A Day in the Life

I've been sad since Mom left.

And I'm skeptical about Dad's ability to keep the house in order without her.

Sometimes it's hard getting up in the morning.

But there's work to do.

Like making sure the connections are connected.

And chewing my bone.

And putting up Dad's shoes. He leaves them all over the floor.

Sometimes I let my little sister sit in Dad's lap.

But not for very long. Dad needs me.

I think we'll all pull through this.

I don't know what the hell his problem is.

While the dog mopes around, I have my hands full. Rolling the bath towels.

Sorting the dish rags.

Or gathering the hangers.

To hang the shirts.

When I'm not doing housework, I occupy myself with my myriad of hobbies. Like exercising.

Lying in wait to ambush the dog.

Rubbing my face on everything.

Or saving the boys by fighting off invisible enemies.

So, yeah, I mean, everything's going pretty well.


I Did It!

I finished Book 4 of the Oxford US History Series, McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom.

I know what you're thinking. Another Book Post. Super Duper. I'm including some random dinner pics just because I don't know why.

I've read well over 3 thousand pages covering the first hundred years of our nation's history. Or third hundred years, if you count the nearly two centuries between the Jamestown and Paul Revere's Ride.

The most interesting of the volumes was What God Hath Wrought (number 3) about the antebellum period between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. This was a period of transition between the bizarre, alien world of the Founders, one we wouldn't recognize today, and the America that we know. During the antebellum period, they invented balloon-frame houses, working for hourly pay, travelling in winter, childhood, and democracy.

The most exciting was number 4, the Civil War one. I haven't read extensively on the Civil War since high school when my parents bought me the Time Life series. I read all of those lying on my bedroom floor. I'm not as limber as I used to be. Now I read on furniture. I also noticed my interests have shifted since then.

In high school, I was more interested in the Eastern Theater battles between the Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. Now, I'm more interested in the effects of battles in the Western Theater, where the war was actually won.

Pickled Asparagus
And I'm more interested in the politics and society than in the battles themselves. Reading about terrified men and boys torn to pieces by low velocity rifle fire and canister shot, by the thousands, isn't quite as thrilling as it used to be. American military deaths in the Civil War add up to 12 Vietnams. In fact, if we lost the same proportion of soldiers to population over time in Vietnam as in the Civil War, the Vietnam War would have cost 4 million American lives. Two months ago the official POW/MIA numbers from Vietnam were updated to 1,643. The Union POWs who died at Andersonville Prison alone numbered ten times that.

And they say, well casualties in the Civil War were so high because you have Americans fighting Americans. Sure. If you allow for that, and account that the total casualties were roughly equal for both sides, the North and South each lost around 6 Vietnams worth of men in 4 years.

The sheer volume of slaughter is mind-blowing. So I prefer to read about Lincoln's political maneuvering to pass the 13th Amendment and the diplomatic loopholes of commissioning a blockade runner in a neutral, foreign country.

OK, on to less morbid subjects.

What's Next
These books:

One does not slog through that much US History just to drop the subject and walk away. No. But here's the rub. There's a two volume sixty year gap between Battle Cry of Freedom and Freedom from Fear, the installment covering the Wall Street Crash of 1929 through the end of World War II. True story: almost half of that thirty years was the FDR administration.

Oxford University Press has tentatively promised that the volume covering the Progressive Era or Gilded Age, basically everything from the end of Reconstruction through the Wall Street Crash, is coming out this year. (Note: Gilded Age was the name that rich white men came up with because it sort of sucked for everyone else.) That still leaves me with a thirty year gap.

Pumpkin Pancakes
So I will fill that gap, in part, with Eric Foner's Reconstruction. Not an Oxford History book. But it's supposed to be the definitive work on the Reconstruction era.

Before I begin my next 800 page history book, I need to partake of a little literary junk food. A little light reading. Most days, I eat healthy, homemade from scratch, mostly vegan dinners. But once a week I need something gross and dirty like a bacon cheeseburger (actually, yesterday I made beef tacos). The same goes with books. I read literary masterpieces and masterworks of academic historians. But I need to get in some greasy pulp fiction from time to time.

The Dresden Files
Storm Front, book one of the Dresden Files series, comes highly recommended by a hermit I know in Central Texas.

Lucy, let me 'splain.

There are a myriad of subgenres within Fantasy. You're probably most familiar with High Fantasy, which encompasses Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Steven Erikson, George R. R. Martin (actually, Martin is Medievalist, but who am I to split hairs), and many more. It's epic, it has magic and swords and battles and all of that. Woot.

But it's only one of many. There's Steampunk and and Low Fantasy and Dark Fantasy and Historic Fantasy a bunch of others I would get too bored to list because they're basically all Fantasy with a different adjective.

One I find wildly compelling is Contemporary Fantasy (which overlaps heavily with Urban Fantasy). Contemporary Fantasy is fantasy that takes place in our world and our time. The most notable examples are pretty much anything by Neil Gaiman or the TV shows Supernatural, Buffy, Once Upon a Time, etc.

Only, when you get to Contemporary Fantasy novels, most of them are either Young Adult or Paranormal Romance or both. Harry Potter is a good example. Twilight is a bad one.

Black Bean Sweet Potato Tacos
Then you have the Dresden Files. Which is one of the few (if only) adult Contemporary Fantasy series that doesn't deal extensivly with moping teenage girls dating vampires. In many ways it's like Supernatural. It combines the noir private detective genre with monsters and zombies.

The Problem of Fantasy
I could go on at length about my issues with High Fantasy. Don't get me wrong. I started there. I cut my teeth on Tolkien. We all did. But grave sins are committed in the name of Fantasy, and it's time to give the genre an overhaul.

OK, the quickest of explanations.

Fantasy traces its roots to the old myths and legends, Beowulf, The Odyssey, Le Morte D'Arthur, etc. Those stories, however, weren't set in ancient times or made up lands. They unfolded in settings contemporary to their original listeners/readers. Beowulf has characters that wield swords and hang out in mead halls because at the time it was composed, people wielded swords and hung out in mead halls.

Carrot Soup with Lemon Tahini Dollop and Roasted Chickpeas
The other issue is society. Tolkien and CS Lewis wrote for an audience that took nobility and royalty and privileged birth for granted. We had those once in America, but then we fought two wars to make them go away.

Today, the Fantasy Industrial Complex still churns out fiction set in ancient times with an aristocratic society. Because that's how Fantasy started. Sort of like how the Catholic Clergy still wear clothing (and those hats!) contemporary to the Byzantine Empire because that's when they got started.

Beef Picadillo Tacos with Homemade Salsa
Everyone is still playing in Tolkien's sandbox. But it's time for a Contemporary American Fantasy. That's my soapbox. And it's just my opinion. There are obviously plenty of people out there still buying books about swords and high kings and prophecies and elves and orcs.

And true, there's been this new wave of dystopian fiction. Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. But they're still, really, playing in Orwell's sandbox. 1984 was a Cold War novel and last time I checked, the Cold War was over. The danger to freedom no longer comes in the form of a despotic government regime.

In this respect, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is probably the best vision of the dystopian future now available to us.

Star Wars EU
So, after Return of the Jedi, people started writing a corpus of Star Wars books. The Extended Universe novels are all officially sanctioned and licensed by the chinless George Lucas himself.

You may say, that's not very nice. Well, I hold Lucas solely responsbile for the fourth Indiana Jones. And that movie is unforgivable. Also Jar Jar Binks.

Says Lucas: "But let me say here once and for all: He was the best damn character in any of the six movies. He was by far my favorite."

Thanks, Chinstrap. Now, please stop making movies.

Back to the EU. The most revered trilogy, by serious Star Wars fans, and by serious Star Wars fans, I mean the people who dress up like Boba Fett and go to conventions, is Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. It takes place five years after the Battle for Endor. This Trilogy is very nearly canon. The people who have Rebellion bumper stickers and X-Wing tattoos and the original 1977 C-3PO action figure still in the package consider Thrawn as important to the mythos as the movies.

Since there's a new movie coming out in the wake of the Chinless Master selling the franchise to Disney and since there's considerable controversy in the fanbase because the movie is projected to diverge from the Zahn narrative, I thought I'd give it a look see.

The Fault in Our Stars
I don't have to tell you the title is a reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. We all know that. Yawn.

I've been a super fan of John Green and his brother Hank Green for quite some time. John does the Crash Course series for history and literature and Mental Floss on Youtube. Hank does Crash Course for science and he does Sci Show. Together they do Vlog Brothers. Both very smart, very entertaining, very funny guys. I could go on but it would get weird.

Unless it already did.

I found out recently that John Green wrote a handful of books, one of which, The Fault in Our Stars, is soon to be a Major Motion Picture at a theater near you. One of my favorite things to do is read the book before the movie comes out and then forget to watch the movie. I plan to do that with this one.

Parting Shot
You weren't going to eat... all of that beef... were you?

What should we blog about next?


Spring Happened

After one last burp from the Polar Vortex, it's once again T-shirt weather in Illinois. That is, it's in the low 40s. You can hear birds for the first time in months. You can see the grass. I can walk the dog in my slippers without having to lace up winter boots. It's not that I hate winter boots in specific, I just hate laces in general. I find them churlish and offensive.

Pickle Fails
So, the most recent pickles didn't work out quite like I hoped. One, I executed flawlessly. The other I screwed up horribly.

The Full Sours came out as advertised. Fully Sour. Too sour to enjoy and I didn't like the flavor of the mixed pickling spices. I did everything correctly, I just didn't like the final pickle. Neither did Aine. Neither did anyone at Poker Night. Except for Kwstas. He's Greek. I sent the jar home with him.

So, the habañeros that almost killed me. I had them fermenting in the pantry, which turned the pantry into a box full of pepper spray. Aine refused to go in there. The animals would run and hide when I opened the door. I went in to check them the other day and apparently I didn't chop them fine enough. The pepper pieces separated from the water.

I would have liked to have saved the jar, but I didn't have the Hazmat suit necessary to wash them out. So I tossed them. I'll try again with a less aggressive pepper.

Popcorn Again
We're trying to wean ourselves from the microwave as much as possible. So we've started doing popcorn old school. On the stove top.

Popcorn and Illinois have a special relationship. It's the state snackfood and one of the state's major crops.

It's also one of the oldest staple crops in the Americas. Archaeologists have found popcorn dating back to 3600 BCE in a domestic caves in South America. That means they're almost twice as old to the Romans as the Romans are to us. When the pyramids were being built, these kernels were already a thousand years old. The archaeologists were able to pop and eat them.

Popcorn may have been the main food source for the Aztecs before flour corn was domesticated. They even had a word, totopoca, which means the sound of many kernels popping. You know the popcorn garlands we make at Christmas? The Aztecs invented that. They made popcorn garlands to adorn statues of the rain god Tlaloc. You can see a statue of Tlaloc just over the Texas border in Ciudad Acuña. Be sure to take some popcorn with you if you go.

The first popcorn machine was invented in Chicago in the 1880s. In the 1890s in Chicago, the Rueckheim Brothers developed a process for coating popcorn in caramel, then applying oil to keep the kernels separated. They started selling them in waxy boxes and named them Cracker Jacks. Almost a decade later, Vaudeville songwriter Jack Norworth wrote "Take Me out to the Ball Game" after reading an advertisement on the subway. He wrote the popular snack into chorus, giving them free advertising until the end of time.

Cheaper than dirt, popcorn was a common meal during the Great Depression and a popular snack during the sugar rationing days of World War II. Today, in the US, one billion pounds of unpopped kernels are sold every year. 70% of these are consumed at home.

Here in Jabboland, we're happy to carry on the tradition.

On the Stove Top
When a kernel reaches an internal temperature of 356 degrees, the starch and water turn into a foam that expands outward with a pressure of 135 PSI. The liquid foam congeals into a solid within milliseconds, producing what popcorn afficionados call the flake. The flake can develop into one of two configurations: the obvious Butterfly or the rounded Mushroom.

Here's how it's done:

Put a little bit of oil in a pan and add a single kernel. Turn on the stove.

For a single serving you only need about two tablespoons.

Add a pinch of salt.

Wait for the first kernel to pop.

Once it does, add the rest and let science take its course. You'll want to shake the pan a little, to make the flakes move up and the unpopped kernels move down.

Voila! A healthy, delicious, filling snack. With no additives or chemicals or mad scientist creations that taste like butter but aren't.

The image is misleading. That's a deep bowl. Two tablespoons equal half a bag of popped microwave popcorn. A quarter cup equals one bag popped. Another difference is, when you pop it on the stove, you have one or two leftover kernels. Total. Instead of several dozen. I've popped the leftover kernels from a microwave bag on the stove and gotten almost as much popcorn as I got out of the microwave. So when you pop it in the microwave, you're eating half of what you pay for and throwing the rest away.

Parting Shot
It's dangerous to go alone.

Take this.

Well, excuse me, Princess.


Cuban Sizzle Crisis

Salt Pickles
Last week, I started a batch of Full Sour Pickles. I didn't even slice these. I just shoved them in the jar whole and, hopefully, I'll end up with some proper movie theater style pickles.

In addition to dill and garlic, I added mixed pickling spice. I got it at a local hippie store. I don't know what all it has in it, but it's given the cukes an amazing aroma.

One week in, here's how they look:

The dill looks a little bleached out and the brine is cloudy, but these smell great and they still have a week to go.

In addition to the pickle experiments, I've started doing a weekly batch of quick pickles. Just to have some on hand. I added some pickling spice to this week's batch, just to see what it does.

Hot Sauce
Following the traditions of the McIlhenny family and some lady named Cholula, I started my own batch of fermented hot sauce. The McIlhennies use only Tabasco peppers. Cholula and Tapatío use Arboles and Piquins. And for you buffalo wing fanatics, Frank's uses Cayennes. For my masterpiece, I used Aji Dulces and Habañeros.

I stemmed, seeded, and half the peppers.

Then mixed them with salt and pureed them.

Now, they need to ferment for a month. In the dark. Apparently, they'll lose all their color if they ferment in the light.

Means "from Havana" in Spanish. These peppers came to the US from the Caribbean, but come from South America originally. They've found habañeros in domestic cave sites dating back to 6500 BCE. Which means people were eating these peppers before the cow was domesticated.

Habañeros are hot. Really hot. They average over 200 thousand units on Wilbur Scoville's famous scale. This makes them over three times as hot as piquins, twice as hot as tabascos, ten times as hot as a cayenne, and thirty times as hot as a jalapeño.

In 2000, Guinness Book rated the habañero as the hottest pepper in the world. It's since been displaced by a series of contenders. The current hottest pepper is the Carolina Reaper. It can reach peaks of over 2 million Scoville units. Basically the low end of the legal range for pepper spray in the US.

Try one!

Parting Shot
The temps have shot up to the 40s, which, in Illinois, is flip flop and tank top weather. My neighbors have spent the weekend lounging by the pool, working on their tans.

Some habits are hard to break, though. Baloo and Bagheera still huddle next to the heater. Even when it isn't plugged in.

Also, on the subject of Tapatío: