March 31, 2021 • 1 Comment
Imagine a knock at the door and, when you answer, the caller hands you a package. It contains a wrapped packet of biscuits tied with a black ribbon. Instantly, you know there’s been a death, and this is your invitation to the funeral.
A Victorian Funeral Tradition
Funeral biscuits flourished as part of the elaborate panoply of the Victorian funeral. References to them are found in England and parts of North America. Surviving recipes are rare, which suggests they might have been very simple or an adaptation of something most cooks already knew how to make.
Those recipes or descriptions that do exist suggest a sweet similar to shortbread or a molasses cookie. More elegant households favored a lighter sponge similar to ladyfingers or Savoy biscuits. The shortbread style often bore a design such as an hourglass, heart, cross, skull, cupid or other symbolic image. The use of such stamps gives us a clue to the consistency of the dough in use.
The biscuits appeared at the funeral as an accompaniment to a restorative glass of sherry or port wine. Mourners or to those unable to attend received wrapped packages of biscuits. And, as mentioned above, they could also be used as an invitation.
Bakeries produced biscuits to order, especially for large funerals. Between two and six biscuits were bundled in waxed paper. Sometimes, this wrapping bore a design with the usual skulls, hearts, etc. since the Victorians were apparently Goths at heart. At other times, the paper displayed the death notice of the deceased, a poem, or a Bible verse (see an example here). Black wax or a black ribbon sealed the package. For this keepsake of the departed, presentation mattered.
Digression alert: There is an odd parallel with wedding cakes here. If you’re royal, cake mementos can persist down the centuries. For those craving a slice of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake, this article is for you.
You Are Who You Eat
The funeral biscuit tradition faded with the advent of professional funeral parlors and the maelstrom of the World Wars, but its roots run deep in history. There is a connection between these tidy little biscuits and the the idea of claiming an energetic connection to the deceased.
Prior to the oh-so-hygienic funeral parlor, family members awaited burial in the home–in the parlor, if the house had such a room. Relatives, friends, and neighbors visited to pay their respects. According to folk tradition, objects belonging to or placed around the dead absorbed some of their qualities, and it was possible for the living to gain those qualities by possessing or consuming them. The same kind of sympathetic magic appears in Game of Thrones, when Daenerys consumes the heart of a stallion so that her child will have the horse’s strength. In both cases, a tangible (edible) medium transmits the deceased’s qualities to the living.
Neolithic funerals involved the occasional bit of cannibalism (several examples have been found in southern Iberia). In Central Europe during the Middle Ages, household bakers made “corpse cakes” (sometimes shaped like gingerbread men) from dough risen on the body. Mourners consumed the cakes to absorb the deceased’s virtues. In similar fashion, in Wales and the West Country of England, sin-eaters (usually someone at the bottom of the social scale) consumed bread and salt left on the body, thus absorbing the dead man’s guilt. In some accounts, villagers beat the sin-eater afterward to punish those transgressions.
There is a long and winding connection between corpse cakes and the Victorians’ polite shortbread marked with a skull. Nevertheless, given the nineteenth-century appetite for heavy symbolism, it’s likely at least some understood and accepted that grim association.
I did make an attempt at recreating funeral biscuits. Because this entry is already getting long, I will detail that adventure in another post.
Frisby, Helen. Traditions of Death and Burial. Oxford, UK: Shire Publications, 2019.
March 16, 2021 • 4 Comments
Forget using stinky old garlic against vampires. The Vampire Diaries ushered in a new era of preternatural pest control with vervain, making a plot device from a relatively common herb long associated with warding off unwanted magic.
Curiosity prompted me to take a closer look at this plant, and what I found piqued my interest—especially since I feature herbalists in my upcoming books. Who doesn’t like a useful research rabbit hole?
Alternate names for vervain include enchanter’s plant, herb of the cross, and Juno’s tears. Some legends claim druids used it to purify their ritual waters. Others say Romans used bundles of vervain to cleanse their altars.
The Romans also called vervain herba sacra, or the “divine weed.” They believed it could cure the bites of all rabid animals, arrest the progress of venom, cure the plague, and avert sorcery. They even held verbenalia, a feast in the plant’s honor. Another name for vervain was herba veneris, so called because of the aphrodisiac qualities ascribed to it by the Ancients (presumably also the Romans).
Lore has it that vervain grew on the Mount of Calvary, where the faithful used it to staunch the wounds of the Saviour. For this reason, “Herb of Grace” is another popular name for vervain, although this term is also applied to rue.
This is the difficulty with studying herbs—proper plant identification is everything. Common names are confusing and using the wrong plant (especially in medications) could be hazardous.
Speaking of nomenclature, A Modern Herbal says the name vervain possibly comes from the Celtic languages, fer meaning “to drive away” and faen meaning “stone.” The name might reflect the herb’s early use in treating bladder ailments.
There are two kinds of vervain
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) is known as American vervain or false vervain and is native to North America. It has medicinal properties, but they are different from European vervain (Verbena officinalis), which is the kind I’m writing about here.
Verbena officinalis hails from the Mediterranean region and has escaped gardens to run wild in North America. This perennial likes roadsides and sunny pastures. It has white or lilac spiky flowers that bloom from June to October. Its stems are quadrangular and branch. The leaves grow in opposite pairs. It has little scent and a slightly bitter taste. When harvesting, pick the plant before it flowers and dry it immediately. Typically this happens in July, though this could vary with climate.
Don’t confuse these members of the verbena family with lemon verbena, an altogether different (and delightful) plant.
Uses of Vervain
Modern herbalists use Verbena officinalis as a stimulant, astringent, diuretic, nerve tonic, and fever medication. They employ it in the treatment of skin ailments and for depression following illness. It can be used as a tea to calm nerves and promote sleep or in a mouthwash against gum disease.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: herbal medicines should be prepared and taken under the supervision of a trained professional (and that does not include me or this blog).
But back to the paranormal stuff.
Magically (or Magickally, depending on your preference) speaking, vervain assists purification, protection, blessings, and communication with nature spirits. Ruled by Venus, vervain belongs to the earth element. A crown of vervain worn by the magician will protect against evil spirits. It is used in ritual incense for exorcism and in prosperity spells.
I never met an herbal dictionary I didn’t like, so I have a lot of them—some from when I was a teenager, some barely out the Amazon carton. I consulted quite a few books to put this post together, so this is just a short list of the main sources.
Beyerl, Paul. The Master Book of Herbalism. Blaine, Washington: Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1984.
Easley, Thomas, and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2016.
Evans, Ivor H. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th edition. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Limited, 1989.
Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International, 1992.
Lust, John. The Herb Book. New York: Bantam, 1974.
March 7, 2021 • No Comments
Released in 2019/20, directed by Marjane Satrapi, with Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie and Sam Riley as Pierre Curie
Description: After the death of her beloved husband, Marie Curie’s commitment to science remains strong as she tries to explain previously unknown radioactive elements. But it soon becomes terrifyingly evident that her work could lead to applications in medicine that could save thousands of lives — or applications in warfare that could destroy them by the billions.
I was curious about this movie from the moment I heard about it. Marie Curie is a fascinating figure, but not one that I knew much about. I came away with a much better idea of how she discovered the djinn of radioactivity and what happened next, but it was a mixed experience.
First off, this was a beautiful movie filled with lush visual detail. Rosamund Pike gave a splendid performance as Marie Curie, who proved to be a prickly, brilliant, egotistical but ultimately sympathetic woman far ahead of her time. Sam Riley played the appealing husband. At times it felt like the story leaned on their romance to give shape to the plot, but that only lasted (obviously) until Pierre Curie’s death. After that, the plot scampered off with more enthusiasm than focus.
The difficulty with telling a story about a real person and real events is that life doesn’t follow a three-act structure. As a result, the film splooshed out of its narrative bounds in an attempt to capture events not fitting the timeline. The assorted uses of radiation—from medicine to Hiroshima to Arizona bomb tests—come stampeding across the screen at random moments. A few passages got too arty—and kind of trippy—for any real coherence.
Overall, it felt as if the film wasn’t entirely sure what it was trying to be. A romance? A biography? A social commentary about the dangers of uncontrolled scientific inquiry? A super cool montage with mushroom clouds?
To be fair, I still enjoyed the ride. After all, we are talking about a Victorian-set film about a strong and opinionated woman of science. I wish however, the writers had formed a better idea of what they wanted to say about the subject. There was a lot to like here, especially Pike’s performance, but the film seemed to get in its own way.
Recommended, but best when in an easy-going frame of mind, possibly with wine involved.
February 7, 2021 • No Comments
Who doesn’t love a good coincidence, especially when it involves ghosts?
Recently I was blathering with a friend about contacting the dead (as one does while folding laundry). I’m stocking up on ideas for a new story, and it was an unplanned but fruitful topic. Literally minutes later, I got an email for a virtual event.
Cue Weird Homes Tour and Atlas Obscura featuring Brandon Hodge. Hodge owns an Austin, Texas residence stuffed with Spiritualism-related objects. For one very fun hour, Hodge took viewers through his collection of antique planchettes, Ouija boards, and other paraphernalia.
It was like a gift-wrapped package falling through the monitor and into my lap. Spiritualism fascinates me, and Hodge’s enthusiasm and fab website are an ideal introduction to the subject.
A Victorian Obsession
The Spiritualist movement gained traction in the mid-1800s. It gave us mediums, automatic writing, ectoplasm, spirit photography, and table-rapping.
Essentially, it’s summoning the dead for a chat. Believers included the rich and famous, from Lucy Maud Montgomery to Arthur Conan Doyle.
For a buttoned-up society focused on industry, cataloguing, and petticoats for the piano legs, it’s interesting how Victorians embraced the paranormal. Their enthusiasm can be seen by the many, many periodicals dedicated to the topic, such as The British Spiritual Telegraph.
Mediums achieved a kind of celebrity, like the Fox sisters in America. Some grew rich. Others were ingloriously debunked for coughing up gauze
“ectoplasm” or manipulating the seance props with wires.
The majority of mediums were women. This was one place she could take center stage without question. And, since the bereaved were willing to pay, she could also make a good living.
Spiritualism carried on—unsurprisingly—through the disasters of WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic until fading in the 1930s.
I’ve used the highlights of Spiritualism before. In A Study in Ashes, Evelina and Tobias attend a séance. At the time, I’d wanted to delve more deeply into the subject, but that wasn’t part of Evelina’s story. She simply paved the way for more.
Now—thanks to a chance lockdown presentation—I’m anxious to do more research. After all, what’s more perfect than something that is Victorian, paranormal, and involves intriguing devices? I’m positive there is a role for a planchette or two in my Hellion House series.
February 5, 2021 • 2 Comments
Not all gluten-free products belong on a diet plan. Some recipes are shamelessly loaded with sugar and butter, like this one. Needless to say, it’s so yummy even the most ardent junk food addict will enjoy it.
Gluten-Free Almond Chocolate Chip Cookies
Preheat oven to 350F
3/4 cup of sugar (try ½ cup brown to ¼ white)
2/3 cup soft butter
I used a food processor with a mixer blade for this—thoroughly creaming the butter makes a better cookie.
½ tablespoon vanilla
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
3 cups of almond flour
1 cup milk chocolate chips
Spoon onto greased cookie sheets. These cookies spread quite a bit, so make them small and give them lots of room. In my oven, 12 minutes was the perfect time to get a golden-brown cookie with a crispy outside and soft inside. When the cookie sheet comes out of the oven, allow it to cool slightly before transferring the cookies to a cooling rack.
January 24, 2021 • 2 Comments
While tea is essential in all months, winter highlights its restorative properties. And with tea comes biscuits—spirits and stomachs need a boost in the twilight hours of the afternoon.
This is a savory shortbread recipe that’s been in my family for at least three generations–I don’t know its origins, but it was a frequent flyer at my grandmother’s table. It typically appeared at Christmas, but it’s good all year around. I made it recently and was reminded why I liked it so much—it pairs well with a strong English Breakfast style tea without being lost or overwhelming the flavor of the tea. In other words, this shortbread has personality.
A note on the cheese: MacLaren’s Imperial Sharp Cheddar is an iconic Canadian grocery item. In fact, there is an early version of the container in the Canadian Museum of History. For substitutions, keep in mind that it’s very sharp and stiffer than a true cream-cheese style product. The internet recommends Black Creek Sharp Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese as an alternative, but I’ve never tried it myself. If you do, please let me know how it turns out.
- ½ pound McLaren’s Imperial Cheese
- ½ pound butter
- 2 cups flour
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Mix ingredients either by hand or in a food processor and knead slightly until it can be formed into a roll and sliced. Make a ball from each slice and press with a fork. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 250 F for an hour (or until the bottom browns a bit). Cool on a rack before storing in a tin.
August 20, 2020 • No Comments
Would you like me to tell your fortune? For a silver coin, I will consult my tarot cards. Ah, yes, I foresee you’re about to encounter a large to-be-read pile…
I imagined a unique set of tarot cards while planning the Hellion House series. The images in the deck came to me very strongly while I was first making notes about the books. Scorpion Dawn, Leopard Ascending, Chariot Moon—these are all airships, but those vessels got their names from the cards. Fortune’s Eve recounts the first time that tarot comes into play. For those who like to follow story breadcrumbs, pay attention to that scene.
Of course, it had to be a deck I’d never seen before, which meant recording the entire thing as it appeared in the story a bit at a time. Here’s what I know so far…
The deck has five suites (sky, fire, earth, water, spirit) of thirteen cards each. Each suite relates to an aspect of being. For instance, earth rules the material plane.
Most of the images on the cards are single animals, plants, or other straightforward objects.
To cast a reading, lay out the cards in a triangle. They naturally fall into the rising, descending, or hidden positions on the three sides. Therefore, the leopard in an ascending position means that its influence is on the rise and all that fiery animal passion is going a-prowling. The closer it is to the apex of the triangle, the more pronounced its energy will be. If the leopard is on the other side of the triangle, it would indicate the hunt was waning or going awry. If the card was at the bottom of the triangle, it would mean kitty’s energy was turned inward, either asleep or rebuilding for a future time. A fulsome reading would involve a dozen or so cards.
Scorpion Dawn refers to the first awakening of the protective scorpion. The legend has it that when the mighty hunter Orion slaughtered far too many animals, the goddess sent the lowly scorpion to protect her creatures. Too small to be noticed, the scorpion nonetheless poisoned Orion with a sting to the heel. Never underestimate the little guy—or girl—especially if she gets this card.
The main function of the cards in the story is as a means of exploring the characters and their drives. Like all such elements in fiction, it’s a seasoning and not a main dish. Too much and it gets awkward, but it’s a useful way to highlight a moment here and there.
Custom illustration by Leah Friesen
July 3, 2020 • No Comments
Every so often I come across a reference to something that sends my brain scurrying down a rabbit hole. As a fantasy writer, I particularly love twists on everyday items that could otherwise slide into an ordinary social landscape. Food is a favorite, because we all encounter it on a daily basis and there are oh, so many possibilities.
Imagine yourself at a feast—maybe a good ol’ grimdark medieval banquet with dogs under the table chewing on Bob’s remains (what the guests haven’t already eaten). Or, perhaps you’re attending a prettier version of the above at the Sun King’s court, or even a Victorian soiree with champagne on ice and … someone serves a platter of fish, prized for its hallucinogenic properties. Chaos ensues.
Apparently, this is a thing. Several species of fish contain hallucinogenic toxins. The best known is Salema porgy (Sarpa salpa), a type of sea bream. Whether or not diners experience an effect from Salema may depend on the season or the diet of the fish—certain microalgae and also Posidonia oceanica, a kind of seagrass, is thought to contribute to toxins building up in the fish’s flesh (particularly the head). The delirious trip lasts for days.
Salema is found in the Mediterranean and East Atlantic, ranging from Great Britain down to South Africa. It is known in Arabic countries as “the fish that makes dreams.” Romans apparently organized entire banquets around getting stoned on Salema. I pity the slaves who had to clean up afterward but there is an excellent story scene there somewhere.
Sadly, although I have a good many historical cookbooks, I found no reference to preparing Salema porgy in Roman times. However, a search of the internet suggests grilled with salsa verde.
Thanks to Annie Spratt for sharing their work on Unsplash.
June 26, 2020 • No Comments
There are many for whom eating their peas is hardly a moment for celebration. What we need to change our eating habits is a princess as a garden pea brand ambassador.
When Catherine de Medici married King Henri II of France (1533), she brought a love of fresh petit pois (shelled peas) with her. This was a somewhat novel vegetable—most knew only the coarser field peas. Those were similar to chickpeas or split peas and dried or sometimes ground into flour. Wheat flour existed at the time, but was more expensive.
Once peas arrived on the scene, their history reads like the gourmet column of a society magazine. All the cool kids served peas.
Louis XIV, France’s famous Sun King, received a hamper of green peas from Genoa in 1660. They were then dramatically shelled and presented to the court in tiny dishes. The pea craze persisted well into the 1690s. Mme de Maintenon and Mme de Sevigné both reported a craze for securing a taste of the first harvest.
Edible pod peas (pois mange-tout) are reported to have arrived somewhat earlier from Holland during the time of Louis’s grandfather. Sadly, snow peas do not seem to have created such a splash.
In England, green peas came into fashion during the reign of Charles II, who probably ate them in France before the Restoration. As late as 1769, shoppers reportedly paid enormous sums for peas at Covent Garden Market, although other sources report the vegetable becoming common earlier in the century.
One other kind of pea—the lovely flowering sweet pea—is worth mentioning. Beyond its presence in our gardens, its claim to fame is as a favorite subject of Father Gregory Mendel. Mendel lived in Moravia and was three years younger than Queen Victoria. His work on genetics benefited from the sweet pea’s easily distinguished inherited characteristics.
One might ask what Mendel has to do with food fashion, and the answer is not much. However, royalty and peas do intersect when it comes to genetic consequences. Mendel’s work with peas was instrumental in understanding hemophilia, a blood clotting disorder that plagued Victoria’s descendants.
June 22, 2020 • No Comments
Synchronicity is an odd thing. I’ve always been interested in astrology, tarot, earth religions, feminism, and folklore. They have a lot to say about how the psyche works and–especially for followers of Joseph Campbell–how stories function. After all, reality is the tales we tell ourselves.
As an author, this subject is an important wellspring. Hence my interest in dreams and symbols and imagery that crosses cultures and the boundaries of time. I investigate these subjects, drift away, and come back like a migratory creature on the way to an unexplained destination. Maybe I’m ready for the next layer of information. Maybe I just like sparkly crystals. However, sometimes odd synchronicities happen.
I signed up for a 3-session course on Jungian psychology and alchemy from the Embassy of the Free Mind. With those two subjects combined, how could I not? I’ve attended two sessions so far, and the course addresses the stages of alchemy from a psychological perspective. In a very small nutshell, our personal growth follows the stages of death and rebirth and coming into wisdom through inner work. I love the international nature of the experience (yay for Zoom) and the wide-ranging references to mythology and culture. To be clear, there is no physical chemistry involved. It’s all dreamwork and navel-gazing, but right at this moment in time–after fire, plague, and TP shortages–it’s powerful. We’ve been forced to sit and think about things, and here is a chance to use that introspection. What’s working? What’s the source of unhappiness? How can we be more whole?
At the same time, completely randomly, I picked a DVD off the shelf that had sat there for years unwatched. I got a copy of The Hero’s Two Journeys on a Black Friday sale some time ago but never found the time to play it. I wanted something for a blog review so picked it off the TBR pile. It’s Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler talking about story structure. Surprise, surprise, the map of the inner journey (particularly Vogler’s analysis using Joseph Campbell’s work) closely parallels the alchemical path. That tidbit was a huge “whoah!” for me, especially when it showed up in such random fashion.
Apparently, I need to pay attention here. Just as a confirmation, I pulled a card from the Wildwood Tarot and got the Nine of Stones (tradition). Part of the meaning is “reverence for past wisdom and sacrifice. The ability to relate to ancient knowledge and pass on the lessons of ancestral memory and ritual.”
I’ve got some thinking to do.