A British Easter and the established religion

Easter’s creeping up on us and I’m living in an officially Christian country, which can be a strange experience for this Jewish atheist from the U. S. of no established religion A. In the U.S., I got used to people at least nodding once or twice in the direction of diverse beliefs. Even if those nods were sometimes more form than content, they were better than no nods at all.

Here, at least in rural Cornwall, spring brings Easter and only Easter—a solemn time of year when people gorge on chocolate and, in our village at least, kids roll eggs down a hill. For some people it’s a religious holiday, but for many it’s all chocolate, all the time. Still, religious or not, it is Easter. Almost everyone for miles in any direction, including up, down, and out to sea, is from a Christian background. Religious or not, the Christian holidays are part of their landscape.

Semi-relevant photo: A rhododendron, getting ready to bloom. Come on–it’s a spring flower in a post about a spring holiday. That’s as close a match as you’re likely to find here.

Britain has an official religion, but that’s not the same thing as being a deeply religious country. I have a theory I can’t prove, but for what it’s worth I believe making a religion official drives people away from it in the long run.

I’m not sure how long that run is, mind you, and that’s handy, because if we’re discussing a place where it hasn’t played out that way I get to say, “Give it time.”

If I’m right and you happen to have a religion you like enough to want an entire nation to adopt it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This year the Church of England—the country’s official church, remember—accused the chocolate company Cadbury and the National Trust, which owns a gazillion historic properties and runs tourists through them and their associated gift shops in the classiest possible way, of “airbrushing faith” out of its Easter egg hunts.

What did they do? Well, instead of holding Easter egg hunts, this year they called them Cadbury egg hunts. The church is apoplectic. Or, in fairness, parts of the church are apoplectic, but let’s keep using shorthand and say it’s the church as a whole. The sentences get too complicated otherwise, because I’m not sure exactly which parts of the church we’re talking about.

The National Trust pointed out that Easter is mentioned 13,000 times on its website, and furthermore that it was up to Cadbury to name and publicize the events they cosponsored. To translate that, they’re saying nothing happened and we didn’t do it.

Cadbury defended itself by saying that they use the word Easter multiple times elsewhere in their publicity, but the church still isn’t happy. If the word Easter doesn’t appear in the egg hunt name, it just isn’t Easter.

It all reminds me of a game we played when I was a kid, Captain, May I? The kid who was It told someone to take a step forward—a giant step, a baby step, a banana step. I don’t remember what a banana step was, but on 75th Street we had one. Kids who took the step without saying, “Captain, may I?” went back to the starting line.

Well, Cadbury forgot to say Easter in the right line of the publicity and has to go back to the starting line.

A BBC article reproduces one of the egg hunt promos, showing the phrase “enjoy Easter fun” in more eye-catching type than the Easterless egg hunt phrase. But it’s just not good enough. The National Trust has to go back to the starting line too.

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said that not mentioning Easter in the egg hunt name was like “spitting on the grave” of John Cadbury, the chocolate company’s most Christian founder. But Cadbury’s several-times-great- granddaughter Esther McConnell spat back (firmly, gently, and metaphorically) that as a Quaker Cadbury didn’t celebrate Easter. “He believed that every day is equally sacred and, back then, this was expressed by not marking festivals.”

Take that, Archbishop.

The humanist society has called the whole thing a storm in an eggcup, but in case the flap wasn’t silly enough, the prime minister, Theresa May, waded in and said the decision to drop the word Easter was “absolutely ridiculous.”

Thanks, Terry. That deepened the conversation beyond measure.

Or do you prefer Terri?

Several articles have asked (and generally not quite answered) the question, Are egg hunts actually Christian? According to a Huffington Post article, the tradition of decorating eggs predates Christianity. But from an early stage, the egg was also claimed by various Christian groups as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. So far, so ambiguous. A Wikipedia article (never mind a link—it will all have changed by now) said more or less the same thing. So the egg seems to be both Christian and pre-Christian. And quite possibly non-Christian, although no one I found addressed this.

And the hunt? Nobody seems to be saying.

What about the Easter bunny? That symbolizes how irresistible little fuzzy animals are. The basket of eggs symbolizes breakfast. No religion has an exclusive claim to eggs, bunnies, or breakfast. You can call them what you like without fearing the wrath of an archbishop.

Bunnies, in case you’ve ever wondered about this, do not lay eggs. They don’t eat them either, which is why the Easter bunny’s willing to deliver them to humans.

And chocolate eggs? They symbolize candy companies making a lot of money. In the most religious possible way.

What fascinates me about this whole uproar is that the Church of England seems to be taking the position that it owns Easter and any organization large enough to be seen from space has to pay rent in the form of proper wording. But the holiday long since slipped out of church hands and it’s now a secular as well as (not instead of, mind you) a religious holiday.

That’s the price a religion pays for having dominated the national conversation for so long—and here we’re back to my unproven theory. Some of its holy traditions became folk traditions, and when the folk wandered away from the church, as most people from Christian backgrounds have in Britain, they do whatever they want with them. If they want chocolate rabbits or Easterless egg hunts that include, as some bit of commentary put it, people of all religions and none, then they’ll have them. And other than fussing, there isn’t much the church or the prime minister can do about it.

*

While we’re on the subject of chocolate and silly upsets, let’s talk about a social media storm claiming (oh, the horror of it all) that Cadbury is selling halal chocolate.

We’ll get to what halal chocolate is in a paragraph or two, but first, what’s wrong with that? Well, gasp, Muslims can eat it. Shock. More horror. What will become of the country if it appeases Muslims by changing its time-honored chocolate recipes? Britain will cease to be British, that’s what.

What makes food halal? It has to be porkless, and any meat that’s involved has to be slaughtered in a certain way.  Compared to the complexities of keeping kosher, keeping food halal is simple. Keeping kosher means, no pork, no shellfish, meat slaughtered in a certain way, meat and dairy have to be kept separate, and don’t get me started on what you have to do on Passover because I understand it in only the vaguest way, There are probably other rules, but that’s enough for a quick snapshot.

Jews and kosher, though, aren’t the bogeyman of the moment. Muslims and halal are.

But let’s go back to chocolate candy. It doesn’t have any pork. It doesn’t have any meat. It’s not made anyplace where it could be contaminated with either one. I used to work in a candy factory, so I’m prepared to testify on that. It was pigless, meatless, underpaid work. And my hair smelled like disgustingly chocolate.

So is chocolate halal? Um, sure. So are carrots. So’s lettuce. Ban carrots! Ban salad! Add lard to your chocolate bars! They’ll taste terrible and clog your arteries, but at least they won’t be halal. We’ll starve out the terrorists.

And what product was the flap about? According to the article I found, Cadbury’s Easter eggs. Which Cadbury’s was—as far as I can make out—calling Easter eggs and which probably aren’t marketed heavily to the Muslim market.

The photo accompanying the article was apparently from the Asia-Pacific market and showed someone with a halal certificate and instead of Easter eggs a couple of chocolate bars. Which symbolize the trouble you can get into on the internet by doing nothing more than making chocolate according to the recipe you’ve been using for years.

*

And finally, a quick roundup of grotesquely overpriced chocolate eggs, because here at Notes from the U.K. that’s how we celebrate Easter.

Hotel Chocolat sells the Ostrich Egg–Classic for £90. The dash in the name is theirs, although purists please note, I changed it from an en dash to an em dash, originally so it wouldn’t form a mid-dash break at the end of the line but once I changed the layout because I’m too lazy to change it back. It’s over a kilo of chocolate and the text says, “Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any living bird–and we measured a real one to create the heftiest shell in our range!”

First point: As a general rule, dead birds don’t lay eggs. So you don’t, strictly speaking, need to say “living.”

Sorry, I can’t help myself. I worked as an editor and copy editor, which is a way of saying that I misunderstood people for a living. Some things stay with you even after you retire.

Second point: That bit about the “heftiest shell in our range”? It’s like saying that at five foot not very much I’m the tallest person in my category. The problem is, what category are we talking about?

Poof. The text just disappeared in a puff of semi-organic cocoa.

But let’s move into a higher range. Fortnum & Mason sells the Collosal Egg for £90. It’s 1.4 kilos of chocolate and F & M defies anyone “not to be impressed” by it.

I’m not impressed, because Bettys (there’s no apostrophe in the name) of Harrogate sells its Imperial Easter Egg for £250. It weighs 5 kilos and is delivered personally, whatever that means. You have to call to work out the details–that’s how personal it is.

Winning the competition, however (and remember, this isn’t really a competition you’d want to win) is the Hotel Cafe Royal, which sells an Easter egg for £600. It weighs more than the planet it rests upon and takes three days to make. I have no idea how you’d buy one because it’s so exclusive the hotel website doesn’t mention it. That keeps the riffraff from trying to buy stuff that’s above their station.

That’s a very British concept, getting above your station. I should write about it but I understand it even less than I understand the intricacies of keeping kosher.

I also don’t know how the monster egg is delivered. Maybe you have to arrange to be born inside so you can eat your way out, but that’s not the kind of information the riffraff need to have, so I just don’t know.

For a final bizarre note, the Evening Standard calls a £57.50 egg from Bettys “reasonably priced” but recommends the £37 version “for those on a budget.”

That’s a hell of a budget. And no, if you live somewhere else and are trying to figure out what life in Britain is like, this is not real life.

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year—if you celebrate anything—I wish you a good, non-hysterical, and financially sustainable holiday.

Christmas carols as folk music

Christmas carols, according to one source I found, weren’t originally Christian. They were solstice songs. Then the country was Christianized and it took the songs along with it, but they didn’t become church songs, they stayed outside, in people’s homes, as well as out of doors and in whatever the period’s equivalent of the pub was. They were seasonal folk songs.

Fast forward more than a few hundred years and Oliver Cromwell came to power, with his humorless version of Protestantism. He didn’t approve of fun, and he tried to stamp the songs out but they went underground and survived.

In the Victorian era they were rediscovered and became respectable (I think) and new carols were added.

End of history lesson. I won’t swear that it’s entirely accurate, but it seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of accuracy. Close enough (as they say of guitar tuning) for folk music.

Semi-relevant photos: They're not holly berries, but they're red. And whatever they are, they're around in the winter.

Semi-relevant photo: They’re not holly berries, but they’re red. And whatever they are, they’re around in the winter. Close enough for one of my posts.

One of the many shocks of moving to Cornwall was discovering that the carols sung here aren’t the songs Wild Thing and I grew up with. Sometimes the tunes are different, sometimes the words, sometimes the whole damn song’s new to us. And when we’d comment on it, as we did at first, repeatedly whoever we were talking to would look unimpressed and say, “Oh, that’s the Boscastle version.” Or “That’s the Marhamchurch version.” Or that’s some other version. As if difference were perfectly normal.

Or dainty little American souls were scandalized. Because Christmas carols? They were supposed to be unchangeable. But here was every town, every village, practically every house, with its own variation.

That does testify to the genuine folkiness of carols. That’s what folk’ll do if you turn your back on them. They’ll change stuff. They’ll create new stuff. They’ll take the stuff you think is fixed forever and make it their own.

I should admire that, and in the abstract I do. But it also pisses me off. I have a dainty little American soul. Those are Christmas carols. They’ve been through the American Commercial Christmas Network that fed my childhood and you’re not allowed to change them.

But change them people have, and they did it long before the American Commercial Christmas Network got its fake-snow-and-glittery little hands one them.

This year, like every year, Christmas carols are everywhere. Not I don’t mean just piped into stores, the way they are in the U.S., although that happens too, and it always starts too early in the year. I just got back from taking the dog to the vet (I’m writing this in early December) and they’re playing them there already. The woman at the reception desk had reached her limit the day before and turned them off, along (accidentally) with the internet. I thought it was worth sacrificing the internet to get some peace and quiet. Sadly, the whole thing was fixed by the time I showed up.

But real people will also be singing them. Every local choir and brass or silver band (and there are as many of each as there are petitions on the government petition site) will have been practicing them and looking for a time and place to inflict them on the public. Cafes and pubs will hold special events featuring carols. Someone’s head will pop out of the sink drain and start caroling.

And none of them will be the songs that I know, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, to be unchangeable. In spite of that, and in spite of how heavily I’ve slanted my language about them, a lot of people will be happy to hear them. Probably most people. After the first one of two, I don’t happen to be among them, that’s all.

A mid-December update on how inconsistent I am about all this: Friends asked me to join them on a version of “Silent Night” at the pub’s singers night. They need an extra alto; I have a low voice. I was pleased to be asked and I said yes. They’re nice people, and good singers.

It’s a beautiful version, even if it’s not the one I know to be, ahem, right. We ran through it a few times the other day and once we started singing, the pleasure of it took over and my quibbles fell away. Except for every so often, when I’d listen to myself and think, These are very strange words for me to be singing.

Which leads me to my yearly explanation of how this Jewish atheist ended up knowing (never mind singing) Christmas carols.

First, if you live in the U.S., you can’t help knowing them. Whatever your beliefs, if you need so much as a tube of toothpaste during December (or late November, or possibly July) and go to a store to buy it, Christmas carols will drip their way into your ears and seep into your brain. No matter how sheltered your life is, you will learn them.

My life hasn’t been sheltered. I come from a family of assimilated Jews. In other words, we were Jewish but not particularly so. We didn’t keep the Jewish holidays or traditions, we weren’t religious, and I grew up celebrating Christmas as what my parents called a national holiday. Our way of celebrating, they’d have sworn, had no religious elements.

Except, of course, for the ones that snuck in. Because, second (you remember that just above we were counting the reasons I know Christmas carols?), we sang carols. They were nice songs. They were part of the holiday. Which was, in spite of all my parents could do, at its core a religious holiday. I might have been about eight when I was with my mother and listening to, or possibly singing, “Silent Night,” with its line about “round yon virgin mother and child.”

I asked what a virgin was.

“It’s a young woman who hasn’t had a baby,” my mother said.

Well, that was resolutely uninformative, although I don’t think she meant it to be. She was as direct with us about sex as she could bring herself to be, but it was the fifties, so she was fighting the weight of the culture. What I had pictured was a mother and child sitting around a fire. So okay, I understood that I had to change my picture. They were sitting around a young woman who hadn’t had a baby.

Why would they do that and how would it keep them warm?

I don’t know how many years it took me to make sense of that line.

In a lot ways, I think, the innocence of children is overvalued.

At a later Christmas, an older cousin brought a girlfriend who was a singer, and the whole extended Jewish (with a few exceptions) atheist (with at that time, I think, no exceptions) family ended up around the piano singing Christmas carols. We had a great time, and it wasn’t until decades later that I realized how funny that scene is.

So I have warm feelings about Christmas carols, but the annual piped-music assault wore a lot of them away. And then I moved from New York, where a lot of people around me didn’t celebrate Christmas, to Minnesota, where for a while it seemed that everyone did, and I missed the sense that celebrating was optional. It began to feel like a requirement, and I developed mixed feelings about the holiday.

It’s also true that I was an adult by then, and the prospect of presents didn’t give me the warm, greedy glow it once had. That could have had something to do with it too.

And now, in Cornwall, where I seem to be one of only three Jews within a forty (okay, fifteen) mile radius? I get spiky at this time of year. And I feel the urge, now and then, to remind some random person that not everyone celebrates Christmas, even if I do, and not everyone sings Christmas carols.

Occasionally I actually do that, and for the most part, the random person says, more or less, yes but it’s just a holiday. They remind me of its pagan roots. They tell me you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate it.

And that’s true, but I’m not just not-a-Christian in terms of belief. I’m not a Christian. You see the difference?

Of course not. I don’t explain it well, at least partly, that’s because I don’t make a big thing out of being Jewish. It’s not a huge part of my life. But I am still Jewish. That’s not a simple thing to be, and I don’t want to let it disappear behind the tinsel and the music.

And with that out of the way, I’ll tell you that by the time you read this we’ll have decorated the tree–in part with ornaments my mother gave us. And we’ll light Hanukkah candles because Wild Thing, the recovering Southern Methodist, loves to.

Like I said, it’s complicated. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, or celebrated if I’m late, I wish you a good one. And if you don’t celebrate anything, I wish you a moment of quiet amid all the aggressive celebrating.

Easter eggs, crime sprees, and personal delivery

Last Saturday’s Western Morning News had a story about a “£300,000 rural crime spree” in which six men stole four-wheel-drives, tractors, trailers, boats, farm equipment, and–this reads like it wandered in from a different story but I swear it didn’t–chocolate Easter eggs. Thousands of pounds worth of chocolate Easter eggs. I’d give you a link but I can’t find the story online. I read it in the print edition. It was on–do you remember paper? It was on paper. So you’ll just have to trust me on this.

Or not. If you think I made it up, no harm done. I’ll get credit for a bizarre imagination.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. I'll stop with the cat and dog photos soon, but everything else I've shot lately is overexposed.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. Or the other way around. I’ll stop with the cat and dog photos eventually, but everything else I’ve shot lately is overexposed. Besides, who can resist this one?

How much space does it take to store thousands of pounds worth of Easter eggs? Well, that depends on how much the Easter eggs cost, which (if you were buying instead of stealing them) is another way of saying it depends on your income, or at least outgo. It might take less space than you’d think. Hotel Chocolat sells one for £75, but at Fortnum and Mason, you can drop £90 for a chocolate Easter egg or £250 for a “chocolate beehive sculpture” (sorry–I can’t take that seriously enough to leave it outside of quotation marks; I don’t want the blame for that description). And for that amount, I’ll throw in more quotation marks: It’s made from “majestic” Valrhona chocolate. Whatever the hell Valrhona chocolate is, the price went up by £50 pounds when they glued that adjective to it.

I worked in a candy factory for long enough to lost my taste for the stuff, and although I wouldn’t say they used particularly good chocolate and I wouldn’t hold it up as setting the world standard for chocolates–well, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve never seen majestic chocolate.

Fortnum and Mason can’t send the beehive, by the way. Maybe at £250 you’re not paying enough for that or maybe it’s just too valuable to ship. Either way,you’ll have to pick it up at the store.

Or you can spend your £250 at Betty’s of Harrogate and get Betty’s “Imperial Easter Egg.” Betty delivers. “Personally.” That goes in quotes too. I assume that’s personally to you, not personally by Betty. In fact, I don’t even know that there is a Betty, or that there ever was. And while we’re talking about things I don’t know, I don’t know how much she charges to deliver, because you have to call to find out–the information isn’t online–but if you’re spending £250 for a chunk of decorated chocolate, why quibble about delivery costs?

Okay, let’s get back to that personal delivery. Have you ever had anything sent to you that wasn’t delivered personally? I’m guessing the personally, in this context, means by a person (as opposed to a drone) and to a person. Even if the package is left in the garage, or with a neighbor, it’s still to you, personally. Or, if they insist on it going directly into your anxious little paws, all it means is that you’re stuck waiting around for it.

Who writes this stuff? I once saw a real estate brochure for an apartment building that said it had an indoor elevator. That’s as opposed, presumably, to a trebuchet, which is a £250 word for the kind of catapult used in medieval sieges–an outdoor arrangement that delivers you memorably to granny’s fourth floor apartment if her place doesn’t have an indoor elevator. After you arrive splat in her living room, her place won’t have glass in the window either, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor.

I’ve wandered, haven’t I? We were talking about the Easter eggs.Betty’s is 5.4 kilos of chocolate, milk or dark, If you think in pounds rather than kilos, you can either multiply that by 2.2 or simply accept that it’s a shitload of chocolate. You can also multiply, divide, and go into shock over how much you’re spending per pound. Or ounce.

From Betty’s site I went to Cadbury’s, which asked how much I wanted to spend. The answer was, Oh, lots! and I clicked on the most expensive category, which was “over £50.” That’s me,the reckless spender, but the best they could do for me was offer hampers–enough stuff thrown together to take the price up to an even £50. Given where I’d just come from, I wasn’t impressed. So I checked out Lidl’s, the discount supermarket, where I could buy a bag of chocolate (I think) mini-eggs for £1.29, and they’ll ring them up at the cash register for me personally. After that, I can personally carry it out to my car, munching as I go. Except that I used to work in that candy factory and I’m immune to the lure of anything but good (although not majestic), very plain dark chocolate.

So–returning to the actual story I was telling, and you may have forgotten that there was one but I haven’t–it’s not clear how much storage space the stolen Easter eggs needed. Especially since the Westy didn’t say how many thousands of pounds of Easter eggs it was talking about. The Westy‘s like that. It tells you what it tells you, which is often that the neighbors were shocked and horrified, and leaves out what it leaves out, which can be a great deal. But it does spell neighbors with a U. Always.

Before I leave the topic entirely, I need to credit the members of my writers group, who pointed me in the direction of the Betty’s of Harrogate egg. They’re wonderful, and every bit as strange as I am.

If you celebrate Easter, have a good Easter. And if you don’t–well, neither do I. Whatever you believe, don’t steal any Easter eggs, okay? At the end of it all, you just eat them (it’s too late in the season to sell them) and eating a £250 egg–well, what does that leave you with?

Wishing you a happy but belated Pancake Day

Pancake Day came and went quietly this year. It’s a holiday I never heard of before I moved to the U.K. and it’s such a quiet one that I’d been here a couple of years before I even noticed it.

Pancake Day is also known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts. Traditionally, anyone who kept Lent gave up everything fun, and that put a lot of pressure on that last pre-Lent day. So New Orleans went wild with Mardi Gras and still does. Brazil cut loose during Carnival and keeps right on doing it. And the British? They eat pancakes.

Does this country know how to throw a party or what?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is from New Zealand and has nothing to do with anything. Nice, isn't it? Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is from New Zealand and has nothing to do with anything here. Nice, isn’t it? Photo by Ida Swearingen

The logic of Pancake Day is inescapable. People were supposed to give up eggs, milk, and sugar during lent, so they used them up the night before by making pancakes. What were they supposed to do with the eggs the chickens went right on laying and the milk the cow kept on giving? Because cows and chickens don’t care if it’s Lent. They don’t believe in any religion, and even if they did biological processes are hard to control But what do I know? I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist, and if that isn’t enough I grew up in New York, where we didn’t keep a lot of cows or chickens. So I’m not an expert on this stuff. In fact, I thought all a person had to do during Lent was give up one thing, like orange bubble gum or blue frosting. But maybe that’s a toned-down modern approach.

Anyway, these days Britain’s long on tradition but light on traditional religion. So it substitutes eating pancakes for emptying the cupboards of all the good stuff and entering a somber season in a sugar-free, egg-free, lactose-free condition. And even I can get behind eating pancakes, although not on a fixed day every year, which accounts for me being late with this post.

So let’s talk about pancakes. They never go out of season.

British pancakes—at least the ones I’ve had—are more like French crepes, which is to say, thin. I first tasted them when a neighbor borrowed some flour because he had to make pancakes that night–it was Pancake Day–and in payment he brought us each a pancake, with lemon (I think) and (definitely) sugar. They were good. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about them. But sometimes a person just wants a thick ol’ American pancake. So be warned, I’m leading up to a recipe. Because no matter how good British pancakes are, I believe in the American version. What can I tell you? Talk to me about food and I’m capable of unreasoning patriotism.

I’ve seen British food writers offer approximations of American pancakes and they have some strange ideas about how we make them. One adds vanilla and honey but no baking soda or baking powder. Which is why she has to beat hell out of the egg whites. Another beats hell out of the whole mix until it’s thoroughly blended and lumpless, which is a good idea if you’re making a cake but not so great if you want pancakes, because they need a lumpy batter.

Why the food writers don’t just look in an American cookbook I don’t know, but here’s my recipe.

Pancakes

Serves 2 moderate eaters; for enthusiastic eaters, double the recipe and eat the leftovers cold and straight from the refrigerator

1 cup (4 oz.) flour

1 tsp. sugar

½ tsp. salt

¾ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 egg

½ cup (or more) buttermilk (or plain milk with about 1 tsp. of cider or white vinegar added*)

1 Tbsp. (½ oz.) melted butter

Optional: blueberries, peaches, or raspberries

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk them together. That’s instead of sifting. I’m a lazy cook and this works. Beat the egg into the milk and add it to the dry ingredients. Add the butter. Stir until just barely mixed, leaving some lumps. Add more milk if you need to until you get a thick but pourable batter. The thinner the batter, the thinner the pancakes will be.

Stir the fruit in last.

Heat the frying pan (or several pans, which will let you cook them faster) over a medium-high heat until a drop of water bounces (in theory; I usually settle for it sizzling madly). Add a bit of oil or butter and spread it with a spatula. If you’re using a non-stick pan, you don’t need much; if you’re not, you’ll need more and will have to add more before each new pancake. Pour in a ladleful of batter. I generally make my pancakes a bit bigger than CD-size. but you can make smaller ones if you like. Hell, you can shape them into the letters of the alphabet if you want, but they’ll be hard to flip. Don’t put a cover on the the pan. Bubbles will rise and then break, signaling that the bottom’s probably done. Sneak a look and if it’s brown, flip the pancake. Leave the second side on the pan long enough for the center to cook through.

You may need to adjust the heat as you go. If the pancakes burn, turn it down. If they don’t brown, turn it up. You’d probably have figured that out without me saying it.

You can feed them to the ravening hordes as they get done of keep them warm in a very low oven until they’re all cooked and you can sit down yourself.

Serve with butter and maple syrup. Or if you’re in a Lenten kind of mood, with plain old yogurt, which is surprisingly good with them.

 

*The milk will curdle when you mix in the vinegar. That’s fine.

Christmas carols in the U.S. and Britain

As Christmas approaches, carols leak into the folk (and occasionally other kinds of) songs at the pub’s singers night. It happens every year, and every year I ask myself if I shouldn’t take a week or two off to avoid them.

I have a couple of reasons for that. The first and simplest is that I expect carols to be unchanging and over here they’re not. Some have the same words as the American ones and at first the tunes sound like they’ll behave, then they take a sharp left and head off in some new direction, leaving me all alone and on the wrong note. Usually at full volume. In others the tune stays the same but the words are different.

Sending you light in the darkness and good wishes for whatever you celebrate.

Sending you light in the darkness and good wishes for whatever you celebrate.

The first few times I heard that, I’d turn to someone nearby and say, “That’s not the way we sing it.”

I might as well have said how shocked I was that gravity was operating over the holidays. Whoever it was would say, “Oh, I know. That’s the Cornish version.” Or the Boscastle version. Or the Padstow version. They’d learned a different version back in Shropshire, or Essex, or Truro, or Wherever.

I’d explain: In the U.S., Christmas carols are harder to change that the Constitution, which (to simplify things a bit) only needs a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and then the approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures. It’s a high standard to meet, but at least a procedure’s mapped out and ready to use. Christmas carols, though? Sorry, but we don’t have a way to change them, so they stay fixed, the North Star of our culture.

Whoever I was talking to would hear me out and then tell me all over again about Shropshire or Essex or Wherever. Eventually I stopped trying.

So that’s one reason I think about disappearing for the holidays. The next is that some of the carols are—well, let me tell you a story instead of trying to sum them up: Wild Thing and I went to a school Christmas concert to hear a friend’s daughter, and one of the carols was about Mary’s womb. And there we were expecting “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Which, by the way, I hate.

Wild Thing leaned over and whispered that the Methodists in Amarillo never talked about Mary’s lady parts, let put them to music. In Amarillo, it was all “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o(etc.)ria.” They sang the same carols I did, whose religion had, at least to my ears, been worn away by repetition. But change the words a bit and toss in Mary’s womb and you’ll jolt me out of my dozy acceptance. It starts to sound, you know, religious.

I should add that the word womb doesn’t make for a particularly singable line.

I grew up celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday. The extended family came to our apartment (and later, to our house) to eat, give the kids presents, and enjoy an argument or two, usually about politics. What can I tell you? Arguing was a form of entertainment in my family. But one year an older cousin’s girlfriend played the piano and we gathered around and sang carols, and every Jewish atheist one of us knew the songs as well as the few non-Jewish family members did.

It’s a moment I remember fondly. It was decades before I stopped to think what deeply weird picture it makes.

Then I moved to Minnesota and started to feel smothered by Christmas, and that’s my third reason, if you remember after all these words what we’re counting. In New York—at least in the circles I traveled in—there were enough Jews around to create a space for people who didn’t celebrate, and that made celebrating feel voluntary. I never paid much attention to who was Jewish and who was something else, but this wasn’t about individuals. It was about the impact of demographics. (At the time, my experience was pretty much limited to Jews and Christians. I don’t know if the New York created space for other forms of non-Christians over the holidays.)

Minnesota, though, is packed with people who even if they’re not religiously Christian are at least culturally so, and that left less space for people who didn’t celebrate the holiday. Celebration stopped feeling voluntary, and I developed mixed feelings about it—part celebratory, part crabby.

And in Cornwall? As far as I know, I’m the only Jew for miles around, and probably ditto for the only person whose family wasn’t, at some point, Christian. I still celebrate the holiday, which is good since Wild Thing never saw a holiday she didn’t want to be part of and has a strong historical claim to this one, but the more insistently it surrounds me the more footnotes, caveats, reservations I add.

This year, the carols weren’t overwhelming at the pub, and the harmonies on a couple of them were stunning. My crabby meter registered only minimal grumpiness. Maybe repetition is starting to blunt the edges of the religion.

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Whatever you celebrate and whether it’s religious or secular, I wish you a good one of it. And if you don’ t have a holiday at this time of year, tuck my good wishes away and save them whenever your next holiday comes around. If you still remember by then where you left them.

British Christmas traditions: the brussels sprout

What is it about the British and brussels sprouts at Christmas? I address this topic because judging from my search engine queries it’s what people want to know. Or at least what one very determined person wants to know. Within a few days, I had at least five variations on the question Why do the British eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? It may have been more. I lost track in there somewhere. Why the person kept coming back if I hadn’t already managed to answer the question I don’t know. Determination shading into obsession?

Anyway, the question matters, and I’ve addressed it before but I don’t feel I did it justice. Because I sidestepped several crucial facts.

Irrelevant photo: gorse (that's the yellow stuff) and heather (that's the purple)

Irrelevant photo: Gorse (that’s the yellow stuff) and heather (that’s the purple). And grass (that’s the green and the tan.)

First, if Google is to be trusted (it’s not) you can spell the vegetable with or without an S: brussel sprouts or brussels sprouts. The first spelling matches our pronunciation (we just can’t make the double S audible unless we say it while standing on our heads and gargling salt water). Besides which, it’s easier to type without the extra S. The second spelling replicates the name of the city where they didn’t originate. According to Brussels Sprouts Info (everything important has its own web site these days), they’re believed to have been grown in Italy as far back as Roman times and began to be grown on a large scale in Belgium as far back as the sixteenth century before spreading outward from there.

The more common spelling seems to keep the extra S.

Second, you can either capitalize the B or not, depending on whether you capitalize the F in french fries. I don’t, but Word does and gives me bad marks every time I go back and un-cap it. It’s easier to use a cap, which is probably why I don’t. It’s a small and pointless way to fight the monopolies that are taking over our spelling. Not to mention our lives, economy, and politics. Take that, monopolies: I’m using a lower case F and a lower case B. That sound you hear? It’s Microsoft crumbling in the face of my defiance.

Third, the world contains more than 110 varieties of brussels sprouts and I bet you can’t tell any one of them from the other more than 109.

You notice how vague they are on the actual number? It’s probably because someone’s out there devising a new variety even as I type.

So far so uncontroversial, but now we come to:

Fourth, the real reason they’re eaten in Britain at Christmas is a tightly held secret and I’m going to reveal it to you and only you because, hey, it’s just us here, right? No one else is listening. I’d get into serious trouble otherwise. So here’s the truth: The Church of England may be the official and established church in this country, but it’s a thin and brittle overlay. Underneath lies the country’s deeper religion, worship of the Great Brussels Sprout. (And here, yes, it’s capitalized. Even by me. It’s a god and all. You want to show a little respect.)

What did the Druids worship? The Great Brussels Sprout. They painted themselves blue and cultivated the sacred plant. And they were nekkid when they did it.

How’d they cultivate it if brussels sprouts didn’t yet grow in the British Isles? I did say Google couldn’t be trusted. Its sources are giving you the official history. You can only find the truth by going into the dark web, where danger lurks behind every pixel, so I don’t dare give you any links. Folks, I’ll take the risk myself but I can’t be responsible for your safety. You’ll have to find it on your own or trust my report: The truth is that the Romans quietly exported the brussels sprout from Britain to Italy, and once it was established there they claimed to have developed all more than 110 varieties themselves.

Back in Britain, the Romans suppressed both the Druids and all outward forms of sprout cultivation and worship, but the belief ran deep in the population, and it survived, waiting from the sprout’s return.

How’d it do that when the pre-Roman British tribes (the Iceni, the Caledones, the Parisi, the Cornovii…) were overrun by the Angles and the Saxons and the Vikings and the Normans, making for a choppy history and a messy but interesting language? Because knowledge of the Great Brussels Sprout is planted deep in the soil. You don’t have to learn it from your community. If you get yourself a shovel and start digging, it works its way into your bloodstream. You feel a compulsion to worship something green and brassican. Rumor has it that they made do with cabbages until the brussels sprout was re-imported and jogged their memories of what the Great God really looked like. These were agricultural people, remember. They had lots of shovels. So when Christianity became the dominant religion, the best it could do was drive sprout worship deep underground, and from there it rises, godlike, every year.

Do I consider it strange, you ask (or at least you should ask), that people eat the sprout they worship? Isn’t that a bit, um, grotesque? Not at all. The Great Sprout is the essence of all sprouts and is itself inedible. The sprouts people eat at Christmas are merely its representation. And those among us who claim the ones on the plate are also inedible? They’re closest to the holy nature of the Great Brussels Sprout and everybody should back off and stop giving them a hard time.

Fifth (we were counting, remember?), the brussels sprout ripens around Christmas time. How many other vegetables are willing to do that? So of course people eat it.

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And on a marginally sensible note, last week I forgot to link back to Laura, at A PIct in PA, who first used to word tickety boo, giving me a great excuse for another important post. She’s a Scot living and raising her kids in Pennsylvania, and she keeps a fine blog with lots of nifty artwork.

What’s all this Thanksgiving hoo-ha?

I don’t do reblogs unless they’re tightly linked to the sort of insanity I indulge in here, but Dream Big, Dream Often‘s “36 Little Known Facts about Thanksgiving” is a good introduction to unexpected aspects of the holiday. I’m not sure he really reaches 36, since he starts by lettering his list, then starts a second time, still using letters. then starts at third time at 1. But we’re among friends, so who cares? It’s worth a read.

Easter candy in the U.S. and U.K.: Special late edition

Our friend J., having read my post about Easter candy, sent us some from the U.S. Her cover note said to read the back of the Peeps package because it might inspire me.

“What’s a Peep?” you ask if you’re not from the U.S. It’s sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, yellow #5 (tartrazine), potassium sorbate (a preservative), natural [unspecified and I’d say hard to detect] flavors, and carnauba wax. Yum. They’re gluten free and fat free and shaped (if you have a bit of imagination) like a chick that came into existence by being spat from a spout. Each chick contains 28 calories. That’s 140 calories per serving, because, as an essential part of a balanced diet, serving size has been scientifically determined.

North Cornwall. Thatched cottage.

Irrelevant photo: Thatched cottage with gorse and may in bloom.

The text on the cover claims they’re marshmallow, but they taste like nothing that originated on planet Earth.

No, I’m going to backtrack on that, because I think carnauba wax is used on cars. On planet Earth. So if you’ve ever used your tongue to wax the car, the taste will be familiar. That means, all you Peep Corporation lawyers out there, that I retract my statement about planet Earth. Don’t sue. Please.

The text on the back of the package says that opening it “opens a world of possibilities! [Oh, the thrill implied by that exclamation mark. I’m so carried away I’ll add one of my own: !] From creative crafting and imaginative artwork, to delicious recipes and more, let the fun begin!” And I feel compelled to tell you that the repetitious use of open is theirs. They were aiming for one of those rhythmic poetic thingies. Isn’t it wondrous, the uses writing techniques can be put to?

So basically, what they’re saying here is that these things last forever and therefore can be used in any form of artwork. The Mona Lisa in Peeps? Why not? A Peep perched Thinker-like on the toilet? Sure! More exclamation marks? You got ‘em!

When I worked for a writers organization in Minnesota, one (or possibly two) of my illustrious co-workers impaled a Peep on the bathroom ceiling, where it remained for months without changing in any noticeable way. I’m not sure whether that was craft or art (it gets tricky sometimes, that art/craft question), but I do know the Peep didn’t rot or stretch or draw ants or roaches or anything else that would normally be drawn to food. Those insects? They know stuff. We could learn from them.

I have a bit more trouble with the delicious recipes the text promises. Peep pie? I don’t know what happens to them in the presence of heat. I’m not sure what happens to them, in fact, when they’re eaten. They appear to be indestructible. Do they pass through us whole or does the digestive system work its magic, even on Peeps?

Dedicated as I am to this blog, and to exploring every last aspect of the cultures of the U.S. and Britain, I draw the line at offering myself as a test subject. But I do, once again, wish those of you who celebrate it a happy Easter and those of you who don’t a happy non-Easter. To those of you who love Peeps, I offer my apologies. Our package has been promised to an American Peep-lover in the village, and she’s thrilled by the prospect of all those exclamation marks landing in her house.

And finally, to J. I send my profound thanks. For both the candy and the suggestion. I wouldn’t have thought to turn the package over and read it if you hadn’t told me to.

A foreigner’s guide to Boxing Day

If you’re not British, or living in a British-inflected country, you’re asking, What?

Boxing Day is the day after Christmas.

So what does everyone do, go out and hit each other?

The people Wild Thing and I know mostly stay home and eat the Christmas leftovers. Especially those brussels sprouts. For breakfast, you can use them in bubble and squeak (which does neither, as far as I can figure out). It involves leftover sprouts (or cabbage, or anything else along those lines) and potatoes, bacon, onion, butter or some other sort of fat, and a frying pan. More or less. It’s one of those recipes that use up whatever you have on hand, so there’s no point in being precise about it.

Christmas cake. Photo by James Petts, on Wikimedia.

Christmas cake. Photo by James Petts, on Wikimedia.

After that, you can start on the Christmas cake.

It may be called Boxing Day because it was the day that Victorian ladies and gentlemen gave gift boxes to tradespeople and the servants (who had to work on Christmas day, and probably had to work on Boxing Day as well). Or it may have come from a medieval tradition involving alms boxes, which were opened on Boxing Day and the money given to the poor. Basically no one’s sure, but if you repeat the stories often enough they take on a certain authority.

What’s certain is that it’s a second legal holiday that involves brussels sprouts. Only in Britain.

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I’ll be posting once a week until—probably—mid-January, when I’ll go back to twice a week. Enjoy the holidays, whatever you celebrate and however you celebrate them.