As we observe the Twelve Days of Christmas, Thursday’s weekly posts will resume January 9, 2014. In the meantime, enjoy the re-publication of this “Post of Christmas Past”. Appearing December 25, 2012, “The Silent Partner”:

To open, this except from Andy William’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”:

“There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago”

I’m with the “parties for hosting”, the toasting of marshmallows, and the caroling out in the snow–those resonate as ways we celebrate the Christmas Season–but “scary ghost stories”? Here, a bit of background would be helpful. The ways that we celebrate the Christmas Season in America are, relatively speaking, fairly recent. We owe no small debt to the “Dickensian” Christmas as captured by Charles Dickens in his A Christmas Carol. And what A Christmas Carol is, is a ghost story. Written for a Victorian audience this was only natural: the Victorians loved ghost stories.

Of the many reasons to love the Christmas Carol, besides its playing no small part in how we celebrate Christmas, is the way it takes us into the heart of a man. There’s Scrooge as we know him (bitter, cold, inhuman, avaricious [i.e. miserly]) and then there’s why Scrooge is the way he is: the abandoned Ebenezer, exiled by his father during Christmastime  long, long ago blamed–as he was–by his father for the death of his mother who died giving birth to Ebenezer; the man who would have, could have, loved but who–handicapped by an immensely sad past–chooses to give it all up in a pursuit of wealth and acquisition. There’s the embittered, hardened Scrooge (on the surface) and then there’s the broken heart beneath and behind it all.

We also discover in Scrooge’s past a character that acts as a kind of foil to the character of Scrooge (and I’m using the term character also in the quite literal sense of the interior qualities of a man). Ever since watching a live performance in grammar school of A Christmas Carol at the Civic Theater, I’ve been enthralled by Fezziwig (the merchant under whom Ebenezer apprenticed), whom–on Christmas Eve–closes up shop early and throws a party for family, friends, and employees alike. There’s live music, food, dancing, and laughter. It’s Fezziwig’s joie de vivre, his exuding a “joy of living” that is so enthralling. There’s the  covetousness of Scrooge, on the one hand, and then the generosity of Fezziwig on the other. Both men had money but only one, at least originally, had a heart to overflowing. One gets the sense that the source of Fezziwig’s material blessings was a generous heart, an enlarged heart (I think here, also, of what would become of The Grinch by that tale’s end).

Old Fezziwig

It’s the freedom of Scrooge in the final scenes from A Christmas Carol that we love and celebrate so much. He, like Fezziwig before him, learns to live from an enlarged heart, animated by joy. But, consider this: it was only through the active intervention of his old friend and business partner, Marley, that Scrooge is given this second lease on life. Marley comes to Scrooge in the opening scenes, disembodied and bound in chains, to announce the visit of three ghosts. But does anyone doubt that by the Carol‘s end another man has gone free?

May these thoughts bring you tidings of comfort…and joy!

In last year’s Christmas post, “The Silent Partner”, mention was made of how we owe much of the way we celebrate Christmas to English customs, especially the Dickensian Christmas as captured by the novel A Christmas Carol. One of the more obscure of those English customs is that of wassailing, from which comes the hot, steamed beverage known as wassail: mulled apple cider spiked with brandy. In our family, it is usually imbibed on Christmas Eve just as all the candles in the home are lit following Christmas services.

The practice of wassailing developed in the cider-producing counties of England when the citizenry would move from one orchard to the next, singing and toasting the apple trees–bidding them be fruitful come Autumn. In at least one such county wassailing would coincide with Twelfth Night, the final evening of The Twelve Days of Christmas. In wassailing, a bowl of mulled drink topped with a sop (a piece of toast soaked in the beverage) was bore with the throng. The saturated toast would be hung from the boughs of the fruit trees (which leaves one to wonder whether this practice lies behind the the expression to toast). The drink itself was to be called wassail, and the ancient practice of wassailing gave rise to the popular Christmas carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and the less popular “Gloucestershire Wassail”

To aid in your wassailing this Christmas Season, what follows is our version of the hot, spiced cider.

Merry Christmas and Waes Haeil! [Old English for “Be in good health”]

Wassail

Wassail

Ingredients

2 quarts apple cider

1 pint cranberry juice

1/4 C. honey

1 cinnamon stick

1 t. whole cloves

1 t. whole allspice

1 small orange, quartered

1 C. brandy

Method

(1) Combine apple cider and cranberry juice in a crock pot

(2) Place cloves and allspice in a spice bag and put the bag in the liquid

(3) Throw in the cinnamon stick and quartered orange

(4) Once the mixture has become hot, add the honey

(5) Continue to heat the mixture for at least two hours

(6) Prior to serving, stir in the brandy

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve met him before: Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant in New York state. Barber captivated audiences in a 2008 TED Talk which recounts the most unconventional way in which the world’s finest foie gras is produced (please see “A Tale of Two Cities, by Mother Goose”). When in recent months NPR’s Salt interviewed Barber for a piece on eight row flint corn–an heirloom variety–it was with great interest that I listened to the piece.

The story of heirloom fruits and vegetables is the story of heritage meats, being their carnivorous equivalent. While each variety of heirloom fruit or vegetable (and each breed of heritage livestock) tells a story uniquely its own, there are common themes. And each time one of those themes represents itself, I get a sort of thrill. Keep an ear out for one such theme as you listen to “Reviving An Heirloom Corn That Packs More Flavor And Nutrition”:

That thrilling theme? When one pursues great flavor, one gets great nutrition. By going after food that delights the senses, one gets improved health and vitality. Heirloom vegetables and heritage meats turn on its head the adage “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” You can, my friends. You can.

In a conversation with Chef Angus Campbell of the Secchia Culinary Institute earlier this year, he opined what pork might taste like that fed on allspice berries and chocolate husks. That conversation–that way of thinking–I recalled when, while listening to this piece, I began to wonder: “Just what would pastured beef taste like that finished on eight row flint corn?”

Recently, the GMO issue was put on my radar. GMOs: genetically modified organisms, as in–for instance–making corn “Roundup Ready” which allows the commercial weedkiller to be sprayed indiscriminately on a field of corn, killing the weeds but leaving the Roundup-resistant corn to grow and flourish. Pretty nifty science, I’d say. But the use of GMOs is mired in controversy, and it’s one that I’ve just begun to explore. It raises some really fascinating questions, questions framed in this post (along with some observations). As a novice in this discussion, I’m hoping that readers with a much better understanding of GMOs will contribute to the discussion and correct any errors or misrepresentations.

Proponents of GMOs argue that in species modification scientists are simply doing what we’ve already been doing since the discovery of genetics: breeding and cross-breeding plants and animals to achieve an organism with certain desirable characteristics. The only difference, they say, is that the modifications are being done in the laboratory instead of in the barnyard or in the greenhouse. If that’s true, I find nothing objectionable about the practice. Sure, it’s not as romantic, but that’s an issue of aesthetics not ethics.

Opponents of GMOs, such as Joel Salatin, counter that the above explanation of GMOs is a misrepresentation of the facts. The issue isn’t that two different species of corn are cross-bread with each other in a laboratory or that the genes of two different species of moths are combined in some research facility. Rather, using his example, what is being done is that scientists are crossing the genes of corn with that of moths, an impossible combination in the natural world: the reproductive organs of corn and those of the moth are incompatible. So, using technology, we bypass the reproductive process and force together two species that would not otherwise have reproduced with each other. In cartoons, witches and wizards waved a wand and–poof!–some hapless human victim sprouts the tail of a pig. Unnatural. Bizarre. Impossible! Not, so it seems, anymore.

In the 2012 film The Amazing Spiderman, Dr. Curt Connors injects himself with lizard DNA in an attempt to regrow a severed hand (lizards possess the ability to regrow a tail that has been severed). But the procedure has disastrous and unintended side-effects. In a desire to do good, Dr. Connors becomes the villain, a giant lizard that wreaks havoc.

Those who are proponents of the use of GMOs do so on the grounds of the great good that they make possible: using the technology to feed more people and at a fraction of the cost, for example. On the other hand, it seems that those who oppose the use of GMOs do so, in general, on one or both of the following grounds or claims:

(1) GMOs have (or will have) disastrous, unintended side-effects on humans and/or the environment, consequences which outweigh any good that they do

(2) GMOs are an unethical subversion of the natural order

To those who identify themselves primarily with the first claim outlined above: Suppose Dr. Curt Connors experienced no side effects when he combined human DNA with reptile DNA. Suppose he went on to help countess thousands of amputees regrow lost limbs. In this scenario, would his science be ethical?

To those opponents who primarily identify with the second claim, an observation: you must believe that there is some inherent logic in the universe that we cannot determine, create, or re-write but to which we must submit.

Joel Salatin, in arguing against the use of GMOs, makes the following point: just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. This is a point on which those on both sides of the controversy must agree. What remains to be determined is what makes something ethical: is it the effects of an act or something intrinsic to the act itself?

One final observation that may illuminate the debate, and one that will appeal to those familiar with The Lord of the Rings: a striking similar set of questions, issues, and parallels surround the Ring of Power. There were those who sought to use it out of a desire to do good, and yet the story is clear in its condemnation of so doing. But what the author of the story (Tolkien) doesn’t necessary answer is why? Listening to the lyrics in the film clip which precedes today’s post, they touch on a theme present in the GMO debate: an irresistible, alluring, seductive power. Does Sinatra sing metaphorically of certain forms of science? And–if so–unlike the beguiled narrator of those lyrics, can we resist? Do we want to?

Appendix
“Witchcraft”, Sy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh
Those fingers in my hair
That sly come hither stare
That strips my conscience bare
It’s witchcraft
And I’ve got no defense for it
The heat is too intense for it
What good would common sense for it do?Cause it’s witchcraft, wicked witchcraft
And although, I know, it’s strictly tabooWhen you arouse the need in me
My heart says yes indeed in me
Proceed with what your leading me toIt’s such an ancient pitch
But one I wouldn’t switch
Cause there’s no nicer witch than you