Tuesday, February 26, 2019

10 Fierce Women from Viking Lore

The culture of early Norse people is often associated with war, rape, and pillage. Like a pack of wild animals, flaxen-haired barbarians, destroyed, burned, and killed everything in their path. Surely, these savages took no thought of art, song, or storytelling. Yet, history says otherwise. Centuries of oral tradition passed down tales of kings and tinkers, Valkyries and dragons. From these tales, the Icelandic Sagas were recorded. Just as any modern novel reflects our world, these historical texts open a window into a much maligned people. Though they depict a society sharply divided along gender lines, the women of the Sagas are not all the shrinking violets and damsels-in-distress you may expect. (1)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

10 Artifacts that Prove Vikings Weren't Savages

Pop culture perception of the Vikings is that of a savage people, unsophisticated and unusually violent, raping, pillaging, and razing their way across Europe. They were dirty, feral conquerors in horned helmets. Their only advantage was that of genetic size and strength. As they used it to destroy gentler, more sophisticated societies, the world was set back to the dark ages, shrouded in fear and haunted by lost civilization. Their history was written by their enemies. Their truth, recorded in Sagas and buried away in artifacts a thousand years old, tells a different tale.

Image Credit: National Museums Scotland
10. Balance Scales

Although Vikings may be best known for what they plundered, sets of early Scandinavian scales prove that they also paid for goods. Silver was the primary money of the day, although gold and other precious metals were also used in trade. Whether formed into coins, jewelry, or ingots, the metals were valued by weight, rather than demarcation. Large numbers of Islamic coins were brought into Scandinavian countries only to be melted into hack silver. So important was the weight of metals, that one merchant who lived his last days in Kiloran Bay on Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides chose to be buried with his scales. Weapons and ornaments from his homeland in Scandinavia surrounded his body, but cradled closest to him, between his knees and head, rest his splendid set of bronze scales along with seven engraved, lead weights. (1)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

I Wrote an Outline

That may not seem like an unusual thing for an author to do, but I'm a "pantster". That means, I store all of my book information in my head, write multiple novels at once, often completely out of order, and then fix any errors later. It is chaotic, but it has always worked for me.

As you may have noticed from my last post, I've made it a goal to publish a romance novel. Genre romance is actually more complex than it seems on the service. The list of "must haves' in the novels are lengthy, and readers have certain expectations that have to be met. These include specific beats the writer needs to hit at specific points in the story. So, this week I actually sat down and outlined the entire novel. It's not a complex outline, but it's an outline.

I also drew a character Venn diagram. Crazy? Perhaps a little. I needed to map out exactly what my characters had in common and what their opposing traits are. That way, I can keep the push and pull of their story genuine. I've assigned each character a color season so that I can consistently maintain the image they project. When writing a 50,000 word novel, the author really has to keep things tight. 

My other goal for 2019 is to get my writing organized and I think this is a great start. I know what scenes, major emotions, and atmospheres I need to hit when and I think I can do that without the story feeling forced.

Scrivener is continuing to be a huge help in getting my work to higher standard.

I have also started a writers journal. As you already know, I work full time. That means I need to use my downtime wisely if I want to keep up with my novels, my social media, and the occasional freelance work I do. The fact is that I simply need to write more. Keeping a journal and pen handy for ideas, story-boards, and even writing rough drafts should help me with that.
  

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Best Rejection I Ever Got

Rejections. They suck.

Yet, writers learn to thrive on them. With each new letter or email blandly stating that, "your work does not fit our current publishing needs" we train ourselves to feel that at least we've tried. Some writers even turn these rejections into badges of honor, keeping thick, but neat file folders full of disappointments.

Once in a while, though, you receive that constructive criticism for which you've longed. You get to finally have the reason for the rejection explained to you. You get some hope.

I did.

I sent a submission to Harlequin. I waited. I expected the standard rejection. Instead, I received a multi-paragraph response specific to my novel. This email took a great deal of time and effort. I believe it will help me in the future. If I could personally thank the person who wrote it, I would.

I know you want to know what I did wrong. I'll tell you. After all, the online writing community is all about aiding each other. I am happy to share my mistakes if it can aid a fellow writer. So, here it goes.

I don't know that it would be wrong to share the actual email, but since I haven't been given direct permission, these notes are paraphrased.

Monday, December 17, 2018

10 Terrifying Historical Ketchup Recipes

Cooking up some Catsup?
If you’re an American, you probably think you know a thing or two about ketchup. After all, 97% of American households report having a bottle at the table. (1) The average American consumes a staggering 71 pounds of ketchup annually. (2) Yet, most of us would not recognize the many historical varieties of ketchup. Fewer would be brave enough to taste them. Their ingredients vary as widely as their spelling. Most of these recipes call for out-dated fermenting and preserving techniques, so remember folks, don’t try this at home. Or, if you do, follow modern food safety precautions.




10. The Original Kê-tsiap
Ketchup. It’s as American as… well, it’s not American. The original version hails from Southeast Asia and was likely brought back to Britain in the late 17th or early 18th century. It seems that sailors took a liking to the condiment which was called in Hokkein Chinese kê-tsiap. (3) It held little resemblance to the modern variety. Instead, it was a dark, fermented fish sauce. The first recipe on record dates back to 544AD. It instructs one to:

“Take the intestine, stomach, and bladder of the yellow fish, shark and mullet, and wash them well. Mix them with a moderate amount of salt and place them in a jar. Seal tightly and incubate in the sun. It will be ready in twenty days in summer, fifty days in spring or fall and a hundred days in winter.” (4)   

9. Oyster Catsup
British optician, inventor, musician, and cook William Kitchiner published The Cook’s Oracle in 1817. His best-selling recipe book contained eleven different catsup recipes, demonstrating that by this time, the condiment was a culinary staple. (5) Much like the original Chinese version, Kitchiner’s Oyster Catsup was a fermented fish sauce. Instead of yellow fish, shark, and mullet, he called for an ingredient which would have been more readily available in Britain and the Americas. If oysters were not available, he said that a fine catsup could be made by replacing them with an equal amount of cockles and muscles (sic.)

“Take fine, fresh Milton oysters; wash them in their own liquor, skim it, pound them in a marble mortar, to a pint of Oysters add a pint of Sherry, boil them up, and add an ounce of salt, two drachms of pounded mace, and one of Cayenne, — let it just boil up again, skim it, and rub through a sieve, and when cold, bottle it, and cork it well, and seal it down.” (6)


8. Anchovy Catchup
 Hannah Glasse penned the 18th century’s best-selling book of any genre over a period of just four months. How she did this whilst mothering eleven children is anybody’s guess. (7) In any case, her recipe for “Catchup to Keep Twenty Years” draws on ale and anchovies for its primary flavors. Unlike in the preceding recipes, Ms. Glasse does not call for any fermentation. This would produce a sauce similar to modern Worcestershire sauce, which utilizes anchovies and barley malt vinegar. However, Mrs. Glasses’s Catchup does not call for any sweetening, while the vast majority of Worcestershire sauce produced today includes molasses and sugar.

“Take a gallon of strong stale beer, one pound of anchovies washed from the pickle, a pound of shalots peeled, half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper, three or four large races of ginger, two quarts of the large mushroom-flaps rubbed to pieces; cover all this close, and let it simmer till it is half wasted, then strain it through a flannel bag; let it stand till it is quite cold, then bottle it. You may carry it to the Indies. A spoonful of this to a pound of fresh butter melted makes a fine fish-sauce, or in the room of gravy sauce. The stronger and staler the beer is, the better the catchup will be.” (8)

7. Mushroom Catsup
This was a popular ketchup in the 18th and 19th centuries. Used for seasoning meat and savory pies, it left behind the fish and turned to the humble mushroom for its savory qualities. This was done for reasons of practicality, cost, and taste, depending on the cook. Mushrooms could be scavenged and were available inland. Many people simply preferred the flavor. This is the only catsup to still be manufactured today and may be poised for a come-back. Celebrity chefs Heston Blumenthal and
Nigel Slater have both recently published recipes for it. (9)

The Cook’s Oracle actually includes two separate recipes for mushroom catsup. In both recipes, Mr. Kitchiner advices against the over-use of spices, stating that they can over-power and confuse the meaty flavor of the mushrooms. The basic recipe is as follows:

“Put a layer of these (mushrooms)at the bottom of deep earthen pan, and sprinkle them with Salt, then another layer of Mushrooms, and some more salt on them, and so on alternately, salt and mushrooms; — let them remain two or three hours, by which time the salt will have penetrated the mushrooms, and rendered them easy to break; — then pound them in a mortar or mash them well with your hands, and let them remain for a couple of days, not longer, stirring them up, and mashing them well each day; — then pour them into a stone jar, and to each quart add an ounce of whole Black Pepper, stop the jar very close, and set it in a stewpan of boiling water, and keep it boiling for two hours at least. Take out the jar, and pour the juice clear from the settlings through a hair sieve (without squeezing the mushrooms) into a clean stew pan ; let it boil very gently for half an hour…” (10)

6. Walnut Ketchup
If one could not get a hold of any fish, bivalves, or fungi, one could always turn to nuts. This sauce was a great favorite of English novelist Jane Austen. It would seem that unlike Kitchiner, she did not shy away from the use of spices. The following recipe was recorded in the household book of her best friend Martha Lloyd, who lived with the Austen family at the time. Here you see the inclusion of vinegar, cloves, and aliums, all ingredients in the most popular tomato ketchups sold today.

“Take green walnuts and pound them to a paste. Then put to every hundred two quarts of vinegar with a handful of salt. Put it altogether in an earthen pan keeping it stirring for eight days. Then squeeze through a coarse cloth and put it into a well lined saucepan, when it begins to boil skim it as long as any scum, rinse, and add to it some cloves, mace, sliced ginger, sliced nutmeg, Jamaica peppercorns, little horse radish with a few shallots. Let this have one boil up, then pour it into an earthen pan, and after it is cold bottle it up dividing the ingredients equal into each bottle.” (11)

5. White Ketchup
It seems we have covered ketchup for every need, but what if we need to flavor a white sauce without darkening it? All of the previous recipes produce a brown liquid which would unpleasantly color your sauce. Charlotte Mason’s 1787 book The Lady’s Assistant: for Regulating and Supplying the Table contains the answer. This is just one of seven ketchup recipes in the manual.

“Take one quart of white wine, one pint of elder vinegar, and one quart of water; half a pound of anchovies with their pickle, half a pound of horseradish scraped, one ounce of shallots bruised, one ounce of white pepper bruised, one ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of nutmegs cut in quarters; boil all together till half is consumed, then drain it off : when it is cold, bottle it for use. It is proper for any white sauce or to put into melted butter.” (12)


4. Cucumber Catsup
Now we come to a vegetable ketchup, though when you think of ketchup, cucumbers probably do not spring to mind. Scottish journalist Christian Isobel Johnstone was known to have a sharp mind and a prolific pen. An early feminist and champion of liberal causes, she wrote under the pseudonym Margaret Dod in order to protect her personal life. Of all the things she wrote, her 1826 recipe for Cucumber Catsup was probably the least likely to get her into trouble.

“Pare large cucumbers; cut them in slices and break them to a mash, which must be sprinkled with salt and covered with a cloth. Keep in all the seeds. Next day, set the vessel aslant to drain off the juice, and boil it up with a high seasoning of white peppercorns, and sliced ginger, black pepper, sliced shallot and horseradish, and bottle the catsup which is an excellent preparation for flavouring sauces for boiled fowls, veal, rabbits, or the more insipid meats.” (13

3. Browning or Sugar Catsup
Thus far we have covered savory recipes that include vinegar, cloves, alliums, salt, pepper, and cayenne. One thing we have yet to find is any sweeteners. Most modern ketchup is sweetened with sugar. Mrs. Johnstone advised the use of a “sugar catsup” as a browning sauce for sauces, soups, etc. This was a simple concoction which could be spiced at the cooks discretion.

“Pound very finely six ounces of the best refined sugar, and put the powder into a small and very clean frying pan, with a glass of water. As it dissolves, mix well with a wooden spoon, and withdraw the pan from the fire when the fluid begins to boil  violently ; stir, and keep it thus till it has acquired the rich, dark brown color wanted. It may either be seasoned with pepper, salt, cloves, catsup, etc., or not, but is generally more useful plain.” (14)
 
2. Pudding Catsup
It’s not as scary as it sounds. This has nothing to do with a custard type of pudding. In this context, “pudding” is synonymous with dessert.  This 1817 recipe is simply a sauce to be added to various sweets.

“Half a pint of brandy, ‘Essence of Punch’ (a brandy-lemonade mixture)… an ounce of thin pared Lemon peel, half an ounce of mace. Steep them fourteen days, then strain it, and add a quarter pint of Capillaire (an orange flower syrup).” (15)

1. Tomato Ketchup
At last we come to our missing ingredient. Tomatoes were once looked on with trepidation. Many Americans and Europeans believed them to be poisonous. Yet, they also had their champions including Thomas Jefferson who cultivated them at Monticello as early as 1809 and ate them regularly. (16) The first recorded recipe for a tomato-based ketchup comes from Philadelphia physician James Mease’s 1812 book, The Archives of Useful Knowledge. Mease refers to the tomatoes as “love apples”, a common moniker at the time.

“Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt; cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight, and kept in a cool place.” (17)

The idea seems to have taken root quickly. Mrs. Johnstone published her own recipe for “tomata catsup” fourteen years later. Mrs. Hardy of the American hotel published her recipe in 1865. Finally, Henry J. Heinz started producing tomato ketchup in 1876. (18) The rest is history.


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Sunday, September 23, 2018

10 Rumored Locations of the Lost Amber Room

I went a little off my beaten path to write this list. If you enjoy tales of buried treasure, dastardly Nazis, treasure hunters, and conspiracies as much as I do, please let me know in the comments! Don't forget to share on Facebook & Twitter.

10 Rumored Locations of the Lost Amber Room




Friday, June 1, 2018

A Taste of History Review

As a historical fiction author, I love everyday bits of history, the things so often over-looked in our school text books. What did people's daily lives look like? What did they do first thing in the morning or last thing before bed? What did they do for work or fun? What did they eat?



A Taste of History can help to answer that last question, at least in part. This PBS program presented by Chef Walter Staib takes a look at the recipes left behind by early Americans, particularly those of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Chef Staib is described on his Facebook page thus:

"A third generation restaurateur with over four decades of culinary experience, Staib refined his career through formal training in the finest hotels and restaurants in Europe before coming to the United States. In 1989, he founded Concepts by Staib, Ltd., a globally recognized restaurant management and hospitality consulting firm, which is the driving force behind of the nation’s most unique dining establishments: Philadelphia’s City Tavern, a faithful recreation of an original 18th century tavern.

In addition to being a top chef, restaurateur and consultant, Chef Staib has also authored 5 cookbooks."

The simple format of the program is far removed from the glitzy, high drama programming so popular on the Food Network, which comes as a welcome relief. The eighteenth-century kitchen appears small and tight, boasting nothing more than a couple of tables and a moderately large fireplace. Chef Staib turns back and forth between the workbench and the fire over which all of the food is expertly cooked. As he moves to and fro, hefting hot, heavily laden pots and pans we quickly learn how much more aerobic cooking must have been in the Revolutionary Period. Cookware includes devilishly sharp knives, a few cutting boards, Dutch Ovens, Spiders, cutlery, and a few specialty items which pop up now and a again.

It all appears so simple, one begins to trick oneself into believing they too could efficiently prepare their own suppers of hearty meats, root vegetables, legumes, and rich sauces over an open fire. I can barely barbecue without mass incineration and a handy extinguisher.

The show does suffer from one flaw which plagues many such looks at history, one which is almost unavoidable. The cuisine is largely focused on those of a higher class. This is, of course, because those people had access to better quality and a larger variety of ingredients. They also had the education and tools to record recipes and dishes served at parties and at home. Little is recorded of the daily meals of the poor. Therefore, I do not consider this a major flaw in the series. After all, watching a talented, successful chef prepare dish after dish of gruel, scrap soups, corn mush, and low-quality bread would probably not be very interesting.

I do believe there is also some cherry-picking involved in the recipe selection. Staib rarely prepares the cuts of meat which are now considered disgusting. Brains, eyes, intestines, and thiamus glands have not appeared in any of the episodes I have watched, although I know they were consumed in the era. The program also makes the responsible choice not to involve any potentially poisonous ingredients or food-handling practices which may have been used in the eighteenth century. The program reads more as a cooking show than a documentary and I am sure nobody involved in the production wants to see any home cooks poisoning themselves after ignoring or missing disclaimers.

All in all, the program lulls one into the comfortable feeling of watching a relative prepare a meal while also gently teaching both significant and trivial pieces of history. If you ever find yourself curled up with a piping cup of cocoa on a cold, lonely evening I would highly recommend A Taste of History as a quiet, pleasant companion. Perhaps you will even decide to cook something over that crackling wood stove in the corner.