27 Apr 2011

The Wedding Gift: A Sneak Peek

Sorry that I haven't blogged in a little bit. I got an e-mail from someone asking if I was "dead in a ditch" - which was actually nicer than the e-mail I got from the person who was upset that I posted that 1960s  "Cheerless Chubbies" article.

According to the lady on the other end of the e-mail, "the overweight and the obese are the last group of people that are apparently 'Ok' to bully, discriminate against, and make fun of." - which means that I shouldn't have giggled at a doctor referring to an overweight kid as a "little fatty". Now that I've been schooled, I've added "the overweight and obese" to a chart I created of The Last Group of People That Are Apparently OK To Bully. Anytime anyone claims to "be the last group", I update my list. In any given day, it could be Muslims, smokers, atheists, Christians, stay-at-home moms, people without children, the mentally ill, lady politicians, skinny people, celebrities, people who say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays", liberals, conservatives, the homeless, The Obamas, women with huge strollers, Southerners, high fructose corn syrup lovers, poor white people, poor black people, rich white people, little people, anyone who says the word 'retard', organic farmers, soldiers, and McDonalds patrons .... Boy - there sure are a lot of groups out there that think they're the only ones being treated unfairly by someone! But today, it's only overweight people until somebody tells me otherwise.

So, as you can see, I'm not dead in a ditch. Well, not yet anyway. I've been working, working, working and that's kept me mostly away from the Internets. Part of why I had so much work to do was because I'm about to depart for a very special wedding and needed to finish my projects ahead of time.  

Depart for a wedding? You don't mean ...



The bride will be wearing a fascinator!

WHAT?!? HOW?!! But you're so ...

You guessed it - I'm about to take a royally long plane ride to ....



Oh.  (Please click - it will be worth it.)

Save your disappointment and get happy - this trip is to attend and take part as a bloated bridesmaid in MY SISTER'S wedding. Her first! (And I'm told to mention, probably her last.)

In honour of that, I went about finding wedding gifts that they'd like. First, I wrote a cheque, because, frankly, that's the only thing people are really guaranteed to enjoy. Then I found the sort of things that I'd like: vintage magazines from the month they're getting married - just to see how times have changed.

For my future brother-in-law, I gave him a sense of what it was like NOW vs. THEN ... as told by Esquire's April 2011 and April 1961 issues:

It's Matthew McConaughey vs. a polo-playing centaur. Which will take its shirt off first? My money's on McConaughey.

The modern Esquire seems to be much more health and fitness oriented while the Esquire from 50 years before is far more geared toward worldliness, swilling drinks and smoking cigarettes. It's funny how many ads feature a man smoking, even if the product has nothing to do with tobacco:

If you love Mad Men, you really must get your hands on a 1960s Esquire. It is oh-so Don fucking Draper. I didn't flip too heavily through the vintage magazine as it's a present after all, but here's one more snippet from it; a look at the new car prototypes coming out of Italy. There were a few models that did actually make it to consumers - but the one that really caught my eye sadly didn't - the Ghia Selene II:

A car with a bar and television in the backseat. The quantity and the intensity of the fatalities that would occur if that car had ever made it to the road would truly be epic. Epic.

For my sister, I took this theme to an extra level (c'mon - sister!). Here's today's Ladies' Home Journal - a magazine you can be sure that she's probably never read based on those clearly-not-her-demographic cover stories:

And then here's the issue from April 1986, 25 years ago:

I found her the same April magazine from 50 years ago:

And another from 75 years ago:

And finally the Ladies' Home Journal from 100 years ago - the April 1911 copy:

It's Mariska Hargitay vs. the Huxtables vs. Jackie Kennedy vs. an uptight looking woman vs. some seagulls! Which cover interests you more? Me too - totally the seagulls.

The sad news is that two of these magazines decided to take their sweet, sweet time in the post - so I haven't received them yet! Wah! This means I still haven't found out what the women of 1986 want! I do, however, have the 1961 and the 1911 versions - and man, are they fun.

I've actually already shared part of the contents from the 50-year old magazine - that's where the recently mentioned story about overweight children came from. But since my sister is getting married, I figured I'd share a bit of the 1911 magazine, as it deals quite a bit about weddings and married life - and holy eff, have we ever thankfully changed.

I can take the corsets. I can take the gelatin molds (yes, they were even sickeningly into them back then). But I cannot take the snotty, stuffy, judgey morality-policing that seemed to be in such vogue then. I can't help but read these aloud in a voice that rolls the 'r', jumps octaves in a single sentence and has a certain Julia Child-ness to it, if Julia Child was a humourless hosebag. Please feel free to do the same. And, yes, your roommate / spouse / children / dog will think you're crazy.

Ah, yes, we've all read about those horrible tragedies that occurred due to such silly rice and confetti throwing at weddings. How dreadful. And worse - how tactless. Sweet Smurf only knows how discouraged the easily-offended writer of that article would be if she knew my husband and I blasphemously participated in such horse-play as high-fiving each at the altar. Shmaaaaawh.

While I haven't discussed it with her, I do hope my sister plans to have children right away. Because to not do so is not just immoral, it's "vulgar":


And while I personally find worth in learning and exploring the "domestic arts" - I'm really not into telling other people how to go about their own marriage and careers. My sentiments are in direct contrast to this high-horsed writer who considers anything that takes away from domestic duties - like stupid things like reading and art - will set you up to have an unhappy marriage:


Also, my sister musn't forget that she's basically about to become property. AS LONG AS THE WORLD STANDS:


And the grossest part? Those were all written by women. Way to betray your sex, ladies. The magazine is clearly evil, which is confirmed when we learn about The Girls' Club and its chosen insignia:

One member coos over her "diamond swastika pin over which the girls are wild". That's nice - but I have a feeling the girls became less enchanted with at piece of jewelery thirty years later. Fashion can be so fickle!

There's way more ... which I'll share sometime later, but for now, I'll leave you with this last comforting piece of advice - it's always your fault:



22 Apr 2011

Polite Society

Anytime I see something searingly embarrassing, I like to think about the events that lead up to it. Like, if you're a white 40-something woman from the south and "hip hop is who you are", there's a very good chance that you told your friends you were going to make a hip hop instructional video. And there's a very good chance that they had an opportunity to be honest with you about what a horrible idea it was. And when you explain your vision to the camera crew that you hire, they also have an opportunity to tell you it's the worst thing they've ever heard.

But when someone has a dream (or are paying you), we're often too polite to be honest about what will surely be a disaster, ripe for mass mocking. And this is the result of surrounding yourself with people who can't be straight with you:

Props to Tiffany for finding this video!


21 Apr 2011

Oh. My. God.

This is a random picture I found online of a
dorm room in Rundle Hall. The man in the
picture isn't me. Or Heidi.
This blogging thing has finally paid off!

A week ago, my roommate from first-year at the University of Calgary - Heidi - sent me a Facebook Message asking for my mailing address. My best guess as to what she was sending? Proof that she could blackmail me.

I didn't leap to that conclusion because Heidi is some kind of crazy bitch. Rather, I figured she was going to blackmail me because I really, really had it coming and owed her some payback.

You see, Heidi and I were strangers who were assigned to live together in a single room in residence. Little did she know, she'd have to share a space the size of a shoe box with someone who was mentally ill. I wasn't technically mentally ill, but it's the only non-shameful way to explain why I was such a disastrous roommate.

We were sort of like The Odd Couple. Heidi was a pretty and charming nursing student who liked to paint, drink Growers Cider, hang out with her friends from Drumheller, and prove to anyone who asked (or didn't) that she could do the splits. Then there was me - the uncouth Communications student who liked to braid her arm hair, drink - well - anything, hang out with the TV, and couldn't touch her toes if her life depended on it (my inflexibility is so bad that I even took part in a study done by the university's Kinesiology department on the issue. That's nothing to be proud of, and yet I smile as I recall all those future sports therapists huddling around me in awe as I showed off my limited range of motion).

Where Heidi's half of the room was very tidy a la Felix Ungar, I was Oscar Madison - slob extraordinaire - that is, if Oscar liked to buy vintage clothes and put up posters from John Hughes movies. My junk possessions literally created a line down the middle of the room. You see, I was "considerate" enough not to let my mound of shit go onto her side. Never mind the fact that when you opened the door, you were greeted with my piles of CDs and dirty clothes. Never mind that Heidi pretty much could never have her friends over for fear of being humiliated. Never mind that I had probably created some kind of health and fire hazard that she had to sleep in every night.

The other thing she got to put up with? The whole fact that I never went to class. Oh, sure - each day I had intentions to take advantage of the higher education my parents I had paid for. But then the alarm would go off and I'd be bagged from a late night of watching The Jerry Springer Show and then I'd remember that I didn't technically have to go unless there was a test. And so I'd keep sleeping ... without bothering to turn off the alarm. And just a few feet from me Heidi would be lying there without my gift of being able to ignore obvious things.

"Um, you gonna go to class, Jen?" she said, surely through gritted teeth.

The question would annoy me because I figured she was judging me. Which she probably was, as anyone would, and was the least awful thing she could have done.

"Mmm ... no," I'd mumble. "It's cancelled today," I'd lie.

"Okay," Heidi would say with the patience of a saint, "so, can you turn off your alarm?"

Ugh. Sheesh. And then I'd use my ab muscles for the first and last time that day and stretch over to the foot of my bed and stop the ringing.

What's a miracle about this whole scenario is that Heidi never once lost her shit on me. Papa Smurf knows, she was entitled to it. I would have lost my shit on me. And that's why I thought that maybe it was only now that she was going to get back at me, seeing as my blog has reached celebrity status with its audience of 12. I'm quite certain she has a fair amount of things she could share with the world that would be of embarrassment to me: photos of my half of the room; details of how I used to write two paragraphs of an assignment and yank at the paper as it was coming out of the printer as to create the illusion that my printer had jammed - and then take that paper and go to class armed with fake tears in order to get a free extension; video of me doing an exceptionally insensitive recreation of the last days of life of the Heaven's Gate cult members ...

And anything Heidi could demand would be fair: That I fly out to Alberta and clean her home until it's spotless. That I wake up whenever her children squawk in the middle of the night and tend to them, allowing her to sleep in. That I keep a steady supply of Growers Cider and Dairy Queen Blizzards coming her way.

But instead of any of that, she's sent me a hand-written (!) note updating me on her (She lives on a farm! She has two darling children! She likes my blog!) and a fantastic care package consisting of these:

Peanut Butter Slice and Puffed Wheat Squares!

Oh. My. God.

What I've pictured is nothing - she sent me a whole box of them! Happy memories of Alberta flooded my body as I munched on Heidi's homemade gift. And then Patrick came in from work and I was all, "Look!" and he was all, "Where did you get those?" and I was like, "An angel sent them to me!" and then he dropped his bags and just stood there with his mouth open waiting for me to feed him.

I wish I had a video of Patrick's First Peanut Butter Slice and Patrick's First Puffed Wheat Square, like how parents have documented the major milestones of their children. He was enamoured with the Peanut Butter Slice, but the Puffed Wheat Square officially gave him a food boner.

"Oh, my, this is so divine."

I love that when it comes to talking about food, my husband says things that only an old woman or a gay man would normally utter.

And so we laid there in the hotel eating these treats made by someone who could have told me to eat shit instead. Is Heidi nice or what?!?

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!


20 Apr 2011

The Suite Life With Jen

I'm currently living in a hotel.

No, I haven't just become a character from a soap opera, New York-based teen drama or a truly awful Disney Channel show. We're renovating our home and since the work has involved removing our one and only toilet and installing some tile at our entrance that can't get stepped on until it settles, we had to move out for a few days. It was that or stay trapped in the den with a chamber pot. Try not to picture it.

We went for the cheapest hotel in the neighbourhood so Patrick could still walk to work. It's OK, but it certainly hasn't made us feel as though we're living large like Chuck Bass of Gossip Girl. Just a simple room, no bathrobes, and a tube TV that doesn't even get my blessed Food Network. Don't you feel very sorry for me and my First World Problems?

The wireless Internet in the room is also really clunky and slow, which has made working in here a little tedious and frustrating. Through a bit of trial and error - the details of which I will not go into - I discovered that the Internet actually works a little faster in the bathroom, so I've sort of made it my office. Which, when you think about it, makes me a lot less like Chuck Bass and a lot more like The Fonz.

Since we're not exactly rolling in dough, we've also avoided using room service. However, the biggest temptation for me has been the mini bar. What is it about things that are in a small fridge that make them so desirable? Little booze bottles! Cold chocolate bars! So close and yet so far away. As you can see, the price list for these things is insane:

It also happens to be one of those asshole hotel mini bars that has the sensors, so that if you remove anything from it, you automatically get billed. There goes my plan of simply cradling the vodka and chips in my arms for a while.

There is, however, a complimentary mini coffee machine in the room - so at least I've been super caffeinated this whole time.



19 Apr 2011

Parents of 1961: Crueler, Hilarious & Probably Better Than Us

I'm in the midst of working on a bit of a follow-up to the 50s Housewife Experiment, and so I've been diving into more glorious vintage magazines. It's really a lot of fun to see what's changed and what hasn't. What I find most obvious is the impact political correctness has had on us all - including moi, the girl who doesn't care much for political correctness for political correctness' sake.

Don't get me wrong - it's not like I go out of my way to disrespect people or make people feel uncomfortable (hence why I started wearing a better bra). Being aware of others' feelings matters and if I'm using a term that is truly, legitimately a shitty thing to say (and not just a term someone 'dislikes'), I'd prefer to know about it than continue to be ignorant. However, I can't stand how some people like to make a point of policing every little word others say in fear of the risk of possibly, maybe, potentially insulting someone. Can't you just disagree with the way someone puts things (or their ideas) without turning it into a campaign? Ugh. We're becoming such language pussies.

While they're not alone nor is everyone among them this type of person (like the amazing and hilarious Kelly Oxford), one of today's more prominent roving vigilante gangs of PC-enforcers are the Mommy Bloggers / Social Media Moms. It's a sweeping generalization, I know. People have gone from writing an online diary about poopy diapers and those adorable things kids say to becoming a part of impressive online communities and networks that offer moms a ways of connection and commiseration - and companies an identifiable target to pander to. This is fine in itself; if peeps want to chat with each other and make cyber friendships, and if companies find a demographic that will buy what they're selling - more power to them. Plus, sometimes Mommy Bloggers and their social media firepower do a lot of good - like raise awareness and funds for childhood diseases, support a mom who's going through a rough time, or just simply provide a connection to others who are in the same position they're in. However, more and more, Mommy Bloggers have grown a reputation for creating a united front against anything mommies disagree with. And if a mommy disagrees with it - it's clearly wrong and should be scrubbed from the earth. At times, it feels like they're actually on the look-out for things to get all uppity over, or as I like to brand it:

Mommy Bloggers: Let's Get Offended

The fact that there is a growing and noisy group of them, that they can spread the word quickly (via blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and because they offer a certain coveted collective buying power, Mommy Bloggers and Social Media Moms have some perceived clout - and they really, really know it. Well, let me tell you - if BlogHer or any other lady / mommy network was transported to 1961, there would be a colossal pantshit and / or noisy-but-ultimately-not-really-bottom-line-impacting boycott of Ladies' Home Journal. (And, yes, I wrote that article I just linked to. I am nothing if not self-promoting.)

Here is what is entertaining me immensely today: "Cheerless Chubbies: Our Fat Children" by Dorris Conway in the April 1961 edition of Ladies' Home Journal:

"What causes your little fatty's insatiable hunger for food?" the article matter-of-factly asks. And without quotation marks around "fatty's" to suggest that they're simply using someone else's term and not their own? It surely paved a direct path to Hell, but, oh, how I howled. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I don't often laugh out loud by myself, but it totally happened when I saw that. And that's just the opener. Check out the rest:

Can you imagine someone telling a person that their child is "obviously too fat", has a "psychological problem" - or referring to them as "mothers of fatties"? Oh, the Mommy Blogger Indignation Machine would be fired up to an unheard of level. Dying.

Perhaps some of the most blunt reflections are from the mothers themselves, like Ernie's mother:

"... she can hardly believe that he's hers - with that repulsive spare tire around his middle and his pink, puffy face!" Oh, man, poor Ernie. "Repulsive"! I'm sitting here trying to visualize someone today daring to say such a thing about their own kid. I'd put money down that someone would call Child Protective Services on her. That said, even those in the 1960s acknowledged that Ernie's mother was being a bitch, in a round-about way:

Maybe I'm taking a leap, but I have the feeling that Mrs. Minton probably came to see and accept her own faults regarding her son more quickly when speaking with a doctor than if she had been shit on and shamed by hoards of self-righteous and offended mommy bloggers, but who knows.

And since this article is brimming with retro honesty, the issue of Ernie's obesity couldn't be mentioned without blaming her and other active mothers for contributing to the problem to begin with:
Now, I'm not going to disagree with the assessment above because it seems lady-blaming. My disagreement with it is just out of personal experience. Whenever I had a babysitter and I had some lame stories from school that I was "bursting" to tell - telling the babysitter was always way more enjoyable because she was a much more attentive audience than my own parents. Don't get me wrong - my parents are wonderful, loving, caring people. But you know how 'interesting' a seven-year-old's stories are? Unless by some miracle they've caught wind of actual adult gossip, their stories are the worst. "Oh, really? You tried to do a somersault in gym? And what happened? Nothing? No twist to the story? Well, holy fuck! I better call up the papers and let them in on that one." This is especially true if you have to hear their disconnected rattling streams of consciousness everyday, as most parents do. A babysitter, on the other hand, is paid to do what parents can't be bothered with be engaged and generally finds the experience of a chatty kid much more novel than tired parents or crusty assholes like me. Hence, having your kid yap to a babysitter after school doesn't strike me as a reason for being a "fatty."

I only include this snippet because of the frequency the f-word is used, by a doctor, at that:

Should you be curious about the solution, the article goes on to suggest that you should tackle the issue head-on: See a doctor, have them checked out, use a sensible doctor-approved diet, look for reasons that cause overeating (like boredom, unhappiness, mindless snacking in front of the TV - it existed even then!), and acknowledge how you, as parents, contribute to those issues - which you then must tackle as a family. In all, not bad advice.

To be clear, I'm not giggling at these children - I'm laughing at how much we've changed when it comes to how we speak about kids and parenting. I'm laughing at how shocking even I find the bluntness that was apparently pretty commonplace 50 years ago. I'm not suggesting that we go back to a day where we can casually refer to overweight kids as "little fatties" - but maybe we don't have to be so darn delicate about an obvious issue either. And I say that as someone whose seldom used Wii Fit character is more wide than it is tall.

With the exception of anonymous Internet trolls, we're so busy being offended or trying to avoid offending others that we (including doctors!) can no longer say things or be told things as they are. And to suggest that someone (be it a mom or a dad or the kid themselves) actually played a role or has some responsibility in an issue? Off with their heads! Diabetes, high cholesterol and a risk of early death are apparently nothing compared to a bruised ego. Good grief, are we ridiculous or what?


13 Apr 2011

I Have Crazy Deadlines. That Means One Thing:

I've spent the last half hour cooing over entries in the Washington Post Peeps Diorama Contest. Instead of getting actual work done. Aren't I clever?

The Girl Who Uses Time and Technology Well
The Girl Who Will Find Herself Homeless If She Doesn't Get on it Already
The Delusional Lady Who is Too Old to Refer to Herself as a Girl


12 Apr 2011

We Be Hatin': First Lady Edition

In Canada, we don't really have a "First Lady" culture in politics. The spouse of our Prime Minister is just that - "the wife of the Prime Minister" (or for a split second in 1993, "the husband of the Prime Minister").

Even though we're in the midst of an election, I think we'd be fairly hard-pressed to find people who know the names of the spouses of our political party leaders. Until I Googled it just now, I was going to guess that Prime Minister Harper's wife was named Arleen. Total stab in the dark. He seems like the kind of guy who would marry an Arleen, right?

(I was close. He's married to someone named Laureen. Now we all know!)

With the exception of Maggie Trudeau, Canadians have been just as disinterested in the private lives of our politicians as we are of politics in general. There's never really been any official roles for the spouses of our politicians to play. After all, they're unelected private citizens - just like our Senate.

All this obviously isn't the case in the United States. The ladies are front and centre - and right in the line of fire, it seems. I have to admit, I was rather stunned by all the backlash to Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign - an initiative to educate and inspire parents and kids to deal with the very real problem of childhood obesity. Suddenly, the First Wife is being attacked for being the "food police" and "dictating" what people can feed their children and "shoving vegetables down our throats". And those are just the critiques on her clearly evil communist-fascist-anti-American-pro-celery-lobby agenda. Then there are the comments about her (gasp!) sleeveless dresses and how much money she made before becoming First Lady and how she's clearly Satan.

I don't recall people being so vile about Laura Bush and her childhood literacy project that "shoved books down peoples' throats". I think the biggest critiques lobbed at her had to do with her choice of husband, no? Well, that and killing a dude.

And so I wondered whether hating on the First Lady was a new phenomenon in a culture that increasingly seems to be getting more petty and hostile toward people in public life.

To the bat cave my vintage magazine collection I went - and it turns out, we've always been hatin'.

Thought the great Eleanor Roosevelt was always adored? Not the case. Here's a snotty little letter to the editor (from Ladies' Home Journal, February 1943) from someone complaining that Mrs. Roosevelt should be less in everyone's face and more in her own home where she belongs:


Eleanor Roosevelt had a column in the Ladies' Home Journal that was meant to help and inspire the women holding up the home front during World War II. She'd answer reader questions in a section called "If You Ask Me". Here's a note from the editor mentioning that some of the mail received for the First Lady wasn't exactly polite. Probably had them wondering if they should change the magazine's name to HoBags' Home Journal:

It seems that it doesn't matter that the world was gripped by a horrible war and that everyone was being asked to pull together - the big problem for some people was this outspoken wife of the President. Ah, hate mail: American's favourite past-time.

In some of the questions Mrs. Roosevelt received, you can definitely sense the "what makes you so special?" mentality some people had toward her, like in this one questioning why Eleanor Roosevelt made a trip to visit soldiers overseas (how dare she!):

Eleanor Roosevelt really did have a great way of telling people to go fuck themselves. Like in this Q & A:

The wives of Democratic presidents weren't the only ones who got lambasted by the public. Check out this article about Pat Nixon, 31 years after these Eleanor Roosevelt examples, from Woman's World February 1974:

Here, the article opens with the public perception of Pat Nixon - a cold, robotic woman (sounds like current critiques of Nancy Pelosi!) who hasn't taken on any projects to help make America a better place.  Sounds like they're damned if they do and they're damned if they don't.

All yet another reason I love this goofy, boring country of mine. I imagine the "Arleens" of the Canadian political world agree.


11 Apr 2011

The Pin That Stole My Innocence: How A Recent Purchase May Have Ruined Mark Twain For Me

Fact: I am a total try-hard.

Proof: I recently decided that I needed a "signature item" - some charming thing I could frequently wear that would be "my thing". Most people come about these things organically, but not a try-hard. A try-hard decides this, hunts something down, and then lies through her teeth when people ask about it.

"Oh this old thing? It was my Grandmother's. I've been wearing it since I was a girl."

But before I could start giddily acting like a giant fake, I had to find that precious little something that would give me personality. I decided that an antique pin would do the trick. For whatever reason, one jumped out at me on eBay - a tiny little colourful angelfish. It felt a little familiar to me but I couldn't place it. Maybe I had seen it in one of my vintage magazines? The age of the pin was unknown, but based on the hinge and the clasp it was likely pre-1940s but still probably 20th century. Fine by me! So for the (outrageous? fantastic? fair?) price of $12, it was mine.

This is a close-up picture of my new try-hard-apolooza signature item:

C'est cute.

Naturally, I decided to do a bit of searching to figure out where I might have seen this pin before, given that it felt familiar. My magazines turned up nothing, but it didn't take long to track the pin down once I turned to Google (what did we ever do before the Internet?). Pretty darn close, no?:

Those pins are part of a collection of Mark Twain memorabilia.

Upon finding that website, I immediately remembered having read about Mark Twain and a thing called The Aquarium Club. As I understood it, Mark Twain was without grandchildren and felt a need to fill that void. And so, he created a correspondence group of kids and he would send them an angelfish pin as part of their membership (the two pictures above are gifts from Twain to those young people). Sweet, right? That was as much detail I knew about the club at the time - and had forgotten. Somehow my brain decided that retaining facts like J.Woww's dogs' names (Lean Cuisine and Juice Box, just so you know) was a better use of storage space.

Now, I'm not saying that the pin I have was one of the pins Mark Twain gave to his Angelfish Club members (I doubt there's a way to tell, is there?). However, I squealed nonetheless about owning something that looked a whole lot like something Twain was connected to.

Mark Twain is one of my literary heroes. I pity the fool who hasn't read his work. Twain was one of the best storytellers and humourists around. His ability to write realistic dialog was all kinds of juicy goodness that many modern writers can't hold a candle to (especially the kind of writers who barf out the words "juicy goodness" to describe classic literature). He was ever so clever that even a number of his off-the-cuff quips are well known and still referenced today. (And to geekify this post even more, one of my favourite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes is the two-parter in which Data goes back in time and meets Mark Twain. Remember that one, nerds? Yes, yes you do.)

So - it was only natural that I spend a sunny Sunday afternoon online reading all that I could about this Angelfish Club of his. In the early 1900s, Twain was working on his autobiography and dictated the following (which I found on this site, which is from the book, Mark Twain's Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910):
After my wife's death, June 5, 1904, I experienced a long period of unrest and loneliness. Clara and Jean [his daughters] were busy with their studies and their labors and I was washing about on a forlorn sea of banquets and speechmaking in high and holy causes... I had reached the grandpapa stage of life; and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren.


More info about the pin that's like the one I have was found in this note:

... All the ten school-girls in the above list are my angel-fishes, and constitute my Club, whose name is "The Aquarium" ... The Bermudian angel-fish, with its splendid blue decorations, is easily the most beautiful fish that swims ... The club's badge is the angel-fish's splendors reproduced in enamels and mounted for service as a lapel pin -- at least that is where the girls wear it. I get these little pins in Bermuda; they are made in Norway.

Neato. But as I read further, though, I came to realize it wasn't simply grandchildren Mark Twain longed for, but granddaughters. Which ... OK ... some parents have preferences for a girl over a boy, the same can be said about wannabe grandparents, right? Twain elaborated:
I suppose we are all collectors... As for me, I collect pets: young girls -- girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent -- dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears. 

 Ummmm? "Collecting" naive teen girls ... whom he calls pets. Heh. Well, this was just a pen pal group, right?
The billiard-room will have the legend "The Aquarium" over its door ... I have good photographs of all my fishes, and these will be framed and hung around the walls. There is an angel-fish bedroom -- double-bedded -- and I will expect to have a fish and her mother in it as often as Providence will permit.

Twain with Angelfish, Dorothy Quick
Image Source: TwainQuotes.com
Oh Jesus.

In the above, Twain was describing a house he was having built in Redding, Connecticut. He decided to call the house "Innocence at Home" in honour of his Angelfish. And that's not at all similar to any other celebrity-owned property that infamously hosted other people's children. Well, at least Twain mentioned hosting the mothers too. The girls who were a part of his club were the daughters of his friends and of people he had met on his frequent trips to Bermuda, so maybe he was also eager to enjoy the mother's company as well?
Margaret is due to arrive here with her mother at 5:45 this evening. It is an event: an event like the advent of spring after winter. The scamp will be welcome. Also her mother.

So ... maybe not. While I may not be a big time writer, I can assure you that there is a big difference between saying, "The scamp and her mother will be welcome" and "The scamp will be welcome. Also her mother." Trust.

I hope I'm just jaded from hearing too many modern tales of old men and their not-so-innocent adoration of little girls. This all could still be completely grandfatherly ...

To Dorothy Quick, he wrote:

I went to bed as soon as you departed, there being nothing to live for after that, & the sunshine all gone. How do you suppose I am going to get along without you? For five hours this has been a dreary place, a sober & solemn place, a hushed & brooding & lifeless place, for the blessed Spirit of Youth has gone out of it, & left nothing that's worth while. Aren't you sorry for me, you fresh breeze blown from fragrant fields of flowers?
To an 11-year old? Really? He later described "worshiping" Dorothy in his personal writings. Alrighty.

Twain with Aquarium Club
member Irene Gerken
Image Source: TwainQuotes.com
Reading further, it sounds like the press at the time made a point of noting Twain's friendships with young girls (like in this 1907 article about Twains recent voyage where he "made a particular pet of little Dorothy Quick, daughter of Mrs. E. G. Quick of Brooklyn, and during the time he was on deck would not let her out of his sight.") - but never went to so far as to suggest impropriety.

However, it's clear that some people close to Twain were somewhat cynical about his Aquarium Club. Twain's daughter, Clara, who had been overseas, was so not impressed with her father's activities and basically demanded that he take a step back from the girls. What she specifically said to him isn't recorded, but I imagine it was the 1909 version of saying, "Dad, that is fucking creepy. Cut it out."

Twain's biographer noted that immediately after Clara's return to America, the Twain household stopped saving the correspondence from Twain's Angelfish and the home's name was changed from "Innocence at Home" to the much less little girl-friendly "Stormfield".


I'm holding out hope that everything was truly innocent in this club because I just hate the idea of an admired genius like Twain turning out to be some kind of perv. Suffice to say, I now have a better idea of how Michael Jackson fans feel.

But me and my little pin are skeptical. I know it's selfish, but I really hope my new signature item isn't tainted with gross-old-man vibes.

Because that's not very charming, is it?


8 Apr 2011

Prairie Recipes From The Family Cookbook

Prairie Crack a.k.a. Puffed Wheat Square.
Image Source: Buttercream Barbie
In light of my latest post - where I drooled over culinary memories and ranted like a lunatic over the name of a cupcake store - I figured I would share some of the prairie delights I referenced. Hey, maybe someone will take these recipes and open up the western bakery / eastern donair shop of my dreams here in Toronto.

Lucky for me, I have a family cookbook that was put together by my dad's mom's side of the family, the Stefflers. Yup, I'm (paritally) of proud German decent. The Stefflers were among some of the earliest European families to settle parts of southern Alberta, which gives these recipes all kinds of prairie street cred, yo - that is, if the prairies had streets. We actually just have fields of wheat with paths matted down by buggy wheels.

Hopefully none of my aunts or distant cousins have a problem with me sharing parts of this cookbook. I've always found it odd when people today want to keep their family recipes a secret. I mean, back in the day when women were limited in accomplishing things outside the domestic arena, I could understand why they may have wanted to secure and protect the thing that set them apart from the other ladies on the block - even if it was "just" baking the best chocolate chip cookie. But the social dynamic has changed, making "recipe protecting" less necessary or logical. Most people have more than their baking to be proud of. In fact, most people I know rarely bake - and when they do, the act invokes a squishy little white man to appear on their countertop. I wonder how many cherished family recipes - recipes that the great grandmas of the world protected like maniacal leprechauns hovering over pots of gold - have vanished from collective memory because of lack of use?

Instead, I say give credit where it's due and spread the tastiness!

Here's the inside cover of the cookbook, which my Grandma Price signed when she gave it to me for Christmas. Isn't her handwriting divine? It makes me want to work on my own penmanship, which currently kind of looks like something from the prop table of My Left Foot. It turns out that 1996 was my grandmother's last Christmas, so it's extra special to have this.

Up first are Mom's Jam Buns (the titular mom is my great grandmother Marian Steffler). Both Saskatoon and rhubarb jam are suggested for them (this cookbook features a lot of rhubarb, by the way, which I love). It doesn't say how long to bake it, so presume the oven is at 350 or 375 and take the buns out when the tops are golden:
I don't think there is anything particularly unusual about Plain Pie Crust (hence the name), but it's a good staple recipe to have:

The family recipe book doesn't have a specific entry for Saskatoon Berry Pie - but that's just because the recipe is imprinted in the souls of western folk when we're born. This is the basic recipe that I know, but I welcome you to chime in if you use a different one:

3 1/2 cups Saskatoons
1/2 cup water (use less water if you're using frozen berries)
3/4 cup sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp almond extract

Cook the berries in water until boiling. Mix the cornstarch and sugar together in a bowl. Add the contents of the bowl to the berries and boil until clear, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add the lemon juice, butter and almond extract. Cool. Fill your pie crust with the Saskatoon mixture and bake at 425 for 15 minutes.

And here's a recipe for Saskatoon Crisp. It says you can substitute blueberries, but that would be awfully silly of you:

My sister, who is currently living in France (what a bitch, right?), recently emailed me to ask for this recipe for Baked Apple Dumplings. This dish is that good - even people in the mecca of foodie goodness desire these babies:

People sometimes accuse Matrimonial Cake of "just" being a date square. But it's not. Why? BECAUSE I SAID SO. If you add chocolate chips to the top, it becomes a Honeymoon Cake.

This recipe for Peanut Butter Slice is basically the key to getting children to trust and like you. Unless they have a nut allergy. Then you're screwed.

And, finally, one of my favourites - Puffed Wheat Squares. It's moist and chewy and sweet (but not sickly). A bag of puffed wheat cereal (which, no matter where you shop in the country, is always on a bottom shelf of the cereal aisle) is dirt cheap but takes up half your grocery cart. This recipe will use a bunch of it up, so no worries if you have limited pantry room. Plus, there's a good chance that you'll immediately make a second batch after having eaten the first one in single a day:

If you try any of these recipes out, please let me know what you think of them!

Happy weekend, y'all.

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I have no shame

Need words? I'm a Toronto-based freelance writer who injects great ones into blogs, websites, magazines, ads and more. So many services, one lovely Jen (with one 'n').

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