Archive for November, 2008


“I’m up to my deaf ears in cold breakfast trays…”

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and as Americans gleefully rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye, consider this culinary conundrum: what the heck happened to galangal?

Native to Asia and more pungent than the ginger it resembles, galangal was a princely part of the medieval European spice rack. Chaucer mentioned it, Hildegard of Bingen praised it, and 14th-century kings kept it on their shopping lists. I don’t know why Europeans later downgraded this noble root to medicinal status, but I’m gung-ho to explore the question in my next book, the 800-page Galangal: How a Rhizome Saved Civilization and Invented the Medieval World (and So Can You).

Since it’s been too long since my previous exercise in medieval cuisine, and because I’m eager to spearhead the Great Galangal Revival, I flipped through medieval cookbooks, shuddered at all the recipes for lampreys, and decided to cook “Goose in Hodgepodge,” a recipe from Kalendare de Potages Divers, circa 1420:

A goos in hogepotte. —Take a Goos, & make hure clene, & hacke hyre to gobettys, & put yn a potte, & Water to, & sethe to-gederys; þan take Pepir & Brennyd brede, or Blode y-boyled, & grynd y-fere Gyngere & Galyngale & Comyn, & temper vppe with Ale, & putte it þer-to; & mynce Oynonys, & frye hem in freysshe grece, & do þer-to a porcyon of Wyne.

Motivated by stinginess, I substituted the $40 grocery-store goose with a fattier $14 duck, assuming my readers don’t mind the quack-quack, and the legs all danglin’ down-o. (I would have gone with lamprey, but it wasn’t on sale.)

People say you can’t replace a goose with a duck, but that’s just a canard.

“Take a Goos Duck, & make hure clene…”

“& hacke hyre to gobettys…”

(Out of consideration for my more sensitive readers, I’ve chosen to illustrate the hacking process with this magnificent image of galloping unicorn from the cover of a 1980s Trapper Keeper.)

“& put yn a potte, & Water to, & sethe to-gederys”

After sethyng for two hours, the duck stock smells wonderful. (Although its smell probably isn’t as distinctive as lamprey stock. Did you know a mature lamprey can grow to nearly four feet long?)

Arise, my Cauldron-Born!

After discarding the bones and occasional pieces of skin, we’re left with a respectable pile of tender duck meat and tons of rich, delicious stock for next week’s soup. (Speaking of rich: during his time as an exile, Havelok the Dane took lampreys to market. It’s medieval literature, people!)

“þan take Pepir & Brennyd brede, or Blode y-boyled…”

Surprising, isn’t it, that boiled blood should be a suitable thickening substitute for burned bread? I’m not squeamish about cooking with blood, but I am squeamish about how blood curdles when it overheats. There aren’t enough unicorn pictures in the world (or enough lampreys to eat the mistakes).

“…& grynd y-fere Gyngere & Galyngale & Comyn, & temper vppe with Ale, & putte it þer-to.”

While the bread soaks in the ale, let’s grate the fresh rhizomes, gather up the cumin and the pepper, and introduce the whole gallimaufry to Sir Braun de Hand-Mixer.

To distract you from the sight of that gravy, I’ll tell you that Henry I of England reportedly died from eating “a surfeit of lampreys.” (Today we know that you should never serve a lamprey to guests unless you’ve taken care to remove its surfeit.)

“…& mynce Oynonys, & frye hem in freysshe grece, & do þer-to a porcyon of Wyne.”

So yeah—add the meat and the gravy to the wine, grease, and onion base, and that’s what you get: duck hash. Add more gravy, and you get duck stew with the consistency of curry. Add even more gravy, and the meat vanishes in the glop.

And how does it taste? It’s hideous. Pepper, ale, and damp toast overwhelm the other flavors. Leave out the thickeners and all you taste is the cumin, even if you reduce the amount. The ginger and the galangal—which by itself tastes like a strong, perfumey mustard—barely register. Blood would not make it better.

So does that mean medieval people would have liked this slop? No: it means I botched it. I tried three times to vary the proportions and concoct an edible sauce, but the recipe is lacking. Like many medieval texts, it assumes a contemporary reader and omits crucial information for the ages: in this case, the secret to blending nearly a dozen disparate ingredients. I’ve learned my way around a kitchen—I can cook decent curries, tasty Chinese entrees, and a wide range of Western dishes—but without further experimentation and costly trial and error, I can’t help but find the medieval English kitchen as distant and exotic as Araby or Inde.

So this year, be thankful for the here and now, for the familiarity of turkey and New World tubers, and for the fact that I’m not at your door with a bundle of ducks in one hand and a medieval cookbook in the other. Although I can be, on pretty short notice, and with a casserole I like to call Medieval Surprise. The recipe is secret, but let’s just say its main ingredient rhymes with “famprey”…

“…now he’s back-page news down in the neighborhood.”

If this week had a bombastic soundtrack, it would be “The Entrance of the Turkeys into Valhalla.” While I ponder my hopeless dream of an all-turkey version of Wagner, here are some non-poultry-related links to kick off a cold and rainy Monday.

Ephemeral New York takes you to Brooklyn to see the Gothic Revival tomb of Charlotte Canda.

Cell phones clash with Gregorian chanting when Kate Marie goes to Rome.

At My Life in Books, Nicole considers authors who whine about bad reviews.

Jeanette Winterson writes movingly about discovering T.S. Eliot at a bad time in her life. (Link via Books, Inq.)

Who knew there was a monument to mark the Battle of Fontenoy? I didn’t, but Steven Till did.

Gypsy Scholar notes a biblical “reference rainbow.”

Julie K. Rose, proprietress of the neat Writers and Their Soundtracks blog, gives us a playlist of her own.

How about a video? Here’s T. Rex performing “Jeepster” in 1972.

“…writing books on the way it should have been.”

That’s a photo of the bibliography of Becoming Charlemagne; I shot it the morning the final manuscript flew like the Winged Victory of Samothrace to my editor’s desk in New York. Large-scale maps scrawled with timelines and trade routes, teetering towers of library books—by that point, my workspace looked like a cross between the lair of a serial killer and Tom Hanks’ bedroom in Mazes and Monsters. So this past Thursday night, I was both honored and relieved to sit on a research-themed panel hosted by James River Writers, which taught me that this obsessive, it-puts-the-lotion-in-the-basket behavior is, at least among authors, something close to normal.

My co-panelists were Phaedra Hise, journalist and author of the meticulously reseached Pilot Error: Anatomy of a Plane Crash, and Maggie Stiefvader, whose young-adult novels about homicidal faeries and “werewolf nookie” are informed by her college study of medieval languages. (Her children are named Wulfnoð and Æðelðryð. She is hardcore.) Our trusty moderator, fantasy writer Bill Blume, did a great job. Bill writes the funny and trippy webcomic The Wildcat’s Lair, where he contends with stuffed dragons and technicolor cats in their natural habitat: the gaming table.

Writing is often dreary work. You’re up all night, flipping between the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and a twilight block of Felicity episodes (don’t judge me), paranoid that you might not meet your deadline, wondering if anyone is going to care about the ninth-century Islamic pistachio trade. Publishing a book rarely brings the wealth, the fame, or the power over life and death that many aspiring writers believe it will. When your book hits the shelves, it’s a happy day, but life just doesn’t change all that much.

…and then, once in a while, you’re invited to yak it up at a writers’ event, and you retire to a pizza joint for a late night of unrepeatable stories with smart, funny people, and you begin to understand the value of your 300-page calling card beyond the reviews and royalty statements. Writers like to gripe and whine, but when it comes to this one benefit, don’t let authors tell you otherwise, not even my fellow recluses. The social aspect, unlike the process of writing itself, is even more fun than you think it will be.

“…where the paper lanterns gently swing.”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

During an early scene in The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, a palace servant gently mocks his sovereign lord. “Ignorance is a common ailment,” he says. “In time, it goes away. Unless it proves fatal.” His remark sets the tone of this strange and intriguing book, which is one of Lloyd Alexander’s more haunting novels, if hardly his most cheerful.

When the elderly emperor of T’ang is too frail to travel northward to study another kingdom’s system of perfect justice, his son, Jen, offers to go on his behalf. Decent but naive, Jen leaves the confines of the palace and is shocked by the harsh world beyond. Distracted from his journey, the young prince falls in love, faces murderers, is reduced to begging, and comes to understand how his decisions echo in the lives of friends and strangers alike.

Promises kept, traumas overcome, lessons learned, generosity rewarded—Lloyd Alexander’s foray into quasi-Chinese myth dwells on many of his usual themes, but The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen sparkles with eerie details: a general who stays conscious even as he turns to stone; an artist who literally gets lost in his own painting; and a catatonic child who sails through the clouds on a kite. The villain, too, is no cackling caricature but a mass murderer whose whispering sword begs to drink the blood of its victims. Full of roving mystics and fickle magic, Alexander’s mythologized China is weird and unnerving. As lost as Prince Jen, the reader discovers the workings of the novel’s moral universe only gradually, each time Jen and his companions stumble, suffer, and fail.

In 1991, after writing five Vesper Holly novels, Lloyd Alexander was clearly eager to try something different. The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen opened the final phase of his career, a mature, sixteen-year period marked by experiments with light comic fare, literary autobiography, and clever musings on the art of storytelling. With its depictions of human cruelty, including a good prince condemned by a corrupt magistrate and left to scavenge like an animal, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen especially resembles The Rope Trick, in which even decency and good humor fail to leaven the sadness of the world. Jen’s journey ends well, but its lesson is somber: that we earn adult wisdom only through hardship, injustice, and fear.

“…wide open spaces high above the kitchen.”

Does anybody care? Will anybody want to read this? These questions vex writers in every era. As Charlemagne famously counseled Theodulf of Orleans in a candid letter some twelve centuries ago, “the insecurity is the thing that won’t get lost.” That’s why I was so surprised to see that in October, this blog enjoyed its highest number of readers so far. Thank you—even if my site stats indicate that you were particularly drawn to my Pac-Man glasses and my levitating niece.

New readers continue to find “Quid Plura?” through the thaumaturgy of the modern search engine. Below in bold are some of their stranger searches. I’ve endeavored to add helpful responses on the off chance they didn’t find the answers they were looking for.

beowulf fungus
One of my college roommates contracted the Beowulf fungus. Afterwards, people found it impossible to date him with any certainty.

how stupid is sir gawain?
Gawain is so stupid, it takes him two hours to watch “60 Minutes”!
Gawain is so stupid, he took an umbrella to see “Purple Rain”!
Gawain is so stupid, he thought Sherlock Holmes was a housing project!
Gawain is so stupid, he believed that every instance of the final inflectional -e in MS Cotton Nero A.x was unsounded because he had overlooked the possibility that specifically poetic archaisms may not have existed in prose and failed to consider that an unsounded final -e might corrupt the meter in at least a dozen places in the manuscript!

becoming charlemagne summary
Becoming Charlemagne
is the story of the emperor who won renown as the inventor of gargling, which prior to that time had been practiced only furtively by a remote tribe of Saxons who passed the secret down from father to son as part of their oral tradition.

becoming charlemagne sparknotes
Set against the turbulent backdrop of 19th-century Russia, Becoming Charlemagne is the story of a young princess who gradually awakens to her own potential as a poet, a lover, and a queen. (Tell your teacher you found this summary on the author’s Web site. You will astonish her.)

is grendel lifeless in the sense of death or what?
I’d love to know what exactly this searcher believes the “or what?” might include.

how is grendel a typical monster?
He’s lifeless in the sense of death, man.

lame medieval jokes
Here’s one: What do you call a movement to provide houses for village priests among the ancestors of the South Ossetians? The Alan Parsons Project.

how to make reptile cages
I feel sorry for the lizard enthusiast who thinks he’s found an answer to his question only to find himself at the site of some guy who can’t stop yammering on about Norse mythology and the Icelandic banking system. Sorry, man. May your gecko thrive.

what is the old english phase that christman was derived from
I’ll let this one speak for itself.

name for a cat with a disfigured face yet lovely
The quest to name a disfigured yet lovely cat sounds like a treacly but sincere plot for a creative writing project. MFA candidates, start your engines.

beguile the dog
I don’t know how to beguile a dog, but I do know how to hypnotize a chicken. It’s a skill I picked up sixteen years ago on a farm in Denmark. Readers have accused me of not revealing enough about myself on this blog, so I’m trying to share more. Really, it’s quite a spectacle: the poor chicken just sits there.

Thanks for reading! More book reviews, Charlemagnia, and quasi-medieval doodads coming up soon.

“The music keeps them quiet; there is no other way.”

Vox populi, vox dei: “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” Reporters and pundits haul out this Latin proverb every election year. Some find it vindicating, others deploy it ironically, but I wonder how many people know where this notion came from.

In the mid-1800s, scholars thought the first writer to record this proverb was the 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury. One Notes and Queries entry delightfully shortened it to “VPVD,” an abbreviation that suggests a lucrative market for motivational bracelets at political conventions four years hence.

My get-rich-quick schemes notwithstanding, VPVD is older than William of Malmesbury—and, like so much else worth knowing, it was first written down during the time of Charlemagne.

Flip through Ernst Dümmler, MGH, Epistolae Karolini Aevi II (Berlin, 1895), and on page 199, there it is, the ninth in a series of responses in a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne:

VIIII. Populus iuxta sanctiones divinas ducendur est, non sequendus, et ad testimonium personae magis eliguntur honestae. Nec audiendi qui solent dicere: “Vox populi, vox Dei,” cum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.

The people must be led according to divine laws, not followed, and by the examples provided by more respectable people. Those who say “the voice of the people is the voice of God” should not be heeded, for the hubbub of the crowd is always rather close to madness.

Note that Alcuin isn’t endorsing this proverb; he’s decrying it.

As fond as I am of de-exoticizing the Middle Ages by pointing out the medieval-ness of many modern experiences (and vice-versa), I suspect most citizens of modern democracies agree that Alcuin was, as the contributor to Notes and Queries put it, “breathing the spirit of a different age.” Then again, whether or not you side with Alcuin on this proverb depends on whether your preferred candidate has prevailed—an opinion we all privately revise every four to eight years.

“On the back seat of the car, with Joseph and Emily…”

Fleeing a hot, crowded brownstone, Tom built his life on a dead-end lane: some trees, a brook, and extra land to parcel out to kids. For decades, he made the commute to the city, but most of his relatives followed him home. They were charmed by the place where he chose to raise chickens, plant string beans, and tinker with gadgets in peace.

The Piscataway soil will never be known for producing fine wines, but the tangle of vines on the side of the house was Tom’s own little piece of Provence. On the morning he never grew tired of griping about, he was tending his few feeble grapes. The sun was high, and the only sounds were birds and barking dogs. Perhaps he stopped to wipe his brow; he surely sneaked a sip of beer and dreamed about the homemade wine to come. Then a stranger slipped into the garden.

Dapper but fat, the stranger was speckled with dust from the road. He fanned his spiny jowls with his hat, introduced himself without a handshake, and eyed the gawky farmer. Uncreative, as all of them are, he asked about the clump of vines. He expressed delight, this bringer of mighty compliments, for who was nearer to God, and who better understood the common good, than a man who coaxed life from the earth?

The vines gave the stranger a sudden idea: He knew a nearby farmer whose cows were a sight to behold. Their output, he said, was impressive—no, not impressive: magical. This farmer had worked miracles with manure, and the kicker was, he always had a little dung to spare. Picture it: these grapes here growing and thriving, while neighbors and family toasted to each other’s health with the sweetest wine in town. A diligent public servant, he said, might easily procure a bag of this miracle fertilizer and bestow it upon a neighbor in need. Delivery would be quick, and it wouldn’t cost a penny—as long as that public servant knew he could count on a vote or two come November. Speaking of which, was the lady of the house at home?

The two men exchanged promises. Weeks passed, and then months. Only one man kept his promise. Tom remembered; fifty years later, it still made him angry.

By the time we were children, the suburbs had grown up around us, and Chaucerian frauds were sprouting like mushrooms: Combed-over charlatans who failed to hide their disdain as they loped up our porch steps to beg for support. The part-time mayor who never had time for parades or graduations. The priest who crept through the halls at the old folks’ home, buying cheap votes for his patron by handing out kitchen sponges. The sheriff’s sergeant who stole from the pension fund. Judges who snorted cocaine with their staff. Real-estate developers who hand-fed their pet creatures from town hall to Trenton. We were taught to laugh at them; only as an adult did I learn that “freeloader” was not, in fact, a valid civic office.

But sometimes, on a Tuesday, the grown-ups gathered at the kitchen table and unfolded an arcane sheet filled with drawings of dozens of levers. They studied it, they agreed on a time, and then, dressed as if going to church, they herded us into the Pinto. Sometimes we did go to a church; often we drove to a school, or to a building on the nearby college campus. Old ladies waited in line, as somber as schoolgirls in black-and-white photos, and old men talked in tones we never heard around the house. No one introduced us to any adults—we were small, badly dressed, and invisible—but we knew to behave while our elders, one by one, stepped behind a curtain. When they emerged, looking mostly unchanged, we all drove home, with no speeches about privileges or duties. The whole of the ritual spoke for itself.

The earth never shook, and our street still went unnoticed, and nobody told me which outcome was worse: the leader who promised a sack full of crap or the leader who failed to provide it. But we learned to detect its distinctive bouquet, that whiff of impending election. My grandfather taught me the grown-up response: get up, and go, and vote—but hold your nose.

“On a high red roof, Don Gato sat…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

Lloyd Alexander got tremendous mileage out of felines. Between 1956 and 1973, four of his books—My Five Tigers, Park Avenue Vet, Time Cat, and The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man—were testaments to his adult-onset affection for the common house cat. Published in 1977, The Town Cats and Other Tales is a fitting coda to Alexander’s decades of cat-fancying, offering eight concise stories about cats and the foolish humans who are better off for having known them.

The logic of the tales in The Town Cats is unusual but internally consistent. All of the cats talk, and most of them easily assume human roles or trade places with people, largely for comic effect. Most amusing to an adult reader is Alexander’s gentle but persistently disdainful depictions of people who govern: a bureaucrat who threatens to impose taxes and conscription on a provincial town; a king who makes his personal preferences the law of the land; a sultan who forbids anyone to tell him “no”; and a group of city fathers who argue about which of their names will adorn public works. Naturally, cats humble them all. At the same time, the cats in these stories help the poor, reward the honest, and teach hard lessons to the nouveau riche.

Published during the period between the Prydain series and the Westmark books, The Town Cats offers nothing new for Lloyd Alexander readers, but that’s the judgment of an adult sensibility—or, more specifically, of an adult who’s familiar with Alexander’s later, more mature writing. Although the final chapter, the story of a cat trying to choose a career path, is unsubtle and kind of corny, most of the tales in The Town Cats are clever fables set in fantasy versions of recognizable places, from 17th-century Holland to the bustling cities of the Middle East. For kids, the book promises a world tour and a fine introduction to the art of the short story. For adults—well, all I can say is that if you take no pleasure in watching a talking cat outwit a cheating sultan at chess, you surely have a heart of stone.

“I’ll call you ‘jaguar,’ if I may be so bold…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

Yes, that’s the cover of The El Dorado Adventure. Yes, the girl behind the counter at the bookstore gave me a suspicious look when I bought it. That didn’t bother me; what did worry me was that the Vesper Holly adventures would be a chore to read. I was wrong. Published in 1987, this second of six books about the 19th-century teenage adventurer and polymath is a hoot—and further proof of Lloyd Alexander’s knack for writing pure, lighthearted action.

When the wealthy, orphaned Vesper receives a mysterious telegram about some volcano-festooned real estate she inherited from her parents, she puts aside her banjo and her experiments in fractionating hydrocarbons and sails with her bumbling guardian from Philadelphia to El Dorado, “one of a tumble of countries crowding the neck of land between North and South America.” Upon her arrival, she battles a slippery French engineer who plans to build a canal that will flood the last surviving village of the Chiricas, the only local tribe to hold off the Conquistadors. During her stay in El Dorado, Vesper also breaks out of several prisons, repairs a riverboat engine, brings about gender equity among the Chiricas, burns down an opera house, quotes Rousseau and Alfred de Musset from memory, and arranges for the eruption of a dormant volcano—all without the benefit of a formal education.

Of course, Vesper’s preposterous competence is half the fun of the Vesper Holly Adventures; the stuffy narrative voice of her guardian, Dr. Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett, is the other half. Educated but largely uncreative, Brinnie is the classic unreliable narrator, but he never becomes a buffoon, and his Victorian decency is frequently comic. When the evil Dr. Helvitius—Vesper’s nemesis from The Illyrian Adventure and Moriarity to her Holmes—resurfaces in El Dorado, Brinnie is livid. “The fellow is a disgrace to the academic profession,” he huffs, even as he backslides into good-hearted optimism: “Perhaps, I suggested, he might still retain some spark of human decency. He was, I reminder her, an opera lover.”

When Vesper dissuades the Chiricas from initiating a hopeless armed rebellion that would surely cause their extinction, and when Brinnie contemplates pulling the trigger when an evil man lands in his rifle sights, Alexander comes close to reexamining some of his favorite moral questions—but then something blows up, or our heroes get captured, or a new friend or foe emerges from the steamy jungle. I’ve said before that novelists could learn much about lively, concise storytelling from Lloyd Alexander, but the Vesper Holly books—marketed to girls but with something for everyone, even grown-ups—are especially entertaining because they’re such a rarity: short, breezy adventures by an author who’s having the time of his life.

“Okay doors, swing.”

No sun—no moon!
No morn—no noon—

No dawn—no dusk—no proper time of day—
No sky—no earthly view—
No distance looking blue—
No road—no street—no “t’other side the way”—
No end to any Row—
No indications where the Crescents go—
No top to any steeple—
No recognitions of familiar people—
No courtesies for showing ‘em—
No knowing ‘em!
No traveling at all—no locomotion—
No inkling of the way—no notion—
“No go”—by land or ocean—
No mail—no post—
No news from any foreign coast—
No Park—no Ring—no afternoon gentility—
No company—no nobility—
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member—
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds—
November!

Thomas Hood (1799-1845)