Aug 272015
 

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Today is the birthday (1899) of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, better known by his pen name Cecil Scott “C. S.” Forester, an English novelist who rose to fame with tales of naval warfare. His most notable works were the 12-book Horatio Hornblower series, depicting a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars, and The African Queen (1935; filmed in 1951 by John Huston). I was an avid fan of Hornblower as a young teenager, scouring book shops for the more obscure volumes and short stories. I then hit on his less well known works such as The Gun, The General, and The Ship. Although Forster’s writing style is very straightforward, his analysis of the psyche of men at war is piercing.

Forester was born in Cairo and, after a family breakup when he was very young, he moved with his mother to London, where he was educated at Alleyn’s School and Dulwich College, south London. He began to study medicine at Guy’s Hospital, London, but left without completing his degree. He had always worn glasses and been thin, so in trying to enlist in the army, he failed his physical and was told there was not a chance that he would be accepted, even though he was of good height and somewhat athletic. Around 1921, after leaving Guy’s, he began writing seriously using his pen name.

During World War II, Forester moved to the United States where he worked for the British Information Service and wrote propaganda to encourage the US to join the Allies. He eventually settled in Berkeley, California. While living in Washington, D.C., he met a young British intelligence officer named Roald Dahl, whose experiences in the RAF he had heard of, and encouraged him to write about them. Dahl considered this a key moment in his life and credits Forester with turning him into a writer.

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Forester wrote many novels, but he is best known for the 12-book Horatio Hornblower series, depicting a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars. He began the series with Hornblower as a senior captain in the first novel, The Happy Return, published in 1937. The last completed Hornblower novel was published in 1962. With demand for more stories, Forester filled in Hornblower’s back story as a midshipman, lieutenant, and commander, as well as continuing onward with him as a commodore and then admiral. Hornblower’s fictional feats were based on real events, but Forester wrote the body of the works carefully to avoid entanglements with real world history, so Hornblower is always off on another mission when a great naval victory occurs during the Napoleonic Wars. This is a contrast to the writer Patrick O’Brian, who began a series in the same historic era in 1969, who put his Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey in the midst of some real victories, or watching others as a prisoner of war.

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Other novels include The African Queen (1935) and The General (1936); Peninsular War novels in Death to the French (published in the United States as Rifleman Dodd) and The Gun (filmed as The Pride and the Passion in 1957); and seafaring stories that did not involve Hornblower, such as Brown on Resolution (1929); The Captain from Connecticut (1941); The Ship (1943) and Hunting the Bismarck (1959), which was used as the basis of the screenplay for the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck!. Several of his works were filmed, most notably the 1951 film, The African Queen, directed by John Huston. Forester is also credited as story writer for several movies not based on his published fiction, including Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942).

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In my opinion The Ship is one of the most amazing and engaging depictions of World War II naval warfare. Ostensibly it is nothing more than a description of a brief engagement between Royal Navy and German ships, lasting a few hours. But it teases the action apart in the most minute detail, each chapter focusing on the actions of a single crew member and all that is going through his head as he performs a simple task. For me it is an absolute masterpiece. The General, in turn, is a brilliant analysis of the outmoded ways of thinking and bull-headed stupidity of the high command in World War I. Forester perfectly captures the essence of war without idealizing or romanticizing it.

He wrote several volumes of short stories set during World War II. Those in The Nightmare (1954) were based on events in Nazi Germany, ending at the Nuremberg Trials. Stories in The Man in the Yellow Raft (1969) followed the career of the destroyer USS Boon, while many of those in Gold from Crete (1971) followed the destroyer HMS Apache. The last of the stories in the latter book – “If Hitler had invaded England” – offers an imagined sequence of events starting with Hitler’s attempt to implement Operation Sea Lion, and culminating in the early military defeat of Nazi Germany in the summer of 1941. His non-fiction seafaring works include The Age of Fighting Sail (1956), an account of the sea battles between Great Britain and the United States in the War of 1812.

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In addition to his novels of seafaring life, Forester also published two crime novels, Payment Deferred (1926), and Plain Murder (1930), and two children’s books. One, Poo-Poo and the Dragons (1942), was created as a series of stories told to his younger son George to encourage him to finish his meals. George had mild food allergies that kept him feeling unwell, and he needed encouragement to eat. The second, The Barbary Pirates (1953), is a children’s history of early 19th-century pirates.

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I first saw the movie, The African Queen, without realizing it was a Forester novel as a teen. Later I saw the book and bought it. The movie is surprisingly faithful to the book except for the ending. In the book, the African Queen sinks in a sudden storm, and Rose and Allnutt have to swim for safety,having failed in their mission to sink the Königin Luise. The two lovers are separated in the storm, but both are captured by the Germans the next day. They are brought before the captain of the Königin Luise to be tried as spies. Both refuse to say how they came to the lake, but the captain sees “African Queen” written on Rose’s life jacket and deduces that they must be the mechanic and the missionary’s sister from the mysteriously missing launch. He decides it would be uncivilized to execute them, so he flies a flag of truce and delivers them to the British naval commander, who dismissively sends them to separate tents under guard while he takes his newly arrived reinforcements out to sink the Königin Luise. Having succeeded in this, he sends Rose and Allnutt to the coast to speak to the British Consul, where he advises Allnutt to enlist in the British Army. Rose and Allnutt agree that when they reach the coast they will ask the Consul to marry them. The story ends with the narrator’s comment that “Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided.”

If you know the movie you’ll know that the ending is slightly different but the outcome is essentially the same. Bogart could not do a Cockney accent so Allnutt had to be changed to a Canadian, which loses some of the class tension between him and Rose.

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Forester mentions big dinners aboard ship in the Hornblower books –usually captains’ councils with their admiral who lays on a lavish spread. In Lieutenant Hornblower towards the end of the book, Hornblower ends up missing one such dinner at anchor in the West Indies, but when he returns the host tells him there may still be some pepper pot left over. West Indian pepper pot is an old favorite of mine. So here it is.

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West Indian Pepper Pot

Ingredients

2 tbsp vegetable oil
500g stewing steak cut in small chunks
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
6 sprigs thyme
8 allspice berries
2 bay leaves
1 whole Scotch bonnet pepper
400g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2in cubes
2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and diced
400g butternut squash, peeled and diced
300g mushrooms (black, if possible)
1 400g tin of butter beans, drained and rinsed
2 pints beef stock
1 400ml can of coconut milk
200g fresh spinach
salt and pepper to taste

Dumplings
100g flour
40ml water
salt and pepper
1 tsp dried thyme

Instructions

In a large casserole pan, over a medium flame, add some oil and sauté the beef until lightly browned.

Add the onion, garlic, thyme, allspice, bay leaves and Scotch bonnet and cook for around 3-4 minutes until fragrant.

Add the sweet potato, carrots, squash and mushrooms, stir in, and cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat with the lid on.

Reduce the flame to low, add the butterbeans, stock and coconut milk and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the dumplings by creating a dough with the flour, water, salt and pepper and thyme. Roll the mixture into a long, thin sausage. Then cut and form 12-15 small cigar shapes, using up all the dough.

Drop the spinach into the soup, followed by the dumplings and cover and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Season to taste.

Nov 012014
 

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Today is Independence Day in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, an island nation in the Leeward chain bordering the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Antigua was first settled by archaic foragers called the Siboney or Ciboney. Carbon dating has established the earliest settlements started around 3100 BCE. They were succeeded by the Ceramic Age pre-Columbian Arawak-speaking Saladoid people who migrated from the lower Orinoco River.

The Arawaks introduced agriculture, raising, among other crops, the famous Antigua black pineapple (Moris cultivar of Ananas comosus), corn, sweet potatoes (white with firmer flesh than the bright orange “sweet potato” used in the United States), chiles, guava, tobacco, and cotton.

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The indigenous West Indians made excellent seagoing vessels which they used to sail the Atlantic and the Caribbean. As a result, Caribs and Arawaks were able to colonize much of South America and the Caribbean Islands. Their descendants still live there, notably in Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia.Most Arawaks left Antigua around 1100 AD; those who remained were later raided by the Caribs. The Caribs’ superior weapons and seafaring prowess allowed them to defeat most of the West Indian Arawak nations.

The island of Antigua, originally called Wa’ladli by Arawaks, is today called Wadadli by locals. Caribs possibly called it Wa’omoni. Christopher Columbus, while sailing by in 1493, may have named it Santa Maria la Antigua after an icon in the Spanish Seville Cathedral. The Spaniards did not colonize Antigua because it lacked fresh water and because the Caribs were extremely aggressive towards them.

The English settled on Antigua in 1632; Sir Christopher Codrington settled on Barbuda in 1684. Slavery, established to run sugar plantations around 1684, was abolished in 1834. The British ruled from 1632 to 1981, with a brief French interlude in 1666.

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The islands became an independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations on 1 November 1981. The Right Honourable Vere Cornwall Bird became the first Prime Minister.

Antigua and Barbuda cooking is like much of the cooking of the West Indies, but with its own quirks. The national dish is fungie (pronounced “foon-jee”) and pepper pot. Fungie is a dish that’s similar to Italian polenta, made mostly with cornmeal. Other local dishes include ducana, seasoned rice, saltfish and lobster (from Barbuda). There are also local confectionaries which include: sugarcake, fudge, raspberry and tamarind stew and peanut brittle.

Although these foods are indigenous to Antigua and Barbuda and to some other Caribbean countries, the local diet has diversified and now includes local dishes of Jamaica, such as jerk meats, or Trinidad, such as Roti, and other Caribbean countries. Shawarma, an Arab dish has become popular as well, beings sold out of Arab shops along with kebabs and gyros. Chinese restaurants have also begun to become more mainstream. The supermarkets sell a wide variety of food, from American to Italian. Meals may vary depending on household income levels.

Breakfast dishes include saltfish, eggplant, eggs and lettuce. Lunches typically include a starch, such as rice, macaroni or pasta, vegetables and/or salad, an entree (fish, chicken, pork, beef etc.) and a side dish such as macaroni pie (baked macaroni and cheese), scalloped potatoes or plantains. On Sundays many people in the country go to church and afterwards prepare a variety of foods at home. Dinner on Sundays is often eaten earlier (around 2:00 pm) because people are often off from works. Dinners may include pork, baked chicken, stewed lamb, or turkey, with rice (prepared in a variety of ways), macaroni pie, salads, and a local drink. Dessert may be ice cream and cake or an apple pie (mango and pineapple pie when in season). Antiguan Butter Bread is also a main stable of Antuguan cuisine, it is a soft buttery loaf of bread that needs no butter added once baked. Many locals enjoy fresh baked butter bread and cheese for breakfast and throughout the day. There are many homes in neighborhoods all over Antigua that have small bakeries built on to them, where locals can go and purchase these fresh baked loaves. They are coupled with cheese, sardines, and a bright red sausage that locals sometimes call salami. They also have what is called “provisions” with most meals. Provisions are foods that are usually a root or starch like potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, eddo, etc. During Carnival time, souse a very spicy soup with pigs’ feet, pigs’ knuckles, and tails with lots of onions is a popular snack, sold by vendors on the side of the road. Black pudding (blood sausage), a well seasoned sausage made with rice, meat, and pigs’ blood is also enjoyed by locals. Here’s a recipe for Antigua pepper pot. Pepper pot is found throughout the West Indies, and, like most such recipes is more or less cook’s choice. It is typically served with fungie.

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Antiguan Pepper Pot

Ingredients

¾ lb pork, cubed

2 onions, chopped

2 lbs spinach

10 okra pods

4 cups beef broth

1 hot pepper, chopped fine (or more) Scotch bonnet is best

2 cloves garlic, chopped fine

salt and pepper to taste

2 tsps fresh thyme

1 tbsp cooking oil

Instructions:

Heat the oil over high heat in a heavy pot and brown the pork and onions.

Add the broth, bring to a boil and simmer for one hour.

Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer one hour more.