Some Days…

My brain is switched on to food references this week. I’m writing a paper on food in Australian fantasy novels. Even if I’ve read the novel before, I’m re-reading it, because I need to apply that brain-switch and analyse everything for food. It’s hard work. I’m placing references into ten different categories. The net result of this was I had no energy to cook yesterday or today.

This never happened when I was younger.

I was going to write a long screed describing food, because it’s my current (and absorbing) work, then I changed my mind and wanted to explain that chronic fatigue is impacted by emotional fatigue, which is why food research led to such a state of exhaustion. The events of the last eighteen months welled up and I missed all my lost friends and I became a mewling mess. I decided you didn’t need a long piece today, for the world is a difficult place right now.

Take this as a moral. Have early nights when life is stressed. Eat comfort food. Cry when you have to.

And I’ll be working on foodways for a bit longer, so maybe one day I’ll tell you about how writers use food to create miracles in fantasy fiction. Except when they don’t.

A Quiet Moment

So many people around me have found distractions help in dealing with the extraordinary times we’re living through. This post is my present to you. Big stuff happens in the US on 20 January. This is a breath. A break. A moment before everything changes.

For me this week is an anniversary. This time last year I had been evacuated to Melbourne because of the bushfires. The air in Canberra was dangerous for me. Tonight my windows are wide open and I’m up late, cooling everything down as much as I can, for we have an incoming heatwave. Earlier today, however, everything was shut, for the dust storms in NSW sent a bit of frazzled air our way. That reminded me that I’ve been mostly indoors since June 2019. Bushfires followed by pandemic. Every now and again I get out and do things and this reminds me that the world outside is real. These incidents come from that real world. I think this is also the moment to celebrate that.

The first story is from Sydney in 1956, for tonight someone reminded me about the torch carrying for the 1956 Olympics.

A group of university students didn’t like the link between the torch and Hitler. Also, they were Australian. Of course they were Australian.

They painted a chair leg silver and put a tin on the end. They filled the tin with a pair of men’s underpants and set it on fire. Two students carried that torch. One of them successfully handed it to the Lord Mayor of Sydney at the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor didn’t realise at first that this was a hoax, and the torchbearer had time to slip away into the crowd.

The second story is from Canberra, quite recently.

A writer-friend was telling us on Twitter tonight about a time… let me give you the story in her words:

“Was at a con sitting at the signing table under a poster with “K.J. TAYLOR” on it and behind a nameplate which also said “K.J. TAYLOR”. A guy came up to me and said “Is K.J. Taylor here?” I patted myself down and said “I’m pretty sure I’m here!” He looked so confused.”

My third tidbit is a bit older, and is from the US. I collect interesting stories about food history. How fast molasses can burst out of a factory on a cold day, for example, and where to buy meat pies in London in 1250. I didn’t know that, on 16 May 1902, there was a kosher beef war on the Lower East Side in New York. Some describe it as riots. Kosher beef riots. This one deserves a link.

I live in a city where there are 300 people who admit to being Jewish. I can’t see us rioting. We used to hold food fairs, where our numbers were drowned by the crowds who wanted to eat bagels and felafel and lokshen kugel and particularly tasty curry from Jewish India.

I used to cook Medieval Jewish dishes for my stall, and people would ask, “Were there really Jews in the Middle Ages?” I gave those asking morsels of history along with their plates of food. Other days I’d talk about the persecution and the murders, but not at the food fair. We all need times where we don’t bear the burdens of history. Take that time today. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

Where Gillian meanders, intellectually

I’m in the middle of summer and, no matter how much work I do, some escapes me. This is not such a bad thing as long as I don’t miss my deadlines. Summer is a time for meandering, however, so I’m guilty of detours.

Deadlines can be horrid things, but this week they all include cool stuff. One set of deadlines includes its own intrinsic meander. The book I need to finish re-reading today, for example, is Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. It’s an early (1984) foray into French cultural history. Darnton is one of my favourite cultural historians and French history is very much part of my historical background. He talks about sermon literature as sources and how there was a wildly huge collection of French peasant fairy tales for about 50 years in the 18th to 19th centuries.

I’m reading Darnton’s study because I need to be more grounded in the way I interpret fairy tales and also because my life needs more safe places. The re-reading began, however, as a reminder to myself that even the best scholars are capable of filling into stuff they can’t find out about with explanations that are fun but not reliable.

Right now I’m making a mental list of sources Darnton refers to and one of those he doesn’t even think of adding in. He includes collected stories by peasants and traces the relationship between French literary fairy tales and those later popular ones. He doesn’t talk enough about chapbooks and broadsides and forbidden books as sources for popular literature here, however (he does elsewhere). He also leaves the Maase Book and the whole realm of Jewish women’s literature and other equivalent narratives by Jews out of his overview.

It’s as if a society only contains one religion. I need to remember that I only really understand Jewish and Christian Europe and that I myself have to explore beyond my boundaries. Other scholars skip Jewish culture, but they also skip gendered culture. Jack Zipes is my go-to author for gender in fairy tales, however, not Darnton.

I am a person who looks at their own intellectual path and questions it. That’s why I need to finish the Darnton book. Darnton and Greg Dening and Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie and Claude Levi-Strauss started me on this journey, decades ago. Right now I’m discovering that every single scholar who questions stuff still accepts a truckload of cultural values and assumptions.

We all privilege culture. Even those of us who are working hard to break down that privilege and to understand what comes from where and why. I need to understand how I’ve been influenced.

This is not for my fiction. Or maybe not only for my fiction. It’s my research side. It’s going to affect my fiction. I can already see changes in how I think about my own writing.

I was thinking, the other day, that I need to write a novel that looks at how a person create safe spaces for themselves and uses those safe spaces to get through impossible times.

What I’m doing right now is saying, “We all create safe spaces. Even intellectually, we are more contented in safe spaces.” I can’t write this novel until I understand how my favourite scholars create the safe spaces for their ground-breaking work. Why is it safe to talk about this subject or that? Why can one talk about the Middle Ages in popular culture and skip straight to the 18th century?

All this sounds theoretical. When I write something on the academic side, it is. It has some extraordinary practical applications, however. I’m applying the theory to fairy stories and folk tales right now, for that’s what my research is in, but last time I did this same type of questioning, I applied it to my cooking. I worked out that I only use a small part of my kitchen for actual cooking. The rest of it helps reassure me I can cook, or it gives me the stories of my past cooking. Anything that doesn’t fit my kitchen is hidden or not there at all. You could understand a lot about my cultural background and my financial position and even my friendships by exploring my pantry and refrigerator and freezer. Sweet foods are rare, pork and its equivalents are non-existent. Since the bushfires were followed by the pandemic, I’m set up so that if I can’t shop for a month I will still eat healthily. All of this and more is there for anyone who cares to look.

In short, the way my kitchen is set up makes it comfortable for me to cook, now, when life is a bit difficult. The way any book is set up tells me what the writer finds comfortable and helps me understand what the limits of their research are. Understanding those limits means I can push my own scholarship in ways I never will do with my cooking. It also means I understand the choices I myself make.

My New Year’s resolution is to create more safe spaces for myself, so that I can grow despite the dangers the external world shoves in my face. This style of reading is step one in that resolution. I’m not the kind of person who walks out boldly. I’m the kind of person who lays a path and walks it with others. I begin with reading books by experts and dissecting those books.

This particular path is a very fine one to walk. If anyone wants to walk it with me, you’re welcome.

Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.

 

  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.

Speckled in Paste

No-knead sourdough bread.

My high school boyfriend and I are, these days, buds on Facebook, and therefore he is privy to my posts about baking and cooking. After I had extolled the wonders of what I made for dinner one night (chicken pot pie with sourdough pie crust), he asked “What’s with all the Sourdough?”

Being at times intractably didactic, I explained to him that when the lockdown started and a lot of people started baking at home, yeast was, initially, hard to find. As in unicorn-difficult. So many people started sourdough cultures, which when properly grown will produce all the leavening a loaf of bread could want–plus a slight tangy flavor that many people find pleasing.

It was only after I had said all this that I realized that he might have been asking why I kept talking about sourdough, so I had to explain that the way you keep your starter alive is by periodically giving the yeast in the starter more food: water and flour. To do this you measure out some starter, add an equivalent amount of water and flour, mix and let ripen. The starter you didn’t use? It is referred to as discard, and you throw it out (so that you do not wind up with enough unfed discard that it threatens to take over your home and devour the cat) or find alternate uses for it. At the moment I have a quart of discard in my fridge (and my regular starter ripening on the counter before it goes into hibernation in the fridge as well).

So far, in seeking ways to use up my discard, I have made sourdough pasta, sourdough pie crust, sourdough peach cobbler, sourdough pretzels, sourdough crackers, and sourdough crumpets. Continue reading “Speckled in Paste”

Comfort zones

My home life revolves around food two days a week. I love cooking and for a year I’ve had almost no-one to cook for.

I discovered some months ago that when I don’t cook, I get more stressed. I’ve been nodding sympathetically at people’s stories of the joy of baking and their discovery of sourdough.

I have a very large repertoire of dishes and I love cooking and… I’m on a bit of a restricted diet. Also, I have deadlines on top of deadlines.

This is why I liberate myself twice a week. To be honest, it’s sometimes more than twice a week and sometimes less. This week it’s been fewer long sessions but more sessions, because someone gave me many tomatoes and I made a tomato base for almost any food. It was one that took four days, on and off, because it’s winter here and tomatoes are watery. Six kilograms of tomatoes gave me 1 ½ litres of my sauce. I instantly gave a half litre to a friend who is helping me get out of the internet nightmare this month has been (I haven’t lost my internet at any stage, but my landline has been missing in action for twenty days so far), so I have just enough for seven days of interesting food.

When that was done, I looked in my fridge. I have trouble putting out rubbish (the bins are tall and heavy and 100 metres away, and I’m working on my lifting muscles so that I can regain that truly exciting fragment of my life) so when friends come by, they often take a bag of rubbish out with them.

Since I know this friend will be drilling in my wall tomorrow to help solve one of the problems that has been bugging things around here, I spent an hour tonight chopping up everything that looked old or in need of finishing. I threw out the bruised mushrooms and cut the rest. I found so many shallots, getting sad and in need of love. That was really all I did tonight. I have several containers of vegetables, and I have all that passata, and I have 3 meals’ worth of salads made, so I don’t have to cook until Friday. I will probably do another bout on Wednesday, for cooking helps me think, then I’ll leave it to the weekend. All the scraps are ready to go out and my fridge looks much less crowded.

What am I going to cook with the tomatoes and vegetables? I’m so glad you asked.

One container is earmarked for shakshuka, because I have everything I need for that except cayenne and I can wing cayenne given I have seven other types of chili. The other is for a pasta sauce with those mushrooms, some of the shallots (or maybe an onion), kalamata olives, feta cheese and maybe, just maybe, some green capsicum. These are both easy and quick dishes once one has a good tomato base, and this week is furiously busy.

I’m not cooking any bread. I can cook bread. I’ve cooked bread since I was a pre-teen. It’s not good for me and I love it and everyone else is talking about it all the time, so I’m not even going to make a flatbread to eat with the shakshuka. Yes, I’m sulking. Bread is fun to make and kneading gives me time to think and my writing is the better for it… but it’s not good for me. I have a right to sulk.

When I’m past this deadline I get to explore some of the more interesting ingredients in my cupboard. Some of my friends (who know me all too well) send me little parcels of local food from their country or they send me chocolate and tea. Food. I get occasional hampers of food from wise friends. I love these hampers and I eat most of them fairly quickly, then stash some parts away for when I need to be cheered up. I have herbes de Provence from France and chocolate from Ireland and grits from Germany and more, hidden so that on bad days when I open the larder and stare in misery, memories of those hampers stare back and I’m forced to smile and totally and entirely forced to cook.

Some of my ingredients are a little old now. I’m still saving them. I predicted the disruption to international post and knew my presents from friends would be rare for a time and I refused to not have my friends make me smile, so I checked all the use by dates and put the must-eat at the friend of the larder, the must-eat within a few months within eyesight (but not at the front) and the will-;last-forever under everything.

What’s very odd is despite the fact that I’m not supposed to mix with people (iso is iso – so many of us have health issues) I make sure I have enough food to feed several friend sin case they drop round. Which they won’t. Which, in fact, they can’t. But it makes me happy to know I can feed people.

This post was brought to you by my favourite (Korean) instant noodles. They are one of my cheer-up foods and they are currently unobtainable. I ate my last packet tonight. Don’t worry – I still have chocolate.