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Christmas is not over yet. Tonight is Twelfth Night. Tomorrow is Epiphany.

Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve is a festival in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany, and concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking”.[1]

The celebration of Epiphany, the adoration of the Magi, is marked in some cultures by the exchange of gifts, and Twelfth Night, as the eve or vigil of Epiphany, takes on a similar significance to Christmas Eve.

The way to observe Twelfth Night is by ‘merrymaking’. And there’s a fellow called the Lord of Misrule who can help in doing just that.

The Lord of Misrule symbolizes the world turning upside down. On this day the King and all those who were high would become the peasants and vice versa. At the beginning of the twelfth night festival a cake which contained a bean was eaten. The person who found the bean would run the feast. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal.

King Cakes are a tradition, as is a drink called Lamb’s Wool. One can even go wassailing. One may even want to go wassailing after drinking enough Lamb’s Wool.

In one form of wassail, called Lamb’s Wool, ale or dark beer was whipped to form a surface froth in which floated roasted crab apples. The hissing pulp bursting from them resembled wool. Shakespeare alluded to Lamb’s Wool in Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Sometimes lurk I in the gossip’s bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And down her withered dewlap pours the ale.
Likewise in Love’s Labour’s Lost:
When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit,
Tu-who—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Roasted crabs and greasy Joan. What a party indeed!

But some people say that the luscious name ‘Lambs Wool’ comes not from how the drink looks but from other things.

The old Celtic name was lamh’s suil (hand and eye), so named for the labor of the hand required . . .

But then again, this night, Twelfth Night – has been the cause of  unhappiness in the past for some people.

At the beginning of January 400, Asterius, bishop of Amasea in Pontus (Amasya, Turkey) preached a sermon against the Feast of Kalends (“this foolish and harmful delight”) that tells a lot about the Lord of Misrule in Late Antiquity. It contrasted with the Christian celebration held, not by chance, on the adjoining day:

We celebrate the birth of Christ, since at this time God manifested himself in the flesh. We celebrate the Feast of Lights (Epiphany), since by the forgiveness of our sins we are led forth from the dark prison of our former life into a life of light and uprightness.

Significantly, for Asterius the Christian feast was explicitly an entry from darkness into light, and although no conscious solar nature could have been expressed, it is certainly the renewed light at midwinter, which was celebrated among Roman pagans, officially from the time of Aurelian, as the “festival of the birth of the Unconquered Sun”. Meanwhile throughout the city of Amasea, although entry into the temples and holy places had been forbidden by the decree of Theodosius I (391), the festival of gift-giving when “all is noise and tumult” in “a rejoicing over the new year” with a kiss and the gift of a coin, went on all around, to the intense disgust and scorn of the bishop:

This is misnamed a feast, being full of annoyance; since going out-of-doors is burdensome, and staying within doors is not undisturbed. For the common vagrants and the jugglers of the stage, dividing themselves into squads and hordes, hang about every house. The gates of public officials they besiege with especial persistence, actually shouting and clapping their hands until he that is beleaguered within, exhausted, throws out to them whatever money he has and even what is not his own. And these mendicants going from door to door follow one after another, and, until late in the evening, there is no relief from this nuisance. For crowd succeeds crowd, and shout, shout, and loss, loss.

Though it was no use clamoring at the bishop’s gate, apparently, part of the celebration of this pre-medieval Lord of Misrule included the equivalent of the Waits who went from hall to hall:

This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy, and accustoms them to go from house to house and to offer novel gifts, fruits covered with silver tinsel. For these they receive in return gifts double their value.

Hmmm. Well. A little bit of Lambs Wool won’t hurt, I don’t think, while I muse on all this.

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Katerina la Vermintz sent me here. The rodents are so large.

She said to find her an amblongus to make a pie, and to hurry – as her crumbobblious cutlets are almost ready for the table! Mr. Lear is dining with her tonight and she does want everything just right.

She is essaying his two recipes published in the Nonsense Gazette (1870). He is famous, Mr. Lear. The dinner need be perfect.

I begged Katerina to make Gosky Patties, but she said last time they did not taste so very good. I wonder if there is something – some herb, some slight hint of garlic or turmeric – missing from the recipe.

TO MAKE GOSKY PATTIES

Take a pig, three or four years of age, and tie him by the off-hind leg to a post. Place 5 pounds of currants, 5 of sugar, 2 pecks of peas, 18 roast chestnuts, a candle, and six bushels of turnips, within his reach; if he eats these, constantly provide him with more.

Then, procure some cream, some slices of Cheshire cheese, four quinces of foolscap paper, and a packet of black pins. Work the whole into a paste, and spread it out to dry on a sheet of clean brown waterproof linen.

When the paste is perfectly dry, but not before, proceed to beat the Pig violently, with the handle of a large broom. If he squeals, beat him again.

Visit the paste and beat the pig alternately for some days, and ascertain that if at the end of that period the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties.

If it does not then, it never will; and in that case the Pig may be let loose, and the whole process may be considered as finished.

I must fly! Amblongis are often difficult to find and my basket is yet empty.
Do pray for Lady Luck to be by my side.

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Edible – An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants by National Geographic Society 2008, Foreword by Deborah Madison

Edible, an Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants is a gorgeous book. The collection of food plants included in this volume goes far beyond what one would expect – it is thorough and full of amazements, even for the jaded peruser of All Things Fruit or Vegetable.

I once owned a similar book. It was an encyclopedia-like very large book. The illustrations were pen and ink, with watercolor. There was something fairy-tale-like about it. To stare directly and closely at a fruit or vegetable, to consume it with one’s eyes . . . it can be like entering another world.

In Edible, each plant is illustrated by a photograph – which may be even better than viewing the plants artistically rendered by hand, for certain purposes. The book is precise, scientific, exact, and demanding of the reader. This is not a book to sit down and read in one sitting.

The first section of the book gives a general history: ‘From Plants to Food‘. My only problem with this part of the book is that it reminded me of a high-school textbook due to the format, general structure and writing style. Well – let’s just leave it at that.

The good stuff starts with the second section: ‘A Directory of Edible Plants‘. Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Nuts, Herbs, Spices, Plants Used as Beverages, and Plant Sugars and Other Products are the sub-categories. This section is 173 pages long.

Each plant is shown with common name followed by Latin name accompanied by a fabulous – yes I mean fabulous – photograph. Then the following facts are essayed: Historic Origins, Botanical Facts, Culinary Fare.

Proso Millet, Hyacinth Bean, Marsh Samphire, Mombin, Ice-Cream Bean, Bilimbi, Quandong. Poetry? Perhaps. Edible, too.

The book finishes up with a reference section of nutritional tables.

The foreword is by Deborah Madison, who should need no introduction to anyone who browses the food world for excellence.  The last line she writes is –

I mean, who knew that when the shell of the pistachio is split, it’s said to be laughing?

I didn’t. But I do know that curling up with this book makes me smile with pleasure, just like a happy pistachio.

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I was reminded today that I meant to post something about Popeye by the fact that a new blogger-friend actually has a category called ‘Popeye and Sailors’ on her blog, Months of Edible Celebrations.

Yes, it’s true. Superheroes do keep popping up in my life (as I noted in an earlier post), and though Popeye is kind of an old guy, apparently Mental Floss magazine thinks well enough of him to give him Superhero status.

But how did he get his powers? From spinach.

But was it really the spinach that did it? Or was it only in his mind?

While Popeye should be applauded for persuading a nation to eat its greens, he did mislead people a bit. The government’s enthusiasm for spinach was based in part on the calculations of German scientist Dr. E von Wolf, who’d discovered in 1870 that spinach contains iron. When calculating the results, he misplaced a decimal point, thereby making it “official” that spinach had 10 times more iron than it actually did. Not until years later were these figures rechecked. But by then, everyone was downing their spinach, hoping to be as tough as Popeye.

(See link to article at Mental Floss for full story.)

Math is not my strong point either.

What a great mistake, though. What would Popeye have done without it!

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I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

William Carlos Williams – This Is Just To Say (1934)

Ice. Most of us don’t think about it a lot. It’s there in the freezer, or dispensed by the icemaker.

Clink clink. The ice cubes go into the drink!

William Carlos Williams penned the lines above in a fleeting moment – one of those brief moments when the time is taken to ‘just say’ something innocuous to stand as a ‘hello’ to the other. Yet those few lines now sit sturdily in the common consciousness of all who have read them.

At the core of the poem-vision are plums. Not just any plums. Iced plums.

Plums with red-purple delicate skins dotted with the bloom of chill.

Plums promising an icy dribble of densely sweet juice to swallow, on a scathingly hot summer day.

The icebox in this poem was (in all probability) a real icebox – which is a box to keep things cold, with real blocks of solid ice within it.

Would those plums have been so startlingly evocative that the power of poetry grew amassed within them if they had been sitting on the countertop, not chilled, not icy, not essentially a thing made from ice?

…………………………………………………………..

Mental Floss had an article titled The Surprisingly Cool History of Ice in this month’s issue.

……………………………………………………………

Ice is here with us at this very moment – in icicles long and sword-like hanging from the eaves of houses, on car windows frozen and frosted. Ice has wrapped its glittering glory around trees, completely enveloping every branch, gripping tightly each rare determined nubby emerging tip of bud, in some parts of the world.

When the car window needs scraping from the solid impermeable ice it is difficult to sense a poetic gesture anywhere nearby.

Remember, though.

The plums.

An icebox, filled with ice.

A handwritten note, hastily scrawled yet intentful.
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More on the history of ice can be found here:

What’s Cooking America

And here are several pages written by Elizabeth David on ice.

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(This is part 3 of 3 posts.)

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Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

Here’s my favorite bit of the book – it comes from the chapter titled ‘The Edible Earth’ and the subject is wheat, which the author has nick-named ‘The World Conquerer’:

No relief of the Triumph of Progress, of the kind which often decorates the tympana of our academies and institutions, would be complete without some ears or sheaves. Yet I can imagine a world in which this perception will seem laughable. A few years ago, I invented creatures of fantasy whom I called the Galactic Museum Keepers, and invited the reader to picture them, as they look back at our world in a remote future, from an immense distance of time and space, where, with a degree of objectivity unattainable by us – who are enmeshed in history – they will see our past quite differently from the way we see it ourselves. They will classify us, perhaps, as puny parasites, victims of feeble self-delusion, whom wheat cleverly exploited to spread itself around the world. Or else they will see us in an almost symbiotic relationship with edible grasses, as mutual parasites, dependent on each other and colonizing the world together.

I’d love to go on quoting, but I’d have to go on forever.

Fernandez-Armesto writes of cannibalism and of the family dinner table. Not in the same sentence, of course.

He writes of Nenets who ‘chomp living lice lifted from their own bodies “like candy” ‘. Of the claim that ‘the only objectively verifiable fact which sets our species apart from others is that we cannot successfully mate with them’, of meals that can become ‘sacrificial sharings, love feasts, ritual acts, occasions for the magical transformations wrought by fire’. And this is all before page 12.

The forging of community through food is explored (and I’m not sure I agree with his final conclusions about this but that’s part of the fun of it all, isn’t it?).

I thought of locavores when reading in the chapter ‘Food and Rank’ that

Diversity in diet is a function of distance: it attains impressive proportions when the products of different climates and eco-niches are united on the same table. For most of history, long-range trade has been a small-scale, hazardous, costly adventure; so diversity of diet has been a privilege of wealth or a reward of rank.

Have locavores flipped this thing over in terms of social rank today?

Crop yield comparisons, the ‘Green Revolution’, industrialized food and hygiene, non-eating and discussion of the Campbells soup can as postmodernist icon (another place where I had some questions about his conclusion but my head is spinning at the moment just trying to even list the ideas to think of so far, the few I’ve pulled out from this marvelous, dancing history book).

Books with lots of facts and research are often written with little index cards spread all over the place, to create the architecture, to keep the structure in mind, to remember what to write.

But I can not believe it with this book. The way it swoops around and sings, the way it gives off sparks within the gathered thoughts – makes me think that the author not only knows his subject incredibly well but that it’s just possible he’s been blessed with a photographic memory.

To end . . . from the frontspiece of the book, by Wordsworth:

And oft I thought (my fancy was so strong)
That I, at last, a resting place had found;
“Here I will dwell,” said I, “my whole life long,
Roaming the illimitable waters round;
Here I will live, of all but heaven disowned,
And end my days upon the peaceful flood.” –
To break my dream the vessel reached its bound;
And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,
And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.

I wonder if Wordsworth’s dusky hunger and sense of loss would have been salved by the glowing ball of light that is this book.

I’d guess . . . yes.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

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(This is part 2 of 3 posts.)

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Plod, plod, plod.

Plodding is a fact of life.

Everyone does it. There are those who embrace plodding as the most virtuous and acceptable way to live. Within this form of thinking, the idea of stepping out of the circle of plodding to do a little jig or a mad pirouette or a sudden break-dance is a nefarious idea.

I’m rather anti-plod myself. Although I plod often enough and know that life requires plodding, I also believe that if one can escape it, one should.

The writing of history often starts off with a traditional form. It’s called a time-line, and the thought of time-lines (outside of the idea of memorizing facts, which is not the highest calling I personally can think of) leaves me feeling a deep despair.

Open the book and there they are – the march of history goes forward from beginning to end, measured out by time. My mind goes to thoughts of Alfred Prufrock.

I opened the pages of ‘Near a Thousand Tables’ and there was no time-line.

Instead, there was a dance. A dance of ideas, a whirling through history viewed as concepts plucked in gathered handfuls. History not viewed straight-line but rather as a sea.

Instead of ‘And at the beginning there was . . . ‘, there is this: The Invention of Cooking. Followed by (gasp) (see me doing a little dance myself) The Meaning of Eating – Food as Rite and Magic. Then Breeding to Eat; The Edible Earth; Food and Rank; The Edible Horizon; Challenging Evolution; and finally Feeding the Giants.

He’s not coloring within the lines.
Thank goodness I do not have to think of Alfred Prufrock.
Halleliuija!
……………………………………………..

Though I would like to write more on this, at the moment I must go plod at some usual things. My mind is filled with dance and the sea, though – and if I have the least chance to set in a bit of anti-plod here and there, I will.

And I’ll also come back to write more on this dancing book of food history in the next post.

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Sorry, dudes. I think it already happened.

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