Speculative Fiction and Literary Snobbery

When I was a kid spending endless hours in bookstores and invariably doing my English homework first (often to the detriment of most of my other classes) there was “literature” and then there was fantasy/sci-fi and an assortment of other genres of fiction. There was the occasional stray outlier–I first heard of Possession and Joyce Carol Oates’ writing in one of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy yearbooks, and I studied Tolkien in class–but on the whole there were boundaries.

The thing is, the harder you look at these boundaries, the more arbitrary they are–or rather, the boundaries are based on the writer’s skill, not the aspects of the story. Personally I find this a bit silly. I wholly agree with categorizing novels according to the skill and grace with which a given writer tends to construct sentences, plots, and characters, but not the variety of story he or she tells. I am hopelessly fond of Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series and have never liked anything that Hemingway wrote, but pretending that the former is in any way substantively better writing than the latter would be absurd; looking down on a novel or other narrative solely because it involves ghosts or dragons or alternate worlds without regard to the quality of the writing, no matter how good, is likewise absurd, but it happens all the time. Where the quality of the writing cannot be questioned, the fantastical elements are either ignored or minimized, or the novel is cast as one that deals with heavy philosophical or existential questions, as though the fantasy or sci-fi setting is irrelevant rather than, as is true in most cases, necessary to the framing of said question.

When dealing with novels that are truly great, the sort of novel that is always going to be in print and studied in high schools and universities for generations to come, the label of “fantasy” disappears–there’s the South American tradition of magical realism applied to the work of Marquez, Borges, and others, but for the most part there’s a strong resistance to admitting that fantasy or any other style of genre fiction can be well-written.  Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Bram Stoker’s Dracula–these are all usually, if not invariably, classified on bookshop shelves and in libraries as “Literature” with a capital L, and never as fantasy, because somehow the skill with which they are written exempts them from being genre fiction–genre fiction being something to be embarrassed about. Even The Book of Strange New Things, which is set partly in a dystopian future Earth and partly in a new planet we earthlings are colonizing as our own civilization is falling apart, is described as “genre-defying” and “defiantly unclassifiable.” No, it isn’t. It is entirely and unapologetically dystopian sci-fi, and has a couple of significant flaws that make me question why it got such a long list of rave reviews, but that’s a different blog post.

Even among fiction firmly classified as genre, fantasy and sci-fi seem to be a lower-class label. When I was in Boston I was telling Margaret about an online course I took I few years ago on fantasy literature; towards the end of my long-winded description of the books I read for the course, I remembered that it wasn’t focused on fantasy literature at all, but on historical fiction. The problem was that of the six books we read, the three I had the strongest memories of were as much fantasy as they were historical fiction, two to the extent that they contradicted the ostensible focus of the course. (It’s hard to discuss representations of the Salem Witch Trials in fiction when the main text for the class is for the most part devoted to a woman in present-day New England who dives head-first into a sexy romance with a local handyman while learning how to cope with her newfound ability to cast magical spells.)

My favourite book for the course was Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, which deals with the practice of ghost marriages in late nineteenth-century China. There is some history–the beginning offers a clear explanation of the practice of ghost marriages, as well as some of the social divisions of the time and culture in which the story is set. The greater part of the action, however, takes place when the figurative titular “ghost bride” enters a realm of ghosts and demons, and is aided in her quest by a dragon who can take the form of a man. The fact that this novel is defined as historical fiction, while Amberlough and any novel dealing with Robin Hood are listed as fantasy, is beyond me, even as a marketing ploy. (My favourite novel version of the Robin Hood story is Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Forest. There is not the merest glimmer of magic in it, but because it’s a Robin Hood retelling, I have always found it shelved as Fantasy whenever I’ve noticed in a bookshop. The same is true of Robin McKinley’s version, The Outlaws of Sherwood, if I remember correctly, and Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, but I discovered them all on the shelves of the Fantasy section as a teenager. The Godwin version, at least, seems to be classified as historical fiction now.)

The Ghost Bride is fantasy. It no more deserves to be labelled historical fiction than Westworld or Firefly should be defined as Westerns. Why there remains a tendency in any corner of the reading world to look down on fantasy or any other sub-category of speculative fiction as inherently less good than other forms of fiction by virtue of its subject matter is beyond me; it isn’t as though Game of Thrones and the Marvel and DC comic book lines have been losing money for their creators. Neither is it a recent invention–the origins of fantasy lie in the mythology and folktales of every culture. Hopefully the growing number of writers who are as brilliant in crafting a sentence as they are in creating new worlds and compelling characters will continue to grow, and the literary snobbery of looking down on speculative fiction will finally become a thing of the past.

 

To Happier Anniversaries and Recommitting to Goals

This month Salt Sweet Bitter turned a year old. Happy birthday, little blog!

When Margaret first suggested the idea of a shared blog to me, I was not at all certain I was the right person to trust with such a venture–I have always had a bad track record for beginning things with great enthusiasm and abandoning them when I run out of steam weeks or months later, and at the time I was still struggling with grief and severe anxiety. I really liked the idea, though, so I said yes.

I have been glad I did so every week. I have not always been able to finish my posts on the deadlines I have set myself, but I have kept to them more often than not. My baking projects were a large part of what pulled me out of the depression I had been struggling with since before my mother’s death, and learning to write coherently about politics has been a buffer against some of the despair that set in after the election. Having a place to report about these things, however informal and forgiving, has proven to be vital.

Last week I got to spend time in Boston with Margaret for the first time in far too many years, and it was glorious. She graciously guided and drove me to various locales so that I could indulge my obsessions with history and chocolate and bookshops. We also did lots of talking and lots of eating popcorn while watching films and television, and lots of cooking. And more eating. If you have not been to Boston, the food is flipping incredible, whether it comes from Margaret’s kitchen or any of the innumerable awesome restaurants. (I expected I would lose a few ounces due to all the walking that I am not used to. This did not happen, because Burdick’s and lobster rolls.)

I do not think I am a bad cook, and I will certainly stand up and say I am a good baker of most things that are not bread–at least, not yet–but my range is limited. I can do a few excellent cakes, good roast potatoes, and I can manage baked salmon and fried pork chops without drying them out. I haven’t practiced enough to call it a talent yet, but I’ve had remarkably good luck with joints of roast beef thus far, even the cheaper cuts that are likely to turn out tough. Margaret’s abilities, however, remind me that if I’m not exactly a beginner, neither am I far into the intermediate level, and as much as I enjoy making salmon en croute and noodles and shrimp with lime-sesame dressing, there are only so many times one can serve these things to guests before everyone gets bored.

One recent success: Christmas morning cinnamon rolls using an ATK recipe, which were in all honesty the best I’ve ever had, if I do say so myself. Including Cinnabon.

Without quite noticing, I’ve found over the past couple of months that I’ve achieved a lot, if not all, of what I kept telling myself I had to do after my mother died. The house is mostly tidy, a great deal of the clutter has been either parted with or better organized, and cleaning takes a fraction of the time it used to, even if I still hate doing the ironing and the carpets need vacuuming on almost a daily basis (because cats…). The silver kittens are almost full-size cats and very affectionate, if still shy. I have done some reorganizing of the house, and have a clearer idea of what else I want to do. So far this year has been devoted to politics, writing, and reading. I have no intention of giving up any of those, but I have worked through enough grief and despair to start focusing on some of the other things I love again, especially cooking. I have a growing collection of cookbooks that I am quite proud of; it is time to start using them more frequently, trying out dishes I am entirely unfamiliar with and finding new ways to cook foods I know I like. I have a collection of herbs in the garden that have been entirely neglected while I focused on the inside of the house, so they desperately need some care and attention. I am also determined to become a very good baker, particularly of bread, including sourdough. It should be interesting, if nothing else; in between the political writing and gushing about chocolate and pop culture, I promise to get back to documenting more of what I’m working on. I would love to hear more from our readers–if you have any suggestions or requests regarding recipes, please do let me know.

 

Friday Fave: Dirty Dancing

This week in oh hell I feel old now: Dirty Dancing celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in a scene from the film ‘Dirty Dancing’, 1987. (Photo by Vestron/Getty Images)

Are there any women who have seen this film and don’t like it? I don’t think I’ve met them. There used to be a time when I was certain that a few of my friends wouldn’t like it, so I never asked; I later found that they did like it, very much so. There are very few films of which this is true–maybe The Princess Bride and Labyrinth? (Which also both turn 30 this year, as does Some Kind of Wonderful. 1987 was a hella good year for films.)

I was nine when the film came out, but I don’t think I was allowed to see it until I was 11; I spent a few weeks in England with family that summer, and remember practicing dance steps on a short brick wall in my grandparents’ garden, in imitation of the scene where they dance on the tree that had fallen across the river. (It may have been that I just hadn’t had the chance to see it until then–I can’t remember when we got our first VHS player, and it was usually 18 months between a film appearing in the theatre and being shown on tv back then.)

I will never get bored of this film. It’s an awesome love story, but for a simple storyline there’s so much more going on. I love that as a coming-of-age story, Baby spends very little time agonizing over her choices; she has her moral convictions and they stand her in good stead. As a love story it is in some ways the quintessential fairy tale romance, but it abandons the usual narrative of one partner on an active campaign to win the other’s heart. Baby is smitten the moment she sees Johnny, but she does not set out on a campaign to win his heart, first being convinced that she doesn’t have a chance and second because, having found a cause that she can help, she’s too busy learning to dance. In between being refreshingly, honestly awkward. It is Johnny whom we get to see falling in love, a la Pride and Prejudice but with the social roles reversed, with a woman who irritates the hell out of him until he recognizes that she isn’t just another spoiled brat who thinks she can have whatever she sets her eyes on.

I think the quality of the acting in much of the film is stellar, and often overlooked because it isn’t a heavy drama. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze had worked together on a film before, and weren’t overly impressed with one another; halfway through filming Dirty Dancing, they were finding it so hard to work together that the director had to sit them down and show them their screen tests to make them see what they were capable of. The only hint of this evident in the finished film fits perfectly to the characters’ personalities and frustrations when Baby is trying to master the Mambo to exhibition level–there is no trace of it in the last third of the film. Their chemistry is electric all the way through. Jane Brucker also deserves notice for playing Baby’s jealous, shallow older sister Lisa to perfection.

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The politics in the film remain relevant, thirty years on. It focuses on class divisions that U.S. public discourse has often preferred to pretend don’t exist, and portrays female sexuality and the consequences of making abortion illegal without shaming Baby and Penny for their actions. I particularly like that a story dealing with themes that are as serious as it gets, particularly in today’s political climate, ends with sheer, uncomplicated joy. Baby’s father apologizes to Johnny and reaffirms his love for Baby, Baby’s mother demonstrates that she does indeed get both her talent and her good sense from her, and Baby and Johnny get to walk, if not ride, off into the sunset. I have often wondered if Johnny would have moved down to Massachusetts to stay close to her, and if Baby would have given up joining the Peace Corps for him. Or convinced him to go with her.

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The thought of doing remakes of films like this usually fills me with dread–surely there are new stories to be told without wasting the money on rehashing a story that has already been told to perfection. The sequel (prequel? companion piece? almost entirely unrelated film about dancing that they just tacked the name on to and gave Patrick Swayze a cameo in?) they did about ten years ago was entirely forgettable, which is quite an achievement for a film starring Diego Luna and Romola Garai. In this case, however, I would honestly like to see an updated version of the story, focusing on race and/or LGBTQ equality in addition to class issues, particularly given the current attempts to reverse Roe v Wade. It would be interesting to hear how many people would decry a classic film being “politicized”.

The Moral High Ground

Politics has always been a matter of morality to me. I know politicians lie: I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one who doesn’t. Victories are exaggerated, the nature of or reasons for defeat manipulated, everyone is begging for money all the time but no one wants to admit it. I would like to live in a United States where the amount of money legally permitted to be spent on an election was severely limited and campaigns could only last for a certain amount of time, but our reality being what it is, I’ll take Elizabeth Warren identifying herself as being of Native American descent based on family lore over Aaron Schock using his government expense account to recreate Downton Abbey in his senate office and to go to the CMA ceremony any day.

Probably due to having grown up in the South, for a long time I had the distinct impression that the Republicans were the party of morals and family values, while the Democrats were self-aggrandizing, their fondness for money second only to their thirst for power. When I was about five I came home from school and recited the pledge of allegiance for my parents, altering one key phrase–I managed to change “and to the Republic, for which it stands” to “and to the Republicans, for where they stand.” My mother, despite still being a conservative at that point–at least as far as U.S. politics were concerned–had a fit; she did not forbid me to continue making the pledge at school when required, but she made very sure I understood what it was I was saying and that the Republicans were in no way synonymous with the Republic.

This perspective started to shift during the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton. I could understand finding him repellent for his inability to keep it in his pants; I could understand, and did myself, question bitterly his leadership skills when he launched airstrikes against Iraq, as I personally was convinced that he did so as a distraction from the allegations about his womanizing. What I couldn’t understand were the complaints that he was unfit to lead because of his womanizing. I’ve always been fascinated by histories of monarchies, particularly that of the British royal family, and as a teenager branched out to biographies of more recent political and military leaders. Many of the most revered of these men had affairs by the dozen. Horatio Nelson. FDR. Douglas MacArthur and possibly George Patton (with his niece, ugh). Churchill was known to have had at least one affair (very likely more), but I’ve yet to hear anyone fault his leadership on that score. You can desecrate your marriage vows and still be a good leader.

It isn’t so much that I think moral relativism is necessary in a political context; it’s that I don’t see how it can be avoided if we are to make useful choices, given the scope of the choices we have to make when we vote in an election. I believe that Bill Clinton used his position to persuade women to indulge his sexual proclivities, and I find that repellent, but in terms of scale it doesn’t match the vicious, degrading, and often physical harassment that Donald Trump has bragged about, let alone the credible claims of rape that have come from several women, including his ex-wife and another woman who was a child at the time of the alleged assault. Could Hillary have granted greater access to the President in return for donations to the Clinton Foundation, the proceeds of which she did not personally benefit from? Possibly, but I haven’t heard any convincing evidence that she did so (if you disagree, please feel free to enlighten me), and if the story is true, in no way does it compare to Trump’s refusal to divest himself from his businesses and the numerous ways his hotel empire opens him up to direct violations of the emoluments clause. If Hillary had won the electoral college as well as the popular vote, there would have been no immediate drastic change in the situations in Syria or the Ukraine, there would have been no quick fix for the military and moral quagmires that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off, innocent people would have continued to die. If she had won, however, Putin would not have immediately intensified its assistance of Assad and attacks on Ukraine. Fewer people would have died. As I heard someone else point out recently on Twitter, I would far rather have spent the next four years arguing and wishing and voting to push Hillary further to the left than waking up every morning wondering if WWIII has started and if we still live in a republic rather than a dictatorship.

The U.S. has never truly had an inviolate moral high ground. The extermination of the native inhabitants of North America, slavery and later Jim Crow, the imperialistic acquisition of Hawaii, the voyage of the St Louis, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq–we’ve never had a spotless record. What we did have was a government that didn’t silence people who spoke out against it; dissent has always been present and loud, whether it attracted only a handful of listeners or grew to such influence that it started the Civil War. Now I and the millions of other people who voted for Clinton are genuinely scared we are going to lose this. Putting aside all questions of financial corruption, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, and creationism being taught in school, if Trump’s refusal to denounce Duterte and his open admiration of Vladimir Putin doesn’t scare you, either you are not paying attention or you lack any shred of moral integrity, full stop. Even disregarding the allegations against Putin that are supported only by circumstantial evidence–the blowing up of apartment buildings, the manipulation of Russian state oil companies, the fifteen or so journalists he is suspected of having had killed–we have plenty of evidence that he’s an authoritarian dictator with no interest in preserving freedom of speech and no respect for the concept of innocent lives. He was not troubled by the distraught relative of one of the sailors lost in the Kursk disaster being involuntarily drugged live on television as she demanded answers from the then deputy prime minister; he has demonstrated that he is quite willing to kill hostages along with terrorists in the event of a crisis, as happened in the Dubrovka Theatre crisis and the Beslan school siege. If we have to work with Russia because it is better not to have the country as an enemy, because there are people who depend on the oil and gas that Russia sells to European countries, because the citizens of a country should not be conflated with its leader(s), that is one thing. It is quite another to hold up Putin as a leader to be admired and even emulated, as Trump has done.

In the months since the election I’ve started to separate Trump supporters from conservatives and Republicans as a collective group. There are plenty of Republicans–not least a number of the party’s most prominent leaders–who would not vote for Trump, even if they couldn’t bring themselves to support Clinton either. There are those who supported Trump and started to regret it as soon as two weeks after the election; there is the celebration on the part of the stridently anti-semitic, xenophobic, neo-Nazi demographic, of whom I expected no better. What troubles me most are those who have watched the actions Trump has taken in the weeks since his election, the steady stream of lies, deflections, and misinformation coming out of the White House and across Twitter, and yet continue to argue that all this is acceptable because of “the conservative agenda,” believing that said agenda is morally desirable and benefits everyone. I have often wondered what this conservative agenda is–the rise of Trump has proven that it is not in fact about fiscal conservatism, an admiration of honesty and marital fidelity, or a disdain for corruption and authoritarianism. The only thing it seems to be nowadays is the privileging of private (corporate) profit over the collective good, respect for personal autonomy, and human life itself. If the U.S. is to preserve the Constitution, let alone any shred of moral integrity, it’s a damn good thing the people are rising up against Trump’s Putinesque, Bannon-directed “conservative” agenda.

Queen Girls

I’ve been hearing pronouncements and dire warnings about printed books and literacy itself dying out for–decades? Most of my life? A really long time. I was going through old books recently and found an ad from an advocacy group at the back of one from the early 80s warning that by the year 2000, it was estimated that only 20% of adults would be able to read. (Commas and apostrophes may be under threat, but whoever came up with that dark future plainly underestimated the popularity of computers and mobile phones.)

We have a variety of new and newly popular means of reading and listening to books, but the form isn’t going anywhere. People haven’t ceased reading and writing books; there are more than ever. While this has produced some markedly disappointing trends (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*), it has been a joy to watch people take advantage of these new formats to find books that speak to their personal experience so much more easily, and the number of independent presses and self-published works that have taken off–particularly in YA and children’s literature.

One such effort I came across recently is a new publishing venture called Queen Girls, a currently small outfit that produces children’s books featuring real-life women who were heroes of their time. Their first book is Bessie, Queen of the Sky, about Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African- and Native-American descent to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921.

The kickstarter campaign for this first book is proving wildly successful, and there are plans for further titles in the future. The women running the imprint are focused not only on telling women’s stories, but on the achievements of women from a variety of backgrounds–stories that still aren’t being told as often as they should, because they come from other cultures, other classes, or just periods of the past that aren’t in fashion, so to speak, and are thus neglected. The illustrations are also lovely, which is a definite plus for attracting younger readers.

The books are designed for reading ages 4 to 8, and are available in e-format in English and in Spanish. The publisher is also partnering with literacy organizations here in the U.S. and internationally: For every book that is sold, another copy will be donated, in the interest of encouraging literacy and empowering girls. A limited edition hardback copy of Bessie, Queen of the Sky is available here, for those who prefer paper books. I find the book wholly charming, and look forward to seeing more titles in the series.

 

Resolution

I’ve never been much for New Year’s Resolutions. I think I’ve made lists a handful of times in the past, but I quickly lost track of where I put the piece of paper I wrote the things down on; the supplies I’d piled up for whatever effort was at the top of the list (usually learning French or Japanese, for some reason) were eventually dispersed, lesson books put back in their place on a shelf and paper requisitioned for other uses. I find myself faced with some gargantuan professional commission or personal task and everything else non-essential gets tossed aside. I don’t like this about myself, but I’ve learned over the past couple of years that changing things is easier if I divide large tasks into smaller, more manageable steps and remind myself of my ultimate goal regularly but not constantly.

New Year’s Day is not something I usually look forward to. This time of year is the occasion of a number of unhappy anniversaries for me, and while I have retained enough of my childhood memories of Christmas to give me the will to make December a festive sort of month, I never gained enough of an adult’s appreciation of New Year’s Eve for the same to be true of today. By the time I make it to New Year’s I’m usually somewhat overwrought and dreading the impending return to work.

This year is different. It is not that there were no new occasions to mourn: Anyone who has been awake this year knows that we have have dozens, even if you leave politics aside. 2017 is going to be a long year and I have no doubt I’ll spend a great deal of it feeling inadequate, tired, ill, grief-stricken, and quite frankly terrified if half of what Trump has talked about doing actually comes to pass. I have always cried easily, and I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of that too.

This year, however, I do not feel without hope. Even in the face of what I expect the GOP and Trump’s cabinet to do. Some of the damage has already been done, and there will be more that we will not be able to undo. Parts of the fight were lost the moment that Trump won the electoral college, because there will be consequences for the environment and for vulnerable populations both domestically and internationally that we can’t roll back. We will only lose more, however, if we give in, and in the midst of the fear and feeling like every champion for equality and intersectionality in the cultural sphere is being methodically taken from us, I, and I think a lot of us, tend to forget that we far from powerless. We may not have David Bowie or Carrie Fisher, but we have their work, their legacies, their memories as inspiration–and we have so very many more champions. President Obama is not going to blink out of existence the moment he steps down from office, and he isn’t planning on retreating from public life to take up painting or womanizing; he’s organizing an effort to support Democratic nominees for the 2018 mid-terms and to stop gerrymandering. We have Lin-Manuel Miranda, Heather McGhee, Rebecca Solnit, Reza Aslan, Sarah Kendzior, so many strong voices and leaders in the cultural, artistic, and political spheres I can’t begin to count them. Those who voted against Trump still comprise the majority, even if you don’t count those who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton either; not all of these people have capitulated. For all of the Republicans who managed to evolve from supporting more rational candidates to accepting Trump obediently or even enthusiastically, there are a great many who have not, and some of them have never ceased speaking out. There are others, even among those who supported Trump from the outset, who are unwilling to stand by silent while Trump openly colludes with Russia. There are governors and other state officials unwilling to comply with some of the measures Trump has alternately threatened and implied that he will impose; there are generals in the U.S. army who have been studying the extent to which the Constitution and the law permits them to disobey Trump’s orders, should they feel it necessary. I have said before, and I repeat again, I will not condone or collude in any act of violence, but civil disobedience is going to be necessary if and when the rights of the LGBTQ community, minorities, and women are rolled back and stripped away.

If we are going to have a real chance of dismantling Trump’s crass, meretricious cult of personality and counteracting the fascist and far right groups he is enabling (e.g. Richard Spencer and his revolting followers, the John Birch Society), we have to be better informed, better organized, more active than we are. This year, therefore, in addition to the usual renewal of my regular vows to be tidier, exercise more, eat less sugar and more vegetables, I intend to write and to read more, and read more seriously, as I did when I was still a student–more politics, more newspapers, more blogs–and to make a better effort to take part in conversations and demonstrations. I still have to earn a living, like everyone else, but there are phone calls I can make, letters I can write, dozens of other actions I can take.

The recent pronouncements that 2016 was the worst year ever are understandable after all the losses the country and the world endured, but they were hyperbolic as far as life in the West is concerned. It was not a repeat of 1937–we are not there yet, and we stand a reasonable chance of making sure we don’t get there again. We still have the means and the opportunity to be more informed, more compassionate, more understanding, better critical thinkers and less tolerant of corruption. Let’s make the most of it.

Easy holiday rack of lamb

Looking for something fancy to serve over the holidays? Not looking forward to spending all day on a roast? If you have a smaller party, a frenched rack of lamb looks about as impressive as it gets and is super easy to prepare. (I was also preparing multiple other things at the same time and was a total slacker about photos…sorry.)

For my Viking’s birthday this past week, I wanted to cleanse both our palates of a truly awful lamb experience at one of Boston’s nicest restaurants. This worked. Because I don’t cook lamb much, I did a weird thing for me, which was: I found a recipe and followed it exactly. (Okay. Almost exactly.)

I used Rack of Lamb with Garlic and Herbs. Originally a summer recipe from Gourmet, there’s nothing summer-specific about this. The herb coating is indeed a welcome kick of brightness in a dreary month, but the savory, meltingly tender meat is as celebratory as it gets.

Also, lamb is in season in the other hemisphere, so it’s even (sort of?) seasonal. I always prefer Australian or New Zealand lamb when I can get it: free range and grass-fed by default, it is generally more mild-flavored than American lamb (so if you don’t like “gamey” lamb this is a good bet for you), plus humanely raised.

  1. Preheat your oven (recipe says 350; I, and many of the recipe’s reviewers, used 400 instead).
  2. While it’s heating, make the herb paste.
    1. I did a double handful of curly parsley (flat tastes weird to me), four fat garlic cloves, four or five stems of fresh rosemary, about a teaspoon dried thyme, a pinch of salt, and loads of fresh pepper. I bet this would also be delightful with some fresh mint thrown in.
    2. With a good dollop of olive oil, this came together in no time in the work bowl of my food processor, but it’s not a lot to mince by hand–just be careful to get it as paste-y as possible for best cohesion to the lamb later on.
    3. Please not that my paste quantities are almost exactly the same as the recipe’s–but the recipe is supposed to coat two racks, and I only had one. To this I say, HA! More paste!
  3. Trim fat from lamb if necessary–mine was nicely butchered and there was no need–and rinse, then pat well dry.
  4. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.
  5. Preheat a heavy skillet for a couple of minutes, dry, til very hot, THEN add a bit of high-heat oil to the pan. I used a 10 inch cast iron with avocado oil.
  6. Brown the lamb well, everywhere but the short exposed ends (which you don’t want to overcook). I did about 2 minutes per side. Non-cast iron may take longer.
  7. Now the fun part. Take the paste and rub it liberally all over the meaty parts of the rack. Pressing firmly should get it to adhere pretty well. You want it to really coat the meat.
  8. The recipe says to put the rack(s) in a small roasting pan to finish cooking, but I say, if I already have a dirty pan AND it’s oven-safe, why would I bother? So I gave my skillet a quick swipe with a paper towel to remove excess fat, put the lamb right back in, and stuck it in the oven.
  9. Cook until the lamb registers about 120; as it rests, it should come up to medium-rare.
    1. This may 15-25 minutes depending on your oven (and on your lamb, I suppose).
    2. I tested at 15 and it was 102; I tested 7 minutes later and it was 129 (!!!!!) but it turned out PERFECTLY medium-rare, as you can see. I did tent with foil at the 15-minute mark, as the recipe suggests, and that may actually have been the problem. The lamb wasn’t scorching–next time I would leave uncovered.
    3. Pro tip: I got annoyed that the recipe made no mention of how to position the rack for optimal cooking. I decided it would be weird if one of the meaty sides were laying flat while the other were exposed to the air. That seemed like it would cook unevenly, plus perhaps burn that nice herb paste. So I rolled up a bit of tinfoil and used it as a prop to keep the rack from falling over as it “stood” upright.
  10. Let rest for a few minutes–ideally tented with foil, but because mine came out at too high a temp, I immediately removed it to a plate and left uncovered to help it cool quicker. Then carve into two-chop segments and enjoy.

I served ours with a wild mushroom farro risotto and a simple side of greens (arugula and sorrel, dressed lightly with toasted walnut oil and lemon). It left me thinking I ought to make more excuses to serve rack of lamb: fast, drop-dead gorgeous, and utterly delicious.

herb crusted rack of lamb

And now, pie

I have yet to emerge from my post-election hideout from the real world, but I think the worst of the comfort food phase is over. Or should I say best? There were a lot of indulgences in there, among them: pie. Lots and lots of pie.

Yet I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. (My tooth is very, very salty.) One of the reasons pie has always appealed to me is that you can moderate the sweetness and offset it–a fresh fruit filling, a buttery crust that verges on savory, a hint of almond in the cherries or whisky in the apples. But I also really love coconut cream pie so go figure.

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The two rules of pie crust: mess with it as little as possible, and keep it as cold as possible. I happen to like mine made with all butter and no sugar, like this one from the NYT, but there are plenty out there that use shortening or sugar or egg (for a tart crust) and really, those are just lovely too. Make it all by hand or do 90% of it in a food processor. Roll it out between sheets of parchment, plastic wrap, or silpats for a process that’s nearly as mess-free as buying one from a store. The flavor and texture rewards are so worth it.

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My favorite from this most recent craze was a batch of sour cherry hand pies. The cherries were from my aunt’s tree–from last year, in which it had produced a prodigal crop of the pale ruby gems–and had been frozen after processing. I thawed a quart of them, drained them, cooked them down with barely a cup of sugar and a cornstarch slurry made with lemon juice, and then let them cool. I stirred in a little almond extract just because.

Baked in individually-sized portions for the maximum crust-to-content ratio, they came out like every cherry pie I’ve ever wanted. Tart then sweet, ending with a fat roundness from that buttery, buttery crust, their only flaw was insufficient quantity. Okay, and some of them were falling apart because I am terrible at shaping hand pies (all the good ones were made by a lovely friend/kitchen goddess helping me). But still. Perfect.

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Friday Fave: Ballet

Like many small girls at the age of four or five, I went through a phase of wanting to be a ballerina when I grew up. This was preceded by having wanted to be one of those people who bags groceries and then a football player, so I’m sure my mother was relieved by this. Me being me, however, I was always determined to do it myself, without the need for actually learning what was involved in the art from someone who knew what he or she was doing. This resulted in a dislike of the ballet class I was duly enrolled in, and permanent damage to the big toes on both of my feet because I was certain that I could master pointe work if I just learned to balance. I retained a desire to possess one of those pink-and-white ballet boxes and a fondness for wearing leather-soled ballet slippers around the house, but soon after this I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Robin Hood, and moved on to even less practical daydreams of being an adult in times other than the one in which I lived.

I didn’t pay much attention to ballet again until I was sixteen and happened to see a brief Vladimir Malakhov performance on television one Sunday, back when the A&E channel in the US actually showed Arts and Entertainment programming. I waited patiently for a repeat, or other performances; the only thing that I could find were recordings and screenings of the Nutcracker. Finding these interesting but not especially inspiring, I gave up and returned again to my books and music.

The Christmas before last I saw an ad that PBS was airing the film of Matthew Bourne’s production of Sleeping Beauty. I noticed the costumes more than anything else–all sparkly and lace-trimmed goth aesthetic–and set it to record. I had other things on my mind at that time and didn’t bother to watch it for a couple of months, but when I did, I was hooked. I did like the costumes and the twist on the classic story, introducing vampires and other new elements to an old fairy tale, but I loved watching the dancing. It isn’t classical ballet by any means–lots of dancing barefoot, and I don’t remember any pointe work–but this was my gateway drug. It was like discovering a new genre in fiction I’d never paid attention to before, learning the terminology, the different periods of dance, watching enough to distinguish between the styles of specific choreographers and dancers.

I have learned enough to have preferences, but I’m still an amateur, not a proper fangirl yet. I haven’t found anything that bores me in the field–every production I’ve seen yields something interesting in terms of the techniques of the dancers, the way the movements tell a story, the costumes. I have acquired five different performances of Swan Lake, without meaning to specialize in a particular piece; the thing about relying on the handful of fairy-tale-inspired ballets that keep drawing audiences back generation after generation is the consequent need to reinvent and reinterpret the stories to keep them alive. There are classic versions with sumptuous sets and costumes, and there are stripped-down versions with modern choreography and, Matthew Bourne’s production, most of the genders of the roles switched.

I recently read Jennifer Homan’s Apollo’s Angels (2011), in order to learn something of the history of the art. I do recommend it as a thorough introduction to the origins and different regional styles of the art through the centuries, but I disagree strongly with her assertion that the art is dying if not already dead. Choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor are hammering out new ways to tell stories through dance, and dancers are again becoming prominent pop culture figures, drawing new audiences and more importantly inspiring new generations of dancers–Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin, Steven McRae, Carlos Acosta, and most of all Misty Copeland, are known to audiences beyond dedicated ballet aficionados, and are bringing ballet back to international prominence. There are companies such as the BalletBoyz, who created a dance to commemorate the centenary of World War I, and the collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to create a new version of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, with the singers shadowed by dancers who illustrate the opera as it is sung.

There are so many amazing dancers that it would take too long to go into even a handful here–aside from those mentioned above, Eric Underwood, Zenaida Yanowsky, and Lauren Cuthbertson are always well worth watching. Vladimir Malakhov is still a prominent figure, more as a director and advisor these days than a performer, although his Caravaggio (2009) is as vital and enthralling a performance as anything done by younger dancers. My current favourite, though, is Edward Watson. There’s something shallow in a lot of the emotion portrayed in a lot of the stories told in ballet, generally a necessary side effect when the aim of the art is making such strenuous and difficult movement look effortless. Watson has a particular gift for making the emotions his characters are possessed by feel real, especially the darker ones–grief, fear, desperation, and madness. His performance in Mayerling, as the hedonistic and unbalanced crown prince of Austria who is obsessed with his mother, abuses his wife, and eventually kills his teenage mistress before killing himself, is as compelling as it is disturbing; he is even more magnetic as Gregor Samsa in Arthur Pita’s adaptation of The Metamorphosis.

Alongside the old standards of fairy tales, there are new works appearing every year based on literature, from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Virginia Woolf. There are also works that follow Balanchine rather than MacMillan or Ashton in dispensing with a storyline altogether in favour of pure expression and form. Next time you’re looking for something to watch online, give a ballet a try–it isn’t all tutus and sugarplum fairies and Tchaikovsky. Now there are sets decorated by Swarovski, costumes by prominent fashion designers, music by Jack White. I’m entirely convinced there’s something for everyone, if only everyone would give it enough of a chance.