British series that are part of PBS Masterpiece Theater but have a great deal in common.  Both showcase British life and class system at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Both series have a soap opera quality but real life events and attitudes of the time are incorporated into the show.  Plus, both are really well acted and written.

The Black Adder

Okay, this isn’t exactly historically accurate and you must be a fan of British humor to really appreciate it.  The Black Adder is a series set over different time periods for each season.  The first season is about setting the record straight about Richard III, the second season is set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the third season is set during the Regency, and the fourth season is set during World War I.  Watch it for the great humor rather than pure history.  However, I dare say you will still learn some history.


This is a great British series that came to America thanks to HBO.  It was the beginning of what would become a long string of wonderful historical dramas to air on pay-cable.  As the name suggests, action takes place during the turbulent transition from Roman republic to autocratic empire.  The series was very well done and introduced a new generation to Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus.   

Other Must See Series

The Tudors—British drama about King Henry VIII. You get to see a young Henry and all his wives are showcased.

The Borgias—British drama following the Borgia family as they rise to power in the Roman Catholic church.

The White Queen—British series set in the time of the War of the Roses. 

Deadwood--Set in the late 1800s in the town of Deadwood, South Dakota. 

DaVinci's Demons--The "untold" story of Leonard Da Vinci in Renaissance Florence.  

Reign—CW series on Mary, Queen of Scots.

So, what are your favorite series that have a history theme?   

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Resolve to Put More History in Your New Year

Love History? Feel like you are missing out. Want to introduce your family and friends to things you love? Try these suggestions below to put more history in your year.

·         Visit a historic site, state park, or a National Park. Many of these locals have low or no admission cost and feature programs for the entire family. Ask about a Junior Ranger program for kids to participate in. Look here to find a National Park:

Grand Teton National Park
·         Visit a museum. Any museum. Museums are great places to immerse yourself in history. Further many museums host events and programs throughout the year to engage people of all ages. If you are a Bank of America or Merrill Lynch
      debit or credit card holder, check here to learn what museums you can visit for free the first weekend of each month.
Sutter's Fort State Historic Park
·         Read a good book. Consult the reviews on our site or use What Should I Read Next?  to find a book based on ones you have enjoyed in the past.

·         Volunteer. Find out how you can support local history.  Look here for opportunities to enjoy history and share it with others.

Ft. King George State Park
·         Attend a reenactment. See history live. Check here to find a reenactment near you.

·         Play a Game. Check out our history game of the week recommendations.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

New Year’s Food Traditions

By Jeff Burns

Just as with Christmas,  New Year’s  Day is celebrated with traditional foods brought by the immigrants who settled America.   While there are many varied traditions, they all center around eating foods designed to bring good fortune in the coming year, and there are three commonly recurring themes:  some kind of greens (symbolizing both wealth and longevity), some food to represent gold or coins (money), and pork.

Why these foods?  Of course, a major reason is the time of year.  Green leafy vegetables like collards, turnips, and cabbage are in season.  Beans and peas, dried after summer harvest, are readily available.  Farm families regularly marked the beginning of winter as “hog-killing” season.  Also, pigs are associated with plumpness and getting plenty to eat.  Some traditions hold that pigs symbolize good fortune because they are constantly rooting forward, in new directions, in contrast to fowl’s habit of scratching backwards.

Across the South, people celebrate with collard greens, turnips, mustard, or cabbage.   These days, maybe even a little kale will sneak in.  To symbolize money, southerners eat some kind of pea, usually black-eyed or field peas.  Hopping John, a dish combining peas and rice and cooked with hog jowls or salt pork, has been around at least since the early 19th century.  Its origins are unclear, but it was probably brought from Africa or the Caribbean; the name may be a corruption of “pois a pigeon”, French for pigeon peas, common in the Caribbean.  Hopping John was a staple among plantation slaves, especially in coastal South  Carolina.  Cornbread’s golden color also represents fortune.

German settlers brought their love of pork to Pennsylvania and the Appalachians.  They also brought sauerkraut, which is the traditional New Year’s green in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England.

Fish is the protein of choice for some.  In the Pacific Northwest, salmon may be on the menu.  Some northern Europeans prefer herring or carp.  Chinese families often celebrated with a whole fish, symbolizing abundance in the coming year and long noodles, representing long life.

Whatever your tradition, enjoy!

Here are a couple of links:

Monday, December 23, 2013

Southern Christmas Dessert Traditions

By Jeff Burns

I’m a bit of a foodie, but aren’t we all these days?  One thing I’ve noticed lately is that southern cooking is in these days, on the cooking shows, in cookbooks, and in restaurants.  For me, it’s just always been home cooking.  My mother learned from her mother, grandmother, and aunts, and she was never happier than when she was cooking for a houseful of people.  I grew up with and absorbed some of that sense of tradition.

In the South, there are certain food traditions associated with the holidays that are still strong today.  However, there are still regional differences within the South.  I thought I’d explore some of the origins of a few things in my holiday memory.

Desserts are big in the South during the holidays, maybe the decadence was ok for the holidays.  As a child in the 1930s and 1940s, my mother was happy to get exotic fruits and nuts like oranges and brazil nuts in her stocking, so I’m sure treats like fruitcake, divinity, and red velvet cake were over the top.

Fruitcakes  Don’t just jump on the “I hate fruitcake” bandwagon until you actually try it.  What can be bad about a cake made with fruits and nuts and often soaked in spirits?  I make a great one.  Fruitcakes date back to ancient Rome and then spread throughout Europe.  The English made it into an art form, and English colonists brought it to America.  The dense cake made use of preserved fruits and nuts, filling, delicious, and has long shelf life.  Many cultures around the world have their own version.  Some are soaked in brandy, whiskey, rum or other spirits for added flavor.

Divinity   Divinity is a meringue or nougat like confectionary that consists mostly of egg whites, corn syrup, and sugar.  It originated sometime between 1900 and 1915.  At that time, corn syrup was just hitting the market, and it’s thought that some corn syrup manufacturers may have introduced the recipe.  The origin of the name is a little fuzzy, except that someone once proclaimed it to be divine.  For years, it was called “southern candy”, possibly because of the addition of pecans.

Red Velvet Cake  Red Velvet Cake is widely considered to be a southern dessert, but some stories trace its origin to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  It probably dates back to the 1920s or 1930s during the Great Depression when the Adams Extract Company of Texas started marketing its red food coloring across the country, using advertising innovations like perforated recipe cards.  The distinctive red color is actually the result of the interaction of vinegar, buttermilk, and cocoa.  Apparently the red color was more pronounced before more alkaline “Dutch processed” cocoa was widely available.  Recipes began calling for red food coloring to compensate.  During the days of World War II shortages and rationing, beet juice was often used.

There are lots of recipes out there; find one you like and enjoy.  Enjoy your own holiday food traditions and maybe add a few more to your repertoire. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Put History in your Holiday! Catch a Movie!

Want to put a little history in your holiday? Try a movie with historical ties. It is a great way to relax or share your passion for history with a loved one.             

Here are some options on DVD from 2013.                                     

·         Parkland (2013) is a movie about the events leading up to the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. See a different perspective on this tragedy from 50 years ago.                 

·         A Hijacking (2013) will introduce you to challenges of Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean with the MV Rozen.  An international film with limited release in the United States, this film will engage you with real geopolitical drama       

·         Jobs (2013) is the biography of the Apple Innovator Steve Jobs. Sit back and enjoy a trip into the mind of the man who revolutionized the way we interact with technology.              

·         White House Down (2013) is a traditional action adventure film. Yet it has a strong political commentary and enough great interior shots of the White House to appeal to the history buff.             

Here are a few options for you to consider in the movie theater in December 2013.                              

·         Twelve Years a Slave (2013) is based on the story Solomon Northup a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery before the Civil War. Plunge into Antebellum America and experience the period through the eyes of an individual.

·         Saving Mr. Banks (2013) is the story of how Disney’s “Mary Poppins" movie was made. Take a peek into Disney movie history.

·         Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) is the story of the life of Nelson Mandela. This movie is loosely based on his autobiography and provides the viewer with the opportunity a look into the life of a revolutionary leader.                

·         Lone Survivor (2013) is a movie about the war on terror. This move is based on the June 28, 2005 mission "Operation Red Wings". You can get a new view into modern warfare with this film.            

·          The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is a biography of the life of Jordan Belfort. You can learn about his rise as a wealthy stockbroker and his fall. Could you make it on Wall Street?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Simpler Time, a Simpler Christmas

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

Tis the time of year when everyone is out and about trying to get the perfect gift for Christmas.  So, while the masses are scurrying around in hopes of getting the newest, latest “it” gift, I am left to reflect on a simpler time when Christmas was more intimate and homemade.  It is also at this time of year that I reflect on why I still hold dear certain gifts—many homemade and all of great sentimental value.  Perhaps it is the history soul in me, but I enjoy receiving and giving gifts that remind me of a simpler time and a simpler Christmas.  To me, it really is the thought that counts. 

A Ceramic Tree

As a child my parents owned a ceramic shop.  Ceramics seemed to be all the rage in the 70s and one year my Grammy made a ceramic Christmas tree.  Looking at the tree makes me think of her and the few Christmas’s she was with us.  I was fortunate enough that my mother gave me Grammy’s tree to help celebrate my first Christmas in my own house.  Twenty years later it is still one of my most cherished possessions.  Like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, it is a good little tree full of good and loving memories.

An Afghan

Again, my Grammy would crochet all the time.  We always knew we would get something she had handmade—it was just a matter of what exactly it would be.  One Christmas, Grammy made everyone in the family afghans.  Forty years later all of us still have the afghans.  When my students wonder what great gadget they will be getting, I often wonder will that toy be as cherished 40 years later as my Grammy’s afghan is.

An Ornament           

In kindergarten, I made a Santa Clause ornament out of dough.  I remember the steps to creating it—rolling the dough, cutting it out with a cookie cutter, baking it and then finally decorating it.  It was that school created ornament—a time honored tradition that all students get to do and give to their parents.  My Santa ornament hung on our family tree throughout my childhood.  Just like my Grammy’s tree, my ornament was passed back to me for my first Christmas in my own home.  Today, Santa is fragile and sits year round in a curio cabinet.  I don’t dare hang it on a tree, but each time I look at it I am five years old again waiting for Santa to visit.

A Wreath
Another cherished item is not something that has been in my possession for years, indeed this is only my second Christmas possessing it.  Ted Key, a dear friend of my family was a crafty guy—he made baskets and wreaths.  He was even known to dress up as Father Christmas during the Holidays and share traditional stories with kids.  Last Christmas, our first since his passing, his wife gave me one of the Christmas Wreaths he had made.  Just like I cherish my Grammy’s tree, I love having Mr. Key’s wreath hang on my front door.  The wreath greets all who enter my home during the holidays and reminds me of why it will be cherished for years to come.
So, these are some of my most cherished and sentimental Christmas gifts.  What are yours?