Monday, April 25, 2011

Celebrate Easter Monday the Italian Way!

The Italians have a saying, “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi”. It means "Christmas with family, Easter with whoever you like". This especially applies to the Monday following Easter.

Easter Monday or 'La Pasquetta' - literally little Easter - is a day spent when families and friends who have been solemn and pensive get together in a completely relaxed, informal, always noisy way to enjoy each other's company and - hopefully - the warmer spring weather. It is often spent by going on a picnic with plenty of yummy treats, and, of course, wine.

Although it's not really celebrated as a religious part of Easter in Italy,  (though inevitably mass is said in churches all over the country) Easter Monday does have some religious significance. It's also known in Italy as 'Lunedì dell'Angelo' ('Monday of the Angel') - the day to remember Mary and Mary Magdalene visiting the sepulchre and, finding it empty, being comforted by an angel.

The origins of Easter Monday celebrations, like the origins of Easter in Italy, are based in pagan tradition.  The ancient Roman culture feast of 'Lupercalia' was linked to re-birth after the hardships of winter and was a period of several days celebrating fertility and family.

In Old Ireland, Easter Monday was always filled with fun and festivities. Not only was it a favorite day for buying and selling livestock and merchandise at fairs and markets, it was also a time for enjoying sports, games, sideshows, dancing, eating, drinking, gambling, tugs of war, hurling matches, card games and reels and jigs. Those days are long gone, but would that dear old Ireland could go back to the Easter Mondays of long ago. Much more fun than the traffic jams as everyone returns home after spending Easter with extended family!

Easter Monday (Andre påskedag) in Norway is the end of the Easter holidays and is about cleaning, clearing and returning home (including sitting in traffic jams).

To me, the cleaning can wait another day. I like the Italian's idea of going on a picnic and dining casually with a bottle of wine. I think spending the day at a local park with a picnic basket, and incorporating some of the fun of the Irish would be grand. Invite some friends, find someone who can play guitar (or at least bring a portable music player and have plenty of Irish music to play) and play some games - frisbee or softball for the more physical guests or card or board games for the more cerebral.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Celebrating with the Bard

So, what are you doing today to celebrate the birthday of William Shakespeare? What? You don't know what to do? Well, then, let me help you out!

There are several ways to celebrate today, and is only limited by your imagination! But, to get you started, here are several ideas:

-Make a cake replica of the Globe Theatre. When you blow out the candles, quote Macbeth: "Out, out, brief candle!" Too much? Well, hey, some of us might be so clever!
-Speak only in iambic pentameter.
-Speak in a British accent all day.
-Take a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace. If that's not practical, look at photos online of Stratford-upon-Avon and pretend you're there.
-Text a sonnet to someone.
-Perform one of his plays, or at least a scene.
-Listen to the music of a composer from Shakespeare's time. Popular music-writers from Renaissance England include William Byrd, Thomas Campion and Robert Johnson. Such music was often composed for lute and voice and can serve as a quiet accompaniment to a Shakespearean reading.
-Prepare a Shakespearean feast that features food from Elizabethan England. Savory porridge dishes known as "pottage" were popular fare, along with traditional English foods like Shepherd's Pie, and Yorkshire puddings and roasts. You can find an easy to make Blancmange here.
And remember:
Guests generally sat at benches; chairs were for the really important people. Common folk ate most food using wooden bowls & spoons.
Salt was highly prized, and usually resided at the head of the table. Hence the phrase "below the salt."
Forks weren't in common use. Fingers worked fine.
Meat was in short supply in common homes, whose inhabitants made do with grains and vegetables.
The nobility loved meat and sweets. When they got enough to eat, the lower classes may have had the more healthy diet.

Whatever you do, just make it fun and have fun!

There is the whole topic of Shakespeare gardens I could talk about, but I'll save that for a future post!

White Saturday

In the Czech tradition, today is Bílá sobota (White Saturday). I'm not sure exactly why it is called White Saturday other than the fact that the past fews days of Holy Week were spent at cleansing the soul, body and dwellings, so that everything was to be spick and span. Bílá sobota is regarded as a lucky day for sowing. The farmers place ashes on their fields to ensure a good crop, and shake the trees, so that they'll yield a lot of fruit. They say that if it rains on Bílá sobota, it will rain often during the coming year. So we know rain on Good Friday - bad, rain on Holy Saturday - good. I'd hate to be a weatherman during this time!

In Ireland, the people ate a lot of fish during Lent and by the end of Lent were probably pretty tired of it, so on Holy Saturday, the butchers would lead the people in a funeral for a fish. I'm vegan, so I don't get tired of anything we eat, since there's a lot of variety. However, in the German tradition of Good Friday, last night I did fry up a batch of tofu using spices for fish. It was really good. I slathered the slices with garlic paste, then coated them with a mixture of Indian spices and flour before frying them up crispy. Delish!

One of the more amusing things I've discovered in the research, was the penchant in Norway for reading crime stories and detective novels during Easter. In order to cash in on this national pastime, publishers churn out series of books known as "Easter-Thrillers" or Påskekrimmen. TV stations, radio and newspapers also jump on the bandwagon by running detective series based on the works of famous crime novelists such as Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Simenon and Ruth Rendell. Interesting that it was during this time that I stumbled upon my latest addiction - China Bayles mysteries (she runs an herb shop) and Theodosia Browning mysteries (she runs a tea shop). I am currently reading Witches Bane by Susan Wittig Albert and Death by Darjeeling by Laura Childs.

Okay, it's a beautiful day and I'm off to Lowe's to take advantage of their free tree give-a-way today in celebration of Earth Day and then a trip to the library! Get thee to a Lowe's near you to get a tree, and check out a good mystery to lose yourself in, in the Norwegian tradition!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Celebrating a Good Friday Earth Day!

It both fascinates and amuses me that Good Friday this year should also fall on Earth Day.  Why? The continuing saga of my tradition research. According to an old Czech saying, for example, farming should not be done on Good Friday. Na velký pátek zemi nehýbej. ("On Good Friday, do not move the soil.") And yet, in Ireland, little or no work was done on the land, except for the planting of a small quantity of grain or potatoes to invoke a blessing on the crops. Czechs believe turning the soil is a bad thing on this day, but the Irish believe turning the soil to plant potatoes is a blessing. I love this stuff!

For the Czechs, the weather for the whole year is foretold from the weather on Velký pátek (Good Friday). For instance, if it rains on Velký pátek, then the rest of the year will be dry. They have a saying, "A rainy Good Friday makes for a thirsty year." Another belief is that on Velký pátek, according to legend, anyone can look upon the sun without being blinded by its glare. In folk tradition this day is closely connected with the belief in the magic powers of the Earth - how appropriate, then, that it should fall this year on Earth Day! Many believe that on this day the Earth gives up its secret treasures before sunrise.

It was believed that Mt. Blaník opens up for a couple of hours on this day. Mt. Blaník is famous among the Czechs as it's said that an army of Czech knights lies asleep within the mountain, waiting to come forth and help the nation in its hour of greatest danger, that when the Motherland is in danger in its darkest times and close to ruin, the equestrian statue of King Wenceslas will come to life. He will raise the sleeping army in  Blaník, and upon crossing the Charles Bridge his horse will stumble and trip over a stone, revealing the legendary sword of  Bruncvík.  With this sword, King Wenceslas will slay all of the enemies of the Czechs, bringing peace and prosperity to the land.

Kind of reminds me of King Arthur.

On a more mundane level, the day was spent making sure the house, yard and out-buildings were clean and tidy.

Sounds like an ideal way to spend  Earth Day!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Green Thursday

In both the Czech and German traditions, Thursday of Holy Week is known as Green Thursday, or  Zelený čtvrtek  (Czech) and Gründonnerstag (German).  Explanations range from that before the thirteenth century, green vestments were used for the Mass that day to references to "the Green Ones," the penitents who, being re-admitted to the Church, wore sprigs of green herbs to express their joy. More than likely, however, ir does not derive from the name of the color but is a corruption of the word "greinen" (weinen, to weep). A strict fast used to be observed on Green Thursday. Because only a single, meatless, complete meal - free of any food of animal origin - was allowed, only vegetables were eaten. Thus, Green Thursday.

The eating of green vegetables is still a customary part of the meals served on this day in many parts of Europe and, to some extent, in the United States. The Czechs and Moravians eat a soup of green herbs, followed by a green salad.

In the Czech Republic, the children must go out very early in the morning and bathe - naked! - in the river. This is supposed to be a cure for laziness. And when they come in, shivering and complaining that they’ve just been made to do something they would be punished for in summer, when they would enjoy it, they are given a braided bread that was made the Monday or Tuesday before. Supposedly this bread, made to look like rope, suggest the fate of Judas Iscariot, who "went and hanged himself". That's a little too morbid for me.

In Slovakia, the housewives diligently sweep around the home, the yard and the street to ward off harm to the home for the coming year. During the course of this Thursday, the women wash the wooden boards upon which they make noodles. They also wash the rolling pin, the large wooden mixing spoon and the bowl used for mixing the dough for bread and kolaches.

I decided  my family would celebrate by eating an all green supper.

We had a Green Goddess Salad with Green Goddess Dressing, Green Beans with  Brazil Nuts, and Okra Strips in a Lemon-Tarragon Viniagrette. All recipes can be found here.

I spent the day in my gardens. I can't imagine being greener than that! The fresh smells released when I stroke each plant as I talk to them are pure bliss.

Some people shy away from greens because of scares of contaminated vegetables in the past. There are ways to protect yourself:
Rinse all produce with cool water before serving. Tap water is just as effective as bottled veggie washes and a lot cheaper. Don't use dish soap! It can leave a film and upset your stomach.
When in doubt, wash! Many bagged lettuces say washed and ready, but if you aren't sure, wash!
Discard outer layers of leafy vegetables like cabbage and lettuce. Place leaves in a bowl of cool water with 1-2  T. of vinegar and stir for 20 seconds. Soak for 30-60 seconds, dump the water and repeat. Or to heck with that and compost those outer leaves, instead!
Scrub firm fruits and veggies, like apples and carrots (you can use your fingers) for about 30 seconds. Clean the skin even if you don't plan to eat it - that way bacteria can't pass from the outside in when you slice it.
Don't use the same cutting board for veggies and fruit that you'd use for other things (like meat. Ick.)

I hope your Green Thursday was pleasant!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Black Wednesday

I have always been fascinated by tradition and traditions. In that quest, I am ever on the lookout for practices or celebrations to add to my own family's routine. My preferences tend to lean toward those with an ancestral connection to me, but are not limited to those alone.

Of course, any time I hear the word *tradition* I automatically think of the song from Fiddler on the Roof.

This is Holy Week, for those that follow the Christian tradition, leading up to Easter. The days of Lent are winding down to the celebration to come. There is a plethora of cultural traditions, as well as religious traditions, that interest me.

My husband is Czech. In researching Czech traditions, I discovered that today is called Black Wednesday. It has other names, but this one I liked best. Czechs will have spent Monday and Tuesday baking. One reason that the baking had to be finished by Tuesday is that on Wednesday the whole house must be turned out from top to bottom and all the soot cleaned out of the chimneys (hence the name, Black Wednesday). Naturally, this requires that the stove be cold. No time is wasted on the usual kitchen work; the meals are very casual and light. Rugs, sofas, chairs and mattresses are carried into the open and every speck of dust beaten out of them. Women scrub and wax the floors and furniture, wash the windows and the curtains; the home is abuzz with activity. After the interior is fully cleaned, the entire cottage is then also whitewashed on the outside as well. This has to be done quickly as everything has to be back in place by Wednesday night, glossy and shining.

This traditional spring cleaning is, of course, to make the home as neat as possible for the greatest holiday of the year, a custom taken over from the ancient Jewish practice of a ritual cleansing and sweeping of the whole house as prescribed in preparation for the Feast of Passover.

I'm not Moravian, but love the idea of how houses in the Podluí region blossom with the fleeting flowers of spring painted on the windows with soap or made on the porches or in the yards with water or sand. The window linings, wine cellar, chapel portals and rooms are also decorated with new ornaments.

There is a superstition that anyone eating honey on this day will not be bitten by serpents. In some places, they eat bread smeared with this honey for protection against snakebite. In other places they throw honey-buttered bread into wells so they will have water in them all year round. As a vegan, I wonder if I could use agave nectar instead?

This is the last Wednesday before Easter. On this day everyone is supposed to smile at each other. If they don't, the entire year will be a sad one. It is said that people shouldn't frown on this day for fear of frowning every Wednesday throughout the year! I think this would be a good practice every day, not just today!

So for today, why not give the house a good scrubbing, whether or not you are anticipating Easter? If you can, throw open your windows, and get out your cleaning supplies. I don't use harsh chemicals - I don't like the way they smell or their impact on the environment. Some things I do:

Oven cleaning - sprinkle baking soda along the bottom and spray with water from a spray bottle. Let sit. Scrub. If the oven is particularly dirty, let the baking soda sit overnight.

Sink drain cleaner/deodorizer - sprinkle a cup of baking soda down the drain, and follow it with boiling water. I like to clean my teakettle by filling it with half water and half white vinegar and bring it to a boil. I then dump this down the kitchen drain after the baking soda. If your sink backs up after this, don't panic. It just means you had some gunk clogging the drain. Once the baking soda dissolves, your drain will clear. This is a good thing to do weekly, to help keep things clear.

Baking soda is my friend. I use it to scrub my sinks and counters, as well. You can also sprinkle it on your carpets and upholstered furniture to freshen them before vacuuming. I will mix up baking soda with an essential oil, like lemon or peppermint to use on my carpets and upholstery. Just adds a little bit of nice. Be absolutely certain to get it vacuumed up, though, if you have cats. Essential oils can be harmful to cats, so I take no chances. All I have to do is wheel the vacuum cleaner into a room and they scatter.

Wipe down walls and brush out corners. It surprises me how walls can get dirty even when there are no little children with mucky hands.

I mop my kitchen floor with ½ cup white vinegar in a gallon of water. This is a safe way to clean hardwood, laminate or tile floors. Studies have shown that 5% solution of vinegar (straight out of the store-bought bottle) kills 99 percent of bacteria, 82 percent of mold, and 80 percent of germs (viruses). It is non-toxic and the smell dissipates much more quickly than chemical cleaners.

So have at it! Be clean and green and hopefully not soot covered, and enjoy the clean feel and smell of your home!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Being Nice is Good For You!

We have a joke in my house where when one tells another to "Be nice!", the other responds with "No way!" You see, in Middle English, to say someone nice is to say, well, that they are stupid. But, like so many other words in common use now, meanings change. And this one, I think, for the better.

There are actually health benefits to being nice. Psychologists have discovered that nice people typically have stronger marriages, stronger friendships and actually live longer. Being nice is not to be confused with being a pushover. A nice person is considerate of others, but has boundaries and is assertive when the needs arises.

The health and happiness benefits of being nice is probably attributed to the fact that nice people tend to be optimists. Optimists, it has been discovered, have better functioning immune systems which helps to ward off disease. Being positive can act as a buffer against stress and the chemicals associated with stress, norepinephrine and cortisol, two hormones associated with heart disease.

How can you create positivity? Be around happy people. Simple, right? Not so much, but even faking being positive has positive effects. When you start feeling grumpy, smile. That's right, just smile. It will boost your mood. How? Two key facial muscles are flexed when you smile. When flexed, these muscles trigger brain activity that occurs naturally when you are feeling happy. But it has to be a big smile, not a grimace-y type smile; a big genuine grin - lips apart, mouth turned up at the corners and crinkly eyes.

Another way to improve the mood is to help others. It may be doing something nice for your spouse or your child, or volunteering. The important factor is that you do it without intending to get something in return. Giving is the key. Doing so triggers the release of mood-elevating endorphins.

So, what are you doing right now? Check your mood. Need a lift? Put a comedy in the dvd and laugh out loud. Smile, really smile. Do something nice for some one. Feeling better? You will!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

This is what a gardening diva does!

The hubs and I made our rounds yesterday to pick up new plants so that I could spend today getting my hands in the dirt. And I did! My newest plant babies are:

Newe Yaar Sage, two bell peppers - one yellow, one chocolate!

Three hot peppers. A sweet banana pepper, a mild jalapeno pepper and a Mucho Nacho hybrid pepper. These and

Mariachi red pepper are all more for hubby than for me. He figures since I'm growing tomatoes and bell peppers, we need hot peppers to make some salsas!

My tomatoes, peppers, sages and mints that I planted last time are all doing very well!

I added marigolds to them today to help with any pest control issues. I haven't seen any yet, thank goodness!

I found some hanging  strawberries and tomatoes in the garage that I had bought last year and forgot about. The tomatoes are really springing up, and I'm seeing signs of baby strawberry plants. When they are large enough I'll transplant them into their hanging containers and have some topsy-turvy treats!

I added some stevia

and some lime balm

to my other tea plants, lemon balm, peppermint and chamomile.

I picked up some little planting kits from the dollar store, so hopefully will see some rudbeckia, daisies and parsley at some point. Going through other gardening supplies I came upon some vegetable seeds. Don't know if they will favor me, but I planted some in my old mint bins. I consider it a gardening experiment.

I potted a dill and put some Mexican mint marigold in the ground. I'm looking forward to all the taste sensations I can expect this year from my gardens!

Trimmed my curry plant. I thought the cold snaps may have killed it, but I'm seeing new growth, so am hopeful.

Hubby gave me an old burro planter his dad gave him, thinking that as a gardener, I'd be interested.

It was pretty weathered, so I've spray painted it solid brown. I'll go back with additional paint to detail it later. I'm thinking some cactus might look cute in it.

I've been motivated by two of my favorite locals. Lucinda Hutson has a wonderful herb cookbook, The Herb Garden Cookbook, that I love, and pictures of her gardens truly do inspire me to not shy away from color in anything! Madalene Hill is well known in these parts for her amazing way with herbs, and her book, Southern Herb Growing, is my bible!

Now I'm just waiting for some patchouli to arrive at my favorite nursery. I'd also like to get a hamellia and a bay laurel. Maybe next trip.
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