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Resolutions. December 31, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, the bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, are in agreement about New Year’s resolutions: one apiece is plenty. But if you’re just going to have one, it damn well better count. These are our resolutions for 2011:

Our friend Ben: I’ve decided it’s time to write a fictional autobiography of our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin. That’s my resolution for 2011. It’s going to take tons of research, but wow, will it be fun. Let’s hope publishers and the reading public love it as I do!

Richard Saunders: I live on the East Coast, where Colonial and Revolutionary history took place, and history is my passion. But I’ve been really slackadaisical about going to historical sites and Colonial reenactments, and there’s no excuse for that. This year, my girlfriend Bridget and I have resolved to go to more historical sites, like Valley Forge and Jamestown, and to more Revolutionary reenactments like Washington’s Crossing. Maybe we’ll even manage to pull off Christmas at Williamsburg—America’s first capital—with OFB and Silence this year!  

Silence Dogood: Gee, I was going to say that my resolution for 2011 was to win the lottery. But with the guys getting all hifalutin and historical, I guess I’d better reconsider. So for 2011, my resolution is to learn more about Colonial and Federal-era cooking. Maybe our friend Ben and I won’t end up cooking our meals over an open fire, but I’ll bet I could make or adapt a bunch of Colonial-era favorite “receipts” and serve up a really yummy spread.

Your turn! What are your New Year’s resolutions?

And a happy, healthy, productive, prosperous New Year to all of you from our friend Ben, Richard Saunders, Silence Dogood, Shiloh, Linus, and, of course, from our hero and blog mentor, the great Dr. Franklin himself!

About books. December 30, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. As a book editor, book writer, book collector, and lifelong book lover, I’m a bit confused, bemused, and downright aggravated by a number of developments that have been brought to my attention in the past week. I was sort of holding it all in until I got this morning’s DailyCandy e-mail. (DailyCandy is a service that tracks and promotes cool shopping sites and trends; check it out and sign up for e-mails for the latest online sites and specific cities, kids, etc. at www.dailycandy.com.) But really, this was too much.

Today’s DailyCandy e-mail was promoting, among other things, a website called BookSwim (www.bookswim.com). I quote: “Like Netflix for novels, the site lets you rent ($24-60 per month) unlimited classics, best sellers, and everything in between with free shipping and no late fees.” Um, gee, ever heard of the library?!! You could get the very same services minus the $24-60 monthly fee. Doh!!!

Then there’s the e-reader (Kindle, Nook, and the like). People say they like these devices because they’re portable. Um, so are laptops… and books. Our friend Susan recently told me that she knew two people who were addicted to these devices. One loved hers because she could take it with her and read during her daily bus commute, or if she were stuck somewhere, such as the stylist’s, for awhile. Also perfect circumstances for books. The other was addicted to virtual bookstore shopping, surfing the choices and then announcing to his wife that he’d so enjoyed his latest trip to the “bookstore.”

Well, how about Amazon, or Barnes & Noble or Borders or any of the many other bookstores with an online presence? Or how about going to a real, brick-and-mortar bookstore and checking out the selection in person? Or, again, doing your “shopping” where it’s free—in the library? Or patronizing your local used-book store for great deals on books, many of which are out-of-print and otherwise unobtainable?

I suppose it makes sense that a generation of MP3 and iPod users, brought up on downloadable music, would naturally be drawn to downloadable movies and books. But I confess, I don’t get it. I like to hold the thing I’ve paid for in my hands, to know it’s actually mine, not some virtual piece of ephemera that could vanish at the touch of a virus or some kind of massive power failure or disruption. Paying for what is ultimately online content just goes against the grain. And I really like the idea of passing along, of sharing. If I don’t like a book, DVD, or CD, or decide that one pass-through is enough, I like to pass it along to the local used-book store or used music/movie store or library free books bin. Someone else might enjoy it in their turn.

The third development in this quartet of aggravation is the “I-don’t-read” phenomenon. Our friend Rob’s son recently confessed to me that he had never read a book. How someone could reach 22 years of age without reading even one book is amazing to me, yet there it was. He spends a lot of time online, he said. He asked me how I went about reading books. He wondered if reading books might help improve his writing. He wanted to know how many pages I read at a time. But basically, he wanted to know why I bothered.

I tried to explain how books took you out of yourself into other worlds, other times. How you learned things reading that you would never have known or known to look for. How reading stimulated the imagination in a way movies and TV never could, because when you read, you create the visuals in your own mind. More, your choices in TV and movies are so limited compared to the wide world of books, where you can choose from millions of volumes in every conceivable subject. And how, yes, reading does increase your vocabulary and improve your writing (and speaking) skills.

Rob’s son is the second person I’ve met who’s told me he’s never read a book. “I can read online, instructions and so on, but I just can’t seem to get through a book. I know I should read, I buy novels, but after a page or two I just can’t go on.” This guy is 50, very smart and successful, so I guess it’s not a generational thing as I’d been tempted to assume.

Finally, a friend told me she was concerned that reading books had never really taught her anything. She’s a voracious reader, but feared that she’d been wasting her time reading for entertainment rather than acquiring valuable life lessons. After thinking it over, she could only think of a single instance when a book had had any impact on her life.

I was flabbergasted. I feel that I have learned something from every book I’ve ever read. Some books have shaped my life’s direction; others have given me wisdom, filled my mind with wonderful scenes, phrases, and characters, helped me master a skill or learn a recipe or improve my health or identify a plant or bird or know how to give my dog first aid.

I cannot think of one book in the thousands upon thousands I’ve read that didn’t give me something to take away, in my life or imagination or dreams. This is the power and the joy and the wonder of books, their great and enduring ability to give. Like music and art, it is, after love and the beauty of creation, the greatest gift available to us as human beings.

And with books, as with music and art, you can return under different circumstances or at different times of your life and find things you didn’t see in them before. You can anticipate the delight of sharing favorite books with friends and family. You can even write them yourself. So please, don’t write them off.

            ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

Have you seen Santa? December 29, 2010

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Our friend Ben has always been a big believer in Santa Claus. (Search for “I believe in Santa Claus: A true story by our friend Ben” in our search bar at upper right to find out why.) But this season, the Santa I didn’t see was the one standing ringing his bell beside the Salvation Army kettle.

Normally, during the Christmas season, Silence Dogood and I encounter Salvation Army Santas in the entryways to every local grocery, outside pharmacies and department stores, pretty much everywhere you might find yourself as you shop or run errands around town. But this year, there was a distinct absence of Salvation Army bells. Not one of our local groceries, pharmacies, or shops had a Salvation Army Santa posted outside. The lone one we encountered was outside the Moravian Book Shop in (comparatively) distant Bethlehem, PA.

Don’t tell me the Grinch stole Santa and his kettle this year, or that—gasp—the Salvation Army decided it couldn’t afford to send Santas out into the world. Our friend Ben and Silence always pitied those cold, shivering souls, but they were part of our Christmas, reminding us of, as Charles Dickens put it, “those who were in need of warmth and common necessities.” We would hate for them to become another memory of Christmases past.

Goodbye, Gourmet; bon voyage, Bon Appetit. December 28, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. In a time when chefs are stars, when millions of people tune in to cooking shows for entertainment, not instruction, when cooking magazines outnumber sports magazines on store racks, it’s hard to believe that America’s two flagship cooking magazines are struggling—and, apparently, failing—to survive.

Gourmet, the first American food and wine magazine, sent out its last issue in October 2009 after 68 years of publication (founded 1941). And now Bon Appetit, founded in 1956, is suffering a sea change. Owner Conde Nast is moving the publication from L.A. to New York and replacing the entire staff, as I discovered when reading the Letter from the Editor in the January 2011 issue this morning.

Why would two such venerable publications, which have survived far longer than most of their readers and contributors have been alive, which (in the case of Gourmet) even survived war rationing, be failing when interest in food and cooking is at an all-time high?

Call me cynical if you must, but I’m guessing it’s because these magazines weren’t celebrity-based. Not that editors Ruth Reichl (Gourmet) and Barbara Fairchild (Bon Appetit) didn’t have their own followings; I’m sure they did and do. But their names aren’t valuable commercial commodities like, say, Paula Deen’s or Rachael Ray’s or Martha Stewart’s. Their faces weren’t plastered on the front of every issue. The magazines were about food, not about personalities. Both magazines began life in their own right, not as spinoffs of TV shows.

Not that I’m criticizing Paula, Rachael or Martha for their success. They all worked harder than practically anyone but Oprah to get and stay where they are. I wouldn’t give my life and privacy away like that for love or money, and since they did, surely they deserve their good fortune. I’m just surprised that celebrity chefs like Emeril have managed to resist the siren call of a magazine named for them.

But no answer is quite that simple. Plenty of other food and cooking magazines are still in publication, and they aren’t helmed by TV stars. What they do have that neither Gourmet nor Bon Appetit did, however, is either a tight, special-interest focus—vegetarian or vegan cooking or artisanal cheeses or Italian cuisine or what have you—or a practical focus on getting fast, cheap, homestyle food on the table (Taste of Home, slow-cooker meals, 30-minute meals, etc.).

Could Gourmet have survived? Can Bon Appetit weather this latest storm? I doubt it, because both are (or were) supported not by subscriptions but by advertising, so they were (and are) at the mercy of a very fickle revenue source. (In case you’re wondering, yes, indeed they did charge for subscriptions and have large circulation figures. But the revenues from circulation would have been a pittance, almost a bonus, compared to the money supplied by advertisers.) 

Can a cooking magazine rely on subscription revenues rather than advertising? You betcha. But it requires a great deal of finesse, intelligence, and hard work. Examples are the magazines founded by Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated and (my favorite cooking mag) Cook’s Country. You’ll find nary an ad in either one. But Chris Kimball & co. work very hard to maintain the loyalty of their subscribers, not just in the quality of the magazines but by spinning off annuals, cookbooks, and etc. from both the magazines and their PBS cooking shows. (And, of course, those shows generate a ready-made audience for the magazines and cookbooks.) And, to restate the obvious, subscription-based magazines must have a loyal and passionate subscriber base, which in turn requires a very savvy focus and superb content.

What would my culinary hero, Julia Child, have made of the demise of Gourmet and the shakeup at Bon Appetit, a magazine presumably named in honor of her signature sign-off line from her PBS show, “The French Chef”? I have no idea; maybe somebody out there can tell me. But I’ll bet if Julia were on the air today, she’d have her own magazine, too. And I’d be first in line to subscribe!

             ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Ultimate winter mashed potatoes (plus). December 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, we’re big fans of mashed potatoes. We love mashed potatoes all year ’round, made with Yukon Gold potatoes, red-skinned new potatoes, or baking potatoes. We love them with lots of butter, Trocomare or RealSalt, lemon pepper, and half-and-half, and maybe even some cream cheese if we’re feeling really decadent. The calorie hit insures that mashed potatoes are a treat at our house rather than a staple, and we never tire of them.

But I was thrilled to find a special recipe that combined potatoes and winter squash in a way I was convinced would be healthy, hearty, and perfect for winter meals. Again, the calorie count is stratospheric—not your nightly potato side dish—but in this recipe, you’re combining the vitamin A and high-fiber content of winter squash with the inherent yumminess of potatoes and the protein of cheese. And the gorgeous color combo of golden Yukon Gold potatoes and orange Butternut squash is ideal for a winter feast.

I discovered the dish originally on the Tennessee Locavore’s blog (http://tnlocavore.typepad.com/). She makes it as a casserole. But I wanted to make it for Christmas dinner, and between my dressing and corn pudding, the oven was pretty much taken. So I simplified the recipe and made it stovetop, in the heavy Dutch oven I use to cook the potatoes. Check out her blog to see her recipe, which I’m sure is luscious. But oh my, the version I made was simply fabulous. Our friend Ben, no slouch when it comes to eating mashed potatoes or praising my recipes, announced that he ranked this in the top five of everything I’ve ever made for him. Check it out:

      Mashed Potatoes and Winter Squash

2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes

1 Butternut squash, peeled and chunked 

9 ounces (one block) Gruyere cheese, grated

3/4 cup shredded Parmesan

4 tablespoons butter

3 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon Trocomare or salt (we like RealSalt)

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

Boil the potatoes and squash until tender; drain, mash, and stir well to blend. Return to very low heat. Add butter, cheese, eggs, and spices, stirring well to blend. Heat and taste, adjusting seasonings, and serve.

This really is delicious, and pretty easy, too, though peeling and seeding the Butternut squash isn’t much fun. But our local grocery sells pre-peeled and chunked winter squash, so I’ll use that next time. I’m notoriously texture-sensitive, so the slippery-slimy texture of winter squash would normally cause me to pass up any dish containing it, but the potatoes in this dish cover for the squash, so even I thought it was delicious and have joined our friend Ben with delight in the Christmas leftovers. Try it and let me know what you think!

         ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

Ready for the storm. December 26, 2010

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The Christmas tree is ablaze, frankincense and Christmas carols fill the air, and our heads are still full of treats and presents here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowehere, Pennsylvania. But trouble is brewing—a heavy snowstorm dumping its load of snow all up the East Coast, accompanied by high winds and bitter cold.

We’re not talking about a White Christmas—we’re talking about 12 to 18 inches of snow, possible power outages, and traffic disruptions. We—and everyone on the East Coast—could be facing days trapped at home without power. Fortunately, our friend Ben and Silence are prepared. Are you? If not, look over our checklist and start getting ready for the next big storm.

Power up. Lots of folks count on generators to get them through power outages. We’d love to have a backup generator, too, if we could afford it. But we worry about gasoline availability, especially in a serious storm that disrupts power for more than a few days. So we installed a highly efficient woodstove in our living-room fireplace, bought a cord of wood, and stacked and tarped it to keep it safe and dry. People always ask us, don’t you keep a fire going in the living room for good cheer? Hell, no. We’re saving that wood for an emergency. If we want a cheerful fire, we light one in our outdoor firepit with downed branches and scrap paper. But when a storm’s predicted, we bring a carrier of dry, seasoned wood in and set it beside our woodstove, just in case. We have a fan on the woodstove that turns by itself as the stove heats up to blow hot air into the room, and a kettle for humid air and tea or coffee.

Add warmth. A source of heat isn’t the only warmth you’ll need in a power outage. Make sure you have plenty of warm blankets, comforters, flannel sheets, and clothing on hand. Will you look ridiculous sitting in your house in silk long johns, fleece socks and fleece-lined slippers, legwarmers, flannel-lined jeans, a fleece vest, a sweatshirt and hoodie, a fleece jacket, a scarf, and fingerless wool gloves? You betcha. Will you be warm? Damn right you will.

Wrap it up. Make sure your house is as insulated and chill-proof as you can make it. Add insulation and seal drafts anyway you can. If you can afford it, replace windows and doors with more weatherproof models, seal every crack, add insulation. If, like us, you can’t afford it, use draft excluders at every door, add bubble-wrap “curtains” and insulation, buy insulating curtains or request them as birthday and Christmas presents. Every bit adds up. Can’t afford commercial draft excluders? Roll up bubble wrap, put a rubber band on each end, and push the roll against your door. Voila! No more draft. You may have gotten packages with bubble wrap this very Christmas; use it rather than tossing it!

Water and plumbing. Here in the scenic middle of nowhere, we’re on a well and septic system. Perhaps city folk have access to running water and flushing toilets even when their power goes out. Unfortunately, wells are electronically powered, so if the power fails, we have no running water, which means no drinking water, bathing water, or flushing toilets. So we keep cases of spring water on hand at all times for drinking and cooking, and gallon jugs of tap water stashed in the greenhouse (for watering plants) and the laundry room (for flushing toilets) at all times. We also have low-tech “waterless toilets” (available from outdoor outfitters like Cabela’s) on hand should our water supply dry up. We’d love to have an outhouse and composting toilets, but until we win the lottery, these makeshift options will work when we need them to.

Let there be light. A power failure that plunges you and yours into pitch blackness is scary, especially once the sun sets. We keep a store of long-burning candles and matches, a cache of flashlights, and two battery-operated Coleman lanterns on hand to help us light our way. We have a number of hand-cranked and solar-powered radios and flashlights. We’ve bought a number of tin candleholders with reflectors to up the light factor should need arrive. And we remind ourselves that crawling under the covers and getting plenty of extra sleep beats trying to read, knit, or play by candlelight anytime.

Can you cook? Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have a gas (propane) stove. But it’s electronically lit, so when the power fails, you turn the dial and nothing happens. Fortunately, you can do as our ancestors of old and light the burners or oven with a match, so you can cook even during a power failure. Hot food on a cold, dark, blizzardy night is hard to beat. And we have our woodstove and two solar ovens as backup.

Stock up. Keeping the pantry, larder, and fridge stocked makes super-good sense in winter, when a storm could strike and strand you far from a source of groceries for who knows how long. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we garden and put up our own food every year. But Silence also keeps an eye out for opportunities to stock up. Each time she shops for groceries, she tries to add several canned and frozen staples and other herbs, spices and necessities to the larder, along with onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbages, winter squash, and radishes. She makes sure there’s always enough cheese, butter, olive oil, yogurt, and seasonings to carry us through even a prolonged emergency. Don’t forget dry goods! Silence stocks up on several months’ worth of flour, pasta, rice, oats, cornmeal, light bulbs, paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, and napkins, as well as dish soap, liquid soap, bar soap, shampoo, toothpaste, detergent, and laundry detergent. She also stocks other necessities like Q-tips, emery boards, hand lotion, toothbrushes and dental floss, aspirin, cough drops, decongestants, medicinal teas, and vitamins.

Treat time. Normally, Silence Dogood is a food Nazi. Well, okay, she makes sure our friend Ben has tortilla chips, salsas, and pepper jack cheese, plus Triscuits, assorted cheeses, veggies and dips, hummus and pita, and fresh fruit. But in winter, she adds assorted dried fruits, nuts, and chocolate to the mix, plus special treats like garlic-jalapeno pistachios and wasabi peanuts, pretzels, oatmeal and peanut butter cookies, and even our friend Ben’s favorite, Cheetohs, plus various potato chips, popcorns, sunflower and pumpkinseeds, and—gasp!—the occasional doughnut, cruller, or cupcake. As she says, these high-cal foods can be lifesavers when the temperatures drop and the power goes off.

Think ahead. If you’re anticipating a big storm and power outage, think ahead. Do you have plenty of light sources? Do you have several sources of warmth? Have you made bread, soup, stew, and other staples ready to heat up over an alternative source of warmth like a woodstove or Sterno burner? Do you have plenty of food, like cheese, crudities, breads, dips, deli meats, and canned tuna that you can eat without having to heat them? Do you have adequate beverages? When foul weather threatens, have you done your laundry, taken a shower, and done your baking and cooking right away, before there’s a corncern about power failures? 

What about your pets and plants? Every winter, Silence insists that we stock extra cat litter and extra food, treats, toys, and meds for all our creatures. We have a propane heater and mini-propane tanks to kick in if power fails in the greenhouse. With a dog, three indoor cats and one outdoor cat, a parrot, three parakeets, two fishtanks, five chickens, and numerous plants, we can no more afford to leave our critters to starve than we could leave ourselves. Make sure you’ve provided shelter, warmth, water, and adequate nutrition to your pets this Christmas season. Then, no matter what happens outside, you’ll know your beloved pets are provided for.

Be a good neighbor. As it happens, our next-to-next-door neighbors are 87 and 90 years old.  And this year, husband Carl has a bad chest cold. So we volunteered to rush out and get them groceries and other necessities before the storm hit. Driving back to their home with two stuffed grocery bags, we were surprised but delighted to receive a loaf of homemade pumpkin bread and a tin of cookies. Love thy neighbor as thyself, and God willing, thy neighbors will do the same for thee!

Think entertainment. DVDs, the internet, CDs, TV, books, magazines, newspapers. Eating out, going to movies or shows, shopping. Well, ahem: What if the power fails and/or you can’t leave your home? What if you’re trapped for days or even weeks? Board games like Monopoly, cards, puzzles, crosswords, solitaire, Mah Jong, Chinese checkers, chess, checkers, ping-pong, and billiards are options when the power fails. All you need is a deck or board and a source of illumination. During the day, a collection of books and a bright window will provide hours of entertainment. Yes, you really can live without TV, texting, and the internet, at least for a few days.  

What else? Keep you car’s gas tank full so water won’t build up in the line. Make sure you have a good snow shovel in your garage and a smaller version in your trunk. Join AAA, and keep your cell phone with you and charged at all times. Lock de-icer is essential.

We’d never join the ranks of those morons who cheerfully chirp “Let it snow!” while assuming someone else will take care of all their problems. But with plenty of advance preparation, lots of good friends, neighbors, and family, and a loving, well stocked home, we think you’ll do all right.

Merry Christmas to all. December 25, 2010

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Each year at Christmas, we at Poor Richard’s Almanac—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—have made a tradition of sharing a letter written at Christmas by Fra Giovanni to his patron in 1513 with all of you. This tradition is borrowed from Tasha Tudor, the beloved children’s author and illustrator, who read Fra Giovanni’s letter aloud to her family and guests every year at Christmas. The beauty and wisdom it conveys make it a tradition worth preserving, as we think you’ll see:

“I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.

The Gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

This festive and joyful season, we wish the same for each other and for every one of you. God bless us every one!

       —our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders

Anticipation, and cooking. December 24, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. Christmas Eve, which always seems so far away and rushing towards us simultaneously, is finally here. The stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, and the entire fireplace is so elaborately decorated that poor Santa would break his neck if he tried to step out of the chimney.

The nearby tree is ablaze with lights and ornaments from three centuries, from heavy mercury-glass 19th-century German kugels to beaded Christmas trees made at summer camp by the beloved children of dear friends. Every one carries delightful memories. Because we like to layer the ornaments from the trunk to the branch tips, we feel that we could look at the tree for hours and never take it all in.

We have given or mailed all our carefully-selected presents. So every glittery package and bow spilling out around the tree and surrounding the fireplace is now for one of us (or our pets). The sight of so much bounty is enough to awaken the anticipation of the child in all of us. (Our black German shepherd, Shiloh, immediately recognized her present, a new soft Frisbee-style disc. But for once she demonstrated restraint and didn’t go after it. Maybe she was as overwhelmed by all the packages as the rest of us.)

Now all is quiet (except for carols playing in the background) and all is bright (thanks to the Christmas-tree lights). The intoxicating fragrance of frankincense fills the air. There’s really nothing left to do but anticipate a viewing of one of many versions of “A Christmas Carol”… and cook.

Cook! Oh, yum, the joys of Christmas cooking. I’ve already made my Ultimate Cranberry Sauce and two pans of my Amazing Cranberry Dressing (you can find the recipes by searching our search bar at upper right; they’re both so easy and delicious). I have Belgian endive, dried cranberries, pecans, feta, and blue cheese on hand to make Stuffed Endive Boats as an appetizer; it’s our favorite, delicious but not too filling, an important consideration. But what else will I make for Christmas Day?

Well, in our case, there are some givens, the we-always-make-these traditions that must be upheld at all costs. I’ll make a corn pudding, green beans, mashed potatoes (OFB always insists on these), roasted mushrooms and sweet potato slices (seasoned with olive oil, Trocamare, lemon pepper, and Italian herbs—dried oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram, and rosemary—yum!!!), and a big, rich, crunchy salad to go with the dressing and cranberry sauce. But what else?

Well, I’m definitely going to bake bread today—lots of bread. An orange-cinnamon loaf for our holiday breakfasts. Whole wheat-sour cream rolls for Christmas dinner. A bran-rich loaf just because it’s good for us and the recipe looked promising. And maybe some oatmeal-buttermilk loaves to give our neighbors as Christmas gifts.

Then there’s the question of dessert. I could make my Mama’s famous Chocolate Yummy-Rummies, incredibly rich chocolate-rum mousselike concoctions topped with pecans and whipped cream. Or our friend Ben’s Simms Family Eggnog, a decadent, bourbon-rich dream of a dessert that’s so thick you have to eat it with a spoon.

Then again, I could make a simple fruit crisp or baked apples and save the richer fare for later in the holiday season, when we’re not confronting a major feast and a rich dessert. Or, hmmm, it looks like some of those packages under the tree contain homemade Christmas cookies, so maybe I’ll put out plates with cheese, dried fruit, and cookies for dessert, with glasses of our favorite Sandeman’s Tawny Port.

But it’s Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. What to make for tonight that will be delicious but won’t spoil our anticipation for tomorrow? Well, something rich but simple. Creamy pasta (shells in a sauce of sour cream, butter, Trocomare or salt and lemon pepper, with the sauce cooked to the point where it coats the shells thickly and there’s none left over), broccoli, curried carrots, and salad.

We have dear friends of German descent whose major feast is tonight, Christmas Eve, where they serve rouladen (an elaborate roast beef dish) and all the traditional German trimmings. But for us, Christmas Eve is the time to rest from the rush of getting everything done and the celebration of Christmas Day. It’s a lovely, low-key day. We let the anticipation of the season continue to build, but for now, we keep it at arm’s length. It will be here in all its glory soon enough.

What are your Christmas Eve traditions?

           ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

People named for jobs. December 23, 2010

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Back in the Middle Ages, people tended to live out their lives where they were born—in their village or city or on the estate of some lord. Professions were passed down from father to son, remaining in the same family generation after generation. And, of course, everybody in the village knew everybody else, and everybody else’s family.

Last names tended to reflect all this, and they were also much more changeable than they are now. You could be named for your birthplace (Burt Lancaster, Jack London), or your father (Johnson, Thompson, Samuelson), or your profession.

It’s these job-based names that fascinate our friend Ben, because they reveal a part of our ancestry, but also because many job-based names have lost their connection to their jobs because the jobs no longer exist. The two most important jobs in any village were the blacksmith, who kept everything repaired and running, and the miller, who ground people’s grains into flour for the staple food of that day, bread. As a result, Miller and Smith are probably the most common job-based names.

Eventually, of course, populations grew and people became more mobile, and in time last names became fixed and disconnected from their origins. Your last name remained Johnson even though your father’s name was George. You moved to Toronto but your name remained London. You’re an accountant, but your surname is Tailor. Something lost, something gained.

Today, let’s take a look at some of those job-based names and see if any of them surprise you. Our friend Ben is sure I’m forgetting a bunch of them, and am unaware of others, so please help me fill in the blanks! Here we go:

Abbot, Abbott

Archer

Baker

Bishop

Butler

Carpenter

Carter

Cartwright

Clark (clerk)

Cook, Cooke

Drover (cattle driver)

Falconer, Faulkner

Farmer

Fisher

Fletcher (someone who put feathers on arrows)

Forster, Forester

Franklin (a minor landowner)

Gardner, Gardiner

Knight, Knightley

Mason (stonemason)

Merchant

Miller

Page

Parson

Potter

Prentice (apprentice)

Reeve (“an official elected annually by the serfs to supervise lands for a lord,” according to Wikipedia)

Roper

Sailor, Saylor

Sawyer

Shoemaker

Smith (blacksmith, tinsmith, silversmith)

Squire

Sumner (summoner, someone who hauled people before an ecclesiastical court)

Tailor, Taylor

Sargent, Sergeant

Tanner

Wainwright (wagonmaker)

Weaver  

Wheeler

Wheelwright

A Tudor Christmas. December 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here. A reader recently came on to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, with the query “Was the Tudors’ Christmas like ours now?” Now, I’m assuming they meant Tudors as in Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I, not Tudors as in Tasha Tudor, American children’s book author and illustrator. (Tasha’s amazing and delightful Christmas celebration and rituals can be enjoyed through the wonderful book Forever Christmas and the video/DVD “Take Joy!”)

But getting back to the British royal line, the short answer to our reader’s query is “not so much.” Why? Well, think of what epitomizes Christmas to us: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, a roasted turkey and all the trimmings, eggnog, stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” Christmas cards, The Night Before Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol. We all know that Christmas movies and TV specials wouldn’t have been a part of a Tudor Christmas. But none of the rest of this would have been, either.

So what would a Tudor Christmas have been like? Let’s take a look:

A season, not a day. For people in the Tudor era, Christmas lasted an entire month, from the 6th of December (St. Nicholas’s Day) through Twelfth Night (Epiphany, January 6). The month wasn’t one long holiday, of course, but there was plenty of time for feasts, traditions, churchgoing, and celebrations.

The Yule Log. One key tradition was the Yule Log. Of Viking origin, the Yule Log was adopted by everyone, since it fit in nicely with the winter woodburning and huge fireplaces of the time. (All heating and cooking was done with wood, and fireplaces in the kitchen and great hall were large enough to sit in very comfortably. No wonder Santa came down the chimney in later traditions!) On Christmas Eve, a huge, previously selected log was cut, festooned with ribbons, and brought into the hall. It was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas to usher in the Christ Child and a prosperous New Year, and any scraps that hadn’t completely burned were kept to kindle the following year’s Yule Log to bring good luck . 

The Holly and the Ivy. Christmas trees didn’t become popular until Victorian times, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced them from Germany. But the concept of using evergreen plants—be they pine or fir trees, holly branches, ivy, boxwood, yew, laurel, or mistletoe—to celebrate the winter solstice and the promise of rebirth and new life to come—was the same, and of Druidic origin. “The Holly and the Ivy” was a popular carol that commemorated this tradition, and the Tudors would have sung it. Folk in Tudor times would have decorated their homes with greens on Christmas Eve rather than, as we do, long before, because if you didn’t wait, it was considered bad luck.

Caroling. Yes, caroling—singing Christmas songs and dancing for joy—was as popular in Tudor times as it is today. (Though somehow we forgot the dancing part of the original caroling.) You might even know some popular Tudor carols, like “The Coventry Carol,” “The First Nowell,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” In fact, “What Child Is This?” is based on a popular Tudor tune, “Greensleeves,” which legend attributes to Henry VIII himself, as a love song to Anne Boleyn. The wonderfully-named Wynken de Worde published the first collection of carols in 1521, so Henry and his court would have been familiar with it. Religious plays centered around Christmas were also popular aspects of a Tudor Christmas; they were often called “mystery plays” because they celebrated the mystery of the Incarnation.

Wassail. Another legacy of the Viking occupation of Britain, the Wassail Bowl is still recalled by most of us as a Christmas legacy, even if, like us, you’ve never tasted Wassail punch. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, Wassail was composed of hot ale, sugar, spices, and apples. Its name derives from the Saxon Waes-Hael, “be whole,” “be healthy.” Click the link and you’ll discover how our custom of “toasting” came to be, and it’s a pretty amazing story. Sounds like our own version of Wassail is hot mulled cider, though our friend Ben and I prefer ours with Gosling dark rum, not ale.

Christmas Dinner. Two meat pies dominated Christmas dinner in Tudor times. The “folk” ate mince pie, including dried fruit, spices, and mutton, and shaped like a crib in honor of Baby Jesus. The Court ate Christmas pie–a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon, all packed into a pastry casing called a “coffin” and dressed with jointed hare, small game birds, and wild fowl. Yow!

We Americans know that turkeys are native to our land, so how would they have figured in a Tudor Christmas? Well, the colonists sent turkeys to England in 1523, and King Henry VIII was the first king to include turkey in his Christmas celebrations. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, turkeys quickly gained popularity, and “large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot, a journey which they may have started as early as August.” Talk about some very fit turkeys!

Most Britons of the day feasted on swan, goose, woodcock, venison, wild boar, or peacock. (Elizabeth I insisted that goose be the choice for Christmas dinner, a tradition most of us in the U.S., who’ve never had goose, recall fondly from Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner.) Another popular dish was souse, consisting of pickled pigs’ feet and ears. Christmas pudding was a sausage of meat, oatmeal and spices. And a boar’s head on a platter was ceremoniously presented at the table in wealthy households and—gulp—served.

There was a version of our dreaded fruitcake even back in Tudor times, called Twelfth Night Cake. And the Tudors even ate a variation on our salads, including sprouts, but pressed into the shape of the Tudor coat of arms. 

Gingerbread and sugarplums. Gingerbread men were presented to guests by Queen Elizabeth I, cunningly designed to resemble the fortunate recipient. Less lofty individuals enjoyed gingerbread men and pigs (!) and eaten on Bonfire Night, November 5th. Sugarplums, by contrast, didn’t make an appearance until the 1600s, so they weren’t a Christmas treat on Tudor tables. And by the way, they weren’t made from plums; the word “sugarplum” referred to a plum-shaped sugar candy. 

Presents. Our all-important custom of giving Christmas presents was also a big deal in Tudor times, but not for Christmas; it was a New Year’s custom. If you happened to be a noble or a courtier, not only were you expected to give gifts to your extended family, dependents, and friends; you had to give a gift to your monarch (aka Henry) as well. And if he rejected your gift, God help you. 

Christmas cards. In Tudor times, people didn’t send Christmas cards. But they did send original poems—typically, epigrams—for New Year’s. Since Henry VIII himself was an accomplished poet, his court had to meet a pretty high bar.

Mistletoe. Another sacred plant of the Druids, mistletoe was brought into the home for good luck, protection from witches, and fertility on the winter solstice, December 21. But sorry, all: The kissing ball (usually hung in the entrance hall) and kissing under the mistletoe is an 18th-century custom. Needless to say, Henry VIII didn’t need the excuse of mistletoe to kiss whomever he liked!

There you have it. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many other traditionas that characterized a Tudor Christmas, so if you can think of any, please let me know!

          ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

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