A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Friday, October 8, 2010

"People Who Love Pepo..."

The summer has come and gone, and so has one of my favorite foods – watermelon.  Although we only bought one we considered good (the rest were cold and wet, which sufficed in the 100+ degree weather), hope sprung eternal, and still does.

The Ur watermelon is thought to have originated in Africa, just like humans.  Scientists doing investigations with chloroplast DNA (everything is getting DNA mapped) believe that cultivated and wild watermelons diverged independently from a common Eve-melon, possibly from Namibia.  When it was first cultivated is unknown, but seeds were found in Tut’s tomb, for one, although no ancient writings or hieroglyphic mention it.  The presumptive Dr. Livingstone described them as abundant in the Kalahari.

By the tenth century their cultivation had spread to China, which is the single largest producer in the world today.  According to the Dictionary of American Food and Drink the word “watermelon” first appeared in an English dictionary in 1615.  It is thought to have been introduced into Europe in the 1400s.

When watermelons came to the U.S. seems to be debatable.  Native Americans were growing them in the Mississippi Valley according to early French explorers.  They were introduced in Massachusetts by 1629, according to “many sources”.  One Southern food historian believes that African slaves introduced watermelons to the U.S.  Today the largest producers are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

The Japanese of the Zentsuji region grow cubic watermelons, which makes them easier to transport and store, by placing the young fruits in square glass bottles, thus forcing them to retain the shape.  Attempts have been made at growing pyramidal ones (Tut would’ve loved those), and in the future one may have a choice of various polyhedral shapes.  Perhaps designer watermelons, with shapes befitting the lifestyles of the rich and famous will be available (conceivably the true purpose of the Mellon plan.)

It is considered a thoughtful hostess gift in China and Japan.  In Egypt and Israel it is often served with feta, which I see more and more in recipe books and sites in the U.S.  Central Asian watermelons are reputed to be excellent, so I was delighted to read in the L.A Times that farmers in Central California are growing them from seeds from Xinjiang, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and the other -stans.

Since watermelon is 92% water, it is an excellent and healthy food containing Vitamins A, B6, and C, and no fat or cholesterol.  Related to cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins, it is botanically a pepo – a berry that has an exocarp (rind), as well as a mesocarp and endocarp (flesh).  It is not a true melon by genus, but the melon family seems accepting of it, nonetheless, as it reflects well on the genus.  Although red  seems to be the most popular and desired in the U.S., watermelon flesh can be equally tasty if yellow, orange, or other colors.

The world's biggest watermelon was grown in 2005 in Hope, Arkansas. It weighed in at 268.8 pounds.  No reports exist of how it tasted, but it has a place in my version of the afterlife.


Thursday, October 7, 2010


“It wasn’t an era of great musicianship but by cracky, it was fun”

The Quarrymen

Their names were Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon.  They were part of the Liverpool music scene in the late 50s.  Their group was the Quarrymen, and they played skiffle.  Later they started playing rock & roll, along with dozens of other groups in the area who started playing the “Mersey Beat”, named for the river that flows in Liverpool.  In 1955 they renamed their group the “Beatles”, riffing off “Mersey Beat”.  And the rest is history.

Lonnie Donegan
Skiffle is a type of music influenced by the blues, folk music, jazz, and country.  It became popular because the instruments used to play it are rudimentary and inexpensive. The term “skiffle” was a slang term for a rent party, where a small charge was collected to attend a musical event.  The origins of the music is obscure, some claiming it came from New Orleans, but all over the American South jug bands were common, even if the word wasn’t.  Skiffle was first popular in the U.S. in the 20s and 30s, and the term was used for jug band music.  In the 50s, young and destitute musicians in the U.K. rediscovered this type of music, inspired by Lonnie Donegan (the undisputed king of skiffle) and his hit rendition of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” in 1954. 

Washtub bass
The instruments used to play skiffle are varied:  Guitars, banjoes, mandolins, ukuleles, accordions, tea chests, pottery moonshine jars, saw blades, washboards (for rhythm), wash tub bases, kazoos, and harmonicas, to name some.
Tea chest bass

One estimate states that there were approximately 50,000 skiffle groups in the U.K. in the late 50s.  Many British musicians began their careers playing skiffle, including Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltry, Jimmy Page, Robin Trower, Mark Knopfler, and Graham Nash.  As the British Invasion began, skiffle started dying out (about 1958).  Skiffle was an important step  toward the British Invasion, and likewise, if this resurgence of skiffle in the U.K. hadn’t come about and become so popular, it might have faded into obscurity.

But skiffle has never died.  Donegan continued playing until his death in 2002.  The Ugly Dog Skiffle Combo still sells records, as do the Vipers, the Sunshine Skiffle Band, and many others.  The Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band (formed from the Instant Action Jug Band of Berkeley – the house band for the famous Berkeley coffee house “The Jabberwock”) held a concert as recently as June of 2008. It remains to be seen if the attempts at a skiffle revival will ever bring it the success it once had, but perhaps if today’s youth became more familiar with it, it could happen.  The right circumstances exist, same as 50s England:  tight economy, youths wanting to be musicians, the affordability of the instruments.  Exposure to this type of music, and maybe some instruction on making and playing the instruments, may be all it would take.  It would do wonder for the washboard, tub, and moonshine jar industries!
An article by London film critic and skiffle player Mark Kermode from 2008 speaks of its still current appeal.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010


The day the mountains move has come.
I speak, but no one believes me.
For a time the mountains have been asleep.
But long ago they all danced with fire. 
It doesn't matter if you don't believe this,
My friends, as long as you believe:
All the sleeping women
Are now awake and moving

Yosano Akiko, Seitō, Vol. 1. No. 1, September 1911

A new publication appeared in Japan in 1911, written, edited, and published by women of a group called Seitō -sha.  Named “Seitō” (blue stocking), it was both a tribute to and named after the eighteenth century women’s group of England known as the Bluestockings. Its first issue of 1,000 copies sold out the first month, with 3,000 requests for subscriptions and membership.

Naganuma Chieko's cover for the
inaugural issue  
The authors wrote in all conceivable genres of the day – from traditional haiku and waka, to modern poetry, stories, essays, and criticism.  They included translations of works by Western dramatists, essayists, and feminists.  Most importantly, they addressed “The Woman Question” – examining the whys of a society where suing for divorce was acceptable, but divorce itself was dishonorable; where adultery was sanctioned for men, but illegal and punishable by a two-year prison term for women; where abortion was criminalized, and many other inequities existed. 

The popularity of the journal proved that many literate Japanese women were not happy with their lot of being “good wives and wise mothers.”  But the government and the press soon retaliated by banning the journal (on three separate occasions whole runs of an issue were removed from bookstores after being censored as “injurious to public morals”), and representing the women as dangerous influences and over-educated, self-indulgent corrupters of family values (hmmm…so that’s where that phrase came from).  Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House was first staged in Japan the same month that Seitō was launched.  The press raged about it as the audience was sympathetic toward the character of Nora, a home wrecker.  A special issue of Seitō was dedicated to essays condemning Nora and other female characters of contemporary Western plays for being selfish and impulsive.  Despite this, the press compared the Seitō-sha with these characters.

Yosano Akiko
Although the Seitō-sha had not intended to use the journal to fight a feminist war (they had only intended to allow women to express themselves), the reactions against them caused them to reconsider.  By 1913, the writings became more defiant.  There were debates published among the members and other women on very controversial subjects.  One of their famous debates focused on the issue of chastity.  Author Ikuta Hanayo had published an essay in a different magazine stating that chastity was a saleable commodity in a time of economic hardship, and a woman should be able to sell hers without censure.  Yasuda Satsuki writing for Seitō opined that a woman should keep her chastity no matter what. Ito Noe and Raicho, writing in Seitō, entered into the debate stating that chastity was a male-generated concept, and female chastity should not be an issue when male chastity wasn’t.

While it is easy to sympathize with the hopes and vexations of the Seitō-sha, it is important to remember that as much as they suffered from their roles in their society and their government, theirs was a concern of gender and not class.  There were so many more women who were impoverished, illiterate, and who suffered a lack of both creature comforts and opportunities.

Seitō barely lasted five years.  Original issues are rare and hard to find, and were published, of course, in Japanese.  The complete set of Seitō spans fifty-two issues.  An amazing output for women fighting to express themselves.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Bluestockings of Japan

“In the beginning, woman was the sun, the true human being.  Now she is the moon!  She lives in the light of another star.  She is the moon, with a pale face like that of a sickly person….This is the first cry of the Bluestockings!....We are the mind and hand of the woman of new Japan.  We expose ourselves to men’s laughter, but know that which is hidden under that mockery.  Let us reveal our hidden sun, our unrecognized genius!  Let it come from behind the cloud!  That is the cry of our faith, of our personality, of our instinct, which is the master of all instinct.  At that moment we will see the shining throne of our divinity.”

 The Manifesto of Seitō, Vol. 1. No. 1, September 1911

Ito Noe
During Japan's Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), efforts were made to become more competitive with the West’s superior military and industrial powers.  The government instituted a civil code that positioned the patriarchal family in place with the household head given power over the family members. Legislation was reinstated in the Civil Codes of 1898 where women were equated with minors and the mentally challenged.  (Women haven’t come much farther today if you consider that the Catholic Church earlier this year stated women priests ranked lower than pedophiles!)  Birth control was prohibited, adultery was a crime for women, but not men (interesting, since men would need – in most cases – to have a female partner), and women weren’t allowed to vote or even attend a political function.  Schools were segregated, and women were taught classes applicable to their future as good wives and mothers.  Choices for all but the most elite women at the time were an arranged marriage or being a mistress or geisha.  There was little employment to be had, and abortions were illegal, which was problematic if a woman could not garner some sort of financial support or wasn’t in some kind of relationship.  In this light there was a desire for independence from both men and a restrictive society.

Out of this emerged “Atarashii Onna” – the “New Woman” – women who were modern and sought self-expression.  They were depicted by the popular press as rather wonton spirits, interested only in sex and fashion (the early Japanese version of Paris Hilton, if you will, in a culture where that behavior would be most unacceptable).  But a group of well-to-do women started a new group – Seitō -sha – which in 1911 published the first issue of a literary publication Seitō, literally “blue stocking”, both named after the British Bluestocking salon.  (More on Seitō tomorrow.)  Besides writing in contemporary literary styles about chastity, abortion, and other issues seemingly without fear of censure, they also translated works by Western authors (i.e., Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Emma Goldman, Olive Schreiner, Havelock Ellis.)  They discussed the latest plays, such as "Hedda Gabler" and "A Doll’s House".  The ones who lived near each other developed close friendships.

Yosano Akiko
Members of this group included Hiratsuka Haru (known as Raicho, founder of the publication), Asahi Shimbun, Yosano Akiko (one of the most famous female poets in the Meiji era), Okamoto Kanoko (who brought a Buddhist slant and spirituality), Ito Noe (who along with her husband, anarchist Osugi Sakae, were captured as political prisoners, then murdered by military police in 1923), and Hayashi Fumika (as a counter to Kanoko, she explored the economic survival of women without men).

These intelligent, literate women were troubled by their legal and cultural inferiority as women.  Through their publication, they endeavored to awaken other women by displaying their literary skills and talent with not only artful pieces, but critical and thoughtful ones as well.  However they were never portrayed as such in the press.  Instead the press, as today, focused on their sex lives (several of the women were lesbian), divorces, and misrepresented many of their actions.  Censors banned their magazine and removed copies from bookstores.  Police and government authorities caused so much negative attention that many members and their families succumbed to fears of losing their jobs and marriage prospects, which eventually lead to attrition in membership.  It is a testament to their spirit and endeavors that they aroused such intense interest and focus of the media and the government. That most of them were graduates of the new Japan Women’s College may have reflected well on women’s higher education for some, but provided a reason against it for others.
Raicho and Yamada Waka

Unfortunately the New Women of Japan did not have the political leverage that made other suffrage movements more successful.  Perhaps they never had the chance to really observe and learn enough about the system to develop political savvy.  But even more interesting, and proof that history is decidedly not linear, is to consider that what is considered the first novel was written by a Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu, in the early eleventh century – The Tale of Genji – albeit in a different era, the Heian where a lady of the court was allowed and encouraged to write, but most likely under a male sponsor and on prescribed subjects.

Seitō-sha, during its limited existence, made an impact in pre-war Japan, and its legacy is worth studying and honoring.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Am I Blue?

During a time when only men could attend colleges and universities, while women were taught skills such as knitting and needlework, a group of educated women emerged who flaunted their interests in literature and the arts by holding their own parties that were inspired by the established salons of Paris.  Beginning in London in the early 1750s, by the 1780s they developed into more broader networks that celebrated female education.  These women, the “Bluestockings”, attained such a high profile they are considered by some historians to have founded modern civilized society.  Egalitarian as well as educated, the women gathered to converse (politics was prohibited), and men were invited to participate and encourage discussion. 

Elizabeth Vesey held the first party in Bath.  Some of the other women who first convened were Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, Elizabeth Carter, and Hester Chapone.  It included both men and women of prominent society, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, and Catherine Talbot, among many others.

Interestingly enough, the first “Bluestocking” was a man.  Benjamin Stillingfleet was a learned botanist, writer (of opera and poems), and publisher.  When asked to attend one of the evening events he declined, as he could not afford the de rigueur formal dress then required of soirees, which included black silk stockings.  Upon learning the reason for not attending, he was asked to come in his informal, daytime clothes, including his blue worsted stockings, which started a trend.  James Boswell wrote in his Life of Johnson that, “Such was the excellence of his conversation, that his absence was felt as so great a loss, that it used to be said, ‘We can do nothing without the blue stockings,’ and thus by degrees the title was established”.  Fanny Burney, a diarist and novelist, who was also associated with the Bluestockings, also told this story anecdotally.

Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the 
Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel includes 
Elizabeth Carter, Angelica Kauffman, Anna Letitia 
BarbauldCatharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu
Elizabeth GriffithHannah More
Elizabeth Ann Sheridan and Charlotte Lennox.

How exactly the name arose is the subject of conjecture.  Some historians have traced the name back to the 1400s, when the Della Calza (“of the stockings”), a Venetian group who wore blue stockings met.  Another claim is that it came from the contemporaneous French “Bas Bleu” circle of similar orientation, although some historians state that the names “Bas Bleu” and “Bluestockings” were interchangeable within England.  Stockings seemingly had an influence on status, as another group, the Covenanters of 17th century Scotland, wore unbleached woolen ones in an era where wealthy people wore dyed socks.
 The name came to have pejorative meaning.  An old saying goes, “Women don’t become bluestockings until men have tired of looking at their legs.”  Even today it is a derisive word for a woman who affects literary aspirations.  Women still are encouraged to concentrate on dressing fashionably rather than  intellectual pursuits, often judged for their looks rather than their intelligence by many.

However the name came about, it referred to an informal gathering with an emphasis on intellectual topics rather than fashion.  The women who are credited with starting it were privileged women, generally with no or few children, and some kind of formal education.  Thus the average woman was not a part of them, due to a lack of literacy rather than economic circumstances.  There was never a formal society, and these social events served to replace the dull evenings these women were formerly allowed to play cards.  Since playing cards was associated with gambling, some factions considered the Bluestocking Society to be anti-gambling, which may have helped make it more acceptable.  In fact, The New York Times on April 17, 1881 published an article stating that the Blue Stockings Society was a women’s movement making a stand against gambling.  

Detail from Nine Living Muses of Great Britain by 
Richard Samuel (1779); Barbauld is standing 
behind the painter Angelica Kauffmann
gesturing with her hand.
Popular sentiments at the time were that women did not want, nor need, colleges.  Even Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a prominent Romantic author and poet, stated that it was considered unbecoming for women to know Greek or Latin, almost immodest for them to be authors, and certainly indiscreet for them to own the fact if they did.  She advised, “The best way for a woman to acquire knowledge is from conversation with a father, brother, or friend.”  Of another, and to my mind much better, opinion was Mr. Sydney Smith, who thought it absurd that a woman of 49 should be more ignorant than a boy of twelve.

Although I knit and have done needlework, I have also studied Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek.  I thank these women for their part in my opportunity to attend a university; even if my own mother only encouraged me in the hopes I would meet and marry a Jewish doctor.  My own rebellion, though not an intentional one, was to marry a Scots/Irish/English/French/Norwegian and Native American agnostic bookman.  Here’s to rebellious women and my sister Bluestockings!