Monday, April 30, 2012

Lundi: Recipes

The time for finishing up last year’s salmon has arrived in the Frozen North.  People are already out in the icy streams fishing for trout and very soon the spawning salmon will be jumping onto hooks all over Alaska.  It’s the usual cycle.

One of the best things to do with not-so-well-frozen salmon is to smoke it, and smoked salmon makes a wonderful, bagels-and-lox style sandwich.  The inspiration for this recipe is French in origin but the addition of hardboiled egg and cucumber make it awfully similar to the old New York favorite.  Feel free to use cream cheese rather than mayo if you’ve a hankering for a shmear, which would convert this into a lovely brunch dish.

Good baguette, preferably fresh from the bakery
Smoked salmon
1 hardboiled egg, thinly sliced
1 large tomato, thinly sliced
½ cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Slice and/or split your baguette and dress both sides with a good quality mayo.  Layer smoked salmon, egg, tomato and cucumber then salt and pepper as you prefer.  This makes a great buffet item as people can chose the ingredients they like.  Thinly sliced red onion, capers, lemon wedges and lettuce are some other additions you might consider.  Bon appetite ~

Header: Copper Pot with Cheese and Garlic by Roy Hodrien via Old Paint

Friday, April 27, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Campaign season is shifting into high gear and, if I’m honest, I’m sick of it already.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m a religious voter and an ardent advocate of everyone voting.  Our ancestors didn’t wade through the hell of sea voyages, indentured servitude, slavery and 14 hour days in factories and on farms so we could shrug our shoulders and call a trip to the polls “too much trouble.”  In my opinion, that’s like spitting on your grandmother’s grave.  Still, all this idiotic name-calling seems to demean us all.

As happens more often than I’d like to admit, I have taken refuge from the coming storm in dusty old catalogues of demonology and demons where, to my surprise, I find that even Hell was supposed to be full of lame ducks, lobbyists and political parasites of all kinds.  Some of this is fairly amusing stuff and so, taken largely from Compendium Maleficarum written by Fra Francesco Guazzo in the late 15th century and translated by Montague Summers in 1929, I offer a few of the denizens of Hell’s beltway, so to say.

It only makes sense to begin with Hell’s President.  Forcas had the baring and appearance of the Old Testament God, or perhaps in a more modern visual context the President from The Hunger Games novels.  He was a military commander with 30 legions of Hell’s soldiers at his beck and call.  He also, perhaps surprisingly, was a learned philosopher and would teach humans willing to turn their souls over to him the intricacies of rhetoric and argument.

Speaker of the House, or Prime Minister depending on your version of democracy, was Lucifuge Rofocale who detested light and would quite literally melt away when exposed to it.  Returned to the dark, however, his demonic body would reassemble so that he could cause earthquakes, inflict disease and create pockets of treasure beneath the Earth.

Abbadon was in charge of Hell’s Pentagon.  This formidable General, who was also known by the name of Apollyon, had once been a destroying angel of Yahweh.  In Hell he was charged with not only overseeing the military, but with keeping the very worst of the Black Pit’s beasties at bay until the Apocalypse.

Ba’alber or Ba’alberith was the Secretary General of the underworld.  He was the one who kept the careful books that would help God sort out the sheep from the goats at the Final Judgment.  When not puttering around his library, he might make time to incite humans to murder.  Ba’alber was not above possessing a nun or two when the mood struck him.

Alastor was Chief Justice of Hell’s Supreme Court.  Doubtless, he was a busy demon as rumor had it that Satan would frequently change his mind and reissue judgments.

Leonard and Verdelet were like Secretaries of State.  It was their job to keep tabs on, and encourage, Satan’s minions on Earth: witches.  Leonard was particularly interested in the success or failure of their dark magic and it was he – not Satan himself – that appeared as the black goat at all those notorious sabbats.  Verdelet was in charge of transportation and foreign exchange.  He made sure that the witches got back and forth to those sabbats on time and that they had familiar spirits ready and willing to help them with their mischief.

Other lesser politicos included Melchom, the banker of Hell, Nysrock, Hell’s chef and Adramelech, Hell’s sommelier.  Uphir was the physician to the lords and ladies of Hell and it was Xaphan who kept the fires of Hell burning very, very brightly.

Header: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Martin Schongauer c 148

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jeudi: Weather-Wise

Much of our weather knowledge in times gone by came from sailors, just as much of our weather comes from the large bodies of water that make life on Earth possible.  The information is usually simple, direct and easy to remember; because there’s enough to think about at sea, frankly.

A good example is this rhyme, which probably originated in New England around the turn of the 19th century.  It is more the kind of pneumonic device that would be used by children than adults, but it doubtless got its start – and accuracy – from the seasoned salts who knew their coastline oh so well:     

North winds send hail,
South winds bring rain,
East winds we bewail,
West winds blow amain.
Northeast is too cold,
Southeast not too warm,
Northwest is too bold,
Southwest blows no harm.

Keeping this rhyme in mind, a quick glance at any working weather vane would tell a local what type of conditions to expect when the wind kicked up.  One imagines such things were and probably still are just as accurate as, if not more so than, any media forecast available.  A votre santé ~

Header: Boreas by John William Waterhouse c 1903

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

Though many of our female ancestors were given no end of trouble over their penchant for cosmetics, jewels and other fripperies, the ladies of Ancient Egypt never seem to have had that problem.  From the earliest recorded times they were not only encouraged but expected to maintain a clean, lean, healthy appearance.  Elegance was over the top by the dawn of the New Kingdom, around 1,550 BCE, and this was especially true at the royal court where both ladies and gentlemen primped, plucked and groomed like modern celebrities.

One of the most interesting things about Ancient Egyptian culture, at least to me, is its unusual lack of change.  Things were pretty well set in place for close to 3,000 years as far as politics, religion, etiquette and so on.  This was true of fashion as well and so, with only a few fluctuations, we can look at the Ancient Egyptian’s beauty regimen as being fairly static throughout the culture.

Women in particular but men as well had a mania for removal of body hair.  This may have been due to a combination of the hot, arid climate of the Nile Valley, the ever-present threat of parasites and the cult of the body developed in Ancient Egypt.  Bodies, even those of the common folk, were worked over with a pumice stone virtually daily to remove all possible hair.  Among the working poor it was not unusual to remove one’s clothing to attend to heavy labor.  Bodies were easy to wash; linen was not.

Bathing was considered a must, even if it only meant pouring water over the body in the evening.  Many queens were notoriously addicted to bathing; Queen Nitocris required an hour long bath in cool water sprinkled with a pinch of natron every morning.

The head and hair were particular focuses of care.  Men routinely shaved and wore either wigs or cloth headdresses.  Depending on the era, women either did the same or wore their natural hair intricately dressed with jewels, metal and extensions of human or horse hair.  By the middle of the 18th dynasty, baldness for women had become the norm.  Ladies polished their heads with precious oils and wore long, intricately plated wigs to formal occasions while wrapping their heads in elegant scarves at home. 

During the reign of Akhenaton, his daughters’ unusually elongated heads became a fashion icon.  The rumor was that a sorcerer had reshaped the girls’ heads in the womb to spare their beautiful mother Nefertiti the worst pains of childbirth.  Whatever the case, fashion historian Mila Contini tells us that court ladies tried to emulate the princesses’ unusually shaped heads by wearing false headpieces of vegetable fiber or wood.

Cosmetics were applied to face and body with regularity.  A fashionista would not think of leaving home without her hair in a perfect coif and her limbs perfumed with oils of lotus, myrrh or acacia.  Her complexion would be whitened with a lead-based paste followed by a delicate sienna blush at cheeks and temples.  The lips would be tinted the same red-orange color, as would the finger and toenails.  Eyes were heavily painted, usually with three or four different colors.  Black kohl rimmed the eyes and elongated the eyelashes while sparkling green malachite was swept over the eyelids.  The eyebrows were extended with antimony powder which was dark gray in color.  Very wealthy women might sweep a bit of gold dust just over the brow as a final highlight.

The ladies must have cut a very beguiling figure as they swept into a temple festival or royal feast.  It is no wonder that we are to this day fascinated by the beauty of Ancient Egypt.

Header: Two of Akhenaton’s daughters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mardi: Herbal-Wise

In the southern United States, magnolia trees are ubiquitous these days.  Originating in the Far East where they are a symbol of love, fidelity and grace, magnolias quite literally grow like weeds in the warm, humid climate familiar to the area known as the “deep south.”  With all this in mind, it probably comes as no surprise that both leaves and flowers are used in hoodoo root work.  The magnolia is generally thought to draw love, but it has a more sinister undertone than one might expect if one takes a closer look at practices from only a scant 75 years ago.

Old wives advised their daughters to wear magnolia flowers to attract men.  This was especially popular at open air festivities such as barbeques and horse races since the scent of the flowers could be overpowering indoors.  I’d be concerned about attracting bees and yellow jackets, frankly, but whatever works.

Scott Cunningham mentions magnolia only briefly in his comprehensive and invaluable Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs.  Here he notes that magnolia should be placed under or close to one’s bed to “maintain a faithful relationship.”

Hoodoo root workers use the dried leaves in particular for this purpose, including them in mojo bags to improve conjugal relationships of all kinds.  This is the point where the manipulative side of magnolia’s use comes to light, as Catherine Yronwode points out at her highly informative Lucky Mojo site.

It seems that some women were known to collect a bit of semen from their partner and use it to dress a string which was measured to the length of his penis.  Nine knots were tied in the string with the intention of keeping the man from wandering and then the “nine-knot measure” and dried magnolia leaves were stuffed into or underneath the mattress of the couple’s bed.  This would, in theory at least, keep the man from being able to perform sexually with anyone else beside the woman who had laid the trick.

As Yronwode points out, the fear of this kind of hoodoo was so strong that it was immortalized in the musical style most connected to such magick: the blues.  In 1933 Will Batts recorded a song called “Country Woman” in which he sings:

I don’t want no jealous-hearted woman, great God, makin’ up my bed;
Man, she’ll put somethin’ in the mattress, make you wish you was dead.

Really, what more is there to say? 

Header: From a Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia by Lewis Miller c 1853-1867 ~ the ladies are wearing magnolia blossoms and leaves in their hair

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lundi: Recipes

An old favorite from the iconic Stork Club in New York, Crabmeat Remick began to be served at the Caribbean Room in the newly built Pontchartrain Hotel some time around 1923.  That is, according to the Times-Picayune which originally printed the recipe in the 1950s and included it in their 2008 publication Cooking Up a Storm. 

I remember a similar dish made by my grandmother using local Dungeness crab rather than the lump crabmeat that this recipe calls for.  Either way, it is easy to prepare, tasty and very rich.  Small portions are recommended.

1 ½ cups mayonnaise
1 tsp tarragon vinegar
½ cup chili sauce
1 tsp dry mustard
2 tbsps fresh lemon juice
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp Tabasco
Dash celery salt
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked for shells and cartilage
6 to 12 slices of bacon, fried until crisp

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a small mixing bowl, combine mayo, vinegar, chili sauce, dry mustard, lemon juice, paprika, Tabasco and celery salt and mix well.

Divide the crabmeat evenly among six large or twelve small ramekins.  Spoon the sauce generously over the crabmeat and top each with a bacon slice.

Bake for 15 minutes or until the sauce bubbles.  Serve warm as an appetizer or small entree.  Bon appetite ~

Header: The Pontchartrain Hotel, elevation by the architectural firm of Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth c 1920 via KnowLA

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dimanche: Swimming

Portrait of T.E. Lawrence by Henry S. Tuke via Old Paint ~

All men dream; but not equally.  Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Samedi: Ghost Stories

The excitement of NOLA Navy Week has me thinking about my ancestral home and the many legends of ghostly ships, seafarers and – in particular – pirates that linger there to this day.  With all that swirling around in my head, I realized that we haven’t had a good ghost story here at HQ for awhile.  Despite the brightness of spring, or warmth of fall depending on where you are on our dear Earth, I invite you to draw the blinds and allow yourself to slip away to an ancient, Louisiana bayou, where the frogs are chirping and the drown just won’t stay dead…

There was a quadroon man named Louis who lived on Bayou Grand Caillou in Louisiana.  He was a fisherman and sometimes he was happy with his trade, sometimes not.  Louis heard, from the other fisherman, that on a nearby island which was not much more than a muddy chenier, the Baratarian pirate known as Gambi had buried some of his treasure.  Now the talk went that Gambi was the most ruthless and treacherous of the pirates who aligned themselves with the famous Jean Laffite.  He would slit a man’s throat for no reason, and it was said that if anyone tried to steal his treasure, his ghost would slit his throat, too.

Louis was a brave man if, it must be admitted, not very bright and he began to enquire after this pirate’s treasure.  Where was it, he asked his friends, and when was the best time to go to the island and dig it up?  His friends told him he was crazy but Louis persisted.  Finally one old Cajun told him that the only way to find Gambi’s treasure was to go to the little island at night, under a full moon, and look for a patch of moss that glowed silver in the moonlight.  That was where the pirate had hidden his long lost horde.

As we said, Louis was brave, so on the night of the next full moon he packed up his little pirogue with a shovel and canvas and everything he thought he’d need to bring that pirate treasure home.  He quietly sailed out to that deserted island where there was nothing but a broken down old boat shed, one or two sad cypress trees and big patches of green moss all over everything.  Louis pulled his boat up high onto the broken shells of the shore, turned and almost immediately saw the silvery moss over by one of the trees.

The fisherman set directly to his task, the chuff and hiss of his spade, his own breathing and the croaking of frogs the only sound beside a mournful wind off the Gulf.  But then Louis heard another sound, like something being dragged across the shells at the water’s edge.  He turned and he was surprised to see his pirogue down in the water when he was sure he had dragged her high up on land.  He threw his shovel down and marched into the water.  Retrieving his boat, he dragged it up on shore again but this time he tied her up to that other sorry cypress tree.

Louis marched back to the hole he had started, grumbling about the wind and tide, but just as he was putting shovel to dirt again he saw two ugly, hairy feet appear, their toes just hanging over the chasm of his little ditch.  Suddenly, Louis felt cold.  He gulped even though his mouth was as dry as sand, and with all the courage he had he looked up from his spade.  There before him stood two horrible, grinning pirates.  They were sodden with water and seaweed, while little shrimp crawled in and out of their clothes and hair.  They each held a cutlass, both dripping with either rust or blood – Louis did not want to know which – and they stared at him with eyes as cold as gleaming silver.

Now Louis was brave, if not very bright, but he was also a good Catholic and he knew what to do when the Devil jumped up.  He fell to his knees, clasped his hands under his chin after crossing himself and began to recite the Hail Mary over and over and over again.  After the seventh sincere recitation of the prayer to the Virgin, Louis finally opened his eyes.  Sure enough, those silver-eyed, watery pirates had disappeared and Louis, well, he was still alive. 

Even as Louis let out a sigh of relief, he heard that awful scraping sound behind him once again.  Turning, he saw a third pirate sitting on his pirogue.  This one wore a long dagger, held a fine ivory handled pistol and his bristling, black mustache dripped red with blood.  He too was dripping wet, covered with crawfish and seaweed, but he wore fine, leather boots that marked him as a captain.

“Gambi?” Louis asked.

“The very one,” the phantom replied.  “And if you don’t get in this pathetic dinghy and row for your life, I’ll shoot you or slit your throat for no good reason.”  The pirate smiled, and one gold tooth gleamed like fire in the moonlight.

Louis didn’t have to be told twice.  Abandoning his tools, he untied his boat and jumped in rowing as hard as he knew how as far away from the island as he could. 

Once the pirogue was a few leagues out into the bayou, Gambi’s ghost put away his nasty pistol, slipped over the side of the boat and disappeared into the inky water.  Louis would later tell his friends that he knew for sure the creature was not of this Earth as no bubble rose to the surface when it sank below the waves.

So Louis went straight home and there his wife nearly shot him herself, he looked so different.  His hair had turned stark white and he would never smile again.  Though he told his story to anyone who would listen, it wasn’t long before Louis went to bed one night and died, perhaps joining those phantom pirates on that little chenier off Bayou Grand Caillou.

This story is told with many different variations around southeastern Louisiana and is especially remembered in the book Gumbo Ya~Ya edited by the incomparable Lyle Saxon.  In that version, however, the island is identified rather than the pirate; it is called L’Isle de Gombi.

Header: Phantom of Bayou des Mortes by Lew Lehrman

Friday, April 20, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Anyone familiar with the animated DreamWorks film The Road to El Dorado has at least a passing familiarity with the Mesoamerican ballgame.  Though the game has not come down to us with a specific name it was, according to Dr. Tim Laughton of Essex University, a bit like a mash-up of rugby and American football.  What exactly the rules of the game were are unknown, but it is known that players could not use their hands or feet to manipulate a ball made of rubber.

We also know that, at least in some cases, the game was a matter of life and death.  Depending on the size of the court, teams of from one to as many as ten players squared off and the losing team was sometimes sacrificed.  Though not all cultures participated in this ritualized bloodletting, the Maya – who were particularly fond of the ballgame – did.

This Mayan affinity may hark back to their complicated and fascinating mythology, which often focuses on the strangely grotesque particulars of the dark underworld known as Xibalba.

Xibalba (which is pronounced she-balba) was where the gods of death, whose names even incorporated the word, dwelled with the sad shades of those Mayans who had passed away.  Occasional, these chthonian gods amused themselves by interfering in the workings of men and heroes.  One such opportunity arose when two of Xibalba’s lords, One Death and Seven Death, became distracted by an unusual ruckus on earth. 

Upon investigation, the Death brothers stumbled on a ball court where the twin heroes One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu were wearing each other out at their favorite pastime.  One imagines the Death brothers rubbing their hands together as they grinned their skull-faced grins before returning to Xibalba to plot mischief.

One Death and Seven Death wanted the hero twins’ ball court for their own and decided the brothers would have to die.  To this end, they sent out their demon owls, which in the story come across much like the galla of Ereshkigal’s dark realm, to fetch One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu to Xibalba.   

The hero twins, having no real choice in the matter, descended below the Earth on an epic journey to the underworld.  They braved rivers running with fetid blood and pus, deep canyons with crystal spikes on their floors, and giant scorpions.  Being heroes, the twins faced all the challenges and made it to the hall of the Death brothers.

There they found figures that they imagined were the Death brothers.  Bowing respectfully, the hero twins were surprised to hear laughter behind them.  Before they could turn, the Death brothers appeared and shoved hot boulders beneath the twins.  The figures were just manikins, and now One Death and Seven Death had horribly burned the backs of the hero twins’ legs.

In pain but still defiant, they turned and took the “gifts” presented to them by the Death brothers.  Each received a flaming torch and a smoldering cigar.  With this, the Death brothers departed.  They would return in the morning, they told the twins, and if they found that the torches and cigars were not as they had left them, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu would be executed.

The hero twins tried to extinguish their gifts, but they could not.  There was no escape from their fate for the challenge was rigged.  The Death brothers returned as promised, killed the twins, and buried their bodies in the ball court that now belonged to Xibalba.

There is a happy, if grisly, ending to this story.  The Death brothers, for some reason, chose to preserve the head of the older twin, One Hunahpu.  They turned it into a gourd and wedged it in the fork of a tree.  The tree bore fruit, but the Death brothers forbade their minions to touch it. 

Now, One Death and Seven Death had an uncle named Blood Gatherer who had the most intrepid and beautiful child among the denizens of Xibalba.  Her name was Blood Moon and she climbed the tree to retrieve the shiny gourd that had once been One Hunahpu’s head.  In a telling metaphor, the gourd “spat into her lap” and Blood Moon became pregnant. 

It is easy to see, through this complex chthonian mythology, how the Mesoamerican ballgame became a ritualized placation of the powers of the underworld and death via the ultimate sacrifice: human life.  Another time, too, we can look at the equally fascinating story of Blood Moon and her twin sons.

Header: Stone carving from the South Ball court at El Tajin in Veracruz, Mexico showing a ball player being sacrificed after a game

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jeudi: Curios

The beautiful, deep blue stone known as lapis lazuli has been used for magickal purposes since the most ancient times.  In fact, it may have been one of the first precious gems actively sought by our ancestors.

Lapis lazuli has always been associated with kingship, possible because of its almost purple color which is sometimes flecked with golden pyrite.  It was highly prized in ancient Middle Eastern civilizations such as Sumer, Assyria, Egypt and Phoenicia.  In Sumer, the adornments of the gods were said to be made of lapis lazuli.  Rulers had their cylinder seals, spool-like, carved seals that would be rolled over soft clay to leave a recognizable mark, made from the stone.

Phoenician pirates admired lapis as plunder.  In Ancient Egypt it was used in not only jewelry but household items and even furniture for the royal and wealthy elite.  Physicians ground lapis lazuli into a powder and mixed it with various ingredients to cure everything from headaches to aging.  Thanks to the Egyptian’s funerary rituals, we are blessed with a wealth of beautiful objects inlaid with intricate designs of lapis lazuli such as the bracelet shown above.

Warriors favored the stone as well and carried it into battle to allow them to be courageous unto death.

In modern magick, the stone is still used for healing.  It is said that holding, carrying or wearing lapis can calm nightmares, ease anxiety, reduce fever and improve eyesight.  The stone is often used by psychic healers when performing rituals for people who are physically removed from where the healer is.

Lapis lazuli is also thought to increase psychic awareness.  Wear, carry or hold a piece of lapis before and/or during a reading of your chosen divining medium such as runes or cards.  The stone is thought to break the dominant conscious mind’s hold on the subconscious, allowing for more accurate use of the divining tool.

According to Scott Cunningham, lapis is also a love-drawing stone.  He recommends using a raw, unpolished stone that has a point or sharp edge.  This along with a pink candle should be empowered with your need for love.  While still concentrating on love, etch a heart into the candle wax with the lapis.  Light the candle and place the stone close to the candleholder.  Relax, and continue to envision love entering your life as the candle burns down and out.  Bonne chance ~

Header: Ancient Egyptian bracelet of gold and lapis lazuli c the 22nd Dynasty via The Ancient World

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

Our ancestors did some fairly crazy things to look lovely and youthful.  Of course, given a certain portion of our modern population’s obsession with things like Botox and plastic surgery, it probably shouldn’t surprise any of us.  And yet, reading a recipe like this next one, along with its frightening instructions for use, can set one’s teeth on edge.  From Sarah Jane Downing’s Beauty and Cosmetics 1550-1950, here is a physician named Ruscelli’s chemical peel from the sixteenth century:

The user is advised to mix eggs, vinegar, turpentine, sugar-candy, camphor, rock alum, quicksilver, lemon juice, tartarum and white onion.  All this is mixed into a paste and placed in a thin layer over face, neck and bosom before retiring.  This no doubt foul-smelling treatment should be allowed to dry and then left on the skin for eight days.  Ruscelli’s instructions are particularly off-putting when he mentions that the paste should be left on even if the user feels as if her skin is being burned or flayed off.  The face was to be steamed at the end of the proscribed period to remove the paste and one must imagine a layer or two of skin.  Ruscelli goes on to warn that care should be taken to avoid open air, sunlight and even getting too close to the fire for another eight days.

In a word, yikes!

Here’s a kinder, gentler way to get rid of those pesky dead skin cells that won’t require the user to endure pure torture just to get through it. 

½ large, very ripe banana
1 tbsp plain yogurt
2 tsps honey
1 tsp lemon juice
Rice flour

Mash the banana with a fork.  You can use a food processor but be careful as you want to keep those little black seeds in tact to assist the rice flour to exfoliate your skin.

Add yogurt, honey and juice and mix until smooth.  Add rice flour as needed to form a paste.  Cover this mixture and chill it in the fridge for about 25 minutes.

Gently remix and then apply a thick layer to clean, dry skin on face, neck and décolleté, avoiding the eye area.  Now recline and relax for 15 minutes.  Rinse off with warm water and finish with your usual moisturizer.

The banana has a mild enzyme that will exfoliate and tighten skin.  The yogurt’s lactic acid dissolves dead skin cells; honey is antiseptic while lemon juice evens skin tone.  This mask is especially refreshing during warm weather but it works all year round without worrying about your skin burning or flaying off.  A votre santé ~

Header: French beauty Marie de Lorraine by Corneille de Lyon c 1550

Friday, April 13, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Working underground in general and mining in particular has always been a dangerous undertaking.  I doubt that very many people would argue with that given that to this day we still have cave-ins that trap miners, if not kill them, around the world far too regularly.  Given the stress under which miners have always worked, it is probably not surprising that tales of underground creatures working alongside their human companions – unseen but certainly heard – has become ingrained in the lore of the profession.

The most pervasive of these stories concerns variously named little men, comparable to the more familiar gnome, who have been present in the shafts of mines from Germany to California at any given time in history.  Their names vary, depending on their country of origin.  In Germany they have been called kobolds and in France coblyn whereas the Welsh call them coblynau or bucca.  In Cornwall they are known as knockers or knackers and when they finally migrated to California during the gold rush, they began to be called tommyknockers, a name that will be familiar to readers of Stephen King.

The knockers seem to wear two faces.  Dressed in imitations of miner’s clothing and wearing candles on their hats just like their human counterparts, they either descend into the bowels of the earth or live there all the time.  Some stories, particularly in Germany, say that they live in the very rocks themselves.  On the one hand, the knockers are thought to be mischievous but helpful.  They will “borrow” tools and food left unattended, but their picking and drilling when heard by men is a sure sign of a rich vein.  On the other hand, stories warn against heeding the siren song of the knocking kobolds; their noises are a sure sign that a cave-in is only moments away.

In Cornwall, the knockers were sometimes believed to be the spirits of long-dead miners who had returned to help their brethren.  An ongoing story circulated about a miner and his son who offered to help the knockers in their digging for a cut of their typically tremendous haul.  The knockers agreed and took a few years off while the father and son team did their work for them.  Eventually, the old man grew very wealthy but when he died his son began to short the knockers on their share of the mineral – usually tin – being pulled from the ground.  Almost immediately the vein dried up and the knockers left for another mine.  The son, unable to find work as all the other miners in the county knew what he had done, died debauched and penniless.

In Germany, however, kobolds would repay kindness with spite.  Even if offerings of food or tools were left in the mine shafts, the kobolds would maliciously lead miners to veins of ores that seemed like silver or gold, but were actually found to be poisonous when they were refined.  These ores were called cobalt by the German miners, which will of course be familiar to modern chemists.  In 1735 the Swedish scientist Georg Brandt managed to isolate the bane of German miners; fifty years later the new element was christened cobalt.

Immigrants to the Americas brought their tales of kobolds and knockers with them to new shores.  In Pennsylvania, where many coal miners are of German ancestry, tales of the little kobolds continued into the 20th century and perhaps even to this day.  The Welsh and Cornish miners took their mine-dwelling sprites all the way to California where knockers, for some reason, became tommyknockers.  As late as 1954, a feature in The Sacramento Bee recounted the story of old miners petitioning that the sealed shafts of certain mines be opened so that the knockers could find a way out and move on to active mines.

Our chthonian spirits tend to die very, very hard.

Header: Le Porteur de Charbon (The Coal Carrier) by Henri Gervex c 1892 via Old Paint

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jeudi: Root Work

Our world is full of stress.  Diagnosis of anxiety disorders is at an all time high, or so it would seem, and there’s a pill for everything.  Please don’t imagine that I’m being sarcastic when I say this.  I have a sometimes crippling social anxiety disorder that requires the occasional Xanax just to get my butt out the door and into an unfamiliar environment.

But you can’t take a pill every day – or I can’t anyway.  What about those times when you’re just nervous for no good reason, or anxious about something that really shouldn’t be so worrisome?  What about those times when your personal evolution isn’t in sync with that of the high tech, fast paced, noisy dang world around you?  Hey, wait; that’s just about every day for me…

Thankfully, old wives, Pow-Wows, gypsies and root doctors had little remedies to chase away the little worries long before moderns tagged them as “disorders.”  Here’s one I like very much; a tisane that is easy to collect ingredients for (no occult shop necessary), quick to make, functional to keep and it works. 

Simply take equal parts of dried marjoram, rosemary, sage and thyme.  Mix these well and store in an air-tight container away from light as you would with any herb.  When you feel the need for a moment to yourself to calm down and refocus, put the kettle on the boil or the cup in the microwave. 

Then put about a generous teaspoon per cup of your calming herb mixture in whatever you use for lose tea.  Personally, I’m just as happy to wrap the herbs in a piece of muslin tied with a string as I am to use a fancy tea ball.  Pour boiling water over the herbs and allow them to steep to desired strength.  I find that adding a little sprig of mint to the herb mixture makes it taste even better.

Now, here’s the part that is hard for a lot of us given busy lifestyles and schedules.  Find a quiet place where you can sit in relative silence – no television, computer, phone, radio, etc. – while you enjoy your calm in a cup at a leisurely pace.  Gulping this down over the sink won’t have the same relaxing effect that enjoying it while sitting down to pet your dog will.  It will help, but it won’t work.

But Pauline, you say, I’m in my office ten hours a day.  Where ever can I find a moment to relax away from distractions?  Two words: bathroom stall.  It sounds crazy but seriously.  When I was in upper management and had a corner office with a door I still went to the ladies’ room for this ritual.  Mostly because I knew it was the only place people would respect my privacy.  Even outside on the park bench they would find me, but in the bathroom they’d give me five glorious minutes of sweet, sweet peace.  To each their own, of course, but I’ve been around the block a time or two and sharing experience never hurts, or so it seems.

If you are having trouble sleeping for any reason, but especially due to anxiety, substitute chamomile (sorry, trip to the health food store probably required here) for the marjoram.  If your anxiety is getting in the way of daily life, it’s time to consult your doctor and collaborate on a plan.  You might ask him or her about St. John’s wort, which can be substituted in this recipe for the sage to increase its strength.

As with anything you eat, drink or apply, stop using this tisane if you have deleterious effects and consult your physician if you have conditions such as pregnancy, nursing, heart trouble etc. that might warrant special caution.  A votre santé ~

Header: Morning by Catherine Wiley via American Gallery

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

Reputedly Venus had a beauty spot, one lovely drop of darkness to highlight her perfect complexion, the imperfection that made her beauty complete.  It was probably in emulation of the goddess that patching was known in Roman times.  Patches first began to appear in England in the late sixteenth century, the fashion reaching its height in the later seventeenth century and remaining popular into the eighteenth.  ~ from the book Beauty and Cosmetics 1550-1950 by Sarah Jane Downing

Historical ideas of beauty are certainly as fascinating as our own and the curious habit of “patching” – applying a piece of fabric or leather to the face with glue – is one of those seemingly odd points of fashion that perhaps we as moderns should pay attention to.  Patching became a habit, one might even say an addiction, for certain fashionable people in the era mentioned above.  Some renowned belles and beaus patched whole sections of their face, neck and décolleté.  In other instances, patches were used to signify political affiliation.  Much like tattoos today, patches had multiple meanings and were not limited on some bodies to one here and there.

Patches began as small lozenges made of black velvet, silk or leather that were glued to the skin of the face.  Occasionally, the patch was a bright scarlet red.  These were used as beauty enhancers on the stark white makeup that was made popular by Elizabeth I of England.  Known as ceruse, the makeup was manufactured from lead and could do damage not only to the skin but the whole body.  Lesions and sores, as well as pimples, warts, moles and other “disfigurements” could be covered with the patches to achieve a seemingly perfect complexion.

As the fad for patching increased, particularly after the Restoration in England, patches themselves grew more and more fanciful in shape and even size.  Along with lozenges, which grew large enough in some instances to cover half of one’s chin, horseshoes, crescent moons, stars and in very extreme cases silhouettes of a coach and four were popular. 

In France, where patches were often shaped like little bees in flight, critics began to call the things mouche meaning fly because they appeared to swarm on fashionable skins.  There is, as usual with French speakers, a bit of an in joke to this dig; mouche a miel. “honey fly”, is the term for bee in French and mouche, like puce (flea) or chou (cabbage) was a term of affection.

Placement of the patches also became a language unto itself.  As Downing points out a patch placed on a dimple in the chin or cheek, popular with dandies, was known as “gallant.”  “Coquette” brought attention to a lovely smile while “passion” appeared at the corner of the eye.  Later, during the reign of England’s Queen Anne and beyond, women patched to show their political opinions.  From the Spectator of 1711:

Politically minded dames used their patches as party symbols: the Whigs patching on the right, and the Tories on the left side of their faces, while those who were neutral, decorated both cheeks.

Certainly not far from modern tattooing or t-shirt designs as fashion that makes a statement goes.

Even Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist who originally decried patching, came around in his entry of November 4, 1660 where he writes, “My wife seemed very pretty today, it being the first time I had given her leave to wear a black patch.”  This response seems to have broken the dam for young Elizabeth Pepys, who the rest of her short life became an avid wearer of patches.  A votre santé mes petite mouches ~

Header: A Lady Fastening Her Garter by Francois Boucher

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mardi: Herbal-Wise

To continue the theme of fruit from yesterday, today’s herb-du-jour is raspberries.  They grow like weeds up here in my neck of the woods, a favorite of kids, birds and moose alike and one of my favorite fruits as well.  Although, thanks to their prickly brambles, they can truly be a pain to pick.  Old wives, Wiccans and root doctors have all favored the stalks and leaves of raspberry plants at various times and for various uses.  Here are a few that I know of.

Old wives, in Europe and North America, have been known to pin a raspberry leaf inside the clothing of a pregnant woman.  Changed frequently throughout the pregnancy, the raspberry leaf was thought to ease any pains afflicting the mother during both her pregnancy and birth and delivery.  The long branches, often known as brambles, were bundled up and hung on doors or in windows to turn away evil.  This was particularly popular when a death happened in the neighborhood; the thorns were thought to “stick” a wandering and potentially malevolent shade, thus keeping it from entering the home.

Scott Cunningham says that Wiccans use raspberries in foods charmed to induce love.  Raspberry tea can be used the same way.

In hoodoo, raspberry leaves are thought to draw general luck and to help spouses stay faithful.  Women are advised to make a tisane from a handful of raspberry leaves, allow it to cool and then strain the mixture while thinking of their husbands.  This should be bottled up and the woman should rinse her pubic area with the water at least once a week to keep her husband from straying.

From the Iroquois Native tribe, probably via Pow-Wow, hoodoo adopted a charm used by men to keep their women faithful when they were required to be away overnight or longer.  A raspberry bramble with a root on both ends needed to be located, and some of the root on each end collected with minimal damage to the plant.  If the bramble dies, the trick will not work.  These roots should then be boiled and the water added to the man’s bath.  A small amount of this bathwater should be slipped into the wife’s food or drink before the man leaves home to ensure her fidelity.  Bonne chance ~

Header: The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt

Monday, April 9, 2012

Lundi: Recipes

I saw this morning that the Lower 48, as Alaskans refer to the contiguous United States, had the warmest March ever.  Or at least since records of that sort of thing began to be compiled in 1895.  By contrast, we have now clocked over 134 inches of snow here in Anchorage, breaking the earlier record held by the winter of 1954-55. 

Despite the fact that spring is not yet in bloom outside my window, I’m already thinking about the wonderful local fruits that will be available to us when the farmer’s markets open in May.  Today’s recipe shows off any fresh or frozen fruit to perfection.  Known as a Fool – why I cannot say – this simple but delicious dessert is a wonderful way to use berries in particular but it can also be made utilizing peaches, apples, pears or even grapes.

4 cups of your chosen fruit
¼ cup water (plus a little more if needed)
1 cup baker’s sugar
2 cups heavy cream

Wash, trim and chop fruit as necessary.  Place it in a saucepan with ¼ cup of water and cook over low heat, stirring often and adding a little more water if necessary.  The fruit should be tender to knife-point which can take as little as 20 minutes or as much as 40 minutes, depending.

Remove from heat and allow fruit to cool a bit before putting it through a fine sieve or food mill.  Add the sugar and stir to dissolve before allowing the puree to cool to room temperature.

Whip the cream lightly.  You want it to thicken but you don’t want stiff peaks.  Gently fold the whipped cream into the fruit puree.

This is best served chilled and it looks lovely in a wine or dessert goblet with cookies for dipping.  Bon appetite ~

Header: Bell Telephone ad c 1959: “Why you need a kitchen extension” via Mid-Century

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dimanche: Swimming

Stars by Maxfield Parish via Old Paint ~ A peaceful Passover & happy Easter to all

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Samedi: RaRa Haitian

Yesterday, Good Friday, was the beginning of the week-long Souvenance Festival.  Celebrated largely in Haiti, and there at the town of Souvenance near Gonaives, this observance is dedicated to the powerful Rada lwa and is attended by houngans and mambos exclusively.

For those of us who have not been called into the priesthood, however, there is another lively tradition in Haiti that is particular to this season of the year.  Beginning with Mardi Gras and throughout Lent, the RaRa Festival is celebrated.  During this time – particularly on weekends – bands sashay down the streets of towns and villages alike, usually led by an houngan who serves as musical director and spiritual advisor.

Traditionally, the instruments include drums and horns repurposed from old pieces of metal, conch shells and voices.  Dancers are usually along as well; sometimes jugglers and acrobats accompany the bands.  Everyone is dressed in their brightest clothes and a general holiday atmosphere accompanies the RaRa players.

This noisy tradition was originally a country celebration, but it moved on to large cities fairly quickly.  RaRa bands are at their loudest as they pass through crossroads, where their music and good cheer are believed to drive off evil.

The RaRa bands of Haiti are said by some anthropologists, myself included, to be the ancestors of the now famous Second Line bands in New Orleans.  What goes around comes around, and good cheer is welcome everywhere.  À la votre!

Header: RaRa Band via Haiti Metal Art