How the French Saved America

Give credit to France for the forming of our nation because without their help we might still be, as stereotypes go, eating crumpets, drinking tea and speaking with British accents.

That’s the focus of a new book by noted author Tom Shachtman in his latest book How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis Xvi, and The Success of a Revolution (St. Martin’s Press 2017; $27.99).

While many of us know about the Marquis de Lafayette whose help during the Revolutionary War was so vital that we’ve named cities after him–Lafayette, Indiana and Louisiana come quickly to mind. But the Marquis wasn’t the only Frenchman who risked his life to help America achieve its independence. Indeed, according to Shachtman in his extensively researched and wonderfully written book, almost ten percent of those who perished fighting for our cause were from France.

Those surviving include not only Lafayette but also Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, commander of the French fleet during the Battle of the Chesapeake.  He and his men created a naval blockade of Yorktown thus allowing General George Washington and yet another Frenchman, Comte de Rochambeau, to defeat British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in what was a decisive battle. Another, Louis Duportail founded the Army Corps of Engineers.

Even Shachtman, who has written or co-authored more than thirty books as well as documentaries for ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC, taught at New York University and lectured at Harvard, Stanford and the Library of Congress, at first didn’t realize how much the French impacted America’s victory. He first became aware of France’s significance when writing another book Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment and decided to pursue the subject. The assistance the French provided included, among a long list, money to pay our troops, weapons, safe harbor for privateers, troops, battlefield leadership and engineering expertise.

So why is France’s contribution not better known?

“We are too invested in our own myths to acknowledge how much we owe our freedom to France,” says Shachtman, noting our belief in our rugged individualism and self-sufficiency could also play a big part. “The war might not have been won at all, or not been won by 1783 if not for the French.”

Ifyougo:

What: Tom Shachtman has three talks and book signings in the Chicago area.

When: Tuesday, October 17, 2017 6 pm

Where: The Newberry, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 312-255-3610; publicprograms@newberry.org

What: Learn & Lunch with Tom Shachtman

When: Wednesday, October 18 at noon

Where: University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 847-446-8880 to make a reservation

What: Tom Shachtman Reading & Signing

When: Thu. October 19 at 7pm

Where: The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL

FYI: (773) 293-2665

 

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If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Bears: Stories from the Chicago Bears Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box

How hard was it to transition from football super-stardom to everyday life? I ask Otis Wilson, #55 of the Super Bowl XX
winning Chicago Bears and front row performer in the famed Super Bowl Shuffle which even now trends high on You Tube with 21,238 views in the last three months alone.

“You have to have a goal, a plan,” says Wilson who seems to have accomplished many goals since the Bears won in 1985 including a film career and his founding of the Otis Wilson Charitable Foundation which focuses on health, education, fitness and after school programs for children in disadvantaged neighborhoods, similar to the one where he was raised. Now Wilson can add author to his list of post-football career achievements with the recent release of If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Bears: Stories from the Chicago Bears Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box (Triumph Books 2017; $16.95).

Co-authored with Chet Coppock, an Emmy Award winning sportscaster who was inducted into the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame, Wilson, a natural born storyteller, is both philosophical and humorous in telling stories about his former teammates including those they called the Marquee Players such as Walter Payton and Jim McMahon.

Wilson, an outside linebacker was known as one of the most feared pass-rusher on the grid-iron but his demeanor off the field is genial and full of the homilies that helped shape him.

“My grandmother and mother told me to treat people as you’d want to be treated,” says Wilson. “If you give people respect, they’ll respect you.”

Another driving force for Wilson is to set a good example for his own children. But none of this means that Wilson can’t tell a good story including insight into the stars of the 1980s team, his upbringing and his insight into the changes of professional football since he played. He also likes to share his interactions with Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, Mike Singletary and William “Refrigerator” Perry.

The book, written as a conversation between Coppock and Wilson, has an authentic voice. Crediting his mother who worked and raised six kids and a grandmother who was an entrepreneur and owned her own record store, with helping him achieve his success by teaching common sense and an appreciation for hard work and discipline.

Though initially Wilson says he blew a lot of money on expensive cars, big homes and $800 pairs of shoes, he now has learned simplicity (though there’s still that addiction to $3000 suits). He doesn’t need a two-million-dollar house, he’s happy living on the South Side of Chicago where he’s near his foundation where he spends five days a week or more.

“We’ve reached over 10,000 kids,” he says. “That’s success.”

Ifyougo:

What: Meet former Bears player Otis Wilson. Otis will sign autographs and pose for pictures.

When: October 12, 6-8PM

Where: Binny’s Beverage Depot, 3437 W. 95th, Evergreen Park, Il

Cost: Free

FYI: 708-237-7660; evergreenpark@binnys.com

Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition

Prohibition in Chicago was the ultimate business opportunity for the violent men who made up the many gangs who fought to control alcohol as well as narcotics, gambling, labor and business racketeering and prostitution in the city. And while there were turf wars during Prohibition in many American cities, Chicago was the bloodiest of all.

“The apex of the violence in Chicago was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre where seven men were killed,” says John J. Binder, author of  (Prometheus Books 2017; $25). “That was a record. In any other city, there were never more than two or three gang murders at one time.”

Chicago at that time was almost completely lawless and these mobsters thought they were untouchable says Binder, adding that gangsters like Al Capone even gave interviews which added to Chicago’s reputation as did the way they did business including machine guns, drive-by shootings.

Binder, who has been writing about organized crime for more than 25 years, is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Finance in the College of Business at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His background in business and finance is perfect for writing what is the first complete history of organized crime in Chicago during Prohibition because after all it is a business.

“The sole goal of organized crime is to enrich their members,” says Binder. “Sure, they’re violent and sure they kill each other, it’s useful in running the business. But the goal was to make money.”

While legendary figures like Al Capone have taken on almost mythical status, Binder says that many books don’t even cover some of the other 12 gangs who were major bootleggers in Chicago at the start of Prohibition.

“A lot of books about Prohibition in Chicago just cover the same thing,” he says, noting that five years of research went into his book.

The Chicago mobs’ reach also extended into Northwest Indiana says Binder who will be conducting a tour of Prohibition sites.

“The Canadian Whiskey Superhighway ran from Detroit through Gary to Chicago,” he says.

Ifyougo:

What: Talk and book signing

When: Tuesday, Oct. 10; 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. program

Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois

Cost: $25, $20 members; cash bar available

FYI: 312-642-4600

What: Author and historian John J. Binder leads an in-depth tour of Chicago’s Prohibition and related crime history.

When: Saturday, October 14 at 1 p.m.

Where: Tour begins at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois

Cost: $55, $45 members; tour runs 3.5 to 4 hours

FYI: 312-642-4600

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home

More than just a lovely French Renaissance chateau set in amazing landscape of forests, formal gardens and mountains, Biltmore, the home of George and Edith Vanderbilt as told by Denise Kiernan in her latest book, The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, is also a main character in this account of one of this country’s most amazing homes.

Comprised of four acres of floor space, Biltmore dwarfs even the most opulent McMansion of today. The numbers tell all. The home, the largest privately owned house in the U.S., has 250 rooms including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, three kitchens, 65 fireplaces and a library.

But beyond the immense magnificence of the house, Kiernan, whose previous book, The Girls of Atomic City, was a New York Times best seller, brings the house alive with stories of its owners. Meticulously detailed, Kiernan is someone who loves to immerse herself in research. But the Vanderbilt mansion in Ashville, North Carolina is also very personal. A resident of this mountain town for the last 11 years, Kiernan’s connection to the mansion goes back even further when she first visited when in high school.

“This place is unique in that it is still standing and all the original things are still in it,” says Kiernan who describes her book as asking people to go for a walk back in time.  “Many of the great mansions are gone. That’s one more reason why Biltmore is one of the main characters. Those that lived there were just passing through.”

Besides its sumptuousness as well as being a perfect example of how the very rich lived in the Gilded Age (before all those nasty income taxes made the rich just a little less rich), George Vanderbilt also was ahead of his time in that he bought up large tracks of the failing farms surrounding the estate. Then, he hired landscaping genius Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York and the University of Chicago campus, to create America’s first managed forest.

When asked what she would like readers to take away from The Last Castle, Kiernan says she’d like to instill a curiosity of our own history and that people read the book and take away a new appreciation for historic preservation.

“Everyone brings a little bit of themselves to stories they read and I hope the story of The Last Castle is relatable enough that readers will be able to engage with it in their own unique way,” says Kiernan who marvels how interconnected many of the events from the sinking of the Titanic to the invention of the Teddy Bear touch upon the home.  “I also find that no matter how much money you have, there is no protection from harrowing tragedy and personal loss. What is impressive to me is how people handle those kinds of situations.”

Ifyougo:

What: Denise Kiernan Chicago book events.

Where & When:

Anderson’s Bookshop,

123 W Jefferson Ave., Naperville, IL

Wednesday, September 27 at 7pm

(630) 355-2665

The University Club of Chicago

76 E. Monroe St. Chicago, IL

Thursday, September 28 at noon

Tickets available at 847-446-8880

Woman’s Athletic Club

626 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL

Thursday, September 28 at 6-8 pm

312-944-6123

 

Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains by Greg Borzo with photos by Julia Thiel

Hiding in plain sight, Chicago’s many fountains are gems of art, history, politics and culture, their stories often overlooked.

Sure we all know Buckingham Fountain and the Crown Fountain in Millennial Park. But what about the Nelson Algren Fountain at Division Street and Ashland and Milwaukee avenues which was opposed by the Polish community and many residents near the Polonia Triangle because he wrote about life there with a brutal honesty? Or the Drexel Boulevard Fountain, originally named the Thomas Dorsey Fountain, after the South Side musician considered to be the father of gospel music which is bookend by the newly restored Drexel Fountain?

I thought not. But then neither did I until I chatted with Greg Borzo about his newest book, Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains (Southern Illinois University Press 2017; $39.95) with photos by Julia Thiel.

A news officer covering science at the University of Chicago, Borzo also volunteers to give tours of the “L” and often was asked about the fountains they passed on the route.

“I realized that people knew about the Chicago Fire and World’s Columbian Exposition which was held in Chicago in 1893 but they didn’t know anything about Chicago’s fountains,” says Borzo.

And so, because Borzo likes to chronicle the city’s intriguing icons and is the author of The Chicago “L,” and Chicago Cable Cars, he began extensively researching Chicago’s fountains, past and present. In the process he inspired his friends, who he dubbed “fountain finders,” to join in the search.

“They got a fountain buzz going and they’d say there’s one at such and such” says Borzo. “As I found out about fountains, I began to realize it’s about the artists, the ethnic groups, the politics—it’s so much more than just a pretty fountain.”

Immersed in fountain lore, Borzo connects the historic dots—or should we say splashes of water.

“People are very interested in the 1893 Fair and what I found is there are four fountains directly related to the fair—which were built for the fair or part of the fair,” he says. “The Rosenberg Fountain on Michigan Avenue and 11th Street was built in time for the Fair but was built near the Illinois Central Station that used to stand at 11th and Roosevelt for people getting off the train could get a drink.”

The fountain was a gift to the city by Joseph Rosenberg, a former paperboy who used to get thirsty while his rou

te. To prevent that happening to others, the fountain had metal drinking cans attached by a chain–doesn’t sound very sanitary, does it?

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was also worried about thirsty people and wanted to provide water instead of stopping at a bar for a whiskey.

“Fountain Girl was located at the fair and people could take one of the tin cups chained to the fountain to get a drink,” says Borzo. “After the Fair, they moved Fountain Girl to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union skyscraper in the downtown and when that got torn down the fountain was moved again to Lincoln Park. The city didn’t ban shared drinking cups until 1911. The Illinois Humane Society had about 60 fountains with shared cups, two still at Chicago and Michigan. Now they’re cute fountains but instead of the cups they have troughs for water for carriage horses.”

Which brings up another point. While I always assumed that once it was built, a fountain stayed in one place. But that’s not necessarily so. According to Borzo, fountains were moved quite frequently.

 

Researching the 125 existing outdoor fountains in the city wasn’t easy.

“There’s no record of many of them,” he says, noting there are records of “lost” fountains that no longer exist. Others are slipping away.

“Laredo Taft, great sculpture artist, made two of the greatest fountains—the Neo-classical bronze Fountain of the Great Lakes right next to the Art Institute which shows five maidens each holding a shell with the water pouring from one shell to the next—it’s elegant, beautiful and large,” says Borzo. “He had another one that was a failure called the Fountain of Time. It’s made out of

 

Does he have a favorite fountain?

thin concrete and is wearing away and there’s no way to prevent that.”

“My favorite is the one I’m spending time with at the moment,” he says but then relents. “There are six fountains at the base at the AON Center. The nice thing is you don’t haveto pay admission and at night they’re lit. It’s fountain heaven.”

Ifyougo

What: Greg Borzo book signing

When & Where: Wednesday, June 14 at 6pm; Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State Street, Chicago IL. 312-747-4300

Fabio Viviani: Fabio’s 30-Minute Italian

“Good cooking and a lot of flavor don’t have to take a lot of time,” says Fabio Viviani, chef, restauranteur and TV personality, explaining why he wrote Fabio’s 30-Minute Italian (St. Martin’s 2017; $27.99), his beautifully photographed cookbook filled with wonderfully accessible recipes. “The whole premise is easy.”

Viviani, who grew up in Florence, Italy, started working in a bakery when he was 11 not so much from a love of food but because he needed to work to help out his family. But labor developed into a passion. Now 28 years later, he’s amassed a food empire with two California vineyards, several cookbooks, stints on several Top Chef show (he won Fan Favorite on Season Five), restaurants including two in Chicago—Siena Tavern and Prime & Provisions and his Mercado concept, described as a “rustic-yet refined eatery destination by celebrity chef Fabio Viviani” with locations that include Chicago, Tempe, Arizona and Benton Harbor, Michigan.

He also currently has a weekly web series, “Fabio’s Kitchen” and is doing “Dinner is Served,” an online video series

With such a busy schedule, I wonder if he ever gets tired of cooking.

“I like it,” he says, “sometimes I don’t. It’s like a marriage, you yell at each other and then you go back to it.”

Asked what recipes he might recommend for those who haven’t cooked Italian before, Viviani recommends the chapters on pasta and salads because they have, for the most part particularly if you don’t make your pasta from scratch, “have less ingredients and take less time.”

Noting that his Italian heritage taught him less is more, Viviani says “you don’t have to overdo it to put really good food on the table.”

Ifyougo:

What: Fabio will be doing a presentation, cooking demo, Q&A, & cookbook signing.

When: Tuesday, May 16 at

Where: Snaidero Showroom, 222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza, Chicago, IL

King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World

For her new book King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World (Alfred A. Knopf 2017; $35), Joan Nathan, the multiple James Beard award winner, followed in the footsteps of Jewish traders as they circumvented the globe centuries and even millenniums ago. As they traveled, they brought the food cultures from the lands they’d visited before and adapted new ones but keeping close to their dietary laws, traditions and homelands.

Nathan, who has written almost a dozen cookbooks, recounts the culinary history and geography of these early travelers in her sumptuous new book featuring over 170 recipes.

It begins at the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, Kerala where Nathan spies an inscription indicating Jewish traders might have crossed the Indian Ocean from Judea to India during the reign of King Solomon. Already a world traveler, Nathan next made her way to Chendamangalam, a hamlet 20 miles north of Kochi surrounded by a lush landscape of mango, coconut and cinnamon trees and pepper and cardamom vines.

“As I walked toward the bank of the nearby Periyar River, which flows into the Arabian Sea, I imagined ancient Hebrew adventurers and traders arriving on the shores and marveling at the lushness of the terrain,” writes Nathan in the introduction of her book.

And so we too are seduced by her journey into exotic lands, looking at how foods and ingredients have crisscrossed the globe originating far from where we first might have thought.

We chat about Malai, a Romanian cornmeal ricotta breakfast pudding that she features in her book and I tell her how I learned to make a polenta-like dish from my Romanian grandmother.

“Oh mamaliga,” she says, like everyone knows about mamaliga.  But then what would you expect from a woman whose book contains five recipes for haroset, a thick sauce or paste typically made of chopped fruits and nuts. It, like so many recipes, has morphed, bouncing back and forth between countries and continents, each time being tweaked just a little and Nathan includes a version from Brazil, Persia, Ferrara and, of all places, Maine.

Asked what recipes she’d recommend for those just starting using her cookbook, Nathan suggests Yemenite Chicken Soup with Dill, Cilantro and Parsley (“a really old recipe,” she says noting that historic records dating back to 12th century the healing power of chicken broth). She also suggests Malai, the Romania dish and Roman Ricotta Cheese Crostata with Cherries or Chocolate, a cheesecake recipe dating back to Imperial Rome in the 1st century. She also included a recipe from her friend, her friend Injy Farat-Lew, an Egyptian-Jew who grew up in Cairo and Paris, for a flourless chocolate cake and one for hard boiled eggs traditionally served ruing Passover on the Seder plate but can be used as a side for any meal.

“This recipe for long-cooked eggs with spinach came from the island of Corfu, Greece to Ancona, Italy, a seaport on the Adriatic coast,” writes Nathan, who first taste the dish in Rome, in the introduction to this recipe which also exemplifies the convoluted origins of food.

As she traveled (Nathan says her quest took her to approximately 30 countries over a six-year time span), the scope of her book changed. But it was all part of her culinary journey and one she continues to take.

Ifyougo:

What: Joan Nathan has two book signings

When & Where: Monday, May 1 at 6:00 pm, Bookends & Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #, Evanston, IL. 224-999-7722.

Tuesday, May 2 at 11:30 am-2pm, Standard Club Chicago luncheon, 320 S. Plymouth Ct, Chicago IL.

2:00pm.