Touring the colonies

The New Press of Frankfurt had a lead article about the summit meeting at Williamsburg earlier this year, and it started with this: ''The one-horse town of Williamsburg, about 200 kilometers from Washington and with a population of 11,000, has never been what you might call a magnet for tourists. But at the end of this month 5,000 to 6,000 journalists from all over the world will gather,'' etc. . .

The Herr Doktor Redaktur who neglected his homework about America's leading historical tourist trap should not expect readership acceptance of his weighty opinions on global economics, should he?

My recollection of the first, and last, time I visited Williamsburg runs about 238 percent to tourists, including us, and I vividly remember the put-down of my cook and companion when we came to breakfast at the inn and the young man in the monkey suit hailed us affably with the news that we were just in time for the authentic Virginian plantation breakfast. She asked, politely, if, instead, we couldn't just have something to eat.

By that time we had eaten through several of the proud jewels of the Confederacy, and had become curious about what they substituted when they eliminated cookery from their culture. We had come to concur with my Uncle Ralph , who always purposed to write a Down-East book on Southern cooking. He never wrote it, but his outline called for two chapters. The first would say there is nothing in Dixie fit for a Yankee to eat. The second would add that if there were, there is nobody down there who knows how to cook it.

We never embraced this extreme opinion all the way, but there were things like the ham. As my wife inquired on tour after delectable Southern dishes, she got a number of recipes that began with a bit of ham bone. Since ham bones presuppose hams, and our experience with Southern hams had been unimpressive and desultory, she one day asked whatever do they do with the hams from which they get so many ham bones. Thus we tried to make everybody happy, and we came back to Maine to live high off the hog ever after.

In musing on the tourist traps I have known, I feel they have a smugness that offends me. The Rockefeller effort is tremendous and appreciated, and important, but the play-acting needed to keep it going intrudes on the dignity and mood that is meant. We felt it wasn't historically required to endure the rigors of a Colonial plantation breakfast just because we were at Williamsburg.

And the costumes have a slapstick touch. In old Montreal is a restaurant that serves excellent French food of the present day - Les Filles du Roi. A touch of Canadian history embellished for the tourists.

The early settlers of French Canada were young men, and it wasn't long before a clamor went back to France for some wives to even out the odds. It will be hard, I'm sure, to imagine Puritan England responding to such a request, had the need been in Virginia, but the Gallic disposition was sympathetic. Shiploads of young women were recruited, and off they went to New France. Called ''the girls of the king,'' the maidens were to mother French Canada, and the restaurant in old Montreal commemorates the term. In a history of the Isle of Orleans, there is a chapter about the arrival of some of these girls, telling how the young colons ran to claim their brides, almost sight unseen, as soon as the ship docked.

Somehow, to me, dining with waitresses in authentic filles du roi costumes does not truly focus interest on the poignant fact of the forlorn colons in childless Canada, any more than a knee-breeched flunky in Williamsburg emphasizes the stark historical reality of corn-meal mush. I could be wrong and apologize if I am. Meantime I must bring that German editor up to date, and urge him to consider Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, Oberammergau, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Baden-Baden, and similar other places that nobody would ever consider a magnet for tourists.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.