Monday, January 26, 2009

Carol Drinkwater: "The Olive Farm"

This January, curled up with blankets and pots of Assam, I have traveled to Yorkshire several times via Netflix instant play option, through the enchanting series "All Creatures Great and Small." I have mentioned this before.

One of my favorite characters from childhood was Helen, the sweet wife of the veterinarian James Herriot (whose real name, outside books and television, was Alf Wight). Helen wore the classic, tweedy clothes of rural 1930's England, fashion I've always enjoyed and admired; and Carol Drinkwater is the actress who portrayed this woman so warmly.

I got curious, in my January cocoon, about wha
t Carol Drinkwater has been up to. It seems that she now lives in the south of France with her husband, attempting to wring olive oil out of hardy old trees, and writing about the life of the harvest-centered year. She has several books out now - "The Olive Farm," "The Olive Season," "The Olive Harvest," and "The Olive Route," along with a gorgeous illustrated format of the first. Her website showcases a gallery of photos from her trips around the Mediterranean researching the history of gleaning olive oil, as well as keen photos of the farm itself - and its many animals.

This, if I may say so, is olive oil at its best: personal, local, rich, enjoyed. Banish the generic popular tv host brand; there are families at the farm who have known its hills and valleys longer than most, and it is their hands that pluck the olives from the trees.

My chum Angie douses her life in olive oil, much to my amuse
ment: like the father in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" with his Windex, Angie uses olive oil for moisturizing and for healing cuts as regularly as others dabble it on their pasta. (That deep gash on her knuckle did heal amazingly quickly, though...) It makes sense, she says, a la "Thou anointest my head with oil..."

I will be including Carol Drinkwater's website in my list of links at the right, under "Where I've Been, Where I'll Be." I hope you enjoy it. Just glancing at the toasty rays of the sun in southern France warms a bit of the winter chill away.

I must add how toe-wiggling-delightful it was la
st week when, after sending a brief "fan email", I received a gracious response. Joyous rapture!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Very Model of a Modern Major General

"Hail, Poetry!" breaks out one song in a hilariously comic opera, by a couple of blokes you may have heard of once or twice...Gilbert and Sullivan.

Okay, okay, so "The Pirates of Penzance" is nothing new. In fact, it's an astonishing 130 years old - but it's brilliance is in the fact that it is still hilarious. Laugh-out-loud, intelligent, British humor in spades.

Where have I seen "The Pirates of Penzance" recently? Well, I rented the old 1983 version with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt - the version I saw when I was young with my Mom and we took trips to the local library. Now, there are a couple of versions available of the 1983 rendition, one higher quality than the other, I believe (since we're talking VHS here): the one with Angela Lansbury is higher quality, and with a more Broadway-esque set.
This past week, I actually watched a poor quality taping of a performance in Central Park, with the same principle actors, except that surprisingly, Patricia Routledge performed instead of Lansbury (I didn't know Mrs. Bucket - Bookay - even did Broadway! And would you believe she's 80 now? She was born in 1929! In the nineties, she was voted Britain's favorite actress - ever. And that includes less comic, but intensely profound Judi Dench and Helen Mirren).

But Gilbert and Sullivan were so brilliant, the actors so good, that I invited a friend over and we loved it - despite the high school A-V club feel of the camera work.

What's "The Pirates of Penzance" about, you ask? Well, first of all, it's a comic opera. Second, it's British - which means that plays on words and witty dialogue abound. Now, it's handy to have a laptop with the libretto up, for some of the faster songs, or in case you miss a line.

"The Pirates of Penzance" is satirical; and because under the comedic situations lies a jab at politicians, it is timeless. (Because the question may be asked, and answered - who are the real pirates in the world?) Take, for instance, this verse from the song of the Pirate King:

Oh, better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly,
Than play a sanctimonious part,
With a pirate head and a pirate heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where pirates all are well-to-do;
But I'll be true to the song I sing,
And live and die a Pirate King.

Then there's the rapid-fire humor of the Major-General's anthem:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news �
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you every detail of Caractacus's uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery;
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy,
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.

For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

You can watch the speed with which this is sung, here:

The great thing about this? It was written to be performed live, which means no multiple takes, no dubbing - just hilarious talent. I hope that if you watch the Major General's song, you'll want to watch the rest.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What's Steeping: The Coldest Night of the Year

The last few nights have been the coldest nights of the year. Good timing, then, that recently I've been revisiting the delights of steeping tea by the pot. If tea is the drink of the contemplative, and coffee is the drink of the active, then drinking tea by the pot is particularly soothing in the dark days of the midst of January.

This has led to my crafting of exactly half a tea cozy. I plan to get around to the next half soon - as soon as the quiet, indoor days of January allow; like perhaps when I finish the 2,000 piece Van Gogh "Starry Night" puzzle that I just started.

Several kinds of tea have been inhabiting my pot of late: in fact, I just got a new shipment of Upton.

Though I ran out of Scottish Breakfast, Melange de Chamonix, and Tippy Orthodox Assam, I replaced them with one standby and two new replacements: an Assam, Orange Spice Imperial, and a delightful dessert tea, Creme Caramel. The new Assam is passable, but basic, sturdy, nothing eye-opening. Imperial Orange Spice is a nice fall or winter blend; as it were, Constant Comment on crack. Creme Caramel is as sublime as any tea swirling in your cup can get - and is now sold out. (An interesting Earl Grey Creme Vanilla is still "on tap," though.)

So put a bit of milk in a small creamer or measuring cup with a spout; slide the sugar bowl or Splenda over; and savor a few cups of your favorite Assam, Darjeeling, or blend. If you need to slow down from a hurried schedule, or warm up from a frigid outing, it's the best thing for the body - and spirit.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Flannery O'Connor

As you can see from my previous post, I have a lot of respect for many Catholics; I am Protestant, and I am a well-aware, well-thought Protestant. But I believe in the importance of emphasizing the common faith that Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox believers embrace. There are doctrinal differences, of course - but these differences are still "within" the family of faith. To paraphrase Tolkein's Gandalf, the enemy laughs when those fighting against him fight among themselves. While I will engage in rigorous theological battle with friends of different denominations, at the end of the day, we all believe in the Creeds of the early church.
This work of art appears on the America magazine: The National Catholic Weekly website. It portrays the central subject of a Flannery O'Connor short story. While my exposure to the depths of Flannery O'Connor has been limited, what I have read of her thought continually drives me to read more.

She was a Southern Catholic - an interesting fact in itself. She died fairly young, in the last century, of lupus. And her short stories smell, and feel, and sound; and then, at the unexpected moment, they lift the reader suddenly into the heavenly perspective of the mundane goings-on of earth - especially, small town life. She writes so that fabric prints and pig pens are stuck in your mind, and then catapults the story into spiritual significance, so that the reader sees the spiritual truth in the midst of an old pick up truck and an appointment at the doctor's office.

Flannery O'Connor was brutally intellectual, quietly pious, humorous and wry, and above all, believed that faith and every day living must always be one and the same.

Here is a link to the article that accompanies the above picture:

In my opinion, she was one of the best preachers of the twentieth century - and she never took the pulpit.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Father Richard John Neuhaus

Last week, I gave a gasp and a shudder, then immediately burst into tears. Someone that I had met once died. That was all.

But that wasn't all. I had heard of his serious illness; heard the call to prayer, on his behalf. I had once heard him speak.

More importantly, he had heard me.

The man spoke with President Bush, and President Reagan. With Pope John Paul II. The President of Poland has issued a statement of grief upon the man's demise. But one day, this man spoke with me.

I was vaguely aware of his political import; I was more aware of his status as a theological giant who lived in Manhattan. There hung about him both wit, and a scent of pipe or cigar tobacco, when I met him. He was animated with energy, gracious in his attention, and radiated the spiritual comfort of a man who, it felt, has spent more hours praying than I had been alive. It seemed appropriate, and familiar, to call him father - a picture of a papa to millions of people, peasants and popes alike.

Father Richard John Neuhaus - for the last week, hearing and reading the name make tears sting my eyes. Not because of his time on "Meet the Press," but because of a few winter hours several years ago.

The cold evening I met "Father John," as George W. often called him, he was wrapped in a thick overcoat and eager to arrive at a meeting at which he was keynote speaker. I found myself handed with a rare privilege, and one which I have only appreciated more as time has passed. I knew I was meeting an important man, and a great man, though I hardly knew how important, and how great. I had not seen the photos of him with world leaders at that time. I knew him as a name on "First Things," a remarkably profound publication. But he was simple, unaffected, welcoming. He and I sat and spoke of liturgy. He listened to my opinions - which I have never been shy in sharing. (There remains in me the rather Scottish certainty that my opinions and thought, carefully measured, are just as good as anybody else's - no matter who they have on speed dial, or what country they run. It is, I think, a Highlander characteristic.)

I remember little of the address he gave that night. It was profound, I recall, and stimulating. We had, I know, a spirited exchange in the car on the way to drop him at his hotel. And though I still don't know if he or I stepped forward first, he gave me a quick, impromptu hug in departure. It felt rather like he had laid his hands on my head in blessing, though it was nothing so grand.

Upon his death I found myself shaken. More than that, I felt myself wanting to chime in - to add my experiences to the community pool of memories that has been collecting in the wake of his passing. I wanted to include that I, too, had personal experience of the man who has helped shape presidential policy on issues as grave as abortion. But it wasn't out of a desire for climbing any ladders, or garnering any accolades. The mark of a holy man is that he brings out what good there is in the people around him. And I think that our communal hopes of having our voices heard by others as we each share personal reminiscences are due to a desire to be like him.

"I want to be that well read," some think. "I want to hone just a portion of that rigorous intellect," others determine. "I want to make people feel that welcome in my presence," "I want to be more disciplined in my writing, like he was..." "I want to wrap all aspects of my life around my faith, like he did..." "I want to know when to take things seriously, and when to laugh them off, like he did..."

We want to be like you, Father Neuhaus. In whatever small way we resemble you, we want to be like you, because you wanted to be like the Father.

We are left, now, without your example, and we fear we cannot model it as well as you did. But, as you would remind us, we are left with the Divine example, we all inherit the same Spirit of the Lord, who empowers us to be more like Jesus.

But we will miss you.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Forgotten Whimsies

The past few years, I have become notoriously absent-minded. I remember certain things - just not others. I stare out the window while doing dishes and think, not about the dishes, but about third century burial practices of small Christian communities in northern Africa, for instance. "Woolgathering" is what it used to be called.

"Oh!" is often my phrase of choice. Usually - it must be said - with a smack of the palm to the forehead. "Oh! That's right - that IS today, isn't it?" and so on.

So when mom mentioned Cath Kidston, I looked at her as though she had lobsters crawling out of her ears. I was supposed to know who Cath Kidston was, but I looked as blank as a fresh chalkboard. It felt like a Gandalf moment, in the mines of Moria - "I have no memory of this place."

And how lucky I was to be reminded, because it turns out that if I did ever know of Cath Kidston, I would have loved her designs. Mom swears it was I who introduced her to the website, though once again my memory of having done so is completely absent. Be that as it may, I now have the double joy of enjoying something again that I may have already enjoyed at some forgotten point in the past.

I actually suspect that it's my job to blame. I rove over dozens of websites regularly, being in publishing, to keep up with news, trends, etc; and inevitably, I come across websites that friends and family would enjoy, and often just copy and paste them in a ten-second email. It is likely that is what happened.

In any event, I hope you enjoy these forgotten whimsies as much as I have - and that you do not forget them soon!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In Praise of James Herriot

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
A few years ago, in late afternoon, I would enter Happa's room. She would rouse from a nap, and with the last few moments of my day at the nursing home, I would read aloud. Her eyes would slowly close, and several times I thought she'd drifted off again. But then a smile would widen her mouth, her eyes would crinkle in amusement, and she would chuckle.

I was reading from James Herriot's "All Creatures Great and Small."

It sat on her bedside table. In the sterile environment of buzzers and medication, it was a souvenir to the familiar. I had grown up watching the BBC series "All Creatures Great and Small," and now I sat with a woman unmoored in deepening dementia, and we enjoyed the anecdotes together. Those are some of my favorite memories from the nursing home. To the end, her vocabulary was pristine and polished, her verbal expressions exquisite and articulate. Having taught in a university for years, we sat - the recent student and the aging professor, a mirror of past and future.

James Herriot is the pen name and alter ego of Alf Wight - a country vet in Yorkshire in the 1930's. Growing up, my brother and I giggled at the antics of Yorkshire farmers, squealed at the realistic depictions of a vet caring for the most intimate problems of cows, and yearned for the countryside of the Dales. I have now settled in a part of the U.S. that most resembles the rolling hills and dry stone masonry fences of Yorkshire: the Bluegrass of central Kentucky.

Siegfried and Tristan are bywords in my sibling lingo. My brother sighed contentedly when he saw Helen come on screen last week. "Helen!" he exclaimed. "This is so nostalgic. I always watched this when I was sick. It makes me want to eat an orange."

When I moved from home, some Herriot books followed me. At the end of a long day, a relaxing chapter about a quirky farmer, a difficult calving, distinct local bacon, or difficult coworkers are as soothing as the pots of tea I've drunk in the last week while catching up with the inhabitants of Skeldale House.

There are several short stories for children with beautiful illustrations about working farm horses, abandoned kittens, or stray dogs that would make great gifts for kids.

In a more technological rendering, it's been sublime to enjoy BBC's "All Creatures" via Netflix's instant queue on John's bargain XBox 360. Which means that instead of purchasing the DVD sets (pricey), or waiting to rent them through the mail, they are instantly downloaded via internet to the XBox. Soon, I have "Rebel Without a Cause" lined up, too. But for now, I'm happily settled in Yorkshire this January.

The Goose That Laid the Golden Christmas

In the fashion of Charles Dickens, my table was laid with classic dishes - not least of which was the famed Christmas Goose.

After reading about "How to Cook Your Goose" at NPR, the idea had nestled in the back of my skull alongside the sugarplum fairies and Zuzu's petals.

I called the local meat market, picked up my frozen goose (a good sized goose is 8-12 pounds, bigger than that gets "tough") and took it home for an intense regimen of pre-dinner culinary exercises. Mr. Goose got more than he bargained for. (Or is it Ms. Goose? Isn't a male goose a gander?)

Mr. Goose was rinsed, pockets of fat removed, fat cut off, and blanched in boiling water for sixty seconds. This helped render a lot of the infamous goose grease off (hat tip to Dwight Schrute). On a side note, it's a lot easier getting a goose in to a stockpot of boiling water than out of it, if you lack a dunking rack. I lacked.

It sat in the fridge until Christmas day, when I conscientiously pricked the skin all over so that remaining fat could drain out easily during cooking; rubbed it inside and out with an orange half; and stuffed it til its figurative eyes were bulging with a concoction of apples, roasted chestnuts, and sherried dried plums (I hate the sound of "prunes").

Water fowl are so grease-laden that during the roasting, one must siphon off excess grease from the pan, lest it catch on fire. And nobody wants a Christmas dinner fire. Because I've never used a turkey baster in any cooking, it didn't occur to me to pull the oven shelf out towards me during this endeavor. This resulted in a gradual drooping of my turkey baster, due to excessive heat: it began, slowly, to melt.

Two coffee mugs full of goose grease later (on top of the fat I plucked from the bird before cooking), I removed Mr. Goose. A family inspection ensued on Whether Or Not He Was Done. The outside most definitely was; and the joints appeared to run clear; but it was all dark meat, of a beefy consistency, so gauging "doneness" without a meat thermometer was a committee activity. I finally blew the whistle and called the game over: I did not want several days of work to char.

Nestled near the goose - which was extremely difficult to carve, bones and meat being in quite unexpected places compared to chickens and turkeys - were goat cheese mashed potatoes, a la my brother; corn casserole; Pioneer Woman's whiskey-glazed carrots; the rather dubious stuffing, that no one really touched; and a spinach salad, which no one really touched. The goose was pronounced good, the whiskey-glazed carrots were a runner-up. We finished it off with a light dessert to counter the rich menu, lemon squares.

And conclusions? Well, my first reflection is that goose is a labor-intensive bird. One can, of course, brine chicken or turkey, which adds to prep time, but even so, all that fat and grease keep one hopping. If you do decide to tackle a goose, make sure the sides you prepare are easily managed, because the goose will demand more attention than a turkey or ham would.

That being said, Nigella Lawson has claimed that goose fat is the thing to make your cooking Christmas cooking. And it's true: I made fried potatoes in goose grease, that were the best thing since sliced bread. Though really, I'm not that much of a fan of sliced bread. Means too many preservatives. I am, however, a loyal fan of goose grease.

It remains true though that goose meat is rich, distinct, and probably not for everyone. It has a wonderful, intense flavor, though the texture is more beefy than poultry.I noticed leftovers didn't fly off the fridge shelves. I suspect adults enjoy it more than children, given its richness.

Am I glad I tried a Christmas goose? Absolutely. Will I try it again next year? Next year, I'll probably allow myself to relax a little and get a good ol' fashioned ham. But in a few years, I may try goose again.

After I've gotten a new baster.