On Free Books and Poison

First off, I’m thrilled to let you know that my YA dark fantasy adventure novella is featured in a wonderful collection of New Fantasy and Sci-Fi books—all of them are FREE through the end of January. Pick any/all you wish to download in any format. You can also enter to win an additional 52 books as well. You are signing up for people’s email lists when you do so, but you can unsubscribe at any time. I’ve snagged several for myself. Click here for a wonderful choice of free books: https://books.bookfunnel.com/alwaysfantasy/izy7xzaivd

It’s a nice validation, and I’m thrilled. Writing is by definition a solitary act unless you’re in the writer’s room on a television show. Other than that, it’s just you, yourself, and you. I don’t know about your brain, but mine has a few dark corners and downright bad neighborhoods. It’s not good to walk them alone… you may have encountered this on nights when you can’t sleep. It’s worse when you’re awake and on your third cup of coffee and you know what you want to say but are utterly unable to put a sentence together that isn’t utter shite. That’s when my inner mean girl pops out with a bludgeon and her judge-y voice. I have to take that voice and shove it… back down.

Have I mentioned I love writing?

Most of the time.

My current series takes place in 15th century medieval Europe. For a handy reference, that’s about 100 years after the black plague decimated the population. King Edward the IV had scandalized everyone by marrying a commoner. That nasty old murderer Richard the III reigned in this time frame, too. It’s an in-between sort of space where really anything could happen as civilization clawed its way towards the Renaissance. My books will head towards Constantinople and Damascus and the Spice Islands in the series soon, but for now, I’ve been learning about the Black Forest area of Germany (Grimm’s Fairy Tales land) and the port city of Marseille.

I’ve also been researching the foods people ate, what they drank, and a myriad of ways to kill people using poison. Yeah. Don’t cross me. Kidding. I wonder what the FBI would make of my look-up history. There should be a disclaimer for writers. I can only guess what the google history of folks who write apocalyptic fiction looks like. Or people who write murder mysteries, cozy or otherwise. You really have to watch out for them.

From my research, there are two things I’d like to share with you. The first is that in Europe at that time they didn’t have potatoes. Can you imagine? The dark ages would have been much easier to endure with potatoes on the menu. Of course, I learned this fact after my first book was mostly finished and had to go back and remove all the instances I’d mentioned potatoes being eaten or stored. I subbed in turnips instead, but you and I both know that turnips are a poor substitute for a nice carb-heavy potato.

In researching the best way to kill people using agrarian methods, I’ve come to understand that it’s remarkable that any of our great-great-great etc. grandparents lived to sire progeny at all. There were just so many things back then that could kill you aside from the usual pestilence, war, or wild animal.

Rhubarb (I’ve talked about this in a former post about Rhubarb Pie), and a lot of mushrooms, especially the red and white ones that look like fairies should sit on them are tops in “natural” poisons. Oleander (there are several horror stories of scouts using the sticks to cook hotdogs over fires and the whole lot of them dying, but I don’t know if those were true or just cautionary), Water Hemlock, Belladonna/Nightshade, Yew trees, Foxglove, Castor beans, Rhododendron, Jimson Weed, Rosary Pea, Lily of the Valley… I could go on. My favorite deadly plant that I couldn’t use in my stories is a tree that grows in tropical places like Florida called the Manchineel. That one is so bad it’s called the Tree of Death. Every bit is poisonous. You can’t even stand under them when it’s raining, as the dripping water can transfer toxins onto your skin, causing it to bubble and blister. Helpful locals will paint a bright red band around it warning you off… unless, of course, they want to kill you.

On the flip side, I’ve learned a few tasty recipes for alcoholic beverages, as no one really trusted the water in the cities, and rightly so, as the water system was also the sewage system. Ale and beer were their equivalent of Gatorade. Mead was popular with anyone who kept bees. It’s fermented honey, high in alcohol and sweet. You can try that one at a Ren Fair.

Mulsum is spiced honey wine and sounds absolutely delicious. It’s considered to be the oldest alcoholic drink in the world. I know it’s January, and we’ve all given up such things for at least three more weeks, but here’s a recipe for it from the website of http://www.KitchenLoveStories.com

3 cups lukewarm water

1 cup red wine (you can sub in non-alcoholic wine if you’re off booze)

1 cinnamon sitck

1 whole nutmeg

1 tsp cloves

4 Tbsp honey

Slice of orange or lemon in each glass.

Put everything together, mix it up, and put in the fridge for a day. Reheat it if it’s wintertime, don’t if it’s hot out. Remove the spices and serve. This recipe makes four servings, or one if you’re in despair.

ON RHUBARB PIE

Hands up if you’ve ever had rhubarb pie. It’s been a favorite of mine for years, a sweet-tart combination that creates cravings for seconds. I made two for Father’s Day, per my Dad’s request. He’s an old Iowa farm boy at heart, and has a predilection for things cooked in lard, ”salads” that have nary a leaf of lettuce in them, and of course, pie. I was surprised by two things; the first was that no one else in my extended family had ever had rhubarb cooked in any fashion, let alone in a pie, and secondly how difficult rhubarb was to find in a store.

This unfamiliarity could be for a couple of reasons. Let’s face it, I bet you thought, “That must be a weird pie,” when you read the title of this week’s musing. Rhubarb does have an old-timey feel to it, like it might show up in the same place you’d try sarsaparilla soda for the first time. Or black licorice, or jujubes. Secondly, it’s a poisonous plant. Not the part I put in my pie, of course. The leaves are spectacularly poisonous though, and if you ate a bunch of them you’d give yourself kidney failure. So, you know, not the kind of thing you plant if you have kids around. Or adults that don’t read enough. However, if you are from the upper Midwest, you know rhubarb well. It used to show up on the dessert table at the spreads my Great Aunt Carrie would put on for the after-church Sunday supper, alongside of ubiquitous apple, and blueberry when it was in season. All lattice-work, double-crust, 9”, and 100% homemade, I might add. Fancy pies, served out of glass pie plates that had been handed down.

Rhubarb grew like a weed where I grew up near the banks of the mighty Mississippi river in Iowa. A bed of it occupied the very lowest portion of our yard, and every summer the tall, red stalks with their very poisonous leaves would crop up, even if the grapes and tomatoes had a bad year. Rhubarb didn’t care if the winter had been harsh, or the spring dry. It just cracked its knuckles and asked us to hold its beer while it grew and grew and grew.

We had an extensive garden that sloped downhill from our rental house. We grew both flowers and vegetables. The rhubarb had been there before we took over the place, and is probably there to this day. One year my father tried to dig it out so we could plant lettuces, but it muscled its way back the following spring. Equally tough were the blackberries on the back fence. They grew fast and attracted blackbirds from miles around as they ripened. The birds would sit in the trees above, discontented bundles of black feathers, puffing themselves up to squawk at you when you were sent out with a bucket and gloves to gather the ripe ones. You really needed the gloves, the thorns on blackberry vines are long and sharp.

At the very top of this backyard was a narrow strip of land that dad would freeze over so we could ice skate back there when winter came, hard and long as it does in Iowa. The slope down the rest of the property was steep enough that we sledded on it in the winter. At the very bottom of the yard was an old barbed-wire fence (the one the blackberries grew on), rusted to a red patina, eager to give you tetanus if you’d let it. On the far side of that fence was a large piece of land given entirely over to apple trees. The neighbor who owned it had a dim view of a pack kindergarten-aged children raiding his apple trees daily, but even his vigorous waving of a pellet gun and an occasional firing of it didn’t deter us.

How I ever survived childhood is a mystery.

Here’s the easy recipe for rhubarb pie I used. It’s 3 ingredients, and comes from an old Iowa Methodist Women’s cookbook from the 1950’s. Back then, they used lard for everything, including the pie crusts. Crisco might make an appearance if they were progressives. Lard is simply rendered hog fat, and it lived on the back of the stove in an old coffee can, ready to scoop out as needed. I was taught to bake using lard. I’ve mended my ways now. For the Father’s Day pies, I saved myself the aggravation of making crust, and just used ready-made. If you also choose that option, you’ll have made homemade pie in less than an hour, which impresses people. It can be our little secret that we both cheated.

Before you start:

Pro Tip #1: Rhubarb is a weed. It is not worth $8 per pound as one elite market had it priced this past week. I don’t care how organic it was. $1 per pound is about right. 1 pound is about one cup, and you want the stalks that are a bit more bendy and tender, even if they shade to mottled green at the bottom of the stalks. I do try and select some deep red stalks, as they get your pie to an authentic color without resorting to food coloring. Pro Tip #2: Be sure to NOT have any of the green leafy part in your chop, as I mentioned above, its poisonous. Who figured that one out, I wonder? The dead guy, probably.

This is for a single 9” pie. You should double it and make two pies, because people who have never had rhubarb pie will first ask for a small piece, as they are being polite and trying your weird pie. Then they want seconds because it’s absolutely delicious.

RHUBARB PIE

4 ½ cups chopped rhubarb. Big chop, little chop, doesn’t matter.

1 1/3 cups sugar

6 Tablespoons flour

Optional: 1 T butter, dotted on top before top crust put on.

Preheat oven to 450. Put bottom crust in a pie tin. Mix sugar and flour together, and put 1/3 of the mixture on bottom of the pie. Put in your chopped rhubarb. Pour the rest of the flour/sugar mix on top, and dot with cut up butter if you wish. Put top of pie on, seal edges, do some slashes so steam can come out. If you are being fancy, do a lattice top weave, and then you don’t need to worry about slashes.

I know you want to mix the rhubarb with the flour/sugar mix, but don’t. That will give you soggy pie. Done as directed, the sugar caramelizes on the top and bottom, and stops soggy crust.

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Put your pie pan on a baking sheet, as it will always bubble over, and you don’t want that sticky mess inside your oven. Bake at 450 on lowest rack of oven for 15 minutes. Turn heat down to 350 and bake for another 40-45 minutes. You MAY need to put foil on the edges of crust, so they don’t burn towards the end, just take a peek and see if you need to about 15 minutes before pie is done.

Rhubarb pie can sit out on your counter with no danger of it going bad. I think its best at room temperature. And a scoop of vanilla ice cream alongside it is a very positive choice. Enjoy!