Archive for November, 2010


“…irgendwo in der Tiefe gibt es ein Licht.”

Yes, we have heard the glory of the pilgrims, how those dour chorophobes subdued their neighbors and performed bold agricultural deeds—but when you’re unaccustomed to hot Novembers and the flapping of turkeys toward Valhalla fails to drown out football, you roam the strands of bleak retention ponds with a seven-year-old looking for grass snakes and fish.

In the mud, behind ferns and broken boughs, rests a sleeping stone baby.

One of you raises the obvious point: “If we get too close, will its eyes snap open?” (Unanimity. Two steps back.)

“How’d he get here?”

“I don’t know, man. I imagine it’s a mystery.”

“Did people put him here?”

“Maybe he just washed up on the shore, like a king in a famous old legend.”

“Wait, what legend?”

“You’ve heard of the Vikings, right? One of their very first kings.”

“Who? What was his name?”

“Well, nobody knows where he came from, or where he went when his ship sailed away, but I heard that his tribe called him Scyld…

Then you find that some stories don’t really need snow, and you’re thankful for more than just turkey and pie as you rest in the bayou, wide-eyed at sunset, surrounded by monsters and kings.

“Walking back to you is the hardest thing that I can do…”

Sure, the average American associates this week with football, tryptophan, and noncommital nodding during awkward conversations about politics, but here at “QP?” headquarters, Thanksgiving means only one thing: experimental recreations of carrot jam from the medieval Islamic world.

Carrot jam? Yes, carrot jam. Known in Arabic as jawārish, the dish appears in a cookbook called The Treasure of Useful Advice for the Composition of a Varied Table, probably compiled in Egypt or Syria in the 13th century. The recipe is translated in Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali, and while Islamic cookbooks are just as blithe as European cookbooks about assuming expertise on the part of the reader, this one seemed like a no-brainer. After all, sweet carrot dishes are common today, and carrot preserves and marmalade aren’t terrible exotic—so again we endeavor to answer, probably in vain: What did the past taste like?

First, our ingredients: cookbook, carrots, honey from a friend’s New Jersey apiary (plus two plastic-bear backups), various spices, and a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli that had nothing to do with this recipe but whined about being left out of a group photo.

From the recipe:

It is necessary to select fresh, red carrots, to wash them, clean them, and cut them as thinly as possible. Put them in a ceramic pot, add a little bit of honey, and cover them with water.

Lacking red carrots, I had to go with plain old orange. Here they are, simmering in the Le Creuset like flunkies in Charlemagne’s bath house.

Thus sayeth the recipe:

Cook them until they are soft, then strain off the water with a sieve and add a quantity of skimmed honey equal to that of the carrots.

An hour later, a pound of carrots yielded around a cup and a half of carrot glop, to which I added one cup of honey. Rather than bore you with lame photos, let’s hail the return, by popular demand, of the Trapper Keeper Unicorn of Applied Paleobromatology.

Distracted by the hard work of mushifying a few carrot chunks with the aid of Sir Braun de Hand-Mixer, I failed to witness a shocking crime on the countertop behind me.

Did you know that the tradition of selling honey in bear-shaped containers derives from the Abbasid practice of importing actual bears from Europe, squeezing them while upside down, and seasoning food with whatever spurted from their skulls? The caliphs really were that wealthy.

The recipe calls for spices:

Mix in seasonings chosen from among pepper, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cubeb, spikenard, mace, galangal, aloe wood [Aquilaria agallocha], saffron, and musk.

Fresh out of spikenard, and stunned by the recipe’s endorsement of a freeform jazz odyssey of spices, I opted for four I knew I had in my cabinet: 1/4 teaspoon each of pepper, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. (I’m not positive that “pepper” in a medieval Middle Eastern recipe meant “ground black peppercorn,” but so be it.)

I mixed up this little masala, dropped it into the honey-and-carrot mush, and did as I was told:

Cook to thicken the carrot jam.

Twenty minutes later, carrot jam was bubbling like sweet orange lava.

Two teaspoons of spices turned out to be too strong for fewer that two cups of carrot jam, but holy hopping Barmakids, hot jawārish a la Sypeck is tasty.

Medieval Islamic royalty had a sweet tooth to rival modern America’s, as I found when I whipped up a batch of tabaahaja, the wince-inducing candied lamb of the Abbasids, but carrot jam just isn’t that strange. Scale back the spices and you could probably convince Thanksgiving guests that you’re feeding them Aunt Harriet’s sweet potato mash, albeit with a throat-catching kick. (I suspect a version with spikenard, cubeb, and galangal might land harder on the Western palate.)

One question lingers: In the medieval Islamic world, was “jam” eaten hot? Zaouali’s book doesn’t say. The jawārish recipe includes only one more line: “Pour it into a glass jar and consume as needed.” Which is what I did.

You know what? Cold jawārish smeared on toasted naan isn’t bad either. The pepper and coriander give the jam a kick we more commonly expect from heated food, but that’s because of the spices and quantities I chose. Medieval Islamic cooks were free to make this stuff with whatever spices they wanted, as are modern paleobromatologists.

Of course, I can’t help but pine for the ideal jawārish chaser: a cold, fizzy glass of galangal soda.

“On the continent of dreams, you’d be with me…”

Today is an unclever Friday—but on Monday, this blog returns from its mostly flu-based hiatus.

In the meantime, I can only point you to an online workshop about attempts to translate Rilke’s “Herbsttag” and show you a pretty picture of the nation’s capital.

“Spending warm summer days indoors…”

Longtime readers know this blog took an odd turn in late 2009 when poems about the National Cathedral gargoyles started popping up. To my surprise, a whim—a sonnet about a boar and a dashed-off song about a monster—turned into both a long-term project and a refreshing creative challenge.

Readers tell me they like the gargoyles, but I’ve also fielded enough questions that it’s probably time for a FAQ.

So why did you decide to follow up a moderately successful nonfiction book with a batch of gargoyle poems?
My agent and editor tell me that light, formal verse is the next big trend in publishing. A team of highly paid consultants is working day and night to ensure that I’m branded in the public mind as “the Dan Brown of medievalist gargoyle ekphrasis.”

No, really, what’s the deal?
From 2006 through 2008, I promoted Becoming Charlemagne, an adventure that was wonderful in hindsight but very tiring. Then I spent most of 2009 on long writing projects for other people, to the point of word-weariness and exhaustion. These poems, like most posts on this blog, let me re-associate writing with pleasure without worrying about marketability, editors’ impressions, or other people’s needs.

Are you going to write poems for all of the cathedral’s gargoyles?
Heck no. The cathedral sports 112 gargoyles and more than 1,100 grotesques. I’ll focus only on my favorites, around 50 in all.

Does this project have a name?
I’ve been calling it “Looking Up.”

How can I read all of the gargoyle poems to date?
Easy: just hit the “looking up” link at the bottom of each gargoyle post or under “Categories” in the right-hand column of the page.

If you’re a new reader looking for a sampling, check out the cicada ghazal, the song of a lovelorn monster, the alliterative advice of a bitter mother, the fretful musings of an artsy fawn, the domestic drama of an octopus reappraising her lobster, and the most popular poem so far, a yarn about where dragons come from.

Will you turn these poems into a book when you’re done?
Several readers have told me they want one, so yes.

How long will that take?
I don’t know. I have a full-time job, I teach part-time, and occasionally I do engage in pastimes unrelated to gargoyles. Probably mid-2012.

Do you take requests?
Several of these poems have been inspired by anecdotes from readers, students, and friends. So yes, if you have a favorite vocation, cultural icon, wild animal, or mythical beast, send me a note and tell me a story and I’ll see what I can do.

Do you take the gargoyle photos on this site?
Yes. I’m a crummy photographer who happens to own a point-and-click camera with a decent zoom lens.

Are you affiliated with the National Cathedral?
No. The cathedral just happens to be an easy, one-mile stroll from “Quid Plura?” headquarters. Its grounds and gardens offer a welcome getaway from the rest of D.C. when the city’s at its ephemeral worst.

Are there any guidebooks to the National Cathedral gargoyles?
Wendy True Gasch’s Guide to Gargoyles and Other Grotesques is packed with info-nuggets and photos. It sells new at the gift shop for $12.95. The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral focuses on the lives and work of the Italian masons. The cathedral also offers gargoyle tours.

So have you stopped writing about books and medievalism and Charlemagne and galangal disasters and dumpsters full of hobbits?
Of course not! The gargoyles, for however long they linger, won’t supplant any of that.

You must like Shel Silverstein.
Not really. The only two works of his I know are his ancient Irish drinking song and that book about the codependent tree.

How can I support your gargoylish endeavors?
You can’t, really; it’s not a commercial project. But I won’t complain if you pick up a copy of Becoming Charlemagne (paperback or Kindle) or The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (paperback or Kindle).

Or, heck, just keep reading this blog or subscribing to its feed. I’ll keep writing as long as you keep bringing the eyeballs.

“And in this town of disco heat, the dancing of a thousand feet…”

When I was in fourth grade, I wrote to Lloyd Alexander’s publisher as part of some long-forgotten school assignment. Weeks later, the mailman dropped off a few brochures clipped to a generic cover letter. The impersonality didn’t faze me; simply receiving something from a publisher—someone who understood all that cryptic stuff on the opening pages of books—was a treat, not because I was enamored with the arcana of the industry, but because holding that packet was like receiving a transmission from the Mushroom Planet: These people, I marveled, really exist?

As a kid, I didn’t know any authors. I didn’t know any for much of my adult life, either—but I know a few now, and I’m happy to praise them, plug them, and let “QP?” readers know they exist.

Thanks to this blog, I’ve chatted with Alexis Fajardo, a cartoonist at the Charles M. Schulz Studio and the author of Kid Beowulf, a series of charming, all-ages graphic novels. The most recent volume, Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland, is Lex’s humorous take on the Charlemagne legend; it combines his passion for world epics with a cartoonish style reminiscent of Jeff Smith or Albert Uderzo. Chat up Lex at comic cons, especially if you want to bring something home for your kids.

“Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “you don’t seem like the ideal reader for a gay military romance set in ancient Rome.” No, I’m not, but The Soldier of Raetia by my pal Heather Domin is a sharp, engaging read. Knowing her book didn’t easily slot into existing genres, Heather opted out of the publishing industry snake-dance and instead went with Lulu—but hers is the rare self-published novel that’s as solid as anything on the bookstore shelves. Historical Novels Review liked it, too.

Steven Hart and I have yet to meet, but we keep finding people and places in common. He now owns a bookstore near my childhood home, and his 2007 book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway is a perhaps the world’s only page-turner about transportation infrastructure. On the surface, it’s the story of the Pulaski Skyway, but you’ll also learn how America built bridges and tunnels in a far less politically genteel era. (At 224 tightly-written pages, The Last Three Miles is also the perfect length; you don’t have to commit to a 600-page tome.)

While wandering Iceland in 1998, I met William Short, an award-winning acoustic engineer who documented his ten-year study of medieval martial arts in the excellent Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (which I wrote about here.) An increasingly familiar face to Icelandic scholars and reenactors alike, Bill has written a second book, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, a terrific introduction for would-be saga readers who haven’t been sure where to start.

A few years ago, Neville Tencer of British Columbia wrote to me from out of the blue to see what I knew about the Via Francigena, the old Frankish pilgrimage route to Rome. (Alas, I knew little.) Neville and his partner, Julie Burk, laced up their boots and hoofed it through the Alps, documenting their travels in An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage. This news video about their journey makes me want to follow in their footsteps, undaunted by the reviewer who praised the book for telling “the grubby truth about pilgrimage.”

I’ve never met Bill Peschel, but I do read his blog, and I suspect he’s too modest to hype the fact that his book Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes went on sale this week. The book looks like a fun peek into the libertine side of literary history, and I love that Bill has posted the book’s ideal soundtrack on the New York Times “Paper Cuts” blog. Black 47, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel—what’s not to like?

“Look, I must have a star on my door…”

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)