Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Let Evening Come

Sunset, 16 September 2019

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Sunset, 9 October 2020
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.
~ Jane Kenyon, Poetry Foundation
Sunset, 31 December 2020


Monday, 4 January 2021

Goals for 2021

 Gentle reader, how do you mark the new year? My family typically has a holiday dinner on New Year's Day, and we went to First Night celebrations when I was a child, but I don't usually do much in the way of celebrating. This year marks the first year I stayed up to see in the new year, and that was mostly because some people in my neighbourhood set off some midnight fireworks. 

Like a lot of people, I often mark the new year by writing a set of resolutions. I rarely check back on or revisit these once I've written them in my journal.

A notebook page with the heading 'goals/resolutions' and a list that starts 1.
"Resolutions and goals" by creepyed is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

So much has gone upside down, why not change this? Inspired by Hank Green's hilarious (and amusingly not inaccurate) predictions for 2020, written in 1990, and John Green's rueful revisiting of his own goals for 2020, I am writing my goals for 2021 here for the fun of revisiting them in 365 days or so.


  1. Submit a draft of at least one academic article to a journal by December 2021.
  2. Submit my two in-progress book reviews.
  3. Edit my book on friendship for publication.
  4. Celebrate other people's good news. I sometimes feel that academic has a toxic culture of always finding fault, rather than celebrating achievements. Some of my most joyful moments as a historian last year came from celebrating others' achievements or having them celebrate mine. I want to be the kind of person who enjoys a colleague's article or book, hears about their grant or job success, and sends them a note of congratulations.


  1. Expand my repertoire of quick and healthy meals. 
  2. Order a maximum of one Deliveroo or takeaway or per month. Try to have at least two months where I ordered no takeaway or food delivery at all.
  3. Try at least one new recipe a month.


  1. Knit at least six pairs of socks.
  2. Make a hat. 
  3. Make a pair of mittens
  4. Knit another creature from the Dovestone Smallholding book
  5. Finish Mom's birthday blanket.


"I <3 2 read" by katerha is licensed under CC BY 2.0

  1. Read at least 52 books this year.
  2. One thing that really jumped out at me from rounding up my reading in 2020 was that there are several genres not well represented in my reading including (surprisingly for a historian), history, as well as (surprising given how much I love them both) short stories, and poetry. I'd like to read at least three books in each of those categories in 2020.
  3. Share more books: one of the highlights of my 2020 was trading books and book recommendations, so I'd like to do more of this in the new year.


  1. Complete the NYCRuns Subway Challenge II. I am attempting to complete the Train Operator challenge of running 691 miles in 26 weeks. This week is Week 16, and if I run at least 26.65 miles every week for the next ten weeks, I will just make it.
  2. Baring unforeseen catastrophe that eliminates in-person racing, finish the 2021 Manchester Marathon, in under four hours, uninjured and if possible smiling.
  3. Try to use the local track for speed workouts at least twice.
  4. Having found Youtube videos of follow-along warmup routines helpful, I'd like to make more use of Youtube as a resource for doing more cool downs, foam rolling, and strength training and/or abs workouts in 2021. 
  5. Participate in a Santa Fun Run of some kind, whether virtual or in-person.

"Lincoln's Racing Santas" by Lincolnian (Brian) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Trying to Decrease Worldsuck 

  1. In 2020, I spent around £42 per month on Deliveroo, largely due to only going to the grocery store every 6-8 weeks (see also, my first cooking goal). In 2021, I want to donate an equivalent amount of money to local and national food banks.
  2. Continue volunteering with AgeUK's Vitals for Veterans Programme.
  3. Find new opportunities to volunteer, especially with initiatives that aim to decrease loneliness and isolation for elderly people.


  1. Pitch at least one story to JSTOR Daily.
  2. If and when pitches reopen, pitch a story or 'How I Do History' feature to Contingent magazine. 
  3. Post on this blog once a week.
  4. Write an essay about long-distance relationships in the 1918 Influenza pandemic.
  5. At least once a month, post something relating to late antique history.

Monday, 28 December 2020

What I Read and Watched In 2020

Gentle reader, 2020 is nearly over, can you believe it? I can't. Here's hoping that the remaining days of your year are uneventful.
My twin sister, who I admire greatly as a reader and writer, has kept a list of the books she has read since at least (I think) the year 2006. I've always admired and envied that list--wouldn't it be fascinating to look back at your past selves through the lens of what you were reading at the time? To that end, I thought it would be fun to make a record of my reading in 2020.
I have been incredibly lucky this year but have also struggled with the challenges of my 2020. I have gotten through it by reading and watching stuff that has comforted, challenged, distracted, and engaged me. Using my public library account records, kindle reading history, and Amazon purchase history, I've put together the following list. There may be one or two books where the loan expired before I finished them, but I've done best to record only books I read from beginning to end.

In 2020 I read more than 170 books...

But watched only a dozen or so movies and completed a mere handful of TV shows. The same has been true with my listening habits: over the past year I've become a big fan of podcasts but mostly stuck with listening to the few shows I'd followed previously. I hasten to add that not all of the books on the list were new to me this year: I returned to books by Lois McMaster Bujold, Patricia Briggs, Lisa Kleypas, Diana Gabaldon, and Madeline L'Engle as comforting old friends in an uncertain world.

Before I subject to you the full list, here is a best-of digest...

My Recommendations

  1. For the contemporary romance fan...Alexa Martin's Playbook series. Smart, funny sports romances which made this Extremely Not a Sportball Fan actually care about the lives and loves of American football players. 
  2. For the devoted reader of historical must read The Beacon at Alexandria. It's an epic story of the fourth-century Roman world told from the perspective of a young woman growing into who she is and wants to be.
  3. For your kitchen bookshelves...I've probably cooked more recipes from Mamushka this year than any other cookbook I borrowed from the library. My father grew up in a Pennsylvania town that was mostly Polish Catholic, so he has a lot of fond memories of eastern European food which he passed down to me and my sister. It made me think of him and the food he likes so often that I gave him a copy for Christmas. Don't miss the Armenian chicken stuffed with prunes, onions, and walnuts.
  4. For the science fiction fan...I've already recommended A Memory Called Empire, which you should read if you haven't already, but I'm going to recommend something different here: N.K. Jemisin's The City We Became is sprawling, glorious, joyfully reclaims the best of Lovecraft, has serious New York City hustle and attitude, and is possibly the most fun I've had reading anything all year. Occasionally, when I get my hands on a book I really like, I make myself savour it over the course of days rather than gobbling it up. This was like that.
  5. For the fan of autobiography...Abby Stein's Becoming Eve, a fearless and loving memoir of growing up as a transgender woman in an Hasidic Jewish family.
  6. For young adult fiction fans...I read very little YA--in general, if I'm going to read fiction with a contemporary setting, I'd rather read about adults than teenagers. But Pulp, which was recommended to me through the magic of the Overdrive e-book app, is a wonderful YA historical novel about lesbian pulp fiction, which is a genre of midcentury literature I never knew existed, and taught me about the Lavender Scare, which I shamefully never knew existed either. For all that it touches on serious historical subjects, it also shows queer people leading happy and fulfilled lives. It's a wonderful book.
  7. For a book that lives up to the promise of its title..this is another romance novel recommendation, but I read so many I'm allowing myself to recommend two. The Mercenary Librarians series (what a title!) is set in a dystopian United States where infrastructures have fractured and information is a valuable commodity. Deal With the Devil was just a fun read through and through: forks as weapons! Road trips and diners! Sisters! A Rogue Library of Congress! It's the first of its series and I'm looking forward to the publication of the next book.
  8. For your short story needs...these aren't on the list below, but in the spring and summer I revisited two of my two favourite short stories, 'In the House of the Seven Librarians' by Ellen Klages and 'Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros' by Peter S. Beagle, and they are even better than I remembered.
  9. For your listening pleasure...the ladies of the Keeping Track Podcast, all world-class runners, produce a consistently excellent show. The one interview that made me want to grab everyone I know and be like 'YOU MUST LISTEN TO THIS' was their hilarious and moving 2019 interview with American long jumper and Olympic champion Tiana Bartoletta, 'Physics Don't Give A F**k'.
  10. I don't know why this captured me but it 2017, renowned You-tuber and YA author John Green attempted to have a healthy midlife crisis with his best friend Chris. They made a series of YouTube videos about their fitness journey, called 100 Days, and for some reason I found it compulsively watchable.
  11. If you want to read literary fiction...The Book of Joan by Lydia Yuknavitch is a dark sci-fi retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, and its inventiveness and beauty astonished me. Warning: this is not a comfort read.
  12. TV highlights...4722 Hours from Agents of Shield blew my mind. The amazing pacing scene from Bridgerton's The Duke and I made me laugh. I can't pick a single favourite episode of Farscape--it's too gloriously flawed and weird and Out There for a me to pick just one, but Revenging Angel is the epitome of the show's inseparable mix of silly and serious.




  1. Sweet Potato Soul by Jenne Claiborne
  2. The Food of Sichuan by Fuschia Dunlop 
  3. Bosh! Simple Recipes, Amazing Food, All Plants by Henry Firth
  4. Run Fast, Eat Slow by Shalane Flanagan
  5. Run Fast, Cook Fast, Eat Slow by Shalane Flanagan
  6. The No-Meat Athlete Cookbook by Matt Frazier
  7. Food52 Vegan by Gena Hamshaw
  8. A Bird in the Hand: Chicken Recipies for Every Day and Every Mood  by Diana Henry
  9. Mamuska by Olia Hercules
  10. Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey
  11. Chicken and Rice by Shu Han Lee 
  12. Oh She Glows Every Day by Angela Liddon
  13. Appetite for Reduction by Isa Chandra Moskowitz
  14. Go Faster Food by Kate Percy 
  15. The Inspired Vegan by Bryant Terry
  16. Dishoom: from Bombay with Love by Shamil Thakar

Fiction and Historical Fiction

  1. The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw 
  2. The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw 
  3. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo 
  4. An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon
  5. The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon
  6. Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon
  7. Voyager by Diana Gabaldon
  8. Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
  9. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  10. A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
  11. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  12. Divas Don't Knit by Gil McNeil
  13. Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
  14. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers
  15. Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliffe
  16. Pulp by Robin Talley
  17. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis 

Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett
  2. Burn Bright by Patricia Briggs 
  3. Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs 
  4. Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs 
  5. Balance Point by Robert Buettner
  6. Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold 
  7. The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold 
  8. Falling Free by Louis McMaster Bujold
  9. The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold
  10. A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
  11. The Binding by Bridget Collins
  12. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett
  13. Fantastic Hope ed by Laurel K. Hamilton
  14. The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb
  15. The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
  16. The Real and the Unreal: Selected Stories of Ursula LeGuin by Ursula LeGuin 
  17. The Unreal and the Real Selected Stories Volume 1 by Ursula LeGuin 
  18. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
  19. The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffery
  20. The Captive Prince by C.S. Pacat
  21. Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon
  22. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
  23. Lightspeed Magazine: Women Destroy Science Fiction! ed by Christie Yant 
  24. The Book of Joan by Lydia Yuknavitch


  1. Crazy Stupid Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams
  2. Undercover Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams
  3. Delivered Fast by Annabel Albert
  4. Couldn't Ask for More by Kianna Alexander
  5. Seducing an Angel by Mary Balogh
  6. At Last Comes Love by Mary Balogh
  7. First Comes Marriage by Mary Balogh
  8. Then Comes Seduction by Mary Balogh
  9. Ryker by Sawyer Bennett 
  10. Zack by Sawyer Bennett
  11. Lucas by Sawyer Bennett
  12. Roman by Sawyer Bennett
  13. Max by Sawyer Bennett
  14. Reed by Sawyer Bennett
  15. Van by Sawyer Bennett
  16. Hawke by Sawyer Bennett
  17. Alex by Sawyer Bennett
  18. Garrett by Sawyer Bennett
  19. Marek by Sawyer Bennett
  20. Waiting in the Wings by Melissa Brayden
  21. What a Lady Need for Christmas by Grace Burrows
  22. Straddling the Line by Jaci Burton
  23. Taking a Shot by Jaci Burton
  24. One Perfect Kiss by Jaci Burton
  25. Anyone but You by Chelsea M. Cameron
  26. Fighting Attraction by Sarah Castille
  27. Strong Hold by Sarah Castille
  28. Double Time by Olivia Cunning
  29. Broken Resolutions by Olivia Dade
  30. How the Dukes Stole Christmas by Tessa Dare et al 
  31. The Historical Collection by Tessa Dare
  32. Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory
  33. Loving a Warrior by Melaine Hanson
  34. A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert
  35. Work for It by Talia Hibbert
  36. Just for Him: the Complete Series by Talia Hibbert
  37. Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
  38. Untouchable by Talia Hibbert
  39. Damaged Goods by Talia Hibbert
  40. That Kind of Guy by Talia Hibbert
  41. A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert
  42. Wanna Bet? by Talia Hibbert
  43. the Princess Trap by Talia Hibbert
  44. Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
  45. You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle
  46. Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
  47. A Wallflower Christmas by Lisa Kleypas
  48. Seduce me at Sunrise by Lisa Kleypas
  49. Mine Til Midnight by Lisa Kleypas
  50. Married by Morning by Lisa Kleypas
  51.  Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas
  52. Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas
  53. Ruining Miss Wrotham by Emily Larkin
  54.  Fumbled by Alexa Martin 
  55. Intercepted by Alexa Martin
  56. Blitzed by Alexa Martin
  57. Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston 
  58. Mrs Martin's Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
  59. Rock Addiction by Nalini Singh
  60. On the Way to the Wedding by Julia Quinn
  61. It's in His Kiss by Julia Quinn
  62. When he was wicked by Julia Quinn
  63. To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn
  64.  Romancing Mr Bridgerton by Julia Quinn
  65. An Offer from a Gentleman by Julia Quinn
  66. The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn
  67. The Duke and I by Julia Quinn
  68. The Lady Most Likely by Julia Quinn et al
  69. A Night Like This by Julia Quinn
  70. Beyond Shame by Kit Rocha
  71. Beyond Series Bundle (Books 1-3) by Kit Rocha
  72. Beyond Series Bundle (Books 4-6) by Kit Rocha
  73. Beyond Series Bundle (Books 7-9) by Kit Rocha
  74. Beyond Series Novella Bundle by Kit Rocha
  75. Deacon by Kit Rocha
  76. Ivan by Kit Rocha
  77. Ashwin by Kit Rocha 
  78. Deal with the Devil (Mercenary Librarians) by Kit Rocha
  79. It Takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian
  80. The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian
  81. A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian
  82. The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa


Autobiography, Biography, and Memoir

  1. Under the Tump: Sketches of Life on the Welsh Borders by Oliver Balch 
  2. Endurance: the Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zapotek by Richard Broadbent 
  3. Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller 
  4. The Irrational Season by Madeline L'Engle  
  5. A Circle of Quiet by Madeline L'Engle 
  6. The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeline L'Engle 
  7. Two Part Invention by Madeline L'Engle   
  8. Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell  
  9. Becoming Eve by Abby Stein
  10. Ellison 'Tarzan' Brown by Michael Ward 
  11. Delancey by Molly Wizenberg 

Environment and Nature

  1. Few and Far Between: On the Trail of Britain's Rarest Animals by Charlie Elder 
  2. What We Need to Do Now For a Zero Carbon Society by Chris Goodal   
  3. The Running Hare: the Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel
  4. How to Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum 
  5. Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst: the creation of a garden by Sarah Raven and Vita Sackville-West

History and Journalism

  1. Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd 
  2. Quiet by Susan Cain
  3. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume 1: A.D. 180 to A.D. 395) by Edward Gibbon 
  4. Women are the Future of Islam by Sherin Khankan
  5. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W Loewen
  6. Reigning cats and dogs: a history of pets at court since the Renaissance by Katherine R MacDonogh 
  7. The Saffron Road: a Journey With Buddha's Daughters by Christine Toomey 
  8. Secrets of Saffron: the Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice by Pat Willard  

Magazines and Periodicals

  1. Brown University Alumni Magazine
  2. Cambridge University Alumni Magazine
  3. University of Leeds Alumni Magazine
  4. Contingent  
  5. JSTOR Daily
  6. Lapwing
  7. Piecework (many, many issues)
  8. The Public Domain Review


  1. Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop
  2. Sidelines: Talks and Essays by Lois McMaster Bujold
  3. Dumped by Maryjane Farley
  4. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
  5. What If? by Randall Monroe
  6. Christmas Dodos by Steve Stack 
  7. Selected Letters by Virginia Woolf


  1. Spirit Run by Noah Alvarez 
  2. Wild Running by Jen Benson
  3. Run to the Finish by Amanda Brooks
  4. The Runners' Brain by Jeff Brown 
  5. Galloway's Marathon FAQ by Jeff Galloway
  6. The Perfect Run: A Guide to Cultivating a Near-Effortless Running State by Mackenzie L Harvey
  7. Faster Road Racing by Pete D. Pfitzinger
  8. Going Long by Runners World
  9. The Runners' World Book of Marathon and Half Marathon Training




  1. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  2. Avengers Assemble
  3. Black Panther  
  4. Brittany Runs a Marathon
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger 
  6. Captain America: the Winter Soldier
  7. Divergent 
  8. How to Train Your Dragon
  9. Incredible Hulk 
  10. Iron Man
  11. Iron Man 2
  12. The Knight Before Christmas
  13. Let It Snow
  14. Pacific Rim: Uprising


  1. Keeping Track
  2. Into the Mystic
  3. The Moth Radio Hour 
  4. New England Legends 
  5. A Runner's Life

TV Shows

  1. Avatar (stalled in the middle of Season 3)
  2. Bridgerton (all) 
  3. Farscape (all) 
  4. Good Omens (all)
  5. Gotham (all)
  6. Iron Fist (1 episode)
  7. Lost in Space (all)
  8. Marvel's Agents of Shield (Seasons 1-4)
  9. The Story of God With Morgan Freeman (Season 3)
  10. Salvation (all but the last 2 episodes)
  11. Supernatural (Seasons 1 and 2)
  12. Walking with Dinosaurs (2 episodes)


  1. 100 Days
  2. The Run Experience
  3. Vlogbrothers 

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Piecrust Matters: Taste-Testing the Mince Pies of Lincoln

Season's greetings and I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe.

Like many people around the world, the Christmas of 2020 is the first one I will be spending entirely on my own. I've know this was coming since November, but still only managed to make myself pick up the phone and move my flight home less than twenty-four hours before it was due to depart. I've been coping in various ways: reading lots of romance novels, sleeping poorly, going for a run every day, and eating baked goods. 

Specifically, mince pies.

picture of a mince pie
"Mince Pie Stars!" by Caro Wallis is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mince pies are one of those British traditions that, as a foreigner, I took awhile to really start liking. It helped that they start appearing in late November, and that I like going to carol concerts, Christmas parties, and other gatherings where mince pies might be served. (It also helps that I have a voracious and equal-opportunity sweet tooth.) What really cemented by liking for them was the mince pies I made with a jar of a friend's homemade mincemeat. Since then, I've found them a delightful part of the holidays.

This year, to cheer myself up during the festive season, I decided to make a point of trying all the mince pies sold at bakeries within walking distance of my house.

Gadsby's Bakery (sold at the Lincolnshire Co-Op)

Rating: 5/10 (6/10 when heated up)

These mince pies are heavy on the crust. When eaten at room temperature, this has a crumbly texture and very little taste, but the taste and texture of the crust improves dramatically when they are heated up. (The idea came from the warm mince pies served warm after Lincoln Cathedral's carol service one year.) The mulled wine I enjoyed with these definitely helped, as did the fact that I was eating them while having a Zoom chat with a good friend as we both wrote our Christmas cards. I wouldn't go out of my way to have these again, but they're perfectly nice.

Vine's Bakery

Rating: 9/10

a mince pie, cut in half, rests on a white plate with brown tree branches
As you can see, heavy on the crust but quite delicious

This bakery has occupied a tiny storefront at the bottom of Steep Hill for less than two years but they are already one of my favourite places to go just after I've been paid (their sourdough bread is expensive but delicious, and they sell the best bagels I've had in the UK, outside of the ones I make in my own kitchen). So when I wandered in after some errands that look me downhill, I was delighted to see they were selling 'mince tarts', a large open face mince pie. The crust had a sandy texture and some kind of nut (almond? walnut?) in it, but was clearly made with lots and lots of butter, and the filling was lovely, with raisins and dried cranberries. There wasn't quite enough of it for my taste, but the toasted slivered almonds scattered across the top of the pie more than made up for this. 
Would purchase again, and give to a friend I really liked.


Curtis' Bakery

Rating: 6/10

Curtis, a bakery and butcher shop, is a local institution. With a branch near the university where I work and two bakeries in my neighbourhood, I'm rather surprised this was the third mince pie I tried. I got their package of mince pie varieties: a mine pie topped with brandy cream, a traditional mince pie, and a pie with swirled topping. The crumbliness of the crust made them rather difficult to extract from their adorable wee mince pie tins, but in the interest of research I persevered. I think I might have enjoyed these even more if I had bought the fresh ones from their bakery case. 

three mince pies in a pack
Variety Pack of Mince Pies from Curtis

 Further research is clearly required.

Elite Fish and Chips

Rating: -10/10

My daily runs often take me through the Bailgate area, and after a few weeks of running past a sign that said 'Battered Mince Pies £1', it was easy enough to add these to my 'thank the Lord teaching is over for Christmas' takeaway order last Friday. I had a vague expectations of a nice fresh donut with mincemeat filling.

This was terribly, terribly incorrect.

It turns out that a battered mince pie means, quite literally, a mince pie that has been removed from its wee foil pie tin, dipped in fish and chip batter, and fried until the coating is puffy and crisp. While the mince pie filling is nicely heated, the crust becomes warm, soggy, and...chalky somehow? It's hard to describe but even more revolting than it sounds. Don't buy these, even for someone you deeply dislike.

Starbuck's Bakery

Rating: Unknown

I had hoped to conclude my taste-testing (and get the taste of the battered mince pies out of my mouth) with mince pies from Starbuck's--not the global coffee chain, but an independent neighbourhood bakery. Unfortunately, before I was able to get there, the owners closed the bakery temporarily, and hopefully not permanently, on 12 December.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Like many American bakers, one of the first things I made regularly was pies, and from this I learned the importance of a good pie crust: it needs to have a crisp texture to offset what is usually a soft filling, it can't add sweetness to what is usually a hefty dose of sugar, and it needs to be sturdy enough to survive in good condition for at least a few days. Surprisingly enough, it was the crust I noticed most in my mince pie explorations--the fillings all tasted pretty similar, but my favourite mine pie (the one from Vine's) had a crust which I would happily eat as if it were a cookie. 

In conclusion, put butter in your mince pie crusts! And have a very Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Is there a doctor in the house?

This week I received two Christmas cards addressed to 'Miss Violist' and there's a furor in the news again about women with PhDs using the title Dr, leading to much reflection on the issue of titles for women here on the barbaricum.

To be clear from the outset, the barbarians hold the position that it is both proper and polite to call someone what they want to be called, without arguing with them about it. This goes equally for names, pronouns, and titles. 

blue name tag reading Hello My Name Is Inigo Montoya you killed my father prepare to die"Hello My Name Is Inigo Montoya" by oxygeon is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

If I am writing to someone and am not sure what their preference is, I will typically address the message to 'Dear First Name Last Name' to avoid irritating them by using the wrong title. If I can see an email signature or a staff profile, I will use the title indicated there. In a first email to someone I have not met who I know has a PhD, I will always address them as 'Dr Last Name', or 'Dear First Name (if I may)'--my intention is to express respect on 'meeting' them for the first time, and invite them to tell me what they would like to be called. If their reply is signed First Name Last Name, with an email signature that contains a title, I use that title and their surname until I either receive a message signed only by their first name, or I am explicitly invited to call them by their first name.

In sum, Dr Jill Biden introduces herself as Dr Biden? We call her Dr Biden. The barbarians have spoken.

Personally, I deeply dislike the title 'Miss', and will never use it for a woman unless I know that she prefers it. Why should a woman be introduced, before you even know her name, by the fact that she is not married? Oddly enough, I don't have the same aversion to 'Mrs'; in part because of the delightful essay Anne Fadiman wrote about her first awkward encounters with the title Ms, which she eventually came to prefer. One of the small bonuses of having a PhD that no one told me about beforehand was the ability to sidestep the Miss/Ms/Mrs question entirely--'Are you a Miss or a Mrs?' can be answered 'It's Dr, please.'

Why do titles matter? As has been pointed out many times, women are typically addressed by their professional titles much less often than men are, and a lot of the pushback women who insist on 'Dr' get is linked to the dismissal of expertise this implies. One of the best pieces on the question I found pointed out that only a tiny number of the general population (of the US, anyway) actually have PhDs; most people don't fully understand what a PhD means or involves. As Dr Nichole Margarita Garcia point out, using one's title provides an opportunity to share knowledge about what a PhD is with others. Like Dr Garcia, I want to share my PhD with others, and so I prefer to use the title 'Dr' where I can.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Mile 23

 In late October, Shelley Oppel Wood published an essay in Runners' World called 'Stop Calling 2020 a Marathon'. As she points out, the more you think about the parallel, the more it breaks down:

We’ve all heard 2020—a grueling, endless year—described as a marathon. But that only sounds right if you’ve never run one.

This year has indeed felt like the longest of slogs, an endurance test notable mostly for its many varieties of exhaustion and pain. Pandemic and quarantines. Poisonous politics. Violence and rage. And on the West Coast, where I live in Oregon, real fires that fueled the societal ones. But that’s where the parallels end.

With a real marathon, runners know what we’re signing up for. We have months to get in shape. We can find training plans to follow, or even hire a coach. We are mostly in control of the situation, right up to race day—of the miles we log, the dinner we eat the night before, the number of gels we cram in our pockets at the start line.

Unlike a real marathon, we weren’t ready in the slightest for what 2020 has brought.

For me, as someone who has run two marathons and was most of the way through training for a third before it was called off due to Covid, the most apt comparison is not the marathon itself, but to a very specific part of it.

Mile 23.

A marathon is 26.2 miles long, and for a slightly-above-average runner like me, the longest run you ever do in training is about 20 miles. Why? A marathon is hard, physically and mentally, and while you do a structured programme of runs to prepare to do it, you arrive on the start knowing that will be the first time you will try to run the full 26.2 miles.

I felt great for the first sixteen miles my first 26.2-miler, the 2018 Yorkshire Marathon. I was doing it! I was running a marathon! And then the rain got into its stride and I realised I had ten more miles to go, and by the time I hit mile 20, I was simultaneously bored and sore and incredulous--I had to keep going for 6 more miles? For real? (A note on being bored: the Yorkshire marathon course is mostly out in the countryside around York--you hit the Minster and the amazing high-fiving vicar within the first 5-10k, and then you are just plodding down flat country roads in rural Yorkshire. Which would be beautiful on a sunny day, but is less so in the rain.) By the time I got to Mile 23, I had reached a state of fatalism: I would be running down Yorkshire roads in the rain for the rest of time, and that was that. 

Eventually, mile 23 turned into mile 24, and then seeing the mile 25 sign and hearing people start to yell about the nearness of the finish line, I rediscovered some spring to my step, and realised that this was going to end. I was going to make it. I finished in a time of 4:50:19.

photo of the York skyline at sunset, showing the walls and the Minster tower
The sun came out in the evening, long after the race was over. The nerve!

My second marathon, Manchester 2019, was a bit different. For one thing, Manchester is a big-city marathon (about 16,000 runners versus the around 5,000 who run Yorkshire), and a substantial portion of the course runs through various boroughs of the city. For another, I started doing speedwork in my training, which helped me get faster and stronger. And finally, I knew that Mile 23 was coming.

And yet. Mile 23 still felt like it was in the middle of nowhere--physically, emotionally, geographically--and also like it was never going to end. A welcome note of absurdity in the endlessness of Mile 23 came when I passed a guy wearing a white rhino costume.

And despite my firm belief that I would be running down the back roads of Manchester for ever and ever, Mile 23 did give way to Mile 24, and then Mile 25. If there was a Mile 25 sign, I missed it, which did have a moment of sending me back to endless-running-land; the race organisers chose to replace it with an enormous television screen showing runners finishing the race, which felt like it was taunting me. But then I looked down at my watch and realised that I had a chance of beating what I thought was my sister's best marathon time, 4:19, and legged it to the finish line, for a 4:18:38 marathon.

a smiling white woman stands wrapped in silver foil, holding a pint of isotonic beer

As I've had friends celebrate the tremendous good news of promising vaccines, the end of the second UK lockdown, and even the possibility of a return to normal life, I've been alternately bored and sore and incredulous. We're at Mile 23, I shriek silently, we'll be running this thing forever. And for some people--those affected by unemployment, by domestic and racialized violence, by long Covid, by grief and loss--2020 has no end.

Unlike a marathon, those of us lucky enough to be still on our feet did not train for 2020, but I know I am not alone at Mile 23. May we all reach Mile 24, and Mile 25, and sprint towards the finish line as it comes into view.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Stuffed Pumpkin for Thanksgiving

For my first Thanksgiving in England, I took over a friend's kitchen in Cambridge and cooked a meal for eleven. A few of the guests were vegetarian, so I made two main dishes: a stuffed pumpkin and a turkey. I've made this several times for gatherings over the years--something about a pumpkin stuffed with bacon and bread and cheese seems to please everyone who eats it. Thanksgiving 2020 marks the first time in nearly a decade where I haven't held a Thanksgiving dinner party, so posting one of my favourite dishes to make for others feels like a good way to celebrate.

a wedge of baked pumpkin stuffed with bread and cheese
Looking forward to serving this to friends again when it's safe to do so.

Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good

From Dorie Greenspan's Around my French Table, published in the Providence Journal on October 20, 2010

  • 1 pumpkin, between 2.5 and 3 pounds (about 1 kilo). I have used larger and smaller pumpkins depending on what was available in the market, just adjust the amount of filling to the size of the squash.
  • salt and black pepper
  • 1/4 pound (about 114 g) stale bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes.  If your bread isn't stale, toast the slices in the toaster before cubing them. Any kind of bread you would use for toast will do. I like using a whole wheat (wholemeal) or seeded bread for its taste and texture
  • 1/4 pound (about 114g) cheese--something strong and firm, like Gruyere, Emmenthal, Cheddar, or a combination, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2-4 gloves of garlic, coarsely chopped. If your garlic is old or you are sensitive to the taste, you may want to bash the cloves with the flat of a knife and remove the 'germ', which is the green or white bit at the centre of the clove (i.e. the green tip that starts growing when your old garlic starts sprouting). This makes the flavour less harsh.
  • 4 slices of bacon (preferably streaky bacon or another kind with a decent amount of fat), cooked until crisp and then chopped. If you are feeding vegetarians, the recipe is still delicious without it,
  • about 1/4 cup (about 33g) snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions (spring onions). When I don't have either of these around, I use half a small onion, sauteed until translucent in the fat from frying the bacon.
  • 1 tsp dried thyme, or about 1 tbsp fresh thyme
  • about 1/3 cup (79ml) heavy cream (double or single cream, it doesn't matter. I once tried to substitute whole milk and it was fine, but cream is much better)
  • a pinch of fresh-grated nutmeg. f you don't have a nutmeg grater, you will want a very scant 1/4 tsp of pre-grated nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (about 176 degrees Celsius). If you have a pot or pie pan that's a bit wider than your pumpkin, grab that, otherwise use a baking tray.

Carefully cut the top off the pumpkin using a sharp knife, just as you would when carving a Halloween jack-o'-lantern.  You want a hole that's big enough for you to scrape out the seeds and stringy bits from inside the pumpkin, and off of the top. If you like toasted pumpkin seeds, set the seeds and pulp aside to deal with while the pumpkin is baking.

Make sure to salt and pepper the inside of the pumpkin generously--if you're using a salt of pepper mill, most of the seasoning will fall to the bottom, so you want to get your hands in there and spread the seasoning up on the sides of the pumpkin too. I once skipped this step and regretted it, so make sure you do it--pumpkins, like potatoes, taste good with lots of salt and pepper. 

Mix your garlic, bacon, bread, cheese, thyme, and nutmeg in a big bowl. Add pepper to taste. The bacon and cheese may give you enough salt, but taste the filling to see if it's to your liking. Mix in the cream--you don't want the filling completely soggy, since the pumpkin exudes liquid as it cooks, but you don't want it too dry either. It's a bit like stuffing a turkey--a clump of filling should stick together when you pick it up and lightly squeeze it in your hand. Stuff the filling inside the pumpkin.

The precise amounts of bread and cheese and cream you need will depend on the size of your pumpkin. You want to be able to get the lid back on but the pumpkin should be quite full. If you need more filling, just toast and chop some more bread (or just chop it if it's stale), cube a bit more cheese, and add it, with some dribbles of cream, until your pumpkin is filled.

Put the cap on and bake the pumpkin for somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours, or until the filling is bubbling and it's easy to poke a dinner knife into the side of the pumpkin. I usually check the pumpkin and rotate it (my oven has a hot spot) after about the first 45 minutes to an hour of cooking.

After 45 minutes to an hour (for a smaller pumpkin) or an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes (for a larger pumpkin), take the top off so the pumpkin juices can bake away and the top of the filling gets a bit browned. If you forgot to set a timer, this is around when you can poke a knife into the pumpkin but there is still some resistance. The skin of the pumpkin may be golden and blistered in a few spots. Bake the pumpkin with the top off for approximately 20-30 minutes, or until done.

The pumpkin is ready when you can easily stick a dinner knife in its side. Carefully carry the pot to the table or transfer it to a serving plate. If you've got it on a baking tray, take care when carrying it--the pumpkin is very hot and may be a bit wobbly. Cut into 2-4 pieces (small pumpkin) or 4-8 pieces (large pumpkin), and enjoy.

Number of servings depends on the size of pumpkin and diners' hunger levels. Dorie Greenspan says it serves 2-4. I've found that a large pumpkin can serve at least eight, especially if there are other dishes on the table.

Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds are edible and tasty. I like to separate them from the pulp under running water--don't worry about getting them 100% clean, but it helps to remove some of the pumpkin goop.

Put your pumpkin seeds in a pot and cover with several inches of water. Add LOTS of salt (seriously, if you have a good number of seeds from a large pumpkin, you can use a whole tablespoon) and bring to a boil. Or boil the water in your kettle and pour it over the seeds and salt.

Boil the seeds for about 20 minutes or so. I have done as few as 15 minutes and sometimes over thirty, the timing doesn't have to be exact. Pour off all of the water and spread the seeds out on a baking sheet.

You can blot the seeds with a paper towel so they're mostly dry but I don't always bother. Pour over a few teaspoons of oil (you want the seeds to be coated but not swimming) and season to taste. I typically use a little salt (you don't need much after boiling them in salt water), pepper, and about 1/2 tsp paprika or chili powder.

Bake the seeds in the oven with the pumpkin. Check them, and give them a little stir, every 10-15 minutes. It can take them about half an hour to bake--they are done when they look dry and are golden.

Enjoy a nice snack while you're waiting for your pumpkin to finish baking.

Finding a Pumpkin in the UK

Unlike in the United States, there doesn't seem to be much of a distinction between jack-o'-lantern pumpkins (said to be stringy and tasteless) and varieties of pumpkin grown for eating. I have made this recipe with carving pumpkins from a grocery store or vegetable stand and found them to be excellent eating. 

Finding pumpkins in the UK can be challenging--they typically start appearing a few weeks before Halloween and then vanish from stores on 1 November.  I get around this by buying my first pumpkin as soon as I see them in stores, and then buying a second (or third) one right before Halloween. Provided the pumpkin skin is free from nicks or soft spots, I've been able to keep them in the kitchen for cooking for at least a week or two--and sometimes as long as a month.

I have found that this recipe also works well with a crown prince squash (which is shaped like a pumpkin and has a light green skin). Actually, I've had good results with any pumpkin shaped squash--just make sure to choose one you can safely carve a lid in.

a large and a small pumpkin sitting on a white table cloth
Both of these pumpkins were used to make stuffed pumpkin.