Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Doctor, Dissected

Lately I've been watching the new Doctor Who series one after the other on Netflix, in odd moments when nothing else will do. A long time ago, my friend in Scotland sent me some action figures from the second season, and I didn't know the first thing about them. My friend Gwyan, having grown up in the UK, is a big (old) Doctor Who fan, but I could never see the appeal, so I hadn't yet approached the new one. But I kept hearing about it, and I have to say when I was at Writers of the Future and got to know Sean Williams, an extraordinarily intelligent man and an avid Doctor fan (and a very nice person to boot), I began to reassess the preconceptions with which I had come to it when I was young.

My first attempt at the Doctor was as a twenty-something person, and there are a number of reasons why I never took to it.

First of all, and this is entirely childish and silly, the cheapness made me sort of slide off it without getting a grip, if that makes sense. I didn't know which episodes were good ones; the ones I watched seemed to be attached to ones I hadn't watched, and I couldn't get past the low-budget effects and the ridiculous voices and things that were supposed to be scary (or at least to be taken seriously). Perhaps I was someone who couldn't laugh at things enough; perhaps I didn't give it enough of my attention. Perhaps I was too young and conscientious when I tried it. In a weird way, this is probably also why I never became a smoker: the smell put me off and I just didn't have the stick-to-it-iveness to become addicted.

Secondly, when I did actually get a "good" episode, the girl companions in the show put me off. They were great girls, don't get me wrong: but they didn't do a lot, other than make mistakes or get rescued. I say this as someone who hasn't watched a lot of Doctor Who, but I have to say the same thing was true for me of the old Star Trek (which I have watched a lot of). I really wanted to like them - all my friends (mostly male) had this sort of connective tissue of geekiness about those two shows, but I just couldn't identify with any of the female roles, and it got in the way of my enjoyment.

(On a side note, I discovered Galaxy Quest a few years ago and really loved the way they played with this issue with Sigourney Weaver, the ultimate smart female role model, someone whose role in the tv-show-within-the-film is to repeat what the ship's computer says. It seemed to personify all that I disliked about the old Star Trek, and made me love the movie's writers).

However, I'm finding that I like the new Doctor. He seems willing to feel things, and his companions actually save his life and participate in the solutions, not just the problems; the effects manage to emulate the old show without being obviously cheap. They even emulate some of the way the old shows used sets and costumes that were laying around the lots -- I'm always a sucker for a mixture of science fiction and costume drama.

But along with this new interest is a discovery that I can't find any interesting overall analysis of the Doctor Who construct. I've found many analyses of individual episodes or specific incarnations of the Doctor, but people looking at the underlying cultural elements of the show as a whole seem a bit thin on the ground. Please - correct me if I'm wrong. And please take this next bit with a grain of salt.

It seems to me that some really brilliant person came up with a concept that would appeal to those intelligent, un-macho young men in that particular geeky stage between twelve and fifteen who hope to become someone dashing and useful someday. Think about it: an eccentric man who is a Time Lord (the name itself is terribly indicative of someone with power over interesting and important things like time and space), roaming the universe alone (appeals to loners) having adventures. He is always accompanied by an attractive young woman, who has been impressed by his acumen and persuaded to accompany him around the universe (she is also changed out before she can start to age). Many of the Doctors were thin (not heavily-built) men with unprepossessing features, and yet they were terribly competent and had excellent abilities; and usually they were able to defeat their enemy simply with their wits (and sometimes with little else). Does this not sound like the esprit d'escalier embodied in a character? How many of us geeks (and yes, I include myself here) wished when we were young that we could come up with that exact right thing to do or say at the moment when it was required - the vanquishing, or at least reducing, of the bully with our wit and debonair cunning, the chance to save the day in a way that made that attractive girl person notice us?

Most of the people I know who were really huge fans of the earlier incarnations of the Doctors from the 1960's and 70's are intellectual-leaning males. If my experience is anything to go by, it would explain a great deal of the show's appeal to these folks as young men. It was smartly written, and values words; it was intellectual rather than visceral (the early Doctors seem to approach events using their reason, not their feelings); it treated women as smart and even intensely interesting people but preferred them to be pretty and to need help; it was mainly concerned with gadgets and robots and creatures who wanted to either mindlessly kill or take over the world. There is something in geek nature, I think, which likes to imagine that the world is controllable, and the Doctor Who series embodied this preference for reason and logic overcoming chaos (interestingly, Star Trek had a completely different message, and that beloved creature of logic-loving geeks - Spock himself - was not infallible: he was subject to periodic bouts of chaotic thinking, because the show required emotion to be the winning quality. Kirk's character, of course, made sure non-geeks could like the show too, being all about manly emotion and impulsiveness).

With all this in mind, I have to say I very much appreciate the kind of writing that allows the new Doctors to be men who have the same sharp intellect as the old ones, the same quirky weirdness which appeals to intellectuals and geeks and young boys, and yet manages to have an extra layer of emotion written in underneath, that extra something which makes people like me who are sticklers for emotional motivation willing to watch, and go on watching. I find that although I still find the Dalek irritating (sorry, fans, I came to it too late), and don't particularly like the cybermen, the fact that the main characters are so believable and, as believable people, are responding with distress to the monsters, makes me willing to go along - and as a result, interestingly, I am more willing to go back and watch the old shows. And I do it with a more open mind, coming to it as historical documentation of the world-building, rather than wanting to laugh outright at creatures made of plastic bags and tin foil.

It means a lot to me to see that the world is changing in this way, allowing us grown-up girls to reclaim bits of what we never could access before. When smart and even-handed people are on the teams that write the new stories, the world changes. Like Title IX, which has changed innumerable girls' lives, the acceptance of girls (and non-heterosexuals too) into the Land of Geek - and the accommodation of their sensibilities - is a wonderful thing, something relatively new. I think this same approach could benefit a lot more of our popular pastimes (I'm not naming gaming, oh, no, not me). The fact that the girls in the new episodes are kickass, and that the Doctor is able to care about things in his heart and soul, and the attention to detail which comes with a larger budget, means that a door has been opened, and people like the younger me, girls or others with geeky romantic adventure leanings, can also get into the Tardis and fly away with the Doctor, and for that I am grateful. It's a new world, and I like it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Summer In Winter

It's blackberry season.

Also peach season, and apricot season, and many other kinds of fruit I love beyond reason.

In the winter, we collect, freeze and dry mushrooms to eat when the mushroom season has passed, so we can enjoy those flavors even when they are barely available in the fancy supermarkets for $40 a pound. We got 20 pounds of morels this year, and innumerable black trumpets. But in the summer, it's fruit. Boxes of it, bags of it: we gorge, and are content.

However, like the mushrooms I'm always trying to save that fruit for the winter months, when the flavor of blackberries or peaches can give you a moment of summer in the midst of the cold. Most years I make preserves of one sort or another. I've made strawberry jam and olallieberry jam, apple and pear butter, canned olallieberries and canned pears... yum.

The problem is, I'm almost the only one who eats it, so it sits there, fruit from summer waiting to be eaten when the fresh fruit is gone - waiting and waiting. It makes me sad. We do eat the canned olallieberries over ice cream (extra yum!)... but this year I decided to forget jam and go alcoholic.

Too much jam.

I remember when I was a kid, my parents went through a phase of making what they called "civil war nectar:" fruit in a big glass jar with sugar and something else, which fermented and produced a small amount of alcohol, which they ate over ice cream or cake. I've tried many times to get a recipe for that, but only yesterday found one:

1 part brandy
1 part fruit
1 part sugar
Leave it in a covered jar for a week before using.
Every time you use it, replace what you've taken with equal parts sugar and whatever fruit is in season.
Refrigerate in between uses if you are not using for more than a few days.

The place I found the recipe says: "Great on ice cream, pound cake, and such, but it does get very sneaky strong."

In my journeys through the internet looking for this recipe, I came instead across what seems to be a different approach to the same thing. Rumtopf ("rum pot"), also known as "tutti frutti" (all fruits, and yes, apparently that's where the name comes from) is a very old way of preserving summer flavors into the winter, from a time when alcohol was one of the only ways of preserving fruit:

"A tutti-frutti is started at the beginning of the summer, with fruits added to the mixture as they come into season. The last addition is usually made in September at the end of peach season. The trick to a successful tutti-frutti with brandy or a rumtopf with rum is to use an eclectic mixture of summer fruits, creating a blend of flavors. After the last addition, the entire mixture is set aside to mellow and age for several months. Of course, you can begin sampling the tutti-frutti/rumtopf whenever you like, but in Germany, it is not sampled until December on the first evening of advent. After that, it is fully consumed throughout the Christmas holidays. The spirited fruit is served over ice cream, pound cake, bread pudding and many other desserts. The sweet, fruity liquid can be enjoyed as an after dinner liqueur or mixed into cocktails."
(Thanks to Theresa Loe)

You find a ceramic or glass jar, about a gallon in size, with a tight-fitting lid. If you don't have a lid, or if the lid doesn't fit tightly, you can supplement with plastic wrap and a rubber band. You can also put a dish inside to hold the fruit down under the alcohol.

"Strawberries, cherries, raspberries, peaches, apricots, pineapple, nectarines, red currents and plums all work well. Do not use watermelon or cantaloupe (too watery), blackberries (too seedy), bananas (too soft) or citrus (too acidic). Some people avoid dark fruits like blueberries because they will discolor the lighter fruits in the mixture..."

I actually did use blackberries, because I like their flavor, and some people do the same with blueberries. I have also heard you should not use apples or pears, because they don't have sufficient body and get all mushy. The other thing I found is that having a cylindrical jar works better with the holding-down dish, which unfortunately allows fruit to escape around the edges if you use a round jar like I have.

What thrills me about this dish is the wonderful fragrance, a summery smell that comes wafting out whenever I open the lid. I smell it, and I think about the layers of fruit inside, and how when Christmastime comes we'll appreciate that injection of lost sunshine into our lives. It's like a little pot of treasure in my pantry, waiting for me to add more anytime I get some good fruit. At some point, I will try the Civil War Nectar, but for the moment I'm looking forward to that first taste of the Rumtopf in December.

Now, the other thing I made this year, which turned out extraordinary, was Creme de Mûre, a key ingredient in one version of the French cocktail known as Kir. We learned to love this drink during the ten years our family owned an old mill in France, where we would go and stay on the river and eat French food and generally enjoy the beauty of Bourgogne (Burgundy), where the house was situated. Traditionally, kir is made with Creme de Cassis (blackcurrant), topped up with white wine from Bourgogne. It's drunk as an aperitif, before food or a snack.

"Originally called blanc-cassis, the drink is now named after Félix Kir (1876 - 1968), mayor of Dijon in Burgundy, who as a pioneer of the twinning movement in the aftermath of the Second World War popularized the drink by offering it at receptions to visiting delegations. Besides treating his international guests well, he was also promoting two vital economic products of the region." [wiki]

If the rumtopf has a wonderful scent, this one is simply godlike. I find the flavor is rich and redolent of that peculiarly spicy blackberry scent, the smell of English summers and of scratched hands, sunshine and delicious forage, stained lips and that cautious, arched straining one does to get hold of a good cluster that's just out of reach. There is nothing like the smell of good blackberries, and now by making it I've actually managed to capture that smell in a bottle. It, too, has to age for three months, so I'm really looking forward to this winter, more than any winter full of jam.

Recipe for Creme de Mûre:

500 grams of blackberries
500 ml eau de vie (I used vodka - 80 proof)
250 ml water
350 grams sugar

Crush the berries and put them in the alcohol for 24 hours (cover it well).
Then strain out the fruit and put the fruit in the water for 24 hours.
Strain again, putting the fruit in the compost or feeding to your chickens.
Add the sugar to the blackberry-water, and heat until just warm enough to dissolve the sugar.
Now mix the sugar/blackberry mixture with the alcohol. Filter it through three or four layers of cheesecloth (or a thin, open weave dishtowel -- too tightly woven and it will clog), and put in bottles.
You can drink it at this point (yum), but it's apparently better if you let it age.

When my children were little, we used to read a book called Frederick, by Leo Lionni, about a mouse-poet who didn't help collect seeds and things during the summer. When the other mice complained, he said he was collecting smells and colors. Then when winter came, he was able to warm them with his words, which brought back the sights and feelings of summer in the middle of winter. I always liked this book, because it's about the things a writer wants to capture, and about bringing bits of the soft season into times that are hard and cold.

These dishes remind me of Frederick, holding tight to that fragrance and color from the season when fruit was really and truly ripe and giving it back to us again when we need it most.

So enjoy! And may your winter be full of the poetry of fruit...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Very Small Post About Tomato Blossoms

So I'm just not getting many tomatoes this year.

The bees come and hang out with the squash blossoms and the sunflowers, and pretty much ignore the tomatoes. The bumblebees like them, though the two poor bumblebees I see in there are working hard trying to cover all those blossoms.

So I went to look up tomato pollination, and I find there is a whole mythos about tomatoes being self-pollinating. Apparently, according to this site, "The wild progenitor of our domestic tomato, in its native Peru, was pollinated by a solitary bee that was specifically adapted to it. As tomatoes were carried to other areas, its pollinator did not go with it, and pollination was often lacking."

Looking around, I came across a wonderful Instructables which explained things further:

"Tomatoes, as well as other members of the Solanaceae require a special kind of pollination to achieve proper fruit set. This form of pollination is known as "buzz pollination". Buzz pollination is accomplished by Bumblebees (Bombus), by gripping the flower with their legs and vibrating their flight muscles; honeybees (Apis) are incapable of doing this. In small gardens, bumblebee populations can be insufficient to properly pollinate tomatoes and related plants. Here's how to buzz pollinate your plants to produce larger fruits."

The 10-second video and the one-step Instructable then goes on to demonstrate a perfect (and hilarious) way to pollinate your tomatoes, which I will allow you the pleasure of discovering. It made me laugh.

Back at the first site, they tell us "Greenhouse growers for many years employed humans with electric vibrators (one brand name: Electric Bee!) to accomplish pollination. Today these have been mostly replaced with cultured bumblebees who do it more efficiently and cheaply."

All of which explains why I saw the single bumblebee in my garden, going from flower to flower and making a strange "bzazz" noise as it climbed onto each one. Yay, bumblebees! Still, I think I'll follow the Instructables and see if it helps.