Friday, June 27, 2008

Wikimedia Wunderkammer

Not that I need anything to occupy my time, since there seems to be so little of it these days, but I've been meaning to sing the praises of Wikimedia Commons ever since I started using it on a regular basis. Today's post will, I hope, be the first on the many wonders I've encountered there, and perhaps encourage my small coterie of readers to see what the Commons has to offer.

I have to admit that I was a reluctant convert to Wikipedia, because my students insist on using it as their first (and often last) source when conducting research. It's not that I have anything against Wikipedia itself, but it's an encyclopedia--a terrific instrument for school-age kids, but limited in actual content (my rule is: use primary sources first, whenever possible). But Wikipedia also lists multitudes of auxiliary sources, both in print and online, that can lead a student in productive directions, so although I still won't let them include it in a bibliography, I don't mind their consulting it for further information.

Yesterday, while engaging in one of my seemingly random web searches--this one on the nineteenth-century evolutionary biologist and artist, Ernst Haeckel--I discovered that the Commons contains the plates from the 1904 edition of his Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of nature). The Wikipedia article on Haeckel had linked this collection, as well as some other really interesting web pages devoted to his work. Beloved Spouse was busy using a drum sander in our soon-to-be study, so I had time on my hands and went exploring.

In addition to an animated film about Haeckel's work, called Proteus, which I'll be ordering for our college library, the Wikipedia "external links" list included one to some gorgeous alpha channel transparencies of images from Kunstformen, by media artist Scott Draves, who links an online copy of the book, in German, with an index to all of the plates and a large-format .pdf version.

Inspired by what happened yesterday, today I went to the Commons home page and clicked on "Nature: Animalia" and then on "Mollusca: Gastropoda" and then on "Fossil Gastropods." Since I'm interested in natural forms and human design motifs, I figured that this would be a good place to look for spiral forms in nature for use in a new lecture in History of Art and Design I. Sure enough, there were scads of lovely photos--all available as public domain images or contributed under sharing licenses by a variety of good-hearted folk who, like me, might think that "intellectual" and "property" are mutually problematic ideas. I love the idea of the Creative Commons licenses, under one of which I published More News From Nowhere; I figure that anybody who might be even remotely interested in it shouldn't have to pay for it, especially given the novel's philosophical focus. Not that I don't think people should be paid for their work, but when ideas are floating around all over the place it seems absurd to start copyrighting and patenting stuff that's been out there for eons.

At any rate, I recommend meandering through the Wikimedia Commons at your leisure. I have found lovely photos to use on my blogs, such as those featured in today's post, and am happy to attribute them whenever possible. I'll probably start uploading some of my stuff, rather than trying to make a buck out of a lucky shot by putting it up on a stock photo sharing company site (even though it's the next best thing to the Commons, and one of my favorite former students works for one such outfit--so here's a plug, Lesa:

But now I have to get back to rehabbing our old house, and the business of sanding corners on my hands and knees. It's a lot more fun to go messing about among quaint and/or interesting topics and pictures, though, so I'll undoubtedly be doing so again soon.

Addendum, 24 July 2008: While making my weekly pilgrimage to the "new" section of the Kelley Library yesterday, I noticed--prominently displayed among the "check this out" selections--an absolutely gorgeous volume of Haeckel's work: Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel (Munich: Prestel, 2006). This is a terrific addition to our collection, and one that (once they can get their hands on it) should inspire a whole new generation of students. But I'm not giving it up until after the weekend, when I'll have a chance to drool over the magnificent photos of Haeckel's study and his own private collection of interesting oddities--as well as the wealth of beautifully reproduced prints. Oh, and there's actual information included in here, too!

Photo credits: Ernst Haeckel, Ammonitida (Ammonite), Wikimedia Commons. Thalamophora, from Kunstformen der Natur by Ernst Haeckel, .png file by Scott Draves. Viviparus glacialis; Borehole Rosmalen, Netherlands; Pleistocene: Late Tiglian, taken by Tom Meijer (PaleoMal), Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Grandma Clarice's Recipes, Part 1

In some ways, this post (and the ones that follow on this topic) should be called "Great-Grandma Esther's Recipes" because my grandmother attributed most of what she made that we loved to her own mother. But the little notebook of recipes I have the privilege of owning is written in Grandma Clarice's almost-illegible handwriting, or pecked out on one of her series of old-timey typewriters. A couple of the recipes are written out in my pre-adult hand, probably while I was living with her during my Freshman year in high school.

Not included in the book, however, are instructions for favorite foods such as applesauce cake and "home-made noodles." The only reason I have these is because she dictated them to me so I could add them to my little recipe box. As she cooked, I wrote down what she was doing, and so my archival inclinations came in handy. Some day when I've got more time, I mean to scan the scribbled notes she made about food she'd had at friends' pinochle parties, and make a book of them (with translations, since I'm one of the few people alive who can actually read her handwriting), along with the family favorites, for my cousins and their children. But in the meantime, at the risk of taking my Uncle Art on yet another teary-eyed journey, here is her recipe for Applesauce Cake (as dictated to me):

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon (or so) cocoa powder
1 teaspon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon boiling water

Cream butter and sugar, add applesauce, spices, and dissolved soda. Then add flour. Bake in moderate oven (300F) until top springs back.

Now, the real essence of this cake--Gram's abilty to throw it all together and add whatever she wanted to (raisins, for example--and often walnuts) in whatever amounts she wanted to--is missing from my version. It's not that I'm any more precise, but I haven't been able to use white flour in quite a while, and I have to cut some of the saturated fat down by using half butter and half canola oil. So my interpretation tends to be heavier.

She also used to double her recipe (which fits into an 8 x 8 inch pan) and bake it in a 9 x 13 pan to feed a crowd. I still double it, but put it into two smaller pans, and am going to start freezing one every time I bake it. As I mentioned in today's Farm blog, it's one of my strategies to help fight homesickness and avoid pie cravings. My sweet tooth is decidedly smaller than it once was.

For folks who are concerned with fat content and/or glycemic indices, here's my modified version. It's still pretty good, but it's not Gram's:

1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. honey
4 Tablespoons butter
1/2 c. canola oil
(cream these together)

Add to creamed mixture:
1 c. unsweetened natural applesauce
Stir in:
1 3/4 c. whole wheat flour (I use white whole wheat; another alternative is to mix unbleached and whole wheat half and half)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves or allspice (or both)
about 1 cup raisins
about 1 cup toasted pecans or walnuts
1/4 to 1/2 c. Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tsp. soda dissolved in 1 Tablespoon boiling water.

Bake at 300F for about 50 minutes (set timer for 40 and test with a finger).

This is a pretty forgiving cake. It's potentially vegan (if you leave out the butter), and there's no salt in the recipe. If you add a little (half a teaspoon) you'll get a lighter result.

This cake is best warm, soon out of the oven. A little butter makes it a luxurious treat. It's also great for breakfast or with an afternoon cuppa.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my cakes are ready to come out of the oven, and I'm off to indulge in a bit of nostalgic munching.

Monday, June 9, 2008

In Praise of Figs

Before I moved into this house eight summers ago, I didn't particularly care for figs. I must have retained some odd childhood association with them or something, but aside from the occasional fig newton, I seldom had contact with them at all. But my grandmother, not a notable hedonist, would positively salivate over a plate of fresh figs, so I should have suspected that there was something more to them.

The spring after we moved in, the two fig trees on our property had bumper crops--one in late April, and another later in the summer. They were quite simply ambrosial. I made fig chutney, fig jam, and (best of all) fig confit (or konfyt, as my South African sources would have it)--a laborious but rewarding effort. I wish I had a photo of the jar of confitted figs I made to give to one of the chefs at school, because it looked like a container of liquid green jewels.

More often than not, however, I'd just eat as many of them straight off the tree as I could, because the mockingbirds do their best to beat me to the ripe ones. 8 oz. of figs provides a whopping 30% of one's daily fiber requirement, plus numerous other nutrients--and fig leaves help mitigate diabetes.

I have also learned that our fig trees are probably San Pedro (or at least some kind of Adriatic variety), and that the current crop (on last season's growth) is parthenogenic, whilst later fruits will have required pollination. A video on the interaction of figs and fig wasps (contributers to said pollination) can be found on Figweb. It's won awards, and is most certainly worth watching (if you're 21-minutes worth of interested).

Two years ago, the figs died back because of the drought, and I really missed the summer crop. Last year, they miraculously sprang back to life, but so much of their effort was put into rebirth that I got no figs. This year, the little nubbins started early--and for the first time, I saw them growing up the stalk, like Brussels sprouts. They're finally beginning to ripen (the cool spring seems to have held them back a bit), and today I said Shehecheyanu upon eating my first fig of the season. Although I'm one of little faith, certain traditions adhere--especially when they mark occasions like first fruits; I am, in fact, happy to have reached this point. Or, as my daughter would (less poetically) put it, I'm glad I'm not dead yet.

Figs are, in fact, ancient fruit. They're mentioned in the Bible, loaded with symbolic import, and included in early cookbooks. Apicius boils ham with figs and bay leaves, according to The Roman Cookery Book: A Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius, for use in the study and the kitchen, by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum (George G. Harrap, 1958). A newer interpretation by John Edwards (Hartley & Marks, 1984) includes a modern recipe, but--if you'll forgive me--it pretty much boils down to the same thing. Several other out-of-print translations are available through alibris. Ilaria Gozzini Gicosa's book, A Taste of Ancient Rome (University of Chicago Press, 1992; translated by Anna Herklotz) is still available (and Google Books has a preview). She notes how the Romans dried figs, and how they stuffed them (and dates).

Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger more recently wrote The Classical Cookbook (Getty Museum, 1996), and it's making the rounds with various Roman art exhibits (including In Stabiano at the Dallas Museum of Art last year, where I got it). They suggest wrapping fish in fig leaves (terrific idea I can't wait to try). Still not much on figs--but they seem to have been a staple, both in sweet and savory cooking.

If you're interested in trying the Green Fig Konfyt that wowed my chef friend, it can be found here, with a link to a printable version (the page works badly on Firefox). Its origins are Medieval, but it seems to be a favorite in South Africa, where this one comes from.

And finally, a word about fig leaves. In the interest of misapplied modesty, leaves often used to cover the genitalia of ancient and Renaissance statues. The Greeks and Romans thought nudity to be natural, but the pre-Renaissance Church couldn't handle intimate body parts and so typically covered them with leaves. Durer's Fall of Man uses strategically placed branches and leaves, for example, but not figs. Tullio's Adam is easily distinguishable from its Greek predecessors not by a fig leaf, but a grape leaf (he's currently under restoration; I wonder if it's to remove his leaf . . .). The best example of real fig leaves can be seen on the Adam and Eve figures on the Ghent Altarpiece--if anyone's interested. I'm just trying to clear up a common misconception, in the interest of ridding the fig of its bad rap.

I was really disappointed to find that the God Hates Figs web page, which promises to prove "that figs are the source of all the world's evil. Includes propaganda, resources and FAQ" appears no longer to be available on the web. It was a parody website in the tradition of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which would undoubtedly offend some who read this blog, so it's probably just as well. One never does know exactly where Google will lead one in the quest for blogfodder.

I think I'll go have a fig.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Magnolia, Dying

Alas. The Romantics would love this: from dewy bloom to the throes of death and rebirth (via a seed pod). The embodiment of the Sublime.

Every day you play with the light of the universe.
Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

---Pablo Neruda, translated by W. S. Merwin

This is how the flower ends, from bud to bloom to pod. I'm not sure it'll actually form a seed pod, since neither bloom is still attached to the tree, but I'll keep them long enough to find out--or until they start getting smelly.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Magnolia, Blooming

I'm stumped for a clever title; I had intended to post a little item on random chunks of granite, but that will have to wait, because I walked into the breakfast room a few minutes ago, and was greeted by an Event.

Yesterday, my husband trimmed a pecan tree that was interfering with the growth of our neighbor's big southern magnolia tree. It's about 50 feet tall, and quite majestic, but the pecan was encroaching on its territory (as well as over the property line), so the request to trim it back was certainly reasonable. When he was finished, the neighbor presented him with two large magnolia blossoms, each the size of a luncheon plate.

At first I had them in a green glass vase, and they were nicely framed by the glossy green leaves that surrounded each of the blooms. They scented the air all yesterday afternoon. But the cats knocked them out, and I finally split them up into separate containers, and this morning put one in the breakfast room and one in the dining room. When I did so, they were both closed up into cup-like formations, and I left them to their own devices.

When I went to make a late breakfast after a morning of working on The Farm, I was delighted to see what had happened in the ensuing hours. They had not only opened, but dropped their stamens. Obviously, I have little experience with magnolias, and so this phenomenon was truly wonderful for me to behold. I only wish I had been there to experience the whole process.

While I was looking around on the web to find out more about what was going on, I found a nifty site called Evolution of a Magnolia Blossom, which does a nice job of showing the steps. If you're not fond of the theme song to "A Summer Place," however, you might want to turn your sound off. It's rather apt, though, from what I remember of the film.

One rather amusing coincidence: the green book with the Japanese writing on the cover is about Ikebana, the art of flower arranging. I found it at Half Price Books a couple of months ago, and bought it because it was beautiful and reminded me of my early childhood, when my brain got steeped in Japanese aesthetics, never (thankfully) to recover.

At any rate, I thought it interesting that one of the blossoms deposited its stamens on the sideboard, while the other held onto them, holding them in one of its petals--as if not wishing to damage a book on arranging flowers . . .

Here are two more pictures: one is a slightly closer view of the pile of stamens, and the other shows remnants of pollen on one of the petals.

And they both still smell heady and redolent of summer, only about three weeks early.