A Taste of Culture

Best Sopa Azteca ever at the Antigua Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Roswell, New Mexico

Eating good food is, for me, one of the joys in life. I especially love to explore the cuisine of the different places my hubby and I travel to. We’ve doing this for many years, and it’s really come in handy since I started writing novels.

I can provide ambience just by describing what a character is eating, or being served. My parents, and my in-laws, were all European, and put out very representative meals, for example – very different than what we’ve eaten at our Italian best friends’ place, or Middle Eastern households we’ve been to. Since I love to cook myself, I’ve learned a lot about a variety of cuisines and can write about them with a fair amount of confidence.

In October hubby and I spent a couple of weeks in New Mexico. As it happens, we love southwestern food, and we made the most of it. Chilies, both red and green, are ubiquitous, of course. The state has turned their take on a classic cheeseburger – a good quality beef burger topped with chopped roasted green chilies and melted white cheese – into an official culinary experience. The New Mexico tourism website provides a map of selected restaurants on the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, but most of the places we went to made their own version. Below, you’ll see a photo of the GCC slider stack that I tried out at the Shark Reef Café in the ABQ Bio Park in Albuquerque; it was superb.

Chilies are native to Central and South America, although they’ve now spread around the world as many countries cultivate their own varieties.

Apparently wild peppers grow upright, to attract birds that will spread their seeds out the other end, but through the process of domestication the peppers droop downward. Chilies all start out green, but can be allowed to ripen until they turn red.

A high-res photo of this image, and other selected images from the trip, can be purchased in various formats through my photography site on Fine Art America.

At the annual Santa Fe Harvest Festival, we learned that green chilies are hotter, but they don’t keep as well. For preservation purposes, the chilies are allowed to fully ripen, and then are picked and knotted by their stems into long bundles called ristras. The ristras are hung outdoors to dry out, and can then be used bit by bit throughout the winter until the new batches grow.

If used fresh, the chilies could be roasted in beehive-shaped adobe ovens. The ones shown in the photo here are what would have been used by early settlers in New Mexico, but these ovens are still really popular today; many people build them in their back yards. On the afternoon of the festival, two of the docents were baking fresh bread and rolls, for which they heat the ovens to 700 degrees F inside. The pans are set on the brick bottom and the opening is sealed shut with a wooden door soaked in water, with water-soaked rags around the edges to complete the seal.

Samples were given out for free, and my hubby and I spent a most enjoyable hour or so waiting for the hot rolls to come out and chatting with another couple from the northern part of the state around Taos. Every sample was delicious, especially the rolls studded with dried fruit.

After that, we sat down to rest and bought the last two homemade tamales being sold by another docent sitting across from us out of an insulated bag on a little walker-style cart. Tamales are basically a savory stuffing wrapped in a masa (corn) dough and steamed inside husks of banana or corn leaves. They made steam come out of our ears, I think. I asked the vendor what was in the filling and she listed only two ingredients: pork and chilies. Wahoo!

But there’s more to the experience than just consuming the food. Entire cultures are build around the sharing of food, whether it’s years of tradition in a family home, or the communal wait for fresh buns at a festival, sharing a little bit of your life on a sunny afternoon with people you may never see again. It might even be the conversation you strike up when you’ve sat on a bench next to two women eating tamales that they bought from a couple of bright-eyed women across from you, and you decide to take a chance on a pair of foil-wrapped bundles that emerge from an insulated bag on a little cart.

The kind-hearted vendor even gave us a courtesy bottle of water to wash our impromptu lunch down with. Between that and the sweet rolls, we had a complete, and completely unexpected, meal.

As travellers, hubby and I live for these unplanned experiences – they’re often the best memories. As a writer and photographer, I pay attention and take lots of photos so that I can recapture the details long after we’ve gotten home, either as a piece of artwork, for a meal for friends/family, or as a sample of authentic culture in my novels. The different styles of food and food production might even make their way into a tale on a different planet – maybe it’s a less-developed civilization that still cooks in earthen ovens, or grows unusual plants on its farms.

Whichever the case, you can’t beat an authentic actual experience to understand what a different culture is really like, from the myriad varieties of potatoes (over 700) that are served with every meal in Peru to the cups of tea made famous in English novels of all genres to the little chilies that have caught on so much that they even get hung up as decorations.  For all travellers and aspiring novelists, our world is a rich source of cultural inspiration — don’t forget to make time to stop and smell the ristras.

All photos were taken by me, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

In love with reading

“Books are like imprisoned souls until someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them.” – Samuel Butler

Today is National Read a Book Day. Readers are why authors exist, and from what I’ve seen over the years, all novelists started out as avid readers, developing a love for storytelling and the power of words. How evocative this opening is to The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde:

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

My parents read to me all the time when I was very little, and once I learned how to read, trips to the local library were some of the highlights of my childhood and teen years. When I was fourteen, my boyfriend introduced me to the Lord of the Rings saga, which I read in three days over the Christmas break, closeted in my room apart from bathroom breaks and the odd meal. I was heartbroken when the book ended, the story had been so vivid and captivating. (On the other hand, my hubby, when I introduced it to him, found it far too wordy, but in all fairness high fantasy is not his genre.)

I learned a lot of my vocabulary from books, enough to impress my high school English teachers anyway. Hubby and I have discussed many times how the average English curriculum (at least in our day) would have done much better to introduce students to enthralling books instead of the heavy ‘classics’ we were required to read. To this day, I think The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of the dreariest books I’ve ever come across. I did love Shakespeare, though, and was lucky enough to be able to see all of his comedies performed live at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.

Books have helped me get through some of the toughest times in my life by offering a much-needed escape from reality for a while. Armchair travel with a great travel guide has brightened many a grey and chilly winter day over the years (the gorgeously-illustrated DK Eyewitness Guides are my favourite). A cup of tea and my favourite spot on the sofa, mystery/mayhem/adventure, characters that leap off the page and stories that I want to read again and again – tickets to another world that I can live in for a while. What’s not to love?

In the immortal words of the Brothers Grimm, “Once upon a time…” (Grimm’s Fairy Tales)

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Writing prompt: what’s in the swamp

It’s been an intense week doing final edits on Book 1, so this week’s blog is an exploration into the swamps that haunt our forests. The photo was taken in a provincial park in southwestern Ontario, just as leaves were starting to put on their colours. We came upon this weed-strewn marsh where nothing seemed to be moving or making any sound.

Now there are those of you who might see this image as a pretty artifact of the woods, something to enjoy on a pleasant walk through nature in the early autumn, and of course it can be taken that way.

But there are some of us who see the eerie possibilities in how well this would work as a fantasy or horror setting.

The mire appears to stretch endlessly, dark murky pools drowning the roots of lifeless trees. What are they? Is there anything that crawls through the waters, perhaps only coming out at night, when it won’t be seen as it slowly stalks its prey? Perhaps something seeks refuge in an abandoned tree, making its home inside a hollow trunk, hidden amid the remote woods where no one or nothing will think to look for it. Or could it be the trees themselves that are the unsuspected menace?

It’s up to your imagination to spin the tale of what goes on in the swamp when no one’s around to see it.

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

(P.S. My hubby and I escaped alive — or did we?)

Deception – a risk/reward strategy

Spider well-camouflaged on tree trunk in the Amazon jungle – by E. Jurus

Should I tell you that I had some amazing reason for not posting yesterday as usual? I could try, but it’s not in my nature to dissemble. The truth is that my body is still fighting off this prolonged summer cold and I forgot. (Adding reminders in my phone calendar as we speak.)

Lots of people lie; I try not to hang around them. Starting a relationship with someone implies an inherent trust that neither of you will jerk each other around, and if one of you does, the feeling of betrayal is profound.

So why do people do it? That question has always mystified me. If the perpetrator gets some temporary jollies out of it, will they then, at the end of their life, have only this to reflect: “I spent my life behaving like an asshole and I’m so proud of it”? Perhaps they lie to themselves about their own motives, because I don’t see how anyone can feel good about damaging someone else.

Of course, these types of people are the scoundrels that populate all the great mystery novels and thrillers. After all, if no one ever did anything bad, what would we write about?

As a writer, we have to try and understand the motivations of the scoundrels so we can write them believably. Why do they do what they do? None of us are born as despicable people, so what happened in a scoundrel’s life to set them on their path of destruction?

If you happen to know a person like that well enough to track their journey, you’ve got a head start. But there’s lots of published material out there as well. The article I’m highlighting this week takes a look at famous imposters in history — the ultimate con, to convince quite a few people that you’re someone or something other than what you seem.

The impostor must always believe in their mind that there’s some great benefit to trying to pull off such a swindle. It happens all the time in the natural world; prey species often camouflage themselves to either hide from predators or look like something much more threatening than they really are. Predators camouflage themselves to look harmless — like the spider on the tree above, in the Amazon jungle. It blended so well into the bark of the tree that if I hadn’t been looking straight at it I’d never have noticed its presence. I can only imagine how many insects wandered unwittingly past, only to be snatched up for dinner.

For this week’s reading, I suggest you check out Body Double, in the JSTOR Daily newsletter. It’s a fascinating overview of several famous swindles over the centuries. They’ve inspired many well-known authors, and maybe they’ll give you some great ideas to use in your own novel.

And for all those lying, cheating scoundrels out there, remember: karma’s a bitch!

Writing Exercise/Inspiration: What’s at the end of the path?

All paths lead somewhere – otherwise they wouldn’t exist. But when we can’t see the far end, they become mysterious, enchanting, beckoning. We’re tempted to explore them just to find out where they go, even if it might lead to disaster; it’s our nature.

What lies at the end of this allée of dark trees? I’ve deliberately posted the photo above in black and white, with the end of the path obscured, to encourage your imagination to run wild. Is it an equally dark castle, hiding a monster, or a treasure at the end of a series of fiendish traps? Is there a mysterious lake, smooth and undisturbed on the surface, but with something odd in the depths? Perhaps there’s a maze, or a portal to another dimension, or a strange and twisted garden. Or nothing – maybe the rest of the world has disappeared.

As writers we endeavour to avoid clichés and formula plots. There may be a finite number of basic plots, but that doesn’t mean we should lead our readers down a path that has an easy-to-spot ending – what would be the fun in that? Let’s take our readers on a unique adventure, one that they’ll want to read more than once.

My only caution is to let the book’s path branch out in ways that are logical to your protagonist’s journey, that make sense for the plot and move it forward to its great climax. Don’t throw something in because it seems ‘cool’. Readers can always spot a cheap trick. My suggestion is to let ideas pop into your head naturally, no matter how off-base they might seem at first – then follow them a ways to see if they might offer a really interesting direction for your plot to go in. Even if you end up nixing them, jot them down anyway in case they might work in another book (maybe a spinoff?).

So what do you think lies at the end of the path through the trees? I invite you to share your thoughts with my reader community.

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

When in doubt, wear red – Bill Blass

‘Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.’ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 98

I was inspired to write this post by the colours of the flowers at our local botanical garden, where I was testing my new camera. The roses are all in bloom, in their rich panorama of colours, and dozens of visitors have been out enjoying their beauty.

The colour red has a complicated history. It’s said to be the colour of love, but also of anger, seduction and temptation. Our blood is red, giving rise to the association of red with life and vitality in many cultures, as well as courage and sacrifice – and danger.

Many fruit turn red as they ripen, attracting birds and mammals to partake of them and scatter their seeds for natural propagation.

Ripening crabapples in September
The delectable red of berries served up at a local Strawberry Festival

Red is one of the three primary colours, which in combination produce all other colours we can see. On the visible spectrum of light, red sits next to orange in the longer wavelengths (at the far end from the ‘cooler’ colours of blue and violet).

Red, and all the colours of the visible spectrum, in the rainbow formed by the mist at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

For humans, unless you have red-green colour-blindness, red draws attention. If you want to make a conspicuous entrance into a room, wear red. There’s a reason that Jessica Rabbit was drawn with a slinky red gown.

I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way. Jessica Rabbit

For that same reason, red is used for warning messages – stop signs and stop lights, fire engines, biohazard labels.

The ubiquity of red as a warning colour means that people with colour blindness may be considered ineligible for certain jobs, like pilots and machine operators.

Certain animals can’t see the colour red. Primates can, including us, but dogs and bovines (cows, bulls) can’t. Bulls in an arena don’t respond to the colour of the red flag, just that it’s being waved at them. Crickets don’t see red, which is why, when I was a university student studying insect biology, my cricket population was set up under red lights so that I could watch the critters go about their normal behaviours without disturbing them.

Some of my fellow students referred to my lab as the ‘cricket whorehouse’, illustrating another connotation of red: prostitution. Along with yellow, red was worn to distinguish women ‘of ill-repute’ from respectable ladies, creating both marketing and stigma at the same time.

From our ancient need for fire, some shades of red are associated with warmth and heat.

In the photo below, the reddish-brown walls of the dramatic dining room at Kylemore Abbey (once a grand country manor for Mitchell and Margaret Vaughan Henry) in Ireland make the room feel warm and cozy, while the scarlet of the chairs and napery is tempered by the white trim and the subdued pastels of the carpeting.

Sunsets and sunrises contain shades of red because during those periods of the day, when sunlight travels its longest path through the atmosphere to the eye, the scattering of the light particles eliminates blue and green components almost completely, leaving red and orange light.

Shades of gold to crimson in the sunset over the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya

Children tend to be drawn to bright colours, and “red” is a common favourite colour for that age group. According to According Educare Child Center,  “Toddlers who love red are probably strong-willed. They are the ones who want what they want when they want it even more than most toddlers.” Red was my favourite colour growing up, all the way through my teen years, and I’ve often been characterized as strong-willed, so there you go 😊

Interestingly, in my adult years, I grew to love the colour grey – for foggy days, moody skies and storm clouds. I still like the colour red, but in small doses, and as a symbol of Autumn, my favourite season.

Leaves turn red and gold in autumn from pigments, called anthocyanins and carotenoids, that are produced towards the end of summer. As certain deciduous trees prepare for winter, they shed the chlorophyll that gives their leaves the normal green colour, leaving the red anthocyanins and orange carotenoids for us to enjoy as we go leaf-peeping in cool weather.

Vivid fall colours on a Muskoka golf course

Over centuries, artists searched for ways to portray the colour red in their paintings and other creations.

The earliest artists, painting in caves tens of thousands of years ago, made red pigment from ochre, a natural clay colour.

In ancient Egypt, where red was associated with victory, life and health, people would color themselves with red ochre for celebrations.

During ancient Greek and Roman times, a toxic form of red pigment known as minium created a bright orange-tinted red. It was also commonly used in the Middle Ages for the decoration of illuminated manuscripts.

Cinnabar red, another highly toxic pigment, was a natural derivative of mercury sulfide. Its brilliant red was loved by both Egyptians and Romans, and commanded a very high price. It was smeared on victorious gladiators as a tribute, and painted into the murals of upper-class villas. Centuries later in China it became synonymous with the carved lacquer used to create a variety of beautiful decorative items.

Vermilion originally referred to the pigment made from grinding up cinnabar, but Arab alchemists brought a synthetic version, invented in China a long time previously, to the West during the Middle Ages, where it eventually became glorified by Renaissance painters such as Titian.

Red was used in Renaissance artwork to draw observers’ attention. Belying its association with harlotry, artists of the period often used red for part of the clothing of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, and it continues to be seen in stained glass windows throughout history.

Stained glass window at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Ireland

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. – Isaiah 1:18

Red could also be obtained from plants and insects. If you’ve ever dropped a red beet on yourself, you know how vividly it stains cloth. Cochineal red is derived from a strange little bug; when my hubby and I were on a dude ranch in Arizona, our hiking guide instructed us to swipe some white foam off prickly-pear cacti and rub it between our fingers, whereupon it turned a vivid red colour from the critters hiding inside. (This same red is also used as food colouring, just fyi.)

This display of dyes at the Awanacancha textile centre in Peru includes balls of wool in various shades of red derived from cochineal

In the 16th century cochineal bugs became the third most valuable export from the New World after gold and silver. Cochineal red was soon transformed into a paint called “carmine,” which became an important tint on the palettes of many 15th- and 16th-century artists, including Rembrandt, and Vermeer.

Another insect that provided red colour comes from the genus Kermes, and that shade of red was used in biblical times to produce a scarlet tint for robes. Popular into the Middle Ages, pure kermes scarlet was the  colour of choice for luxury and regal textiles many parts of England and Europe. The rich red was favoured by Queen Elizabeth I when she was younger and less weighted with the cares of her office. You can see it in the painting below.

Formerly attributed to Steven van der Meulen – Scanned in the US from Sotheby’s Catalogue #L07123, Important British Paintings 1500-1850 22 November 2007, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3738721

Following the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Mexican cochineal, which produced a stronger dye, began to replace kermes in Europe.

Red lac was another pigment sourced from an insect, Kerria lacca, found throughout Asia from India to China. It was harvested from the wild but also cultivated, and it yielded soft, deep reds to purples.

Cadmium red came along in 1817 when a German chemist discovered a new element. Cadmium is a natural element found in tiny amounts in water, soil, and rocks. It’s also highly toxic. Henri Matisse was one of the artists who embraced its use.

To this day, red is an iconic colour in uniforms, flags and other public displays. According to Insider magazine, the famous red tunic of the Royal Guard in London was chosen back in more militant days because it didn’t show blood from injuries — very practical of them.

The famous Changing of the Guard in London, England shows off the iconic red and black uniforms

As writers, we have an enormous catalogue of ways in which to describe the colour red, in the shades of flowers, the heat of a blaze or a blazing passion, in rich Renaissance colours, in blood and death.

There are so many legends and associations with the colour red that they can’t all be included in a single blog post. Look for more about red in September, when its various shades begin dancing across the autumn landscape as part of Nature’s last vibrant celebration before winter sets in.

Designers want me to dress like Spring, in billowing things. I don’t feel like Spring. I feel like a warm red Autumn. Marilyn Monroe

All photos are by me, unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus You may enjoy looking at them, or share this post, but please don’t use my photos for your own purposes without my express permission.

Semi-hiatus this week: a friend lost

This will be a short post. My hubby and I have the sad duty of attending the visitation and funeral of a good friend.

No warning. Our friend was thought to be hale and hearty. But the worst took place — one of those events that you pray will never happen to people you care about, but then it does, and everyone stumbles around in shock.

Four weeks ago, he was rushed to the hospital with a cerebral aneurysm. The doctors did what they could, but our friend never recovered. He remained on life support for three weeks, and then there was no point in carrying on any further.

We are devastated for his family. We are devastated ourselves, but we’ll do everything we can to support those our friend has left behind.

It’s said that only the good die young, and he’d be a perfect example of that. Deaths like these make me want to be bad for a while, to avoid the same fate, but of course our destinies are our own. If any lesson is to be learned from these things, it’s to not take for granted any day you can spend with those you care about, because you truly never know when the opportunity will be lost forever.

Rest in peace, Jim, with our love.