Thursday, 24 November 2011

Cooking the (Cultural History) Books - Thanksgiving

I exist due to the joint wonders of globalisation and grammar schools. Thanks to them, my father made his way from Leicester to Haverford, Pennsylvania and met my mother, who had just begun to despair of ever making her Mormon relatives stop asking her WHEN SHE WAS GOING TO FIND A NICE HUSBAND. I am, therefore, the unlikely product of the Midlands and the Midwest, the owner of two passports (useful) but someone whom neither the CIA nor MI5 will ever trust enough to hire (disappointing).

The unachievable ideal
I generally consider myself very culturally blessed. I am the inheritor of Doctor Who and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Dr. Seuss and queueing - and, most importantly, I get to celebrate all the great American festivals, which, because Americans LOVE ritual, happen roughly once every two weeks. Thanksgiving, though, is a particular favourite of mine. It's all the eating of Christmas with none of the gift stress, and it goes on for just long enough for you to end up feeling fond of your family rather than sour about them.

This year is my first Thanksgiving cooking solo, a momentous occasion in the life of any American. Granted, the part of my turkey is going to be played by a chicken (we will make it a turkey with the power of belief) and the sweet potatoes are going to be roasted rather than covered with marshmallows (because I am English enough to realise that some American traditions are disgusting), but the stuffing, at least, comes with true American pedigree. It is not, indeed, just any stuffing recipe, because I have been entrusted with Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey. This marvellous and venerable piece of family tradition calls for, among other things, 15 cents of sausage meat. Fifteen cents of sausage meat! It's like a little piece of economic history in my hands.

Cooking from a handed-down recipe is like cooking with your ancestors right there in the kitchen with you, poking the electric scales and making disparaging comments about the price of butter these days. The fact of a family recipe is often much more important than what it actually tastes like - we have one recipe, the gloriously over-titled 'Phyllis's Mom's Icebox Rolls', which is brought out every Christmas morning and makes five trays of rock-hard, over-sugared death buns that then sit in the freezer for the next five months. And yet there's something about the teeth-chipping head-rush they bring that's part of what makes Christmas in the Bird household so special. Or 'special'. Take your pick.

And so, in honour of Thanksgiving, I give you Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey, with added translations by my mother.
Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey
1 1/2 loaves of stale bread crumbs (ca. 1 lb)
The onion and celery being softened up
large onion fried in butter
Celery.  Use about the same amount as the onion and chop them up.  Fry them with the onions.
3 eggs
ca 1 Tbsp thyme
2 tsp sage
1 tsp parsley
15 cents worth of pork sausage (!)  I think this is about 1 pound.
(she says onion salt and celery salt, but I don't use these)
2 level tsp salt

Mix everything together except the eggs.  Pour boiling water over the mixture until it's moist.

When you're ready to cook the turkey, beat the eggs and add 2 level tsp baking powder.  Mix into the stuffing mixture and cook right away.

Too much sausage?
Crumbly bread
I particularly like the way the presence of baking powder is buried in the instructions, like some sort of condiment ninja. The mysterious 15 cents of sausage appears to equate to about eight to ten big sausages (and I suspect this may have been too many, it looked suspiciously meaty). Also, when you crumble up the bread you can use the crusts, though leave out the bits that have gone like masonry. But apart from that, I mixed it up, I stuffed it up the chicken and I cooked that chicken for two hours. And then I cooked the stuffing a bit more outside the chicken to make sure I didn't kill my guests. Done.

And talking about what it says on tins, my family's other great Thanksgiving classic, our pumpkin pie recipe, deserves a mention here too. English friends I feed it to often ask for the recipe, imagining, I think, something involving pre-dawn pumpkin gathering rituals and long hours boiling the gourds down to pulp afterwards.

Er. Not exactly.

What you do is:
1) source one tin of Libby's Pumpkin Pie Mix.
2) Follow the instructions on the back of it.
3) Pie.

The pastry and the pumpkin tin
You can, of course, fancy things up by making your own pastry - this time I used Dan Lepard's sweet pastry recipe. It turned out well, but one thing I will say is: do not be afraid if your pastry looks like goop before it goes in the fridge to chill. Have faith and it will come out perfectly pastry-like and firm.

Ready to blind-bake
Blind-bake said pastry at about 180 C for 10-15 minutes, until the bottom of the pie base is firm (pro tip: don't use red lentils like I did, they're too light and it won't have the proper effect), and then whack the filling ingredients into the bowl as follows (I'm copying from my trustly Libby's tin - obviously if you don't have Libby's and you do have time you can substitute your own handmade pumpkin paste - find a recipe for it anywhere on the interwebs):

Cheat's Pumpkin Pie

Filling goo in all its glory
2 eggs, lightly beaten
425 g Libby's pumpkin filling
6 oz sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 pint (284 ml) Carnation evaporated milk - this is about 2/3 of the tin you get in supermarkets.
Put it in your pastry case, put that in the oven at 170 C and cook for 40-50 minutes. Leave to cool and then serve with whipped cream. And then have a heart attack.
The finished pie.

So, happy Thanksgiving, Americans and those who love them! If you haven't eaten your body weight by the time the day's over then you haven't really been trying.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

1001 Books Review - Orlando

1) The lovely people over at Writersdock have re-published two more of my reviews, of 1984 and Angels and Insects.This is very kind of them and makes me extremely delighted.

2) My latest blog for Litro is all about old men in hot pants, the word lentor and my criminal inability to learn languages.

And now, a 1001 Books review with a difference.

The difference is, I'm sorry to say, that this is a cheat. Not only have I read Orlando at least three times before, but I am only reading it now for one of my MA modules, and didn't I tell you I would never subject you to my MA books?


Orlando is one of my all-time favourite, love-of-my-life books, one of those pieces of writing that, for me, that only gets better and more astonishing each time I go back to it. This time around I started Orlando at ten thirty a few nights ago, intending to read the first chapter. At one o'clock in the morning, on page 150, I came to myself and realised that I should probably go to sleep at some point.

Re-reading something that means as much to you as Orlando does to me is like meeting someone you love at International Arrivals. You see them and you're overcome with ridiculous joy and recognition, almost irregardless of the merits of the person in question - but, in this case, I think that all the praise I can give it is entirely deserved. Orlando is an astonishing, virtuoso piece of smart, funny, poetic wordplay from a writer who understands the language so well that she's able to do things with it that ought to be entirely impossible. Virginia Woolf can sometimes be so technically high-flown that she's almost entirely impenetrable (read The Waves and see if you can understand more than about half of it), but in Orlando she reigns herself in just the right amount. Unusually for a novel by a high Modernist writer, there are distinct characters and an actual linear plot(!) as well as beautiful images of rubies and falling leaves, and the result is an insane, delightfully out-of-left-field gallop through the last 500 years of English history and literature. Written as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Virginia Woolf's friend (and girlfriend) Vita Sackville West, it's the maddest biography you'll ever come across, a completely ridiculous story set in a world where literally anything can happen.

Orlando is unbelievably believable, full of brilliantly tall tales of villagers turning to stone during particularly cold winters and cats being mistaken for coals and put on the fire. It's got the most casual attitude to time travel and eternal life you'll ever come across - in it, some people just go on living for four hundred years, not aging, without it being remarked upon at all. I read a Guardian article in which Ursula Le Guin said that Orlando was one of the books that made her want to become a science fiction writer, and I think (as usual with Ursula Le Guin) she's absolutely right. Orlando (with a charming wink in the direction of the audience) turns most of the physical laws of the universe upside down and ties the rest of them in knots. Hours can last years, you can see all of England from the top of a hill and people can change their sex at the drop of a pair of trousers.

This is where Orlando is at its most outrageously clever and witty. Women dress up as men, men act like women (or are they actually women in particularly good disguise?) and the main character, Orlando, lives the first two hundred years of his life as a man before going to sleep for seven days and waking up a woman. Physical gender becomes something like the ridiculous paper hats you might put on at a party - you swap them round, you wear two at once, it's all a bit of a joke and none of it means anything anyway.

Orlando really is a very funny book (though it's laugh-in-the-head rather than laugh-from-the-stomach), a joke at the expense of great authors, high-minded biography and boring history. Worse than that, it enjoys itself immensely, it was clearly written for the sheer jolly love of it, and there are pictures. All of this makes critics terribly nervous. Great Literature should not be funny, it should be full of people sobbing and dying and giving birth under haystacks while it rains, and unspoken conventions like this are why I sometimes get very tired of academics.

In this case, they are wrong, and Orlando is right. In fact, Orlando is wonderful. You should all read it five times in a row and be amazed. It's possible I'm biased, but the nice thing about reading is that it's entirely subjective. I'm free to love this no matter what the critics say.

5 stars.

Friday, 11 November 2011

1001 Books Review - The Leopard

Housekeeping again:

If you are assuming I have not been posting very much lately because I have been hard at work on my MA, you are very sweet and I admire your belief in human nature. Obviously, you are right. Yesterday, for example, I went to the British Library, where in the course of some very serious essay research I read the following sentence:
In February 1847, two elephants performing at Astley's Amphitheatre were presented with lots of bouquets. The elephants, we are told, had rather hoped for carrots and turnips.
(This is, in case you are interested, taken from The London Stage in the Nineteenth Century by Robert Tanitch, and I HIGHLY recommend it to you if you're interested in theatre history. It is not only factually fascinating but also delightfully snide). And if you are interested in what else I found out about the weird and wonderful on the London stage, you can read all about it over here.

During my time off from all this strenuous academic activity, though, I have been doing NaNoWriMo. If you don't know what this is, I have handily written a Litro blog about it. As of today I am 18540 words up and someone just died, so things are Going Well in that respect.

In the interests of linked-in completeness, I have also recently blogged about your furniture coming to life and eating you and written a (scathing) review of Richard Ellmann's biography of Oscar Wilde. Enjoy! Oh, and I also read a book! Look at that. I haven't been totally wasting my time.

I have to admit, though, that I had a very major case of Not Getting Along with The Leopard. I could probably have finished it in a few days, but I'd read a few pages of it and then realise that BY GOD the bathroom could do with a clean and I needed to bake bread for lunch and how about that essay due in next week. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading this for fun.

I think this is a prime example of the huge difference that exists between knowing that something is written well and actually liking it on a personal level. With the English MA student side of my brain I can see that The Leopard is meant to be a haunting evocation of the beauty of a vanished system and the transience of an individual life, but what I actually thought when I finished the novel was that Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa is kind of tiresomely self-indulgent, and that keeping a badly stuffed dog beside your bed for fifty years is gross.

Part of this has to be that The Leopard's atmosphere - and the novel is practically all atmosphere - really annoyed me. The whole thing takes place in an overwhelming state of rococo decay. Whenever characters appear they have to fight their way past profuse mountains of rotting roses and moulting silk sofas and five thousand Blessed Virgins with their paint coming off; and doing battle with all this scenery means that the poor things are exhausted and morose before they even begin to talk. Add to this the fact that they're in Sicily, where it's exhausingly hot all the time, and it's not entirely surprising that most of the scenes are variations on the theme of one character turning to another and saying, "Dude, I can't. Let's go lie down."

The plot of the novel is basically Prince Fabrizio (the Leopard of the title) not doing things, and then feeling sort of morose about it, but not morose enough to do anything except lie down. Occasionally he lies down with whores, and then he feels vaguely bad about it, which makes him have to lie down, which makes him realise that he is OLD and THE LAST OF HIS KIND and DOOMED TO DEATH, which is coincidentally a lot like LYING DOWN FOR EVER. Woe.

It's possible that I'm not that sympathetic to the Sicilian mindset (it was very heavily stressed that this attitude to life is Very Sicilian). It's also possible that I suffered from not understanding what on earth is going on historically - I just about know that Garibaldi was a man as well as a biscuit, a state of ignorance in a reader that obviously never occurred to Lampedusa. There are very few handy hints about historical background, and to make it worse Lampedusa has sort of half-assed an attempt to make the novel a knowing piece of post-modernity. What this means in practice is that the text will be totally immersed in the idioms and references of the 1860s and then all of a sudden a character's state of mind will be explained by reference to a MOTORWAY or an AIRPLANE or something equally weird and out of place. I think Lampedusa was going for a 'clever and humorous' angle, but to me it just felt awkward and half-way-to-nothing, like a fish with a human face stuck on it.

I'll admit, there were some moments that did work - there's a chapter about a weird erotic game of hide-and-seek through an enormous house that I thought was gorgeously written - but overall The Leopard just didn't do it for me. People are, of course, perfectly entitled to say that it's the greatest Italian novel ever, but I am likewise entitled not to agree with them at all.

Anyway, thank goodness, it's over now. One more 1001 Books book down! Only hundreds and hundreds to go! And for my next trick, I'm going to read something fun.

2.5 stars.