What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

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Identities

Why Everyone Loves Macaroni and Cheese

Popularized by Thomas Jefferson, This Versatile Dish Fulfills America's Quest for the 'Cheapest Protein Possible'

By Gordon Edgar
May 24, 2018

Being a judge at a macaroni and cheese competition in San Francisco taught me a lot about American food. The competitors were mostly chefs, and the audience—the online tickets sold out in minutes—was soaking up the chance to be at a “Top Chef” kind of event, but more urban and cool. The judges included a food writer, an award-winning grilled-cheese-maker, and me, a cheesemonger.

We awarded the win to a chef who made mac and cheese with an aged Vermont …

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Identities

When Burlap Underwear Was Fashionable

From the Mid-1800s Onward, an Ethic of Thrift and Ingenuity Was Woven Into American Clothing

By Joy Spanabel Emery
December 4, 2017

In 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge visited Chicago, the ladies of a Presbyterian church presented him with a set of pajamas made from flour sacks dyed lavender and finished with silk frogs and pearl buttons in appreciation of his program on economy and thrift.

It seems surprising now, but once the use of cloth feed bags for clothing and household items was a part of mainstream rural American culture—related to a long practice of utilizing all resources that is deeply …

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Ideas

How New Mexico’s “Peons” Became Enslaved to Debt

A System Inherited From Colonial Spain Kept Americans in Servitude Even After the Civil War

By William S. Kiser
November 2, 2017

Imagine a time and place where a small debt—even just a few dollars—could translate into a lifetime of servitude not only for the debtor, but also for his or her children. For much of the 19th century, the American Southwest was just such a place. There, a system commonly called debt peonage relegated thousands of men, women, and children to years of bondage to a master.

This system of unfree labor came into existence in the 1700s, when the region was …

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Identities

When Halloween Mischief Turned to Mayhem

Nineteenth-Century Urbanization Unleashed the Nation's Anarchic Spirits

By Lesley Bannatyne
October 26, 2017

Imagine. Pre-electricity, no moon. It’s late October, and the people whisper: This is the season for witchery, the night the spirits of the dead rise from their graves and hover behind the hedges.

The wind kicks up, and branches click like skeletal finger bones. You make it home, run inside, wedge a chair against the door, and strain to listen. There’s a sharp rap at the window and when you turn, terrified, it’s there leering at you—a glowing, disembodied head …

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Identities

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Positive Symbol of American Power!

Rarely an Agent of the Government, Superman Defended the 'American Way' Through Simple Decency and Acts of Charity

By Ian Gordon
October 23, 2017

I can’t really remember when I first encountered Superman. It might have been through the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman, or it might have been in a Superman comic book—not an American comic book, but a black and white reprint, by the Australian publisher K. G. Murray.

Growing up in Australia, I learned the basic stories of American history from the pages of these Superman comics. I read about the Boston Tea Party; Nathan Hale’s patriotism; Washington crossing …

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Identities

When Black Texans Gathered Under “Thursday Night Lights”

Why the Lone Star State Has Forgotten Its Proud Tradition of African-American High School Football

By Michael Hurd
October 19, 2017

I had only been in and out of Houston since leaving our Sunnyside neighborhood on the city’s southeast side, in 1968, to begin eight years of Air Force service. Whenever I returned, I made only casual note of neighborhood and city changes, such as the sad state of the mom-and-pop “candy store” where we used to hang out after school, now boarded up, or a new skyscraper for a Houston skyline dotted with cranes, or another congested freeway opened to …

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Ideas

A Short History of the Idea of ‘Main Street’ in America

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Disneyland, the Concept Has Represented Both the Experimental and the Conventional

By Miles Orvell
October 16, 2017

In the United States, Main Street has always been two things—a place and an idea. As both, Main Street has embodied the contradictions of the country itself.

It is the self-consciousness of the idea of Main Street—from its origins in a Nathaniel Hawthorne sketch of New England, to Walt Disney’s construction of a Main Street USA, to the establishment of ersatz Main Streets in today’s urban malls—that makes it so essentially American. Main Street has been used in myriad …

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Identities

When the Idea of Home Was Key to American Identity

From Log Cabins to Gilded Age Mansions, How You Lived Determined Whether You Belonged

By Richard White
September 11, 2017

Like viewers using an old-fashioned stereoscope, historians look at the past from two slightly different angles—then and now. The past is its own country, different from today. But we can only see that past world from our own present. And, as in a stereoscope, the two views merge.

I have been living in America’s second Gilded Age—our current era that began in the 1980s and took off in the 1990s—while writing about the first, which began in the 1870s and continued …

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Ideas

How Universities Migrated into Cities and Democratized Higher Education

Colleges Once Thought the Countryside Bred Character. Now They Use Cities for "Hands-On Learning"

By Steven J. Diner
August 31, 2017

Since the end of World War II, most American college students have attended schools in cities and metropolitan areas. Mirroring the rapid urbanization of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this trend reflects the democratization of college access and the enormous growth in the numbers of commuter students who live at home while attending college.

Going to college in the city seems so normal now that it’s difficult to comprehend that it once represented a …

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Encounters

What Riding Trains Taught Me About Americans

Rail Travel Induces a Reverie and Intimacy Among Its Diverse Passengers

By James McCommons
August 17, 2017

Amos, a one-legged Amish man, was having trouble with his new prosthesis. He left the leg in his sleeping compartment and came to the diner on crutches—a hazardous ambulation on a moving train.

Because Amish do not buy health insurance nor take Medicare or Social Security, he rode The Southwest Chief from Chicago to California and went to Mexico to see a doctor. He paid cash for the leg in Tijuana.

“A van picked us up at border and took us to …

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