Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Chuckwagon: Baked Potatoes

I know, I know, I know.

Who needs a recipe for a baked potato, right? Don't they serve those at Wendy's?

Well, I think there is a need. The perfect baked potato can be quite elusive, simple yet just out or reach.

I think of baked potatoes like I think about fries: so much potential, but so often overlooked.

Why care so much about potatoes? Is it because I (for better or worse) am of Irish extraction? Perhaps, but people the world over enjoy potatoes because they are cheap, filling and full of all the good stuff that we need. Why do you think that they became such a staple in the diets of people the world over?

Anyway, I have tinkered with a few methods for making baked potatoes, and this is my favorite:

  • 2-4 medium to large Russet baking potatoes
  • Oil (olive, vegetable, canola, peanut, corn...anything but motor)
  • Salt (Kosher if you have it, table if you don't/don't care)


  • Wash potatoes in cold water with a stiff bristled brush. Scrub them good, but don't strip the skins.
  • Take a fork and stab each potato deeply (really give those suckers a good jab) eight to twelve times, depending on the size of the spud. This helps steam to escape while cooking.
  • Dry the potatoes off
  • Coat each lightly in oil. The best way (but not the least messy) is to put some oil in your hand and rub them all over.
  • When each is oiled, place on an ungreased baking sheet
  • Salt the potatoes lightly
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 1-1.5 hours (for two potatoes, 1 hour 15 minutes seems about perfect - alter with oven and number of potatoes.
  • When done, they should be crispy on the outside, yet squeeze easily and be soft inside.
  • To open, take a fork and stab a dotted line across half of the potato's top. Squeeze at both ends and it should pop open.

At this point, the world is your oyster. You have a perfectly baked potato with a crispy, delicious skin and a smooth, creamy interior.

Top with, well, basically anything. Sour cream, chives, butter, salt, pepper, HP sauce, chili, tuna, baked beans, ketchup, mayonnaise...basically anything edible will taste good on top of this perfectly baked potato.

Oh, and if anyone asks you, you can tell them (not exactly a lie) it is the method of an Irish cook who tried hundreds of ways before getting it just perfect.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Will Is a Twit(ter)

More substantial posting later (think baked potatoes and the Scottish Enlightenment).

I did want to mention here (if you didn't notice the box to the right under "Breaking News") that I have joined the world of Twitter.

Boy, I have gone from Luddite to aspiring social media whore in a comparatively short amount of time.

Anyway, to follow me on Twitter, just click my username to the right in the box thingy and go from there.

If you want the URL, it is here.

So, if my long boring musings here are not enough, maybe my short boring updates can fill the gaps.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Link Exchange

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Television, History, Memory

It is always funny what can trigger memories to come rushing back.

For me, one recent incidence was looking for an old, local commercial from Chicago television.

I found it, and saw that the clip seemed to be part of a much larger project. Indeed, it was.

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television is a completely online museum dedicated to preserving television clips from the Chicago area. I think just the premise is great. It is everything that a museum should be: interactive, well-organized and completely open to anyone.

In looking through their "exhibits," I was surprised at the wide array of television clips that they had. It was not just commercials (although this is a large part of what is there). They had newscasts, sports clips and everything else that makes up what a television station does.

As I paged through the clips of ads for Schmerler Ford, Polk Brothers and Linn Burton "For Certain," newscasts with Fahey Flynn, Walter Jacobsen and Joel Daly and all of the WTTW clips for Wild Chicago, Image Union, Doctor Who promos and Marty Robinson, something happened.

A lost world started to remake itself in my mind.

Instantly, I was a kid again, sitting there on Saturday morning, waiting for cartoons to come back on as that guy in the Victory Auto Wreckers commercial pulls the door off the car again. I was also there, in the kitchen with my mom after school, her making dinner, me talking about school, Joel Daly reading the news. I was there, too, on a Saturday night, waiting impatiently for Marty Robinson to announce this week's Doctor Who adventure.

It was a real nostalgia trip. Then, when I came back from that lost world, the academic began to think about what just happened.

Is this what defines my past? Is it disjointed clips of local media and ads for products that can trigger personal memories? Isn't this a bit crass? Shouldn't it be something more profound? Am I just proof that we are an over-commercialized society that watches too much television?

Before I reached peace with this, the historian in my mind reminded that these are artifacts of a lost age of broadcasting, before cable was ubiquitous, when the local affiliate station held a lot more sway in any given media market. I thanked him for the insight, but was still troubled a bit.

Then it hit me. It is not these flashes of Chicago's media past themselves that form my past. They merely serve as triggers.

They are not the lost world. My memories are.

These glimpses into the televised past of my hometown were merely the background noise to everything else that was going on, part of the soundtrack to what really was meaningful - growing up, sharing bonds with family, becoming who I am today.

I thought, furthermore, what does it matter if it was these things going on in the background and not the music of Brahams or Mozart, not the poetry of Keats or Tennyson? Those artifacts of "high culture" are as much a part of my memories as the "low culture" of Celozzi-Ettelson Chevrolet or Carson's Ribs.

To put it another way, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is as much a part of my mental landscape and past as, " York and Roosevelt Roads, where you always save more money!"

Does this make me a philistine who has flashes of "real" culture peppered in among the trash? Well, I think the high/low divide in culture is a false divide and has not really been meaningful for almost 200 years. So, no.

Does it bother me that my memories and personal past are made of such disparate elements? Not at all. It what helps make me (and everyone else) the unique and fascinating people that they are.

The whole is, as ever, more than the sum of its parts. So it is with me, I imagine.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Henry Kissinger was Right (About WWII, Anyway)

I know, I know.

Dr. K is not only one the most important diplomats in American history, he is also an incredibly divisive figure. Opinions of him range from praise for beginning the end of the Cold War to wanting him convicted as a war criminal.

As a historian, though, many of his assessments were well-considered and show a deep understanding of motivation and geopolitics in the past.

I may talk about his ideas about the Congress of Vienna at a later date, but in preparing my lecture for the end of World War II and the coming of the Cold War, I re-read part of his 1994 book Diplomacy. There is much to recommend his reading of the situation immediately after the Second World War, especially from the standpoint of the three Allied leaders (Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin).

First, I think he reads the diplomatic geneaology of FDR exactly right. He argues that FDR's vision of the world after WWII emerged from American exceptionalism, Wilsonian idealism and a unique understanding of the American psyche.

Great, what the hell does all that mean? Well, American exceptionalism is the idea that America is unique and has a singular role to play on the world stage. The US is special and has a special destiny because of its history and its ideas.

This is complimented by Wilsonian idealism, the vision of world politics that came from former President Woodrow Wilson at the close of the First World War. Wilson believed in the spread of democracy and national self-determination and that America had the central role to play in this.

Lastly, FDR understood the American proclivity to think in terms of universal ideas rather than the calculus of reward and punishment that seemed to govern diplomacy in years gone by.

I think this is right because it explains his actions in the waning months of the war. He believed Churchill and Britain could hold off the USSR while helping to rebuild Europe without American assistance. This belief is, knowing that Britain was economically destroyed and politically vulnerable, only explained by a deep ideological commitment to a certain vision of the world.

This was also helped by the fact that while FDR often distrusted Churchill's motives (especially where the British Empire was concerned), he believed Churchill's rhetoric that Britain was up to the task. This, incidentally, says as much about Churchill as it does about FDR.

Secondly, I think Kissinger was right in his assessment of Stalin as a blend of communist ideology and traditional Russian notions of statecraft. Stalin, according to Kissinger, distrusted fascism as much as he did capitalism. He hoped to use his alliances with Nazi Germany and then with the US and Great Britain to further territorial aims that could have come out of the old Russian imperial playbook.

Russia, for hundreds of years, has been concerned with gaining buffer territory along its vast borders. This, coupled with the centuries-old notion that Russia has to constantly allay its own feelings of inferiority, explains Stalin's policies during and after the war.

I think this is right, although I have a different take on the ideology bit and how it relates. While Stalin pursued communist policies at home, he had realized at least since the 1920's that the USSR must consolidate its position against possible rivals. This was a central factor in the disagreement between Stalin and Leon Trotsky.

So, in a way, I believe that Stalin saw communism and the Soviet system as means to an end, a way of establishing total control on a domestic level so that he could pursue fairly traditional foreign policy aims.

Expanding on Kissinger's arguments, I had to ask myself about why FDR and Churchill believed Stalin's overtures toward democracy and restraint. Also, why was it that Churchill portrayed Britain and its empire as equal to the task of rebuilding Europe and holding off the USSR when they were clearly in economic distress and the cracks in the empire were growing ever larger?

To the first question, I say that FDR believed Stalin because of his notions of international relations. If the postwar order was to look like a Wilsonian notion of perpetual peace based on harmony, FDR had to think that Stalin would be a willing participant in keeping the global peace after the war. Ideology stood in the way of reality and FDR really didn't plan for the eventuality (well, it's what happened) if Stalin didn't exactly play along.

To second, I say that Churchill knew exactly what he was doing. He was an ardent old imperialist, it's true. That's where the rhetoric comes from. He was not ignorant of the situation as it was, though. While Churchill believed that the Empire could be kept together (in one form or another), it was clear from the course of the war that Britain could no longer go it alone.

Churchill knew that Britain's only chance for survival was to cozy up to the US as much as possible so that the US would, in turn, see Britain as their main ally in Europe and also their main ally in forging the balance of power that would develop after the war. This balance of power was seen as natural by Churchill, but this is what FDR wanted to avoid.

So, it was basically Churchill's task to manuver between Stalin and FDR, usually giving into US demands while making it clear at every opportunity that Washington's strategic interests were also those of London. This was Churchill's great coup, and the birth of the so-called "special relationship," at least in any formal sense.

Why should we care about any of this? Well, it was in these notions of a postwar world that the world of the latter half of the twentieth century was born. The bipolar world of the US and its allies in NATO and elsewhere on one side and the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations on the other were born in the minds and actions of FDR, Churchill and Stalin and their governments in the waning months of World War II.

It was these critical views and opinions that set the stage for the rest of the "short" twentieth century (1914-1992), and also presented the international situation that would persist until this bipolar world crumbled to the ground and the world we live in now was born.

So, Kissinger got it right (at least here), and I think the history of the period and the subsequent years bear him out. To what extent does his reading of history reflect his own actions as a diplomat?

That is a question for another time and another long, rambling post. Stay tuned.