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Feel-good films. July 17, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were talking just last night about favorite films, and OFB pointed out that many of my favorites were films that made me feel good. I agreed; I love films that cheer me up, that make me feel good, that give me hope, that make me laugh. So OFB challenged me to come up with my “Top Ten Feel-Good Films” list. I accepted the challenge, even though I was sure that I’d forget some of my favorites, and that there were so many more than ten that the list would necessarily be incomplete. But given those limitations, here are the ones that sprang to mind:

Bride and Prejudice. The Bollywood version of “Pride and Prejudice.” I love many adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Emma,” Ciaran Hinds’s magnificent performance in “Persuasion,” and Alicia Silverstone’s adorable “Clueless,” but the high energy, hijinks, and general color, lightheartedness, and mayhem of “Bride and Prejudice”—not to mention the gorgeous Naveen Andrews as Balraj (Mr. Bingley)—takes it over the top.

Young Sherlock Holmes. I love all things Sherlock, but for the ultimate feel-good Holmes film, I’ll take “Young Sherlock Holmes” any day. Alan Cox as Watson would be enough to make the film a classic, but the marvelous Anthony Higgins as Moriarty and the hysterical, campy Egyptian stuff really make it priceless. After seeing it, just thinking of the line “My name is Lester Cragwitch!” will make you roar with laughter.

Flashdance. This isn’t the most cheerful of films, but its ultimate message is so uplifting: Go for your dreams and never give up. The heroine, played sensitively by a very young Jennifer Beals, faces a lot of hardship and heartbreak on the way to reaching her dreams, but she succeeds (and her friends don’t) because her inherent optimism, kindness, generosity and drive attract allies that won’t let her down, no matter what. And there’s tons of energy in the music and dancing.

Blow Dry. Like “Flashdance,” “Blow Dry” takes us through the full range of emotions, especially since Natasha Richardson plays a woman dying before her time and we all know what happened to her. But this film is so full of humor as well as sorrow, so full of great actors (like Alan Rickman), so full of hysterical moments (Bill Nighy is priceless, as is his film partner, Louie, and the mayor of the small town in Yorkshire where the hair competition is held). Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of love, but it reaches its end with plenty of humor along the way. Best line: “He looks like bloody Sid Vicious!” Wait ’til you see who it is.

The Full Monty. This riotous film is also overflowing with humor, but the underlying message is uplifting, about the power that comes from sticking together. A bunch of very unlikely, unemployed men from the former booming steel town of Sheffield, England, decide to improve their fortunes—and love lives—by staging a Chippendales-style act of their own. After many misadventures, including being thrown into jail, losing their homes, losing a son through custody issues, a botched suicide attempt, grocery-store burglary, and so on, the guys get it together. And the attack of the garden gnomes during a job interview still makes me laugh so hard I cry.

Julie and Julia. Who doesn’t love Julia Child? Who doesn’t love Dan Aykroyd’s parody of Julia Child? Who wouldn’t love Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia and Paul Child? Not me. Seeing any of the above onscreen makes me feel good, especially the onion scene. Seeing Julia’s modern-day follower, Julie Powell, trying to make lobster thermidore while her totally adorable husband dances around singing “Lobsta killah, lobsta killah” is the greatest thing ever.

Smoke Signals. Based on Sherman Alexie’s novels of life on the Rez, this film brims over with laugh-out-loud humor and dry wit. The ultimate coming-of-age story and road trip rolled into one, it’s filled with great characters like Lester Fallsapart and the great Gary Farmer as Arnold Joseph, father of one of the protagonists, who ironically really does fall apart. But the true hero of the movie is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a happy-go-lucky visionary who helps Arnold’s son Victor reconcile his relationship with his father, and with life, over the course of the road trip. As the Rez’s DJ says, “It’s a good day to be Indigenous.”

The Commitments. This movie about some kids in Dublin who form a soul band, “The Commitments,” is hilarious. Many of the best lines are provided by the Elvis-worshipping father of the protagonist, played just brilliantly by Colm Meaney, who has a portrait of Elvis hanging just under his portrait of the Pope. The adorable (and bizarrely named) Outspan Foster, played by Irish musician Glen Hansard, will win your heart, and Maria Doyle (now Maria Doyle Kennedy of “The Tudors” fame) is marvelous. Not to mention that the music is great.

Princess Caraboo. The movie that presumably introduced Phoebe Cates to her husband, Kevin Kline, is simply marvelous all-round. Catesby plays a servant girl in Regency England (the Jane Austen era) who runs away and pretends to be an exotic princess, named Caraboo. She is taken up as a novelty by high society and eventually even meets the Prince Regent himself before being unmasked by an investigative reporter, Gutch. But the film has a happy ending, as Gutch has fallen in love with the girl and arranges for her to make a fresh start in America rather than being hanged, and then joins her. Kline as Frixos, the Greek butler of the house that takes her in, is simply priceless, and a strong supporting cast, including Jim Broadbent, John Lithgow, John Sessions as the Prince Regent, and the marvelous Stephen Rea as the reporter, make this a total feel-good hit. Wait for Kevin Kline’s “Unfortunately.”

Last Holiday. Queen Latifah at her finest, playing Georgia Bird, a gifted cook who worships Emeril and longs to open a restaurant but instead is working in the cookware department of a department store run by a greedy, horrific monster who embodies every moronic, “hot” management trend, much like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. When Ms. Bird is misdiagnosed with a terminal illness and told she only has two weeks to live, she decides to chuck it in and spend those two weeks at a super-elite hotel and spa in Switzerland, enjoying the delicious dishes prepared by their outrageously eccentric chef, played marvelously by Gerard Depardieu. When her horrid uber-boss shows up at the same resort, hilarity follows on a grand scale, and Georgia eventually triumphs. Don’t ever forget Depardieu’s secret to happiness: butter. (But he forgot salt.)

Independence Day. What red-blooded Earthling wouldn’t love this movie, where, as star Will Smith says, we “whup ET’s ass”?! Jeff Goldblum is simply priceless as the nerdy genius who saves the day, but it’s his onscreen father, played to perfection by Judd Hirsch, who steals all the scenes. At Hawk’s Haven, we watch “Independence Day” every Fourth of July. But I could probably watch it every week.

Honorable mention:

Scrooge. The musical version of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Albert Finney, is hilarious, and the music is fantastic. David Collings as Bob Cratchit, Karen Scargill as his adorable daughter Kathy, and one of Scrooge’s debtors, Tom Jenkins (Anton Rogers), a soup seller, are so great, and we’re treated to guest appearances by Sir Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost, Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Sir Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present. But it’s really David Collings who steals the show as Cratchit. My other fave is “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” which also has really memorable music. The reason these fall in the “Honorable Mention” category is simply because they’re seasonal.

Conan the Barbarian. Ah, gotta love the two Conan movies, “Conan the Barbarian” and its sequel, “Conan the Destroyer.” These films introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world beyond weightlifting and made him a household name, mainly because they were filled with great Arnold one-liners that came to define his subsequent film roles, such as another favorite feel-good film, “The Running Man.” (“See you at the 25th prison reunion.”) It was “The Running Man” that first gave us Ah-nold’s deathless line, “I’ll be back.” But it was the Conan films that gave him the opening to inject humor and laughs into what could have been just another pair of tedious muscle/fantasy films that took themselves way too seriously.

Bend It Like Beckham. I suppose I’d appreciate any film that allowed an ordinary girl to triumph over the bizarre-looking, anorexic Keira Knightley. The parents of both the heroine and her best friend (played by Ms. Knightley) are marvelous. And like all Jane Austen romances—of which I think this was a modernization—there are plenty of twists and turns before the star-crossed lovers are finally united with a kiss.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A gentle, delightful film about a bunch of British seniors who are, for a variety of reasons, forced to retire to India to spend their “golden years” in an affordable hotel. Plunged into an exotic culture and less-than-ideal accommodations, they discover who they truly are and even find late-life love and new careers. Meanwhile, the adorable proprietor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel faces romantic and financial crises of his own, but amid considerable hilarity, all turns out for the best. Super ensemble performances, with standout turns from Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel (as the proprietor). Impossible not to feel good by the end of this!

Cinema Paradiso. Some sad things happen in this Italian tale of a small town cinema’s rise and fall, but there’s such delightful interplay between a little boy, the man who operates the film equipment, and the village priest that it more than compensates. Lots of laughs and smiles along the way. And, in the end, two delightful surprises for the boy, now grown to become a famous director. Beautifully acted, great music, and totally heartwarming.

The Gods Must Be Crazy. This hysterical film pits a timeless, gentle, primitive culture against modern society, all because a pilot tossed an empty Coke bottle out of his plane. The Kalahari people on whose land the bottle falls at first believe it to be a gift from the Gods, but realize when it stirs up envy and enmity among the people for the first time ever that it is “the evil thing.” One man volunteers to take it away, and in the process has many misadventures as he meets more “advanced” cultures. At the same time, a hapless ranger has ludicrous, hilarious disaster after disaster, especially after he meets the woman of his dreams. Fortunately, all turns out well for the tribesman and the star-crossed lovers.

Sister Act. Okay, okay, I know it’s hokey, but it still cheers me up. Whoopi Goldberg may not be convincing as a casino act, but she’s simply great as a pseudo-nun in the Witness Protection Program. Dame Maggie Smith does a great job as her Mother Superior, and Whoopi’s fellow nuns are priceless, as she turns a hopeless choir into an irresistible act. I dare you not to sing along!

Okay, enough from me for now. That’s 18 movies that make me happy. Which films make you happy?

‘Til nex,t time,

Silence

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A great excuse to eat mushrooms. January 9, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. While the gentlemen of the party were watching the Steelers snatch defeat from the jaws of victory yesterday afternoon, my friend Carolyn took me on a driving tour of the historic barns of nearby Pike Township, PA. We ended the scenic drive with a visit to some friends of Carolyn’s that also happen to be mushroom growers.

They gave us a tour of their mushroom setup, which was fascinating to a mushroom-lover like yours truly. We saw the huge sterilizing tanks for the growing medium, the specialized room where the medium was inoculated with mushroom spawn, and the large growing room where the bags of medium produced an assortment of gourmet mushrooms. Wow!

Then, just as we were leaving, the couple presented me with a huge box of freshly harvested oyster mushrooms. (Think those crates that tangerines and clementines come in.) WOW!!! They mentioned that their favorite way to eat them was roasted with a drizzle of olive oil and herbs.

Well, our friend Ben and I love roasted mushrooms, but I doubted that we could manage to roast (much less eat) the whole boxfull while the mushrooms were still fresh. OFB and I also love a dish of mushrooms and sweet onions in Marsala or Madeira wine sauce over rice or pasta, but it’s a rich dish and one evening of it is plenty for at least a month.

“Why don’t you just cook them down and freeze them?” Carolyn (who’d declined my offer of half the box, saying she preferred “regular” mushrooms) suggested. Well, clearly she hasn’t taken a peek in our freezer lately. And it seemed like a shame to freeze such delicate treats.

Clearly, I needed help. So I turned to my trio of mushroom cookbooks. The first one, Start Mushrooming (Stan Tekiela and Karen Shanberg, Adventure Publications, 1993),  isn’t really a cookbook, but rather a guide to identifying and harvesting wild mushrooms, but it includes recipes. The authors describe oyster mushrooms as having a mild, nutty flavor, sometimes with a hint of anise. (They’re called oyster mushrooms because of their appearance, not their flavor.) And they provided this recipe for enjoying them:

                 Mom’s Old-Fashioned Potatoes and Oyster Mushrooms

2 cups fresh oyster mushrooms

6 medium red potatoes, peeled and cubed

5 scallions (green onions), chopped fine

4 tablespoons butter, divided

Boil the prepared potatoes until soft. Saute the onions and mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of the butter. Drain the potatoes and pour them into the saute pan with the onions and mushrooms. With a fork or potato masher, mash the potatoes until smooth. Add the remaining butter in small amounts. Extra butter may be added as needed. 2-4 servings. Note: These potatoes will not be smooth in texture, but that is the point of this old-fashioned recipe.

Hmmm. The potatoes clearly wouldn’t be smooth, especially if you saute the mushrooms whole rather than slicing or dicing them! I’d definitely chop them, and either mash the potatoes in the pot they were cooked in with a little milk or half-and-half before stirring the contents of the saute pan into them or undercook the cubed potatoes and toss them into the saute pan with the mushrooms to make hash browns. I wouldn’t peel them, either. And I’d probably add half a diced sweet onion along with or instead of the scallions.

Let’s move on to the next cookbook, Joe’s Book of Mushroom Cookery (Jack Czarnecki, Atheneum, 1986), written by the grandson of the founder of Joe’s, a famous restaurant in Reading, PA specializing in wild mushrooms and wild game. (It operated continuously from 1916 to 1986, and its closing was so lamented that The New York Times published an obituary.)

Chef Czarnecki notes that “For texture the oyster mushroom is one of the choicest commercial varieties available. The entire body of the mushroom can be used, and it is a wondrous silky mushroom that is a joy to use in almost any mushroom dish.” He also says it needs butter and onion to enhance its mild flavor and that it can be frozen (after braising) or canned. Like our hosts, he likes to grill large oyster mushroom caps, sprinkling on grated parmesan when the mushrooms’ edges “begin to toast” and serving as soon as the cheese melts. He also likes to deep-fry them to make Mock Fried Oysters.

Hmmm again. I love fried foods, I confess, but am not about to fry anything at home, since I hate grease. But it’s encouraging to see that recommendation that oyster mushrooms can be used in almost any mushroom dish. (Maybe not in spaghetti sauce, but I could see sauteed oyster mushrooms layered into a lasagna, as an omelette filling, and topping a thin-crust pizza.)

Time to take a look in the third book, Mushrooms: Favorite Recipes (Andrea Kosslinger and Sibylle Reiter, Silverback Books, 2005, translated from the German). True to its origins, this book features German cuisine, including a lot of recipes for game. But there are plenty of recipes that appeal to vegetarians like me.

Their oyster-mushroom-specific recipes include Mache Salad with Sauteed Oyster Mushrooms, Oyster Mushrooms and Bacon, Baked Oyster Mushrooms with Soy Sauce and Tabasco, Breaded Oyster Mushrooms with Fresh Herbs, Bavarian Pretzel-Dumpling Carpaccio with Sauteed Oyster Mushrooms, Quick Stir-Fried Tagliatelle, and English Casserole with Oyster Mushrooms and Curry Sauce. Papardelle with Assorted Wild Mushrooms recommends oyster mushrooms as part of the mix and looks simple and delicious.

I have to digress here for a moment to talk about ragout. Any fan of Jane Austen and the Regency Period has certainly heard of ragout, a popular dish of the era. But I confess I’ve never had a clue what a ragout was, except that it was served at the evening meal.

I’d also been mystified years ago when I went on a garden tour of England as the lone vegetarian on the tour. The places we stayed made every effort to be accomodating, and in every single one, I was ritually served what appeared to be a mushroom-heavy pasta sauce without the pasta. The sauce was perfectly tasty, but where was the pasta or even rice that should accompany it? Gads.

The answer to both questions emerged as I was paging through this cookbook and encountered a recipe for Mushroom Ragout. Sure enough, this was the dish I’d been served all over England, where it would normally have been served as one side dish among many at a meal. Mystery (finally) solved! And I’d still serve it over pasta or rice.

But getting back to the recipes, I think I’ll share the one for the mache salad, even though, unless you grow your own or live in a sophisticated urban area, you’re unlikely to find mache, a French wild and cultivated green also known as corn salad and lamb’s lettuce with a mild, sweet, nutty flavor. It sounds yummy, with the warm sauteed mushrooms served on the dressed greens. We don’t have mache here, so if I made this, I’d substitute arugula or watercress and see if their spicy, peppery flavor and body also complemented the sauteed mushrooms:

                        Mache Salad with Sauteed Oyster Mushrooms

1 1/2 cups mache

juice of 1/2 lemon

1/4 cup canola oil

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon herb salt

freshly ground white pepper 

 10 1/2 ounces oyster mushrooms

 1 red onion

 2 cloves garlic

butter for sauteeing

salt

Rinse mache thoroughly and spin dry. Combine lemon juice, canola oil, balsamic vinegar, herb salt, and pepper to make a dressing. Clean mushrooms with a mushroom brush or paper towel, trim, and cut strips that are not too fine. Peel onion and garlic and mince. In pan, melt butter, then brown mushrooms, onion, and garlic. Seaon with salt and pepper. Carefully toss mache and dressing. Arrange on large individual plates and top with sauteed mushrooms.

Tips: In a small, ungreased pan, toast 1 handful pine nuts and sprinkle over the warm mushrooms. When browning the oyster mushrooms, add 3 tablespoons walnut oil. It intensifies the nutty flavor of the mushrooms and goes well with the garlic.

Well, there you have it! I’m planning to make mixed sauteed mushrooms and sweet onion in Marsala wine sauce on rice for OFB tonight, with mixed broccoflower, orange cauliflower, and broccoli (simply prepared with lemon juice, butter, salt and fresh-ground black pepper to offset the richness of the mushroom dish) and a big, crunchy salad. Tomorrow night I’ll probably roast mushrooms, sliced sweet potatoes, sweet onion, and asparagus, and serve them alone or over pasta, again with a big salad. Then it may be time for lasagna, layering sauteed oyster mushrooms in with the pasta sauce, ricotta mixture, and mozzarella. And if I still have any oyster mushrooms at that point, maybe it will be time for polenta or pizza or even grits with shredded Jarlsberg and sauteed oyster mushrooms. And I know OFB would relish a mushroom and cheese omelette with English muffins and marmalade…

Oh, wait. Maybe my neighbor would enjoy some fresh oyster mushrooms; think I’ll give her a call. So might the folks who invited us to that eccentric borax-themed party yesterday. And our friend Rudy might appreciate an invitation for a mushroom-centric supper. How nice to be able to share the wealth, and what a treat for all concerned! 

If you have a favorite vegetarian-friendly oyster mushroom recipe, please by all means share!

                  ‘Til next time,

                              Silence

When the movie is better. March 24, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are great readers, but we try not to be book snobs. People love to belittle movies by comparing them, unfavorably, to the books on which they were based. (The Lord of the Rings movie series comes to mind as a justifiable example of this, reducing a wonderful trilogy to a two-dimensional endless battle sequence worthy of a video game.) But sometimes the movies are better.

Perhaps it was the death of Elizabeth Taylor, possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived, certainly the most beautiful we ever saw, that brought the topic to mind. Or watching the first episode of “The Pallisers” last night, or comparing the recent version of “True Grit” with the original. But whatever the case, we challenged each other to name some movies that were far superior to the books that inspired them.

First on our list was “The Running Man.” The novella that inspired the movie was little more than a two-dimensional sketch by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). For whatever reason, the scriptwriters managed to flesh the story out with real characters, lots of color, and actual depth. Ditto for Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun versus the Sean Connery-led film “Rising Sun.” Silence would add the Timothy Dalton version of “Jane Eyre” and both the Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale versions of Jane Austen’s “Emma” to the list. Certainly, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” were far better on film than on paper. Ditto most of the James Bond movies and the Conan movies. “The Commitments,” the marvelous fleshing out of a very slight novella by Roddy Doyle. And “Slumdog Millionaire,” the brilliant bringing to life of an Indian novel called Q&A, a first effort by Vikas Swarup.

Plays are not immune, either. “A Man for All Seasons” and “Amadeus” are two cases where the film trumped the play; ditto “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 

Sometimes, we feel that the film versions and book versions come out as a draw. We both love the Tony Hillerman mystery series featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But we also really enjoyed the Robert Redford-produced dramatizations of the series. We feel the same for the movie “Smoke Signals” and the Sherman Alexie short stories on which it was loosely based. And we really enjoy both Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its TV adaptation.

Then there are the film versions that fall short. Besides the Lord of the Rings movies, there is the issue of Sherlock Holmes. Silence and I love Basil Rathbone as Holmes and respect Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a twitchy, ADHD-bipolar genius enormously. But we are still waiting for the ultimate interpretation, the one that truly lives up to the stories and books. Silence enjoys the various interpretations of her favorite Jane Austen book, Pride and Prejudice, from the BBC version to the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth film to “Clueless” and “Bride and Prejudice,” the Bollywood version. But she still thinks the ultimate interpretation has yet to be done.

And of course, there are the books that should be made as films but are still waiting: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne and Tigana; Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen; Sheri Tepper’s Grass and The True Game trilogy; Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting; Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light and Golden Witchbreed; Wendell Berry’s Port William novels; Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons and Falls the Shadow; Hope Munt’s The Golden Warrior.  Directors, producers, scriptwriters, where are you?!!!

Readers, we know you have additions to our various lists. Please share them with us!  And meanwhile, let’s take a moment to honor those often-invisible, overlooked entities, screenwriters, who can turn run-of-the mill text into great cinema.

For Jane Austen fans only. December 17, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. A lifelong and diehard Jane Austen fan, I’d dropped by Heidi’s blog, the marvelously named Embraceable Ewe (http://embraceablewe.blogspot.com/), and was thrilled to see a banner (or whatever it’s called) announcing that she “was” Jane Austen’s Emma and inviting viewers to click the link, take a quiz, and see which Austen heroine they were.* How could I resist?

Unsurprisingly, I “was” Elizabeth Bennet, the fiesty heroine of Pride and Prejudice. And yet, Mr. Darcy isn’t my favorite of Jane Austen’s male leads. His woodenness always failed to engage me, no matter how often Ms. Austen alluded to his handsomeness. If I wanted a handsome statue, I’d buy one.

So, forthwith: Which Austen hero (or major male character) would you choose for a hot fling? For a life partner? Choose your faves from below and let us know! (And if you have a favorite film or TV characterization of your hero, let us hear which actor won your heart!)

Pride and Prejudice: Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. Collins

Emma: Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill, Mr. John Knightley, Mr. Elton, Robert Martin

Sense and Sensibility: Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, John Willoughby, Robert Ferrars

Persuasion: Captain Frederick Wentworth, Mr. Elliot, Captain Benwick, Charles Musgrove**, Charles Hayter, Sir Walter Elliot

Mansfield Park: Edmund Bertram, Tom Bertram, Henry Crawford, Mr. Rushworth, William Price, John Yates

Northanger Abbey: Henry Tilney, Captain Frederick Tilney, General Tilney, John Thorpe

* To take the “Which heroine are you?” test, go to www.strangegirl.com and click on the “Emma Adaptations” bar, or click the link on Heidi’s blog.

** Poor Charles Musgrove is the only man in this list who’s actually married when the novels begin. But he was a former and sincere suitor of Persuasion‘s heroine, Anne Elliot, and thus rates a place in the list, especially given whom he ended up marrying. Oops, now that I think of it, Mr. John Knightley is also a married man when Emma opens, but since I love his brusque, no-nonsense character, I just had to include him.

Wondering who my choice would be? Gee, I hate to reveal all and possibly prejudice you against your own choice. But, well, okay. After seeing Ciaran Hinds’s sizzling performance as Captain Wentworth, I’d have thrown everything out the window and run off with him in a heartbeat. And the Mr. Bingley/Balraj role as played by Naveen Andrews in Bollywood’s “Bride and Prejudice” was even hotter than that. But if I was going by the books themselves rather than the film adaptations, it just has to be the well-named Mr. Knightley.

How about you?

       ‘Til next time,

                  Silence

Did Jane Austen eat devilled eggs? July 18, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Someone came on our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, today searching for “jane austen devilled eggs.” Uh, say what?!!!

I’ll be the first to admit that our friend Ben and I love devilled eggs. (To make them my way, hardboil eggs, shell them, split each egg lengthwise in half, extract the yolks. Mash the yolks with mayonnaise, mustard—we use Jim Beam mustard—horseradish, salt, and hot sauce—we prefer Picakpeppa—to taste. Some people add relish, finely chopped celery, finely chopped red bell pepper, minced sweet onion, chopped green onion, aka scallions, and/or minced pimiento as well. This gives the devilled eggs a little crunch, which is also appealing. Check it all out and suit yourself. Once you’ve mixed the yolks with your choice of ingredients, pile the stuffing back in the eggwhite halves, dust with paprika, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Top with sprigs of parsley or cilantro if desired.)

Devilled eggs are yummy. They’re perfect finger foods for picnics. (As an alternative, mash the yolks as described, add all the fillings, then chop the whites fine, mix them in, and use the resulting egg salad as a filling for toasted multigrain bread with sliced tomatoes and Romaine lettuce leaves.)

But what’s this got to do with Jane Austen? Being only an amateur food historian, I’d assumed that picnics were an American phenomenon of the ’50s, when the affluent suburbanites of our post-WWII society were looking for fun and harmless family diversions. Picnics, barbecues, fondues: tres chic, right?

Er. As a Jane Austen fan, I did recall the picnic scenes in her novel Emma. (Though I certainly didn’t recall devilled eggs.) I also recalled a classic scene in Persuasion where the heroine’s greedy, spoiled sister Mary was wolfing down mustard-laced shaved ham on slabs of fresh-made bread. But devilled eggs in Jane Austen? Surely not!

Clearly, I needed assistance. Heading to my good friend Google, I saw with amazement that devilled eggs had been on the scene far longer than I would have imagined, even back in Roman times. The “devilled” part refers to the heat of the added ingredients, but all the recipes start with hard-boiled eggs. Okay, Julius Caesar’s army conquered Britain. Caesar’s army also introduced domestic fowl in the form of Speckled Sussex hens to Britain. So maybe they introduced devilled eggs to Britain! By Jane Austen’s day, devilled eggs may have been old hat, standard picnic fare for Jane and her family as they are for our families.

If that’s the case, I can only say that I hope Jane and the rest of the Austens loved devilled eggs as much as we do!

       ‘Til next time,

                  Silence

The princess and the pea revisited. December 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend and fellow blog contributor, Richard Saunders, wants to do a series of January posts focusing on the Founding Fathers. But while it’s still December, I’d like to do some fairy-tale bashing. “The Princess and the Pea” springs to mind.

All of you probably recall the story: A prince decides to search for a bride. But of course, not just any bride will do. It has to be a delicate, sensitive bride, a true “lady”. So he hides a dried pea under about a thousand feather beds (the feather-stuffed mattresses, about twice the thickness of today’s comforters, that were in vogue at the time), then invites all the princess-wannabes in the kingdom to come take a shot at measuring up to his exacting standards. As you can already see, this would have made a great reality TV show. (“Who Wants to Be a Princess?”)

Contenders come from far and wide. Many are lovely and accomplished, but all fail the ultimate test: When shown to their room for the night, they fail to perceive that pea under the 50th mattress, and enjoy a good night’s sleep. As a result, they’re unceremoniously booted out. Finally, a young girl arrives who is so extremely sensitive that, after a night on the pea-infested bed, she not only has been unable to sleep a wink but is bruised all over from the hateful pea lurking under the mattresses. The ecstatic prince marries her and they live happily ever after.

What a moron! Clearly his inbred line was due for a Darwin Award any second. How do I know? Because I, Silence Dogood, would also have been selected by the prince as his lovely bride. My skin is so sensitive that it will bruise if someone looks at it. I long ago abandoned any thought of trying to recall how a given bruise or cut appeared on my skin, since otherwise I’d have to spend 24 hours a day pondering it, and I really have better things to do. Believe me, sensitivity is overrated. It’s pointless, painful, and stupid.

What could the prince have been thinking? Did he want to display his future queen to the court with bruises all up and down her arms? How attractive! Did he want to spend his private time being subjected to a barrage of complaints about how this hurt and that hurt? How this sheet abraded her skin, this sweater rubbed her raw, this soap made her bleed? Good grief!

Surely he’d have been better off with some nice, smart girl who could have helped him run the kingdom (clearly, he could have used some help) rather than a porcelain idol. Someone who could have been helpful rather than helpless. (Not that I, Silence, am helpless, as our friend Ben can attest! But to make physical sensitivity a criterion, much less the sole criterion, is unbelievable.)

I don’t know about you, but I would love to drop in on our hero about 10 years down the road. I can just imagine a household much like the Bennets’ in Jane Austen’s immortal Pride and Prejudice, where Mr. Bennet has to spend pretty much all his time trying to block out Mrs. Bennet’s interminable complaints. Mr. Bennet  is portrayed as a very smart, educated man with a priceless sense of humor. I can’t help but wonder how the plot would have developed had he married a woman who was his equal. Instead, we have a deathless portrait of the IQ-deprived Mrs. Bennet: “Nobody knows how I suffer! You have no compassion on my poor nerves!” I hope that stupid prince, wherever he may be, is hearing that 24/7.

           ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Just do it. August 16, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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As the days get shorter, our friend Ben is forced to acknowledge that summer is drawing to its close. This last week of blissfully cool (as opposed to sickeningly hot and humid) weather, and the fact that it’s still quite dark at 6 a.m., reinforces that autumn is on the horizon. The realization is bittersweet.

Autumn is our friend Ben’s favorite season. The weather is cool and delightful—perfect walking weather—the sky is impossibly blue, and the earth is cloaked in color, red and orange and yellow and gold and purple. But even as the growing season is drawing to its close, autumn is also a time of new beginnings, doubtless because it’s the start of a new school year.

Our dear friend Huma and her delightful twins, Rashu and Sasha, are leaving today to return to the United Arab Emirates, where Huma teaches college and the boys will be in their senior year of high school before returning to the States for college the following fall. (You should have seen the sendoff spread Silence Dogood made for them—the famous Crock Pot Mac’n’Cheese, Super Summer Squash Casserole, Think Pink Gazpacho, and mixed green and yellow wax beans. Yum!!!)

Our friend Rob, a journalism professor, also returns to his college in a couple of weeks. The elementary, middle school, and high school teachers at Silence’s local Curves are bidding adieu to their mid-morning workouts; they’ll be stopping by after classes from now on. If you have school-age kids, you’re probably in the midst of a frantic shopping spree for new jeans, shoes, laptops, and whatnot all. In publishing, the field Silence and I work in, autumn means the end of “early Fridays,” where you work longer hours the rest of the week in order to get off early (how early depends on your company; it can be anywhere from 1 to 3) on Fridays. Autumn is a time to get new projects off the ground, to ramp up, to get serious about work.

All this is to say that autumn is a time of endings and beginnings. Which means that these last weeks of summer are a good time to wrap up things that you’ve been meaning to do all summer and never gotten around to. E-mail, write, call, or visit that old friend or family member. Go through the closet and collect everything that doesn’t fit or looks rundown or is out of fashion, bag it up, and take it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Buy some birdfeeders, a bugproof seed-storage container, and a scoop, and make a commitment to keep those feeders filled for your feathered visitors. Join a gym so you can work out indoors when it’s too dark or nasty to go outdoors. Set up a system to make sure you pay your bills on time.

Silence, a devout Jane Austen fan, quotes Mr. Knightley, the hero of Miss Austen’s novel Emma, often on this subject. The words Jane Austen put in Mr. Knightley’s mouth pretty much sum it up: “There is always one thing which a man can do… and that is his duty.” As Silence notes, this goes for women, too. We may not be able to do everything we want or hope to accomplish, but we can at least start by doing what’s expected of us: writing that thank-you note, completing an assignment, cleaning the litterbox, making a tough phone call, meeting a deadline.

Once we’ve done what we must do—once we’ve met our obligations—we can see if there’s still time to do what we want to do. And if you make doing what you must do a priority, I think you’ll be surprised at how much “free” time you’ll suddenly discover. You’ll stop wasting time, often a lot of time, hiding from a task you dread. You’ll no longer have the weight of some assignment hanging over you. More than free time, you yourself will be free. What a feeling! So take advantage of this summer’s end to take stock of the things you need to do. Set realistic priorities. Then just do it. You’ll be glad you did.

The naming of chickens (and a Regency rant). June 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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10 comments

People sometimes look at me strangely when I tell them our chickens have names. And they always look at me strangely when I tell them what the chickens’ names are. But here at Hawk’s Haven, we think names matter. Real chickens aren’t stupid (as opposed to factory-farmed fowl who have had pretty much everything but their egglaying or meat-producing capacity bred out of them), and they know their own names as well as we know ours. We keep our chickens for life—which is up to twelve years—so we know them as well as any of our pets. And besides, choosing names is fun.

We like to give our hens theme names, which is pretty easy, since we only have six. Originally, Silence Dogood gave them all the names of Regency romance heroines—Venetia, Sophia, and the like. Silence swears to me that she hasn’t read a Regency romance since high school, when she was a Georgette Heyer addict, but I have my doubts. (Ack! Now I’ve done it. Silence just came in and, looking over my shoulder, announced that she’d like to put in a word at the end of this post.)

Our current flock is as follows: Stella, a Buff Orpington; Roxanne, a Spangled Sussex; Lucretia, a Barred Rock; Olivia, a Partridge Rock; Imelda, an Americana/Partridge Rock cross; and her half-sister Griselda, an Americana/Delaware cross. (To our friend Ben’s knowledge, there are no shoe closets in the Pullet Palace, and if Imelda has any Manolos hidden away, she only wears them after dark.) Needless to say, each hen has her own personality—some more pleasing than others—and because no two look alike, it’s easy for us to tell who’s who. I suppose if you had an entire flock of Rhode Island Reds, it might be easier to just call them all Lucy and get it over with.

But if you have a mixed flock like ours, our friend Ben encourages you to choose a theme and give your girls names you’ll enjoy, be they Jane Austen heroines, favorite Disney or Star Trek characters,  beloved cartoon characters like Blondie, Cathy, and Nancy, or the female stars of your favorite TV show, be it “Ugly Betty,” “Gray’s Anatomy,” or “House.” (Or, say, “American Idol” winners or female rock stars, or even women from famous rock songs like Layla, Lola, and Melissa.) You’ll enjoy your chickens more if they have names that also amuse you. And the more you talk to your chickens, calling each by her own name, the tamer and more affectionate they’ll be. And that’s a good thing.

Let us know if your chickens have especially wonderful names. And now (gulp), here’s Silence…

Silence Dogood here. I’d just like to go on a brief rant about the wretched state of today’s so-called Regency romances. The Regency romance—and the romance novel in general—was the love child of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Jane Austen lived in the Regency period, that time in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s when England’s King George III was suffering his bouts of “madness” and his son, the Prince Regent, was acting king. Her delightful novels were set in her own time.

Georgette Heyer, writing in the first half of the Twentieth Century, emulated Jane Austen’s winning Pride and Prejudice formula (smart, entrancing girl meets wealthy, handsome boy, difficulties ensue, but ultimately girl gets boy) in her own novels. She recognized the allure of setting her novels in the past, in a more “romantic” era, so she also chose Jane Austen’s period (thus, Regency romances). And she upped the ante: her heroines, though invariably well bred, were usually reduced by circumstances to take humiliating positions such as governess or paid companion, making them ineligible as marriage partners in the rigid class structure of the day; her heroes were almost always of the nobility, and often dukes. Her plot twists brought the pair together in such a way that the hero overcame his class prejudices to ultimately perceive the lady’s charms, and love conquered all.

It’s tempting to say that, in America’s classless society, the appeal of these books would be incomprehensible. But the success of Harlequin and other romance-novel publishers gives this assumption the lie. Jane Austen is, if anything, more popular now than she ever was. But why? I think it’s because these novels touch on a core issue for women, who want to be loved for who we are, not how we look. Like everyone, women want to be loved. But we distrust surfaces. We have seen the most beautiful, the most famous, the most admired women in the world—Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Martha Stewart, Jennifer Aniston, Oprah, you name her—fail to find fidelity or marital happiness. If they can’t manage it, how can we ordinary women?

That’s where the Regency romance comes in. The wealthy, handsome, sophisticated man of the world has seen it all. And then he sees us. Wearied by superficiality, he perceives the timeless qualities that set us apart. He is ready to give up his life of idle dissipation in order to love and cherish us—and us alone—for the rest of our lives. It’s as if James Bond suddenly fell madly in love with, and proposed to, Miss Moneypenny.

Obviously, most of us are not out to marry a duke, or James Bond, or even Indiana Jones. But that captain-of-the-football-team-falls-in-love-with-the-brainy-science-major business is still pretty heady stuff for many women. (And I’m here to tell you that it really does happen.) So romance novels continue to sell.

But here’s the thing. In Jane Austen’s day, physical contact between the sexes—at least, until marriage—was a scandal. I’m not sure any of her heroes and heroines even so much as kissed, even after they pledged their troth. And all of Miss Austen’s books ended when the happy couple finally made it to the altar—no steamy night-of or morning-after scenes. Georgette Heyer pretty much stuck to that formula as well, though if memory serves, there were a few kisses in her novels, at least at the end. By contrast, today’s romance novels are filled with graphic sex and pre-marital pregnancies.

I understand the point of this—these novels are aimed at bored 30- and 40-something housewives, not (ahem) virginal teens, who were the heroines in both Miss Austen’s and Miss Heyer’s novels. I assume the authors and their publishers figure that these women are a) not virgins and b) would like to read about heroines who are closer to their own age and life experience. Thus, the age of the romance heroine has moved into the twenties, and more of them are widows or discarded fiancees (discarded, of course, after the cad who engaged their affections has ravished them, often with horrific consequences).

But oh, please. Reading about the couplings of the characters in graphic if eccentric detail (romance novels have their own language as far as describing body parts and sex acts is concerned) is ludicrous at best, screamingly (though unintentionally) funny at worst. Some things are best left to the imagination, as Georgette Heyer knew. That’s why I think that Bollywood’s “Bride and Prejudice,” where the Darcy-and-Elizabeth equivalents never so much as kiss, is truer to Jane Austen’s intent than most modern interpretations of her novels, and one reason why I love Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. Though his heroines pursue romances, become engaged, and marry, you never read about so much as a kiss.

Anticipation. Hope. The realization of a seemingly impossible dream. This is romance (if not reality, but that’s the whole point, now, isn’t it?). Our friend Ben is right; I don’t read modern Regency romances. Not because I wouldn’t enjoy the delightful escapist romp every now and then, but because that obligatory graphic element spoils the romance of them for me. How about you? 

Um, Silence, if that’s a “brief” rant, what’s a long rant? And here you accuse me of never being at a loss for words! Uh, Silence? Silence?! Uh oh. Our friend Ben signing off…