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Would the real Sherlock please stand up. November 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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All three bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, are huge Sherlock Holmes fans. We even agree on who’s the best Holmes to date, and sorry, Jeremy Brett fans, it’s Basil Rathbone. But we all feel that Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a twitchy, gleeful bipolar addict has redefined the character in such a significant way that no other actor can take on the role without taking Brett’s interpretation into account.

This was the fault we found with Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes in the recent BBC series “Sherlock.” His marble features gave nothing away. We felt that Mr. Cumberbatch would make an ideal James Bond or Dr. Who, but he lacked the high-strung, jumpy, Gollumlike quality that informs Holmes’s character. Holmes is not just smarter than other people; he’s faster. By the time you could blink, he’d have leapt up, dashed out of the flat and into the street, and be off in a hansom. His thoughts and emotions would flash across his face like lights on a radar screen. Those emotions might resonate more with someone with Asperger’s Syndrome—high-functioning autism—than with your average guy; but there was never any doubt that Holmes’s emotions were in play and at a very high level.

So who would be our pick for Holmes today? For years, Silence and our friend Ben have championed Johnny Depp for the role, since he performed it so brilliantly as Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” If you weren’t told what film you were watching, you’d naturally assume it was a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Richard Saunders suggests that Jude Law, who played Watson to Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes, could play a brilliant Holmes in his own right.

But today, Silence introduced a new contender for the role. She’d been watching “The Buccaneers,” a BBC series based on an Edith Wharton novel, and had been struck by the performance of James Frain as the high-strung, eccentric Duke.

“Ben! Remember James Frain as Thomas Cromwell in ‘The Tudors’ and how fabulous we thought he was? There’s our Sherlock Holmes!” Silence effused.

Our friend Ben certainly did remember Frain’s beautifully nuanced performance, going from sensitive theologian to torturer, and I had to agree with Silence’s choice. James Frain would make a fabulous Holmes.

But in that case, who would be Watson? Starting with “The Tudors” made the choice obvious. The perfect pairing would be James Frain as Holmes and Jeremy Northam as Watson. Jeremy Northam played Sir Thomas More in “The Tudors,” and Jane Austen fans may recall him as Mr. Knightley in the Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation of “Emma.” He is a consummate actor, skilled at playing good-hearted, down-to-earth characters, and would make a marvelous Watson to Frain’s Holmes.

Richard then pointed out that Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who starred as Henry VIII in “The Tudors,” would be the perfect Moriarty, Holmes’s evil arch-rival. Which of course led us to the inevitable conclusion that Natalie Dormer, who was so great as Anne Boleyn in the series, would be an ideal choice as Irene Adler, the woman Holmes admires most. 

So please, directors, listen up: Let’s see James Frain and Jeremy Northam as Holmes and Watson. Talk about a dynamic duo! Add Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer to the mix, and your Holmes series or film would be unstoppable. With these talented actors in the roles, the game would really be afoot!


Free gift tags. November 29, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, with apologies in advance to anyone who came on our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, hoping that we were giving away free gift tags. Instead, I want to tell you about a great idea for making your own free, super-easy gift tags that I read about this weekend in Spencer Soper’s “On the Cheap” column in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. The title of Spencer’s article says it all: “Cut up Christmas cards and save.”

“On the Cheap” reader Steve Gerkovich told Spencer that he saves the front part of Christmas cards he receives, then cuts out decorative elements, like Santas and wreaths, and turns them into gift tags the following Christmas. (Steve would hate my cards, since I typically write on both inside surfaces and the back!)  You can read the article and watch a video of Steve making his gift tags at www.mcall.com/onthecheap. Spencer calculates that using this tip could save you $143.60 over 20 years.

There are other ways to recycle Christmas cards that are too pretty to throw out. When you wrap presents, instead of buying ribbons and bows, cut out decorative elements from your old cards, wrap the present in plain (one-color) paper, and glue the cutouts on top. Or cut off the front of a lovely card and glue the entire piece in the top center of your wrapped package. This will add a festive touch to each package, even if you wrap it in cut-up brown grocery bags! 

Many people thread Christmas cards on ribbon and hang the resulting “garland” on their staircase as a colorful decoration. You can also cut off the front, punch a hole on one corner, string a short piece of ribbon through the hole, tie it, and hang it from your Christmas tree. Or use your cut-out wreaths, snowmen, snowflakes, stars, Creche scenes, Santas, reindeer, birds, and etc. to add depth to your tree’s decorations or to be the star attractions as decorations on a wreath or small tree like a Norfolk Island pine.

Of course, I take things even further. I hate wasting pretty wrapping paper, and you know how there are always strips left over after you wrap a package. I’ll save those and cut them in appropriate widths to use as ribbons on packages with contrasting wrapping. I’ll also often cut a 2-inch-long-by-1-inch-wide piece off the odds and ends, fold it in half, tape it to the wrapped package, and address it. Another type of free gift tag!

One of my favorite ways to wrap presents is to press colorful autumn leaves and dry them, then tape them on plain brown, white, green, red, gold, or even black wrapping paper for a beautiful, dramatic touch. But if you’re shipping presents, this can get messy. Instead, you can position your leaves on the wrapped present, then spray-paint with gold, silver, or copper to leave (so to speak) their outlines on the wrapping paper for a Martha-esque touch. And of course, you can reuse the leaves for your other packages. When you’re done, the leaves will be covered with gold, silver, or copper paint, and can be hung on your tree as lovely ornaments in their own right.

It’s probably too late for this season—certainly it is here in scenic PA!—but for future reference, to press autumn leaves, choose dry leaves at their peak of color with no holes or brown spots. Take a book, such as a telephone book, and a paper towel. Set the book where it won’t be disturbed, put the paper towel on top, arrange the leaves flat on the towel so no leaves are touching, top them with a second paper towel, and put a second telephone book on top. They should be dry in two weeks.

Finally, yes, we do save really nice gift bags and reuse them, cutting off the tags if the original giver has addressed them to us. After all, the bags are attractive, they’re in like-new condition, and they save us from having to do our own wrapping (which in my case and in our friend Ben’s tends to resemble a six-year-old’s, try though we may).

Now it’s your turn. Please share your decorating and wrapping tips with us!

               ‘Til next time,


Advent calendars. November 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Today is the first day of Advent, so of course our friend Ben and I got out our Advent calendar. It’s the first stage of our Christmas celebration, and one of our favorite traditions. Opening that first window makes us feel the Christmas season has really arrived!

For those who don’t know Advent calendars, they typically show every day from the first Sunday of Advent through Christmas Eve. Behind the door or window for each day is a surprise, so you open one each day until Christmas. Talk about building up anticipation!

Most Advent calendars are printed on heavy stock, and their windows open on illustrations or Bible verses. But we’ve seen wooden Advent calendars whose doors hide handmade Christmas ornaments, and Advent calendars made of felt with infants’ soft toys behind each door. Some Advent calendars let you hide your own choice of treats, toys, and tiny scrolled verses behind the doors.

Ours is a Tasha Tudor Advent calendar book, Tasha Tudor’s Advent Calendar (Philomel Books, New York, 1988). We love it, first for the delightful illustrations by the beloved children’s book illustrator, featuring all the animals her observation and imagination could provide, and second because the book format protects the calendar, which has the traditional windows that you open to reveal, in this case, animals in their Christmas finery. Like any good Advent calendar, part of the fun is finding each day’s window, hidden as they are in a lively scene of Christmas frolicking in Ms. Tudor’s beloved Corgiville. (Tasha Tudor fans, you can get your own Tasha Advent calendars at www.tashatudorandfamily.com.)

This year, we were fortunate enough to find two delightful tiny Advent calendars for OFB’s niece and nephew. Made in Germany, the cunning little calendars were no bigger than postcards, but still had windows that opened for each day, revealing surprises behind the scenes of Santa with his elk-drawn sleigh, surrounded by creatures from the woods, and Santa in an Old World village, lit like a scene from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. So much fun! It was hard to resist picking up another for ourselves.

We think the Advent calendar is a tradition worth reviving, if it’s not already a Christmastime classic in your home. It’s a delightful, innocent way to count down the days ’til Christmas in a sweet or spiritual rather than consumerist manner, reminding us each day of the “reason for the Season.”

             ‘Til next time,


Black Friday brainfade. November 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are, frankly, sick of reading about the collective madness that apparently takes over everyone’s minds on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. For those who might still be living in blissful ignorance, the day is not called “black” because it’s a day of collective mourning. Instead, it’s America’s biggest shopping day of the year, and is called Black Friday because merchants hope their sales on this day will push their ledgers out of the red (debt) and into the black (profitability) for the year.

Why is this our biggest shopping day, you ask? Because most people (except for the poor souls who work in retail) are off on the day after Thanksgiving, and with Christmas coming up, they apparently feel that this is a great opportunity to get at least some of their Christmas shopping out of the way. And since pretty much every store offers great deals and discounts, people who’ve been waiting to buy, say, a new appliance also take advantage of the deals to upgrade.

Our friend Ben and Silence have nothing against people making money (or spending money) on Black Friday. Despite the time spent pulling them out and recycling them, we’re thrilled to see the bazillion ad circulars in our local paper, since we know that helps the paper get into the black, too. Headlines may trumpet that the Great Recession is over, but we know that hardship and belt-tightening lingers, at the retail as well as the personal level. So we’re wishing every local merchant a prosperous Black Friday.

What we don’t like is the hysteria that often accompanies Black Friday. Surely shopping isn’t a matter of life and death, yet we seem to recall that, not that long ago, people were trampled to death by shoppers pressing into a Wal-Mart (!!!) on Black Friday to take advantage of the sales. Every year, we hear that people line up outside trendy stores the night before—that some people actually forego Thanksgiving altogether to get in line—to get the best deals. Our friend Ben and Silence can think of exactly one thing that would move us to stand in line for a whole, cold night: to see the return of Our Lord on Earth, the Second Coming. But for a show, a meal, or, God forbid, shopping: no, no, no, no way.

We know that denizens of large cities often have other values, surface values that co-opt their lives and priorities. That someone in New York or L.A. or Miami would camp outside their favorite store all night to get early entry and great discounts is, to us, a pathetic commentary but a definite reality in today’s world. But what about the tiny, obscure areas where so many of us live?

It would never have occurred to our friend Ben and Silence Dogood that people would act in this insane, irrational way here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But there we were, at our local BigLots trying to find frames for some prints we’d bought from one of our favorite local artists as Christmas presents. We selected our two frames and got in line behind a man who, with his young son, was pushing a cart piled with food items through checkout. Silence was nudging me in horror, muttering “Food from BigLots! Eeeewwww!!!” 

Fortunately, her comments went undetected by the man and his young son buying all those bags of junk food on deep discount. I know this because the cashier, the guy, and the two of us started chatting about Black Friday sales. “This is nothing!” the man said, indicating his overflowing cart. “My wife and older son were out at 3 a.m. this morning to catch the sales!”

“Mercy on us!” an appalled Silence burst out, “3 a.m.!!!”

“Yeah, but you know, she got some really good deals,” the guy said.

Maybe so. But at what price? As Silence and I always remind ourselves when we see those advertisements and advertorials, and the e-mails rushing onto our screens, “Big Savings!” really translates into big spending. Of course it’s great to buy something at 70% off or to “Buy one, get one free!” But what really matters is to be sure you need whatever it is to begin with, and that buying it won’t put you into debt. Otherwise, you’re just buying into consumerist madness at your own expense.

Fun winter finger food. November 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any big dinner presents the cook with the same problem: How do you give your ravenous guests something to fend off starvation until the meal is on the table without giving them a chance to overeat and be unable to appreciate the food you’ve probably spent days preparing? Appetizers seem like the ideal solution, but not just any appetizer will do. Cheese and crackers, rich dips, bruschetta, tapenade or baked brie on sliced baguette, hummus and pita, even salsa and chips—it’s all too easy for a hungry guest to inadvertently overindulge.

This Thanksgiving, I finally hit on the perfect solution. It’s everything an appetizer should be: light but satisfying, crunchy but creamy, healthy but decadent, easy to eat with your fingers, always at the right temperature. It’s stuffed endive, and trust me, it’s so delicious it’s a good thing you can serve plates and limit the portions!

To make these delicious endive “boats,” you’ll need to buy Belgian endive (those tight, pale green heads in the salad section with boatlike leaves), crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled feta cheese, dried cranberries, and nuts. (I had pecans on hand, but you could use walnuts or even smoked almonds if you prefer them.) That’s all there is to it!

To put the boats together, place four large or six smaller leaves on each salad plate. Add a little crumbled Gorgonzola in the bottom of each leaf “boat” (this adds delicious bite, but you don’t want to overdo it or it will overwhelm the other flavors). Fill the leaves almost to the top with crumbled feta. Now, press in 4-6 dried cranberries in each “boat” (again, you want to add color and flavor, but not to overwhelm the other flavors with sweetness; ultimately, this is a savory appetizer). Sprinkle chopped nuts over the top of each filled leaf, and top it with lemon pepper or fresh-ground pepper.

Give each guest a filled plate, a napkin, and a glass of dry Reisling, Traminette, or Pinot Grigio, and scoot back into the kitchen to finish cooking in peace. Your guests will think you’re the grestest host or hostess who ever lived—and they’ll still have room for your wonderful meal.

           ‘Til next time,


Giving thanks. November 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, wishing everyone a blessed and happy Thanksgiving!

Does your family have a favorite mealtime prayer? I grew up with “Bless us, o Lord, in these Thy gifts, which, of Thy bounteous mercy, we most gratefully do receive. Amen.”

I continued to say this prayer into adulthood, when I discovered the wonderful mealtime prayer of Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette, a monk and chef who knows a great deal about the sanctity of prayer and the sanctity of food. Brother Victor-Antoine’s prayer is so delightful that I just had to add it to our pre-meal repertoire: “For this good food and joy renewed, we give Thee thanks, o Lord.” 

Just this past Tuesday, I discovered another wonderful mealtime prayer in the LocalHarvest newsletter our friend Ben and I receive online. (Check it out and sign up for the free newsletter at www.localharvest.org. Their motto, “real food, real farmers, real community” says it all.) Erin Barnett, LocalHarvest’s Director, shared a prayer she’d first heard at a friend’s table and now says with her own family: “We are thankful for this food, and that we are together.”

Erin goes on to say in the newsletter, “All told, our blessing takes just a few seconds, but those few seconds are important to me. In them I arrive more fully at the table, after rushing around preparing food and taking care of the business of the household. In them I really look at my family and at the food in front of us and in seeing them and it more deeply can move into the evening with more grace than I otherwise would.”

What beautiful, and beautifully expressed, sentiments. The power of prayer is that it moves not just up but out to those around us and inside to transform us. The power of gratitude is that it opens our eyes to our true blessings and bounty. When we give thanks, we are thrice blessed: for the gifts for which we offer thanks, for the realization of how blessed we are, and for the sacrament of blessing itself, which has the power to transform all that it touches.

Our friend Ben and I have discussed these brief but beautiful prayers, and decided to recite them antiphonally before each meal that we enjoy together, so that one of us starts with “Bless us, o Lord…,” the next adds “For this good food…,” and we end by reciting together “We are thankful for this food, and that we are together.” Believe me, we certainly are (most of the time, anyway!).

If you have a favorite mealtime prayer, please share it with us. Perhaps we’ll add it to our list! And see if you can feel that precious moment of peace that Erin describes descend on you as your family gives thanks this Thanksgiving.

                    ‘Til next time,


Persimmons for Thanksgiving. November 24, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. For the past week, we’ve been getting a lot of blog searches here at Poor Richard’s Almanac for the persimmon pudding recipe from Laurel’s Kitchen. Now, Laurel’s Kitchen in all its incarnations is one of my favorite cookbooks, for the heartwarming stories, delightful woodcut illustrations, and earnest attempts to turn us all into healthy vegetarian cooks as much as for the recipes.

Determined to find the persimmon pudding recipe and share it in time for Thanksgiving, I grabbed The New Laurel’s Kitchen (Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Brian Ruppenthal, Ten Speed Press, 1986) off my shelf. But the only mention of persimmons suggested adding “1 large, ripe persimmon, peeled and cut up, and a tablespoon of raisins” to a cup of yogurt. I’ll bet that’s good, but it’s not my idea of pudding.

Moving on, I checked the original Laurel’s Kitchen (Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey, Nilgiri Press, 1976). But alas: Not only was there no persimmon pudding, there were no persimmons, period. The index moved straight from pernicious anemia to pesticides with nary a persimmon in sight.*

Undaunted, I reached for the last of my Laurel’s Kitchen books, The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book (Laurel Robertson with Carol Flinders and Bronwen Godfrey, Random House, 1984). Maybe it was a persimmon bread pudding? Again, I failed to find persimmon pudding, but this time, at least I found persimmon-nut bread. Here’s the recipe:

               Persimmon-Nut Bread

Rich in flavor as well as festive in spirit, this bread makes an occasion of dessert, with or without homemade vanilla ice cream. 

3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup honey

1 egg

1 cup persimmon pulp

1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour [Today’s cooks might want to try white whole wheat instead.—Silence]

1/2 cup whole wheat bread flour [ditto]

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

pinch ground cloves

1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8 x 4″ loaf pan. Cream the butter and honey. Beat in the egg and then mix in the persimmon pulp. Sift the dry ingredients together. Stir in the nuts. Add them all at once to the liquid ingredients, stirring lightly just until well mixed. Turn the batter into the pan, place it on a cookie sheet, and bake 45 to 50 minutes, until done.

Okay, fine. But what about that darned persimmon pudding? Who would have a recipe for that? A Southern cook, I was betting. And sure enough, there it was in Bill Neal’s great Southern cookbook Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie (Knopf, 1990). He even notes that “Persimmon pudding was formerly a traditional Thanksgiving dessert in the South.” So, persimmon-pudding lovers, here’s the recipe:

                    Persimmon Pudding

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 eggs

2 cups persimmon pulp

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup milk

zest and juice of 1 orange

1/4 cup plus 2-4 tablespoons dark rum

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

 Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Cream the 1/2 cup butter and sugar well. Add the eggs, one by one. Stir in the persimmon pulp. Sift the flour, spices, and salt together. Add to the butter mixture, alternating with the milk. Stir in the orange zest and juice and 1/4 cup dark rum [we like Gosling dark rum—Silence]. Pour into a greased 9 x 12″ baking dish and bake for about an hour, until lightly browned and set in the middle. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack. Let settle for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, blend the 2 tablespoons butter, powdered sugar, and the remaining dark rum to taste. Prick the top of the pudding well with a fork. Spread the butter-sugar-rum mixture over the top of the pudding; it will be absorbed by the warm pudding. This is delicious warm, cut into small squares, with a little Milk Punch Ice Cream. Serves 16. 

Hmmm, sounds sort of like persimmon cake to me. Needless to say, American persimmons would traditionally have been used in this recipe, but if you can’t find them, I don’t know why you couldn’t try it with oriental persimmons, as long as they’re quite ripe. If you make it, let us know what you think!

            ‘Til next time,


* Reader Beth came to the rescue with the authentic Laurel’s Kitchen Persimmon Pudding recipe, from a calendar they published in 1981. See her comment for the recipe.

What Catholics and Buddhists have in common. November 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is going to interrupt Silence Dogood’s Thanksgiving recipe extravaganza because I’m so stunned by two headlines in today’s Yahoo! News. Most of us tend to think that you can’t teach an old religion new tricks, but in one day, Catholicism and Buddhism have proved us wrong.

First, we should all rejoice that Pope Benedict XVI has announced that HIV-infected prostitutes of both sexes should use condoms to prevent the spread of the disease. This is a giant leap forward for the previously condom-averse Church.

Our friend Ben fervently hopes that Pope Benedict will follow with an announcement that all HIV-infected people should use condoms to prevent the spread of the disease, whatever their profession. And that all carriers of any sexually transmitted diseases should use condoms to avoid infecting their partners.

This is about the most our friend Ben can hope for until the Church recognizes overpopulation as one of the great sins and tragedies of our day and denounces it. But since I never thought to live to see even this day’s events, I am enormously inspired and filled with hope. Kudos to Pope Benedict for taking such a bold step.

Apparently the Catholics aren’t the only ones making mind-bending headlines. Today, the news also reported that the Dalai Lama has said something that should shake Tibetan Buddhism to its foundations. Like all the high lamas, the Dalai Lama is recognized as the current incarnation of his original predecessor. Like his predecessors, he was identified at age two and brought up to fulfil his destiny, which is to be the equivalent of the Pope to Tibetan Buddhists. So it is, so it has always been. (For more on the Dalai Lama and his identification and training, our friend Ben recommends the movie “Kundun.”)

So it came as a tremendous shock to our friend Ben to read that the Dalai Lama has suggested that future Dalai Lamas (and other high lamas) be chosen rather than identified as the reincarnation of their predecessors. Perhaps, he suggested, the other lamas might get together and vote for the next Dalai Lama, much as Catholic cardinals elect a new Pope. 

There could be many reasons for this. One is that China, Tibet’s Communist master, has insisted on approving the selection of the next Dalai Lama. Perhaps the current Dalai Lama, who has lived most of his life in exile from his beloved homeland thanks to China, is seeking a way to short-circuit China’s attempts to replace him with a puppet. Or perhaps he feels that the burden of leading the faithful is a heavy one for any two-year-old’s shoulders, and that choosing an experienced leader would serve Tibet’s Buddhists better.

Whatever the case, if Tibet’s government-in-exile chooses to adopt the Dalai Lama’s suggestion, it will fundamentally change one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred traditions. It will change it as dramatically as if the Vatican suddenly announced that it would choose the next Pope based on an e-mail poll, and that all Catholics were eligible to vote. Actually, it will change it more dramatically than that, replacing a sacred mystery with pragmatism.

Will Tibet’s Buddhists be better off if a known leader is chosen, one whose wisdom and holiness has been proven in this life? Our friend Ben thinks this is a tradeoff. On the one hand, yes, of course they will, in every worldly sense. Tibet is a nation in crisis; it needs the most brilliant, politically and media-savvy leaders it can find if it is to ever emerge from Communist rule. On the other hand, as far as faith itself is concerned, this is tragic, a loss of the sacred mystery that powers all religions.

All these goings-on remind our friend Ben of the wisdom of our own Founding Fathers in insisting on the separation of church and state. Or to quote Our Lord, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” When the head of one’s faith is also a head of state, the conflicts that arise tend to be resolved in favor of maintaining secular power at the expense of faith. Far better for our religious leaders to follow the examples of Jesus and the Buddha and give it all up, for surely the noise of the world drowns out the voice of God.

Meanwhile, our friend Ben will be watching these developments with great interest. What will happen next?

Bodacious banana bread. November 22, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. It’s November. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s just screaming “winter” outside. Not even legwarmers, sheepskin slippers, a soft scarf, fingerless knit gloves, and a fleece jacket can keep me warm (and that’s indoors). Clearly, it’s time for hot banana bread.

I love bananas, but I just can’t keep them from overripening before I can eat them. Too bad there’s not a service that would deliver exactly one perfectly ripe banana—a completely yellow peel, with no trace of green or brown—to my door every day. A peel that shows green encloses a banana that’s a starch, not a sweet. But a peel with the least bit brown signals a banana that’s too mushy and sickeningly sweet to eat. And the difference between the green and brown stages can be a matter of three days.

Fortunately, we’ve been blessed with a great use for the bananas that ripen before we can eat them, and that’s banana bread. The riper, the better is the byword for this delicious comfort food. And it’s so easy to make! I can’t think of anything more luscious in this world than a hot slice of banana bread with cream cheese or butter, a crunchy apple, a piece of aged white Cheddar or Asiago cheese, and a steaming mug of tea or coffee on a cold, grey day.

As it happens, I have three overripe bananas as I write, so I’ll be making banana bread this afternoon. Here’s my own recipe for can’t-fail banana bread:

               Bodacious Banana Bread

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 stick butter, softened (save wrapper)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

2/3 cups sugar

1 egg

3 mashed or whipped ripe bananas

1/2 cup (or a small package) broken pecans

3 or 4 whole pecan halves, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Cream the softened butter and sugar together in a separate bowl until light. (I use a hand-held mixer for this.) Beat an egg until light, then add and blend into the butter-sugar mixture. Mash or whip (again, using the hand-held mixer) the bananas, one at a time, adding them to the liquid mixture and blending to incorporate. Slowly pour the mixed liquids into the flour, stirring to form a batter. Add the broken pecans, stirring well to blend. Grease an 8-by-4″ loaf pan with the butter wrapper. Pour the batter in the greased pan. Decorate the top with 3 or 4 whole pecan halves. Bake at 350 for about an hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean.

Yum! Try this super-simple recipe, and see if it doesn’t become a winter staple for you as it is for us.

                   ‘Til next time,


A Colonial Thanksgiving. November 21, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, and no, I’m not talking about the First Thanksgiving, that iconic meal of stewed or roasted pumpkin, dried corn, fish, and game—including, of course, wild turkey—shared by the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims. Instead, I’m flashing forward to the Founding Fathers and what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and their countrymen might have eaten for Thanksgiving. Would it be fun to recreate a Colonial Thanksgiving, I wondered, or would the meals be so elaborate or disgusting to our modern tastebuds that we’d be better off just reading about them?

Not only was America’s first capital city Williamsburg, but many of our early presidents and patriots—including Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and “Lighthorse Harry” Lee—were Virginians. So it seemed like a good idea to start with the Thanksgiving menu in the Favorite Meals from Williamsburg cookbook (recipes compiled and adapted by Charlotte Turgeon and the Staff of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1982).

Their menu, for Thanksgiving Dinner in Tidewater Virginia (the Tidewater is a region, not a city), looks delicious: corn bisque, roast tom turkey with giblet gravy, oyster dressing, cranberry and orange relish, honey and cinnamon-candied yams, green beans with Surry County peanuts, pumpkin muffins, and Virginia apple custard tart. But I just had to wonder about the authenticity. Green beans with peanuts sounds good—a regional take on that crunchy fried onion topping—but I suspect that peanuts didn’t make it onto planters’ tables until considerably after the Revolution. Cranberries way down in Colonial Virginia? And pumpkin muffins?! Clearly, more research was needed.

But first, let me share their recipe for oyster dressing with you, since it’s a Southern tradition to this day. My own mother made it every year, and my brother’s family still maintains this tradition, though how his fussy kids manage to eat oysters in anything is beyond me! (Mama made a second, crunchy dressing with no oysters and baked it separately for her brood of three, and that’s what I make for our Thanksgiving table here at Hawk’s Haven.)

                   Williamsburg Oyster Dressing

1 cup butter

1 1/2 cups onion, chopped

1 1/2 cups celery, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons poultry seasoning

16 cups stale white bread cubes, lightly toasted

1 quart oysters

Melt the butter in a large heavy skillet. Add the onion, celery, and parsley and saute over medium heat until the vegetables are tender. Do not brown. Add the salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Place the bread cubes in a large bowl. Add the sauteed vegetables. Mix well. Drain the oysters on paper towels, reserving the liquid. [Say what? Perhaps “Drain the oysters, reserving the liquid, then pat dry with paper towels”?!—Silence] Chop the oysters coarsely. Add to the mixture, tossing gently to mix well. Add a little of the reserved oyster liquid if the dressing seems too dry. Taste for seasoning. Stuff and truss the turkey. Place any leftover dressing in a buttered casserole. Bake in the oven with the turkey for the last 30 minutes of roasting time.

Next, I pulled Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (Karen Hess, editor, Columbia University Press, New York, 1981) from my shelf. Could I find recipes for our first president’s Thanksgiving table? Alas, no. There was not one recipe for turkey, pumpkin (or any squash), or corn to be found. However, there was a sauce recipe for roasted turkey, and another for  oyster-stuffed capon (capons were castrated roosters, which were fat, succulent, and prized like today’s tom turkeys).

There may have been no turkey recipe because, in Martha’s day, everyone knew that turkeys were spit-roasted in a tin reflector oven with its open side facing the enormous cooking hearth. Someone had to sit there and turn the crank, basting the bird often with the drippings which fell from it during roasting and were caught in the bottom of the “oven.” Often, the tedious task fell to a small child, but ingenious inventors of the day also devised a setup that employed a dog to turn the spit! Anyway, here are the two recipes:

               To Make Sause for Foule [Fowl]

For turkeys…take gravie [presumably the drippings from the bird] & strong broth & leamon, minc’d, & grated bread, a spoonefull or 2 of claret wine & a little butter. & if you have an anchovie. give all a boyle together.  

                 To Roste a Capon with Oysters

Take a fat Capon & pull & draw it [pluck and remove the innards], yn stuff ye body wth raw oysters, yn truss & lay it to ye fire, & set a clean dish under it to save ye gravie. yn make a sauce for it, with water yt [that] cometh from ye oysters, & a little clarret, a little pepper & vinegar & ye gravie, & rub an ounion up & downe ye sauce, yt it may taste well of it. when it hath boyled a little, put in some butter & mince in some leamon and leamon pill [peel, i.e., zest], then serve it up with slyced leamon on ye capon & round about ye dish.

So much for Martha. What about the gourmet of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson? I finally struck gold in Thomas Jefferson’s Cookbook (Marie Kimball, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA: 1976). Here at last were recipes for turkey (with the apparently inevitable oyster sauce), corn pudding, Indian pudding (made with cornmeal), even sweet potato pudding and pumpkin soup.

Mr. Jefferson also served his turkey boiled, with a variety of garnishings; stuffed or braised; in a galantine, jellied; as filets of turkey breast, larded and jellied; and as a Colonial version of Buffalo wings: turkey wings “crumbed, broiled or baked, with mustard sauce.” And he preferred his green beans not with peanuts, but with sweet herbs or in a white sauce. Here’s his recipe for pumpkin soup:

           Monticello Pumpkin Soup

Take half a small pumpkin, peel [and remove seeds], cut in small pieces and put on the stove with half a glass of water. When the pumpkin is tender, drain, and pass through a colander. Add 3 tablespoonfuls of butter; sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. Let it simmer for fiteen minutes. Add 4 cups boiling milk, stirring well while pouring it in. When well mixed, pour over croutons, made by cutting three slices of bread in small cubes and browning well in butter.

Next on my list was Revolutionary War Period Cookery (Robert W. Pelton, Infinity Publishing.com, Haverford, PA: 2003), which serves up a heaping helping of Founding Fathers family favorites. From Ben Franklin’s homely winter favorite, Mashed Turnips and Potato Dish, to Mrs. John Jay’s thrifty Thanksgiving Leftover Turkey Pot Pie to Molly Pitcher’s Cranberry Muffins to another Franklin fave, Ben Franklin’s Favorite Honey Cookies, all the Founders and their preferred dishes are here.

Colonel Timothy Pickering’s favorite, Pumpkin Custard, and the Sampson family favorite, Pumpkin Pie with Cheese Crust, both look delicious. I especially love the idea of a rich pumpkin pie filling in a Cheddary crust, and may feature this recipe—and the story of its creator, Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War—in a future post.

But for now, I’ll share another recipe that no Southern table would be without at Thanksgiving or Christmas: pickled crabapples. Like pickled peaches, these are staples of the Southern holiday table, served every year in my family home (and in our friend Ben’s). I had no idea that they dated back to Revolutionary times! This recipe was served at the table of Brigadier General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington.

                 Pinckney Family Crabapple Pickles

4 cups vinegar

8 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

4 cinnamon sticks

8 cups crabapples, pared and quartered [nowadays, most often found pickled whole—Silence] 

Blend together in cooking pot or kettle [a large cooking pot, like a stock pot, not a tea kettle] the vinegar, sugar and cloves. Bring to a boil and drop in the cinnamon sticks. Let cook for 6 minutes while continually stirring. Add quartered crabapples and allow to simmer until tender. Pack in sterilized jars. Fill jars to 1/4 inch to top with syrup from kettle and seal.

In today’s germ-conscious world, I’d advise you to either refrigerate your pickled crabapples or preserve them in a hot-water-bath canner, following directions in a book like The Ball Blue Book.

The next book I picked up was The Lewis & Clark Cookbook: Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discovery and Jefferson’s America (Leslie Mansfield, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA: 2002). I’m delighted to have this book in my cookbook library, but the title notwithstanding, I can’t quite see dishes like Creamed Turkey with Corn and Bacon over Polenta, Duck Breasts with Pear Eau de Vie Sauce, or Venison Roulade Stuffed with Mushrooms and Smithfield Ham as standard fare for the starving Corps of Discovery.

However, it warmed my heart to see creamed turkey listed among the recipes. As a child, I loved our Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys. I loved the turkey sandwiches we’d have after the big meal. But for me, the most special part of all was the creamed turkey my Mama made from the bits of leftover turkey that were too small to slice for sandwiches. She’d pull them off the carcass and add them to a hot, thick sauce of heavy cream, butter, salt, and white pepper, then spoon them up over toast. To my youthful, pre-vegetarian soul, this just had to be heaven!

Finally, I took a peek at The Early American Cookbook (Hyla O’Connor, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: 1974). Specializing in Colonial cooking, this cookbook is a treasure-trove of traditional dishes that could grace today’s Thanksgiving tables, including Pumpkin Soup, Farmers’ Corn Soup, Corn Chowder, Apple Corn Bread, Corn Pone, Original Plymouth Succotash, Simmered Turkey, Fricassee of Turkey Wings, Sour Cream Pumpkin Pie, Pumpkin Pickles, and warming beverages like Hot Flip and Fish House Punch.

From this wonderful book, let me share a classic American dessert, Apple Brown Betty, so easy to make, so satisfying on a cold autumn or winter day:

            Apple Brown Betty

4 cups large bread crumbs

1/2 cup melted butter

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

pinch of salt

3/4 cup brown sugar

4 cups chopped cooking apples [McIntosh, Jonathan and Rome are classic cooking apples, but I think a tart, crisp apple like Granny Smith makes a wonderful Betty—Silence]

Grease a 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine bread crumbs with butter, cinnamon, salt, and sugar and toss lightly. Make alternate layers of crumb mixture and apples in baking dish, ending with bread crumbs. Bake about 1 hour, or until top is a rich golden brown and apples are tender. Serve warm with heavy cream.

That’s it for today! I hope you’ve all been inspired by the wealth of Colonial recipes, and are eager to try out your own Colonial Thanksgiving. Trust me, I haven’t even scratched the surface. Let’s hope I find time to share more!

                ‘Til next time,