This food thing: A sweet and melancholy affair

I have a large appetite. Food is not just nutrition but celebration. And life is too short to eat boring food, just as it’s too short to drink unremarkable wine. So I splurge sometimes. I cook with focus, adventure and a kind of subdued passion. I go for new tastes.

Yet, lately, I tend to eat less. Call it diabetes discipline. That’s optimistic. The numbers are good, though my liver would tend to disagree. Still, if tempted with a whole roasted fish or an oozing burrata with smoked trout roe, I’m all over it, at least for a few bites. Turns out that a heaping plate of crispy beef from a local, old-reliable Chinese restaurant can remain the centerpiece of four leftover lunches. I mean, why stuff yourself?

These thoughts began arising as I read a new collection of the late Jim Harrison’s food-and-life essays. The book’s title, A Really Big Lunch, refers to a spectacularly excessive, 37-course feast (or was it 42?) put on by a French chef and friend of Harrison’s. Even Harrison, whose appetites clearly were larger than mine, felt overwhelmed, almost defeated at one point. Harrison holds nothing back as a writer, and some readers might be turned off by his lecherous confessions and old-school impropriety (the essays reach as far back as the 1970s). But looking past all that, which, in the current sexual-harassment environment, becomes admittedly harder to do, he has wise and entertaining things to say about food and wine. I plan to cherry-pick some of Harrison’s wine writing for a paper I’m planning to give at a Hemingway conference, in Paris, in 2018. And imagine my surprise when I realized recently that in my modest collection of bottles I’ve got a Domaine Tempier Bandol from a few years back, which apparently was Harrison’s favorite wine in the world.

So, food, wine and cooking. From time to time I pay attention to the appetites.

On a fall Saturday, with nothing much else going on, I turned some of the last of our yard tomatoes into a marinara. They were not lovely orbs. They weren’t even deeply red, but they would do for a kitchen improvisation. It took a while in boiling water to loosen their skins, but when that was done I set them aside to cool. Chopped onions and garlic and the last of some baby carrots in the fridge. I was hoping to add tomato paste to the simmering stew, to add some color and heft, but alas I could find none on the shelf. Here’s a suitable substitute: a small jar of prepared tapenade; hmm, red peppers, some kind of cheese, why not? The tapenade turned the marinara a bit orange, but with salt, pepper and dried herbs, it all tasted pretty fine nearly two hours later when I turned off the burner. I put some of the marinara in a bag to freeze, and held out a good portion to eat the next day.

One Sunday, we found some frozen lamb chops in the freezer. I chopped onion and garlic. I opened a red wine (a mass market red Zinfandel) and a jar of vegetable stock I’d made around Thanksgiving. Ta da: braised lamb, with little potatoes and carrots. We ate lamb chops for days.

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As a onetime restaurant critic, my radar remains fairly well tuned when we go out to eat. Yet, I failed myself on a recent trip to Toronto. Though I managed to sample a decent variety of tastes in a couple of days – pub food, tapas at a trendy Sherry bar -- I missed the hugely important world of alluring Asian cuisines that seem to define dining in that capital of cultural diversity. Next time, for sure. A recent trip to Atlanta gave us a sampling of that city’s burgeoning fine-dining scene, though we barely scratched the surface. In Boston this fall, at the Neptune Oyster Bar (pictured), I managed to consume some of the finest oysters on the half shell I’d ever met. In Kansas City, I’ve sampled a couple of promising new restaurants lately and always find pleasure and creativity when returning to old favorites (Novel, the Rieger, the Antler Room, to name just three). And I had one of the best meals of the year when birthday splurging in Corvino’s Tasting Room (details in a previous blog). But I always have to remind myself that some of the other best meals of the year occurred in domestic settings: A humbly generous and bustling family meal around an extended kitchen table at the Zia Pueblo in New Mexico; an intimate and poignant Thanksgiving tribute with family members of a close friend who had died just the week before.

With the holidays in full swing, I expect much feasting ahead, some of it happy, some, so it goes, melancholy. The warmth of the kitchen, the clink of glasses, all that love on our plates – sure, we can’t help but feel grateful for what we have.

Behind the Scenes with the Dylan Papers in Tulsa

I've had a thing for Tulsa the last few years, ever since I wrote about the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center in what has become a vibrant arts district on the edge of downtown. Last year, one of my last columns before I retired from The Kansas City Star, was about the acquisition of the Bob Dylan archives, which are now being processed in Tulsa (here: http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/steve-paul/article65479467.html). This week, while making a Tulsa stop on my book tour, I got a chance to visit with the Dylan archivist, Mark Davidson. He gave me an introductory tour of the archives, showing me examples of their broad scope.

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Scraps of paper with Johnny Cash's phone number and address. A business card for Otis Redding. Manuscript song lyrics in formation. ("Farewell, Angelina" ... ) Letters from the likes of Allen Ginsberg. A sweet note from George Harrison, here in its entirety: "Dear Bobbie, Thanks for Nashville Skyline, it is beautiful. Love to you all..." Photos from the Rolling Thunder tour-- Dylan at Jack Kerouac's grave; Joni Mitchell, enraptured and looking up at Dylan from her front row seat at a concert. (I happen to be reading David Yaffe's new biography of Joni, which, of course, covers the odd vibrations of that tour.) The black leather jacket that Dylan wore during the shocking electric show at the Newport Folk Festival in '65. And, curiously, a large hand drum owned by the late guitarist Bruce Langhorne, which inspired Dylan to write "Mr. Tambourine Man." Rather than the familiar tambourine, this is a shallow drum like an Irish bodhran, but usually identified as Turkish. Its stretched leather has patches of dark wear, like an ancient rubbed object. Mark Davidson flipped it over and showed where a bandaid had been placed over a small split. The drum came from the Langhorne estate. The George Kaiser Family Foundation, which has funded much of the cultural expansion in Tulsa in recent years, added it to the Dylan collection, because, Davidson said, "It was a good fit."

The archives are open only to researchers, and I hope to return some day to work on a project. Work has begun into transforming a building into a Dylan museum just down the block from the Guthrie Center. And keep your ears open for further developments on the musical archives front as Tulsa and its savvy philanthropists build on a very good thing.

Sorry, no photos allowed. But here's an image of the Helmerich Center for American Research, where the Dylan archives are housed, and one of the Zarrow Building, which will become the Dylan museum.

   

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple

My recent book-tour travels took me to Hemingway's hometown of Oak Park, Ill. But Oak Park is also the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and offers sprawling museum of his work -- his home and studio, of course, numerous houses and this church, Wright's first public building (c. 1908). The Unity Temple near downtown Oak Park was closed for two years and reopened in summer 2017 after a detailed and loving restoration. What a glorious space. Contemplative and quiet, focusing and transporting at the same time. The earth tones, the geometrics, the oak trim, the daylight, the tension and interplay between the concrete-cube exterior and the wide-open, comforting interior. My pictures don't exactly do it justice, but I hope they do give you a sense of a walking tour of the place.

From the Archives: On Bill McKibben and The End of Nature

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            Environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben is on a speaking tour, and I’m sorry I’ll miss him when he stops in Kansas City, at UMKC, on Oct. 6. (He’s also in Columbia, MO, today, Oct. 4.) McKibben has been a consistent leader in the literature of alarm. I dug out my piece on his landmark book The End of Nature and was a little surprised to realize how current his arguments remain nearly 30 years later. You can recognize the awareness of the climate change debate that continues today, though without the ugly divisiveness we seem to be stuck with. The language is a little outdated (“global warming”) and McKibben can sometimes be precious (as perhaps was I) and predictably pessimistic to the extreme. But I thought it would be interesting to revisit the state of environmental consciousness-raising from the 1980s. This review of The End of Nature first appeared in The Kansas City Star on Oct. 15, 1989.

 

The end of nature that Bill McKibben addresses in his vitally important and terribly depressing new book is not so much the end of the world, but the end of the human idea of nature as being something bigger than we are – eternal, separate, permanent and immutable.

            That perception has come to an end, the end of nature has arrived, McKibben argues in a startling and deeply moving essay, because we have proved as a species that we have the God-like power to alter the Earth on a global scale.

            Of course, being both important and depressing will argue against its being widely read, but The End of Nature may be the one essential book published this year.

            Even as brooding as it is, the book, as an urgent call to action and a manifesto for humility, should wind up standing shoulder to shoulder with such mind-altering predecessors in natural history and philosophy as Thoreau’s Walden and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

            McKibben writes for The New Yoerker, where a long excerpt of the book appeared last month. He is not a scientist, but he makes the science and the scientific uncertainty that underpin his thesis meaningful and accessible.

            We have changed the planet – and there’s no turning back, he will make you believe – in our greed and gluttony for more and better. Our utter reliance on fossil fuels and other human endeavors have caused a buildup of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere that is inexorably warming the planet. It has done so in a mere 100 years, an iota on the scale of biological or even human time.

            Even if we completely change our habits now, McKibben writes – and what is the likelihood of that? – enough damage has been done and will become evident in the decades to come.

            Scientists may, and do vigorously debate whether global warming actually has begun but few doubt the soundness of the theory or the possibility of a grim chain reaction of corollary events that may change the way much of the Earth’s population lives – as sea levels rise, as temperatures stay high, as hurricanes become more forceful. One theory has Dallas experiencing half the year at 90 degrees or higher.

            And then, let’s talk about the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere. Or acid rain. Or other forms of global-scale pollution.

            “In our minds,” McKibben writes, “nature suffers from a terrible case of acne, or even skin cancer – but our faith in its essential strength remains, for the damage always seems local. But now the basis of that faith is lost. The idea of nature will not survive the new global pollution … By changing the weather, we make every spot on Earth man-made and artificial.”

            We can never again see nature as it was, he writes; we are doomed to accept the fact that all of it has our stamp, that nature, in the form of climate and weather and all the biological interactions dependent upon them, does not act independent of us anymore. Even if it cannot be proved that the drought of 1988 was a manifestation of global warming, it also cannot be proved that it wasn’t, and just the thought that we may have brought it about is unsettling. Was that rain? The question will go. Or was it something we did?

            McKibben considers the various cures for global warming – nuclear power, planting trees, an umbrella in space – and finds each of them wanting or bringing along their own problems. Plant trees, the environmental president tells us; trouble is, to absorb an adequate level of carbond dioxide we would need to plant an area the size of Europe and by shifting from open field to tree cover we would change the albedo, or the light-reflecting characteristic of the surface, and very likely increase the level of heat absorption.

            Such riddles and “feedback loops” face us at every turn, it seems.

            McKibben attacks the problems not only from a scientific perspective, but also culturally, philosophically, geopolitically and even theologically: Those who look for God in nature, he suggests, now can find only themselves.

            We take nature for granted, but our whole relationship with it has changed.

            “One reason we pay so little close attention the separate natural world around us,” he writes, “is that it has always been there and we presumed it always would. As it disappears, its primal importance will be clearer – in the same way that some people think they have put their parents our of their lives and learn differently only when the day comes to bury them.”

            If The End of Nature is relentlessly pessimistic, so be it. McKibben offeres a moral antidote to the feel-good, New Age notion of macromanaging the planet, of the technological panaceas – for and profit for all! – made possible in the coming era of genetic engineering.

            One (not I) might criticize McKibben for a “tree-hugging,” sentimental attachment to wildness and the mystery of nature – get with the program, Bill! – but one can’t help sharing his profound sense of loss.

            There is a danger that a reader may come away from The End of Nature feeling the same kind of existential despair experienced by the young Woody Allen character in “Annie Hall,” the one who tells the psychiatrist he has stopped eating because he just learned that the universe was expanding. What’s the point of going on? the boy concludes. Those susceptible to melancholic reflection are forewarned.

            But there is, perhaps a far greater danger in not facing up to the scenario McKibben has devised, to the questions about ourselves he has raised, and in the complacency we so easily embrace. It is time now to pay attention and to do something. The End of Nature is a kick in the head. And it comes none too soon. Read it and weep.

Rage and outrage: The neo-Nazi scourge has a long arc

Like everyone else with an ounce of decency, I’ve been disgusted and disturbed by what we witnessed in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. But it’s important to keep in mind that the fatal rally of torch-carrying weasels is only the latest and largest eruption by white nationalist, neo-Nazi, klanimals. The current environment seems to have given them permission to crawl out of their ratholes. They’ve been emboldened by a sense that their time has arrived, given the presence of like-minded dark philosophers in the upper reaches of the Executive Branch (looking at you, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Michael Anton, among the puppet-masters in the White House).

The death of Heather Heyer at the hands of a car-wielding simpleton does not stand alone. Add her to the roll of victims of white-supremacist extremists (“domestic terrorists,” if you will). They include two Garmin engineers in Olathe, Kan., Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was fatally shot, and Alok Madasani, who was injured, as was a heroic witness, Ian Grillot. They include Reat Underwood, William Corporon and Terry LaManno, gunned down three years ago by a corroded neo-Nazi outside two Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kan. They include two men stabbed to death last May -- Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche --by an anti-Muslim ranter on a train in Portland, Ore. The list, of course, goes on. And lately the alarm grows only louder. As Heather Heyer posted on her Facebook page, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

I’ve had occasion a couple of times recently to dredge up a piece of ancient, though relevant history. I’ve never written directly about my own personal encounter with neo-Nazis, partly because my memoir muscles are not well developed. But, indeed, it was 39 years ago this month, when my path collided with a swastika-wearing dolt. (As I’ve put it from time to time, I’m the only journalist I know who has been arrested in a newsroom for disturbing the peace of a Nazi. I was much younger and tempestuous then.) Many former Star staffers paid tribute just recently to the late Tom Eblen, who, as managing editor at the time, played a supporting role in the brief newsroom fracas I set off. (“Consider this the obligatory wrist-slap,” he told me at the time -- or something much like that-- with his patented smirk.)

The other memory trigger occurred last November. On the day we learned of the death of longtime Star columnist Charles Gusewelle, my friends at KCUR asked me to write something for the station’s website. I’m reposting it here, because it includes Gusewelle’s take on my moment of resistance. There’s more to the story, of course, and some day I’ll get around to writing it. But for now:

This piece first appeared Nov. 16, 2016, at kcur.org.

My last encounter with Charles Gusewelle was early in 2015. He was trying to reach me by phone and I was on a weekend getaway to Key West. But I found his mysterious message — we weren’t fast friends, and I had no idea why he was calling — and returned the call. Of course, he was on deadline — this was a Saturday afternoon when I reached him. And the Sunday column he’d drafted was about me. Really?

I found that column this morning after learning that Gus had died, at 83, early Tuesday.

He had worked for The Kansas City Star since 1955 — more than 60 years. He built a career of reporting, commentary and global witness that should be the envy of any aspiring journalist. For the last 35 years or so he spoke directly and personally to readers as a columnist. His voice was gentle, soothing, compassionate. Many readers adored him for his love of animals and the outdoor life. Others were rewarded by his astute and timely reporting on his travels to Paris, Senegal and the vast territory of the Lena River in Siberia.

In the years that I knew him, he wasn’t so much a newsroom presence — he officed behind high walls or more often at home -- as he was a prolific and elegant writer who set a certain standard. His work defined the atmosphere of The Star. He was exacting in his prose, and woe to the copy editor who thought he or she might know more than he did about the aim of his words or the effect of his punctuation. 

Gus had something of Hemingway in him — the travels to Paris and beyond, the hunting and fishing life, the deep concern for global injustice. It is my great regret that I did not have a chance to share with him the Hemingway biography that I’ve had in the works.

We all knew he’d been ailing for quite a while. He stopped writing his regularly weekly column last June. In a farewell column, he reflected the uncommon bond such a writer develops with those on the other end of his words: “This friendship with you, my readers — born out of decades of sharing my loves, losses and adventures — has been an immeasurable gift. This type of friendship is rare.”  

Gus developed that column involving me in response to the horrendous massacre of the Charlie Hebdo satirists in his beloved Paris. He was moved to recall more civil encounters in his newsroom career, but then there was this:

“It was midafternoon in the newsroom of The Star. An editor had just returned from the coffee bar with a steaming mug of fresh java and sat to resume working at his desk when from the elevator and through the newsroom door came two men, their boots thumping on the uncarpeted floor.

“The larger of the two wore a brown shirt and an armband that flaunted the emblem of Hitler’s legions — a swastika in scarlet, black and white.” 

Gusewelle did not use my name, but he described some of what followed on that summer day in 1978. It “was not a considered act,” he wrote. “It was simply an immediate reaction to those men and that hateful insignia.” 

Yes, I doused that damned Nazi with a cup of hot coffee.

“Nazis do not take affronts lightly,” Gusewelle wrote. “Herr What’s-his-name got interviewed after all. He also called the police, and the editor — cited for disturbing the peace — paid a $25 fine.

“Rather preposterous, I’d say, considering the amount of peace disturbance done by Nazis in their time.”

 Gusewelle was not immune to hyperbole, given his conclusion: “I recall the event as one of the fine moments in American journalism.” He tempered that, however, with another lament for what we have lost over the years: “But this is a different day, and today our entryways are guarded and secured.”

 I remain grateful for Gusewelle’s words, and for what he gave all of us. He saw stories all around him and he knew how to tell them.

A memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va. (CNN)

A memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va. (CNN)

Discovering Hemingway's Legacy at 1729 Grand

I wrote this piece originally for an Associated Press blog published daily by former Kansas City bureau chief Paul Stevens, he of the near mirror-image name.

 

In my earliest days at The Kansas City Star, the AP officed on the third floor in the temple of journalism that William Rockhill Nelson built, and Ernest Hemingway's ghost was hardly around.

Hemingway had been dead for a decade, and, to me, he was just someone whose work I'd read in school. I don't recall any substantial discussions about him in the building, nor was I impressed that his name appeared in bronze on a plaque that listed Star staffers who served in the first world war. It would be years before I began to appreciate not only his place in American literature but also his legacy as a cub reporter in the very newsroom where I spent more than 40 years as a writer and editor.

A WWI service plaque in the historic Kansas City Star building keeps the Hemingway link alive. I'll be curious to know where the plaque will go when a new owner takes over the building.. 

A WWI service plaque in the historic Kansas City Star building keeps the Hemingway link alive. I'll be curious to know where the plaque will go when a new owner takes over the building.. 

By 1999, the centennial year of Hemingway's birth, I had leapt into his world with abandon as I prepared a special-section tribute for The Star, "Hemingway at 100." I read deep into Hemingway's work, met many literary scholars at conferences, and began researching his life and work, especially his Kansas City period of 1917-18.

 It seemed like such a folly, expecting to find morsels that hadn't already turned up in the many Hemingway biographies and scholarly works published even then. But I trudged on periodically, examining Hemingway's papers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and elsewhere, inching through The Star on microfilm, and traveling to places that shaped the outsized talent, who possessed an indelible sense for the art of the word along with a knack for bombast and bad behavior.

When I chose to retire from the newspaper in March 2016, it was full-steam ahead on the biography that I'd been scratching at for too many years. A couple of months into the new round of work, an important insight emerged. For all those years I thought I'd been working on "Hemingway in Kansas City." But who would care about that? I finally realized. The morning that I reshaped my project as "Hemingway at Eighteen" turned out to be critical. Long story short, I refashioned a formal proposal that I'd been floating and within two weeks sold the book to an editor at the Chicago Review Press. The expanded time frame allowed me to take Hemingway from Kansas City to the ambulance service in Italy, where, two weeks before his 19th birthday, he suffered a near-death wounding on the war front along the Piave River.

Those two peak, teen-age experiences now form the bulk of my book.

At a conference last spring, I learned that slice-of-life biographies had taken the publishing world by storm. Sure, full-life biographies remain the ultimate standard for many authors and readers. But the kind of closely focused books expertly cast and popularized by my friend Candice Millard (on Teddy Roosevelt, President John Garfield and Winston Churchill) have blossomed. Ever since, I've been saying that of the dozen or more Hemingway books appearing in 2017 alone, mine, I'm sure, is the sliciest.

The book, subtitled The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend, begins with the recent high school graduate unsure of what to do with his life as he worked his family's vacation farm fields in Michigan and fished for trout. College was out of the question for a while, and Kansas City became the default when Hemingway ultimately determined the Chicago newspapers weren't hiring but an uncle could get him a job at The Star. Kansas City's lively, gritty and sometimes mean streets, along with the newspaper's colorfully intense daily grind, served as something like a college education for Hemingway. The book details some of his more notable pieces for the paper, presents some little-known background about The Star and the city, and delivers some previously unheard contemporary voices about Hemingway, the budding writer. For the world of journalism, it also raises new questions prompted by a surprising piece of history I was finally able to confirm after many years of trying - the time that Hemingway was called to testify before a federal grand jury.

Hemingway at Eighteen comes out in October, 100 years after Hemingway's arrival in Kansas City. And 100 years after the very beginning of his self-invented life as a writer.

Billy Bragg on the American roots of British music

It was great to hear Billy Bragg on Fresh Air this week. Some of us in Kansas City were lucky to hear much of this story earlier this year when he spent a few days at the Folk Alliance International conference. In one appearance he talked about the pivot point in the mid-1950s when a skiffle player named Lonnie Donergan began covering Lead Belly's "Rock Island Line." Without that, Bragg said, there'd be no Beatles, no Led Zeppelin, etc. Bragg elaborates on all this in a new book, which he told me about back then at a reception. I was excited to hear about it, and now that the book, Roots, Radicals, and Rockers, has just been published, I hope to get to it soon.

Here's a link to that the Fresh Air interview: http://www.npr.org/2017/07/19/538079082/billy-bragg-on-skiffle-the-movement-that-brought-guitar-to-british-radio

And here's a video I shot at Folk Aliiance of Bragg playing one of his better known tunes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCnGcsS3BU4

What's that wine in your glass?

Doug Frost is a bona fide treasure in the wine world. As a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier -- that's an extremely rare combination of achievements -- he's got highly developed senses and a brilliant way of teaching the intricacies and boosting the pleasures of this life-affirming liquid. On Monday he joined the Gang of Pour group of Kansas City somms and restaurateurs (and somewhat educated observer-participants such as me) for a session on blind tasting. In blind tastings, of course, wine bottles remain in brown paper bags or otherwise hidden and tasters try to figure out what's in the glass. It ain't easy, but Doug has a way of making it logical and breaking it down to the elements that help you learn your way.

The Gang of Pour sessions now meet every two weeks at the lovely Ca Va bubbles spot in Westport and are open to KC bar professionals. This one was illuminating, exhilarating and rather difficult. Future sessions, led by a variety of wine pros, promise to be equally enjoyable.

Doug follows a consistent procedure, tied to the grid sheets used in sommelier certification exams. So we go through a fairly specific list of wine characteristics (color, hue, intensity, aromas, tastes, structural qualities) in order to get to a logical place in identifying each wine. Describe the floral and vegetal notes. Is this a warm climate wine or a cool climate wine? And why? How do you describe the levels of acid, tannin, and alcohol -- low, moderate, moderate-plus or high?

Doug spent a good part of the first hour of the session walking through each incremental step as it applied to a certain white wine. Then my classmates (about 20 of us) and I blasted through five more wines -- a second white and four reds -- having about four minutes each to make our IDs. For the record, I was mostly humbled, though I felt fairly good about some of my sensory responses, especially in analyzing structure. In the end, I did nail two of the six wines: an Australian Shiraz and a New World Pinot Noir (it was from New Zealand, but I couldn't get past New World, though probably would have landed on Oregon instead).

I've been learning from Doug for more than 20 years. He is not only incredibly on top of everything, he's got a great sense of humor, he's brutally frank, and he's totally committed to making wine drinking both fun and rewarding.

And now a word from POTUS 2

 

On a recent visit to the Massachusetts Historical Society, an archivist brought out numerous items for inspection. One highlight was this letter from President John Adams to his wife, Abigail, in 1800, after a few days of living in the White House. Many people know its famous contents, because an excerpt has long appeared on the White House dining room mantel. It goes like this: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men rule under this roof.” If only he knew. — in Boston, Massachusetts.