(I highly recommend the last one, Mary Berry’s new show, for anyone writing in the British historical romance chronotope. Big house parties are the theme, and the first episode begins with Highclere Castle—or, as you likely know it, Downton Abbey!)
In case you were wondering, we did win our game of Pandemic. I mean, we cured all four diseases, which is all you need to do—not actually heal the infected. It all feels very 2021.
For slightly more festive posts from Christmases past, check out the links below. And, whichever holiday you celebrate, if any, everyone at Little Brick Books wishes you a safe, healthy, and happy one.
I know, I know, it doesn’t seem like summer is coming, not when you consider what my yard looked like on May 9th:
But as I type this post from my lawn chair while my dog stalks our baby chicks on their “field trip” outside, I can vouch that summer is almost here. (She’s supposed to be one-eighth livestock guardian dog, and she guards them…one-eighth of the time.)
If you read about the birth of our chicks in my last post, allow me to update you. We hatched eleven of them—and named the eleventh #SpinalTap in tribute. That is her below. (No, I don’t really know her sex, but I hope she grows into a productive egg-layer!)
Normally, I would be eating from my employer’s dining hall for free during the boarding school year. While I am staying in New Hampshire, though, we are about a thirty-minute drive from a dedicated grocery store. Moreover, even if Market Basket were closer, purchasing ingredients for good dinners is not cheap, even with the values at such an amazing store. (Click the link to understand why this store has developed such a loyal following.)
I also love “cooking by the numbers,” as I call it. We are not going out to eat, not going to the movies, not going out for a drink, and not traveling. This is how I am treating myself. And, best of all, I am learning something. During sabbatical three years aago, I learned how to cook from scratch using Blue Apron, and their meals are restaurant-quality food. Purple Carrot is now teaching me to incorporate more vegetables in my repertoire—and, big plus, shipping those vegetables to me. (Thank you, delivery drivers!)
Purple Carrot exposes its customers to good vegan substitutes for meat, like seitan. (Beware if you have a gluten allergy, though.) It also teaches me more ways to cook tofu and tempeh. I am not vegan, but I love it all. Best of all, the Purple Carrot menus are very international, including lots of Japanese, Thai, South Asian, Mediterranean, and Mexican dishes (or inspired/fusion). The spices and ingredients are excellent. Blue Apron has a cosmopolitan offering as well. For example, in both kits I’ve recently cooked food with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice that I’ve loved since living in Lebanon twenty years ago.
If you cannot go to the store for your greens, why not cook the ones you have? I have enjoyed my limited foraging career. We have plans to get some mushrooms started on an old log in the shade, but right now I am teaching the dandelions who’s boss. They are a bit bitter, but if you blanch them before you sauté them, that helps. Also, serving them with cheese or pine nuts or figs makes them quite yummy. Above is my before-and-after photo…and if you’re wondering about the bread, that’s all Mr. Hallock’s doing:
I am about to finish my term of online teaching—and, no, the experience is not the same as in-person instruction, but it has been better than nothing. Most importantly, though, I feel lucky to still have my job. If I have teach online or adapt yet again to a hybrid classroom, I will figure it out. While there are so many people out there suffering and/or risking their lives (shout out to my cousin who is pulmonary specialist on the ICU frontlines), the least I can do is make the best of what I have. Make lemons into lemonade. Or, better for me, make a shandy out of Natty Lite and grapefruit flavoring.
Or, as Wile E. Dog would tell you: make an old dirty leather glove into the world’s best toy. Stay safe and healthy, everyone!
At the same time, though, I have been doing intense research into the background of my character Liddy, heroine of Sugar Communion. (You can keep up with my reading progress on Goodreads.) As a doctor (or “hen medic” as they were called disparagingly), Liddy is a woman of science. She is a fern instead of a flower, a point of pride for a practical and methodical heroine.
Epidemics in History
The real world intrudes in on my thoughts quite regularly, and I cannot help but see the historical parallels. In the Sugar Sun series, I have spent a lot of time writing about historical epidemics, like the 1902 cholera outbreak in the Philippines. Under the Sugar Sun begins with a scene of ham-handed American attempts to limit the spread of disease. Though cholera is passed by a bacterium not a virus, the type of stay-at-home/shelter-in-place self-quarantine now in place for coronavirus would have worked better for the Filipinos than the activist (and sometimes racist) policies applied by imperialist doctors. None of this is quite #quarantineandchill material, but there is something to be said for finding the happily-ever-after in times like these. Tempting Hymn is the story of a survivor of that epidemic who falls for a nurse. (She is a double heroine—thank you, medical professionals!)
My Quarantine Life
Like everyone else, I think that I will be intensely distracted this spring. So what am I doing to keep busy and sane? I think the big winners of my quarantine life are the pets.
When I walk the dog, I need to be entertained with engaging stories that have nothing to do with pandemic. I’ve always loved true crime, which is how I found the podcast called Criminal. I’ve learned about everything from arson investigations to mine workers’ union violence in 1922. My favorite episode is Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. Check it out!
Sadly, being home was not enough to save our favorite hen, Shaws. She suffered from a vent prolapse and other complications, which is why our TLC was not enough to keep her with us. She was over six years old and had raised two or three batches of chicks to happy adulthood—all on instinct since Shaws herself had been a mail-order hatchery chick.
I am also cooking a lot more right now. As we had done during my sabbatical, we are ordering from Blue Apron. Normally, with school being in session, I would be fed by my school’s dining hall. (And it is really, really good.) But I welcome the chance to cook again. We are doing well with staples like beans and rice on our own, but fresh vegetables and unique ingredients are two of Blue Apron’s strengths. I notice from the menu choices that lots of people go for the beef dishes, causing those to be frequently sold out. But their vegetarian entrees are absolutely delicious and often our favorites, so I recommend them. They do not have enough choice for strict vegetarians, and they certainly aren’t vegan, but if you are looking for variety to your diet, they are a wonderful (though not cheap) choice. (I think that the pandemic has been good for some struggling businesses, like Blue Apron and Instacart. I hope these companies treat their employees well so that this is a rare pandemic win and not another #covidiot corporation tale.)
I am also reaching way, way back in my own timeline to revive an old hobby: cross-stitching. I’ve been thinking about taking it up again for a while because I need something to do with my hands while I am watching television—and too much Twitter is not good for any of us right now. I cross-stitched a lot during faculty meetings back in the day because we were not allowed to have our computers out in the early 2000s. (I get more multi-tasking done these days, but I have to be honest that I listen less.) Already, after just one night of #Netflixandstitch, I am a happier camper. It’s very zen. And I have some plans for a few amusing pillow projects, after I do something for a friend…
[Update: I not only finished the thing for the friend, but I finished something for our guest room!]
Finally, I have enjoyed creating new series promo (because Canva). I found some great paintings by Auguste Toulmouche that are out of copyright. I repurposed them into fun promo (with proper attribution).
Another artist in the same spirit is Vittorio Reggianini. How can you not love these images? They are more Victorian than Edwardian, but that’s okay. I’m all heart-eyes.
Hope you are staying healthy and safe out there. Remember to wash your hands, stay home, and let’s #flattenthecurve.
Mr. Hallock and I have a tradition we created our first year of marriage: pizza for Christmas. We spent the 1998 holiday in West Beirut, then our home. Since our neighborhood was predominantly Muslim, everything was open! (Also, the Lebanese knew that Santa can sell anything. For example, our local manousheh joint, Faysal’s, dressed an employee in a perfect jolly red suit and handed out chocolates.) Stephen and I were not big chefs or bakers yet (well, I’m still not), so we were hardly going to make a big dinner for two. We did the obvious thing: we ordered a pizza. Not obvious to you? As we sat and scarfed down a great New York-style pepperoni and mushroom pie, we decided we would always have pizza (or something styled after pizza) for Christmas. We have not broken that tradition in 20 years. There is dough resting on the kitchen table as I type…
The holidays have also been about our nuclear family, i.e. our dog(s). We sadly said goodbye to seventeen-year-old Jaya two years ago, and before that to fifteen-year-old Grover. This is our first Christmas with a little pipsqueak called Wile E. Dog. Her auntie and uncle brought her pigs’ ears, so she’s been just fine with the madness of the holidays.
And, yes, we have a parol—adjusted to 110v by our amazing Ate Edith! We give passing traffic seizures, but, hey, it’s festive.
Finally, one of my favorite holiday traditions: good funky Christmas music. My favorite funk? Bootsy Collin’s Christmas is 4 Ever.
One thing you will have to do without this season is Sugar Moon. It is still coming soon, but rewrites are thorough and ongoing. We are hoping for early 2019, certainly in the first half of the year. Until then, check out the teasers on this site. [Updated to add: We actually managed this deadline, and Sugar Moon hit ebook shelves in April 2019. Read more about the history behind this book and what readers thought.] If you want something Christmas-y, also please check out the epilogue of my latest novella, Tempting Hymn, or the Noche Buena scene of Under the Sugar Sun. Merry, merry.
How my grandmother ended up at a Cuban cockfight in a fur coat with a man who wasn’t her husband…
I was not born early enough to meet either Dominick or Carmela, my great-grandparents, and that is my loss. Both came to the United States as teenagers. Had they stayed in Italy, though, they might not have been allowed to marry. Carmela’s parents had been relatively well-off in Sicily, while Dominick had little formal education and was forced into the hard life of coal mining in the hills of West Virginia. Moving to the United States was a bit of an equalizer—all immigrants struggle—but Carmela’s family still had their pride. When Dominick proposed marriage, Carmela’s mother demanded that he build his bride a big house in Morgantown. None of their children could explain to me how he got the money to do that, but he did. And, in the day before interstate highways, he even managed to commute to and from the mine so that his wife did not have to live in the hollow.
Dominick worked hard and managed to keep his wife and seven children in their family home throughout the Great Depression. There are two reasons often given for how he accomplished this impressive feat. First, it seems that he was such a consistent and reliable worker that his boss at the mine always made sure to keep him on, despite dramatic layoffs. Second, and more relevant for these times, his mortgage was replaced by a loan from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal program. In this program, the federal government bought out mortgages from banks (who were happy to exchange it for bonds) and then gave a more favorable, more patient loan to the homeowner. Where was this in 2007, huh?
Not only did Dominick keep his job and his house, but he also made sure that his younger children—male and female—were college-educated at West Virginia University right down the street. Unfortunately, the older children were not so fortunate. For example, Dominick and Carmela’s eldest child, Josephine, was not able to go to college. This woman, my grandmother, graduated high school square in the middle of the Depression, in 1937. I still wear her class ring. (I guess the fact that she was still able to buy a class ring at this time is something, at least.)
Now, even though Dominick and Carmela married for love, they did not give Josephine the same choice. Her first marriage was arranged to another coal miner, and it failed—spectacularly. Her husband was domineering and abusive. This was my grandfather that I barely knew.
When my mother and her sister were in high school, Jo left her family for the man she had loved since high school. Why hadn’t she married Jess to begin with? Class mattered, once again. Jess’s family ran a profitable grocery store. While Dominick and Carmella were upstanding citizens and homeowners, their daughter was not what Jess’s family had in mind. After being denied this first time, Josephine and Jess ultimately ran away together. Far away. To Cuba. In 1958. The year before the revolution.
This is my favorite photo of Jo. This photo finds her and Jess watching a cockfight at a resort in Wajay, Havana. Apparently, it was cold because my grandmother is wearing a fur coat. Jess looks typically uptight next to her. They do not have the body language of recently requited lovers, to say the least. (Jess—or “Uncle Jess” as I called him—was never very demonstrative, to say the least, but he was always very kind to me.) They would later marry, divorce, and remarry. Status update: complicated.
The whole thing is still a sore subject in my family. It caused a lot of pain and embarrassment. It was the fifties, when Josephine’s Catholic family did not find domestic abuse a reason to dissolve a marriage. (They did not believe in divorce, in any case.) Moreover, because my grandmother was in Cuba, my mother and her sister had to change high schools and move in with their father, who quickly remarried to a recent widow with two daughters. (They lived in Fairmont, West Virginia, the birthplace of the pepperoni roll—see below—and the hometown of Della Berget, the heroine of Hotel Oriente.)
My mother’s relationship with Josephine thawed only when I grew to be about five or six years old. It was Josephine’s more settled and reliable sister, Anita, who planned my mother’s wedding, for example. It was Anita who still filled the role of grandmother for much of my life, until her death this past summer. (Miss you, Ya!)
Even after Josephine and Jess were invited back to the table, things did not always go smoothly. Jess became a landlord of student apartments in Morgantown, and it was Josephine’s job to scour them. Jo scrubbed floors during the day and sweated over the stove in the evening—hardly a romance. She worked hard, and my own mother resented Jess for that. Uncle Jess was certainly set in his ways by the time I knew him. He was a Pabst Blue Ribbon man—tall boys—and he wanted his beer with dinner. Not before dinner, not after dinner, but just as dinner hit the table. Yet he was Josephine’s choice. I cannot explain it.
I do have good memories of Josephine and Jess, though. They mostly involve obscene amounts of food. Thanksgiving included at least three main course choices—turkey, ham, and a meat chop of some kind—plus about a thousand side dishes, the best of which were the stuffed artichokes. Jess, the grocer’s son, never trusted any supermarket in Columbus, my hometown. Every holiday he arrived with a car of overflowing bags from his favorite Italian haunts in Morgantown. I appreciated his snobbery. We had a tradition that he would bring in the pepperoni bag first for me. It was a good tradition.
Josephine should get the most credit for the food, though. Another time, when my grandmother was staying with me while my parents were away, my high school boyfriend came over for dinner. She had prepared her signature dish: true Sicilian spaghetti with her own fresh pasta CUT BY HAND. He naively accepted her offer of seconds, which meant that she piled a new plate taller than the first. He looked at me, stunned, like he wanted me to get him out of eating the whole darned thing. I just shrugged at him. You don’t mess with an Italian grandma. Unfortunately, that kind of eating, along with chain-smoking, led to her unfortunate death in 1991. I miss her too.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I wanted to give thanks for the bounty we always enjoyed at Josephine’s table. Her legacy was complicated. Her (and her parents’) choices did not pay off, at least not for her. But she was not afraid to try, and I am thankful for that.