Work in summer

I had very fine intentions this week. I was going to say something Wise. Then I was going to say something Important. Then I was going to move back to my introductions to my own books, and talk about a novel.

It’s summer here, however, and the heat has melted my brain. This is why I normally write in the wee hours of my morning at this time of year: there is less heat then.

So what was I doing in the wee hours of my Monday morning? Why was I not writing to you? I finished my monthly Patreon newsletter, and sent it out. What you get from me today, then, is a pause. If you want to know more about my Patreon, you can find it here: https://www.patreon.com/GillianPolack

This month my patrons asked me to talk about antisemitism. There’s a short story where I tried (and failed) to find a way of explaining the cultural loss it incurs. There is non-fiction that gives some explanation. There’s some (very personal) advice for writers who come from mainstream culture. It explains the first big step they can take to write about people who come from different backgrounds to themselves. Without this first step, other understanding can be shallow, and so the writing is less than it should be.  And, for my top tier of patrons, I talked about what’s happening in the publishing industry. I pointed to the need to support writers in these very, very difficult times. My estimate is that the next three years is going to lose us many favourite writers: support from readers is the biggest factor in many of us staying the distance.

All this boils down to the appearance of my once-a-policy-wonk self. It’s talking to my historian self. I’m looking at the shape of publishing and its internal dynamics and patterns of change over time… it’s all a bit too exciting.

If you want to know more about any of the subjects I talk about on Patreon, I can talk about them here, on Mondays. My patrons get first look, though, so it won’t be instant. And since I’m no longer paid for my insights, writing about the big subjects that tax my brain is a low priority. I’ll still work at understanding everything (we all have our obsessions – I have this one and I have chocolate), but I can’t take it further. Income matters.

My highest priority right now is writing about my research. (I get paid for it!) This month and next I’m focused on food and foodways and history and genre. A curious side-effect of this research is that I think I finally understand what makes certain writers popular. I can trace the critical aspects of their fiction and have linked them clearly to things of cultural importance in the outside world. This fit with all my earlier work, but it means I understand far, far better what makes a work a best-seller when an equally good work dies in a ditch. (I love my research so very much!)

I’m gradually working through the physical morass I’ve been in for the last few months. When I’m out of it, I’ll return to interviewing writers. I have so many amazing writers to interview!

In the meantime – including next week – I’ll keep introducing my own work.

If you want to see me at a conference, I’ll be at the virtual side of Boskone in February.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I go to ponder food in fiction.

The past feels like food and puns today.

It’s my father’s birthday today. He died in 1988. on 8/8/88, to be precise, five minutes before midnight. He was very fond of puns and bad jokes and I was there and I will maintain, whatever anyone tells me to the contrary, that he died before midnight so that he could make one last joke. His son-in-law was American, so I think it would have pleased him that the joke works in both US English and Australian English.

My tribute to him is a story that’s currently being considered for publication. On his deathbed, you see, I promised I’d write a story (a mystery story, I thought at the time) that was inspired by the murders in Belanglo Forest, NSW, in the 1980s. I camped in that forest at that time, and must have walked by dead bodies and did not see them. The story is written and it contains some carefully placed jokes that only my father would truly understand. It’s being considered by an editor, and if it gets published, I’ll let you know, so that you, too can explore a bit of Belanglo Forest and wonder if you would be like me and walk cheerfully of an early morning, entirely unaware of being surrounded by grue. It’s not the story I promised, because I found that the promise was too laden with missing my father. In all these decades you’d think I’d get over it, but there are some things we don’t get over.

Since 1988, Christmas has been difficult. Until then, it didn’t really matter that we didn’t do Christmas, because I could always say, “I prefer my father’s birthday.” And I got to decorate my BFF’s Christmas tree with her, and cook Christmas treats, and she came round to us to fry latkes for Chanukah. We shared our festivals up to the point our parents agreed, and life was much better.

After Dad died, there was an ache every Boxing Day, and when people pressured me to celebrate Christmas (as they still do) “because it’s secular” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were treading on my father’s grave. My close friends know this, and have found ways to make this week happy, and these last few days have been lovely.

Dad and I would have strategised our way through the pandemic, and he would’ve made bad jokes, and he would’ve opened his dental surgery extra hours to make sure that no-one missed out on dental treatment just cos there was a pandemic. He would have turned up his nose at my cooking when I cooked what I wanted to, which, during his last few years was the food my friends from Malaysia and Singapore and Japan taught me, and before that the food that my non-Jewish Australian friends taught me. But he got used to pizzas quite quickly and, given enough time, he would have learned to love yakitori. The first few times he would poke and it and ask for real food, though. And he never ate anything savoury with spices. Spices, in his world, were for sweet food.

How do I know he would have adjusted? Well, when I was a child, his special time to cook each week was Sunday mornings. We’d sit round and eat and read and play patience and do the crossword, and eat his special breakfast.

For years this breakfast was scrambled eggs made with pickled cucumber, eaten with leftover challah, or, when he felt exotic, French toast made with leftover challah, or something equally from things he found in our kitchen. He’d make Turkish coffee for himself in a saucepan (not actual Turkish coffee, “Bushell’s Turkish Coffee” a local excuse to overcaffeinate), and the rest of us would drink tea. When he learned that he liked Italian food (finally!) and that bagels were likewise trustworthy, he’d go out early, pick up some bagels from Glick’s (bagels were an excuse to gossip, I suspect, just as offering to get more milk or eggs were – we the children were sent out as search parties for him some nights when he didn’t come back from getting milk because the conversation was more interesting than walking home), and then go to the local cheese factory and get ricotta so fresh it still steamed, and some pecorino, and maybe another cheese or two. Always ricotta and pecorino. We ate them with fresh tomato and cucumber and maybe dill pickles. The dill pickles were always Pose’s pickles, and were so exactly like the ones my grandfather made that one day (just a few years ago) I asked Mr Pose about the recipe and he explained that he and my grandfather came from the same town, so of course they ate the same pickles. The only reason the pickles were optional, was because often, Saturday lunch would be leftover challah, topped with leftover roast potato, leftover roast (mostly lamb, this being Australia in the 60s/70s), sliced tomatoes and those wonderful pickles. I miss those pickles. I miss Dad more, though.

The reason Dad’s memory is eliciting thoughts of food is that his birthday rarely coincided with Chanukah. Today was the last day of Chanukah and he would have been 99 if he had lived. He died when I was 27, and I was born in 1961 and this year am 61. Dad would have teased me about the 61/61.

Ave atque vale, Dad, and I wish you were here to tell me (as you used to), “That’s Greek to me,” and then laugh when I try to explain with great sincerity but not entirely disingenuously, that it’s Latin. Then we’d wonder why it doesn’t work nearly as well in Hebrew and we’d say ‘Shalom v’Shalom” to each other, to make sure we were both telling the same joke.

I miss you.

The Pleasant Art of Finding the Right Reading

I’ve vast lists of books to read, because I keep going to science fiction conferences and academic conferences and I always end up with loads of exciting reading. I ought to dissect these lists and ell you all the best reading in them, but I can’t, because I still have to read the books myself. Also, most of them are still in the mail.

That got me thinking abut how we decide what to read when there are too many choices. I’m the sort of person who can’t deal with choices. Give me too many choices and I will walk away in frustration rather than buying the thing I came into the shop for. Except with books. It’s much easier to know which book to read at any given time. This is because, for me, each book is surrounded by information that helps me choose.

When I travel to Sydney, for instance, and go to one of my favourite bookshops there, the folks behind the counter are always knowledgeable. Every time I visit, I buy a book specially for the bus trip home. It has to be something special, I tell them, and something new. It has to be something that’s not being seen quite enough and that I absolutely need to know about. We talk about my favourite writers and they always, always find me something. I’ve only ever given one of those books away, too. Booksellers know books. It’s as simple as that. If I am in a bookshop where the bookseller doesn’t know more than me about the books in their shop, then I walk straight out. This is why I have favourite bookshops: because the people who run them choose with care and thought and understand their work so very wonderfully.

Another route I take is to think carefully about the genre and even sub-genre of the book I want to read. I fit the type of book to my mood, in other words. To do this successfully, I need a vast TBR (to be read) pile. Choice helps me where usually it perplexes me. It’s so much fun finding the perfect book through this method, because I take each book out, one by one, and hold a kind of inner conversation with it.

Other days I need comfort reading. I have maybe 3 dozen authors I turn to for this and which writer I turn to depends so much on what my comfort needs are. When I need much comfort over a few weeks, I’ll haul down a series by a favourite author. By ‘haul down’ I mean that I actually climb onto a chair and take a whole pile of books down. Series of comfort reading are on my high shelf, you see, and reach to the ceiling.

Sometimes I am a butterfly, and stand in my library reading a bit of this book here or that there until I find the one I want. Sometimes I’m a carnivore and eat the content of cookbooks except, these days, all my cookbooks are finally in my kitchen or loungeroom, so I stand by the kitchen counter or sit in a chair near the door. I’ll make a stack of books I want to use recipes from, and read bits and pieces from half a dozen more. It takes several days for the books to all be returned to their place. Sometimes I cook all the recipes. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I sit down and read a whole book (or two) but mostly I use the books in my food collection as a trampoline for research and for thinking about what I will be eating.

Speaking about research, finding the right book for researching (whether for scholarly purposes or for a novel) is another method entirely, and even thinking about it makes me tired. I think I might stop this piece right here and go to bed. Time to dream of books.

Books and food and science fiction/fantasy

My mind is buzzing with food stories again. I’m on a panel in a few minutes, you see. The panel is described in my last post, and is the final one for me for this convention. I’ve been battling my heath these last few days, so I haven’t done all the exciting social things and watching the many panels I had intended to do. But still, I got to catch up with some friends and to talk about subjects I love.

Given I have just a few minutes to write, and given I want to talk about books, and given… all the things, why don’t I introduce you to the stash of books I have by my side to keep me company during the panel?

The first book is a volume I’m suing for my research. It’s Michael Owen Jones’ Frankenstein was a Vegetarian: Essays on Food Choice, Identity, and Symbolism. I love it that there’s now enough research on related subjects so that when I analyse food in fiction, I don’t have to throw my hands up in despair and wail. This book is actually part of my non-convention work this week, so, right now, it’s filling three functions.

The CSFG Gastronomicon ed Stuart Barrow. This is a science fiction anthology with recipes. My story was sent to Stu to test the system, and was not the one I intended to suggest for it. On the front cover there is a dinner table, created by the inimitable Les Petersen. Every time I see this art, since it first appeared in 2005, I have wondered about my picture. Les made us look real, but from fantasy stories. I need to ponder why I never see myself the way artists and photographers see me.

The next book is by me, but has wonderful line drawings by Kathleen Jennings on the cover. It’s the book of the banquets (Five Historical Feasts: The Banquets of Conflux). I tell the story of the years we created these events, and how we researched the food history and added a few extras. There are stories by some very well known authors, and an article on Richard III’s coronation feast. There is also a record of the committee meeting where we tested all the drinks for the Prohibition dinner. This fits nicely in with Anne McCaffrey’s Cooking Out of this World.

Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, Dining on Babylon 5 (Human Edition), and two quite different versions of the Doctor Who cookbook represent my (very small) collection of books representing science fiction and fantasy worlds. Cooking with Asterix also (sorta) fits into this and is mostly in the pile for the cartoons.

The second last book in my pile is the book I recommend to anyone who wants to cook English food from the Middle Ages. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks is so handy as a springboard into talking about food in fantasy fiction, because it helps even those who don’t know what a medieval kitchen looked like understand what sort of cooking is possible.

The final book is the place where the fantastical meets the historical meets the foodie: it’s a translation of Nostradamus recipe book.

And now that you know what is on one side of me (on the other is washing, drying on an airer) I shall go be part of this panel!

The Somewhat Updated Guide to Prevent Perplexity: How to avoid Gillian at Chicon8

Normal life is slowly (maybe) returning, for quite different grades of normal to those any of us expected. I may never be able to attend a big crowded event again. Fortunately, this means that it’s very easy to avoid me at events. You can go where I cannot. You can get a cuppa while attending virtually. You can train your computer system to obliterate me while listening and enjoying all other panellists, speakers. I admit, I have not worked out how to do this latter, but there must be an app for it, somewhere.

Worldcon is coming. In Chicago, where I cannot go, due to COVID. Also on our computers, where I am definitely going and where I am on the program and… you need to know how to avoid me.

I would like to return to warning people of my incipient presence somewhere. How can you know how to avoid me if you don’t know where I am?

This is all of my program a week prior to the convention. I’ve left out times and days because you’ll need to find the location for each event and the program guide itself will contain all this critical information. I think avoiding me will be fun this time round, a computer-assisted minuet.

The Middle Ages Weren’t Actually Bad
I agree with the title, but not with the reason for it. Of course you should avoid me. I will make waves. Grumpy waves. I’m a middle-aged Medievalist, so any waves I make are grumpy and my time to make that joke is almost over, which makes me grumpier. In the context, I might even make my toilet joke. I want to say “my notorious toilet joke” but that would be giving it too much credit. Find a gizmo that hides my face and reduces my voice to nothing, and enjoy the panel. The other panellists are definitely worth hearing.
Virtual Jewish Fan Gathering
I’m co-hosting a fan gathering. I don’t know if I’m the non-American Jew in this, or the Orthodox, or…
I’m Modern Australian Orthodox, for those who wonder why I don’t act like a Chassid. I am not Chassidic, my childhood was religious, but also full of science.
If you want to come to this gathering and make me invisible without even letting me know who you are, find someone who has read The Green Children Help Out or The Wizardry of Jewish Women or The Time of the Ghosts (the novels with the highest Jewish content). Ask them to chat with me (chat function FTW!) about my writing. I will immerse myself in the world of Jewish superheroes or the world of Jewish fairies and everyone else will have a fine time.
Virtual Table Talk – Gillian Polack
This is a simple “Avoid Gillian” one. Don’t come. I can talk to myself about fairy tale retellings, the Middle Ages (France and England especially), enthohistory, my fiction, Jewishness in fiction, my research, cultural brickwork, my fiction-to-appear-in-print-soon, my world developing, Australia, new kitchens and more.
Reclaiming History Through Alternate Yesterdays
My suggestion for this panel is that you reclaim it through Alternate Gillians. It’s too good to miss, otherwise. How does one create an Alternate Gillian? Whenever I say something, you, twist what I say until it makes you laugh aloud. For instance, if I say, “My background for this panel lies in historiography adulterated with ethnohistory” you replace the ‘historiography’; with ‘haemophilia’ and in your mind make that part of an explanation for our world where vampires died out through developing haemophilia more acutely than any human can.
Your reward is the other panellists, and I become your fiction for the day.
Australian Speculative Fiction
Two perfectly excellent Australian writers (both award-winning, I believe)… and me. The approach I suggested for Reclaiming History would also work for this. Replace ‘Australian’ with ‘Aslanian’ and turn my comments into analysis of Narnia. If I talk about lost civilisations (I am prone to this) then invent your own. If I talk about German academics and their interest in Australian SFF, then take yourself to a university website and read the blog about Australian SFF whenever I speak.
Virtual Reading – Gillian Polack
This is another skip-by-not-attending one. I’m tossing up between reading from my Other Covenants story and my next novel. If you skip it, you don’t have to find out if my coin landed on heads, tails, or spun so strangely I had to read a bit from each.
Fairy Tales and Folklore in Urban Fantasy
You don’t want to miss this panel. One reason (just one, of the several) is Frances Hardinge. She’s one of the best fairytale/folklore using writers around, worldwide. I should know – this is one of my academic interests. And the other two panelists are also worth many detours to hear. Many. You’ll have to be creative then, in avoiding me. Stick a picture of a malevolent fairy over my bit of your computer screen. Hear my voice as the garbled sound heard through a mound, with no fairy door to provide clarity. You’ll be fine.
The Culinary Delights of Speculative Fiction
Use your avoidance of me in this panel to create the perfect dinner party. Invite all the best people (the remainder of the panel, for instance, because they’re worth meeting as well as listening to) and use all the foodstuffs I can’t eat. Fish and pork, seafood and nuts. If you feel vindictive, let me know the menu and invite me to enjoy it. That’ll help you get even with me for being on this otherwise-wonderful panel and making you miss some of it.
Or you could ask me to describe the making of portable soup and use those minutes to take a refreshing nap.

          The Metaverse and SF
The academic panel is two papers and a discussion. It’s worth coming for the section on the Metaverse (Ben Root “The Metaverse, from Science-Fiction to Reality.” )
My paper is on “Dangerous borders: the importance of edges and edginess in Ó Guilín’s The Call and The Invasion.” Skipping stuff about Peadar (even by me) is a sadness and should not be done. Pretend I’m someone else for twenty minutes, perhaps?

Treading Lightly – Grate Your Own!

Treading Lightly is a blog series on ways to lighten our carbon footprint.


I like the convenience of grated cheese for cooking. Friday is Cheesy Macs day at our house, and the cheesy macs are made from scratch. One time, though, I opened a package of grated cheese and discovered it was moldy. The freshness date was still in the future. Disgusted, I tossed it.

Why buy packaged grated cheese that has who-knows-what added to it to keep it fresh and can still be moldy? Plus, single-use plastic packaging. Bad!

I started buying big blocks of sharp cheddar, grating it myself, and storing it in the fridge. No mold! It’s perfect for cheesy macs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and sprinkling on top of enchiladas and dozens of other things.

Because I am a big pasta fan I also buy blocks of Romano (which I prefer to parmesan) and grate that, too. Perfecto!

Cheese can be grated in a food processor. I use a gadget called a salad shooter, which is designed for shredding vegetables. (I don’t use it for that.)

Grating your own cheese is also less expensive than buying packaged grated cheese. Like, WAY less expensive!

Have I made you hungry yet? No?

OK, grated cheese can also be used for chile con queso (nacho cheese, if you’d rather call it that), pizza, cheese sauce to pour over your favorite steamed veggie (broccoli, cauliflower), just about any pasta dish, baked potatoes, on and on and on. Once you have a container of freshly-grated cheese in your fridge, you will find a ton of uses for it.

Give it a try! Go buy a block of cheese, grate it, and enjoy! You’ll have fresher cheese, save money, and be treading a little more lightly.

The scent of books is the scent of toffied candied peel

Today I had a rather fun cooking accident. I’m making candied peel, and the doorbell rang. This candied peel has a bit of alcohol in, and the water hadn’t boiled out of it and… it boiled over onto the stovetop while I answered the door. I cleaned up some of it immediately, because dinner was impossible without any cooking elements for my frypan (my frypan is greedy that way – it won’t heat without help), and left the rest until later. ‘Later’ was just now for some of it. It had crystallised and could be cleaned off with an egg-lifter. When wet, it took so much more work to clear away.

While I was creatively using my egg-lifter (and is egg-lifter even a word in US English?), I thought about what book I should tell you about today.

Given that the other thing I did today was clean out all my herbs and spices and check their use-by date, the obvious book is to do with herbs. Just one book? Perish the thought. The only thing perished today were some very, very, very old herbs…

Let me introduce you to my perennial favourite herbals: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. I’ve had my Culpeper since high school. The powers-that-were made the mistake of letting us choose our own books for school prizes, you see. My Culpeper is much-used, and it still has a little bookplate explaining why I have it. I was awarded it for the Year 12 English prize, at Camberwell High School, in 1978. My copy of Mrs Grieves wasn’t acquired until at least two years later.

I might throw the Culpeper a fiftieth birthday party in 2028. It’s earned it. Both books have. They’ve been handy to me as an historian, as a writer, as someone who loves cooking, and as someone who’s curious about how we change the way we describe things. Thee two books were part of the stack I used to refer to as ‘my external memory.’ Much of my library is borrowable, but these two books do not leave my side. They’re always in the room I work. Always. This is despite the fact that I actually use e-versions when I want to look something up.

They’re too close to me to make introductions easy. They’re not my oldest books, nor even my earliest. This doesn’t make them less part of my life. I have other books that are equally important. When I was told I was going blind, one of the first things I did was decide that 200 books needed to stay with me, even when I can’t see them. Handling them will be grounding. I’m not blind yet, and my library has 7000 books – I’d own more, but many were stolen and my flat is full. I say this to make it clear how critical to my existence is any book in that ‘must keep even if I can’t see them’ stack.

I think we all have books like this. As of today, because of the candied peel and its wonderful interaction with my stovetop, I will forever think of the smell of citrus toffee (with a faint overtone of fine liqueur) when I think of these books. If you have a moment, I’d love to know if you have books you treasure the way I treasure these.

Shall-Be-Nameless Magazine Review

Every once in a while, I post a review of a magazine. Usually, it’s done something to tick me off and I want to vent. Unreadable print ranks high on my list of no-nos.

For many years, I was a fan of a healthy cooking magazine. It provided me with wonderful recipes and articles about the chemistry of cooking. It changed its name, and I faithfully followed it into new territory. If there were fewer recipes that appealed to me, there were more articles on how food is grown, as well as other aspects of health. A few months ago, that incarnation went belly-up. I received a notification that the remainder of my subscription – all 3 months of it – was being transferred to a general “good living” magazine. I was assured of many healthful, delicious recipes.

The first issue had one, exactly one, article I was interested in (the varieties of lavender bushes).

The current issue is as follows:

The cover features a grinning man wearing huge beads, nail polish, and a tattoo of a cross. He is grinning widely, showing unnaturally white teeth. I’ve never heard of him.

Article 1: A list of “summer fun” events sure to be Covid super-spreaders.

Article 2: “For the dad who has it all”: a collection of gender-stereotyped merchandise I’d never buy for anyone.

Article 3: “Pool party” features blow-up pools large enough to accommodate several adults. In my area, water restrictions forbid filling ordinary, below-ground pools. Don’t the magazine folks realize that some of us are living in drought zones?

A bunch of articles on makeup, with or without SPF. Yawn.

Article 4. A remodeled porch, with many pages of interior decoration porn.

Articles too-many, more interior decoration that would be way beyond my budget even if I could stand to look at it. Chairs designed to give you crippling back pain. Fabric upholstery my cats would love as scratching posts. Wall paint so dark as to create instant depression. Kids’ rooms no self-respecting child would enter.

Article 5. Ah, gardening. Planters with trellises. Nope, nope, nope. Well, maybe, if I wanted to grow only 2 bean plants. Nope, nope, nope.

Articles more-too-many. You’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me style decor, complete with a plaque that says, “You’re a mess.” Yep, you are.

More sure-to-drive-kids-insane decor. More gloom-inspiring wall paint.

Article 6: “Egg bites”???

Article 7: Ah, some actual recipes, beginning with hearty salads. I think maybe I can work with this…until I look at the nutrition information and see sodium levels that start at 500 mg/serving and go upwards of 1,500 mg/serving. In what universe is this healthy??? (The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg a day and moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg.) You could get your entire day’s allowance of sodium in just one salad!

Article 8: Cover guy in “Finding Home.” Wearing pajamas, then wearing 1890s-style onesies. Wearing…what is that thing? I’m so uninterested in this person I don’t recognize and who seems bent on warping his spine that I’m anti-interested.

Article 9: Drinks, all of them containing alcohol. Many pages’ worth.

Article 10: Summer gatherings in this family’s garden. Same back-pain-inducing furniture, but the garden looks nice. They have a cute dog. Maybe an outdoor meal might be safe…oh no, now they’re indoors. Still, they look like a nice family.

Article 11: More decor, described as “exuberant patterns and joyful color.” Too busy, too impersonal, too aggressive on the eyeballs. Does anyone actually spend time in these rooms?

Article 12: More salads, these arranged on large platters that look pretty but are designed to make sure (a) ingredients are distributed unequally; (b) there will be unusable leftovers. But I’ll take a look. I like salads. I see 654 mg sodium…1.064 mg sodium…wow, here’s one with only 470 mg. sodium but 42 grams of fat...at least most of it’s unsaturated, but depending on your caloric intake, that could be an entire day’s fat allowance. (See the above-recommended limits on sodium.)

I’ll pass.

After I toss the issue in recycle bin.

There, I feel much better.

Much wittering followed by some recipes

Today I have written a great deal. That great deal added up to a very short story and a few hundred words of non-fiction. It just felt like a great deal. I suspect this was because I am surrounded by autumn storms. Everything feels like a great deal when one is surrounded by storms.

Normally I walk my bookshelves to find you an interesting book to talk about. Because I have met two whole deadlines today (two!) I thought I’d take the easy way out and write about the nearest book to me. I forgot that I had six of my own books in reach because I was talking about them to someone. And yet, the weather is about to break (I have a very handy weather sense) and I need to finish writing this before then because when there is a storm literally overhead, I doubt I’ll be writing to you about interesting reading.

I’m taking the interesting route. On my computer I have – like so many of us, these days – an elibrary. I’m going to open a folder at random. The folder are labelled with the alphabet, except the historical food one, which is labelled ‘Cooking.’ Just typing about that particular heading led me straight into the Cooking folder, so let me find you a cookbook or historical food book of particular interest.

I opened the folder and was curious about one that wasn’t properly labelled at all. It proved to be a transcription of the 1596 The Good Huswifes Jewell. Just the opening is delightful, and if I find it delightful then you’re stuck with it. Let me give you that opening, in all its gorgeousness.

The Good Huswifes Jewell “Wherein is to be found most excellend and rare Deuises for conceites in
Cookery, found out by the practise of Thomas Dawson.
Wherevnto is adioyned sundry approued receits for many soueraine oyles, and the way to distill many precious waters, with diuers approued medicines for many diseases.
G.STEEVENS
Also certain approued points of husbandry, very necessary for all Husbandmen to know.
Newly set foorth with additions. 1596.
Imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the litle North Doore of Paules at the signe of the Gun.”

If ‘Paules’ is St Paul’s Cathedral, then Edward White, the publisher, was in a part of London that had been book and scribe central since the Middle Ages. If you were in London in the thirteenth century and needed a notary in a hurry, the back of St Paul’s was the place.

I’m so tempted to simply let my mind rove in that district in the Middle Ages, and contemplate where I would buy parchment or commission illuminations, but this is a cookbook and my mind must remain resolute (the impending storm insists). Let me give you a recipe from the book, then. Everyone needs boiled chicken once in a while, and I’ve not made this recipe, so it’s a useful one all round:

To boile Chickins.
Straune your broth into a pipkin, & put in your Chickins, and skumme them as cleane as you can, and put in a peece of butter, and a good deale of Sorell, and so let them boyle, and put in all manner of spices, and a lyttle veriuyce pycke, and a fewe Barberies, and cutte a Lemman in pecces, and scrape a little Suger uppon them, and laye them vppon the Chickins when you serue them vp, and lay soppes vpon the dish.

I read this as using broth – I’d use chicken bouillon, because I always do when things are otherwise not clear. Boiling chicken in a broth sounds rather good, actually. Different broths would infuse it with different flavours. Butter and sorrel combined give a very smooth texture and flavour, and the verjuice might be to make it be not too unctuous. Barberries I love and have some on hand: they would add a fruitiness and also cut that unctuousness. In fact, I have most of the ingredients on hand. I’m just missing the chicken, the sorrel and the verjuice. Also, I’m missing bread. Without bread I can’t make sops. It’s just as well, really, because it’s 11.30 pm here and not the time to be making a chicken recipe.

In fact, it was a really bad idea to open that file and find you a recipe. I want to cook! Instead of cooking, let me find you another recipe from 1596. If you’re inspired to make either of these, I’d love to know how it went and, if you take pictures, it would make me very happy to see them.

Because most of you are heading for summer and the fruit is just beginning to arrive (we’re heading for winter and I’m eating persimmon and pomegranate and papaya while I can) how about a recipe that requires summer fruit? This one has fewer terms that need explaining, which is a bonus. I never know how much to translate, because it’s perfectly modern (Early Modern – I was making a bad joke) English. It all depends on how much cooking you’ve done and what kind of cooking. Stoves as we know them weren’t around in the late sixteenth century. A great deal of cooking was done over an open fire with a wonderful set of cooking equipment. This preserved fruit recipe, for example, uses the head of a pot covered by a plate, which is a very nice way of making sure the fruit stays whole.

To preserue all kinde of fruites, that they shall not breake in the preseruing of them.
Take a platter that is playne in the bottome, and laye suger in the bottome, then cherries or any other fruite, and so between euerie rowe you lay, throw suger and set it vpon a pots heade, and couer it with a dish, and so let it boyle.

Now I’m dreaming of apricots cooked this way and eaten with clotted cream.

I need to sign off before I start cooking. I so often do this I open an historical cookbook and then end up making something and not finishing my work. I shall leave you with one last recipe and no explanation whatsoever, and then I’ll finish all that must be done before this impending storm ceases to impend. Then I shall sleep and dream of preserved apricots served with clotted cream.

This last recipe is not quite a trifle as we know it today, but it is, nevertheless, kind of an ancestor to the Queen’s Jubilee dish that so many of my British friends have been making. Only kind of. I know its 18th century descendants and they’re all drinks. I am only missing the cream for this trifling dish. I would turn into something strange if I eat this at midnight, which is the precise time it would be ready, so I’m lucky I’m missing that cream (when you make it yourself, remember than thick cream has no gelatine or other thickener – it should dollop when you spoon it into the dish and must be at least 45% fat):

To make a Trifle.
Take a pinte of thicke Creame, and season it with Suger and Ginger, and Rosewater, so stirre it as you would then haue it, and make it luke warme in a dish on a Chafingdishe and coales, and after put it into a siluer peece or a bowle, and so serue it to the boorde.

 

PS While there is a place called West Wittering in the UK, and also one called East Wittering, alas, there does not appear to be one called Much Wittering. I might have to invent a fictional town, in Australia but with English tendencies.

Prophets and their Gifts

Right now, a lot of my research is about food. Not recipes, nor food history, but how food and foodways creep into fiction. It’ll be a long time before I have research results that I’m willing to share. Right now, I change my mind from day to day as I discover new things. Still, it’s not at all fair to leave you out of my foodways entirely, so I’m going to share with you an old favourite of mine.

In 1552, two little books appeared in the French marketplace. In my perfect world, I would own an original copy of each, but they’re rare and the author is so famous that any copies that appeared would be snapped up for an impossible sum. I own a translation of the books, into English. I could read the original (historians have some handy language tools) but haven’t ever found a modern edition. I was in France in 1995 and found the English translation there. It’s not a big book, even though it rudely fits two old books into one.

Who is this well-known author? Michel Nostradamus, who is more known as a prophet and as a physician than as a cook. Whenever I’ve encountered people who get excited when they hear his name it’s because they want to argue about prophecy. Right now, though, his background as a plague doctor is more appropriate. He was one of the best known and possibly one of the most competent plague doctors in sixteenth century France.

I considered this when I was in the emergency department of the medical side of the university at Montpellier, for he studied there and I had a mysterious disease. I didn’t have plague. But I dreamed of my favourite recipe from Nostradamus’ cookbook as I rested after the appointment and slowly recovered from what turned out to be the side effects of being bitten by a tick. The doctor laughed merrily with his assistant, when they worked out I was Australian and yet had been infected by something in England. They looked up Australia on the computer and noted all the dangerous spiders here and all the snakes and then said “And she went to England for this. York, in the rain.” The actual diagnosis took maybe a minute, and they wrote out prescriptions and descriptions for treatment when they’d finished laughing. At that precise moment I wished I had less French because I could understand every joke they made at my expense.

Nostradamus’ quince recipe was my safe hiding place, I think.

I was in Montpellier researching Langue[dot]doc 1305, but I didn’t call on that incident at all for it. The illness meant I only had a few hours of research a day, because I really wasn’t that well.

I managed to complete all my work thanks to the kind help of people at desks. Two were the senior curators of museums, masquerading as sellers-of-tickets. I asked each of them where I could go in their museum to answer a couple of questions I had. We chatted a minute and they decided to talk me through everything I needed. Two hours, in each case, with people who knew more about the precise material I needed than were in any book. One also sold me a hard-to-find book I desperately needed, so I read that during my many hours of enforced rest.

Hearing the medical jokes at my expense was the downside of having enough French, but being able to talk the Middle Ages with experts was definitely the upside. It might also have helped that I knew a fair amount already: I was asking as an SF writer, but had a PhD in Medieval History backing it.

The third desk person was at the tourist office in the town I was setting the novel in. She had copies of unusual material hiding behind the desk and brought them out for me. In return, I told her how to make Nostradamus’ version of quince jelly.

I wish I had been able to go back one more time after I had digested all that material, because there are some questions I really wanted more answers to. I live on the other side of the world, and a return visit wasn’t possible. Still, Nostradamus and his recipes have an indelible link with Langue[dot]doc 1305.

I didn’t put even a single recipe for quince jelly in the novel. I regard this as neglectful, but I can tell you now, even my mother thinks that he had a very fine recipe. She tested it, some years back.