Archive for June, 2011

TT: Pie Chart

June 30, 2011

JANE: Okay, Alan. This time I have a snack and a mug of coffee close at hand.

Apple Pie, No Cheddar

Tell me the other half of the mince story.

ALAN: At Christmas (and at no other time of the year) the British eat mince pies. Mince pies, of course, are filled with mincemeat (all one word). However mincemeat is actually minced up fruit and consequently mince pies are really fruit pies which contain no meat whatsoever. Is that odd, or is that odd?

I ate my first mince pie at around the age of five – my mother offered me one on Christmas Day. I took a huge bite and was horrified to find fruit instead of the meat I was expecting. I spat it out and I have never eaten a mince pie again from that day to this. Childhood traumas scar you for life.

It seems to me, again from reading American novels, that in America pies are invariably fruit pies which are often eaten cold (I have read of pies being placed on the windowsill to cool.) However in England (and New Zealand and Australia), pies are almost invariably filled with meat of some description and they are eaten hot as a main course. Do you have meat pies in America?

A proper steak and kidney pie is just gorgeous…

JANE: Actually, Alan, maybe you just didn’t like fruit mince. Mincemeat pie is an American holiday tradition as well, and I’ve never found one I liked.

“Cold” for American fruit pies is not quite accurate. In fact, some fruit pies are usually served hot or at least warm. The problem is that when hot a good fruit pie can’t really be sliced. The crust breaks and the filling slides. So you let the pie cool enough for the filling to firm up.

Possibly the most American of all desserts is apple pie. This is usually served at least warm, often with vanilla ice cream or a slice of sharp cheddar cheese. My dad’s birthday was in July and he often requested apple pie rather than cake. To a child, this was a great disappointment. To me as an adult… I’d probably make the same choice.

So, how do you serve a fruit pie, anyhow?

ALAN: Fruit pies are generally served hot and are often slathered with custard although your very civilized habit of serving them with ice cream (or cream) is now common. The contrast between the hot fruit and the cold ice cream is quite a taste sensation. The thought of serving a fruit pie with cheese makes me shudder!

JANE: Going back to your question as to whether we have meat pies in America, the answer is “yes,” but for some reason they’re often called “pot pies.” Chicken pot pie is fairly common, as, I believe, is beef. As I mentioned last time, I have a friend who makes Shepherd’s Pie.

ALAN: Ah! But Shepherd’s Pie isn’t a pie because it has potato on top rather than pastry. We just CALL it a pie. Fish Pie isn’t a pie either, for similar reasons.

JANE: I have never had steak and kidney pie, however. I must admit, even the most loving descriptions of it sound sort of… well, odd. I mean, in one novel a character rhapsodizes about the proper “urine” tang of the kidney. That just sounds nasty.

What is the appeal of steak and… uh, pee?

ALAN: I’ve never really found kidneys to taste of pee, any more than tripe tastes of other unsavoury intestinal excretions. I absolutely love offal in all its forms. When I was at primary school (age about seven) we had a “thank you” book in which we were supposed to write thanks to God for all the good things in life. Most of the children in the class wrote predictable wimpy stuff. I wrote: Thank you God for liver and bacon and mashed potato and all the lovely gravy that goes with it.

I was never allowed to live that down.

But I have to confess I’m not fond of tripe. It’s a texture thing – tripe squirms in the mouth like dead snakes smeared with soap.

One of the problems this discussion has highlighted is that very confusing area where we each use the same word, but we mean utterly different things by it. Remember biscuits, for example?

We even seem to have different meanings for the various courses that make up a meal. What you call an entree, we call a main course. We use the word entree to refer to the appetizer or starter, the first course that precedes the main course. Again it derives from the French; entree (sorry, I can’t do the accent over the ‘e’) meaning entrance – the entree is the entrance to the meal, i.e. the first course, the beginning. Since you call the main course the entree, what (in my terms) do you call the entree?

JANE: Appetizer. I’m guessing the logic behind this is that the “entree” is the actual start of the meal. The appetizer just gets your appetite going. In America, appetizers are often eaten before the meal, not as part of it: chips and dip, a veggie platter, or fancy little canapes.

If the dinner is very formal, this first course served at the table would be the soup. This would be followed by the salad, then the entree. The entree will usually be served with some form of starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) and, in some households, bread or rolls as well. There might even be a hot vegetable as well. Dessert may follow immediately, or after a break.

ALAN: Weird! We serve salad with the main course — it’s considered to be a semi-vegetable (or sometimes a substitute for vegetables) and is often presented on the same plate as the meat.

JANE: I have an old cookbook, given to my mother when she and my dad got married. (Although published a few years earlier, in 1956). This cookbook was meant for a bride who was inexperienced in planning meals and so includes menus.

Reading over them, I’m fascinated both by how few vegetables are included and how heavily starches are emphasized. That certainly was not the case in my childhood! My parents could go into rhapsodies over fresh summer produce – probably one of the reasons I’m such a devoted gardener.

Heavy on starch and meat, with what vegetables that are included cooked to an unrecognizable mush is the reputation of English cooking here in America. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

ALAN: Certainly once upon a time it was. My mother would set the vegetables boiling round about the time she put the roast in the oven. When they were served there was almost no taste or texture to them, but that didn’t matter because there was lots of meat, gravy and potato to add flavour.

It wasn’t until I left home and started cooking for myself that I discovered that vegetables actually tasted of something and that cabbage was green and best served crispy rather than white, limp and soggy.

These days English cooking is much more cosmopolitan than once it was and food is much more varied and much better prepared. People of my parents’ generation still have a tendancy to consider it to be nasty foreign muck and they stick firmly to their meat and two (boiled to death) veg. But that attitude is dying out.

JANE: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner… Also known as the “Three Square Meals.” My impression is that the British are like hobbits and have a lot more formal mealtimes. Maybe that’s something to look into for next time.


Do You Have Any Plans?

June 29, 2011

Last week I had a very nice e-mail from a reader in Texas. She started by telling

Transformation Is Possible

me she’d read all the books in the “Wolf Series” many times. Then she politely asked if I had any plans to bring out the books as audio books.

Well, I immediately sympathized with her request. I’m a serious recorded books junkie. I recently bought an MP3 player and dock to feed my habit, since my library is getting more of their new selections in this format and cassette tapes are becoming as impossible to find as a manatee in Elephant Butte Lake.

However, I had to give the lady from Texas the answer I must give whenever readers write to ask if I “have any plans” to have their favorite of my stories made into an audio book, television show, movie, or graphic novel. It’s not up to me. It’s up to the company that produces these alternative story forms.

Here’s how such projects usually develop. First, a company hears that a particular story has a following. There are many ways this can happen. The book can hit a major bestseller list or win an award.

The author’s “canon” – rather than any one specific book – can become established enough so that it is perceived that there is a perpetual audience for that author’s work. When I go into my library, I can be certain I’ll see works by Agatha Christie or P.D. James in several different formats. They’ve become “safe bets.”

Or the author can be lucky enough that one project does really well, creating the belief that there is a fresh audience for anything else with that author’s name on it.

Finally, the author’s readership lets those who produce these alternate story formats know there would be an audience for an adapted version. Especially in these days of social media and easy access to a company by electronic communications, word of mouth is more powerful than ever.

Only after there is a perception that listeners or viewers or graphic novel readers would purchase the adapted version in question is the author (or author’s agent) approached. Money is discussed and contracts are readied. From that point on, the author may be very deliberately kept completely out of the picture. This explains why so many movies or television series bear the most slender of resemblances to their source material.

Even if the author has some level of involvement, he or she rarely works on the actual project. Usually, an author’s level of involvement is more along the lines of providing some guidance. For a recorded book, this might be clarifying how a character’s voice should sound if this is not clear from the text.

I can hear a question. “But, Jane, I can see why you wouldn’t be able to make your own movie or television series. Why couldn’t you make your own recorded book? I’ve heard you read, and you’re great.”

(Really, people tell me this last. I’m not just being arrogant.)

Thank you. I do think I do a pretty good job when giving a public reading, especially when the work is a self-contained piece, like a short story. I can keep track of how various characters sound for about an hour, but I can’t swear I’d manage if the production stretched to two hours.

Moreover, I don’t have a recording studio or the distribution network. A hot topic right now is how writers can produce their own e-books. I’ve been dipping my toe into those waters. Let me tell you, if you’re not already set up for producing e-books or really like messing around with computers, making an e-book is a lot more complicated than it may seem. Even if you are set up for the process, doing a good job takes time – time I’d rather spend on writing new fiction. Producing an audio book would be much more complicated than producing an e-book.

Honestly, with a very few exceptions, I don’t particularly think authors are necessarily the best readers for their own works. The best author-read pieces I’ve encountered have been autobiographical. Tony Hillerman’s Seldom Disappointed is a great example of this. He isn’t the best reader ever but, hearing him talk about himself and his life, his strong Western accent reminding you with every word where he came from, is marvelous.

In the early days of audio books, it was sufficient for the voice actor to simply read a novel aloud – much as I do at readings or a teacher might do to a class. These days, audio books are performed, not merely read. Sometimes special effects are included, making the final result closer to the radio dramas of old rather than merely texts read aloud.

I’m more than happy to read aloud at a book-signing or convention, but I don’t think I’m up to producing my own recorded book, any more than I could play Firekeeper on the big screen.

So, what can you do if you’d really like to see an author’s works as audio books, movies, television series, or graphic novels? Tell your favorite companies that do whichever format about their work. Tell them why Through Wolf’s Eyes, The Buried Pyramid, or Child of a Rainless Year would be worth their time. Get your friends to tell them, too. They’ll listen. That’s what’s really funny about the current climate. They’ll listen to you – but they wouldn’t listen to me!

TT: Ground and Grilled

June 23, 2011

Welcome to Thursday Tangents. Wander to Wednesday Wanderings by going back one page – or join us here and bring your appetite!

JANE: Alan, in one of your “wot I red on my hols” columns, you mentioned

Inna Bun

shopping for “mince.” I admit, that one got me. I thought you might mean what I grew up calling “ground beef.” When I went to college in New York, my New Yorker classmates called the same item “chop-meat,” so there seemed to be a similarity.

However, I’m not sure. I mean, if “mince” is “ground beef,” then what do you call “ground pork” or “ground turkey”?

ALAN: Well actually we follow much the same logic that you do. We have “chicken mince” and “pork mince” etc. etc. Mince is really just all the butcher’s offcuts and general junk all ground (minced) together. It’s very cheap and is sometimes regarded as the kind of thing you eat when you can’t afford anything better.

I think that is actually a rather snobbish attitude. As with anything else, when you cook it properly and take care with it, it can be the basis of tasty and nutritious meals. I have some mince in the fridge even as we speak and tomorrow I will be making a cottage pie with it. In case you don’t know what a cottage pie is (no, only really desperate people make it with actual cottages!), it’s essentially a stew of mince and vegetables and whatever herbs and spices you care to throw in, with a topping of mashed potato, sprinkled with cheese and baked in the oven.

Of course the name varies depending on the main ingredient. It’s only a cottage pie when you make it with beef. If you make it with lamb mince it’s a Shepherd’s Pie. I once cooked the dish with venison mince and I called it Sherwood Forest Pie on the grounds that Robin Hood went poaching for deer in Sherwood Forest.

JANE: “Actual cottages…” Ouch!

Oddly enough, the only times I’ve been served “Shepherd’s Pie” here in the United States, the dish has been made with beef. That doesn’t make any sense, since shepherds are “sheep-herders” by definition. However, except for lamb chops and leg of lamb in the spring (often imported from New Zealand), lamb isn’t that popular in mainstream American cooking. I think it’s becoming more common because of the increased popularity of “ethnic” cuisines that use it.

When I was in New Zealand, I was fascinated by how many sheep there were – even in what looked like city parks to my untutored eye.

Another word we use for “ground beef” is “hamburger” – clearly because “burgers” are commonly made with ground beef. Do you folks have a different name for that particular food item?

ALAN: Well we certainly don’t call mince “hamburger”, though we certainly make and eat hamburgers (“burger” is an acceptable abbreviation). However since our mince is generally made of rubbish, I think you’d need much better quality mince (sometimes called prime beef mince) if you wanted to make hamburgers with it.

Why aren’t hamburgers made out of ham? That’s always puzzled me.

JANE: I believe the origin comes from “Hamburger steak,” which, like the similar “Salisbury steak” is a patty made with ground beef. However, hamburgers are usually grilled and served on a bun, whereas “Salisbury steak” is usually baked and served with gravy over potatoes.

Since on this side of the world we’re moving into summer, hamburgers are sizzling on many a grill, side by side with what we call “hotdogs” or “Frankfurters.”

What do you all cook and serve (as Terry Pratchett’s character Dibbler would put it) “inna bun”?

ALAN: Yes, sausages sizzle on our grills as well.

However if you are ever given the opportunity to eat a New Zealand sausage, I suggest you refuse. NZ sausages are uniformly disgusting. The only ones worth eating are imported from overseas. In England, sausages are sometimes called “bangers” (probably because that’s what happens to your tummy after you eat one, and now we’re back to toilet humour again. Sorry!). Australians sometimes refer to sausages as “snarlers,” I have no idea why.

The English seem to like picturesque names for food. Ask anyone who has ever eaten school food about “spotted dick” and they will wax nostalgic for hours. Spotted dick is a steamed suet pudding spotted with currents or raisins. It is also known as dead fly pudding. Rumour has it that unscrupulous cooks use real flies…

The English have a thing about steamed suet. If you read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels you will often find Jack Aubrey rhapsodizing over boiled babies.

JANE: Actually, I think that’s “drowned babies,” but I’m too lazy to go check. I’ve had both “spotted dick” (the spots are currents, I think) and “drowned baby.” Neither excited me. Maybe the English give weird names to spice up an otherwise bland cuisine.

ALAN: Probably true – though these days the British national dish is curry and you can’t get less bland than that! But we don’t have a monopoly on weird names. You do it too. What on earth are “grits”? To me, grit is simply pulverized rock which I would imagine is somewhat abrasive on the teeth. And what about “biscuits”? Confusingly, we use the word biscuit to refer to what you would call a cookie…

I found a recipe for biscuits in Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove” which seemed to suggest that I would call it a “scone” (pronounced “skonn”). However, I would eat a scone with butter and jam. You seem to have it with gravy (yuck!). Sometimes with “white gravy.” What’s that?

And then there’s a rutabaga. I can’t even begin to imagine what that might be.

JANE: Grits are ground grain, usually wheat or corn, boiled into a sort of porridge. Sometimes the porridge is allowed to cool and firm up, then is sliced and fried. Think polenta, sort of…

Grits are more common in southern cooking and, like barbecue, there isn’t one way to prepare them.

I’ve had scones. My friend and fellow author, Pati Nagle, makes phenomenal cream scones. (Come to Bubonicon sometime. She usually makes mini-scones for the Author’s Tea).

Biscuits are more like scones than they are like cookies, but they’re usually not sweet. A buttermilk biscuit served with butter is a wonderful accompaniment to a meal. A good biscuit is lighter than a scone, but like a good scone is flaky, rather than “bready” like a roll or slice of bread. Yum!

White gravy… Well, I’m not a huge fan of that. I find it bland and salty, at best a little peppery.

Someone else will have to tell you how it’s made. I don’t make gravy if I can help it. When Jim and I got together, I informed him that if he wanted gravy, he was going to have to make it, because I didn’t like gravy enough to add the hassle. He did, of course, and now makes a very fine turkey gravy, good enough that I’ve been converted.

ALAN: You still haven’t told me what a rutabaga is. I truly don’t know!

JANE: A rutabaga is a root vegetable something like a turnip. Despite the fact that another word for this vegetable is “Swedish turnip” or “Swede,” I actually know very little about them. I may be one-eighth Swedish, but very little in the way of Swedish cooking has entered into my diet.

Again, as with gravy, maybe someone else can tell you more.

All of this has made me hungry! I’m going to go get something to eat.

ALAN: It just occurred to me, I haven’t told the other half of the mince story. I also wanted to ask you some questions about American pies.

JANE: Definitely, next time… Now I really need to eat!

Backyard Bird Watchers

June 22, 2011

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about my fondness for black coffee and how

Watched Birds

drinking it has become a part of my morning ritual. (See the Wednesday Wandering for 6-08-11).

Several people mentioned that their morning rituals often involved taking time to watch the birds at their feeders. When I mentioned that I also enjoy watching the birds, Ann M Nalley commented that she’d enjoy hearing me wander about what I see…

It should be no surprise that here in the arid southwest, an even bigger draw than our three bird feeders are our water features. We have two. There’s a birdbath on the east side of the house, right outside the office windows, and a small pond on the south side of the house. When I say “pond,” I’m talking about one of those pre-fabricated shells you can buy at a hardware store – and not one of the larger models.

Our pond is furnished with a miniature water lily, aquatic mint, a variant of plantain, water weed, and blue pickerelweed. It is occupied by ten goldfish. In addition to attracting myriad small birds, the pond also provides incentive for several toads to take up residence in our yard.

We’re very grateful for the toads, because they do a lot to keep our garden healthy. Last year, for example, our neighbors right across the south fence lost all their squash and cucumber plants to squash bugs. Ours, which were growing no more than twenty feet away, did marvelously. We figure the difference was that we have toads and our neighbors don’t.

I see I haven’t mentioned birds yet. (But then, these are called Wednesday Wanderings for a reason).

Year round, in addition to the sparrows and finches in their many varieties, we have swallows. We also have a tremendous number of doves. These fall into a couple of types. Most common are the mourning doves. We have a resident flock of eleven, plus juveniles. (I know this because when we put down some fresh pecan shell mulch the doves did a lot of foraging, giving me ample opportunity to count).

Mourning doves make the sloppiest nests I’ve ever seen, but somehow those nests hold together. Several times, I’ve nervously watched a dove tossing in the wind, like a sailor on the rigging of a ship in a storm at sea, as she sits on her eggs on a nest built on a limb of our apricot tree.

We also have ring-necked doves and visits from itinerant flocks of rock doves. These last are often more commonly known as “pigeons.” Our yard is mostly sand. Many a morning when I take my mug of coffee outside and wander about inspecting the plants (and trying to wake up), I see from the prints that the doves have been out before me.

Most of the year we have at least a couple robins, which are year-round residents in New Mexico. However, one of the first signs of spring is when the migratory robin flocks pass through. I’ve seen as many as fifteen robins squabbling for a space around our pond or (a very funny sight) in our small birdbath.

No bird I’ve seen bathes with the same enthusiasm as a robin. Most of the time, they reserve this activity for the birdbath, but occasionally, an inexperienced one will land on a lily pad in the pond. This works fine until the robin starts ducking and wing-flapping, all of which is part of a proper robin bath. Then the lily pad gives way and a startled, soaking wet robin takes off in a great hurry.

In the winter, we add juncos, chickadees, towhees, and various grosbeaks to the roster. Then there are the grackles.

Our house is between two tall trees that serve as roosts for the “great-tailed” grackle. This bird is similar to the “boat-tailed” grackle that’s common in the East, but has been ruled its own subspecies. All winter, our feeders get a great many grackle visitors, but their visits slack off in summer as they do more of their own foraging.

Indeed, while we never stop feeding the birds, the manner in which we do so changes. Starting in late autumn, we put seed in the feeders. In late spring, when the wild plants start putting out seed, we stop. Instead, we encourage local plants that provide seed the birds like: spectacle pod, dove weed, globe mallow, Indian rice grass, and other wild grasses. Many of the plants we cultivate also have seeds the birds like including chocolate flower and blanket flower.

Springtime brings orioles and hummingbirds. The orioles eventually move on, but the hummingbirds remain until the first frost. Although I put feeders up for the hummers, they prefer our numerous flowers. This year we also seem to have acquired a resident pair of mockingbirds. That’s a first.

In early spring, the thrashers and the flickers show up, turning our dormant garden beds, looking for insects and grubs. The downy and ladder-back woodpeckers show up in the late summer and beat drum rolls on my sunflower stalks.

I can’t close without mentioning a few of our more typically “Western” visitors. Roadrunners regularly pass through, looking far more like dinosaurs than like birds. We also get Gamble’s Quail, sometimes just a pair, others an entire family, complete with trailing chicks. We also have red-tailed hawks drop in from time to time, but mostly they’re not too successful with their hunting. Then there are the ravens, crows, and jays. We don’t get the showy stellar jays of the high altitudes, but we do have regular visits from the Western scrub and pinyon jays.

We didn’t have as many ravens when I first came here, but as the drought conditions have increased, I’ve noticed more. There’s a pair of great horned owls who nest about half a mile away. I’ve seen them out at dusk.

So, while I miss the brilliant red cardinals and splash blue jays of my East Coast childhood, I have found many new varieties to keep me amused. Like plants, they provide their own calender of the shifting seasons.

Until I sat down to write this, I hadn’t realized just how much I liked the birds or how big a part they are of my daily routine. I wonder what landmarks each of us have we don’t notice until something draws it to our attention?

TT: Bathroom? Rest Room? Toilet?

June 16, 2011

Once again, welcome to Thurday Tangents. If you’re looking for Wednesday

Humorous Toilet

Wanderings, just move back one entry…

JANE: Well, Alan, last time you promised the secrets of British “toilet humour.” With some (very American) trepidation, I shall invite you to begin.

ALAN: As I said last time, the British find toilets irresistibly hilarious because, when you think about it, what goes on in there is so bizarre that you can’t help but laugh at it. A cartoon I saw once (probably in Punch) expresses it very well:

A middle aged man is standing quite still, waist deep in the sea. All around him people are splashing and cavorting and generally having a fine time in the water. The man has a secret smile on his face, and the caption reads “Psychiatrist has a silent pee.”

JANE: My dad would have loved that. One of his often repeated jokes was that he was from the state of “Illinois” in which the “s” was silent, like the “p” in swimming. I remember when I figured that one out. I was torn between fascination and horror. But I stray from our fascinating linguistic discussion. Pray, continue.

ALAN: So a toilet is simply a toilet, or possibly a loo. And that isn’t a euphemism. Loo is a contraction of the phrase “Gardy Loo”, which, in bygone centuries, was shouted loudly to warn passers by that the contents of the family chamber pot were about to be thrown out of the window, so watch out below. The phrase derives from the French “Gardez l’eau!” which means “Beware of the water.”

Passers by with slow reflexes would have a moist and fragrant day. Colleagues would keep their distance. And this, too, is hilarious, slapstick humour at its best.

JANE: This also reminds me of my dad… One of the most common American euphemisms for toilet is “john.” Guess what my dad’s first name was? Guess what euphemism for “toilet” we emphatically did not use in our household?

And that makes me wonder… Do girls named “Louise” or boys named “Louie” every get called “Lou”? Do they come in for teasing?

ALAN: Probably not. I’ve never met a boy called Louie so I can’t comment about that. However I do know several girls called Louise. And they are invariably called Louise. We tend not to abbreviate names in the same way that you do – there are some exceptions of course; “Bill” instead of “William”, for example. But by and large, names are rarely abbreviated.

I’ve met several Americans who insist on calling me “Al” which absolutely infuriates me because I think of myself as Alan. I simply can’t identify with this stranger called Al.

Perhaps this view that things (and people) are what they are rather than being something else (as would be implied by using an abbreviation or a euphemism) might be a contributing factor in our basic openness about things like bodies and bodily functions both in real life and in fiction. Call a spade a spade, as the proverb has it.

Television is perhaps a good example. In the 1960s the BBC was broadcasting a dramatization of the life of Casanova. Colour television was just starting to become available, and my father immediately went out and bought a set because he wanted to see the naked ladies in colour rather than in black and white. Everybody thought this was a perfectly reasonable thing for him to do; it raised no eyebrows at all. But even today, totally naked ladies seldom if ever seem to show up on American prime time television. In the 1960s it would have been utterly unthinkable. However, that is starting to get into cultural rather than linguistic differences and we are wandering off topic.

JANE: I rarely watch television, so I can’t answer to how many naked ladies are telecast in this enlightened Twenty-First century.

Do the British still call the toilet the W.C. or has that fallen out of date? Any other euphemisms we Americans should learn to ease our visits to that green and pleasant land?

ALAN: W.C. (or Water Closet) is perhaps a bit old fashioned these days. If you used it you would certainly be understood, but you’d be regarded as rather quaint.

In the nineteenth century navy, the phrase “the head” was used. Also “the seat of ease” (lovely phrase!). The latter has vanished from the language, but the former is still in use in the navy and is sometimes used by civilians for pretentious effect in casual conversation. But really “Loo” is probably as close as we come to a euphemism.

Nevertheless the potential for comedy is large. I once saw a stage play in which an Australian excused himself by declaring that he was going off to “…point Percy at the porcelain.” This got an enormous laugh from the audience, of course.

Robin, who is Australian, assures me that this is not a genuine expression (even though Australians are noted for their colourful use of language) so I presume the scriptwriters made it up just for the sake of the joke.

JANE: There’s been an odd development here in the naming of “restrooms” (that is “toilets”) in restaurants. The usual way for rest rooms to be labeled is “Men’s” and “Women’s” or, sometimes, in places with pretensions to classy service, “Gentlemen’s” and “Ladies.”

However, if you go to a Spanish restaurant, you may find the restroom labeled “Hombre” and “Mujer”. In a German restaurant, you might be directed to rooms for “Mensch” or “Frau”. In many of these places, there is a little drawing, often with appropriate ethic costuming, just in case you can’t figure out the words.

Not to be left out, theme restaurants put in their own variations. A place with a Western theme might have signs for “Cowboys” and “Cowgirls.” I heard a story about restroom signs at a dog show that were labeled “Pointers” and “Setters.” So maybe we Americans aren’t as deficient in toilet humor as you imagine.

Or, maybe, thinking about it, maybe we are…

Anyhow, I’ve often thought future anthropologists might draw the conclusion that these places only served one sub-section of the population, rather than being open to the general public.

ALAN: Let’s change the subject. You mentioned restaurants. What did you have for dinner today? Or was it high tea, or possibly supper? Food in all its aspects is bizarrely different in both our languages. I remember you once asked me about mince. It occurs to me now that I only gave you half an answer…

Balancing Fire

June 15, 2011

I don’t remember anymore what  brought me to the Santa Fe Plaza that

Coyote in the Shop Window

particular day. I do remember how I felt when he caught my eye: that cool, focused amber gaze above the smiling mouth with its ironical twist made me pull up short.

Coyote, the Trickster who stole fire. He was there, living fire balanced in the palm of each hand. I stood and stared at him, feeling he was telling me something. What happens when you reach out and grab hold of fire? It’s going to mean change.

Fire warms, but fire also burns. Fire makes all sorts of creation possible – from smithing to pottery to cooking. But Fire also destroys. Fire is a useful ally, but a chancy friend.

And there stood Coyote, holding fire on the palm of each hand.

Afterwards, the piece haunted me far more than a sculpture less than two feet high should be able to haunt anyone. I asked Jim – whose office is in Santa Fe – if he’d go by and see if he could take a picture for me. I was sure that as soon as I saw the picture – the one that illustrates this wandering account – the spell would be broken.

Far from it. I kept thinking about it. On my next trip up to Santa Fe, I made a special trip to the Plaza to see if Coyote was still there. At first I thought he wasn’t, that I was safe.

However, when I stepped inside, I learned that they’d just changed the window display. Coyote was inside now, sharing a shelf with other works by the same artist. They were wonderful, but he stood out, those eyes meeting mine, that smile challenging my desire to live in a comfortable world.

I talked to one of the clerks and learned that Coyote was a collaborative work between the artists Shawn and Kevin Gadomski. According to the gallery’s files, Shawn is Ojibway from the Turtle Clan of the Grand Portage Band. Kevin is American of French and Italian ancestry. They live in Minnesota.

Coyote with Fire wasn’t an inexpensive piece of art. Although the artists list their creations as numbered within a series, each one is actually unique. The wooden parts are hand-carved. The clothing with its painted ornamentation and fur trim is handmade.

Then I had a bit of a financial windfall. I decided to take the gamble, to take Coyote home with me. We were making a trip to Santa Fe to visit with our friends Julie and Ken Bartel, who were down from Utah. They came with us and witnessed as I decided I could do it, that I really could work under that enigmatic gaze.

Coyote stands on top of a bookcase in my office, looking down over the room, smiling ironically, balancing fire in each hand.

He’s a constant reminder that those of us who strive to live by imagination are playing with fire. He’s a reminder that fire warms and fire burns, that change comes inevitably, and that the very process of creation is – in itself – one of change.

TT: The Lore of Underwear

June 9, 2011

Hi Folks…

No, this hasn’t turned into a comparative linguistics site. However, Alan and I

A Confusion of Words

had so much fun last week that we’ve decided to continue sharing our chats as Extras. You might think of them as Thursday Tangents.

If you’re looking for the usual Wednesday Wandering, just go back a page. It’s right there.

If you missed last week, you might want to go to June 1, 2011, “Jumping Jumpers” before reading the following. Or not… As always, it’s up to you.

Now… On to the mysteries of underwear.

JANE: Alan, last time you ended by asking about different American and British uses of the word “vest.”

To quote you: “We use the word ‘vest’ to refer to a sleeveless item worn next to the skin, underneath a shirt or blouse. I have absolutely no idea what you call that. I always get very strange pictures in my head when an actor dresses up to the nines by putting on a vest…”

Okay. Here’s a simple answer. What you folks call a “vest” we call an “undershirt.” Logical and easy, right?

Except that until comparatively recently (as sartorial matters are judged), an “undershirt” was also called a “T-shirt.” If you know anyone who is into medieval costuming, you’ll recognize the similarity to the standard “T-tunic” – a term that comes from the general shape of the garment.

Now, until the 1950’s, only working men and bad boys (think James Dean in the movies) wore their undershirts as upper-shirts. Even workmen only did so when the job was a particularly grungy one.

Then, somewhere in there, the undershirt – T-shirt style – became an acceptable upper-shirt. These days, even a respectable grandmother like my mom will wear an attractive T-shirt as an outer garment. So a T-shirt is no longer an undershirt.

Got that? It gets worse. Not all “undershirts” are “T” styled. There are several sleeveless styles. One of these is what we call a “tank top” for reasons that escape me, since these shirts look nothing like armored personnel carriers or water towers.

Like T-shirts, “tank tops” can be worn as outerwear as well as underwear. However, there is a particular unadorned utilitarian version which, when worn by men, is called a “wife beater.” This term makes my skin crawl, but it seems to be moving into common usage.

The other day I overheard two girls commenting on a group of men. “That one’s pretty cute,” said Girl One. “The one in the blue tee?” asked Girl Two. “No, the one in the wife beater…”


ALAN: Wife beater makes me shiver as well. We do have the term, but it isn’t in common use and I hope it never is. In the Antipodes, sleeveless garments like that are generally known as singlets and they are often the only upper body garment worn by farm labourers and the like as they work all day in the sun. Singlets are traditionally black, goodness knows why, and they leave interesting suntan shapes on the body when removed.

But if we are talking about underwear, there’s the whole pants/trousers thing. To me pants are underwear (underpants is also a commonly used word). But you seem to use the word to refer to the outer garments I call trousers.

So to me Superman wears his pants outside of his trousers. You probably think he wears his underwear outside his pants…

I think we both have the word “panties” (diminutive and possibly feminine, though the idea of language gender has largely vanished from English on both sides of the pond) to refer to underwear worn by women. Am I right in thinking that? Of course, women wear pants as well, and often do. I have no idea where one ends and the other begins.

Talking of underpants, in American novels I’ve often seen the phrase “Fruit of the Loom” and from context it appears to refer to underwear, though I have no idea what it actually means. Is it a brand name? It always makes me think of Adam getting dressed for a hot date with Eve and wearing a bunch of grapes instead of a fig leaf. Sometimes I worry about what is going on inside my head…

JANE: I absolutely love the bit about Superman’s attire. That’s so bizarre as to edge into the philosophical.

Yep. Americans are more likely to say “pants” than “trousers.” In my household, “jeans” are the usual bottomside attire, so neither Jim nor I are likely to use either word in routine conversation. It’s much more likely to be something like “Please don’t put my jeans in the dryer! They’ll shrink.”

Americans have come to use the word “panties” for female undergarments. I love your insight that this is one of the rare cases of gendered language in modern English. Certainly no man I know – even those who prefer slim cut briefs to boxers or loose “jockey shorts” – would refer to their undergarments as “panties.”

I don’t remember “panties” being commonly used when I was a kid, although that might just have been my family.

Fruit of the Loom is indeed a brand name, with “fruit” meaning “product,” not anything else. Really. You’re not too far off with the image of Adam wearing grapes instead of a fig leaf. A few years back, there was an ad campaign that featured a group of men each dressed up as one of the fruit in the Fruit of the Loom logo. For some reason, these became incredibly popular. There were stickers and little figurines. I must admit, the appeal escaped me.

But then American culture is remarkably inside out where such matters are concerned. Women’s underwear advertisements are one step short of porn; men’s underwear is advertised by laughing and dancing fruit.

If you asked the average American who was more prudish, British or Americans, I think the answer would be British. However, from what I’ve seen on some of the BBC programming that has reached here, there’s one area in where you make us seem positively Victorian: Bathroom Humor.

Can you address this without offending the sensibilities of our American readers? Or is that simply impossible?

ALAN: Well, there you go, falling straight into another linguistic trap. To me it would be toilet humour rather than bathroom humour. The British visit the bathroom in order to have a bath. Should they have other purposes in mind, they will use other words. We have quite an extensive vocabulary in this area. We also find bodies and bodily functions endlessly amusing in themselves. It’s required by law, you know. The stories I could tell…

Next time, perhaps?


Black Coffee

June 8, 2011

I’m a coffee drinker. I’ve been so most of my life.

Just A Few

Both of my parents were coffee drinkers. My initiation to the dark brew came when I’d carry their mugs of morning coffee up to their room. Sometimes a mug would be a little full and I’d sip off the top. I very much liked the taste.

No, my folks didn’t drink their coffee so laden with cream and sugar that it could qualify as a dessert. Both drank it black.

In fact, my mom has commented that when she was young she thought she didn’t like coffee because her mother always served it with cream and sugar. It wasn’t until Mom tried her coffee black that she realized she liked coffee. She still does. We’ve had many a conversation over a steaming mug.

Long before the trend for fancy coffee, my mom bought her coffee as beans rather than the more typical pre-ground. Her grinder had a reservoir on top where about a half pound of beans could be stored. Many a time, I’d come in the kitchen door, slide open the top of the grinder, dip out a few beans, and eat them.

This habit was so ingrained that when I was about fifteen and my high school best friend, Anna Cooke, went to visit family in Jamaica, she brought me back a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I kept it in my locker at school and slowly ate it.

About a year ago, Anna brought me more Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. This time I drank it. It was very fine indeed.

I didn’t really start drinking coffee on a regular basis until I was out of college. I was just too poor to invest in a coffee pot and coffee. Counter space was also an issue.

Eventually, someone gave me a battered stove top peculator. I used that for years. Eventually, the glass knob at the top broke. However, I discovered that the bottle in which a friend had brought over a coffee-flavored soft drink threaded into the place where the knob belonged.

For quite a while, I made my coffee in that jury-rigged pot, the coffee perking up into the bottle and swirling down again. It was actually rather transfixing.

Eventually, I got out of grad school and acquired not only a job, but also an apartment with enough counter space for a coffee pot. By then, drip coffee pots (rather than the blue and white Corningware peculator that had been the standard of my childhood) were common. I remember having to figure out all the intricacies of baskets and paper filters.

Today I have a drip coffee pot with a metal mesh filter that in some ways harkens back to the metal basket of that first Corningware peculator. I have a tidy little grinder for my coffee beans. I also have more coffee mugs than I need…

My current favorite is a cobalt blue glass one which Jim bought me at the State Fair. One side is ornamented with a white tiger among bamboo. On the other side is etched “Jane and Jim, 2003.” The artist insisted he should write something on it. At the time, I thought it was rather silly, but now I’m sort of glad. It’s a nice memory.

These days I no longer need to worry about affording coffee. My current favorite is a Sumatra medium roast. It’s full-bodied and smooth without being bitter. Now that I think about it, my mom introduced me to this, too, when she gave me a bag of Sumatran coffee as part of a gift one year.

I drink decaf, too, having found that if I buy darker roasts than I typically buy for my caffeinated coffee, this takes care of the somewhat watery note I find in most decaf.

So it’s not the caffeine jolt I crave (although, I admit that on those days I’m out of bed before 6:00 a.m., I rather would miss it), it’s the flavor, the scent, the ritual.

I think I’d like a cup now, in fact. Join me? Or is your ritual something different?

P.S. Remember, tomorrow is the first Thursday Tangent. Join Alan Robson and me for a discussion of the language of underwear, same site, new posting.

Jumping Jumpers!

June 1, 2011

This week I’m doing something a little different.

A Jumper and A Book

I frequently discuss the differences between American and British English with my friend Alan Robson. Those of you who have been reading not only my entry, but also the comments are probably already familiar with him as “Alan from New Zealand.”

Alan currently resides in New Zealand, but he was born in Yorkshire, England. He’s also a well-known reviewer in New Zealand, author of the books Trimmings From the Triffid’s Beard, Volumes One and Two. (Alan’s nickname among his Science Fiction friends is The Bearded Triffid). His current project is the often funny, but also quite thoughtful column: “wot I red on my hols.”

I thought I’d share on of our chats with you. Here we go….

JANE: Hey, Alan. I’d always figured that the British and American editions of the Harry Potter novels were about the same. After all, we speak the same language.

Then I learned that – at least early on, before the novels were rushed out as fast as possible – an effort was make to “Americanize” some of the language so that young American readers wouldn’t get confused.

That got me thinking about the often repeated statement: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” (By the way, a version of this statement is usually attributed to Winston Churchill, but apparently he didn’t originate it. The closest agreed upon source I could come up with was this phrasing, credited to George Bernard Shaw.)

One example of a change that was made is that in the American editions of the Harry Potter novels Mrs. Weasley makes “Weasley sweaters” for her family (and Harry, too). I understand that in the British edition these are “Weasley jumpers.”

Here in the United States – at least as a form of attire, not a reference to a suicide or an athlete – a “jumper” is nothing like a sweater. I wore a jumper for years as a part of my school uniform. It’s a sort of sleeveless dress that’s worn over a long or short-sleeved blouse. According to the dictionary, the American “jumper” can also be worn over a sweater, which would be really confusing, if you were British.

I believe there’s a form of baby clothing called a “jumper,” too. It also is unrelated to a sweater.

So, are jumpers and sweaters really the same thing?

ALAN: Yes. A jumper is a knitted garment (sometimes called a woolly jumper). It’s synonymous with “pullover.” It is generally knitted by fond grandparents or aunties and is often too large so the child will “grow into it.”

You can buy them in shops as well, of course. The sleeves are handy things for wiping snotty noses, much to the parents’ displeasure since the garment generally has to be washed by hand.

There’s a joke beloved of small children.

Q: I say. I say, what do you get when you cross a kangaroo with a sheep?

A: A woolly jumper!

JANE (aside): I told Jim that joke and his answer was “A sweater with pockets.” I think that’s pretty good!

ALAN: Of course, jumpers are not restricted to young children. My wife, Robin, knitted me a jumper a few months ago. It’s much too large (as traditionally it should be, though I doubt I will grow into it unless I eat far too much dinner) and I love it to bits because she knitted a cat into it. On the front is a cat’s face, the body sprawls over my shoulder, and the tail hangs down the back.

Robin and I got to thinking about related words, like “cardigan” and “pullover.” Do you have those there?

JANE: Yes, we do. A cardigan is a sweater that buttons up the front. A pullover is what the word implies, a garment you pull over your head.

How about “jersey”? Here a jersey is something sports players wear, but I think that in British English that’s another word for “sweater.”

ALAN: A jersey is a special kind of jumper. It’s knitted with a special pattern that was commonly used on the island of Jersey (one of the Channel Islands). Hence the name.

One of the other Channel Islands is called Guernsey and it, too, has a distinctive pattern for jumpers. I remember when I was a small child my grandmother would talk about both Jerseys and Guernseys, but I haven’t heard the word in years, so probably it’s fallen out of use.

These days, I think, jersey and jumper are synonymous for all practical purposes.

JANE: Both of which are synonymous with “pullover.” Got it!

I should warn you. I’m planning to re-read the Harry Potter novels on of these days. You may find more questions coming your way. In fact, I can already think of a couple. Or maybe you have a question for me?

ALAN: I do, actually. Something that’s always stood out for me when I watch American movies is how what we call a “waistcoat” you call (I think, correct me if I’m wrong) a “vest.” We use the word “vest” to refer to a sleeveless item worn next to the skin, underneath a shirt or blouse. I have absolutely no idea what you call that.

I always get very strange pictures in my head when an actor dressed up to the nines by putting on a vest….

JANE: I can answer that one and actually have a few funny (to me, anyhow) stories to tell. However, that will have to wait until another time.