Architectural history: Some biodegradable, some not

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My county, Stokes County (North Carolina), is a county of rolling hills and forest, with a few small and picturesque mountains, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which of course are a part of the Appalachian chain. Stokes was never a prosperous county. There were a couple of big plantations (Hairstons and Daltons), but most people lived by subsistence farming, with tobacco as the cash crop. Though Stokes County now is in the middle of nowhere, during the American colonial days, and into the 19th Century, one of the most important roads in the colonies passed right through here, just over the southeast ridge near the abbey. That was the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania to Georgia, used by armies and by George Washington. When I drive down Dodgetown Road on the way to Whole Foods in Winston-Salem, I am on the Great Wagon Road. Ken’s jogging circuit includes the Great Wagon Road.

The house in the top photo mystifies me. It sits on a hill just above the Dan River, very near the place where the Great Wagon Road crossed the river, two miles from the abbey. It’s too elegant to be a farmhouse. There were few, or no, rich farmers here other than the plantations. My theory is that this house was an inn on the Great Wagon Road. I may be deceiving myself, but I suspect that the house is that old. I’ve sent an email to a friend who is president of the county historical society. I’m guessing that she will know the house’s history.

What’s remarkable is that the house is still lived in. Most of the old wood-built farmhouses were long ago abandoned to rot and have fallen down, along with their beautiful old barns and outbuildings (which I remember from my childhood). But at this old house, there was smoke coming from one of the chimneys this afternoon. There are lace curtains in the upstairs windows. There are horse tracks on the unpaved road in front of the house, and the adjoining pastures are clearly in use. There are no no-trespassing signs, but there is a makeshift drop-down gate made of a hand-hewn log over the driveway. This fascinates me. Someone is still living the old lifestyle. I am determined to find out who they are and what their story is.

On the East Coast of the United States, timber was (and still is) plentiful. There was little reason to build with stone when wood was so much cheaper. The downside of that is that we lose our architectural history so much quicker. Buildings rot away soon after the roofs fail. The old house above has an old, and possibly its original, galvanized steel roof, but the roof looks to be in good shape. I believe galvanized steel was invented in 1836, though I don’t know when it became available in this area.

The stone construction in the lower photo is an iron furnace. It’s at Danbury, about five miles from the abbey, right beside the Dan River. It was in service during the Civil War days, casting munitions. It also produced iron bars and such for the use of blacksmiths. Not a stone has fallen, as far as I can tell. Early Americans knew how to work with stone, but usually they didn’t. Even when they eschewed wood as a building material, they used brick, as at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and in colonial towns such as Williamsburg (Virginia) and Salem (North Carolina). Still, wooden buildings can last a long time if their roofs don’t fail.

People who know some local history ask me how I (my last name is Dalton) am related to the Daltons of the Dalton plantations here. The answer is that I am not descended from those Daltons but that we are all descended from the same line of Virginia Daltons. (It always amuses me to type that, because my mother’s name was Virginia Dalton.)

My eighteen years in San Francisco were great. But I love living in the middle of nowhere, in the woods, as good a place as any in the U.S. that suburbanized modernity has passed by.

The Fate of Rome

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, by Kyle Harper. Princeton University Press, 2017. 418 pages. ★★★★★

This book is an extraordinary piece of scholarship. It’s also a demanding and dense read. Kyle Harper retells the story of Rome, adding new findings that were not available until relatively recently. We owe these new findings to the work of archeologists and to scientists working to understand the history of diseases (especially plagues and pandemics) and the history of earth’s climate.

Earlier histories tried to understand the fall of Rome solely from a political perspective. But Harper shows that plague after plague was an important part of the story. We also know now that the rise of Rome occurred during a “climate optimum” in the Mediterranean. But the optimum didn’t last. Volcanoes are part of the story, too, as well as solar output and Atlantic currents. By the time of the last emperor, a little ice age had set in.

Harper agrees with Bryan Ward-Perkins, whose book I reviewed some years ago, that the fall of Rome was not a rational and smooth “transformation,” an idea that was fashionable with some academics for a while. Rather, as Ward-Perkins argues, the fall of Rome was a catastrophe from which Europe did not recover for centuries. Harper’s book is much longer and more detailed than Ward-Perkins’, and Harper’s account is more about a series of catastrophes and recoveries rather than a final fall. Rome was very resilient, and time and again the empire recovered from plague, famine, and war. But ultimately Rome collapsed, first in the west and then in the east. The only winner was the church, which was able to partly fill the vacuum left by Rome.

In many ways, this book is a companion to the last book I reviewed here, James C. Scott’s Against the Grain. Both books contain details that put a lot of light on how the ancients lived — not just the powerful, but also the little people — slaves, soldiers, traders, bureaucrats, travelers, seamen. The book looks toward Asia, and the importance of Roman trade with India via the Red Sea. And the book looks north and east, to Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns. Some of this detail is so colorful that I long for stories. There is so much history to be mined by novelists and screenwriters. Yet again and again our storytellers write the same old suburban dramas. Why don’t we take a hint from Shakespeare? How many of Shakespeare’s plays were set in Shakespeare’s here and now?

Books like this, I think, are important references to keep on the shelf for years to come. I’m tempted to buy the Kindle edition in addition to the hardback, so that the book would be searchable. If I have a complaint about this book, it’s the quality of the maps. The maps are in black and white. The maps are rudimentary, and they are terrible. Get yourself some good maps of the ancient world before you read this book. In addition to the history, you’ll also learn a lot of geography.

Improvisations on foo yung

Szechuan-style foo yung with yellow squash and store-bought pot stickers.

The chickens are laying so well and I am so rich with eggs that I’ve been eating far too much egg foo yung — and, of course, running experiments. This is a post about Szechuan-style sauce. It’s also a post about MSG.

First, about MSG.

I cannot find any scientific reason for being afraid of MSG. Glutamates occur naturally in many foods, especially the tasty ones such as mushrooms and roquefort. As far as I tell, MSG these days is made through a natural fermentation process. I’ll leave you to read up on all that, though, if you’re interested in the rehabilitation of MSG. As for me, I am increasingly convinced that MSG has its place in a healthy, clean-cooking kitchen.

Last week, while sautéeing onions, I added half a teaspoon of MSG, and within a couple of minutes the onions turned very brown, though the heat was low. (I never cook with high heat unless I’m boiling water.) I Googled and couldn’t find a word about any browning capabilities of MSG. But then I read the Wikipedia article, and, sure enough, MSG will get involved in the Maillard reaction — the browning of food. The Wikipedia article says that this occurs under high heat in the presence of sugar, but I can testify that the heat I use is not high, and that the onions brown — very fast! — under much lower heat, and much quicker, than onions would otherwise brown. Onions work well for this, because there is far more sugar in onions than we might think. Now this easy browning is pure alchemy! Not only are your sautéed vegetables nice and brown, the sautée process also leaves a nice brown glaze in the pan which cries out to be deglazed into a savory sauce.

I have been making a Szechuan-style sauce using harisa paste, a pepper paste that actually is Tunisian in origin. I buy it at Whole Foods. But who cares if we mix our regional cuisines. Pepper paste is pepper paste. As readers here know, I almost never write up recipes, because most of the time I don’t use recipes. But the general idea is: Deglaze the sautée pan by bringing some rice vinegar to a boil. Add honey, soy sauce, a little toasted sesame oil, and pepper paste. Reduce it until it foams. It makes a great sauce for tofu, vegetables, foo yung, or whatever.

The pot stickers, by the way, come from the freezer department at Trader Joe’s. They are sold as Thai Gyoza. But I prefer to call them pot stickers. I have tried to make pot stickers, but I just don’t have the touch, and they come out too big and heavy. The Trader Joe’s pot stickers are vegetarian and very reasonably priced.

Onions, sautéed over medium heat until soft

The same onions, same heat, about three minutes after adding a half teaspoon of MSG

Are we all Buttercup now?


A couple of days ago, I finally got around to watching “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.” It was good psychotherapy for trying to psychologically survive this week’s terrifying Republican train wreck in Washington.

I have been doing my best to avoid political posts. Partly this is because the mainstream media and the reality-based commentariat are now fully aware of what Donald Trump is and just how much danger the Republic is in. There is nothing I can add. But I do want to link to a piece by Dahlia Lithwick in which she writes about a question that I also have been gnawing on — that is, are we so far gone that the rule of law can no longer save us? The piece is at Slate with the headline Is It Too Late for Robert Mueller to Save Us? I also should mention a column by Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine: America Is Trapped in Donald Trump’s Delusional World. Sullivan has a gift for describing the kind of criminal depravity with which we are surrounded.

I’ve also been painfully aware of the fact that sane and decent Americans no longer have a leader. Trump voters have their Hitler, but we have no one. We’re on our own.

All we’ve got to keep us sane and functioning is story and metaphor. “The Hunger Games” is a beautiful story for our times. But the characters of that story, unlike us, had their heroine to pull them through — Katniss.

The scene with Katniss and Buttercup near the end of “Mockingjay Part 2” is one of the most effective film scenes I’ve ever seen. It is the emotional fulcrum around which the entire story finally shifts from horror to relief. In the real world, we’re still waiting on tenterhooks, cringing like Buttercup, clinging to hope that the law will see us through.