Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Day

Today Americans everywhere gather around the table with their family and closest friends, eat a copious meal with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, beans, jello, sweet potatoes, corn, pumpkin pie... They celebrate Thanksgiving Day, started with the Pilgrim Fathers in 1623 in thanksgiving for the bounty of their harvest, for surviving the first years of settling these new shores. Beer was involved in the choice of the location, landing at Plymouth Rock was not planned! (If you haven't read this blog before, this might be new to you, but beer really is the foundation of civilization!) The Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pilgrim Fathers to American shores, was running low on beer, so the crew kicked out their passengers when they realized this, so they could sail back to the nearest port before they ran out of their beer supply!

The official day was instituted by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, but as early as 1789 this day was celebrated. There are many earlier dates for Thanksgiving parties, but those were local or state wide celebrations. I really like the proclamation written by George Washington, as it eloquently states the reasons for this day's festivities:
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation. 
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best. 
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
 George Washington
It is a most American celebration, one I fell in love with the first time I was allowed to partake when I first arrived here. Sometimes people -even Americans themselves- say that Americans have no culture, being a relatively young nation, made up of this mix of other peoples and cultures. When I hear that, I always disagree, and point to Thanksgiving, observed in a very similar way by Americans everywhere, from Alaska to Florida, and from Hawaii to Maine. Granted, the ingredients are not unique to the United States, but how they are put together is. A meal that anywhere would be considered a grand feast! It ties together a sense of history, a common life, a gratitude for what we've been given and the blessings in our lives, with a celebration of the Giver of those blessings and of the first settlers of this country, shared with the Native People already living here. A very layered and rich day it is, then, one that citizens of this country can rightly claim as their own, with a sense of pride.

Whether or not you are an American citizen, let's all stop for a moment to give thanks for our life and all we have. Then, raise a glass of beer to it! Cheers all, and happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 11, 2011

November 11, 2011 Armistice Day and Veterans Day

November 11th is a solemn day, celebrating the armistice ending World War 1 in Europe, and in the US it is a day remembering and honoring its veterans.
A while ago I wrote a post mentioning my great-grandmother and briefly touched some of her exploits during WW II. (See post here) This a good day to give a more full account of this extraordinary woman. But to make this post come full circle with this commemorative day, first a word about my great-grandfather, Edmond De Ridder. As a young man, not even 20, he was conscripted in the Belgian army in 1914 at the outbreak of the first World War. His experience as a soldier met a quick end, and he spent the next years in a German POW camp, an experience he never really talked about. My mother only recalls him talking about having to eat nettle soup. The young girl she was when she heard this story, she was shocked at the cruelty of having to eat nettle soup, imagining the experience of drinking a soup stinging her grandfather on the inside.

It did spare him the horrors of trench warfare. After the war he returned home again, and married Maria Maes. At the birth of their son, he had to go to the town hall to declare that at the office of civil registry. But he 'celebrated' too much on the way there, and forgot the name that he and my great-granny had settled upon. So Carolus De Ridder was officially registered instead of Albert De Ridder. One can only imagine the talkdown my great-grandfather had to endure when he had to tell my great-granny what happened... Solution was simple: no one knew him by that name, and he was called Albert by everyone. Fast forward to 1942. Belgium suffered under the German occupation, with a military 'Kommandantur' installed in the Town Hall. Young men were forced to do labor in Germany, and both Albert and his brother Leon were called up. Neither went, with Leon hiding for a few months by nearby farmers, and Albert just stayed home. The Germans kept demanding my great-grandparents to send in their two sons. At one time, an officer and some soldiers came to their house, questioning the neighbors, in an attempt to find Carolus De Ridder and send him to Germany. The neighbors looked puzzled when asked where Carolus was, and could not have betrayed him if  they wanted to. 'Carolus who?'
 Meanwhile, he was sitting right there at his home, under the noses of the Germans!

To get the heath of her other son, my great-granny went to the Kommandantur to speak with the officer in charge, after she had heard that the Allies had bombed Wilhelmshaven, where her son was supposed to have been sent to. The conversation when something like this:
German Officer: 'Come in, Mrs De Ridder. Where is your son, Leon? We've sent repeated notices to report for labor!'
Great-Granny: 'Excuse me?!' (angrily, with rising voice) 'I have put my son on the train, and from that point he is YOUR responsibility!!'
German Officer: 'Eh...'
Great-Granny: 'So, where is my son?! I gave him to you, and you have to give him back to me!'
            Followed by a series of strong language we better censor.
Great Granny, thinking: 'They wont imprison a woman now, would they?'
German Officer: 'Well, eh, perhaps we can pay you the pay we give each laborer?'

In that tumultuous time right after the Germans left and before the Allied troops entered the town, resistance groups started to round up 'collaborators and traitors', beating them, shaving their heads, burning their homes, in an outburst of rage after 4 years of German oppression. Great-grannies neighbors had a daughter who had studied, and was fluent in German as well. So the Germans forced her to work for them in the town's administration, which in turn gave her access to a lot of privileges, such as extra food rations. Hearing a lot of yelling and crying on the street, my great-grannie came out as well, only to see a gang of 'resistance fighters' dragging out the daughter of the neighbors, guns at the ready, and beating her.
immediately she started to yell at those guys, in utter rage. 'You there, and you! How dare you!', she shouted at them, ignoring the circle of armed men around her 'Last week I saw you here with your hands held up, asking for bread and food and butter! She's always been helping all of you, and this is how you repay her?! Does your mother know you're here playing hero?'. They left, tails between their legs, and left this poor girl alone again.

Polish and Canadian troops liberated Sint-Niklaas
Definitely not a woman to mess with! She lived to be 89, and until her last days, she would enjoy her trappist beer. Which, looking back, was probably the source of her courage and strength. She never served officially, but I think that today is a great day to remember her, together with all the others who served to protect their country and loved ones. Cheers!

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Stirling Hotel

The Stirling Hotel at 227 Main Avenue in Stirling, NJ 07980

My favorite watering hole is by far the Stirling Hotel. Located at Main Avenue in Stirling, New Jersey (just a stone throw away from the train station), it is an old historic building. Founded in 1903, it was from the beginning a well known eatery in the Long Hill Township. The current owners, Tom and Dori Baldassare, purchased the building in 1983, with a dream to revitalize the place and establish a casual, family style tavern. Together, they are a great team, very unassuming and humble. They see themselves not as the 'owners' of the Hotel, but rather as caretakers or custodians. Tom puts it like this: "We want to keep this building the same as it is now for the next owner, the next generation. Buying this place was the best thing that ever happened, it is a passion to work here. I get to wear many hats, so every day brings something new."

As I was talking with him, he was busy with gas heaters and broom sticks, trying to remove accumulating snow as quick as possible from the outside tent area to prevent it from collapsing. And always with a smile. Food has always been important, bringing old and proven family recipes to the place from the beginning, and they still can be found in the kitchen whipping up the next special of the day. Tom calls it 'peasant dishes', and explains that in these hard economic times it is becoming 'nouveau' again. For him, it is what he grew up with, and something he and Dori love to pass on.

Dan manning the taps during a Founders Brewery event
Beer became a really important part in 1997, when they hired Dan Schneider. Fresh out of college, he brought a passion for craft beer with him, which started with that Sierra Nevada his older brother brought him years before. When he started, the Stirling Hotel offered a selection of bottled beers. In 2000-2001 they installed draft lines, and started with a small selection of imported European beers and American craft beers. From that early start, Dan oversaw the evolution of the Hotel into a real Craft Beer bar, at a time that Craft beer in New Jersey was virtually unknown. Currently, the choice of beers on tap is geared to represent various beer styles: there will always be an IPA on tap, a pilsner, amber,... Apart from that, he now oversees a selection of kegs they age in their cellar, kept for a special offering now and then. I can speak from experience that coming in only 2 hours after they start such a keg can be too late.

Dan has seen craft beer really take off in the last 3 to 4 years. "Craft beer is only going to get better," he says, "as local movements, more accessible and with  more styles." Now the Stirling Hotel does its part, with a great knowledgeable staff, bringing people from Long Hill Township and beyond a great place to hang out. Simple, unassuming, it will give you the kind of food that hits the spot, and beers that are hand picked to give you a taste of great brews from all over. A mix of the familiar, with the thrill of exploration laced in between. If you're around, a place you should not skip.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

October snow surprise

We've had quite a weekend and week, so far!
This past Saturday, October 29th, an early snowstorm battered the Northeastern corner of the United States. It broke all kinds of records, most of them about early snowfall maximums. It was, for example, the first such storm since the civil war. Here where we live, we had about 6-8 inches of heavy, sticky snow. Since it came so early, the trees still had most of their leaves. That proved to be a bad combination: branches and even whole trees broke off and toppled down under the heavy accumulated weight of the snow. This knocked out power lines everywhere, resulting in over 3 million people without power in the Northeast.
Power companies have hundreds of repair crews out, around the clock, but given the massive extent of the damage, our area will be out until Thursday, perhaps even Friday.
I was out at the Stirling Hotel, talking with the owners in preparation of an article here about how they made the Stirling Hotel into one of the best craft beer bars in Central New Jersey. Coming home, I found we had lost power. Today I am at a local coffee place to send this update, so look out for an article about this great bar soon!
Losing power means for a lot of people losing heating, and for those with well water, loss of water as well. The only bright point is that it gets so cold inside the house, that the beer from the powerless fridge stays nice and cool to drink. Always look at the bright side of life, someone has famously said... Any reason to celebrate is a good one, having no reason probably the best of them all. Loosing so much of our comfort only shows how blessed we are and how much we have and so easily take for granted. Now that is a lesson I happily toast on, with a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale at a nice frosty room temperature. Cheers all!

A picture's worth a thousand words:

The trees in our back yard could not bear the weight, even as I tried to save
the furthest tree by throwing snowballs at  its branches in an effort to
 relieve some weight.

Never knew trees could be that flexible...

I heard that the state of New Jersey has ordered 10,000 new electricity poles..

This happened all over the area. Still wondering what made that pole in
 the previous picture  snap?

Blocked streets everywhere, and live wires all over. Ignoring that, the snow
 does give a nice early Christmas feel, doesn't it? Feel like a nice stout
or dubbel Trapist beer...