To Fluff or Not to Fluff

      From Loretta:
      This comes from the Truth is Stranger than Fiction Department.
      A couple of weeks ago, Massachusetts State Senator Jarrett Barrios announced that he would file legislation to outlaw Marshmallow Fluff in school lunch programs, because he was outraged that his son, in third grade, was served a Fluffernutter at school.
     Jar_of_fluff  For the uninitiated, Fluff is a marshmallow spread and a Fluffernutter is a sandwich of Fluff and peanut butter.
      A man named Archibald Query started making Fluff sometime before World War I in Somerville, MA, and sold it door to door.  After the war H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower bought the recipe.  Durkees are still running the company.
      For more sexy pictures of jars of Fluff, history, and recipes, here’s the company’s site:
      The day after Barrios’ announcement, State Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein, outraged at her colleague’s dissing a beloved, locally made product, announced that she was going to file legislation to make the Fluffernutter Massachusetts’ State Sandwich.
      Fluff_oozes A major debate ensued between the anti- and pro-Fluff factions.  The pros, along with simply loving it the way many of us love chocolate (and in fact, a spoonful of Fluff is a splendid topping for a cup of hot chocolate), point out that this is a home-grown article, made in Lynn, Massachusetts, that it is superior to all other marshmallow cream spreads in the known universe, and that to cast any sort of aspersions upon it is un-Massachusettsian, perhaps un-American. 
      Yes, I know at first glance this debate looks ridiculous, and Rep. Reinstein said so.  Yes, there are far more important issues for our state legislators to tackle.  And yet…
       I have a lot of respect for any locally-owned, family-owned company that’s managed to survive and thrive in the era of megalithic conglomerates.  And let us remember that a Fluffernutter, while not tops on the food pyramid (which by the way, represents a compromise between nutritionists and business) is not actively lethal, unless you are allergic to peanuts–but that’s not what the hullabaloo is about.
     Fluff_at_breakfast_1  Now, a good deal of the food in my house is organic, and in the summer I buy as much as I can from the farmer’s market (all locally grown produce).  I don’t eat fast food and almost no junk food–ice cream and chocolate don’t count.  In spite of all this nutritional awareness,
      I do love my Fluffernutters.
     Fluffernutter_sandwich  These days I might make them on organic whole wheat bread, but they’re still an occasional part of my diet.  They make a splendid breakfast, lunch, or dinner in a hurry.  A Fluffernutter is not empty of nutrients.  After all, there’s egg white in the Fluff, and peanut butter has lots of protein.
      So, as much as I am all for healthy eating, and would like to see a massive reduction in junk food served to kids, whether it’s in school or at fast-food restaurants, I was a little troubled by the prospect of a children’s world bereft of Fluffernutters.  I found myself remembering the school lunches of my youth.  From what I see under the School Lunch listings, many of the same meals are still served.  The soggy pizza.  The gristly hamburgers.  Wasn’t ketchup designated a vegetable at one point?  Has it been taken off the vegetable list?  And let’s not forget that gourmet delight, American Chop Suey.
      How much worse than those inedible school lunchroom meals is an eminently edible Fluffernutter?Fluffernutter_art_1
      Furthermore, the banning of the Fluffernutter raises another sticky issue.  If it goes, some of us have wondered, wouldn’t peanut butter & jelly have to go, too?
      Well, it turns out we’ll not be having that disturbing discussion anytime soon.  This past Wednesday, State Senator Barrios dropped his opposition to Fluff.  I ate a Fluffernutter to celebrate.
      So what about you?  Have you ever experienced the delights of a Fluffernutter?  Have you a similarly quick, easy, and delicious meal item that might not bear the scrutiny of the Nutrition Police?

Matters Dickensian

      From Loretta:
      Susan/Sarah’s recent post asking about current reading forced me to fess up that I’m reading BLEAK HOUSE again.  Even though I’ve read it so many times that when watching the recent BBC version, I could tell at least half the time what lines came from the book (most of them, surprisingly) and whether or not the character uttering them was the one who’d said them in the book.  I’m reading it even though I am not now or ever will be in danger of running out of TBR books.  While my leisure reading time shrinks, the pile grows ever higher.
      But I need Dickens.  He reminds me why I wanted to be a writer.  He reminds me how I came to understand how to tell a story.  Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from him and his fellow Victorian novelists.  He reminds me, above all, of what I aspire to.
      I write this knowing that Charles Dickens is not to everyone’s tastes.  In fact, so far as I can ascertain, he is hardly to anybody’s tastes these days.  When I was in college, he was out of fashion.  The English faculty ignored him, mostly.  They did not seem enthusiastic about teaching him, though they were fine with Thomas Hardy, who is way too depressed for me.  Only one professor shared my joy in the opening scene of BLEAK HOUSE.  This I still consider the best opening scene of any book ever, notwithstanding PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’s brilliant “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  That’s a work-of-genius opener, but Dickens builds a world in a few pages, and the language always knocks me out.
      By the time I encountered that college professor I had read BLEAK HOUSE two or three times.  This was thanks to one friend.  It was he who taught me to appreciate Dickens–via DAVID COPPERFIELD–when I was an adolescent know-it-all who believed that only modern music, books, and art counted.  Having been force-fed A TALE OF TWO CITIES and GREAT EXPECTATIONS by high school teachers who seemed to view Dickens as an unpleasant duty at best, I was not about to read him for fun.  But my friend was about ten years older and had taught himself six or seven languages as part of his process of reading, systematically, the entire body of the World’s Great Literature, each book in the language in which it was written.  His apartment was decorated in the Turkish style, rather like some of the interiors of Egyptian houses I described in MR. IMPOSSIBLE.  As an adolescent, I was in awe of him.  Now, looking back, I realize that he was a Dickensian character.
      I did learn about characterization from Dickens.  I don’t do it as he does.  I haven’t an imagination half so fertile, nor an extensive acquaintance with Characters with a capital C (the friend described above is one of the few I can recollect).  I don’t and can’t walk restlessly, for hours and hours, the streets of 19th century London.  But he taught me to think about speech patterns and “hear” the character’s voice.  He taught me ways of setting a scene.  Above all, he taught me to appreciate the English language, its vast vocabulary (considerably vaster now than in the 19th century), its elasticity–in short, its abundance.
      This is what tends to be lost when a Dickens work is brought to the screen, large or small.  His plots, pared down, are Victorian melodramas.  The distinctive characters are either toned down or exaggerated so that they become cartoons.  Oh, and the women, the good women of the books, can be sick-making to the modern mind–so I must admit that anything a screenwriter or director does to them is probably for the better.  As to mood–even the best directors can’t do much more than dark and gloomy with a bit of light here and there.  They can’t capture the ever-changing sunlight and shadows of the books.  Above all, they can’t translate to the screen the narrative voice–the wit, the screwball comedy, the cynicism and sarcasm, the sorrow, the sense of loss, the sense of triumph.  The recent BBC production was a marvel, beautifully done.  I say this as one who’s hated every screen version of every Dickens story.  But as beautifully written, acted, and directed as it is, it is a screen work, another species.  Something completely distinct from the book by the same name.  (Please see Mary Jo Putney’s blog on making books into movies for more on this subject).
      For me, the joy of Dickens is the words, the magical words.  I never grow tired of them.  That’s why I’m reading BLEAK HOUSE for the umpty-bazillionth time.  And still learning.

Blacksmiths, too

Yes, we had blacksmiths, too,  I know they didn’t wear safety goggles in the early 19th C, but I guess OSHA insists.  Also, the blacksmith did point out that the log was not the proper surface to work on, being unsteady.  We learned that horse’s shoes had to be replaced every couple of months–and they had special shoes for winter, with cleat sort of attachments.  And that it’s much easier to shoe a horse than an ox.Osv_blacksmiths_0606_1

The Pig & I: Living History

      From Loretta:
      Ah, synchronicity.  Susan/Sarah mentioned experiential research.  I cannot catch an arrow in my hand, but I do like to get in touch with the real thing.
      As the Saturday girl, I often have to blog and run, because this is my day to get done what I couldn’t do all week on account of slaving over a hot manuscript.  The current work I’m sweating over is the fourth in the Carsington brothers series.
      As discussed in my blog about maps, environment is crucial to me.  Ideally, in writing MISS WONDERFUL, I would have visited Derbyshire’s Peak District again.  For MR. IMPOSSIBLE, I would have explored the interior of an Egyptian pyramid or tomb.  For LORD PERFECT, I would revisit certain parts of London as well as the A4, which is approximately the Great Road to Bath my hero and heroine followed.
      However, even if I could travel hither and yon whenever the mood or muse strikes–which I can’t–I couldn’t time travel to the early 19th century and experience the world as my heroes and heroines would have experienced it.  So I have to do most of my research at home, via books and web surfing.  But now and again, a living history museum will do the trick.
      My current story, like MISS WONDERFUL and parts of LORD PERFECT, is set in the English countryside.  This time I’m working with the part of the early 19th C world that tends to be invisible in many of our stories, rather as the servants were expected to be.  This time my characters, though aristocrats, find it necessary (because I say so) to pay attention to all the inelegant, workaday stuff crucial to keeping grand country houses operating and the inhabitants fed and comfortable within them:  dairy and laundry, brew-house, bakehouse, game larder, dovecote, cowshed, pig sty, etc., etc.
      To get a feel for this world, I longed to travel to England and visit one of the country estates where you can go inside an old dairy or a laundry room.  This idea went the way of visiting the Peak, Egypt, and the Great Road to Bath.  I found some good books of course.  There are always good books.  They could not recreate the sight and smell of the livestock, unfortunately.  But luckily there is a place not too far away that could.

      And so last Saturday, I blogged and ran to Old Sturbridge Village, which is right here in Massachusetts.  This is one of at least two living history museums in New England.  The other is Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the 17th C Plymouth, Massachusetts settlement (they spelled it differently, back in the days when people spelled words more or less they way they felt like it).
      Old Sturbridge Village recreates a New England village of the early 19th century.  The website has tons of useful material, including an online collection of clothing and artifacts, historical documents, and articles by historians.
      Still, a website ain’t nothing like the real thing.
      It was a cold and rainy day (June hereabouts has been mostly cold and rainy) as we drove there, but my husband and I have spent time in Scotland, where it mostly rained and sometimes snowed with thunder and lightning and gale-force winds and hail (all within the same quarter hour) in June.  So a torrential downpour is nothing.  We dressed appropriately.  As we arrived, the sky began to clear, a good omen.
Osv_pigs_bull_0606_1       Here’s the scene that greeted us as we left the visitor center.  And my little nerdy heart went pitty-pat.  Ooh.  Cows (well, it was a bull, actually) and pigs and goats!  All in a row.

      The bull stood on that ramp, mooing–or bellowing: I’m not sure what bulls do but he was demanding attention.  He saw a person inside the barn and assumed she would feed him.  Bulls think that’s what people are for.Osvgoat_0606    

The goats were sweet, though they tended to look off into the distance as though they had their minds on, oh, I don’t know–pyramids? 

     But the pigs, oh, the pigs.  Well, let’s let the pictures speak for themselves.
Osvsow_piglets_0606 Osvpiglets_0606

Daddy_pig_0606 After we finally tore ourselves away from the pigs, and began to ramble the place, we learned from an interpreter that the breeds of livestock at Old Sturbridge village are historically accurate.  Even more exciting for me, these breeds of animals were English breeds–the sort that might have been on the home farm of my fictional estate.  The pigs were Gloucester Old Spots.  The red cows were Devon Long Horns.  The other cows were Milking Short Horns.  And the poultry were Dorking chickens.  I didn’t get the breeds of sheep or goats, but I know I can email OSV and someone will tell me.  Because that’s how they are.  These people are just chock full of knowledge and delighted to be asked questions.  They had all kinds of things to tell me that I didn’t know or hadn’t thought about.  It was a wonderful experience all around.
      I’m covering only a tiny fragment of what’s to be found and experienced there.  I was focused on livestock so that’s mainly where I spent my time.  But there are beautiful gardens, including an extensive herb garden.  A river runs through it, and you can take a boat trip.  There are concerts and gardening workshops as well as activities for kids.  But if you don’t feel like doing anything in particular, it’s simply a beautiful and peaceful place to spend the day.  Plus, there’s ice cream.  And shops, of course.
      Oh, and there’s a social benefit, too.  Many of our living history museums, like OSV, are having to tighten their belts these days, and some of them will not make it unless we support them by visiting and telling our friends.  I’m happy to support them because they give so much in return.
      Any living history museums in your area?  Or historical museums of the more static kind?  Pigs are not crucial to my enjoyment.  Right now I’m looking for a place that has an early 19th C stable, preferably an elegant one.  I’d still like to see a dairy (where they make the butter & cheese, not where they milk the cows).  But it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s pertinent to the current book.  We nerds love learning something, anything–and an author never knows where the next idea might come from.

In Praise of Corsets

From Loretta:

      Many years ago in Chicago, while I was attending a Romance Writers of America conference, my sister had friends of ours drive her all over the city looking for a certain type of camisole.  This isn’t my only sister or the only crazy one.  I have three of them.  I didn’t ask for siblings.  They were completely my parents’ idea.  I was fine with being an only child.  But over the years, they have proved useful, and a truce of sorts has been effected.  Cynthia always accompanies me when I travel without spouse (because otherwise I would get lost the instant I left the hotel and never be heard from again), and I hardly ever try to kill her anymore.

Cynthia Cynthia is the Princess & the Pea sister.  I cut the labels off most clothing because they scratch.  She checks the necklines on knit tops to make sure the side seams are tucked under the neck seam because that little bitty seam bulge irritates her princess skin.  If comfort is a priority, this is the girl you want helping you choose underwear.  I often follow her recommendations.  However, I did not send her all over Chicago looking for the camisoles.  That was her special little obsession.

So what would Cynthia do if she had to wear Regency era corsets?  I think she might do all right with them.  There is a commonly held but mistaken belief that the corsets were horribly uncomfortable and possibly optional (and I am guilty of propagating the myth in at least one of my earlier stories).  This may be because people confuse Regency corsets with Victorian ones.  The Regency corset was intended to (a) create a smooth line for those high-waisted gowns and (b), in the case of dinner and evening dress, display as much of a girl’s assets as possible, short of toplessness.  Not that the topless look was necessarily a bad thing, especially during the 18th century.  According to Vyvyan Holland in Hand Coloured Fashion Plates 1770 to 1899, “ in the eighteenth century, and indeed in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the female bosom was not considered to be the shameful object which it became in Victorian days, never to be mentioned and certainly not to be revealed in its entirety.”  In one of the plates, dated 1778, from “La Gallerie des Modes”–a fashion book, not a naughty book–an otherwise fully dressed lady displays one breast in its entirety.  Her shawl or “mantelet” partially conceals the other.

But to return to corsets:  Here are some samples.

      There’s nothing like seeing a corset close up, though.  I had this opportunity a few months ago at the New England Romance Writers annual conference.  Costumer Heidi Hermiller did a workshop on Regency ladies’ attire.  This wasn’t simply slides & talk.  She brought a mannequin dressed in Regency clothes and undressed her–it–layer by layer, from bonnet and outer garments (I can’t remember whether it was a spencer or a redingote) to underwear.  We in the audience got to pass around the clothing.  And yes, we fondled it.  No one who was in that room wasn’t a Regency nut, and we viewed these garments with the same reverence and longing we–or most of us, at any rate–usually reserve for, say, Colin Firth or Pierce Brosnan or–well, you fill in the blank.

I think what most intrigued the majority of us was the corset.  It was surprisingly soft, thanks to the padding, and while it might have been a bit confining once laced up, I imagine it wasn’t much harder to get used to than a bra.  And I couldn’t help thinking that the girdles of the 1950s must have been far more uncomfortable.  What I liked about the Regency corset is how it made one stand–or sit–very straight, a discipline I’ve always lacked.  Had I been required to wear a corset, starting from about puberty, my posture today would be magnificent.

I am not so enamored of the Victorian era corsets–and that covers many decades of torture devices.  The tiny waist Scarlett O’Hara was so obsessed with was not a Regency phenomenon but a Victorian one–and not one of the better ones.  I say this though I am quite fond of the Victorian era (which puts me firmly in the minority on this blog).  Good posture, displaying one’s assets–I can get behind those concepts.  But crushing my innards for a teeny waistline?  No, that’s like buying beautiful shoes that hurt my feet…which I’ll maybe rant about one of these days before too long.

Right now, though, I’ve got to go see some pigs.