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Bits of Books, Part 3


Around 25 years ago, I took part in a play-by-mail En Garde campaign run by the Small Furry Creatures Press. In addition to En Garde, they ran many other games through their eponymous magazine, and one I particularly enjoyed was Bluff My Call.

It was based on a BBC panel show named Call My Bluff, where one of the two celebrity teams was given an obscure word from what presenter Robert Robinson sometimes called “the haunted wing of the Oxford English Dictionary.” One team member was secretly given the correct definition: the other two had to bluff, and the members of the opposing team had to decide which definition was correct.

The Small Furry Creatures version used less obscure words, often with a small and furry connotation: I remember lambast, ratatouille, and dogmatic, among others. The player who submitted the most entertaining false definition of the word was rewarded with a free turn in all the games running at the time.

I enjoyed the game immensely. Following the success of Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Liff I was even tempted to collect my entries together and add more until I had a book, but I haven’t yet worked up a decent proposal to send to an agent or publisher. It’s still on my mind, though, along with a hundred other projects.

For now, here’s one of my earlier entries. I recall that I wrote it shortly after I encountered cassata siciliana for the first time in an Italian restaurant in Nottingham.

Catatonic

Renaissance Italy was fragmented in more ways than one. Even before the coming of the Ostrogoths, it had been held together only by the staggeringly complex and occasionally effective provincial administration of the Roman Empire. By the late fifth century everything had fallen apart, and it was not until the days of Garibaldi that one could truly speak of Italy as a single entity.

As it was with politics, so too with cuisine. Once the last of the Roman orgies had finished, it was barley bread, warm gruel, and warm Ostrogoth beer for everyone until the Renaissance dawned. Even then, things scarcely improved. The new age of reason and inquiry led to a flourishing of experimental cookery, to be sure, but as in many other fields of endeavor a boundless enthusiasm coupled with an incomplete grasp of essential scientific principles led to one disaster after another.

It was well known, for example, that Lucrezia Borgia’s enthusiasm in the kitchen outstripped her ability by some way, and more than one Roman noble took his own life upon receiving an invitation to dine with her. The peasant on a leash became a vital accessory for any Renaissance gourmand, the food remaining untouched until it was clear that the taster was not about to turn green and make a dash for the garderobe. The situation became so bad that in 1503 Pope Pius III was obliged to issue a Papal Bull making it clear that Grace was a prayer of thanksgiving for the food, not a plea to the Almighty that it might be edible. His own time on the throne of St. Peter was cut short, for he succumbed shortly after an inuagural dinner thrown by the Florentine ambassador.

Across the Alps, French cuisine was making immense strides. A moderately stable soufflé recipe had been developed in 1482, and in 1505 the royal chef Armand de Roquefort was elevated to the rank of Marquis after his invention of the first truly lump-free cheese sauce. Once the gastronomic hub of Europe, Italy stood on the brink of humiliation. The Italian nobles reacted with characteristic subtlety, launching a campaign of misinformation that has many scholars convinced to this day that the rash of mysterious dinner-party deaths had a political, rather than culinary, origin.

Finally, in 1525, a glimmer of light dawned. It was in that year that Fra Angelico Tortellini, a traveling Franciscan friar, chanced upon a small village in Sicily and there discovered a confection known to the peasants as cassata. Based upon ice-cream, this dish was enhanced by the addition of dried and crystallized fruits and a selection of aromatic herbs. Like many monastics of his day, Tortellini (who would go on to make his own mark upon Italian cuisine) was a skilled herbalist, and recognized at once the healing and soothing properties of the mixture of fruit and herbs used in the dish. As any devout Catholic would have done, he set out immediately for Rome with the stolen recipe concealed beneath his habit.

Italy was saved. Tortellini became a Cardinal within the week of his arrival at the Holy See, and the Church distributed the recipe for cassata throughout the land. The promise of the recipe alone was instrumental in turning many recusant nobles away from the influence of Luther, and within two years one could eat without fear in any noble house the length and breadth of Italy.

Provided that the cassata was taken as the final course, its healing herbs would avert the effects of all but the most spectacularly extreme culinary disasters. A number of petty wars were swiftly brought to an end, having been started in the first place only to give an air of political significance to the rash of dinner-party deaths.

England, at that time more than any other, was cut off from the mainstream of events on the Continent. Under the vigorous guidance of Henry VIII, with his preference for good, plain food and his tendency to have dissenters beheaded, the English diet had not undergone any of the ambitious but deadly changes which had affected Italian cuisine.

Thus, when cassata eventually reached England’s shores in the reign of his daughter Elizabeth, its properties as a means of surviving lavish experimental cookery were not especially noted. Chroniclers of the day, most notably Geoffrey of Pontefract in his Gastronomia Mundi, mention its soothing properties in a general way and list it as ‘a tonick for the jaded pallette.’ The name cassata undergoes a degree of change in translation, becoming casta or catta, and from here the name took on the form under which it finally entered the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary: catta-tonick or catatonic.

Bits of Books, Part 1

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting some short pieces of nonfiction that I’ve written over the years. Most of them were writing samples to accompany book proposals, and I’ll tell the story of each piece as I go. And if anyone reading this is in publishing and interested in using any of them, then I’d love to hear from you.

This first piece is about Brigid (a.k.a. Saint Bridget), a pagan Celtic goddess who changed teams and became a Christian saint. The style is inspired by Vicki Leon’s brilliant Uppity Women series of books, and also by Trina Robbins’ Eternally Bad: Goddesses With Attitude. I initially proposed Eternally Bad 2 to publishers Conari Press, but was told they had changed their editorial direction. I still have plans to write a book on goddesses in this style, but I haven’t yet found the right publisher.

Brigid

Copyright (c) 2012 Graeme Davis

If proof were ever needed that you can’t keep a goddess down, Brigid is it. Thanks to a shrewd career move, this former Celtic goddess is now a Christian saint, whose feast day just happens to fall on the same date as the previous pagan festival. The church tends to play down rumors that Saint Mel consecrated her a full-fledged bishop after a few too many goblets of communion wine, but no-one can deny her hard work and persistence.

Brigid – according to who you believe, her name could mean “fiery arrow,” “bright one,” or “exalted one” – was born into the Tuatha De Danann, the race of gods who conquered Ireland from the brutish Fomorians. Her father was no less than the Dagda, or All-Father. At her birth, it is said, a pillar of flame rose up from her head into the dawn sky, making the house look as though it was on fire. While the other gods stood around gaping, Brigid went straight to work.

She broke off a piece of the fire and dropped it on the floor, where it became the first hearth. Reaching into this fire, she pulled out a tongue of flame and swallowed it, where it burned inside her and caused flames to shoot from her hands; she used her magma manicure to invent the craft of metalworking. Drawing water from a nearby well, she heated it with her fire and made a range of herbal teas that were both delicious and good for the health. From the fire that burned inside her head she poured forth poetry and other forms of artistic inspiration. So she became the patroness of the hearth, healing, poetry, and metalworking, and the number one goddess of the Celtic pantheon.

Well, maybe not number one – that spot went to the enigmatic Danu, who gave her name to the whole race of gods (Tuatha De Danann means “Tribe of the Goddess Danu”) – but there are those who say that she actually was Danu, in addition to her other talents. In fact, she was so busy that some sources claim the Dagda had three daughters, and named them all Brigid. A few jealous souls began to whisper that, while one side of her face was beautiful, the other was quite homely, but she paid them no mind.

Being the daughter of the king of the gods carried the same hazards as mortal princesses faced. Brigid had to put up with a dynastic marriage with Bres Mac Elatha, who was half-Fomorian on his father’s side – a severe handicap in both the looks and personality departments – and penny-pinching into the bargain, which the rest of the Tuatha couldn‘t stand. Eventually they kicked him out, but rather than learning from the experience and working on his social skills, he ran off to the Fomorian side of his family for help, which started a series of wars. Brigid, meanwhile, started hanging out with the good-looking and cultured Turenn, whose father Oghma held the patent on the ogham writing system. Turenn was also her cousin and her ex’s nephew, but gods are usually broadminded about such things. This relationship (having been bitten once, she wasn’t in a hurry to get married again) was altogether happier, and produced three sons: Bran, Iuchar and Iucharba. They all went into the family business as gods of poetry.

While the other Tuatha De Danann were content with Ireland, Brigid had bigger ideas. Soon, she was worshiped across Celtic Europe; Brigantia, her brand name in mainland Britain, became a major kingdom, and a constant thorn in the side of the Romans when they showed up.

Brigid’s feast day was Imbolc, the Celtic festival when winter turned to spring. In addition to her other interests, she took on the seasonal job of making sure the ewes produced enough milk, which soon developed into overall responsibility for flocks and herds.

Her skill in poetry extended to mystical knowledge, and made her a favorite of witches and wise-women. She could look into her cupped hands for visions of things to come or things happening far away. Crystal balls were for amateurs. People were constantly around her door clamoring for her herbal recipes, but they had trouble remembering what she told them. Turning a handy twig into charcoal with the fire that still wreathed her head, Brigid taught them how to make Oghma’s marks on bark, so they could write the recipes down. It’s not known if he got royalties, but then it’s not known if she got a marketing fee either.

As the guardian of the hearth, Brigid’s permission had to be asked before banking the fire for the night, and her protection sought for the house and its occupants. She had a sacred fire at Kildare, which was watched over by 19 priestesses. They took turns on a 20-day rotation; on the 20th day, the fire was tended by Brigid herself. For all her success, she never lost touch with her constituents.

Of all her fires, the warm glow of compassion was her favorite. Once, two men came to her complaining of leprosy. A dip in her sacred well cured one of them, but when he was reluctant to help his still-leprous friend wash those hard-to-reach places with the healing water, Brigid saw red. She gave him his leprosy back, telling him not to talk to her again until he had learned compassion. Then, just to drive the point home, she cured his friend.

When St. Patrick showed up and started spreading Christianity, Brigid wasn’t at all impressed. She laughed at his snake-charming act, and spoke her mind about the new religion, which caused a few problems. The Christians slaughtered her priestesses and put out her fire, but she wasn’t ready to fade into obscurity with the rest of the Tuatha De Danann. Instead, she invited Paddy over for some tea and a chat, and by the end of their conversation she had decided that since she couldn’t beat ‘em, she might as well join ‘em. Before you could say “Christianized pagan deity,” Brigid was set up with the title of saint and an impeccably Christian background as the midwife who delivered Jesus.

According to the official story, she was the illegitimate daughter of a pagan Irish chieftain (some say he was a druid) and a Christian slave girl; mother died early, and she was raised by her father, who was quite tolerant of her Christian leanings. She kept the household in butter, employing miraculous means when natural sources ran dry. The story has her born 66 years after Patrick hung up his shillelagh, even though he is supposed to have baptized her personally. The Pagan Goddess Protection Program obviously slipped up here and there with her new identity. But then, her absolute refusal to change her name must have made them wonder why they were trying in the first place.

Her aversion to marriage was another thing that carried over to her Christian identity. According to early biographers, she hated her own beauty and the pesky men it attracted, and prayed to become ugly. The result was that one of her eyes became huge, while the other disappeared altogether. Rather than forcing her into marriage – and probably deciding that she wouldn’t make a profitable dynastic match looking like that – her father consented to her becoming a nun. As she took her vows, angels shoved the attending priest aside and presented her with the veil themselves. The wooden steps of the altar burst into leaf, and her good looks were instantly restored. After that, she traveled Ireland founding churches, nunneries, and monasteries (including co-ed establishments divided down the middle to keep the monks and nuns apart and save them from impure thoughts), and when she died, she was on the fast track for sainthood.

The new Brigid wasn’t all work and no play, though. Among other things, her bath-water was sometimes made into beer for thirsty clerics. She rescued a boar from hunters by granting it sanctuary in her chapel, and taught a fox to dance. She would often hang her damp cloak on a sunbeam to dry, which sometimes obliged the sunbeam to stick around all night. She even made two opposing armies invisible to each other, so that tempers had time to cool. When a passing merchant refused to give her some salt, she turned his entire stock to stone. Her larder never ran out, and one Easter a small cup of malt from her scullery yielded enough ale to supply all 17 of the abbeys and monasteries under her rule. In another legend, she gave some water to a man whose wife found him repulsive, and he enjoyed an adoring spouse for the rest of his life. Perhaps he washed with it.

St Brigid remained associated with sheep and milk. She became the patroness of Ireland, New Zealand, milkmaids, and poultry farmers, as well as nuns, newborns (from her supposed role in the birth of Jesus), and fugitives. In 712 she appeared to the army of Leinster, hovering in the sky before they routed the forces of Tara. She kept her sacred fire at Kildare, but the staff was downsized to nine virgins from the original 19 priestesses. On the other hand, it now had a nunnery attached. Men were still forbidden to cross the hedge that surrounded the sanctuary, and Brigid wasn’t afraid to show that she meant business. When an archer hopped over the hedge and blew on the fire, she struck him mad; he was forced to go around blowing into the faces of complete strangers and telling them that he had done the same to Brigid’s fire. When he was finally restrained he complained of thirst, and drank so much water that his stomach burst open and he died. Another would-be miscreant got one leg over the hedge before his friends pulled him back, and was lame in that leg for the rest of his life. The fire kept burning until 1220, when Archbishop Henry of Dublin decided that its pagan origins were just too obvious, and ordered it extinguished. History does not record what happened to him.

Her tomb at Downpatrick was looted by English troops during the reign of Henry VIII. Her cloak is in Bruges, in Belgium – no longer hanging on a sunbeam – while her head was left in Lisbon by a bunch of crusaders who died before reaching the Holy Land.

Although there have been more popular saints, Brigid is still around and doing well. In her original guise, she is becoming popular with neo-pagans. There is every chance that she will be the first goddess to make the switch to Christian saint and back again. You have to admit, this girl doesn’t give up.