Cooking medieval – history tastes good

Sent-SoviAs you may know, I translated the Spanish medieval novel of chivalry Amadis of Gaul into English. (If you’ve never heard of it, here’s why.)

That project sparked an interest into all things medieval, including cooking, since I love to cook. Here are some medieval Spanish recipes for a simple meal you can make at home. Remember to include bread, olives, and wine on your table to make it authentic.

Rabbit a la medieval

This recipe comes from Toledo. Rabbit is still common in Spanish supermarkets, but you can substitute chicken.

salt to taste
a handful of parsley
two spoons of vinegar
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
olive oil
one rabbit (or chicken), cut in quarters or pieces

Crush the garlic, salt, and parsley in a mortar, and add vinegar and oil to make a paste. Spread over the rabbit, and bake in a 180C/350F oven for about 45 minutes to an hour.

Al-Andalus onions

Note the Moorish influence.

medium-sized onions
saffron
ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or other sweet spices (I recommend ginger)
butter
honey or sugar, if desired

Peel the onions and cut a cross at the root end. Arrange them in a cooking pan next to each other, but not crowded. Sprinkle with salt, saffron, and spices. Cover with water and add a little butter. Cover and cook over a slow fire for about 20 minutes until the onions are tender and the water has evaporated. Uncover, add the honey or sugar, raise the fire, and carefully caramelize the onions.

Almond pudding (Menjar blanc)

This comes from the Llibre de Sent Soví, a 14th-century Catalan cookbook (see photo). Be aware that the almond milk in this recipe may be different from the almond milk you usually find in the supermarket today. You can also substitute a liter/quart of cow milk for the almond milk. Sancho Panza liked chicken breasts with cooked with menjar blanc, according to Don Quixote de la Mancha, Chapter LXII.

400g/2 cups blanched and skinned almonds
1 liter/quart boiling water
1 cinnamon stick
1 piece of lemon peel, yellow part only
200g/1 cup sugar
6 tbsp. rice flour (or cornstarch)

Grind or finely chop the almonds. Place in a bowl and pour boiling water over them, let sit for at least 10 minutes, and pour through a cheesecloth, squeezing it tight. Put in a saucepan, add cinnamon, lemon peel, and sugar. Simmer for a few minutes. Dissolve the flour in a little liquid and add, stirring constantly until thickened, and simmer a few minutes more. Pour into a mold and chill.

“Princess Magpie: Chapter 1” at Decameron Project

UrracaRegina_TumboA_SmallChapter 1 of a novel I’m writing now, Princess Magpie, has been posted at the Decameron Project. I began writing it when I was living in Spain.

Nine hundred years ago, Queen Urraca ruled over the Kingdom of Leon. The novel begins with her betrothal in marriage at age eight and follows her life as she becomes a canny monarch who can sing a song, prevail in a thorny negotiation, and lead an army.

The novel is underway but won’t see print for a while. Chapter 1 will give you a taste, though.

The Decameron Project began on March 16 and posts a new story every day. In its own words:

“This project was inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, written shortly after the Black Death hit Florence in 1348, which takes place during that time of plague. In the story, ten young Florentines, seven women and three men, retreat into self-isolation in a villa in the hills and pass the time by telling stories, one each per day for ten days, or a hundred stories.

“The New Decameron was the idea of Maya Chhabra, and is organized by Maya Chhabra, Jo Walton, and Lauren Schiller. Participants include Daniel Abraham, Mike Allen, Leah Bobet, Pamela Dean, Max Gladstone, Rosemary Kirstein, Naomi Kritzer, Marissa Lingen, Usman Malik, Ada Palmer, Laurie Penny, Ellen Kushner, and many others.”

The content at this Patreon project is free and visible to everyone. Enjoy! However, you can become a patron, and the donations are split between the authors and a charity, Cittadini del Mondo, a Rome-based clinic and library for refugees.

Flash Fiction: “Who Loved Their Babies More”

striped mosquitoA 200-word short story for Mother’s Day — in which I attempt to blow up the motherhood statement.

Who Loved Their Babies More
by Sue Burke

The mosquito landed on the woman’s arm, she slapped it, and it fell dead. But nothing happens so easily.

She had watched it hover, tiger-striped. It landed on insubstantial legs, delicate as a fairy queen. Only females sought blood, and after a blood meal it could lay eggs. The woman considered granting its wish. Even tiny lives mattered.

But she couldn’t. The mosquito might carry a disease — not that it would care, even if it could understand. Its eggs mattered more to it than any human life. Mercy did not fit into the equation for either of them. The woman was pregnant. She had a life to protect, too. She slapped, and the mosquito fell, its long striped legs crushed and tangled.

And yet, she knew that with trillions of mosquitos and billions of humans in the world, this single killing accomplished almost nothing. It proved nothing, not even who loved their babies more. She had the brute advantage this time and she took it, that was all. Next time, who knew?

She eyed the tiny corpse on the ground. Only fools believed that motherhood meant tenderness. Motherhood meant menace. Motherhood made enemies. Mothers would stop at nothing. And she hadn’t even given birth yet.

***

Published in Thema Literary Journal Spring 2003 issue. Theme: paper tigers.

Flash fiction: “Normalized Death”

Flash Fiction OnlineThis short story, only 900 words, originally appeared in Flash Fiction Online: short stories for the modern reader.

Normalized Death
by Sue Burke

There’s a sink and drinking glasses in Mom’s room. I know I should take the pills right away before she wakes up. Instead I stand in the doorway and stare.

Mom looks bad. An oxygen tube loops under her nose, and her skin is puffed and grayish-yellow. An adhesive medical patch sends painkillers into her neck. Below the blanket, printed with a nice homey flower pattern, she wears adult diapers. Her body can no longer sustain itself. Time to go. No one argued that at the hospital, no one is arguing that now, not even me.

Death is normal. Normal. No argument there, either. It was time, all of a sudden, for a hospice. Time to say goodbye.

There’s no sense making it harder than it has to be. I look at the two sky-blue pills in the blister pack in my hand. Clearimond, that’s the brand name. “It will clear up your emotions,” the counselor said in our session this morning. “It’s a very popular choice.”

We’ll all be happy as Mom slips away. We’ll chat pleasantly when she’s awake, and we’ll enjoy those last precious moments together. We’ll have warm memories, and she’ll go peacefully because we’ll be at peace, too. What more could we want?

I take a few steps into the room. Everyone said the hospice had a wonderful staff and a pleasant, normal setting because death is normal, completely normal. The reception area looks like a living room, with soft green sofas and house plants on the windowsill, decorated with a few small American flags. Tomorrow is Fourth of July.

Mom is wearing her favorite nightgown, an oversized long brown tee-shirt. On the night stand next to her bed are photos of us on vacation in front of a huge sequoia, a big waterfall, and the Grand Canyon. She looks the same in all of them, with cropped hair and old blue jeans. At work, she wore a simple pants suit. She always wanted to be genuine. No makeup, no high heels: “just me the way I am.”

How does that explain my sister, false right down to the eyelashes? Dad, obviously. He’s the one who insisted on that oh-so-cute name, Kimberleen, and eventually he opted for a cuter wife. But he’s on his way back for the final moment. It would look bad otherwise, and he likes to look good.

My sister has already turned her house into a giant red, white, and blue celebration. I haven’t done a thing and I probably won’t. Not just because I’m busy with Mom. I never do much for any holiday, like her. I own one pair of high heels, which I’ve worn three times, and a tube of tinted lip gloss, mostly for the sunscreen in it.

My daughter is on her way back from summer camp. She insisted. “Mom, I have to be there! Don’t worry, you don’t have to come get me, there’s a bus. I can manage.” But my husband is picking her up. “There are things a dad has to do,” he told her. She couldn’t argue with that, and I can’t help feeling proud of them for willfully doing something difficult.

Kimberleen insisted that the grandkids should not come, and I thought they should, at least mine, and the counselor worked out a truce with concessions on both sides: they can come if they choose, and we’ll all take Clearimond.

“We have to think of Mom,” Kimberleen argued. “She’s sick enough without being sad. Maybe we could bring one of those old family board games. Trivial Pursuit? Mom was always good at details. It will be our one last chance to have fun with everyone together.”

She said it with a smile, a placid smile. She’s been on some version of Clarimond for a long, long time now. I’ve seen her bathroom cabinet. She’ll be here soon, happy as confetti. I have to admit that she’s more fun to have around than me. And I’m holding happiness right here in my hand. I gave my word that I’d take it.

Mom has to go. It’s time. I understand. But I don’t have to like it. I sit in the armchair next to the bed and remember her disappointment when Dad left, her help when I was pregnant and had complications, and her smile, a genuine smile, when the birth went fine. And back when I was in fifth grade, when a friend died in a car accident, she didn’t try to cheer me up, none of the “she’s gone to a better life” or “you still have your other friends” that the other mothers said to their children. She just let me be sad, and she was somber herself because she, too, had to learn to live in a world where I no longer had that friend.

Happiness isn’t everything. I slip the pills in my pocket. Maybe I’ll take them after she’s gone. Maybe.

She stirs in her bed. The wrinkled eyelids quiver.

“Hello, Mom,” I say. “It’s Rebecca. I’ve come to see you.” I hear my voice catch, a glottal stop of grief.

She hears it, too. She looks up toward me, somberly. We both knew this was coming, and though I don’t know what we’ll say and her voice is barely more than a whisper, we begin to talk.

© 2008 by Sue Burke