Tag Archives: England

In which we are reminded of the importance of specificity. And also the deliciousness of apples.

7 Oct

So the food I set out to dig some info up on today is a pretty difficult one to research: apple cider! You’re probably thinking, “Jules, what’s so difficult about that?” In response to which I might punch you! It turns out, there is a lot that’s difficult about that.

Not only is cider about as old as apples (the only question seems to be whether the Egyptians were making it; while they grew apples, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that they were making any kind of juice or beverage from them), but trying to figure out which particular cider any given source is talking about is pretty tricky, too. American cider, which is unsweetened, unclarified juice (cloudy and brown, as opposed to the clear yellow stuff sold as juice), is completely different from what we call hard cider and the rest of the world just calls cider, which is also clear and yellow but will get you drunk! This brings me to a very important Serious Historical Research Tip: always specify your terms. A lot of the sources out there are just throwing “cider” around without any modifiers whatsoever. Is that useful to the Serious Historical Expert? It is not. Not when you’re trying to find information on one particular kind, anyway.

As far as other early mentions, a couple of different sources mentioned that when the Romans reached Britain, the locals in Kent introduced them to some kind of apple-based drink. But the earliest records of cider-making in England are from after the Norman Conquest, although there were references from France early in the ninth century, from no less a source than Charlemagne. It also turns out that in the late nineteenth century, cider actually outstripped wine as the beverage of choice in Paris! In America, meanwhile, during the early years of the colonial period, apples were a lot quicker and easier to grow than grains, so cider was generally more prevalent than beer.

But this ended up being as much a chance to talk about the Serious Historical Research Process as delicious autumnal beverages. Here’s the thing: in a lot of the sources where I found this information, I ended up having to deduce for myself which kind of cider the author was referring to (usually hard). In the case of an article from a website dedicated to alcoholic beverages, this was kind of a no-brainer, but in other cases, I’d have to go on references contrasting cider with beer, remarking on the differences in “fermentation processes”, and mentioning that a general decline in popularity was followed by the blow of Prohibition. These are the kinds of context clues that the Serious Historical Expert needs to be on the lookout for, you see. And while it’s easy to write one source off, especially one found by the Grueling Research Method of googling for two minutes, the need to pay attention to context because no one would specify whether they were talking about hard or soft cider was a constant one–even a New York Times article confused me for awhile until its middle, where there were references to alcohol content. This timeline, further, has an interesting graph at the bottom. I had assumed (from the fact that the URL is a UK-based one, and it’s generally only Americans who refer to soft cider as merely “cider”, without any modifiers) that it was generally tracking hard cider, and if you’ll look at that graph, you’ll notice something else that corroborates that assumption: there’s a huge drop-off in US cider consumption right after 1919. Again, this is an important context clue–Prohibition went into effect shortly after, and that would’ve affected hard cider sales drastically.

Personally, for dinner tonight I’m going to make these pork chops braised in (soft) cider. I suspect they will go down in history for DELICIOUSNESS.

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In which my excitement is no enigma.

4 Oct

…sorry about that.

I was really jazzed last week when I read this BBC article about how Bletchley Park has been awarded 500,000 pounds for development! This is one of those things that I just find so endlessly interesting and yet have somehow never managed to see the times I’ve traveled to England. Hopefully I’ll be getting back sometime in the next year or so and I can get to it then.

Basically Bletchley Park was the site of the British codebreaking efforts during WWII. It was located about equidistant between Cambridge and Oxford, the joke being that so many of their people came from one of those universities that if they seemed to be favoring one with the location there’d be no peace. If you pick up any kind of resource on Bletchley Park you will find all sorts of hilarious and/or tragic stories (for the latter, see Alan Turing’s ENTIRE FREAKING LIFE).

Here is the thing: a lot of the brains behind the operation were, to put it delicately, nerds, and if you are like me, you have noticed that while plenty of nerds do have normal social skills and hygiene, plenty of them don’t, so if you get a group of nerds together, add the normal nerd levels of neurosis and intelligence to super-code-breaking-genius levels of these, and place them under stress (like, say, having to break German codes and begin all over again every single day), hilarity will tend to result. As for the tragic bits, apart from, as I said before, Alan Turing’s ENTIRE FREAKING LIFE, it was all intelligence work, which means that to the eyes of most of the country, it was a cushy desk job that you took to get out of actually serving. There’s a story of one codebreaker who got this letter from a former tutor, ripping him apart for not enlisting when so many of his classmates had done, and for just taking some safe little government desk job when his country really needed him, and of course even though he was doing just as much as the guys who went off to fight, he couldn’t possibly say that on account of its being TOP FUCKING SECRET.

I’ve currently got Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park in my to-read pile, but having flipped through it a little, it seems pretty excellent! Basically I am a sucker for espionage history in general, and I am also a big fan museums/historical sites, so hearing that Bletchley Park had gotten a decent bit of money (and that there are plans for a 10-million-pound renovation over the next few years besides) was pretty awesome.

In which the news is not all completely infuriating!

30 Sep

Some of it is hilarious! In the midst of the Polanski business (here’s a free tip, readers: if you don’t want to go to jail for raping a child, maybe you shouldn’t rape a child), here are some articles that have shown up in my reader and did not make me want to punch a lot of people!

First of all, the Telegraph reports that apparently archaeologists are now thinking that the Battle of Bosworth Fields actually took place about a mile away from the site that’s been previously used to mark it. Awkward!

Also from the Telegraph comes news that a dude who made some wacky claims about Hitler’s skull fragment on a History Channel special never actually examined the fragment. Hey, remember when the History Channel wasn’t all WWII all the time? Yeah, me neither.

And the Times reports that a Van Dyck self-portrait is due to be sold! They also say, however, that “modern detractors argue that van Dyck is to blame for 400 years of flattery and airbrushing in depictions of the famous and the powerful”; maybe I am not so up to date with the art history world, but I have never heard this at all. Is this true?

Or if “what wacky times we live in” is your thing, the BBC reports that a PoW camp in County Durham is for sale on eBay!

Ah, that was refreshing. By the way, for those of you who’d like to know whose movies to illegally download borrow from your friends instead of buying from now on, the LiveJournal celeb-gossip community ohnotheydidn’t has a list of people who’ve signed the “Free Polanski” petition. Fortunately, most of my favorite celebrities and imaginary significant others are not really important enough for anyone to have asked their opinions on the matter, so I can continue with planning our imaginary weddings, but man, this is bad enough. Et tu, Tilda Swinton?

In which history is DELIGHTFUL.

21 Sep

From The Independent comes the news that “a war hero decorated for his bravery in the fight against Hitler is finally being honoured by his home town 55 years after his death.” The hero in question being, by the way, a pigeon.

I cannot even figure out why I am so charmed by this. Possibly because I love pigeons. Maybe it goes back to how Bert and Ernie were my favorites on Sesame Street? I don’t know. In conclusion: PADDY THE PIGEON, FUCK YES.

In which there is a lot of saturated fat.

13 Sep

Wow, looking at my stats apparently there has actually been traffic to this blog lately! I am surprised, and now I am sure I’ve jinxed it and I’m probably going to forget all about it soon. Consider yourselves warned. I should also apologize for my lack of interaction; besides generally being terrible at replying to comments and having a pretty terrible couple of days (I spent about six hours straight on Friday crying for no really good reason, that was good times), I am not used to having comments to reply to! It is a strange and somewhat disturbing development. But I really appreciate the thoughts, and, heck, the traffic. It is very cool to know that people are interested in hearing me yammer about things. Well, okay, let’s be honest: complain about things.

Anyhoo, I feel like I have neglected the whole history aspect of this blog pretty badly lately, and that is a shame! Like I say, I had a pretty lousy couple of days, so today my mother and I got together and made brown-butter oatmeal cookies. I saw this recipe in the June issue of Vogue while waiting around for a job interview yesterday, and I didn’t quite trust myself to be stealthy enough to rip it out, nor was I quite shameless enough to just rip it out regardless of stares. Fortunately, the Internet exists, so I used the magic of Google and turned it up at another blog! Hooray!

I would give you delightful photos, but alas, I have lost the charger for my camera’s battery. Instead, because I am sure you are wondering what the heck this has to do with history (we can have a philosophical debate about this, I’m sure—rather, people can, but I am pretty crappy at philosophical debates, so I will probably not have much to say—but I’m fairly certain the June ’09 issue of Vogue does not have that much significance as a primary historical source just yet), here are a few facts about butter throughout history! Who doesn’t love lists of random facts about butter.

  1. According to Peter Hammond’s Food & Feast in Medieval England, gentry families could (did is probably another matter, but they could) purchase butter all year ’round, although “fresh butter must have been in very short supply at some times in the year”. Hammond also says that butter was apparently “very heavily salted”, citing by way of example that “in 1305 the Bishop of Worcester used 1lb of salt for every 10lbs of butter or cheese”.
  2. This 1835 article on butter suggests that “The Romans, who adopted it as an unguent or medicine to anoint the bodies of their children, learnt the invention from the Germans; but neither Greeks nor Romans applied it to the art of cookery.” However, historian Andrew Dalby finds that Northern Europeans did eat butter during the classical period. Frankly I consider that article even more interesting than the facts it contains, since I find the way historical studies and writing have progressed to be pretty interesting in and of themselves. Personally, I’m reassured by the fact that I am not the first person to think it would be interesting to learn a little more about the history of butter. When you start saying to yourself that butter might be interesting to learn about you also start to get a little troubled by the state of your life.
  3. How far back brown butter might go, I’m not sure; a little cursory Googling turned up a recipe from 1918, and no instructions for how to brown butter are given, which suggests that it would’ve at least been common knowledge among chefs. It’s not hard to imagine that someone, somewhere along the line, probably came up with the idea of cooking butter, especially since it’s made in much the same way as clarified butters like ghee.
  4. Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple of peat workers in Ireland found an Iron Age barrel filled with butter out in a bog. Alas, it’s now hardened into a waxy substance called adipocere, so there can be no exciting museum heists that result in cookies made with three-thousand-year-old butter. :(
  5. The seventeenth century finds samp (dried and powdered corn) mixed with milk and butter and “eaten hot or cold” as a breakfast staple in the North American colonies; it comes recommended by Roger Williams! If it’s good enough for the founder of Rhode Island, it’s good enough for you.
  6. The first time I tried to type out “other” in Item #3 there, I came up with “udder”. Apparently I cannot resist a pun.

Plus, the cookies were incredible.

In which I get ridiculously defensive of Mrs. Bennet, part 2.

11 Sep

So I will begin this post with a second anecdote, because who doesn’t love anecdotes. This past spring, the tubes were all abuzz with excitement over Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was cautiously excited, until I found out that it was written by a man, and then the excitement level lowered a little, for reasons I had trouble articulating. Fortunately, my friend Judith managed to use words moar gooder than me on this subject, so rather than potentially drag this out for a whole other post I will instead just point you to hers. Anyhoo, the book was released, and I was curious, so I flipped through it at Barnes and Noble. In the back there was a “readers’ discussion guide”, and it was there that I hit the one that made me close the book, put it down, and never look back: “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?”

Basically what this said to me was that the douche writing this had no understanding whatsoever of

  1. Early nineteenth-century England
  2. What life was like for women in early nineteenth-century England
  3. Austen

Here is the thing: what made Mrs. Bennet ridiculous was not that she wanted her daughters to all get married. What made her ridiculous was that she was overexciteable and overemotional for a woman of her age and station, and that she was bad at judging what it was appropriate to say in front of company and what was best left to the family. Wanting to marry off her daughters, and marry them off well, did not make her a bad mother for the time.

Here is the next thing: the Bennets are at the very bottom of the upper class. In Chapter Seven, it’s noted that Mrs. Bennet’s father “had been an attorney”, that her brother-in-law was a clerk for her father, “and succeeded him in the business”, and that her brother “settled in London in a respectable line of trade”—all fine lines of work, but all lines of work nonetheless, meaning she was middle-class and married up into the gentry. She wants her daughters to do at least as well as she did, first and foremost because the only way any of them are guaranteed security is if they married men with secure incomes. Remember Mr. Collins: because of the legal system in place, since the Bennets had no heirs (you’ll note I don’t say “male heirs”, because at the time, that would’ve been a redundancy, since only men could inherit) the Bennets’ estate would go to him when Mr. Bennet died. They would just have to depend on his not turning them out if they wanted to, you know, continue having a roof over their heads.

It sucks by our standards. It sucked by their standards, too, in a lot of people’s eyes; there’s a lot to suggest that Austen was one of these people herself. But it was a fact of life. Again, we get into “the past is another country” territory here. Reading Pride and Prejudice with the knowledge that good marriages were the only chance the Bennet girls had at stable, secure lives independent of their parents, I like to think that Mrs. Bennet becomes a little more sympathetic, her motives little more understandable. Make no mistake, she’s still there in part as a comic foil to Lizzie and Mr. Bennet, but the fact that she wants her daughters to marry well isn’t what establishes her thusly; how she deals with this fact, as I said earlier, is.

In conclusion, I think the main problem with Mrs. Bennet is that she is not a character who aged well as times have changed and women’s options have increased. No longer is marriage the primary goal for most young women, if it’s even a goal, period; women from rich families can inherit and stay rich; women who aren’t going to have inheritances to make them rich have plenty of options besides getting married or being passed from relative to relative for support. It can be hard, therefore, to understand why this is so important to her.

(Also, I kind of think Mr. Bennet is a bit of a dick, and I like the 2005 version for drawing a direct line between his benevolent neglect and Lydia’s behavior, as well as Mrs. Bennet’s dramatics and Lydia’s behavior, but I think I have lectured you guys enough for now. But one day, when you least suspect it, you will look at this blog and BOOM.)

In which I say “oh dear” a lot.

9 Sep

The Telegraph reports that the Church of England is recommending a mosque as a tourist destination. Okay, not so terrible, right? Depending on what wording they may have used, I suspect it might be kind of problematic in terms of othering, but it could be—wait, sorry, what’s that?

Oh. It turns out that the mosque in question was the one used by the suicide bombers who committed the London attacks of July 7th, 2005. It’s where they worshiped, and it’s also where they recruited. Oh, dear.

It’s also the only Islamic place of worship included in the places-of-religious-interest-in-Britain web page the Church put up on its site. Oh, dear.