This month in Online Insights I combine one part election with one part masterchef and two parts history, unveil a tool to help you maintain a secret journal, give you a political voice, and give you front row seats to as many local jazz concerts as you wish right from your computer.

History Chef

Hardtacks - staple and enemy of civil war soldiers

Hardtacks - staple and enemy of civil war soldiers

Recently, our Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition held a contrived, plastic debate on live, Sunday night television. It marked the beginning of another federal election period with all the smear, puffery, deceit and staging one sadly has come to expect. What drew most coverage before the event was the fact that this excruciatingly tedious program was scheduled at the same time as the grand finale of yet another stale reality show, MasterChef. It was feared the masses would rather watch formulaic reality programming with cooking-show flavour than formulaic political debate with, well, no flavour.

It irks me that both television and our political landscape have descended from nutritious staples to artificially-flavoured poison. But that is for another article. What I have stumbled across is a website that ties politics and the culinary arts together in a much more appetising way – History Chef.

This delightful, albeit American, site is worth a meandering visit. Suzy Evans, who got her Ph.D in History, has woven a whimsical collection of food-based anecdotes involving US presidents and historical figures and their dietary preferences. Probably doesn’t sound that interesting at first, but I urge you to take a look. What I loved about this site was the way its stories gave is easily digestible tid bits of daily life. As you read and picture the people and the food they were consuming you really do feel like you have been transported back in time and given a truly authentic taste of life in another era. Some of my favourites include:

  • The story of hardtack – biscuits mass produced during the US civil war by factories in the north for soldiers pressing south. By the time these simple biscuits made it to the front lines, they were hard and often full of weevils. Soliders called them “teeth dullers” and “worm castles”. The only ingredients were flour, water, fat and salt.
  • Accounts of the fifth president, James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth. Back in the early 1800s they became known for holding rather stuffy formal dinners. One account on this site, written by the author of Last of the Mohicans, Elizabeth would leave the table promptly after dessert, James would allow the guests another glass or two and then usher in coffee, bid people good night, and all were gone by 9pm. Seems funny to think about such quirky behaviour now, long after they have passed. Makes me think about all the quirky things I do and reflect on just how important they really are against the backdrop of eternity, or even the space of 20 years for that matter! But I digress. We also learn that Elizabeth shared her recipe for Apple Charlotte with Martha Washington, who added it to her enormous recipe collection. Again, I am tempted to reflect on the energy we expend stockpiling things. This website can lead to a melancholy state!
  • The creation of new laws for inspecting meat processors and food producers were enacted by Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of the 1900s in response to exposes by so-called “muck rakers”. Muck rakers were writers who illuminated things that were wrong and the term was coined by Roosevelt himself (drawn from the novel, Pilgrim’s Progress). The laws came about because of allegations that “dead rats, putrid meat, and poisoned rat bait were routinely shoveled into sausage-grinding machines, how bribed inspectors turned a blind eye when diseased cows were slaughtered for beef, and how filth and guts were swept off the floor and then packaged as ‘potted ham’.”
  • The events of Ulysses S. Grant’s second inaugural ball in 1873. Firstly, the menu included “10,000 fried oysters; 63 boned turkeys; 15 saddles of mutton; 200 dozen quails; 200 hams; 250 chickens; 400 partridges; 25 stuffed boar’s heads; 3,000 head cheese sandwiches; 2,000 ham sandwiches; 8,000 pickled oysters and 2,000 pounds of lobster.” But secondly, what makes this story so interesting is that the weather turned against the president. It was freezing, “and the temporary ballroom had no heat. Guests danced in their hats and overcoats, the food was cold, they ran out of coffee, and, worst of all, most of the decorative caged canaries (which were supposed to be sweetly singing) froze.

So please explore this wonderful site, research an Australian version if it takes your fancy, but be warned that you might get lost for hours reading about American history through its food.

Release the Murray Darling Report Now

Well, I discovered my inner-hippie and signed a petition. I am not confident it will achieve its goal but I do believe it was worth spending five minutes nailing my colours to the mast and demanding that the Murray Darling Basin Authority release its guide to the basin now – not shelve it until after the election. I did it because we are robbing ourselves of a timely chance to prolong our livelihoods if we don’t get this out in the open and force politicians to state on the record their responses to suggestions in the guide.

However, I lament that our cynical political party hacks have miraculously achieved a bipartisan position and decided that the last thing we want in this election is an actual life-or-death issue to be discussed. The stage-managed charade offering us a choice between Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum is all we will get because it is all our media really wants: simple, Punch and Judy stories for a manageable, compartmentalised roll out of election period twaddle. I know this. I have worked there before. Hideously unrealistic deadlines and bloated appetites for news when there is none has led to state of affairs.

And that is why I like the approach being taken by Come On. Come On describes itself as “an independent, grass-roots organisation that provides Australians a way to be heard on important public issues and hold politicians to account … ComeOn! does not support any particular party. We stand up for policies and initiatives that reward hard working Australians, not penalises them, encourages families to provide a better life for the next Generation and helps take Australia forward as a united, fair community with a strong and prosperous future.”

As I understand it, we are welcome to choose the issues we support within the Come On world. This is good because the Anti-Mining Tax campaign would not have my support. However, I have happily submitted my signature to the Murray Darling cause and hope that it goes a small way towards turning the tide.

Have a look at the petition (online as of August 2010) at the Come On website.

Oh Life

Is your life whizzing by too quickly? One way to slow it down and chew it more is to keep a diary or journal. But who has the time? And how do you remember to write each day?

Along comes Oh Life. This new web service is as simple as simple can be.

Basically, it is a free, online diary service. It sends you an email every day at 8pm, asking you how you day has been and when you type a reply, it becomes your diary entry and is securely stored in your private online journal.

You can download your writings as text. You also get nostalgic quotes sent back to you in your nightly email, as a nice bit of reminiscence-fodder, chosen at random from your writings.

What I like about this is that it is simple and potentially very effective. I am also sure that many life coaches and therapists will rejoice in anything that helps people cultivate deeper attention on their daily actions because if we don’t there is little difference between us and mice in treadmills.

Answer the question, how did your day go?, at Oh Life. (Thanks Adrian).

Ozzy Jazz

I love this site. If you have a generous broadband connection and enjoy jazz, this site is a gem. Ozzy Jazz is a free portal for recordings of jazz performances in clubs and pubs around Adelaide and beyond.

This is so “grass roots” and edgy, it makes you feel like you are there. For example, I played Take 5 At The Sussex while doing some bookwork recently and it was sublime hearing good jazz, smiling at familiar accents, and being able to picture the venue because it is a local pub.

As part of mentioning this site, I want to draw your attention to its call for content. It says: “We want your live jazz recordings. Are you a jazz musician? Do you run a jazz venue? We’re keen to feature interesting live jazz recorded in interesting live venues around the world. If you’d like to know more email [email protected]”. Go on.

Tap into Ozzy Jazz and get hip at home!

PS If any jazz musos in Adelaide could lend me a brass instrument for a photo shoot. I would be much obliged. It would not be played, just shot. It is part of some website renovations planned for this site. Mum’s the word. Email [email protected]

Pin It on Pinterest