Bronte Parsonage, Haworth

Haworth, West Yorkshire

Bronte Parsonage and cemetery

Tonight, I’ll be tuning in for To Walk Invisible — the  BBC drama about the Bronte sisters that is featuring on PBS Masterpiece.  If your passing knowledge of the Bronte sisters is simply that they were successful writers, then you’ve missed a huge swath of their story– the entire furtive, formative swath.  The part that was hard, ugly, and, literally, doomed . . . but literarily resilient.  But then, could you have expected anything else from a family that lived on the atmospheric Yorkshire Moors and created such stories as Wuthering Heights and  Jane Eyre?

I think you could not.

It might be smart for me to watch tonight’s show and then write this post about the Brontes– both to refresh my memory about their story and to comment on the show itself.  But I’m at the computer now, and so I write.  Also– before the show has the opportunity to retouch my memory of a trip to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth– I’d like to tell you what I remember about my trip there, because it had quite an impact on me.

Confession:  I was never a big Bronte fan.  My sister was the impetus behind our trip to the Bronte’s home.  I didn’t dislike the Brontes, I just hadn’t spent much time with them.  I probably thought their brand of gothic fiction was more outdated than classic.  I was wrong.

But I didn’t see that until I visited their home and learned more about their lives. The conventions of gothic had nothing on the actual lives of the Bronte sisters.  Dark, atmospheric tales weren’t just a hook for catching a reader, they were faithful incarnations of the harsh realities of life in Haworth (and at the Bronte home).

Their mother and two sisters died young.  Their brother died in young adulthood– of illness and addiction.   Emily died four months after her brother; Anne died the next year; Charlotte died six years later (but still only 38 years old).  Their father outlived them all, by many decades.

He was quite the exception for the village of Haworth.  In the 1800’s, the village was a gloomy place and the average life expectancy was less than 30 years old.  There was no real sewage system in Haworth.  Sewage often ran in the streets and tainted the water supply.  What water there was to start with– which wasn’t much and was of bad quality.  Finally– just to add some grim to the grime– the overcrowded city cemetery, which grew more overcrowded each year and had very bad drainage, sat (still sits) at the top of the city hill, further poisoning the town.  That is a recipe for death by death.

One more thing–possibly important if you are a Bronte– the village cemetery sits in front of the parsonage.  Death on your doorstep: a fine thing to wake up to each morning.

So, if you were a Bronte sister, you grew up in a village where infant mortality was sky high and people of every age had a tough go of it.  You lived at the edge of the wild and harsh Moors, quite a distance from any large, urban centers.  Your prospects in Haworth were not so very good, your childhood playground was a cemetery, the wind howled, your preacher father married and buried a revolving door of friends and neighbors, and nothing in life was easy, not even a kettle of water for your tea.

No wonder your brother became an addict; no wonder your relatives passed young.  No wonder your imagination turned to a rich inner world to pass your days . . . but a world of disquieting stories.

I’m sure tonight’s program will teach me a good many things about the Bronte family that I did not know.   I am eager to learn.  My first visit to Haworth was around 2006– so my memory is a little fuzzy on details, but not on the overall impression.  I’d already been living in Yorkshire for a year, and loved the environs, so it’s not surprising that what struck me most about the Bronte home was the town, the general environs in which this family lived.  It was the perfect setting for a gothic tale.

It was a grey, atmospheric day the first time I visited Haworth.  The town was picturesque and compact.  I remember winding up the cobbled street, passing a sweet shop, a tea room, a pub.  Passing tourists. Seeing the tidy parsonage, and its dreary graveyard, at the top of the hill.  All perfectly picturesque– especially as you stand at the crest of the hill and look down at the winding street of town, the stone shops and home fronts, and the rolling hills around it.

If you want to see a bit of what my eyes saw, here’s a short YouTube video that will give you a quick glance at Haworth and a view from the top of the town.  ( Be warned–the narrator does drone on at the end of the video, “blah blah, polar bears, blah blah”– just ignore that bit. He also says “Withering” Heights, repeatedly– hard to ignore, but try.)

BUT– for all of the beauty, as the grey clouds swarmed the day of my first visit and the air ran chill, I gathered up all I had learned about life in Haworth in the 1800’s, and what I remembered of some of the haunting elements of the Bronte sisters’ tales, and I saw the town differently.  I saw the graveyard at the pinnacle of the town, I saw the run off and sewage coursing through the streets below, I saw Branwell (the addled addict of a brother) watching death wash over the streets from the dark pub window.  The town itself seemed a little Jekyll and Hyde to me.

Haworth seems like a tale well told, but hard-lived.  An amazing place to visit, for certain.

I’ll leave you with two things, below.  The first, a portrait that I saw in the parsonage– rather famous– which Branwell painted of the three sisters who survived him.  I love (and loathe) it for the fact that Branwell had originally painted himself into the portrait, but (for what reason?) decided to erase himself out of it.  It is no subtle erasure.  What he leaves is worse than a gapping hole in the middle of the painting: it’s a spectral ghost of himself that (for me, at least) becomes almost more of a focal point than the remaining likenesses of his sisters!  I suspect that this will in some ways ring true with the Bronte family story I watch tonight.  The ghost of Branwell, the presence of death and despair in Haworth, is largely the energy that created the Bronte stories.

The second nugget I leave for you is a YouTube video that acts as a teaser for the production To Walk Invisible.  Enjoy!

 

Twilight at the Tower Bridge

London

Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016
Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016

About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.

Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End.  The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary.  (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me.  And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little.  Seriously.  I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think?  Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me.  I’m lots cooler than that.  Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)

Moving on. . .

Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London.  Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic.  Good plan.  But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill.  One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views.  The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.

It fit the bill well.  The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky.  The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).

We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.

The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning.    I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London.  So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.

First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse.  But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.

The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present.  (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge.  So many.)  There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes  Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows.  And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens.  The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others.  Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall.  This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper.  (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)

If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark.  Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty  Charles Dickens.  Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.

But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into.  Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart.  We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.

If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.

C’est la vie.  Or, as my London friends might say:  th9sb27hg3

 

 

Epicurean Update

I woke this Saturday morning to find that Epicurious.com had left a delicious morsel in my news feed:  a short article by Sam Worley,

Stretchy Turkish Ice Cream Now Available in U.S. Grocery Stores

What?  Is this possible?  You know I have a thing for stretchy Turkish ice cream– if you were paying attention, I sang its praises last fall in a blog post called “How We Eat . . .”.  You can imagine Mr. Sam Worley’s article quickened my pulse more than a little. It has arrived on my shores!  Turkish Dondurma!  I squealed, I celebrated!

But then I wondered.   Can I eat Turkish dondurma from the local grocery aisle, or would it be wrong, and certainly disappointing, to pull it from my upright freezer in my air conditioned Floridian home and eat it with a spoon and dish in my breakfast nook?  Would it betray every memory I have of sassy dondurma sellers in Istanbul or on the Turkish Mediterranean, paddling out the stretchy treat, only to whip it out of your grasp at the last moment. . . only to finally relent and offer up the treat,  which I would greedily gobble before it (or I) melted into the hot walkway of a Turkish summer day.

Would my favorite sweet Turkish treat suffer if it wasn’t fresh, and if everything about its presentation and circumstances was decidedly un-Turkish?  Decidedly mundane.  Bought at the local grocer.

Yes.  I think the answer has to be “yes.”

Still, you know I’ll look for it in the stores.  Maybe I’ll purchase some.  I hope it will be delicious.   It’ll certainly be a treat and a novelty . . . but scooped from a store carton  it will be an anemic facsimile.

I’d rather enjoy it by the Sea of Marmara or the Mediterranean– who wouldn’t?

I’ll leave you with the blurb from Epicurious (which includes a fantastic video of an impish Turkish ice cream man at work), as well as my original post on Turkish ice cream.

Happy Monday and bon appetit– or, as they say in Turkey, “Afiyet Olsun!”

http://www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/turkish-ice-cream-comes-to-the-us-elastic-stretchy-article

Stretchy Turkish Ice Cream Now Available in U.S. Grocery Stores

Behold the pictures, all over the internet, of street vendors stretching Turkish ice cream just like it’s boardwalk taffy. That’s maraş dondurma, a confection made not just with milk and sugar but with mastic, a tree resin, and salep, the roots of wild mountain orchids, which imparts elasticity. The best and frankly only way to describe this is as stretchy, chewy ice cream. Word on the street is that people have been photographed jumping rope with it; others have cut it with knives and chainsaws. On the street, too—or in the markets, rather, where you get this ice cream in Istanbul—its unique stretchiness enables vendors to play all manner of practical jokes with would-be ice cream eaters, as in the video below.

The metal rod you see there is part of the traditional production process: the ice cream is beaten—kneaded, more or less—so that it sticks to itself. What results is a frozen confectionyou can do some tricks with; it’s also quite a bit slower to melt than non-elastic ice cream, a boon in the Turkish summers.

Something like dondurma is now available in the U.S., but in grocery aisles rather than bazaars. Lezzetli Mediterranean Ice Cream, which has been selling in the New York area for a while, announced today that it’s expanding its distribution throughout the northeastern United States, with four flagship flavors: Chios vanilla, made with a Greek tree sap; chocolate–orange blossom; spiced date, and tart cherry. Lezzetli bills its ice creams as inspired by similar desserts of Turkey and the Levant—versions of dondurma also exist in places like Syria and Greece—and they aren’t thickened with orchids, which are endangered, but with other natural gums. (In Turkey, for this same reason, salep has given way to other thickeners, like guar gum.) Not in your local place yet? Request it! Your grocer might be pliable.

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How We Eat: Banana Pudding, Banoffee Pie, Songs, and Stretchy Ice Cream

PicMonkey banana pud shoofly

The title is a mouthful:  a delicious, caloric mouthful.  Inspired by a delicious and caloric, if somewhat stressful, week of cakes and puddings at our house.  An actual storm is sitting out in the Gulf, on our doorstep, and making vague threats, while the figurative storm of finding your bearings in a new environment is battering us around quite handily.  Under the circumstances, why not fatten our bodies and spirits for the fight, right?  Cakes and Ale is a fine battle strategy, I say.  Anyhoo, on with the post. . .

When I was young, my mother used to sing a song that would make us giggle and make us hungry at the same time: “Shoofly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy, make your eyes light up and your tummy say ‘howdy.’”  Silly.  I’ve never had Apple Pan Dowdy, but I can imagine the cobbler-like creation with no problem.  Shoofly Pie is harder to conjure.  Obviously sweet and sticky– a fly magnet (yuck!)– but the closest thing I can picture is a chess pie, and I don’t think that’s exactly right.  Which brings me to stretchy ice cream.  What, you’ll ask, is that?  A Floridian taffy-ice cream hybrid?  An over-cooked custard that makes a chewy ice cream?  No and no.  I’m thinking of Turkish Dondurma– an ice cream made with wild orchid extracts and salep ( a milky Turkish drink containing orchids).

Dondurma doesn’t taste of orchids, it comes in many flavors.  My favorite was banana.

Image from website: http://www.lakshmisharath.com/
Image from wikicommons and website: http://www.lakshmisharath.com/

   I only discovered dondurma toward the end of our life in Turkey, which is a shame because it is silky and delicious . . . and stretchy.  That doesn’t really affect the taste, but it makes for a great parlor trick.  Dondurma is often served in a dramatic way, dished out with a paddle and wrapped around your cone, only to be pulled back at the last moment.  The Turks love a laugh and good food, so why not marry the two?

I’ve been thinking about Dondurma lately.  August in Florida will bring out all of your ice cream fantasies, believe me.  But this week, I’m remembering Banana Dondurma while making a traditional Banana Pudding for my children.  A REAL Banana Pudding– no instant pudding and cool whip.  Ugh.  A silky homemade custard is the only way to go, people.

My mother made this Banana Pudding for us growing up, and I’m pretty sure that her mother made it too.  I’m printing the recipe at the end of this post.  It’s simple and satisfying, and I like it best when it’s still a tad warm (but I know people who only like it cold, so this is clearly a matter of personal taste).

Photo from myrecipes.com--sadly we ate into our pudding too quickly to get a good photo!
Photo from myrecipes.com–sadly we ate into our pudding too quickly to get a good photo!

Like all recipes for BP, this one layers Vanilla Wafers, banana slices, and pudding.  Like all the best recipes for BP, this one features a homemade pudding of milk/cream, eggs, and sugar– with a splash of vanilla tossed in after the pudding thickens.  Believe me, you’ll be licking the mixing spoon after making this one.  (And, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if I could use this pudding, with banana and wafer bits thrown in to churn up a really delicious–though certainly un-stretchy– ice cream.  I’m going to try this soon and get back to you.)

Banana Pudding is a staple of the American South, a time-tested comfort food, welcome around any pot luck or picnic table.  Why is it Southern?  I have no idea.  It goes well with bourbon?  (There are worse theories.)   If you want a primer on the treat and its history, I’d suggest you read the article posted on the SeriousEats website– an interesting and remarkably in-depth read.  If you’re here for the yummy, not the history, feel free to skip the article, fast forward to my recipe, and judge for yourself.

But not before you consider Banoffee Pie.  It deserves a mention in a travel and culture blog, because what Banana Pudding is to the American South, Banoffee Pie seems to be to Brits.  A perfect comfort food, a sweet banana dessert that pops up everywhere.

photo from commons.wikimedia.org
photo from commons.wikimedia.org

“Banoffee” you say?  Yes– bananas, cream, and toffee.  BAN. OFFEE.

Although it’s a British staple, it’s not one of those long-standing English recipes that dates back to the middle ages (think mincemeat pie).  No– bananas weren’t easy to come by before modern times.  Still, you find it in so many homes, on so many menus, and in endless incarnations these days. Nigella Lawson has a great looking Banoffee Cheesecake recipe, as well a Chocolate Banoffee recipe.  There are Banoffee sundaes and cupcakes and pastries.  If you can think up a twist to banoffee pie, it’s out there.

I have nibbled at Banoffee creations, but haven’t perfected my own version, so I’ll encourage you to find your own recipe.  If you already have the perfect recipe, feel free to share it with me!

* * *

moveable feastI’ll leave you with my pudding recipe and a final thought on comfort food.  On how we eat.  I love sugar, and I love rich puddings, and I love sharing these things with family.  But it’s not just the yumminess, and it’s not just the hospitality, it is the comfort that gets me this week– the ritual of sharing this favorite family recipe. Hemingway spoke of Paris as a moveable feast–a joy and light and influence, a wealth of experiences–that stays with you wherever you go.   Whether or not we have Paris, we all have a storehouse of moveable feasts.

This week, Banana Pudding is my moveable feast.  The world is spinning a bit fast for me, the Gulf is churning a bit violently, but I have my pudding (a tad warm yet) and I have my children with their spoons at the ready . . . and I find that I have a feast of friends around this table — I have my grandmother’s cooking, my mother’s singing, my Turkish ice cream man, and my British bakery, and I sit in the company of these fine things and dig in to my bowl, and I know, with a quiet conviction, that the world will be right soon enough.

*Ba’s BANANA PUDDING

  • For the custard: 1/2 cup sugar, 3 Tablespoons flour, dash of salt, 1 whole egg, 3 egg yolks (save the whites), 2 cups of milk.
  • Cook this in a medium saucepan over a low heat until it thickens.  Then take it off the stove and stir in 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • Layer vanilla wafers and banana slices; pour some custard over the top; then repeat these layers.
  • For meringue topping: beat the 3 egg whites, gradually adding up to 1/4 cup of sugar (and 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, if you wish).  Bake this until browned (at 400 degrees, or using the broiler).
  • Enjoy!

 

The Return of Light: Candlemas

Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, N. Yorkshire

Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter
Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter

The winter-blooming snowdrops may be pushing up from the cold ground in England about now, and we are at the halfway point between the shortest day of the year and the March equinox.  Light is returning to the world, and slowly but surely we turn toward spring.

And the religious calendar turns also.  There are few places in the world where Candlemas is still celebrated on February 2nd– Americans are far likelier to think of today as Groundhog Day (same principle, though)– but the Ripon Cathedral is one of those glorious places where the holiday is remembered.  The cathedral is lit with thousands of candles, and candles only,  and a  processional service takes place in the evening.

Our first visit to a Candlemas service took place in 2005 or 2006.  Our children were very young, and we took them in their pajamas (it was a cold mid-winter’s night, they were young, we saw no need to stand on ceremony).  Our friend, a canon at the cathedral, had called us at the last minute and said, “You really ought to see this, it’s beautiful and will be a new experience for you.”  We’d imagined that we’d just pop our heads in, satisfy a curiosity, and leave quickly to get the children into bed.

But, like Homer’s lotus eaters, we stepped into the space and it was such a fantastic and pleasurable experience that we forgot to leave!  We stayed for the procession, we moved dreamily through the ancient, light-filled space and, although I’d like to tell you just how it felt and how it lifted our spirits, my words fall short.  To be in that ancient space, with the thousands of candles at once warming, lighting, and dancing along the walls  (seeming, in their dancing flames, to sing and process along with the parishioners), to move through that space with a sea of people (young and old, high and low, well-dressed and pajama-ed)– this was so moving and uplifting.

This morning, I’m starting my day off in sunny Florida.  It is no bleak mid-winter day outside.  The light never really left us this winter–certainly not by northern or European measures.  But the need for a turning and a renewal is as strong as ever.

Tonight, I will put on my cozy pajamas, I will light some candles at home, and I will drift off to Ripon Cathedral, lotus-eater like.  I will process through the nave and side aisle, pause by niches, hold my young children tight, marvel at the warmth and the glow and the sea of my fellow revelers.  I’ll be there.  Not even the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean could keep me away.

 

 

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