Friday, March 21, 2014

Fresh start

It's been a busy winter, full of changes, and here's one of the biggest: I have a new site! I'll now be posting at, so please update your links accordingly. Blogger was a great way to start out, but Wordpress offers much more flexibility, and I'm looking forward to getting back into blogging on the new site. I'm still tweaking, so bear with me as I figure out this new system. See you there!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Personal reading history

Happy Valentine's Day! I've been hunkered down at home with a nasty virus, and the wintry mix outside isn't doing much to make things feel more festive. So instead, I've been daydreaming about our summer honeymoon in England.

Josh and I have been studying guidebooks galore, making lists of places to see and trading visions of our 9-day trip. I'm such an Anglophile, and lately we've watched so much Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Marple, and Call the Midwife that Josh has turned over to the Union Jack side, too. It's been great fun to page through books and websites, or even to see the London Eye in the opening credits to Sherlock and say, "We'll be there!"

(Also, several researchers have found that people get the most enjoyment out of planning a vacation, rather than going on a vacation! So far we've definitely been enjoying the planning process.)

I discovered a funny thing while flipping through a guidebook one evening. On a map of Wessex I saw the detail "Quantock Hills" and sat up straight and gasped. Why? Because when I was in high school, I was totally obsessed with the series "Sisters of the Quantock Hills" by Ruth Elwin Harris. It was about four sisters growing up in the early 1900s, and a centerpiece of all four books revolved around the trip they made to the Quantock Hills. On some level I knew that the hills existed in real life, but it was so surprising and gratifying to see them on a map.

The same thing happened with other locations: Dartmoor and Exhampton reminded me of Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, while Epping Forest recalled Lord Peter Wimsey's investigations in Unnatural Death. I told Josh, only half-joking, that we could chuck it all and just make a literary pilgrimage. And that's not counting Bloomsbury, or Jane Austen's house, or Haworth...

It's oddly satisfying to see your personal reading history written on a map. Such a small country, but one with so many writers who've produced so many long-standing works. It makes all those characters seem more real, somehow, and those works seem more like history than imagination. Now, if I can just convince Josh to go on a hike through the Quantock Hills...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Winter is coming

But really, it's here.

Last weekend Josh and I hosted two separate gatherings of friends to play the Game of Thrones board game. This is a complicated, multiplayer game where folks play as the houses (House Stark, for example) from the books by George R.R. Martin. Each house aims to capture seven castles, all while dealing with betrayal, vicious fighting over single pieces of land, and lots of jokes about Valyrian steel.

Here's where I confess.

I'm in the midst of both reading and watching Game of Thrones, and it's tons of fun. Josh blazed through all the books a few summers ago (and suffered through a major, inadvertent spoiler), and watched the entire TV series about as quickly. I am traditionally pretty measured in my approach to media: I don't binge-watch TV shows, I like to space out my installments of beloved book series. Right now I'm gearing up to watch the second season and read the third book (because of course, it's best to read first, then watch). George R.R. Martin has done a fabulous job constructing a complicated world with compelling characters, and even though it's sometimes hard to keep track of everyone, the first two books have been immensely fulfilling.

So yes, playing as House Baratheon was pretty great. Even better was playing with Josh's personalized deck of cards, which he developed over winter break. We also brewed some medieval spiced wine, which, while not technically of Westeros origin, might very well have been served at Ned Stark's banquets. It was warm and toasty and spicy and did the trick on a cold winter's night.

All Stark jokes aside, though, I've been having a rough time with winter this year. Sure, I love snow days, and tramping around in freshly fallen snow is satisfying in a way I can't describe. But there's something about the bleakness of the days, the gray skies and biting wind, the fumbling with keys while you still have your mittens on, the inability to just sit on the porch and enjoy the day because the weather sucks, that gets to me. After the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, January and February are bitter. It was great fun to sit inside over a board game, but now that the workweek is once again upon us, it's hard to be interested in much of anything when the weather's like this.

In the meantime I'll make some more spiced wine and watch my narcissus grow. Spring has to be on the way, right?

Spiced Wine (Hypocras)

4 cups red wine (roughly one bottle)
5 tbsp sugar
2 tsp powder douce (recipe follows)

First, make the powder douce: mix 3 tbsp ginger, 2 tbsp sugar, 1 1/2 tbsp cinnamon, 1 tsp cloves, and 1 tsp nutmeg together in a small bowl.

Next, pour 2 tsp of the powder douce, and the sugar, into a saucepan. Mix in the red wine. Warm over medium-low heat until steaming. Serve in cozy mugs.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Colonial Craft: Pomanders

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and that you're settling into 2014. I spent Christmas with my family in Ohio, listening to my dad's beloved Ray Conniff Singers and cooking up a storm. We spent many an evening by the fire and even processed maple syrup in one long day of patient boiling and simmering.

I also had a rather crafty evening in front of a Doris Day movie, and that's what I want to share with you now. I made pomanders: fruit studded with cloves and rolled in spices.

Pomanders originated in the Middle Ages, when folks would melt spices and aromatics together and enclose the resulting mass in perforated cases. They then wore these around their necks or carried the cases with them to ward off plague or disguise body odor. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the English began to make pomanders the way we think of them today, poking oranges and apples with cloves and rolling them in a mixture of spices and preservatives. Early immigrants to North America brought this craft with them as a Christmas or New Year's custom, but as oranges were far too expensive (they had to be imported), colonists typically made their pomanders with apples.

In researching the history and construction of pomanders, I was pretty surprised by this last fact. Like many women my age, I grew up with the American Girl dolls, and Felicity (the colonial-era doll) had a book of colonial crafts for girls to make. One of the crafts was, of course, a pomander made with an orange, but it turns out that very few colonial girls could have used oranges for their crafts. American Girl lied to me! Or, perhaps, glossed over the more complicated truth; Felicity very well might have been able to afford an orange, as her father owned a general store and would have had immediate access to imported produce. But her friends? Probably not.

Despite this disillusioning discovery, I enjoyed making the pomanders. I chose to make a "real" pomander out of an apple, spiking it all over with cloves and rolling it in a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and orris root (a preservative that helps it last). The other adhered to my childhood understanding: a simple pomander made with an orange, with only a decorative pattern of cloves. This one won't last very long.

They both make my apartment smell quite nice, however, and I'm looking forward to keeping the apple pomander for years to come. If you'd like to make your own, here's the recipe I used.

(slightly adapted from InSeason)

1 apple or orange
several ounces of whole cloves (varies)
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tbsp cloves
1 tbsp ginger
1 tbsp nutmeg
1 tbsp orris root

Mix the ground spices together in a small bowl. Set aside.

Press the whole cloves, sharp side down, into the fruit. You can make a pattern, or if you'd like the pomander to last as long as possible, keep the cloves close together and cover the fruit with them.

When you've finished with the whole cloves, roll the fruit in the spice mixture. Store in a cool, dry place, still in the spice mixture, until dry. Make sure to roll the fruit in the spice mixture each day.

Works cited: White Lotus Aromatics newsletter. InSeason: Making Traditional Pomanders.