Saturday, July 14, 2018

Vicarity Project: Guinea-Bissau

The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila (available on Kindle)

A young black woman named Ndani, who has been labeled “cursed” by the people of her village, leaves her home to find a job as a house girl in the capital city. She has been told that her life will be a series of tragedies, and she is determined to prove that prediction wrong. Meanwhile, a local black chieftain has a plan to overthrow the colonial government, and a black missionary teacher plans to marry and settle down with his wife in a new town where no one knows them. The major plot events in the book demonstrate the various characters’ efforts to change their life trajectories as well as their respective failures. Although they fail for different reasons – social stigma, greed, ignorance, racist political systems, poor personal judgment – the book illustrates that failure is not the tragedy referred to in the title, but rather the “ultimate tragedy” is the loss of hope.

I found myself wishing this book had been edited differently. It is divided into three distinct parts: Ndani moving to the city and getting a job; the Regulo plotting against the colonial government; and the Teacher attempting to live a normal life. All three parts are connected to each other, but it’s not clear how until well into the book. I wish the three plots had somehow been intertwined, John Irving-style so that when you realize how they are all linked together, you get that satisfying “aha!” moment. Instead, I was just mostly confused. I became invested in the Ndani story, and after a major plot point in her story, there’s a very abrupt shift to the Regulo without any explanation of who he is or why I should care about him, or how he relates to Ndani. And then again, there’s a significant shift in time from the Regulo to the Teacher section, and it would have been nice to have better signposting or warning that the shift was occurring. Even just a subsection that labeled the parts as “Part I,” “Part II,” and “Part III” would have been helpful.

On a pickier note, there were some issues with the translation that also bothered me, although they were pretty easily overcome. There were several Portuguese words that were left in the Portuguese that really needed some kind of definition or explanation, even if the translator had to do it in a footnote. Usually, these were words to describe a role within the village community or an abstract concept. It makes sense why the translator left those words in Portuguese as there is probably no good English word to use instead. Several Portuguese words, however, were left that had an obvious English translation, and it was unclear to me why the translator did not translate that word.

This book is interesting, although I wish it had been structured differently, or at least edited so that the sections were more clearly delineated. The translation is a bit clunky, but I think the characterization and themes come across very well despite this flaw.

Folklore: Der Schakal im Feigenbaum: Und andere Märchen aus Guinea-Bissau by Dietmar Beetz

So, this book is in German, and I don’t really read German (although I read Old English, and that helps a lot!), so I muddled through a couple of these tales just to get a picture of the kinds of stories they were. They are a lot like the African-American folk tales I read for St. Kitts and Nevis: animal fables, mostly, with the trickster rabbit and also some “why the world is the way it is” explanation tales.


Jollof Rice

I read several recipes for this dish, and there are a ton of them! I think it’s one of those recipes that is very common, so basically you just put whatever you have around into it. There’s no set way to do it that is “authentic” or “correct.” Here is a link to a decent recipe:

The finished product: 
At this time, the only green chalk I had was a super light lime green which does not come across well in the photographs. I got a better green chalk later on.

Verdict: I made my version vegetarian – vegan, really – and it was really tasty. This dish is a good introduction to West African food, since it is basically food that we eat here in the US, just seasoned differently. I bought all of the ingredients at my local grocery store. It was also simple and easy to make, so I would definitely make it again.


In Guinea-Bissau, they drink a strong, sweet green tea called warga, and they are also a huge producer of cashews. So, I thought I’d do an homage to these two ingredients and make a green-tea based cocktail with cashew milk: ½ tsp matcha powder dissolved in 2 oz gin; 1 oz cane syrup; fill with cashew milk to taste.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Vicarity Project: St. Kitts and Nevis

St. Kitts and Nevis

A State of Independence by Caryl Phillips (checked out from local public library; not available in digital format)

After winning a scholarship to study law in England, Bertram Francis leaves the Caribbean island where he grew up. Twenty years later, after having squandered his opportunity, Bertram returns to the island, which has just declared its independence from Great Britain. Bertram reconnects with his family and childhood friends, but also faces their resentment and feelings of abandonment as he tries to discover how he can renew his life on the island.


I found myself really disliking Bertram – he is indecisive and completely lacks self-awareness. He’s the kind of character who, instead of making conscious choices, believes that things just happen to him. It’s ironic, because he comprehends that he must study in order to win the scholarship, for example, so he studies and then he succeeds. But he loses motivation and all of a sudden twenty years have passed. Repeatedly in the book, he makes the effort to do something, but then he sits down to rest, and the next thing he knows, he’s waking up and he has lost the opportunity to do what he had intended. Even at the end of the book, when he has realized how he has failed the people around him, and he seems ready to make a change, his state of mind is that he “wondered if later this same day he should ask…” He can’t seem to make a decision, and he flounders. He doesn’t know what to do, so he half-asses everything, and it’s infuriating! He’s not a particularly sympathetic character to me, but he’s certainly well-written and consistent.

This book is short, and it is also a quick read. Bertram’s story nicely mirrors the political situation on the island, and the reader is left with the sense that despite their newfound independence, neither Bertram nor the island will ever really be able to manage entirely on their own.

My husband and I at the beach in Nevis

Folklore: Folklore of the Antilles, French and English by Elsie Clews Parsons

There are quite a few stories in this collection catalogued under St. Kitts and Nevis. They mostly involve the trickster character Anansi, who has roots in African folklore, as well as a colorful range of other animal characters.


Stewed Saltfish, Spicy Plantains, and Coconut Dumplings

The finished product: 

This was the very beginning of the project, and I had not yet explored all of the possible grocery store options. I eventually found an Asian market that sells salted fish and so I cooked with it in some of the later dishes, but for this one, I used fresh cod and a heavy hand with the salt.

Verdict: Delicious! The dumplings were a lot easier than I thought they would be, although I am not a huge fan of dumplings in general because of the texture, so I probably would not make those again. They tasted very nice, though – I liked the coconut in them which made them more interesting than just boiled lumps of flour. The spicy plantains were great; I would definitely make those again someday. The fish was also good. It’s a pretty simple ragout-style dish, and easy to make, so it’s definitely something I would consider making again.


For these islands, I chose the classic Hurricane cocktail with three ingredients: 2 oz dark rum, 1 oz lemon juice, and 1 oz passion fruit syrup. If you can get your hands on it, St. Kitts and Nevis has their own brand of rum called Brinley Gold Shipwreck, which would be perfect to toast their beautiful country.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Vicarity Project: Switzerland



Heidi by Johanna Spyri (public domain; available on Google Books and free on Kindle)

Summary: An orphaned Swiss girl named Heidi goes to live with her gruff, but kind-hearted grandfather in a small cabin in the Swiss Alps. After a few years of living on the mountain and charming everyone she meets, she is taken to Frankfurt where she becomes a companion for a sick girl named Clara, who is confined to a wheelchair. Heidi charms the household staff (except for the formidable and aptly-named Frau Rottenmeier),  and brings liveliness and adventure into the house with her, but she becomes quite ill herself due to homesickness (which is apparently a real phenomenon. known as “Swiss sickness” because it was so common in Swiss soldiers serving in foreign countries), so she is sent home. Clara comes to visit her on the mountain the next summer and, after a month in the “life-giving mountain air,” gains the ability to walk again.

I had a picture book of this story I was a little girl, but I’d never read the unabridged version. The cover of that book had a cute little tow-headed girl on the cover. It looked something like this:


As I have now discovered, Heidi has black hair and dark eyes. All these book covers with little Shirley Temple look-alikes are completely inaccurate. 
Here are two that actually look like what the book describes: 
Heidi running around in her underwear with goats
Heidi collecting flowers in her apron with goats
I once read a funny review of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe  in which the reviewer described the book as “a giant advertisement for Turkish Delight.” If that book is an ad for Turkish Delight, then Heidi is an advertisement for goat’s milk and Swiss mountains. The Swiss characters drink goat milk constantly - sometimes two pails full per day. So. Much. Goat Milk. There are A LOT of descriptions of the mountains, the mountain air, the mountain flowers, the breezes through the fir trees, etc., etc. They are lovely and idyllic, and mountain air is the cure for pretty much every ailment – physical, emotional, and spiritual – suffered by the characters in the book.
Despite this rather idealistic view of the curative properties of alpine living, I was really impressed with how the book handled some pretty serious subject matter. Even the “villain,” Frau Rottenmeier, is given some sympathetic character development so that the reader understands that her harsh behavior stems from her own fears and narrow-mindedness, not from any kind of real malice. The gossipy village community, who have long rejected Heidi’s grandfather based on their own ignorance and misunderstanding of him, readily welcome him back into the community once they see how he loves and cares for Heidi – again, they are not bad people; they simply did not understand the whole situation.
There is one particularly touching scene in which Clara’s doctor visits Heidi on the mountain and admits that, even when surrounded by such natural beauty, he cannot overcome his grief at his daughter’s death: “Can you understand, Heidi, that a man may sit here with such a shadow over his eyes that he cannot feel and enjoy the beauty around him, while the heart grows doubly sad knowing how beautiful it could be?” While it may seem inappropriate for an adult man to seek spiritual comfort from an eight-year-old child (and I think that it is!), Heidi responds by quoting a hymn, and the doctor finds some spiritual comfort in the words. In this scene, the mountain is not a cure-all, but it is a place of beauty and solace, where one may find oneself closer to God by being close to nature.
All in all, Heidi is a lovely book with strong spiritual themes and multiple stories of redemption and healing. It was written in 1880, which no doubt explains some of its more saccharine elements and its insistence on the health benefits of mountain air.  
That being said, I think Switzerland is the first place I remember being absolutely stunned by a sunset. I was 6 or 7 years old when I went for the first time, and even at that young age, I knew it was special. It really is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Johanna Spyri was not wrong.
My mom, brother and me in Switzerland, ca. 1985


Swiss-Alpine Folk-Tales, re-told by Fritz Müller-Guggenbühl, translated by Katharine Potts, Oxford UP, 1958.
I actually renewed my library card in order to get this one. I had a $.30 fine from 2009, which is why my name was still even in the computer system. “The city never forgets,” the librarian said. Indeed.
The tales  in this volume are particularly pre-occupied with milk products and often revolve around the making of and/or wasting of cheese. For example, in one tale called "The Alp that Disappeared," a wealthy man paves the rocky path up the mountain with goat cheese so that his girlfriend’s fancy shoes will not be ruined. This is considered a sign of sinful excess and a waste of good cheese, and the man’s own mother (who is starving at the bottom of the mountain while he is paving roads with cheese) prays that he will be punished. A giant hailstorm comes and buries the mountain in ice, which explains how the Blüemlisalp is now covered in glaciers. In another tale, an old woman named Nidelgret (“Cream-Margaret”) is discovered to be using witchcraft to produce a full pail of fresh cream every day. When she is caught by a local cowman, her cabin floods with cream and turns into a milk-white rock in which they both remain imprisoned to this day.


I’ve had lots of people ask about my food project and tell me I should have blogged it. I took photos of all our meals, but I regret now that I did not blog about it while I was doing it. So, here are my recipes and recollections:
I did my best to find recipe sources that came from people who actually came from the country in question. I would read several recipes and choose the one I liked the best, or combine several of them into something that looked both appealing and authentic. I would also try to find recipes that my phone’s recipe app could recognize, then I would make any edits I felt were necessary and still have the recipe available in my phone when I was trying to cook. So, the recipes that I post will not always be EXACTLY what I made, but they are decent approximations.
Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (Pan-Fried Veal with Mushroom Sauce)
This recipe calls for veal kidneys, which I just omitted from the recipe. We are not big on organ meat in the US, and I wasn’t even sure where to buy that. I also substituted pork loin for the veal, which was much less expensive (the recipe recommends pork loin as a substitution).
Rösti (Potato Fritters)
For the rösti, I used butter instead of goose fat – we are also not big on eating goose in the US, much less frying things in their fat.
Verdict: Delicious! This was a great dish to start my world cooking project. It was not something I would normally cook at home, but it was not totally foreign either. I would definitely make the geschnetzeltes again, but I would make a simpler side. Just some boiled fingerling potatoes with butter and parsley would be great, and a lot less work!


The legend goes that St. Bernard rescue dogs in the Swiss Alps would carry tiny barrels of brandy around their necks for the poor, frozen wanderers they were rescuing to fortify themselves with. 
Apparently, some “real historians” have called B.S. on that story, but they are absolutely no fun. I’m defying those naysayers by suggesting a brandy cocktail to represent Switzerland in honor of these brave pups. 

The classic cocktail uses 2 oz of Brandy, ½ oz orange Curacao, and 2 dashes each of Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. For a really Swiss take on the cocktail, you could replace the bitters with a few dashes of Alpenbitter, an herbal digestif from Switzerland. My local store did not carry Alpenbitter, so I used French brandy, the Italian orange-based liqueur Aperol (like Campari, but sweeter), and a dash or two of a German herbal liqueur called Aromatique (similar to Fernet Branca) to encompass Switzerland's three languages. 


My Vicarity Project

I’m on the cusp of finishing a global cooking project where I cook one dish from every country in the world, plus a few others (Greenland, for example, which is technically part of Denmark, but which has its own cultural cuisine). I’ve had so much fun with the project that I’m sad to see it go, and I’ve been trying to think of ways I can continue travelling vicariously. Perhaps unsurprising to most people who know me, I landed on reading. So, my new project is to read a book from the same list of countries I used last year for my cooking project. I will be posting summaries, reviews/responses, and other tidbits after I finish each book. I’m also going to read a few folk stories from each country, just to familiarize myself with some traditional storytelling and characters that people from that country might know.

How will I choose the books, you ask?

First of all, I am not the first person to do this, or even to document doing it. Ann Morgan, who is based in the UK, did it first and published a book about it. I haven’t read the book, but I have read her blog, and the list of books she provides on that blog has been extremely valuable for finding works from some of the smaller countries and especially countries whose literature has not been widely translated into English. You can read her blog here:

Criterion 1:

I will not be using the same set of criteria as Ms. Morgan, although mine is similar. As much as possible, I want to read books by people who actually grew up in the country. So, for example, there are many examples of authors whose families fled their native country and they are writing great books about their parents’/grandparents’ homeland, but they were not born there themselves, did not grow up there and do not currently live there. Or, there are plenty of authors who were born in a country, but left when they were very young and grew up somewhere else. One day, I want to read the books they have written! But my goal with this project is to find people whose formative years were spent living in their country of origin. For some of the smaller countries, where only one book has ever been translated into English, this might not be possible. Fine. I’m happy to read what’s available! But, for countries where I get my choice of books, I want to choose authors who grew up in the country in question. In cases of countries with a colonial history, I am attempting to find indigenous authors.

Criterion 2:

As much as possible, I would like the setting of the book to be the country of origin.

Criterion 3:

I want to read novels or short stories, not poetry, autobiographies or memoirs. This will no doubt prove difficult, and I imagine that I will end up reading some poetry or memoirs just because of a lack of availability of other genres. I am fine with that, but my preference is for fictional prose.

Criterion 4:

I am not restricting myself to contemporary authors, and I reserve the right to use this project as an excuse to read things I’ve been meaning to read, but have never gotten around to (I’m looking at you, Don Quixote!). That being said, I’ve already made the preliminary list of books (although it is subject to change), and most of them are contemporary novels.

I am, however, restricting myself to books I have never read before. No re-reading!

Criterion 5:

Whenever possible, I have chosen a different book than Ms. Morgan did. I have been conscientious about cross-checking against her list and finding books and authors to add to it rather than just copying her work. I have the benefit of doing my project six years later, so there are six years’ worth of new books and new translations to choose from. In some cases, however, the pickings are slim or the cost of obtaining a book may be prohibitive, so there will be some overlap. Again, my task was made immensely easier by her extensive groundwork!

The books/countries will not appear in any particular order. I’m going to follow the same order as my cooking project list, which was loosely organized around national holidays.

First up: Switzerland!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Wed, Jun 27 - Ladislaus of Hungary

Today we drove to Alamogordo to take a sunset hike in the White Sands National Monument. We didn't end up actually going on the hike because it got super windy and the sand was blowing everywhere. Not that fun. But we did walk around for a while before it got too windy. It was pretty neat:

This little guy has adapted his color to match the white sand. He was scared of us, but he finally sat still long enough for me to snap a shot of him.

Today is the feast of St. Ladislaus of Hungary. He was king of Hungary in the 11th century. He conquered a lot of then-heathen lands such as Croatia and parts of Romania and converted them to Christianity. There are many Hungarian folksongs about him which praise his chivalry. Here is the image of him on which my outfit is based:

I actually brought a different outfit than I'm wearing in the pictures. I have my red skirt, and I brought a brown woven belt to wear. When I put it on, though, it looked weird. The shapes didn't go together, and my tank top was too long for the belt and I ended up looking like some kind of weird farmer's daughter or something. So, I went with jeans again. Ah, well. At least the tank top matches.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

St Anthelm

Today is Carlsbad Caverns Day!

It is also St. Anthelm's Day. I don't have a whole lot of biographical information about him, but he was the abbot of the monastery of the Grand Chartreuse which is a very famous Carthusian monastery in France. It still exists and is still a religious house, so no visitors are allowed. Matthew Arnold, the English poet, wrote a poem titled "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" when he stayed there as a guest - I guess that was before the No Visiting policy was put in place.

My outfit is based on the liquor Chartreuse which was once produced at the abbey, but which is now produced in a factory nearby.

Proceeds from the sale of the liquor still benefit the monastery, however. Chartreuse comes in two colors - green and yellow. I am going with green today:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

St. Fridolinus

Today is our first day of vacation!!!!!

I have planned saints of the day outfits for everyday, though. It helps me pack!

Today is just a driving day, so I went for comfort. The saint of the day is Fridolinus, and his story involved one of my favorite subjects: zombies! No lie.

He was an Irish monk in the 5th century who travelled around Germany and Switzerland. He converted two brothers named Ursus and Landolph. However, Ursus died and Landolph returned to his wicked ways. Hearing this, Fridolinus re-animated the corpse of Ursus and led him by the hand to go meet his brother. Rather than trying to eat his brother's brains, however, Ursus admonished him for his bad behavior and Landolph repented and returned to following Christ. Fridolinus led Ursus back to his grave, where the corpse rested again peacefully in death.

To remember Fridolinus, I am wearing the colors of the German flag today, plus my memento mori earrings. Please just disregard the wet hair.