Such a delightful word–it rolls off the tongue with a musical quality and promises of a tasty treat. Used both as a noun (a fricassee) and a verb (to fricassee), the word is relatively old, appearing as early as 1490 in French cookbooks, and by 1568 in England, but its origin and etymology are surprisingly brief. It is speculated that it is a portmanteau word combining the French ‘frire’ -to fry with French ‘casser” to  break. Perhaps that accounts for some rather gruesome connotations the word has acquired.

First, there is Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, which is anything but modest. In his biting satire of the English mishandling of Irish economy, he claims a fricassee or stew of the very young children of the poor would help solve the problem of poverty in Ireland. I can’t help but think of this preposterous idea whenever I hear of a recipe for fricassee.

While real recipes for fricassees usually call for chicken not children, one can’t ignore the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. Was he thinking of fricassee when he said,  “Fee Fie Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.” You might ask, what does this have to do with fricassee?

Well, although grinding young Jack’s bones is the more common rendition of the rhyme, I’ve always heard it as ‘break his bones to make my bread.’ The connection becomes clearer when you consider the recipe in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, for Frykecy (40). After killing and flaying the animal hot, the cook is instructed to break the bones of a chicken or hare with a pestle. To be fair, ‘break bones’ in cookery can mean dismember or cut apart, though I’m not sure exactly how that is done with a pestle. It seems a fairly violent method of cooking, rather in line with the giant’s idea.

So what exactly is a fricassee? It is a sort of stew made with cut up meat, and fried before it is stewed (or sometimes stewed before it is fried). It is usually made of chicken or rabbit, with varying spices. Early fricassee recipes use egg yolks to thicken the gravy. Later recipes use flour. In the 17th century fricassees could be made of eggs, lambstones, veal, or sweetbreads, or even chicken-peepers (which are young chickens) and pigeons, head and all. By the 18th century, the more familiar fricassee appeared. These recipes leave out the heads and innards and thicken the gravy with a bit of flour to help stabilize it.

So in spite of all the gruesome connotations, fricassee today is as delightful to eat as it is to say.

A modern fricassee (based on Fricasseed Chicken, Brown from Child, 54)

(Note that often cooked poultry  in the 18th century was meant to be served as white as possible (see turkey blog) This recipe browns the chicken pieces first. It is followed by a recipe called fricasseed chicken, white.)

A modern fricassee (based on fricasseed chicken, brown)
(Note that often cooked poultry  in the 18th century was meant to be served as white as possible (see turkey blog) This recipe browns the chicken pieces first. It is followed by a recipe called fricasseed chicken, white.)

1 chicken or about 8 pieces of chicken
1 onion
About 3 T. butter
About ½ c. flour
1 t. Salt
½ t. Pepper
1 t. Crushed marjoram
2 t. Crushed sage

Cut up a chicken into serving size pieces (legs, thighs, wings, etc.) Wash and dredge the chicken in a mixture of flour, salt, and pepper. Fry them in butter along with 1 chopped onion.
When the chicken is browned, remove it. Add 2 cups of water or broth to the pan, along with marjoram and sage. Bring to a boil. Mix 2 T. of the flour left from dredging with 2 T. water to make a roue. Add the roue to the pan, stirring constantly. Boil 1-2 minutes. Turn the heat down to simmer. Put the browned chicken back in the pan and simmer 20-30 minutes.

Recipes for Fricassee can be found in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (pages 40 and 44) and in The American Frugal Housewife p. 54, among other cookbooks.

Child, Lydia Marie. The American Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy. 12th Edition. Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co. 1833. (First published 1828)

—–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

On Farming and Foraging

It’s a really good thing I’m not a farmer.

If I were, I’d starve.  

However, I do dabble a bit in gardening, and I love experimenting. So a few years ago, I decided to grow wheat. After all, I bake all my own bread from scratch. Why not try to make a loaf really from scratch–starting with wheat seeds? 

Besides the appeal of trying something new, I had acquired a small packet, about a tablespoon, of einkorn wheat seeds from a gardening program I attended. Einkorn is an ancient grain, thus even more appealing to my sense of food adventure. I couldn’t let such bounty go to waste.

The first step, preparing the ground and planting the seeds was fairly easy. I took out all the weeds and grass shoots from a 6 x10’ patch of ground in our garden, and placed the seeds neatly in 3 rows. The planting instructions said this was winter wheat, so I planted in the fall, and let it rest over winter. I have to admit I wondered if mice, rabbits, or birds would find all the seeds before they were covered in snow, but I needn’t have worried. 

Come spring, tiny green shoots poked up through the dirt in all my rows. Though heartening, this was the beginning of my trouble. Not only did shoots pop up in the rows, but all over the entire patch. At that point, I realized I didn’t actually know what wheat looks like while growing. My knowledge of wheat stemmed mostly from childhood. We had a slender grass-like weed in the backyard in California. This weed developed a lovely, pale green head of seed kernels. My sisters and I called it miniature wheat, because it grew only about 8 “ high. We loved to harvest it and feed it to our dolls and Breyer model horses.( Once, we even tried cooking and eating it ourselves, but that was not worth trying a second time.) In any case, I knew enough to recognize my memories of miniature wheat weren’t an adequate guide. I looked up wheat pictures on the internet, but only found mature wheat. Since I couldn’t tell what was weed and what was wheat among the shoots, I didn’t pull up anything. By the time I actually could tell what was wheat and what wasn’t, the weeds were nearly as tall as the wheat. I worried that I would pull up the wheat along with the weeds. I did the best I could, and the wheat did the best it could under the circumstances.

Eventually, I could see it was getting close to harvest time. The wheat was starting to look rather golden, like the pictures of wheat fields I’d seen. I figured I’d gather it in just a few more days.

Unfortunately, the local birds knew more about wheat than I did. They did their own harvesting before I got there. I did manage to glean a bit of wheat from what the birds left behind. My total harvest: about 2 tablespoons of wheat, perhaps twice the amount that I had sown.  

Obviously this wasn’t enough to make a loaf of bread, but I’m stubborn. I wanted to make at least a little flour. However,  that presented another challenge. I don’t have a threshing floor or a flail to beat the wheat and remove the hulls. I tried crushing it with a mortar and pestle, without success. The seeds just rolled around. Finally, I tried a rolling pin. That worked nicely to crush the hull, but it also crushed the kernel.  I feared winnowing it in a traditional way (tossing the threshed grain into the air and letting the chaff blow away) would lose everything. Instead I sifted the crushed wheat. The result was just over a teaspoon of very fine flour. (No need to grind this wheat- the rolling pin took care of that.)

What to do with one teaspoon of flour? Well, this spring we found only one morel mushroom. There was just enough flour to sprinkle on the mushroom and fry it. My husband and I each had two delicious bites. 

Maybe I should leave both the farming and the foraging to those who know how to do it.

Pudding or Gruel? You decide.

Imagine there is someone sick in your household. Do you feed them pudding or gruel? 

This may be harder to decide than you realize. A look at the history of each dish may help.

First: Gruel

Such an ominous, even cruel word. It conjures feelings of want and deprivation. I can’t help thinking of poor Oliver Twist, pathetically asking for ‘more’. But what exactly is gruel?

Gruel has meant a lot of things over the centuries and hasn’t always been seen with such a negative view. Etymonline gives a twelfth-century definition as fine flour or meal made of lentils or beans. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, from the 14th century, gruel is a light, liquid food, made with ground grain such as oatmeal, boiled in water or milk. Oats, wheat or barley were all considered suitable grains. Recipes in the middle ages often suggest adding meat, onions, spices, sugar, or almonds. When English colonists came to the Americas and learned about corn, that grain was added to the list of those suitable for making gruel. By this time, gruel was noted as a good food for invalids, nourishing for someone too sick to eat regular food. 

Unfortunately, it is also easy to stretch the grain by adding more water until the resulting gruel is thin, tasteless, and bland, more like a thin soup. By the 19th century, ‘take one’s gruel’ came to mean ‘take one’s punishment’ and ‘to gruel’ was ‘to punish’. Later in the century ‘gruelling’ as an adjective came into play, meaning exhausting, physically difficult, or punishing.

And so the bland but nutritious aspect of gruel morphed into the thin, watery mess we find so unappetizing.

Next we come to pudding. Here’s a word to conjure all that is good to eat. It was an essential holiday treat for Mrs. Cratchit and still is a lunchbox favorite. Of course, Mrs. Cratchit’s pudding is a far cry from the sugary custard found in pudding cups, and even further from the original puddings. So what exactly is pudding?

Back in the 14th century, pudding referred to the stomach or intestines of a cow or sheep. This was often stuffed with meat and oatmeal. So at that time, pudding meant something like sausage. By the 16th century, pudding meant any soft food, generally some vegetable mixed with grain and boiled in a bag. Gradually pudding became more and more like porridge, and  porridge originally made of pureed vegetables (think of pease porridge hot) became more grain based. Like with gruel, the pudding/porridge often had other things added, like raisins, spices, and especially, sugar. 

Though the earliest cooking methods for pudding and gurel were different, the ingredients for gruel and pudding are surprisingly similar.  For instance, take a look at the following recipes.

Recipes for gruel:


Gruel is very easily made. Have a pint of water boiling in a skillet. Stir up three or four large spoonfuls of nicely sifted oatmeal, rye, or Indian, in cold water. Pour it into the skillet while the water boils. Let it boil eight or ten minutes. Throw in a large handful of raisins to boil, if the patient is well enough to bear them. When put in a bowl, add a little salt, white sugar, and nutmeg .

Child, 36

(Note Indian refers to corn meal. This is nearly identical to the recipe found on the box for modern corn meal. Oatmeal porridge is also still made in the same way, though it is no longer called oatmeal gruel).

The barley gruel in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is a bit richer, adding cream, sugar, mace, eggs and rose water to the basic gruel. (136)

Egg Gruel is even less like the tasteless images we have of gruel. Lacking any grain at all, the result is more like a warm eggnog or soft custard, and is quite delicious.

Egg Gruel

This is at once food and medicine. Some people have great faith in its efficacy in cases of chronic dysentery. It is made thus: Boil a pint of new milk; beat four new-laid eggs to a light froth, and pour in while the milk boils; stir them together thoroughly but do not let them boil; sweeten it with the best of loaf sugar, and grate in a whole nutmeg; add a little salt if you like it. Drink half of it while it is warm and the other half in two hours.

Child, 31

Now compare the gruel recipes to pudding recipes from the same sources:

Make White pudding

Take 3 pintes of milke & when it is boyled, put in tw quarts of great oatmeale bruised a little, & stirr it over ye fire till it be ready to boyle. Then take if of & cover it close all night. 3 pound of suet minced small, put in wth 3 grated nutmegs, ye oulks of 8 eggs, 2 whites, & a littel rosewater, a pound of sugar and a litel grated bread, currans, & creame as you think fit. This quantity will make 3 or 4 dosin.

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, 106

(Note this is really a recipe for pudding stuffing, that is the mixture to be stuffed into  a sausage  skin. It is much thicker than gruel, but uses many of the same ingredients.)

The main difference between Mrs. Child’s pudding and her gruel is  the cooking time and method, and the proportion of meal to liquid. Her pudding is much thicker than her gruel, more like stiff cake–think plum pudding.).  

Here’s her recipe for boiled Indian pudding:

Indian pudding should be boiled for four or five hours. Sifted Indian meal and warm milk should be stirred together pretty stiff. A little salt, and two or three great spoonfuls of molasses added; a spoonful of ginger if you like that spice. Boil it in a tight covered pan or a very thick cloth; if the water gets in, it will ruin it. Leave plenty of room; for Indian swells very much. The milk with which you mix it should be merely warm; if it be scalding, the pudding will break to pieces. Some people chop sweet suet fine, and warm in the milk; others warm think slices of sweet apple to be stirred into the pudding. Water will answer instead of milk.

Child, 61

Both books have recipes for sweetened gruels and sweet puddings.

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery also has recipes for all kinds of meat puddings, curd puddings, almond puddings and rice puddings, etc. The almond and rice puddings have sugar added, but the majority of her puddings  are not sweet. Mrs. Child on the other hand, has recipes for apple, cherry, and other fruit or custardy puddings, none of which are savory. 

So will it be pudding or gruel? Maybe we can have it both ways. For many English speakers world-wide, pudding has come to mean any kind of dessert. In this time of rampant virus, many people find themselves eating and cooking more than ever before.  Perhaps we should all start making gruel for our pudding.


Child, Lydia Marie. The American Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy. 12th Edition. Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co. 1833. (First published 1828)

—–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): Complete text reproduced micro graphically. Oxford University Press, 1971. Volume 1, 2. 

Of Cleaning and Coughing and the like…

Colonial women did not know about germs or viruses, but they did know about pests and vermin. Housewives were expected to keep the home clean and provide first aid for common illnesses. Many cookbooks of the day included recipes for home remedies along with cleaning advice. As we face  the current pandemic with widespread shortages of some cleaning products, I thought it useful to take a look at how our foremothers coped. (Please note that any medicinal information in this blog is not meant to be medical advice. I cannot vouch for the efficacy of any ancient or colonial remedy.)

Homemade lye soap

Soap and Washing: It has always surprised me that soap is made from two very ‘dirty’ substances. To make soap, you use grease and lye. Lye is made from water dripped through wood ash. The end result is a very effective cleaner. You might think that lye soap would be harsh, but the stuff I made is gentle and not at all hard on the skin. Many households made their own soap, and so soap recipes are included in nearly every cookbook. Mrs. Child claims it is more economical for people in the city to exchange grease and ashes for finished soap ,but those living in the country should make their own (22). Still, such soap is mostly used for washing clothing, hands, and dishes. Hair should be washed in New England Rum to keep it clean and free from disease (12). Perhaps in her day, rum was cheaper than it is today.

Vinegar: Widely used since ancient times, vinegar has both cleaning and medicinal properties. It cuts grease and helps preserve foods because it slows the growth of bacteria. As one of the first medicines, it was used for treating wounds and infections in Biblical times. As early as 400 B.C. Hippocrates claimed vinegar had therapeutic properties. In the seventeenth century, ladies carried vinegar-soaked sponges to mask the smell of garbage in the streets. Even today, vinegar is recommended for treating rashes and some bug bites. Mrs. Child suggests buying vinegar by the barrel or half-barrel, and adding old cider, wine settlings, or sour beer to the barrel to make it last longer, though care must be made not to add too much at a time (15-16). In times of plague, coins might be dropped in vinegar for disinfecting before handling. So, if you are having trouble finding Lysol, bleach, or other cleaners, you might just try vinegar.

Pests and Vermin: Mrs. Child has advice for keeping pests out of the house. To get rid of cockroaches, try turpentine (10). For bedbugs, use quicksilver mixed with egg whites and brushed on with a feather (10). Ants are among the worst of the vermin. Mrs. Child suggests luring them to a dish of shagbarks, then putting corrosive sublimate in the dish and painting all the cracks the ants came from with the corrosive sublimate (21). (Corrosive sublimate is mercuric chloride, a toxic, crystalline substance still used as a fungicide and antiseptic.) Not surprisingly, Mrs. Child includes a strong warning that great care should be taken with this substance, especially around children.

The listings above are all ways to promote cleanliness and prevent disease, but even under the best circumstances, disease can spread. (As it has in the last few months.)  Caring for the sick is especially challenging when no one is sure what causes the illness or how to treat it. In the 18th century, the old ideas of the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) were changing, but many of the remedies were still based on balancing the humors, or pairing things that are hot and dry with those that are cold and moist.

Fever: To prevent fevers, Mrs. Child recommends the constant use of malt beer (28), though I suspect constant beer drinking would hide a fever rather than prevent it. More useful perhaps is her entire section on the use of herbs as remedies for nearly everything. Catnip tea is thought to prevent fevers, while sweet balm tea can be given to cool a fever (37). According to the theory of humors, a person suffering from a fever should be given cooling foods, like lettuce, melon, or vinegar (Martha…, 207). White quince jelly was considered an effective remedy for fever (Martha…, 230). One of the best known and generally effective herbal remedies is willow bark tea, which has been used throughout China, Europe and the Middle East since before 400 BC. Hippocrates wrote that chewing on willow bark helps relieve pain or fever. Indeed, willow bark tea is still sold today to relieve pain and inflammation. Willow bark contains salicins (similar to aspirin)  and other anti-inflammatory compounds. Research has shown willow bark tea is generally effective for reducing pain, but not necessarily fever (“Willow bark”).

Sore throat: Many of Mrs. Child’s remedies for sore throat involve wrapping a poultice around the throat. One such poultice mashes warm apples with tobacco and wine. The mixture is spread on a linen rag and bound around the throat (27). Or else, take a stocking that has been worn all day and is still warm, and tie that around the neck (26). A third remedy is sugar mixed with brandy. (to be drunk, not used as a poultice.) Inhaling hot vinegar steam is also said to be effective, though care should be taken not to scald the throat (26).

Croup (a lung infection usually caused by a virus) or cough: For croup, Mrs. Child recommends rubbing bear grease or goose grease on the neck. In very bad cases, the warmed grease can be poured down the throat (24) Another recipe, involving camphor, wine spirits, and hartshorn (24) would have a similar effect to the vapor rubs used today. Hyssop tea is said to be  good for lung problems (36). Even better, mix the hyssop with maiden-hair, lungwort, elecampane and horehound to make tea (37). Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats contains about 90 recipes for medicinal waters and syrups, including ‘sirrup of hyssope’ and ‘sirrup of horehound’ (375-376). 

In the modern world, we have stronger, often more reliable, medicines, along with more complete knowledge of how the chemicals work. We can go to a trained pharmacist and get a stable prescription with known qualities and precise dosages. Householders no longer have to grow their own herbs and distill their own medicines. Even so, it is worthwhile to remember some of the older remedies. You can still buy horehound cough drops (horehound candy) or try making horehound syrup.

A simple Horehound syrup recipe:

…take horehound, violet leaves, and hyssop, of ech a good handful, seethe them in water, and put thereto a little saffron, liquorice, and sugar candy; after they have boiled a good while, then strain it into an earthen vessel, and let the sick drink thereov six spoonful at a time morning and evening…” (Markham, 23).

Final parting advice: Today, times are hard. The pandemic is disrupting life world-wide. Our fears for our health are exacerbated by worry over the collapsing economy. In such times, I find a glance at history can provide a calming perspective. Consider these words, written by Mrs. Child in 1833: “Perhaps there never was a time when the depressing effects of stagnation in business were so universally felt, all the world over, as they are now.” (108)

Our forebears survived that crisis. I have no doubt we shall survive our own.

Wash your hands…


Child, Lydia Marie. The American Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy. 12th Edition. Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co. 1833. (First published 1828)

Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife. [originally published 1615], edited by Michael R. Best McGill-Queen’s University Press:Montreal] 1994, Chapter 1, recipe 88 (p. 23) (retrieved from Food Timeline:

—–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

“Willow Bark”. Penn State Hershey. Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

When a plague hits…

Doctor Schnabel (Doctor Beak)
Copper engraving 1656, Paul Furst
(public domain)

As the world shutters its doors, and people every where practice ‘social distancing’ in a desperate attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, it might be useful to look back at past pandemics, especially the plague.

            Bubonic plague ravaged the world many times, though perhaps the most well-known is the Black Death, (1347-1351), one of the worst pandemics humans have ever known. This outbreak probably started in Central Asia and was carried both east and west by traders. Estimates of deaths vary from one quarter to one third of the population of Europe. Between 75 and 200 million people throughout Eurasia died. No one understood what caused the disease, how to prevent it, or how to treat it. It spread rapidly, halting business and trade, and ultimately changing society.  

            In reality the plague is caused by bacteria transmitted to humans through rat fleas or from the coughing and sneezing of an infected person. No one knew about bacteria during the Black Death, so there were many false beliefs on what caused the illness. Some people thought it was a sign of God’s wrath against sinners and a generally wicked population. Others thought it was caused by evil spirits who pricked victims with poisoned lances. Some thought you could get sick merely by looking at the sick. They believed the infection was carried from the eyes of the sick to the eyes of the healthy. Scared villagers blamed cats, dogs, Jews, or migrants as carriers. 

Some people looked for more ‘scientific’ explanations. Many believed the infection was spread by the air itself, or from poisonous fumes coming from underground. Others maintained it was due to a thick, stinking mist blown over Italy from the east. At least one physician attributed the illness to the movements of the planets. No one seemed to think the ubiquitous rats and fleas caused it.

            Since no one knew what caused the disease, means of preventing it were widely varied and mostly ineffective. In the Middle Ages, health or lack thereof was seen as a function of the four humours of the body: blood, black bile, phlegm and yellow bile. Following the theory of humours, the Paris medical faculty advised against  eating cold, moist, watery foods or exercising too much. If it rained, they advised taking a dose of fine treacle (a thick syrup like molasses). They also suggested fat people should not sit in the sunshine. 

In the face of this largely useless advice, many folk remedies developed. Perhaps carrying a bunch of flowers, especially lavender, could freshen or purge the bad air. Smoke was also seen as a disinfectant. Cunning advertisers tried to sell special powders to burn. Vinegar was used as a sanitizer. In London markets, coins were dropped in a bowl of vinegar before changing hands. Magic charms were used to ward off the plague. The word ‘abracadabra’ could be written in an inverted triangle, leaving off the first letter in each new line. As the word shrank away, so too would the disease.

Most of these efforts had little effect and more desperate measures set in. The medieval version of ‘social distancing’ meant plague victims might be shunned by family and friends and left to die alone. Public assemblies became illegal. Some households closed themselves up with extra stocks of food and water, hoping to wait out the disease. Others fled, unwittingly carrying the deadly bacteria with them. In many places, infected houses were quarantined by the authorities with all the inhabitants inside. This was different from voluntary isolation because these people rarely had the opportunity or money to buy extra supplies. When the sick were confined with the healthy, nearly everyone died.

Some doctors fled, but many tried to help their patients. They tried bleeding, lancing the swellings, or tying a toad or a live, plucked chicken to the swellings. Victims surviving the illness sometimes died from the cure. 

Doctors today have a lot better idea of how to treat illness and a much better understanding of the spread of disease. But people in general have not changed much. Granted, COVID-19 is nowhere near as deadly as the bubonic plague, but it is new and unknown. People today self-isolate or ‘shelter in place’ after stocking up on toilet paper, flour, and canned goods. Borders are closed and migrants are viewed with suspicion. No one knows how long this will last. 

The bubonic plague re-shaped medieval society in many ways, especially economically.  With so many people dead, worker shortages eventually led to improved conditions for workers. None of us today have lived through such horror like the plague. But our own pandemic has already had far-reaching effects. COVID-19 has shuttered businesses world-wide, closed schools and restaurants, and cancelled weddings and funerals. Time will tell what permanent changes this disease will have on our own society.

frontispiece of Jean-Jacques Manget’s Traité de la peste: recueilli des meilleurs auteurs anciens et modernes, et enrichi de remarques et observations théoriques et pratiques: avec une table très ample des matières. (Geneva: Philippe Planche, 1721).(public domain)
The caption, translated, says: “The costume of doctors and other people who visit those infected with the plague. It is made of levant Morocco (sheep, goat, or seal leather), the mask has crystal eyes and a long nose that is stuffed full of perfumes.”
(This protective gear was not used during the Black Death, but during later epidemics.)

(Note: Large portions of this posting come from my article “The Plague in the Middle Ages,” in Tournaments Illuminated, Summer 1983, published under my SCA name, Taira d’en Farraige Thiar.)

The Jungles of San Bruno


The park as it looks now

For those of us who are old enough, the places we remember from childhood are historic. I’m thinking of a place I first saw over 60 years ago, a little park nestled in the San Bruno hills. We lived on Willow Way, a few blocks from the park. My older brother used to march us there. He was the general, and we were the privates. Getting there was a great adventure.

Actually, I have few memories of the park itself. I suspect there were the standard swings, maybe a slide or a merry-go-round. What I do remember is the forbidden jungle behind the park. For a child, it was easy to slip through a gap in the chain link fence and enter the forbidden territory teeming with mysterious wildlife.  There were king snakes, blue belly lizards, baby birds in need of rescue, and alligators (or crocodiles- I’ve never been sure which is which). Though I was too little to accomplish the feat myself, I clearly remember my brother swinging on a thick vine across the alligator-infested river below. 

We moved away from San Bruno when I was about 7 years old, but the memories of this exotic park remained. Jungle vines and wild trees fueled my imaginary treks through the Amazon for years afterwards. 

In fact, I never questioned my vivid memory of this San Bruno jungle until well into adulthood. One day, while sharing childhood stories with my own children, it occured to me that there are no jungles in San Bruno, California. As a part of Central California, less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco, San Bruno has a moderate climate rather than a tropical one. It’s cool and foggy, without a lot of rain. Eucalyptus trees grow there, but no lush tropical vines. As for the animals, I’m sure there really were king snakes, blue belly lizards, and baby birds, since my brother caught all of these critters and brought them home. However, outside of a zoo. neither alligators nor crocodiles have ever lived anywhere near San Bruno. My children, who had a better sense of geography than I’d had, laughed at another example of my overactive imagination.

There’s a word for this kind of false memory: confabulation. Confabulation is often associated with mental diseases, but it also occurs fairly often in the general population. And clearly, it’s easy for a writer to confuse reality with the stories one tells.

Last fall I had a chance to go back to San Bruno for the first time in decades. My sister and I found the house we’d lived in on Willow Way. From there I found the park. It’s not quite the park of my memory. No alligators, crocodiles, vines, or rivers. But there is a way around the chain link fence and there is a wooded area tangled with brush behind it. It’s not really a jungle, but close enough to understand why I thought so. I find it comforting to know that even though I made up many of the details, the place is real. Maybe not historic in a traditional sense, but part of my history. And real or false, I still cherish the memory of my jungle.

Going through the gap into the jungle

The Dark Side of Nutmeg

In many ways the world of today was shaped by Europe’s desire for the ‘exotic’ spices of Southeast Asia and the Spice Islands. The quest for the control of this trade sent Portuguese, Dutch, and British explorers to all corners of the world and led to widespread colonization of distant places. Unfortunately, the thought of great gain tempted (and still tempts) people to commit great evils in the name of commerce.

Nutmeg is the classic example of this greedy quest. Although today nutmeg is second only to cinnamon as a flavoring in baked goods and drinks, centuries ago it was worth more than its weight in gold. From the seed of a tropical evergreen tree come two spices: the inner kernel is nutmeg and the thin casing on the seed is mace.The nutmeg tree is native to Southeast Asia and was specifically cultivated by the inhabitants of the Banda Islands. The Bandanese had developed important trade connections throughout SE Asia and traded regularly with both Indian and Arab traders.

As early as the 12th century Europeans valued nutmeg for its medicinal properties. The abbess, Hildegaard of Bingen discussed it, and doctors considered it helpful in balancing the body’s humors. (According to medical knowledge of the time, health depended on balancing the four humors.) As a ‘hot food’ nutmeg could mitigate the effects of cold foods like fish and vegetables. In very large quantities, nutmeg is also a hallucinogenic. It was thought to be able to ward off the common cold and even bubonic plague.

However, even though cooks, physicians, and rich people knew quite a bit about the benefits of nutmeg, no one had a clear idea of where it came from. Europeans obtained their nutmeg from Venice after the spice had been brought there by Arab traders. It wasn’t until 1511 that the Portugues ‘discovered’ the Banda Islands as the source of nutmeg. They didn’t have a large enough force at that time to take over the trade, but they could at least break up the Arab monopoly on the European market. The Portuguese tried to establish a fort on Bandaneira Island, but failed. Instead they bought nutmeg and other spices from the local growers or middlemen, paying fair prices. This system worked well for all involved for nearly a century. 

Then the Dutch came into the area. They were not interested in sharing the market. They wanted to dominate and reap all the profits. The Bandanese were used to trading with Arab, Indian and Portugues traders for practical goods like silver, medicines, certain foodstuffs, Chinese porcelain, copper or steel). They had no need for heavy woolen cloth, damask or the other Dutch items that were worthless in the tropics. The Dutch, however, were persistent in their demands. In 1609 they forced some of the Bandanese elites to sign the Eternal Compact giving the Ducth East India Complan exclusive rights to the spice trade in Banda. At the same time the Dutch strengthened Fort Nassau, their stronghold on one of the Banda Islands. The Bandanese largely ignored the treaty, that only a few of the leaders had signed. When the Dutch tried to build a fort on the island, the Bandanese killed the Dutch Admiral and several of his officers.

Meanwhile, the British were also fighting the Dutch in the area. Through the early 1600’s the two European forces had several battles with lots of death on both sides, but the Dutch eventually won, mostly driving out the British except for one small island called Run Island. 

By 1621, the Dutch wanted a more secure and more profitable hold on the nutmeg trade. Dutch forces invaded Bandaneira on the pretext that there had been treaty violations. What followed was genocide. By the end of the fierce and bloody fighting, some 14,000 Bandanese were slaughtered, leaving somewhere around 1000 natives. Many of these people were enslaved. The Dutch divided the islands into plantations, brought in slaves from other places and took complete control of the nutmeg production, selling nutmeg at about 300 times the production costs. The enslaved Bandanese, with their knowledge of nutmeg cultivation, were important in this new system, but kept in limited positions by the Dutch. Some of the remaining Bandanese escaped and established communities on nearby islands. Some of them even became nutmeg smugglers. This system lasted about 45 years.

By 1665-67, during the second Anglo Dutch war, the British remained in control of Run Island one of the smallest of the Banda island, but nevertheless important enough to prevent the Dutch from having a complete monopoly. Through the Treaty of Breda at the end of the war in 1667, The Dutch traded the island of Manhattan (considered distant and worthless at the time )for the Island of Run. Finally the Dutch had a complete nutmeg monopoly, which they kept for about 150 years. During this time cooks at all but the poorest levels of society from Europe and the Americas prized nutmeg and used it in everything from cookies and puddings to fish pies and mincemeat.

Finally during the Napoleonic wars from 1803-1815, Britain had an excuse to attach the Dutch at Fort Nassau on Bandaneira because the Dutch were part of Napoleon’s empire and, therefore, enemies to the British. British troops captured the Dutch fort in 1810 and held it until 1814. During this time the British developed nutmeg cultivation in many other British held colonies in Southeast Asia and in the Caribbean. By the time the Dutch regained control of the Spice Islands, nutmeg was no longer the scarce commodity it had been.

There’s a pretty good chance that the nutmeg you sprinkle on your French toast or your eggnog came from Southeast Asia. Indonesia is still the largest producer (up to 50%) of the world’s nutmeg. It’s heartening to think that just as the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg eventually failed, so did their attempt to wipe out the Bandanese. Bandanese culture, language, and traditions still exist in these islands. And the nutmeg they first cultivated still tempts palates worldwide.

In Search of Ping: A glimpse of the Yangtze River

The Yangtze River is the most important river in China. Starting in the mountains of Tibet and draining into the East China Sea near Shanghai, it is the longest river in China, the  longest river in the world to flow entirely in one country, and the third longest river in the world overall. The Yangtze River is considered the birthplace of the Chinese Civilization. People have been living along its banks for thousands of years, possibly as early as 3000 BCE. Though Westerners call it the Yangtze River, this name, meaning ‘child of the oceans,’ is technically reserved for the area near the mouth of the river. In Chinese the river is called Cháng Jiang (long river) or just Jiang (the river).

The Yangtze River is also the setting for the beloved picture book, The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Weise (originally published by Viking, 1933). This is the heartwarming tale of a young duck, Ping, who lives in a wise-eyed boat on the Yangtze River with his large family. Each day the duck family forages for food and then returns at night to their home on the boat. But the last duck to return home always gets a spank. One day Ping sees he will be the last duck, so he hides instead of returning home. After a night alone on the river, Ping faces many adventures including an encounter with cormorants and capture by a young boat boy. As  Ping narrowly escapes becoming the boy’s duck dinner, he is thrilled to see his home, the wise-eyed boat. Unfortunately Ping sees that no matter how fast he travels, he will once again be last. But this time he marches up, takes his spanking, and happily rejoins his family. I’ve read the story at least a thousand times and have never met a 3-year-old who didn’t love Ping. 

Ping’s home, “the beautiful yellow waters of the Yangtze River” became for me symbolic of all China. So when I embarked on a Yangtze River cruise, I wondered what I might discover of Ping. 

We began our cruise late at night at the dock in Maoping, which is in Zigui County, upstream from Yichang and the Three Gorges Dam. With creaking, clanking, old machinery, a big blue funicular laboriously transported us and our luggage down to the pier. Cruise boats are docked side by side, so that we had to walk through other boats to reach ours. 

The next morning, eager to see more of the Yangtze, we went on our first shore excursion to visit the Tribe of the Three Gorges, a protected center of culture in the Xiling Gorge. This tourist attraction is located at the junction of the Longjin Brook (Jumping Dragon Brook) and the Yangzte River. It is below the Three Gorges Dam, so this large scenic area has not been affected by the dam. The site features the recreated lifestyle of the Tujia Ethnic minority. There are three “villages” along the path up the gorge: the Village on the Water, the Brookside Village, and the Mountain Top Village. Each set of houses shows traditional building styles, including houses on stilts. Hiking upstream along a paved path offers beautiful views of the river, shrouded with bamboo groves and overhung with graceful willows, surrounded by mist-shrouded jagged mountains. The path follows alongside the brook past a wooden waterwheel up to a gentle waterfall. Along the way, costumed reenactors fish, play the flute, and sing against a backdrop of sampans, junks, and houseboats. A pair of cormorants are tethered to a floating dock, and a few ducks paddle near the mouth of the stream. It could be a scene right out of The Story about Ping, except none of the boats had eyes on them.

Our next excursion was to the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world. The idea of a dam at this point was first put forward by Sun Yet Sen in 1919, but the actual building didn’t begin until 1993. It took 22 years to complete. The dam raised the water upstream 113 meters and required rebuilding ancient cities, moving countless artifacts, and relocating 1.3 million people (and who knows how many ducks).

The dam is big and impressive, but more interesting is the different perspectives on moving so many people and inundating  so many culturally significant areas in order to build it. This huge project has been very controversial. What many people don’t realize is that the Yangzte River was extremely treacherous for thousands of years with difficult navigation and disastrous floods. Millions have died from flooding along the Yangtze. The estimated death toll from the 1931 flood alone ranges from 443,000 to 4 million. Building the dam destroyed many things, but it also is an important source of clean, renewable energy and has greatly improved the lifestyle for millions of people. Our guide today said it was mostly older people who objected and that younger people in the area were glad of the greater opportunities and chance to better their lives.

That night, we cruised through the Xiling Gorge which used to be the most hazardous section of the river, now tamed by the dam. In the morning we docked at Wushan Pier, and took another shore excursion, this time on a smaller, wooden sightseeing boat up the Shennv (Goddess) Stream. This is a narrow gorge, with towering cliffs and spectacular views. A fine mist hung over the river, giving the cliff tops an eerie, magical appearance. Ancient hanging coffins on the towering cliffs added to the sense of mystery. Our guide sang beautiful folk songs as we motored upstream and told a story of a ghost wedding. When a young man died before he could marry, a girl chosen as his bride was killed and buried with him. This gruesome practice seemed at odds with the peaceful mountains surrounding us.

Back on the cruise ship, we continued upriver, drifting through the rest of Wu Gorge and Qutang Gorge. In spite of rising water from the dam, the Three Gorges area is still spectacular. From out of the fog, towering cliffs rise in vertiginous masses, with stratifications tilted in uncanny angles. We passed peaks with lovely names such as Goddess Mountain, Opening Scissors Mountain, Flying Eagle Mountain, Morning Cloud Mountain and Holy Waterfall Mountain.

Our ship docked for the night in Fengjie, a city just west of the Qutang Gorge. Fengjie was the capital of Kui during Spring and Autumn period 722-481 BC and Warring States Period 475-221 BC. A good section of these early period town walls and gates remain. The harbor here provides docking space for many boats, large and small, including one sampan full of ducks and chickens. They were too far away to get a good picture, but they could easily have been Ping’s relatives, though this boat had no eyes.

Our last shore excursion was to Shibaozhou (Stone Treasure Stockade).This twelve-story, 56 meters, wooden pagoda was originally from the  Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722).

Before the Three Gorges Dam was built, it was determined that the rising water might undermine the foundation of this building, so a retaining wall was built to protect it. Inside the temple, a series of very steep wooden steps leads past floors with statues dedicated to the Jade Emperor, the Queen of Heaven, and other beings familiar to me from Monkey, Journey to the West

We ended our cruise in Chongqing. As we approached the city, the towering cliffs of the gorges were replaced with more and more cities crowding the banks of the river. Smog mixed with the river fog, and the pollution became noticeable. It turned out that the first excursion was the closest I got to the traditional boat culture depicted in Ping’s story. No one I talked to along the way knew of the tradition of painting eyes on a boat. I’m guessing that Ping’s journey actually took place further downstream, closer to Shanghai. After all, I travelled from the Three Gorges Dam to Chonqing, a distance of about 450 km, or 279.6 miles, only about 7% of the Yangtze’s 6378 km  (3915 miles). 

It’s been over 100 years since The Story about Ping was written, and the Yangtze River has changed a great deal in that time. Today the sampans are motorized, the water is not yellow but green, and the water level is much higher and more stable than before the dam. Cruise ships ply their way up and down the river carrying tourists  instead of ducks. It’s easier to find Ping’s relatives in restaurants than foraging along the banks.

But the Yangtze River is still the lifeblood of China, and I’m confident Ping or his descendents are hiding somewhere in the beautiful emerald waters.

SHAKEN DAYS: Reflections on reading and memory

Place is important in all fiction, and especially so in historical fiction. I learned that in third grade when I first read Shaken Days by Marion Garthwaite (published by J. Messner, 1952). The book presents a story of a young girl’s experience of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. As I remembered it, the setting of the story is San Jose, at that time a heavily agricultural area and the actual epicenter of the famous earthquake.

Shaken Days caught my interest immediately when the main character, Megan, talks of the fields of mustard flowers in the orchard. My family had moved to San Jose the year before. For a short time, we lived in a small apartment across the street from an orchard, specifically, an orchard full of mustard flowers, beautiful waves of golden flowers, exactly as described in the book. Unfortunatelly, the orchard was private property and across a busy street, forbidden territory for me and my siblings. No matter how much we begged, we were not allowed to play there. 

When I read about Megan’s secret rooms in the midst of the mustard flowers, I could vicariously experience the tantalizing mustard flower wonderland. Even though the San Jose of 1962 was very different from the San Jose of 1906, I recognized Megan’s long ago world, and easily immersed myself in it. Garthwaite writes of “a green and yellow tunnel” (5) and a “green and gold room”(6). I identified with Megan and her world in many ways. LIke Megan, I had moved from a place I knew (San Bruno) to somewhere new and strange and quite different, although the move didn’t upset me as much as her move upset her. Even more telling was that Megan wanted to be a writer, a vocation I had recently discovered for myself. Reading Shaken Days took me to a time and place that was both familiar and fascinating. 

Except, I got it all wrong. I recently re-read the book, and discovered to my intense surprise that the story does not take place in San Jose at all. Megan’s mustard flower rooms are in San Leandro, and she moves to Oakland. Close, but not San Jose. Even the earthquake is not as much of the story as I remembered, occuring on page 144 of 204 pages.

It seems the book had such an impact on me, I transferred the story to the place I knew. Looking back at it, I see now why it struck a chord. Megan faces many restrictions as a girl in 1906. Her struggle gave me my first awareness of different rules and expectations for boys and girls.  In addition, her encounters with Charlie, a Chinese immigrant, and Mr. Davissohn, a Jewish rag-picker and talented musician, opened my eyes to a world of different people, each with his or her own perspective. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Megan’s reactions to these people helped shape my own ideas of tolerance and understanding, and whetted my interest in other people and other times. Even though I got it wrong, , Shaken Days found a permanent and cherished  place in my memories.

Black Friday Bread

(This post was originally published on November 27, 2010. Though today is not Black Friday, I’ve kept up the tradition of bread baking rather than shopping.)

Black Friday Bread

Black Friday means different things to different people.  I’m not much of a shopper, so for me the Friday after Thanksgiving was really a great day for baking. I didn’t have to work, and the forecast was for clear skies, and not quite as cold as the day before. My plan was to bake 18 loaves and make this the last major bake before winter sets in.             

Everything started out fine. I fired the oven at 6:00, and catnapped for another half hour before feeding the fire again. After breakfast, I mixed up dough for 6 loaves of sourdough rye, 4 loaves of 2 day multi-grain, 4 loaves of regular whole wheat and four loaves of Italian bread with flax seed.            The tricky part of the day came from trying to match the readiness of the oven to the readiness of the loaves.  The wood was burning really fast, so I was worried the oven wasn’t heating well enough. I added more wood after noon. Meanwhile, the dough was rising more slowly than usual because the kitchen was not as warm as it is in the summer.  I turned the heat up in the kitchen.  Both the oven and the room heated up more quickly than I anticipated.  That meant the dough was ready and the oven was too hot.             

What I should have done, is waited for the oven to cool, but I was impatient. I had company over to see how the oven worked, and a photographer on hand to take pictures.  Everyone had other things to do than wait for the oven. I put in the 6 loaves of rye, figuring I would check them in 5 minutes.              I did, but one look made black Friday take on a whole new meaning. The loaves were a solid black; tops, bottoms, and sides all the color of charcoal, though they were still raw in the middle. I thought about taking them out, but decided to leave them in. After all the crusts couldn’t get any more burned, and the inside needed more time.             

One of the reasons I love baking bread in the outdoor oven is that it’s always an experiment. Most of the time, a hotter oven means a shorter bake time, but the timing doesn’t work if the oven is too hot. I let the oven cool before baking the rest of the bread, which came out beautifully. Even the burned loaves weren’t a total loss. I was able to salvage almost half of each loaf by cutting off all the crusts. The crustless rye made great bread stuffing for the turkey I cooked today for our after Thanksgiving family gathering.             

It just goes to show that it’s all in your perspective. I ruined 6 loaves of bread, but learned a new way to stuff a turkey, and I still have12 new loaves of good bread.  Over all, I’d call my black Friday a success.  And next time, I’ll wait until the oven cools.