Everybody expected the pride of Europe to drop dead at Williamsburg from the odd menus, but nobody did, apparently. Barbecued catfish, indeed. I come from catfish country--my employer a few years back was in the catfish-food business, manufacturing pellets to feed them--and I have eaten catfish man and boy for nigh on a century now, and I never even heard of barbecued catfish.
It was probably Craig Claiborne, long a food writer for The New York Times, who thought that one up.
He had a hand in the Williamsburg summit meetings food. He comes from Mississippi, and he once wrote an introduction to a cookbook assembled by the ladies down there. There was a set of directions for making Twinkie Pie, in which you take 24 Twinkies and cover them with liquid lime Jell-O, as I recall, and bake in the oven then chill in the icebox. There was another recipe for a party punch, made of lime Jell-O and Gatorade. And Claiborne wrote a glowing introduction to it all. So I was hardly surprised at some of the stuff scheduled for Williamsburg at the summit meeting of leading industrialized nations.
And I expected them all to die, but none did. It is wonderful what the human stomach will endure, and wonderful what human manners will make a man smile at and agree to.
But what an error, I thought. Anybody with the sense of a coot would leave the food to Colonial Williamsburg, the food operation of which is superior. I recently had the chance to peer into the kitchens, led by Peter Brown, a Williamsburg wheel. I did investigate the lemon ice. It used to be made with grated lemons that took a man all morning to prepare, but now it has citric acid in it and ground-up lemons acquired in bulk from citrus regions. Also, it no longer has egg whites in it. It is marvelous lemon ice, though modern.
Which proves, I hope, that I am the ultimate modern man, happy to go along with progress or necessity, and it does not distress me unduly that they have modern ice and running water and all that in Williamsburg, and I have never thought a cholera epidemic would be desirable, however authentic it might be for the life of past centuries.
But one of the most sensible decisions ever made by the Reagan administration was to hold the meetings in that Colonial capital, unique in the continent.
It's a pretty modest village, nothing grand about it, but it's four-square and all wool and a yard wide.
As a modern vacation spot, of course, it's comfortable, and there's no traffic or noise. And the food is good, at least when the federal government is not in the kitchen.
What is best about the old capital is that it's real. Dozens of its houses were still standing when John D. Rockefeller Jr. started in on the restoration; in fact, the main reason the restoration took place was simply that so many l8th-century buildings remained in place, and that so much of the town is of prime historic importance in America.
The care with which the restoration went forward is too well known to need dwelling on, and the scholarly research for it is a tribute to American thoroughness, which we are capable of once we make up our minds to it.
Take one house, the Wythe House, for example. It is remarkable not for its grandeur--it is a very plain, down-to-earth sort of house that even a poor English squire of the period would blush to live in. But it is a gentleman's house, in its restraint, its fine proportions, its tone of convenience and ease.
Some people claim to dislike Williamsburg and are fond of muttering that not everybody in the Commonwealth lived in a good Georgian dwelling. How true. That does not automatically proclaim the existing Georgian houses to be somehow false or misleading. Not everybody lived in a log cabin, either, but log cabins do not distort American history. Most Americans, strangely enough, are clever enough to notice that history is sometimes made on a battlefield, sometimes in a shack, sometimes in a mansion. The nation as a whole does not go off the deep end to assume that every remnant of our past reveals the total history of our people, merely some of it.
Jefferson, Marshall, Clay and others learned the law from George Wythe, and the life of this house, perhaps more than any other, shaped Jefferson. The house was a center of sober learning and agreeable conversation. It was full of music. It was a civilized place. Few other houses had the influence of this one in shaping the United States.
And it is the more priceless for its setting in the Colonial village, which looks as it did in the l8th century. True, Wythe and Jefferson and the others are not living there now. All the same, humans are the pilgrimage-making animals.
If you want to immerse yourself in the actual spaces, the actual rooms, in which so much American history was made, Williamsburg is unique as the site in which to do it.
The past of Williamsburg can nag you, I admit. The town is a reproach in its harmony to city planning of our own day. It is certainly a reproach to the designers and builders of houses now.
It is a shock, I would imagine, to those who are statistically rich today, living in some inadequate box of a place where you cannot even have a few dogs (it is amazing how our own living standard increasingly approaches that of Russia)--it is a shock to then go to Williamsburg to see with what relative grace Americans (who were not necessarily rich) once lived.
It can be said they had slaves, with the implication that if that disgusting institution still continued we, too, could live graciously; but that is a lie. Their wealth in slaves was nothing compared with our wealth from corporations, which they did not have. They had far less wealth, class for class, than we have now, but they lived well, they designed their houses better, they had at least as good conversation as we do now, and their lives in many cases amounted to more than ours do.
This is the true reproach of Williamsburg. We go there and we feel ashamed, or at least uneasy, that with greater resources than they dreamed of we do not feel grander but feel lesser when we see what they left.