The Presidio Brat

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Historic Christmas Dinner - Presidio Style

arguello and rezanov
Concepcion and Rezanov as depicted on the Presidio chapel (Interfaith Center)
Few know the tragic story of Baron Nikolai Rezanov, a Russian statesman who came to the Spanish Presidio in 1806. Hoping to set up a trade treaty with New Spain, he was welcomed to the Presidio by Don Luis Arguello, not the commandante after whom our lovely street is named, but his son.
Don Luis hosted Rezanov at the Arguello home - in what is now the defunct Officer's Club - which may explain why Rezanov fell madly in love with Arguello's daughter, Concepcion.
Николай Петрович Резанов
Tell me that's a hat
Born on the Presidio, military brat extraordinaire, Concepcion was 15 when she met Rezanov. Thank god her father was out of town - she and Rezanov spent all their time exploring the Presidio and planning a future together. Unfortunately, this was 1806, which meant that they couldn't get married -- he was Russian Orthodox, she was Catholic. In order to make such a cross-bred affair legit, Rezanov had to go back to Russia to ask the tsar's permission. While traveling home to do this, he fell off his horse and died. In Siberia. In winter. Concepcion didn't find out for another two years, at which point she swore off men forever and joined a nunnery. Which may explain how she went from this:
To this:
old concepcion
Another explanation could be her family's amazing cooking. In the heyday of their love, Concepcion and Rezanov would have shared the bounty of a lush California. The Arguello household could serve up the most festive boda in town, and an early California banquet of that caliber would have had to include an Aves Relleñas - a stuffed fowl drenched with red chile sauce.
I first discovered this recipe in the Presidio of San Francisco Cookbook, published in 1976 by the Presidio Officer's Wives Club. Their version of the recipe was taken from Early California Hospitality (1938) by Ana Packman. So if you feel like indulging in a bit of historic Presidio cookery, here is an updated recipe.
Aves Relleñas -- Adobadas y Asadas
(Stuffed Fowl Roasted and Drenched with Red Chile Sauce)
1 large brined turkey or goose or suckling pig
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
For the relleño (stuffing):
2 lbs. shoulder beef (neck) and giblets
1 quart boiling water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 Tbsp. fat
4 green onions
1 ripe onion
1 Tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. toasted breadcrumbs
2 eggs
1/2 cup pitted ripe black olives
1/4 cup raisins
Wash turkey. Rub salt and pepper inside and out. Cook beef and giblets in one quart boiling water. When giblet meat is tender, cool and chop into small pieces. Set broth aside.
Heat fat in skillet and fry minced onions until wilted. Add the chopped meat, vinegar,  black olives and raisins. Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Add in toasted breadcrumbs. Pour in one cup of the meat broth, a little at a time - this should be crumbly and not watery. Remove from heat and let cool. Stir in the eggs. Add salt to taste. Stuff dressing into fowl and bake the bird at 325 degrees.
For adobo (basting sauce):
6 dry red chiles
2 cloves garlic
1/4 tsp. crushed oregano
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. vinegar
1 cup boiling water
2 Tbsp. toasted breadcrumbs
Wipe chiles clean and remove seed veins and seeds. Cut into pieces and steam them over one cup boiling water for about half an hour. Rub chiles through sieve - or spin briefly in a food processor - adding in vinegar, salt, pepper, mashed garlic and oregano. Add the remainder of the meat stock. The result should be a rich, red puree.
When the skin of the bird is browned, begin basting with the the chile puree every 15 minutes until the bird is done.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Presidio Old and New

Before we moved here in the early 80s, my father wanted to see what kind of post we were being assigned to, so he drove up from Fort Irwin to do some recon. On that trip, he took a bunch of photos.  I thought it might be interesting to compare the Presidio from 1981 to the Presidio today:

Crissy Field 

Wow, right? The old army office buildings and the parking lot are gone, in favor of a grassy field. It's also a lot sunnier (on average, I think). Today, the beach looks and feels like a real beach. Interestingly, the trees are sparser in the modern shot....

The Coast Guard Station:

Again, the parking lot and office buildings are gone, but those palm trees are still there!

The Officer's Club:

Like a soldier, this building shaved its mustaches and beard for the modern look. Most of the trees are no longer growing in front. One tree still remains, but the area beneath it is sort of a no-man's-land of dirt and excavation. The old photo shows a greener scene, with grass on the side of the building. (Today, it's a sidewalk.) They've also taken down the street light and added a crosswalk.

It's also interesting what the Officer's Club looked like in the early 20th Century:

Washington Blvd:

Unlike a lot of the other photos, this one shows MORE trees in the modern shot - so much that you can hardly see the buildings anymore. And those shrubs by the roadside weren't there either. The buildings are no longer white, which makes them blend even more.

The Golf Course from Washington Blvd:

We couldn't quite get the same angle on this one.... However, it's remarkable how much greener and denser it was back in the 80s. The trees and shrubs have thinned out - some of them are just gone - and the fence is no longer overgrown with ivy.

General's Home on Funston

So many of the trees surrounding this house have been taken down (replaced by a parking restriction sign - how appropriate). The once-grassy yard is now some kind of ground cover. While I like that the home shows itself better now, I think the trees gave it homey-er feel.

Infantry Terrace

The first thing I notice here is how the modern windows are offset in a darker color, which makes them stand out more. And again, grass is gone in favor of a ground-cover of some kind. The trees and shrubs around the house have been scaled back or taken down. And I don't see a fire hydrant on the street anymore. :-)

And finally, Letterman

Just look at the old Letterman! (shiver of horror) Thank God for Lucasfilm. This landscape has changed so much that I had trouble figuring out where the old photo was taken. I'm still not sure. So in taking the new one, we just went looking for a palm tree.... I think these two speak for themselves.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Finding Balance: Indian history on the Presidio

At a recent Trust-sponsored discussion, someone pointed out that our language about the history of the Bay Area can be completely offensive to Indians. The speaker was talking about literature at the Anza Trail, but after considering his comments, I stumbled on a local example:

It is true that the Spaniards founded the original Presidio on that site, but it certainly overlooks the 5,000 years before that when Indians lived here, "founding" this place. You can't very well live somewhere for 5,000 years and not consider it "settled," can you?

And this wouldn't be true either:

I guess "building" excludes any tule huts or sweat lodges erected by the Ohlone. They would certainly qualify as the oldest ones in town. Like the original Commandante's Quarters, they are no longer standing. They have been built over by new structures. They were pretty minimalist to begin with. When you live so lightly on the land, you leave only the faintest traces of evidence behind. Good for reducing your carbon footprint, not so good for cultural preservation.

The Presidio as a distinct entity may have been created by Europeans, but Indians lived here, and it is well within the bounds of honesty and fairness - I would even argue, necessity - to focus on Ohlone culture anytime we discuss the general history of the place.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


When you grow up in the army, you learn a lot about army history simply by osmosis. Stilwell, MacArthur, Scott -- these weren’t just neighborhoods, they were famous generals. People occasionally talked about what these guys did.

But a couple of streets on the Presidio are named for Surgeon Generals. I used to live on one of those streets, and I can tell you that nobody ever had any idea what those guys did. The first and busiest of these streets – “Gorgas” – usually gets a puzzled reaction. That’s because it sounds like it should look like this:

The second one – well, there are very few people on earth who even know there is a street called O’Reilly on the Presidio. These two streets form the northern corner of the old Letterman complex - a reminder of its heroes' glories. 

Wm Crawford Gorgas
First of all, these guys were Surgeon Generals of the Army -- not to be confused with the US Surgeon General. The latter are the men who wage the invasion of the hand sanitizer and the trench war of cigarette warning labels. Those guys are in charge of the US Public Health Service. They’re not combat soldiers. They just nabbed the title “general” because they like dressing up in uniforms, too.

Surgeon Generals of the Army are real soldiers. They’re in charge of the US Army Medical Department – that’s basically, you guessed it, all the army's doctors and nurses and dentists and veterinarians, etc. The office was established by Congress in 1775. Last year we saw our first-ever female Surgeon General of the Army: Patricia Horoho. (She's a nurse, and certain former military men have been heard to whisper that it's pretty silly that they appointed a nurse, given that the title is, well, surgeon general.)

The Epic Mosquito War

The great thing about Gorgas: he wasn't interested in weakening his enemy by attrition or siege. He didn't give a damn for breakthroughs, encounters or encirclement. He was in for nothing less than the complete annihilation of the enemy:

In 1906, the engineers and construction crews of the Panama Canal could not stop dying of yellow fever. 85 percent of them had been hospitalized. Doctors couldn't agree on what caused the disease, and naturally their treatments were epic: high doses of eggnog, ice baths, and enough quinine to make you deaf.

Looking dapper despite the quinine
As chief medical officer, Gorgas was determined to do something about it. He and his entire team had contracted malaria, and he was going to kill every damn mosquito in Panama if he had to. But when he proposed his battle plan to the US Congress, they dismissed him with laughter: no way we're going to spend one million dollars waging war against a critter. Anyone with sense knew that diseases were spread by "miasma" - the putrid air of the tropics.
Carlos Finlay

Gorgas turned to President Theodore Roosevelt, a man sensible enough to listen to the advice of his personal physician, Alexander Lambert. Gorgas was relying on the research of Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay, and that of another army doctor Walter Reed, that linked the mosquito to the epic hemorrhagic fever, which caused its victims to turn yellow and begin bleeding from the mouth, eyes and intestines. Teddy gave Gorgas the funds he needed, and triumphantly, Gorgas returned to Panama with his Mosquito Brigades.

That's it, critters, balls to the wall!

Gorgas and his new reserve of 4,000 men undertook the herculean task of organizing recon for the entire canal zone, mapping every last corner of the enemy's terrain, and destroying its breeding grounds. They fumigated every single home, put mesh over every window, and sprayed every cess pool and storm drain and dirty old tire in 500 square miles of swamp and jungle.

Sierra Hotel, baby.

A year later, the disease was gone. Not only had the entire playing field been sanitized, but people finally understood the nefarious mosquito and how to combat it, army style.

So thank you Gorgas for saving millions of lives. And for being a real general. And for having such a great street named after you. It is merely the wurst of the brat that I tease you about your name.

Goldsworthy's Latest

Driving through the Main Post yesterday, we came across something odd: a team of men attempting to slide a tree branch into a forgotten building on the Main Parade Ground.

That's building 95, an old powder magazine on the corner of Anza and Sheridan. In my mind it's called the Lily Pad, thanks to its weird isolation and the abundance of lilies sprouting at its walls.

Turns out the tree is part of an upcoming art installation by Andy Goldsworthy. The Presidio Trust rep on site couldn't say whether the branch was a eucalyptus or not, only that future tours inside the building will be limited to ten people at a time.

Directly in front of the branch stands Goldsworthy himself, in white pullover and yellow helmet. He seems impertinently relaxed for a man trying to stuff an outsize branch through a tiny doorway. (Think how much more fun he could be having if there were still explosives in the building.)

Directly behind the tree branch, you can see a living tree that celebrated its 137th birthday this Fourth of July. The Centennial Tree was planted in honor of the 100-year celebration of the American Revolution, but it has come to be viewed as a memorial to all the army families that lost relatives during service.

I'm liking this contrast of old and new. And I love that we love trees so much here that we're even letting artists stuff them inside the buildings. All we really need to do next is build the world's most awesome treehouse. Maybe the Trust could do a Treehouse Inn. You could sleep in the foggy nights, based on a Goldsworthy-inspired philosophy of "wanting to be alert to changes in material, season and weather."

Goldsworthy's other two Presidio projects - the Spire and the Wood Line - are still at the park and can be seen here. Welcome number three!

Spotted At Baker Beach

The Western Fence lizard. He was hiding in the scrub, just to the side of the sand ladder.

According to the NPS website, this lizard is "fairly uncommon in the Presidio," and yet "the most common reptile in California."

The cool thing about these guys is that they have germ-killing superpowers. If a tick bites them, they are able to annihilate the bug's lyme-disease bacteria, leaving the tick's future bites harmless. (More from the California Academy of Science here.)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Starfleet Academy

For those who missed the public meeting last Monday night, the Trust is deciding what to do with the old Commissary on Crissy Field, and we heard three proposals.

The first one was the Bridge Institute, proposed by the Chora Group and WRNS Studio. They're calling it an "innovative cultural education center" but the focus is on sustainability, leading one to believe that they're going to be educating the public about pretty much anything relating to why you should ride a bike. (Yawn. Sorry.) They had some pretty nice graphics showing a cafe, exhibit spaces and a "research institute". It just brings to mind places like the Thoreau Center, which already exist here. The center would essentially be bringing together the "academic community" and the "corporate community" to problem-solve sustainability issues.

I would like you to write "I should ride a bike...."

They went on a little bit about all the modern tech, and how they're going to focus on education and e-learning, which just begs the question: if we're so wired in for this stuff, why build a building at all? Isn't is more sustainable not to have buildings? I noticed they didn't have plans for parking spaces, which suggests, further (here come the "shoulds") that you SHOULD ride a bike to a sustainability institute, no? Yes.

Let's not forget that, back in 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency suggested taking down the buildings and restoring Crissy Marsh. Just saying.

At this point, the Trust and the presenters were making such a big deal about Crissy Field, practically calling it the center of the universe, that it cracked me up thinking that the army saw this gorgeous spot and thought "Hey, let's build a grocery store. And a bargain market. And a realllllllly big parking lot." After twenty minutes of a sustainability presentation, I kinda missed the people who weren't so precious.

Then came the Lucas Center proposal for a Cultural Arts Museum. We all thought it was pretty clever that they prepared a video of George Lucas describing the project, then we thought: shoot, if he cares so much, why isn't he here? But the project itself has attractions: It will be a vast museum of pop art, illustration, fashion, cinematic design, fine arts, children's art, and digital art and animation. They tried to emphasize that it won't be just for adults, that the entire thing is super kid-friendly and there will be plenty of opportunities for education. Lucas pretty much defined it as a Museum of Storytelling. I can certainly appreciate that.

We'd better put it over there.
Unfortunately, everything else was hazy. They hadn't actually designed their new building yet, so they showed future sketches with what they called a "mass" where the building should be. It looked like a prison, big and ugly and blocking the view of the bridge. However, seeing what Lucas has done with the Letterman Center, I have faith that they'd build something gorgeous. They had figured out the parking though: an underground garage. Then they paraded out a bunch of specialists to describe different features of their sort-of-proposal, one of which was alarming: They showed that, a couple decades from now, the sea levels are going to rise so much that Crissy Field will be completely underwater. (Yes, folks, the most important spot on earth is going to be gone.) But the museum has planned for this (somehow) and their institute will be - tada! - right at the shoreline. I presume, however, that the future sea level rise might impact the underground parking garage...

Anyway, while I like the idea of this fantastic art collection being available on the Presidio, I don't see why it couldn't go somewhere else. We already have the Disney museum, which is pretty much a Great Homage to Storytelling.

By now, everyone's making such a big deal about Crissy Field, the most gorgeous and breathtaking spot on earth, the absolute premier location for anything on the planet, that I am beginning to feel that there should be nothing less here than Starfleet Academy. That even George Lucas, master storyteller himself, is not universally important enough for all the fuss they're making about this holy site.

I sat there wondering why I was feeling so jaded. I ought to be excited. I'm a huge fan of George Lucas, and I should be cheering, despite the floppy presentation. But the truth was, I felt like I was in a business meeting that a manager had hastily tossed together. (These proposals don't need to be finished before September.)

But then came the third and final presentation.

The Presidio Exchange, proposed by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, was explained by one person: Greg Moore, President of the Conservancy, who spoke eloquently and with a big heart. He alone understood that he was speaking to an audience who wanted to be inspired, impressed and amazed. He did not simply drag out the blueprints, he did not try to sell us politically correct environmentalism, or a massive museum collection. He sold us an idea, and it pretty much blew everyone else's plans out of the water.

The idea was simple: let's not just re-invent the place, let's create something that continues to re-invent itself. We don't want another dusty museum, with a bunch of stuff behind glass and partition ropes. We have to leave behind "the old 20th Century paradigm for a cultural institution," (Zing!) and instead build a cultural institution that is living and flexible and can continually offer new and exciting things to the public. While a Museum of Storytelling seems broad enough, it won't have the depth of topic of the Presidio Exchange. People want newness and variety, they want to touch, experience and create. The PX is going to be "a constant exchange of cultures, ideas, histories and missions."

To do this, they would offer a huge variety of programs covering all manner of topics -- concerts, presentations, film festivals, lectures, hikes, educational courses. Their criteria for selecting these events is: Does it have the variety to introduce diverse audiences to the Presidio, and to adapt as people's interests, cultures and technologies change?

In other words, is it open and potentially interesting to San Franciscans, who will come here often, as well as tourists? Yes.

Does it make the future more interesting? Yes. So....



To be serious, the PX proposal (aside from the awesome name - appreciated by presidio brats everywhere) is great because it's simple, inclusive and flexible. It's great because it's about this place as well as many other things. And it's great because, with a presentation like the one we saw, I have total confidence that the Conservancy is motivated and the people there know what they're doing.

Moore pointed out that just walking out the door anywhere on the GGNRA lands, you'll find "over 1200 historic structures, hundreds of native american sites, more than a thousand plant and animal species, a myriad of themes and stories, and over 80,000 acres of cultural, natural and scenic treasures." The Presidio itself is a museum that pulls the audience "behind the rope." Why put up another fence? Another barrier? Another building that you'll only go into once?

I have to admit, when they showed the video demonstrating how other obsolete American places have been turned into amazing cultural centers, I got a bit teary-eyed. It put me squarely in touch with why I love our national parks and why I love our country. Here's the video:

So I think the real tussle will go down between the two rivals: Lucas's proposal and the Presidio Exchange. Both proposals seem competent when it comes to bringing people to the park, but the PX has an edge because it offers so much more, a real potential to serve not just tourists, but to continually serve San Franciscans as well. The catch: I'm pretty sure the PX doesn't have the same funding that Lucas does. 

So this fight is not just about the projects. It's about the Trust and how they make decisions. The Presidio is the ONLY national park that is expected to pay for itself. And it has to make financial decisions to sustain itself, but how can it balance the need for money with the need to be open to everyone? 

What I think I fear most is the Commissary turning into somewhere you'll go into once, or maybe twice, and then it's done. Where a whole bunch of tourists flock regularly, but for those of us who live here, its single theme is quickly old hat -- a bit like the Disney museum is now. I would LOVE to have a space that is constantly changing, that is constantly re-inventing itself for San Franciscans as well as tourists. A place that brings us new knowledge and passion and experience. A place that can talk relevantly about the history and architecture and nature of the Presidio, as well as any other goddamn thing it wants to. And I do think that in order to keep this place dynamic, we're going to have to fight for it -- and not just say it, but 

So I'm casting my vote for the PX. 

Get out there and vote, people. This is an ongoing process. To submit comments, go here.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Wild Foods

Wild blackberries are beginning to flower. I saw these on Crissy Field Avenue while walking up the hill behind Planet Granite. They'll be ripe in midsummer, and you're allowed to pick them in moderation.

I believe these are the Himalayan variety -- those invasive bastards we've come to love. They're tastier than the native variety (Rubus ursinus, which has got to be Latin for the bush of the bear? In other words, only bears like to eat them.)

A biologist from the Trust's Natural Resources department said she would not recommend eating anything that grows wild on the Presidio. She knows the soil hazards here -- not only what's leftover from the military, but natural toxins like those found in serpentine. But clearly the wild food foragers don't agree. I pick and eat blackberries - and we certainly ate them all the time as kids -- to no ill effect. It's only a matter of braving the thorns and steep hills and shirt stains.

Speaking of useful plants, here is the above-mentioned biologist showing off a radish (Raphanus sativus), which is blooming now. There were plenty in the area around the Presidio Landmark apartments.

It's an invasive species, so maybe you won't feel guilty picking a few bunches. The edible root is long and white, but much tastier than the red ones you buy at the supermarket. For a better look at the plant's flowers, see below.

Also in that area was a heap of miner's lettuce that was ready to eat. (Claytonia perfoliata.) Gold Rush miners ate this leaf because it was so packed with vitamins that it could stave off scurvy. It's one of the native plants that the colonizers actually exported back to Europe, they found it so tasty and healthy and easy to grow. (I've even seen it sprout up near Baker Beach.)

In terms of cuisine, the Presidio has a lot to offer. Wild Mustard, Bermuda buttercup, and even yes, the Ice Plant fruit! (More here.) I also stumbled on the wild foods of the Tennessee Hollow Watershed. I think it might be a good time for some salad.

Miner's lettuce
blooming radish
ice plant flower - no fruit yet