Friday, July 31, 2009

How royal can we be?

So I’ve been thinking about Royal Jelly. CSB was melting wax last night in the double boiler. I’d just had a margarita and a half at Tomatillo’s so wasn’t being trusted with hot & potentially scorching materials. So he stirred the hot wax with a chopstick and I got the remote. By lovely coincidence there was a show on one of the PBS stations about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and all the myriad threats facing honeybees in this world. The usual dire prognostications about pollination and what happens when you don’t have bees to pollinate; e.g. in the pear growing region of China all the honeybees have died off so humans have to HAND POLLINATE every single pear on every single pear tree. This is profoundly tedious and frankly would make me reconsider pears. Bees are so much better at it, and they don’t make alarming television specials.

Additionally, there was footage of vats of Royal Jelly being poured into other vats. This is what riveted me. About 90% of the world’s Royal Jelly comes from China, and when you realize how it is made & harvested, you will understand why this could only happen in China. Worker bees secrete royal jelly from the hypopharyngeal glands in their heads to nourish the larvae. All the bees will get royal jelly for the first 3 days of their lives, but the Queen Bee will be fed exclusively royal jelly during her larval stage. So it is one thing for honeybees to secrete droplets of this white gelatinous substance to feed their fellow bees; it is another story completely for humans to decide that if royal jelly makes a Queen Bee, think what it will do for my aging skin. Then the keepers must convince an entire hive that they are feeding all Queens all the time. Bees of course know this is not how things are meant to be in the hive. Then you have to extract – by hand – minute quantities of this white stuff from the heads of the nurse bees. That is why the footage of huge vats of Royal Jelly blows my mind. There may be 60,000 bees in a hive at its peak, but there are billions of people in China.

I never think about Royal Jelly without thinking about Roald Dahl’s story of that name. If you only know Roald Dahl as a writer of children’s stories, think again. His stories for adults are brilliant and weird and disturbing. His creepy ability to unnerve the reader is unparalleled. As I write this I am also (sort of) fondling my copy of The Roald Dahl Omnibus, which I bought at the Strand Bookstore many years ago for $7.99. Given that there are 29 stories in the collection that comes to a little more than 27 cents a story, which has got to be one of the best values anywhere. In “Royal Jelly”, Albert Taylor, a somewhat obsessive beekeeper (we don’t know anyone of that ilk personally), aware of the remarkable function of royal jelly in the creation of a Queen Bee, decides to feed his infant daughter royal jelly. I will say no more.

This morning I finished melting the wax from our recent extraction and now there is a fine layer of pure beeswax coating every surface in our kitchen.
There is a shallow frame with honey and brood in the bathtub downstairs. Even CSB says he has no idea how it got there.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Norwegian Culinary Arts

Saint Olaf started out as a Viking pirate, then converted the Christianity in 1010 and 5 years later was the King of Norway; 15 years after that he was killed in battle, as he attempted to retake the throne that had been wrested from him by Norwegians angry at his determination to Christianize them; 844 years later a Lutheran college in Minnesota was named after him, along with a town in Otter Tail County.

[Olaf’s body was buried nearby the River Nid and promptly a spring gushed forth and naturally it had healing powers. Not unlike the spring that sprang from the burial spot of Saint Julitta, who died in 303 and whose feast is tomorrow. Not unlike so many others, so many in fact that if you put them all together all the water on the planet would have holy healing powers.]

For 75 years, from 1549 to 1625, St Olaf’s Church in Tallinn was the tallest building in the world. Until the spire was struck by lightning, and then St Mary’s Church in northern Germany took over the Tallest Title. Until it too was struck by lightning. And so on.

In remote areas of northern Norway, on St Olaf’s day, the inhabitants still eat a dish known as Saint Olaf’s Testicles, or more colloquially, Holy Balls, in honor of the saint's reputed valor in battle. It is made with fish flour, fresh mint, eggs and aquavit and then fried. Some Norwegians have this with loganberry sauce, but purists reject that addition.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Back at the Farmers Market

After a week of extracting and bottling the early summer honey (golden, champagne, delicious) I took Let it Bee to the Hastings Farmers Market yesterday. Some of you may know that I am not a natural at retail. It involves two of my weakest points: basic math, and friendly chit-chat. Not necessarily in that order. While I love going to the Farmers Market, seeing friends and neighbors I may not have seen for months, I come home afterwards and fall into a deep sleep, my fingers still sticky.
And yet, and yet.
There are always interesting discoveries. Yesterday I met Hastings own Chicken-Sitter. A lovely woman approached Let it Bee's table and asked if we kept chickens. (She is not the first to have asked that lately. I wonder why? Could it have something to do with the chicken on the cover of Absent a Miracle?) I said we did not, but would like to. She explained that she looks after chickens in Hastings when their owners go on vacation. This is a niche I did not realize existed, and yet clearly it is called for. I took down her name and email address, in anticipation of that happy day when we are collecting our own eggs and convincing Daisy and Bruno that they should suppress all their natural hunting instincts and not chase chickens. I do not anticipate success with the latter.
One of my favorite Farmers Market moments is this: inevitably, or at least at every time I've been so far, someone will come up to me and say, I'm allergic to honey. Yesterday it was a beautiful little girl who announced this fact and explained that she would get hives all over her body, and itch uncontrollably, if she ate honey. Sometime friends will feel compelled to tell me that they just don't like honey and never have; then I feel compelled to say, That's fine, not everyone likes honey, some people prefer refined sugar or corn fructose syrup, those environmentally depredatory products of pesticide-riddled monoculture that are the chief causes of the obesity epidemic in our children.
You can see why I am retail-challenged.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

From the Sublime to the Remorseful

I was going to write about the ineffable pleasure of vacuuming and cleaning our laundry room. I was going to extol the pleasures of reorganizing the sheets & consigning the ripped, torn and stained ones to the rag pile.
I was going to wax poetic about the satisfaction of gathering decades of discarded, lost & forgotten baseball caps (also dust covered) each one recalling some past event or place - a fish store in Duxbury where I bought scallops when I was married, but have not seen since; a Julie Taymor puppet production; a now bankrupt soybean seed production company in Nicaragua - and putting them all in one place, in one shopping bag from Bruxelles (courtesy of my mother, surely) and labeling it, Random Baseball Caps for Whoever Wants One.
If you ever need a random baseball cap, you can go directly to my laundry room and know that you will find one there.

I was going to spend some quality time examining why we (we, as in, all of us who inhabit older houses, anywhere) have plinths, moldings, edges, cornices and indented panels – all surfaces designed to collect dust, to accumulate dust, to hold dust close to themselves and hoard dust. I have just answered my question.
And then I come along with the crevice tool on my vacuum and drag it along the top of the floor molding, and circumnavigate the indented panels, sucking up dust as I go.
I was going to discuss all the variations on lint: every article of clothing, every sheet, towel and cushion in this house is represented in the lint build-up in this room. Years ago I noticed that in the course of cleaning out the lint tray on my dryer, that is, taking the tray out of its slot and removing the accumulated lint and putting it in the trash, motes and specks of lint flew away. And I knew perfectly well that the lint that flew away was going to settle on some molding or plinth, settle there and stay there until I came along with my vacuum or dustrag.
So I became methodical about removing the lint from the lint tray. No longer did I cavalierly pull it off in a sloppy sheet and carry it the 4 feet to the trash bin. No, I carefully transported the whole lint tray to the top of the trash bin and slowly peeled away the lint directly into the trash bin, hoping in that way to minimize the escaped lint particles.
I was going to express the inexpressible delight of gathering all the clothespins in one place, and then clipping them in a neat row to the retractable clothesline.
A retractable clothesline is such a wonderful thing that I wonder we don’t have one in every room.
But then I came upstairs and saw the carton the UPS man had just left on the front porch containing 25 copies of Absent a Miracle. I sank into terrible gloom and despond. There it is, chicken and all. It is too long & too fat. 482 pages is too much in this world. I cut the original manuscript by more than a third, until I thought I could not pare it down by one more word. I took out whole scenes involving Hubert van Toots and his demented mother, fond as I was of her. I excised crank callers to the Dream Radio Show. I killed off several of Waldo’s relatives.
It still looks too long. I suggested months ago that they make the print smaller, but they did not.
Then there is the use of the word ‘pooch’ on the front flap. The narrator, Alice Fairweather, never once refers to her dogs or any others dogs as pooches. She never would, and neither would I. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with the word ‘pooch’, it’s just that I don’t use it, but there it is on the front flap, taunting me.
As for the back flap, it says very plainly: This is her first novel. But on the page in the front listing previous works, Expecting, my (ahem) first novel, is at the top of the list. How did this happen? Will anybody besides me notice? Perhaps it was determined that Expecting is not a novel. I thought it was a novel at the time, even though it resembled in many ways my own pregnancy. But my grandmother’s name was not Esmerelda and she never ran off to a tropical island with a lover, so it has to be a novel.
I won’t even get into the author photograph and all the ways it disturbs me.
Why exactly this despair? Before the book became this physical reality I could pretend that many things could happen, specifically, that it would be reviewed in the Times and I would not have to crawl into the woodchuck hole. But now it is a physical reality taking up floor space in the front hall, and I have no idea if the Times or anyone else will review it or if anyone will finish it. Or like it.

And on top of everything, it seems just a little unfair that there is a chicken on the cover of the book but we still have no chickens. We can’t get chickens because we don’t have a chicken house and we can’t built a chicken house until we build a honey house, and the absence of a honey house is getting to be a desperate situation, because this house is full of apicultural stuff. The extractor is in the kitchen. The shelves downstairs are weighed down with 50 cases of hexagonal glass honey jars. On top of C through M of the Encyclopedia Britannica are sheets of wax foundation wrapped in newspaper. There are hive tools atop the bedroom dresser. Supers are stacked in the pantry and the dining room. Four years worth of Bee Culture are under our bed.

If you’ve read this far you really are a brave soul and deserve better than a self-piteous screed. A thought? Go out and buy a copy of Absent a Miracle. Tell your friends it’s not as long as it looks (large print).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Eleven Singing Nuns, and some others

Hard on the heels of Bastille Day we have the feast of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne. These 16 women (11 sisters, 3 lay sisters and 2 servants) were beheaded on this day in 1794, the year of the Terror. Before laying their heads upon the block, all 16 knelt down before the guillotine and chanted “Veni Creator”. At that time about 55 people were being guillotined every day, but even so, one imagines that this gracious exit of the nuns made something of an impression. This scene is the tearful climax of Poulenc’s opera, “Dialogue of the Carmelites”, one of my favorites.

Their heads thus separated from their bodies, all parts were thrown into a common grave at the Cemetery of Picpus. Over 1300 headless bodies and their heads were buried at Picpus before Robespierre himself went to the guillotine and the garden was closed. In 1803 it reopened as a private cemetery. In 1834 the Marquis de Lafayette was buried there. You can visit today, pay 3 Euros, and you will find him by the American flag. You will not find the graves of the 16 Carmelites, whose remains were lumped together, which means that there are no relics to be revered, enshrined, or bartered with.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bridesmaids in Fezzes

The dreaming mind is an amazing thing. Consider this pre-dawn conflation: a parade of francophone bridesmaids wearing fezzes.

Of the three weddings we’ve been to in the past months, only one featured bridesmaids, the traditional gaggle of pretty girls – but none so pretty as the bride - wearing matching unflattering gowns in colors named for fruits.

I would be lying if I said that the fate of the Odd Fellows Hall in Bingham, Maine has not been on my mind. It was last used by a genuine Odd Fellow 13 years ago, though its current owner and recent inhabitant (David Jones) says that he was made an honorary Odd Fellow when he lived there. It is 10,500 sq. ft., of post and beam construction, and in perfect condition. Mr. Jones was hoping to get $100,000, but says he will take $85,000. The sad part is: if he gets anything at all he will be lucky. The Odd Fellow plaque just doesn’t have the cachet it used to.

And then there was the obituary of Richard Hagan in the Morning Sentinel, listing his Masonic memberships and titles, a list that cries out to be set to music.
"He was also an active 32nd degree Mason, a lifetime member of the Riverside Lodge No. 135 of Jefferson, Ancient Brothers Lodge No. 178 of Auburn, Bradford Chapter No.9, Dunlap Chapter No.8, Pine Cone Council No.31, and Valley of Portland Consistory; Past Officers Association No.1, Lewiston Commandary No.6, Eusebius Conclave No.3, Red Cross of Constantine, Maine Lodge of Research, Pine Tree Priory No.65 York Knight Cross of Honor, Valley of the Androscoggin, Dirigo College No.103, Lake View Chapter No.179 Order of Eastern Star; High Twelve Mid Coast Masonic Club No. 738 – Rockport, and life member of the Keystone Royal Arch Lodge No.24 – Rockport, past district deputy for Masonic District No.7, member of the Scottish Rites in Auburn and past high priest of Scottish Rites.”

Neither the Odd Fellows nor the Masons wear fezzes, but the Shriners do, and the Shriners are an offshoot of the Masons, and they are all secret societies featuring elaborate rituals, initiation rites, mystical titles, hierarchies and yes, funny hats.
(Not being a Mason, or even of Masonic material, I don’t know what Scottish Rites are, but I hope and pray they involve bagpipes and flaming torches.)

Bon Papa, my Belgian grandfather used to wear a fez when they lived in Egypt, but only when he smoked a pipe. Only when seated in his special armchair. When he was settled in with his pipe and his fez, Ahmed would bring Bon Papa exactly 10 ounces of chilled Belgian ale, made by Trappist monks back in Wallonia and shipped regularly to Cairo, and he would pore over maps of the Upper Nile and Sudan. In all ways except the beer, my grandfather preferred his life in Egypt to life in Belgium.

Somewhere in my mother’s attic is my grandfather’s fez, wrapped in tissue paper and labeled: Fez of Arnold Brancart. My mother labels everything, in detail, in permanent markers, with dates & provenance; she is to Labeling what YoYo Ma is to the cello and what Meryl Streep is to acting and what Serena Williams is to tennis.

I am told Bon Papa spoke perfect English, but he forgot it in his later years, so I only spoke French with him.

One of the ‘floats’ in the West Athens Fourth of July Parade, was the perennial “Always a Bridesmaid.” I had o explain the joke to CSB, who oddly enough had never heard the old saw, Always a bridesmaid, Never a Bride. As you can see, he was not wearing a fez.

Fezzes are named after the city of Fez in Morocco. Once my sister and I stood on a rooftop in the Medina and looked down on other rooftops covered with raw leather curing in vats of colored dyes, and then drying in the sun. The active ingredient – the fixative- in the dye, was pigeon guano. The vats were tended by young men whose skin became permanently colored to match the fezzes.
We spoke French in Morocco, did not wear fezzes, and did not encourage my mother to use her kitchen Arabic.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What to do when it is rain rain raining at Pleasant Pond for days on end?

• Wrack your brain for synonyms for rain & its attributes: deluge, precipitation, perilous precipitation, burst clouds & cloudbursts, torrential downpour, monsoon, cataract, pluvial unloading… swampy, malarial, foetid, muggy, miasmic, wet.
• Study the sky and look for cracks in the clouds that will reveal a leakage of blue; interpret every shift in light as “the sun coming out”.
• Get out the puzzles. Luckily for us – or not? - CSB’s grandmother, L.M., was very fond of puzzles and amassed a collection of wooden jigsaw puzzles featuring bucolic rural scenes. L.M. was born in Bingham, Maine, back when Bingham was a good place to be born. Now that the lumber mill has closed, “hoodlums” hang out on every corner and the Odd Fellows Hall is for sale, along with most every other building. She favored a brand of Wood Interlocking Jigsaw Puzzles made in England and sold at Glencraft, in South Windham, Maine.
• Read the local papers. CSB has turned me into a devoteé of the Morning Sentinel. He has taught me to appreciate obits written by family members: in central Maine every deceased was married to “the love of his/her life” and they are without fail “avid” hunters/fishermen/ outdoorsmen. Women are always “devoted” to their children and/or their husbands; absent those basic appendages it is their nieces, nephews and/or cats to whom the female in question was devoted. Given the state of the local economy, the obituaries are often the most cheerful section of the paper.
• Read about Madame de Staël (1766-1817) and Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). Whenever I see the name Benjamin Constant my ears/eyes perk up, and not on account of my encyclopedic knowledge of French literature. Many years ago I went to the Colombian Amazon. Colombia has a sliver of land that extends down to the Amazon, because of course they want a piece of the Amazonian shore, as any self-respecting country would, and at the tip of the sliver is a town called Leticia. That is where we went. Leticia was a muddy, swampy, humid (Sound familiar? Leticia was MUCH hotter.) dump populated by escaped convicts, three-headed tapirs and defrocked priests. If you walked across the border into Brazil you were in the town of Benjamin Constant*, also a fetid agglomeration of shabby decaying houses. We walked to Benjamin Constant and visited a lopsided church on stilts. Inside the church (Saô Lorenço I think) a tape recorder was plugged into a long extension cord running down the nave, and all day long it played a recording of a Mass, including the music, the sermon in Portuguese, and the mumbled responses. Someone had rigged the recorder to play continuously, though I don’t know how. I didn’t know then that Benjamin Constant had been a lover of Madame de Staël, and I certainly didn’t know that his novel Adolphe (1816) is considered to be, by some, the forerunner of the modern psychological novel. On the other side of Leticia was Peru.
• Play full contact Scrabble. This means we thumb or arm wrestle to determine the correctness of a challenged word. Does TRAVELLER have one or two L’s? I would like it to be 2, because then I also get CURL from CUR. I lost the wrestle.
• Make collages from newspaper and NYRB cuttings.
• Listen to messages on the home answering machine. Long lost friends visiting from afar; a neighbor heading for the beach; a recording of the county executive expressing his deep concern about identity theft and encouraging us to bring our papers to the county’s mobile shredder (little does he know how excited I get by the very thought of a mobile shredder); my dentist reminding me I am six months overdue for a cleaning; and CSB’s x-wife gratuitously casting aspersions on my looks and moral character.
• You know it has rained for too many days when Listening to the Answering Machine is considered an Activity.

* It seems that for all these years I have been mistaken, in error and very wrong about the eponymous Benjamin Constant. The town, according to Wikipedia, was named for a Brazilian military man (1836-1891), who, having been born 6 years after the death of THE Benjamin Constant, I have to assume was named for the French writer and lover.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Independence day at the Free Republic of West Athens, Maine

Athens, Greece, the cradle of western civilization, lies across the sea from Alexandria, Egypt. In the ancient center of town is the Parthenon, the classical temple to Athena that is emblematic of the artistic achievements of Attic Greece.
Athens, Greece is south of Rome, northwest of Cairo, and east from Madrid.
Athens, Maine is north of Rome, northeast of Paris, northwest of China, northeast of Mexico, and north of Peru.
There are 800 residents and there is no center of town that you would recognize as such.

This is what we did on the Fourth of July, while we were at Pleasant Pond in north central Maine, which I am sorry to report was not as Pleasant as normal, on account of wind, rain, fog, grey clouds, low temperatures, mosquitoes carrying a new strain of arctic malaria, loons calling off-key and more of the same. We read in the Morning Sentinel about the parade in Athens and decided to go. We stopped at Jimmy’s in Bingham to ask directions, and the cashier said, “I hope you have a very open mind.” The man at Berry’s in West Forks said, “They’re a bunch of ne’er do well potheads. I’ve never been.”

We headed down 201, the Kennebec Chaudiére, turned left after Solon and left again towards Athens.
We arrived around 11, pulled over by a field and walked along the road until we saw a scrum of revelers. There was white van parked at a corner with a tattered doll dangling from a fishing pole.

This was the mascot of the Fallen Angels.
Because we did not have a cooler on wheels filled with BudLite, we realized we were unprepared for the event. I have never seen so many coolers on wheels in one place in my life, but that may say more about my activities than anything else. Every group of teenagers – and their children– was accompanied by their cooler on wheels.

It turns out the West Athens parade is a tradition of some 36 years standing, which would put its inception at 1973. An overriding theme seems to be the movement to legalize marijuana, but each year there is also a topical theme, this year’s was the stimulus and how it was not stimulating much in north central Maine.
The parade ends up in an old quarry for a play and the traditional Fourth of July salute from the Free Republic of West Athens: everyone, old and young, faces south, raises their middle fingers skyward and shouts out. That was the moment when I thought: we really have entered another zone here.
But back to the parade.

There was the Wild West Athens float featuring stoned gunslingers, kinky harnesses & revelry. And a man in a bathtub taking a bath.
There was the I Miss America pageant, presented by the antiwar group, CODE PINK. Contestants included I Miss Truth, I Miss Defied, I Miss Represented, I Miss Used Funds and Abu Barbie.
There was of course a Michael Jackson float. And the anti-Michael Elvis impersonator.

Here are the Corn & their banner. Are they protesting genetically modified crops? Or same-sex marriage? Neither? Or both?

There was a Legalize Marijuana Float.

There was a float with a young man standing in front of a keg of beer. A tube was attached to the keg’s spout and passed through the young man’s legs, so that he could piss beer, which he did, and beer was dispensed freely for young and old.

The Shroom Float featured mushrooms atop a pile of garbage. And a scantily clad young woman.
Scantily clad young women were to be found on most floats, de rigueur.

Next to the rolling coolers, the most important accessories were multiple tattoos. I have never seen so many tattoos in one place before, but CSB says that is because I don’t get let out much.
My favorite t-shirt slogan (that I am willing to put in print): IF WERE NOT RELATED/THEN WE HAVENT DATED.
I fear my description and pictures do not do justice to the West Athens Parade. It was marvelously transgressive. It was also terribly depressing to see so many teenage parents dead drunk at noon while their children watched. It was, clearly, the anti-Fourth of July Parade. Not a fire truck to be seen. It was also a meta-parade. The concept itself is being taken into another realm. The humor was often Shakespearean, delighting in cross-dressing and gender-bending. At other times it was Chaucerian, with the broadest of sexual jokes and scatological references. (These last are also the staple of the nursery-school school carpool, as I fondly recall.)
The last ‘float’ to sputter its way down the road was the white van bearing the Fallen Angels, their wings off-kilter, their white face paint smeared, and in many cases, literally falling down drunk.

Such is Independence Day in the Free Republic of West Athens.