What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

To Understand America’s Small Towns, Ask About Their Swimming Holes

Whether at the Base of a Majestic Waterfall or the Site of an Old Quarry, These DIY Pools Are a Refreshing Way to Connect With Simple Pleasures of the Past

Hajdasz on swimming holes LEAD

By Dave Hajdasz
July 14, 2016

Consider the swimming hole. It lacks the majesty of an ocean or the pedigree of a lake—forget about boating or surfing. A swimming hole is by its very nature utilitarian. It’s a hole. Filled with water. To swim in. Unlike its grander cousins, a swimming hole doesn’t exist on its own and doesn’t fulfill swimming hole-ness until someone actually gets in there and swims.

Swimming holes were born of necessity at a time when fabricated pools didn’t exist in most of …

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Why the Winchester Gun Heiress Created a Victorian Mansion Designed to Be Haunted

Ghosts and Guilt Compelled the Wealthy Widow to Build San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House

Hagg on Winchester LEAD

By Pamela Haag
July 5, 2016

Once the United States’ largest private residence and the most expensive to build, today you could almost miss it. The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, sits between the eight lanes of the I-280 freeway, a mobile home park, and the remains of a space age Century 23 movie theater. The world has changed around it, but the mansion remains stubbornly and defiantly what it always was.

Each time I visit the Mystery House I try to envision …

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Manifest Destiny, That Atrocious Ideal

A Wintertime Visit to a Onetime Nuclear Test Site Reveals the Lengths Americans Go to Own Whatever They Please

Frank on winter LEAD WIMTBA

By Matthew Gavin Frank
March 31, 2016

On the outskirts of Tularosa, New Mexico, I drove among sacred mountains. It was three days before Christmas, 2014, and it was over 70 degrees. With the A/C cranked, I passed the cookfires of shantytowns, children with strings of meat hanging from the ends of sticks, their parents drinking Coca-Cola from cool glass bottles, mezcal from plastic washtubs. Sheep grazed at the road shoulders. Skeletal motorcycles sashayed around buses laboring up the slopes.

My mouth was numbed with spice from pulverized …

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Tater Tot Hotdish, Minnesota Soul Food

My Home State’s Favorite No-Fuss Meal Is a Tribute to Its No-Nonsense Spirit

Ostlund on hotdish LEAD

By Lori Ostlund
February 29, 2016

I am a Minnesota writer. I realized this only after my first book was published in 2009. One reader called it “a crash course in being Minnesotan.” Reviewers noted that my characters were oddly formal, obsessed with grammar, wanting to connect with others but unsure how to do so—all traits that I had grown up surrounded by and passed on to my characters. A friend said that she would never want to break up with one of my characters because …

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The Japanese-American Flower Growers Who Made Phoenix Bloom

Post-WWII Gardens Like My Family’s Found Beauty in Stony Ground

Nakagawa ART Lead WIMTBA

By Kathy Nakagawa
January 14, 2016

When my high school orchestra teacher found out my family owned a Japanese flower garden in Phoenix, Arizona, he made a confession: He had once snuck into those fields. He stole flowers to propose to his wife. To this day, I meet other people who share with me equally vivid memories of the farms. One friend told me: “I would drive my mom there every weekend!” Although all of the flower fields are gone now, they’re still an important part …

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I’ll Have What She’s Having

Jewish Delis Are Noisy, Crude Eating Places That Turned the Idea of the Restaurant on Its Head

Merwin Jewish Delis Lead Image

By Ted Merwin
November 23, 2015

My maternal grandparents, Jean and Lou Kaplan, did not keep kosher. That was their ancestors’ way, the path of slavish adherence to the stringencies of Jewish law. But old habits die hard, and they never ate the foods they had not consumed as children. They would sooner have taken off all their clothes and danced naked in front of their neighbors in Flushing, Queens, than down ham, clams, or even a cheeseburger.

So when we went out to eat with …

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Why a 30-Second Gun Fight in 1881 Still Captures Our Imaginations

The O.K. Corral Is a Human-Sized, Emotionally Satisfying Revenge Drama That Affirms Our Thirst for Justice

Russell OK Corral

By Mary Doria Russell
October 13, 2015

On October 26, 1881, nine armed men faced one another in a vacant lot near a livery stable in the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona. Four sworn officers intended to arrest a handful of civilians who were carrying guns within city limits without a permit. The officers were the brothers Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp, along with their friend John “Doc” Holliday. The wanted civilians were Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. Almost without warning, …

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Springfield, Birthplace of the American Character

This Massachusetts City Has Gone From Farms to Drug-Ridden Streets, but Hope and Hard Work Still Guide Its Soul

Gaskill downtown Springfield

By Malcolm Gaskill
July 27, 2015

According to official records, more than 150,000 people live in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, but during a recent research trip there I didn’t see many of them. The downtown streets were almost deserted. It seemed as if every other store had closed down, and those that hadn’t had signs in their windows that read: “No hoodies, no loitering.” I kept glancing over my shoulder as I walked to the archives at the city museum, worried about who might be …

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Who Invented the Chimichanga?

In Tucson, Arizona, Giving Birth to the Deep-Fried Burrito Is a Point of Pride

Mi Nidito in Tucson

By Cary Kelly
May 1, 2015

One afternoon while I was navigating the clogged freeways of Phoenix, a fierce argument erupted in the back of my car.

“Of course the chimichanga was invented in Tucson!” yelled one Tucsonan.

“No way,” replied the Phoenix native. “I am positive it’s from south Phoenix.”

“Perhaps it’s from Mexico?” chimed in an ever-neutral Illinois transplant in the front passenger seat.

I sat behind the driver’s wheel lost in thought, stumped by our chimichanga standoff. What is essentially a fried burrito was …

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The Puritans Didn’t Have ‘Mudrooms’

The Modern Obsession With a Spotless Home Ignores Early Americans’ Dirtiest Traditions

The Puritans Didn’t Have ‘Mudrooms’

By Jim Garman
April 28, 2015

It’s late at night, and I’m staring at seed catalogues while the scripted tones of a reality real estate show—my favorite soporific—drone on in the background. An earnest young couple with a mind-blowing budget is searching for a house in an unnamed North American suburb. Their must-haves: open-concept living (does anyone enjoy living in rooms anymore?), a three-car garage, and above all a mudroom, because their three sons play hockey and have the heroic amounts of gear that kids lug …

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