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
ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or other sweet spices (I recommend ginger)
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


The Madrid Bombing: Three years later, and ugly


What happens after a painful crisis? Maybe one pain is replaced by another, but maybe it shouldn’t have to stay painful. I wrote this in 2007 when I was living in Spain.

We weren’t allowed to get close, and we weren’t happy about it. Several hundred of us had come to see the inauguration of the monument in front of the Atocha train station. It honored the victims of the Al Qaeda terrorist train bombing that had taken place at that station three years ago to the day, March 11, 2004. But the ceremony, we discovered, was by invitation-only.

Instead, we waited for an hour behind barricades two blocks away, peering down the slightly curved street, occasionally glimpsing movement. Police officers blocked our way, gazing at us with polite impassiveness. We were people from the neighborhood, witnesses to the sights and sounds of the attack in which 191 people had died and 1,824 were injured.

As is the custom in Spain, we passed the time by chatting among ourselves. Spaniards are champion complainers and never slow to offer an opinion, and the people around me believed that we were being kept away because politicians feared we might disrupt the solemnity of the ceremony by voicing a criticism — though we disagreed over which politician or political party deserved to be confronted, and a few heated words were exchanged.

Meanwhile, two blocks away, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía presided at the inaugural, attended by a thousand family members of the victims. The somber, quiet ceremony was disrupted when a protest sign and an angry shout denounced officeholders in one political party, and, later, a few scattered shouts were aimed at the head of the other party as he left. After the ceremony, some of the families of the victims argued over politics even as people placed flowers at the monument.

In the three years since the bombing, Spanish politics have grown “crispada”: crisp or tense. When the bombs went off, the Popular Party (PP) was in power, but national elections were scheduled for three days later.

Al Qaeda had planned the attacks hoping to convince the government to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq. In fact, the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) won the elections and promptly withdrew the troops, though it redeployed them to Afghanistan.

For the last three years, the PP has insisted that Basque terrorists were involved in the bombing, though there is no evidence for it. It has implied that PSOE sold out to the Basque terrorists in exchange for the election victory. The PP has organized huge protests against real or potential PSOE acts, and fascist symbols have occasionally appeared in those crowds.

PSOE has begun peace talks with the Basque terrorists, among other controversial policies. It calls the PP a hypocrite because, while it was in power, it practiced some of the same policies that it now criticizes. PSOE disdainfully accuses the PP of demagoguery, lies, and attempts to undermine democratic institutions.

Teenagers visiting the Senate were shocked by the heckling they saw during a session. “They’re like street gangs wearing designer-label suits,” one student said.

A senator from a regional political party complained, “The eye-for-an-eye strategy by PP and PSOE will wind up making everyone blind.”

Three years after the bombing, politics just keeps getting crisper. Perhaps only the presence of the King, who commands respect, kept order during the inauguration of the memorial.

After His Majesty and the politicians left, the police removed the barriers, and I and my neighbors streamed toward the monument. From the outside, it is a drab cylinder 11 meters tall made of glass blocks. We walked around it and climbed over the railing to peer inside with our noses pressed up against the glass.

The monument was made to look at from the inside. Visitors see it from beneath, and enter via the train station. First they pass a backlit panel with the names of the 191 victims. Then they go through a mechanized double doorway and enter a large room. The lighting is dim, and the walls, floor, and ceiling are cobalt blue.

In the center, a circular opening allows them to look up inside the monument, where an elongated, irregularly shaped plastic film bubble rises inside the glass cylinder. Printed on it are some of the messages that had been left as part of the shrine of candles, flowers, and hand-printed signs that sprang up spontaneously outside Atocha train station in the days immediately following the bombing. They appear in a variety of languages: the dead came from many countries, and they were mourned by people from around the world.

Esten tots amb vosaltres, aquesta vida es aix sort. Gogoan zaituztegu. Desde aquel día la luz se me ha apagado. Wir deuken an Euch! Vittime piu’ di tutti, di que’sta follia. ببﻫ ر ﻼﻟ ﻻ. No fear, no revenge, just peace. No te conozco, pero te amo. No he compartido tus recuerdos, pero te recuerdo. ώς χαρίεν εστ ανθρωπος, άν ανθρωπος ή. No estamos todos. Mach weiter so Madrid. To all that suffer their loss. Pacat de vietile pierdute!

Beneath the monument, visitors stare up at the words printed on the plastic bubble inside. The words are meant to fly toward the heavens like a shout of hope from inside the train station. The room is isolated from the always-busy train station by a wall of thick, wavy glass. It is silent.

I remember the noise of the day of the bombing. I heard the bombs, and soon after, sirens that wailed non-stop all day. Three years later, during the inaugural, as we waited behind the barricades, my neighbors spoke of seeing the bloodied dead and injured transported through the streets. Those who live in the high-rise apartment buildings next to the tracks saw the survivors stumble away from the wreck of the train cars, their clothes blown to tatters.

We were hurt, too — not physically, but pained enough to feel drawn to the monument, hoping it would ease our memories.

In the first week following the inaugural, more than 40,000 people visited the monument. Not everyone liked it. Some called it cold, distant, unartistic. The plastic bubble inside looks flimsy. At night, lit up from inside, it glows bluish inside the glass block cylinder, and the whole thing looks a little like a giant lava lamp.

Meanwhile, the trial of 29 people accused of being involved with the March 11 bombing continues, and if convicted, their sentences could total 38,654 years in jail.

Portions of the trial are televised, the first courtroom proceeding shown live in Spain, and viewers have discovered that real life does not resemble television. Real lawyers do not act like Perry Mason or Ally McBeal. On the witness stand, the accused offer up selective amnesia and flimsy excuses rather than dramatic admissions of guilt. The police investigators are not as efficient as those on the series CSI. But Judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez has earned the nickname of “Judge House” because his irony and toughness remind viewers of a fictional television doctor.

At the courthouse, during recesses, smokers all crowd into the same smoking patio: police, lawyers, people injured in the bombings, and some of the accused terrorists, all within touching distance of each other.

The trial should be finished in July, if all goes as expected, and a verdict should be delivered in October.

Meanwhile, Spain remains an important target for Al Qaeda. In videos, terrorist leaders have threatened Spain because it has troops in Afghanistan and it maintains the cities of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco. Bin Laden’s lieutenant Ayman al Zawahiri has spoken of recovering Al-Andalus, the Muslim califate that controlled much of Spain from 711 to 1492 CE.

Spanish intelligence agents say that Al Qaeda members have returned from terrorist training in Iraq with orders to attack.

This whole nightmare could happen again.