Friday, November 6, 2015

Friday Life: German Potato Bacon Soup

This is a recipe inspired by Seattle's Bierstube, which makes a creamy potato soup perfect for rainy fall days. I don't have their recipe, but with a little tinkering I came up with a similar soup that gets rave reviews. Serve with pretzels for that authentic German-American flavor!

Creamy Potato Bacon Soup
Serves 6-8

4-5 strips bacon
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
4-6 red potatoes, cubed
2 c vegetable boullion or chicken broth
1 c heavy cream
1 Tbsp butter
Salt & pepper (to taste)

In a large heavy stockpot, cook the bacon over medium high heat until crispy. Remove bacon & reserve. Add onions & minced garlic to the drippings & cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent. Tip in the potatoes, stir to coat with onions & drippings, then add the broth & cook until potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes.

Turn off the heat but leave the pot on the stove. With an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth and creamy. You may leave some potato pieces if you like a chunkier soup. (Use a blender or food processor if you don't have an immersion blender). Add the butter and cream, stirring to incorporate, and turn the heat back on to low to keep the soup warm.

Chop 3-4 pieces of the cooked bacon and stir it in. Then crumble the remainder to sprinkle on top.  Add salt & pepper to taste.

This recipe is even better the second day when the flavors have had a chance to blend & deepen, so make it ahead if you can! 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Non piu andrai

I've played "The Marriage of Figaro" enough times to have a soft spot for this Mozart opera. It's light, funny, oh-so-charming - and the music rocks. For your Wednesday listening pleasure, here's a little Mozart.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Trigger Warning: Self-Harm

by guest blogger Kelsey Vanhee

She was maybe fourteen, staring off in a sullen way, the word worthless carved into her thin arm in deep, freshly-scabbed slashes. I froze for a moment, forgetting to extend the bag of Jumbo Jacks to her father in the driver's seat ahead of her. He noticed my stare and took the bag from me, driving away without a word.

I felt the pressure in my chest that signaled the onset of a panic attack. I don't remember if I made excuses for an immediate break or toughed out the time until lunch, but when I finally left the greasy air of the kitchen for the breakroom in the back I was already frenzied by the knowledge that I was going to do it again. It might not be right away. But with wriggling insistence the idea of cutting was already growing inside me. I was only sixteen, but I already knew from years of experience that this urge would win, every time.

Years later, working at a bookstore, going to college, and still self-harming, a middle-aged woman approached me while I was working and said “I want you to know it gets better.” Her hand went to raise a long sleeve, “I've been there, I've-”

I walked away before she could finish her sentence. Other cutters, even those in recovery, were like drowning people in the ocean, I reasoned. We kept our distance or risked dragging each other under. She meant well, but I knew what her story would lead to.

Life, of course, rarely provides us with a warning about what we will witness or encounter from moment to moment. But I didn't have to see the evidence of self-injury to set myself off into a downward spiral; reading about self-harm was enough, in fiction or on online forums like livejournal. Descriptions of the behavior from friends or strangers would almost always push me closer to a relapse. When a friend warned me about the content before handing me Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, however, I had a very different experience. I could read about cutting without wanting to cut because I'd been primed to understand that it was coming and, in a way I could not make any sense of, this warning had helped me dissociate myself enough to read the book without having a visceral response to the self-harm scenes.

I'd never heard of triggering as a concept; I poured my own suffering out online in verse and prose but never encountered a “trigger warning” until I was much older. Trigger warnings began on social media sites like Tumblr, and have been used both for descriptions self-harming behaviors (including eating disorders) and more externally traumatic events, like abuse, sexual violence, or racism. Student organizations at a number of universities have proposed or passed resolutions to encourage or require trigger warnings for college course syllabi. Trigger warnings have lately rivaled lamentations about the distribution of participation trophies as the most popular shorthand for everything that's wrong with the Millenials. To hear it told, we're entitled, weak, hypersensitive, and even, as one New York Times Op-Ed put it, “hiding from scary ideas”.

I disagree. Trigger warnings aren't intended to keep students from ever encountering triggering material, only to provide some measure of empowerment for them to choose when and where they encounter such things. Life, of course, will have no trigger warning. And marginalized groups – women, racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, victims of trauma, etc- already experience lower graduation rates. What harm does it do to make the college experience a little more inclusive? A female student may have as much as a 20% chance of being raped in college- shouldn't she also be allowed to decide if and when she wants to take an English class that requires her to read and analyze a novel about rape?

I'm far enough away from my troubled youth that I don't need trigger warnings any longer. I can read about or even see the evidence of self harm and not feel compelled to begin again. It's easy for me, as a relatively stable and undeniably privileged person, to look at the cherry-picked stories from the NYT Op-Ed and stand in judgment. To an outsider it may look ridiculous and there are certainly situations where it can be taken too far. (For the record I believe trigger warnings should stop short of actual censorship. It must be about choice, not censorship.) A student may chose to avoid triggering topics and may miss out on an important educational experiences as a result, but if this makes college a place of safety and empowerment than one of suffering and fear, it can facilitate healing and that student, later in life, to revisit the topics and books they once avoided.

As a writer, I understand why trigger warnings are unappealing, especially if one accepts the assumption that many or most will entirely avoid the subjects they find triggering. My first novel deals heavily with self-harming behavior as I turn the mental demons I wrestled with in my youth to literal demons to be battled in my stories. My second deals with sexual violence, and the intersection of racial and gender discrimination. I think these topics are still important ones to explore in fiction and I hope that I do so in a way that is helpful and not harmful to readers who have experienced similar trauma.

But while our loyalty as writers may only be to our stories and characters, when we put our stories out into the world, we must also consider our readers. It's easy to say "I've been through X and I don't find this triggering, so no one else should either". The very empathy that fuels our attempts to write fiction fails us when we refuse to consider the trauma of experiences we don't understand. And while I hope that a reader would not set aside my book out because of a trigger warning, (or cover art, or a jacket summary, or the title) I am comfortable allowing that choice to be out of my hands. The content of my stories will not change. If a reader objects to these subjects, refusing to warn them will not stop them from getting angry or putting aside my book or leaving a bad review once they start reading. I believe that students and readers should be given the information and allowed to make their own choices.

Of course, there is power in shock value. Even the opening line of this post may lose some of the impact when prefaced with a warning about the contents. Still, the dangerous, frightening things about literature are ultimately just as powerful when they do not blindside the reader. I do not believe that a reader, once warned, will always choose to turn away. She may forge ahead, better equipped to manage her own response to the content. She may, of course, choose to set the piece aside, perhaps for a time when she's feeling stronger, perhaps for good. Ultimately, she may respect an author (or professor) who respects her enough to trust her to decide for herself.

Kelsey Vanhee is the author of The World Below (as Kelsey Pince) and perpetually at work on her second novel which should (really) be finished any day now. For opinions on feminism, writing, politics and way too many kitten pictures, find her on Twitter @KelseyPince

Monday, August 17, 2015

En Vacances

Greetings, readers!  Today marks the beginning of a six week vacation that I'll be taking from the blog, à la française.  It has been a busy year and I will be taking some time off from blog posting to work on a few other projects I have going.  Posts will resume in October with some super stellar guest posts and regular posting will resume by November. (Just in time for NaNoWrimo)!  In the meantime, feel free to poke around the blog and take a look at some of my older posts on writing, culture, and food.

Enjoy!  And happy writing!


Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday Life: French Muffins

I usually don't bake a lot of muffins - when it comes to carbohydrate goodness, I tend toward either a savory bread or a sweet (but not too sweet) pastry like cinnamon rolls or scones.  It's probably because I've had so many disappointing muffins in my life, purchased at airports or coffee shops in the hope of a not-too-sweet snack only to find that the so-called "muffin" was more like a cupcake in sugar content.  I have nothing against cupcakes, but they shouldn't be sprung on the unwary.  (Blueberry muffins are especially egregious in this regard.)

And that, perhaps, is one reason why I like this muffin recipe, sent to me by an aunt some years ago.  (The original recipe, I believe, was from a Seattle paper.) It's a sweet muffin, but it doesn't pretend to be anything else, and the sweetness is primarily contained to the cinnamon sugar topping.  The muffin itself has a delightfully light texture; a far cry from those sickly sweet, dense store-bought muffins.  I like these for dessert, although I'll admit to having them for breakfast more than once.

French Muffins
makes 18 medium muffins

3 1/4 c all purpose flour
1 1/4 c white sugar
1 Tb baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 eggs
2/3 c melted butter (may substitute half oil)
1 c milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease your muffin pans.  If you have large muffin tins you can probably get away with a 12 cup pan.

Combine dry ingredients.  In a separate bowl, mix eggs, butter, and milk.  Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the liquids, then stir until just combined.  (You don't want to mix too much or your muffins will be tough.)

Pour batter into your prepared pans and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden-brown and a toothpick comes out clean.  While muffins are baking, prep your topping: melt another 1/3 c butter (and keep melted) and separately, combine 2 Tb cinnamon with 2/3 c sugar in a large bowl.  Turn muffins out onto a cooling rack (or pry them out gently with a spatula if necessary).  Working quickly, while the muffins are hot, dip the tops in the melted butter and then roll in cinnamon sugar.

Devour quickly before your roommates get home and eat them all.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky

Ah, Stravinsky.  Modern, sharp-edged, in-your-face music that once caused riots.  I'll admit I don't do a whole lot of listening to Stravinsky - I tend to prefer pre-1900s composers - but the flute and piccolo excerpts from "The Firebird" are some of my favorite working pieces.  They're so ridiculously hard in so many ways (rhythm, fingering, speed, those huge jumps) but so much fun at the same time. 

So here, for your listening pleasure, is Stravinsky conducting "The Firebird" as performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Monday Writing: How to Present Effectively

I am not a professional presenter - let's just get that out of the way right now.  But over the years of school, teaching, and professional life, I've had many opportunities to both present and be presented at in a variety of settings and I've picked up a few tips along the way.  Here are my top four steps for an effective presentation (or lesson).

1. Outline
Know what you're going to say - not just the nitty-gritty, but the big picture.  What is the theme of your presentation?  What one idea do you want people to walk away with at the end?  Once you have that, brainstorm the smaller steps to getting to that idea and then organize them in an outline so that you know what you'll be saying (and in what order).  For example, if you're discussing research for historical fiction and you want to focus on teaching people to find reliable sources, your overall goal is for each person in your presentation to walk away knowing how to identify a reliable source.  Break it down a little further to come up with ways to identify reliable sources (primary vs. secondary, peer-reviewed journals, following up on citations) and organize those steps into your outline.  You might begin by discussing Wikipedia research and the problems therein, then move into the steps to take to evaluate a source ( has great resources for this, by the way) before providing some examples of reliable and unreliable sources for your audience to evaluate.

2. Practice
Once you've got your outline with both the big picture and the smaller steps, do a few practice runs or five.  It's a good idea to go through it a couple times on your own, then present to a small group of friends, especially if you're expecting to get questions or have some measure of audience interaction.  You want to be so comfortable with your material that you can, if needed, speak off the cuff in response to questions and still be able to return to your outline.  This is crucial.  Your outline is the framework of your talk for the audience and it will allow you to be effective at conveying your point.  Some people are excellent extemporaneous speakers; if this is you and you have no trouble staying on topic without an outline, kudos.  For the rest of us, stick to the plan or the audience is going to leave disappointed that the talk on historical research devolved into the presenter's personal opinions on historical revisionism and the concept of feudalism.  Fascinating, perhaps, but your audience came to learn about how to do their own research, not hear about your pet project.  Stay on target.

3. Be Visual
Yes, you can do the ubiquitous Powerpoint if you want, but use it sparingly and only to illustrate key points.  You do not need a slide for every point in your outline, nor should you slap your outline up onscreen and call it good.  Use your visual to show examples or to drive home a point, and use related images if you can.  In the example of historical research, you could put up a list of ways to identify reliable sources and a picture or two of both reliable and unreliable sources.  Alternatively, you could provide a handout for folks who came without notebooks or laptops.  One way or another, get eyes as well as ears engaged.

4. Engage
Audience engagement is going to depend on a ton of variables, including the culture and make-up of your audience, the environment in which you're presenting, the topic, the time of day, the structure of the presentation, the size of the crowd, etc., etc.  Set expectations early by informing the audience how you would like to take questions (should they raise their hands?  Shout things out?  Queue at the microphone for the last ten minutes of the presentation?) and then provide opportunities for feedback (either during the presentation or at the end).  Some presenters like to try to engage the audience by asking questions of the audience, and if you're going to do that, make sure you really know how to ask the right sorts of questions.  Initially, your questions should have an obvious answer and should not be so open-ended that the audience is paralyzed by choice.  For our example on historical research, don't ask your audience what they think makes a reliable source.  That's what they're here to learn, plus it's so broad that you could spend the next ten minutes coming up with answers.  Look for something more specific.  You could ask how many people use Wikipedia or, if you have a Shakespeare crowd, if anyone knows the ratio of English to French at the Battle of Agincourt according to Henry V.  (Both examples of iffy sources that you can expand upon as you move into evaluating historical sources).

Presenters and presentees, what are your tips for a good presentation?  Any panels or talks that stand out in your mind, and why?