Tag Archives: National Park Service

Greek magic at Chateau Nico Lazaridi

Inspired by the allegorical 1924 Thomas Mann novel The Magic Mountain, Frederico Lazaridis takes seriously the primal interplay of mythic forces and human reality. Wine was essential to the Greek psyche and had its own god, Dionysus. In everyday life Eastern Macedonia and Thrace was its motherland.

Mount Pangeon from the theater at Philippi, nearby Chateau Lazaridi

More to the point, Chateau Nico Lazaridi sits opposite Eastern Macedonia and Thrace’s own magic mountain – Mount Pangeon. Its magic was both mythic – a favorite party mountain for Dionysus – and tangible. Its vast gold deposits funded the empires of Philip II and Alexander the Great, paid for the construction of the nearby legendary city of Philippi and, sitting on the Via Egnatia, was at the crossroads between Eastern and Western cultures for centuries.

Chateau Lazaridi

During the Roman Empire era (100s BC – 500s AD) retired legionaries were often settled in the region producing high quality agricultural products shipped as far as Rome. The Via Egnatia spanned the length of today’s northern Greece from Thessaloniki to the Dardanelles. It was the “super highway” for the distribution of goods between the Mediterranean and Asia.

Frederico takes all of this personal. Nico Lazadidis, Frederico’s father,  is from the region – the  historic city of Drama. His mother was from Florence, Italy, which added a cultural influence already common in the lands along the Via Egnatia. Nico’s profession was also ancient – stone and marble purveyor. Their roots are, literally, in the building blocks of civilizations.

Nico learned to make wine during his years in Italy. In 1974 the family and business returned to Drama but continued perfecting their wine making techniques as a “garage art.” In the early 1980s Nico explored commercial possibilities and in 1987 established Chateau Nico Lazaridi.

ultra modern facilities but the labels are still placed by hand

They were one of the only wineries at the time in the Drama region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. It’s ironic that for seven millenniums, Thrace has been the mother terroir of wine grapes. Yet wine production virtually ended in the 15th century under Ottoman Islamic rule coupled with the phenomenal profits earned from “King Tobacco” followed then by the devastation of 20th century wars.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

Of course it was precisely the devastation and upheavals of 20th century wars that ended the preeminence of tobacco as an economic engine. Macedonia and Eastern Macedonia and Thrace are once again regaining the wine reputations they held since ancient days. Eleven wineries dot the Drama area while seven labels are in the nearby Kavala region.

The Kingdom of Thasos, which the region was a part in the 1st millennium BC,  established the first quality control system for grapes, wine and olive oil. Today the Drama area is within the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) Agora.

Lazaridi wines

Chateau Nico Lazaridi is between three mountains, which funnel steady winds ventilating the grape vines helping to prevent mold. The vineyards lay on an ancient riverbed, which provides soil rich in minerals. The region’s flat riverbed land was made arable only as a result of 1930s drainage and land reclamation projects. The famous Battle of Philippi (1st century BC) fought nearby was on wetlands.

Chateau Lazaridi proves that bigger can be better. Its 1.1 million bottle production consists of over a dozen wines and tsipouro, the classic distillation from wine must. One hundred sixty acres in the Drama area (PGI –Agora) contain the main vineyards. Thirty-seven acres are contracted from area growers.

Their Mackedon Winery in Kavala is 25 acres and a new small  ten acre winery will soon open on Mykonos Island.

Neither bio-dynamic nor organic farming methods are used in the vineyards because Frederico feels they’re best in an enclosed growing environment such as the islands where it’s easiest to maintain proper conditions.

wine cellar, Chateau Lazaridi

The new wine cellar, for me, is the centerpiece. It has exposed earthen walls that maintain climate and temperature with 85% humidity. French and American oak barrels fill the vast room, but acacia wood is now being used especially for the whites. Acacia imparts a floral note. An impressive curved ceiling mural  looking upward at the sky through a grape arbor graces the length of the cellar.

Chateau Nico Lazaridi is a multidimensional company of several divisions today. A demo kitchen, which will feature area guest chefs, will offer cooking and wine classes. It will be the forerunner of a future restaurant on site.

A lab is on site to maintain quality control. They research developments in vinification in the quest for the next generation of Greek wine.

The Magic Mountain Art Gallery

The Magic Mountain Art Gallery is the family’s great pride. It is both the private collection of the Lazaridi family and, in many cases, the designs for wine labels. Twenty-five years ago Nico established an artist partnership to contemporize Greek wine marketing. The Magic Mountain Art Gallery works with and patronizes contemporary Greek and European artists who express interpretations of the primal link between this drink of the gods and its role in Greek life.

lunch at Chateau Lazaridi

Lunch with Frederico offered hearty northern Greek dishes and two of Chateau Lazaridi’s most popular wines both from the PGI-Agora. Cavalieri Lazaridi White (Assyrtiko 70%, Sauvignon Blanc 15%, Ugni Blanc 15%) has the dry yellow fruit notes with hints of honey emblematic of assyrtiko. It spends six months in acacia barrels adding floral accents.

F- EY, a dry red of the PGI-Agora (Merlot 85%, Grenache Rouge 15%).

Greek fashion designer Andria Thomais designed both labels for F- EY, a dry red of the PGI-Agora (Merlot 85%, Grenache Rouge 15%). The original paintings in the Magic Mountain collection are of two contented men and women. Ey (εὖ in Greek) is a descriptor for all that’s good and creative in a person’s life. It’s an apted descriptor for Chateau Nico Lazaridi and one that Dionysus sitting on his magic mountain would bestow.


The god would probably want his portrait on a label.

Mount Pangeon
Mount Pangeon from the vineyards of Chateau Nico Lazaridi, Drama, Greece

Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Chateau Nico Lazaridi and the Municipality of Drama.  All opinions are the author’s. Arrangements were facilitated by Pass Partout Tourism Marketing, DMC, Thessaloniki

Please read more by Travel with Pen and Palate at…

Hellenic News of America (Travel with Pen and Palate)
Hellenic News of America (Marc d’Entremont)
Travel Pen and Palate Argentina

Battle of New Orleans Bicentennial Concert


United States Marine Corps Band New Orleans at St. Louis Cathedral
United States Marine Corps Band New Orleans at St. Louis Cathedral


Marine Corps Band New Orleans
Marine Corps Band New Orleans

Both the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France (c. 1793 & 1850) and the Marines are intimately tied to that seminal day in New Orleans history, January 8, 1815. It was an apt setting 200 years to the day for the United States Marine Corps Band to perform a concert in honor of the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans.

Fireworks lit the night sky following the concert, illuminating Jackson Square and trying to shed some light on the the little understood War of 1812.


Fireworks at Jackson Square, New Orleans
Fireworks at Jackson Square, New Orleans

Read about this historic concert in…

Marine Corps Band Battle of New Orleans concert


Clark Mills equestrian statue (1856) of General Andrew Jackson, Jackson Square, New Orleans
Clark Mills equestrian statue (1856) of General Andrew Jackson, Jackson Square, New Orleans


You can read all my articles at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

Culinary Travel Examiner

 International Dining Examiner

International Travel Examiner

Philadelphia Fine Dining Examiner

Food & Recipes Examiner

Wildlife abounds in Cameron Parish, Louisiana

Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours, Cameron Parish, LA
Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours, Cameron Parish, LA


DSC00997Fed by three river systems—the Sabine, Calcasieu and Mermentau – 85 percent of Cameron Parish is coastal wetlands, open water or open range.


Over a million alligators populate Louisiana. Cattle graze on grasslands; rice and sugar cane fields still thrive. There are 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches blissfully free of high-rise condos, hotels or even beach houses.


Read more on this nirvana for the outdoorsman…

Floating on Louisiana marshland in Cameron Parish


alligator in Cameron Parish, LA
alligator in Cameron Parish, LA

You can read all my articles at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Travel

Culinary Travel Examiner

 International Dining Examiner

International Travel Examiner

Philadelphia Fine Dining Examiner

Food & Recipes Examiner

Pele is Home: Volcano National Park, Hawaii

We were startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window with shouts of “tsunami…evacuate.” Stunned, we learned that a Pacific wide warning, following Chili’s catastrophic 27 February 2010 earthquake, had been issued. Throwing our clothes into the car, not knowing if we’d see the beautiful Japanese-style beach rental house again, we decided to drive the 40 minutes up the mountain into Volcano National Park.

Stopping first for gas, my wife, Jill, went into the store next door for bottled water while I waited in line. Hawaii’s beautiful pink dawn was breaking as I observed the locals in no particular rush, certainly no panic. Jill returned with water and a 12-pack of toilet paper. “Toilet paper?”  “Everyone was buying toilet paper so…” her voice trailed off. Was she in shock? Laughter convulsed us both as relief replaced fright. At least if we had to camp …

Kileuea Volcano, (bottom left) sulphur rocks & gas, (upper right) house “off the grid” (bottom right) a caldera, (center) stained glass window at Volcano National Park

Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanoes – Kilauea – in an island chain born of volcanoes. We stood on an observation platform, in the middle of the devastating lava field caused by Kilauea’s most recent eruptions, with a sweeping view of the stunning coastline. Then it struck. No, not the waves, the realization we had fled to the safety of an active volcano to escape a possible tsunami.

looking for the tsunami, 27 February 2010

Nine hours later, as the evacuation order was lifted, there was audible disappointment among the other tourists – no photo ops. Fortunately, Hawaii was spared that time, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Later in the week we drove into Hilo for a day at its famous market. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land and athletic fields but that’s not   the reason for its existence.

gardens and park land where Japan Town used to be, tsunami warning tower

For nearly a century before 1946 that same swath of land had been Japan Town, a warren of immigrant shanties. It lives on in Hawaii’s superb Asian fusion cuisine. Yet in a brief time frame on April Fool’s Day 1946, Japan Town and many of its residents were swept into the sea by a tsunami created by another catastrophic earthquake thousands of miles distance in Chile.

The Pacific Tsunami Museum is a short walk from the Market. Staffed mostly by volunteers – many who survived the devastating 1946 tsunami – they showed no sympathy for the tourists that lost photo ops a few days before.

As long as the carbon dioxide and sulphur gas levels from Kilauea’s simmering crater do not force its closure, Volcano National Park is open 24 hours. We drove one night to the observation area that’s closest to the caldera. There in the pitch blackness of an overcast Hawaii night, we looked in awe at the vast, blood-red glowing cauldron of Halemaumau, the eternal home of  Pele, goddess of volcanoes. The fragility of paradise, Pele is indeed home, prepared to remodel the land at her pleasure.

the glowing cauldron of Halemaumau

“There are no vacant lots in nature.”

My photos of southern Nevada illustrating the musings of Edward Abbey, – the “Thoreau of the American West” – from his collection of essays, Desert Solitaire (copyright 1968).

snow-capped Mount Charleston, Nevada


 “There are no vacant lots in nature.”



“Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand…”

ruins of El Dorado mines, Nevada



 “How difficult to imagine this place without a human presence…”

Petroglyphs, Valley of Fire, Nevada, 4000+ years old
neon signs, Las Vegas, 70+ years-old



“Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” 



“One more expression of human vanity. The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert.”



“Light. Space. Light and space without time, I think, for this is a country with only the slightest traces of human history…from the mortally human point of view the landscape of the Colorado is like a section of eternity—timeless.”

Colorado River, El Dorado Canyon, Nevada



 “Water, water, water…. There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

snowman on Mt. Charleston April 2011, just north of Las Vegas



“You can’t fight the desert… you have to ride with it.” ~ Louis L’Amour

Water, the Rugged West and Other American Myths

clang, cling, bling, lights, bells and the clank of coins, Las Vegas, Nevada
It was the pinball machines that always grabbed me first with their loud clang, high clings, lights, bells and the clank of coins at the Trevose Roller Rink. The soda fountain’s compressed gas added to the cacophony. The smell of baking pizza cut through my allergy-stuffed nose. Wrapped in plastic, this slice of frozen wonder cooked in a first generation micro wave, and only half the partially melted plastic needed to be peeled off the cheese.


The fries, burgers, dogs, cheese steaks and grease were the aromas of fun for a ten-year-old’s sensibilities. The carney music concussed ears, the vision of whirling skaters circling the rink like an undulating snake, all added to the heat of innocent sin.

I sat with my buddies, hot, sweaty, exhilarated, and drank cold water from cone shaped paper cups. Billy said, “One day will have to pay for a cup of water.” What!! Never. Dumb…why?” the rest of use were stupefied. Being a ten-year-old at the Trevose Roller Rink, with the noise of music, cling of the pinball machines, smell of the cheap food and sweaty smiles, my innocence suffered its first doubt as to the future.

Goodsprings and El Dorado Canyon, Nevada


Along the road to Canyonland National Park, a ribbon of a river winds for miles through the surreal sandstone, wind and water sculpted canyons in hues of red, orange, green, tan and whites. A snake of invasive Cottonwood trees define the river. Water bubbles from an underground spring fed from rain that fell a thousand years ago on top of surrounding mesas and filtered through the limestone. Isolated ranches, images of the nineteenth century, conjure romantic notions of simpler times, but in this geography of awesome beauty, quiet and dryness, the fantasy evaporates as rapidly as a drought or gets washed away as quickly as a flash flood. Ten inches of annual rainfall create precarious conditions.

4000+ year-old pictographs, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Pre-historic pictographs, wisely preserved by state and national parks, may have warned the unfortunate Mormon settlers, if anyone could have read them. To me they’re 4,000 year old graffiti – seriously humorous gripes of being an organism that’s 70% water living in a land lacking that most important element.  The park gates display large signs detailing to hikers the necessity to carry a daily minimum of one gallon of drinkable water per person. At the entrance to most park information centers are vending machines. They only sell 16 oz. plastic bottles of spring water – at $2.00 each.


The truth of my friend’s prediction is in Las Vegas amidst the clings, clang, clanks, smells, tired smiles, perfume and shimmering air of innocent sin. Nearly two-million Clark County residents, forty-million annual tourists, computerized undulating fountains, artificial beaches with waves, pirate galleons in Caribbean lagoons, tropical jungle rivers, Venetian canals and two-hundred acre golf courses all suck water from the desert’s less than 10″ of annual moisture and the underground aquifer that remains from a three-hundred million year old ocean. It’s not free, and it may not be forever.

a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, (bottom right) small water catchment

Mesa Verde, Colorado, is awesome. To generations of Native Americans it is sacred ground. Until the 13th century it was home to hundreds of people.  The First Americans choose this, and other mesas, for a variety of practical reasons. They were easily defensible, were covered with trees, had fertile soil and due to altitude and wind currents, received the lion’s share of rainfall in this otherwise parched region. The soft limestone rock both filters and traps precious water supplies rather than allowing it to simply run off the cliff. This confluence of advantages created the environment for a flourishing agrarian society over a millennium ago. Walking through the ruins of interconnecting rooms that served as both warehouses for grain and ceremonial centers for the political and religious elite several hundred feet below the mesa summit on a blisteringly hot, dry day, it felt cool within these ancient walls. It wasn’t just shade. Many places on the interior cliff walls were moist and moss-covered. Small trickles of water emerged from these glistening patches dripping down the walls into thin channels carved into the rock floor (picture above: bottom right). At the end of each channel was a small three to four-inch diameter by six-inch deep collecting well carved into the rock. No source of water was too small to be ignored.

plant life at the Valley of Fire, Nevada

Yet the ingenuity of this culture could not prevent its demise. The success of agriculture allowed the population to exceed nature’s ability to sustain human activity. The trees on the mesa’s summit created a temperature differential in the atmosphere that encouraged the formation of life-giving thunder storms, but they also provided fuel and building material for the thriving agrarian economy. By 1150, the very success of that economy had denuded the mesa resulting in a precipitous drop in rainfall. Archaeological evidence tells a disastrous story of drought, increasing civil strife and, finally, abandonment. There is even evidence of defensive fortifications being the last building projects in the cliff towns. Within a century, human habitation on the mesa top and the cliffs came to an end.

                     Lake Mead – over 130 feet below original levels

Every day in the Southwest the newspapers print articles concerning water. Legal battles are fought over resource rights among farmers, ranchers and land developers. Political battles rage among municipalities, states and the Federal government over river allocations and who’s going to pay for the projects. Environmentalist and economic growth interests ask Courts to rule on the advantages or damages caused by past and future dam projects.

Red Rock State Park, Nevada


The national and state park services not only take vigilant preservation seriously but make scientific research of these complex ecosystems a high priority. Practical applications from this research are evident in both water conservation technology used in Park facilities and eradication of water sucking invasive plants, such as Cottonwood trees, that were introduced to the environment in the last century by well-intentioned economic interests.

                                                               cottonwood trees

On the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, is the elegant El Monte Sagrado Resort . It’s a modern hacienda with artistically appointed guest rooms, expensive spa and stunning dining facilities. Everything surrounds an oasis of native and tropical plants complete with a wide meandering creek crossed by bridges and punctuated with fountains and waterfalls. But appearances can deceive. Among the magnificent vegetation are odd, sculpted metal “trees” whose “flowers” are photo electric cells. The collected energy operates the pumps and the extensive decorative lighting. The hotel has its own on-site treatment facility that purifies and recycles all waste water. It’s used to irrigate the garden and create all its water features. Brochures explaining the green philosophy of management are conspicuously placed for guests to read. Yet resorts like this are the exception. Las Vegas’ Bellagio with its massive water fountain display within an artificial lake are more the norm.

      monument at Hoover Dam to workers who died on construction – 1931-35

Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America and sacred ground to the Puebloan culture. Only a limited number of outsiders are allowed to visit the mesa and must be accompanied by a native guide who conducts a well-disciplined tour. Because of the sacred nature of the site, visitors must adhere to strict rules governing photography and following the directions of the tour guide. Only in modern times has electricity been available and a road built allowing cars and trucks access to the top of the mesa. In previous centuries, the plains that surround the mesa were farmed providing food for the Pueblo. Now the food comes from grocery stores on the reservation. Coal fueled electricity, in this land of perpetual sun that could generate both solar and wind energy, run the air conditioners in the adobe dwellings. The Mesa is devoid of all vegetation. It’s hot, dusty and crowded. Blue plastic port-o-potties dot the village. In ancient days, farm fields were fertilized with both animal and human waste. Port-o-potties use chemicals that without proper treatment contaminate ground water. The Mesa of Acoma is sacred, photography of most sites, as well as lingering after the tour, is forbidden, but port-o-potties are a fact of modern Native American life.

                  Hoover Dam – a Great Depression make-work government project

Hoover Dam is a modern cathedral radiating energy in a most tangible form. Throngs of visitors make a pilgrimage to this art deco monument to 20th century engineering. Graceful angels are poised on the very rim of the dam in testimony to the beauty and power that silences the crowds as they stare, transfixed, at the silver glint on the blue water of Lake Mead. Like the trees of Mesa Verde, this dam is the economic engine of a culture. This tax-payer built Federal Depression-era make-work project was a resounding success for Sin City’s boom and is the artery through which Las Vegas lives today.  It’s sacred ground. Yet water levels in Lake Mead have been declining since 2000 and are nearly at historic lows. In a 2008 report on the status of Lake Mead, scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predict there is a 50% probability that Lake Mead will be completely dry by 2021 due to climate change, population growth and unsustainable overuse of Colorado River water. The report concluded “Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system. The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis are a major societal and economic disruption in the desert southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region”.

(below right) Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health Las Vegas, designed by Frank Gehry


 The clings, clang, clanks, smells, tired smiles, perfume and innocent sin still clung to the hot air in the Las Vegas airport as I watched both arriving and departing passengers drop seemingly endless quarters into the slot machines. It all made sense. Whether it’s two bucks for a pint of water, wave machines in a desert, Court battles over water rights, port-o-potties on sacred land, a dam to sustain a city or villages built a thousand feet into the sky, we humans like to gamble. We’ll continue to take a chance at beating the odds.

All is calm: Wartime Christmas

 “It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.”
W. T. Ellis 

March In: 19 December (2010) Valley Forge

It is well documented that over the past 12,000 years of human existence, there has never been “peace on Earth” on any day. Is there a more visceral holiday wish for anyone that’s ever been fighting in war, or even amidst a war?

Holiday season, 1970, Dublin, Ireland. I am a 20-year-old student spending my 3rd year of university at Dublin’s National University (UCD). Walking back to my flat from a party, some time after 3:00 AM, through the peaceful quiet of St. Stephen’s Green, I pause to admire my favorite statue – Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the 1798 Rebellion. It wasn’t the first time I’d admired the striking, 10 foot modern bronze on its 3 foot tall square polished granite base. In the early morning Dublin mist, the abstract visage made me particularly mindful of the sacrifice (his life) that this wealthy Protestant gave to Ireland’s Nationalist cause. It was sometime after 3:30 AM when I continued on. Sometime shortly after 4:00 AM the statue vaporized – plastic explosives on the back side  hidden by bushes. Fortunately, the only damage was to property.

interior of hut: Valley Forge December 2010

19 December 1777, the Continental Army marched in to its 6-month winter encampment at Valley Forge. The village of Valley Forge was in the middle of the Great Valley, the wealthiest agricultural and industrial region (water powered mills) of the 13 colonies. Yet the enlisted men suffered through that Christmas nearly starving on “fire cake” (fried flour & water). For three weeks food was absurdly scarce to feed between 8,000 – 10,000 troops all due to incompetence and lack of central planning. Neither the enlisted men’s diaries nor Washington’s letters were kind during these weeks. By mid-January, the food issue was solved, but it was a bleak Christmas.

For me, the Web’s greatest asset is its ability to tell people’s stories. The earliest tragedy of World War I was its failure to be over by Christmas 1914 – as so much propaganda had predicted. Of all the poignant moments within the catastrophe of that pointless war was the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. In the late 1980’s singer/songwriter John McCutcheon told of this event with heart-rending lyrics. The creator of this U-Tube video of John’s song has paired the lyrics with moving art and photos.

The bitterly satirical 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War effectively dramatizes this seminal event:

In recent years, revisionist have questioned this incident citing that it romanticized war. Recent scholarship indicates such Christmas Day truces, unofficial although many may have been, did exist – and not just in World War I.

Yet the bitter irony of juxtaposing the sacred and the profane is belted out later in Oh! What a Lovely War when a soldier sings, “It was Christmas Day in the cookhouse, the happiest time of the year, Men’s hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer, When up popped Private Shorthouse, his face as bold as brass, He said, We don’t want your puddings, you can stick them up your tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of co-omfort and joy. It was Christmas Day in the harem, the eunuchs were standing ’round, And hundreds of beautiful women were stretched out on the ground, Along came the wicked Sultan, surveying his marble halls. He said, Whaddya want for Christmas boys, and the eunuchs answered tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of comfort and joy…”     (Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

World War II Christmas Decorations at the Wall House

The Wall House in Elkins Park, PA, dates from 1688. It has seen a lot of war. Two rooms are devoted to its World War II era residents. Besides letters to and from the Front among family members, holiday trees reflected the realities of war. In the picture above, center, is a field hospital “tree” decorated with blue and white ribbon/paper and painted tongue depresses. To the right, is a small living room tree decorated in paper and tin ornaments. The prized German-made glass ornaments were unavailable and unpatriotic.

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: decorated for Christmas 2009 (http://travelphotosbydave.shutterfly.com/)

“I had always thought there was no recognizable smell for impending death, but this country reeked of it…It was everywhere, no one left unscathed, no one left untouched, no one emotionally unscarred…It was the only time in my life I’ve ever felt a mutual, unconditional love for man and mankind…”       James Worthington, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam

I traveled in Vietnam in March 2010. That same 20-year-old kid that escaped being vaporized in 1970 along with Theobald Wolfe Tone, narrowly missed being drafted earlier that year in the first military draft lottery, or at best this might have been my second trip. I know/knew Vietnam Vets, some are no longer alive having succumbed to the demons of post-war life. I was lucky. Instead of Vietnam, I was in Ireland that Christmas. In his memoir, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam, John Worthington reminds me what Christmas 1970 may have been like.

Peace on Earth, a tenuous dream that we humans never want to give up, yet never want to try. Worldwide, we celebrate our cycles of rebirth year after year – solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah – hoping that some year the magic will work. Let’s not stop the hope.

the big blue marble: Earth (Paul Winter Consort, December 2009)


Church Keys are going extinct but not Clarissa Dillon: Colonial cooking in the 21st century

The fire’s roaring in the kitchen of the 1696 Thomas Massey House, trying to take the chill out of the beautiful autumn morning in this 17th century stone house. Eight of us are gathered around a colonial cooking icon – Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D.  I’ll refrain from using the word “legend” since I heard one well known Philadelphia chef recently reject that term when applied to him saying, “I can’t be a legend; I’m not dead yet.” Neither is Dr. Dillon, an octogenarian who next year on her annual trip to the British Isles will study whiskey distilling in Scotland.

Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D.

Clarissa is one of the foremost authorities – and she’ll freely say still a “student”- of 18th century American Colonial cooking, farming, gardening and household activities. I’ll leave all the details to your exploration of her web site. Needless to say, she’s a stickler on authenticity – writing, editing and traveling extensively to get the facts and set the history books straight.

A life-long teacher, she conducts seminars, cooking and gardening classes at many 18th century historic homes that are the legacy of William Penn’s Pennsylvania colony – Pennsbury Manor, the Wyck and Morris Mansions, Pottsgrove Manor, Anselma Mills, Ephrata Cloister just to name a few.

Thomas Massey House, 1696

On this Saturday morning we are learning about, and preparing, an autumn dinner on an open hearth using 18th century utensils with vegetables and herbs from the Massey House garden.

Stewed duck with bacon and veal forcemeat

Boiled Carrots

Boiled Scorzonera

Cranberry Pie

Hard cider

It’s confusing at first when I hear the word “receipt” used instead of recipe, but our modern word is, well, 20th century. For years, receipt meant cooking preparation instructions as well as accounts, and even Dr. Dillion says it’s often confusing until she sees the actual document.

Colonial American receipts were, for the most part, English, which makes perfect sense. After all, we were English colonies with very English sensibilities. Catherine Brooks, The Complete English Cook, 1762, was one of the popular sources for Colonial kitchens.

Brooks’ receipt for Stewing Ducks Whole: (all receipts are written in 18th century format)

Draw your ducks (pluck the feathers, etc.) and wash them clean, then put them into a stew-pan, with strong Broth, Anchovy, Lemon-peel, whole Pepper, and Onion, Mace and red Wine; when well stewed, put one piece of butter and some grated bread to thicken it; lay force Meatballs and crisped bacon round them and garnish with Shallots.

To translate: for 8 servings – 2 to 3 whole ducks covered with water or chicken stock. Add 5 to 6 chopped anchovy filets, peel of one lemon, 12 – 15 whole pepper corns, and one large onion chopped, 1 t. ground mace, and 1-1/2 cups red wine. Simmer until ducks register 165 degrees with a meat thermometer. Remove the ducks from the stock and keep warm. Strain the stock. Skim as much fat as possible. (If you prepare in advance, refrigerate both the ducks and the stock overnight. All the duck fat will solidify on the top and you can simply remove it.) Return to the fire, or stove, and add 1 to 2 cups of bread crumbs and ¼ pound of butter. Simmer until thickened.

Anchovy fillets, and other small salted fish, had been used since pre-Roman days as a salt substitute. Until the 19th century, salt was an expensive item commonly used for food preservation, not in a bowl on the dining table unless you were very rich!

Catharine Brooks’ Veal Force-meat Balls:

Take half a pound of suet, as much veal cut fine, and beat them in a marble Mortar or wooden bowl; have a few sweet Herbs shred fine, and a little Mace dried and beat fine, a little lemon-peel cut very fine, a small Nutmeg grated, or half a large one, a little pepper and salt, and the Yolks of two eggs; mix all these well together, then roll them into little round balls, and some in long ones; roll them in flour, and fry them brown.

To translate: for 8 servings – I’d use 3/4th  pound each suet and ground veal. Buy suet from a butcher or good grocery store (DO NOT use suet for birds!!!) and chop very fine in a food processor. Add 1t. crushed dried thyme, 1 T. fresh minced parsley, 1/2 t. nutmeg, ¼ t. mace, ½ t. grated fresh lemon peel, ¼ t. each salt and pepper and the egg yolks. Roll into balls and coat with flour or bread crumbs. Fry in butter.

Bacon: Cut half a pound of sliced bacon into thirds and fry until crisp.

Presentation: Arrange the ducks on a platter, arrange the meatballs and bacon around the ducks and sprinkle with 2 sliced shallots. Serve the gravy in a separate bowl.

Stewed duck with veal force meat and bacon

In the 18th century, pies were generally thought of as savory dishes whether made from beef and kidneys or fruit. Ann Peckham’s 18th century Cranberry Pie was meant to be served as a side dish. As a counter point to the richness of the Duck dish, the tart cranberries and flakey crust were terrific. In the 18th century, the crust was frequently so thick it was not meant to be eaten. It served as the “dish” from which the filling was spooned out.

Cranberry pie

Ann Peckham’s Cranberry Tart:

 Roll a sheet of tart paste, put it into your dish, boil up some cranberries with loaf sugar; when cold put them in, and trellis them over with the puff paste, cut a border out to lie round your dish, and bake it.

To make the paste for tarts: Take a pound of flour, and half a pound of butter, rub the butter into the flour, two eggs, and a little water, and make it into a paste.

To translate: Make the filling by combining 1-½ pounds of fresh cranberries and 1 to 1-½ pounds of sugar. Place on the fire, or the stove, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain through a colander. (Reserve the liquid, if you wish, adding ½ to 1 pound more sugar. Bring to a boil until reduced by half, and you have a cranberry syrup to use on pancakes, etc.)

For the crust: Cut the butter into the flour either with two knives, a pastry blender or in a food processor. In the bowl, using clean hands, lightly rub the flour and butter together to coat the flour with the fat, BUT don’t knead it together like bread. The heat in your hands will melt the butter and toughen the dough. Add the eggs and combine with a fork. If the mixture is not combining into a ball sprinkle in a little ice cold water just until the dough forms. Roll out 2/3’s of the dough and line a deep pie pan. After the cranberries have cooled to room temperature, pour into the crust. With the remaining 1/3 of the crust, roll out and cut into strips making a lattice design on top of the pie. Place into an oven at 375 degrees for 45 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

 If baking on an open fire, place the pie pan into a cast iron Dutch oven and cover with the lid. Place on the coals of the fire, or better, on a cast iron trivet above the fire, and cover the top of the lid with coals. Rotate the Dutch oven after 20 minutes. Check the pie after 40 minutes by removing the coals from the top of the lid and checking to see the color of the crust.

Serve the pie as a side dish to the duck.

top left: whole scorzonera, top right: trimmed, bottom left: cleaned, bottom right: fresh carrots
from the above raw amount, this is the quantity of scorzonera ready to cook

Carrots are carrots and even in this very late October day, they were still fresh in the garden. Scorzonera though is something else and you’ll not find it in any market. You have to grow it yourself. Known in England as Viper grass, its root is the only edible part, but it’s a very thin root. After scraping the skin off, what you have are very thin pieces of a root vegetable which was fried or steamed and frequently cream and butter were added. Its flavor is akin to a mild carrot. In the 19th century it fell out of the general cooking repertoire and was replaced by parsnips. Since the amount was so small we simply added them to the carrots and simmerd both over the fire for about one hour.

Hard apple cider was the beverage of choice for the common English/Colonial person for most meals and the major reason for cultivating apple trees in the first place.

As delicious as this dinner was, more fascinating were the tidbits of knowledge I was able to absorb at this first class.

The green tops of the carrots were used as a wool dye. After boiling, the wool turns yellow.

Claret, a common wine in English receipts, is French Bordeaux.

Suet for all recipes is the thick layer of creamy white fat that cushions the kidneys.

the kitchen garden

Kitchen gardens were first created by the Dutch and not adopted in England until the 16th century, even then only the affluent had extra land around their houses for a garden. Most kitchen gardens were for medicinal purposes – sage, turnips and potatoes being among the many forms of produce used for medicine. The average person gathered wild herbs, green onions in the spring, nuts etc. for cooking until the 19th century.

American colonial cooking was not in any way influenced by the Native American diet – with the exception of common vegetables such as corn.  Native Americans, considered savages, were ignored and condemned. John Bartram, the famous 18th century Philadelphia medicinal gardener grudgingly served as a go-between with the Onondaga  in order to increase his knowledge.

The Colonial diet was as far from organic, vegetarian and low-fat as one can imagine. Human manure was commonly used as fertilizer. Meat was devoured especially in winter and copious amounts of fat were used in all dishes.

Cheese was a summer substitute for meat since cattle was not slaughtered until winter – they needed the summer to fatten. Cheese and butter were made in late spring and summer when the grass the cows were munching on were free from spring onions and other weeds that would taint the milk sour. Most cheeses were of the soft, fresh variety. Obviously the wealthy could afford to preserve or import high quality, and harder, English cheeses such as cheddar.

Because hearth cooking made it difficult to keep food hot while waiting for the remainder of the meal to cook, dishes were frequently eaten at room temperature which often does not detract from the flavors. All dishes would be placed on the table at once – even those deemed “sweets.”

A very wealthy household with many servants frequently served three courses with an average of 20 – 25 different dishes per course – “buffet style.” Meats, fish, seafood,  vegetables, pies and puddings would all be part of each course. The first course would be “hardy” – beef, etc. Second course lighter – chicken, small birds, etc. The dessert course usually consisted of fresh and dried fruits, nuts and chocolate coated nuts.

Wine was made from everything including turnips and parsnips and brewing beer was part of every houshold and farm. “Fresh water” for drinking was an anomaly. Wherever there were towns and farms, lakes and streams were polluted with human and animal waste.

This is just the proverbial “tip of the ice berg” when it comes to my knowledge of 18th century food preparation, but it was sufficient to make me desire more!

Pat Martin

The Thomas Massey House hosts authentic Colonial dinners, by candlelight, several times during the year, check their web site, and will host a Christmas house event on 11 December 2010 highlighting the food of the various ethnic groups that comprised Penn’s colony. Pat Martin is the very capable, and overly modest, chef of these dinners.

a "church key"

Oh…the church key. Clarissa said it soon will cease to be manufactured because few liquids these days are canned that necessitate the punch section of the opener. Except that in Colonial cooking, items such as canned milk are necessary. She urged that we all stock up on this simple and effective tool. Nothing, including Dr. Clarissa Dillon, ever loses its usefulness!

Sandy Hook: A Gateway to pristine beauty (and ghosts?)

Sandy Hook Bay

We are driving on a sliver of land – a sand bar really – with the Atlantic Ocean and Sandy Hook Bay visible to our right and left. It’s a beautiful October day, breezy, bright sunshine, kite surfers in wetsuits and even one man swimming in a low 60 degree ocean. The beach is autumn empty, no crowds. The dune grasses glint golden in the sun. The leaves of low lying shrub plants are painting the seashore hues of red/purples and yellow/greens. Off in the distance, through a light haze the skyline of lower Manhattan, Staten Island, the Verrazano Bridge, Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach are all visible. Yet there are no “Mc Mansions”, or any beach house in sight for this is the protected land of Gateway National Recreation Area on the Sandy Hook.

(Bottom Center) Visitors Center for Gateway National Recreation Area


high speed ferry from Manhattan

Less than an hour drive from New York or a 40-minute high speed ferry ride from Wall Street, Sandy Hook has long been a playground for New Yorkers and Northern Jersyites. Yet only two-hours from Philadelphia, it remains a virtual unknown area for many Pennsylvanians (isn’t New Jersey from Atlantic City to Cape May?). The North Jersey coast is thick with forests, colonial villages, craggy cliffs and wide beaches.

Fort Hancock: restored & unrestored (bottom left: Theater)

Towards the end of the seven miles, Fort Hancock comes into view. From 1898 through the 1970’s the Hook was not always sparsely populated. During the Second World War, this end of the sand bar held a population of 20,000. Named in honor of civil war General Winfield Scott Hancock, construction on the Fort started the same year as the Spanish-American War (1898) and America’s acquisition of an overseas empire. The fort is a sprawling complex of handsome Colonial Revival buildings constructed from distinctive, local pale yellow bricks. It was a small town from the beginning with a theater, recreation facilities, clubs, church and, of course, housing. Enlisted men lived in large barracks, but married officers enjoyed spacious houses.

Officers Row

Officers Row consists of 18 waterfront houses ranging in size from 5,000 to 6,500 square feet. They were built at a cost of over $8,500 each in 1898 ($250,000 in 2010 dollars) with all the modern and decorative features of the day including fireplaces faced with tiles from Portugal. One – History House – is fully restored and furnished to reflect the life of an officer’s family during the Second World War years of the 1940’s. Excellent weekend tours are conducted by volunteers from 1:00 – 5:00 PM.

History House: restored 5,500 sq. ft. officer house

 Naturally I found the kitchen interesting. An original Frigidaire refrigerator and Kelvinator stove are in working order allowing History House to host receptions utilizing this spacious kitchen. A walk through pantry connected the kitchen to the dining room. A unique item is the dining room’s steam radiator that was constructed with a food warmer top section! A servant’s staircase just off the hallway outside the kitchen attests to an era when the middle/upper middle class could afford hired help.

History House 1940 Kitchen (bottom left: radiator/food warmer)


Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, most of the remaining houses have fallen into disrepair and face an uncertain future. It’s ironic that these solid yet graceful structures with their stunning views of Sandy Hook Bay would be worth millions anywhere else on the Jersey shore.

Many structures within the Fort serve the National Park’s work in administering the Sandy Hook seashore, historic lighthouses, some staff housing, as well as offices for NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration). Fort Hancock is also home to the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, a four year high school operated by Monmouth County Vocational School District.

Sandy Hook Lighthouse: 1764 (oldest USA lighthouse still in use)

Yet walking the grounds past abandoned houses in the quiet of an autumn day is a melancholy experience. I have no idea if ghosts exist, but I can imagine they might, given the colorful history of Sandy Hook. Its lighthouses protected New York harbor from its earliest days in the 18th century both in war and peace. The Hook and protective cliffs of the Highlands harbored both busy commercial and fishing fleets as well as pirates and smugglers right through the Prohibition years of the 1920’s and 30’s. High up on the Highlands stands a unique 1862 “castle”, the Twin Lights of Navesink, a  national historic site under the state park system. The lights no longer function but provide a commanding view. There is a nice museum, picnic tables and it’s possible to climb to the top of the north lighthouse. An 18th century cannon, found on the grounds, attests to the hill’s use by pirates as well as during the American Revolution – although that time it was loyalists protecting the British occupation of New York City.

Twin Lights with views of Sandy Hook, Manhattan & Varrazano Narrows Bridge

The town of Highlands is an affluent community with a bustling harbor front still devoted to fishing, although today the fleet is more pleasure craft than commercial. It’s not all gentrified either with the harbor lined by a jumble of businesses, restaurants of different types and modest houses.

Two of the dozen or so restaurants stand out. Doris & Ed’s serves elegant seafood dishes in a relaxed atmosphere with beautiful bay views in a renovated 19th century former hotel. It is well established after over 30 years, but its preparations, presentations and quality remain high and have not gone stale by success. Prices are high, but fair, with lunch/dinner for two with wine/drinks easily in the $125 – $150 range. The Windansea is an equally good choice with great bay views and an even more relaxed environment. It has a dock right in front allowing boaters to tie up and walk right to the restaurant. In the summer there’s a lively outdoor bar/dining area. Preparations, presentations and quality are nearly as high as Doris and Ed’s but the prices are less expensive. Lunch/dinner for two with wine/drinks will run in the $50 – $85 range. For lunch we had Fish Tacos topped with a good salsa and Tilapia Francaise that was lightly battered with a flavorful lemon wine sauce. Both entrees came with a nicely seasoned rice pilaf. A salad of spring greens, walnuts, dried cranberries and crumbled blue cheese was generous and dressed with good balsamic vinaigrette.  Both establishments serve only fresh fish and seafood – never frozen – and do offer meat dishes as well.

Windansea Restaurant (Top: views, Bottom: Fish Tacos & Tilapia Francaise)

Unlike the beach towns of South Jersey, North Jersey doesn’t close up during the off-season. Its proximity to New York has ensured year round life and a permanent population the southern towns don’t enjoy. So, Philadelphians, get out and discover beautiful, vibrant, peaceful destinations a mere 1- ½ to 2 hours from your driveway.

Valley Forge: A Reality Show

Reality #1:  The American Revolution was saved at Valley Forge

For over twenty years  I have driven through Valley Forge, site of the great winter encampment of 1777-78. Nearly every road was laid out over 300 years ago. The landscape is still lush with rolling hills. There are many more trees and deer than in 1777, but I can imagine that prior to December of that year, it was just as peaceful as now in the early morning mist – perhaps a few more farm animals would be awakening.

I park my car and walk down the silent lane towards the Issac Potts House. The gravel crunches under my shoes, birds chirp, Valley Creek gurgles on its way to the Schuylkill. The small stately house that Washington rented for six months, which served as the headquarters of the General Command, stands solitary.  The Potts grist mill  burned in the 1830’s, victim to sparks from one of the nation’s first rail lines – still in use in 2017.  Long-gone as well is the bustle of 1777 Valley Forge village.  Myth and reality float as mist on a land that  holds too many undiscovered stories.

1913 Reading RR train station now Washington’s HQ visitors center, Top Right: original ticket window, Bottom Right: rail line still used for freight

The 3,700 acres of Valley Forge National Historic Park are a small part of what was known in the 18th century as Pennsylvania’s Great Valley – one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the thirteen colonies. Populated largely by Quakers, this industrious area had given rise by the 1750’s to the start of Pennsylvania’s iron industry – hence the village of Valley Forge along Valley Creek.  This small company town owned by a few intermarried families, along with farming and water powered mills on the Schuylkill River, was making the region an economic power house. Yet before the  autumn of 1777, the bucolic, hilly and peaceful countryside was hidden from the turmoil embroiling the colonies since 1775,  but Philadelphia was only 20 miles south.

 The crops were being harvested when the British advanced towards Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777.  Although there is evidence of British requisitioning of supplies, the population was equally nervous concerning any future involvement in war. The British did burn a Potts  forge warehouse because munitions were found. Being staunch Quakers, it’s unlikely the family gave the local colonial militia captain permission to use the facility.

One week before Christmas 1777, the first of what would fluctuate between 10,000 to 17,000 troops, women and children arrived. An area of 3,700 acres had been chosen months before as an alternate encampment should Philadelphia fall to the British.  On the Schuylkill River, at the highest elevation closest to the city and overlooking the  major routes from Philadelphia to the interior of northern and western Pennsylvania, the site at Valley Forge was ideal for both defense and reconnaissance

It wasn’t a demoralized, bedraggled rag of an army that marched into the encampment. The troops were rather pumped at the drubbing they’d given to some of the British Empire’s crack brigades while defending Philadelphia. True, the Battle of Brandywine was horrific in terms of casualties, but the pain was equally shared and the Continental brigades remained intact. Washington’s competition to house everyone in log cabins was a resounding success. Many diary entries speak of the relative comfort of these accommodations compared to other encampments.

Reality #2: Starvation or incompetence?

A severe lack of effective planning plagued the loose collection of brigades that constituted the Continental Army in 1777 with food supplies being the most obvious initial problem. No one was in charge. The troops had arrived at the start of winter, in the midst of the breadbasket of Pennsylvania and they had no one in charge of obtaining food. A canary in the coal mine?

Christopher Ludwick accepted the commission Baker General of the Continental Army. A prosperous German/Philadelphia baker, renowned for his gingerbread (General Washington’s favorite dessert) and a financial backer of the revolution, he was in his late 50’s – one of the oldest men in command.  (Ludwick would remain BG until the end of the war in 1782). Along with the appointment of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne as Quartermaster General, these two men created, within three weeks of the first troop arrivals, an efficient commissary system with 13 field kitchens and 22 bake ovens feeding 10,000 – 15,000 people a day soup/stews and baking nearly as many loaves of  bread. (Volunteers offer baking and cooking demos during the summer and special events. See park web site.)

  Reality #3: Snag the Golden Ring

Because the defense of Philadelphia had called for a total effort, nearly every important person involved in the Revolution (and most of the troops) were together at Valley Forge – in one encampment. Yet Valley Forge encampment history seems almost uneventful to all but diehard history buffs. No battles for one thing.

The British fail to venture out of Philadelphia by the end of January to engage Washington at Valley Forge (they were not having an easy time controlling the city). The consequences of such an encounter – before the onset of “mud season” –  would have been fatal for the Revolution.  A golden opportunity presented itself and the General Command seized the ring: six months to get organized, trained, equipped, deal with corrupt merchants and a cautious Congress, standardize training, revamp recruitment and establish a central commissary kitchen system that remained in place for the remainder of the War. In other words, create a unified Continental Army – in six months.

The French Alliance in the spring of 1778 sent the French navy and millions in gold to the Revolution. The army marched out in June and nearly crushed  British forces evacuating Philadelphia for New York at the Battle of Monmouth.  For all practical purposes (except New York City) the Revolution in the North was over – bitter fighting moved South for five more agonizing years.

Reality #4: Myths are easy; uncovering the human story is difficult.

Mrs. David Edwards Stephens inherited from her father, a prosperous Methodist farmer in this Quaker community, a comfortable stone house and 400 acres. The slave-owning Mrs Edwards, and her Quaker husband David  Stephens, rented the second floor of their house as an office and beds for the staff of 28 year-old  General James Varnum.  A wealthy, staunchly abolitionist Rhode Islander, General Varnum had successfully pressured Rhode Island to create a free-black regiment who billeted across the street.   To have been the fly on the wall…the dinner conversations…

Yet the family put up with half their small house being occupied and watched their prime farm land – the encampment’s Grand Parade – turn into a sea of mud by the boots of troops being trained under the Baron von Steuben. It would be four-years before any of the farms financially recovered.

Little is known of the family that rented rooms to the tall,  dashing 19 year-old Frenchman the Marquis de La Fayette. The Marquis rapidly gained Washington’s trust, entre into the General Command’s inner circle and, I can assume, was a favorite at dinners. The house is not open for tours and is said to be haunted.

Eight hundred fifty women and children lived at the winter encampment.  Blood relatives could share the 12-person cabins with others in the brigade. Women and children performed a number of necessary roles within the camp structure. An authoritative and insightful new book, Following the Drum, does much to end the myth of the disreputable woman camp follower.

The American born Scots aristocrat, General William Alexander, 6th Earl of Sterling, his wife, Lady Sarah Livingston Sterling, along with Martha Washington, were the center of the social calendar for officers and their wives during the encampment. The Sterlings leased a house that, unfortunately, is unstable today, but the Washingtons  leased what is presently the best preserved 1760’s house in America.

Issac Potts house – George Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge
Issac Potts house – George Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge

Built in the 1760’s as one of thirteen rental properties owned by the wealthy Potts family, this fine example of 18th century craftsmanship was never meant to house 15 to 20 people. The staff of the General Command exceeded that number, but not all shared the house with the General and Mrs. Washington (it’s rumored Martha Washington  remarked, through cinched teeth, that the house was a “lovely little cottage.”)  There were strategic reasons for choosing this site even if it was cozy.

Only top aides had the comfort of beds. Most slept on the floor in bed rolls and the attic – including approximately five slaves. One slave, Hannah Till, earned enough money on the side as a seamstress (allowed in the 1700s) to purchase her freedom after the War.


 The kitchen hummed all day with a staff of five – majority slaves – cooking meals for the General Command staff as well as numerous VIP guests. The fare was not the bread and soups of the enlisted men. Officers were from a different class. They lived better, ate better, and many subsidized their own expenses. Martha surprised the General with what became the first official celebration of his birthday in February 1778 complete with cake and a band.

kitchen at George Washington’s HQ set with officers fare

Reality #5: This was the 18th century – before indoor plumbing…

That’s why 3,000 people died at Valley Forge. Sanitation, 18th century style, no matter how well thought out by the best science of the day, still left much to be desired. Mass inoculation for small pox was a resounding success – George and Martha led by example. Daily rations for all of beer and whiskey to prevent the consumption of tainted water helped. A daily dose of wine vinegar prevented scurvy. Yet by the end of March and through May 1778, as Spring arrived, fevers, dysentery, pneumonia and infections took the lives of nearly 3,000. None are buried at Valley Forge – considered bad for morale. Many lie in lost graves. Most were tended in hospitals as far away as 50 miles from the encampment by pacifist Amish/Mennonites and Quakers – Ephrata, PA, contains a rare grave yard.

P. C. Knox House (descendant of General Henry Knox) c.1900, with Mercer tiles, now VFNHP’s archives

I spent more hours than I can count roaming the fields and buildings of Valley Forge, leading tours as a volunteer and cooking in the outdoor kitchen. To a military history buff, the meaning of this site is obvious and the wealth of 18th century military information available is abundant.

For me, though, it’s the drama of the human stories of both camp and Valley residents that resonate: the failed attempt by influential locals to arrange a peace conference, dissension within the officers of the General Command,  the constant complaints concerning mud,  denuding  the landscape for over a 5-mile radius of the encampment,  the stench of thousands of barely washed bodies and animals, the smell of fresh-baked bread and dinners at the Sterling’s.

The detritus of war. It’s never myth; it’s only reality.

Maurice Stephens House, 1816