Hope may spring eternal, but it pivots on the solstice. It is a four-letter word of another ilk and it signifies the triumph of desire and need over experience. It permits persistence in the face of facts, statistics and probabilities. Hope is the antithesis of despair. The winter solstice is the return of light, warmth and renewal. We approach, once again, that season and event that has merited celebration for more than 5,000 years with good cause.
Most of us are familiar with Stonehenge, yet few are aware of the many and varied ring sites and other devices that plot the solstice. Aside from Brodgar and Seahenge, the people from Azerbaijan left the Maiden Tower, Celts left Newgrange, Incas left the stone tools of Machu Pichu, ancient Africans left megalith rings in Senegal, and the Pre-Columbian Pueblos left the Sun Dagger site in New Mexico, just to note a few. Each marked the annual end of darkness and were used to gather communities to celebrate, give thanks, worship or otherwise acknowledge the annual travels of what we now know is our planet around the source of its energy.
As the next harvest became more predictable, more assured, our celebrations took on other aspects. Mesopotamians brought evergreens into their homes 4,000 years ago to remind them that the earth would become green again soon. Romans specifically set aside days for silliness which the British later turned into “misrule”, an opportunity to turn the norm bottoms up. Staid Latvian town fathers paraded through the streets hoisting up small evergreen trees which were tossed into a bonfire in the main square. The annual rhythms of renewal were commemorated in nearly every culture that has ever existed. And still are.
It is thought that the Romans introduced gift-giving to the season with the presentation of tiny clay figurines of their patron gods to family and friends in hopes of prosperity and protection in the coming year. The Greek Saint Nick, the Swedish Father Christmas, the Italian Befana and Santa Claus were once kissing cousins but now appear to be leaning in the direction of identical twins. All of our cultural celebrations have and continue to morph as our world changes. Yet with all that change, this season remains imbued with the spirit of hope and cheer.
In anticipatory hopes of the richness of your table during this season, we are offering today a Chocolate Whiskey Cake. There are many festive recipes on the web site for Christmas and New Year’s favorites from near and far, so take a look and try something new to go with all your traditions. Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all possible hope to you and yours!
Cookies, by definition are reasonably small, flat cakes eaten as a snack or dessert. Unless, that is, it is a tough cookie, in which case it is usually someone with an exceptionally hard demeanor. Apart from the times the word cookie is applied to an attractive woman. It would be very interesting to discover the etymological source of it being used to denote a file on a computer used by a site the computer visits to store data useful to that website.
The majority of English-speaking countries in the world call this confection a biscuit. Only the citizens of the U.S. and Canada refer to it as a cookie. Some experts hold that the word and the confection are from the Dutch, who called it kockie. The Dutch were the first Europeans to occupy Wall Street, then the northern most Manhattan border of New Amsterdam. Beyond that wall were Native Americans and wilderness. Though not for long. As the border was expanded, the kockie went along in all directions.
The Muppet’s Cookie Monster is credited with enhancing the reputation of the cookie in these parts, though it needed no enhancement for some of us. Nor have the bakers been shy of experimenting. There are probably more types to be had, but my count yielded: drop, bar, filled, molded, sandwich, rolled and cut, icebox (now refrigerated), iced, pressed, cream, savory and fortune cookies. By some definitions, brownies and blondies are cookies. Everyone has a favorite and, nationally, the cream-filled chocolate sandwich is the winner. Personally, a few peanut butter cookies with an ice-cold glass of milk approaches divinity.
Then there are Christmas cookies. Those baked to leave for Santa may account for his rotundity. But is anyone taking book on how many of those baked during the season actually make it as far as Santa’s snack plate? Think of all those fingers licked clean of frosting and sprinkles.
Gingerbread was reportedly brought to Europe in the 990s AD by an Armenian monk. By the 15th C the production of gingerbread in Germany was controlled by a Gingerbread Guild. In 17th C England, the town of Market Drayton claimed to be the home of gingerbread. It was shaped, painted and hung in shop window displays. How and when gingerbread, its men and its houses became associated with Christmas is undocumented, but I suspect the Victorians of German descent. So it probably goes.
Surprisingly, though there are many cakes, tarts and pies in the web site’s recipe files, there are few cookies. Clearly something has to change. There is a Gingerbread Pear Cake you might give a try during the season and a festive Cranberry Walnut Tart, but we’ll have to get to work on a few more cookie recipes. Meanwhile, courtesy of my friend, Gail Tirana, we’re offering two cookie recipes, Oatmeal, Raisin & Spice Cookies and Coconut Macaroons. Munch with milk, coffee, tea or Vin Santo according to your preference.
Humans are so wonderfully fanciful. Take two scarce resins, add a dollop of imagination and the gods are sweating Frankincense and weeping Myrrh. Resins are the semi-solid secretion of trees and plants and have been used for incense, perfumes, embalming, sacrificial offerings, medicine, a thickener in food dishes and for glue. When wounded, that is when the bark is scored through, these ingenious trees exude the resins to heal themselves. These two particular resins have been harvested and traded for more than 5,000 years. Murals in the Egyptian tomb of the only female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut, depict sacks of exotic trade goods, including Frankincense and Myrrh.
Almost all Frankincense originates in Oman, Yemen and Somalia, a product of the Boswellia scara tree, one of the scrufftiest, scrabbiest examples of desert botany that ever photosynthesized. The Commiphora myrrha tree would not win a beauty contest either with spikey thorns that could have inspired the mace club. Myrrh is native to Yemen, Somalia and eastern Ethiopia. Both resins were worth more than their weight in gold, though neither was considered a luxury. Rather, given their ritualistic roles and their ability to delay the onset of decomposition while covering the odors of death, they were thought of as a necessity. The charred remains of a knob of Frankincense burned as incense was ground up by the Egyptians to become the distinctive black kohl eyeliner. The flagrantly excessive Nero, before he let Rome burn, lit a year’s worth myrrh on the funeral pyre of his wife, in remorse for killing her and their unborn child with a kick to her belly.
In its purest forms, Frankincense was chewed like gum to aid digestion and promote healthy skin. Its medicinal use has expanded and it is currently used to treat depression, cancer, respiratory infections and inflammations, as well as to stimulate the immune system. The BBC reported in 2010 that studies in progress have noted the resin’s ability to arrest and possibly cure cancers by causing the cancerous cells to close down on themselves.
Myrryh has been a staple of Chinese medicine for at least four centuries. As such it has been prized for its ability to “move blood”, to purge stagnant blood from the uterus and to relieve rheumatic, arthritic and circulatory issues. Myrrh has been shown in recent tests to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and to increase HDL (good) cholesterol.
I fear I have no recipes to offer using Frankincense or Myrrh. But in the spirit of the season, while pumpkins can still be had we offer Pumpkin Soup as an appeasement along with a few of the holiday recipes to be found on the web site.