The liberal arts, until relatively recently, were regarded as “liberal” to the degree that they taught students that some things in life, being good in themselves, were not done because they were useful or necessary but entirely for their own sake. The liberal arts took as its purpose that of introducing students to a space of freedom beyond expediency, practicality, and utility. Work, therefore, had nothing to do with it.
Sadly, pretty much all that was liberal (or “free”) about the liberal arts has since withered away, and now they live on mostly in name only, and only so long as they’re deemed useful.
How did the liberal arts meet their death?
Back when work at the steel mill was plentiful and newcomers flooded into town, Union Station was Gary’s front porch. A jobseeker could step off the train and set off down the brick driveway toward the booming U.S. Steel plant a block away.
These days, Union Station is empty, rotting in plain view alongside a highway exit ramp. No train has unloaded here in decades. Trees grow wild in the baggage area. Rubble covers the waiting room floor. The sun glints through a partly collapsed roof.
Still, there are dreams to revive this train station.
The original ramen was eaten by Japanese labourers by the bowlful. World War Two changed everything. Large tracts of Japan were decimated by bombing. When the war came to a close in 1945, the surviving population was starving.
Enter our unlikely hero - a failed businessman named Momofuku Ando. Ando, as he’s affectionately known, had earned and lost fortunes, first in his native Taiwan and then in Japan. He made millions in industrial parts during the war, then lost it. At one point, he went to prison for fraud. He then headed a bank, which collapsed. But Ando was persistent. He wanted to rebuild his reputation and his fortune. A decade after the war had ended, contacts in Japan’s ministry of agriculture told him they were eager to figure out how to push Japanese people to eat more American wheat flour - the key component of US aid at the time.
That’s when, so the story goes, Ando remembered something he’d seen at the end of the war - queues of exhausted people waiting patiently in long lines for bowls of steaming ramen noodle soup. What was needed, Ando thought, was a modern, speedy version of that working-class comfort food. A food that, conveniently, used lots of American wheat flour.
Nostalgia is only heightened when you’re homesick, which might explain my preoccupation with the minutia of Australian life of the 1970s and ’80s. I left the country in the early ’90s, and spent the last two decades in a state of constant yearning. I was surprised, upon my return, to find many of the staples of my childhood gone, and was shocked that some have slipped away or languished without mention. America’s taste for Froot Loops has diminished significantly, but their waning popularity and influence and import has not gone undocumented.
Imagine then, a symbol of American childhood as common as a PB & J — and as revealing of the economic and moral climate of its creation — that few food scholars have considered, and is virtually absent from books about the national diet.
The Australian salad sandwich is just such an item. A stalwart of school lunches and milk bars and sandwich shops and cafes, the salad sandwich was unavoidable for decades. Its basic components: sliced bread, butter or margarine and layers of shredded lettuce or alfalfa sprouts, shredded carrots, sliced or shredded cucumbers, and — the key ingredient — canned red beetroot. Magenta beetroot juice seeping through white bread is instantly recognizable as a portrait of Australian lunch.
Like a seasoned tour guide, Tinniswood keeps us moving through chambers of wonders, from the Elizabethan to the modern era, on a journey into dullness. “Little or nothing to be done till dinner,” one equerry writes of Victoria’s household, “when we all dressed up in knee-breeches and stockings.” While the queen, alarmed by overspending, decrees “that toilet paper should give way to newspaper squares in the castle lavatories at Windsor.”
Crudo's lone political truth is borrowed from the painter Philip Guston, who wrote that "the only reason to be an artist [is] to escape, to bear witness to all this." The statement informs the whole book. No artist can know how big a contribution she's making, but she can know what role to play. The witness, the record-keeper. That line gives Crudo the strength to soldier on.