Monday, September 30, 2013

Pride and Prejudice Reading Schedule

Reading Schedule and Weekly Discussion Post Dates (all Mondays):

Please see this post for more info on our Austen reading.

  • Oct 7 - Chapters 1-6
  • Oct 14 - Chapters 7-12
  • Oct 21 - Chapters 13-18
  • Oct 28 - Chapters 19-24
  • Nov 4 - Chapters 25-30
  • Nov 11 - Chapters 31-36
  • Nov 25 - Chapters 37-42
  • Dec 2  - Chapters 43-48
  • Dec 9 - Chapters 49-55
  • Dec 16 - Chapters 56-61

In terms of the plot, the story divides very nicely into these 6 or 7 chapter segments. However, if the majority of you are finding it extremely difficult to keep up, please let me know and we can certainly adapt the schedule. 

Thanks for reading! :-) 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Austen Novel Reading: Please join us!

Thank you all for your comments and suggestions for our Austen reading. 

The consensus seems to be that we read either Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park.

Excellent choices. :)

And if you were thinking you'd rather do another one, don't despair. I hope to be able to host other Austen readings after this one!

Weekly Discussions

You are all up to doing weekly discussions, which was what I was thinking as well, so I'm glad we all agree!

I will post a schedule in the next day or two, with our discussion posts starting next Monday, October 7.  As you will see, Jane Austen's chapters are generally quite short -- sometimes not much more than a page-- compared to chapter lengths in most books written today. So I think that 4-6 chapters a week will probably not be too much to read. I am thinking that we should give ourselves about 10 weeks for this discussion, that way we will finish up before Christmas, which I know can be a hectic time of year.

I will post a few discussion questions to help us get the conversation started. However, I hope that you will feel free to comment or discuss anything that strikes your fancy. I also may take up Andrea's suggestion of asking some of you to do a guest discussion post. Please let me know if you are willing or interested in doing this. :-)

I hope, Jessica P., you won't be too upset with me, but I think that I will allow spoilers, as a general rule, although I will encourage you not to go overboard with them. If you write a post that includes significant spoilers, please write SPOILER at the top of the post.

Blogger Comment Problems

The other issue, which I hope will be resolved soon, are the problems with the comments on Blogger. First, I have removed the requirement to be a registered Blogger user, so that you should be able to comment, even anonymously.

Second, it appears that in order to comment in Blogger, you must have 3rd party cookies enabled on your browser. If you don't feel comfortable doing this (or you don't know how to change this), please email me (see the Contact form at the bottom of the blog) and we can work together to figure this out.  At last resort, for discussion purposes, you can always email me your comments, and then I can post them for you on the blog.

I hope the Blogger platform will not be too much of a hindrance to our discussion. If it does become that, I will get my tech-support (i.e., my husband) help me figure out a solution quickly. ;-) that I have stalled long enough, and come to the end of this blog post, I must decide which book we shall do....This is a really hard decision for the fairly indecisive person that I am.

Ok, I've just decided:

Pride and Prejudice

It is a clear favorite with you all -- one of mine as well. We'll make Mansfield Park the next one. :) Plus, 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. So what better way to celebrate?


etexts here and here
audiobooks: There are several Youtube versions; go here and here, for two of them.

So that you can get started immediately:

Week 1 Discussion Post will be Monday, Oct 7th, and we will discuss Chapters 1-6

Happy Reading! I look forward to a discussion as lively as our heroine. :-)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Moment in 1814: Jane Austen and the Beauty of the Ordinary

Jane Austen was, among many things, a realist. Though she writes fiction, the details of her early 19th century fictional world are painstakingly accurate. In letters to her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy, Jane doles out writing advice to her niece who appears to be working on a novel. And she gets quite particular about unrealistic details in Anna's text. For instance, 

On characters who travel from one location to another in one day:
They must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath. They are nearly 100 miles apart.

Boating Beach, Dawlish, England
CC BY-SA-2.0 by Snapshots of the Past

On accurately depicting interactions between members of different social classes:
I have also scratched out the introduction between Lord Portman and his brother and Mr. Griffin. A country surgeon (don't tell Mr. C. Lyford) would not be introduced to men of their rank, and when Mr. P. is first brought in, he would not be introduced as the Honourable. That distinction is never mentioned at such times, at least I believe not.

(Umm...wouldn't that be fabulous, having Jane Austen as a writing coach?!)

However, Austen does not create her realistic worlds through elaborate descriptions. She actually scolds poor Anna Austen Lefroy for this:
You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left.

So we see very few physical descriptions of characters or landscapes in her novels. 

Every so often, however, we get an extended description of a physical landscape or scene that gives us an incredible glimpse into what Austen herself saw in her mind's eye and her powers of description, if she chooses to exercise them:

"Harriet, tempted by every thing and swayed by half a word, was always very long at a purchase; and while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement. 

Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; -- Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; 

And when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer." 
Emma, Volume II, Chapter 9

The detail here is exquisite. In fact, it could very nearly pass for directions to a screenplay for a scene in a movie or play. Except that they are directions given to us from the past. The 1814 screenplay for Emma, by the novelist herself. And I can't help feeling thrilled at that. :)

I like to stop and slowly re-read the text again, imagining the scene, playing the movie in my head. Try it! Admittedly, much of this imaginary set in my head looks strikingly similar to Lacock Village in Wiltshire England, where the BBC's 1996 Emma was filmed. :-)

Jane Austen's Writing Desk, Jane Austen House Museum
CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 by alh1

Sometimes I wonder...

...did Jane, sitting in her small cottage in Chawton, writing, suddenly look out the window, so caught up in her story, that for a moment she expected to see "Mr. Perry walking hastily by, or Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule"?

But instead of seeing Mr. Perry or Mr. William Cox at that moment, she sees an old woman, shopping basket over her arm, two dogs fighting over a bone, and some children peeking into the baker's shop window.

So Jane, pausing for a moment to imagine what Emma sees looking out the doorway of Ford's, sees an ordinary quiet, English village scene -- one that hardly compares with Sir Walter Scott's epic histories or Gilpin's famed picturesque -- and gives us that one. A scene of nothing, really. Yet that nothing answers perfectly.

I'd love to think that we are seeing one moment in 1814, one that Jane herself saw from the dining parlor window. 

Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton
CC BY-NC-ND-2.0 by Jacqueline.Poggi
This cottage where Austen lived for the last 10 years of her life, writing and revising her novels, sits at the center of a small rural village much like the fictional Highbury.

The photo below  is actually the view from Chawton Cottage where Austen lived, onto the main village road. Despite the modern veneer, I can just imagine this scene with gravel roads, dirt lanes, the tidy old woman, mangy dogs and scrubby children... just as Jane describes them.

View from Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton 
CC BY 2.0 by Roller Coaster Philosophy
But perhaps she really saw nothing out the window that day, but with a mind of her own, "lively and at ease," could "do with seeing nothing." So she gives us Emma in place of her nothing. 

As a result, 200 years later we get a glimpse into a world that has become a mystery to us. We have no documentary video or photographs, just Austen and the others like her, who have given us windows into their worlds. In this case, the world of an ordinary, middle class, genteel, English woman, living in a quiet rural village, which suddenly, because of the passing of time and a modern life that is so radically different from hers, becomes not ordinary, but incredibly interesting. 

I am ordinary too. I have a quiet, one might even say, boring life. Yet I love my life. I love the quiet, ordinary moments. There is beauty, interest and joy in those ordinary moments.

And I love that in the midst of those ordinary moments, Austen, with lively imagination, creates beauty, joy and interest that never fail to delight.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Jane Austen Reading: The Details

I'm thrilled with the number of you interested in doing an Austen reading! I have a list of about 10 of you who responded on Facebook saying you were interested, and there is definitely room for more. So if you'd like to join us, please do!

If you would like to get an email update on the blog posts that are related to our Austen reading (i.e., discussion posts, reminders, etc.), please send me you email address, either through the Contact Form at the bottom of this blog or a private message on Facebook. Alternately, you can subscribe for email updates to the blog in general (then you would get notifications for every post, not just the Austen reading ones).

Jane Austen's Writing Desk, Jane Austen House Museum Source

So let's talk details.

First, which Austen novel do you want to read?  

To refresh your memory, here's the list:

Sense and Sensibility
Pride and Prejudice
Mansfield Park
Northanger Abbey

There are plenty of plot summaries and online texts available if you don't have a paper copy of the novels, such as the ones at The Republic of Pemberley and Project Gutenberg.

Please let me know in the comments which one -- or ones -- you'd prefer to read. Maybe a first choice, second choice, etc. Or if you have absolutely no preference, you can let us know that too!

Second, please let us know if you are doing a re-read or if this is your first time reading Austen.

In other words, should we be careful not to give away any spoilers, or have you already read the books and/or seen the movies? :-)

Third: Schedule

Since I've never done a group reading before, I would appreciate any suggestions or ideas about how to set up the schedule. How often do you want to have discussions? Weekly? Bi-weekly? Monthly?

Let me know in the comments any preferences or suggestions you  have as to how often we should discuss and how much we should cover during each discussion.

Thank you!!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lemon Ricotta Blueberry Pancakes

First, I have to say thank you, thank you, thank you for the great response to the Austen reading! I have a list of about 10 of you who are interested -- and I thought I was being optimistic in hoping for 4 or 5!

If you'd like to join the group, see Monday's post here. I will probably wait a few more days to start the discussion on which novel we should choose. So be thinking about which Austen novel you'd like to read. :)

Today I'd like to share another breakfast recipe. Without a doubt, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. So there will probably be a lot of breakfast recipes shared on this blog. :) The original recipe comes from here, on , which is one of my favorite recipe sites.

I thought these were incredibly light, fluffy pancakes, with a hint of lemon. Perfect for a brunch or tea. Or for breakfast with a dear friend. Which is exactly the occasion that inspired me to make these delicious Lemon Ricotta Blueberry Pancakes.

I did tweak the original Lemon Ricotta Pancake recipe by adding blueberries and using buttermilk instead of regular milk. So they are now Lemon Ricotta Blueberry Pancakes.

First, preheat your favorite griddle or non-stick pan on the stove on medium-low. My favorite griddle is -- big surprise here -- my cast iron reversible griddle/grill.  I think cast iron makes the best pancakes. Although one might say I am slightly obsessed with cast iron, so perhaps I am biased. :-)

So, back to the recipe....

Since it calls for butter that is melted then cooled, melt two tablespoons of butter. Then let it sit to cool.

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a medium bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk together ricotta cheese, buttermilk, 1 egg, melted butter, vanilla, lemon juice and lemon zest.

This mixture has a really light, fluffy texture to it. I think it is the ricotta cheese that gives these pancakes the extra lift.

I ended up zesting two small lemons but only using the juice out of one, since it was a very juicy lemon. Oh, and don't forget to smell your hands after you have zested and squeezed the lemons. They will smell soooo good!

Next, pour the buttermilk mixture into the flour and stir it just until it is combined. I have learned that with pancakes, the more you mix the batter, the less fluffy they will be.

When your griddle is heated, it is time to make those pancakes.

I like to put a pat of butter on the griddle on the spot I will be cooking the pancakes, rather than spraying the entire pan. Yes, you end up using a little more butter, which of course, makes them more delicious. It also gives all of the pancakes a delicious crispy edge, which is my favorite part. But you can do it anyway you'd like, with butter or without. :)

So spray or place a small pat of butter on your griddle, then scoop about a quarter cup of pancake batter onto the griddle.

Carefully place as many blueberries as you want onto each of the pancakes, pressing them down slightly so they are nestled in the batter.

I prefer to do my add-ins to pancakes this way, especially with fruit like blueberries. This prevents the berries from breaking and discoloring the pancakes as well as helps to avoid over-mixing. If you are using frozen blueberries, definitely do it this way. If you are using fresh, you can avoid coloring your batter purple by mixing very, very carefully.  However, by placing your berries in the pancake, you can be sure that every pancake will have as many (or as few) berries as you want.

Cook for several minutes on each side. Serve with maple syrup. Or even better, blueberry sauce!

This recipe made me 4 large pancakes plus 3 small to medium sized pancakes. Of course, what you define as "large" and "medium" pancakes will probably be different from my definition. So you'll have to try it out and see. :-) I would say it probably feeds 2 very hungry people or 4 very light eaters.

Here is the adjusted recipe that I made. Find the original here.

Lemon Ricotta Blueberry Pancakes

1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3 Tb sugar
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 egg
2 Tb butter melted, then cooled
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest (or more, according to taste)
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup blueberries
butter, for cooking

Preheat griddle on medium low. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, mix ricotta cheese, buttermilk, egg, melted butter, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. Whisk until thoroughly combined. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients, stirring only till just combined. Do not overmix.

When the griddle is heated through, place small pats of butter on each area where the pancakes will be cooked. Scoop the pancake batter onto the griddle, and place blueberries gently onto each pancake, pressing lightly so they are in the pancake. Cook 2-3 minutes on one side; flip pancakes and cook 2-3 minutes on the other side. Serve immediately with maple syrup or blueberry syrup.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Autumn Reading of a Jane Austen novel: Are you interested???

It's almost fall.

There's nothing I love more than cool, crisp days, warm apple pie, the crackle of fallen leaves, the spicy, smoky scent of an autumn campfire, and evenings snuggled up in a blanket, a mug of hot tea (coffee & hot chocolate work too!) and a good book in hand.

That's how it was growing up in Southeastern PA, but definitely not how it is in Texas. It was 100 degrees yesterday. :( So no autumn to speak of.

Even without fall weather, September is still a great time for starting up fresh on those things we've been meaning to do but haven't. I love that back-to-school-fresh-start feeling of September. Schools and universities open, community arts programs publish their fall and winter programs. The symphony and opera companies start their new seasons of soaring melodies and drama.

So speaking of fresh starts, my friend Andrea suggested that I host an autumn reading of a Jane Austen novel! :-) 

I wonder if Austen ever felt something of this fall-as-a-fresh-start idea. Interestingly, at least four of her novels, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion  and Sense and Sensibility essentially begin in September or October -- or at least that is when the characters and key actions of the plot begin to unfold.
  • In Pride and Prejudice, the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy arrive in October; 
  • In Emma, Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston get married in September, motivating Emma to start her match-up-Harriet-and-Mr.-Elton project; 
  • In Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, it is in September that the characters move from their stately homes to new, smaller and more uncomfortable places -- Uppercross, Bath and a cottage in Devonshire -- thus introducing them to new characters and environments that will change their destinies.

So if September is a good time for Jane Austen to start her novels, I think it might be a  perfect time to start reading a Jane Austen novel. :-)

Mr. Collins, you have no idea what you're missing! :-)

Are you interested???

     If  back-to-school sales have gotten you in the mood to start a new project...

     If you've always wanted to read a Jane Austen novel but just haven't taken the time to do it...

     If you want to re-read a Jane Austen novel along with some friends and fellow Janeites...

     If you've started reading one once, hated it, but now think you might want to give it another try ...

     Or if you just think this sounds fun....

I hope you'll consider joining us!

We will choose a novel, set a reading schedule together, and then have our discussions in the comments section of this blog. I've never done an online book club before (or a brick-and-mortar one, for that matter), but I am excited to give it a try.

If you are interested, please let me know in the comments below, through email or Facebook (or in person, if you know me! :) You can send me an email through the Contact Form at the bottom of this blog.

Thank you so much for reading! I look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"His letters disgust me": On Definitions and a Very Jealous Mr. Knightley

During the last year I have been steadily reading through annotated versions of Austen's novels. So far, I've gotten The Annotated Emma for Christmas from my brother and his wife and The Annotated Pride and Prejudice for my birthday from my husband. I'm hoping to read The Annotated Persuasion next. (*Ahem*, *cough, cough* Are you reading this, Parke? :-)

These versions are edited by David Shapard and include details on the historical and cultural context, illustrations, definitions, explanations, maps and literary analysis on the events and characters of the novels.

Of course I've read the novels countless times, but this is the first time I've read annotated versions. It's funny, I thought I really understood the novels before, but suddenly I realize how little I did, or rather how much I have misunderstood them. Ok, maybe that's a slight exaggeration -- I've not had any mind-blowing over the top re-imaginings of the story. I did not discover through the notes that actually Harriet marries Mr. Elton or Elizabeth Bennet secretly still hates Mr. Darcy at the end of the novel. :)

But 200 years after Austen wrote, the shifts in word meanings and lost cultural knowledge often mean we miss some details that would have been crystal clear to her contemporary readers. Thus we see a mostly complete portrait of Elizabeth Bennet...but wait, she's got a hole through her nose. And some missing teeth. :-) Ha, metaphorically, of course. While we still "get" Elizabeth Bennet, those missing pieces are annoying. When they are finally put in place....well... feels so good.
Hugh Thomson's Illustrations: Mrs. Bennet Unable to Utter a Syllable

So that's what reading David Shapard's notes feels like to me. I'm coloring in the portrait of my favorite characters. And while I loved the black and white versions, the color ones are even better.

So, for example, DEFINITIONS.

Wait, definitions, you say? Ummmm, I'm a highly educated, well-read native speaker of English. I don't need definitions! (That's what I said at first :-).

Ok, so sometimes his definitions are a bit superfluous. I didn't need him to tell me that connections means relatives:

"[Mr Knightley] lived about a mile from Highbury, was a frequent visitor and always welcome, and at this time more welcome than usual, as coming directly from their mutual connections in London."

But there are some ideas that I have completely misunderstood because the modern definition of a word has shifted since Austen's time.

For example, Mr. Knightley and Emma discussing Frank Churchill's non-appearance. Mr. Knightley is none too pleased with the delinquent Frank:

"He can sit down and write a fine flourishing letter, full of professions and falsehoods, and persuade himself that he has hit upon the very best method in the world of preserving peace at home and preventing his father's having any right to complain. His letters disgust me."

Whoa, Mr. Knightley, that's harsh! Frank Churchill's letters disgust you? Ok, well, we know you're just jealous anyway. :)

Or the charming Mr. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility:

"How horrid all this is!" said he. "Such weather makes everything and everybody disgusting. Dulness is as much produced within doors as without by rain. It makes one detest all one's acquaintance. What the devil does Sir John mean by not having a billiard room in his house? How few people know what comfort is! Sir John is as stupid as the weather."

Oh Mr. Palmer, I know. Rain makes everybody disgusting.... Wait. Disgusting??? Isn't that a little extreme? I'm afraid I have to disagree with you, Mr. Palmer. Rain makes everything perfect! 

[On an unrelated note, the insult, Sir John is as stupid as the weather, is brilliant. Right up there with Shakespearean insults. :)]

And then, poor, poor Emma. She's been a know-it-all the entire year and suddenly...

She was most sorrowfully indignant; ashamed of every sensation but the one revealed to her -- her affection for Mr. Knightley. Every other part of her mind was disgusting...

Yikes. How horrible to feel disgusted by your own mind. And how does that happen anyway?

Shapard gives us a helpful gloss. According to him, in these cases, disgusting did not have the intensive connotation that it does today. It meant something closer to distasteful. So Mr. Knightley still doesn't like Frank's letters, but he finds them distasteful, rather than loathsome and revolting.

I think this is one case of semantic shift where connotation rather than strict denotation has changed. The essential meaning of the word hasn't changed, but the contexts people use it in has. So for example, nowadays we wouldn't say that rainy weather makes us feel disgusting. We might say, instead, that the weather makes us feel depressed. (Though I certainly wouldn't say that! Rainy days are beautiful and make me feel so happy.)

I checked out the OED and disgust originally referred to "a strong distaste for or repugnance" in regards to food. So literally a food or drink that you strongly disliked. Still pretty strong-sounding meaning, though:

              "to loathe, disrelish, dislike, regard with aversion or displeasure.... lit. of food."

Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary also gives this definition. His first entry for disgust is

             "aversion of the palate from anything" 

However, the word appears to have a more general meaning concurrent to the food-specific context:

            "To offend the sensibilities of; to excite aversion, repugnance, or sickening displeasure in (a     person). (OED)

This definition sounds like how I would use the word today. Aversion, repugnance, sickening displeasure....that sounds right to me. The OED includes examples for this definition from 1656 to 1863, so I would expect Austen, writing around 1815, to have had these definitions at her disposal.  So not very helpful for determining what Jane Austen really means.

The OED also gives an additional definition which is currently obsolete:

            "To be very distasteful."

...and a very helpful example sentence from 1763:

            The Music and Dance of the first disgusts. 
            (J. Brown Diss. Poetry & Music v. 75)   

Hmm... not very flattering. :(

This third definition seems to fit the bill. Or at least, that is what I think Shapard suggests. And I'm inclined to agree with him.  In teaching vocabulary to students who are learning English as a foreign language, I've often found that knowing the definition of a word is nearly useless until a student can learn the myriad of contexts in which it is appropriate to use that word. Definitions, after all, are only feeble attempts to capture how we use words. We use them first, then define them -- not the other way around. Meaning in language is dynamic. So disgust maintains its core meaning of causing aversion or loathing but the negative contexts it occurs in have seriously intensified since 1815.  

Though who knows, perhaps Austen is trying to tell us something drastic about these apparently laconic, refined English gentlemen. :)

On a completely unrelated note, check out Johnson's definition of a dish-washer

          Dish-washer: n.s. [dish and washer] The name of a bird.

HA. Samuel Johnson, you are a dish-washer.

Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

If you want to read a little more, the BBC has an article discussing the shift in meaning of disgust.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mini Herb Frittata with Spinach Salad.

Thank you, so much, Jane Austen lovers! Thanks for all of the comments and emails yesterday! I promise to get back to her very shortly--in fact, I was up most of the night, with a gazillion ideas floating around in my head about all of the lovely Jane Austen discussions we are going to have here. :)

But today, since I promised you randomness, I am going to talk about one of my other loves: food. Especially breakfast food, and especially eggs. Yum! I could eat them every day. Bonus: Eggs have now been added back to the very good-for-you food list (after a few decades in exile on the bad-for-you food list). Whew. Thank goodness. :-)

For my birthday, my sweet sister-in-law gifted me with two mini cast iron servers. They are absolutely adorable, and being cast iron, are my favorite kind of dish. I love cast iron and use it all the time. It is so versatile--use it on the stove, in the oven, even on the campfire--and it browns, bakes, fries, and grills everything you put on it to perfection.

Now, you don't have to have cast iron to make this frittata.  You can put this in any baking dish--small pyrex dishes, even a skillet or pie plate. You'll just need to adjust the cooking times based on how large your dish is and many eggs you use. Obviously this can be scaled up to feed as many as you want. But today, since it is just me, I'm going to give you the mini-version.

Don't be afraid of that fancy-sounding word, frittata. It's just the Italian way to make a really, really easy omelet. And who can argue with 'easy' and 'Italian', right?

Step 1: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put your cast iron pan in the oven to preheat. Note: If you don't have cast iron, don't preheat the baking dish. Just the oven. I think that this step--preheating the cast iron--really makes the recipe. I seriously think you should go out and get a cast iron skillet. But if you can't, it will still taste delicious. I promise. :)

Now, the eggs.

I know, I know, there's only one egg in the picture. It's for the sake of art. :)

Step 2: Whisk two eggs in a bowl, with salt and pepper, to taste. Then whisk in about a tablespoon (or less, if you want to be healthier) of crème fraîche and a handful of feta cheese.  And no, that's not feta in the picture. I only had Gruyere, so I used that instead.

Ok, so, you say, "What is crème fraîche? Do I really have to put in some fancy French ingredient???"

One question at a time, please... :)

Crème fraîche is essentially a kind of French sour cream. Except it's not sour cream. It's sour, but  much less so than our sour cream and not the same kind of sour. And it's creamy, but more substantial than heavy cream. It is fabulous. If you can find it, (which can be difficult in the U.S.--my grocery store, Tom Thumb, stocks it once every couple of months), you can use it for everything from tacos and enchiladas to whipped with a little sugar on fresh fruit for dessert.

No, you don't have to use it. You could use milk, cream, sour cream, ricotta cheese, Mexican crema (which is actually probably the closest in taste, though not texture, to crème fraîche), or any other creamy white milk product. But if you use crème fraîche, your frittata will have both French and Italian influences. Which will be spectacular. Très chic and  molto buono. :)

Now, besides the fact that you just whip these eggs and throw them into the oven, what puts this egg dish over the top, I think, are the fresh herbs. I dream of having a large kitchen herb garden right outside my door, preferably one surrounded by an ancient, crumbling stone wall covered in old-fashioned  pink climbing roses and a gnarled apple tree in the corner.

Or I'd take this one, with the topiaries, please.

However, at the moment I just have a little balcony. Since herbs (usually) grow well in pots, I try to grow as many as possible. Right now there's a dying rosemary bush and oregano that is completely taking over a few scraggly patches of thyme.  I will be working on that soon. But that's another post. :-)

As with most egg dishes, it really doesn't matter what kind of herbs you use--just throw in everything that you have.  And if you're like me and sometimes buy a whole package or chives or basil, because one recipe calls for it, then you use a couple of sprigs and leave nearly the entire package of fresh herbs to languish in the back of your refrigerator....well, here's their chance to shine!

Today, I used rosemary, chives, oregano and flat-leaf (or Italian) parsley. Just a note on parsley: I almost always keep a large bundle of flat-leaf parsley in the fridge. It has a bright, fresh, slightly bitter flavor that is perfect for perking up richly-flavored dishes, such as eggs, stews, pasta and rich cheesy, buttery casseroles.

Also, keep in mind the amounts above do not represent what I put into the eggs. I decided to value beauty over usefulness today. So you get a picture of artfully arranged herbs on a white plate because they are prettier that way.

Pretty herbs. Not very useful. (just kidding!)

Step 3: Wash and roughly chop the fresh herbs. Don't worry about amounts. Just chop up what you think looks good and throw them into the eggs.

Here's what mine looked like, without the parsley. I forgot to take a picture before I threw the parsley in. Make sure that you chop up the rosemary very finely. It is a little bit woodier and tastes better in the end if the pieces are not so large.

That's better. All of the herbs, together at last. Give them a couple of good whisks, and you're almost ready to go.

Step 4: Take the preheated dish out of the oven and put a small pat of butter in it. It will sizzle delightfully. Or, if not using cast iron, lightly spray your baking dish with oil. Then pour the egg mixture into the dish.

Step 5: Put the eggs in the oven, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees. Bake about 15 minutes for a two egg frittata, and about 7-10 minutes for a one egg frittata, or until eggs are set.  Remove from oven.

To serve, drizzle with good quality olive oil, if desired, and serve with a handful of baby spinach or salad greens, tossed lightly in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.

You could put your spinach in the frittata, but personally, I don't care for cooked spinach. I love it fresh. Plus I think the crunchy bitterness of the salad greens balances out the creamy richness of the eggs. When I'm in the mood, I sometimes add balsamic vinegar to the greens for more tangy sweetness.


Here's the complete recipe below. Remember that all of the ingredient amounts are very approximate and you can change them up to suite your taste.

Mini Herb Frittata with Spinach Salad

2 eggs
1 Tablespoon crème fraîche
1 Tablespoon feta cheese
3-4 Tablespoons, each, of roughly chopped herbs, such as basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, parsley or       chives
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 Teaspoon butter
Small handful of baby spinach and/or salad greens
Good quality olive oil 
Sea Salt
Cast iron skillet or mini cast iron server 


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place cast iron dish into the oven to preheat. Let it preheat for at least 10 to 15 minutes. (If using a non-cast iron dish, do not preheat). In a small bowl, whisk eggs, crème fraîche, and cheese. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Stir in chopped herbs.

When dish is preheated, take it out of the oven and swirl butter around bottom and sides. Pour in egg mixture and return to oven. 

Reduce temperature to 350 degrees. Bake 15 minutes or until eggs are set. Bake a one-egg frittata 7-8 minutes and a five or six+ egg frittata 20-25 minutes, or until eggs are set.

Dress salad greens with olive oil and salt. Serve with warm frittata.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why I love Jane Austen

This post is essentially a personal narrative with reflections inspired by the article mentioned in my previous post. This post will make a little more sense if you've read that one first.

Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

While I had read Pride and Prejudice sometime in late middle or early high school and definitely enjoyed it, much of the exquisite humor and irony, fascinating characters and perspicuous insight into human nature did not leave a strong impression. I had a positive but nonetheless weak impression of the genius of Jane Austen. It was not until I stumbled on the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries a year out of high school that I became hooked. I watched Andrew Davies’ Emma as well and then decided that I should definitely read Pride & Prejudice again and Emma for the first time.  For Emma, especially, it was the movie that got me reading Austen. I now hardly go a day without reading at least a few pages from a Jane Austen novel and spend hours thinking about her characters, plots and insights. The older I get and the more I read her, the more interesting and fascinating her work becomes.  

Having taught literature and writing in several colleges over the past 10 years, I certainly sympathize with Eggleston. However, I think, perhaps, the problem Eggleston describes is not so much Emma or the first-year literature students, as much as it is timing. Emma is a prodigious work—most first-year literature students are probably not mature enough, nor have enough critical reading and thinking skills to appreciate it. I know that I wasn’t ready for it as a freshman in college, despite the fact that Austen was already on the fast track to becoming my favorite author. I think Emma is much better suited to a second or third year literature class, which is where I first studied Jane Austen in a college setting—and, unsurprisingly, found it fascinating. Several years later, I was teaching Emma to junior English majors in Mexico. They loved her. Gradually, Austen’s writings became not only my favorite reading material, but also much more than that. They became my friend and, in a sense, my literary comfort food. When stressed by horribly hot, dry weather, unpleasant or difficult life experiences, I turned to Jane for a brief, but delightful respite. She soothed my emotions, made me smile, even laugh, when little else could.  Now it doesn’t really matter what is going on in life—I simply love to read Jane Austen. When life is wonderful, I read Jane; when life is difficult, I read her.  When I’m supposed to be working on my linguistics dissertation, I keep thinking about writing an article comparing and contrasting her heroines and discussing what an audience’s reaction to them says about the mores, beliefs and feelings of that audience. What, in fact, our reaction to Jane Austen’s heroines says about human nature. 

I think if nothing else, Austen (especially in Emma) is one of those writers that on a first perusal does seem boring, difficult and irrelevant to modern readers. So, I, for one am thankful for the artistic, creative adaptations—TV, movie, and now video blog (thank you, Hank Green & Bernie Su!!)—that pique our interest. We like the movie and think that perhaps we missed something in our first reading. So we try it again. And then Jane pulls us in. We chuckle at Mrs. Elton’s ridiculous illusions to grandeur and Mr. Woodhouse’s “gentle selfishness"; we smirk with Emma and fall in love a little bit with Mr. Knightly.  Some of us stop there. But if we take the time for a second, third and often many more readings of Austen, the “rewards of observation and reflection” (to quote Davies’ Pride and Prejudice screenplay) become immense. They open up gradually and, like hidden treasure, the more we search and uncover, the more amazing and valuable they become.   I think that C.S. Lewis describes this process of learning to delight in literature quite aptly in his essay “The Weight of Glory.”  Though he is talking about learning to love Greek poetry rather than Jane Austen (and please ignore for the moment that the entire point of his illustration is related to a completely different topic), I think it rings true for either case:

“The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just in so far as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward.”

Learning to delight in Austen’s writings does take work. But so does pretty much nearly anything worth pursuing. A pursuit that is easy and digestible in fifteen minutes usually brings about fifteen minutes of enjoyment. But those things in life that require persistent effort—art, music, friendships, marriage, the pursuit of God Himself—are often the ones that lead to the richest joys and deepest satisfaction.  I’m certainly not trying to say that learning to understand and enjoy Jane Austen’s writings is the most satisfying or important task in life. There certainly are much greater and as many noble and fulfilling pursuits in life. But what I am saying is simply this: Robert Eggelston, take heart. In every generation, some  of those first year literature students—perhaps even a few of those who throw out a caustic whatever now—will eventually learn to love Jane Austen as much as you do, despite—or maybe even because of—the movie.

On teaching literature, specifically Emma, and the effect of movie adaptations in the classroom.

I read an interesting article by Robert Eggleston the other day on teaching Jane Austen’s Emma and the effect of using the movie adaptation to help teach it. Here are a few excerpts from the article that I found particularly interesting.

 Indeed, I found that Austen's Emma might never have been more inaccessible to younger readers than it is today, and that recently produced variants (although useful for their ability to provide visual representations of fictitious people, places, and events in a historical setting) merely obscure the original and prompt students to equate reading the novel with the less strenuous act of watching it on television....

What eventually became apparent was that Emma did not answer the students' expectations. Although they found a requisite amount of emotional turmoil in the novel--they conceded that Emma does cause a fair bit of trouble--they felt that it was lacking in what they called "action." Action, not surprisingly, involved fast-paced events of monumental significance (preferably life and death). Short, punchy scenes, the novelistic equivalent of sound bites, were what the students demanded.... They wanted to be able to pick up the novel and find 15 minutes of intensity, and anything that took any longer to make its point was deemed boring. This standard prevailing, then, Emma was doomed to be dismissed as not meriting the effort required to read it....

Whereas the students had been a somewhat subdued group when confronted by their professor armed with a copy of Emma, they were now transformed into an attentive, even happy, audience. Nothing in my experience has so readily proved Janice Radway's assertion that "television is an empowering artifact and discourse for [young] people" (530), for the students responded to the television adaptation of Emma with an enthusiasm that they would never extend to their consideration of Austen's original novel....

This uncertainty points to a problem which can arise whenever adaptations of novels are introduced into the classroom. Rather than making students think about the original in question, easy access to adaptations prompts them to treat the consideration of differences and similarities between mediums as an end in itself, and leads them to focus on the actors and actresses instead of the roles being fleshed out. A still greater problem in this particular case was that neither the television production nor the other adaptations of Emma killed off the students' indifference; in the end, my attempt to use adaptations to open the novel to examination was met with that catchphrase which permeates Clueless: "Whatever."...

So what do you think?

My next post will be some thoughts I have in response to this article.