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Posts Tagged ‘E. B. White’

ice spike 1

A gleam in the gloaming.

In the dead of winter, the evenings are cold and dark and the mornings begin with a painfully slow return of the light. It’s as if the machinery that lifts the sun is a hand-cranked wooden device operated by an unnaturally decrepit wee person, whose tiny boots are lifted off the ground each time he reaches the top of the turn. On frosty mornings I can almost hear the creakings of the machine and the wee person’s bones.

This makes the early light more precious, and I look to the east each morning to catch the first signs of illumination. During January I was usually halfway to work before they appeared.

Maybe we have to endure the longer darkness of this season as a reminder of the importance of light and hope. Common wisdom in North Carolina is that it takes two bitterly cold months to annihilate all the fleas and ticks; perhaps it’s the same for people, and long spells of cold and dark eradicate some of our more toxic qualities and cause us to seek the light more purposefully.

In a winter-hammered landscape, the light creates a feeling of compassion…it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us. – Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, as quoted by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, Landscapes.

Even during the gray weeks of Lent there are signs of hope. One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

Finally I put on socks and a jacket over my pajamas and went to check it out. It was ice. (“I told you,” E. said.) The ice had grown out of the birdbath to form an inverted pyramid, about 1.5” tall and filled with water.

Ice Spike 2

I searched for “ice formation in birdbath” online and found the web pages of Dr. James R. Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Geography-Geology. Dr. Carter specializes in ice formations, and he has conducted many interesting experiments in his own yard:

To my surprise, one night at about 11:00 PM I found the water in one bottle cap formed into what is called an Ice Spike.  I had read about these but suddenly I had my own. I have been able to produce ice spikes on occasion but have not been able to do it consistently.   

Dr. Carter’s site features a picture of an ice pyramid similar to mine. It had been sent to him by someone like me who had found him through the magic of the Internet. Dr. Carter writes:

This triangular ice in the birdbath is not unique in the world. The Weatherwise explanation provides a link to a web page of a couple in Scotland where they show a number of such ice formations that they found in their garden. And I have received photos from other persons showing triangular wedges of ice growing in birdbaths.  I appreciate seeing such photos so please share them with me.

Well, of course I would share. I immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. Carter with a photo of our ice vase (that’s what Fred and Sarah, the couple in Scotland, call them). He wrote back straight away, telling me he’d never seen one with a four-sided top; they’re usually triangular. He added that he may post my photos to his website, but he made no firm promise, as he doesn’t update the pages very often.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

What a lovely thing to find by accident in one’s backyard. As Henry David Thoreau once said of snowflakes: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”

Star-like or not, in the grand scheme of things our ice vase—which melted in the afternoon sun—is hardly important. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a lot going on in the world right now. In America alone, politicians have been taken over by a sort of lunacy, every symptom of which is reported with great zeal. Instead of falling away, a stifling ignorance seems to be closing in on us. Why isn’t the cold and dark creating a feeling of compassion in the political arena, or at least killing off the hateful fleas and ticks? No wonder I want only to turn away, and look for light on the horizon—which happily comes a wee bit earlier every morning and lingers a tad bit longer every evening.

Anyway, E. B. White has given me permission to turn away:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.

I have always felt that way, too. So I’m taking care to preserve evidence of our item of enchantment here, in my virtual cabinet of curiosities. Maybe a portion of the light that it held for one winter morning will be preserved with it, for the betterment of us all.

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Book Lover's Cookbook

Such a sweet gift—a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill…. – Garrison Keillor, “How to Write a Letter” from We Are Still Married, a passage included in The Book Lover’s Cookbook, by Shauna Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen.

Two of my favorite things on earth are handmade writing and homemade cake, and the two collide in The Book Lover’s Cookbook. In the book, a passage from a piece of literature that describes a meal or a particular food is followed by a recipe for the featured dish. Sadly, the authors were unable to include some of my favorite literary foods, such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her homemade mango ice cream, or Gene Stratton Porter’s description of how Eudora’s mother fills her new lunchbox in A Girl of the Limberlost.

I’ve always enjoyed reading about food, and writing about food comes pretty naturally, too. Because I write a lot of letters and bake a lot of things, handmade writing and homemade baked goods often collide in my own life. They did so in October 2014 when I wrote a letter to my friend, Ruby, about the cake I made the preceding Saturday night, in a rush, for homecoming at my parents’ church:

I called my mom at 8:00 last night, and she reminded me that their church’s homecoming was today and asked didn’t we want to come. Ernesto said sure, so I decided I better go ahead and make the cake I had planned to make on Sunday afternoon.

I already had the butter out to soften, so that was good. But I wanted to make a recipe that I had found in my grandmother’s old cookbook—one that she had written in by hand on a blank page of the Lizzie Sills Friends Cookbook. It was called Orange Slice Cake, and it included chopped dates and two cups of nuts. I had everything I needed, and thank goodness I bought the dates that were already chopped. But I had to chop the walnuts and the one pound of orange slice candy. That took forever. I also hit a snag with my hand mixer. I always keep the beaters for it in one particular kitchen drawer, and I could only find one last night. So I creamed the butter and sugar with one beater, and beat in the four eggs. It took longer to get full coverage of the bowl, plus, it looked ridiculous. That was actually nice, because while I was striving mightily to get everything beaten properly, I kept laughing at how silly my unbalanced, one-beater mixer looked.

My grandmother had written “Bake at 325 for 3 hours.” Three hours!! I preheated the oven to 350, and then turned it down to 335 hoping that would help. It was 9:00 before the cake went into the oven, and I finally took it out at 10:45, well after Ernesto gave up on the project and went to bed. I let it rest for 10 minutes, then had a devil of a time getting it out of the Bundt pan. I was in despair, when I finally gave it one last, violent shake and yes! it popped out. I made a glaze of powdered sugar and orange juice and doused the hot cake, cleaned up the worst of the mess, and went to bed.

The cake turned out okay, I think. I like it. It’s sort of like fruit cake but it wasn’t a true replica of Grandma’s cake, because I had used half the amount of dates that the recipe called for and didn’t have a full pound of orange slices because I had eaten about a quarter of them, and I left out the coconut because it didn’t seem necessary.

Maybe I’ll begin a project to compile vintage recipes into a volume, with annotations. When I was thumbing through the Lizzie Sills cookbook this week, a page torn from the December 1992 North Carolina Farm Bureau News fell out. The headline reads “Try These Favorite Holiday Recipes.” There was a recipe for Honey Bun Cake that sounded easy and fabulous, but the information, as is so often the case with these passed-along recipes, is lacking. “Pour one half batter in greased long pan.” What exactly does “long pan” mean? I guess I could find out, assuming the woman who submitted the recipe is still among the living. The Farm Bureau included the full name and mailing address of each submitter, so I know that Honey Bun Cake came from a Mrs. Dupree in Willow Spring, NC. I bet she would be surprised to get a letter from me with a question about her cake recipe.

I own a 1997-vintage church cookbook from a Baptist congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Even though it is slightly more modern than Lizzie Sills  and the Farm Bureau article, there are some mysteries in it, too. On page 45 is a recipe for Gorilla Crush, which involves milk, orange sherbet, orange juice, and a banana. There is a wonderful sandwich filling called Fake Shrimp Salad. The ingredients are one can of ground Spam, one grated onion, one grated carrot, and enough mayo to make the stuff spreadable. The instructions are simple: “Mix all together in mixer – delicious!” I am most interested, though, in the Upside Down Pecan Apple Pie. It sounds fabulous—you make a sort of streusel mix and put it in the bottom of a pie pan, then place the bottom crust on top of it. Next, add the apples, sugar, and spices, and crown it with a top crust. Then it gets tricky. The instructions read: “Fold edge of top crust under bottom crust.” The next step is: “Fold edge of top crust under bottom crust.” No matter how many times it is repeated, I don’t get it. Maybe if I had the multiple crusts in front of me I would understand how that works. After baking, you must keep the pie upright for 5 minutes, and then invert it onto a plate. I am going to try this pie, even if (as I suspect) I will end up with third-degree burns from hot syrup scalding my arms during the inversion process.

For now, until we have Honey Bun Cake and Upside Down Pie to enjoy, here are some more tasty morsels pulled from The Book Lover’s Cookbook:

Alice Hammond’s Laws of the Kitchen

  1. Soufflés rise and cream whips only for the family and for guests you didn’t really want to invite anyway.
  2. The rotten egg will be the one you break into the cake batter.
  3. Any cooking utensil placed in the dishwasher will be needed immediately thereafter for something else; any measuring utensil used for liquid ingredients will be needed immediately thereafter for dry ingredients.
  4. Time spent consuming a meal is in inverse proportion to time spent preparing it.
  5. Whatever it is, someone will have had it for lunch.

From The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection by Arthur Bloch


E. B. White, speaking of the classic Charlotte’s Web:  “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told why I sneeze either. A book is a sneeze.”


Finally, here is one of my favorite quotes, found tucked between recipes in the book. It is from If You’re Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens:

If there is no happy ending … make one out of cookie dough.

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chicken (2)

Photo credit: My niece, Anna Singleton.

In May 2002, the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies hosted a conference about chickens:

The Program in Agrarian Studies is pleased to announce the international conference entitled The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History from Neolithic Middens to McNuggets. The three-day conference will bring together over 75 scholars, agronomists, public intellectuals, chicken growers, workers, industry representatives and activists from the labor, farm, animal welfare, environmental, and public health movements, whose work has helped to define and to change what we know about chickens and their production and consumption.

o   Over 15 diverse panels and plenary sessions!
o   Food, films and documentaries!
o   Advocacy information and book tables!
o   Concurrent chicken-related exhibits at Sterling Memorial Library and
the Yale Art Gallery!

Isn’t that a charming description? It’s presented with such enthusiasm and so many exclamation points that I know it was a great success. I was proud to see North Carolina well-represented at the Chicken Conference, with experts from East Carolina University and NC State University making presentations. I didn’t read far enough to know who was speaking on the subject of the chicken in myth and literature, but I do know that Chanticleer and the Little Red Hen were on the agenda. And isn’t the idea of concurrent chicken-related exhibits interesting? That’s what inspired me to collect some exhibits of my own, because I have a fairly long history with chickens, myself.

In fact, I made my acting debut in first grade as the Little Red Hen, wearing a full-head mask made from a large brown-paper grocery sack. That was my earliest experience with chickens in literature, and it is nice that the Little Red Hen held the moral high ground in that story, because in general chickens don’t. A year earlier, as I helped my grandmother gather eggs from her little coop, I had tried to imitate her confidence and reach beneath a hen to extract her eggs. But before I could get my hand in position, the gimlet-eyed chicken in the nesting box coolly leaned forward and pecked me—hard!—on the upper lip.

I wasn’t permanently scarred by that experience, and when I was about 20 years old I got a summer job in a commercial hen house, collecting eggs for pay. I was better prepared this time around, with a tobacco stick that I could use to knock the roosters down if they became too confrontational, and an athletic sock with the toes cut out to wear on my arm for protection against henpecks. I went up one side, and then down the other of the long, low metal building, placing the eggs in large plastic flats that stacked on a sort of trolley that hung from an overhead track and could be pushed along as I went. It was a wonderful job. One morning I found a passel of newborn kittens in a nest. Then the weather got really hot, and the Grim Reaper reaped him a bunch of hens and not long after that the egg season was over.

Those commercial hens were large and white, and they pecked my athletic sock with a vicious little twist of their beaks when I reached under them to get their eggs. Our hens (as in the photo above) are approximately the color and size of footballs. They aren’t aggressive or angry, but they do sometimes raise their wings and hunker down, as if they are about to do something drastic and painful. It appears to be only a pose.

At the moment my chickens can do no wrong, because they have begun to lay eggs! The eggs are mostly small, although a few have been full-sized (and usually double-yolked). Because of this bounty, I am in a mood to salute the chicken—in literature and on the nest—with some odds and ends I scratched together.

1.  “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams. It is as simple and pure as a hard-boiled egg:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

2.  M.F.K. Fisher once said: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.” If you want to risk invading the privacy of an egg in a violent way, there is a trick that you can try. Place an egg in your hand and, holding your arm out straight, squeeze as hard as you possibly can. The physics of it is that as long as you keep your arm perfectly straight, you can squeeze until you’re red in the face and the egg won’t break. But if your elbow bends, even the slightest bit, the egg will explode and a great deal of egg yolk will go all over everything, including in places where you won’t find it for years. So if you want to try that particular trick my advice is to go outside and do it several yards away from the house.

3.  Speaking of tricks, here’s Flannery O’Connor: “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathe News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

4.  Apparently E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and The Once and Future King, had as much trouble with his flock as he had writing fiction: “I don’t know which is more discouraging,” he once said, “literature or chickens.”

I vote for literature, since at the moment I am happy with my chickens.

5.  And here is the pearl of my collection, from Love Among the Chickens by P. G. Wodehouse:

…I feel as if I should never move again. I have run faster and farther than I have done since I was at school. You have no conception of the difficulty of rounding up fowls and getting them safely to bed. Having no proper place to put them, we were obliged to stow some of them inside soap boxes and the rest in the basement. It has only just occurred to me that they ought to have had perches to roost on. It didn’t strike me before. I shall not mention it to Ukridge, or that indomitable man will start making some, and drag me into it, too. After all, a hen can rough it for one night, and if I did a stroke more work I should collapse. My idea was to do the thing on the slow but sure principle. That is to say, take each bird singly and carry it to bed. It would have taken some time, but there would have been no confusion. But you can imagine that that sort of thing would not appeal to Ukridge. There is a touch of the Napoleon about him. He likes his maneuvers to be daring and on a large scale. He said: ‘Open the yard gate and let the fowls come out into the open, then sail in and drive them in a mass through the back door into the basement.’ It was a great idea, but there was one fatal flaw in it. It didn’t allow for the hens scattering. We opened the gate, and out they all came like an audience coming out of a theater. Then we closed in on them to bring off the big drive. For about three seconds it looked as if we might do it. Then Bob, the hired man’s dog, an animal who likes to be in whatever’s going on, rushed out of the house into the middle of them, barking. There was a perfect stampede, and Heaven only knows where some of those fowls are now. There was one in particular, a large yellow bird, which, I should imagine, is nearing London by this time. The last I saw of it, it was navigating at the rate of knots, so to speak, in that direction, with Bob after it barking his hardest. Presently Bob came back, panting, having evidently given up the job. We, in the meantime, were chasing the rest of the birds all over the garden. The thing had now resolved itself into the course of action I had suggested originally, except that instead of collecting them quietly and at our leisure, we had to run miles for each one we captured. After a time we introduced some sort of system into it. Mrs. Ukridge (fancy him married; did you know?) stood at the door. We chased the hens and brought them in. Then as we put each through into the basement, she shut the door on it. We also arranged Ukridge’s soap-box coops in a row, and when we caught a fowl we put it into the coop and stuck a board in front of it. By these strenuous means we gathered in about two thirds of the lot. The rest are all over England. A few may be in Dorsetshire, but I should not like to bet on it.

So you see things are being managed on the up-to-date chicken farm on good, sound, Ukridge principles. This is only the beginning. I look with confidence for further exciting events. I believe, if Ukridge kept white mice, he would manage to knock some feverish excitement out of it. He is at present lying on the sofa, smoking one of his infernal brand of cigars.

From the basement I can hear faintly the murmur of innumerable fowls. We are a happy family; we are, we are, we ARE!

P. S. Have you ever caught a fowl and carried it to roost? You take it under the wings, and the feel of it sets one’s teeth on edge. It is a grisly experience. All the time you are carrying it, it makes faint protesting noises and struggles feebly to escape.

P. P. S. You know the opinion of Pythagoras respecting fowls. That ‘the soul of our granddam might haply inhabit a bird.’ I hope that yellow hen which Bob chased into the purple night is not the grandmamma of any friend of mine.

____________________________________

Note: I am deeply indebted to Chickens in Literature, my source for the Wodehouse excerpt and the Flannery O’Connor quote. The site also has amazing chicken illustrations. Go look for yourself, and enjoy a truly fabulous chicken-related exhibit.

In the meantime, here’s a peaceful picture of our very first eggs. Don’t they seem to glow?

Redbud eggs

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