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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 7, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Savannah, Chips, Dark Age History

Long ago, driving home from Florida, my wife and I drove through Savannah and fell in love with neighborhoods of old houses. This was the old South -- older than Atlanta, which was, after all, a "new" capital, established in order to draw settlers into the interior and away from the coastal plantations.

Savannah was where Georgia -- the newest of the thirteen colonies -- began. There was history there, or what passes for history in America -- it's worth remembering that when Georgia was founded in 1733, there were cathedrals in Europe that were already a thousand years old.

So when my wife and I had a chance to take a four-day weekend, we drove down to Savannah. Our daughter and her husband had honeymooned there, and gave us several recommendations; but their strongest recommendation was for the historic downtown of the city itself.

Our goal was to do nothing, in an interesting way. I had no books to sign, no speeches to give; she had no classes to teach, no workmen to supervise.

We walked everywhere, though by the third day we started talking about taking pedicabs or carriages or taxis. There were places that had become a bit malled: Broughton Street is becoming like Georgetown in DC, or Third Street in Santa Monica: Standard mall stores have moved in and taken over.

But there are many other streets, full of shops and galleries. City Market is meant to be a low-rent space for shops and artists' studios, and while much of the art is only barely better than awful, enough of the artists have skill and vision that walking through the whole complex is worthwhile.

The Riverfront is an interesting walk; the west end of it is decayed, which means that some buildings are shuttered, but some really interesting niche shops thrive because the rents are low.

In fact, that's the paradox of retail: Uniqueness and variety thrive in failing or just-coming-back neighborhoods, where landlords are grateful to have tenants at all; rents stay low, so small-volume shops can stay in business.

But when a cluster of such shops attracts a crowd of shoppers grateful to find stores that are different from the ordinary mall selection, the big stores start offering much higher rents to the landlords. The landlords follow the economic incentives, and drop the low-rent tenants.

Where once there were three strange and delightful shops, now there's one overfamiliar mall store. And now there's no particular reason to come to that shopping district anymore, since you can find all the same stuff in a mall at home.

It's not quite the same with restaurants -- no matter what the rents are, you can only fill the space with a certain number of tables. Fast-food places only survive because they turn over customers so quickly; their low prices are compensated for by volume.

As soon as a space becomes a sit-down restaurant, big chains have no advantage over one-of-a-kind restaurants except familiarity. You know what you'll find at an Outback or a P.F. Chang -- and it'll be good.

But my wife and I love finding restaurants that are both original and good. Now, because we were in Savannah, we had to have one supper at Olde Pink House, despite the absurd "olde," a historic building with a tradition as a solid upscale restaurant.

The food lived up to expectations, though I wish our waiter had remembered that we didn't come to chat with him. We meant to share each other's company while he merely brought us food.

Naturally, though, we were most excited about the restaurants we found for ourselves. On our first day there, we stopped at a nice-looking Mexican restaurant called Cilantro's on Bay Street, just for a snack. Chips and salsa. A guacamole.

Well, the guacamole was superb, and our waitress was delightful -- she was from one of the southernmost states of Mexico and very proud of the way Cilantro's reflected her traditions. Add to that some wonderful Maya-glyph-inspired food art on the walls, and we had to come back for dinner.

When we did, we were well rewarded. Everything we had was excellent; it was not quite at the gourmet level of La Serenata in Los Angeles, but what is? Cilantro's was certainly as good as the best Mexican restaurants we've found in the East.

The artist who did the wonderful work on the walls, Claudio Rodriguez, does not show his work online -- not yet, anyway. (There is a charmingly humorous artist named Claudio Rodriguez Valdes, whose work is well worth looking at; but he did not do the art my wife and I so enjoyed at Cilantro's.)

Much as we enjoyed Cilantro's, though, the jewel of Savannah's restaurants is an innovative marvel called A.Lure at 309 West Congress Street. Zagat doesn't list them yet, which is a shame, because with Olde Pink House rated 24, A.Lure would deserve a 30.

Zagat ratings tend to inflate outside the major metro areas; a Los Angeles 20 can be a 25 in places like Savannah; but the reverse often happens, with "provincial" diners undervaluing restaurants that would get superb ratings among more sophisticated diners who are used to a better selection.

Greensboro has no Zagat ratings, but we do have a restaurant history. Truly brilliant places like 223 South Elm close, while other, more ordinary restaurants do a booming business and get weirdly enthusiastic reviews, often of the "I can't believe I got so much food for the price" variety.

Our experience is that if you try, you can usually find delicious, high-quality food in surprisingly small cities. Greensboro has at least five, even after losing a few to attrition; some of our favorite restaurants have been in places like Des Moines and, yes, Savannah.

A.Lure is that restaurant. It was such a dining experience that even if we were spending the night in Atlanta, Charleston, or Jacksonville we would seriously consider driving to Savannah for one more dinner at A.Lure.

Best homemade potato chips anywhere -- and the competition for this is fierce. (In Greensboro, try the hot chips at Mediterraneo. Excellent, but ...)

Sweet potato chowder. Strawberry and goat cheese salad. Perfect salmon. Ambitious menu of astonishing combinations.

And the best hamburger I've had in my life. Yes, at a gourmet restaurant I actually ordered the burger. Wagyu beef, perfectly cooked (I asked for well done because I hate blood in my meat, and I wasn't punished for it -- it was moist and delicious).

And once you're there, stay for dessert. The goat cheese souffle was brilliant. Really. You think it won't work, and then it does. (Check out the menu at http://AlureSavannah.com.)

That's the pain and the joy of finding great one-of-a-kind restaurants. We rejoiced when P.F. Chang opened a restaurant in Greensboro, because it's the best of the chains. But we're also glad that in all the world, there is only one A.Lure.

Yes, it means we can't go there very often -- but we have Leblon and 1618 Seafood and Green Valley Grill and Mark's and M.J.'s and Gnam Gnam and Positano and Fuji Sushi and Cafe Pasta and Mediterraneo here in Greensboro, so we're not suffering.

And if I start on my list of great Greensboro restaurants that closed -- 223, Le Rendezvous, Mark's on Westover, East/West Bistro, and Asiano head our list -- Greensboro has clearly been fortunate to have a tradition of restaurants far better than the size of our city would lead anyone to expect.

I've never been back to Des Moines -- the gorgeous little Asian place we fell in love with may have been out of business now for a decade. I may never get back to Savannah, either -- who knows? But A.Lure is there right now, offering surprising combinations that are stunningly good, along with excellent, unobtrusive service.

If you happen to be in Savannah, and you really care about good new cuisine, don't miss it. And if you aren't all that interested in innovation, but do like Mexican food, Cilantro's will be a cause for rejoicing.

Savannah also has a lot of artists -- as coastal cities often do. In Savannah's case, the presence of SCAD -- Savannah College of Art and Design -- may have encouraged a larger-than-normal art community. Even outside City Market, we found several studios where the artists both worked and sold their art, which gave us a chance to chat with artists whose work we liked.

Some of them, quite aware of the value of their work, were priced above what we're willing to pay -- we generally prefer to buy prints, because we buy art to look at, not as an investment.

Just walking along Habersham Street, a half block up from Columbia Square, I ran across the studio (145 Habersham) of a wonderful artist named William Armstrong, a low-country artist, one of whose originals is now hanging in our living room:

We also picked up some charming items for grandchildren at the Paris Market; and at An American Craftsman Gallery at 223 West Broughton -- one of four galleries in a very small chain -- we found all kinds of irresistibly wonderful pieces. (Google them to see a sample of their wares, but you can't buy anything from their website, www.anAmericanCraftsman.com .)

One of our favorites, the "bobtanical" glass art of Bob and Laurie Kliss, is also offered at Artful Home. These downright voluptuous and brightly colored jars, bowls, and pitchers, with plantlike forms, require a certain sense of humor, but we happen to have it.

One of the reasons we went to Savannah is because we could drive there. Anything to avoid TSA screenings. Because of the shape of the American coastline, Savannah is actually closer to Greensboro than many points along the Outer Banks -- and it's freeway every speck of the way, so you make better time and don't get stacked up in traffic.

I don't mean that you should go to Savannah instead of the Outer Banks -- while Tybee Island is a lovely beach community, you can't pry me away from my weeks at the Outer Banks beaches each year. I'm just making it clear that Savannah is no farther away than a drive that thousands of Greensboro citizens make every year.

*

While driving home from Savannah, we stopped at a gas station that was selling potato chips with unusual flavors (to say the least).

The Flavor Mill offers "Kansas City Prime" flavored potato chips. I had to try them, and to my surprise, these potato chips really did taste like prime rib.

But it wasn't an overwhelming taste. It had some subtlety to it. Usually, flavored chips are grossly overdone -- the flavor is so strong that it becomes too much after just a couple of chips. The Flavor Mill, however, goes for flavor subtle enough that you can enjoy it through the whole package.

When we got home, I looked up The Flavor Mill and found that it's a brand of Herr's Foods -- which I now know is a very common brand in the Northeast, though I had never seen it before in the South and the West, where I encounter most of my snacks.

At the Herr's website -- http://www.HerrsStore.com -- you can order every one of their extraordinary flavor selection. The trouble is, they sell only by the case. In my effort to serve you better, I sacrificed and bought a couple of custom cases.

My scientific tasting system -- getting trusted friends to sample them along with me -- worked well enough to tell me that the Kansas City Prime was not a fluke. These folks know how to make flavors that work over the long haul -- much better than anything I've had from Frito-Lay.

Unfortunately, closer examination showed that about half their chips and snacks use monosodium glutamate, which causes me to get a rash. Oops.

Then again, the other half don't us MSG, and that includes most of my favorite flavors.

You can get a box of 15 potato chip bags (3.75 oz size) for $25.35, plus shipping. You can pick the mixture of flavors. If your family routinely goes through that many snack-size bags of potato chips, you might want to give it a try, not to save money (remember, you also pay for shipping), but to see whether these flavors make a difference for you.

*

I love history. In my life, I've discovered that whenever I'm not interested in any period of history, it's because I haven't yet learned enough about it. There is such a thing as badly written history, either because of inaccuracy or inclarity, but the history itself -- the things that happened, and the reasonable guesses about why they happened -- is always fascinating to me.

But there are holes -- eras that I'd love to know more about, yet which are stubbornly elusive. That's why I sometimes indulge in speculative history -- those tantalizing webs of guesswork around the edges of what we actually know.

One of the most frustrating gaps in our historical knowledge is the history of the "barbarian tribes" that invaded the Roman Empire, taking over this or that portion of it and governing it to benefit new rulers.

The old idea of "collapse" has been done away. The end of the unified empire did result in a collapse of trade and a lot of new poverty -- just as the collapse of the pax americana would have devastating effects on the global economy were such a thing to happen today (as our current foreign policy is designed to bring about).

But this was not viewed by the participants as the end of everything, as the beginning of a new dark age. People adapt, as do institutions, and in most places the "barbarians" -- who had almost all served in the Roman military, and spoke Latin -- merely replaced the previous ruling class and attempted to maintain the civilization as they found it.

True barbarians, like the Islamist fanatics of today, who want to destroy civilization, or like the Communists, who shattered the entire structure of the societies they took over, were not involved in the "fall of Rome."

Yet the interconnected, history-writing civilization did fade away, not because people stopped writing histories, but because there was no easy way to get copies to many different places for storage and duplication in order to withstand the ravages of time.

What was lost was a powerful economy with plenty of profits, allowing a leisured class to "waste" time and money copying manuscripts and writing new ones.

You know -- the activities that the Obama economic program is designed to eliminate, as he tries to tax "the rich" (i.e., people who work hard and finally reach their earnings peak) into nonexistence.

My point is that what caused the "dark age" was the collapse of a vast interconnected trading network, along with a huge and ever-growing bureaucracy.

But the Germanic invaders did contribute to the breakdown of the trading system. And, contrary to the dictum that "the winners write the histories," the historical account of the Germanic tribes, such as it is, was written almost exclusively by their enemies -- the losers.

The result is that it's devilishly hard to reconstruct an accurate and useful history of the tribes themselves. That's why I was delighted to find that there was a series of scholarly histories called The Peoples of Europe, including entries for The Early Germans, The Etruscans, The Gypsies, The Mongols, The Byzantines, The Normans, The Huns, The Serbs, The Goths, The Basques, The Franks, and -- my favorite so far -- The Vandals.

The series is an ambitious one, fraught with frustration. The Etruscans, for instance, who once dominated central Italy and ruled over Rome before it rose as an empire, have been almost entirely lost to us. Most of the book on the Etruscans is spent analyzing archaeological finds, reaching few useful conclusions.

Other books can only assemble the tantalizing hints from various histories, since there is almost no identifiable archaeological record. The Goths, for instance, seem to have been an ad hoc assemblage of many different tribes (with different languages, though they were mostly Germanic and probably could understand each other reasonably well), and once they entered the historical record, they never stopped moving. There is no place and no era that we can identify as "Gothic" per se, so all we have are what others wrote about them.

Malcolm Todd's The Early Germans does as good a job as is possible of assembling a sort of overview of how these early tribes came into being, made their mark, and then -- usually -- faded into the surrounding tribes and nations.

But some of the invaders did establish kingdoms that lasted for a century or more. The Vandals, for instance -- after spending a time in southern Iberia (where "Andalusia" preserves their name) -- conquered the Roman province of Africa (coastal Algeria and Tunisia) and ruled it quite effectively until the Byzantine emperor Justinian toppled them.

The Vandals, by Merrills and Miles, had a far richer trove of historical material about the Vandals, and while most of it trashes their reputation -- which is why "vandal" survives in our language as a pejorative, and "vandalism" as a crime -- in fact they became quite Romanized and, had they lasted, probably would have built a nation rather as the Franks did in France.

The result is perhaps the most readable of the books about the Germanic invaders, with many colorful characters and memorable tales.

I don't expect you to flock to the bookstores to buy these books. You can't anyway -- most of them are out of print, and some are so rare that each copy, even electronic copies, can cost more than a hundred dollars. (Used print copies are usually much cheaper from online used-book dealers, which is how I bought my copies.)

But there are some of you who will be happy to know that they exist at all. And for the rest of you who care about history, these books represent the edge of the possibility of history.

The scholars who wrote these volumes did their best to create coherent knowledge out of fragments of information that are either nearly useless to history (like archaeological findings, which reveal culture and population information, but rarely help with actual history), or grossly misleading because they are second-hand, or are filtered through the perceptions of observers from other cultures.

Just as science finds its boundaries where observation and measurement become impossible, history's boundaries are reached where the data becomes steadily less reliable or downright nonexistent. Maybe there'll be discoveries of hitherto unknown manuscripts -- but the truth is, from preliterate societies there never were manuscripts. We cannot discover what never existed.

The tragedy of the time machine is that we don't have one.


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