Friday, January 10, 2014

Blueberry muffins, and curious things

You must know that here at AFG we are still thinking with pleasure of our Michigan vacation. Therefore we present these blueberry muffins as a nod to the state. Michigan is, of course, famed for its blueberries. So much nicer a thing to be proud of than bankrupt wildernesses, full of roaming abandoned dogs, where cities used to be.

We here at AFG  -- I just like saying it, it sounds so established -- took quite a bit of reading material on our trip. Curiously, the books formed a kind of chronological arc in themselves, though the focus of most of them was English history and letters. We took Backyard and Beyond (nature itself, pre-man or without man), Food and Drink in Britain (which starts with Beaker People cookery and carries on), The Court of Henry VIII (1500s), a biography of Fanny Burney (1700s), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1880s), and The World of Jeeves (1920s). We also delved into more Fanny Burney on our Kindle, into the diaries and letters especially. And yes, it seems to be true. Her diary does become a bore after she goes into service with the "sweet queen" for five years at Windsor. Nothing to do but stand behind the royal chair and hand gloves.

Before that, Fanny's life had been all delightful travels and dinners, and rapturous praise for her breakout novel Evelina, and walks with young men whom she spurned cruelly when she felt they had offended her. (Finally one bewildered beau is forced to ask "what part of the day did it happen in?") Her life had been a veritable carnival of conversation, with Mrs. Thrale and Johnson and Burke. And this is curious, too. They were all, every one of them, writers. Wouldn't writers seek solitude and freedom to write? Not Thrale or Johnson or Burke it seems, nor Boswell, Gibbon, Smith or anyone. These eighteenth century people seem to have spent half their lives running about. When they met and talked they were capable of getting into screaming catfights, or in Johnson's case dogfights, over topics like Pope on "tranquility."  To crown all, being scholarly, they were perforce too nearsighted to recognize each other at parties. Fanny chronicles a scene from "the rooms" at Bath:
I could then wait no longer, for I found he [Burke] was more nearsighted than myself; I, therefore, turned towards him and bowed; he seemed quite amazed, and really made me ashamed, however delighted by the expressive civility and distinction with which he instantly rose to return my bow ....
There is something wonderful in the English language of the eighteenth century. Our Georgian ancestors seem to have had a suppleness of mind which they could decant equally well into the fresh unlabored prose of a diary, or into the heavy majestic "periods" -- long rhythmic balanced formal sentences -- of a great work. They seem not only to have been able to say everything they meant with a kind of vivid piquant clarity, but to have been able to foresee and accommodate every iota of meaning or reaction, on the part of reader or character, that any statement or scene could be pregnant with. They thought and wrote nimbly, and they intended to be understood for all time. They closed all doors. And yet they did it with all charm. When Fanny wants to record her father's relief that (essentially) her job interview went well, she writes, "thank God! I had the fullest success; his hopes and gay expectations were all within call, and they ran back at the first beckoning."  Though a later Georgian, Jane Austen has the same facility of mind and words, the same ability to foresee what's blocking the door and crisply shut it, with charm. Remember in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth refuses to marry Mr. Collins?
"You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and  by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise.... "
To the point; foreseen, finished. If we are to believe the letters and diaries of the day, of Miss Burney for one, they not only composed novels in this consistently charming vein but they talked this way, ex tempore. I think the mental suppleness has to do not only with their all staying in fighting trim by gadding about clashing in the rooms but also --  when alone -- with their love of that supple and charming punctuation mark, the semicolon. The use of it promotes strong linear thinking while allowing the expression of all, quite all, ideas; but I remember being taught to disdain it as a crutch. "If you're going to use it, it has to balance out both sides of the sentence." "People only use a semicolon to prove they've been to college." "Tighten up your sentences!"

Or rather, don't; read and enjoy Fanny. By the way, she got out of service at Windsor before the six hours' sleep a night and the not-eating-in-front-of-royalty regimen killed her. If she and the Georgians are not on your bedside table, I recommend you add a few, beginning with Evelina and the Diaries. You can decide for yourself how you feel about semicolons. And by all means, call your next cat Fanny, or Hodge à la Sam Johnson; and maybe your next dog Presto, à la Mrs.(Hester) Thrale. I had a cat named Hester once myself.

We can give a brief nod to our other vacation reading, before moving on to blueberry muffins. Henry VIII, Holmes, and Jeeves are always all right. Food and Drink in Britain had to wait. Backyard and Beyond was rather a bore about specific deer tracks -- not surprised the local high school library put it in its Withdrawn pile -- but it got better. Reading the book also prompted us to ask, why are all naturalists based in eastern states like New Hampshire and Connecticut? So lucky for them to enjoy handy access to mountains and seashore and woodlands. Talking of foreseeing every iota, our authors did at least acknowledge this curious fact. They gave us a chapter called "The Ocean in the Sky," all about the one thing midwestern naturalists have to look at besides flat land and trees. Below, the night's storm clouds dissipate toward the east, on a July dawn in Michigan.


Now for blueberry muffins. They are simply one of five variations of the "Basic Muffins" recipe in Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1986). The secret to making them moist and tender is what this and every other cookbook warns about: "don't overbeat." You really do just mix the batter in order to dampen the flour. Some cookbooks advise you to count strokes, and don't go beyond 20 or 30.

Blueberry muffins
  • 2 cups white flour, 1/4 of it reserved
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Add the egg, milk, and butter, stirring lightly. Sprinkle the reserved flour over the blueberries, toss them gently, and then stir them into the batter.

Spoon the batter into paper lined muffin pans. Fill each cup about two thirds full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown.

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