Great British Cooking?

In this episode of On My Bookshelf I reach for a cookbook.

“How do you make Toad in the Hole?” asked my 8 year old grandson. “Well, first I send you boys into the woods to find some toads while I make the holes,” I replied. “Then you drop the toads into the holes and we’re done.” The 6 year old looked confused but 8 was on to me. “That’s not true!” he protested. So I explained that the English give weird names to their foods but basically Toad in the Hole is just sausages in Yorkshire Pudding. That drew blank stares so I revised it to a sausage pancake. They liked the sound of that and agreed to help me, though once the Yorkshire Pudding batter was mixed they lost interest. I have the recipe for this and more odd sounding foods in Great British Cooking by Jane Garmey. I bought the book when it was first published in 1981, a time when the title was indeed an oxymoron. This was before the age of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, before pubs turned into gastropubs, and before the Great British Bake Off came to America. British cooking really did have a terrible reputation, especially with Continental Europeans. 

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Love On My Bookshelf

In time for Valentine’s Day I rediscover an extraordinary love story from the English Civil War and Commonwealth, Read My Heart by historian Jane Dunn.

In the summer of 1648 two young people made their way to the Isle of Wight, the first leg of a journey to France. Meeting there would set the course for their whole lives. Dorothy Osborne was 21 and, accompanied by her brother Robin as chaperone, was en route to visit their father who was living in exile in St. Malo. William Temple was 20. His father was sending him off on a young English gentleman’s traditional sojourn on the Continent to broaden his education. 

The England the young pair travelled through was war-torn and weary, bitterly divided between the Royalists loyal to King Charles I and the Parliamentarians. The first of the Civil Wars had ended with the decisive defeat of the King at the Battle of Naseby and he was currently held prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, the very place they were heading. By co-incidence both young people had relatives on the island, but on opposite sides of the conflict. Dorothy’s kinsman Richard Osborne was Gentleman-of-the Bedchamber to the King and was suspected of plotting to help Charles escape. On the other hand William’s cousin, Colonel Robert Hammond, was the Governor of the Castle and responsible for guarding the King.

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My Reading Year 2020

Ramon Casas 1866-1932

2020 wasn’t good for much, but it was a very good year for reading. What else was there to do as we hunkered down in our socially distanced comfort zones for months on end? Theoretically I could have cleared out the basement or shredded papers in the obsolete filing cabinet, but counter-intuitively these tasks seemed more difficult to accomplish with so much time spent at home. I’m no Marie Kondo. So in between frenetic bursts of supervising grandsons at virtual school, I walked and I read and I read. All right, there was some TV binging in there too.

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Veritas – Book Review


The Dispatches have been quiet of late. During election season this observer of “the former new world” was consumed with anxiety. Would the new world go the way of the old, perhaps lapsing into mid twentieth century fascism or reenacting the Fall of the Republic in ancient Rome? My political writing style of light-hearted satire seemed inadequate, even inappropriate, for the enormity of the danger faced by this still relatively young Republic. The Roman Republic, after all, lasted almost 500 years before the Senate granted extraordinary powers to Augustus, first in a long line of Continue reading “Veritas – Book Review”

Reading Bruegel

I bought this book on impulse because I will read anything about Bruegel. Perhaps it is my Flemish heritage that draws me to his work. I imagine my ancestors among the peasant crowds in his village scenes. It was only when I held the book in my hands that I recognized the author’s name. Toby Ferris wrote for The Dabbler, the site that first hosted my Dispatches, and he created Anatomy of Norbiton, a web site “exploring suburban life and universal failure as seen through the lens of Renaissance art.” My brother, the writer Frank Key, called it “a thing of strange and terrible beauty.” So I opened this book with heightened expectations. It would be no ordinary book about Bruegel.

There are 42 surviving paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He lived about 42 years, his birth year of 1525 is an approximation. Ferris was 42 and had recently lost his father when Continue reading “Reading Bruegel”

On My Bookshelf – The Singing Game

Perhaps it was the restlessness induced by quarantine that had me prowling my own bookshelves in search of diversion. I needed a break from the world of Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. (I know it is tantamount to sacrilege to criticize Miss Mantel, whose Cromwell trilogy I agree is a magnificent achievement, but did we need the menu for his every meal in the year leading up to his execution, surely the last meal would have been sufficient?) In this grumpy mood I came upon The Singing Game by Iona and Peter Opie, the legendary English folklorists, a book I hadn’t picked up Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – The Singing Game”

Hidden Lives in Victorian England

In my final blog for MCPL (my former professional home Montgomery County Public Libraries, Maryland) I discuss The Five, a book about the victims of Jack the Ripper, a wonderful piece of social history that restores dignity to the five women. Other titles explore the Victorian craze for true crime stories and how they influenced some of the great Victorian writers.

Hidden Lives in Victorian England

The Prostitutes’ Graveyard

The Shard towers over Crossbones memorial fence

Within sight of the gleaming Shard, a forest of construction cranes, and a Victorian railway bridge lies Crossbones, a hidden corner of London history. We turn off Southwark Street into a narrow lane called Redcross Way and pass through a dank tunnel. It seems like the kind of alleyway Jack the Ripper may have favored, but this is another part of London, Southwark, south of the river. We are looking for the prostitutes’ graveyard. Opposite The Boot and Flogger pub we see a sign for our destination, the Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance. From here all we can see is a high iron railing festooned with ribbons, plastic flowers, and all manner of memorial objects. A plaque reads “R.I.P. The Outcast Dead.” This was unhallowed ground. I see one soiled white ribbon with a name in fading script, “Elizabeth Hayes from the Workhouse.” Turning the corner to find the Continue reading “The Prostitutes’ Graveyard”

Regency Isn’t Just Romance

My latest blog for Montgomery County Public Libraries is about the Regency years in England, a decade that compares to the 1960’s, a time of radical politics, war, social change, and literary experimentation. In other parallels, the 1812 assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval caused political turmoil, and protests for social justice were sometimes harshly suppressed, for example in the Peterloo massacre.

Regency Isn’t Just Romance

Water Water Everywhere

You could be forgiven for mistaking the network evening news for the Weather Channel these days. Night after night scenes of devastating flooding somewhere and everywhere. Hurricanes, cyclones, torrential rainfall, storm surges, rivers overflowing their banks, whole towns inundated, homes lost, islands disappearing, glaciers and polar ice melting. Here in Washington D.C. alarming scenes of stranded motorists crouching on the roofs of their submerged cars awaiting rescue. Dire warnings from climate scientists ignored, even suppressed, by our government.

I learned more about the watery world that awaits us in Robert Macfarlane’s marvelous new book Underland. The book is not specifically about climate change or rising seas. It is Continue reading “Water Water Everywhere”