Last Monday was my daughter’s birthday, and the Birthday Troll came again this year, in the night, to steal her presents, hide them in the woods, and leave riddles as clues to their whereabouts. He’s like Santa Claus for curmudgeons, and considerably more entertaining, not to mention one isn’t bound by the Byzantine mythology of popular culture and corporate marketing. The riddles are after the fashion of old English rhyming riddles, like the ones Bilbo Baggins traded with Gollum in the slimy dark under the Misty Mountains, and so I spend half of August looking at the stuff in my yard and woods through the eyes of a grumpy itinerant poet with a twisted sense of humor1 and trying to find metaphor, simile, pun, any sort of literary device to obfuscate the quotidian.2
On a gorgeous April Wednesday I am filling in as substitute homeschool teacher. We do arithmetic; we do a language lesson about adverbs and Emily Dickinson. Then—did I mention the day is gorgeous? That the air through the window is crisp and fills the lungs with hope and delight? That the cardinals are courting round the bay tree and a wren is chirping from the buckthorn? That the sky is blue, the dandelions gold, the violets… er, violet? All this is so, and the substitute teacher, less inspired by whatever lies in the plan book before him than by the season swiftly unfolding outside the window, calls an audible….
Doubtless some readers will have been puzzled yesterday by my use of scrapple as a model of purity. But, you know, there is scrapple, and then there is scrapple. There’s country scrapple and city scrapple, as the distinction used to be drawn, back when country people, or at least country butchers, still made their own. There was country panhaas, made by Pennsylvania Germans, and there was its bastard cousin Philadelphia scrapple.
Tomorrow is Candlemas: the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, in cultures unspoiled by scientifically rational astronomy the first day of spring, and in much of Western Europe traditionally the day to break ground for the first of the year’s crops. Pagans had astronomy plenty to mark the day, often (plausibly, to celebrate the returning of the light) with fire. The Catholic Church, as it so often did, co-opted the festival for its own purposes, using the day to celebrate the purification of Mary forty days after giving birth to Jesus, the light of the world. And so Catholics brought their candles to the church to have them blessed, whereupon the candles became talismans that could be lit during storms or times of trouble, as an old English poem observed:
Laugh at the vultures, who think you would steal
Their refuse. Love them anyway, and be grateful
For their meal. Say their grace.
Trade your house for a turtle, then set it free
In the woods, to find its way to water.
Rejoice in your hope.
Fall on your knees to see the wild flower
That grows in the ditch, its head erect
Among the paper cups and sandwich wrappers.
Then rise up. Go forth. Sing your song
As if you would make it so.
Work as if it mattered.
The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own.
In 1903, Washburn-Crosby, the makers of Gold Medal Flour (they would later become General Mills), tried a new sort of magazine ad. Instead of a photo or illustration captioned by a short homily about how wonderful the flour was, this new ad, which ran in Ladies’ Home Journal, was simply a recipe for baking bread, written as a poem, with each verse accompanied by a photograph or an illustration. It’s terribly entertaining, if you enjoy that sort of thing — the rhymes are forced, the tone is cheesy, and it is, of course, by twenty-first century standards, cheerfully sexist. But it’s also a window into bread and baking at the turn of the last century, and into the ways industry was changing them — even inside the home.
The thirteen-year cicadas emerged yesterday, in our woods at least; a few miles away they’ve been active for weeks. We heard their song in the afternoon, and in the evening I found a half-dozen husks hung out to dry on the clothesline like withered garments from an attic trunk. Along the Eno today the woods vibrated with them, a low local chattering backed by the familiar high-pitched drone that I guessed to be the chattering’s more distant echo. I tried, and failed, to describe the sound. A friend said “loud as a police siren,” but that seemed unfair to the cicadas. I thought of the hollow rattling of dice in cups, but more rapid and higher-pitched, as if the Chipmunks were playing Yahtzee. And that being possibly the single worst simile in the entire catalog of Western literature, I thought I’d turn for inspiration to days before police sirens and Yahtzee and 33 rpm records played at 78, when, one would hope, the well-read and literary-minded could invent better comparisons.
One finds the strangest flotsam in the backwash of the early nineteenth century. I found this gem while sifting through the private papers of Sarah Hale, to whom it appears to have been submitted while she was editor of The Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette in the 1830s. Unsurprisingly she never published the poem, and I couldn’t find a copy of any accompanying correspondence, either from the author or from Mrs. Hale rejecting the work. The poem thus remains untitled and anonymous.
The poem, in (mostly, if occasionally somewhat addled) heroic couplets, tells the tragic story of a “humble maid” who gives life and limb to save an apple tart. It’s at once charming and simply dreadful. Its palpably oozing sincerity evinces a giggle from the modern reader. It goes on, as we would say now. The verses strain under the weight of its overwrought verbiage (“gossamer gauze of alabaster skin”? Seriously?) And it’s hard to know how to read it — as a cautionary tale, about the dangers of women’s work? As a love letter to a departed domestic? Or as a simple paean to a damn fine apple tart? The poem’s meaning sleeps with its author, or did, at least, until I dredged the thing up last week.
In any case, until I can manage to write something of my own for this space, enjoy. And don’t be too hard on our departed would-be Byron. No doubt he meant well.
Sometimes the best part of doing hsitory is the flotsam and jetsam that washes ashore. While looking for a copy of an 1855 cookbook I found this poem appended nonsequitorially to a “Notices of New Books” column in the New York Times, and it was so charmingly bizarre I felt I had to share it.