Saturday morning, I spent a couple hours in the basement of the old-Salem house in which I’ve most recently been roosting, doing some some work and making some discoveries.
In an effort to create a “staging area,” we had to move cases of un-opend tonic water in glass bottles from the ’50s, unidentified boxes from Shreve, Crump, and Low, and decades worth of Town & Country, Vogue, and Gourmet magazines.
Of those magazines, I pulled a handful to peruse later.
Later in the afternoon, after touring neighborhood ship captains’ homes decorated for Christmas as part of Historic Salem’s annual home tour, I found myself back at home as dusk fell, sprawled in “Jonathan’s” chair in the glowing front room, bourbon in hand, ready to delve into my reading for the night: Gourmet, November 1989.
I flipped past articles on “Cooking at the Ritz,” an advertisement for Kansas City’s Hall’s Plaza department store, and a piece titled “The Microwave for Thanksgiving,” but landed on a travel story featuring the islands of Mauritius and Reunion, off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, where some French friends are planning to spend next year, and I’ve been thinking about visiting.
I read along about colonial architecture, Mark Twain, and cross-cultural curry. Then, this:
“On April 22, 1786, the 560-ton Grand Turk out of Salem, Massachusetts, arrived in Port Louis, where the captain sold his cargo of foodstuffs, wines and spirits, bar iron, earthenware, and candles; picked up another cargo, and continued on to China, setting a new pattern for American overseas trade.”
Perhaps this Salem captain had used the profit from this voyage to build one of the houses I had toured earlier in the day?
“Ship-building Salem led the race for lucrative trade with the Orient. Her enterprising intrepid captains were superb seamen, Yankee traders to the bone. A captain had full authority to trade off cargoes, change course for unscheduled ports, and sell the ship itself if the price was right. The only stipulation was to come home with a profit.”
Salem might no longer be leading the world in Oriental trade, but I think we’re still a pretty enterprising, independent, worldly lot, even if a good story has replaced profit has our stipulation for return. I certainly feel empowered to change course for unscheduled ports and sell the proverbial ship if the price is right, but would be ashamed to show my face in polite society if I failed to return with any good story to tell at cocktail hour.
“Most American seamen were in their early twenties, although Nathaniel Silsbee, a future US Senator from Massachusetts, was only nineteen when he was entrusted with the brand new Benjamin. [. . .] At the Cape of Good Hope, where he stopped on his delayed return, he saw two other Salem boats also headed home.”
As told in Gourmet, Silsbee persuaded his Salem comrades to take his current cargo back with them, while he went back to Mauritius for a whole new load, trebling his profit.
I’m told we still might find some more boxes in the basement from Salem high-street stores advertising their other locations in London and Paris.
I’m looking forward to a future Salem which echoes its superlative past. Whose citizens, empowered to solve problems creatively and independently, establish new patterns with global consequences.