Open-face hot turkey sandwich at a great diner-style eatery in Mexico, Maine.
What’s high on your comfort food list?
From Sunrise County to the Universe
Open-face hot turkey sandwich at a great diner-style eatery in Mexico, Maine.
What’s high on your comfort food list?
It was fairly common in the wild when I was growing up in the Midwest, and its red roots and polymorphic leaves of one, two, and three lobes all on one tree made it distinctive. But the tree is rather rare where I’m now living.
It does, however, play into my Quaking Dover story, as I’ll explain.
Here are ten things of note about sassafras.
The Amish do it, after all. Somehow, wet laundry hung out to dry in below-freezing temperatures still manages to dry.
Often a piece is already stiff before it’s fully pinned to the line.
The clean clothes and linens come in smelling heavenly sweet.
About halfway back in my life, I found myself among Plain-dressing rural Christians. Some of them were also Plain Quakers who retained the “thee” and “thou” speech of Friends’ tradition. My bff of the time was one of them.
Plain dress, should you ask, is what the Amish wear, as well as old-order Mennonites, Brethren, and some other strands, in their own subtle distinctions.
There were reasons I didn’t go all the way, but I did acquire some items, including broadfall pants that have no zipper or belt loops. They were surprisingly comfortable and very well made, in America, no less. After 35 years or so, my denim and blue corduroy pairs are finally showing some wear. I have no idea how many regular brand-name blue jeans these have outlived, but now it’s time to order more of the Plain style.
For many folks, that means Gohn Bros. in Middlebury, Indiana, whose no-nonsense, illustration-free catalog can be downloaded online or ordered by phone or mail. The owners of the store, we should note, aren’t Amish, though they’ve served that demographic for generations. I’ve heard of other faithful buyers who found the store through the Whole Earth pages of hippie lore. Maybe this post will add to it.
I am happy to see that the small-town emporium survives. A few minor changes appear in the options as enhancements rather than copouts. For instance, I can now substitute belt loops for the suspender buttons or opt for gray or black denim rather than blue. My, my.
Here I am, actively paring down my possessions, trying to use up what’s already on my hangers and in my dresser drawers, yet I’m feeling tempted to order a few new shirts, maybe a dress coat, too.
Don’t worry, it’s not Armani. Instead, these selections are much more everyday practical me. Just think, too, they’ll always be in timeless style.
As I drafted a recent post agonizing over the future of Boston Revels – and by implication, other performing arts organizations – I found myself pondering the origin of the reveling tradition itself. I kept mistyping “revel” as “rebel,’ only to learn that the two words share a common origin. Aha!
A online little research soon led to the Inns of the Court in England and Wales – places that were both a kind of law school and a professional association as well as lodging for members – and to their elaborate entertainments and wild parties that included a lord of misrule.
Suddenly, I was connecting to Thomas Morton and his Merrymount settlement in early New England, something I discuss in detail in my Quaking Dover book.
I’ve long been aware of an irony in the Boston Revels esteem, knowing how alien a Christmas or Midwinter celebration would have been to the city’s Puritan founders, even before getting to any riotous misrule. Now the plot thickened through an awareness of the way Morton was persecuted and his colony forcibly destroyed by Myles Standish at the helm of the New World neighbors.
Today’s family-friendly holiday Revels shows are greatly sanitized from their Medieval forerunners that would have been presented any time between Halloween and Groundhog’s Day – Morton’s big celebrations were for May Day, a seasonal stretch adding yet another pagan dimension.
Moreover, their ancient roots reveal ways English law was independent of the church, diverging the church courts that ruled in continental Europe. The Inns of the Court also nurtured Elizabethan theater and their revels are mentioned in Shakespeare.
Could they even be the source of a rebellious thread in our laws and courts? Or at least of what passes for drama and theatricality therein?
EARLIER RED BARN POSTS have touted of Revels as a unique Boston-based arts institution that presents joyous performances blending story, theater, music, dance, literature, history, and much else from many varied world peoples into a magical collective experience. Sound amazing? It’s been. Everyone in our family has delighted in these offerings, no matter how eclectic the theme. As the motto proclaims, “Revels creates musical and theatrical events and educational programs that celebrate cultural and seasonal traditions from around the world, for and with the communities we serve.” It’s even spawned similar groups across the country, as I learned while living in Baltimore and had friends active in the neighboring Washington productions.
While many Revels programs are centered on solstices and equinoxes, the most popular one, far and away, leaves most of the public knowing our organization only as the “Boston Christmas Revels” and then being surprised to hear that Revels Inc. also offers workshops, concerts, pub sings, children’s courses, and a harbor cruise or two throughout the year. I know I’m forgetting some others. That successful “Christmas” identity, for what it’s worth, created a branding problem that’s finally being rectified, in part by rebadging the holiday extravaganza as Midwinter Revels. In addition, let me point out that the flagship attraction has always included many decidedly non-Christian and secular elements, as well as some familiar carols sung by the entire audience. Quite simply, these shows are not about baby Jesus front and center.
My family’s treks from New Hampshire to those Yule pageants in Harvard’s Christopher Wren-inspired Sanders Theatre (which seems to come straight out of Shakespeare or Harry Potter) quickly became a highlight of our year. It meant a day exploring the big city itself as well as across the Charles in cosmopolitan Cambridge, where you could find yourself in amazement at the many languages heard along its sidewalks. We’d always stop at the Harvard Coop for new calendars if nothing else. On those outings the family was introduced to subway rides, bowls of Vietnamese Pho in Chinatown, even the coffee and wine isles of Trader Joe’s back before there was one close to home. How could I forget watching our seven-year-old be absolutely enthralled by a Leonardo da Vinci theme full of Renaissance music in Italian and Latin and featuring Revels legendary founder John Langstaff in what turned out to be his final appearances, not that I could have dragged the kid to a concert of the same program. She was hooked.
Once I retired from the newsroom, I became a charter member of the Revels Singers, a marvelous, non-auditioned community chorus, which then gave me something of an insider’s view of the organization itself, as well as of a broader Harvard University outlook, not that everyone in the ensemble had Yard credentials. It was more of what we might call atmosphere, breathe it in. Believe me, I never imagined being able to sing at such a glorious level. The rehearsals were well worth a two-hour commute down and another two hours home each week.
Just seeing others go through the agony of auditioning for the next Yule show and feeling crushed at being rejected or knowing the sacrifices ahead if they were selected was edifying. So this is what Broadway actors go through? At least they get paid.
But then we faced our move much further to the northeast, plus the Covid outbreak.
LIKE OTHER PERFORMING ARTS arts organizations, the company took hard financial hits from Covid. The highly anticipated 50th anniversary show was scrapped, replaced with a shortened virtual retrospective. That had to hurt, financially and creatively. A renewed outbreak of the vicious virus forced the last half of the next year’s run to be cancelled on short notice. Gone was half of the ticket revenue and related sales of CD albums and related goods in the monumental lobby. In addition, seating for that and the most recent run was reduced due to Covid precautions – down from the 1,000 max that the fabulously intimate auditorium normally packs in. Pre-Covid, sold-out dates were the norm.
On the positive side, Revels began offering online video streaming after the live run, something that allowed us to keep up with the latest manifestations from 353 miles away.
From our perspective, though, what’s resulted is two duds. They just didn’t hold our interest, no matter the quality of the video production.
What worries us is the pandering nature of seeking a more diversified or at least younger audience, even as I applaud shifting from “Christmas” to “Midwinter” in labeling the event. It’s like Netflix or Disney took over.
The first theme in response was set in a decrepit London pub that had just been sold to a naïve American couple. I’m still disturbed by the idea of placing a family-friendly show in a bar, OK? Like “Cheers” from the other side of the Big Pond? Besides, there was none of the mystery and majesty that frame the Revels experience. Quite simply, it felt cheap. The musical line introduced commercial pop tunes known to almost everyone, even me, a far cry from Revels’ usual exotic folk and classical foundation that would take us places we’d never previously imagined. Those tunes were merely predictable, cliché, far from Revels’ usual intrepid discoveries or original compositions. There are many other places ticket buyers can go for a secular Christmas experience, high among them the Boston Pops. So far, at least, Revels has avoided anything Santa. Thankfully. Ho-ho-ho.
The latest entry, set in drab Ellis Island a hundred years back, is even more troubling. The storyline tried to mix Irish Catholics and Czech Jews along with Mexicans already in the USA. It felt forced, artificial, ultimately superficial. Actress Carolyn Saxton was squandered in a preachy, stocky, unessential Spirit of Place role. Hers wasn’t the only polemic that told rather than showed. A “Christmas in the Trenches” sequence was a further reach, even with the German carols, which at least were more seasonal than the Irish “Long Way from Tipperary” and “Wild Rover.” The storyline definitely veered away from any Czech winter opportunities.
The show finally burst free of its wooden action after intermission with some hot Mexican dancing and singing, especially Ricardo Holguin’s flying tenor and fluid movement. If anyone should be in line for David Coffin’s jack-of-all-trades MC replacement (should that ever come), Ricky could be the one. But I am left having no idea what those South of the Border flares had to do with Midwinter.
More troubling was the way that so much we anticipate each year is being reduced in size and impact. The words to “Lord of the Dance” were recast to eliminate the Lord Shiva comparison to Jesus, which has always troubled me, yet in universalizing the thought, it wound up greatly diluting the original. The powerful concluding “Sussex Mummers Carol” was reworded and shortened, and the abbreviated mummers’ play unintentionally announced that winter was already over. So why are we here? I didn’t even see any of the traditional morris dancers, unless they were carrying stag horns. The sword dancers, I’m told, are their own discipline. Praise be, even if for most of their scene, they were five rather than the usual six I remember!
Overall, quite simply, where had the enchantment gone?
I believe that points to a bigger problem for Revels and other arts realms today. Let’s call it the tension between artistic expression versus marketing.
AS BACKGROUND, in Revels’ evolution each year’s holiday show went from a British-centered Christmas party to a celebration with a storyline probing selected national, regional, and cultural themes. Acadian/Cajun was a recent one, with Renaissance Venice for another as well as a northwest Spanish hike on the holy pilgrims’ Way, in addition to Scandinavian countries and then American roots. I think back, too, on an engaging Armenian-Georgia Republic production and another from woolly Russia. Ireland, Wales, Scotland, parts of England, and especially Victorian London also delivered profound entertainments.
At its core, though, are what should be some trademarked, let’s call them sacred, scenes – Sidney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” that leads the audience out into the Civil War memorial lobby in a serpentine line dance at the intermission, as well as the eerie Abbots Bromley horn dance of stag deer in moonlight once we return to our seats. Add to that the seemingly improvised mummers’ play, a showstopping sword dance, Susan Cooper’s dark-night poem “The Shortest Day” that concludes with “Welcome, Yule!” shouted by the entire audience as they burst into the “Sussex Mummers Carol” blessing that also raises tears and goosebumps with its soaring soprano descant and artificial snowflakes falling from above. In that concluding flash, no choir in Greater Boston is more heavenly, not even the Tanglewood Festival’s with the symphony.
Quite simply, we are disturbed by the tinkering we’re seeing in these essentials. Yes, the Revels are ultimately Anglophile, even Elizabethan or Edwardian, saturated in brocaded deep reds and golds, no matter where the storyline ventures. Don’t deny what’s in Revels’ bones and blood. And don’t ever count me as an Anglophile, no matter how much I’m venting in its defense. Remember, when in Rome …
COMPARED TO OTHER Boston-based arts enterprises, Revels has lacked deep-pockets, despite the sumptuousness of its holiday productions. Its passionate core staff is surrounded by many dedicated volunteers, but aging does mean a change at the helm is in the works, especially with the upcoming retirement of its artistic director a year hence. Something similar has already been transitioning with its music director, the other top creative position, though I’m not convinced it’s securely in place.
In the performing arts, after all, not all of the drama transpires on stage. Revels is no doubt already in the early stages of planning next year’s Midwinter plot and accompanying score.
I would hate to think, as the Bard said, “Our revels now are ended.”
My first-ever Zoom presentation is now available for streaming, thanks to the Whittier Birthplace Museum. The presentation on January 26, “Starting with a marriage certificate: Why Whittier was no stranger to Dover,” focused on the famed poet and abolitionist’s many connections to, well, my new book Quaking Dover.
For the full YouTube event, do take a look here.
John Greenleaf Whittier is hardly the central theme in the book, but for me, developing the topic for this show, along with the accompanying PowerPoint slideshow, another personal first, was fun.
If you’re a regular here at the Barn, you know I do lag behind on the tech front. One step at a time, right?
I didn’t expect an unusually itchy nose and scratchy throat resulting from our dry indoor air. So much for my up-in-the-corner-of-the-screen stage presence.
On top of that, with the PowerPoint up in front in me, I couldn’t see who was attending. Oh, well, I had my hands full anyway.
Earlier, behind the scenes, there was concern about a possible power outage on my end as unusually warm temperatures dropped below freezing amid heavy rain. We did have a contingency plan, just in case.
I’m so glad we didn’t need it.
I’ve posted previously on the outstanding and often original finals’ week programming on Harvard’s student-run FM radio station. Each December and May, the regular schedule shifts to a few weeks of special blocks of classical, jazz, rock, folk, world, and many other strands of music I hadn’t even heard of for something the station has trademarked as Orgy, as in “Donizetti Orgy,” which I’ll explain. For accuracy, we should note that final exams really cover closer to two weeks or a tad more.
One year, for instance, they played everything Bob Dylan had recorded. A few years later, a much shorter sequence introduced many of us to Florence Price, a significant Black American woman composer who has since been receiving a posthumous flowering. The decisions are often based on anniversaries, as happened a few years ago when we got to hear everything Beethoven had ever written, in chronological order. Musically speaking, of course. I have no idea about his letters. A year ago, Schubert got the same treatment, meaning a lot of art songs in German, especially. That one nearly became an Orgy of its own for the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose son once told classmates what his dad did for a living was make records. Let’s just say that many of these Orgies are highly eclectic.
I did raise my eyebrows in the last round when well over a hundred hours of airtime were devoted to the 225th anniversary of the birth of Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, known largely for a dozen or so marvelously florid operas. Turns out he created nearly 70 operas plus symphonies, string quartets, concertos, piano scores, songs, and so on, which were presented, again chronologically, in big blocks over two weeks. Where do the programmers dig up all of the recordings? Is this really some Harvard grad student’s thesis project?
Donizetti (1797-1848) is renowned, along with Rossini and Bellini, for a specialized style of opera called bel canto, “beautiful singing,” which has had a major revival in the past half-century. Today its embellishments, soaring lines, and vocal athletics have become widely embraced, but back when I was first listening, it was all revolutionary. And, among the three, Donizetti was far and away the most prolific.
What made the series significant to me was the way it revealed an evolution over his 29-year career from formulaic provincial stage comedies to what we recognize as Romantic opera. It filled in a gap in operatic history for me, getting from us classical Mozart to gripping dramatic Verdi and beyond. Composing at fever pitch, Donizetti often churned out four new operas a year, many of them in one-act pieces plus others that recycled earlier material before he reached a more sustainable stride. Think of a rock band or pop artist turning out an album, which is only an hour or so compared to a three-hour opera. Or a movie composer, for that matter, who has to create a similar amount of music. Nobody does four a year, right?
In the broadcasts, Donizetti’s early works sounded serviceable but not memorable. They were built on strings of solo arias, choruses, and recitative, which I streamed while working on my own life. That would mean one character in the spotlight, exit stage, and then another. Laundry, cooking, vacuuming, or washing dishes anyone? You know, everyday stuff, with music in the background. Midway into the series and his career, though, the dramatic level rose immensely and caught me in my tracks, especially with the appearance of ensembles of simultaneous conflicting emotions and motivations. Yes, there were hints of things ahead, like the flash connecting one faintly familiar tenor aria with what would emerge later, with nine high C pings inserted as “Ah! Mes mis,” and eventually launch Luciano Pavarotti into international household fame in 1972. (We did hear him in that role around 6 am the final day, when “La Fille du Regiment” aired from a recording of London’s Covent Garden production with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge costarring.)
Quite simply, those were the flashes when I recognized we had crossed over into everything today’s operagoer anticipates, even with Mozart, Gluck, and Handel remaining glorious within their earlier realms.
Many of the Orgies really are once-in-a-lifetime events. With Donizetti, for example, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever again hear most of what was introduced. Simply tracking down rare pieces would be an overwhelming challenge.
Let’s see what May brings. Those kids at WHRB really do deliver.
For most of my life, I never would have thought sauerkraut could rise any higher than maybe a gag-inducing edible in an obligatory sort of way. You know, like liver. Something in some households you might be required to eat on New Year’s Eve to assure a good 12 months ahead. Think of lutefisk (lye fish) in Nordic cultures as a parallel.
Well, my best friend’s parents, of good German Lutheran stock, made their own, but they also composted for their garden, and back in the ‘50s, that seemed pretty weird.
I am convinced that there are certain dishes that will never become acquired tastes to some or even many tongues. (Feel free to make nominations here.)
That said, imagine my surprise in recent decades in discovering the joys of fine Chinese cuisine, along with the shock of learning that the filling on those snappy eggrolls and spring rolls was essentially sauerkraut, just by another name.
Maybe that set up the moment of revelation.
Morse’s in Waldoboro.
First came some nibbles after an old Mainer made his annual pilgrimage, returning with 20 or 30 pounds or so.
The taste was sweet and tangy, even refreshing. I do like pickles, but these are in a class all their own. I mean, they’re glorious. OK, I had come to prefer coleslaw with a vinegar dressing more than the conventional creamy one, so maybe that had prepared me. (Not that I turn down either.)
That’s set up our own trips in the family, including one with me in the depths of a very snowy February. The road out of the village to the store seemed to take forever, I was sure we had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but then the small store appeared, and it offered more crocks of pickled traditions than just kraut. It also had a small but very tasty German restaurant, which appears to have fallen victim to Covid restrictions. All in all, a delight.
Upshot is, it’s a dish I’ve come to anticipate each winter from our own ten-pound or so purchase.
Morse’s is, in itself, a fascinating story of a family business that’s undergone some transformations but maintains a small niche in an increasingly monolithic food industry. I have no idea if you can find it anywhere near where you live, but then maybe that might inspire another entrepreneur to rise to the challenge. Bigger is not always better.
Or about 4½ pounds, purchased from a dragger docked at the Breakwater pier, where the crew of three was busy shucking the morsels from their shells. After dining on these two days straight last Christmas, we agreed we have a new holiday tradition. Unlike ones you would purchase at a market, these have no water added, and that means you can get a lovely sear when sauteing them in a bit of olive oil and butter. Do I need to add they taste heavenly?