Feasting at God’s Table

Father Divine, Conspicuous Consumption & Racial Harmony

Father_Divine_02
George Baker, Jr., “Father Divine”

In American culture, health and prosperity has long been wedded to the consumption of food. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was the ability to eat what one wanted and when that defined an American family’s assent into the growing middle class. It was no accident that there appeared in America during the 1920s a man who offered salvation through the act of eating. Father Divine, professing himself to be God incarnate, urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message crossed racial lines because he appealed to shared traditions in American culture, traditions like conspicuous consumption, Charismatic Christianity, and the Protestant work ethic.

Father Divine’s movement was at its height during the Great Depression. At a time when scarcity affected millions, this eccentric preacher offered men and women a taste of the American dream―for the price of personal sacrifice and loyalty. He provided Americans across the country, both black and white, rich and poor, the perfect confluence of food, religion, and spectacle to distract them from the harsh realities of everyday life. He offered hope that racial unity and personal perfection could be achieved through the union of religion and the dinner table.

The Importance of Food in America

Americans have always given special significance to food and drink. When the first European colonists arrived in North America they encountered a land teeming with wildlife. At Plymouth Colony in 1621, a storm left the beach covered with piles of lobsters two feet high. “They were so plentiful and so easily gathered that they were considered fit only for the poor,” Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont explained in Eating in America. The storm left pools of crabs all along the shores of Virginia. Commenting on the abundance of fish at Jamestown, Captain John Smith wrote, “we tooke more in owne hour than we could eate in a day.” The colonists wondered at the size of the salmon, strawberries, and lobsters in the New World, and the Pilgrims, finding the luxury of clams and mussels tempered by their abundance, fed them to hogs.[1]

With origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the act of breaking bread with friends and neighbors had long been ingrained in religious ritual. Therefore, it was a feast the Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoags after their first arduous winter in New England, which eventually inspired the creation of a national holiday, Thanksgiving, centered around the consumption of large quantities of food. John Smith celebrated his first Christmas in the New World around the dinner table with the Powhatans and noted, “we were never more merry nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle and good bread, nor ever had better fires in England.”[2]

A hundred years later, the American colonists placed food and drink high on their list of grievances with the motherland. The Tea Act of 1773 precipitated the infamous Boston Tea Party, in which fifty angry colonists disguised as Native Americans dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. Under the stifling economics of mercantilism, tea had become a symbol of British rule. The British used excessive taxes as a weapon against colonial merchant-agitators like John Hancock, who customs officials accused of smuggling Madeira; a type of fortified wine.

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Bloody Brunckow Cabin

A weathered ruin is all that remains of Arizona’s bloodiest location.

  • This adobe structure dates back to 1858.
  • As many as 22 deaths have been reported in or near the cabin.
  • Reports of “unquiet spirits” were reported as early as 1881.

Crumbling adobe walls sit on a hill overlooking the dry, meandering bed of a San Pedro River tributary. Ants and snakes burrow into the rocky soil, past the bleached bones of unfortunate prospectors and outlaws resting in shallow graves. At night, a cold chill descends on the desert floor of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Those who dare approach these ruins after sundown often report unsettling encounters with the unseen.

Located south of Charleston Road between Tombstone and Sierra Vista, Arizona, the remnant of this small adobe cabin is known as Brunckow Cabin and has been described as “the bloodiest cabin in Arizona history.” After reading the tragic history of the cabin (and the tortured souls rumored to haunt it), I had to see it for myself. Over the years erosion, vandalism, and neglect have taken their toll, and the historic site may not remain for much longer.

Finding it is not easy, and visitors are wise to use Google Earth and GPS coordinates (N31 38.31 W110 09.45 to be exact). What I found was a few decaying walls, but the remoteness of the place was not lost on me. It was easy to feel a chill up my spine as I went over in my mind the events alleged to have taken place there.

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The Edge of Seventeen

In The Edge of Seventeen (2016), 17-year-old Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld) navigates the awkwardness of becoming an adult in her junior year of high school after her father dies of a heart attack. She reaches a crisis point when her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), hooks up with and begins dating her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). Her relationship with her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), further deteriorates as Nadine vents her frustration on friends, family, and her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). The cloud has a silver lining when she meets a similarly awkward young man, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).

The film has some bright spots, and some genuinely funny or touching moments, but mostly it is just the same cliched teen movie we’ve seen a hundred times before. Not Another Teen Movie already satirized this film in 2001. It may have a deeper meaning, however, if what I perceived as a genuine portrayal of mental illness turns out to be accurate.

Critics loved this movie, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Molly Eichel at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “The Edge of Seventeen is funny and tragic, but most of all it feels real in the same way John Hughes movies felt real. It’s not a candy-coated version of teenagedom. It’s harsh, and awkward, and funny, just like being a teenager.” Other critics called it “straight and sincere,” “smart and perceptive,” and “there isn’t a moment in this movie that doesn’t feel completely true.” Who paid them to write this nonsense?

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Absolute Destruction: A Problematic and Contradictory Book

absolute-destructionAbsolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany by Isabel Hull is a problematic and contradictory book. It is a good example of what happens when a historian begins with a thesis and then shoehorns data to fit that thesis. Hull’s core argument is that the Imperial German military (between the years 1904 and 1918) practiced institutional extremism, which led to the unchecked extermination of civilian populations in Africa and Europe. The unlimited application of violence defined that extremism. This made the German military unique among the militaries of other European powers. She set out to show, “how and why the institution designed to wield controlled violence exceeded the reasonable, effective, or goal-oriented limits of its use.”

According to Hull, there were three reasons the use of violence appeared unchecked: the German military’s separation from civilian institutions, the use of violence through “quasi-automatic mechanisms,” and an institutional gravitation toward total solutions―“the establishment of perfect order and complete obedience by the enemy population” in a permanent form.

To prove her thesis, Hull examined the behavior of the German military in Southwest Africa (present day Namibia), German military culture, and the behavior of the German military during the First World War. She drew from a large number of German sources and personal letters, as well as the philosophy of Hannah Arendt.

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Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute

Located at 310 Genesee Street in Utica, New York, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is an enjoyable art museum with several notable pieces, including a Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dalí, and Picasso. It also has a fine collection of 19th-Century American painting and sculpture, as well as an annex showcasing the 19th-Century home of James and Helen Williams, “Fountain Elms”. I’m not a fan of modern art, but it was nice to see some pieces by prominent artists at a smaller art museum. Similar institutions would charge visitors to see such “high profile” pieces, but the M.W.P. Arts Institute only takes donations to see its general collection.

A special exhibition of Steve McCurry’s photographs will be on display until December 31st. Steve McCurry is best known for his haunting photograph of a young Afghan Girl with piercing green eyes taken in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984.

The World through His Lens: Steve McCurry Photographs is an exhibition of more than 60 large-scale photographs by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. It costs $10 general admission, or $5 for students, and is free to children under 12.

According to their website, “McCurry’s evocative images reveal collective human struggles and explore diverse societies across the boundaries of language and culture. Organized around universal themes of personal adornment, place, and ritual, exhibition will include unforgettable images from across six continents and spanning ancient traditions, international conflict, and vanishing cultures.”

This a unique opportunity to see his photographs up close, as the M.W.P. Arts Institute is the only venue for this exhibition.

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All-American Diner Tour: Shorty’s Place in Watertown, New York

Located at 1280 Coffeen Street, just off Interstate 81, in Watertown, New York, Shorty’s Place is a great 1950s-themed diner and a favorite of both locals and soldiers from nearby Fort Drum. It’s worth going for the decor alone. The owner must have spent a long time tracking down so much Coca-Cola-themed bric-a-brac. The diner is clean and nostalgia palpable. Seating includes a long counter, tables, and booths. Each booth contains a working jukebox.

Shorty’s food is diverse and above average. Menu choices include charbroiled pork chops, fried scallops, black & blue charbroiled chicken breast, pulled pork BBQ sandwich (Wednesdays), a breakfast lasagna, and more. They even have a limited beer and wine selection and make old-fashioned milkshakes with hard milk flavoring. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is served all day, except for soup, which is only served in the afternoon and evening. Prices are reasonable: expect to pay between $10 and $13 per person, including a drink. The most expensive item on the menu is the friend seafood platter for $11.89.

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The Ruins of Millville and Charleston, Arizona

Crumbling stone walls are all that remain of these twin boom towns on the San Pedro River.

  • Millville and Charleston were home to some of the Wild West’s most notorious figures.
  • From 1881 to 1882, mines near these towns processed almost $1.4 million in silver.
  • During WW2, the U.S. Army used the ruins of Charleston to train combat troops.

In their heyday, the dual towns of Millville and Charleston in southeastern Arizona had a lawless reputation. Located on opposite sides of the San Pedro River, about nine miles southwest of Tombstone, Millville and Charleston were home to some of the Wild West’s most notorious figures. Outlaw Frank Stilwell, for example, once owned a saloon in Charleston.

Stilwell was a deputy sheriff in Tombstone, Arizona for Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan and was suspected of killing Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882. Two days later, Wyatt Earp gunned down Stilwell in a Tucson train yard. The Clanton Gang, infamous for their participation in the gunfight at the OK Corral, lived on a ranch five miles south of Charleston.

At its peak, Charleston was home to nearly 400 people. It had a post office, four restaurants, a school, a church, a drugstore, two blacksmiths, two livery stables, two butcher shops, two bakeries, a hotel, five general stores, a jewelry shop, a brickyard, a brewery, and at least four saloons. It was mainly home to men who worked across the river at the silver mills in Millville.

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