Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

220px-Abraham_Lincoln_by_Byers,_1858_-_crop

When my mother tells me I have to read a book, it’s written in a way no other book she’s ever read is written, and then gives me the book, I read it. I was so impressed by this unprecedented move on her part, I read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders in less than 24 hours.

Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, that Lincoln. And his son, Willie. The one who died. And the Bardo, according to Saunders’ website, is what purgatory is known as in the Tibetan tradition.
Willie Lincoln

As you may remember, William Wallace Lincoln died of apparent typhoid at the age of 11 in 1872, during Lincoln’s second year in office. Specifically, he died at 5 p.m. on February 24, a few days after the Lincolns hosted an extravagant state dinner during which the President and First Lady traipsed upon and down the White House stairs any number of times to check on their beloved child. In Saunders’ novel, the two events — dinner and death — seem to occur simultaneously. Newspapers reported at the time that Lincoln returned to Willie’s crypt several times.

From this truth, Saunders launches a spectacularly innovative novel, a large portion of which is composed of a compilations of citations from actual historical novels. The rest of the narrative is composed of the voices of … well, of the residents of Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie Lincoln was entombed.

Sad.

roger bevin iii

Very sad.

hans vollman

Especially given what we knew.

roger bevin iii

His boy was not “in some bright place, free of suffering.”

hans vollman

No.

roger bevin iii

Not “resplendent in a new mode of being.”

hans vollman

Au contraire.

roger bevin iii

As is their custom, several denizens of the cemetery greet young Willie moments after he arrives, expecting him to move on quickly, as most young people do, in the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” by which the cemetery dwellers leave the place. But Willie doesn’t move on. He’s waiting. Waiting to see what his father wants him to do.

In the course of Willie’s wait, we meet dozens, hundreds perhaps, of the cemetery folks,

Gorey

drawing by Edward Gorey

most of whom believe they are “sick,” having arrived there in a “sick-box,” and temporarily detained from their other, earth-bound life. In the cemetery, as in the country, there is dissension: all of the black residents must remain outside the iron fence with the criminals and low class whites. Each resident has his or her own distinct view of why they are in the bardo and how long they may have to wait, but none other than a reverend who ran away from his own judgment day seem to have any awareness of his or her own state; that is “dead.”

I found Saunders’ reach into the historical citations and commentary a fascinating tool. He compiles these quotations not as a means of bolstering his own story, but quite often to show the divergence of history reportage. In fact, perhaps he is making the commentary that fact is as fictional as fiction. A stimulating concept in these days of fake news.

A common feature of these narratives is the golden moon, hanging quaintly above the scene.

In “White House Soirees: An Anthology”

By Bernadette Evon.

There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.

Wickett, op. cit.

A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to human folly.

In “My Life,” by Delores P. Leventrop.

The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.

Sloane, op. cit.

If this reminds you of Our Town, you’re not alone. I’ve had the good fortune of performing in both Thornton Wilder’s beloved play and in Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters and it seems to me that Lincoln in the Bardo owes as much to these two dramas as it does to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Edward Gorey’s body of work.

I most enjoyed the sections of the novel that escorted me inside Abraham Lincoln’s mind, Saunders’ portrait of the turmoil of family and country roiling the President, the citations of historical criticism that speculated Lincoln would be the worst president in history.

In short, thanks Mom!

Lincoln Bardo bookMENU

The menu for the state dinner is given in a quotation from Epstein, as “tender pheasant, fat partridge, venison steaks, Virginia hams . . . canvasback ducks, fresh turkeys, and thousands of tidewater oysters shucked an hour since and iced, slurped raw, scalloped in butter and cracker meal, or stewed in milk.”

Additionally, there are descriptions of towering sugar confections, where chocolate fish swim in a pond of candy floss and hives swarming with lifelike sugar bees are filled with charlotte russe.

Charlotte Russe

According to Betty Crocker, a “russe” is a molded dessert. Charlotte Russe is made of lady fingers and Bavarian cream. I found a nice explanation and a recipe for a Victorian Charlotte Russe on the Great British Bake-Off web site: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/recipes/the-great-british-bake-off-how-to-make-a-charlotte-russe/.

My menu would include small muffins and rolls with turkey and Virginia ham. I would avoid the pheasant, partridge and venison, since I don’t have a source for those, but oysters depending on the time of year would be fun.

MUSIC

A few years ago, I was able to perform in the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration at Washington’s Kennedy Center as part of the Lexington Singers organization. Our performance was comprised of multiple Civil War songs including The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Dixie, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, the Battle Cry of Freedom, the Star-Spangled Banner. My favorite was a version of Shenandoah. This is a lovely version of that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1EG_4IBzbA.

Happy reading and eating!

Post-Arthurian Apocalyptic Fantasy: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Failure of Sir Gawain by William Morris

The Failure of Sir Gawain by William Morris

I’ve struggled for two days with what to say about The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel.  I guess I will begin here:  it’s a knights and dragons fantasy, an Arthurian romance, a Medieval adventure, a journey, a treatise on love and loss, an allegory, a meditation on war and peace and success and failure.  It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s occasionally funny.

As the best novels do, The Buried Giant begins with a journey.  Axl and Beatrice emerge from a barely-remembered and undefined term of darkness in their buried city with a plan to take a journey.

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know.  But it’s time now to think on it anew.  There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay.”

“A journey, princess?  What sort of journey?”

“A journey to our son’s village.  It’s not far, husband, we know that.  Even with our slow steps, its a few days’ walk at most, a little way east beyond the Great Plain.  And the spring will soon be upon us.”

The journey is prompted by the couple’s wish to remember.  Not only Axl and Beatrice, but their entire country, where Britons live shoulder to shoulder in an uneasy peace with Saxons, is surrounded in a mist of forgetfulness.  “We can’t even remember [the days when we were foolish young lovers].  We don’t remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured.  We don’t remember our son or why he’s away from us,” Beatrice frets.

The setting of the novel is somewhere in Southern England between the fall of the Roman empire and the driving out of the Celtic tribes by the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh or eighth century.  To me, a big fan of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table, I imagine that Ishiguro chose Glastonbury as the setting for The Buried Giant.  Glastonbury has long been linked to Arthurian legend and particularly to Avalon, the isle of the dead, where the spirits of the deceased would dwell.  In a story told by Caradoc of Llancarfan, Melwas, king of the “Summer Country,” kidnapped Guinevere while she was a-maying.  It took Arthur an entire year to find her and then he and his army attached Melwas’ stronghold but it was not until Gildas, the Christian cleric said to reside in Glastonbury, negotiated a peace treaty with Melwas that she was released.  (Another version has Lancelot responsible for her rescue and thus begins their affair).  King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table, David Dom (lulu.com 2013).

This becomes more important, perhaps, when the first person Axl and Beatrice meet on their journey is a boatman and one of his former, would-be passengers.

“Good lady, the island this old woman speaks of is no ordinary one.  We boatmen have ferried many there over the years, and by now there will be hundreds inhabiting its fields and woods.  But it’s a place of strange qualities, and one who arrives there will walk among its greenery and trees in solitude, never seeing another soul.  Occasionally on a moonlit night or when a storm’s ready to break, he may sense the presence of his fellow inhabitants.  But most days, for each traveller, its as thought he’s the island’s only resident.  I’d happily have ferried this woman, but when she understood she wouldn’t be with her husband, she declared she didn’t care for such solitude and refused to go.”

Their next stop, in a Saxon village, brings them in contact with Wistan, a Saxon soldier, and Edwin, a Saxon teenager, recently rescued by Wistan from something terrible which may or may not have involved a dragon’s unhealing wound.  Wistan and Edwin will travel with Beatrice and Axl to find none other than Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and the last surviving knight of his realm. As they quartet commences to fulfill a quest which now includes slaying a dragon as well as finding a son, they meet crones, monks, secret fortresses, pixies, hidden tunnels, treacherous allies, and ultimately, one very sad dragon.  Essentially, one episode of Game of Thrones, I take it.

From Disney's Sleeping Beauty

From Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

Ishiguro is a master storyteller and draws the reader through the landscape with increasing anxiety for our protagonists.  First Wistan, then Galahad, claim to recognize Axl from the distant past.  Axl himself seems to remember a time before the mist when he may have been a man of some importance, a man negotiating a peace as suggested by the meaning of his name.  Beatrice, whose own name means traveler, recalls the journey of Dante’s Beatrice in The Divine Comedy, where Beatrice guides Dante through the celestial spheres of Heaven.

Or maybe I am digging too deep or imprinting my own interpretation.  Alex Preston wrote in his review for The Guardian:

It is possible to construct specific interpretations for Ishiguro’s novel. One thinks of Primo Levi in 1948, feeling that If This Is a Man, his memoir of the Holocaust, was a “discourtesy” in the forward-looking postwar world. We can view the “buried giant” as the way history has been swept over any number of genocides, from Armenia to Rwanda. It may even be an explanation for the disappearance of the Britons – killed not by marauding Saxons, but by their own guilt.

Focusing on one single reading of its story of mists and monsters, swords and sorcery, reduces it to mere parable; it is much more than that. It is a profound examination of memory and guilt, of the way we recall past trauma en masse. It is also an extraordinarily atmospheric and compulsively readable tale, to be devoured in a single gulp. The Buried Giant is Game of Thrones with a conscience, The Sword in the Stone for the age of the trauma industry, a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the duty to remember and the urge to forget.  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/01/the-buried-giant-kazuo-ishiguro-review-game-of-thrones-conscience

Neil Gamian, master storyteller himself, reviewed The Buried Giant for The New York Times:

Alfred Kappes, 1880

Alfred Kappes, 1880

Ishiguro is not afraid to tackle huge, personal themes, nor to use myths, history and the fantastic as the tools to do it. “The Buried Giant” is an exceptional novel, and I suspect my inability to fall in love with it, much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist, telling us that no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human, and that for every couple who are aging together, one or the other of them — of us — will always have to cross the water, and go on to the island ahead and alone.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/books/review/kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant.html?_r=0

My recommendation:  read it.  I think you will enjoy it.  And I think there is quite a bit to discuss.  Lots of symbolism.  And meaning of life.  And if you have married couples, you can debate whether you will be able to both cross the lake and be able to stay together once you reach the island.  Just don’t blame me for the fight!

MENU

I’m choosing a menu taken directly from the pages of the book.  Beatrice and Axl are guests of village elder Ivor at the Saxon village.  He serves them bread, honey, biscuits, jugs of milk and water and a tray of poultry cuts.

Bachelor Biscuits — my favorites (and easy)

2 c. self rising flour
1/4 c. shortening
1 c. milk
Preheat oven to 450 to 475 degrees. Place flour in mixing bowl; add shortening. With pastry blender or blending fork, cut shortening into flour until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.Gently push the flour mixture to the edges of the bowl, making a well in the center. Blend the milk with a fork until dough leaves sides of bowl. Do not overmix.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead gently 10 to 12 strokes. On lightly floured surface, pat or roll dough to slightly more than 1/2 inch thickness. Cut with 2 or 2 1/2 inch cutter, dipping cutter into flour between cuts.

 Drop dough from tablespoon onto greased baking sheet; bake 6-8 minutes til golden. Makes 12.
Bourbon-Honey Chicken
1/2 Cup Bourbon
1/2 Cup Honey
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
Black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Increase marinade in proportion if necessary for increased amount of chicken.  Marinate chicken for 6-8 hours in the refrigerator.  Then grill if possible, or oven cook at 375 degrees for 20-30 minutes (without bone) and finish with a couple minutes under the broiler to get caramelization.
MUSIC
My choice would be the soundtrack from 1994’s Excalibur.  Trevor Jones’ compositions written for the film were a mix of post-Romantic and new age material, interspersed with and decidedly antiquated folk-based sounds, pieces for tin whistle juxtaposed with works for eerie female chorus and strange musical oscillations; other works intermingle folk and classical material of extraordinary density and power, according to reviewer Bruce Eder.  There’s also some Wagner in there!
CASTING
Given that this is the 7th or 8th century, 50 would be ancient.  So . . .
AXL — Daniel Day-Lewis
Beatrice — Ah, you know who would be perfect for this?  Vivien Leigh.  Alas.  Helena Bonham Carter.
Wistan — Alexander Skarsgard
Edwin — Isaac Hempstead White (from Game of Thrones)
Sir Gawain — Sean Connery (who else?)
first-knight-5

A New Year, a Guest Blogger and American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

new year's eve

     Happy 2015!  If part of your new year plans include reading great books, beginning or continuing a book club, eating great food and listening to good music, I hope you’ll include daeandwrite in your plans.  My next featured book will be The Hundred Year House, by Rebecca Makkai, one of my top five reads of 2014.  But today, special guest blogger Maestro Robert Baldwin, Music Director/Conductor of the Salt Lake Symphony and Professor at the University of Utah, joins us to review American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.  I know “Dr. B.” from performing in It’s a Grand Night for Singing at the University of Kentucky for several years.  Dr. B. returns to his former home at U.K. to conduct the show, and spread his good-humor and knowledge.  He also writes about music, creativity, imagination and the spaces in between:  https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com.

A Story Waiting to Pierce Us: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Review by Robert Baldwin

 American_gods

     Good books absorb and entertain, even as they challenge your assumptions. Neil Gaiman’s works have defied categorization ever since he entered professional life as a graphic artist and writer of the Sandman series. His journey from comics to award-winning novelist goes straight through American Gods, the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel of 2001. Even if good books are semi-autobiographical, Gaiman has excelled also at perhaps writing a biography of every American as well. It is a cleverly crafted book that will entertain, challenge and engage, even as it waits to drive the nails home (that an enigmatic spoiler alert…).

Journeys define our lives. Every trip, whether actual or metaphorical, challenge us with the unknown even as it reveals the familiar. Good books do the same. In American Gods, Gaiman takes us on a journey of our inner landscape by way of weird America. As if America was not weird enough, we also meet characters from around the world: Mr. Wednesday (the Norse god, Odin), as well as other gods, spirits, legends from humanity’s cultural memory chest.

Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today? … And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn’t room for them both in the world. And that some kind of war is kind of likely.

Gaiman takes the concept of an American Melting Pot and gives us the dysfunctional spiritual legacy of humankind, about to run head-long into the 21st century. But Gaiman, an Englishman, is looking at America from the outside. The weirdness he sees is filtered through his Englishness. And that is what makes the book work, in my opinion. The recent English transplant has the unique vision to see what is truly going on.

Georg_von_Rosen_-_Oden_som_vandringsman,_1886_(Odin,_the_Wanderer)

Oden som vandringsman (Odin, the Wanderer) by Swedish painter Georg von Rosen (1843-1923)

America is a country of travelers and seekers. No matter where we are now, our ancestors came from somewhere else, seeking a new life. That we Americans continue to do so in our daily lives, careers and pastimes is beautifully and frighteningly clear in American Gods. 

“This is the only country in the world,” said Wednesday, into the stillness, “that worries about what it is.”
“What?”
“The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.”

Like many Americans, I’m a bit of everything: Scottish, English, Polish, Swedish. But the northern European blood is strong. Perhaps that’s why the characters and Old Gods in Gaiman’s universe seem so real…and so dangerously familiar. But I’m also an American. I’m writing this review on a computer made in China after eating a meatloaf spiced with Moroccan spices, bought at a store that I drove to in my Japanese car.

The essence of America? Everything came from somewhere else.

That is the place Gaiman takes us. But instead of things or people, he casts gods, myths and legends into the mold. Old thought-forms appear as morticians, swindlers, prostitutes, killers, and con men. Sounds unsavory, but the alternatives are the New Gods: sinister personifications of technology, media and the stock market. Gaiman cleverly anthropomorphizes today’s vices and dangers as convincingly as the old gods that have been with humans from the time immemorial. Sadly, both are as dysfunctional as our human neighbors. Yet both also have qualities that attract us.

The book follows an enigmatic character named Shadow, recently released from prison. Therein lies another metaphor, as most of us exist in prisons of our own making. Shadow is us; or, rather, we are Shadow.

At times the book seems like Joseph Campbell on an Ayahuasca trip. American Gods is alien, yet familiar: at times quite uncomfortable, yet personally reflective. It is a parallel universe of our human failings as well as triumphs. It challenges, entertains and injects humor in all the right places. Even if it falls short as the perfect novel, it excels at being a perfect story. It is the story of us. The story of U.S.

The best authors help us to ask big questions. Neil Gaiman is no different. He excels in positing “what if?” What if things were not as they seem. What if they are exactly as they seem? What if our thoughts are real? What is everything is an illusion?

People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghost, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.

     American Gods presents a travelogue of the psyche. Well-versed in the concepts of Jung, Freud and Campbell, Gaiman introduces us to Odin, Loki, Anansi and Johnny Appleseed (a quintessentially “American” god). But be careful, if you solve the mystery, you may not like what you discover.

“All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want. But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them.”

But maybe, if you are lucky, you may just find your new creed.

“I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where Marilyn_Monroe_in_Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_trailernobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectable, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”

MENU:

All-American Fare with a Twist; Hamburgers, of course. But in the spirit of the book, you’ll have to travel across America to try them:

http://www.zagat.com/b/international-burgers

MUSIC:

The entire Ring des Niebelungen by Richard Wagner (Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung) is the perfect compliment for Mr. Wednesday’s schemes. But if you need a break from 17 hours of opera, progressive rock will get you into the mood. Might I suggest:

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Complete. George Solti and the Vienna Phil

Yes: America

Jethro Tull: Aqualung

King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King

MOVIE CASTING:

Gaiman writes in such a way that you see yourself embodied in each character. Old Gods tend to be that way anyway, so if you see yourself in the role, go for it!

The Starzz Network has picked up the option for a miniseries, due out in 2016. No word yet on casting.

 

 

 

God Bless Us, Everyone: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

fezziwig

And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

    Is there one among us who is unfamiliar with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come?  Who knows not that Marley was dead, to begin with, in fact, “dead as a door-nail?”  Whose tears of Tiny Tim’s untimely fate have not been shed?  A Christmas Carol, published by Charles Dickens, in 1843, has been adapted more times than the number of its pages (160) with portrayals as varied as Mr. Magoo and Alastair Sim.  Wikipedia has an exhaustive (and at times amusing) list:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptations_of_A_Christmas_Carol.  (I did not realize there had been a Jetson’s Christmas Carol — how could I have missed that?)  And here’s a completely new version:  novelist Neil Gaiman reading Dickens’ own hand-edited copy at a public reading at the New York Public Library:  http://www.openculture.com/2014/12/hear-neil-gaiman-read-a-christmas-carol-just-as-dickens-read-it.html.  Incidentally, there are several free, full texts of the novella on line.

      A Christmas Carol takes merely an hour or so to read from cover to cover, yet is filled with an indelible story, spirit, characters and lines we all know by heart.

Bah Humbug

Every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips would be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly in his heart

There’s more of gravy than of grave about you

Many many more, but most famous, “God Bless Us, Everyone.”

     I re-read A Christmas Carol this week, something I haven’t done for several years, and found it as touching as ever, more detailed than I recalled and surprisingly full of humor.  That Dickens was a funny guy.  I did not recall this humorous description of Scrooge’s reaction to Marley’s ghost:

His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, could see the two buttons on his waistcoat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it till now.

Marley's_Ghost-John_Leech,_1843

     So, yeah, it’s a classic, we know we know.  Get to the recipes.  I shall but before I do, may I wish you and yours the Merriest of Christmas, the Happiest of Hanukahs, the most blessed of Kwanzaas . . . and God Bless Us, Everyone.

MENU

When the Ghost of Christmas Past transports Scrooge to Fezziwig’s ball, a splendid repast is detailed.

. . . there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of cold roast, and there was a great piece of cold boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer.

Negus?  Negus.  Apparently a concoction made of wine, hot water, lemon, sugar and nutmeg, invented by Col. Francis Negus in the 18th Century.  Thanks to Jane Austen (janeausten.com), I can share with you the recipe should you be so inclined to go all out Regency/Victorian at your book club.  http://www.janeausten.co.uk/negus/  I also tried to find the definitive answer for what “cold boiled” might be.  There are disagreements as to whether it is boiled beef, pork or chicken.  To all boiled meats I say:  NAY!

There’s another fine description of foodstuffs when the Ghost of Christmas Present appears surrounded by a mountain of comestibles.  This is quite the food pyramid.

. . . turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch . . .

My menu would include:

Chestnuts:  Preheat oven to 400.  Using a very sharp knife, mark raw chestnuts with an X.  Bake on a cookie sheet for 15-20 minutes.

Sausage and cheese plate with apple and pear slices

Turkey.  Now, let me tell you I’ve been elected/volunteered to be the family chef of the turkey for the past couple of Thanksgivings and by combining the wisdom of two of my favorite chefs, Mark Bittman and Ina Garten, I think I have come up with the perfect turkey recipe.

First, prepare the turkey by removing all the stuff inside.  Get out a stick of butter and let it melt a bit so you can mush it up.  Get your hand between the flesh of the turkey breast and the skin and rub as much of the butter on the turkey all over as you can but don’t break the skin off.  Salt and pepper the bird, inside and out.  Inside the turkey, I always place a cut orange and cut lemon to keep it moist during cooking.  If you want you can add rosemary under the skin with the butter.  Now, put more butter on the exterior of the bird.

Now, preheat the oven to 500 degrees (yes, 500! have no fear).  Place the turkey on a rack inside a roasting pan.  Add 1/2 cup white wine to the bottom of the pan.  Roast for 20-30 minutes without basting just until the top begins to brown.  Then turn the oven to 350 and continue to roast, checking and basting every 30 minutes or so.  If the top gets too brown, cover it with aluminum foil.  I had a 16.9 pound turkey this year and it took about four hours and was perfect and juicy and delicious.

I had never heard of Twelfth Cake, but researching it for the blog, I love the idea!  On January 6, the Epiphany, you have a 12th Night party and every draws a card with a character.  Then you have to act and interact as that character all night long.  The cake is an elaborately decorated spice cake.  http://www.historicfood.com/John%20Mollard’s%20Twelfth%20Cake.html.  I’m not about to try anything as gorgeous as this:

Twelfth-Cake-with-feathers

But I might try this recipe from the New York Times:  http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1644-english-twelfth-night-cake

MUSIC

Almost too easy. Skip the radio MixMas, or MixMess, that plays only Feliz Navidad and Holly Jolly Christmas repeatedly.  I’m listening to the Holiday Hits channel on TimeWarner Cable as I write this afternoon, Channel 850.  I love, love, love Songza!  A free app that lets you choose music to accompany your activity.  And of course, there’s spotify and pandora.  My buddy conductor Robert Baldwin has shared a blogpost that lists ten classical Christmas works, less well-known than the Messiah:  https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/lets-expand-our-holiday-horizons/.

So, that should leave you all set for a great book club discussion of A Christmas Carol, or a 12th Night party, or just . . . a great meal.

Happy Reading!