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Scraps of History

Postcard from Washington, D.C.

By Jessica S. Zdeb

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has always seemed like a kind of temple to me as a devoted disciple of American history. As an intern there this summer, I work on an exhibit about the Star-Spangled Banner and the flag in American culture, and few things could be more American or encompass more of history than my exhibit, “For Which It Stands.” But for all the flag’s symbolism and emotional appeal, even it was not able to touch me in the way that a 200-year-old scribbled recipe did.

I peered at the long, thin piece of paper in a case at the Library of Congress on a field trip last week, lingering at the exhibit of “American Treasures” long after the others had moved on. Thomas Jefferson, after returning from a trip to France, wrote down this recipe for his favorite light, airy French cookies so his cook could make them to serve with ice cream. The culinary cravings of a founding father are profoundly more touching to me than any 30-by-34-foot banner, even one that flew over Fort McHenry.

To my mind, history is made by both great and ordinary men and women, but it is the intersection of these two that draws me most. Jefferson has always held a soft spot in my heart since I visited Monticello and learned more about how he was a champion of, if nothing else, knowledge. I can briefly put on blinders to his faults and appreciate that he loved learning.

The Smithsonian owns the desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but my thoughts keep wandering back to that recipe. Jefferson bothered to find the recipe from a French acquaintance, to write it down, to keep it in good condition and to give it to his cook back in Virginia. While it may seem a small item, it demonstrates that even in the midst of the history-changing events he was engaged in, Jefferson still maintained his attention to detail, his level of attachment to France and his commitment to preserving what, to him, was the essence of experiencing another country. I can understand that this great man must have held the same affinity I do for food and cooking.

Another encounter with the ordinary objects of an eminent person caught me by surprise last fall back at school. Julia Child, whose kitchen, as it happens, is now exhibited one floor above my summer office, had donated her cookbook collection to Schlesinger Library when she moved out of Cambridge. But I did not know that, and when I opened a copy of the New York Times Cookbook in a remote Schlesinger carrel and saw her name in ballpoint script written on the inside cover, my mind was sent scampering back to younger days when I watched her TV shows as avidly as I watched Sesame Street. This was just one of thousands of New York Times Cookbooks across the country, but it was the one Julia herself had flipped through, splattered on and consulted. Julia, whose kitchen was cataloged by Smithsonian curators on Sept. 11, 2001.

My lack of connection to the flag seems somehow out of step in a newly patriotic country. After Sept. 11, flags sprouted from houses and car antennas, soon branding Old Navy t-shirts and fluttering in the corner of the Fox News screen. Pride blanketed the country, and my exhibit added a new section on what the flag means in a post-Sept. 11 world.

But my lack of relationship with the flag does not mean I lack appreciation for it. In the course of reading about our exhibit, my appreciation for the flag’s versatility and endurance has actually increased. Looking at photographs of Klu Klux Klan marchers and civil rights marchers in Selma both carrying the flag truly makes me proud to live in a place where two groups with such polar views can have the freedom to appropriate the same national symbol for opposite messages. I marvel at a Navajo weaving of the flag by a woman whose people were once scorned by the government it represents.

Still, though, it is these personal uses of the symbol that catches my attention, not the grand Star-Spangled Banner itself. That ancient and tattered flag sits in its own climate-controlled room in the hands of skilled conservators who work daily to make sure it does not deteriorate further. I am not even sure whether I would have appreciated one of the many pieces snipped off the flag as gifts.

This summer and always, I prefer to learn history from the scraps and from the ground up rather than from symbols and the so-called “big picture.” In my book, Jefferson’s faded scrawlings will always top the red, white and blue.

Jessica Zdeb ’04, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Adams House. This summer she is interning at the National Museum of American History trying not to look like too much of a tourist when she gapes at the historical wonders that surround her.

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