Happy Lupercalia!

I was curious about the origins of this overly-commercialized holiday so I turned to history.com for info. Read on, and have a lovely day! xoxo

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THE LEGEND OF ST. VALENTINE

The history of Valentine’s Day–and the story of its patron saint–is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.

Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and–most importantly–romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

ORIGINS OF VALENTINE’S DAY: A PAGAN FESTIVAL IN FEBRUARY

While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial–which probably occurred around A.D. 270–others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia.

Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide.

Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.

VALENTINE’S DAY: A DAY OF ROMANCE

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity and but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

TYPICAL VALENTINE’S DAY GREETINGS

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century.

By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.

Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.”

Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. (An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas.) Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.

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Image source: Pixabay

Can This Recipe Be Saved?

Hi everyone, it’s hack time again. First up: cooking.

This weekend, DH and I struggled to fix a chicken dish that was weirdly sweet. After adding multiple ingredients, it was eventually quite good. But it got me researching solutions to some common kitchen problems you might encounter, too.

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KITCHEN HACK: Adjusting a Recipe

Too Salty

  • If you can rinse off the overly salty ingredient (such as the brine on your olives), that’s an easy place to start.
  • Add a raw potato (you don’t have to cut or peel it) to a liquid dish such as soup or curry. Potatoes will soak up some of the extra salt as they cook and add starch that will further dilute the saltiness.
  • Rice or a small amount of flour are other options.

Too Spicy

  • As with saltiness, adding starch is a quick fix for an overly spicy soup or curry.

Too Sweet

This is a common result when using carrots, red peppers or other vegetables with hidden sugars.

  • Add a squeeze of lemon, lime, or a spoonful of apple cider vinegar.
  • Balance the sweet taste with more seasoning to make the dish spicier.
  • Add a fat such as olive oil or avocado.
  • Try adding tangy yogurt if it’s appropriate for your dish.
  • Add more liquid to dilute it.
  • Avoid adding salt, as it will bring out all flavors, including sweetness.

Too Sour

The best way to counter too much sourness is to add sweet, salty or savory flavors. Think of the way a salt rim balances the sweetness of a margarita, or how adding carrots rounds out the taste of a marinara sauce.

Too Bitter

Leafy greens such as kale, collard, and mustard greens can be overpoweringly bitter. Other ingredients with a bitter edge include coffee, espresso, cocoa and herbs and spices such as parsley, paprika and cayenne (red) pepper.

Bitter is the opposite of acidic or sour so adding vinegar, citrus juice or yogurt can help balance the dish.

  • Squeeze some lemon over sautéed greens.
  • In Mexican cooking, lime helps balance red spices such as chile powder which can taste bitter.
  • Add a dash of grated nutmeg. The nutty taste helps balance other flavors.

HOUSEHOLD HACK: Splinters

 

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Don’t you hate those suckers?! I’ve collected a few tips for your next run-in with old furniture, fences or floorboards. It almost makes me wish I had a splinter so I could try them out. Almost.

  • Baking soda technique
  1. Mix a teaspoon of baking soda or baking powder with a few drops of water until it forms a paste.
  2. Apply the paste to the splinter.
  3. Wait 10-20 minutes until the skin swells a little and the splinter pops out of the skin.
  • Use a piece of duct tape or a drop of Elmer’s Glue to remove the splinter.
  • Soak. Pour some white vinegar into a small bowl. Soak the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes. Once the splinter has risen sufficiently out of the skin’s surface, it should be easy to remove with tweezers.

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FOLLOW-UP: Sicily

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My friend O suggested a post on my Do’s and Don’ts for next time. If you’re planning a trip to Sicily, here are a few post-vacation thoughts.

What I’d do again

  • Reserve Blacklane upon arrival at an unfamiliar destination. It will cost more than a taxi but the price is established and paid by credit card in advance. Benefits: 1) You won’t be driven all over the place to run up the meter. 2) You won’t have to change money at exorbitant airport rates. 3) Drivers are safe and you can request one who speaks your language. 4) The cars are cleaner and nicer than cabs.
  • Rent apartments instead of staying in hotels. Cooking (and grocery shopping) is fun and cheaper than always eating out.
  • If you plan to drive into the country, consider an apartment rental outside of the city so you can easily get in and out of town.
  • Buy tickets online in advance for popular museums and attractions.
  • Bring a good map and pocket Italian language guide.

What I’d do differently

  • Don’t plan on using Taormina as a base from which to travel to other areas unless you book a tour from town. It’s well located but too hard to navigate in and out.
  • One day is sufficient unless you really like to shop.
  • I’d spend more time in Palermo (better shopping, too).
  • I’d rent a place for a week about an hour’s drive from Siracusa and Noto. I’d rent another place for the second week an hour’s drive from Ragusa and the coast.

FOLLOW UP: Biscuits

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I’m still experimenting, but so far Alton Brown’s recipe checks all the boxes.

Curious about the meaning of the word “hack”? Originating as a computer term, it “… refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency….”

The Apocalypse on $10,000 a Day

A couple of nights ago, we watched the 2012 movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. The premise: an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth and will wipe out everyone in 3 weeks.

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What would you do? Here’s my exit strategy.

Liquidate savings, leaving just a little in case the forecast is, you know, wrong.

Fly (first class of course) to a remote tropical island with a 5-star resort. Pack tons of books, many bottles of limited edition Islay whiskey, and sunscreen. (My end-of-life scenario doesn’t include suffering from painful sunburn.)

Check into our suite, having reserved all the rooms on the floor so as not to endure  fighting couples or screaming children.

Every day:

  • Walk on the beach. No sense meeting my Maker with flabby thighs.
  • Have a 3-hour massage, with one hour spent on neck and shoulders.
  • Drink steadily but only to maintain pleasant buzz, not hangover.
  • Have dessert at lunch and dinner. Who’s judging?
  • Have sex. OK, maybe not EVERY day.

Binge-watch all 19 seasons of Midsomer Murders. Mysteries are soothing because  bad guys always get caught. Unlike life.

Be friendly but don’t waste a minute with anyone who is boring or mean.

Consume plenty of fresh papaya, mango and strawberries. End-of-days plan should  not include constipation.

See glorious sunsets.

Gorge on cheese and chocolate. Cholesterol be damned.

Snuggle up with my sweetie every night. Drift off remembering every nice thing that’s ever happened to me.

There are worse ways to go.

Photo source: Pixabay

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Have you ever regretted volunteering for something? That’s the position in which I find myself this week.

As a member of the homeowners’ association board, way too much of my time is currently spent trying to navigate the petty disputes that constantly crop up between neighbors.

While I’m sympathetic to the concerns being raised on both sides of the latest kerfuffle (and deeply grateful to my fellow board members who share this thankless job), I am bone-tired of trying to be mom/cop/shrink/legal interpreter to a bunch of adults acting like whiny children – especially since I’m only actually qualified in the first category. Arrgh.

In between e-mail barrages, phone calls and meetings, I’m putting the stress to more productive use by pounding some dough.

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My weapon of choice!

Current baking challenge: the definitive buttermilk biscuit. Two recipes down so far, each pretty good but in need of adjustment.

Plus, more decisions to make: Cookie sheet or cast iron skillet? Butter, shortening or a combo? Baking soda as well as baking powder? Rolling pin or flatten by hand?

At least they don’t talk back.

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If anyone has a recipe they love, please share! xxxx

You Say Biscuit, I Say Cookie, We All Say Yummy

IMG-0028This week, I was inspired to bake up some digestive biscuits – probably because I’d been watching “Victoria” on TV. They turned out beautifully and I became curious about their origins.

The first digestive biscuit (“cookie” in American English) was the McVitie’s Digestive, created in 1892 by Alexander Grant, a young new company employee. The biscuit was given its name because it was thought that its high baking soda content served as an aid to food digestion.

I was skeptical – and wondering how many you’d have to eat to get any benefit – but according to LiveStrong.com, “ Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate*) helps to break down fatty substances and food particles, making them easier to digest and calming the turmoil in your stomach.”

In any case, digestives are a delicious, light cookie made with mostly whole-wheat flour for a nice fiber content. I wouldn’t call them health food but when your sweet tooth is calling they probably stack up pretty well compared with other cookies. (I’m talking to you, chocolate chips!)

It’s easy to make your own, and the butter tastes better than the palm oil in commercial products.

RECIPE (Adapted from King Arthur Flour)

Ingredients Click here for measurement by grams or ounces

  • 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • (my addition: a pinch of salt)
  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 cup cold milk

Instructions

  1.  Preheat your oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a couple of baking sheets, or line them with parchment paper.
  2. There are two options for blending ingredients: Hand method: Measure the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Using a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour mixture. Add the sugar, (salt) and enough milk to make a stiff dough. Gently and briefly knead this mixture on a floured surface until smooth. Food Processor: Pulse the flour, (salt,) sugar, butter and baking powder in a food processor just long enough to create pea-sized bits of butter. Add milk and pulse briefly, just until mixture comes together. Be careful not to over blend.
  3. Roll out the dough to approximately 1/8″ thick, and cut into circles. Traditionally, the biscuits are about 2 1/2″ in diameter (a slightly smaller cookie cutter is the perfect size since they will not spread out much).
  4. Place the cutout cookies on the prepared baking sheets. Prick them all over with a fork, and bake until pale gold, about 15 minutes.
  5. Remove the cookies from the oven, and cool right in the pan. Store airtight at room temperature for up to a week or refrigerate if you like them extra crispy; freeze for longer storage.

YIELD: about 3 dozen cookies. Particularly delicious with a pot of freshly-brewed tea.

*In case you’re wondering: Baking soda has only one ingredient, sodium bicarbonate. Sodium bicarbonate is a base that reacts when it comes into contact with acids, like buttermilk, yogurt or vinegar. Baking powder also contains two acids.

Worst Vacation Ever?

promotion in today’s e-mail made me ponder what qualifies as my worst travel experience. Usually, these fall in the Relatively Minor Irritations category: delayed luggage, missed connections, bad food, and so on. I don’t think any of the Merely Annoying will win this contest.

Then I remembered the Wish-I-Could Forget trip to the Caribbean with my then-husband (my ultimate “wish I could forget” experience, but that’s another story). Along with our 2 year old son, we  traveled to Nassau in the Bahamas for what should have been a restful week.

A couple of nights in, we decided to have dinner at the resort and accepted their recommendation for a babysitter. After a pleasant meal, we returned to our room, paid the sitter, and checked on the baby.

He was fine, but something just felt “off”.

Turned out, the sitter had slashed through our luggage and stolen everything that looked valuable including clothing and shoes as well as cameras, extra cash etc. The hotel manager was faux-apologetic, the woman “couldn’t” be located, and any thought of a relaxing vacation was hopeless.

I’d enter the contest and provide more lurid details, but what if they offered to send me BACK to Nassau for my do-over?? No, thank you!!

However, YOU should click this link. Good luck and let me know if you win!

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“Anti”-Aging

Allure magazine has recently reported that they’ll no longer use the term “anti-aging”. It’s about time.

Since we’ve only got two options — getting older or checking out — there’s not much point in fighting the inevitable. Instead, let’s embrace some of the positives and enjoy being our best selves.

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Antiques are so much more interesting than newbies!

The List

1. YOUR DOUBLE CHIN DISAPPEARS. With the passing years, fat pads under our chins usually get smaller as our faces become less round. (Bonus: more visible cheekbones!) So if you’re considering a fat removal procedure in your 20’s or 30’s, you should probably wait.

2. YOU’RE HAPPIER. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, happiness steadily increases from your 20’s to your 90’s as anxiety, depression and stress levels tend to go down.

3. YOU CAN WAVE GOODBYE TO THE BAGS UNDER YOUR EYES. When we’re younger, these are often fatty deposits. In older women, they’re more likely caused by fluid retention, which decreases as we go about our day.

4. SEX IMPROVES. Caveat: The study they cite in the magazine contrasts higher levels of satisfaction for women in their 40’s and 50’s vs. women in their early 20’s. Older women know their bodies better, are more likely to ask for what they want, and may be more spontaneous. (Note: no mention of post-menopausal issues, though.)

5. YOUR SKIN IS GLOWIER. Again, they’re talking 30’s-50’s, when moisture levels are highest and problems such as acne tend to resolve themselves. Moisture levels drop as hormones and hydration decrease, so 60+ skin often needs extra help.

6. YOU’LL SAVE ON WAXING. As testosterone dips in your 40’s, body hair starts to be lighter and thinner. Post-menopause, skin becomes thinner and waxing may be more irritating than a gentler process such as sugaring. Or, fuhgeddaboudit.

7. YOU’RE MORE OPEN-MINDED. A University of Michigan study found that women in their 50’s were more empathetic than those who were younger. Mature people may have strong opinions but we’re also more likely to understand other points of view.

For more thoughts on aging, plus a delicious cocktail recipe, click here.