Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Today is a late day at the office--I need to finish printing several hundred accept/deny letters to the program I work for. While the printer is whirring and clacking in the background, smelling hotter and more prone to breakdown by the minute, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on the old year, new year, Lang Syne, how no-one seems to know what Lang Syne is except that it's Auld, the usual year-end thoughts.

I tend to not be much of a resolution-er--not that I can't think of multitudnous ways in which I ought to reform myself, but I know that most resolutions last until the groundhog sees his shadow (he always sees it, doesn't he?). In the spirit of self-reformation, I try to keep things simple. Last year my resolution was to floss every day. Yes, oral hygeine took precedence over making the world a better place or cultivating my soul. It sort of worked. I don't floss every day, but the days I don't are an exception. This year...

Remembering birthdays. Or, rather more specifically, sending birthday cards when appropriate. My mother's family all sends each other cards, and as a proper grown-up, I really ought to do this, too. So, easy does it...send mail like a proper adult. Can handle this. And go.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The snow is swirling (though not sticking), there's hammer dulcimer and bagpipe dancing and droning Christmas music on the CD player, and there's mincemeat simmering on the stove. I've decided that nothing smells more like Christmas than mincemeat.

I recognize that the concept of mincemeat might sound a little (or a lot) nasty--it's a sweet pie made with beef. Yes, beef. In pie. And it's delicious. It's probably very much out of fashion to make mincemeat, but it's my father's favorite, so as a Christmas gift to him, I'm making a few pies' worth of filling to freeze, so my mom can make him pies later in the winter. He's a chiropractor, with a good old country doctor philosophy about his practice, so he has the sort of patients that make him fudge and cookies and pies at Christmas, and several have caught wind of his love for mincemeat. He'll be well stocked for a few weeks, anyway. But by February, who couldn't use a reminder of warm holidays?

I cobbled together a recipe based on several "Old Time Mincemeat" recipes collected online. Some were meant to be used right away, or frozen; others were canning recipes. Since many mincemeat recipes are canning recipes, vinegar figures into the ingredients for canning safety purposes, and of course then figures into the flavor as well. Even though I'm not canning this batch (I don't a pot big enough for idea, anyone reading) I added a little vinegar to replicate the flavor.

1 1/2 lb beef--I used round steak
at least 3 cups apple cider, divided
4 cups chopped apples (I used Gala...any firmish sweet-tart apple would probably be fine)
2 cups each golden raisins and dried cranberries
1 cup brandy, extra optional
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup vinegar
1 T cinnamon
1 t each ground ginger and clove

Hack beef into big pieces. Cook in about 1 cup of cider (more may be necessary depending on size of pot). Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer. Cook about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, place cranberries and raisins in bowl, and pour 1 cup of brandy over the bowl to plump and flavor dried fruit.

Remove beef; discard cooked cider (the first recipe I read said to keep this and cook everything else in it, which is a nice idea, except that the liquid was watery and had a bit too much beefyness in it after cooking. It looked icky. I discarded and used fresh cider). Chop beef coarsly into bite-sized pieces.

Dump beef back into pot, along with apples, brandied raisin/cranberry mix, 1 cup sugar, and at least 2 cups of apple cider (shouldn't cover, but shouldn't be skimpy, either.) Add butter, vinegar, and spices. Simmer about an hour and half, until thick. If desired, add another 1/2 cup to cup of brandy toward the end of cooking.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas at Valley Forge

It's gotten cold in Indiana, which is of course to be expected in late December. What's less expected is my first reaction to the first really cold morning of the winter, as I walked from my car to work : "I'm sure glad I didn't wake up in a tent this morning."

This may, first of all, be a sign that I've been reenacting too long and the minutaie thereof has completed its takeover of the workings of my brain. It may also be that, though I've never woken up to a snowstorm or single-digit temperatures, I've dragged myself out of a bedroll into an automatic shiver enough times to have a taste of what it feels like. Finally, it's most likely because I had just read the short story "Valley Forge" by Van Wyck Mason in my Christmas anthology.

I make reading my favorites from this tome an annual tradition, and "Valley Forge" is one of those favorites. Set, unsurprisingly, in Valley Forge during the winter encampment of 1777, it recounts a cold Christmas Eve that ought, from the want of fuel and food, to have been lacking entirely in cheer. It's the sort of old-timey patriotic story that would be laughed off the shelves now, but its earnestness keeps it fresh even today. As his soldiers shiver and lie through their chattering teeth writing good tidings home to their families, General Washington is writing his resignation to the Continental Congress. Yet, after he tours the camp, thoroughly impressed each time he stops at a weak campfire with his men's steadfastness, he returns and burns the letter.

It's a very simple story, and one that the historian in me could pick apart. I could also, in a moment of uncharitable speech, call it "corny." Even "corndog." But I choose not to, because it's really about what we choose to believe about other people--that they have good in them. And isn't that one of the best parts of Christmas--believing?

And besides, I'm full of good cheer of the season--I didn't wake up in a tent this morning.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

B is for...

Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard (Response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

Just in time for Christmas, a novel inspired by Dickens' classic Carol in Prose. This was a gift at a White Elephant exchange a couple of years ago, and I think I perhaps made out the best (though the covetted gift of the night, a reindeer-poo candy dispenser, would have been an amusing addition to my holiday display, I couldn't write a review of it here).

Enjoying this book was a bit of a surprise--I generally don't enjoy the seedy Victorian underbelly scene (overdone, often overkill, often stereotypical) and I generally don't get into mysteries. This was a mystery set in the seedy underbelly of Victorian London, with the full cast of stereotypically seedy Victorian characters (the prostitutes, the charming youthful pickpocket, the crusty river boatsman, the corrupt aristocracy). But the plot pranced along at a pleasant gait, and the characters were complex enough to invite both sympathy and interest. And of course, a good part of the fun was seeing where the characters of the original story would come in.

Fair warning--the plot does center around prostitution and includes a ring that attempts child prostitution, so while the book itself does not contain explicit sex, the suggestion of upsetting themes is certainly there. At certain points there's a bit of lag on the story, particularly up front--the novelty does not last quite long enough to sustain the reader until the plot really commences. I would have appreciated the addition of a subplot or two, but as I said--I'm not much of a mystery reader, so that was probably the reason I wanted more out of the story. And of course, Tiny Tim as the main character aside, the basic plot has certainly been done before. Yet Bayerd's writing keeps the book fresh, as do a few turns he takes with the characters and the allusions to Dickens' Christmas Carol. A worthwhile winter read.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas in the Country

This Saturday I slipped back to the eighteenth century for a few hours for a party with some of my dearest friends--the reenactors in the group I've belonged to since I was four. They're more like family, and the candlelight and woodsmoke, with a pork loin roasted on the hearth and a sherry-spiked trifle for dessert, made for a perfect reunion.

Before heading off, I realized that I needed to remedy a deficiency in my gown. The late eighteenth-century polonaise puts a lot of emphasis on the, ahem, derriere, and even with the draped fabric, mine was looking a bit puny. So I did what any lady would do--I made myself a false rump. Yes, I just typed the words "false rump." What an eighteenth-century lady wouldn't have done, that I chose to do, was to create the thing out of old towels. But, rolled and stitched, they have the right combination of firmness and maleability. The effect is quite charming, if you're into that sort of thing:

A friend posted this photo on Facebook, and the first thing I did when I saw it was make my husband come look at how great my butt looked. Yeah, he thought it was weird, too.

We also danced, sticking with English country dances. A friend asked before I went to the party if we were going to dance the minuet--to my understanding, this is much more difficult, and given the hilarity of attempting these country dances, I don't think I'd have much success at the minuet! Most were done in lines or circles of six--there were more willing ladies than gentlemen, so many thanks to the good sports who provided partners to all of us ladies who wanted a turn on the floor. My favorite started in a circle instead of a line (as the one at right does) and involved turning your partner into the center of the circle and back out. It also involved skipping. Very fun.

And, of course, we all had so much fun that we decided we must have a spring masquerade ball. It will be a late Carnivale. Or something. As though we needed an excuse! But, of course, we can't wear the same gowns again, can we? So we all conspired to make appropriately spring-ish gowns. Perhaps the perfect reason to attempt the modified saqcue-back that I'm currently coveting.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Things to look forward to

1) My husband and I just bought a new car. He's picking it up today. I feel ridiculously stereotypically American, but it's an SUV--we needed something with plenty of interior cargo space, a roof rack (which we wheedled them to throw in free haha!) and towing. The interior space and roof rack for the reenacting tentage and supplies, and the towing for the cannon. Yes, cannon--Milton the Continental Marine cannon will be joining us at more events in the near future!

2) Looking at Christmas lights. Again, rather stereotypical, but I love driving around and looking at neighborhood Christmas lights. Date night!

3) Eighteenth-century Christmas party tomorrow. I finally finished my polonaise gown (it's more of a day, or "undress" gown, but we'll let that slide) and can't wait to play dress up! I've been working on this gown for ages--and have been wearing it for a couple of years, but with the engag├ęs missing from the sleeves and the neckline fitting poorly. Everything is ship-shape now, and hopefully wearing it will inspire me to get moving on the block-printed caraco (long jacket) I have planned as a winter project.

I hope to post pics from the party...but in the meantime, an shot of Milton in action: