What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

I’ll Have What She’s Having

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

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

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

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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The Puritans Didn’t Have ‘Mudrooms’

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

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

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

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?

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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