You are visited by a ghost in the night. It looks familiar, like a faded picture from an elementary school yearbook, but you can’t place its transparent face. As you attempt to identify the spectral intruder, its jaw unhinges and in a guttural moan, it speaks.
“Please. You must hold a dinner for the three most important American historical figures. There is a correct answer, so please be sure to pick the three most noteworthy and universally important dead people to entertain. I expect a complete guest list and menu by tomorrow night, as well as a couple of possible conversation topics to bring up in case the talking dies down and you look awkward. Your soul hangs in the balance.”
The ghost disappears in a cloud of what you suppose is probably brimstone, leaving you with only 24 hours to prepare a menu and guest list. You rush to the kitchen, fling open your fridge, and clarity strikes. The pieces all fall into place. This is easy. The three most universally important historical figures: Emperor Norton, Rube Dickinson, and your paternal grandfather.
Of course! The man you spent so long studying in every U.S. History class you ever took! Why, no one can overstate the importance of San Francisco’s self-declared Emperor of America. Surely this is one of the three historical figures the ghost wanted.
Has any other American leader positioned themselves directly between immigrants and anti-immigrant rioters? Possibly, but the only one you remember is that good ol’ sword-wielding do-gooder Joshua Abraham Norton, Emperor of the U.S. and Protector of Mexico. In fact, this leftover General Tso’s in the fridge is the perfect thing to feed the only politician fighting to save Chinese immigrants in the 1860s.
Conversation will be simple—Norton’s ghost is singlehandedly qualified to discuss the issues of today. “Josh—may I call you Josh?” you’ll ask, as you pour more wine. “As a man who entered politics through force without any prior experience after spending your entire life mismanaging your money, what do you feel about the current political climate? And, follow-up question—what are your thoughts on the two party system? It’s still kicking, even though you outlawed it through royal decree in 1869.”
Of course, this world-changing dinner (Did the ghost say the world hung in the balance? It was something important, wasn’t it?) would be worthless without inviting someone from the arts as well. Your second guest will be renowned rural monologist Walter S. “Rube” Dickinson, a man that everyone else definitely thinks about. Surely this ghost will agree Rube is important and worthy of a dinner.
What American hasn’t stayed up at night thinking about what to serve a vaudeville performer who died on December 24th, 1914? The first option of horse meat sausage is tempting (you assume Rube would make the connection to his legendary horse-salesman routine), but perhaps Kyrgyz cuisine will be too adventurous his Nebraskan sensibilities. Hoping that artists of the early 1900s consume a similar diet to the artists in your life, you decide on a simple appetizer of absinthe and opium with a ramen noodle main course. As a trained monologist, you assume Rube will be able to carry his weight in conversation and prepare only one question: “When the marquee with your name on it fell, did you at least enjoy finally living out every comedian’s fantasy of being crushed by the weight of their own name?”
Cooking for Grandpa Jack will prove the most challenging. You remember the man well enough, of course. His smile on Christmas morning. The way your grandmother looked at him. You don’t remember what he liked to eat, really. The grown-ups always took care of the meals back then. As a child, you most enjoyed the hot dogs and tater tots —did he enjoy them too, or was he merely putting on a show for the children?
Tomorrow will be the night to have these questions answered, you suppose. You recall, briefly, the panic attack you had after the funeral, when you saw the beer bottles in his house. He never had alcohol in his house while he was alive, as far as you can recall. Did he just not drink? Was he a teetotaler? Would he be mad to see you buy alcohol now? The last thing you’d want was to drag a man back from the grave to be disappointed in their grandchild. Perhaps you should sneak the absinthe to Rube without letting your grandfather notice.
It’s unclear whether grandpa didn’t drink or if your mind is playing tricks on you—best not to risk it. Tater tots and 7-Up it is. Did he ever drink from those big two liter 7-Up bottles? He must have. Nobody loves their grandkids enough to stock that much of a soda they don’t care for.
There are so many questions you never asked him. Was Alzheimer’s scary? Could you please apologize for calling me by my father’s name the last time we spoke? I know you spent more time with him, since he was your son and all, and I know that it was just the Alzheimer’s talking, but it still upset me. Also, why do I have so much trouble talking to your son?
You reach for a pen and a shopping list, confident in your choices. The ghost is sure to agree that you’ve picked the three most important people in American history. Now it’s just a question of decorating for a dinner party.