Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Festal Fortnight!

Here in the Linderman household, it is almost time for the Festal Fortnight. That is what I have tentatively decided to call this string of autumnal holidays we have coming up.

These holidays are an odd mix of pagan and Christian, historical and political. Some people might say the mix is coincidental, eclectic or even dangerous. In my mind, two things make these holidays cohere.

First, the pagan can be subsumed into the Christian. This is not simply religious or cultural plagiarism. Rather, in Christianity, grace builds on nature. And it is quite natural to reflect on the reality of death in early November, as the world around us dies. Likewise, it is natural to reflect on the reality of spirits (both good and bad) among us, as the shadows lengthen and an air of mystery begins to settle. I am quite happy to give Christian answers to pagan questions, so to speak.

Secondly, I believe history is divinely ordained (if not always in ways we can perceive). Thus, to say that several holidays "coincidentally" fall near one another is simply to say that the hand of God has brought them together, rather than the hand of man. I lose no sleep on this point either.

31 October: All Hallow's Eve/Samhain.Halloween is no doubt the best known of this string of holidays. Scholars argue that the Christian feast of All Saints Day has its roots in - or at least owes its timing to - the earlier Celtic festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest. This holiday has become woefully commercialized, but when you place it in its larger autumnal context, I think some of its richness begins to return.

1 November: All Saint's Day/Calan Gaeaf. Calan Gaef is the first day of winter in Wales, which seems a fitting day to think about those who have died (and are now in glory). However, the holiday has a rather dark hue - involving hags, evil spirits in the form of a black sow and a headless woman, and predictions of death - so we'll be celebrating this day along fairly traditional Christian lines, perhaps with mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.

2 November: All Soul's Day. Time permitting, my wife and I will visit the local cemetery to pray for the dead. I have done this for several of the past few years, and I can say that it is a slightly odd experience, simply strolling among graves of people you do not know, who are of no particular significance to you. It brings home the reality of Death as a general phenomenon, apart from the particular ways it affects us. Praying for strangers can also remind us that we too may be the beneficiaries of strangers' prayers. We should probably return the favor.

5 November: Bonfire Day. Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Day are the motif running through V for Vendetta, the comic book made into a movie (which my wife and I first watched last year). Admittedly, this has traditionally been an anti-papist day, but I'm sure there's some way we can baptize it.

6 November: Gustav Adolfsdagen. In honor of the great 17th century king and general, this is a national holiday in Sweden, a country from which some of my ancestors came. (See the recurring connection with the dead!) I have not celebrated this holiday before, but I am intrigued by its pastry, Gustav Adolfsbakelse, for which, alas, I have not yet found a recipe.

11 November: Armistice Day/Veteran's Day/Feast of St. Martin. It is fitting that the First World War ended on the feast of one of the patrons of soldiers. Some might say that wars should begin on such days, but I think not. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux explains, ‎"The true Israelite is a man of peace, even when he goes forth to battle." St. Martin's Day is traditionally marked by carrying candles and lanterns, which seems a fitting seasonal defense against the creeping darkness, and also a fitting memorialization of the millions of war dead. That toys are traditionally given to children on St. Martin's Day in some Germanic countries might seem at odds with the somber remembrance of the war's end and the shortening days of the year. Not that we'll be giving toys in our home, but I think this too is fitting: such toys are a reminder that the harvest has been gathered and (God willing) we are abundantly stocked for the months ahead. Giving toys to children is also a useful reminder of the healing and rebirth that must follow a war: if only sorrow remains, the fallen have died in vain.

Some places serve goose on St. Martin's Day, on account of how the saint hid, while trying to avoid the episcopate, but had his position given away by geese. A goose might be a bit much for us, but I am intrigued by this recipe for Martinshörnchen, the traditional hoof-shaped pastries. Damassine is the traditional St. Martin's Day liqueur in Switzerland. In the US, ravioli was once a kind of Veteran's Day tradition, since President Wilson fed it to 2,000 returning soldiers who dined at the White House. (Though, frankly, I've never heard of this custom, so I'm not so sure how widespread it ever became.)

And if you've not already used up all the firewood on the 5th, bonfires are traditional on St. Martin's Eve.

13 November [this year]: Remembrance Sunday. Observed on the Sunday nearest 11 November, this is a kind of second Armistice Day, but with the particular purpose of praying for the fallen. It may be sheer coincidence, but it seems fitting that we pray for the souls lost in the 20th century's first great bloodbath mere days after All Soul's Day.

Today's image of the Vigil of All Saints at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington comes via the Dominican Province of St. Joseph.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Politicism and Aestheticism

In histories of German literature, there is an idea one hears quite a bit, which attempts to explain the sudden flourishing of German literature beginning in the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, dating roughly from the publication of the first three books of Klopstock's Messias in 1748 to the revolutions of 1848. According to this theory the writers of the Sturm und Drang and the Romantics, in particular, devoted themselves to literature because they had no other outlet for their energies, as the ascendant German bourgeoisie was still excluded from political life. This theory has at least three important effects. First, it establishes aesthetics and politics as completely inimical to each other, rather than simply in tension with each other. Second, this theory implies that all aesthetics is really just aestheticism and leads to political quietism. Lastly, and most importantly, it precludes the possibility that politics can degenerate into what, for lack of a better term, can be called "politicism," where the daily struggle of party politics becomes the good citizen's only concern.

This interpretation of German literature probably originated with Heinrich Heine, the self-named "last Romantic poet." Heine was certainly not a man without a strong aesthetic sensibility, as any reading of his Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs)will prove. Yet even early in his career Heine began to make controversial political statements, with his opinions leaning toward socialism (he became acquainted with the young Karl Marx in Paris). His radical opinions and his penchant for ridiculing his enemies meant that he had to endure censorship in Germany nearly his entire life. While Heine appears to have already formed his revolutionary political views by the time he left university, part of his disenchantment with the apolitical nature of German literary culture, and above all with Goethe, may stem from his disappointing visit to Goethe. After publishing his first poems as a law student, Heine sent a copy of the book to Goethe, and two years later made something of a pilgrimage through the Harz Mountains to Goethe. In Weimar, though, the great poet gave Heine a cool reception, and Heine, rather uncharacteristically (since he loved to talk about himself), never spoke of the incident again. But among the writers of the Vormärz, Goethe came to be regarded as the epitome of a conservative German aestheticism that refused to sully itself with politics and rejected all reform movements out of hand.

This interpretation of German literature before Heine is certainly not indefensible. The frustration felt by the rising generations at being unable to take on political responsibility comes through in certain authors, such as in Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion. The young, idealistic title character joins in a Greek rebellion against the Turks (a couple decades before Byron). But, more importantly, Hyperion falls in love and explores his emotions in the letters he writes to his German friend Bellarmin. After suffering defeat in battle and the death of his lover, Diotima, Hyperion returns to Greece to live as a hermit contemplating the beauty of nature while nurturing his sorrow over Diotima's untimely death. The conclusion of the novel indeed leaves the impression that Hölderlin saw devotion to the aesthetic as mere consolation for failure in politics and love.

The frustration seething in the writers of the Sturm und Drang took even more dramatic form than the early Romanticism of Hyperion. For instance, in Friedrich Schiller's Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), the protagonist Ferdinand, as the result of a court intrigue, decides to kill himself and his love, Luise. Here, not even aesthetics can save the young idealist and make life tolerable after failure in affairs both public and private. Indeed, even though he later became the symbol of German political passivity, Goethe first came to the public's attention as an enfant terrible, whose Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) ends once again with the protagonist's suicide after he has been thwarted in his ambitions by a court society prejudiced against the middle class, and by an unhappy love affair. This epistolary novel was so shocking to contemporaries in part because it inspired a wave of copy-cat suicides who dressed as Werther before discharging pistols into their (already empty) brains. Werther is perhaps the most famous expression of political frustration that came out of the Sturm und Drang and is still the epitome of Liebestod in German literature before Wagner's operas.

But, the later Schiller and especially the later Goethe show the limits of the idea that German literature before the Vormärz was simply a means for the ascendant bourgeoisie to sublimate its political aspirations into safer activities. While Schiller is sometimes remembered, especially in the English-speaking world, primarily for his "Letter on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind," he also taught history at the University of Jena. He was deeply interested in the political history of the Netherlands whose republicanism he admired, as well as the Thirty Years' War. His most famous plays, such as Wilhelm Tell, Wallenstein, and Maria Stuart, are all classical in aesthetics, but take their inspiration from politics and history.

Goethe's case is more complicated than Schiller's because he took a sharper turn towards aesthetics. Goethe came from a family of lawyers (his maternal grandfather was something like the chief justice of the city of Frankfurt) and even became a lawyer himself, first as an intern at the supreme court of the Holy Roman Empire in Wetzlar, and then as a private attorney in Frankfurt for a couple years before entering the service of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Once in Weimar, he became one of the Duke's chief advisers and filled many administrative posts. However, Goethe was never completely happy as a man of action. In 1786, without asking permission first, he left Weimar and Carlsbad and traveled to Italy, touring most of the peninsula as well as Sicily for a couple years. It was in Italy that he matured as a writer and a man, rejecting the excesses of his Sturm und Drang phase and re-founding his aesthetics on the classicism of his day.

Nevertheless, upon his return to Weimar, while he was relieved of certain administrative duties, the Duke still entrusted him with the direction of the court theater and of the University of Jena. Moreover, in his later classically-inspired works, Goethe does not present complete withdrawal from the world as his ideal. In Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the prototype of the Bildungsroman) the hero rejects the aesthetic life of a wandering actor for a more settled life of responsibility. Even the life of quiet contemplation, which is presented sympathetically in the famous diary of the schöne Seele ("beautiful soul"), is ultimately rejected as an evasion of responsibility. Even in Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), Goethe introduces Eduard as a man who has chosen to retire to his country estate, a decision, however, that would lead to the end of his marriage. Despite his clearly conflicted feelings about the desirability of living in society--Goethe became known for treating strangers (such as Heine) very coldly in an attempt to protect his privacy--as well as his later avoidance of political questions, it can be said that Goethe recognized that it was good to live among others and to assume responsibility in life. As much as he devoted himself to aesthetics, the charge against him that he was uninterested in politics is false.

The Weimarer Klassik of Schiller and Goethe represents not a flight from reality into aestheticism but rather an attempt to unite life, including politics, with aesthetics. Schiller and Goethe advocated a politically involved life, but also insisted on keeping involvement in politics within certain bounds. In the French Revolution and in their own experiences they saw how a certain type of passion for politics and social change could harm the common good and blind the individual soul. Before accusing Schiller and Goethe of aestheticism, then, one must first eschew politicism.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pennsylvania Dutch Shoo-Fly Pie

If you have not already picked up the lessons of this little excursion through American cooking and American identity, let me spell it out: our cooking, like our nation, is a mix of deep-held family traditions, often stretching back to the "old country," and eclectic innovation, usually involving taking other people's best ideas and then tinkering with them.  The results can be confusing and incoherent, but also quirky and delightful.

This final recipe neatly embodies that lesson.  I was once invited an an Oslava, thrown by some Slovak-Americans.  They asked everyone to bring an item of food made from an old family recipe.  So I sent my grandmother a note and asked her if she had a recipe that would fit the bill.  In response, she sent me a recipe for Shoo-Fly Pie, and reminded me that my great-grandfather (and countless generations before him) had been Pennsylvania Dutch, a people who enjoy shoo-fly.  This all made good sense to me, since I knew about our family's roots in Pennsylvania, and I had first seen shoo-fly pie in Lancaster County, PA.

Having made the recipe a time or two, I sent my grandmother a note, thanking her for this family recipe.  I do not recall the precise words of her reply, but she as much as said that she simply found the recipe in a cook book.  At this point, the story breaks down.  I am not sure if this was a family cookbook, and so the recipe had come from Great-Great Aunt Mathilda or some such, or if Grandma was simply trying to guess what our family might have baked a few generations before, and then found any old shoo-fly recipe.  (My father says his mother never made it when he was a child.)

In spite of this historical confusion, several facts remain: (1) My family were Pennsylvania Dutch for about two centuries, (2) this recipe comes from my grandmother, and (3) I have become quite a fan of shoo-fly pie, and make it any chance I get.

Alas, this pie is not for everyone.  It is pretty hearty, filling stuff.  I don't know if those old Pennsylvania farmers actually ate it, but I can certainly imagine they did.

Pennsylvania Dutch Shoo-Fly Pie

1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. plus 1 Tbsp molasses
1 egg
1/2 c. butter, melted
1/2 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 1/2 c. hot coffee
3/4 c. flour (I usually use a combination of white and whole wheat)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg

2/3 c. flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. butter (unmelted)

Mix first three ingredients, then add all the rest from the filling list. Pour into 9" pie crust. Cut the butter into flour and sugar for the crumb topping, and sprinkle on top. Bake at 375 for 40 minutes or until set.  Consider serving with whipped cream.

Today's image comes from Kitchen Kettle Village.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Scandinavian Vegetable Soup - A Revival?

Some of my mother's family was Swedish.  As a thoroughgoing fan of genealogical diversity, I relish this Scandinavian connection.  Perhaps that is part of the reason why some years ago I took to the Scandinavian soup recipe that is the third installment of this four-part adventure in American cooking.

In the name of full disclosure, I must confess that this recipe did not come through a long family.  Instead, it came through that stalwart aid of American gastronomy: a cookbook.  Specifically, this recipe came from Mr. Food Cooks Like Mama, a book I think my brother received for his high school graduation.  I have no idea if anyone in Scandinavia actually eats anything like this - I don't remember seeing it during my short visit there, though I was mostly living on bread and cheese at that point - nor do I have a shred of proof that any of my ancestors ever made anything of the sort.  Still, it is a possibility my over-active imagination is willing to entertain.  And the version we make is a tasty meal, particularly when the weather gets cooler.

Scandinavian Vegetable Soup

1/2 c. butter or vegetable oil (or some combination thereof - I usually go half and half)
1 Tbsp wet garlic
2 c. chopped cabbage, or half a head, or whatever you have laying around
1 chopped onion
1 c. chopped celery, or as much as you have (because what else can you put it in before it gets floppy?)
1 c. frozen peas
2 c. thin-sliced carrots 
2 cans creamed corn
3 c. milk
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. thyme
2 c. cubed cheese (you can shred it, but why bother, when it's just going to melt?)

In a very large pot, saute garlic, cabbage, onion, celery, peas and carrots in butter/oil until tender (usually 10-15 minutes).  Add corn, milk, pepper, and thyme.  Simmer for 15 minutes.  Add cheese, stirring until melted.  Serve.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Whole Grain Coffee Cake - a Paternal Tale

For as long as I can remember, my father has been making breakfast on Saturdays: muffins, biscuits, cornbread, pancakes, waffles...  The custom of special Saturday breakfasts is one I have brought into my own family as well (though I've added cheese grits to the line-up).

Among my father's repertoire of breakfast foods is coffee cake.  He has been baking it since my earliest days, and maybe even earlier.  And, I must say, coffee cake is one of my favorites.  So when I came home from college at the end of one semester, I was deeply disappointed to discover that coffee cake had been declared a forbidden food.  Apparently it was deemed too high in cholesterol, something the doctor was trying to bring down in my father.  Unsatisfied with this change of events, I set out to craft a new, cholesterol-friendly version.  I do not know if I succeeded - I am certainly no nutritionist - but I did end up with a recipe I rather liked.

What was my source?  Well, my father had two recipes, one for regular old coffee cake and one for "cowboy coffee cake."  Now I have poked around the internet a little, but I have yet to find out what connection cowboy coffee cake has to cowboys.  Perhaps none.  I may have asked my father about this at some point, but if I did he didn't know the answer.  Not that this bothered me too much.  I guess I assumed it was an old cowboy recipe, and at one time there were plenty of cowboys on the Plains and out West.

Anyhow, my new recipe more or less merged both of my father's and added generous amounts of whole grains and substituted some of the white sugar for brown.  As I said, I'm not sure it's healthier, but it's certainly tasty!

Whole Grain Coffee Cake

1 1/2 c. white flour
2 T ground flax seed*
3/4 c. white sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3/4 c. brown sugar, divided
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 c. wheat bran*
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp soda
2/3 c. vegetable oil (or apple sauce)
1 c. sour milk (if no sour milk is on hand, add 1 tsp vinegar to 1 c. milk)
2 eggs
butter or margarine, as needed for crumbs

*These ingredients, while quite good, are not essential to the recipe; whole wheat flour may be substituted.

Mix 3/4 c. white flour, flax seed, white sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Set aside 1/3 c. for crumbs.  To the main mixture, add 1/4 c. brown sugar and remaining ingredients (including remaining 3/4 c. white flour).  Pour batter into two greased 8" x 1 1/2" round pans.  Mix remaining 1/2 c. of brown sugar with crumb mixture and cut in butter/margarine as needed (approx. 3 Tbsp) for a crumbly consistency and sprinkle over the top.  Bake at 375 for 25 minutes. 

Once again, our picture is not original.  This one comes from

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Red Beans & Rice - an American Odyssey

This is not a recipe blog.  However, I spent a goodly while in Britain over the past few months, as this blog bears out.  I wrote about my favorite British regiments, observed Empire Day, did some hypothetical casting for a movie about Brits, celebrated an English saint and reflected upon a British philosopher of history.  A raging Anglophile I may be, but all this talk of Britain got me a little concerned.  Am I not American?  Is everything simply better over there?  Does America have nothing I want to celebrate?

As these questions rolled around in my mind, I was struck by one particularly American aspect of my life: food.  Many of the foods I make on a regular basis are staples of "traditional" American menus.  A fair number actually have their roots in other countries or cultures, though they have been adopted with typically American assimilation.  Likewise, most of these recipes came to me through a mix of family, cook books and good old tinkering.  Perhaps the same results could have come about in another place, but these foods and their stories strike me as quintessentially American.  And so I plan to share a few.

Today's recipe has a slightly odd genesis.  I began making beans and rice because it was cheap, filling and kept well.  I just threw together some ingredients.  If there was any inspiration, it was probably my father's Ham & Beans recipe.  But this was certainly a different creation, a vaguely Southwestern dish for the hungry bachelor.  But after I got married, I discovered that my wife - whose mother is from Mississippi and whose father is from Louisiana - expected "beans and rice" to be New Orleans-style red beans and rice.  With the guidance of her poking and a few pointers from my mother-in-law, my bachelor recipe evolved into something of which I am rather proud.  It looks more Southern than Southwestern now, but I think it retains hints of its origins (in both my homeland and my hungry bachelor phase).  Enjoy!

Red Beans & Rice

3 cups dry beans (I often use one each of kidney, small red and pinto beans, but sometimes I use black too)
2 cans diced tomatoes (I usually use one "Mexican style" and one with green chilis)
14 oz kielbasa sausage, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 Tbsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

Soak beans overnight or quick soak (ie, bring to rolling boil, turn off and let soak for 1 hr).  Begin simmering beans with tomatoes and lots of water.  Saute sausage, onion, green pepper and garlic in vegetable oil.  Add sausage mixture and remaining ingredients to beans.  Cook until beans are tender (2-3 hrs, usually).  Serve over rice.

Unfortunately, no, today's picture is not of my own making.  It comes from Simply Recipes.