Jan 312018
 

Today is the birthday (1872) of Pearl Zane Grey, US author (and dentist), best known for his popular adventure novels and stories associated with the Western genre in literature and the arts. Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was his best-selling book. In addition to the commercial success of his printed works, they had second lives and continuing influence when adapted as films and television productions. His novels and short stories have been adapted into 112 films, two television episodes, and a television series, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater.

Grey was born in Zanesville, Ohio. His birth name may have originated from newspaper descriptions of Queen Victoria’s mourning clothes as “pearl grey.” He was the fourth of five children born to Alice “Allie” Josephine Zane, whose English Quaker immigrant ancestor Robert Zane migrated to the North American colonies in 1673, and her husband, Lewis M. Gray, a dentist. His family changed the spelling of their last name to “Grey” after his birth. Later Grey dropped Pearl and used Zane as his first name. He grew up in Zanesville, a city founded by his maternal great-grandfather Ebenezer Zane, an American Revolutionary War patriot, and from an early age, he was intrigued by history. Grey developed interests in fishing, baseball, and writing, all of which contributed to his writing success. His first three novels recounted the heroism of ancestors who fought in the American Revolutionary War.

As a child, Grey frequently engaged in violent brawls even though they resulted in frequent beatings from his father. Grey found a father figure in Muddy Miser, an old man who approved of Grey’s love of fishing and writing, and who talked about the advantages of an unconventional life. Despite warnings by Grey’s father to steer clear of Miser, Grey spent considerable time during five formative years in the company of the old man.

Grey was an avid reader of adventure stories such as Robinson Crusoe and the Leatherstocking Tales, as well as dime novels featuring Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick. He was enthralled by and crudely copied the great illustrators Howard Pyle and Frederic Remington. He was particularly impressed with Our Western Border, a history of the Ohio frontier that likely inspired his earliest novels. He wrote his first story, “Jim of the Cave,” when he was 15. His father tore it to shreds and beat him. Both Zane and his brother Romer were active, athletic boys who were enthusiastic baseball players and fishermen.

Due to shame from a severe financial setback in 1889 caused by a poor investment, Lewis Grey moved his family from Zanesville and started again in Columbus, Ohio. While his father struggled to re-establish his dental practice, Zane Grey made rural house calls and performed basic extractions, which his father had taught him. The younger Grey practiced until the state board intervened. He also played summer baseball for the Columbus Capitols, with aspirations of becoming a major league player. Eventually, he was spotted by a baseball scout and received offers from many colleges.

Grey chose the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, where he studied dentistry. When he arrived at Penn, he had to prove himself worthy of a scholarship before receiving it. He rose to the occasion by coming in to pitch against the Riverton club, pitching five scoreless innings and producing a double in the tenth which contributed to the win. Grey was a solid hitter and an excellent pitcher who relied on a sharply dropping curve ball. When the distance from the pitcher’s mound to the plate was lengthened by ten feet in 1894 (primarily to reduce the dominance of Cy Young’s pitching), the effectiveness of Grey’s pitching suffered. He was re-positioned to the outfield but remained a campus hero on the strength of his hitting.

He was an indifferent scholar, barely achieving a minimum average. Outside class he spent his time on baseball, swimming, and creative writing, especially poetry. Grey struggled with the idea of becoming a writer or baseball player for his career but concluded that dentistry was the practical choice. He went on to play minor league baseball with several teams, including the Newark, New Jersey Colts in 1898 and also with the Orange Athletic Club for several years.

After graduating, Grey established his practice in New York City under the name of Dr. Zane Grey in 1896. It was a competitive area but he wanted to be close to publishers. He began to write in the evening to offset the tedium of his dental practice. Whenever possible, he played baseball with the Orange Athletic Club in New Jersey.

Grey often went camping with his brother in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where they fished in the upper Delaware River. When canoeing in 1900, Grey met 17-year-old Lina Roth, better known as “Dolly”. Dolly came from a family of physicians and was studying to be a schoolteacher. After a passionate and intense courtship marked by frequent quarrels, Grey and Dolly married 5 years later in 1905. Grey suffered bouts of depression, anger, and mood swings, which affected him most of his life. During his courtship of Dolly, Grey still saw previous girlfriends and warned her frankly,

But I love to be free. I cannot change my spots. The ordinary man is satisfied with a moderate income, a home, wife, children, and all that…. But I am a million miles from being that kind of man and no amount of trying will ever do any good… I shall never lose the spirit of my interest in women.

After they married in 1905, Dolly gave up her teaching career. They moved to a farmhouse at the confluence of the Lackawaxen and Delaware rivers, in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where Grey’s mother and sister joined them. (This house, now preserved and operated as the Zane Grey Museum, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) I used to visit quite often because Lackawaxen is on the old Delaware and Hudson canal as was the house where I lived, and both my village and Lackawaxen were sites of suspension aqueducts built by John Roebling before he designed the Brooklyn Bridge.

While Dolly managed Grey’s career and raised their three children over the next two decades, Grey often spent months away from the family. He fished, wrote, and spent time with his many mistresses. While Dolly knew of his behavior, she tolerated it. In addition to her considerable editorial skills, she had good business sense and handled all his contract negotiations with publishers, agents, and movie studios. All his income was split 50-50 with her. From her half she covered all family expenses. Their considerable correspondence shows evidence of his lasting love for her despite his infidelities and personal emotional turmoil.

With the help of Dolly’s proofreading and copy editing, Grey gradually improved his writing. His first magazine article, “A Day on the Delaware,” a human-interest story about a Grey brothers’ fishing expedition, was published in the May 1902 issue of Recreation magazine. Around this time, Grey read Owen Wister’s Western novel The Virginian. After studying its style and structure in detail, he decided to write a full-length work. Grey had difficulties in writing his first novel, Betty Zane (1903). The novel dramatized the heroism of an ancestor who had saved Fort Henry. When it was rejected by Harper & Brothers, he lapsed into despair and self-published it, probably with money borrowed from family.

After attending a lecture in New York in 1907 by Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones, western hunter and guide who had co-founded Garden City, Kansas, Grey arranged for a mountain lion-hunting trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He took along a camera to document his trips and also began the habit of taking copious notes, not only of scenery and activities, but also of dialogue. He gained the confidence to write convincingly about the American West, its characters, and its landscape. Treacherous river crossings, unpredictable beasts, bone-chilling cold, searing heat, parching thirst, bad water, irascible tempers, and heroic cooperation all became real to him.

Upon returning home in 1909, Grey wrote a new novel, The Last of the Plainsmen, describing the adventures of Buffalo Jones. Harper’s editor Ripley Hitchcock rejected it, the fourth work in a row. He told Grey, “I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.” Grey wrote dejectedly,

I don’t know which way to turn. I cannot decide what to write next. That which I desire to write does not seem to be what the editors want… I am full of stories and zeal and fire… yet I am inhibited by doubt, by fear that my feeling for life is false.

I know the feeling. I’d estimate I have had close to 100 rejection letters from publishers. It’s depressing, but you either keep trying or give up.

With the birth of his first child pending, Grey felt compelled to complete his next novel, The Heritage of the Desert. He wrote it in four months in 1910. It quickly became a bestseller. Two years later Grey produced his best-known book, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), his all-time best-seller, and one of the most successful Western novels of all time. After that Harper eagerly received all his manuscripts.

The Greys moved to California in 1918. In 1920 they settled in Altadena, California, where Grey bought a prominent mansion on East Mariposa Street.  By this time Grey had both the time and money to engage in his great passion for fishing. From 1918 until 1932, he was a regular contributor to Outdoor Life magazine. He kept a cabin in Oregon, and also began deep-see fishing in Florida, and later in Australia and New Zealand (where his fishing lodge is still a popular tourist destination), and also regularly in Tahiti.

Zane Grey died of heart failure on October 23, 1939, at his home in Altadena, California. He was interred at the Lackawaxen and Union Cemetery, Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania.

There is a Zane Grey Cookbook which you’d think had recipes from Grey’s notes, or memories of dishes he’d cooked around the campfire. Not so. The only thing Zane Grey about the book is the title. The recipes in it are collections of ideas for dishes he might have enjoyed. On the other hand, I used to live on the Neversink River, a tributary of the Delaware where Grey fished, and a well-known fly-fishing spot. The Delaware and tributaries are legendary spots for brook trout. Brook trout is one of the best fish to grill or pan fry when caught fresh. For me, it depended on whether I had my fire pit cranked up or not, whether I grilled it over wood coals or pan fried it. It’s best over coals, but a bit of a chore if you have only one fish.

If you have a fish that was just caught, as I often did, preparation is very simple. There are no heavy scales to remove. You need a good sharp, pointed knife. Slit the belly open from just below the throat to the base of the tail. Slice through the meat only so that you do not pierce any of the guts. Insert a finger in the slit and remove the intestines, stomach, and other entrails. Then wash the cavity in running water, and pat the fish dry, inside and out, with paper towels.

Depending on the size of the fish it will cook in only a few minutes as long as the pan or grill is good and hot before you start cooking. When using my cast-iron skillet, I rubbed it with a paper towel moistened with olive oil, and then heated it to smoking and laid in the fish. About 3 minutes on one side was enough, then turn and cook it on the other side. You have to be a little careful turning the fish because it can break easily. I used a very wide spatula. For fire grilling, they make special grilling baskets that are hinged, so that the fish is secured inside, and you can flip it simply by turning the whole basket over by the handles.

You can put lemon slices and/or fresh herbs and butter in the cavity before cooking, but I never used to. Brook trout has an interesting, delicate flavor that I am happy to eat without any additional flavorings. When I cooked outdoors I would also grill some corn on the cob to go along with the fish. There are many ways to do this, but I used to shuck the corn completely, then wrap it in foil smeared with butter.

Aug 092017
 

Today is often cited (erroneously) as the birthday (c. 1594) of Izaak Walton, an English writer best known as the author of The Compleat Angler, that is, if he is remembered at all these days. Walton also wrote a number of short biographies that he recorded as he was researching The Compleat Angler and which were eventually collected into one volume under the title Walton’s Lives. Walton was born in Stafford on a date that is unknown. The traditional date of 9th August 1593 is based on a misinterpretation of his will, which he began on 9 August 1683. The register of his baptism gives his father’s name as Gervase. His father, who was an innkeeper as well as a landlord of a tavern, died before Izaak was 3 years old. His mother then married another innkeeper by the name of Bourne, who later ran the Swan in Stafford.

He is believed to have been educated in Stafford before moving to London in his teens. He is often described as an ironmonger, but he trained as a linen draper, a trade which came under the Ironmongers’ Company. He had a small shop in the upper storey of Thomas Gresham’s Royal Burse or Exchange in Cornhill. In 1614 he had a shop in Fleet Street, two doors west of Chancery Lane in the parish of St Dunstan’s. He became verger and churchwarden of the church, and a friend of the vicar, John Donne. He joined the Ironmongers’ Company in November 1618. Walton’s first wife was Rachel Floud (married December 1626), a great-great-niece of Archbishop Cranmer. She died in 1640. He soon remarried, Anne Ken (1646–1662), who appears as Kenna in Walton’s poem The Angler’s Wish. She was a stepsister of Thomas Ken, afterwards bishop of Bath and Wells.

After the Royalist defeat at Marston Moor in 1644, Walton retired from his trade. He went to live just north of his birthplace, at Shallowford between Stafford and Stone, where he had bought some land bordered by a small river. However by 1650 he was living in Clerkenwell in London. The first edition of his book The Compleat Angler was published in 1653. His second wife died in 1662, and was buried in Worcester Cathedral, where there is a monument to her memory.

For the remainder of his life (40 years) Walton visited eminent clergymen and others who enjoyed fishing, compiling the biographies of people he liked, and collecting information for revisions and additions to The Compleat Angler. He died in his daughter’s house at Winchester, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

The Compleat Angler was first published in 1653, but Walton continued to add to it for a quarter of a century, going through 5 editions. At the core of the book are instructions about fishing itself, but the whole work is a kaleidoscope of poems, stories, reminiscences, autobiography, and miscellany about fishing.  You have to dip into it to get the idea.  Here’s a few quotes:

Doubt not but angling will prove to be so pleasant that it will prove to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.

Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element are made for wise men to contemplate, and for fools to pass by without consideration.

You will find angling to be like the virtue of humility, which has a calmness of spirit and a world of other blessings attending upon it.

We may say of angling as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did”; and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.

Thus use your frog…Put your hook through his mouth, and out at his gills;…and then with a fine needle and silk sew the upper part of his leg, with only one stitch, to the arming-wire of your hook; or tie the frog’s leg, above the upper joint, to the armed-wire; and in so doing use him as though you loved him.

Walton did not claim to be an expert at fly fishing and many of the technical discourses on the subject come from other fishermen. But he was skilled at using live bait (as in the case of the frog), and was a genuine devotee of fishing in general. In the first edition the book opens with a dialogue between Piscator (angler) and Viator (traveler) extolling their respective pastimes, much in the vein of similar dialogues from an earlier period.

In the second edition, seemingly in response to critics who felt that Piscator was too dominant in the dialogue, introduced the falconer, Auceps, and changed Viator into Venator (hunter), and made these new companions each expound on the joys of their individual sports. After the 17th century, Walton was not much in vogue until the late 19th century when noted folk tale scholar and editor, Andrew Lang, put out a new edition in 1896.

I lived on a trout stream in the Catskills for nearly 30 years, and during that time I became deeply involved in the world of fly fishing, which includes fly tying (an incredibly arcane art), split bamboo cane making, entomology, and tale telling galore. Dipping into Walton is like peering into the lives of many of the fishermen I knew. One thing that unites Walton with contemporary fishermen is the distaste for actually killing and eating the fish they catch. Rather they prefer to catch fish – enjoying the battle – and then immediately releasing them back into the river. So a fish recipe might not meet with their approval. I’ll go ahead anyway.

Here’s two recipes from 17th century England. First, from The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight In Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675). In this case a “coffin” is a contemporary word for an enclosed pie shell.

To make a Carp-Pye.

After you have drawn, wash’d, and scalded a fair large Carp, season it with Pepper, Salt, and Nutmeg, and then put it into a Coffin, with good store of sweet Butter, and then cast on Raisins of the Sun, the juice of Limons, and some slices of Orange-peels, and then sprinkling on a little Vinegar, close it up, and bake it.

Second, from The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex (1696)

To Stew Trouts, Carp, Tench, &c.

Draw them and scrape them well, wash them in White-wine, then smeer them over with a piece of Sweet Butter, and lay them orderly in a Stew-pan, putting in as much water as will cover them above an inch, with a little Salt, a bundle of sweet herbs, and some blades of Mace, take them up, and make your Sawce of beaten Butter, Claret, yolks of Eggs, and Sugar.

 

May 132017
 

Abbotsbury Garland Day was held on this date for a little under 200 years, and continues to this day although the date of the celebration is now somewhat more flexible. I want to make a point of mentioning this English calendar custom, in part because it is not well known, and in part because its history is reasonably clear and is mercifully devoid of the usual claptrap about “pagan” origins that dogs so many English traditions.

Abbotsbury is a former fishing village in Dorset a little to the west of Weymouth, and Garland Day celebrations have taken place there since about the early 19th century. They were first described in the edition of John Hutchins’ History of Dorset published in 1867. My strong suspicion is that they were begun simply as a way for poor fishing families to make a little money in hard times. Not many folklorists or historians make much of the fact that almost all calendar customs in England involved some form of (legal) begging. I do. In the 19th century Dorset was the poorest county in the south of England by far. In the 19th century Dorset was mostly an agricultural area with farm laborers earning 10 shillings per week, half of which went for bread alone. The common daily diet was bread and cheese and on this an agricultural laborer was expected to work from dawn to dusk, 6 days a week.

Because of these impossible conditions there were several attempts to form unions to protest, the most famous being the Tolpuddle Martyrs. By the time the Martyrs organized their union (1834), wages had sunk to 6 shillings per week. It’s no wonder that local communities such as Abbotsbury organized festivals to try to wrest a little extra money once a year from those who had some to spare. Delve deeper and I guarantee you’ll find that the vast bulk of English calendar customs – lauded as “ancient” festivals – were motivated by financial concerns.

The custom involves the making of garlands by the children of the village. Originally only the children of local fishermen took part. The garlands were blessed in a church service and some were then rowed out to sea to be tossed into the water. The children would then spend the rest of the day playing on the beach. From around the time of the First World War the custom changed somewhat in that children of non-fishermen started to take part. This was probably due to the decline of the local fishing industry. The village school gave the children a day’s holiday and they would construct two garlands, one of wild flowers and the other of garden flowers. These were paraded on poles from house to house in the village where they asked for money. Later in the day older children who had been at school in Weymouth would return to the village and make a more elaborate garland which they would also take around the houses.

Since the First World War two garlands have been placed on the local war memorial at the close of the tour of houses. The Abbotsbury village school closed in 1981 and the children no longer get a day’s holiday. This has led to the celebrations taking place either in the evening of May 13th or on the nearest Saturday. Well . . . today (2017) is a Saturday !!!

From my experience of the region around Weymouth and Portland which I knew quite well a long time ago, as well as tours more recently in the vicinity of Swanage, there’s not a whole lot in the way of regional Dorset specialties. In recent years the old methods of making Dorsetshire Blue Vinney, a crumbly blue cheese made from skimmed milk (after butter had been made from it), have been revived, and it is good with Dorset knobs, hard biscuits (baked 3 times) made with bread dough and butter. Nowadays the most common dairy products are clotted cream and ice cream, locally produced, and if you buy a cone at the seaside they’ll ask if you want the ice cream topped with cream. Slight overkill, if you ask me, but worth it.  Otherwise, fish dishes from the coastal areas are much the same as you will find in Devon and Cornwall.

There is this, however, a report taken from The Portland Arms, taken from The Penny Magazine [1838]:

The ‘Portland Arms’ is not a wayside house, where travellers are coming and going every hour, and where, therefore, you have no right to expect more than prompt but general civility. It is rather one of those retired country inns, where visitors are treated with a homely but warm-hearted attention, which places them almost on the footing of friends. And though the inn cannot boast of being as fine as a London hotel, it has, nevertheless, its reputation. George III, during his visits to Weymouth, had several times made a tour of the Isle of Portland; and on those occasions he made the ‘Portland Arms’ his head-quarters, and used to finish his day by dining at the house. The then landlady had a recipe for making a certain famous Portland pudding, and the King never failed to order this pudding, in honour of the island. She bequeathed the recipe to her daughter, the present landlady; and though the pudding may now be ordered by the humblest visitor, the honour of the king’s visits is still felt in the ‘Portland Arms’ with something of that satisfaction which another royal visit left in the Castle of Tillietudlem.

This is touted as the recipe in question:

PORTLAND PUDDING.

Beat to cream ¾ lb. each of fresh butter and caster sugar, then stir in the yolks of nine well beaten eggs, and mix in gradually ¾ lb sifted flour and 2 oz. finely-shred candied peel beat all well together for about ten minutes, then stir quickly and lightly the stiffly-whipped white of the eggs, pour it into small moulds, and bake. Serve with sweet sauce to taste.

All in all it looks like a sponge cake with candied peel, made into individual cakes rather than one big one. I’d guess that it was served hot, but I don’t know what kind of sweet sauce went with it.

Jun 052016
 

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Today is Sjómannadagurinn, meaning ‘sailors’ day’ or ‘seamen’s day’ in Iceland, a day to honor all those involved in the country’s fisheries, particularly those working at sea. Sjómannadagurinn is celebrated on the first Sunday of June all over the country, with the biggest festivals often held in towns where fisheries are the main source of employment. Although Sjómannadagurinn is officially on a Sunday, many places begin festivities on the Saturday. The day was first celebrated in Reykjavik and Ísafjörður (West Fjords) back in 1938, but even before that Icelanders had a tradition of holding special church services for seamen before the fishing vessels departed after the winter break. The day was made official in 1987.

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Fishing is an important part of Iceland’s economy, so celebrating people in the fishing industry is only natural. Nowadays small fishing villages around the country, even more than in Reykjavík. Events cover the waterfront (literally). There are parades, plays, music, boat races, games, simulated sea rescues . . . you name it. I think the Ugly Fish Display (strange fish exhibited on ice) is my favorite.

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Tourism is now an important part of Iceland’s economy as well and many of my friends have traveled there recently. It’s not high on my priority list because I’m not a fan of cold and ice, and bland food does not exactly beckon me either. But I have several Icelandic friends I would like to visit, and Icelandic literature from its Viking past has an allure. I know a lot of people go for the geothermally heated natural pools, but I’ll pass. Not my thing. Maybe some fermented shark would work.

Iceland’s traditional cuisine is based on fish, lamb, and dairy products, with little to no use of herbs or spices. Due to the island’s climate, fruits and vegetables are not generally a component of traditional dishes, although the use of greenhouses has made them more common in contemporary food. Nowadays Icelandic chefs focus on the freshness of ingredients rather than traditional recipes, so you’ll find a wide range of dishes available.

I gave a recipe for the classic plokkfiskur here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/thjodhatidardagurinn-icelandic-national-day/ .  Still very popular among Icelanders. I suppose I could give a recipe for broiled puffin, which is also still quite popular, but getting one to cook might prove tricky. Here’s a simple Icelandic recipe for baked fish. I’m sorry it’s not more complex; that’s the nature of the beast. I promise to give a recipe for sheep’s head next time I post on Iceland. But today is a fishing holiday, so it really has to be a fish dish. Cod is the traditional favorite, but any firm white fish will work. The cheese you choose will determine the nature of the dish. Iceland has a strong dairy industry, but not a great heritage of traditional cheeses. Locally produced cheeses tend towards the “cheddar” variety, so you can use your own local version of the same, or a German melting cheese, such as emmental or tilsit.

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Bakaðurfiskur

Ingredients

1 tbsp butter
6 fish fillets
1 lemon
salt, pepper to taste
200 g grating cheese, grated
1 tbsp prepared mustard
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup breadcrumbs

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Grease a baking dish well and place the fillets in it in a single layer. Season the fish with salt, pepper and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Spread an even layer of grated cheese over the fish.

Mix the mustard with the cream and pour it over fish fillets. Top with an even layer of breadcrumbs.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 35 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are evenly golden. If necessary, turn the dish halfway through cooking to ensure that the top is even.

Serve with mashed or boiled potatoes and thickly buttered dark rye bread.