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.

Finding comfort in reading

Today I want to write about something reassuring, comforting or even cheering. The last few weeks have been isolated and the solution has meant much sleep and a bit too much discomfort and pain. This is more than somewhat typical of the lives of far too many of us right now.

I explored my library for comfort reading. Normally, when in crisis or misery, I’d take a large stack of books off the shelves and pile them to be read until life improves. Tonight I discovered I’ve already done that. None of the books I most needed were there. I couldn’t find the stack I’d put them into and so I thought, “I have around 7000 books. I can find another comfort read to talk about.”

I did better than that. I found my copy of Van Loon’s Lives (written and Illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon). My copy is from 1957, and has the same cover as the one I found in the local library. I first discovered it when I was teen recovering from whooping cough. Or maybe I’m simply linking the two, because I had a vaccination and am full of some of the aches that went with whooping cough. I re-read it again soon after, when I was confined to bed for two very slow weeks because something was wrong with my back.

I thought then, “Why is this like What Katy Did, and yet… not?” One reasons is that Katy addressed her illness by moralising. If she turned into the right kind of person, then she would be fine. By the end of her ordeal, she was over her illness and had become of the centre of the family. Perfect outcome. I got over my illness much faster (and, to be honest, it wasn’t severe, just a shock to not be able to get out of bed without help and to be unable to do most things) but I haven’t been and never will be a central point for my family.

Also, two weeks is not a long time. It feels like a long time for a teenager, but, in the absolute scheme of things, two weeks passes.

All of this meant that What Katy Did is not comfort reading right now. But Van Loon’s Lives is, despite the fact that Van Loon invites Torquemada for dinner but has a lack of interest in fascinating Jews. Even if I were one of the great people of history, I’d not have been invited.

Why?

It’s a book that’s full of historical dreams. Each chapter is a dinner party with famous guests from Van Loon’s sense of the past. I could read a chapter back then and that chapter would lead me to memories of other books and thoughts of what I wanted to learn about history. The first Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, and, while my body was recumbent, my mind argued for hours about the Elizabethan material Van Loon invented and that Alison Uttley used in A Traveller in Time. That’s the special magic of Van Loon’s Lives. It’s a fantasy novel. The food is wrong, the history is not the history I know today and, even as a teen I as wondering about it, but, back then, it brought famous historical figures to life and made that enforced bedrest less intolerable.

Van Loon’s most interesting historical figures matched mine when I was a teenager. We were taught, in Australia in the 1970s, that there was nothing interesting in Jewish history but that European Christian history was magic. I wanted to meet almost all the people he wrote about. Some I knew about already (Elizabeth, for instance, and Voltaire – Voltaire is someone I’ve read a lot, but cannot like as a person), while others were my newfound lands, and I began to explore who they were and what they did (Erasmus and Descartes, always come to mind). This fantasy book triggered a whole new path of independent learning, a couple of years before university offered me formal tracks. I remember feeling so pleased that I worked out how to cook Van Loon’s own speculaas from his description in the book. It wasn’t the first bit of food decoding I’ve done from literature, but it was one of the most satisfying.

It’s been so long since I first read it that I suspect that I’ve forgotten most of what I discovered back then and really ought to begin again.

A few years ago, when I finally found my own copy of the book, I realised I had changed and with my changes came a new interpretation. As an historian, each chapter and its meal and guests told me much more about Van Loon and the way he saw the past than it told me about the history of any other period. I realised that I had learned to discount myself and my own history. It wasn’t just family I would never be central to. It was part of a reconsideration of what I knew and why I knew it and who I was. This is part of the trail that led me to write The Wizardry of Jewish Women, The Time of the Ghosts, and The Green Children Help Out. Instead of arguing from my sick bed, I argued using my own fantasies.

And now, why is it comfort reading again? Van Loon’s Lives was first published in 1943. Hendrick Van Loon wrote his book under a kind of lockdown. He was in exile from his homeland, which was under Nazi occupation. Nothing like our COVID lockdowns. In its way, this set of dinner parties is an emotional safety net for the war that was then raging. Van Loon himself doesn’t leave the war out of the volume, and the epilogue that one can’t know without investigating his life is that he wrote the book when in exile and died before the Nazis were defeated. He never went home.

It’s a comfort book right now because it’s a reminder that other writers have handled the impossibilities of life. We talk a lot about Camus, because he wrote about plague and we know plague. But the isolation of great change and the memory of how very welcoming and magic life was just a few years before the world turned upside down is just as important. It provides a way to evaluate the world that contains some emotional safety. Hendrik Van Loon sets the novel in the 1930s, when his world was safer and it was fine to invite famous guests from different times and different places.

I wonder if it’s time for another fantasy dinner party book to be written for our own comfort? Who would it include? Who should we leave out? One thing’s for certain, all the food history I’ve done in the last forty years would be useful. I know what to feed Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth I and, yes, even Erasmus. I don’t know if I’d invite Jefferson or Elizabeth or Erasmus. Time for a new set of thoughts triggered by this single volume.

Schroedinger’s Dinner Works Out

We have survived the holidays (they were actually lovely). But this year they required (administrative) flexibility of the sort generally associated with yogis and exotic dancers. Welcome to life in the time of COVID, and do let me know if any of this sounds familiar.

Every year–until 2020–we have traded off Christmas holiday dinner with my sister-in-law and her family in Sebastop0l. This always involves a certain amount of negotiation in terms of what will be served and who will bring what. As the dietary requirements of the family are, um, complex (various allergies, food sensitivities, and at least one part-time vegan in the mix) this is really where the negotiation part comes in. But my sister-in-law and I are old hands at this, and dinner–at whichever household plays host–is always festive and delicious.

And then we have 2021, the year in which we had Schroedinger’s Dinner. Continue reading “Schroedinger’s Dinner Works Out”