The meaning of monikers

It’s astonishing how much heat I generated with a coolly casual observation on the political elephant. My information came from the Republican National Committee’s Web site, but some readers on the right begged to differ. One insisted that political cartoonist Thomas Nast was a stalwart Republican who chose the thick-skinned mammal with the prehensile nose because it was smarter than all the rest. Possibly, but why did Nast show it being duped by a donkey in masquerade? Or, two weeks later, as fool enough to fall into the Democrats’ trap? To see for yourself, visit an online archive of Nast’s cartoons,

The same reader pointed out, quite correctly, that 1874 was not a presidential election year, and that as Grant was only in his second term, the fear that Grant had imperial ambitions and was seeking a third was foolish. Exactly-that was Nast’s point. Grant had grumbled so bitterly about his puny presidential salary that a generous Republican congress doubled it to a princely $50,000 a year. Democrats cried, “Foul!” and their tabloids screamed, “Caesar-ism-Grant seeks a third term.” It was a phony charge, but effective. It scared the populace, and it was this alarm that Nast attacked in the famous satire that gave both parties their mammalian mascots.

Another reader commented that, as Thomas Nast was a recent German immigrant, he was unlikely to have known that Democrats had been dubbed donkeys as early as 1828 when detractors called President Andrew Jackson a “jackass” for his populism. Nast first used the donkey as a stand-in for the antiwar press in 1870. He depicted a donkey, labeled the New York Herald, kicking a fallen lion, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who had just died. Four years later, Nast again used the donkey to symbolize the Herald, but now he added an elephant to symbolize the duped and dumbfounded Republican voters of New York City. Two more duplicitous donkeys in 1874 cartoons, and the symbol stuck forever. Although Nast soon dropped the pachyderm as a Republican proxy, the party liked it and picked it up, adopting it as their official emblem.

The donkey’s fate is not so glorious. The Democratic Party has always been uncomfortable with so ambivalent an animal image. While some see the donkey as humble, courageous and even clever, others view it as stubborn or stupid. Witness Donkey’s bleated objection in “Shrek II” that he hated the synonym, jackass-it was “undignified!”

Discomfort with their own party symbol has never stopped Democrats from poking fun at the opposition. One Malibu wag recounted an Adlai Stevenson quip: “The elephant has a thick skin, a head full of ivory and, as everybody who has ever seen a circus knows, gets ahead by grasping the tail of its predecessor.” Ah yes, the mammal as metaphor leaves fertile ground for nimble minds. And to think, I have not even started on the “yellow dog” Democrats! Hee Haw!

“Straw and Hay”-Paglia e Fieno

Serves 6

Both the elephant and the donkey are herbivores that graze the fresh grasses in summer and winter with hay. This classic pasta dish from Tuscany has the clever title, Straw and Hay, a visual pun based on the blend of white and green noodles that define it. Traditionally, paglia e fieno is served with a rich cream sauce made from peas and prosciutto, but unlike most dishes with enough history to find their way into cookbooks, there are dozens of variations. Feel free to add mushrooms or sautéed onions, almost any fresh herbs and tomatoes. Some people add an egg, some mascarpone. Like politics, there are almost no rules.

1/2 lb. fresh fettuccine

1/2 lb. fresh spinach fettuccine

1/2 lb. tender cooked peas

1/2 lb. pancetta or smoky bacon, sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 bunch fresh Italian parsley, minced

2 cups extra heavy cream

Reggiano parmesan cheese

Optional additions: 3 Tbs. minced mint or basil; 1/2 pound sautéed mushrooms or cooked green beans; 2 or 3 Tbs. tomato paste or mascarpone; unsalted butter.

1. Fry bacon until crisp. Drain and lightly sauté garlic. Season with fresh ground pepper and toss with herbs for a minute. Add cream and boil until thick-five to eight minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook the fettuccine in lightly salted water until al dente.

3. Drain well, toss with sauce and grated cheese to taste.