Category Archives: holidays

Critical Media Lab and Handel’s “Messiah”

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Did you know UWaterloo English’s Critical Media Lab has been playing an important part in the Grand Philharmonic Choir’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah” this year? For months, the CML has been assisting in producing digital images of a hand-crafted and illuminated copy of the St. John’s Bible. The images will then be projected on the screen. According to Dr. Marcel O’Gorman, “For us, this project is about translating a complex literary text into a moving picture. It’s a dance between old and new media, big books and big data projectors.”

Handel’s Messiah Sat. Dec. 9, 7:30 pm
(Pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm)
Centre in the Square, Kitchener
Tickets: $30 to $82, with discounts for children, students and under-30s.
519-578-1570 or



Emily Dickinson’s Simple Gingerbread

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It appears I’m not the only one who feels that books and baking go hand-in-hand as the weather turns. As pumpkin spice is supplanted by gingerbread flavouring about now, it seems like the perfect moment to introduce Emily Dickinson’s very simple gingerbread recipe. In related literary news, have you seen this recently unearthed daguerreotype? It is believed to be of an adult Dickinson, as opposed to the teenager with whom we are more familiar.

1 quart flour (about 4.65 cups)
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup cream
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
Make up with molasses (a little more than a cup is about right)

Cream the butter and mix with lightly whipped cream. Sift dry ingredients together and combine with the other ingredients. The dough is stiff and needs to be pressed into whatever pan you choose. A round or small square pan is suitable. Bake at 350 degrees for 20–25 minutes.

For more on the image, see A New Daguerreotype.

Emily Dickinson’s Fruitcake: A Recipe

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This is a literary post of sorts, one inspired by a conversation with my graduate students, who felt this was exactly what they wanted to see on the blog as the weather cooled, and the December break neared. Many don’t know that Emily Dickinson liked to bake–famously she would lower cakes out of her window to eager children below. In honour of the season, I decided to share her black fruitcake recipe. My thanks to Margery K. Eagan of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., who updated the instructions, ingredients, and measurements to suit a contemporary kitchen.


Have a bottle of brandy on hand—you’ll need 1/2 c. to pour over fruit plus approx. 1 cup more for cake-soaking syrup. Two large cardboard cake boards will be helpful if you are making a large cake.

The day before baking the cake, if possible, prepare brandy syrup: In a 2 qt. saucepan over medium heat, mix 3 c. sugar with 2 c. water until sugar dissolves. Let cool and add brandy (approx. 1 cup) or to taste. The brandy can be a Cognac-type by itself, or a combination of flavors including amaretto or hazelnut liqueur. Your taste buds can guide you here. (See notes about storing any leftover syrup.)

1 3/4 lbs. raisins
8 oz. currants
8 oz. dried apricots, cut in 1/2″ pieces (size of raisins)
8 oz. pitted prunes, cut in 1/2″ pieces
2 oz. dried pears, cut in 1/2″ pieces
4 oz. pitted dates cut in 1/2″ pieces

In a large bowl, toss fruit with 1/2 c. brandy. Let stand overnight, preferably, or an hour, or just while you get the other ingredients together.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Butter a 13″ X 18″ X 2 1/2″ pan and line with wax paper or parchment: butter paper or parchment. (See notes about using different pans–you don’t have to make just one cake.)

1 1/2 lbs. soft butter (salted or unsalted: if salted, don’t add salt to dry ingredients)
1 1/2 lbs. granulated sugar
13 eggs at room temperature
3/4 c. molasses
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

Sift together:
1 1/2 lbs. unbleached flour
4 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. soda
1 1/2 tsp. salt (or none if using salted butter)
1 1/4 tsp. each cinnamon, cloves & mace
1 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/4 tsp. ginger

In a very large bowl, cream the butter and gradually add the sugar, keeping mixture light. Add eggs 3 at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping sides of bowl several times to keep mixture uniform. Add vanilla. With mixer going, pour in molasses. Mixture might look broken, but that’s ok. On low speed, gradually add sifted dry ingredients, mixing just until flour is incorporated. Place fruit on top of batter, leaving any liquid at the bottom of fruit in the bowl. (Save the liquid and add to the brandy syrup.) Fold fruit into batter, taking care not to overmix. (Note: with this much batter, make sure your spatula is sturdy; otherwise, your hands are your best folding tools.)

Turn batter into pan, smooth the top, and bake for at least one hour, or until the middle top of cake is firm to the touch. The cake will be very dark on top and slightly sunken.

Let cake cool in pan. (Note: if you want to present the cake with a smooth top, level the top of the cake with a serrated knife. It will be inverted later, making the bottom the top.) Invert cake onto large wax paper-covered board and back again onto another board. The paper should prevent the top of the cake from sticking to the board. With a skewer, poke several holes through the cake at 1″ intervals. Begin brushing/tapping the brandy-sugar syrup evenly over the cake, allowing a few minutes for the syrup to soak in before brushing on more. If the cake seems moist enough, it may not be necessary to use all the syrup.

Wrap cake well in plastic wrap (or slide it into a large clean plastic bag) and allow to stand for at least 1 hour—or, preferably, a day or two, in a cool place. Slide cake carefully onto a large serving platter. (Or, for a smooth top: invert onto platter.) Keep the cake covered until presentation time. Fresh greens and flowers around the cake add a festive touch.

Notes This recipe makes about 20 cups of batter. Since an average loaf pan uses between 4 and 5 cups of batter, this recipe would make about 4 large loaf cakes. In 9″ round pans: probably 5 or 6 layers. Or, in a 12 x 2″ round, perhaps 2 layers. You get the idea, though: you can bake the batter in any size and shape. Butter and paper the pans, and fill them about 2/3 full for proper baking.

If freezing cakes: Remove cooled cakes from pans and wrap well. After thawing, and at least 1 hour before serving, brush/soak with brandy syrup.

Leftover syrup: Tightly-covered, the syrup will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks. If you’ve made small cakes and have frozen them, use the syrup as you need it.

Favorite Children’s Books

Borrowers Afloat

It happened: today an email from a major book retailer arrived announcing its “Holiday Gift Guide” to the best children’s books of 2013. Little did they know I’d already asked department members with children to submit some of the most popular book titles in their households. Please feel free to add your choices in the comments—it’s always great to have more recommendations.

Veronica Austen, Assistant Professor
I am an avid book buyer and reader for my niece and nephew (particularly my niece because she’s the huge book lover). Her first absolutely favourite book was Monkey and Me! Could not get enough of that one! Also, Vicki Churchill’s Sometimes I Like to Curl up in a Ball and any of the Gossie and Gertie books. Unfortunately two of my niece’s other favourites are long out of print: an old illustrated and g-rated Grimm’s fairy tale book, “Beauty and the Beast” being her favourite, and some board book called “Little Friends,” illustrated with photos of various dolls, the text featuring rhymes like: “Your duck’s white and mine is pink. Both are jolly don’t you think!” It’s an example of Great Literature for sure! But since it was one of my favourites and now it’s one of Isla’s, there’s got to be something ‘great’ about it! (-: )

Jennifer Harris, Associate Professor
My five-year-old is currently on a run of chapter books (notably Enid Blyton’s Five Find Outers mystery series), and is also a huge fan of the Usborne Beginners history books for children. For some reason he particularly loves the Romans, and so we’ve also been reading Caroline Lawrence’s  Roman Scroll mystery series for younger readers (though I have to edit out a bit here and there). Beyond that, his top silly picture books are:
Virginia Lee Burton, Calico the Wonder Horse or the Saga of Stewy Stinker
William Bee, Beware of the Frog
John Yeoman, The Wild Washerwomen
John Vernon Lord, The Giant Jam Sandwich
Mij Kelly, One More Sheep

Aimée Morrison, Associate Professor
Well, Pinkalicious is kind of a big deal around here …. and Fancy Nancy, but in French it’s Mademoiselle Nancy. Aline really likes the oeuvre of Melanie Watt — bonus! A Canadian! We read them in French. So, perennial faves include all the books about Frisson L’Ecureuil, a flying squirrel who is scared of everything. He’s always making elaborate plans to avoid imperilling himself and he always winds up “CECI NE FAISAIT PAS PARTI DU PLAN!” and the “ET PANIQUE” and then “ET FAIT LE MORT.” Hilarious.  And she likes the Chester series, particularly, Chester: le Retour. These books are about an overweight overconfident calico cat trying to wrest control of the authorship process from “Melanie,” who is trying to write books about him while he refuses to cooperate. Aline loves the chaos and anarchy. Chester writes in red marker all over the manuscript and makes terrible jokes.

Sarah Tolmie, Associate Professor
Will (age seven): Ursula Le Guin’s Catwings series; Neil Gaiman’s Wolves in the Walls; The Borrowers; bedtime out-loud reading is Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban; plus anything with frogs or astronomy.
Lucy (age eight): all Harry Potter books, all Madeleine L’Engle books, anything to do with fairies or dragons, all Laura Ingalls Wilder books, anything to do with pioneers, Watership Down, the Narnia books, the Tolkien books … all fantastic or historical lit, really; current bedtime out-loud reading is The Three Musketeers.

What is your favorite Literary Tourism site?

Mr DarcyA 12foot fiberglass statue of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, inspired by the 1995 film version of Pride and Prejudice, will be housed at Lyme Park, Cheshire.

Because I am at work on a volume on United States literary tourism (co-edited with Hilary Iris Lowe), I’m somewhat obsessed with it. For instance, yesterday I spent far too much time reading this piece, “50 Places every Literary Fan Should Visit.”  Literary Tourism is nothing new: as Nicola Watson notes, as of the 1540s Petrarch’s home was already being transformed into a destination. However, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that literary tourism really took off as a recognizable subset of cultural tourism. The British Victorians liked to make pilgrimages to the graves of authors when they did their classic “Grand Tour”; the Americans liked to visit the graves and homes of Victorians; and everyone visited Shakespeare’s house (which probably wasn’t really his home, but that’s the way literary tourism often works). Meanwhile, with the rise of the novel, people began visiting places associated with the settings of their favorite fictions (okay, the Lake Poets did a fair bit for that district as well). This impulse continues today with Dan Brown-themed tours and the like, though the old sites have not been neglected. On the contrary, literary tourism has increased for the same reasons tourism has increased (economics, ease of travel, etc.). Digital literary tourism has even further upped the ante—no more so than when Google Street View recently mapped Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

Providence, RI house features in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.”

North American sites remain popular: Poe has a huge following, a whole book has been published about one fan’s visits to Little House on The Prairie sites, and Anne Trubek chronicled her travels to a wide range of such places in a best-selling work. Awareness of literary tourism continues to expand. Ottawa-based author Nigel Beale has established a website dedicated to the very idea—complete with blog and route planner! Our collection will cover everything from the operations and history to the politics and representation of sites through contributions from a variety of authors.

For reasons of scope (as well as our own expertise) our volume focuses on the US, not North America, despite the fact that Canada boasts one of the most well-known literary destinations in North America, Prince Edward Island, where Anne of Green Gables is more than a cottage industry. Having lived close to the bridge to PEI for almost a decade, I can testify to the ubiquity of “all things Anne” among summer visitors and tourists (we managed to resist—our only souvenir is an Anne of Green Gables shot glass, which is impressively large). Less well-known—among the English at least—is the New Brunswick site Le Pays de la Sagouine. This is a ridiculously popular theme park dedicated to a character from a play by Acadian author Antonine Maillet. Located in Bouctouche, the website describes it as “an eclectic reproduction of a prohibition-era fishing village. Discover the Acadian culture through unique characters.”

PaysdelaSagouineLe Pays de la Sagouine

 In the course of research we’ve managed to visit a number of different places, and I’ve generated a wish-list of even more. In case I’m missing any, I’ll throw it out to Words in Place readers: what are your favorite sites?

And off we go!

Of course term actually began on Tuesday, but I have a strong sense of things speeding up around the English department and on campus generally.

One day during the holidays I let myself into the building–our “lovely” Hagey Hall–in order to do some work in my office. It is very weird to be on the uW campus when everything is shut down. It feels quieter than any other university during its off hours that I have known.  Unlike some other university campuses, once you are on uW land you are on uW land, for the campus has a sense of geographical wholeness, encircled by the ring road. That’s not entirely true, of course, as Optometry is across Columbia Ave, and East Campus Hall is way over there. But most of the time, to those of us at the Arts end of the campus anyway, it feels pretty coherent and contained. So when business is on as usual there are people all over the place. And those people are colleagues, students, and the many wonderful library, staff and operations people who keep this place running.

Also, unlike many other university campuses we do not ‘close’ for summer term; rather, we are busy all three terms and almost every day. So the 10 days between the end of fall term and the beginning of winter term are strikingly quiet at uW. Even eerie. While I did see a couple of guys  salting sidewalks after the snowfall and I think the library was open, the place was otherwise unoccupied.

So when I came to work on Tuesday morning I had a profound sense of relief. Relief that we are all back. The busses were crowded; there were lineups at the bookstore and at the coffee and food places; the library was buzzing; the halls of Hagey were filled with people (many of whom were looking for rooms that are not easy to find in this maze of a building!). I met with my own students and was truly glad to see them. There was noise. There was talking. There was movement. There was energy. And all felt right with our working environment again.