Where’s the pound of flesh?

Writer and food historian, Gillian Pollack, has sent me some recipes for Election Cake in honour of the Australian election being held this weekend. I was joking that we needed cakes full of nuts to represent our conservatives, or a hollow cake in honour of the policy-free zone that has led up to polling. She sent me three recipes, none of which include the requisite pound of flesh, though one of the recipes did include wine and brandy, which I would have thought were pre-requisites for getting through the tension of watching the results come through on election night television. Or for wiping out all the miserable memories if some of those nutters actually get into power.

The one I’m fondest of is this, from The Frugal Housewife, mainly for the book’s dedication: DEDICATED TO THOSE WHO ARE NOT ASHAMED OF ECONOMY

Election Cake
Old fashion election cake is made of four pounds of flour; three quarters of a pound of butter; four eggs; one pound of sugar; one pound of currants, or raisins, if you choose; half a pint of good yeast; wet it with milk as soft as it can be and be moulded on a board. Set to rise over night in winter; in warm weather three hours is usually enough for it to rise. A loaf, the size of common flour bread, should bake three quarters of an hour. — The Frugal Housewife LMF Child 1830.

There’s a certain economy of description here as well – though I suppose when this was written in the first part of the 19th Century, there weren’t that many options on what temperature you should set your oven to. You just stuck in the block of wood and cooked things till they were done. My grandparents had one of those stoves for decades, right up to the end of the 20th century. Perhaps they should have voted for whoever would bring them more modern amenities?

I’m also charmed by the idea of wetting my mixture with milk until it’s ‘as soft as it can be’. How soft *is* that exactly? In the current climate, I imagine as soft as the promises made on funding.

Perhaps for the recipe to really work in honour of the 2010 election, with its lack of policy and vision from the major parties, this particular election cake should only be half baked as well.

Given the number of ex-leaders loitering in the vicinity to queer the pitches of the current leaders, perhaps we should also add some grapefruit peel, to make it more appropriately bitter.

I think I know why old people get grumpy

Apart from the aches and pains that increase with age, which obviously would make anyone grumpy. But Tim and I have noticed something in recent months – that things we thought that everyone knew aren’t actually as obvious as we thought.

I mean, I’m used to the fact that not everyone knows the frequently strange and obscure things I have learned in my travels, and I’m never surprised when something even *I* think is odd knowledge isn’t recognised. But there are some things which, for people of my age group, are just things that everyone knows, surely? It’s shocking and disconcerting to discover something you thought was common knowledge turns out to be obscure or even irrelevent to someone under the age of 25.

This came up recently when Tim needed to explain Scott of the Antarctic to someone. When he told me, my first thought was “but he’s mentioned in the Australian Crawl song ‘Reckless'” – and then remembered that this song is from the 1980s and may be just as irrelevent as the doomed explorer to the person in question.

More and more often, things I thought that everyone knew turn out to be things that only people of a certain age know. Another friend was gobsmacked when he had to contextualise who the Nazis were for someone – when the penny finally dropped the person said “Oh! The Bad Guys!” as though she only understood World War II and the Holocaust from the perspective of someone who had only seen it in Hollywood movies.

I was naturally reminded of some of the older books I read – Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse, Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle – and wondered about the references in those stories which were commonplace to the author and their contemporaneous readership, which are nigh on meaningless now. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of their work, though it sometimes requires that I do a little research. (It was amazing how much funnier Blackadder the Third became once I’d read a book on the Regency period., for example. That Mr Curtis knows his stuff.)

I wonder now at what elements of my own ignorance may have surprised my parents and grandparents. Did they have the sense of the world being not so concrete as they thought it was? In what ways have I appalled my elders by not knowing, or caring much about, things that were considered essential to an education in their day?

It brings a new light to the problem of writing contemporary fiction and wanting to put current references into the work which, in my experience, editors don’t like very much. They fear it will date the work, pin it too much to a particular time. It shows a charming confidence that people might still be reading the thing in a decade and wonder who these bands and celebrities and TV shows are that are referenced so glibly. But if you are writing for a young, contemporary audience, restricting yourself to referencing only pop culture that has lasted the distance in the last 20 years is going to date the book – or at least the author – before the decade is up.

I have vowed to be less gobsmacked at the things people don’t know. The only reason I know some of this stuff is because I read voraciously and talk to people a lot. I also vow to maintain my curiosity about what’s going on in the world *now*. I don’t want to suddenly find out that all my reference points for art, culture and history are dusty and irrelevant. That doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon the history that I know, or cease using it – but I intend to keep the weaving the thread, from past to present to future, pulling in the strands from every place I think can help me to tell a story and keep it rich, deep, detailed and relevant.

Words are like oxygen

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