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.

Dec 132017
 

Today is the birthday (1830) of Mathilde Fibiger, noted Danish campaigner for equal rights for women, novelist, and professional telegraph operator. She was born in Copenhagen. Her first novel, Clara Raphael, Tolv Breve (Clara Raphael, Twelve Letters), published in 1851, championed women’s rights. It is the partially autobiographical story of a young woman, Clara Raphael, who works as a governess in the provinces. It is based in part on Fibiger’s experiences as a private tutor on the island of Lolland in 1849. The novel consists largely of letters written by Clara to her friend, Mathilde. Clara’s ideas about women living an independent life run counter to the beliefs of the local population, and she resolves to make women’s emancipation her life objective. The book created a great deal of controversy on its publication in 1851. The Danish literary establishment was sharply divided between those who supported her and those who felt that her ideas were too radical, but they all agreed on the literary merit of her work. She was only 20 when the novel was published, and, in doing so, she was the first public figure in Denmark to champion women’s rights.

Countering public opposition to women’s rights, Fibiger published two pamphlets, “Hvad er Emancipation?” (What is Emancipation?) and “Et Besøg” (A Visit). Her later novels included En Skizze efter det virkelige Liv (A Sketch from Real Life) (1853) and Minona. En Fortaelling (Minona: A Tale) (1854). En Skizze efter det virkelige Liv is the story of two sisters who are orphaned at an early age, and the men with whom they develop relationships. The older sister rejects her suitor, feeling that men are weak, while the younger sister falls in love. Minona created new controversy with its complex plot involving unwed mothers and incest. Minona, the chief character, overcomes her incestuous attraction after converting to Christianity.

While Fibiger’s novels generated critical acclaim, they were not commercially successful, and she began to look for other means to support herself. She supplemented a meager allowance, received from the state, by dressmaking and translating German literary works. In 1863, she began training as a telegraph operator for the Danish State Telegraph service, which had recently decided to hire women as operators under the management of Director Peter Faber. In 1866, she completed her training at the Helsingør telegraph station, and became the first woman to be employed as a telegraph operator in Denmark.

After two years in Helsingør, she was transferred to Nysted in 1869 to manage a newly opened station. Not surprisingly, she encountered resistance from male operators, who saw the employment of women as operators as a threat to their livelihood. In spite of her managerial position, her pay at Nysted was scarcely sufficient to enable her to pay her expenses. The following year, she applied for a transfer to the telegraph station in Aarhus.

She continued to experience difficulties in Aarhus, where the station manager had opposed her assignment. The problems she experienced in her telegraphic work began to affect her health. She died in Aarhus in 1872 at the age of 41. She is remembered today in Denmark not only as a pioneering feminist who wrote in support of women’s rights, but also as the woman who opened the door for the employment of women in the Danish State Telegraph service.

Because of her prominence in early efforts in Denmark to gain equal rights for women, the Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) created Mathildeprisen (The Mathilde Prize) in her honor. The Mathilde Prize was established in 1970 and is awarded to both men and women in recognition of work that advances gender equality. Recipients of the prize includes Suzanne Brøgger, Joan-søstrene, Kenneth Reinicke, Anja Andersen, and Anja C. Andersen.

Also, a small garden square adjacent to the Women’s Museum in central Aarhus is named Mathilde Fibigers Have in her honor, and a Danish stamp was issued recognizing her importance in Danish history.

Danish cuisine tends to be a bit on the basic side even though there is a strong emphasis on good, natural flavors and local ingredients. Denmark is world famous for its butter and pork products, dairying and pig farming having been natural complements for centuries. Stegt flæsk med persillesovs, pork belly with parsley sauce, as of 2014 is the official national dish of Denmark, after a popular vote. You don’t really need a recipe, but I’ll give you one. Stegt flæsk literally translates as fried pork, but the pork in question is pork belly. Some people translate flæsk as bacon, but that is incorrect. Stegt flæsk uses either plain or salt cured pork belly, but never smoked. The difficulty in many countries is getting plain pork bellies.  When I lived in New York I used to get them from butchers in Chinatown. The pork slices need to be about ¼ inch thick. Nowadays, Danish cooks often roast the pork slices in the oven, but traditionally it was fried, and that’s how I prepare it.

Stegt flæsk med persillesovs

Ingredients

600 g sliced pork belly
1 kg potatoes
30g butter
3 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk (approx.)
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and white pepper

Instructions

Boil the potatoes whole until they are soft (about 20 minutes). I like to use small potatoes that can be served whole. I boil them with skins on and then peel them after they have cooked.

Dry the pork thoroughly and season it with salt and pepper to taste. If it is salt cured it will not need more salt. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat and fry the pork in batches, turning frequently until they are golden and crispy. Pat off excess fat with paper towels and keep warm in the oven.

Make a white roux with the butter and flour. Begin by melting the butter over low heat in a pan. When it has melted, but before it starts to bubble, add the flour and whisk to combine. Do not let the roux take on any color. Add a little milk and whisk well to blend. Continue adding milk a little at a time and whisking over low heat. It will be very thick at first, and will still be thick when you have added all the milk.  Let it simmer gently for a few minutes, then add the parsley, plus salt and white pepper to taste. As far as I am concerned, you cannot add too much parsley.

Serve slices of pork belly with the parsley sauce poured over the potatoes.

Velbekomme

Nov 302016
 

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Today is the birthday (1835) of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, U.S. writer, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer. Among his most acclaimed novels are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often cited as one of a genre: “The Great American Novel.” Many, many U.S. giant authors, such as Faulkner and Hemingway, saw Twain as an eternal inspiration. There’s not much I can add. My favorite of his is  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) which launched the literary genre sometimes known as alternate history. I’ll give a short appraisal followed by a few poignant quotes. These days I find Twain a bit leaden to read in full, but his pithy aphorisms never fail to please me.

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Twain was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, which later provided the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. After an apprenticeship with a printer, Twain worked as a typesetter and contributed articles to the newspaper of his older brother, Orion Clemens. He later became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before heading west to join Orion in Nevada. He referred humorously to his lack of success at mining, turning to journalism for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. In 1865, his humorous story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published, based on a story he heard at Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, California, where he had spent some time as a miner. The short story brought international attention, and was even translated into classic Greek. His wit and satire, in prose and in speech, earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.

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Though Twain earned a great deal of money from his writings and lectures, he invested in ventures that lost money, notably the Paige Compositor, a mechanical typesetter, which failed because of its complexity and imprecision. In the wake of these financial setbacks, he filed for protection from his creditors via bankruptcy, and with the help of Henry Huttleston Rogers eventually overcame his financial troubles. Twain chose to pay all his pre-bankruptcy creditors in full, though he had no legal responsibility to do so.

This movie of Twain, now famous, was shot by Edison in 1909:

Twain was born shortly after a visit by Halley’s Comet, and he predicted that he would “go out with it”, too. He died the day after the comet returned.

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Limiting myself to just a few quotes from Twain is pure torture. There are thousands of gems. I don’t like his full prose, but pithy aphorisms poured from his pen:

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.

There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.

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Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

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Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.

A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.

Golf is a good walk spoiled.

When Twain traveled in France and Italy he yearned for U.S. food. This strikes me as absurd, but I understand. This quote from A Tramp Abroad sums it up. Take your pick:

It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one — a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive — as follows:

Radishes. Baked apples, with cream

Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.

American coffee, with real cream.

American butter.

Fried chicken, Southern style.

Porter-house steak.

Saratoga potatoes.

Broiled chicken, American style.

Hot biscuits, Southern style.

Hot wheat-bread, Southern style.

Hot buckwheat cakes.

American toast. Clear maple syrup.

Virginia bacon, broiled.

Blue points, on the half shell.

Cherry-stone clams.

San Francisco mussels, steamed.

Oyster soup. Clam Soup.

Philadelphia Terapin soup.

Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.

Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.

Baltimore perch.

Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.

Lake trout, from Tahoe.

Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans.

Black bass from the Mississippi.

American roast beef.

Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.

Cranberry sauce. Celery.

Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.

Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.

Prairie liens, from Illinois.

Missouri partridges, broiled.

‘Possum. Coon.

Boston bacon and beans.

Bacon and greens, Southern style.

Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.

Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.

Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.

Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.

Mashed potatoes. Catsup.

Boiled potatoes, in their skins.

New potatoes, minus the skins.

Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.

Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.

Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.

Green corn, on the ear.

Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.

Hot hoe-cake, Southern style.

Hot egg-bread, Southern style.

Hot light-bread, Southern style.

Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.

Apple dumplings, with real cream.

Apple pie. Apple fritters.

Apple puffs, Southern style.

Peach cobbler, Southern style

Peach pie. American mince pie.

Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.

All sorts of American pastry.

Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.

Ice-water—not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.

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I will admit that Georgia peach pie is hard to beat. But as always, go to Georgia for the best. This will do in the meantime:

Georgia Peach Pie

Ingredients

2 flaky pie crusts (see Hints)

Filling

3 tbsp butter, cut in small pieces
5 lbs peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
¾ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ tsp. salt

Wash

1 egg, beaten with a little milk

Instructions

Line a pie dish with pastry.

Toss all the pie filling ingredients in a bowl and pour them in the pie dish.

Top with a second pie crust. Cut a few holes to vent the steam, and brush with egg wash.

Bake at 400°F for about 1 hour. Cover the pastry with foil if it is browning too quickly.

Dec 162015
 

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Today is the birthday (1775) of Jane Austen, an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary as well as her acclaimed plots have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics.

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Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. From her teenage years into her thirties she experimented with various literary forms, including an epistolary novel which she then abandoned, wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.

Austen’s works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th century realism. Her plots, though lightly comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Her works, relatively popular in her lifetime, were first published anonymously and brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews. But the publication in 1869 of her nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer.

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Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”, according to one biographer. Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favor of “good quiet Aunt Jane”. Scholars have unearthed little information since. One suspects a rather more torrid life than is known about in available material.

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Austen’s parents, George Austen (1731–1805) and his wife Cassandra (1739–1827), were members of substantial gentry families. George was descended from a family of woollen manufacturers, which had risen through the professions to the lower ranks of the landed gentry. Cassandra was a member of the prominent Leigh family. They married on 26 April 1764 at Walcot Church in Bath. From 1765 until 1801, that is, for much of Jane’s life, George Austen served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, Hampshire, and a nearby village. From 1773 until 1796, he supplemented this income by farming and by teaching three or four boys at a time who boarded at his home.

Austen’s immediate family was large: six brothers — James (1765–1819), George (1766–1838), Edward (1768–1852), Henry Thomas (1771–1850), Francis William (Frank) (1774–1865), Charles John (1779–1852) — and one sister, Cassandra Elizabeth (Steventon, Hampshire, 9 January 1773 – 1845), who, like Jane, died unmarried. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. Of her brothers, Austen felt closest to Henry, who became a banker and, after his bank failed, an Anglican clergyman. Henry was also his sister’s literary agent. His large circle of friends and acquaintances in London included bankers, merchants, publishers, painters, and actors: he provided Austen with a view of social worlds not normally visible from a small parish in rural Hampshire.

George was sent to live with a local family at a young age because, as Austen biographer Le Faye describes it, he was “mentally abnormal and subject to fits”. He may also have been deaf and mute. Charles and Frank served in the navy, both rising to the rank of admiral. Edward was adopted by his fourth cousin, Thomas Knight, inheriting Knight’s estate and taking his name in 1812.

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As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to live at her parents’ home, carrying out those activities normal for women of her age and social standing: she practiced the fortepiano, assisted her sister and mother with supervising servants, and attended female relatives during childbirth and older relatives on their deathbeds. She sent short pieces of writing to her newborn nieces Fanny Catherine and Jane Anna Elizabeth. Austen was particularly proud of her accomplishments as a seamstress. She also attended church regularly, socialized frequently with friends and neighbors, and read novels—often of her own composition—aloud with her family in the evenings. Socializing with the neighbors often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it”.

When Austen was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a nephew of neighbors, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London to train as a barrister. Lefroy and Austen would have been introduced at a ball or other neighborhood social gathering, and it is clear from Austen’s letters to Cassandra that they spent considerable time together: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical, as both Lefroy and Austen must have known. Neither had any money, and he was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again.

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In December 1800, Austen’s father unexpectedly announced his decision to retire from the ministry, leave Steventon, and move the family to Bath. While retirement and travel were good for the elder Austens, Jane was shocked to be told she was moving from the only home she had ever known (ultimately a main theme in Persuasion). An indication of Austen’s state of mind is her lack of productivity as a writer during the time she lived at Bath. She was able to make some revisions to Susan, and she began and then abandoned a new novel, The Watsons, but there was nothing like the productivity of the years 1795–1799.

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In December 1802, Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. She and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, had recently finished his education at Oxford and was also at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane’s niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive—he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realized she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal, but in 1814, Austen wrote a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for advice about a serious relationship, telling her that “having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection”.

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This terse biographical resume is my way of introducing the backdrop of Austen’s novels, which focus largely on the problems that women in Regency England on the lower rungs of the landed gentry faced in maintaining their status in society. Upward marriage was their primary recourse. So here comes my usual disclaimer. The travails of people who don’t work for a living do not interest me. This “poor me” attitude cuts no ice with me. If you feel hard done by because you rely on the work or wealth of others, go live in a Yorkshire coal mining slum picking coal from slag heaps for starvation wages and long hours and then tell me how put upon you are.

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Austen’s novels do indeed document the lives of “poor” women in Regency England – “poor” meaning that they can’t host (but can attend) charming balls, and have very few servants. Marriage to well-to-do men is their ticket out. So we are all supposed to cheer for Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice because she finally sees how wrong she was about Mr Darcy, who is fabulously rich, and marries him, whilst her elder sister Jane, marries the equally rich Mr Bingley despite problems at the outset. Yawn. This is the stuff of expensive modern movies that devotees fawn over because of their rich sets, lavish costumes, and (generally poor) attempts at recreating elite society in England at the turn of the 19th century, with obligatory dance and dining scenes and other such nonsense as the context for dialogues concerning intrigue and ambition.

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Persuasion was the first book I taught as a shiny new professor of 29 teaching a Freshman Studies course, newly designed as a cross between “great books” and college writing. Half the books were set by existing faculty, and half I could choose for myself. Other set books included Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, The Communist Manifesto, and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. The course was an unmitigated disaster, as is any course designed by committee. I had no idea what to do with Persuasion. It did not resonate with me nor with any of my students. I could talk quite knowledgeably about the lives of retired sea captains and admirals featured in the novel because, as a teen, I had avidly studied the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. But the daily lives of the English elite of the period was foreign to me (I grew up in Australia), and of zero interest, except inasmuch as they spoke of the ills and abuses of the class system that doggedly lingers to this day. You would have to pay me an awful lot of money to teach Austen again, and even then I would simply rail against the world that they portray.

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We don’t have any recipes directly from Austen’s pen, but there are a number of them extant from close relatives that are typically brief, but easy enough to follow if you are a cook. Here’s her sister-in-law’s trifle recipe (Martha Lloyd’s Household Book):

A Trifle

Take three Naple biscuits. Cut them in slices. Dip them in sack. Lay them on the bottom of your dish. Then make a custard of a pint of cream and five eggs and put over them. Them make a whipt syllabub as light as possible to cover the whole. The higher it is piled, the handsomer it looks.

Here, too, is a contemporary recipe for syllabub, which is a froth of eggs and cream folded with citrus flavoring and sweetened wine. I’d add fruit such as raspberries or strawberries for a little more variety.

A Whipt Syllabub

Take a pt of cream with a spoonfull of orange flower water 2 or 3 ounces of fine sugar ye juice of a lemon ye white of 3 eggs wisk these up together & having in your glasses rhennish wine & sugar & clarret & sugar lay on ye broth with a spoon heapt up as leight as you can.

Mar 282014
 

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Today is the birthday (1936) of Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa, Peruvian writer, politician, journalist, essayist, college professor, and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. Vargas Llosa is one of Latin America’s most significant novelists and essayists, and one of the leading writers of his generation. Some critics consider him to have had a larger international impact and worldwide audience than any other writer of the wave of Latin American literature that began in the mid-20th century (known as the Latin American Boom), with authors such as Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes.. Upon announcing the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy said it had been given to Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Vargas Llosa is currently a visiting professor at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University.

Vargas Llosa rose to fame in the 1960s with novels such as The Time of the Hero (La ciudad y los perros, literally The City and the Dogs, 1963/1966), The Green House (La casa verde, 1965/1968), and the monumental Conversation in the Cathedral (Conversación en la catedral, 1969/1975). He writes prolifically across an array of literary genres, including literary criticism and journalism. His novels include comedies, murder mysteries, historical novels, and political thrillers. Several, such as Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973/1978) and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977/1982), have been adapted as feature films.

Many of Vargas Llosa’s works are influenced by his perception of Peruvian society and his own experiences as a native Peruvian. Increasingly, however, he has expanded his range, and tackled themes that arise from other parts of the world. In his essays, Vargas Llosa has criticized nationalism in different parts of the world, among others, in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. Another change over the course of his career has been a shift from a style and approach associated with a rather conventional and serious literary modernism, to a more playful postmodernism.

I could give you a load of erudite drivel about Vargas Llosa, but I am not going to.  Go and read his novels.  Instead I am going to give you a few quotes that I find inspiring followed by a couple of favorite Peruvian recipes.  I’m very fond of Peru and Peruvian cooking.  This first quote is my absolute favorite.  Some of the quotes are in translation and some in Spanish.  No apologies. The ones in Spanish are untranslatable.

There is one thing I am sure of amid my many uncertainties regarding the literary vocation: deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him, because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life, never mind the social, political, or financial rewards of what he might achieve through it.

Las mentiras machacadas día y noche se vuelven verdades.

In my case, literature is a kind of revenge. It’s something that gives me what real life can’t give me – all the adventures, all the suffering. All the experiences I can only live in the imagination, literature completes.

Memory is a snare, pure and simple; it alters, it subtly rearranges the past to fit the present.

Writers are the exorcists of their own demons.

No matter how ephemeral it is, a novel is something, while despair is nothing.

Es más fácil imaginar la muerte de una persona que la de cien o mil…Multiplicado, el sufrimiento se vuelve abstracto. No es fácil conmoverse por cosas abstractas.

Cuando creí que iba a perder la razón ante tanto sufrimiento. Así descubrí que un ser humano no puede vivir sin creer.

The secret to happiness, at least to peace of mind, is knowing how to separate sex from love. And, if possible, eliminating romantic love from your life, which is the love that makes you suffer. That way, I assure you, you live with greater tranquility and enjoy things more.

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The potato is perhaps the most significant cultigen to come out of Peru.  There are now over 1,000 varieties worldwide although very few make it to market.  Potato production was vital to the development and expansion of the Inca empire.  Then, as now, different varieties of potato are grown at different altitudes in the Andes, but all find their way to markets in the main cities.

Causa limeña is a beloved cold potato entree that´s unlike any other dish in the culinary world. The yellow potato and yellow chili pepper mash is assembled in layers, together with chicken, seafood, corn, avocado, olives, and whatever the imagination allows.

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Ingredients

6 yellow potatoes (floury texture)
4 piquillo peppers, blended
¼ cup vegetable oil
juice of 3 limes
2 chicken breasts
2 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper
¾ cup mayonnaise
½ celery stick, chopped
1 scallion, finely chopped
1 red onion finely sliced
1 piquillo pepper
1 ají amarillo, (optional)
2 limes
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves
salt and pepper
8 quail eggs, hard boiled (or 2 quartered hen’s eggs)
1 avocado
6 black olives, sliced

Instructions

Scrub potatoes and put in pan; cover with cold water. Put pan over medium high heat. Bring water to a boil, and cook for 20 minutes or until soft, but not mushy. Drain and peel the potatoes while hot, and mash or pass through a potato ricer immediately. The mashed potato should be very fine, without lumps.

Put potatoes in bowl, and add the blended piquillo peppers, vegetable oil, lime juice and salt. Mix well. Keep tasting and adding more of any of the above ingredients to taste. Cover with a kitchen towel, and reserve.

Cook chicken breasts in chicken stock, salt and pepper, over medium heat until cooked through . Cool in stock, and finely chop (or shred). In bowl, combine chicken with mayonnaise, celery, scallion, salt, and pepper.

Lightly oil a large container (you can use a tube pan or a loaf pan) or small pastry rings. Line base with a layer of mashed potato. Cover that layer with chicken salad, and add another layer of potatoes on top. You can prepare this dish up to this point and keep refrigerated to serve later.

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Cau cau is a tripe and potatoes dish I love.  It’s really pretty basic – potatoes, tripe, and onions.  What makes it special is the spice palillo, which gives a special savor and brilliant yellow color to the dish. Turmeric makes a fair substitute (or annatto or saffron).  I decided to give you the recipe in Spanish for the hell of it. That’s how I received it. It’s not hard to translate.

Cau Cau

Ingredientes:

½ kilo de mondongo
4 cucharadas de aceite
1 cebolla grande finamente picada
2 ajos molidos
2 cucharadas de ají amarillo
1 ½ kilo de papa cocida y cortada en cuadraditos
½ cucharada de palillo en polvo  (o cúrcuma)
2 cucharadas de leche
sal, pimienta y comino al gusto
hierbabuena picada al gusto

Preparación:

Cocinar en agua el mondongo, con la leche y ramita de hierbabuena, hasta que este blando. Cortar en     cuadraditos.

Freír con aceite caliente la cebolla, los ajos, el ají, el palillo, la sal, la pimienta y el comino. Agregar el mondongo y las papas cocidas. Dejar cocer unos minutos.

Servir enseguida y si desea puede espolvorear hierbabuena.