Not-Christmas and not-weather (mostly, sorta)

At this time of year I hear a lot about snow and sleet and the need for egg nogs to get through winter cold and gloom, and it’s very tempting to counter this with stories of the flooding in Northern Queensland and the heat and the incoming storms. The incoming storms today might mean we have a tolerable weekend, which is very important for those who are having big parties over said weekend. The storms, when they’re over, will be good for me because I am not a summer heat kind of person.

I want to talk about the weather for about two hours, because I’m in the mood for it, but I shall stop here, because I’m so very kind. Also because I would like people to give me merely a paragraph on the state of winter darkness before moving on to more interesting topics in their own writings in this season. If I would like this then I should give you a mere paragraph on summer heat before moving on.

So… let me talk about the weekend. Weekends are always good to talk about.
I’ve been advised to avoid all the places where there are marches for this whole season, because there is often a component of people in those marches who are not entirely safe for anyone Jewish, so I have already done most things for the next week. I do not need to go to shops or near big streets where folks demonstrate politically.

This time of year is mostly a period of intense work for me, with a few really, really nice exceptions. 2023 is classic for me in this regard.

School and university (except for research students who don’t do Christmas) have already finished for the year. Both the calendar year and the academic year, in fact. We’re about to get the annual shutdown of most things. Everyone’s frantically preparing or on a plane to somewhere cool – I mean the latter literally. So many of my friends are heading north into winter.

This year, because I can see friends if we’re all careful (I’m COVID-vulnerable) I will have visits from friends who are on holiday but not headed north. I have chocolate to feed them, in case it’s too hot to cook. Much chocolate will be consumed. I’m thinking of getting some mint and making big jugs of iced tea (without sugar, because Australians are not so big on sweet things, on the whole) but that will have to start next week. I refuse to encounter crowds just for mint.

I celebrate Christmas for the same friends who celebrate my New Year. We’re kinda extended family for each other. I’ve already made sure that two lots of presents and some very nice port is at their place, because while they cook, I will finish a chapter. My personal race with time is that chapter – if I complete it I get the afternoon and evening of 24 December off.

That morning is the last market day in the year and I’m going to the market with one of my friends to make sure we have all the things needed both for the dinner and for the few days after. Me, I’m making sure there are lots of cherries. Cherries are so important for the whole end-of-year period. When I was in Canada for Christmas/New Year people had poinsettias, which weren’t the same at all. Mind you, they also had snow. Which was, of course, exotic.

If the weather is nice, we’ll be outside. If it’s not, we’ll be inside with air monitoring and tiny portable air purifiers. It’s perfectly possible to have nice events with the COVID-vulnerable. We proved it last year and we’re doing it again this. I’m hoping for outside for most of it, however, because a summer day with children is better outdoors. I like the years we go down to the lake and picnic and the black swans come to investigate all the presents, but this year we’re staying home. This means that when I am nicely relaxed and have eaten too much I can wander home and do some work, so that is good, too.

Unlike much of the US, Canberra does a pretty thorough shut-down over Christmas. This means no tradition of Chinese restaurants for anyone Jewish.

What I sometimes do in its stead these days is host an online chat with friends about the Toledoth Yeshuah. 25 December then is a big working day for me, except for an occasional detour via that really interesting by-product of antisemitism. The Toledoth came into being because of other times like this, and it’s interesting to see how we dealt with this stuff (culturally) in times past. So I will be exploring it, but unless anyone asks, I’ll explore it alone. It’s not a comfortable text, nor a comfortable tradition. Hate hurts.

Boxing Day is different. This year it will be my father’s 100th birthday. He died when I was 26, but I miss him and want to celebrate anyhow. I’m just 2 years younger now than he was when he died, which is, I admit, sobering. Friends are coming round to toast him during the day, but only a few friends. I shall watch a really bad comedy he enjoyed, or maybe one of his favourite Doctor Who sequences… I’ll decide on the day.

In my evening, which is morning in Europe and the day before in the US and Canada, I’ll open up a Zoom room where anyone who is at a loose end can drop in and tell bad jokes in honour of my father and generally catch up. If you would like a link to the room, contact me in the next few days and I’ll send it the moment it’s live. Waiting til the last minute means if I am unwell, which happens, I can sneak in some rest and start a bit later. I’m looking at beginning around 8 pm AEST (Australian Eastern Summer Time, which is UTC/GMT+11) and continuing for as long as there are friends who want to hang out.

Let me know if you’d like to be part of anything I do online during this time.

Also, I’d love to know what other people do over the long weekend, if they don’t have a regular Christmas for whatever reason. I’d love to hear about other kinds of Christmas!

Tea time

Today I’m putting together notes for a talk I’m giving this week. I’m giving it from my desk, but most of the people at the other end of my computer will be in China. A talk on tea to China.

This is when I feel like a fraud, but it’s not that at all. I’m talking about tea history and how to prepare for time travel through understanding how tea was brought into Europe and North America. I have Russian silver and a reproduction Dutch cup and a bunch of other things to show and tell.

I used to teach these things and now I’m nervous because I’m giving a talk. Tea to China, I tell myself, is not chutzpah. Tea history includes what Linnaeus knew about the plant, and why there are no teapots prior to a certain date and where beef tea fits in. I intend to detour via portable soup when I talk about beef tea, because they’re related and I have some portable soup right now. I won’t make beef tea, I’m afraid because I have no love for it.

What else shall I talk about? Medieval herbals (briefly) and popular tea literature in the 17th century. What Marco Polo said (or didn’t say) about tea and my guess as to why. Tea substitutes, including during the US Revolutionary War and in the early Australian colonies.

Lots of things.

My aim is to finish most of it today, along with most of my Patreon material. I have 2 other talks to prepare this week, too. This is on top of my regular research, but it’s fun stuff on top of my regular research. As long as I get it done and all ready for the world SF convention, things are good. October is busy, but delightfully so.

I think that this post calls for a cup of tea. I have a rather nice oolong to drink this afternoon. Which reminds me, I haven’t included even a mention of British Malaya and its relationship with oolong into my talk yet. Nor how coffee and tea identity-switched in British at a certain moment. Nor… I should write.

Old hobbies, new joys

I have a new essential oil.

I used to make perfumes as a hobby and every now and again I save up a bit of money and get new fragrances for my bath. No-one around me asks about my perfumes and I think everyone’s forgotten them. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I still love creating fragrances just for me. Not perfumes any more. Scents for my home.

As I change with time, the scents I like change, too. I used to love the sophisticated and the swanky, but now I love to be reminded of the bushwalking I also used to do or for my body to be reminded that it’s fine to put tension and pain aside. It’s hard to bushwalk when walking to the shops is beyond me on most days, but it’s easy to lie back in a hot bath and smell tea tree and lemon myrtle and kunzea. It’s also very good for arthritis, when combined with magnesium salts.

The new essential oil is may chang (litsea cubeb). I mistook it for cubebs when I saw it in the catalogue, but the moment I smelled it, I knew it was perfect for me. Cubebs are one of my favourite peppers for cooking, which is why I bought something I wasn’t sure about. Cubebs is still one of the best peppers for cooking. It is properly peppery and has a delightfully fresh aftertaste. And may chang is perfect with lavender and just a drop of diluted Bulgarian rose for an hour away from the world.

Now I have a favourite cubeb for a scented bath and one for cooking and they’re not related at all. The same applies to mint. My favourite mint for cooking is… most mints. My favourite mint for the bath isn’t a mint at all, it’s a prostanthera, a native Australian plant that smells of mint and just a touch of eucalyptus. When I was a child I had a favourite native mint bush which I always used when I needed mint tea. On the essential oil bottle it says “Bush balm mint” but it is still the perfect mint tea bush from my childhood.

Some of my oils help this illness or that (especially the muscle aches and joint aches that are my everyday), but mostly I like to feel as if I’m in an English country garden, or in the local bush or, in this case, I don’t know where, but the new scent is the best ever.

I also use the oils in teaching writers how to built sensory worlds for their fiction. Or I used to. I developed my scent teaching from my hobby of perfumerie, and taste from my food history background (with some help from a sister who is a wine and olive oil judge). The others were easy once I had techniques that worked to teach two of the senses. I also taught writing family history and personal memoirs, which gave me an excuse to bring home-cooked food and favourite family foods and food memories into play, because they use all the senses. The university I taught at closed most of its outreach courses and so I was suddenly unemployed and I’ve not yet found anyone who wants to learn these things.

It’s a real treat to return to my fragrant past and to remember that just because no-one is interested in learning how to write the senses from me any more, that doesn’t mean I have to lose the cool aspects.

I still look at most novels and analyse the writer’s background from how they use their senses. Australians are my favourite, largely because I am Australian. We love using sight, but also use sound to a degree. It’s quite hard to find an Australian writer of fantasy or science fiction who uses all the senses effectively. Historical fiction writers are more courageous in this, especially the ones who want to communicate the grunge and grime of everyday life. If an Australian writer wants to bring a unique touch to their work, learning methods of incorporating the other senses would do it for so many of them.

I so miss teaching this! It was good for my writing as well. Teaching is very handy for skills maintenance. So, it seems, are hot baths.

The Joy of Past Food

I had such a fine idea for a blogpost for today. Unfortunately my fine idea came at 3 am and I wrote a charming and profoundly meaningful post in my sleep. I’ve spent the whole of today trying to recall it. I’m running out of time, so instead of the charming and profoundly meaningful post, you’re getting an introduction to the book I found on my coffee table. Its spine is held together with packing tape, Its cover is falling off despite the packing tape. It’s basically a blank cookbook for a home cook, with recipes added over time. About half the pages have recipes.

A friend gave it to me the other day, and I haven’t had time to decipher it yet, so everything I say here is a discovery.

It was used over two generations (possibly longer) because there is some copperplate and some italic script. The first newspaper clipping it it has a recipe from Jean Bowring. This means it’s an Australian recipe collection, and the Bowring recipe is from the late 50s or early 60s. The clip itself has no date, but Bowring had her own foodie TV show from 1957-1960. There’s a recipe dated 1940, which is celery seed for rheumatism. These are the only two entries with clear dating.

This is a household collection of the type women have been making since at least the 17th century and I love it. The 1940 recipe is written in a hand that’s a spiky version of one of my aunt’s, which makes me wonder if the writer was a young housewife in the 1940s, since my aunt was born in 1919, and it’s a nicely modern hand.

Let me see what else I can find.

There are no recipes in the soups/fish section or the first pages of the poultry/meat section. The first recipe in the poultry/meat section is the cheesecake recipe from the TV personality. I’ve seen this in other books like this from Australia, and I have a family story that suggests that a lot of the everyday food cooked by Australian women (and occasionally Australian men) were not that complex and required learning techniques rather than following recipes. This somewhat explains why the early pages are so very random.

My cousin Edith, who was a fully-trained doctor, but whose qualifications were not ever accepted in Australia, was a paid nurse in my Great-Aunt Gussie’s (Augusta) household. Gussie and she had a bit of an argument about throwing bones out with meat on them. Vienna had been going through hard times and Australia had not, so it was Edith who pointed out the good food that was being thrown away. This led to that and Gussie accused Edith of not being able to cook. Edith pointed out that she had to leave her cookbook at home when she fled. Gussie said “You don’t need a cookbook to cook dinner.” I was taught both the techniques and how to use cookbooks, so I understood both Edith and my great-aunt when Edith told me about the incident. I have several of Edith’s family recipes in my own little collection, but nothing from Gussie – she lived from 1872 to 1940. Her two children were two of my favourite relatives and Linda, the eldest, lived from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. This explains why I know a bit more about Victorian and Edwardian home cookery than most people born in the 1960s.

More clues and fewer family stories? Let me look past the newspaper clipping. The first handwritten recipes are very Australian. There’s a copha cake recipe. I haven’t seen anything like it in years. It’s a quick cake and perfectly suitable to make in a hurry when friends drop in unexpectedly. It has copha (of course) sugar, egg, self-raising flour and vanilla for flavouring. Nserted next to them are two recipes for plain cakes with butter rather than copha, in the handwriting Melbourne schoolchildren learned in the 1940s. Cakes and more cakes follow, all very straightforward and all cakes I’ve made or very like cakes I’ve made. Also a recipe for Snow Balls given to the owner of the book by Phyllis, The snow balls are sugar, gelatine and boiling water, dipped in a sauce and rolled in coconut. These days we buy them (and by ‘these days’ I go right back to the 1960s) and they’re dipped in chocolate before the coconut. Puddings, patris, cakes – all the standard sweet stuff made for a young family.

There are some older recipes hidden among the really familiar ones. When I was doing research into Georgian recipes, I discovered cooked salad dressing This book not only has one of these, but it describes one of the ingredients as sack. I don’t know if this was copied from an older collection or if it was a family or friend’s recipe, but it’s a nineteenth century salad dressing. It’s possible that the book itself goes back that far, but I don’t think it does. There is also a recipe for growing household potatoes using a kerosene tin, which the handwriting suggests is 1940s or a bit later.

Most of the recipes are written using pencil or fountain pen. The fountain pen work is mixed – ther are amazingly skilled hands and one that is bigger and more random. Every single hand, however, is better than mine. (I still can’t date fountain pen writing as exactly as I used to be able to date Mediveal hands – this is an to my self-esteem.)

Some recipes repeat (snow balls!) and some are annotated by a later, more italic hand. And the recipes are so, so familiar: nutloaf, lemon tarts, mock cream filling, puddings (which are called desserts these days), icecream, shortbread, pumpkin scones, gingerbread, lamingtons, kisses, cream puffs, meringues … and we carried over from the other section into the pudding section, so suddenly the recipes all match the tag on the side. Given that the first recipes after the ‘pudding’ tag are all in older handwriting (that looks as if it might be early 20th century) I suspect that the desserts and cakes overwhelmed their place and walked backwards into the earlier section. I suspect this because the handwriting is a bit more recent in the earlier section.

The page containing recipes for pumpkin and cheese scones is so used that it’s falling out of the book, which is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the fact that I was taught how to make almost all these things as a child in the 1960s. Before I was ten, to be honest. I can still make them, but seldom bother any more. I don’t eat much sweet stuff, and most other people don’t know to demand chocolate fudge cake or strawberry short cake. This means Australian foodways have changed this century and were far more constant for the first 7-8 decades of last century.

This little cookbook is so very well-used. I wonder if it was how children were taught in that family? My mother started keeping a collection of recipes when we would bug her to do our own cooking, so having something like this where you could just say to a child “Don’t burn yourself on the oven” would have been very handy, and would explain the stains.

Suddenly there are fewer spots on each page and the recipes are jam and marmalade. We didn’t use recipes for jam or marmalade (or for most biscuits and some cakes) but these recipes are still familiar. I used to love making fig jam with fresh ginger and one of my favourite jams ever was pear and ginger. This book contains both. I used to love the jam so much, in fact, that I no longer make it. Jam is not diabetic-friendly. In fact, even the thought of making all the best jams is probably not diabetic friendly, so I am closing the book and leaving you to dream of Australian food, which is, I think, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s.

Food memories

While I was thinking about what I should write this week, I began some chicken soup. Boiling chickens are very hard to come by now, and that sent me back in time to four winters ago, when the bushfires kept me indoors and there was no COVID. I was making chicken soup then, too. The post was for BookView Cafe and when they fixed their website, it came down, alas. So… here it is again. It amuses me that despite my whole life changing over four years, I can still be relied upon to make chicken soup in winter. And I still play with time.

 

Today I’m a bit timewarped. My July and August are basically impossible, so I’m spending a freezing July evening pretending it’s an even more freezing evening in later July or maybe a milder evening in August. I hope to be back to writing a few days before I post later in the year: this means you’ll get timely blogposts then. Everything I write today is influenced by today, even if I try to take my mind into the world of two weeks’ time or a month’s time.

My hands are so cold I can’t even type properly. The heater is on and I’m making chicken porridge and chicken soup and still my hands are cold. Midwinter is midwinter is always, always midwinter.

My own chicken soup is my traditional way of getting through midwinter. I bought a cheap boiling chicken (the label proudly proclaims ‘steamer’ but it knows it’s a chook meant for soup) and I put it in the slow cooker with bone left over from my chicken porridge. That and four litres of water will take me through until this time tomorrow. That’s when I’ll add onion. Saturday I add carrot and take half the soup away. On Sunday I buy parsnip and celery from the market, top up the water by a large amount, and finish the soup off.

The soup I take off will have other things added to it, including tiny dumplings. I bought the wrappers yesterday. I’ve got some vegetables and sesame oil and other nice things and will shred the chicken currently working valiantly to make the soup. I’ll mix all this together for my dumplings. That’s lunch every day next week.

The rest of the soup will be a base for dinner. My next six nights’ worth of dinner, though, is that chicken porridge, with the chicken from it and various vegetable dishes on the side. The chicken is already in a bowl with its sauce, and I’ve made some pickled daikon. It’s a substantial meal, but also not too heavy. Full of garlic and warm tastes.

Just making these things has warmed my fingers up somewhat and I now have a big cup of tea, which makes them all kinds of happy. Happy fingers are a good thing when one has a lot of typing to do. Having most of my food cooked before the week is even better. All I need to worry about is more vegie dishes or salads on Sunday and I will be eating well and staying warm and have every change of meeting my deadlines.

This is Australia in winter. We’re at the start of the financial year and we’re impossibly busy and we turn to food. So many people are talking seriously about food right now, and getting their tax papers ready.

During my busy periods, I usually cook from Thursday to Sunday and then spend a few days finishing everything up. This is what happens in many Aussie households. My days are different because my working week is a bit odd and I have little control over when I get to shop, but a lot of my friends cook for the week ahead rather than cook on the day.

What strikes me is how many Australians cook. We are one of the countries that has farmers’ markets and takes fresh ingredients for granted. This need not have been the case. Our distances our so great and our basic cuisine so English that we could have made quite different food choices.

Not everyone cooks here, but those who don’t can be very apologetic. At functions where we ‘bring a plate’ those who bring a plate of their home cooking are seen as doing the right thing and those who’ve picked something up on the way are not bad people so much as people we look at and hope that this means they were busy rather than that they can’t cook.

I once went to a dinner party where someone had ordered the food in. For casual eating we all do that. We love our food, so we love many kinds of food, so it’s fine to order in for casual eating, but not for formal dinners. The host and hostess didn’t mention what they’d done and everyone was happy for the food was delicious.

The trouble our hosts faced that night is that we all ask questions about food. “What’s in this?” and “How do make that?” MasterChef is one of Australia’s favourite TV programs. I was the first person to cause a problem, for our hosts had no idea if a dish had nuts and I have a severe allergy.

“Try it and see,” suggested the host.

“How far is the hospital?” I asked.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Then I won’t, today. It looks good, though.”

A few minutes later the person opposite me said, “This dessert is terrific. Can you share the recipe?”

The whole table was silent. I looked at the person asking. They had worked out that the food was not home made and that there was a recipe. Their child also had a peanut allergy (we’d chatted about it) and they were making a point… politely.

That was years ago, people are more careful about allergies. I get many fewer dinner invitations because a very few people prefer to avoid the whole issue, which is a funny cultural shift.

The other funny cultural shift is how the tendency for those with income to eat out or send for a home delivery or buy premade food from the supermarket make sense of US movies for us. I’ve noticed that the recipes shared on local fora are more often basic recipes, too, because not as may people know how to cook.

Still, a large percentage of Aussies cook. This still informs our foodways. I am not the only one cooking reassuring food this week to get through midwinter.

 

Australia’s early cookbook history

I was going to talk about the World Cup and countries that have played with the haka but… it’s such a big subject. It was such a stupid thing to do. Instead, I’m going to talk about plagiarism by politicians. Well, one bit of plagiarism, by one politician. That will reduce the subject to manageable size.

The book that contains the plagiarism is Australia’s first published cookbook, first printed in 1864. Except that it isn’t. Apparently there is an earlier (1843) printed volume, “The Housewife’s Guide” but the Australian Food Timeline claims that Abbott’s is really the first, as it was compiled entirely in Australia. Here is the article about The Housewife’s Guide. When you finish reading my description of the first recognised-as-Australian cookbook, you can make your own decision about the status of the book and of its politically-inclined author. I agree with the author of this article.

So… back to plagiarism.

Let’s start with an introduction to the author. He was well-known in his day, but remembered only for the cookbook. Edward Abbott was the author. He came to Australia with his family in 1815. He was a grazier, foodie, politician, coroner and apparently tried to raise Tasmanian tigers as pets. He also assaulted the Premier of the State (at that time its own colony) with an umbrella.

The cookbook itself reflects his character. It contains recipes for the infamous “Blow My Skull” punch, another drink called Tears of the Widow of Malabar which contains an inordinate amount of brandy, and also practical recipes such as how to roast wombats and to cook kangaroo brains in emu fat. These are the examples used when modern writers talk about the book.

All this sounds lovely. Perfect food history fodder. Why do I look across at 300 pages of recipes and cry “Plagiarism”? Even today, recipes attract a lower level of copyright than, say, tour guides. Just as long as the writer doesn’t use the exact words and the footnotes and whole passages that describe exotic places… using other peoples’ words. Of course, a politician (even an eccentric one) would not do such a thing.

There are quite a few sections that would be useful to look at (all of them very entertaining), but I’m going to choose the one where I identified the precise book Mr Abbott ‘borrowed’ from. It was part of the volume, and also  issued as a standalone little book by Aboott himself. It’s called, Hebrew Cookery, by An Australian.

Technically, it’s Australia’s first Jewish cookbook. This is, unlike the complete volume being Australia’s first cookbook in general, undoubted. The reason for ‘technically’ is it’s a section of another larger cookbook and that whole section is taken from A Lady’s (Judith Montefiore was the author) The Jewish manual, or, Practical information in Jewish and modern cookery : with a collection of valuable recipes & hints relating to the toilette. 

I appear to be the first person to have mentioned this online (and maybe the first person to spot the plagiarism) but that was some years ago and I didn’t actually publish an article about the discovery because I had other things on my mind and since then a couple of other people have identified that yes, Edward Abbott is a plagiarist. A very distinguished and rather dead plagiarist.

To sum up, parts of  The English and Australian Cookery BookCookery for the Many, as Well as for the “Upper Ten Thousand” are stolen. Whole sections, in fact. The one I know best is the first stolen English Jewish cookbook published for Australians… by a politician. Abbott was not Jewish, for the record.

I identified the plagiarism by trying to work out how Melbourne lost an ingredient in Abbott’s cookbooks and, in the process, I discovered that we never had it. Jewish cooking in London used chorissa as an ingredient, but none of the Sephardi Jews who moved to Melbourne in the 19th century could buy it anywhere. Once I realised that the footnote explaining that one could by chorissa (kosher chorizo) at a kosher butcher was not Australian, but referred to London, it took me about five minutes to find the original book that contained that footnote.

Why was I looking for it? I’m so glad you asked. I did an academic paper (someone at Sydney University really wanted it) in 2007 on my family’s English Jewish heritage. The cookbook that all these wonderful Jewish dishes were stolen from was very close to many of my grandmother’s recipes. She didn’t get them from Abbott, however – they were the family’s London-origin cooking. This might explain why he stole that cookbook. I have yet to find a sensible explanation of why Abbott ‘borrowed’ from books about famous places in the world.

Some of the (supposedly) first Australian cookbook is, indeed, Australian, but the rest of it shows very nicely what books Edward Abbott thought were important and had access to.

The National Library of Australia has online copies of both Abbott’s whole book and the “Hebrew” section that was published separately. I’m letting you know just in case you’ve always wanted a recipe for “Blow My Skull.”

PS I feel I ought to add that Abbott himself acknowledges his source in the smaller publication. he claims that the book was out of print (I’m not convinced it was) and that the wider community needed to taste Jewish cooking. I have this wistful dream that he visited Melbourne and was scolded by my great-great-grandmother.

Seasonal Joy

I was going to write you a 4 July post, but I remembered in time that in the US, it’s still 3 July. In Australia, we’d take the Monday off and make a long, long weekend. But not this week. Not any week until our next public holiday in fact, which, for Canberra, is in October.

Winter is different in Australia. Some people assume I’m referring to the cold or lack thereof (they think that all Australia is too hot, all the time), but in my part of Australia it’s cold. Not as cold as Alaska, but cold enough for big coats and snow. The main reason Canberra doesn’t get much snow is because it’s too dry. The best-known snowfield in the whole country (where there is snow even in summer… in places) is close.

Winter is different because we don’t have time out. We deal with the encroaching dark and we do not celebrate the incoming light. We have no public holidays and the only way to get time off work is if one has children. All my teacher friends are on holiday this week, and most of them are down the coast, where it’s less cold. Anyone not at school (as a student or a teacher) just has to deal.

I used to deal by experimenting with different recipes for mulled wine and mulled wine equivalents. Those recipes covered 700 years of spicing wine and were most excellent at keeping the cold at bay. Friends would visit to help me drink it. I can only drink a few sips these days and, because I’m COVID vulnerable few friends visit, so there will be no hypocras, no sangria, no mulled wine in July.

Instead, I’m making portable soup. Eighteenth century style portable soup, to be precise. The ancestral stock cube. A soup that you can cut with a knife and that has so much gelatin you could use it as a building block.

In fact, I do use the cubes as building blocks. I can make much healthier sausage rolls or meat pies with a much better flavour and at least as good a mouth feel as the same dishes made using suet or duck fat. I can chop up some vegies very finely and have a delightfully warming beef broth in minutes. I can build so many dishes with the portable soup.

This is appropriate, because I’m writing about building blocks this week. The building blocks I’m writing about are the building blocks of story, though, not of food.

The closest to the midwinter delights northern hemisphere folks talk about and what I actually experience is this particular harmony between what I cook and and what I write.

A few people celebrate what they call Christmas in July here. If friends asked me, I’d join them as I do for any other Christmas, but… I’m still Jewish. There is no reason for me to set up a Christmas celebration for myself. And the only Jewish holy days in July this year are fasts.

July in Canberra is a good month for work and a very bad month for most happiness. As I tell everyone every year, be nice to me, for my sarcasm is close to the surface throughout July. Also, be nice to me because I’m cold. We’re in the warm part of the day and it’s not a cold day and the temperature outside is hovering just above 50 degrees F. This is the weather for sarcasm, just as December in the Northern Hemisphere is the season for joy and mirth and gifts.

If anyone wants to give me gifts to make me merry, I’ll not say no. In the meantime, I will create building blocks and hone my sarcasm.

World-Building, Dying, and the Memory Lane of Comfort Foods

I wrote this in 2013, while taking care of my best friend as she died from ovarian cancer. From time to time, I want to be reminded of the wisdom that arises in times of crisis.

 

The brochure from hospice inform me that as a dying person’s body winds down, appetite becomes erratic and diminishes. The sense of taste changes so that formerly favorite foods are no longer appealing. The person eats less when they do eat.  Finally, many dying people refuse all food. This can be complicated because throughout human cultures, offering food is a way of expressing love. The dying person may continue to eat in order to please a loved one, but in the end the demands of the body prevail.

Besides nourishing our bodies, sometimes past the point of health and into diet-related diseases, food is laden with symbolic meaning. We celebrate with festive meals; we soothe ourselves with favorite treats from our childhood; we give candy to our sweethearts. Even the term “sweetheart” refers to sweetness, a taste, as do “honey” and other endearments. Taste and smell are the most basic, “primitive” senses, so our expressions of care go zing! right into the oldest portions of the brain.

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building is creating different cuisines for each culture or social class, ethnic group or family. While it may be true that just about every cuisine has some version of pancake-rolled-around-filling, stew modeled on the canned stuff in American supermarkets shouts “generic fantasy!”

Just as every family seems to have their own special recipe for spaghetti sauce or meatloaf, you can devise variations on the same dish. Sometimes these variations might reflect notions about what is suitable food for people of different ages, different social status, or even genders (“manly meals” or “kiddy food” or salads-are-for-women). Even within these variations, not everyone has the same taste. Some may be innate (how cilantro tastes is genetically determined), or influenced by personal history (travel, associations with significant events or relationships) and health status.

Which brings me again to caring for a terminally ill friend, in particular providing meals for her. She jokes about taking a trip down the memory lane of the foods she’s enjoyed during her life. Her tastes have become nostalgic, erratic to the point of whimsical, but fleeting. Some of the things she’s asked for are cream of mushroom soup, watermelon, Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, buttermilk biscuits from scratch (which I do know how to make), hot dogs with sauerkraut, salami, and vanilla ice cream with lemon sorbet for breakfast. No pickles with the ice cream, at least not yet, although she jokes about the food cravings of pregnancy. Life is indeed uncertain, so she eats dessert first.

The food comes with memories, of course. “Do you remember the time we ate this when we were students and…” or “I made this recipe while horse camping on Mt. Hood…” or “my father used to cook this for a special occasion…” I think the same is true for everyone, but the awareness that time is limited, that the number of times you will eat this dish or reminisce over the adventures that once accompanied it are not limitless, adds a special poignancy. As my friend’s appetite wanes, she eats less in amount and frequency. There’s a shift from the fullness of having eaten to the sensory pleasure of eating to the anticipation, the idea of that particular food. If there is a sense of re-visiting the past – comfort and celebration, adventure and sharing – there is also a gradual farewell.

Charming Synchronies

Yesterday I found my research self and my fiction-writing self in perfect synchrony.

My research self is looking at old tales newly told, from a number of angles. I’m focusing very closely on how writers build the world for their novel. One of my favourite techniques is to look at the various roles food and foodways play. There’s not enough work in this field for me to rest on the work of others, so I spend a lot of my time in an alert state, watching different kinds of narratives and checking the role food and foodways play so that I can deepen my research.

Over time, this alert state has given me a lot of questions that need answering. For instance, in K-drama, there are a number of ways people drink and they are connected to different drinks The most formal ‘proper’ way of drinking was easy to determine, but it wasn’t until I obtained flavoured soju and drank some that some of the more casual ways people drank became clearer. Flavour, mouthfeel, level of alcohol all play as much of a part in how characters drink on K-drama as tradition and courtesy.

For my fiction, I begin with recipes and the food itself. Then I start thinking about what the appropriate ways of presenting the food are. This approach was sparked 30+ years ago when a favourite writer had people throw food that would have been dripping with honey, in a social group that has given us no historical evidence for treating food that lightly. Several possible messes entered into my visualisation of the scene: honey everywhere, and the very important personages acting as ill-disciplined overgrown children. I talked to the writer about the scene and she had not considered either aspect. The throwing was in the modern American cultural sense of being light-hearted and the characters were demonstrating how close they were to each other.

This was the first time I discovered just how much of our own culture we place in our constructed worlds and how, unless we consider things really carefully, we echo what we think we know and it is our own way of doing things.

I started to do two things at that point.

The first was to find out what my own cultural nuancing is and where it comes from. How do I assume people eat and drink in various circumstances?

Just like almost every other fiction writer, I draw the worlds for my novels from places I’m always ready a bit familiar with and many of them echo my life and experience. The difference is that I do this while aware. That state of alert becomes increasingly handy. I watch television and go to movies partly to continue this dialogue with myself.

This helps inform the second thing I do, which is research and teach. My most recent research thingie (I hate the words “outcome’ and ‘output’; ‘research monograph’ doesn’t work when the book is available very cheaply to anyone who wants to read it and is written in ordinary English) is, of course, Story Matrices. (At this point I’m supposed to remind everyone that it’s Hugo eligible and to suggest that you think of nominating it. I normally don’t do this, but in the case of Story Matrices, I want people to read it and they can’t read it if they don’t find out about it and the Hugos are a really good way of letting people know a work exists and that it’s worth a look.)

So how did everything come together? The soju and my thoughts about it gave me an ‘aha!’ moment for my research. One of the writers I’m focusing on always gives precise cultural places for drink, another does but they’re historically incorrect, and the third doesn’t at all.

This ‘aha!’ moment made me realise I have not worked on drink for either of the novels that I’m slowly, slowly writing. The novels will be out way after the new research, because the new research takes priority, due to there being income attached. I do love it, though, when they talk to each other while I imbibe someone else’s foodways.

If Sleeping Beauty Were Jewish

I’m working on fairy tale retellings right now, and preparing for Pesach (Passover) and getting ready for Eastercon (the UK’s national science fiction convention which is hybrid, is called Conversation this year and has a spectacular programme) and so time to do things is rare and fleeting. Fortunately, I have insomnia tonight, so spent two hours in bed, thinking. I got out of bed because I remembered I needed to write something for all of you, here. Insomnia doesn’t lead to great amounts of intellectual capacity, so it was very lucky I remembered a little story I wrote many years ago. It explains why I have insomnia… and is a fairy tale retelling about Passover. I’ve given you a link to the original, just because.

If I can fit everything together neatly through something I wrote so very long ago … maybe I will be able to sleep? Also, my cleaning this year is less impossible this year because when my refrigerator died, it took a lot of the food I needed to finish with it. Such unexpected synchronicity.

Before I give you the story, let me share a link to that fabulous Eastercon programme. Only a few of the panels won’t be available virtually. https://guide.conversation2023.org.uk/ The timezone is (because I’m the kind of person who loves stating the obvious)_ UTC/GMT+1. Normally it would be UTC/GMT 0 (zero, nothing at all) but the UK is in daylight savings time, unlike me. I’m heading towards winter and we’ve lost summer time. I’m on panels and giving a reading, so, if you join us at Conversation, join me in conversation! (And that’s my bad joke of the day. Now everyone around me safe from my attempts at wit for hours.)

In the meantime, I might copy my character and sleep.

 

If Sleeping Beauty were Jewish


Sleeping Beauty was Jewish in a non-Jewish world. It was just over a week before
Pesach (1). She had a thousand and one deadlines from the world outside, partly because April is a busy time of the year in the non-Jewish world and partly because if she didn’t clear the decks (2) then crucial things would fall into the mire while she commemorated Exodus (3).

She was tired of being exotic. Tired of being Jewish. Tired of being busy. Let me admit it, she was just plain tired.

Sleeping Beauty took another long look at the cupboard (4) and said “I’m going to take a nap.”

She was woken up a week before Pesach by a pretty standard handsome prince. Things were looking good. For one thing, there was the prince. For another, after a hundred years the food in her pantry was unbelievably past its use-by date. She simply threw everything away to start again. The easiest Pesach cleaning (5) she had ever done in her life. For a third thing, there was the prince.

There were no deadlines. They had all gone, long ago. So had her opportunities. So had her friends. But her prince was a nice chap. She could deal.

That next week she discovered what her new life would be like. She had hastily married her prince, which was fine. What was less good was that he didn’t even know what ‘Jewish’ meant and how her background shaped her life. She was beginning to discover the effect of cultural change on everyday life in other ways, too. For instance, she had her own castle still, but none of the servants quite understood her instructions. What was oddest of all was that the people around her kept telling her, ‘No-one hates Jews any more. Stop complaining.’ Yet she still couldn’t go to synagogue without security guards three thick.

The princess thought “At least my guard is because royalty needs security in this odd future of mine. It’s not because anyone threatens Jews with violence anymore. I know this because there was nothing about violence against Jews in the newspapers. That’s another good thing: I’ve slept through racism and it’s gone.”

She arrived at shul (6) and discovered they wouldn’t let her in unless they knew her. There were security guards 5 thick and barbed wire to boot.

“The schoolground was fire-bombed yesterday,” explained one of them, apologetically.

“No-one told me. It wasn’t in the news.”

“It happened to the Jewish community. Why should it reach the news? It wasn’t terrorism, after all. It wasn’t even important,” said that non-Jewish guard.

The princess had a very private morning service, just herself and her prayer-book, in the tower she had hidden in a hundred years ago. Then she went right back to sleep again.

(1) Passover. Not to be confused with Easter with which it sometimes coincides. It’s the time of great family feasts, much alcohol (for 1 or 2 nights) and becoming very bored with eating unleavened bread. There are no Easter eggs, no Easter bunny and there is absolutely no Good Friday.

(2) Enough cleaning to generate great angst in even the tidiest neatest human being on the planet. One part of it is to get rid of any chametz (food not suitable for Passover).

(3) Moses and his Merry Men (and Women). Or the second book of the Bible, which contains the story of Moses. Or both. Take your pick.

(4) Or the pantry. Anywhere where food is kept. They all have to be emptied and cleaned for Passover and it’s one of things that sounds simple, but necessitates many long looks and much tearing of hair. This process is the single biggest argument for never becoming Jewish.

(5) Pesach cleaning – ritual cleaning for Passover. See (4).

(6) Shul is another word for synagogue, the place of prayer for Judaism. After all that cleaning, one needs a prayer or two, though maybe not the three hours that’s traditional in Orthodox Judaism on first day Passover.