Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town

This image comes from the Legendary Dartmoor website.
           It's not too late to go a-wassailing, you know. Through Twelfth Night, you can go 'round the neighbors, caroling and wishing them love, joy, and a happy New Year. If you expect them to ply you with wassail, though, probably best to warn them ahead of time, wassail not being commonly made in many places these days.

          In an attempt to bring back the oh-so-festive tradition of standing out in the cold singing for grog, I am herewith publishing my wassail recipe (sometimes referred to as "Lamb's Wool"). It is an authentic 17th-century recipe that I think is excellent tasty. K thinks it tastes like 17th-century sweatsocks. Try it and see what you think:

          "To make Lamb's Wool. To every quart of good ale put a pint of white wine, and heat them well together. Then put in cinnamon and nutmeg grated and sugar [1/4 cup sugar per bottle of wine—which I have to warn you is more than a pint, so make your adjustments accordingly], with roasted crab apples and if you will some toasts to float thereon, and serve it forth in a bowl very hot."

          I recommend using a fruity but not sweet wine, nothing too expensive. I can't give you much help on the amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg because it's been a long time since I've made it (see "sweatsocks," above), and I didn't note amounts on the recipe. The chances that you will have crab apples of the kind that would have been used at the time are vanishingly small, but I've had good results with baking Gala apples until soft and then putting a half or quarter in a mug and pouring the Wassail over. Can't help you with the toasts, as I've never gone for the old custom of soaking dry bread in whatever was to hand to make it more palatable.

          If my wassail recipe makes your wassailers pelt your house with eggs, you could try serving them mulled wine next year, which has K's stamp of approval, and is also a nicely festive holiday tipple:

          Make a syrup by boiling for 5 minutes 2 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/4 cups water, 4 dozen whole cloves, 6 sticks cinnamon, 3 crushed nutmegs, the peel of 3 lemons, and the peel of 2 oranges. Strain the syrup and add to it 4 cups hot lemon or lime juice. Heat well, but don't boil, and add 4 bottles red wine. Serve hot.
          Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Scary Santas

         While  looking for mistletoe pictures for the last post, I ran across some photos I took of Santa decorations the first year we lived in France.

          They were frankly a bit startling for an American raised on jolly images of Santa:

"His eyes—how they twinkled!
His dimples—how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.

          The Santas I saw in France were emphatically not jolly. Even the grave Santa of my father's youth, back in the misty beginnings of time, before jolly had been invented, looks positively ebullient next to the Santas the city fathers of Tours had chosen to decorate their public spaces with.

A little solemn, perhaps, but still festive.
          The Santas I saw in Tours were…sinister. Faceless, gaunt creatures they were, clambering up the sides of buildings like burglars, peering disturbingly through people's windows, inching across electrical lines like a SWAT team Christmas party run amok.

That's not Santa; it's a cat burglar!
Peeping Santa? Euuuuww!
The photo is a bit busy, so I highlighted the disturbing vision of Santa
creeping across an electrical line, apparently intent on mayhem. (Detail below.)
Detail from the photo above. He doesn't even have a face!
Dementor Santa? I suspect so.
          Even the Santa that really is supposed to be jolly, mounted above a mall, looks rather sinister:

This is a guy who eschews the lump of coal and simply EATS naughty children.
          There are many things I miss about France, but at this time of year, I am oh so very grateful to be back in the land of the jolly Santas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


This is what mistletoe actually looks like. Accept no substitutes.

           So, mistletoe. Generator of thousands of holiday groaners about undesirable suitors chasing their reluctant would-be loves with a sprig of same, for as we all know, anyone standing under the mistletoe must be kissed. This stems from its association with fertility and its use as an aphrodisiac. You might want to think twice before standing under it. Or not.

          Mistletoe does have other uses, though. The mistletoe plant that parasitizes oaks is considered a powerful remedy against all evil. You must gather it at the new moon without the use of iron, and never allow it to touch the ground. My Perpetual Almanack of Folklore notes that mistletoe growing in apple and hawthorn trees is also especially worth having. I suppose the same restrictions on gathering apply as for oak-mistletoe.

          The Almanack also instructs that mistletoe should on no account be brought into the house until Christmas Eve.

          The Almanack is silent on this matter, but I recommend avoiding the variety of mistletoe most commonly seen here in the U.S.: the smashed blue-green sprig with plastic berries in the plastic packet. If you're looking for the real power of mistletoe, you'll not find it done up in plastic. It's not even the right color: real mistletoe is yellow-green.
          When we lived in France, I used to buy it at the market in a ball about the size of the one pictured above. It was very pretty decked out with ribbons and suspended above the dinner table.

          One of my favorite sights all winter long in France was bare trees sporting clumps of mistletoe, like the ones pictured below:

It adds a certain je ne sais quoi, don't you think?

          It occurs to me that we have oaks in our yard. I wonder if I can find some mistletoe seeds and start my own Christmas supply.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Best Car in the Parking Lot

          The other day—a grim and grey one, I ran my usual colorless errands—grocery store, post office, bank—trying not to dwell too much on the entire lack of color the day was shaping up to. Until, that is, I returned to my car, errands done, and noticed I was parked right next to The Most Colorful Car in Kansas City.

This is what caught my eye first. This is a hood ornament to envy.
The hood is no slouch either.
You can just barely see the deer head roof ornament in the upper right.
(Click to make the photo bigger.)

I'm smitten.

I'd follow this car anywhere.

"Sweet" indeed!

          To make my day even more happily full of random color and customization, I noticed that the car parked next to it had had some body work done, à la Frankenstein, with zip ties.

I think it adds a devil-may-care insouciance to the bumper.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Murmuration of Starlings

This photo was shot by Owen Humphreys, and appears in The Guardian.
Click here for link to full gallery
           That's what it's called. Murmur is certainly not the first word that pops into my head upon the mention of starlings, but watching them in flight, you begin to understand where the name comes from. I'm sure you've seen it too, in winter, late in the day, when hundreds and hundreds of birds fill the sky and…shimmer, undulating, swooping in formation, doubling back and weaving through their compatriots. It is a gorgeous display of airmanship.

          Here's a lovely video shot in an English wetland where waves of starlings routinely fill the winter skies at dusk:

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bond. James Bond.


          K and I felt the need for a bit of distraction the other evening. And we actually went to a movie. In a theatre. We haven't gone to a movie, with the exception of our yearly matinee sometime in the week between Christmas and New Year's, since the 90s. (When you travel as much as K does, out is the last place you want to go when you get home).
          We felt giddy and daring and not in the mood for anything Serious or Artistic. Lucky for us, the new James Bond movie was playing at our local cineplex. Now I have enjoyed James Bond (excepting the roger Moore years) since forever. I like fast cars and exotic locales and exciting chases and complicated spy gear and nattily dressed men.
          A not insignificant bonus during the Sean Connery years was that Sean Connery resembles K (K is, of course, better-looking). And yes, I like the Bond girls, too. I have so few events in my life that require a backless cocktail dress and a Beretta strapped to my thigh that I enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching a woman whose life is filled to the brim with them.
          The Bond girls this time were of course lovely, and he camera loved them all. But the one it loved the most, as evidenced by the number of tight close ups on her gorgeous, been-there-done-that-don't-need-the-t-shirt-to-prove-it face, was Judi Dench, as M. 
          For Skyfall was, in complete contravention of all the Laws of Bond, a meditation on growing older. An exploration of what it's like when the spirit is fatigued (because even James Bond must sometimes think, "Oh for god's sake—neither shaken nor stirred; just give me a club soda. I have a hangover.") and the flesh is no longer quite up to the pursuit through a crowded tube station.
          Yes, the camera loved the exotic exteriors (Turkey, Macau, London [looking so gorgeous even in the rain that it made me heartsick for Europe], Scotland) and the exotic interiors (I want M's flat and Bond's hotel budget) and the pretty girls in spectacular frocks, but what it loved most was the way life maps itself on our faces.
          "Pay attention," it said as it lingered on Dench's face, lined like an antique map of the world, or held Bond's exhausted, world-weary gaze, "what we do writes its story on our faces."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Art in Life

Sake offerings.
©Nancy E. Banks

          Apropos of nothing at all, and ignoring the season, I give you a couple of photos taken several years ago at the Shinto shrine of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Japan.
          Why? You know the answer for the sake barrels—because I like type. Don't care if it's Japanese type and I can't read it. It's good stuff. Also, I like design, and I was delighted by the design made by the repeating sake barrels, as well as by the designs on the individual barrels.
          This, kiddies, is why you go to Japan. Everyday things are treated like art. It's my kind of place.

Ema boards. Worshippers write prayers or wishes on them and then leave them at the shrine.
©Nancy E. Banks
          The ema boards, also photographed at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, I like because of the beautifully-drawn illustrations on them, and also because, when you compose the photo well and the gods are smiling on your effort, you get a very pleasing design.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Not Quite Quail

©Nancy E. Banks

          I'm all out of words today, so I'm giving you a drawing instead. And if the old saw about 1 picture = 1,000 words holds true, everyone who reads this post will come away their own personalized essay about a bird who is obviously not a California nor a Gambel's quail, but aspires to be one.
          Of all the quail species, the California and Gambel's are my favorite, completely because of the little bobble on their heads. They are particularly charming when you run across them in a family group, Mama leading four or five half-grown chicks as they scurry into cover, all of their bobbles bobbling along in time. Only the truly hard of heart could help being enchanted.
          I have exactly one happy memory of my sophomore year of college, which was excelled in misery only by my freshman year. But my sophomore year, a family of quail lived in the shrubbery next to my apartment, and I used to watch them from the kitchen window as I typed up essays for my English classes.
          They kept me sane and got me through the year, bless their little bobbles.