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My office has moved to Midtown (across from Grand Central…more about that later), but I think I like the concrete canyons of Downtown better.  The streets down by Wall Street feel like I always imagined New York felt like when I was little (although so do the brownstone streets of Brooklyn).  Downtown also has unique holiday decorations–those jagged star/explosions.  Whenever I see them, I imagine Batman has just punched the lamppost and an audible “Bap” or “Kapow” is forthcoming.  I guess they are supposed to betoken universal peace or some such thing, but it sure looks like Batman went on a rampage.  Indeed, the whole downtown area sort of has the brooding gritty melancholy of Gotham…especially on foggy or wintry days.

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Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

January 14th was a fanciful medieval holiday known as the “Feast of the Ass.” The feast commemorates the flight into Egypt, a biblical episode from Christ’s (very) early career. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea heard a prophecy that a greater king than himself had just been born in Palestine. The king launched a murderous anti-infant pogrom to rid himself of competition before his rival could reach adulthood (an ugly spate of newborn killing known in Christianity as “the Massacre of the innocents”). Mary and Joseph fled Palestine with the baby Jesus. The little family traveled down into Roman Egypt with the exhausted post-partum Mary and her baby traveling on an ass (you can read about this directly in the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-23)). It was not the only episode in the Bible to portray Jesus on donkey back. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem (and to his ultimate death) he was mounted on a white ass. The medieval feast gently celebrated the donkey’s importance to Christianity with banqueting, sermons about the biblical events, and pageantry. A beautiful girl bearing a child would ride a donkey through town to the church. Thereafter the donkey stood beside the altar during the sermon. The congregation participated in the fun by answering the priest’s questions and observances by shouting “hee haw” (or whatever donkeys say in France–where the celebration was most often observed).

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1530s, oil on panel)

In our age of internet and celebrity worship, every day is the feast of the ass, but I wanted to write about the medieval celebration (which fell out of favor and vanished in the fifteenth century) so I could share these three beautiful paintings of the flight into Egypt. I also wanted this episode to be an introduction to tomorrow’s post about the donkey—for the poor animals are terribly underappreciated—being so disparagingly associated with human posteriors and loutish individuals. Additionally the donkey’s place in the world has been taken over by modern engines, and fancy patrician folk have not held on to them as a status symbol (as happened to the horse). It’s worth taking a moment and remembering that donkeys are very sacred in Christianity and have a better scriptural claim to being the animal of Christ than any other creature other than perhaps the sheep. More about asses tomorrow!

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

 

 

Longwood Gardens Outdoor light display (by Daniel Traub)

Longwood Gardens Outdoor light display (by Daniel Traub)

I’m busy sprucing up the ol’ homestead for my holiday party and putting the finishing touches on my winter solstice decorations.  As I was hanging festive lanterns in the denuded winter garden—which is empty of greenery save for the holly, the yew, and the hellebores—my minded drifted off to my favorite formal garden.  Back when I was a sullen adolescent, my family would frequently visit the princely Longwood Gardens, a summer estate of the inhumanly rich Dupont family, monopolists who controlled a world-spanning empire of industrial chemicals.  Although the Duponts are probably busy to this day despoiling things and making cheap indispensable products, they have long since turned over their formal gardens to a trust which runs them for the public benefit.  Longwood Gardens are, weirdly, located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, “the Mushroom Capital of the World!”  You can visit them any time (during business hours) if you have the fortitude to head to Pennsylvania.

Longwood Gardens Christmas

Longwood Gardens Christmas

Anyway, looking at the wintry ruins of my own garden, I wondered whether Longwood Gardens escapes the ravages of the season, and, if so, how?  Well, as you have probably guessed from the pictures, the professionals at Longwood have an exquisite winter garden!  They landscape outside with conifers, topiaries, and lights.  Inside their acres of climate controlled greenhouses, they are free to run wild and create whatever horticultural extravagances they can devise.  So, as a holiday treat, check out these exquisite garden photos!  Um, in my own garden, I put up some sparkly ornaments…and the holly really does look pretty.  I guess we’ll get back to all of the other plants in spring…

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I mean, yeah, that’s great and all…if exquisite views of an otherworldly paradise is your thing, but can they make chocolate pie with whipped topping?  Happy winter solstice!

Nutmeg

Nutmeg

Yesterday I cooked a savory chicken pie using an ancient recipe and it came out really well.  Although it has carrots, cream, mushroom, potato, boiled chicken, caramelized onion, and peas, the dominant taste is a subtle flavor which is simultaneously sweet, medicinal, and delicately evocative of some eastern paradise.  The secret ingredient is one of the strangest and most important commodities in human history—nutmeg, the ground nut from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans.

A nutmeg fruit

A nutmeg fruit

In the middle ages, nutmeg was a rare and precious ingredient.  Only a small cadre of Muslim traders knew where the spice was actually from and, after laboriously carrying it across or around the Indian Ocean, they sold it to the Venetians for substantial sums (whereupon the Venetians sold it to everyone else for exorbitant sums).  The European age of exploration was ostensibly launched in order to find the mysterious “Spice Islands” where nutmeg was from (a pursuit which had long ranging side effects, such as the European rediscovery of the Americas and the rush towards global colonial empires).

The Banda Islands

The Banda Islands

Even though the search for nutmeg kicked off an age of exploration, it was not until 1512 that the Spanish finally discovered where all the world’s nutmeg was coming from: the Banda Islands located East of Sulawesi in the middle of the Banda Sea. The Islands were thereafter contested by traders until the Dutch gained an upper hand in the 17th century.  The Dutch used this monopoly to bolster  their brief ascendancy to global superpower.  During the height of Dutch power, nutmeg was taken to Holland and stored in a giant warehouse in order to keep the price artificially high.

17th Century Amsterdam

17th Century Amsterdam

As the English began to command mastery of the seas, they inevitably fought the Dutch for control of world trade.  The Second Dutch-English war, a battle for global maritime supremacy, was fought in the Caribbean, the North Sea, at the mouth of the Thames (and, on all the oceans of the world, via privateering).  The war was fought over the global trade in slaves, fur, tobacco, and, above all, spices.  Although English privateers scored initial successes, the war became a disaster for the English when the Dutch raided their home port of Medway at the mouth of the Thames and burned their war fleet (an event which is still regarded as the worst disaster in the history of the English navy).

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

In the treaty of Breda, which ended the war, the English received the colony of New Amsterdam—thereafter named New York, whereas the Dutch claimed the greatest prize: exclusive control of the Banda Islands (and the sugar plantations of Suriname).  Thereafter the Dutch crushed hints of sedition on the Banda Islands by means of brutal executions and they led war raids on nearby territories to extirpate any nutmeg trees which had been grown or transplanted elsewhere in Indonesia.

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

During the Napoleonic Wars, the English used their naval supremacy to take over the Banda Islands and break the Dutch monopoly.  They exported trees to numerous tropical colonies (which is why Kerala and Granada are now famous for nutmeg production).  Colonial America was hardly exempt from the nutmeg craze, but because of colonial antagonisms, nutmeg was not always available at affordable prices.  The state of Connecticut became famous for unscrupulous tradesmen who would carve nutmeg seeds out of similarly colored wood and thereby earned its nickname “The Nutmeg State” (i.e. a haven for fraud) which seems appropriate given the number of wealthy financiers who live there.

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

So much for the history of nutmeg production and distribution—what about the demand? What was the reason for all of this desperate search and strife? Nutmeg was popular as a spice and tonic since ancient times when it was used by Greeks and Romans (if they could get it). During the era after the crusades it became de rigueur among aristocrats and its status only grew during the age of exploration. Wealthy gentlemen would carry nutmeg grinders on them, and hand grind nutmeg into alcoholic punches and hot drinks.  Nutmeg was baked into the fanciest pastries, pies, and cakes.  The red avril covering the nutmeg seed was ground into a separate spice named mace which is used in more delicate dishes.  As well as being used in desserts and drinks, nutmeg was used in Indian curries, eastern medicine, and at the apothecary. The fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans held a druglike sway over the wealthy classes around the globe.

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It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a powerful psychoactive substance which acts as a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).  MAOIs prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, a mysterious class of neurotransmitters which play an unknown but critical role in emotion, arousal, and cognition (indeed pharmaceutical MAOIs are one of the more useful classes of antidepressants).  In tiny doses myristicin is harmless or tonic to humans (although even in small doses it is deadly to many animals including some of our best beloved domestic friends) yet upping the dosage quickly causes nausea, seizures, splitting headaches and powerful weird hallucinations.  Every generation, the press rediscovers nutmeg as a drug and creates a moral panic, although all but the most reckless drug users are put off by nutmeg’s bitter taste in large doses—or by the ghastly descriptions of nutmeg’s physical effects.

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Indeed, the modern world has found more potent flavors (and better psychoactive powders).  Nutmeg has been relegated to grandma’s spice rack and it really only comes out during the holidays as a critical flavor in eggnog, pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and gingerbread.  This is a shame because, in small quantities nutmeg is delicious in savory dishes (like my pot pie and my favorite lasagna).  The flavor has a strange power—an intoxicating deliciousness which invades the brain and gives nutmeg dishes an irresistible quality. Believe me, because as I finish writing this, I am also finishing off that addictive pot pie (and I believe I am also starting to feel more chipper)…

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

DSC07154I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree.  Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog).  Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.

DSC07186To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life.  Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts.  The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus.  There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!

DSC07157It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it!  My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things.  Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season.  Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there!  I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.

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Wild Cranberry Bog (by Chris Seufert)

The historical roots of agriculture are a common topic of this blog–which has featured posts about the ancient domestication of pumpkins, pigs, olives, goats, and turkeys.  However not all agricultural goods have such long tangled pedigrees which stretch into prehistory.  Today we are celebrating a fruit which was first cultivated in 1816 by an American revolutionary veteran named Henry Hall.  The deep ruby-pink berries were originally known as a fenberries because the wild plants grow in acidic marshes and bogs, however something about that name struck early pioneers as unpoetic and they started calling the fruit “craneberries”—which was shortened to cranberry.

A group of men harvesting cranberries in Wisconsin.

Cranberries are low shrubs and vines of the subgenus Oxycoccus (of the genus Vaccinium, which includes other northern berries like bilberries and blueberries).  The evergreen cranberries flourish throughout cold bogs around the northern hemisphere.  Because cranberries grow in such poor acidic soil (which is also low in nitrogen) they are heavily dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi with which they are symbiotic.

Cranberries in a flooded man-made bog awaiting harvesting.

The berries become ripe from September through the first part of November. There is a long history of cranberries being hand-harvested by hunter-gatherers as a valuable source of food and dye, however modern methods involve flooding the cranberry bogs and agitating the berries from the vine (at which point they float up and can be corralled en masse).   As a food cranberries are extremely tart and contain an imposing mixture of vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and antioxidants which make them a favorite health food.    The cranberry is heavily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rich cranberry sauses, jellies, and aspics are a big part of end-of-year feasting.  They also have an association with the American Navy, which in bygone days used the vitamin C rich fruits to stave off scurvy on long voyages.  Just as sailors in the Royal Navy were limeys, American seamen were “cranberries”  (there is no word on how offensive this is, so you might not want to run into a bar and start shouting this at drunk sailors).

Every year at the banquet table, I am fascinated by how beautiful the color of cranberries is.  The berries themselves—and even more so their sauce–produce a sensuous deep crimson pink.  Endless decorators and fashion houses have adopted this color for dresses, lipsticks, walls, and what have you, but they were not the first to appreciate the color.  The people of the first nations and later colonial Americans made use of the cranberry directly as a fiber dye.  Yarns, threads, and fabrics dyed with cranberries take on a delicate lovely pink color—a direct contradiction to the idea that everything the pilgrims owned was black and white.

Yarn dyed with Cranberries (from godeysknitsof1860)

 

A Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)

Happy Easter!  To celebrate, we head down under to the island continent of Australia.  There, in the arid scrubland, lives the bilby (Macrotis lagotis) an omnivorous nocturnal marsupial with long ears, silky fur, and a long black and white tail.  Bilbies belong to the Peramelemorphia order (along with bandicoots and sundry extinct kin), and they are renowned for their ability to dig elaborate spiraling burrows and for having one of the shortest gestation periods of all mammals–a dozen days from fertilization to birth.  As is the case with the loveable wombats, bilbies’ pouches face backwards to help the animals excavate burrows and dig up supper.

Baby Bilbies in a hat! (image credit: theage.com.au)

Bilbies are blue-gray in color and they grow to about 29–55 centimetres (11–22 in) in length and 3.5 kgs (8 pounds) in weight.  They use their sharp claws to unearth a wide diet of insects, arthropods, larvae, small animals, seeds, fungi, bulbs, and fruit.  Bilbies rarely drink—they get all the moisture they need from their food.

But wait a minute!  Fossorial Marsupials? Arid scrubland?  Short gestation? What does any of this have to do with Easter?  Well, due to a century of continent-wide ecological disaster caused by a plague of invasive bunnies, Australians hate rabbits with a burning passion (although of course this was not actually the fault of rabbits but was yet another mistake made by nature’s most problematic children).  The Easter bunny is not as popular in Australia as elsewhere—giving an Australian child a candy Easter bunny would be like giving a New Yorker a chocolate Easter rat.

The Easter Bunny and the Easter Bilby

Fortunately Bilbies have boldly stepped in to the Easter bunny’s role. In a land where rabbits are regarded as an abomination, the long eared bilby has become the mascot of Easter. Throughout Australia, bilby-shaped confections and related merchandise are sold as an alternative to Easter bunnies.  Additionally a number of children’s books have popularized the Easter bilby who seems to have a touch of animist aboriginal magic.  For example a passage from Burra Nimu, the Easter Bilby, describes the dyeing of Easter eggs like a dreamtime myth of the desert:

“[The bilby] knew that eggs meant the start of new life and new hope, so he made his especially beautiful. He painted rich red eggs, the colour of the hot desert earth, and splashed them with bright sparkles, because the desert is full of life…Next, he painted soft green eggs and sprinkled them with the colours of the wild flowers he had once seen, soon after the water fell from the sky.

I always liked the Easter bunny (and don’t get me wrong, I’m still thankful for the baskets of candy and toys he left) but it seems appropriate that his role has been usurped in Australia. By taking over the function of a minor holiday deity, bilbies have gained new prominence as one of the symbols of Australian conservation.   Enjoy Easter (or Passover or Mawlid-al-Nabi) and enjoy this little bilbie gallery I have put together!

"I know I'm a symbol, but please put me down!"

December 6th, was Krampusnacht, a holiday celebrated in Alpine regions of Germany and Austria.  The festival’s roots stretch back into pre-Christian times when Germanic mountain folk paid homage to Krampus the child-stealing demon of winter darkness. Krampus was a hell-sent god with goat’s horns, coarse black fur, and a fanged maw. He would visit disobedient or inattentive children and beat them with a cruel flail before tearing them to bits with his claws (in fact “Krampus” means “claw” in old high German).  The demon would then carry the dismembered bodies back to the underworld and devour the human flesh at his leisure.

This harsh myth imparted crucial lessons about the cruel Alpine environment—which would literally reward inattention and carelessness with a terrible death and a vanished corpse. However there were also merry elements of year-end saturnalia to the celebration: young men dressed up as Krampus and drank and played pranks while unmarried women would dress as Frau Perchta—a nature spirit and fertility goddess who could appear as a hirsute old beast-woman or as a gorgeous scantily clad maiden. Amidst the mummery, feasts were held and presents were given. Unsurprisingly, when Christianity came to Northern Europe, these pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christmastime festivities.  Thus Saint Nicholas–originally a conservative Syrian bishop (who became a protector of unfortunate children after his death) obtained a devil-like alter-ego.  This wasn’t even the end of the pagan metamorphosis of Santa.  The orthodox churchman also acquired a team of flying reindeer, a tribe of subservient elves, and a magical wife as Christmas traditions moved northwards into Scandinavia and combined with the universe of Norse myth!

For a time the Krampus story traveled with Santa and became part of the Christmastime traditions of German immigrants to America.  Christmas cards and holiday stories often featured Krampus and his evil pagan god features were even incorporated into the popular conception of Satan. However, as Christmas became more important to merchants and tradesmen, the darker aspects of the story were toned down.  Additionally fascist regimes in Germany and Austria were hostile to Krampus traditions during the thirties (and the grim imagery was not wanted after the horrors of World War II when those regimes were gone).   Lately though the figure has been making a comeback in Austria and Germany and even America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in the fiend

I am writing about this because Krampus, the clawed god of winter death, is a perfect addition to this blog’s deities of the underworld category. However, I have a more personal (and twisted) Krampus tale to tell as well. As you may know I am a toymaker who crafts chimerical animal toys and writes how-to books on toy-making. Recently a friend of mine who is an art director asked if I could build some puppets for stop-motion animation.  He asked for a traditional (not-entirely jolly) Santa and for two children with no facial features–the expressions would be digitally added later.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the puppets were for a dark Krampus segment on a celebrity chef’s Christmas special. Anthony Bourdain, celebrity personality, adventurer, and bon vivant wanted to do an animated segment about this murderous gothic god who is still a vestigial part of the holiday.  The segment was supposed to go into the nationally broadcast “No Reservations” Christmas special alongside Christopher Walken and Norah Jones, but when network executives took a closer look at Krampus, child-dismembering Alpine demon, it was decided that he should remain a vestige. So much for my showbiz career (of creating an evil Santa puppet and two faceless victims)…. The stand-alone segment can still be seen by itself on Youtube (or below).  Don’t worry though, this dark holiday fable has a happy ending—I still got paid!

Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War (Carl Nebel, 1851)

September 13th is celebrated in Mexico as Día de los Niños Héroes, “the day of the boy heroes”, a holiday dedicated to the Battle of Chapultepec which occurred near the end of the Mexican–American War of 1847.  This is peculiar because the Battle of Chapultepec was not an overwhelming success for the Mexican army.  During the course of the battle, several companies of American infantry troops stormed Chapultepec Castle, a fort which guarded the western entrance to Mexico City and served as the Mexican military academy. As the Americans occupied the castle, (which was defended by cadets from the military academy as well as Mexican regulars), six young Mexican military cadets refused to fall back when the Mexican commander ordered retreat. They fought to the death and, according to legend, the last cadet left alive, Juan Escutia, grabbed the flag and lept from the castle (so that the colors would not fall into enemy hands).  The castle’s fall permitted the subsequent occupation of Mexico City and hastened Santa Anna’s end (his last battle came less than a month later at Huamantla).

Despite the battle’s outcome, the cadet martyrs of Chapultepec suited the Mexican national consciousness and were lionized as heroes.  One of the socio-political tensions which had dogged the Mexican army throughout the conflict was the distance between senior officers, who tended to be Spanish royalists at heart, and junior officers who embraced fiery republican principles.  The boy heroes were seen as a newer braver generation of Mexican officers inspired by the egalitarian and romantic ideals of the French Revolution.

The grave of the 6 cadets was the scene of an unexpected foreign policy twist when President Henry Truman stopped there on his 1947 Mexico trip in order to plant a wreath. The Mexican public interpreted the gesture as one of apology and bathed Truman in adulation. When queried by American reporters, Truman, with typical brevity simply stated that “Brave men don’t belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it.” Of course a cynical historian might imagine Truman was trying to ensure Mexico stayed in the American fold during the Cold War—and accomplished his aim with a ten dollar wreath and a well-turned phrase.

Monumento a los Ninos Heroes

The boy heroes are still celebrated with a popular (albeit unofficial) holiday.  In 1952 their remains were moved to a large and somewhat florid public monument crafted of white marble by sculptor Ernesto Tamaríz in Chapultepec Park. Looking at the soaring columns dedicated to 6 cadets whose inability to obey orders cost them their lives it is difficult to conclude that the ancient Mesoamericans admiration for human sacrifice does not still live on.

“Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull

Independence Day Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia, a depiction of the celebrations of July 4th 1819, painted in 1819 by John Lewis Krimmel (a German-American immigrant painter active in Pennsylvania during the 1810’s.)

A Cartoon Depicting 4th of July Celebrations in 1837 (with Strong Beverages and Speechifyin’)

The Cover of Harper’s Magazine on the Fourth of July of 1865 (just after the Civil War ended)

1876 Picture of the Centennial Celebration of the Fourth of July. Beautifully engraved image titled,” The Glorious Day We Celebrate,” drawn by Thomas Worth from Harper ’s Weekly.

July 4th, 1905 in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota

Watching Fireworks on the Fourth: Coney Island, 1962

New York Harbor: Fourth of July, 1976

Army Camp Joyce Afghanistan with a historic American flag flown there on July 4th, 2007

Fireworks on the Hudson River, New York, New York, 2009

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