Sunday, May 25, 2008


I’ve been transcribing recipes out of my old battered notebook into a new book. I’m surprised at how difficult I’m finding it to get rid of the scraps of paper I had jammed into the pockets of my old cookbook. Even though I have my mother's recipe for chocolate haystacks or Anna's jam cake recipe, it's not the same copied out in my writing. I miss their exclamation points, their notes in the margins. "Lay out the waxed paper first! It sets up fast!" "I was drinking ginger tea when I made this, so the amount of ginger in this may be off."

In Pendle Hill's kitchen there’s a different kind of memory, more collective. I use old recipe cards handwritten years before I came here by people I’ve never met, whose names I don't know. But they walked the same tiles as I do, stirred with the same spoons, made soup in the same pots. Their instructions are meant for the same machines I use – “In the biggest bowl of the Hobart, mix . . .” “Bake 20 minutes in the convection ovens, 35 in the slow oven . . .”

When we're short, a retired woman who cooked here for years occasionally comes to help out. Right now she's in the kitchen making baked beans, peering at the card through her glasses. "Let's see what Fran has to say," she mutters.

I'm sad that we'll lose this. I'm in the process of typing and editing these recipes so there can finally be a Pendle Hill cookbook. But although the food itself will live on, the old grease-stained cards won't - readers won't look at these cards and recognize Fran's handwriting.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Helping us do right

I'm more and more impressed by Christians. I've been deeply suspicious of religion in general since leaving the church at age 11, but lately I've been noticing more and more of its good side. And living at a Quaker center, I've been noticing Christianity especially. I think it gives people some good tools for living well.

I was recently introduced to the idea of an "environmental sabbath day". Of course the most complete observers of the sabbath are Jews, but most of the sabbath observers I know are Christians. Spending a day at home or in the neighborhood, not driving, using less electricity (or none) - it would make a difference. In my current schedule of working six and a half days a week I'm realizing that a sabbath would be good for me as well as for the earth.

My (Episcopalian) friend Mary not only finished her taxes weeks before I did, but afterwards she tithed a percentage of her income from the past year. Glowing, she told me that she had become a member of Bread for the World and a few other charities.

Not many of us give the traditional Biblical tithe of 10%. Our national average is 3.1%. It's not that we can't afford to - poor Americans give the highest percentage of their income and assets. The most famous philanthropist in my hometown for a long time was an impoverished postal worker who would regularly give $1000 checks to people he thought were doing good work. "People say, 'How can you afford it?' Well, how can people afford new cars and boats? Instead of those, we deliberately kept our standard of living down below our means."

Some comparison: according to this calculator, my income of about $5,000 puts me in the world's richest 15%.

As far as anyone can tell, Americans sort of think they ought to give to charity but aren't very organized about it. What a good thing it would be if we all finished our taxes every year and immediately gave away a tenth of our income (or more, as these folks are doing). Putting off giving makes it less effective, considering that problems like AIDS, climate change, and environmental destruction are growing constantly. Head on over to Charity Navigator and see what's out there.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The lusty month of May

Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!
- John Milton

Last night being May Eve, or the beginning of Beltane, I fell asleep thinking about the traditional activities thereof. Everything from Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon to Lerner and Loewe's Camelot paints the occasion as a time of giggling young people disappearing into the shrubs to have sex. I lay thinking about the irony of a fertility festival in a day of birth control and women's careers. Fertility is the last thing most of us want - women spend an average of four years of their childbearing years actually willing to bear children. For the rest, pregnancy spells social or economic disaster. We don't want sex to be about fertility.

"Wait," I realized, "Historically, I can't be alone in this. There must have been lots of people who didn't want to get pregnant, even on May Day. And before birth control, the way to avoid babies was to avoid sex. Failure to copulate on May Eve can't be that anachronistic."

It's not so simple, of course, because not all sex requires birth control. In college I read a brilliant article by Henry Abelove about the population increase in England around the time of the industrial revolution. He argues that the higher birthrate is not explainable by higher marriage rates or earlier age of marriage, but that "sexual intercourse so-called became importantly more popular in late eighteenth century England." Before that, he figures, people were more often having sex in ways that didn't make babies. He links the rise in production of goods to the rise in reproduction, suggesting that the emphasis on production in one's work life may have also carried through to one's sex life. Foreplay as such was invented at this point, he says. Just as rest time that used to be lengthier - the English apparently had a three-day weekend until industrialization, when it all got crammed into Sunday - acts that used to be sex in themselves became precursors to "real sex". It's a theory that no one can test now, but I loved the paper.

Sex of any kind on May Day itself seems less likely among those dedicated to early-morning revelry. Round about dawn I was in a field with forty other Morris dancers, singing "We'll end the day as we begun, we'll end it all in pleasure." I have grave doubts about the veracity of the song. My day, for example, began with the alarm going off at 4:25.
"Nnnng. Wake up."
"Jeff, get up. Up."
"Not time yet."
"It is. Get up."

Any further welcoming in the May will have to wait until we're better rested.

The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.

- Sir Thomas Malory