What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

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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Where Lincoln Was President and Conqueror

The Commander-in-Chief’s Surprisingly Humble Journey into Richmond, Virginia, After the Confederacy’s Fall

Lincoln statue in Richmond

By Jamie Stiehm
April 10, 2015

April 4, 1865. The conqueror entered Richmond, Virginia, on a rowboat with his son Tad, after nearing the fallen city by military steamer. President Abraham Lincoln was escorted and guarded by Union Army officers, but the victory scene was far from triumphal. He slipped in unannounced, to bear witness, not to preside over the vanquished.

Lincoln simply strode up the hills of Richmond, the enemy capital, passing the pearly state capitol building designed by Thomas Jefferson. He sauntered into the antebellum …

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A Family Saloon Serving Stiff Drinks and Second Chances

Generations of Immigrants Sought Refuge in Grand Rapids, Michigan Taverns. So Did We.

A. Wolfe, Mike Konkle, bar

By A. Wolfe
March 24, 2015

I grew up in my family’s dive bar in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city now affectionately and appropriately called Beer City, U.S.A. I was surrounded by a makeshift family of beer-swilling, goodhearted customers with crooked jaws and scars across their cheeks, people who hopped up on their stools at 6 a.m. and stayed until the afternoon girl counted in her till.

I thought Cheers was a family sitcom. I saw the know-it-all postman, the work-averse accountant, and the salty server in …

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What Exactly Is Appalachian Cuisine?

Spam, Soup Beans, and Cornbread Define This Hardscrabble Region

Appalachian soup beans

By Fred Sauceman
March 13, 2015

On the first day of my foodways of Appalachia course at East Tennessee State University, I always play a one-minute audio recording. It’s the voice of Marilou Awiakta, a Cherokee poet and storyteller.

Marilou grew up poor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about two and a half hours away from Johnson City, where the university is located. A Sunday baked ham, she recalls, was a rare luxury. Instead, her mother would score a Spam loaf in a pretty crosshatch pattern, coat it …

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When Rest Stops Were America’s Best Roadside Attractions

Remember When Road Trips Included Stopping for Picnics and Enjoying the View?

Flower Mound, TX

February 27, 2015

A picnic table shadowed by an enormous teepee; a covered structure in the middle of a vast red desert; a shady spot under the cover of a gigantic wagon wheel. These places once teemed with traveling families, but the kids, dogs, and picnic baskets are now long gone.

For the last five years, Ryann Ford has driven through Texas, New Mexico, and other parts of the West, seeking out and photographing rest stops on quiet highways and in parks for a …

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Wisconsin, Monster Capital of America?

Forget Football and Cheese. My Home State Should Be Famous for Its Shaggy Werewolves and Shape-Shifting Schoolteachers.

Linda S. Godfrey, Wisconsin, monsters

By Linda S. Godfrey
January 23, 2015

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey may reverberate with the fetid screams of the cloven-hooved demon known as the Jersey Devil. The redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest may shake from the footfalls of the 9-foot, fur-covered primate known as Sasquatch, and America’s Southern swamps may teem with scaly, web-fingered lizard men. But my home state of Wisconsin is as well-known for sightings of things that look like fanged, shaggy werewolves as it is for cows, cheese, and the Green …

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Paddling the Wailoa River in a Homemade Canoe

A Boy’s Life on Hawaii’s Big Island in the 1950s

Paul Kodani, canoe, Lyman Museum, Big Island, Hawaii

By Paul Kodani
November 11, 2014

A boy’s life on Hawaii’s Big Island in the 1950s revolved around water. My elementary school in Hilo was right by Bakers Beach, a spring-fed pond called Ice Pond, and the Wailoa River. Every day after school, we used to go swimming or diving to catch fish. I practiced holding my breath in the bathtub.

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Did the Midwest Win the Civil War?

States Like Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin Fed and Armed the Union—and Sent Men to Die for Their Country, Too

Wisconsin, Civil War, Civil War Museum

By Lance J. Herdegen
October 24, 2014

Fort Sumter. Bull Run. Antietam. Vicksburg. Gettysburg. Appomattox Courthouse. These are the places you usually think of when you think about the Civil War. Not Milwaukee, Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Des Moines.

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When Bowie Knives Were in Fashion

In the Rough-and-Tumble 19th-Century Mississippi River Valley, Everyone Carried a Weapon. Some of Them Were Even Works of Art.

When Bowie Knives Were in Fashion

By Bill Worthen
September 22, 2014

At an interesting time in our history, folks started wearing weapons as a part of their daily attire, to work and to play. In the 1830s, citizens of the Mississippi River Valley, in such communities as New Orleans, Natchez, Vicksburg, and Little Rock, armed themselves. They chose small weapons popular at the time—single-shot pistols, sword canes, and knives—as business accessories.

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