Friday, November 30, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Festive Prairie Dinner

    It is a culinary occasion like no other in the northern plains metropolis
of Minneapolis. It happens each year as the city’s winter season begins to
turn bitter and cold. For this occasion, on a December Saturday evening as
close to November 30th (the actual date of the commemoration ) as
opportune, nine gentlemen and a chef/sommelier convene for an annual
dinner to commemorate the birthday of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill,
former British prime minister, by birth an Anglo-American, and one of the
giant figures of the 20th century.

This year will mark the 37th occasion of this dinner (and the 138th
birthday of Mr.. Churchill) in the city’s tony Lake of the Isles neighborhood
at “Hughenden House,” the home of a prominent Minneapolis attorney who
created the event in 1974. (One year the dinner was not held, and another
year, house repairs moved the meal to a downtown restaurant.)

It is a formal black tie occasion, although a few attendees wear dark suits.
One Scottish-American attendee often wears a formal kilt.

Mr. Churchill had been a child of the Edwardian Age of England (his mother
was one of that era’s grand ladies and had even been the mistress of the king,
for whom the age was named, when he was Prince of Wales). Churchill was
known for drinking a bottle or two of French champagne every day, smoking
the finest cigars, and enjoying, in his youth and in old age, the trademark
Edwardian meals of multiple courses of the finest Continental and British

The Minneapolis meal begins at five p.m. with hors d’oeuvres and very dry
sherry in the host’s library, a richly wood-paneled room with leather chairs,
a working fireplace, and two floors of books in custom-made shelves that
form a spectacular adjoining library (with, of course, its own custom-made
ladder). The hors d’oeuvres are the same every year, as are the guests, and
include Gouda cheese, the host’s Iowa family recipe for zweiback, fried
oysters, a beurre blue cheese spread, and shrimps “Julius”, an addictive and
popular dish made and brought every year by the eldest attendee.

After two hours of convivial conversation, the host calls the group to
attention and introduces a recording of a speech made by Prime Minister
 Churchill during World War II. (If the record player does not work, as
occasionally happens, the host reads the speech himself.)

In addition to catching up with their dinner brethren, many of whom have
not seen each other since the previous Churchill dinner, individuals
frequently walk into the host’s lavish and new kitchen where a talented chef,
is busy finishing the complex series of dishes soon to be served. The chef is
also a professional sommelier, and in his day job, a notable figure in the
Twin City oenophile community. He participates in many of the dinner
rituals as the tenth member of this exclusive group. He remains in the
kitchen during most of the meal, but is occasionally called into the dining
room, after a particularly popular and successful course, for applause.

Following the Churchill recording, and some informal discussion of it, all
present move to the formal dining room where a long table has been set
quite dramatically with fine china, an array of sterling silver knives, forks
and spoons, linen napkins, and numerous crystal wine glasses of various
shapes placed around each setting in an formal and imposing fashion.
Silver candlesticks and a large and colorful bouquet of fresh flowers form
the table’s centerpiece.

Bottles of chilled San Pellegrino, Gerolsteiner and Poland Springs water
are poured in crystal glasses.

The meal soon resumes in earnest. The first course is traditionally cream
of peanut soup Williamsburg (using a colonial recipe from 1746), but
recently it was lobster bisque. The chef prepared this dish from scratch
with five live 1 1/2 pound lobsters. Each soup bowl was laced with the
meat of one-half a de-shelled lobster. Accompanying the bisque was a
Seguin-Manuel “Vire Clesse” 2006 white Burgundy.

At this point, the host stands, and asking the others to rise with him,
toasts the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom and its
Commonwealth, followed by a toast to the current president of the
United States.

The next course is a specialty dish with fish or fowl, such as a pate or
galantine, but recently it was a pan-roasted breast of pheasant au jus,
accompanied by braised Savoy cabbage and roasted  fresh beets. A
complementary Rioja Alta “Vina Ardanza” 2000 was served with the
pheasant. On other occasions, this course is a rich pasta dish, made also
from scratch, served with a superb dry Italian wine. For 2012, it might be
halibut with a complex white Burgundy.

The main course follows, and it is the centerpiece of the meal. Game foods
and traditional English red meats loved by Churchill are usually chosen,
and include beef, lamb, veal, guinea hen, duckling, partridge, goose, elk or
wild boar. The finest red wines are served with the entree. Over one period
of several years, a case of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1971, from the host’s
wine cellar, was poured and accompanied various entrees, until the case was
empty. At another dinner, the attendee from Singapore brought a bottle of
the legendary Australian red, Penfolds “Grange” to everyone’s delight. On
still another occasion, an overaged but prestigious California cabernet was
opened, tasted and found to be superb. Only minutes later, however, as the
main course was served, and the wine had “breathed” a bit, it was “gone”
and lifeless. The host hurriedly made a visit to his wine cellar to come up
with a suitable last-minute replacement.

Interesting vegetables such as turnips, Brussels sprouts, white asparagus,
parsnips, Italian squash, and golden beets, deliciously prepared and often
from the host’s garden, are served with the entree.

Following the entree, attendees each sign a copy of the printed menu for the
host’s archives, and fill out sheets which list a series of questions asking for
predictions for the coming year in politics, the stock market, sports, and
world affairs. At the same time, the predictions from the previous year are
passed around, with those who came closest to getting it right receiving the
plaudits of those who did not.

A salad course, made with organic lettuces, and with the chef’s own
dressing follows, and then small dishes filled  with fresh fruit sorbet
(usually from the legendary Minneapolis Cafe Crema where Sonny’s ice
creams and sorbets are made) are served as a palate refresher.

The most controversial course  of the evening then is presented, a  preserved
citron, a traditional English dish. Some of the Churchill attendees, however,
find this dish unpleasant, and for them the host offers assorted sweetmeats and
candied ginger as an alternative course. (This is the only part of the dinner
which resembles a culinary civil war, with the two sides good-naturedly
labeled “citronistas” and “anti-citronistas.”)

One attendee is an amateur baker, and each year he bakes and brings several
“Arcata Churchill birthday loaves.” (One of these loaves has also been sliced
and served with the hors d’oeuvres earlier.)

A cheese course follows, and a strong English Colton & Bassett stilton is
served with a vintage port.

Espresso is then brewed and served from the host’s professional quality

Following this part of the dinner, and after group photographs are taken, each
of the diners makes his way to the host’s parlor, a large rectangular room with
a grand piano at one end. Above the fireplace on its mantel are arranged three
more sets of crystal glasses. One set is for the vintage French champagne that
is served with a blackberry cheesecake (baked and brought each year by one
of the attendees, a retired banker). On an oval table in the center of the room,
placed on a silver platter, is an assortment of locally-made B.T. McElrath’s
artisan chocolates (reputed to be the best of their kind, having won numerous
gold medals in New York). Next to them, on another platter, is a humidor with
ten  imported cigars. I am not at liberty to disclose the  country of origin of
these cigars, but they are always of the finest quality available as befits a
dinner in honor of Mr. Churchill, and come from nations known globally for
this product. The newest regular attendee, a former U.S. congressman, brings
the cigars, obtained during his international travels.

One year, when a prominent judge was a special guest at the dinner, he said,
on learning the origin of these cigars, “as the senior officer of the court
present, I order that this contraband be destroyed by fire!”  This faux (but
spoken with a straight face) “court” order was carried out, I can report, with
alacrity by those present later in the evening.

After dessert and champagne, VSOP cognac and armagnac are poured, and
the chocolates are passed around.

Also usually distributed at this time is an essay written  by one of the (more
provocative) guests that leads to a timely public policy discussion. As the
host reminds his guests each year, “This is an occasion when talking about
politics and religion is appropriate and encouraged.” It is a genuinely
“diverse” group containing liberals, conservatives, centrists, and a radical
or two, and the ensuing conversation, despite the late hour and sheer
quantity of spirits already consumed, is invariably quite lively, albeit
gentlemanly, and the contrasting points of view of the “brethren” are
openly revealed and robustly explored.

A special dessert wine, such as an eiswein, rare madeira or vintage
sauterne is then poured into the sole remaining empty glasses, and the
chocolates are passed around one more time.  A few years ago, an attendee
brought a bottle of a very extraordinary 1927 vintage oloroso sherry.

By two a.m., those who have the farthest to travel home, begin to take their
leave. All pass through the kitchen one more time for sumptuous leftovers
and parting thanks to the chef, and by two-thirty, Hughenden House, except
for the crackling of a few embers in the fireplace in the library, is as silent as
the winter night outside and as, thousands of miles away, the final resting
place of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Last Gentleman?

He was not a famous politician, and he only rose as high as state senator,
but  nearly everyone knew his name (at least his surname), and I think it
fair to say that those of us who knew him personally held him in higher
regard than many more “famous” politicians.

George S. Pillsbury died in Wayzata, Minnesota on October 13 at the age
of 91. The great-grandson of the founder of the Pillsbury Company, the
grandnephew of a pioneer and distinguished governor of Minnesota and
another governor of Maine, the grandson of a mayor of Minneapolis, the
son, brother and cousin of one of America’s most distinguished families,
a family which has contributed to public service for more than a century.
George S. Pillsbury had a full and fascinating life filled with adventure,
international commerce, and access to the highest political intrigues. A
long-time Republican, he had friends, as well as colleagues, on both sides
of the political aisle in the state senate, and in local and national politics.
When he disagreed strongly with his own party, he said so plainly.

He enjoyed a first-class education in private schools and at Yale, significant
wealth and position, a very large family, including children, grandchildren
and great-grandchildren.

He was a U.S. marine.

He was also a natural American aristocrat, in the very best sense of that
word, i.e., he lacked pretension and felt compelled to help others.

I had lunch with him once a month for many years, and heard
countless stories from a life rich in business, politics, travel and family,
but not a word in envy, hatred or duplicity.  He was the essence of civility.
He was perhaps among the very last gentlemen of the most recent
generation which produced true gentlemen. “Gentlemen” today are
identified mostly by the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the parties
they attend, and the persons they know. George S. Pillsbury was identified
by his conduct, by the ideas he believed in and the causes he espoused, and
by his seeming limitless ability to befriend folks from every station in life
and listen to what they had to say.

He had a singular curiosity in the life around him to the very end.

One afternoon in 1987, I received a phone call from him, having not heard
from him for a few years. (We had first met in the late 1970s.) He said he was
meeting an out-of-town guest for lunch at his private club the next day, and
asked if I would join them. As I walked into that club the following day, I saw
George in the club waiting room, and he told me his guest was the son of his
old college friend who happened to be the then-vice president of the United
States, George H.W. Bush. “He’s helping his dad,” he said to me, “you know
politics; spend some time with him after lunch.” A few minutes later, a
young man came into the club and was introduced to me as Gorge W. Bush.
Young Mr. Bush seemed to be a friendly and cordial person, not unlike some
of the well-heeled fellow students I had known at the University of Pennsylvania
where I went as a public school boy from a small northern city, the son of a
physician who had been an immigrant to the U.S. when the Bush family had
long been established in the New World. It was a pleasant afternoon, and I had
no idea who George Pillsbury’s guest would turn out to be.

But that was so typical of my conversations with George Pillsbury. They would
begin in friendly pleasantries, but something in him would drive us soon to
discuss subjects much more important than pleasantries. He would print out
my online opinion columns, or bring copies of my printed magazine articles,
and raise questions about them point after point. We sometimes disagreed, but
always our discussions weer respectful.

As he grew older, and his legs began to fail him (as they had my own father),
the lighter beginnings of our conversations were shorter, and the talk about
politics and the world went on longer. He had lifelong causes he believed in,
and he repeated them more and more. His signature political cause was the
unicameral legislature, something he promoted as a state senator, and when he
failed to enact it, something he pushed for years afterwards. At the end, he knew
it was not going to be, but he had no regrets about his work for it. He knew other
matters he favored might not happen, but he felt they were right, and he persisted.

Perhaps that was what made him such a gentleman. Like the Marine he also was,
he knew what duty was, and he knew that to give up on what he felt was most
important could be the only failure.

George S. Pillsbury was a success in those things that mattered most to him:
family, friendship, conduct and public service. I think that sums up what a
gentleman he was. His generation will be missed. He will be missed.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 26, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: All Families Have Stories

All families have stories.

They have stories which are myths, stories which are exaggerations,
stories which are lies or made up, and they also have stories which
are mostly true, or at least have grains of truth.

There are now about seven billion persons alive today. If we consider
a contemporary family to be composed of living great-grandparents,
grandparents, with their living children who are themselves often
parents, and the children of those parents, then we have a group we
might call a family. At the same time, each of the direct descendants
who married and have children and grandchildren are also by their
marriage (or marriages) part of another family. Defining a family
is therefore a complicated matter. (Just ask who goes to whose house
for Thanksgiving dinner.)

Not only that, if we go back before those who are now living, we
have generation after generation of the same family, but likewise
complicated by the bonding of two different families each time
there was a marriage.

Some groups such as the English and other Europeans who kept
records from an early date enable relatively reliable genealogies
going back up to a thousand years, especially if a modern day person
is descended from nobility or royalty. The Mormons have the largest
repository in the world (in Utah) of genealogy not only of themselves,
but of many other groups. The Jews, descended more or less directly
from those who were counted in the Old Testament, have a DNA
record going far back, but except in a few cases, no written genealogies
exist before the 16th and 17th century. (The Old Testament does,
however, have detailed genealogies of its earliest figures.) Because of his
prodigious mating habits in the 12th century, it is said that virtually all
Mongolians and related peoples today have DNA from Genghis Khan.

Of course, those who can trace their lineage quite often are proud of
it, not only for how far back they can go, but for any relatives of any
prominence found in that lineage. The larger point, however, is that
each person alive today is a direct descendent from a very limited
number of families going back tens of thousands of generations, long
before so-called biblical times, long before men and women lived in
formal marriages or even in one place.

Some of the most famous families in history, in antiquity or much
closer to our present time, no longer exist. Just one from so many
possible examples, is the family of Abraham Lincoln, arguably the
most famous American and its greatest president.  Lincoln’s last direct
descendent died recently. No doubt there are those alive today who
have some of his DNA because they were related to Mr. Lincoln’s
forbears, but the family entity directly issuing from the Great
Emancipator no longer exists.

In fact, the advance in biological science which isolated DNA genetics,
and is currently reconstructing the human genome, has replaced the
inexact stories (and sometimes, the myths) of family origins with
something far more verifiable and useful.

A few years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, excavations near
Ekaterinberg found the remains of what were thought to be the
executed Czar Nicholas, his wife and his children, as well as a few
retainers, all known to have been killed by Soviet agents on July 17,
1918 where they were being interned at nearby Ipatiev House in
the city.  Huge and mysterious fables had followed this notorious
incident because the bodies of the czar and his family had not been
found. The most famous myth from this event was, of course, the
romantic story of Anastasia, one of the czar’s five daughters who,
allegedly shot by the Soviet assassins, was plucked half-alive from the
pile of royal bodies, nursed back to health before escaping to Western
Europe and an unsuccessful reunion with surviving relatives.  This
story became a play, a hit movie and a modern fable although it was
totally false. Other stories from this event included other alleged royal
survivors, and the tale of a mysterious large trunk containing the
jewelry and other personal effects of the czar and his family, including,
it was macabrely said, parts of royal fingers with rings of precious
stones, that made its way by train across Asia and Europe before
disappearing circa the late 1920s.

The mystery was magnified not only because there were no bodies
found and no witnesses who gave contemporary public testimony, but
also because several Soviet authorities were eager to hide their own
complicity in the matter. It was further abetted by surviving members
of the Russian and other European royal families, all of whom were
closely related to each other, and eager to preserve the legitimacy of
their contemporary claims, and future claims, of royal rights and
prerogatives. It turned out that Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh
and husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was himself part of the Greek
royal family which was directly (he is a grand-nephew of the last
czarina) related to the Russian royal family, and he was asked
for a DNA sample to help verify if the remains were of the czarina
and her children. The DNA answer was yes, and every member of the
family, including the czar’s son and heir, were eventually identified.

(I cannot help but add that Nicholas II was a weak and clueless monarch,
who not only was directly responsible for the death and suffering of so
many millions of his countrymen, it was his mobilization of the Russian
army in August, 1914 that led directly to the actual beginning of World
War I. Furthermore, it was his autocratic and feudal rule that kept Russia
from modernizing and democratizing its government, as was taking place
in much of Europe, that enabled Vladimir Lenin and a relatively few
communist thugs to take over the vast Russian empire in 1917, thus
establishing a 72-year dictatorship most notorious for the paranoid
one-man rule of Joseph Stalin (1929-53) that murdered millions of
Russian peasants before World War II, not to mention the tens of millions
who perished in World War II itself. The death of Nicholas II and his
immediate Romanov family, however brutal and unnecessary, was
therefore not the worst tragedy (or any tragedy at all) of the Russian
revolution, but on verifying the remains, the contemporary response in
Russia a few years ago was to declare the feckless Nicholas a saint!
Apparently, historic memory is also not as precise as DNA......)

The rest of us probably do not have such melodramatic stories and tales
as the Romanovs, nor such misleading myths, but as I have suggested,
every family does have stories to tell.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

Friday, November 23, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Lots Of Leopards, But No Lions

Although this is a good time to avert our gaze from excessive domestic
political analysis, the world at large is not bound by the psychological
needs of American voters, just liberated from the stress and vagaries of
a U.S.presidential election.

The pattern of recent years for American and European politicians to
procrastinate about facing immediate and critical problems goes on
unabated. This will have dire consequences, but not now, and the "not
now" is exactly what these politicians want.

In the Middle East, however, this theme is not in fashion with political
figures who do not share in the democratic tendency to delay unpleasant
dilemmas. These figures, many of whom are very recent creations of the
mis-named "Arab Spring," understand what successful totalitarians
always grasp. i.e., act fast and ruthlessly before an opposition can develop.
Like the proverbial leopards, this new generation of despots cannot shed
their ominous spots.

President Morsi of Egypt, only relatively few days into his first term,
having been elected with only 51% of the vote (coincidentally the same
percentage President Obama received two weeks ago) has declared himself,
in effect, dictator of Egypt. Protesters have quickly appeared, but don't bet
on their ability to continue to do so.

A truce has tentatively come into effect between Hamas-run Gaza and the
state of Israel. Both sides claim victory. Don't bet on this truce lasting
very long. In two months, there will be a general election in Israel, a
genuine democracy, so Prime Minster Netanyahu took the prudent course
not moving his troops into Gaza. After the election, who knows what will

The history of diplomacy in the new century, alas, is very little different
from diplomacy in the old one, or the one before that. In spite of pretensions
to "growing international maturity' and "international progress," the apparently
inherent inability of democratically-elected political leaders promptly to face
down and impede totalitarian ones remains endemic. The United Nations has
become a perverse farce, and only the voluntary and independent charity and
relief organizations give any validity to the concept and goal of international
humanitarianism as an answer, even if only a small one, to violence and

It would be so convenient and reassuring to avert our gaze from these matters,
as we can (at least briefly) from domestic U.S. politics, but of course the nature
of our global species does not allow any such reassuring holiday.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.   All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Some Thoughts On Travel (continued)

Very recently, I wrote in this space a little travel piece about making
the most of a short time in Chicago’s downtown Loop area near
Union Station. I travel frequently to this area while en route by train
to points east and south, and rather than be stranded in the rail
station, albeit a large one, I have made the layover an experience
filled with some charm and delight. I don’t presume that everything
I enjoy would be shared by all my readers, but I had hoped it would
be interesting and useful to them to read about some alternatives
ways to travel.

The response has been unexpectedly positive and encouraging, so I
would like to set down some further thoughts on making travel and
holidays, near and far, more rewarding and pleasurable. One of my
readers, in response to the Chicago piece, said he thought that many
Americans don’t know how to travel, and thus miss much. Perhaps
this is true, but I have always felt that the traveling itself can be as
important at the destination.

Today, most long-distance (more than 1000 miles) holiday, vacation
and business travel is by air.  Unfortunately, some of the most exciting
aspects of air travel, those which I enjoyed when I did fly, are no more.
Security measures, weight limitations, crowded seating, long distances
from airports to city centers, lack of not only good food, but often of
any food, have taken the fun and pleasure out of air travel.

I travel now mostly by train and ship. That is made easier by the fact
that I am rarely in a hurry, or constrained to s short trip. Business
travel, and holiday travel today often requires short actual travel time,
and thus air travel, I recognize, is the only practical choice.

Since it is my belief and experience that the travel time is of equal or
near-equal value as destination time, I offer some thoughts to those of
my readers who might make use of them.

Until September 11, 2001, my preoccupation with rail travel was
regarded skeptically by my friends,a and even some amusement at my
apparent transportation atavism. When passenger train travel was
nationalized in the U.S. in 1970 under the rubric of “Amtrak.,” the
quality of going by train fell precipitously, much as has also happened
now in going by airplane. In spite of “featherbedding” (requiring more
train employees than were necessary) which was part of the deal between
the government and the passenger train unions, onboard service went down.
Train food, once a culinary glory, became inedible. Train speed and on-time
efficiency were replaced with long delays and late arrivals. First class train
travel, including sleeping accommodations, rose in price precipitously and
declined in quality. Passenger cars were allowed to become too old; Amtrak
was slow to modernize and replace its cars and facilities. Most of all, the
Amtrak system, with the exception of the northeast corridor, used tracks it
did not own, and in spite of assurances given at the outset, freight trains
were given priority by the freight rail companies which owned the tracks,
thus precipitating constant and annoying delays.

Train travel, in short, became a disaster, after so may decades of its golden
age (before air travel), and was now a joke. Many folks still traveled by train,
of course, including train employees and their families (for free), train buffs,
and a not inconsiderable number of those who feared traveling in airplanes.
But it was a painful era. Finally, Amtrak began, with pubic subsidies, to
replace its passenger cars with new ones, including double-deckers, the
featherbedding disappeared over time, food service was partially restored,
stations were refurbished, first class lounges opened, and the increased-speed
Acela trains were inaugurated on the northeast corridor.

The large subsidies to Amtrak, the inconsistent arrival times, and the
antiquated routes still made U.S. passenger service an object of criticism
and derision until 9/11 when for a few days there was no air passenger service
in the nation. Following 9/11, necessary but increasingly intrusive
air security measures followed. As airlines took extended losses, they cut back
on onboard services, especially food services. Long waits and long distances
to city centers persisted.

Train travel has several advantages. The greatest of these includes the ability
to see the ground level beauty and splendor of the American transcontinental
landscape, and the ability for social interaction onboard trains. Not only are
meals shared on a train, club cars and lounges provide a unique venue for
meeting  and speaking with others. A train trip can be a very special adventure
not only for adults, but particularly for children as well. (In fact, my love of
trains was born in several pre-teen train trips with my parents.)

Not all Amtrak trains are equal. Some, such as the Coast Starlight (Seattle to
Los Angeles), rise to almost luxury level, not only in services, but in sights to
see as well. Others, such as The Cardinal (Chicago to Washington, DC), are to
be avoided if at all possible. Some have unique facilities and menus, such as the
Coast Starlight and the City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans),
and some are often below an acceptable grade, such as the Lake Shore Limited
(New York/Boston to Chicago).

Just as with air travel, train travel costs are much lower if reservation are
made early. As trains fill up, the cost of a coach seat or sleeping accommodation
goes up dramatically. First class train tickets include all meals. The price for
a first class room is the same for one or two persons (a huge savings for
couples traveling together). Some routes, such as the Empire Builder, provide
daytime lecturers and guides. Others, such as the Coast Starlight and the
Empire Builder, offer wine and cheese tastings, and first-run movies.

There are also multiple choices of routes. Chicago to Washington, DC is a much
better experience on The Capitol Limited than on The Cardinal. There are
four transcontinental routes, the Sunset Limited, the Southwest Limited,
the San Francisco Zephyr and the Empire Builder, Each has a route through
a distinctly different western American landscape.

Some trains are chronically late, such as the Empire Builder east bound. Recently,
with built-in padding of the schedules, many other train routes are providing on
time arrival.

If you have a reservation that includes a connection, unlike airlines, Amtrak
must provide you with alternative transportation or free overnight accommodations
with meals if the connection is missed. Delays on Amtrak do happen, but the
horror stories of passengers being stuck for long hours or days at air terminals
do not happen at rail stations because Amtrak is required to provide
accommodations and food when long delays occur.

Baggage weight limits on Amtrak are much more generous than on airlines. There
are occasional security checks and baggage inspections, but none of the intrusive
routine required for air travel. Long-term parking at air terminals can be very
expensive. Long-term parking is free at many (but not all) rail stations.

Although first class rail travel costs more, if reservations are made early, the
cost is quite reasonable. In addition to private sleeping accommodations, all
meals included, complimentary beverages and snacks in sleeping cars, porters
in each car, showers, special boarding privileges, first class passengers have free
access to the metropolitan lounges in major city stations. These lounges provide
free food and snacks, daily newspapers and magazines, business/computer
centers, comfortable seating and free baggage checking during your layover.
(This latter is very useful during layovers. Baggage storage for coach passengers
has almost disappeared in Amtrak stations, and when lockers are provided, they
are inordinately expensive.)

Food on trains, to be candid, is a mixed culinary bag. Dining cars now
feature full menus for breakfast, lunch or dinner. For the first class passenger,
each of whose meals are included, the selections, especially at dinner, can be very
satisfying, including excellent steaks, and specialty items such as lamb shanks and
barbecued ribs, and include delicious desserts. I always order a baked potato, but
other potato and vegetable items can be less than satisfactory. Unlimited choices
of non-alcoholic beverages are available, and a small garden salad is served with
all entrees. Breakfast includes large omelets and crab cake Benedicts, served with
hash browns or grits, pastries and unlimited beverages. If you are a serious tea
drinker, bring your own tea bags. Lunch is my least favorite meal on Amtrak, with
a limited selection of sandwiches and hamburgers, one kind of salad and a daily
special. For coach passengers, the meals can be expensive, although lounge car
fare is available at a lower price. Savvy coach travelers often bring their own food
on board. Special gourmet menus, particularly on the Coast Starlight and on the
City of New Oreans (with Cajun specialties) can provide memorable train meals.

The dining car, however, can be one of the best social experiences on a
train. I’ve had some great conversations and met some fascinating persons at

Amtrak has a Guest Rewards program in which travelers obtains points, similar to
those offered by many airlines, that can be used for free travel anywhere on the
Amtrak map. An Amtrak-affiliated credit card can hasten the accumulation of
points considerably, as can special offers to Guest Reward members. There is
no cost to join.

Finally, there is the unique magic of train travel itself. For some, especially those
who become easily carsick, or who otherwise are physically uncomfortable when
riding in trains, the “magic” is trumped by distress. For others, like myself, who
find the usually gentle motions of a train to be soothing and an inducement to
easy sleep, train travel is restorative. For most, however, riding in a train can be a
true adventure with an almost 200-year fabled history in most parts of the
civilized world. Do it!


In a future piece, I will discuss the extraordinary pleasures and advantages of
ship travel, a form of transportation and holiday travel unknown to many Americans.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


One of the many advantages of traveling by train, especially on the
transcontinental and north-south routes, is that if you have intervals
while connecting to other trains, you can enjoy and explore the
downtown areas near the train stations.

If you travel by air, you are stuck in an airport, usually far from a city’s
downtown with its restaurants, museums, coffeehouses and sights to see.

My favorite American city for a layover between trains is Chicago.
Amtrak’s Union Station is a huge structure designed for the heavy traffic
of 75 years ago and before, but the Windy City remains a great rail hub,
not only for passenger trains going across the continent, and for regional
trans, but also for the city's huge local ridership to the suburbs near and far.

It’s not as beautiful as Union Station in Washington, DC, nor perhaps as
busy as Pennsylvania Station in New York City, but it is still one of the
nation’s busiest rail terminals. Numerous fast food restaurants,  featuring
American and ethnic menus, are on site, but considering the choices
available within walking distance outside the station, you should definitely
choose the walk if you have enough time.

Going west from Union Station, just a few blocks away, is Chicago’s
legendary Greek Town. Not only are there numerous full-menu restaurants
serving Greek  specialties all day long, there are also Greek bakeries,
grocery stores, ethnic shops and taverns as well.  Plan on at least two hours,
including walking time.

Going east, on Adams and Randolph Streets, is a treasure hunt of sights,
historic hospitality locales, restaurants, bistros, bars and coffee and tea

I always begin at the Hotel W lobby, a stylish and hip locale filled with
younger tourists, a great bar, and the hotel’s resident Asian-French dining
room. Sip a complimentary and refreshing beverage in the lobby, pick up
one of several daily newspapers, and watch the fascinating crowd go by.

Down the street on Adams is Argo Tea, a small but attractive venue for
fine brewed teas, espresso drinks and upscale snacks. An almost Zen
tranquility pervades their tables and booths.

Cross the street, walk past the main post office, and go one block  to
Randolph where you will find the small flagship of the Intelligentsia
coffee empire. Just espresso drinks and fine coffees, brewed teas and a few
pastries, but this is where you will find Chicago’s signature coffee.
Intelligentsia coffee is now served all over the nation, but this is the
home base. They used to provide newspapers European style (with
wooden holders), but have lamentably discontinued this at their limited
number of tables.  A must stop for the coffee tourist nevertheless.

Walk back toward the post office, and turn right on Adams, and you are at
the most famous Chicago restaurant of them all, Berghof. Since the 1880’s,
this Teutonic outpost has been dispensing its own brewed beers and serving
the celebrated Germanl culinary specialties. Berghof almost closed down for
good a few years ago, but has been re-opened with a classic German and
continental menu. The good news used to be that dining at the Berghof
was also a great food bargain with sophisticated dishes, large portions and
impeccable service at surprisingly low prices. The great service is still there,
and the menu is, if anything, better than ever, but the reasonable prices are
gone. Lunch and dinner, especially lunch, are now quite expensive. In the
basement there is a more reasonably priced cafeteria offering quick and tasty
lunches with a limited menu, but in the famed and cavernous dining room it’s
definitely now only an upscale experience for your wallet.

To your right, one block, and your are at State Street, that great street; one
block to your left on State Street is an entrance to the Palmer House, one of
America’s iconic hotels. Its lobby is an experience in itself, with its decorated
high ceiling and breathtaking spaces. They have added a stylish lobby bar,
and at Christmas time, astonishing decorative displays. Up the stairs at one
end of the lobby is the entrance to the fabled Empire Room. If you come on
a Sunday, ’it serves a lavish brunch buffet. For decades, in the evening, this
room has hosted some of Chicago’s most elegant and fabulous parties, balls,
weddings and, yes, bar mitzvahs.

Going out from Palmer House on Wabash Avenue (which runs parallel to State
Street), go north back to Adams, then turn left until you reach Russian Tea
Time, an oasis of the finest cuisine of the Slavic regions going back to their
imperial era. The owners emigrated from the now-Ukrainian city of Zhitomir
(where, incidentally, my father was born at the turn of the century), and their
borscht, pierogi, Chicken Kiev, Russian gunpowder teas, and a myriad of other
delectable specialties, make this one of the best restaurants for this cuisine in
the nation. Before caviar became so scarce, even unobtainable, you could also
find the full range of beluga, osetra and svruga caviars fresh from the Caspian
Sea here. Those days, apparently, are now over, and what caviar you can find
is priced astronomically.

One more block east on Adams, and you are at Chicago’s incomparable Art
Institute with its fabulous collections of painting, sculpture and art objects from
around the world. Plan on much of a day just for a proper look at the museum’s
unique collection of French impressionists. This is one of the world’s major
art museums.

On your way back to Union Station on Adams is Pret A Manger, a British-based
chain for superb organic sandwiches, salads soups and desserts. Eat there, or
have your selections wrapped for take-out (to be eaten on the train, if you wish).
Prices are reasonable, and everything is fresh daily and made on the premises.

Two more blocks, one past the nation’s tallest building (formerly known as the
Sears Tower), and you are back to Union Station.

There are many more interesting places along this short walking route than I
have mentioned, but I have listed what I feel are the high points. You won’t be
able to do them all during one layover, but they represent a civilized and
distinctive choice of how to best fill your time, when only a limited time is
available in this otherwise vast and overwhelming American metropolis.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


It is not just a trip to where I was born.

Persons of my age and my generation, who come from small cities
and towns, very often left home and made a life elsewhere. In my
case, I went to university and graduate school, traveled to and lived
in foreign countries, worked in New York City for about a year, and
then settled in Minnesota where I have spent most of my adult life.
When my parents, and my uncles and aunts, lived in my home town,
I visited there regularly, but over some time, all of them died. My
only brother and his children lived elsewhere. The very large family
of my parent’s generation, and the one before them, shrunk into a
small and scattered group.

Everyone has a different relationship with the city where they were
born and grew up. Mine was much more enduring than perhaps most
have, that is, than most who have moved away have.

The truth is that Erie, PA is one of America’s forgotten cities of
100,000 or more population. It is one of those places easily derided.
(One epithet: “The mistake on the Lake.” Another: “Dreary Erie.”)

Moderately old, by U.S. standards, it is one of those “Rust Belt”
cities on or near the Great Lakes that saw its industrial base of the
late 19th century evaporate by the end of the 20th century. It was
historically an ethnic, blue collar place with some unusual geography,
rich rural farmland and strategically located so that it could play
a curious and small role in U.S. history, especially in the 19th century.

The more notable places which surround it pushed Erie into the
shadows. Only a hundred miles away were Cleveland to the west,
Buffalo to the east, and Pittsburgh to the south. It was perhaps too
small to become a household word, and its collective nature too
reserved to promote itself. Until just before World War II it had few
colleges and no universities. But it did have a significant industrial base.
It led the world in the production of nuts, bolts and meters. It became
a notable plastics center.  Everything from toys to caskets were made
here. It had the largest fine paper mill in the nation. Since its beginnings,
it had been a shipbuilding center, and this continues to the present time.
It has one of the largest plants in the world producing diesel locomotives. 
Some of its companies were known worldwide, including Hammermill,
General Electric, Kaiser Aluminum, Erie Resister, American Sterilizer,
Bucyrus Erie, Marx Toys, Zurn Manufacturing, Erie Insurance Exchange,
American Meter, Eriez Manufacturing and many others. Only General
Electric remains as a large manufacturer, but it recently moved its executive
offices to Chicago. The only major local companies really thriving are Erie
Insurance Exchange and Donjon Shipbuilding.

What have arisen, on the other hand, are colleges and universities,
hospitals, and a tourist industry. Erie, PA is transforming itself slowly and
quietly from a blue collar town to a white collar town. Its large German,
Italian and Polish ethnic base is changing, as it is also happening in most
Americans cities, large and small. Unknown only a few years ago, Erie
now has coffeehouses, fine dining restaurants, a giant regional shopping
mall, the nation’s largest medical school, and a rich arts and revived cultural

Forming a large bay facing the city is a unique peninsula called Presque
Isle. It juts out into Lake Erie, forming a natural harbor and protection
from the ravages of the waves of the Lake. From its earliest days, Erie
was a port, and in the early 1800s it even had its own branch of the
Erie Canal (going from Pittsburgh to Erie). It was also an early American
railroad hub, but today has only two Amtrak trains stopping in the city daily.

Presque Isle, a pristine state park, has miles of sandy beaches that rival
south Florida, and sunsets with no national rival. It draws more than
4 million visitors each year, mostly in the summer.

Erie County's agricultural products, including sweet corn and other produce,
are substantial. It is a major grape growing county in the U.S., and now has
several vineyards and wineries. The back roads of North East, a community
in Erie County filled with seemingly endless acres of grape vines, would
remind one of rural France (except, perhaps, for the cuisine).

For a hundred years it was a political shadow in the northwest corner of the
state, barely known to exist in the eastern part of the state. Until Tom Ridge,
no Pennsylvania governor had come from Erie, and no national figure for a
hundred years.

In the mid-19th century, celebrities appeared and spoke in Erie. Erie was on
the national vaudeville circuit, and leading actors appeared in plays at its
Park Theater.  Presidents and former presidents visited. Erie was on the fast
track. The first American circus had its winter home in Erie County.
In the early 20th century, the Erie Philharmonic presented famed virtuosi to
local audiences, Jascha Haifetz among them. The Erie Playhouse was a local
professional theater with a national reputation, and several Broadway and
Hollywood stars performed in it at the beginning of their careers. Its minor
league baseball team, the Erie Sailors, sent some its players to the major
leagues. Bob Hope was married in Erie.

Today, Erie’s cultural and intellectual life is reviving. I have returned to
participate in Global Summit IV, a week-long annual symposium with
speakers such as David Brooks and Karl Rove. Steve Scully, also an Erie
native, returns to serve as chairman of the event, even as he now plays an
important role in Washington, DC as a top figure at C-SPAN and the White
House Correspondents Association. Erie’s historic port is also reviving with a
stylish new bayfront Sheraton Hotel next to a stunning new convention
center, both overlooking Presque Isle Bay.  At Erie’s piers, ships from
around the world unload their cargo. At Erie International Airport a new
7500-foot runway now accommodates the largest commercial jets. The city has
begun celebrating the 200th anniversary of Perry’s historic naval victory in the
War of 1812, an event in which it played a vital part. Speaking with Erieites,
I perceive a new sense of optimism. After years of returning here to “deary”
Erie, and its rust belt syndrome, I now return to “cheery” Erie.

It’s good to be home.

Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


The Democratic Party's slogan for the 2012 elections now ironically becomes
the operating word for the immediate future of the national Republican

The presidential election result came as a surprise to many observers (myself
included), Republican voters and conservative political activists. There will
now be an extended post-mortem by the political pathologists on all sides, and
not a few recriminations, might-have-beens, and I-told-you-sos by self-styled
conservative theoreticians. Democrats, being Democrats, will have a difficult
time not to rub it in.

Since I do not belong to any political party, and I did not attend medical school
(as my father did), I am not going to attempt to dissect what happened yesterday.
(At least not here and now.)

But I am going to talk about what happens next for the Republican Party,
the Democratic Party and the nation.

Yesterday, the incumbent president of the United States won a clear but very
narrow re-election. The voting was notably diminished from 2008 both in the
popular vote and in the margin of the electoral vote.

At the same time, the Democrats fared remarkably well in the U.S. senate
races, picking up a net of two seats. They now control the U.S. senate 55-45.

Simultaneously, the Republicans kept clear control of the U.S. House, losing
only a relative few seats in an election following their winning 60-plus seats
from the Democrats only two years before.

Finally, the Republicans had a gain of one governorship even though they
already controlled many more than their opposition party. There are now 30
GOP governors.

The fundamental position of the Republican brand at the congressional and
state level was essentially not affected by the 2012 election. Voters have
indicated that they want conservative government and representation close
to home. (There were exceptions to this, such as in Minnesota.) A look at the
map reveals that the GOP is a more national party, albeit a rural and suburban
party outside the South. The Democrats are now primarily an urban party.

Going forward, the prospects for the two parties are quite different. The
national governing party, the Democrats, and their president face formidable
problems at home and abroad. They will now be expected to deliver
practical solutions to those problems and quickly. The national opposition
party, the Republicans, will need to come up with alternatives of their own,
proposed through the U.S. house of representatives and by GOP leaders,
that are credible and acceptable to a majority of the nation.

In only two years, a mid-term election will take place, and it will be
primarily a plebiscite on the Obama administration's second term. The last
such mid-term in 2010 was a disaster for the Democrats. It certainly won't be
George W. Bush's fault this time.

Obamacare now obviously won't be repealed. It's details, regulations and
consequences will now collide with the health care market and the public
pocketbook. These prospects, I believe, are grim, notwithstanding any of the
genuine reforms Obamacare also brings.

The relationship of the United States to the rest of the world, including our
allies, our foes, and the many nations which are neither, is at a critical
moment. A worldwide economic downturn affects all, including China
which has been providing us with bail money. Violence and repression
is increasing across the globe. Great natural disasters occur with an
unpredictable frequency.

In 2014, similar to 2012, many more Democratic than Republican U.S.
senate seats are up for election.  Some incumbents from both parties will
retire. (Six each from the two parties are from 70 to 90 years old.) The 13
Republican seats, however, are in super-solid GOP state (except for a very
popular incumbent in Maine), and unless this party repeats its inexcusable
past mistake of nominating weirdo candidates, they are unlikely to lose any
of these. (That does not mean, as we learned in 2012 that they won't!) The
Democrats, on the other hand, have 19 incumbent seats, and at least 10 of
them, including probable retirements, are potentially vulnerable. This time
there will not be a presidential election to cover for them; in fact, the
president (as he was in 2010) could be their main problem.

The other side of the coin is the possibility that Barack Obama will finally
point himself to the political center, genuinely compromise with the
Republicans in the U.S. house, and roll up his sleeves to resolve our
economic difficulties. He has not done this in the past, but the enormity
of our economic problems could move him to do this. If he does not, it's
stalemate until 2014. The victories of today, as those in 2008, could quickly
turn into political nightmares.

We will now see who, if anyone, goes forward, and not in reverse.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.     All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Special Subscriber Bulletins On Election Day

The Prairie Editor has already sent out a SPECIAL SUBSCRIBER BULLETIN
(Update #1) to all subscribers at their e-mail addresses. Subscribers should
check their e-mail for further updates throughout the afternoon and evening.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Polling Profession Is On Trial

We are now about 48 hours away from learning the first results of the
2012 national election campaign. Most polls show the election to be close.
Most polls, but not all, are based on a larger turnout of Democrats.
Those polls mostly show the presidential race tied, and Democrats
winning most of the admittedly close U.S. senate races. Virtually all polls
show the Republicans retaining control of he U.S. house by a comfortable

If indeed the intensity is on the Democratic side, and more Democrats turn
out on Tuesday (as they did in 2008), then Barak Obama will be re-elected
and the Democrats will continue to control the U.S. senate.

If, on the other hand, the greater intensity is on the Republican side (as
virtually all indicators say it is), then the presidential result could be quite
different, and the GOP might take control of the senate.

There have not ever been as many polls in a national election as this cycle,
and not ever before has the media taken so many questionable polls
seriously. Except for Gallup and Rasmussen, there are serious questions
about the assumptions and weighting of most polls this cycle, and thus
the whole profession of political polling is on trial.

The late expansion of the number of battleground states is an ominous for
the incumbent president. Mr. Obama cannot afford to lose even one of them,
including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Even states now considered safe for one candidate or another could
provide surprising results on Tuesday.

Of course, there are much more serious matters than polling at stake in
2012, and the nation's voters, one by one, will make a critical judgment
on Tuesday about their own future and the future of the republic.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.