Thursday, January 31, 2008

Why Study Medieval Literature?

Because it is cool, of course!

My kids don't buy that, either. Maybe these reasons are more convincing:
  • The works that have survived the last 600-800 years are great literature, and have been considered so for centuries. So reading a few of them at least gives you a standard for judging other works.
  • Works like The Canterbury Tales and Dante's Inferno are part of the great discussion of western civilization. Many other, later works refer back to them, and if you know these works, you are better prepared to join the conversation - or at least know what the conversation is about.
  • It is fun to recognize the references when you come across them in later reading, like being part of the in-group.
  • Reading them is challenging, because they use different conventions than modern literature does. So reading these books is a good work-out for your brain.
  • Because medieval literary conventions are so unfamiliar, reading these works gives you a frame of reference for modern conventions, a chance to see another way to think about the world.
  • Reading works from the period illuminates the way the medieval mind worked better than any textbook. It is one thing to read about what life was like, and another entirely to see the world through the eyes of someone who lived then. In particular, it is intriguing to see what they didn't see, didn't notice because it didn't matter in their frame of reference, and what they noticed that we don't.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jabberwocky Day

Lewis Carroll was born today in 1832. Well, Charles Dodgson was born on this date, anyway; Lewis Carroll didn’t come till much later, just in time for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. My favorite of all Carroll’s work in the nonsense poem, The Jabberwocky, from the second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass.

The Jabberwocky
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought -
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

At one point, I had it memorized in German, after finding it in the Annotated Alice, annotated by Martin Gardner; somehow the nonsense words only get better in German.

Der Jammerwoch
Translated by Robert Scott

Es brillig war.
Die schlichte TovenWirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth' ausgraben.

»Bewahre doch vor Jammerwoch!
Die Zähne knirschen, Krallen kratzen!
Bewahr' vor Jubjub-Vogel,
vorFrumiösen Banderschnatzchen!«

Er griff sein vorpals Schwertchen zu,
Er suchte lang das manchsan' Ding;
Dann, stehend unterm Tumtum Baum,
Er an-zu-denken-fing.

Als stand er tief in Andacht auf,
Des Jammerwochen's Augen-feuer
Durch tulgen Wald mit Wiffek kam
Ein burbelnd Ungeheuer!

Eins, Zwei! Eins, Zwei! Und durch und durch
Sein vorpals Schwert zerschnifer-schnück,
Da blieb es todt! Er, Kopf in Hand,
Geläumfig zog zurück.

»Und schlugst Du ja den Jammerwoch?
Umarme mich, mien Böhm'sches Kind!
O Freuden-Tag! O Halloo-Schlag!«
Er schortelt froh-gesinnt.

Es brillig war.
Die schlichte TovenWirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth' ausgraben.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Roast with Mushroom and Onion

I finally tried the ‘mushroom/onion puree in a roast' idea tonight. It worked, more or less, but needs some refinement.

For the stuffing, I blended a yellow onion, three cloves of garlic, two slices of preserved lemons (for salt and brighter flavor), and a large double handful of crimini mushrooms in the food processor (probably too much). I sliced a New York roast crosswise and filled the slices with the stuffing, then tied it up again. First problem: the stuffing squished out of the slices when I tied the roast up for cooking. Hmmm. So I put the extra stuffing in a oven-proof bowl.

I heated up a cast-iron skillet good and hot, then added the roast to sear it. That didn’t work very well, since there was mushroom stuffing everywhere, but I went ahead and turned the roast over to sear on the bottom, then stuck the whole thing in a 350 degree oven, along with the bowl of extra stuffing. While they cooked, I put together a casserole full of sliced potatoes with a little olive oil and spices, then stuck it in the oven too.

When the roast came out of the oven, I moved it to a cutting board, then put the skillet on the stove, added some red wine (second problem – not enough), and stirred to pick up all the drippings. The wine boiled for 3 minutes until it got syrupy, then I stirred in a couple teaspoons of tomato paste. I pulled the skillet off the heat and added most of a stick of room-temp butter, one tablespoon at a time, and a handful of sliced prosciutto (prosciutto is a pain to slice into strips!). So the sauce, a variation on one from a recipe for Portuguese steak I’ve had for years, was ready.

Now the tricky part – how to slice the roast, which (third problem) was not holding together as well as I had blithely expected it to. This turned out to be challenging, since the “fingers” of roast all wanted to go their own directions. With the help of two turkey lifters (giant two-prong forks that I got for roasts), I managed to hold the meat together long enough to slice most of it neatly; I got it on the plates by scooping each “slice” up with a spatula. I added sauce and a few pieces of uncooked mushrooms, served up the potatoes, and put it on the table along with some sliced raw jicama for contrast and a big red wine for consolation.

All in all, it worked ok – but I think that is because the sauce was so good, no one noticed the stuffing (or lack of it). It is worth trying again, but next time, I will sautee the onions and mushrooms in butter and chop them, rather than pureeing them, and I will try rolling the roast so that the stuffing stays stuffed (and, with luck, is easier to slice). The potatoes worked well with the meat, as did the wine, so I will keep them (or maybe keep just them and ignore the meat…).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Pot Sticker Salad

Some nights I just want something quick to feed everyone, preferably something lighter than pizza or burgers. Thanks to the wonders of frozen pot stickers, here is one I like:

Pot Sticker Salad
Bag(s) frozen pot stickers (there are about 12 per bag)
Napa cabbage (1 large head for 5-6 people)
Roasted peanuts
Sesame oil (or olive oil)
Soy sauce
Rice wine vinegar
Sesame seeds

Start the pot stickers cooking according to the preferred directions on the bag. Pour included sauce into a small pitcher or bowl.

Peel the outer leaves off the Napa cabbage, then slice it into 1/2" slices. Place in a bowl and dress with roughly equal parts sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar; top with sesame seeds. If you have any green onions available, slice the white and light green parts and add them to the salad.

Pour peanuts into a bowl. When the pot stickers are cooked, place on a plate with the sauce. To eat, place salad on a plate, top with pot stickers and peanuts, and pour a little sauce over the pot stickers, if desired.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Frosty Morning

This is one of my favorite aspects of winter: cold and snowy and sunny. The snow is less than 3% water, which qualifies it as "cold smoke" - the ultimate skiing powder, so light it flies away with a puff of air. And there hasn't been much wind, so it is staying on branches and railings. As long as it stays cold, the snow won't compact; since tonight is supposed to be at least as cold as the last few (low temperatures ranging from -1 to -16 degrees Fahrenheit), we probably have a few more days of perfect winter ahead of us.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Snow Moon

The "official" Snow Moon doesn't appear until February, according to the Farmer's Almanac, but it looks like a snow moon to me - full moon, several feet of fresh white snow to reflect all that reflected sunlight. Here it is rising over the Bridgers just as the last sunlight paints the ridge.

There aren't many birds out this season. I see magpies and crows, pheasant and grouse, the errant robin, rough-legged hawks and bald eagles, and a new one to me: a Townsend's Solitaire. It was sitting on my crabapple tree this morning, an elegant grey bird, taking bites of snow. I had never thought about where birds get water when the temperatures are well below freezing, but now I know - from the snow, like many animals.

Champagne Day

What a lovely day - a chance to celebrate champagne for itself, instead of using champagne to celebrate something else! (Although some people say Champagne Day is August 4, others December 31 - maybe we should celebrate it three times a year?) Champagne was invented in the 17th century when a Benedictine monk figured out how to trap carbon dioxide bubbles in wine, and the bubbles still distinguish it (and its imitators) from everyday wine; they also provide some odd entertainment for the bored, since a raisin dropped in a glass of fresh champagne will bounce up and down from the bottom of the glass to the top as long as there are bubbles. The bubbles, and the formidable defenses that keep them in the bottle until the champagne is drunk, have traditionally made opening a bottle of champagne a test of a young man's sophistication; thanks to the wonder of the internet, he can now learn how to do it with a sword - but I think it just looks goofy, not sophisticated.

Another difficulty in drinking champagne for the first time is choosing the glass - the "showy" coupe or saucer, or the elegant tulip or flute? Coupes were invented in England around 1663, but didn't become popular until the 19th century; once it was fashionable, it showed up in artwork and perpetuated the habit, in part because it marked the drinker as someone sophisticated and wealthy enough to drink champagne. Although the French didn't design the glass, they laid claim to it, ascribing its origins to someone trying to match the shape of a French court beauty's breast. The coupe glass still shows up at weddings and receptions (where it is usually a sign that the champagne should be drunk carefully, if at all - it is probably sweet), but the favourite glass for champagne is the flute. The bubbles can dance around freely and you don't have to worry about spilling any champagne when someone bumps into you (unless they hit you pretty hard). It is best for the wine if the glasses used are simply rinsed (without using soap) in warm water and left upside down to dry, assuming none of your guests use lipstick. On the other hand, champagne tastes good from a coffee cup or even the bottle, if you have no options. Much better than skipping it!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Brrr!

Yahoo! It is finally cold, really cold. It was 15 below zero last night, even colder if you use degrees Celsius, and isn't warming up fast. It is sunny today, and the light bouncing into the house is clear and cool. As long as the wind stays calm, most animals will be fine in this weather; they have had years to acclimate to these temperatures. The air is so cold that the moisture in it is freezing into ice crystals, making the view across the valley hazy. We have had our mid-January warm spell; now we might actually get our traditional late-January cold snap, with 40 below nights and 20 below highs during the day.

Fournou's Beef

Three or four years ago, my husband and I enjoyed dinner at Fournou's Oven, in San Francisco, where I made note of a beef dish: "Beef filet with blue cheese crust, with mashers and roasted forest mushrooms, in a cabernet reduction." (A glance at the menu shows that they still serve something similar, although they grill the beef now.) A week or two ago, I ran across the note and decided to make that for Sunday dinner. So I tackled it last night.

First challenge: how to make a blue cheese crust. I thought about bread crumbs first, as the usual binder for something like this. But looking in my refrigerator, I discovered about a cup of leftover mashed potatoes and decided to use that. I put the mashed potatoes, a wedge of blue cheese, and a little Worchestershire sauce in the food processor and ran it until everything was a consistent mash. I put the beef roast (eye of round) on a tinfoil-covered pan and carefully spread the mash over the top, then stuck it in a 350 degree oven to cook; it took about an hour to cook, I think. I let it sit for 15-20 minutes after it came out of the oven.

Second challenge: how to roast mushrooms. I have no idea how it is normally done and I'm too lazy to look it up, so I just tossed my mushrooms (crimini, oyster, enoki) into a roasting pan and stuck them in the oven. I think I will try something different next time, because the enoki mushrooms stuck to the pan and I lost too many of them; maybe I'll just sautee them. In the meantime, I put some dried shitake mushrooms in hot water to rehydrate.

Third challenge: mashers. I know how to make them, but I just served them three days ago. Then I was going to make oven-roasted fries, but I forgot to tell my daughter not to eat the potatoes and I didn't have enough left. Luckily, I had picked up some Co-op baguettes at the store and could slice those to serve.

Fourth challenge: that cabernet reduction. I dumped a couple cups of (inexpensive) red wine in a skillet, along with about a cup of the water from the shitakes, and boiled it until it was reduced by half. It still wasn't syrupy enough to do what I wanted, so I added the shitake mushrooms, cut up, and cooked that for a bit. Then I pulled the roasted mushrooms out of the oven and dumped them in the wine too. To thicken the sauce, I added a stick of butter and simmered for a few more minutes.

Now to pull it all together. I sliced the beef very carefully, trying to keep the crust in place (with only moderate success) and put it on the plates, with a little crust on top of it. The mushrooms and red wine went to the side, and I served the bread on the table. Even though the crust presentation wasn't perfect, it was a very tasty meal with a good zinfandel wine; the best bites had both beef and mushrooms.

To do differently next time: A richer piece of meat would support the blue cheese better. Some bread crumbs might make the crust stay put better. I'll sautee the mushrooms in butter instead of roasting them, then add the red wine at the end (or after removing the mushrooms). But it is definitely worth trying again next winter.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Snow Storms

We are finally getting some good snow! We have well over a foot of dry, fluffy snow here; my kids are getting tired of moving it off driveways and decks everyday, even if it is light. I love the thick blanket of clean white snow on everything, particularly because I don't have to go anywhere today; the calm monochromatic grey and white is a welcome contrast to the exuberant green of June. The dogs enjoy playing in it, but are getting tired of the snowballs that cling to their paws and legs when they come inside. The robin is still showing up in the crabapple tree. The only problem is that my oldest son heads back to college today and is driving to Missoula on slick roads.

Bridger Bowl is having a banner weekend: they have nearly five feet of new snow in the last few days, and skiers are eager to enjoy it. Friday was a great powder day (20 inches of new snow in 24 hours), tickets were discounted, and the middle and high schools had a day off, so the hill was packed; by 11:00, the huge parking lot was closed. Over 4,300 skiers showed up that day, only 60 visits short of the all-time skier visit record. Lift lines, which are generally considered long at 10 minutes, were half an hour to get to the upper mountain; but many powder hounds thought it was worth waiting to get into patches of powder over their heads. Yesterday was busy too, after 19 inches of new snow in 24 hours; today the hill has 17 inches in 24 hours but it is cold, with temperatures on the mountain hovering around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and quite a few skiers have decided that they have had enough powder for one weekend.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Earth

I couldn't think of any good geography to match with medieval history, so we have been studying the earth this year, both geography and geology. This is the halfway week this year, so I decided to test what they remembered from the first 17 weeks. No studying, no notice, just see what they retained of names and facts. I gave them the following test, and they all did pretty well with it, although none of them remembered what an archipelago is.
  • Name one of the largest rivers in the world.
  • Name one of the largest lakes in the U.S.
  • What is a delta?
  • Name three seas.
  • Name the five oceans.
  • What is an archipelago?
  • What is the deepest point on the globe?
  • Draw an isthmus and a peninsula.
  • Name the continents.
  • Name the continent that is not a continental plate.
  • Name the continental plate that is not a continent.
  • Name three ways that tectonic plates connect with others.
  • Name the parts of the interior of the earth.

For answers, see post on January 2.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Robin Food

So much for the birdfeeder: The guy at Wild Birds Unlimited said that robins don't eat seeds this time of year. They are mostly bug eaters (ok, so there is a reason to like robins), although they eat some seeds in summer and fruit in the fall and winter. If I want to feed my robin with the funny wing, he suggested that I plump up some raisins by soaking them in water, then put them on a board where the robin can get them. And I would have to do this every day. Hmmm. I think I will resign myself to letting nature take its course. I know the robin can fly, so maybe he will find enough fruit to get himself through the winter until the bugs start appearing in the spring.

Monday, January 14, 2008

This I Believe

After a discussion with my Mormon brother about what he believes, I brashly sent out an email to my family, asking a few "simple" questions: What are your beliefs about God/Higher Being/the Universe/ Prime Mover? Does one (or more) exist? If so, what is it like? How does it affect you day to day? (No proselytizing or quizzing allowed.) I wasn't sure if anyone would be interested in a group discussion, but so far, everyone has responded thoughtfully and eagerly; we don't normally talk about these questions, so it has been new ground for all of us. The interesting things have been learning about Mormon theology and seeing that the rest of us, so far, have very similar views on spiritual matters, although we tend to phrase them differently. It has been a great exercise and given us all a chance to better understand the people we care about most.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Grazing

A recent NY Times article by Kim Severson proclaimed that "the entree is dead", noting that more people really just want a few bites of many things, as opposed to a giant main course, when they eat out. But to extrapolate from what New Yorkers do when they eat out at fine restaurants to the death of the entree is a bit extreme! As even the auther recognizes before quoting the top chefs in New York on the joys of small plates, appetizers, and tapas. Severson attributes the rise of appetizers and small plates to several trends: young people who personalize meals like an IPod play list; shortened attention spans; experimentation with a wide range of world flavors; and a trend away from the hegemony of the French fine dining model. A counter example is provided in the growing popularity of steak houses and a few New York chefs who buck the trend; Kerry Heffernan is quoted as saying, “There are times when you want to try everything on the planet, but more often than not you want to feel like you’ve been fed and nurtured and nourished. I think that comes from having your own plate.”

One thing Severson missed is that entrees have simply gotten too big in the last few decades, at fine restaurants as well as fast food chains. A full entree is usually too much to eat for most adults, and doggie bags are common (of course, some people simply skip the vegetables to shrink the meal). Entrees used to be part of a balanced meal - balanced, that is, between an appetizer, a main course, and the possibility of dessert; they still are in France (or were in 2002, anyway). But American entrees have gotten huge: 12 ounces of beef, a big pile of mashed potatoes, and veggies is a pretty normal plate, nearly twice as big as it should be. So maybe the shift to small plates is just that - maybe people are simply tired of wasting food or getting up from the table too full to enjoy. If entrees were down-sized, they might be more popular.

Even then, the trend is primarily in restaurants or for singles who don't have other people to cook for. Singles often find it simpler to eat a bit of that and a bit of that rather than cook a complete meal, but most American family meals are still protein, starch, and a veg, or a combination like a stir-fry or curry; it is traditional, but it is also an easy way to organize dinner night after night. This is part of what makes good home-cooked food so satisfying: there isn't much better food than a well-made, coherent meal with appropriate portion sizes and some variety in flavor. While the entree may be out of favor with trendy New Yorkers, I doubt it is going away any time soon in the rest of the country.

Sauteed Spinach with Carrot-Orange Puree

This is a good, bright winter side dish, but it drew mixed reactions when I served it for dinner tonight: my husband really liked it, my 18-year-old son thought it was weird because the green and orange colors are so vivid. It makes a nice change from roasted vegetables or canned corn.

Spinach and Carrot-Orange Puree
Clean whole carrots, one per person, and cut into 1-2" pieces. Boil in plenty of water until the carrots are soft. Meanwhile, saute fresh (or frozen) spinach; I just dumped the leaves in a hot skillet to wilt them, turning every so often to keep them from burning. Add a little salt and some cumin or caraway seeds to the spinach. When the carrots are soft, drain and smash them. Stick carrot mash in a blender with some orange juice concentrate (about half a can for six people) and a dash of salt. Puree; adjust orange and salt flavorings to taste. Serve on top of spinach.

If you are using the puree without the spinach, you might add the seeds directly to the carrot mash.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Penguin Awareness Day

According to the newspaper, today is Penguin Awareness Day. So let's all watch for the penguins in our life. Maybe rewatch Happy Feet or one of the other penguin movies from the last few years. Or slide down an icy slope on our bellies. Or eat raw fish (sushi?). Or just think penguiny thoughts.

My favorite penguin is the hero in Samurai Penguin, an off-the-wall comic book published in 1986. The artist, Dan Vado, was tired of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other animal heroes that lived like people in the human world, so he developed a penguin hero who lives in the Antarctic and acts like a penguin - and a little bit like a human. Samurai Penguin dresses in Japanese clothing and wields a big samurai sword, but he protects other penguins, even punk penguins, from those who would eat them: walruses, tiger seals, sharks, and skua (penguin-eating birds). Very odd, and very funny.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Unschooling

On the homeschooling group I belong to, the question keeps coming up, What is "unschooling"? It is one of those terms that you get so familiar with that you forget that it might mean something else to other people. Unschooling is not just letting your kids run wild, with no attention to their education. It is simply a rejection of the idea that when kids turn 5, they suddenly have to learn in a structured way, from textbooks and worksheets - even thought they have just spent 5 years learning massive amounts guided by their interests and encouraged by their parents. Unschooling seems to work best for kids who are strongly self-directed and have a good idea of what they want to learn about, especially artistic or musical kids.

Unschooling is unstructured, child-led learning, where the child explores whatever is of interest to him or her, assisted by the parent. The idea is that a child will learn best when interested, and that by following any one interest thoroughly (especially with a little help and guidance from a parent), the child will eventually cover all relevant topics. For instance, a love of music would obviously cover music, but also could include dance, music history, the mathematics of music (which could lead to studying ancient Greece or geometry), world cultures and religions, the technology of making or recording music (electronics), computer-aided music (programming), making instruments, the physics of music and sound, and undoubtedly many other things I haven’t thought of.

Disclaimer: I love the idea, but don't have the focus for unschooling. Without some structure, I would be likely to get caught up in my own projects and forget to encourage my kids to widen their areas of inquiry to include the rest of the topics. Most of the unschoolers I know have one or two kids, which may explain something; I am sure that there are large families who unschool, but it seems better suited to small families where the parent doesn't get pulled in too many directions while helping the kids. I do use the some of the ideas within my structure, and try to incorporate them whenever I find a place for them.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hot Sauces

My teenage sons went through a hot sauce phase about a year ago and had to try every one they could talk me into buying. They don't use very much any more (since the big user went to college), but hot sauce bottles have a very long half-life once you bring them home. It is interesting to see how many countries have their own flavor of hot sauce, adapted to their cuisine; our collection of bottles approaches a UN meeting in national diversity. Although emptier than it used to be, our cupboard still hosts the following bottles:
  • Louisiana Perfect Hot Sauce
  • Brother Bru-Bru’s African Hot Sauce - it has a man on the front who looks Jamaican more than African and whom my kids agree has the scariest smile they have ever seen. This one is always approached with caution, more for the unusual smell than the heat.
  • Viet Cuisine Vietnamese Hot Chili Sauce
  • Iguana Mean Green Jalapeno Pepper Sauce - the only green hot sauce in the bunch.
  • Tabasco Pepper Sauce - the old standby, also from Louisiana.
  • Tiger Sauce (nearly empty) - it has the coolest label.
  • Hot Chili Sesame Oil - unopened, but one I use in cooking when I want to add heat to a vaguely Chinese dish.
  • A Taste of Thai Sweet Red Chili Sauce - it should be in fridge, but is a nice sweet-hot sauce that we use with fondue a lot.
  • Mongolian Fire Oil – a favorite of mine for cooking, and of my sons for ramen noodles.
  • Cholula Hot Sauce - from Mexico; it is my son's favorite for topping pizza.
  • Sriracha Hot Sauce – A big bottle with oriental writing of some sort - maybe Korean? Good on pork sandwiches and the like.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Medieval Drama

Another way the medieval church told the Bible stories was drama. Early on in the Christian church, drama had been banned as being corrupt and corrupting. But by the Middle Ages, it snuck back into the church, as priests started using more than one person to read the stories; besides a narrator, there would be one person for each character, who read out the lines (still in Latin). These readings gradually became more elaborate and the priests added action to the stories to help people follow the lines, then combined a series of stories into a longer narrative. Over time, the stories became too large and too long to be performed inside the church itself, and the actors (oops, priests) moved outside to the church porch, then to the churchyard.

Eventually, the plays moved out to the street or town square and laymen took over the acting. Once this happened, the language usually switched to the vernacular (French, English, etc), and costumes, sets, and music were added. As the church relinquished control of the plays, they came under the care of the guild societies and were produced as a cycle on feast or holy days. The cycle of plays, each put on by a different guild, might start with a play about the fall of Lucifer or the creation of the world, then move through the Biblical narrative with plays about Abraham and Isaac, Noah's flood, the nativity, the harrowing of hell, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and end with a play concerning the day of last judgment or doomsday.

Somewhere along the line, humor was added to keep the audience’s attention; the devil was a popular character because he was abused by all on stage, to the great delight of the audience. But there were also additions of everyday humor added to the narratives, as in the "dispute between Noah and his Wife in an English mystery--a very amusing scene, indeed, in which the spouse of the patriarch refuses to enter the ark unless she can bring her friends with her, and in which, when she is taken on board by force, she gives her venerable husband a sound box on the ear.” Gradually humor detached itself from the Bible stories and began to stand on its own, possibly as a “short” before the main narrative or as an interlude between episodes.

By the end of the Middle Ages, drama in France and England looks recognizable (aside from a preoccupation with Bible stores); it had acquired many of the features that were later used by Shakespeare and French playwrights.

Sleep

Sleep. It's one of those things you take for granted until you aren't getting enough. I remember, through a thick fog, those sweet days of having infants, when I never got enough sleep and existed in a sleep-deprived haze. None of my kids slept through the night until they were at least three years old. By the time my fourth child was old enough to sleep through the night (or, more accurately, get his own glass of water), I had been sleep-deprived for 10 years. At first, I hardly knew how to sleep all night. Then I couldn't get enough sleep. Finally I settled into what I thought was the rest of my life with a reasonable amount of sleep.

Ha. That was before I had teenagers. A friend of mine once noted that a lot of parenting occurs after 10 pm when you have older teens, and she was right. Teens have a shifted circadian rhythm that makes it hard for them to go to sleep early and get up early, so they are at their best in the (late) evening, just when I am ready for bed. As much as the idea of going to bed at 9:00 appeals some nights, I don't unless I am exhausted, because 10:00 is when the boys come out and are willing to talk to me. So I stay up reading (ok, this isn't all maternally motivated - after 9:30 is the only quiet reading time I ever get) and give them a chance to creep out of their caves. Some nights, my talkative daughter hits me with an emotional crisis that really could have waited until tomorrow (from my perspective, not hers) and I sort of wish I had gone to bed. But other nights, one of the boys will actually start telling me things about his day or his friends, or bring up a question he has, and it is worth it. I may not be scintillating at the hour, but at least I am present. So I guess it is worth doing without enough sleep. Yawn.

For a fun game to see how sleep-deprived you are, try the Sheep Dash. I rated Ambling Armadillo my first try and a cup of coffee was suggested. Oops. On the other hand, I rated "getting enough sleep" on the Epworth sleepiness test, so maybe the Sheep Dash was testing my computer-game reaction speed (which is very unpractised) more than my alertness.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gothic Cathedrals

In the Middle Ages, religion was the central, organizing force of society. But there was one problem: how does a religion organized around a book and the stories it tells exist in a mostly illiterate society? By telling the stories in other forms. In fact, the Church retained control of the stories exactly by keeping them from the masses; Bibles were written in Latin, so someone had to first know Latin before learning to read it – and the only people (generally) who could do both were clerics, trained by the church. So only educated clerics could read the Bible stories themselves, but everyone else could “read” them in the churches they entered every week, in stained glass, statues, and wall painting.

In the middle of the 12th century, a new development in church architecture, now called Gothic, arose that allowed churches more window room to tell their stories, while at the same time providing an inspiring space that drew worshippers’ attention to God. Gothic architecture evolved from Romanesque, primarily in France, England, and Germany. Myriad stained glass windows both let in light and tell Bible stories to parishoners; in hotter climates such as Italy, Gothic architecture didn’t flourish because church designers were trying to keep the sunlight and heat out of the church rather than let it in. Both the height and the wall space for windows were acheived by using pointed arches rather than rounded ones, and with flying buttresses that took the forces of the roof to the outside, allowing the walls to be thinner and lighter. After a century of experiments (not all of which worked out), masons learned how to make the walls taller and thinner than in the early Gothic churches, allowing more glass and a more soaring central space, resulting in an almost magical space very different from the worshippers’ daily surroundings.

Huevos del Diablo

Growing up, a favorite camping breakfast was something my dad made called eggs allergervin. He would take a huge skillet (this was obviously car camping, not backpacking), fill it half-full with a tasty tomato sauce, bring it to a boil, and poach eggs in it; the eggs were served on English muffins, preferably toasted on the fire next to the skillet. It was always a hit, a unique dish that I never heard of anywhere else.

First disillusion: going through my mom's recipe file, I discovered that it was actually called eggs a la Gavin; the recipe had come from a friend of theirs named Gavin. OK. It was still an unusual recipe.

Second disillusion: Reading How to Cook a Wolf, by MFK Fisher, I came across a dish called (roughly) eggs al diablo that was exactly like my dad's eggs. So it wasn't an unusual dish, it was fairly well known in post-WWII England. There was also a Mexican version that used salsa instead of tomato sauce.

Adult adjustment to disillusionment: It is still a good recipe, but better for dinner than for breakfast (at least in our household, where two or three kids don't eat breakfast and my husband gets up an hour or so before I do). I made the Mexican version tonight, served on corn tortillas instead of muffins, and it was really good. Even the two extra kids at the table liked it.

Huevos del Diablo
Pour some vegetable oil in a small skillet, heat over high, and fry corn tortillas, about 60 seconds on each side. The tortillas should still be flexible. Set aside.
In a skillet large enough to poach 1-2 eggs per person, pour a moderately thick salsa to 1" deep, more or less. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and crack the eggs in, spacing as widely as possible. Cook until whites are white and yolks are set.
Scoop out each egg with a large spoon and place on a corn tortilla.
Serve with hash browns and pickled onions, or your favorite Mexican side dishes; Mexican rice would be good.

For the English version, substitute a good chunky tomato sauce for the salsa, and English muffins for the tortillas (but toast them instead of frying them).

Pickled Onions
Slice an onion very thin and place loosely in a colander. Heat a tea kettle full of water to a boil and pour the water over the onions. Transfer onion rings to a large bowl filled with 2 C cold water, 2 C white vinegar, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp sugar. Let sit for at least 45 minutes, up to two hours, stirring occasionally. Serve with Mexican food of any type.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Typical Day of Homeschooling

What does a typical day of homeschooling look like?

  1. A calm, sunny morning, with all the kids quietly and productively at work: one son is working on math at the big table, a daughter is reading history, the youngest is working on keyboarding and times tables. Mom moves between them as needed to help, then gets a few of her own things done.
  2. School is getting done, but only Mom can tell. One son is in his room working on his computer, the daughter is making dinner, and the youngest is building a crane out of Lego Mindstorms. (That’s computer science, chemistry of food, and engineering/programming, in case you are curious.)
  3. Mom races around town, dropping kids at the Food Bank, a guitar lesson, and the climbing gym.
  4. Friday afternoon and no one has gotten very much school done this week because life has intervened: someone is sick, a crisis comes up, Mom is needed elsewhere, a friend is in town, there is fresh powder on the ski hill all week.
  5. All of the above.

If you answered "All of the Above", you are right – sometimes all in the same week.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Roasted Boodogs

OK, this is clearly the weirdest recipe I have ever seen. In an essay in the Dec. 24 High Country News, Kevin Taylor writes about a recipe a friend brought back from Mongolia: roasted boodogs, or, in western terms, roasted marmot. According to Taylor, you start by putting some smooth, round river rocks in your barbecue and laying in a stash of vodka, then:
  1. Go find some marmots. Each one will feed three to five people.
  2. Behead the marmot.
  3. You'll want vodka for this step. Reach your hand into the neck cavity and pull out the guts. Rub the inside with salt. Or what the hell ... paprika or cumin or curry or bay leaves, too.
  4. When the rocks are glowing orange, drop them into your marmot, poking smaller rocks into the legs. Then seal up the neck.
  5. Get a blowtorch, the kind you use to sweat pipes while soldering, and start burning the hair off your marmot. Yeah, you'll want vodka for this, too.

When the marmot is done cooking, open the neck and pour the broth into cups, then eat the meat. No wonder vodka is an integral part of this recipe. But I guess it beats starving to death.

Per Se

A friend went to Per Se for lunch recently and had an amazing, overwhelming experience. Per Se is run by Thomas Keller, the same chef who runs the French Laundry in the Napa Valley in California, and lunch reservations can take three months to make. According to the website, the philosophy is based on the Law of Diminishing Returns: "Each day we create two unique nine-course tasting menus... each a series of smaller, focused dishes that all feature distinct ingredients. What we want you to experience is that sense of surprise when you taste something so new, so exciting, so comforting, so delicious, you think "Wow!" - and then it's gone." Each taste should be fresh and exciting because the taste buds get tired of a food after 3-4 bites and pleasure dimishes (according to recent studies, anyway - I don't always agree, and think that for some dishes, the pleasure only increases as I eat). But how much fun can taste buds take?

My friend's report:

There are two tasting menus; I chose the Vegetable one and my boyfriend chose the other, and we shared everything. It was 9 courses (12 if you count the not-on-the-menu 3 extra dessert courses they spring on you, when you are so full that you can't even appreciate them). When I try to recall how beautiful and delicious all the food was, what mostly stands out is how bloated and nauseated I felt after 12 courses, 2 half bottles of wine, 2 glasses of champagne, and a cup of tea. I realize, of course, that I made a few amateur mistakes in what I chose to ingest....the courses were small, but not as small as they should have been, and of course, I tried to eat and drink everything that was offered or put in front of me! Lunch took 4.5 hours, not including the private tour of the kitchen, which was pretty cool. I didn't eat again for almost 18 hours. Whew.

Oh, and the plates and glasses and silverware were fantastic. The whole production was absolutely amazing. Each table had its own private staff, silently but effeciently hovering over us at all times: head server, wine steward, minor servers/food announcers, and a bevy of plate clearers, drink pourers, crumb sweepers, napkin folders when you went to the bathroom, not to mention the 4-5 other important looking people who kept coming over to check up on us and on our staff. One thing that did stand out for both of us was how friendly the staff was. We asked our head waiter guy about the staff turnover, which is apparently extremely low. He told us that when you work at Per Se, that is your career; the waiters aren't the usual students/actors working part time to pay the bills. Because they pay so well, it can be your full-time job focus, and no one wants to leave. So, I guess that is also part of the crazy price...you get very friendly wait staff in a city that is known for its crabby waiters!

The United States of Arugula

I came across The United States of Arugula: The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution, by David Kamp, on a Border's sale table, and picked it up - food history is usually worth reading, especially on sale. And that is exactly what this was: gossipy and fun, but best at half price.

Kamp centers his tale on the people at top of fine-dining scene, primarily the chefs at the "great" high cuisine restaurants: the subtitle is a misleading, because although food is always the subject, the focus is usually on the people, the relationships, the arguments and foibles. A more accurate, although less catchy, subtitle would be something like "Great chefs and their careers". The food people he profiles come to life as he tells about them, with all their strengths and weaknesses; he is good at presenting both sides of a disagreement evenhandedly, letting each side retain its dignity. He makes a great gossip columnist for the resturant world.

But in the end, I found it an unsatifying book. Kamp is so focused on the restaurants and the chefs at the top of the foodie universe that he never gets around to discussing the rest of America, except for a few desperate pages at the end. As far as he (and undoubtedly most of his subjects) is concerned, the only good food is found in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with an occasional renegade in Chicago or Phoenix mentioned in passing. This leaves out a lot of America. There is little mention of how these top chefs have affected people who eat in less rarified circles (which they definitely have), or to what extent American food has seen a revolution, or what it means for American food to have changed so much in so short a time. It is much like telling the story of the American revolution with only the biographies of Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of the founding fathers, without reference to the pre-existing issues of colonialism. Kamp doesn't address the deeper story of WHY these chefs did what they did, the trends and underlying ideas that made it possible for them to succeed. And without that, there is still no real understanding of the sun-dried, cold-pressed, dark-roasted, extra-virgin American food revolution

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Foodies

I consider myself a foodie, because I enjoy talking, thinking, and reading about food almost as much as eating it. But then, looking at various food blogs, and reading books like The United States of Arugula, I start to wonder if I really want to label myself that way. Too many foodies seem very insular and more concerned with having insider knowledge about food, especially the fashionable restaurants, than with food itself. The majority of the food blogs I have seen focus on food in New York, interspersed with meals found during travels to Europe, which makes them hard to appreciate for those of us who don't live there. While some blogs are definitely interested in the food, many are more concerned with what restaurant is opening when and where you can buy the trendiest and most expensive kitchen items (Williams-Sonoma is so passe). These aren't foodies, these are trend-followers and status seekers.

Real foodies exist - I know several of them, and I see their tracks elsewhere. Foodies (in my definition) know that food is about friendship and sharing as well as about flavors and dishes. Reading and talking about food should deepen these interactions, not replace them. The whole point of cooking an interesting meal is to share it with someone you love (even if it is just yourself), not to show off or one-up someone. The fun is in the interaction with the food as you figure out how best to cook it, and with the people who eat it. This is important stuff, so I guess I will continue to consider myself a foodie, just being aware that other people may have other definitions of the word.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Sisters Grimm

Today is Jakob Grimm's birthday; he was born in 1785. He was one of the two Brothers Grimm who collected folk tales across Germany, before they were lost. Apparently, the brothers had a tendency to fine-tune the stories they were told into a coherent narrative before publishing them, so it seems only fair that modern authors enjoy playing with their stories, not only retelling them but reworking the plotlines and characters.

A recent example is the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, which introduces all the characters from folk tales, fairy tales, and other make-believe stories as real people magically stuck in a small town in upstate New York; the descendents of the Brother Grimm try to keep the peace among the "Everafters". It is an intriguing premise and the first book is fun reading, but the series goes downhill from there; Buckley doesn't have the knack of writing sequels that can stand on their own merits. Authors who do, like JK Rowling or Tony Hillerman, can make each book a coherent whole, introducing previous material gracefully, as needed, and letting the story end at a natural and satisfying point. Buckley, on the other hand, spends most of the first chapter in the second book recapping the first book, not very gracefully, and ends it with an obvious lead-in to the third book - having just passed a logical place to end the story. It takes some of the fun out of reading it, and left me uninclined to get the third book.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Words for Snow

It is traditionally the Inuit or Eskimo who are supposed to have a huge variety of words for snow - although there are as many articles debunking this on the internet as there are claims that it is true. One satirist has listed 100 words for snow, but lots of other sites point out that there is a lot of double-counting going on in some of the lists. Some of the debunkers also point out that English has a wide range of snow words: avalanche, blizzard, cornice, dusting, flurry, frost, hail, hard pack, ice, powder, rime, slab, and sleet (not bad for a language that developed in the rainy British Isles). We also have loan words like igloo (from one of the Eskimo languages) and graupel (soft hail, from German). Then there are all the newer terms from the worlds of skiing and snowboarding, such as
  • sugar powder: a light, dry, fluffy snow;
  • champagne powder: very dry snow so light it can't be made into a snowball;
  • cold smoke: even drier, with less than 3% moisture;
  • packed powder: snow that was powder yesterday and is still fairly soft but has been groomed or packed down;
  • crud: heavy snow that has been tracked up by other skiers;
  • mashed potatoes: mushy, wet snow so heavy a shovel stands up in it.
  • boilerplate or bulletproof: hard, dense icy snow, often created by a thaw or rain;
  • corn snow: spring snow that forms into small, light pellets (aka graupel);
  • white asphalt: harder than hardpack;
  • crust: the thick layer of hard-packed snow on top of softer snow; and
  • New England ice.
The Japanese also have some interesting snow words. Hatsuyuki is the first snow, kazahana is wind-flowers, or snowflakes, and botan yuki is peony snow, the big soft wet flakes that float lightly out of the sky. But the winners of the snow competitions seem to the snow scientists, who borrow snow words from any and every language that has a useful one, in particular from the Eskimo and Russian languages, until their papers are nearly indecipherable to an outsider.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Tacky Christmas Yards

I wish I had seen this blog sooner: it's filled with photos of yards decorated by people who have either gone way over the top or have no taste. Some of those people must have horrendous electrical bills!

Fibonacci in Nature

I've long known that the Fibonacci numbers are supposed to be found regularly in plants, but today I found a great website that shows exactly where they are found (no math, just pictures). Fibonacci numbers come in a series formed by adding the previous two numbers to get the next one:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, ...

and are beloved of elementary teachers who want some fun numbers to introduce to their students - there are beautiful posters of the series with sunflowers and pineapples to show kids that math can be relevant and fun. I'm not sure how useful it is to know that sunflower seed spirals come in Fibonacci number pairs (e.g. 21, 34), but it's kind of neat. And it makes a nice break from memorizing multiplication tables, even if it is more natural history than math.

The funny thing is that Fibonacci (Leonardo de Pisa, 1170-1250) was one of the greatest mathematicians of the Middle Ages and this series was a minor accomplishment for him. He transmitted much Arabic math to Europe, including the Hindo-Arabic numerals (1-9) and zero, although it took centuries before they came into common use, and introduced the use of the bar in fractions (2/3). He was the first to solve many algebraic problems of the type that terrorize high school students, even though he didn't have decent notation to do so; he did it using base 60 notation, which is really ugly. But now he's known for a simple series of numbers that happen to turn up regularly in nature and taught to 3rd-graders.

The Earth - Answers

Answers to the Earth quiz on January 16:
  • Name one of the largest rivers in the world. Obvious choices are the Nile, the Amazon, and the Mississippi; the Yangtze River is another. The Yellow River and the Congo are also good answers.
  • Name one of the largest lakes in the U.S. The Great Lakes (Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Erie), or the Great Salt Lake.
  • What is a delta? The region where a river meets an ocean or sea, generally triangular in shape and named for the Greek letter delta, Δ.
  • Name three seas. Mediterranean, Caribbean, Yellow, Red, Black, Dead, Adriatic, and Caspian are the most obvious answers.
  • Name the five oceans. Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, and Indian are the traditional four; lately the Southern or Antarctic ocean has been added to the list as a separate body of water.
  • What is an archipelago? A chain or cluster of islands, such as Tahiti or Hawai'i.
  • What is the deepest point on the globe? The Mariana (or Marianas) Trench, near Japan.
  • Draw an isthmus and a peninsula. An isthmus is a skinny stretch of land between two larger masses, like Panama; a peninsula is a relatively narrow piece of land that sticks out into the ocean, like Florida or Korea.
  • Name the continents. North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, Antarctica.
  • Name the continent that is not a continental plate. Europe; it is part of the Eurasian plate.
  • Name the continental plate that is not a continent. The Pacific plate, under the Pacific Ocean. This is the plate that is being jammed between the North American plate and the Asian plate, causing the ring of fire with its earthquakes and volcanoes.
  • Name three ways that tectonic plates connect with others. Converge, diverge, or slip past each other.
  • Name the parts of the interior of the earth. Inner core, outer core, mantle, (upper mantle,) crust.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Bird Out of Place

Almost every morning for the last week or so, there has been a robin, feathers all fluffed up so that it looks like a ball, perched in the crabapple tree outside my bedroom. I have been baffled about why it didn't fly south with its flock - they have been gone for a long time now. This morning, I watched it preening and figured out that it must have an injured wing; it carried its left wing hanging down slightly, instead of tucked up alongside its body like the right wing. Other than that, it seems fine. I guess I'd better pull out the bird feeder so it has a chance of making it through the winter.

The Tiger That Isn't

The Tiger that Isn't is a new book by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, about how we (non-mathematicians) can make sense of the numbers we see every day, especially in the media. I haven't read the book yet, but the authors have a nice essay on the basic ideas that is worth reading. It turns out that common sense can help us see through a lot of the numerical claims that surround us:

"We all know more than we think we do. We have been beautifully conditioned to see through numbers, believe it or not, by our own experience. Numbers can make sense of a world otherwise too vast and intricate to get into proportion. They have their limitations, no doubt, but are sometimes, for some tasks, unbeatable. That is, if used properly."

The essay is worth reading, even - or especially - if you have no interest in the book itself.