Quick! Tell me:
Blue jeans and the Caesar salad are American inventions, right?
Who said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”?
Why did Francis Scott Key write “The Star-Spangled Banner”?
If you don’t know, you could look up the answers online. But there’s a more entertaining place to go: “Stuff Every American Should Know” (Quirk Books, 2012), a pocket-sized guide to U.S. culture and history by a husband-and-wife team from Asheville.
As the 2012 campaign’s torrent of rhetoric reaches its climax, Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese are here to clear the air. “Stuff Every American Should Know” offers a cheery view of what America is all about.
The two authors dip into the American melting pot and serve up tasty morsels of our history and culture. They range from little-known facts about the country’s founding to glimpses of the creation of football and baseball to a how-to on folding the American flag.
The approach is chatty rather than scholarly. The duo’s un-serious mindset lets them appreciate reactions that more august authors might not inspire – such as this favorable but unorthodox comment from an online reviewer.
“She said the book was a great bathroom read,” D’Agnese said. “I’m sure David McCullough has never had a review like that.”
Books to argue about
When the authors aren’t demystifying or debunking, they indulge some of their own viewpoints – such as a list of 10 books they think every American should read. The rundown includes “Common Sense,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Catch-22.” Among classics that are absent: “The Great Gatsby,” “Moby Dick” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Huffington Post excerpted “Stuff Every American Should Know” with a slide show about the 10 books. “Good God,” Kiernan said, “there were 3,000 comments within a week.”
That was the idea all along.
“We knew it would be a jumping-off point for discussions and arguments,” Kiernan said.
“We never went into it thinking this was a definitive list,” she said. “Because part of the fun is what comes after: getting people to talk about their favorite American books. Getting people to talk about their favorite American foods – or what they think are American foods.”
Yes, there’s plenty of confusion about food. When the couple appeared on a New York radio show, Kiernan said, the station asked listeners to go onto its Facebook page and name foods they thought were quintessentially American.
“The number of people who said french fries was astounding,” Kiernan said. She feigned exasperation: “WHY DO YOU THINK THEY’RE CALLED FRENCH FRIES?!”
Blue jeans, which had predecessors in India, Italy and France aren’t ours, either. But Caesar salad is: It’s the creation, the authors say, of chef Caesar Cardini, who had restaurants in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. In case you’re wondering about those other questions from the top of this story: President Theodore Roosevelt advised quiet rhetoric backed up by power. And Francis Scott Key, as a young lawyer during the War of 1812, was sent onto a British ship in Baltimore harbor to negotiate the release of American prisoners. The British held him overnight while they shelled the city. When the sun rose, Key gazed toward Baltimore and saw that our flag was still there.
‘Fame and misfortune’
Neither author is a historian by training. Kiernan’s career in journalism and television has included a stint as the head writer for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” during its first season. D’Agnese used to oversee Scholastic Publications’ science and math magazines for young people.
Both of them were growing up when “Trivial Pursuit” appeared, they said, and they got hooked on it. Another formative influence: the U.S. bicentennial celebration in 1976.
“I remember fire hydrants being painted red, white and blue,” Kiernan said, “and learning what a tricorn hat was. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it’s not just dates and places. It’s also what people wore, and what kind of musical instruments they played, and how they cooked.’ I became fascinated by what life was like in that time.”
So it’s no wonder the couple has made a niche writing lively little books about history. “Signing Their Lives Away” looks at “the fame and misfortune,” as its subtitle says, that befell the signers of the Declaration of Independence. “Signing Their Rights Away” spotlights the signers of the Constitution.
“At lot of Americans don’t realize that the Constitution even was signed,” Kiernan said.
Observations like that, gleaned as the couple promoted those books, helped spur them to write “Stuff Every American Should Know.” Again and again, they said, they noticed people confusing the Declaration and the Constitution.
“I really think Americans should know how our government is arranged – the three branches of government – and how we elect the president. How we elect Congress,” D’Agnese said.
“If you’re going to be voting, you need to understand what you’re going to be voting for.”
The untouchable topic
The couple thinks Americans are curious about our own history and culture. If we’re hazy on details, even that may be rooted in the American way of life.
“I believe Americans would know more if they had more time to devote to things like this,” D’Agnese said. “But we’re all incredibly busy. We’re busier than most other cultures, I think.”
The authors are already brainstorming a sequel. The limits of the 144 compact pages forced them to drop some subjects – such as great American movies and Broadway shows.
“God knows, we love ‘1776,’ ” D’Agnese said.
But at least one subject isn’t on their list: North Carolina barbecue. It’s just too hot a topic.
“I think I’d install a better security system on our house,” Kiernan said, “before I’d get into the East vs. West debate.”