Friday, January 31, 2014

Happy Chinese New Year!

It's the Year of the Wooden Horse! A wood year is associated with the season of spring, direction of east, planet Jupiter, colors blue and green, and wind.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On the Delicacy of the Dodo

The facts about the Dodo are simple and scarce. This large flightless bird was first discovered by explorers in the late Sixteenth Century on the island of Mauritius (east of Madagascar), and in less than a hundred years it was extinct, not only eaten by hungry sailors (it was extremely easy to catch and had no fear of humans) but by the invasive species that men brought with them, including dogs, cats, rats, pigs, and even monkeys. Much about the Dodo's habits, diet, and appearance are speculation, made up from scanty accounts, rare drawings, and scattered remains. Only about a dozen dodos ever made it to Europe, and of those even fewer made it alive. For a time, many scientists even thought it was a myth, since they believed it was impossible for a species to go extinct; therefore, it must be simply sailor's tales. But its existence and extinction were eventually confirmed, and it passed into phrase and fable as an example of something gone beyond recall--"dead as a dodo."

But of all the mysteries and maybes surrounding the Dodo, there is one question that has intrigued me for years, and in the face of the tragedy of its demise it may seem callous or cruel, but--What did a Dodo taste like?

Not a too unscientific inquiry, perhaps, as human consumption played a part in the fate of the bird. One can imagine a limited stock of a delicious item being depleted to nothing by sheer human greed and carelessness. But initial investigation indicates that dodos were eaten mainly because of their ease in capture and availability, not for taste; indeed, their alternate Dutch name was "walghvogel", used in the journal of Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck, who visited Mauritius during the Second Dutch Expedition to Indonesia in 1598. He explained the meaning of the name as follows: "... finding in this place great quantity of foules twice as bigge as swans, which they call Walghstocks or Wallowbirdes being very good meat. But finding an abundance of pigeons & popinnayes [parrots], they disdained any more to eat those great foules calling them Wallowbirds, that is to say lothsome or fulsome birdes."

The "loathsome"--the "disgusting," the "nauseating" bird--does not sound like "very good meat" and has led to some writers to claim that the birds were only eaten by necessity, and were just plain nasty. But van Warwijk goes on to explain the Dodo was called this "...for the reason that the longer and oftener they were cooked [i.e., "wallowed in the pot"], the less soft and more insipid eating they became. Nevertheless their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour and easily masticated." Sir Thomas Herbert in 1634 said "It is reputed more for wonder than for food, greasie [robust] stomackes may seeke after them, but to the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment." The one recipe I could find for cooking Dodo suggests it be done with mangoes, fruit native to Mauritius, so it would "taste like something."*

As for size and serving, the Dodo was about three feet tall and weighed between 40 and 50 pounds. How much of that would be usable meat is a matter of sheer speculation (a 20 lb. turkey yields 8 lbs. of meat, so a 40 lb. dodo might yeild 16 lbs.). Willem Van West-Zanen, in 1602, said that the crew** of his ship could barely finish two in one meal. The image of the Dodo as a clumsy dumpling of a bird might be partly attributable to mistaken reconstruction from skeletal remains. Alternately it has been suggested that the Dodo packed on pounds to survive the dry season and at other times could be a rather trim creature. As noted above, the breast and belly were the good parts; the wings were small and negligible, and the legs were undoubtedly tough and tendony like other "walking birds." It is recorded that the cooking made good stock for soup.

Which all leaves the still burning question: what did it taste like? Again, taste is relative and personal, and very hard to describe, unless you have some correlative to compare to. Despite the universality of the saying, it almost certainly did not "taste like chicken." The Dodo was a very large, flightless member of the pigeon family, Columbidae. Although I live right in the middle of dove-hunting country (and a dove is just a pigeon by another name), I regret to say I have never tasted one. I am told they are "iron-y" and "minerally," the sort of flavor one expects from wild game. As a wild bird they have little fat or grease, and most recipes suggest they be wrapped in some other meat (usually bacon) to make them savory. I imagine that in the much larger Dodo the flavor would be more diffused through the flesh. The Dodo's main diet staple is speculated to have been fruit (those mangoes, again, and palm fruit) and it has been observed that birds fed thus are quite tasty. Although Dodos were never domesticated, one can imagine, if they had been, that over 400 years of breeding would have made as much a difference in flavor as it has between wild turkey and our annual Thanksgiving fodder.

As for the eggs (a la Mr. Burns), I can find no observations on their taste. Dodos laid one egg at a time (an evolutionary response to their limited, closed environment), a contributing factor to their extinction once unnatural predators were introduced to their island. I imagine that even if they had survived a dodo egg would be a rare and occasional treat. Taste--well, for me, "eggs is eggs."

Is it possible that we will ever eat dodos again? In these days of genetic experimentation, "dead as a dodo" may not be quite as dead as it used to be. If enough Dodo DNA is recovered from cell samples, it could be infused into a living cell that has had its DNA removed (perhaps one from a Nicobar pigeon, the Dodo's nearest surviving relative). It would produce a 100 per cent Dodo. But the cloned embryo would still have to be implanted into a living creature that can carry it until the egg is laid: the size difference makes it problematic. The rarity and age of soft tissue samples of the Dodo also complicate things, as DNA degrades over time. But there is a chance, however slim, that someday dodo breast with cream gravy and mashed potatoes might be on the menu, another avian alternative.

*I wonder if the "disgusting" reputation of the Dodo had something to do with its skin-covered head, an unpleasant attribute shared with vultures and buzzards.
**I haven't been able to find a record of the crew complement; it could have been as few as 18 men.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox"

"St. Thomas was so stolid that the scholars, in the schools which he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce. Indeed, he was the sort of schoolboy, not unknown, who would much rather be thought a dunce than have his own dreams invaded, by more active or animated dunces."

Friday, January 24, 2014

I Only Take Advice I Want To Hear

"If you are a writer, and you have a novel idea that you are excited about writing, write it. Don’t go on message boards and ask random Internet denizens whether or not something is allowed. … Who is the writer here? YOU ARE. Whose book is it? YOUR BOOK. There are no writing police. No one is going to arrest you if you write a teen vampire novel post Twilight. No one is going to send you off to a desert island to live a wretched life of worm eating and regret because your book includes things that could be seen as cliché.

If you have a book that you want to write, just write the damn thing. Don’t worry about selling it; that comes later. Instead, worry about making your book good. Worry about the best way to order your scenes to create maximum tension, worry about if your character’s actions are actually in character; worry about your grammar. DON’T worry about which of your stylistic choices some potential future editor will use to reject you, and for the love of My Little Ponies don’t worry about trends. Trying to catching a trend is like trying to catch a falling knife — dangerous, foolhardy, and often ending in tears, usually yours.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay attention to what’s getting published; keeping an eye on what’s going on in your market is part of being a smart and savvy writer. But remember that every book you see hitting the shelves today was sold over a year ago, maybe two. Even if you do hit a trend, there’s no guarantee the world won’t be totally different by the time that book comes out. The only certainty you have is your own enthusiasm and love for your work. …

If your YA urban fantasy features fairies, vampires, and selkies and you decide halfway through that the vampires are over-complicating the plot, that is an appropriate time to ax the bloodsuckers. If you decide to cut them because you’re worried there are too many vampire books out right now, then you are betraying yourself, your dreams, and your art.

If you’re like pretty much every other author in the world, you became a writer because you had stories you wanted to tell. Those are your stories, and no one can tell them better than you can. So write your stories, and then edit your stories until you have something you can be proud of. Write the stories that excite you, stories you can’t wait to share with the world because they’re just so amazing. If you want to write Murder She Wrote in space with anime-style mecha driven by cats, go for it. Nothing is off limits unless you do it badly.

And if you must obsess over something, obsess over stuff like tension and pacing and creating believable characters. You know, the shit that matters. There are no writing police. This is your story, no one else’s. Tell it like you want to."


I have no idea who this lady is or what her credentials are, but I like what I'm hearing.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mortal Monday

"In the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance (which was, in certain times and respects, a much gloomier period) this idea of the skeleton had a vast influence in freezing the pride out of all earthly pomps and the fragrance out of all fleeting pleasures. But it was not, surely, the mere dread of death that did this, for these were ages in which men went to meet death singing; it was the idea of the degradation of man in the grinning ugliness of his structure that withered the juvenile insolence of beauty and pride. And in this it almost assuredly did more good than harm. There is nothing so cold or so pitiless as youth, and youth in aristocratic stations and ages tended to an impeccable dignity, an endless summer of success which needed to be very sharply reminded of the scorn of the stars. It was well that such flamboyant prigs should be convinced that one practical joke, at least, would bowl them over, that they would fall into one grinning man-trap, and not rise again. That the whole structure of their existence was as wholesomely ridiculous as that of a pig or a parrot they could not be expected to realize; that birth was humorous, coming of age humorous, drinking and fighting humorous, they were far too young and solemn to know. But at least they were taught that death was humorous."

--from "In Defence of Skeletons," G. K. Chesterton.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Richard Cory

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Remix Culture"

“Montaigne knew very well that, the minute you publish a book, you lose control of it. Other people can do what they like: they can edit it into strange forms, or impose interpretations upon it that you would never have dreamed of. Even an unpublished manuscript can get out of hand. …There can be no really ambitious writing without an acceptance that other people will do what they like with your work, and change it almost beyond recognition. Montaigne accepted this principle in art, as he did in life. He even enjoyed it. People form strange ideas of you; they adapt you to their own purposes. By going with the flow and relinquishing control of the process, you gain all the benefits of the old Hellenistic trick of amor fati: the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens.” --Sarah Bakewell, How To Live; or A Life of Montaigne.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Devil Was Sick

The Devil Sick would be a Monk

“Dœmon languebat, monachus bonus esse volebat;
Sed cum convaluit, manet ut ante fuit.”

“When the Devil was sick, the devil a monk would be;
When the Devil got well, the devil a monk was he.”

Said of those persons who in times of sickness or danger make pious resolutions, but forget them when danger is past and health recovered.