Days of Pith and Marrow

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“I beg of you a thousand pardons, but these vegetable marrows, they have driven me to the edges of barbarity!” (Hercule Poirot, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

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Perhaps it is the generous abundance of zucchini in circulation at this time of year that reminded me that the fastidious detective Hercule Poirot was once driven to madness by ‘these vegetable marrows’.

If your kitchen has been taken over by things that resemble large green gunboats, if your refrigerator door can’t quite close without oozing vegetable drippings, giantzrunif you’re afraid of clowns, dolls, and monstrous life forms, if you can’t enter your garden without hacking through groves of giant zucchinis, if you see your neighbor approaching with a suspicious paper bag that surely contains yet more of the fibrous offerings, you might feel like escaping into a good book for relief.

But I warn you, the zucchini is lurking there, too.

Skeptical? For starters, this lowly garden vegetable has aroused scorn, revulsion, fear, outright reverence, become a catalyst for romance, harrowing revenge, towering rage, is dismissed with contempt, and was finally championed by a British culinary maven who rescued it from obscurity, treated it like an eggplant and dusted it with cheese.

The earthy, dank underworld of the Giant Cucurbita pepo takes us everywhere from love scenes in literature, to fear and loathing amongst authors, and to the real truth behind why we hate Mrs. McGregor.

Tough, tasteless, pithy–yes. But this denizen of the late summer garden is anything but dull.

Agatha Christie must have had a fine distaste for marrows. Readers of Agatha Christie’s novels will remember that Hercule Poirot was at one time happily planning his retirement from solving crimes. His new hobby was to put his considerable ‘little gray cells’ to the matter of how to make the vegetable marrow taste, well–good. The response of his friend Dr. Burton?

“Vegetable marrows? What d’yer mean? Those great swollen green things that taste of water?”

The plan, however, went horribly awry, and in the mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Poirot is forced to concede defeat. The marrows have won. They are still watery and tasteless. He, the incomparable Hercule Poirot, is powerless against them.

Poirot hurls them from his garden in a fit of rage.

“Now I give up on you…!” he screams in fury. “You shall torment me no longer. I will KILL you!”

The unsuspecting Dr Sheppard is out in his garden next door, and becomes an innocent bystander to this episode.

‘I am rather fond of gardening. I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ear and fell at my feet with a repellent squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!’

One simply has to be fond of a writer that uses phrases such as ‘repellent squelch’.

The garden marrow is pondered with a similar sense of horror by UK garden writer Alex Mitchell:

‘I’m haunted by a giant cucurbit. It was a courgette when we went away, but the next three weeks saw all three helpful holiday waterers casually sidestep it in favour of plums, runner beans, raspberries and tomatoes (yet more ammunition for my dossier “No one really likes courgettes that much, if they are honest”).

‘As anyone with even the merest passing knowledge of vegetable-growing knows, a courgette that is ignored will get its revenge. It does this by transmogrifying into a marrow monster, a bloated green airship of vegetable matter that laughs in the face of culinary invention and lurks sinisterly in the undergrowth, giving you a little shock when you do the watering.’ What does one do with this beast?’

Read more of Mitchell’s wonderful article, and his time honored solution to his problem.

In this statement— ‘no one really likes [them] that much, if they are honest’— Mitchell echoes the sentiments of renowned food writer, M.F.K. Fisher. That lovely wordsmith of the kitchen writes, in An Alphabet for Gourmets:

‘[The] zucchini, the nearest decent gastronomical counterpart to those overgrown pithy garden monsters called vegetable marrows in England.’ 

Fisher does offer a recipe for a zucchini frittata, but with this interesting sidebar comment:

‘… which will be honestly but very indelicately loathed by anyone honest enough to confess to a basic loathing for zucchini.’

Hmmm. What an interesting array of adjectives we are accumulating for a humble garden vegetable. Loathsome? Repellent?  Monstrous? Haunted? Sinister? Watery? Swollen? Tasteless? Transmogrified? (I particularly love this last creative choice).

At the very least we have here a complex and contradictory cucurbita. It’s a vegetable that is actually a fruit. A fruit that is treated like a vegetable. And we’re just getting started.

Charles Dickens has been known to employ the use of marrow throwing in his literature. Only this time it is for romance and we are, along with the cucumbers, marrows and other vegetables, ‘wafting mellifluously’ over garden walls.

Yes, it is true love that calls to the curious cucurbit and gives it immortality in literature, in Nicholas Nickleby

‘where the most divine charms’–here he kissed his hand and bowed again–‘waft mellifluousness over the neighbours’ gardens, and force the fruit and vegetables into premature existence….’

At any rate, the impassioned elderly suitor to Mrs. Nickleby begins hurling his overwrought projectiles into the Nickleby’s garden as a maddened declaration of love…

‘…..when a shouting and scuffling noise, as of an elderly gentleman whooping, and kicking up his legs on loose gravel, with great violence, was heard to proceed from the same direction as the former sounds; and before they had subsided, a large cucumber was seen to shoot up in the air with the velocity of a sky-rocket, whence it descended, tumbling over and over, until it fell at Mrs Nickleby’s feet.

This remarkable appearance was succeeded by another of a precisely similar description; then a fine vegetable marrow, of unusually large dimensions, was seen to whirl aloft, and come toppling down; then, several cucumbers shot up together; and, finally, the air was darkened by a shower of…..vegetables, which fell rolling and scattering, and bumping about, in all directions…..

“It seems designed to attract our attention, mama,” said Kate.’

Like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Dickens creates a scene of madcap mayhem with a cannonade of marrows. Curious, is it not?

While on the subject of marrows as projectiles–and apparently a favorite one with British writers–we have the misadventures of the Flopsy bunnies in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. This story, in which the youngest baby bunny, the very picture of innocent curiosity, is knocked almost unconscious by an airborne rotten marrow, could stand up to any of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales for sheer horror.Flopsy Bunny

To be presented with such a contradictory admixture of warm and fuzzy narrative, poisoned with the shrilly evil invectives of Mrs. McGregor, along with threats of being skinned alive and made into a coat— this was pretty harrowing stuff.

But we’re all adults now, and, while hurling them at innocent bystanders with fury—or lovestruck passion—is clearly an option, we know that the time honored solution to an over-abundance of the vexing cucurbit is that of quietly and furtively giving them away.

This seasonal social phenomenon is commented on by Miss Read, the author of many books that chronicle English village life. Here, in Village Diary, she writes

‘Marrows, alas, are arriving in a steady stream at the back door….

I can see that I shall have to start digging, under cover of darkness, and inter the unwieldy monsters.’

There is a baffling sort of etiquette implied here; a passive-aggressive generosity that Miss Read ponders, as do we. One can give away their ‘unwieldy monsters’, but the recipient of this gift would be considered quite rude if they passed their bestowal on to someone else, leaving them with no other alternative but to bury them ‘under cover of darkness.’ In this the humble vegetable marrow begins to resemble the strangely enduring, logic-defying, quasi-popularity of fruitcakes.

What a world of social impropriety this vegetable-that-is-a-fruit thrusts upon us.

Both writers Miss Read and Angela Thirkell introduce a unique component into the War Between the Sexes in their novels: marrow carving.carvedzucchini

Miss Read wrote, in the story of Emily Davis, of the tyrant Mansfield Back —‘not bad looking in a florid, massive fashion’—and how the daring little Miss Emily got her revenge by carving the word ‘Bully’ into Manny Back’s prize marrow. (He was devastated, and justice was done.)

Angela Thirkell, in her popular novel The Brandons, heats things up nicely in the tranquil garden at Stories whereby Mr. Turpin’s prize-winning marrow provides a coy metaphor for young love:

‘[Mr. Turpin] led the way towards the rich bed of manure where sprawled his beloved vegetable marrows. With a threatening gesture he jabbed his fork into the ground, stooped, and with infinite reverence turned the fattest marrow gently on one side. On its under surface, in mis-shapen letters, was too plainly visible the word HILARY.

“That’s my name!” said Mr. Grant.’

“I thought it would be nice for you to have your name on a prize marrow,” confessed young Delia Brandon…rather ingenuously.

Cucurbita pepo strikes again.

In Barbara Pym’s novel Jane and Prudence–where even the title conjures up the sound of tea cups clattering and the faint odor of mothballs clinging to the table linens–we have a safe flirtation made ever so slightly dangerous by the introduction of a ‘magnificent’ marrow.

“What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”

Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

“It is magnificent,” said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.

Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.

Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual whose significance she hardly dared to guess.’

Matronly romance at its sizzling best. And the iconic symbol of a giant marrow to thank for it. Did you notice— in these last two examples— that some form of the word reverence is used?

Not so with A.A. Milne. The creator of Winnie the Pooh loved his vegetables, and even thrills to the subject of celery:

“There is a crispness about celery that is of the essence of October. It is as fresh and clean as a rainy day after a spell of heat.   It crackles pleasantly in the mouth.”

No such plaudits for the lowly marrow, however, for he goes on:

Vegetable marrows are vegetables pour rire (for laughs) and have no place in any serious consideration of the seasons.’

Before we leave the topic of literature and the marrow as a completely mixed up metaphor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Robert Plumer Ward. Someone should mention him. He was a nineteenth century novelist who has been forgotten, and for good reason.

A reviewer dismissed his novel Tremaine as ‘extremely dull’, and ‘a sort of literary equivalent of a vegetable marrow’.

The marrow as dull? This reviewer obviously hadn’t read Jane and Prudence.

Returning Cucurbita pepo to the culinary world, where some, like M.F.K. Fisher, doubt they belong, we have the considerable talents of Mrs. Beeton and Elizabeth David to consider. If the garden marrow was considered hopelessly watery, the resourceful Mrs. Beeton took the approach, in her recipe book of 1860, of fighting fire with fire. Or water with water, in this case.

 

MrsBeetonMarrowsHer recipe tells us to serve them up…”Dished on toast“? Oh, dear. Fast forward to 1885, and a certain ‘Wyvern’(aka The Eminently Hyphenated Colonel Arthur Robert Kennedy-Herbert) responds, in his cookery book ‘Culinary Jottings’:

‘Carefully avoid the awful English custom of serving marrows on sodden toast.’

Sorry, Mrs. Beeton. You are obviously of the English culinary school of thought that considers anything would taste good if served on buttered toast. While you won us over with your impressive chapter ‘General Observations on Quadrupeds’, you have failed us miserably as a guide in navigating the wild world of marrows. We leave you then, and move on to Elizabeth David.

Ah, Elizabeth David. That culinary diva did her own sort of heave-ho to the zucchini when she launched it–not over a garden wall, but into the popular consciousness of the sixties-era British cooking public with the publication of her book Italian Cooking. She became a hero in a culinary revolution, for

‘Elizabeth David liberated us from the tyranny of watery, stringy, rank tasting boiled marrow by writing enthusiastically about this expensive unknown Italian vegetable’…. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

(It appears we can now add ‘tyranny’ to the list of marrow woes. The vision of Manny Back’s bloated prizewinner with the name ‘Bully’ inscribed into it suddenly rolls and tumbles into view.)

Yet what Elizabeth David did for the marrow was quite an accomplishment, first by cooking it small and calling it a courgette. Second, by insisting it be prepared as an aubergine, gratined, and sprinkled with cheese. What was she up against? A cooking and eating populace whose memories of the rationing of WWII and after were still fresh in their minds. No doubt it was considered wasteful and unpatriotic to the thrifty-minded Victory Gardeners to eat a vegetable before it had been allowed to grow to ten times bigger than its edible size. Why feed only two people from a vegetable when you could allow it to grow to the dimensions of a small Hindenburg and feed an army?

Elizabeth David is something of a rock star in my kitchen. But even she would have become impatient with too much ado about zucchini. I appreciate your patience in indulging my whim. As a thank you, I offer up a nice glass of wine and one of my favorite chilled salads with zucchini carpaccio. And please take that brown paper bag on your way out….

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(This is a revised and updated version of an article written previously by yours truly.)

The Smoke of Opinion: Another Look at Thoreau

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“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” – Walden

You asked: When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?

To go against popular opinion brings Henry David Thoreau readily to mind. He was a man who thrived on going against critical consensus. Yet it was Thoreau who gave me my first major reading disappointment. Yes, you, Thoreau. You who said, (and I remember it well):

‘Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.’ 

My reading tastes, and naturally, by extension, writing style, lean toward the older genre of literature. The previous generations had so much of interest to say, and in a way, they are still speaking. The Great Conversation is still ongoing if we but want to tune in. I learned this from my parents and grandparents, and grew up surrounded by old books.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not...Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not…Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers. Grandpa Duncan is alone with his thoughts, though, which I’m sure Thoreau would have praised.

I enjoy many highlights from Thoreau today, but that was not always the case. It has been a long time since I picked up one of his books for a serious read.

‘For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of men? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.
To read well—that is, to read true books in a true spirit—is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.’ [Walden]

However, years ago, when I first took my mom’s beloved copy of Walden off the bookshelf and sat down to read, I was crushingly disappointed with this man—this self appointed lifestyle coach of the nineteenth century so often spoken of in reverential tones. He seemed to me to be pompous, cranky, smug, and terribly irresponsible.

His self-satisfied musings rang shrill in their efforts to convince. He contradicted himself. The old ways are best one day, then thumb your nose at ancient traditions as valueless the next day. On the third day, spend time with yourself as the best company in the world. But know this, he intones—at heart man is a social animal. ‘Believe me today for tomorrow I will have changed my mind’ he appeared to be saying.

What Thoreau had indulged in was luxury—taking time out from the rest of the world to read, write, think. ‘For I was rich, if not in luxury, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly. Nor did I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop…’

And ‘procreation’ i.e. sex? ‘It dissipates, and makes one unclean…’ ‘Far better to be invigorated and inspired by nature.

Hmmm. This was beginning to sound like the ravings of a mad man indulged by his mommy.

And don’t even get him started on the reading of popular fiction. He likens it to a sort of daily baked gingerbread, fresh from the oven, read eagerly

with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard‘.

Yes, Thoreau, you disappointed me. And I don’t even know what an unwearied gizzard is.

Even E.B. White, an enthusiastic Thoreauvian, admitted that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected”.

What did people see in this book?

‘How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world—how deep the the ruts of tradition and conformity!’

My reaction, in some part, had less to do with my teenage spunk and umbrage than it did that I took exception to Thoreau’s dismissive comments about the working man. We all know the quote; ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

Thoreau crafted well, in pious prose, an image of the poor dullard slogging away in his intellectually deprived life while he put food on the table. Food that his slack jawed wife then slopped into the waiting mouths of his many children who swallowed it greedily like nestlings given a worm. Or words to that effect. Something like the literary equivalent of ‘The Potato Eaters’—only Van Gogh had a more respectful approach, if you can call it that, in his troglodytic rendering of the common herd.

The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh

I thought about my father—how deeply intelligent he was, how enthusiastic about life. He was a natural woodsman and fisherman, and how he would have loved to live in a little cabin in the woods, tend a garden, read, and fish. Especially fish. There was never a man more at peace than when he was standing hip deep in a stream, casting out.

But inner peace as a laudatory pursuit, self-fulfillment as an object in itself, being self-aware as though this somehow brought one in touch with an inner god—? Not sure Dad gave those ideas a lot of thought. Six children, and his own sense of responsibility kept him in a job and a lifestyle of domesticity and workaday worries. He made sacrifices.

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I remember putting Walden firmly back on the shelf, feeling protective of my father, and a bit angry with Thoreau. Thoreau with his hand built cabin and his peaceful fishing and his studies of ice and lazy pondering of a water bug from a quarter mile away; ‘Thoreau the Great’  who had been able to indulge himself in simple luxuries that my father would have loved.

Well, now it is time to forgive the young man. For that is what he was—Thoreau was young and idealistic, both foolish and incredibly wise. We forget that fact at times, when we read the writers from a long ago age. They were often younger than we are now. But still we look to them for wisdom. In the case of Thoreau, when he lived the experiences at Walden Pond, he was only 27. He was just trying to ‘find himself’, as the saying goes. He hadn’t learned to temper his deep understanding, his ‘knowingness’ with empathy, as yet, but how much better off people would be if they lived by a few of his dreams.

For he also said, “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed…?”

Now that is something to strive for. A deeply felt happiness that not just a few, but all could enjoy. In that case, ‘the mass of men’ could lead lives of quiet inspiration. That, I believe, is what Thoreau dreamed of.

I have my mom’s old prized copy of Walden in my own collection. It has beautifully rendered engravings and thick, creamy paper that give a bit of resistance when you try to turn the page. Very nice.

I’m giving Thoreau another go.

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”   ―  Thoreau

The Stupefying Ways of Bees: Reading August Folly

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“It was going to be a real sweltering day, a day for laziness and books, and noble, melancholy thoughts. He took his books into the garden, and read there steadily till lunch-time, when he walked over to the Woolpack and ate bread and cheese and drank beer. After lunch he worked again in the garden for some time. The sun was benignantly hot, the newly mown grass smelt sweet, bees were humming in a stupefying way, Gunnar was purring beside him, and Richard could hardly keep awake. He fetched a few cushions from the drawing room and lay down on the grass for a short refreshing nap…’

Today our garden tour takes us to an island. The book we are bringing along takes us to a literary island, of sorts—the ‘cloud cuckoo land’ of the Barsetshire stories. This fictional island still exudes a bemused air of charming unchangeableness, that rarely disappointed even during the days of British wartime and rationing.

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What better book than August Folly, by Angela Thirkell, could accompany these August days, this haze of heat and the sound of bees ‘humming in a stupefying way’…?

It was Jane at Fleur In Her World, a delightful blog for readers, who reminded me that I want to get back to my Angela Thirkell collection of novels and rediscover the delights of Barsetshire. Actually, it was back in June that I wanted to start again with her seminal work, Wild Strawberries. Well, of course in June I was all caught up with reading Louise, and before I could open my eyes to July possibilities, it was August.

‘So many books, so little time’ is actually a good problem. The solution is always the same, and pleasurable. Read more.

August Folly is one of my favorites of the Barsetshire series, and it can be read quite satisfyingly as a stand-alone novel if you have no intention of pursuing the rest of the Barsetshire goings-ons. It is where we first meet the Tebben and Dean families, who crop up in the later books.

August Folly, as with most of Thirkell’s novels, has already been exhaustively reviewed and discussed. Before the days of the internet, and quite popular in the 1950’s, there were ‘Thirkell Circles’. Now, via the web, there are some marvelous discussions of Thirkell’s work. The best resource is the official Angela Thirkell website.

Specific to August Folly, I have included links to excellent, well-written reviews below.

I love this blurb from my old copy: (Knopf Borzoi edition, fourth printing, 1947)

“Long after [the reader] has finished the book he will chuckle over its richly comic situations and the author’s kindly but sardonic asides on the peculiarities of human nature.”

This, in a neat summation, is the key to Angela Thirkell’s charm as a writer. It is also suggestive of why Thirkell was compared so often to Jane Austen. As August Folly, in particular, contains a few outright, admiring references to Jane Austen, we can assume that Angela Thirkell did not mind the comparison.

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A folly, of sorts–an artistic giant chicken at the fabulous Cistus Gardens Nursery on Sauvie’s Island

The two hundred year anniversary of Austen’s Mansfield Park is being celebrated around the blogosphere so therefore I have Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and its various characters more fresh in mind. Particularly here, at Sarah Emsley’s blog, there have been some fascinating insights given by some worthy authors.

While Thirkell makes many Austen allusions in this novel, when it comes to Mrs. Tebben, Thirkell leaves no doubt for the reader. She clearly points the arrow and connects the dots.

Poor Mrs. Tebben is the only character, by the author’s own admission in the narrative, modeled after a specific Austen character. The comparison is made by her daughter, Margaret. And while it’s not a good one, it’s a link that hints at the true dysfunction behind the Tebben household.

“Your respected Mamma,” said Laurence to Margaret, who was just finishing her omelette, “is telling my Aunt Palmer exactly where she gets off at about the veils for the chorus.”

“Just warm the rum, will you,” said Margaret, pushing a saucepan towards him. “Yes, mother is a little like Mrs. Norris sometimes.”

Ugh. Mrs. Norris, of Mansfield Park, is of Jane Austen’s most hated characters. (She is discussed in depth here.)

“I am of some use I hope in preventing waste and making the most of things.” [Mrs. Norris, Mansfield Park]

Add an Oxford degree to this description, along with a bit of intellectual obtuseness, and you have a fair sketch of Mrs. Tebben’s character.

While most readers would not put Mrs. Tebben in nearly the same category of manipulative hatefulness that they would Mrs. Norris, this comment did highlight why Mrs. Tebben is not popular. She is landlocked in her small, often petty world of grasping economies and inept domesticity. Her mothering skills leave her children more exasperated than fond. She has respectable intellect but is short on common sense and comfort.

Yet her sweet daughter Margaret, being Margaret, softens the comparison by saying,

a little like Mrs. Norris sometimes.”

As to the other Austen comparisons, they are implied, rather than stated.

Rachel Dean, for example, is languid, lovely, and adored. She blows dreamy kisses from her lounging chair, and is something of a miracle, for she has had nine children, and still looks stunning draped in a clingy white silk gown. Her many children—‘the impossibly glamorous Deans’— become fodder for the gristmill of future romances in Barsetshire. If elements of her description remind you of Lady Bertram, sans pug, it is likely Thirkell had that in mind.

There are the amateur theatricals, the subject of so much comment in Austen’s Mansfield Park.

In August Folly (the name of the novel obviously being a multi-meaning play on words), the busy enterprises of Mrs. Palmer in this regard—so aptly described as ‘indefatigable’—are quite entertaining. She is determined to put on a Greek tragedy by Euripides; a lumbering Behemoth of a scheme that is alternately exhausting and hilarious as the plans and disagreements proceed.

Mrs. Palmer—as the figurehead at the top of the social ladder in the county, as well as the wealthiest resident— has installed herself as something of a ‘summer activities commando/troop leader’, and everyone is expected to tow her line and know their cues. Doris Phipps, housemaid with a rash, with a tendency to dissolve into giggles or hysterics, sounds particularly promising in her Aphrodite role. (not)

It goes without saying that no housemaid would have been invited to perform at the Mansfield Park theatricals. And, for the Greek play in August Folly, this is a community-wide event. Even the ancient, deaf rector of the parish—a respected Greek scholar— is an enthusiastic supporter.

There are some brief but memorable appearances of a Mr. Moxon, the incurably optimistic curate whom no one likes. He is terribly impressed with himself, and peppers his self-approbations with effusive descriptions like ‘ripping’. Here is another example of Thirkell’s brilliant turns of phrase, telling, but simple:

‘Lunch at the Dower House fell alive into the hands of Mr. Moxon.’

Mr. Moxon has Mr. Collins written all over him.

In another Pride and Prejudice tie-in, there is the prideful response (initial rejection followed by effusive acceptance) of Margaret Tebben to the proposal of marriage from the ‘catch’ of the neighborhood—wealthy and handsome Laurence Dean.

“Of course she didn’t really love Laurence, in fact she hated him, and would like to see him and tell him so.”

Margaret is my favorite character in the book, although I see her as more of a Jane than a Lizzie. The elder Tebben, Margaret’s father Gilbert, could bear a resemblance to Mr. Bennett; kindly but obtuse, scholarly, buried in his study and hoping to keep it that way. (see below for a description of Angela Thirkell’s father; obviously he provided much of the model for Mr. Tebben.)

But I believe the food references in August Folly are entirely Thirkell’s own! Surely, in their authentic rendering, they must spring from the inspiration of actual experience.

I knew full well, in re-reading this novel, that I would be returning to the repugnant dinner table at the Tebben house. August Folly has the distinction of being the only novel where I actually became nauseated while reading it. As a ‘foodie’, I would call the experience traumatizing, as a writer I am in awe of Thirkell’s ability with descriptions. I have always prided myself on having a strong stomach, but the Tebben’s cook, Mrs. Phipps, almost did me in.

The Tebben family resides at Lamb’s Piece, and though not well off, are considered part of the gentry of the country. Their formidable cook, Mrs. Phipps, (mother to the above mentioned giggling Doris) dishes up meals of culinary deplorability and expects no back talk.

‘Mrs. Phipps, a born cook only in the sense that she had brought up a large family chiefly on tinned foods. She had a natural gift for making meat appear gray….’

Mrs. Phipps’s salads from the garden consists of undressed tough lettuce leaves served lying in a pool of gritty water. Honestly, Mrs. Phipps almost put me off of salads for life.

“When I eat green stuff,” said Mr. Tebben, chewing away at a well-grown lettuce, “I understand why cows have four stomachs.”

Everything served at the Tebben dinner or tea table is tasteless, tough, tepid, flaccid, limp, lifeless, overstewed, underdone, quivering, slightly revived, and generally revolting.

It is not completely Mrs. Phipps’s fault. Mrs. Tebben (aka Mrs. Norris) prides herself on her domestic economies, which means scrimping on everything, and where comfort is equated with dispensable luxury. She pretends to be serving the needs of her family, when really it is her own obsessive need to save a penny that dominates her thinking.

But Mrs. Phipps’ meals did give rise to some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Are there any pickles?” asked Mr. Tebben, though without hope.’

I don’t know why that is so funny. It just is. In the pathos sense of funny. Poor long suffering Mr. Tebbens, wistfully wishing for something at his table that might be crunchy, tasty and delicious. But no, there are never any pickles.

Or this musing from Richard Tebben:

‘As the parents were away he could do what he liked all morning and needn’t stay in for Mrs. Phipps’s horrid lunch, whose composition he could, from his memory of last night’s dinner, accurately guess.’

I do love August Folly. It is delightfully funny and engaging. Professional reviewers always describe it as ‘light entertainment’, ‘frothy’, and so on. All true.

But it is a gold mine of hilarious human interaction, cultural curiosities, and humor both intelligent and twee. Just prepare yourself—after reading it, you are going to want to take a reactionary dive into a big dish of your favorite comfort food.

How about raspberry lemon cupcakes with plenty of extra big helpings of luscious lemon cream?

Raspberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream; something that Mrs. Phipps was constitutionally incapable of making.

Raspberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream; something that Mrs. Phipps was constitutionally incapable of making.

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Additional notes:

Editions….Anna Zinkeisen illustrated the cover for the first British edition. It is very rare, and I want one.

The incredible wealth of literary allusions in Angela Thirkell’s books have fascinated readers for decades. Thirkell’s father, J.W. Mackail was an Oxford Professor of Poetry, Virgil scholar and translator of Virgil’s works into English, authority on the Icelandic Sagas (surely the model for Mr. Tebben) prominent socialist, friend and biographer of William Morris, and married to the only daughter of Edward Burne-Jones. Those are just the high points.

One can only imagine the fascinating dinner table conversations that must have flowed around young Angela’s ears. (and yes, I do wonder what sort of food was served, and were they tyrannized by an atrocious cook that they couldn’t afford to replace?!) For a wonderful resource that explains many of these literary allusions specific to August Folly, read here.

Links to reviews of August Folly:

http://thecaptivereader.com/2012/02/17/august-folly-angela-thirkell/

http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/reprints02/august-folly-summer-half-and-the-brandons-by-angela-thirkell/

http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/summer-half-and-august-folly-by-angela-thirkell/

https://www.littlebrown.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781844089680

http://www.librarything.com/topic/163123

Curious Word: My reading of August Folly yielded another Curious word: Scrobbling.

“Aunt Palmer is really the outer limit,” [Laurence] said, “scrobbling your cook and then coming for dinner.”

 

the young summer of plenty

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Today’s book and garden tour finds us in a tucked away garden in Multnomah Village, with a vintage 1945 copy of Flora Thompson’s memoirs: Lark Rise to Candleford.

The garden is one of my peaceful pleasures in the midst of the city—it sits snugly in the backyard of Jacqueline’s Found and Fabulous’ of Multnomah Village, full of soothing fountains at every turn, romantic statuary, and the most pristine of plantings.

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This is one of the best garden destinations in town. Not to be missed is the interior of the house–a charming old 1910 bungalow–a shop that offers a variety of expertly curated goods for home and garden.

Lark Rise to Candleford, Penguin edition

Lark Rise to Candleford, Penguin edition

Now for the book: Every bit of Flora Thompson’s beautifully voiced memoir of growing up in rural England is a delight to read, but my seasonal choice for this garden tour is the chapter titled ‘Summer Holiday’.

The account places us sometime in the 1890’s, and it is when little Laura and her younger brother, Edmund, are allowed to take their first walk–without an adult–to go visit their cousins at Candleford. They travel a distance of eight exhilarating miles over summer dusty country lanes.

‘They—[Laura and her brother]—knew every slight rise in the fields and the moist lower places where the young wheat grew taller and greener, and the bank where the white violets grew and the speciality of every hedgerow—honeysuckle, crab-apples, misty purple sloes, or long trails of white bryony berries through which the sun shone crimson as it did through the window at church…And they knew the sounds of the different seasons, the skylarks singing high up out of sight over the green corn, the loud, metallic chirring of the mechanical reaper…and the rush of wings as the starlings wheeled in flocks over the stripped stubble.’

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What a beautiful world Thompson recalls for us. It is though she has–in memory–the equivalent of perfect pitch. The only other poetic chronicler of youthful days I know of to equal her is Laurie Lee.

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Thompson published her first memoir, Lark Rise, in 1939. It faithfully recorded a pre-Great War vanished world—her childhood spent as Flora Timms in Oxfordshire, daughter of Albert Timms, stonemason. Two sequels followed quickly, as the public was hungry to remember What It Had Been Like Then:  Over to Candleford (1941) and Candleford Green (1943). (My 1945 London Reprints edition of tiny print and fragile paper has all three bound together.)

Attempts at biography have been many, but the reality was that Flora was an intensely private person. What we know of her, and indeed, what she wanted us to know of her—was chiefly from the luminous accounting of the young girl—‘Laura’. The timing of this memoir is significant, and particularly poignant, as it covers the decades both before and after the Great War. What a difference in worlds!medFlora_Thompson

An interesting distinction is made by the author between an English hamlet, and a village. The hamlet of Lark Rise is where Laura’s gently impoverished family lived, and the nearby village of Candleford is where her cousins lived in slightly better circumstances, and, socially speaking, in a richer, more varied world.

A hamlet, in Laura’s case, consisted of about thirty cottages. Everyone who inhabited these cottages was of the same general income and outlook; poor but proud, simple in habits but clean and well fed from their own gardens and pigsty. Their means of life and brief entertainments revolved around the rhythms of nature.

‘In spite of their poverty,’ she writes, ‘they were not unhappy, though poor, there was nothing sordid about their lives. They had their home-cured bacon, their “bit o’ leanings” their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies, and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads, and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet’.

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This chapter ‘Summer Visits’ is also a favorite because this is the occasion when Laura first discovers books. After they have arrived on their visit to cousins in the village of Candleford, Laura is once left alone in the attic where the children have been playing dress up in the old clothes they found there. Laura, in aged bridal finery, ponders her reflection in ‘the tall, cracked mirror’…

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‘But her own reflection did not hold her more than a moment, for she saw in the glass a recess she had not noticed before packed with books. Books on shelves, books in piles on the floor, and still other books in heaps, higgledy-piggledy, as though they had been turned out of sacks…That attic was very quiet for the next quarter of an hour, for Laura, still in her bridal veil, was down on her knees on the bare boards, as happy and busy as a young foal in a field of green corn….’

Oh, does that sound lovely! And rather familiar—although I can’t say ‘me and my olfactory receptors’ could ever be lost in a book while wearing bridal ‘finery’ made up of old, musty nineteenth century lace. Or carry–as did Laura–an ancient feather duster standing in for the bridal bouquet. Fits of sneezing ensure that one doesn’t stay lost behind a stack of books for too long. But that’s twenty-first century reality—what was I thinking? Back to the delights of Candleford:

“Laura’s a bookworm, a bookworm, a bookworm!” Amy sang to her sisters with the air of having made an astonishing discovery, and Laura wondered if a bookworm might not be something unpleasant until she added: “A bookworm, like Father.” 

via pinterest: Morau, Paul Charles (1855-1931)

via pinterest: Morau, Paul Charles (1855-1931)

After the heady discovery of Uncle Tom’s books in the attic—who I’m happy to say generously shares his books with the delighted Laura—there are boat outings on the river, taking their tea in the fields, and of course, more reading.

‘It was just as pleasant to take out their tea in the fields (Laura’s first experience of picnics), or to explore the thickets on the river banks, or to sit quietly in the boat and read when all the others were busy. Several times their uncle took them out for a row, right up the stream where it grew narrower and narrower and the banks lower and lower until they seemed to be floating on green fields…They had taken their own lunch, which they ate in the field, but at tea-time they were called in by the farmer’s wife to such a tea as Laura had never dreamed of. There were fried ham and eggs, cakes and scones and stewed plums and cream, jam and jelly and junket, and the table spread in a room as large as their whole house at home, with three windows with window seats in a row, and a cool, stone-flagged floor….’

‘Afterwards they straggled home through the dusk with a corncrake whirring and cockchafers and moths hitting their faces, and saw the lights of the town coming out, one by one, like golden flowers, as they entered.’

Jumping ahead in the book just for a fitting conclusion to our brief tour, we find a slightly older Laura, engaged in thoughtful reflections on many such summers of plenty from Lark Rise to Candleford…(oh, and not-so-surprisingly, there we have gossamer again!)

‘As she went her way, gossamer threads, spun from bush to bush, barricaded her pathway, and as she broke through one after another of these fairy barricades she thought, “They’re trying to bind and keep me.” But the threads which were to bind her to her native country were more enduring than gossamer. They were spun of love and kinship and cherished memories.’

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To read memoirs such as these, is to think deeply about what life used to be like, and what life could be like again. Oh if only we, as the human race, would spin enduring threads ‘of love and kinship and cherished memories’.

Can it be done? Yes. It will be done.

Scent, Senses, and the Sciential Rose

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‘All seasons, and their change; all please alike.’ Milton

The roses of June are now gone.

We’re moving rapidly through July, with all its over-blown, heat saturated splendor. Soon this blog will be checking in with the seasonable Mr. White of Selborne to see what he’s doing with his whortle-berries in late July of 1781.

But that’s for later. Now it is still roses, a book by Diane Ackerman, and a Curious Word courtesy of Charles Lamb (‘sciential’).

The garden, where I took these pictures, is Heirloom Roses, of St. Paul, Oregon.

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Heirloom Gardens is no ordinary rose garden. It’s a wonderful resource for the rose connoisseur. For one thing, space isn’t really an issue. There are acres of roses to be seen in their display gardens. For anyone with a garden of normal proportions, who has ever wanted to see an old rambling species rose take over a pergola, or allow the mighty Kiftsgate to swathe an entire evergreen in its thorny embrace, you know that space is an issue. Few gardens have the room to indulge the passionate rose enthusiast with all the abundance of shape, size and drapery the world of roses can boast.

Rosa moschata, species rose

Rosa moschata, species rose

Thus, it is exciting to see species roses allowed to be all they can be.

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This giant climber is almost identical to the Kiftsgate climber, but its name tag was too obscured to see.

I say that in all sincerity. It really is exciting. ‘Here be fountains’, cascades, waterfalls and mountains of roses. The air is perfumed with a fragrance that the likes of Cleopatra might have worn.

The digital memory of my rose garden tour is now stored on, and perilously afloat, what I call the If and Ineffability of iCloud data storage. Download-able at any moment, and lose-able more often than that.

Just as precariously, the memories of my June rose adventures are now packaged in little quivery bundles of ephemera I house in my neurons. The wafting esters of scent, the tactility of petals, the rustle of sound as I moved my dreamlike tread over freshly mowed lawn; these impressions have been shelved in my mind alongside the enormous database of other neurons of memory.

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Fragrance, though, is the great fixative of memory. Scent fixes memory to an emotion and pins us to that place in time. It is the download button for instant retrieval of data, and an instant rush of accompanying sensations.

What is fixative? It is a term used in the perfume and fragrance industry. Every famous, lingering scent has a fixative. These began as natural substances—often animal derived, such as musky civet oil— that will preserve and stabilize that which is volatile. Fragrance on the skin can be volatile, as the accompanying look in the eye may well be. But the fragrance can be released into the air where it will dissipate quickly unless it is given staying power with a fixative.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman wrote:

‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell… [they] detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’

Ackerman is called ‘the finest literary interpreter of science and nature’, and for good reason. Her work, A Natural History of the Senses is my go-to book whenever I want scientific answers to questions I never thought of asking, and poetic descriptions I never thought of writing.

Another great thinker, Virginia Woolf, wrote, in her ground-breaking work A Room of One’s Own:

‘We think back through our mothers, if we are women.’

This, in the light of current science and the unfolding mysteries of mitochondrial DNA, is a potential powerhouse of possibility. ‘A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth…’

For surely there is a dimensional quality to scent and fragrance that goes far beyond the physical aspects of touch or sight. There is so much in the physics and neuroscience of smell that scientists still don’t understand. It is likely that our mothers, and all the mothers of distant mothers who stretch back through the centuries, loved roses.

Is it possible that our own deep inhalations takes us back through those centuries of memory? Some roses are centuries old. We may not realize the process that is at work every time we take a breath, swill it through our own essence, and exhale it ‘gently altered for having known us‘; but our inner selves remember moments most vividly through the medium of scent.

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Diane Ackerman, not surprisingly, would reference Marcel Proust, ‘that great blazer of scent trails through the wilderness of luxury and memory’, as an example of a writer who captured ‘flights of comprehensive remembrance’ based on the power of a chance encounter with a smell.

Ackerman writes evocatively of the Song of Songs–The Song of Solomon–‘the most scent-drenched poem of all time’.

She relates her adventures tagging Monarch butterflies, studying Indonesian flying foxes in Texas, and interviewing that brilliant prodigy of noses, Sophia Grojsman— “For a world-class nose on a deadline she seems relaxed and alert”.

She takes us on an imaginary tour to the boudoir of an ancient Egyptian beauty, mixing and applying her fragrant unguents in preparation for a dinner party.

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And of course she writes about roses. In all of this she gives forth her observations and understanding in the most lyrical prose. It’s a beautiful book to read, whether you are strolling a rose garden with a parasol or striding about the Giza plateau in a pith helmet.

Since the time worn cliché has become more of dictum that resembles ‘call your Mother’.… We shall, instead, linger in our perambulations and breathe deeply of Milton’s roseate dews.

But go ahead and call your mother.

‘For we think back through our mothers if we are women’….said Virginia.

(began here, and to be continued)

 

No Ordinary Doll Head

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Kewpie with CarlyleThe DPChallenge is… Leftovers.

‘For this week’s writing challenge, shake the dust off something — a clothing item, a post draft, a toy — you haven’t touched in ages, but can’t bring yourself to throw away.’

You may wonder why I keep Kewpie around. But if laughter is good for the body, Kewpie’s head has done wonders for mine. I like to think of her as a leftover smile. True, she gets dusty, sitting on her shelf. (she prefers a spot next to Thomas Carlyle, as Sartor Resartus is her favorite book).

Sometimes she scares our dinner guests, who might be unsuspectingly browsing the library. But as so few people read Carlyle these days, Kewpie usually escapes detection.

I ask you, how can you throw out something that loves chocolate, fresh flowers, and warm hats?

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Kewpie

 

How can you throw out something that primps like a teenager?

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Sometimes she’s painfully aware that she resembles a butternut squash. And then we definitely don’t throw her out.

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Sometimes the smile fades a little. Just briefly. It’s hard to be the embodiment of mirth when you lack…well…everything but the mirth.

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Once, when relaxing by the fire, she looked very tempting, and was almost eaten.

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But other days she puts her Carmen Miranda on and sings without a care in the world.

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She’s notorious for trying to sneak a slice of zucchini bread when no one is looking.

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Life with Kewpie is never dull. How can you toss out a leftover smile?

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