Monday, February 4, 2013

Athol Brose from "The Holly Tree Inn"

I was heart-broken, it is true, and yet I was not quite so far gone as to wish to be frozen to death.

So says the "traveller" in The Holly Tree, one of Dickens's lesser-known "Christmas Books." After the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens spent a few years writing a new Christmas story every year. The results were never as good as the first one, though Cricket n the Hearth and The Haunted Man are still adapted for stage and screen pretty regularly.  He eventually got fed up with the whole process and quit, though he did still put out big Christmas editions of the various magazines he edited, many with original material. By the mid 1850s, these "christmas specials" were collections of short stories that were vaguely connected by a story at the beginning and end that functioned as a framing device. Dickens would write the framing device and one of the stories, and friends such as Wilkie Collins would write the other stories.

  Many of the short stories in these collections - even the ones Dickens wrote himself - are pretty bad, but there are some gems among them. The 1866 special, "Mugby Junction," featured a bunch of railroad stories, one of which was Dickens's own "The Signalman," which no less an authority than the ninth Doctor on Doctor Who said was the greatest short story every written. My own favorite of his stories from these is Doctor Marigold, the tale of a hilarious salesman who is one of Dickens's greatest creations.

This year I read the 1855 collection, The Holly Tree, which is supposed to be a collection stories a nameless traveler collects from people at the inn.  The whole first several pages of The Holly Tree really just consist of the nameless traveler reminiscing about all the other sorts of inns and taverns he'd been to or heard about. He even remembers the first one he ever heard of: it was in a story his nurse, "a sallow woman with a fishy eye, and aquiline nose, and a green gown," told him  about an innkeeper who used to kill his customers and turn them into pies.  This sets the tone for the rest of the "First Branch," as the introduction is known.

For pages and pages, the guy just thinks about inns and the weirdoes he meets in them and the stories they've told him. It may sound dull, but the descriptions are so picturesque and inviting that they're a real pleasure to read, and the stories he relates of them are charmingly odd and gruesome.  There's a hotel room left haunted after a suicide, a parrot who says "wipe up the blood," a guy who's afraid of stonehenge, a guy who gets his head chopped off, and all sorts of wonderful things. I actually wish some of them were longer, which is sort of rare in Dickens.

 At one point, the traveler turns his mind to Welsh inns, and then to the Highland Inns in Scotland - "with the oatmeal bannocks, the honey, the venison steaks, the trout from the loch, the whisky, and perhaps (having the materials so temptingly at hand) the Athol brose."

So - Athol Brose. There we have a new drink. Like many of these old-fashioned drinks, no two recipes in circulation seem to agree on how to make it (even the spelling, Athol vs Atholl, has never become standardized - the 15th century nobleman for which it was named probably spelled his name both ways).  Some just make a simple mixture of liquor, honey and cream, but this is leaving out the "brose" altogether. "Brose" is a fancy word for oatmeal water - water that's been steeped in oatmeal for some time, then strained when it's good and oatmeal-flavored.

I didn't blame most modern mixers for leaving the oatmeal part out, after my experience with caudle, but a strained version seemed more drinkable, and it ain't brose without the brose. So I gave it a shot, combining a few recipes into one. It was cold night in Chicago, cold enough to make The Beacon tavern feel like The Highlands on a freezing winter's night. Good night for Athol Brose. Drink like Wilfred Brimley, yo.

1 part oatmeal brose (see below)
3/4 part heavy cream
1 part scotch

Create the "brose" by soaking 1 part oatmeal and 3 parts water in a saucepan overnight or all day long, then straining it out, so you're left with a murky beige water that tastes like oats. Put this in a fresh saucepan and add some honey - about a tablespoon or so per cup of brose. I went with about half a cup of brass.

Bring the honey and brose to boil to mix the honey in, creating a sort of oatmeal/honey syrup, then remove from heat before strirring in the heavy cream. You don't want to boil the cream. Mix all of this well, put it into a sealed vessel, and refrigerate for some time.

When you're ready, remove it from the fridge. Take a whiff and you'll wonder what you've gotten yourself into this time. The brose and cream mixture smells pretty harsh.

Spoon the mixture onto the scotch in a nice goblet, then top with the nutmeg, if desired. It's meant to be served cold, which is odd for a winter drink, but you can try heating it up if you like, too. I found that it was best over ice, even though it was a chilling 7F outside at the time and I would have preferred something hot. It was a tasty enough drink - it reminded me of eggnog, but with a distinctly "breakfasty" feel, as if the Carnation had started making an eggnog flavor of their Instant Breakfast. Not bad.

This is one of only several drinks that appear in The Holly Tree. Early on the traveler stops at a place called the Peacock where everyone is drinking hot purl, and when he speaks of American inns, he mentions sling, cocktail, julep and cobbler, all of which also come up in American Notes, Dickens's diary of his first trip to America. All those are coming up here soon.

Very few editions of The Holly Tree one can find now include any of the other stories that were published in the collection - most copies of The Holly Tree contain just Dickens's introductory story of the traveler, the one story of a person at the inn he wrote himself ("The Boots"), and the conclusion of the traveler's own story. Google around and you can find the others, one of which was by Wilkie Collins,but most of them aren't really good enough to bother.

"The Boots at the Holly Tree Inn," Dickens's own story for the collection, is a tale of young love which was popular enough in its day that Dickens performed it in is public readings. It's now often includedd in collections of Christmas stories. It's cute, but frankly it's nowhere near as much fun to read as the framing device in which the traveler tells gruesome stories and talks about inns and what everyone had to eat.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mrs. Jarley's Tea and Brandy

It's odd how smells can come back to you after years and years. Now and then I walk into a room and realize that it smells exactly like my kindergarten classroom, or like the break room at my first job.  The first time I smelled lapsang suchong tea, I was immediately reminded of my grandparents' old garage, which I hadn't smelled in years.

The first time I tried to drink the stuff, I nearly gagged - it tasted like a it was brewed from the gunk scooped up after a forest full of old people slathered in unguent burned to ashes. But before I finished the first cup, I had acquired the taste to such an extent that I was licking the last drops from the bottom of the cup.

Lapsang is sometimes called "The whiskey of tea." I never thought to actually add booze to it, but when spiked tea came up in a Dickens book, and when research showed that lapsang was about as "accurate" a tea as I could probably get, it seemed like a natural.

I really love The Old Curiosity Shop, which is the story of Little Nell and her awful grandfather running around the country while pursued by Quilp, the evil dwarf, and meeting a series of grotesques. At its best, it has a sort of hypnotic fairy tale vibe about it. It does, however, fall a bit into melodramatics. Oscar Wilde once said (spoiler alert) that you would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. And he's right - that scene seems WAY over the top today. Little Nell herself is widely slammed for being obnoxiously sweet and innocent.

But this isn't really fair - she's fairly sheltered, but she's also pretty tough and able to take charge of most situations when her grandfather is drunk and gambling away the last of their money for the millionth time. And she thinks Punch and Judy shows, in which Punch kills his wife, his baby, and everyone else he meets, are hilarious.

Among the weirdos Nell and her grandfather meet on their travels is Mrs. Jarley, who runs Jarley's Wax Works, a traveling show of wax dummies of notorious murderers and their victims. She recruits Nell to be a sort of tour guide, in a scene dear to my heart, since it's so close to my own night job as a ghost tour guide.  When JArley shows Nell the wax works and teaches her the patter, you can tell Dickens is having fun:

             'That,' said Mrs Jarley in her exhibition tone, as Nell touched a figure at the beginning of the platform, 'is an unfortunate Maid of Honour in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, who died from pricking her finger in consequence of working upon a Sunday. Observe the blood which is trickling from her finger; also the gold-eyed needle of the period, with which she is at work.'
          All this, Nell repeated twice or thrice: pointing to the finger and the needle at the right times: and then passed on to the next.
        'That, ladies and gentlemen,' said Mrs Jarley, 'is Jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all, by tickling the soles of their feet when they were sleeping in the consciousness of innocence and virtue. On being brought to the scaffold and asked if he was sorry for what he had done, he replied yes, he was sorry for having let 'em off so easy, and hoped all Christian husbands would pardon him the offence... Observe that his fingers are curled as if in the act of tickling, and that his face is represented with a wink, as he appeared when committing his barbarous murders.'
    When Nell knew all about Mr Packlemerton, and could say it without faltering, Mrs Jarley passed on to... the old lady who died of dancing at a hundred and thirty-two, the wild boy of the woods, the woman who poisoned fourteen families with pickled walnuts, and other historical characters and interesting but misguided individuals.

When they first come across Mrs. Jarley, she's drinking tea and spiking it with a bottle that she hides away and declines to share. According to The Convivial Dickens, it's a bottle of brandy.

When it came time to do a "Dickens drink" that involved tea, I tried to look up what sort of tea Mrs. Jarley might have been drinking in The Old Curiosity ShopThere's a lot that's been written about the "tea ceremony" that was becoming popular in England right around the time the book was first released, but it was very difficult to find what KIND of tea they were into. Obviously, most of the fruity and herbal teas on my shelf were probably not "authentic." But lapsang existed back then, so I went with that one. Really, I wanted to post about this drink just to quote the above passage, which is a favorite of mine. I wish there were a Chicago killer with a name as much fun to say as "Jasper Packlemerton" that I could talk about on the ghost tours.  MRS JARLEY'S TEA AND BRANDY
1 bag lapsang suochong tea
1 measure (a "tot") of brandy
1 cup or so of hot water

Not much to say about this drink - it really still just tastes like lapsang tea, only with a bit more of a kick and a bit more of a burn.  Not a tough enough cocktail to make as a normal cocktail, really, or as classy as the fairly similar whiskey toddy (which I'll get to eventually). Really, this is just a way to spike your tea if you have a drinking problem and can't imagine drinking anything that isn't spiked, which I suspect is the case with Mrs. Jarley.

There are a lot of great scenes in this book - particularly the comedic portions. The melodrama doesn't always hold up as well, but the fairy tale vibe tends to carry the Nell scenes as rural and suburban England begins to seem like a strange, enchanted land. Just read this portion from Chapter 45 and try not to feel sucked into an eerie sort of dream world:

      A long suburb of red brick houses, some with patches of garden-ground, where coal-dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves, and coarse rank flowers; and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace.... a long, flat, straggling suburb passed, they came by slow degrees upon a cheerless region, where not a blade of grass was seen to grow...
     Advancing more and more into the shadow of this mournful place, its dark depressing influence stole upon their spirits, and filled them with a dismal gloom. On every side, and as far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air. On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten pent-house roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrinking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fires, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. Then came more of the wrathful monsters, whose like they almost seemed to be in their wildness and their untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again; and still, before, behind, and to the right and left, was the same interminable perspective of brick towers, never ceasing in their black vomit, blasting all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of day , and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.
    Man. Sounds like something out of The Care Bears and the Land Without Feelings.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Rum Flip

You may remember from a previous entry that in Little Dorrit, a bishop gives a recipe for sherry flip and says that's a cure for depression. Ten years earlier, in Dombey and Son, another character gave the same recipe for the same ailment, then added a twist.

Dombey and Son was the first "late" Dickens book - for the first time, he actually sat down and planned the whole book out and made an effort at making a Novel (capital N). Reading it after Pickwick Papers, his first, is like going from Please Please Me to Rubber Soul. There's still a lot of fun to be had, but more of an attempt at art and creating a cohesive "whole" piece.

It seems like everyone I talk to quits reading Dombey and Son halfway through - I did so myself a couple of times before finally finishing it. The first quarter of the book is a complete story about the short life of Little Paul Dombey, and after (spoiler alert) he dies, it's hard to imagine what the hell the rest of the book will be about. You also sort of feel like an asshole, because by the time Paul finally kicks it, you're sort of ready for him to die. Tiny Tim works because he's only there for a few pages. Paul is essentially the same character, but lasts for 300 pages, occasionally ominously asking what it is that the waves are always saying as a means of foreshadowing his death (apparently the waves are saying "You die at the end of the 5th monthly number, kiddo!")

That sort of melodrama seems like Dickens trying too hard to be artsy to me, and one character, Captain Cuttle, is someone that Dickens clearly put a LOT of effort into, but who never quite works for me. He has his moments, but mostly he seems to me as though Dickens was trying very hard to make a Dickensian character.

But that's not to say that the book is bad. There are a lot of characters and long subplots in the second half that could have been lifted right out, really, but there's also Chapter 20, where Mr. Dombey rides on a train thinking about death and in which the prose is just colossal - one of many such sections where Dickens stops trying to be a genius and simply is one. And there's Dr. Blimber, Mrs. Pipchin, Major Bagstock, Mr. Toodles, Mr. Toots, Cousin Feenix, "Cleopatra," Mrs. MacStinger, and so many others characters that I just love. I particularly like Susan Nipper, the maid who speaks her mind, and is one of the most well-rounded women Dickens wrote (he had a tendency to make old women crazy and young women overly pious and innocent).  The use of the railway as a metaphor for the changing world is very good (and a few major points of it would be echoed by Booth Tarkington is his The Magnificent Ambersons a generation later with when he used horseless carriages the same way).

Major Bagstock, a pompous old asshole who speaks of himself in the third person, is a freaking riot, and I love the way Dickens describes him when he talks about going to boarding school:

     "None but the tough fellows could live through it, Sir, at Sandhurst. We put each other to the torture there, Sir. We roasted the new fellows at a slow fire, and hung 'em out of a three pair of stairs window, with their heads downwards. Joseph Bagstock, Sir, was held out of the window by the heels of his boots, for thirteen minutes by the college clock"     
      The Major might have appealed to his countenance in corroboration of this story. It certainly looked as if he had hung out a little too long.

There isn't a LOT of drinking in the book - most references to it refer to a bottle of very old madeira that Uncle Sol keeps for a special occasion, and I'm not likely to break out any old, old madeira for this blog anytime soon, though I did get some undated madeira for six bucks to use in a future recipe - can't be THAT recent, since it's a Paul Masson, and they sell no wine before its time.  It tastes like raisins.

But towards the end of the book (I finally made it!), Cousin Feenix gives his prescription for depression and illness:

 If my friend Dombey suffers from bodily weakness, and would allow me to recommend what has frequently done myself good, as a man who has been extremely queer at times, and who lived pretty freely in the days when men lived very freely, I should say, let it be in point of fact the yolk of an egg, beat up with sugar and nutmeg, in a glass of sherry, and taken in the morning with a slice of dry toast.

This, of course, is the Sherry Flip, which I covered a while ago. It tastes like custard, and Dickens himself used to drink it as a pick-me-up during intermission at his public readings.

Cousin Feenix goes on to add a twist:

Jackson, who kept the boxing-rooms in Bond Street ... used to mention that in training for the ring they substituted rum for sherry. I should recommend sherry in this case, on account of my friend Dombey being in an invalided condition; which might occasion rum to fly - in point of fact to his head - and throw him into a devil of a state.

So, had Rocky taken place a century or so before, he would have added rum, sugar, and nutmeg to his bowl full of raw eggs. Boxers still drink raw eggs, as I understand it - it's an "old school" gym trick for getting your protein quickly. The boxers at Jackson's boxing-rooms probably should have included the egg whites, too, but, as Cousin Feenix doesn't specify that they did, I'll stick to his recipe for rum flip, which will, apparently, get you in shape and cure what ails you, though it may also fly to your head and throw you into a devil of a state.

1 egg yoke
1 heaping tablespoon of sugar
1/2 cup of rum or so
nutmeg to taste.
Hot water (optional)

Another simple one - separate the yoke from the egg by passing the yoke back and forth between your hands, letting the white part fall away into the sink. Add the sugar and rum, then mix well with a fork until the egg is fully blended into the liquid, and top with some nutmeg.

This is the recipe as Cousin Feenix gives it, and it tastes a lot like drinking the batter to a Betty Crocker spice cake. Tasty, spicy, and thick, but I couldn't help but feel as though I ought to be baking it, not drinking it.

However, I then added a cup or so of hot water, and hit paydirt - the drink was now drinkable, and delicious, not unlike the hot spiced butter-rum that I once had at Trader Vic's. Tasty! Didn't make me feel like getting into a boxing match or anything, but maybe if I drank one every day I'd be in fighting shape.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Burnt Sherry: A Drink That Never Was?

Two of my favorite characters in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens's last completed novel, are Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, a couple of young, under-employed barristers-at-law who spend all day doing nothing in empty offices, then spend their evenings going to society gatherings that bore the crap out of them. They're a part of the upper-class world, but they aren't impressed by it, or the people in it, and drift through the parties casually making fun of everyone.  One of my favorite conversations between them comes when they're in a carriage leaving a party:

  'I hate,' said Eugene, putting his legs up on the opposite seat, 'I hate my profession.'     
    'Shall I incommode you, if I put mine up too?' returned Mortimer. 'Thank you. I hate mine.'     
     'It was forced upon me,' said the gloomy Eugene, 'because it was understood that we wanted a barrister in the family. We have got a precious one.'    
     'It was forced upon me,' said Mortimer, 'because it was understood that we wanted a solicitor in the family. And we have got a precious one.'     '

After a few more minutes of describing their dull jobs, they go on:
 'Then idiots talk,' said Eugene, leaning back, folding his arms, smoking with his eyes shut, and speaking slightly through his nose, 'of Energy. If there is a word in the dictionary under any letter from A to Z that I abominate, it is energy. It is such a conventional superstition, such parrot gabble! What the deuce! Am I to rush out into the street, collar the first man of a wealthy appearance that I meet, shake him, and say, "Go to law upon the spot, you dog, and retain me, or I'll be the death of you"? Yet that would be energy.'     
    'Precisely my view of the case, Eugene. But show me a good opportunity, show me something really worth being energetic about, and I'll show you energy.'    
     'And so will I,' said Eugene.     
    And it is likely enough that ten thousand other young men, within the limits of the London Post-office town delivery, made the same hopeful remark in the course of the same evening.    

When these two heroes find themselves wrapped up in a murder case, the inspector takes them to the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, that smelly riverside tavern where the sailors and wharf rats go for port negus, purl, and dog's nose, which have already come up in this blog. It has to be the most versatile tavern in the whole of Dickens, where Lightwood and Wrayburn go undercover (even though no one is around to eavesdrop) by pretending to be lime merchants. They have a LOT of fun pretending to be lime merchants.

The inspector tells the two that "they burn sherry very well here," and they order up a bottle of burnt sherry. A man named Bob brings it out, and from the passage, we get a distinct idea that there's a real trick to burning sherry:

...although the jug steamed forth a delicious perfume, its contents had not received that last happy touch which the surpassing finish of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters imparted on such momentous occasions. Bob carried in his left hand one of those iron models of sugar-loaf hats, before mentioned, into which he emptied the jug, and the pointed end of which he thrust deep down into the fire, so leaving it for a few moments while he disappeared and reappeared with three bright drinking-glasses. Placing these on the table and bending over the fire, meritoriously sensible of the trying nature of his duty, he watched the wreaths of steam, until at the special instant of projection he caught up the iron vessel and gave it one delicate twirl, causing it to send forth one gentle hiss. Then he restored the contents to the jug; held over the steam of the jug, each of the three bright glasses in succession; finally filled them all, and with a clear conscience awaited the applause of his fellow-creatures.

The three men drink a toast to the lime trade.

This isn't the only time the drink appears in Dickens - Mr. Pickwick and his cell-mates drink some burnt sherry in the debtors prison, so it appears in both the first and last full Dickens novels.

But here's the thing: I could find no recipe for burned sherry. I asked the Dickens-L mailing list if it was just sherry served hot or what - the fact that a pub could be said to do it "very well" implied to me that it must have been spiced or something.

However, as far as anyone knows, "burnt sherry" wasn't really a drink at all - Dickens's references to it are just about the only evidence that anyone ever drank such a concoction at all.  "Burned" often just meant "hot" back in the old days - Falstaff refers to drinking "burned sack" when he's just talking about hot wine in Shakespeare - so it's probably just heated sherry. The reference to them burning sherry very well at the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters  simply refers to the neat way they have of heating it up in the sugarloaf hat-shaped pot and making it hiss.

I can say, though, that it DOES make some neat hissing noises when you heat it up.

Also, it can catch fire when you heat it. So there's that. I don't know if it's sheer luck that got mine to burn, or if starting the fire takes some skill that I haven't quite mastered, but I could see it making for a really good spectacle.


1 glass of sherry

Heat the sherry. That's about it; this is as simple as recipes get. I used a cream sherry from Trader Joe's - a dry sherry might have been a bit closer to what they had at the Porters. If you really want to be "authentic," you can heat it up in your fireplace in a pot shaped like a sugar-loaf hat, which is also known as a "capotain" or "pilgrim hat" - they show up in one of the "Stupid Hats from History" sidebars in The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History, in which they're described as "a top hat that wasn't trying very hard."

Or, if you don't have a pot shaped like one of those, some say it was heated by putting a red hot poker into the tankard. Or, if you have no fireplace, poker, or pot shaped like a sugarloaf hat, you can do what I did the first time and just pour some sherry into a mug and put it in the microwave.

That made for a tasty drink, but the next time I tried it, I "burned" it on the stove in a metal saucepan. It began to hiss splendidly before it even started to bubble, and then, to my surprise and utter delight, caught fire right there in the pot, without me doing anything to ignite it. It was pretty awesome, but I couldn't get it to work again, and, hence, lack photos to prove it. But if the guy with the hat-shaped pot had gotten it to catch fire, then twirled it around, I can certainly imagine that it would look very impressive.

I wish I had better photos, if only because people may not believe me at it catching fire. People thought I was mad to say that the 40 proof rum in the punch would ignite, and this stuff is only 36 proof. But it caught fire, and without me even adding a flame - one might even say that it spontaneously combusted, like Mr. Krook in Bleak House. Even attempts to add flames to it since then have come up short. Perhaps it was just some grease in the pan that started it up?

As to the drink itself, first thing I noticed about burnt sherry upon pouring a glass was the smell - the fumes seemed particularly strong. It did, as Dickens said, "Steam forth a delicious perfurme," which worked its way right into my nostrils and made me think it might be a wise drink to order when you're in a tavern right next to a really smelly river. Being by the river, after all, was a dangerous proposition in those days, when there were not yet any embankments and the river was full of raw sewage, not to mention the dead bodies that some patrons of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters fished out of it for a living. At high tides, the water probably game right up to the door of the place. Dickens describes this happening to an affluent house in Dombey and Son:

    Sir Barnet and Lady Skettles, very good people, resided in a pretty villa at Fulham, on the banks of the Thames; which was one of the most desirable residences in the world when a rowing-match happened to be going past, but had its little inconveniences at other times, among which may be enumerated the occasional appearance of the river in the drawing-room, and the contemporaneous disappearance of the lawn and shrubbery.

Anyway, it's a tasty drink; the stovetop version that had caught fire was thicker than the microwave version, and featured prominent raisin notes (which is fancy wine talk for "it tasted like raisins.") It was also a bit darker in color after "burning."

Thanks to the readers of Dickens-L for weighing in on the topic. Burnt sherry is a tasty, warming drink that'll probably keep the smell of sewage out of your nostrils very well, and gives you the added thrill of knowing that you might just set fire to your apartment when you make it. I haven't had a chance to actually test its powers against the smell of the Victorian Thames, but, well, really, that's just as well.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Purl and Dog's Nose

When I lived in Georgia, it was common to meet people who believed that no one questioned organized religion until about 1964. Now I think young people there have moved that up until about 1998 or so. A friend of mine teaches college level courses on gothic fiction, and there are always a few students who see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and assume it must be a very recent film, because it's too "out there" to be very old. 

They'd never believe me if I told them that the guy who wrote A Christmas Carol seldom darkened the door of a church. Dickens was reasonably religious privately - he wrote a little volume called The Life of Our Lord for his children - but doesn't seem to have cared much for the church as an institution, or for religious loudmouths. I can't think of a single preacher, reverend, bishop, or particularly religious person in all of Dickens who isn't mostly just comic relief.

My favorite of his hypocritical preachers is Reverernd Chadband from Bleak House, who gives long speeches that make no sense and acts as though it makes him all holy. 

Chadband: windbag

     Mr. Chadband is a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system...(he) moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright. He is very much embarrassed about the arms, as if they were inconvenient to him and he wanted to grovel, is very much in a perspiration about the head, and never speaks without first putting up his great hand, as delivering a token to his hearers that he is going to edify them.
    “My friends,” says Mr. Chadband, “peace be on this house! On the master thereof, on the mistress thereof, on the young maidens, and on the young men! My friends, why do I wish for peace? What is peace? Is it war? No. Is it strife? No. Is it lovely, and gentle, and beautiful, and pleasant, and serene, and joyful? Oh, yes! Therefore, my friends, I wish for peace, upon you and upon yours.”

This is just him saying hello. Think how dull his sermons must have been!
Another such humbug is Rev. Stiggins in Pickwick Papers. Sam Weller's stepmother has fallen into the thrall of an anti-booze preacher called "The Shepherd," and Sam and his father go to pull pranks on one of the meetings. Naturally, the reverend and most of his followers are secretly big boozers. The secretary at the meeting reads one of their recent success stories:

Sam Weller's dad beats the crap out of
Stiggins, and there is much
'H. Walker, tailor, wife, and two children. When in better circumstances, owns to having been in the constant habit of drinking ale and beer; says he is not certain whether he did not twice a week, for twenty years, taste "dog's nose," which your committee find upon inquiry, to be compounded of warm porter, moist sugar, gin, and nutmeg (a groan, and 'So it is!' from an elderly female). Is now out of work and penniless; thinks it must be the porter (cheers) or the loss of the use of his right hand; is not certain which, but thinks it very likely that, if he had drunk nothing but water all his life, his fellow-workman would never have stuck a rusty needle in him, and thereby occasioned his accident (tremendous cheering). Has nothing but cold water to drink, and never feels thirsty (great applause).

"Dog's Nose" is a variation on another popular drink of the day known as purl. Both are mainly just porter (beer) mixed with gin and served warm with various flavorings. The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend  is particularly known for its purl, though it's also said to serve dog's nose.  Purl is also whipped up by Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop, who appears to be the template upon which P.G. Wodehouse based pretty much all of his funniest characters. Dick wouldn't drink bad drinks - he was broke, but always ate at the finest restaurants and drank at the best taverns (and kept a list of streets he couldn't go down anymore, because he'd run out on a check at some restaurant there). Old Curiosity Shop is the weirdest of the early Dickens books - the plot is basically innocent Little Nell traipsing through England and meeting a series of grotesques while on the run from Quilp, an evil dwarf who drinks his own gin straight. It's not a book that's totally held up, but Old Curiosity Shop is fascinating and hypnotic in its best parts, and Dick Swiveller is hilarious, and if he drinks something, I'll give it a shot. I didn't have all the gear needed, though, so I had to take a field trip.

I am not hard up for bars in my neighborhood; that "molecular gastronomy" bar they went to on Parks and Rec last week, the one where the whiskey comes in the form of hand lotion, was allegedly based on The Aviary, a place about 3 blocks from my apartment. But that doesn't strike me as the kind of friendly neighborhood place where one could walk in with an armload of spices without looking like a douchebag, so I drove out to Forest Park, which sits in the first layer of suburbs, and hit The Beacon, a bar tended by Stephanie Kuehnert, author of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia. We have the same agent, and sometimes meet up to talk about how miserable the life of a mid-list author is. I contacted her ahead of time to confirm that they had to means to throw these drinks together at the Beacon - I had to bring my own brown sugar, spices and microwave-safe vessel, but she could provide gin and porter. 

While my own mixing and fire-setting skills may not qualify me to work at the Aviary, or perhaps even, say, the bar at Bubba Gump Shrimp,  Stephanie and I did manage to whip up some purl and dog's nose in a manner un-fancy enough that it could have actually been the sort made at the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, or on Dick Swiveller's stove. 

1 pint of porter
1 shot of gin
1 tablespoon of brown sugar
a dash of nutmeg  

This mostly follows the recipe given in Pickwick above; I used brown sugar because that was the recipe Cedric Dickens gave in his book, Drinking With Dickens. For all I know this is what they meant by "moist sugar" back then.   The recipe also recommends Guiness if porter can't be found - it seems that it wasn't easy to come across in the UK in the early 80s, when that book was written, because he's always offering substitutions for it. 
The porter was heated up, then the gin and brown sugar were mixed in, and nutmeg was put on top, which attracted a small crowd.  The resulting drink - of which everyone present had a taste - was really quite tasty; it had a sort of gingerbread taste about it, and as it cooled it started to taste a bit more like licorice to me.  It would be good in a tankard in front of a roaring fire at Christmas.

Here I am with Stephanie. Our Mutual Agent
warned us not to blow up the bar via twitter.
We didn't. 
1 pint of porter
1 shot of gin
1 teaspoon of ginger
a dash of nutmeg

Again going with a Cedric Dickens recipe, this one I didn't like much at all. It had a sharpness to it that put me in mind of the coffee I used to drink when I was 12 at The Playhouse, a theatre in Des Moines where I was in plays from time to time. There was generally an urn of coffee sitting around in the basement, and many of us "Playhouse Kids" had our first taste of coffee there. The thing is, though, by the time we got around to it, the coffee had usually been sitting at the bottom of the urn for hours and hours, and had taken on some of the taste of metal. It may have also had hallucinogenic qualities; one day after six cups (after learning to drink it fresh and hot), I went home and found myself convinced that that blanket brushing against my foot in the bed was a giant, mutant spider. This may, however, simply have been a side effect of having put about 9 things of sugar and 12 things of cream into the cup, as I did at the time. 
Now, personally, I grew up to like crappy truck stop (or basement of a theatre) coffee where you can taste the metal from the urn. But that taste works better for me in coffee than it does  in hot beer. This "bottom of the urn" taste brought back pleasant memories of my days at the Playhouse, but not enough so that I wanted to drink the entire glass or anything. All of the bar was in agreement that Dog's Nose was the tastier of the two by far.  Sorry, Dick Swiveller. 
Of course, this is just one of any number of ways to make purl - other recipes may be better. I actually understand that purl is making something of a comeback in the UK these days in bars that are more along the lines of The Aviary.  Perhaps I'll try again sometime.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Caudle: Sweet, Nourishing Gruel!

Welp, I suppose it had to come to this sooner or later. I've come to a drink in which the main ingredient is "gruel."

There are little bits from Dickens that are still known even among people who've never read a word of 19th century literature, the way that people who know nothing about science fiction often at least know who Luke Skywalker's father is. Everyone knows that Tiny Tim said "God bless us, every one," and everyone knows that Oliver Twist wanted more gruel.

Twist isn't one of my favorites - the first third of it is GREAT, but after that it's sort of a mess. Most of Dickens's early books are sort of a mess, really; in those days he didn't plan his books out much in advance, and they tend to have a certain "slapdash" quality to them. Those early ones - Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop were his most popular in his lifetime, but his reputation today hangs entirely on his later books, like Bleak House and Great Expectations, which come off as far more modern and literary with their tighter plots and more accomplished prose. Switching from reading Pickwick, the first "early" novel, to Dombey and Son, the first "later" one, is like going from Please Please Me to Rubber Soul.

The last of the "early" novels was Martin Chuzzlewit, which is now a go-to novel to name when you want to mention an obscure Dickens book that no one reads anymore (though a quick search on Twitter shows that right now it's being read by many, many more people than are reading any of my books, so there's that). Really, I think this one is badly under-rated. It has a fairly coherent plot, lots of great characters, and some really dynamite scenes - the early section where he describes the neighborhood and boarding house known as "Todgers" is one of my favorite passages in Dickens. Here's an excerpt:

    You couldn't walk about Todgers's neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and byways, and court-yards, and passages; and you never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street.....
    Several fruit-brokers had their marts near Todgers's; and one of the first impressions wrought upon the stranger's senses was of oranges — of damaged oranges — with blue and green bruises on them, festering in boxes, or mouldering away in cellars...
    There were churches also by dozens, with many a ghostly little churchyard, all overgrown with such straggling vegetation as springs up spontaneously from damp, and graves, and rubbish... Here, paralysed old watchmen guarded the bodies of the dead at night, year after year, until at last they joined that solemn brotherhood; and, saving that they slept below the ground a sounder sleep than even they had ever known above it, and were shut up in another kind of box, their condition can hardly be said to have undergone any material change when they, in turn, were watched themselves.

Like a lot of early Dickens, it doesn't seem like a well-planned book. It starts out being a plot about Martin Chuzzlewit, Sr, about to die and having all his far-flung relatives trying to be named his heir, then goes off on tangents, forgets where it's going, and circles around a few times. But it improves as it goes, I think, and largely abandoning the early part of the plot was a good idea in the end.

The "breakout" character of the novel, the one everyone remembers, is Mrs. Gamp, a nurse whose job is to sit up at night with sick people in their houses, where she spends most of her time drunk off her ass and eating all the food she can find. As one in her profession would have to be, she's very flippant about death; she wanders into new jobs, looks at the sick guy, and says "He'd make a lovely corpse!"

But being surrounded by death gives her a very good excuse to drink, as seen in this scene, in which she reports on a conversation between herself and Mrs. Harris, her imaginary friend, and explains that she needs a bit of liquor to get her through her depressing job:

'You have become indifferent since then, I suppose?' said Mr Pecksniff. 'Use is second nature, Mrs Gamp.'
'You may well say second nater, sir,' returned that lady. 'One's first ways is to find sich things a trial to the feelings, and so is one's lasting custom. If it wasn't for the nerve a little sip of liquor gives me (I never was able to do more than taste it), I never could go through with what I sometimes has to do.  "Mrs Harris," I says, at the very last case as ever I acted in, which it was but a young person, "Mrs Harris," I says, "leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don't ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what I'm engaged to do, according to the best of my ability." 
"Mrs Gamp," she says, in answer, "if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen pence a day for working people, and three and six for gentlefolks-- night watching,"' said Mrs Gamp with emphasis, '"being a extra charge--you are that inwallable person." 
"Mrs Harris," I says to her, "don't name the charge, for if I could afford to lay all my feller creeturs out for nothink, I would gladly do it, sich is the love I bears 'em. But what I always says to them as has the management of matters, Mrs Harris"'--here she kept her eye on Mr Pecksniff--'"be they gents or be they ladies, is, don't ask me whether I won't take none, or whether I will, but leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged."'

"I was never able to do more than taste it" my ass. She spends most of her time at work drinking, eating and collecting kickbacks from Mr. Mould, the undertaker she recommends when her charges inevitably die.

 She was such a popular character in her day that people started calling umbrellas "gamps" because she always carried one, and even today eBay is chock full of Mrs. Gamp figurines, salt shakers, spoons, tea cups, and plates. She was as well known a lush in her day as Barney on The Simpsons  is now. Come to think of it, she looks so much like him that she could just about be Barney's great grandmother.

There are a few things Mrs. Gamp is particularly fond of, such as cucumbers (she calls them "cowcumbers"), porter, and a particular drink that she mentions having made many times in a month known as caudle.

Dickens was familiar with caudle himself - he spoke in one of his "travelogue" books, The Uncommercial Traveler, of having seen it served at a wake that was held for stillborn quadruplets. It seems to have been a drink used to comfort people - it's probably from this drink that we get the word "coddled" and the even more insidious "mollycoddled."

Caudle is another spiced drink for which there are lots and lots of recipes, some going back to Shakespeare's day. Some use brandy or wine in place of ale, which is what I used. The one constant is that a major ingredient in them is gruel - a very thin oatmeal that was used to feed the poor (or, in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge, the cheapskates).

Really, spiced ale with oatmeal in it didn't sound so terrible to me. And most of the drinks in these books have turned out to be quite tasty. But you can't win them all.


2 cups of gruel (2 cups water, about 1/4th cup of oatmeal)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
pinches of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg
1 12oz bottle of ale

Boil the water, striring in the oatmeal and adding the dry ingredients, then, when the oatmeal is as cooked as it's going to get, mix in the ale. I thought it appropriate to use Ebenezer Ale, which is a dark brown nutty one from a brewery called Bridgeport.

This made for a reasonably tasty spiced ale drink, but the oatmeal dominated the affair, both in terms of taste and texture. As I've found from all these egg drinks, Victorians seem to have been far more used to goopy drinks than we are. Even now, the texture here may not be unfamiliar to those who are into, say, bubble tea. But I never quite saw the point of adding the oatmeal to this one. Not nearly as tasty as the fairly similar egg hot, which was sort of like this, but with an egg instead of gruel. When it comes down to choosing between eggs and gruel, pick the eggs.

I thought this one was pretty crappy on the whole. Without the oatmeal it would be a middling entry;  with it, it's just sort of odd, calling to mind the sensation one gets trying to down some Rice Krispies that have been in the milk long enough to eliminate all semblance of crisp.

Mrs. Gamp probably just made this stuff because it gave her the chance to drink while putting on a show of doing something healthy and comforting.   And, by the way, the idea that it could be used to comfort the bereaved doesn't hold up for me, either. It's bad enough that someone is dead, why make it worse by making people drink gruel? Perhaps other recipes are better.  When I tried it again using oatmeal water (straining out the oats and just using the water), it was more drinkable, but still not great. The oat taste still dominated.

I feel good about having tried it just just for the bragging rights. Now, when I'm in a room with men who are talking about hunting and camping and shooting stuff, I can nod, look all tough, and say, "Yeah. I've had gruel." But no, sir, I do not want some more.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Micawber's Punch: From Charles Dickens's own recipe

I spoke in the post about egg-hot how much I like Mr. Micawber, the suicidal bon vivant from David Copperfield. Micawber is dirt poor, in and out of debtor's prison, but lives in expectation that "something will turn up."

He is subject to dismal periods of misery, and is something of a windbag, but he's still the life of every party, always able to make a bad situation better, whether it's by making friends in prison or turning a badly burned dinner into a "devil" (ie, spicing up the burned roast and making it edible). His suggestion of doing this when David's hopeless young wife screws up the dinner gives a good sample of how Micawber talks: "If you will allow me to take the liberty of remarking that there are few comestibles better, in their way, than a Devil, and that I believe, with a little division of labour, we could accomplish a good one if the young person in attendance could produce a gridiron, I would put it to you, that this little misfortune may be easily repaired.”

Micawber is also an expert punch maker, as was Dickens himself. Punch was generally out of fashion in the Victorian era, but Dickens was often a traditionalist when it came to drinking, and often made a show out of making punch at parties. At the same party above, Micawber demonstrates, just after letting it be known that his own water supply has just been cut off:

To divert his thoughts from this melancholy subject, I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Micawber seems to be making punch from Dickens's own recipe, which he detailed in an 1847 letter:

Peel into a very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner's peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double-handfull [sic] of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy — if it not be a large claret-glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. [L]et it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to Time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again. At this crisis (having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon) you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one quarter of an hour.  Keep it until it comes to table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours, take half the lemon-peel out, or it will acquire a bitter taste.  The same punch allowed to cool by degrees, and then iced, is delicious. It requires less sugar when made for this purpose. If you wish to produce it bright, strain it into bottles through silk. These proportions and directions will, of course, apply to any quantity.

Most notable here, of course, is the part where you SET THE DRINK ON FIRE.  And did we ever!

Mr. Micawber's Punch:
1 pint of rum
1 wine-glass of brandy
1 cup of sugar
1 liter/quart of boiling water
3 lemons.

I was joined for this one by Michael Glover Smith, with whom I recently wrote a book, Flickering Empire, which is all about the silent film biz in Chicago; the first known film version of A Christmas Carol was made here (the book will be out this year from KWS press).  The two of us split the labor in peeling the lemons; a bowl of fresh lemon peel and sugar smells quite tasty. 

Into this bowl of lemon peel and sugar, one pours the brandy and rum. Dickens favored very fancy cognac for the brandy, but I can't imagine that young David Copperfield would have had that in stock. We used low-end brandy and Bacardi Gold rum, which didn't break the bank but still tasted good.

 Now comes the reall cool part - setting it on fire! 

The Missus made us take the bowl outside for this part. The recommended way to set a bowl of booze on fire is to scoop up a spoonful and set THAT on fire, then pour the flaming spoonful into the bowl. This didn't work for me - like mixing eggs into drinks without creating a tankard full of scrambled eggs, it's the kind of thing one has to practice a bit. Eventually, I set fire to some wax paper and just lowered it into the whole bowl. After a couple of tries, we had a flaming bowl that was, in a word, awesome. We probably could have done it indoors, really, though you can do this at your own risk (edit to add: just lighting some in a spoon then pouring it into the bowl worked like a charm indoors when we tried it again the next week).

It should be noted that no one I talked to thought this would burn - the rum and brandy were both 80 proof, and apparently you should have a higher alcohol content to set booze on fire. The lemon peel and sugar probably helped. In any case, the photo is living proof that the stuff WILL burn using 80 proof liquors. 
Leave it burning for 3-4 minutes (during which time I assure you the novelty does not wear off), then extinguish the fire simply by putting the lid onto the bowl (or crock, in our case), and take the whole thing back inside and brag to the Missus that you did, in fact, manage not to kill yourself or start another Great Chicago Fire. 

Add a quart or so of boiling water, and squeeze in juice from the lemons (I used large lemons, and, hence only used the juice of about half of them), allow it to simmer for a bit, then enjoy! 

This is a really delicious drink - it tastes like a lemony black tea. It has a bit of a kick to it, but one that sneaks up on you. After a few sips I was a bit concerned that maybe setting fire to it had burned away all the alcohol, and realized I'd have to figure out whether or not it had the old fashioned way - by drinking a few glasses and seeing if I felt the effects. I did, by the way.  It would be a fine drink for a party - fun to make, fun to drink! 

Mike remarked that one could taste every part of it - you could taste the sugar, the rum, the brandy and the lemon all distinctly. When I think of punch, I think strictly of Hawaiian punch and other such red drinks that taste delicious, but like nothing that occurs in nature. This was a whole new kind of punch for me, and a tasty one. We will be making this one again soon! Here we are, looking appropriately old-fashioned and enjoying the punch:

It is, in fact, also very good iced. There was some left over that I saved for the next day and poured over ice. It does get a little bit sweeter, making it seem like a very hard lemonade. I think the iced version would make a fine summer drink, but the hot version is perfect for winter.