Ancient Crete

Although I am planning to continue the Will Rees mystery series, I also want to begin a new and very different series. These mysteries will be set in Ancient Bronze Age Crete.

Needless to say, the research has been intense!

I have learned so much. (There is still a lot more to learn, not just for me but for the archeologists too. All that we know now is from the archeological record, myths and various interpretations.)

But I digress.

These ancient Minoans were a civilized society with indoor toilets, beautiful art, and some very intriguing cultural differences. For one thing, they worshipped a Goddess and appear to be matrilineal as well as matrilocal. (That means inheritance went through the mother and when she married the man lived with her.) They worshipped snakes and apparently snake handling was part of the ceremonies.

Like most of the Goddesses then, she was the deity of fertility. Women enjoyed a high rank, something that many of the early archeologists found hard to believe.

The bull was revered. A symbol of the male principle, the bull was sacrificed at important ceremonies. Yes, this is the culture with bull-leaping. Probably most people know of this from the myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur in the labyrinth. It turns out that the people who became the Classical Greeks interpreted the Minoan culture through the lens of their own beliefs.

More on this next week.

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Amazon

I order a fair amount from Amazon even though I am one of those dinosaurs that actually likes to go into a store and browse. I order books too even though I work in a library and I haunt Barnes and Noble and visit the smaller book shops regularly. Amazon has books I need for my research that I can’t get by any other method.

But what I really use Amazon for is streaming music. I have a variety of playlists and I buy music, both old and new, to download to my phone, all the time.

The problem with Amazon is this: Music unlimited. Now I am willing to purchase the songs and I do, (And sometimes Amazon takes them away again even though I have bought them and downloaded them. I hate this. But I digress.) But I CAN’T buy some songs because they are music unlimited and Amazon wants me to pay $7.99 a month for access to them. I do not download that many songs per month. Besides, the time I would need by itself stops me. I am sure that Amazon believes that customers want the songs so much they will pay that amount of money. But I won’t. I think its gouging. And its not like Amazon doesn’t already make huge profits. So I don’t buy the song at all.

Still. Amazon’s control of this marketplace is both irritating and frightening. They can go into my phone and remove something I’ve paid for? Seriously? And the billions they are already earning isn’t enough? So here in a nutshell is the good and bad of the digital world. I can get odd books and yet Amazon has so much power over music as well as my phone.

September 11 – 16 years later

Taking a break from my writing activities for a moment, I thought I would mention some of the thoughts I reflected upon yesterday.

Sixteen years seems like such a short time and yet so many things can happen. On September 11, I was in Maine with my daughter and several other kids. We’d taken a ferry to an island, only to be told at the little general store/post office what had happened. We all thought it was a joke. But when we returned to MDI and put on the television, there it was.

I was frantic. My son had gone home for a new – and I think his first job – after college. In the city. I kept trying and trying to reach him or my ex-husband, he also worked in the city, but of course I could not get through. I did not hear until much later that night that both were fine. My son had to walk uptown from Wall Street through the crap in the air. A day or two later his lung collapsed and he had to be hospitalized. He missed the wedding of his step-sister which took place the following Saturday.

I worked in a Rockland County library then, near Pearl River. The funerals were on-going for police and fire lost that day. In the Library, always a diverse and warm community, there was conflict with the Muslims, who then blamed the Jews – fully half my staff at the time. Although we papered over the differences, some of those friendships never recovered.

Sixteen years later so many things have changed. One of the young men with me in Maine met his future wife on that trip and they now have a little girl. Other relationships ended and others began but all are married with kids of their own. The country as a whole has changed, more than I would ever have thought possible. Just think about the security at the airports. I can’t even count the number of pat-downs (and I am blond and blue-eyed) that I have endured. As a country we seem to be more fearful – and now have our own homegrown terrorists. If bin Laden’s aim was to destroy the America as we knew it, he certainly succeeded.

As for my husband and I, we’ve moved to Maine and back again and then several times in New York. We have different jobs now – and 2011 was the year my writing career finally took off. In some ways sixteen years has been a long time, but in others how short it is.

 

Arsenic

Arsenic has been known as a poison for millennia. It was so commonly used during the Victorian Age it was called inheritance powder. (Seriously.) It occurs in nature and contaminates water and foodstuffs. (New Mexico has the dubious distinction of having high levels in their water and rice is particularly susceptible to absorbing arsenic.) A slightly sweet odorless and colorless powder, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning mimic cholera or some kind of intestinal distress. It has been used as a cause of death by many many mystery authors.

Women in the Elizabethan era used it in a paste to whiten their complexions. Of course it was absorbed through the skin and a lifetime of use must have meant serious health complications. (Talk about dying for fashion.)

What interests me, though, are the inadvertent poisonings. Napoleon’s hair was shown to have very high levels of arsenic. Was he poisoned by his nearest and dearest while on Elba? What about King George III, the so-called mad King who reigned during the Colonial period and Revolution? He had porphyria, a blood disease that results in dark urine and extreme sensitivity to the sun. (Some scholars think that porphyria was the original seed of the vampire legends.) Well, when they tested King George’s hair, it too displayed high levels of arsenic. Was he poisoned?

They were both probably poisoned by environmental factors. As that time a beautiful emerald green was all the rage for wallpaper. When George Washington built his house he ordered rooms papered in this fashionable color. The problem is that beautiful color was created by arsenic and in damp or humid weather the arsenic came out of the paper into the air. Instant poisoning.

How sweet it is -Sugar

Sugar has been known for millennia. Botanists suggests sugar was discovered in Papua, New Guinea and has been cultivated for 7000 years. (Wow!) From New Guinea, it traveled west, to India, where the Greeks discovered it. In Sanskrit the word for sugar is karkara. The name changed slightly as it passed through other cultures and ended up with the Arabs who called it sukkur. Not such a leap to sugar.

It was known in Medieval Europe but it was rare and expensive and used as a spice.

What about the Colonies? Well, by 1770 British (including the colonies, ate five times as much sugar as in 1710. That number only increased. At first sugar was used primarily in tea and coffee but was later added to baked goods (especially after the discovery that baking soda and cream of tartar formed a compound that raised quick breads) and candy.

Sugarcane is difficult to harvest (the cutter has to bend over and cut it close to the ground) and change from a sweet sap to granulated sugar. It is a very labor intensive process. The Portuguese have the dubious distinction of being the first to use African slaves but, once the sugar industry really got going in the West Indies, the British and especially the French jumped on the bandwagon. Napoleon’s Jacqueline had brown rotting front teeth from her habit of eating sugarcane.

So, what were the consequences? At the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans we saw the pots hung over fires that had to be stirred constantly to keep the juice from burning. This was a job usually reserved for slave children. Of all the jobs the slaves performed, this was probably the worst.

 

More about sugar, sugarcane, and rum next.

Shaker Herbs Part Four – Culinary Herbs

The Shakers served plain food but it was nourishing and, from the recipes I’ve tried, flavorful. There was some overlap of course. Basil, for example, was used as a tea and an aromatic to prevent excessive vomiting. Rosemary was also used as a tea and its oil was made into a liniment.

Some of the other herbs are not so unsurprising. One of my favorites is for a Dandelion salad. (Seriously!) The mixture includes dandelion leaves, simmered until tender and drained, then put into a saucepan with egg yolks, cream, butter and other herbs such as mint, lemon thyme and so on. The mixture is put on slices of stale bread and fried and then seasoned with oil and vinegar and parsley.

Fish was poached with chamomile leaves or covered with chamomile sauce. (Make a roux with butter and flour (2 Tablespoons each), add a Cup of chicken stock, parsley, the chamomile leaves and add salt and pepper to taste,) Marjoram, basil, parsley and basil went into meatloaf, tarragon, summer savory, marjoram, chervil and thyme into chicken fricasee.

Hancock Village served an herb soup made up of chopped sorrel, chopped shallots, chervil, mint and parsley boiled in milk. Butter and salt and pepper are added to taste and the whole mixture poured over squares of toasted bread.

I want to add a note about the Shaker’s recipe for bread which I found in a James Beard bread book. It is so delicious I could eat an entire loaf. But I digress.

Another soup is apple soup, so tasty on a cool fall day. A quartered apple, cored but unpeeled, a quartered onion and a herb mix of marjoram, basil, summer savory and more combined with cinnamon is cooked in the top of a double boiler. The apple is removed when soft and the soup is strained. Cider and cream is added when ready to serve.

Some of these herbs and herb mixes can be purchased in the gift shops of the various museum communities and at Sabbathday Lake. Hancock Village had a mix that includes basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, thyme and more. It has been several years since I purchased my supply so I am not sure it is still available.