OFFBEAT OREGON HISTORY: A weekly newspaper column that has evolved into a suite of public-history resources, including:

  • ... a podcast
  • ... a daily RSS feed
  • ... a social-media community
  • ... talks and lectures
  • ... a browsable Web archive (257 columns, at last count)

It's accessed through an anchor page, linked here.



WICKED PORTLAND: A book about the late-1800s underworld of Portland, Oregon, including ...

  • Rascally politicians
  • Saloons and gambling dens
  • Naughty ladies of every description
  • Shanghai artists and their victims (and would-be victims)
  • Corrupt cops and mayors
  • The world's dumbest-ever drug smugglers

Published by The History Press in June 2012. Here's a link to the "lost chapter" (cut from the book for lack of space); the main web site for the book is here.



AMERICA'S MOST HATED HERO: My current book project, to be released on August 4, 2014 (the 100-year anniversary of the German invasion of Belgium). Tells the story of how Herbert C. Hoover created the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which was the only thing standing between 9 million people and starvation for the duration of the war.

The details (so far) are here.



MISCELLANEOUS WRITINGS: Some published, some not, accessed through a table of contents, here.

The airplane pictured above, by the way, is the one featured in this story, which is one of the best things I've ever written. Do check it out.



ABOUT ME: Everything you need to know, and a bunch of extra stuff you don't, about Yours Truly.



The Cookie Quest chronicles

This is the content of a blog which I created in 2009 to document my journey in pursuit of the recipe for the Belgian relief cookies, which Hoover's organization used to feed the starving children of Belgium.

The Hooded Hooligan, that’s me

Well, it’s now official … I am no longer a graduate student. I finished my program up this last term. But, well, the real work is just getting started.

The capstone of the Literary Nonfiction class is the “Writing the Nonfiction Book” class. In this, students actually produce a book proposal suitable for submission to an agent or publisher. Between the fruits of this class and my final project — two sample chapters from my planned book, titled _America’s Most Hated Hero_ — I now have my labors mapped out. I figure another year of going through primary sources and perhaps another trip to the Hoover archive at Stanford and I’ll have the book written and ready to go … ready to reintroduce America to the guy it thought so highly of in 1922 and so poorly of 10 years later.

By the way, if you want some idea of why he was so unpopular in the early ’30s … check out this video I found on YouGoob:

He looks uncomfortable, self-conscious and miserable. Whew.

I attended graduation so I could root for my colleagues as they stepped up to be hooded. There was no way I was going to spend $70 to rent a gown to do it in. But my adviser, Lauren Kessler, spotted me hooting and clapping and kind of dragooned me up onto the platform to be hooded.

The hooding

I felt a bit silly — not only was I not in academic regalia, but I was fairly casually dressed, with no tie and wearing a big beige photographer’s jacket — but I’m really glad she did that.



Posted: June 17th, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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Dr. Lee Nash, Hoover scholar: A tribute

Lee Nash was a history professor at George Fox University, a good Quaker and a top-shelf Herbert Hoover scholar. I met him just once, before his cancer got bad. I brought my copy of his book (Understanding Herbert Hoover: Ten Perspectives) but never got around to asking him to sign it. Anyway, he’s gone now and I wish I’d had a chance to get to know him better. My friend Don Lamm called the other night to let me know.

I met Lee when I’d first started researching Hoover. I was wondering how Hoover’s faith — he was a lifelong Quaker — had influenced his approach to World War I. Quakers are not war people. Don suggested I get in touch with Dr. Ralph Beebe, another George Fox prof, who wrote a book about the Oregon Yearly Meeting of Friends back in the late 1960s. Ralph invited me up to Newburg to have lunch with him — and invited Lee to come along.

Lee, when he heard I was interested in Hoover, came prepared with a manila folder containing a hand-written sheet of suggestions for books I should look into as well as a photocopy of a speech he had given to the Newburg Rotary Club and a draft of the introduction to the book he was working on. After lunch, he gave me his e-mail address and phone number so I could contact him with any follow-up questions.

That was it — my only opportunity to get to know Lee Nash. Shortly thereafter his cancer took a turn for the worse.

But his new book, _Herbert Hoover and World Peace_ , is due out in September. His earlier book is out of print, but there are still several used copies available on Amazon.

Posted: May 24th, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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More Hoover Belgian relief cookies

Well, it’s been a couple months since I updated this blog. Being in the last couple weeks of the last term of a master’s program will do that to a guy, I think.
Got my two sample chapters close to the finish line. The first one tells the story of how Herbert Hoover got involved in the Commission for Relief in Belgium in 1914; the second is the story of how the cookie first appeared, when the Belgian kids were starting to get tuberculosis from undernutrition.
My defense is scheduled for Thursday. AAAAAUGH!! And I think my adviser is honked off at me because I didn’t get my draft to her early enough.
Well … I guess you can take the Finn out of the newsroom, but you can’t take the newsroom out of … yeah, you get the idea. Deadline is a force that gives life meaning!

Posted: May 23rd, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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Cookie Day: C.R.B. biscuits get tasted

So as I wrote earlier, my quest for the elusive Herbert Hoover Belgian Relief Cookie recipe has come very close to success. I now have the recipe for the base cookie — involving simple percentages of flour, sugar and lard. I know other ingredients that were used in it as well — cocoa and, of course, water — but don’t have a clue how much, nor for how long it was baked.

So when I was sharing this good news with my classmate Marc Dadigan at the U, he said, “Well, why don’t you make some?”

Why not, indeed? I basically have the recipe.

So yesterday I did just that.

I now have a large plastic box of shingle-like cookies that crunch like hardtack but taste kind of semi-sweet, chocolatey and substantial. Actually, they seem a lot like ginger snaps — the really hard kind of ginger snaps, the break-your-teeth-on-it ones. They’re actually pretty tasty.

The basic biscuit is:

100 parts graham flour (I used regular whole-wheat)

20 parts sugar

5 parts lard

To this blend, I added 5 parts Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa. That’s all. I suspect that the original cookie had other stuff added to it. There was probably calcium phosphate in it, for building children’s bones. There may also have been some sort of anti-scorbutic; although Vitamin C was a few years away from being discovered, certain foods were known to ward off scurvy; malted grain was one of them. I’ll have to await the result of furtehr research to find out for sure.

I took these measurements as being by volume, not by weight. Using this recipe I found that 15 parts of water were about right, although next time I do this I’ll cut that down. I rolled the dough flat with an old Atlas Strong Shoulder mason jar and baked it at 350 degrees F. for 30 minutes, because that’s what a recipe I had for homemade graham crackers said to do. Next time I’ll probably go with 25 just to save myself from an early experience of being fitted for dentures.

Big day!

Posted: March 5th, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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A day at the Hoover Institute archives

So today I’m freshly returned from a visit to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. I wanted to look through the archives from the C.R.B., which are stored there. Although I did not find any recipes, I got some really good leads on this cookie I’ve been chasing.

First off, it’s a hygienic biscuit, or what’s today called a digestive biscuit. It weighed 50 grams, so about two ounces, and packed a 100-calorie load. At some point, extensive experimentation was going on trying to find just the right combination of elements in these biscuits, and it looks like most of that was being done in Lille.

I’ve got a rough recipe, but it seems to be more like the recipe for biscuit base. It involves whole wheat flour, sugar and lard. In Hoover’s memoir, he says it also contained cocoa and every “chemical” needed for growing children. Well, this may have been an anachronism; Hoover was writing this after World War II, when vitamins were well known, but — as I found out when preparing a paper on the topic for a history class last term — the existence of vitamins was only proposed the year before World War I broke out. Perhaps Hoover was referring to calcium phosphate, the bone-building mineral they called “phosphatine.”

Anyway, at this point I am prepared to bet that the Holy Grail Cookie contained flour, sugar, lard, cocoa and calcium phosphate. It may also have had rice polishings in it — rice polishings were known to prevent beri-beri, although that disease wasn’t particularly prevalent in wartime Belgium. Scurvy would be more of an issue, and might have been addressed by malting some of the grain used in the flour — although Vitamin C was still just a theory at the time, people knew malted grain prevented scurvy.

A few other interesting finds came out of the deal as well. I can see why Hoover was so short of temper over all the diplomatic niceties. Each letter from or to an ambassador ends with “I take this opportunity to renew to Your Excellency the assurances of my highest consideration.” (It’s usually in French, in which language perhaps it doesn’t sound quite so stupid, but really … )

The voyage down and back was an adventure, too, but I’ll save that for my memoirs after I get rich and famous.

Posted: March 1st, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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A new lead

I recently made a critical breakthrough in my quest for the cookie. I was reviewing Charlotte Kellogg’s book, Women of Belgium: Turning Tragedy into Triumph (1916) and saw a reference to one of the lunch menu items for the children. It occcasionally included something called “a hygienic biscuit — a thick, wholesome one, as big as our American cracker.”

Of course, Hoover referred to the cookie as a cracker: “Among other devices we invented was a big and solid cracker with fats, cocoa, sugar and flour, containing every chemical needed for growing children.” (Years of Adventure (memoir), 1952).

So I wondered if there might be a connection there. But I utterly failed to figure out what the heck a hygienic biscuit is.

So I asked a colleague and Literary Nonfiction program alum Jessica MacMurray Blaine ( about it. She immediately responded with a link to a Wikipedia page and a note, “Also called a ‘digestive (biscuit).’”

A digestive biscuit looks an awful lot like a big, solid, semi-sweet cookie. I guess it’s a popular item to eat for breakfast in some parts of the European continent.

As luck would have it, I’m making my first pilgrimmage to Stanford University to scrounge around in the library. You can bet I’ll be looking everywhere there might possibly be a recipe.

Posted: February 23rd, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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The Quest for the Cookie continues

July 25, 2009

This has been a crazy week. Early on, I thought I’d found that cookie recipe I’ve been chasing after. I’d dropped an e-mail to the Hoover Institution Archives inquiring about it, and Carol Leadenham, one of the archivists, sent me a note saying she’d found it and would send it along! She added that George H. Nash and another researcher (turned out to be Tom Westerman of the University of Connecticut History Department) were at the library reading room and she’d been able to share it with them too.

Needless to say, I was diligently haunting my mailbox for the next few days after that. Finally it arrived, and … well, it was a near miss. It’s a collection of children’s recipes including lard biscuits, hot cocoa, and the “phosphatine” drink I mentioned earlier — a sort of pudding or thick drink, well sugared and sometimes flavored with cocoa.

I also sent off a couple e-mails, in French, to folks at the University of Louvain and the Belgian national archives. I have yet to get a reply to either. I’m wondering … I mean, this is a BeNeLux country, for crying out loud, where people speak French, Dutch and English before they even hit kindergarten. Probably I should have just written in English. Nothing annoys Francophones more than bad French (except, perhaps, bad French delivered with a German accent.) Next time, I’ll try that, and maybe I won’t get blown off.

Going through the recipes, I saw a reference to a “Dr. Maldayne” at the University of Louvain. Couldn’t find any info on such a person at all — I wonder if perhaps it’s misspelled? The name doesn’t sound very Wallonic to me; if he’s Flemish, it could be misspelled; maybe “Maldjien” or something like that.

The recipes also got me snooping around after more information on this “phosphatine” thing, and this led to my best break so far. Phosphatine is a term that seems to only have been used in the context of the CRB. It refers to phosphated lime, or calcium phosphate, a mineral that comprises 70 percent of our bones. I learned from a contemporary magazine article that the Holy Grail Cookie was a phosphatine product as well. So, I guess I’m that much closer.

Meanwhile, I’m going back through Nash’s second volume, “The Humanitarian.” My first read was more or less a pleasure cruise. This time, I’m actually studying it. Oh, and I’m on Lesson 15 of the 30-lesson Pimsleur course in Flemish. Graag gedaan!

Posted: February 4th, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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The Holy Grail is a chocolate cookie

The first thing I realized after reviewing a couple once-over-lightly accounts of the CRB was that if I could get my hands on the recipe for a certain cookie, it would make a magnificent hook for my project and might even segue into a publication contract for it. Here’s the story of the cookie:

Early in war, Hoover discovered that children in Belgium were not getting enough nourishment from the pint of soup and 7-ounce loaf of bread that everybody was getting every day. Even if the kids got the food — and some of them had mean uncles and stepmothers and what-not, who would take their food from them — there just wasn’t enough there for a growing child.

So the CRB established lunch service at schools.

A major component of the lunches served to the children was a special cookie — in his memoirs Hoover calls it a “cracker” — containing “fats, cocoa, sugar and flour, containing every chemical needed for growing children.”

This was served with a glass of milk and, when possible, other victuals like soup and something called “phosphatine,” apparently a pudding of sorts made with bone-building calcium.

Since the inception of this project, six months ago, I have been on a quest for the recipe for this cookie. It is of great importance. You see, if I can get the recipe, people can actually experience what it tasted like to be a hungry Belgian child in 1916, sitting down to a Spartan lunch in a schoolhouse in Louvain (Leuwen, op u Vlaaming ov Vlaamse bent) as distant artillery fire rumbled like thunder to the south.

It’s also a hook I’d love to use for my project. Because, when you think about it, it’s a cookie — but it’s a cookie that kept 2.5 million children alive and free of diseases like rickets and scurvy. It’s the most important cookie in the history of the world.

In my project, I envision giving this recipe up front and inviting the readers to sit back and nibble on one of these cookies while they enjoy a story of a real American hero battling impossible odds to save 9 million lives.  The cookie will make this story real for people. And I will not give up until I find it.

<h2>Remedial readings</h2>
While I was pursuing these assignments, I realized that I knew almost nothing about Hoover. Worse, I had picked up a lot of false information over the years. Clearly the first thing to do was to put myself through a crash course on basic Herbert Hoover. By this time the spring term was just ending, and with it all the distracting drama of the Information Gathering class I was GTFing. The summer lay out before me like a generous banquet table; all I had to do was put food on it.

I quickly mapped out a plan. First, there was the language thing. If I were to do any research in the CRB I would have to know the languages of Belgium. This was a congenial idea anyway; I love foreign languages and have picked up a crude command of about seven of them. Luckily for me, the best of the bunch for me is French; although far from fluent, I can read French books. More importantly, I thought, I needed to learn Flemish, or Dutch. So I got a copy of the Pimsleur course in Dutch to listen to in the car, as well as a “teach yourself” book for after that. No, the University of Oregon does not offer any Dutch classes.

Secondly, I needed to beef up my library and start devouring books. I started out with George H. Nash’s biography of Hoover’s life. Nash cranked out three of these, taking the faithful reader through the end of World War I and the American Relief Agency, circa 1920. This, coincidentally, was precisely the period I was interested in.

Nash’s books are thorough, meaty and a bit tough to get through. That’s because of their thoroughness, not any deficit in Nash’s style, which is actually rather sprightly for an academic. The best thing about them, other than the source notes, is that when one encounters contradictory information in other books — as, with Hoover, always happens — one can recognize it as spin or even an outright misrepresentation. Toch wel — I suppose it’s possible that it might turn out that Nash was the spinner or misrepresenter, but every time I’ve gone to his source notes I’ve found the documentation solid. It’s an exceptionally useful “Hoover 101-102-103” basis on which to build a body of one’s own scholarship.

In addition to Nash’s books, I set myself to reading Hoover’s memoirs of the same period — there’s just one volume covering 1874 to 1920.

At that point, I felt I had a good basic knowledge of Hoover’s early life and of the basic CRB story. As of this writing, there remain just a month and a half of summer vacation before I’m back at the grindstone again for fall term. By then I plan to have a solid handle on the story of Hoover’s years as Secretary of Commerce, President and Ex-President, along with — more importantly — a grasp of the role of the American Relief Agency, the outfit that sprang forth from the CRB experience and saved not just a nation, but an entire continent from starving as they did after the Thirty Years War.

And I also intend to know what happened to the children in Poland.

So — that’s it for this entry. I reckon the next one will cover the events of the past week — in which I almost found the cookie recipe, only to discover it wasn’t the right one

Posted: February 4th, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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With the Help of Tony Horwitz …

I didn’t realize Hoover was going to be my project — and likely the research subject of the rest of my career — until one weekend near the end of spring term 2009 when writer Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes, A Voyage Long and Strange, and a couple others) came to the University to lead a weekend seminar for me and my five colleagues in the literary nonfiction program.

Tony was very intrigued by the Hoover story, because it was so counter to Hoover’s reputation.

As an assignment for the seminar, Tony asked us all to go forth and visit a nearby historic place, then write about it. My idea was to visit several historic places: Thompson’s (Boston) Mill, about 15 miles up the Calapooia River from my house, which was sold by the company Hoover worked for in 1892 and ran 24 hours a day grinding flour to send to Belgium in World War I; the Marion County Historical Society in Salem, located a few blocks from Hoover’s office at Oregon Land Co.; and the Hoover-Minthorn House in Newberg, where Hoover lived after coming to Oregon.

I never wrote them up, having convinced Tony that he could read the first draft of my book proposal instead. Because after I visited all these places, I knew what I was going to be doing for my final project. And, most likely, for the rest of my life.

Posted: February 4th, 2010 under Uncategorized.
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The Poison of Politics

I quickly discovered that the story of Hoover the humanitarian hero has been impaled on the stake of his political significance. This acutally makes me angry when I think about it. That’s because Hoover’s political significance has very little to do with who he was or even what he wrote in his two slim volumes of political theory. His importance is what he represents, not who he is. In other words, he’s a damn mascot, like a stuffed duck or a guy in a buckeye suit, representing a side in the ongoing fight over whether the New Deal was a good idea or not. This is so not right, I don’t know where to start.

(Just so you know where I’m coming from: I am not now and have never been a member of the Republican Party. I once was a Democrat — I grew up in a very Democratic family — but that was 20 years ago and I’m not going back. In fact, I’m the only member of my family who has ever voted for a Republican. I am registered as a Libertarian but am not particularly happy there; I find naked Ayn Rand-style libertarianism to be inhumane. I know intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate people on both the left and the right; neither side has a monopoly on intelligence. I am opinionated on specific topics but I am pretty much apolitical. Still, if Theodore Roosevelt were running for President in 2012, I’d definitely contribute $1,000 to his Bull Moose Party!)

(Please forgive this digression but I believe it is an important disclosure.)

Hoover’s supporters say he was targeted by a very skillful political operative working for Franklin Roosevelt. OK, maybe that’s true. All I can say for sure is, hardcore New Dealers tend to minimize his earlier accomplishments by using fancy, boring words like “humanitarian activities” instead of direct, visceral ones like “saved millions from a horrible death.” They also have a disturbing tendency to claim the people he helped were nothing but numbers to him, like the score in a big pinball game. Quite how they got this information they never quite get around to mentioning. The picture they like to paint is one of a selfish, petulant would-be dictator who cares about nothing but his own glory.

Hardcore conservatives have their own particular sins, although these are less egregious because, of course, they lost the battle. Sometimes they’ll claim the New Deal was all his stuff and Roosevelt just took credit for it. You’ll also see them glossing over some of the darker aspects of his life (we all have them) to make him seem more like a sacrificial lamb.

Plenty of conservatives will tell you how wonderful Hoover was. Plenty of liberals will tell you he was a country clubber with nothing in common with regular folks. Neither side really listens to the other. And the truth — a story that belongs in the pantheon of American heroic legend for every American of every political leaning to know and be proud of — is lost in the struggle.

This is the void I intend to fill. I want to tell the story of Hoover’s early, apolitical years as a wholesale saver of human lives in a way that will fill the hearts of all Americans with pride — be they Republicans, Democrats, Communists or even Fascists.