Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020: A Memorable, Miserable Year

In my kitchen this year I've been aware of many consequences of the terrible global coronavirus epidemic, some with direct and some indirect impact on my personal life. On the whole, I'm among the luckiest of people so far. I wouldn't even characterize 2020 as my year of Zoom, Doom, and Gloom, because I didn't do very many electronic meetings (only with family, often very small), because I was able to go with Len for walks and drives in the countryside outside my home, and because we tried to keep an upbeat attitude, fostered by lots of cooking and baking, throughout it all. Here is a summary of what's happened in my kitchen during this year of extremes.

Food Politics in Mind

My most pressing thought for the end of the year in my kitchen is not about myself but about 50 million Americans -- including 17 million children -- who are facing hunger due to the economic conditions in our country. The new wave of poverty caused by the pandemic created a horrendous increase in hunger and want that will persist even after the vaccine allows many workers to return to work. Recovery from months of unemployment could leave many people still struggling, even when their jobs return.

Symbolically, these people are with me in my kitchen where Len and I are alone. It has become my habit to donate to organizations that help those in need. I've especially donated money to the local food bank, Food Gatherers, whose delivery van is pictured (from their newsletter). Food Gatherers is able to buy food efficiently from the nationwide organization Feeding America and other sources, and distributes food through several food pantries that directly serve the local community.

Political misdeeds are ongoing in Washington, preventing the deployment of adequate help for the most vulnerable members of our society from the Federal government. The calloused postponement of signing the relief bill was the last of many insults and injuries. Cruel delay in funding for those in need -- as well as many other events -- made me angry and sad, but I'm not going to discuss the matter further. I have high hopes that the situation will improve with the new and more humanitarian administration.

Food Politics in My Kitchen

Masked meat packers on the processing line.  (source)

Vegan curry with cauliflower, bell pepper, tomatoes,
potatoes, red lentils. This is becoming one of my go-to recipes.

Food politics also have had a direct impact on my kitchen decisions. I've worked around the shortages and challenges of shopping without entering the stores. But most pressing: I've worried about disruptions and objectionable practices in the food supply, including the terrible treatment of food workers, the problems for farmers, and the shortages of packaging materials, especially for flour. 

In response to the cruel behavior of meat packing plant owners, who caused large numbers of workers to become infected (and many to die), we reduced meat consumption and avoided all meat from American industrial packing plants. Some sources say that these essential workers will be prioritized for the vaccine: I hope so!

I've done many experiments in vegetarian cooking during the year -- just one is in the picture. Red lentils were completely new to me! For a while, besides actual vegetables, we also experimented with various fake meat options, like Beyond Burgers. Eventually, I decided that I really didn't find them that appealing. I'm not sure they are better for the environment, for food workers, or for one's health than actual meat -- and they aren't cheap! On the whole, I prefer small-scale farmed local meat. It's been a few months since we had fake meat, and I don't think I will use it in the future.  

My Pantry During the Pandemic

My pantry with a new shelf for the many canisters of flour and
 jars of spice that we need for all the baking and cooking
we have been doing during lockdown.
Treading a fine line between becoming a hoarder and being prudent with available shopping options has been challenging. I've learned to deal with remote ordering of food and kitchen tools. No shopping! No personal selection of produce! (With a few exceptions during the summer when there were outdoor markets).

Grocery stores, having experienced many supply chain problems, aren't offering as wide a variety of products as before. They are making fewer innovations, which also affects what's new or different in all of our pantries. "Stocking shelves with innovative new products is less of a priority than stocking shelves, period." (source)

My spice shelf in December.

I bought the orange-lidded jar of Hawaij spice blend -- labeled only in Hebrew --  in Israel a few years ago. It's really good: I used it up. I was unable to find a replacement for a while, but now has a selection of the spices from the same Israeli company, so I have the new, purple-lidded replacement.

No More Coke: That Is, Diet Coke

July, 2020: one of my last Diet Cokes.
One item no longer appears in our kitchen thanks to the vast changes in our lives. It's insignificant but I'm just going to mention it. As it became so difficult to shop in March, we felt it was too much trouble to ask people to bring us our usual quantities of soft drinks. We switched to water (filtered, from our refrigerator).

We sparingly drank our remaining cans of Diet Coke throughout the summer, and by the time we could more easily have ordered more through the improved grocery delivery systems that had emerged, we had lost our taste for it.  Thinking of this is a reminder of the complete breakdown of grocery shopping we experienced in the first weeks of lockdown, and how so many businesses have adapted to new conditions!


New vegetarian recipes in Ottolenghi's
latest book have been an ongoing experiment
in my kitchen for the last several weeks.

We constantly make new kinds of pancakes from sourdough discard.
Here: pancakes with raisins and dried apricots with a side of fried apple slices.

Finding new ways to enjoy kitchen activities has been one of my important ways of handling a safe and isolated life as required during the pandemic. My experiments with spice and vegetarian meals have been a response to the meat supply problem described above. Another way to deal with it: buying gadgets. 

The pancakes are in an image from the November, 2020 In My Kitchen post.


Throughout the year, Len's baking has progressed and become an increasingly important part of our lives. He's tried many sourdough recipes, breads from a variety of ethnic cuisines, and more. Some of the bread books have been on our shelves for years, but many of them  are new, especially The Rye Baker.

Sharing the loaves of bread with friends -- which can be accomplished with a safe level of contact outdoors -- has also become an important result of Len's baking. We have several friends who have become "testers" of his experiments -- they are very enthusiastic! He's also shared his sourdough starter with a few people, and another generation of the starter (shared onward by his recipients) has even happened in a couple of cases.

Shared Cooking

We miss events like this dinner in the backyard with family in August, 2019, and many dinners around our dining room table. Cooking for a crowd while sharing the kitchen with friends and relatives is one of the forbidden activities we miss the most, along with travel and actually seeing others!

My kitchen contains numerous unused items that I hope I'll be able to bring back by sometime in 2021. Covered cake plates and hot-dish carriers for potlucks, large serving bowls and platters for dinner parties, and similar equipment has stayed on the shelf. No doubt this is true for everyone, and we all hope to cook for a larger crowd some time soon.

Hunger Stalks the Globe

To end where  I began: my most pressing concern is for the many people in our country and throughout the world who have been impoverished by the economic effects of the pandemic. In my kitchen is thus heightened awareness of hunger that stalks our country and the globe. 

We hope that the vaccine will soon be distributed. We hope that our own situation and that of many others will improve. However, we have enormous concern for those who remain vulnerable due to poverty and poor health. Our concern for our society is enormous. Our kitchen is only one small place in a huge world, and difficult times make us all the more aware of this.

For all my fellow bloggers and other readers: I hope your New Year, 2021, is much better than 2020. Above all, I wish you good health. And I thank you for offering descriptions of your kitchens and your lives throughout the year.

Blog post © 2020 mae sander.
Shared with Sherry's In My Kitchen blog event.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Scenes from my life

. '

Cranberry bread.

Bison (yes, like on the great plains). These live in Ann Arbor along with Canada geese.

A hawk in a tree.

A book I read but didn’t write about:
The Flower Master by Sujata Massey

Travel? The farthest place I've been is the many strange worlds of
the HBO series "His Dark Materials," which I've now finished watching.

Blog post and original photos © 2020 mae sander.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

What to Eat for New Year's Good Luck

We all would like better luck for 2021!! Let's eat lucky New Year's foods.

A wide variety of foods are believed to bring good luck if you eat them on New Year's Eve. Every culture and region seems to have its own favorite. The more I read about New Year's food traditions, the less I think there's ever a convincing explanation for how traditional foods could bring good luck, but it's interesting to read about the wide variety of choices. 

I especially enjoy reading various lists that include not only food traditions for the Western New Year's Eve on December 31, but that also describe traditional foods from other celebrations such as Asian New Year a bit later in winter, Persian New Year at the start of Spring, and Jewish New Year in the fall. Here's the longest and most varied list I found: "20 New Year's Food Traditions That'll Bring You Good Luck in 2021."

Lucky Herring

Our plan for New Years Eve this year is to eat pickled herring, which is waiting in our refrigerator as you can see. We are quite fond of herring any time, so it's a pleasant choice for the holiday. Herring is a tradition in Scandinavia, Poland, and other parts of northern Europe, as well as in many American communities where there are descendants of immigrants from these countries. 

One reason for eating herring on New Year's Eve is that the silver color of the fish is the color of silver coins, so it's kind of a magical way to attract money. Another reason is that finding shoals of herring was a lucky break for fishermen, as the North Sea herring are very unpredictable as to where they show up each year. And a cynical reason advanced to explain the herring tradition is that herring was a widely available and not-too-expensive food in northern Europe, so of course people ate it. Choose your reason!

Lucky Pork

Another northern European tradition, shared by immigrant communities in North America, is to eat pork and cabbage or sauerkraut for New Year's Eve. Why pork and cabbage? Reasons I've seen are not all that convincing. Cabbage is green like money, and pork is fat and rich-tasting. Pigs only walk forward, not backwards, so they represent progress. And pigs are slaughtered in December, so they are available. Too many reasons!

In Germany and Austria, there's a more amusing way to enjoy lucky pork: marzipan candy formed in the shape of cute little piggies to be eaten at New Year's. Here's a picture of the piggies for Evelyn's family celebration:

Hoppin' John: the Lucky Food of the American South

Food historian Jessica Harris writes:

"Legumes are among the world’s oldest crops. They have been found in Egyptian tombs and turn up in passages in the Bible. The black-eyed pea, which is actually more of a bean than a pea, was introduced into the West Indies from Central Africa in the early 1700s and journeyed from there into the Carolinas. The pea with the small black dot is considered especially lucky by many cultures in Western Africa. While the pea was certainly not lucky for those who were caught and sold into slavery, the memory of the luck it was supposed to bring in West Africa lingered on among the enslaved in the southern United States and the Hoppin’ John that is still consumed on New Year’s Day by black and white Southerners alike is reputed to bring good fortune to all who eat it." -- Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog (p. 20). 

--image from Fine Cooking

More Lucky Food

While some foods were lucky for their green or silver color, other foods were lucky for their shape. Round food like orange slices or special round cakes could represent the continuity of one year into another. Another round or maybe coin-shaped food is lentils, which are considered lucky in Italy and Hungary. In Vietnam, a round cake called bánh tét is is eaten for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Regional  versions vary: some have sweet vegetarian fillings and others include pork filling or pickled vegetables. (source)

In Japan, special soba noodles called toshikoshi soba are a tradition for New Year's Eve. Soba noodles are long, symbolizing long life. They are made from buckwheat, which is supposed to bounce back after it's pelted with rain, so it's an auspicious ingredient for a New Year's dish. Also, soba flour was used by goldsmiths -- so it is associated with wealth. (source) Similarly, for Chinese New Year celebrations later in the winter, long noodles symbolize long life -- and it's VERY unlucky to cut them while preparing or eating them. 

In Spain, grapes bring luck for the New Year: it's traditional to eat 12 grapes at midnight on New Year's Eve, one grape for each peal sounding from the local bell tower. In Jewish tradition, eating red grapes on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was forbidden, but it was good luck to eat green grapes.

Whatever your tradition, I hope you enjoy a delicious and lucky meal on New Year's Eve. Above all, I hope everyone will have a healthier and more rewarding year in 2021 than all of us had in 2020!

Blog post © 2020 mae sander.

Monday, December 28, 2020


Let's do some armchair travel to the region of Champagne in France. Champagne is the agricultural area where Champagne grapes grow. If a wine doesn't come from this designated production area, it should not be called "Champagne," it's another kind of sparkling wine. At this point, I would love to visit anywhere in France, wouldn't you?

 Champagne in bottles, stored in the cellar of the winery Cattier, Chigny Les Roses, France
"This family-owned Champagne house was founded in 1763, and its historic caves (built across three levels) embody three distinct architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance, and Romanesque. The chamber pictured here holds the iconic Champagne Armand de Brignac, which is produced by the Cattier property. In 2014 musician Jay-Z bought the Armand de Brignac brand, after previously featuring its iconic gold bottles in a music video." --

Touring the cellars of various champagne shippers sounds like it would be fun, but I'd even more like to drive around in the vineyards and see the growing grapes. 

Champagne, France: A Vineyard (Wikipedia)

A few intriguing facts about champagne -- First, did Dom Pérignon invent the production methods for bubbly wine?
"Although the legend of Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon creating sparkling wine in the late 1600’s and declaring 'come quickly, I am tasting the stars!' is a lovely, romantic story it also unfortunately is not true. The reality is that intentionally creating sparkling wine was a trial and error process over hundreds of years. If anything, bubbles in wine were more commonly viewed as a flaw and it was quite some time before we would come to view Champagne with the reverence and awe of today." --

How does carbon dioxide get into champagne so it can pop the cork and then form bubbles in your glass? 

"To generate enough carbon dioxide to make bubbles, winemakers actually need to ferment champagne twice. That’s because the grapes in champagne aren’t very sweet, so there isn’t a lot of sugar for the yeast to eat. After the first round of fermentation, the wine is only about nine percent alcohol, which is pretty low — your average glass of champagne is usually closer to 12 percent. And the carbon dioxide is allowed to escape, so no bubbles form. 
"In the second round of fermentation, winemakers add a little bit of extra sugar — either cane or beet — and, more yeast. Then, they cap the bottle, sealing everything inside. The yeast ferment the sugars and produce more carbon dioxide and alcohol. They also die, and digest themselves, producing the molecules responsible for the more toasty, yeasty flavors in aged champagne." --  

Finally, what makes the bubbles form when you fill your glass with champagne? 

"Scientists at the University of Reims, France have discovered that tiny gas pockets and fibers stuck on the inside of a glass—from dust or a towel used for drying—influence the timing of the bubble trains. 
"'Fibers entrap a tiny air pocket when Champagne is poured,' said physicist Gerard Liger-Belair. 'Then, this tiny air pocket literally sucks the [dissolved] carbon dioxide.'" --


Champagne is definitely the wine for this New Year's week, but I like non-bubbly wine better -- maybe I'm like the singer of Cole Porter's song: "I get no kick from champagne." However, it's perfect for the weekly drinking party at Elizabeth's blog!  

I have assembled this collection of quotes for this post on my food blog (mae food dot blog spot dot com) and if you are reading it elsewhere, it's been stolen! 

Have a great New Year's Eve, and let's hope for a better year in 2021.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Ann Arbor Art Work

Blog post and photos © 2020 mae sander.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Jane Austen's Dinner

In The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye (published 2002),  I enjoyed reading about food in Jane Austen's novels, and also about meal schedules, kitchens, and popular foods in her time. In the introduction, the authors explain much about foodways of that era. They cite Austen's novels, her letters, and cookbooks from her household as sources for what she and her characters ate. I haven't tried any of the recipes, but I'm fascinated by the way the authors described contemporary meals and mealtimes. 

Inspired by reading the cookbook, I've also been rereading parts of Mansfield Park and Emma, which the authors say have the most food references in Austen's novels. I find that I understand more about the habits of households in her books thanks to the cookbook's explanations about how meal times were arranged in that era. People ate a late breakfast, and the dinner hour could vary considerably. Tea and smaller meals or snacks were also served, but the invention of lunch was a later development in the habits of minor gentry of the class Austen wrote about.

As it's Christmas, I was interested in the authors' mention that quite near the beginning of Emma, there's a Christmas dinner. Though short on details, the main course was a saddle of mutton: there's a recipe for a lamb dish in The Jane Austen Cookbook, as well as a bit of discussion of this passage. The children in the family -- who would have been given their meal by their caretaker, separately from the adults, also had mutton, as well as rice pudding.

Mansfield Park has several interesting food passages. For example, at one point the younger son of the family in the central household takes over the hosting responsibility from his brother, who is traveling. His style is not nearly as pleasant as his brother's, we learn: "The soup would be sent round in a most spiritless manner, wine drank without any smiles or agreeable trifling, and the venison cut up without supplying one pleasant anecdote of any former haunch, or a single entertaining story, about 'my friend such a one.'" (Kindle Locations 702-703). 

One implication of this passage is the status of the family: only upper class people could eat venison, as hunting was only allowed if you owned the hunting preserve. Food is definitely a profound part of life: "everything will turn to account when love is once set going, even the sandwich tray." (Kindle Location 878).  

Hospitality always included food: "After the business of arriving was over, it was first necessary to eat, and the doors were thrown open to admit them through one or two intermediate rooms into the appointed dining-parlour, where a collation was prepared with abundance and elegance." (Kindle Locations 1124-1126). 

Another class-oriented passage was about the clergyman who had the "living" (that is, the appointment as the head of the local church) in the parsonage of Mansfield Park. Mrs. Norris is the widowed sister of the Lady of Mansfield Park whose late husband had held the living during his lifetime: she judges the current residents for extravagant taste in food:

"The Doctor [clergyman] was very fond of eating, and would have a good dinner every day; and Mrs. Grant, instead of contriving to gratify him at little expense, gave her cook as high wages as they did at Mansfield Park, and was scarcely ever seen in her offices. Mrs. Norris could not speak with any temper of such grievances, nor of the quantity of butter and eggs that were regularly consumed in the house. 'Nobody loved plenty and hospitality more than herself; nobody more hated pitiful doings; the Parsonage, she believed, had never been wanting in comforts of any sort, had never borne a bad character in her time, but this was a way of going on that she could not understand. A fine lady in a country parsonage was quite out of place.'" (Kindle Locations 421-426). 

Jane Austen lived from 1775-1817, a time when most cookbooks were hand-written by upper middle class women in homes very much like the ones where Austen lived: in fact, at least two such manuscripts were used in Austen's own homes. The authors describe these manuscripts in detail, even providing a list of the many contributors to the manuscripts besides their owners. 

The Jane Austen Cookbook includes many recipes, which are given in two versions: the first is exactly quoted from the manuscript, followed by a modernized version. The modern recipes explain how techniques of cooking in Austen's day were different from today's techniques, particularly how the open fire where food was cooked at that time required different techniques than modern stoves and ovens. 

A nearly total lack of commercially prepared foods also meant that preserves, pickles, produce, meat, poultry, and many other foods were made or grown by households of the type Austen writes about. As you may know from Austen's novels, the well-off households also often supplied poorer families with gifts of food. It's especially interesting that Austen's family ate some foods that were only recently becoming popular in England, particularly tomatoes, which Austen specifically mentioned in her letters, and potatoes, which were fairly new in English cuisine.

Book clubs that create meals appropriate to the book they are reading are clearly intended as one of the types of audience for this cookbook. Indeed, you could really recreate a Jane Austen menu, if you were patient and willing to produce the amazing number of dishes that would have been typical in a dinner party of the time. It would help, of course, if you had a staff of servants to serve and remove the dishes from the dining room. To me, the most surprising fact in the cookbook is the vast number of choices available at a meal even for a rather small number of guests. I think you could have a lot of fun cooking from this book, though I don't know whether I'll do that myself. 

Review © 2020 mae sander.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Aztecs' Own Story

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire was recorded in fairly much detail by the conquering Spanish troops, and that's the version of history that's been cemented in our heads (if any version is in our heads at all). Historian Camilla Townsend in Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs offers an alternative, based on accounts recorded by the descendants of the conquered people approximately a generation after Hernando Cortés conquered them. 

Like many academic history books, it's challenging to follow every thread in this narrative, but it's full of fascinating detail. It begins in very early times, and chronicles the interactions, rivalries, and wars among a number of ethnic and political groups in the Valley of Mexico during the several centuries before the Spaniards arrived in approximately 1519. The conquest is described in very detailed terms from the point of view of the conquered peoples, including those who allied with the invaders because the rulers had been their enemies for a long time. After the conquest, Townsend covers the slow decline of the native people, who suffered not only from military defeat but also from the European diseases that were introduced and spread wildly among the non-resistant native population. Some of this is a familiar story, but much was fascinatingly new to me.

I can't possibly summarize this complex book, so I'm just going to say that I really enjoyed the rich detail about the lives and times of the historic peoples. And I'm just going to quote some food descriptions that show you how much wonderful detail is there.

Here's a description of the food that the rulers of Mexico would have enjoyed in the late 15th century, a generation before the conquest:

"Their hosts offered them food, and they feasted. The tamales boasted decorative designs on top, such as a seashell outlined with red beans. Guests could choose between turkey, venison, rabbit, lobster, or frog stewed with chilis of various kinds. On the side, there were winged ants with savory herbs, spicy tomato sauces, fried onions and squash, fish eggs, and toasted corn. There were all kinds of fruits, tortillas with honey, and little cakes made of amaranth seed. Indeed, a former servant once counted two thousand different dishes made for the Mexica king and then passed on to be sampled by his councilors, servants, and entertainers. At the very end of the meal always came chocolate— crushed cacao beans steeped in hot water and flavored with honey and various kinds of dried flowers, such as vanilla pods or roses. To render it even more special, the drink was served in carved or painted gourds, often from faraway lands." (pp. 64-65). 

I located an Aztec image of a man drinking chocolate, which I included here (source: Codex Borgia, in "The Early History of Chocolate"). 

The marketplace in the center of the city in the age before the conquest:

"One part of the market featured luxury goods— gold and silver, turquoise, jade and other gems, the feathers of exotic birds. Merchants sold these to artisans as raw materials, and to wealthy customers as finely crafted textiles and beautiful jewelry. ...

"It was the section selling food stuffs, though, that most impressed people who had never been to the marketplace before. The stalls offered everything— every type of corn and bean, all varieties of salts and herbs. Birds and animals rustled in their cages. There were fruits and vegetables, cacao and honey, bird eggs and the delicious bars of dried algae from the lake. But what was remarkable about Tlatelolco, what made it different from neighborhood food markets, was that food could be bought partially prepared, for urban customers too busy to make everything from scratch. One could buy pre-made tortillas and little cakes, squash already cut into pieces, smoked chilis, and ground cacao. Hungry shoppers could go to what was effectively a restaurant— a stand where prepared meals were available for sale." (pp 75-76)

After the conquest the lives of the native people became harder and harder. Here's what a conquered group had to provide to their Spanish rulers:

"Cuauhtinchan was committed to providing 24,000 woven blankets every four years, as well as twenty turkeys, six thousand bushels of corn, sixteen baskets of beans, eighty of chile, sixteen of chia, and sixteen of salt." (p. 145).

At the start of each chapter of Fifth Sun is an illustration from one of the documents
that are used as sources for the book. These are from Codex Mendoza in the 
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Townsend really does a fabulous job of making individuals come to life, and it's amazing how many fully documented characters she found in the sources she used. While I enjoyed reading this book, I'm just not capable of doing justice to it in a real review. 

Blog post © 2020 mae sander. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

"Where the Wild Ladies Are"

The Fox-woman Kuzunoha Leaving Her Child. Yoshitoshi, 1889-1892. (Wikipedia)

Foxes become spirits, ghosts, or demons in Japanese folklore, in traditional prints, and Noh and Kabuki dramas. A modern story collection reworking many Japanese ghost tales is by Aoko Matsuda, titled Where the Wild Ladies Are (published in Japanese in 2016, translation into English 2020). I love reading these stories!

Somehow Matsuda manages to modernize these exotic tales, making delightful little vignettes where modern life meets folklore. I know only a little about Japanese folk tales, but my impression here is that the retellings borrow the emotions and the characterizations from traditional supernatural tales and dramas, applying the essence to twenty-first century Japanese individuals. 

Ghosts can play a role in twenty-first century problems; they become relevant to workplace issues, loneliness, depression, bereavement, family relationships, and other challenges. At the end of the story collection, Matsuda includes a brief summary of the tales that inspired each story, which is some help in seeing what she had in mind. However, it's much more fun to find reproductions online of prints and drawings of the various supernatural characters in the tales.

A range of emotional states, intensified by supernatural beings, seem to work out in modern life just the way that they work in folk tales. Other-worldly creatures, such as the fox in the above image, enable Matsuda to create a very interesting version of Japanese society, and especially to highlight the limitations that society puts on women in modern Japan. I was especially fascinated by one character named Mr. Tei, who appears in several stories. He explains "I don’t know why, but the living and the dead have always looked exactly the same to me." And of course he can see both living and dead people, and he plays a role in several ghostly situations. (p. 190).

Being fascinated by the use of food in literature, I especially enjoyed the love of food shown by the ghosts and supernatural creatures of Where the Wild Ladies Are. The following are just few quotes from the many times the spirits and the living experience a variety of foods. There's much, much more.

A story about two mysterious ladies who visit a man alone during the summer ghost festival called Obon:
"Just then, Shinzaburō’s eyes fell on three steaming cups of green tea placed on the coffee table. Did I go and make tea without realizing it? he thought. Surely these two didn’t sneak into the kitchen and make it themselves? What’s more, he noticed that the yōkan [red bean-paste jelly] he’d been saving for a special occasion was there too, cut into neat slices." (pp. 40-41).

About a water spirit called Hina-chan: 

"Rather than buying my lunch from the convenience store, which inevitably means getting by on soggy pasta or rice balls shaped into triangles by machines rather than hands, I’ve started taking my own lunch boxes in as often as I can. It feels to me as if the badly formed omelettes and grilled salmon fillets and florets of steamed broccoli I make at home to bring to the office all contain Hina-chan’s love. By eating my homemade food at work, I can be together with Hina-chan during the day too." (p. 69).

"At this moment, Hina-chan is lying on the sofa, her head resting on my knees and her eyes glued to the TV, munching away mindlessly at a bowl of avocado-flavored tortilla chips. I stroke her fine, silken hair, and think how deeply I adore her." (p. 82). 

Thoughts of an irrationally jealous and violent woman, maybe possessed:

"You take up a large daikon and whirl it around you like a baseball bat. When you bring it crashing down on the table, the daikon— which must have been softer than you thought— breaks into pieces, like a slow-motion video. Doubtless you will use some of these in tonight’s dinner— they’re the perfect size for simmering. As you squeeze out every last drop of ink from a raw squid, you even have time to think that you’ll combine the two, make ika-daikon. 

"Next, your eyes land on the cardboard box of apples that your parents sent over from their garden. You take them out and wrench them apart with your bare hands. Later you can make them into jam, or bake them in a pie, or mix them into macaroni salad— apples are surprisingly varied in their uses. You focus on channeling all your power into your fingers as they tear through the glossy skins." (pp. 90-91). 

A man employed by a very mysterious company that makes an incense with a power that somehow he can't grasp:

"At lunch the other day, he’d asked the women there about it, but they’d giggled and avoided answering the question. Shoveling down his katsu curry, Shigeru then asked the other question that had been on his mind. 'Don’t you think this company’s a bit weird sometimes?' ... 

"'Well, companies are weird, aren’t they,' one of the ladies said after a pause, as she gobbled up the broad strip of deep-fried tofu sitting on top of her kitsune udon. Her slanted eyes and narrow face had a vulpine quality to them, Shigeru noted. And come to think of it, weren’t the kitsune— the fox spirits capable of transforming themselves into humans— supposed to love deep-fried tofu above all other foods? Wasn’t that, in fact, where the dish had got its name? But he brushed off these thoughts as quickly as they had come to him." (pp. 116-117).

Japanese prints depicting a variety of ghosts, demons, possessed spirits, playful or harmful supernaturally endowed animals (especially foxes) and more are the main source of my familiarity with the creatures in Where the Wild Ladies Are, and I enjoyed looking up many images as I read. I believe that the same wellspring of folklore also inspired the ghostly characters in Miazaki's film "Spirited Away." A few more images:

Okiku, a ghost woman who lives in a well, appears in several stories.
Image by Hokusai (source).

From "Spirited Away" -- Chihro, the human girl, with two supernatural creatures.

Japanese hanging scroll of a toad.
Related story: "A Day Off" (p. 203)

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Portrait of Oiwa, 1836. (Wikimedia)

Blog post © 2020 mae sander. Images as credited.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Christmas and the Wassail Song

A silver and mother-of-pearl wassail bowl from 1650-1700.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (source)

Most of us have heard and even sung the Christmas Wassail Song. It seems very ancient, referring to the English custom of caroling from house to house, expecting to be treated with drink or food, or with gifts of money.  The usual wassail drink was some type of mulled wine or mulled cider, presented in a special wassail bowl. Caroling and wassailing still continue, though like many traditions, will be curtailed this year by our terrible health crisis. Let's hope that by next Christmas time the vaccine will allow us to go back to old customs.

The familiar verses of the Wassail Song tell us that the wassailers were friends and neighbors who visit as well-wishers in the spirit of the season:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbors' children,
Whom you have seen before. 

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year

The wassail custom and the wassail bowl have a very long history in England. In Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, historian Ronald Hutton writes of the earliest recorded Christmas custom centered around the wassail bowl or cup:

"The custom connected with it was first described by Peter de Langtoft, writing in the 1320s; the leader of a gathering took it, and cried ‘wassail’, Old English for ‘your health’. That person was answered ‘Drinkhail,’ drank from it, and passed it to the next of the company with a kiss. Each then repeated these actions. The custom may not, in fact, have been much older than Langtoft’s time. From the famous eighth-century poem Beowulf to the fourteenth-century conduct-book of Robert of Brunne, the word ‘wassail’ appears as a toast: it is simply Anglo-Saxon for ‘be of good health’. The bowl is first mentioned by Matthew Paris in the thirteenth century, as one in which cakes and fine white bread were communally dipped." (p. 13). 

Hutton describes a long tradition of precious metal wassail bowls beginning in medieval times.  He summarizes how there were many carols and songs, some meant to accompany dancing, associated with the wassailing customs -- not just the best-known song that I quoted. The wassailers not only received food and drink, but sometimes money or gifts. Even the kings observed wassailing customs until the sixteenth century:

"The wassail bowl is apparently not heard of at the royal court after the time of Henry VIII, but is reported at all other levels of society in the years 1600-30. Jonson portrayed it as a brown bowl decorated with ribbons and rosemary. Payments to ‘wassailers’ feature in gentry household accounts throughout the late Stuart and Hanoverian ages. During the same years the domestic wassail continued as well: around Leeds, in Yorkshire, during the 1780s, a cup of ale with roasted apples in it was passed round after supper on every Twelfth Eve. Each person spooned out an apple and wished the company a merry Christmas and happy New Year. The date was known locally as ‘Wassail Eve.'" (p. 22).
19th century Wassail bowl from Swansea Museum.

Christmas wassailing continued throughout English history -- a quote from a writer in 1831 described a household on 12th night:

"seated round a huge oaken table, with the yuletide log blazing on the fire, and the wassail bowl with its contents (generally sugared ale, toast, etc., and sometimes enriched with eau de vie) sparkling, the large sirloin of beef… smoking on the board, the old harper increasing the mirth with the melodious strains of his harp and ‘the joke and jest going round’" (p. 64). 

Don't you get a warm feeling from this description of a truly old tradition that continues into this century, and perhaps has made its way into our currently troubled lives? I'm sharing this little historic look at a traditional beverage with Elizabeth and other bloggers who write something about a drink each week.

If you want to make a wassail bowl to serve during your own celebration, the web offers many recipes. From The Spruce, a summary of the ingredients:

“The earliest recorded recipes of wassail included warmed mead, an ale brewed with honey, which was then brewed with roasted crab apples. Later, the beverage became a mulled cider made with sugar and various spices like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Today, wassail recipes are abundant, with home cooks putting their personal twists on the traditional historical drink. Modern recipes can begin with wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale with brandy or sherry added. Fresh apples or oranges are often added to the brew.”

A completely different, parallel tradition in some parts of England involved "wassailing" to invoke good harvests and healthy trees or other agricultural good fortune. Sometimes this custom is confused with Christmas wassailing and caroling, but it's actually a separate tradition.   

Blog post © 2020 mae sander. Image of carolers from Historic UK

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Isla Vista, California: May, 2012

islavista 5 

Looking backward through my past photos, I found these amusing murals painted on apartment buildings in Isla Vista, California, the student neighborhood near the University of California at Santa Barbara. We lived in Santa Barbara on a few occasions while Len was visiting to do research at the physics institute there. Needless to say, though I'm doing my best to live in the present moment, I wish we could be at a pleasant beachside town enjoying the sunshine instead of locked down in Michigan!

islavista 4 

islavista 1

islavista 6


Photos © 2012 mae e. sander.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Happy Chanukah!

My fully-lit Chanukah menorahs. Most images show all the candles at once, 
but this really only happens on the eighth day of the holiday, which was December 17, 2020.

The Last 4 Days of Chanukah

Candles ready for the fifth night of Chanukah.
For each night, I tried to make a special meal.

Dinner the fifth night: stuffed eggplant and salad.

The sixth night: curried squash with red lentils.

The seventh night: note small decoration hanging on the patio door.
What we ate: green chile cornbread and cowboy caviar
(a made-up recipe since we can't get Trader Joe's)

My cowboy caviar: a mixture of black beans and corn
with green onion, cilantro, lime juice, vinegar, oil, sugar and catsup(!).

The eighth, and last night of Chanukah.  We had lamb roast 
(a New Zealand leg of lamb that was waiting in the freezer)
with roasted brussels sprouts and a good wine.

Blog post and all photos © 2020 mae sander.