Wednesday, July 28, 2010


The Pennsic War approaches, and once again, even the notion of going is out of the question for me. I am teaching three classes during my school's summer term... they meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays through late August. In theory, I could arrange for substitutes... or given sufficient lead time, I might be able to make some other sort of arrangement.

I'm not overly concerned about missing this year. I've been in retirement from the SCA for some time (this blog is my only category of activity right now); I would be unready to camp or participate at this date. But I do not want to be in the position of never again attending, either.

Maybe next year. But even now, I have this strange notion of appearing for just a day or so, staying in a hotel, perhaps, and donning medieval pilgrim's garb, complete with broad brimmed hat, cloak, and scrip. Why not? A somewhat expensive and perhaps pointless jaunt at the moment, but it would be nice to watch a battle or two, see the sights, say hello to old friends, contemplate new ventures.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Serious Look at the Hobby

Medieval Fantasy as Performance; The Society for Creative Anachronism and the Current Middle Ages by Michael A. Cramer
February 2010 from The Scarecrow Press

As long as I've been engaged in hobbies or areas of historical interest, it has been my habit to at once seek out books and magazines (for a hobby where such things are available) to get acquainted with the culture and rules of the community I was joining, or considering joining. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but I long ago became aware that not everyone considers that step worthwhile. In the Society for Creative Anachronism, there used to be a strong tendency for the rules and customs of the hobby to be conveyed informally, through person to person contact. Possibly this has changed to some degree with the advent of the Internet, of course.

When I joined in 1982, I was, as far as I could tell, unusual in immediately seeking out every possible pamphlet and document about the SCA and the Middle Kingdom. There was a fair amount available, including the Folump Press publication A Brief History of the Middle Kingdom, (which was invaluable.) And yet often over the years, I was surprised at the short institutional memory of the organization. Even brief and accessible documents appeared invisible to many colleagues. This could be a particular problem during local political disputes, as members were quite capable of dismissing any suggestion of how things were done if these rules conflicted with more convenient assumptions cherry-picked from officer handbooks. (The publication of the excellent but regrettably flexible Seneschal's Handbook for the MidRealm in the mid 1990s was actually a catastrophe for my local branch... the locals all selected the lines from the book they preferred that affected the dispute at hand, and ignored lines that gave different perspectives. When there was no solution for this, the branch suffered a completely unnecessary migration of many of the members to an attempt at a rival branch that was impossible for them to organize as they had envisioned according to the real rules of the SCA... which they had never absorbed.)

In 1982, I would have been overjoyed to have had access to something like Medieval Fantasy as Performance. The book is not a guide to the SCA, or a history of it, I hasten to add. Cramer, a longtime prominent member in the West Kingdom, is also a theatre professional and approaches his topic from the perspective of how members perform the recreation of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He is clear in his description of how the organization depicts the historical period as it pleases rather than as it was.

The utility of the book for me is Cramer's careful and knowledgeable look under the hood, explaining the motivations and interpersonal mechanisms behind the SCA's culture. He explains the origins of the organization, and describes how it gradually evolved the forms of performance it follows today, including court ceremonial, tournament combat and especially what he terms the Summer King and Winter King games. This is quite a lot of fun; I particularly enjoyed his placing the SCA's activities in a larger scholarly context.

I would unreservedly recommend the book. Both new members curious about the organization and old timers who care to reflect on it would enjoy and appreciate it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Beaux Arts Cocktail

Time for something different. One of my other hobbies is making classic cocktails, and I don't have anywhere to write about that, so I've decided that I'll occasionally say something about it here.

Tonight I leafed through one of the most famous and respected cocktail books, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embury, looking for inspiration. Embury's book was out of print for many years and was selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay until it was reprinted in a very handsome edition by a new publisher named Cocktail Kingdom. I was lucky enough to find a battered paperback a couple of years ago just before the republication, but I'm referring to the new edition.

Embury was a lawyer with a rather personal take on cocktails... very opinionated and detailed. He describes ingredients in terms of parts, which the uninitiated may find a barrier. The average recipe calls for ounces or tablespoons, which is accessible; or awkwardly in "measures", "jiggers", "shots" or "wineglasses" depending on the age of the reference. Parts are flexible, however, because you can scale the cocktail up or down in size, or mix a bunch for friends if they're handy and thirsty.

However, I am but a humble professor in the social sciences, so math ain't my bag. There's a reason I went to law school instead of studying something useful, don't you know. So recipes that use sizes other than the classic cocktail from the mid-20th century, with which I'm most familiar, are a mild problem. Sometimes one looks at five parts of this and three of that and the brain grows fogged and one decides to make a Martini or a Manhattan, because one has made a good many of those and already knows the proportions.

But sometimes one wishes to experiment, and I'd never made a Beaux Arts Cocktail. With a name like that, it has to be good. In Balian's world, anything not constructed with an eye toward the Gothic ought to be either Classical or Beaux Arts. As far as I'm concerned, everything else could usefully be blown up so we can build something appropriate. Well, Arts and Crafts style houses are ok, too. But I digress.

The ingredients are not extraordinarily difficult (although I had a bad moment when the pineapple juice wasn't where I thought it was, after everything else had already been added). Indeed, there is only one ingredient that is even faintly unusual, and it can be found in any decent liquor store. And you ought to have it... doesn't it sound intriguing when it appears in one of the Godfather movies? (See, Breac, I do get a few popular culture references!)

Here are the ingredients: six parts gin; 1 part dry vermouth; 1 part sweet vermouth; 1 part pineapple and orange juices, half and half, as Embury puts it. And finally, a dash of Anisette (that's the one that gets mentioned in a Godfather film; a guest asks for it, if I recall... Marlon Brando's character requests a glass of Strega when he is told of his eldest son's death, I believe. I'd require some brandy at just such a moment, myself, but no doubt the Godfather is made of sterner stuff than I; and that completes my store of Godfather trivia).

First, let's consider the proportions. Cocktails have grown in size over the last century. They were about two ounces or so in proportion to begin with, before Prohibition, and were served in a three ounce cocktail glass... quite small by modern standards; they generally had about three ounces of ingredients by mid-century, and were served in a four ounce glass. They've gotten bigger since then. Don't expect to find proper cocktail glasses at the store, I'm afraid. Try antique and thrift stores. The seven to twelve ounce or even bigger cocktail glasses one is apt to find in stores today are more suitable for constructing a hazing incident, not a cocktail. Those are punchbowls, not cocktail glasses.

Since I'm most familiar with the mid-century three ounce cocktail, I naturally attempted to put the proportions into thirds. Easy, as it turns out: there are a total of nine parts, so that divides easily into three ounces. Six parts of gin is two ounces; the other three parts become thirds of an ounce. A dash needn't be considered... you just add that at the end. See? Even we JDs can do a little math when necessary. Making cocktails is an important task... one must strain the little gray cells for such vital matters! (No, I didn't have to use my fingers. Be nice. I occasionally even use algebra on my econ students... although it helps not to tell them that's what it is.)

Now, frankly, this is a fussy cocktail by the standards of a property mixed drink. Three or four ingredients are usually quite enough. Some would turn up their noses at a drink with six, or suggest snidely that such lists of ingredients are best left to the world of faux tropical, or Tiki drinks. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But there is a practical matter. Two ounces of gin are easy to measure. One third of an ounce of two different vermouths each aren't too bad, but that last third of an ounce has to be measured patiently: a sixth of an ounce is orange juice and a sixth is pineapple juice. A well made cocktail should be measured carefully... a little two ounce angled measuring cup from Oxo is best, as you can see from above when you've hit the mark. Don't try just pouring by sight. Maybe a professional bartender knows what he's doing with that... just dashing in six ingredients by sight for this cocktail would likely result in a mess unless you were very lucky. Think about it... is a recipe calling for a sixth of an ounce of something precisely going to work properly if you just slop some pineapple juice in and call it good?

At the end, there is a dash of Anisette. This is an anise-flavored liqueur, and is basically performing the function that bitters often serve in cocktails. It would take over the drink entirely if you add too much. But how much is a dash? If you have something in a bitters bottle, it's no problem... you literally just dash a bit of liquid into the shaker and that will be right. But Anisette comes in a regular bottle. The sources describe the quantity of a dash differently, but let us say that it should be no more than an eighth of an ounce as a rule. For some ingredients in some cocktails, it may work to go big. For something as distinctive as anisette, a very cautious and minimal bit of liquid at the bottom of the measuring cup, well under an eighth of an ounce, seems wise.

A cocktail with fruit juice is traditionally shaken, not stirred. Add ice to the shaker and shake well. Many people are afraid to shake for very long... they don't want the drink to get too diluted. While most cocktails should be strong, remember that a little melted water from ice is accounted for in the recipe. You want to get the thing cold. Shake a little longer than you think is right at first. A fair rule is to shake until your hand hurts a bit from the cold on a metal shaker.

The cocktail glass has been retrieved from the freezer... the glass should always be pre-chilled by this method or by letting it sit with ice in it (discard the ice if you do this)... and finally the drink is strained into the glass.

So how does it taste? Well, it's pretty damn good. The best cocktails are more than the sum of their parts. And believe me, your average bar guide is filled with blah drinks that you won't want to repeat. But not in David Embury's book. He would have scorned to include anything merely ordinary. The Beaux Arts doesn't quite taste the way you would imagine picturing gin with the familiar vermouths. The fruit juices round it off, they don't make it fruity. You end up with a flavor that is difficult to describe. It tastes like a Beaux Arts, one is forced to conclude. The Anisette is just barely there... just enough to remind you that this is a drink for grownups, not a sweet concoction to hide the gin.

Brands? Gordon's for the gin, but if I make it again, I think I'll upgrade to Beefeater. Martini and Rossi for the dry vermouth; Cinzano for the sweet. (These are simply the standard vermouths I stock and suit my taste. I actually prefer Noilly Prat for dry, but they changed the formula last year and I'm saving my last few bottles of the old stuff.) The Anisette is Mr. Boston's. Liqueurs you use once every six months are a problem. Going high end is exorbitant when you'll want dozens of different flavors eventually. Some liqueurs are a false economy if you do that, of course... the best triple sec you can afford is wise, for example. The orange juice is a good-quality commercial blend of 100% juice. In theory, fresh squeezed is better, but for oranges, I find that the taste profile is too unpredictable... you know what you're getting with Simply Orange. Dole's canned unsweetened pineapple juice is what everyone uses in cocktails. I wouldn't do any of this with a recipe that called for lemon or lime juice, I hasten to add.

Well, there's a cocktail for you. As you can see, it is the sort of thing you can put a lot of thought and care into, like any hobby. Does it make the cocktail taste better, my reader might wonder?

Yes, it does.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Picture Book

Suburban Knights: A Return to the Middle Ages
E. F. Kitchen
July 2010 from powerHouse Books

This is a book of full-page photographs in black and white of SCA members posing in their armor (or one page, in garb). The photos are accompanied by text with quotes from many of the recreationists depicted. There is a photo leading off the book of Sir Ranthulfr Asparlundr of the MidRealm (he also gets a photo in Medieval Fantasy as Performance). The book closes with our Baroness Dulcinea Maria Magdalena von Muhlberg y Aguilar. Most of the pictures are of fairly prominent members, many from the western kingdoms, it appears.

The book itself is handsomely mounted and well bound. It's a pleasure to handle and examine, although it is a little light on content, and I'm not sure that all of the members depicted are necessarily coming off as well as they might hope. The black and white works better in some photos than others... one misses the bright colors of heraldry and some of the scenes seem bleak or melodramatic. Some are great photos, to be sure: Duke John Fitzgerald de Clare on p. 39, Sir Gaston Bonneville de la Croix at p. 47 and Sir Tristan Pfalzgraf von Eisig at p. 53 all look particularly sharp.

The black and white photos seem like an odd choice to me. It gives the book an old-fashioned air, to be sure, but an air of the 19th or early 20th century. Color would have been better for the Middle Ages... they didn't have photography anyway. But perhaps others would disagree. Certainly it's all interesting to look at. It also seems to me that the similarity of the poses fails to capture all the possibilities. There are no group scenes, no indoor depictions. Each photo has one subject, usually dramatically posed with a sword or other weapon (Duke John has an attendant with his banner, one of the reasons his image seems more interesting.) This makes the images seem more stiff... they aren't naturalistically depicted. The kind of photos taken for, for example, Embleton and Howe's Medieval Soldier, are a good deal more pleasing and even inspiring.

I'm guessing that the imagery will please and intrigue some other readers. The fact that it doesn't do much for me is perhaps a personal matter.

My principal objection to the text is the author's interest in one of the major motivations for people joining the SCA. Master Waldryk the Firedryk is quoted on p. 12:

"I killed Frank Renn 12 years ago. I didn't like Frank Renn. I killed him and I made Waldryk." The speaker notes his inability to find fulfillment in other ways, name-checking Christianity with disfavor (a frequent and highly ironic motivation for wanting to emulate medieval European figures, I always thought), and concludes that his identity as Master Waldryk is the person he wants to be.

I have never met Master Waldryk and am not knocking him. When I say this, I'm using him as a stand-in for a view of the world that I'm usually sorry to hear about in the SCA. It makes me uncomfortable and puzzles me. And maybe that's my problem, not his, or that of others for whom his comments might seem resonant.

But I just never got this business of using the SCA as an escape from modern society for more than an entertaining weekend. I suppose that's because I'm happy enough with who I am in the 21st century world. I find fulfillment in my profession and other hobbies and interests. My real identity is that person. Balian de Brionne is what, then? A mask, a pose, a role to play? A whimsy on the weekend? Well, not exactly. It is a powerful thing to choose a new identity for yourself, a new name and a new set of allegiances. One can be a new person. There is a great appeal in that. But it has always seemed to me like a momentary escape into another identity, not one that is actually preferable.

Candidly, Suburban Knights is a little pricey for what it is... I'm not even sure SCA members are the target audience. I bought it suspecting from the description it would disappoint; but it is my custom to buy books about the SCA. It's not like there are many, after all. So I recommend it mildly. It's amusing and has some interesting commentary by members of the organization.

Writing Style

At the always interesting A Commonplace Book (my nominee for best title for a history-oriented blog, by the way - wish I'd thought of it first!) the author recently commented on and linked to I Write Like, a site which analyzes writing and suggests which famous author your style most resembles.

With some trepidation, I submitted four of the longer posts from this blog. The results:

1. Dan Brown. (Dear god. Either I should stop writing now or I need to consider a career change to writing thrillers for people with short attention spans.)
2. James Joyce. (Really, I may cry now. Must be strong.)
3. and 4. Cory Doctorow.

Who the hell is Cory Doctorow? Science fiction writer and blogger, apparently. I've never read him, and had to look him up, so I don't know what to make of that.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Books on the SCA

Books about the Society for Creative Anachronism... not self-published items for internal use, but regular published books sold on are pretty rare. The only one I know of is The Knights Next Door, by Patrick O'Donnell. The SCA is discussed in a number of books about historical recreation groups and the like, but I don't know of any others that take the organization as a primary focus. There are several books by SCA members, such as Professor Steven Muhlberger's books on chivalric topics and Brian Price's opus on reproducing 14th century armor... but these are books which simply happen to be of intense interest to members of the organization, not books about it.

This, however, two new books have been published: Medieval Fantasy as Performance by Michael A. Cramer, and Suburban Knights: A Return to the Middle Ages by E. F. Kitchen. I will review both in subsequent posts. I heartily recommend the former; the latter is harmless fun.

I should note that it is possible I've missed something. I've been on an almost complete hiatus from participation in the SCA for quite some time now, essentially since late 2007, and while I haven't entirely lost interest, I don't feel like I have the sense of knowing what goes on and what everyone is talking about.