Monthly Archives: April 2022


April comes to a close and as it does, we reach the next spoke in the wheel of the year, as this evening brings Walpurgis Night, named for St. Walpurga, whose feast day is the First of May. In the Celtic tradition, the day is known as Beltane. It is the cross quarter day that helps us spring to summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, and the direct opposite spoke of the cross quarter day that helps us fall to winter, which is Samhain, or Halloween. The fall to winter brings descent, life burrowing down beneath the earth, while the spring to summer brings ascent, life springing forth from the earth. It is an aspect of the everlasting mysteries of the planet and its place in the universe: we know these things so well, for we witness them each year with the planet’s revolution around the sun, and yet how these things have all come to pass still has the power to leave us breathless. The very names given to these days are shrouded in mystery, too, for their pronunciations are, for most of us, not of our tongue, and what seems apparent is not: Beltane is pronounced bowl-tan-a; Samhain is pronounced sah-win. Like the names of angels in ancient tongues, to speak the names connects us to a long forgotten past whose embers still smolder.

As such, a fire is appropriate for tonight. In Sweden, there will be bonfires, as well as gravlax and sparkling wine, all through the night. There are traditional songs, like “Maj vare välkommen” (May Be Welcome). We don’t do much celebrating of Walpurgis Night here in the States, but in a place where the extremes between winter and summer are keenly felt, May surely is welcome.

Tomorrow, I will write again with your Convivio Book of Days calendar for May. May be welcome. Summer be welcome. We wish you peace.

Nighttime mysteries abound: our image today is of a Guyana Chestnut blossom in our yard. The blossoms burst forth in spring and summer at about 9 PM in small explosions from pods that are about 4 inches long. There may be one on the tree or there may be ten, but they all tend to pop open at about the same time, filling the night with a spicy air that is most definitely a fragrance of spring and summer, most definitely of this ascending time of year.



A Reverie on Eggnog


In the Spring of 2021, I took an online month-long course in Food Writing with author Nicholas Gill. My favorite of the pieces I wrote for the class was this reverie on eggnog (and zabaglione) that I wrote just before San Jacinto’s Day, the 21st of April. I published it on the blog soon after. Here we are once again at San Jacinto’s Day; the essay seems just as good this year. And now I want some eggnog. Enjoy! –– John

We Italians have a delicious dessert (imagine that!) that we enjoy throughout the year and which tastes for all the world like the best eggnog you’ve ever had. You may have had it, as it is nothing terribly unusual; we call it zabaglione. At its most traditional, it’s a custard, but set foot in any good gelato shop on a hot summer day and you’re likely to find zabaglione there, too, as a gelato flavor. And like any great centuries-old dessert, it has its origin story. Actually, origin stories. There are many. But the one I like best comes from the region of Emilia-Romagna, where in the late 1400s, the mercenary Condottiere Giovanni Baglione, after a day of pillaging the countryside, is said to have sent his troops foraging for ingredients for a meal. Their takings were meager: they came back with eggs, honey, white wine, and some spices. We might assume that the commander then prepared an egg white frittata for his troops, for he saved the honey, the wine, and the yolks of the eggs to prepare dessert, which he whipped up––perhaps with a fork, perhaps with his saber––and flavored with nutmeg, et voilà: the now famous custard was born. His men were so elated with the result, they named it after their condottiere: Zabaglione!

The custard itself is delicious, and the story: not half bad. Whether it is true or just the stuff of legend, I cannot tell you. Be that as it may, I think of zabaglione each year around the 21st of April, for it is San Jacinto’s Day, and David Wondrich, in his spirited book Imbibe!, tells us a story for the day that involves a recipe with similar flavors but featuring another commander in a military adventure on a different continent. The scene is Mexico, or possibly Texas, or maybe it’s no matter for Texas was once part of Mexico so let’s just call it Mexico, shall we?

The story revolves around eggnog, the old time Christmas drink that became such a distinct part of American Christmas culinary tradition once the recipe reached this side of the Atlantic from Britain. The rich concoction of eggs beaten to a froth with sugar, then added to milk and spirits and topped with freshly-ground nutmeg, was first mentioned in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1788. That’s a solid three hundred years after our Condottiere’s supposed invention of zabaglione, but certainly folks were drinking eggnog well ahead of its debut newspaper mention. Wondrich’s tale revolves around what is perhaps the most famous non-Yuletide celebration involving eggnog (and this does not necessarily mean you know about it): it was on San Jacinto’s Day, 1843.

So, we remember the Alamo, of course, and in Texas they remember the Battle of San Jacinto, which took place a few months later on San Jacinto’s Day, April 21, 1836: It was the decisive 18-minute battle that won independence from Mexico for the Republic of Texas (so, perhaps, let’s go back to calling it Texas). But tensions on the border remained high between Texas and Mexico, exasperated by numerous Mexican raids over the years on Texian territory. The response by the fledgling republic, six years later in November of 1842, was the ill-fated Mier Expedition, an invasion of Mexico by Texian troops. Things for the Texians did not go very well, and about 160 soldiers of the Army of the Texas Republic quickly found themselves held prisoners of war at the Fortaleza de San Carlos by the Mexican General Santa Ana (also of Alamo fame).

They say everyone’s got their price… and the following April, to mark the seventh anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, the Texian prisoners were successful in bribing their Mexican captors into smuggling in for them all the necessary fixings for a celebratory eggnog. The milk came not from a cow but from a donkey (leche de burra), and the spirits were not rum or whisky or brandy but mezcal. Then, as now, the best of us work with what we’ve got.

Texian General Thomas Green, recollecting the event two years later in his Journal of the Texian Expedition Against Mier, writes that with thanks to their Mexican collaborators, his men were able to get their hands on “seven gallons of vino mascal, and as many of ass’s milk, thirty dozen eggs, [and] a large loaf of sugar.” Add to that list an assortment of accoutrements smuggled in from the prison kitchen, with General Green himself supervising the production while three of his officers beat the eggs and another pounded the sugar, as another of his men stood by singing old songs like “Long, Long Ago” and “The Soldier’s Tear.” The resulting beverage, Green writes, was “such egg-nog as never before was seen or drank under the nineteenth degree of north latitude.” Green’s men filled their cups, the mezcal warming their spirits as the leche de burra filled their bellies, and they sang more heartfelt songs that night. General Green makes special mention of the Thomas Moore song “Will You Come to the Bower?” –– perhaps the one most poignant as the men raised their cups and missed their Texas homeland and the wives that awaited their return.

Will you come to the bower I have shaded for you?
Our bed shall be roses all spangled with dew.
Will you, will you, will you, will you
Come to the bower?

There, under the bower, on roses you’ll lie,
With a blush on your cheek, but a smile in your eye.
Will you, will you, will you, will you
Smile, my beloved?

It was, we might add, nowhere near Christmas. And still to this day the 21st of April, San Jacinto’s Day, is a state holiday in Texas, though I suspect very few make eggnog to celebrate. Perhaps we should. I, for one, am all for more eggnog days in our wheel of the year, and a bit more zabaglione, too. A few more poignant songs to grip the heart? I am all for that, as well.

David Wondrich, for his part, offers the following recipe for a proper Texian eggnog for San Jacinto’s Day: he begins by shrinking the recipe down to one that starts with one bottle of good mezcal (rather than 7 gallons of the stuff). Then there are 3 cups of milk (cow’s milk will do), 10 eggs, and one cup of sugar. First, separate the eggs, beating the yolks with the sugar until creamy, then beating the whites separately until stiff peaks form. If you can, have someone nearby, singing a sad song (my addition). Stir the booze into the yolks; follow up by folding the whites into the mixture. Stir the milk in slowly, then chill for two or three hours to allow the flavors to meld.

Image: “Naval Officers and a Bowl of Punch” by Thomas Rowlandson. Watercolor, graphite and ink on paper, undated. Yale Center for British Art. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Holiest of Weeks

I am not the best example one could hold up of a good Catholic. I pray, but I’ve not been to church in years, and I’ve not confessed to a priest for several years more, and more often than not in recent memory if you’ll find me at a church service at all it’s at the Episcopal Church (which feels to me, as a solid traditionalist, more Catholic than the Catholic Church these days, for the Episcopalians use the same language we Catholics used to use in Holy Mass––plus, to be honest, they seem a lot less judgmental). Covid has kept Seth and me away from places of worship these past two years, but on Thursday night, for Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), I plan on donning my face mask and venturing forth and finding my place again (and Seth already knows he’ll be joining me).

It is not so much the Mass that I love and miss; it’s the quiet, open spaces between the official ceremonies. Just like good writing or good music is all about the open spaces between sounds or words, to me, Holy Week is the same. Last Sunday was Palm Sunday and I’m not so interested in that; I’ve never quite understood it. But I am interested in what happens now, as the week progresses toward its close, for on Thursday night, here ends the Lenten season, and here begins the Easter or Paschal Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday: the Last Supper, the Passion, and the Resurrection through Saturday night’s Easter Vigil. Most especially, it is Holy Thursday I love.

Passover, too, will begin with the setting sun on Friday. Passover and Holy Week are, I think, constant companions, but what I know about Passover is not much and mostly is in relation to my Catholic upbringing and to Passover’s connexion to the Easter story. I know that Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, and I know what a friend told me once, which has always resonated with me about the holiday: “We are traveling through the desert with our ancestors via a table filled with metaphor and symbolism.” The meal is the seder, the same meal that Jesus celebrated with his disciples in the upper room on that Holy Thursday night before he died. Pesach is the Hebrew name for Passover, and, as words go, Pesach informs the name for Easter in many languages: in Italian, for instance, Easter is called Pasqua. In French, it is Pâques, in Portuguese, Páscoa, and in Spanish, Pascua. (The English word “Easter” does not share this etymological relation to Pesach. Our word for the holiday comes down from the Old English Eostre, related to the German Ostern and an Anglo-Saxon goddess whose feast day was celebrated around the Spring Equinox. Fascinating, too, but a whole different story.)

Holy Thursday, though: It is, to me, one of the most beautiful nights of the year––a quiet and unassuming holiday/holyday, remarkable in its consistency, for the moon is always big and beautiful this night, hauntingly present, a constant companion as we make our pilgrimage in an old tradition that would have us visit three churches over the course of the evening. My grandmother, Assunta, taught me that custom, but, for some reason, not until the Holy Week after Grandpa had died. I think suddenly these old traditions meant more to her. I discovered then that the world is different at night. Churches glowing from within, moonlight reflecting on columns and limestone figures. Astonishingly quiet, serene stillness.

The actual Holy Thursday mass in most churches comes around sunset. It is the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, commemorating that Passover seder, the last supper so often depicted by artists. Jesus began by washing the feet of his disciples, a humble act accompanied by the suggestion that we, too, should not be above doing even the lowest things for others. At supper, he broke bread and passed the cup of wine: the central act of every Mass.

The Holy Thursday Mass Seth and I used to attend is a trilingual one, in English, Spanish, and Creole. It’s long and it’s crowded (and definitely not Covid-safe). It is the one Mass each year in the congregation where folks from so many diverse communities finally come together. For years I would seek out and sit next to an old Creole woman who reminded me of my grandmother, but I’ve not seen her for many years now, even before Covid, and I suspect by now she is long gone, into the ages. Each year I would sit there with people I did not know at all. I would sit there and think of my grandmother and the old Creole woman who had no idea she was so important to me.

The First Reading is in one language, the Second Reading in another, and the Gospel in the last of them. If you don’t know the language being spoken, you read along on your own. And as crowded as it is, still there are two choirs: one singing in English, the other in Creole, coming together, too, for this one night each year. The Creole songs are long and mysterious. One of them is sung to the tune of “My Old Kentucky Home.” They sing in Creole while I remember what I can from Stephen Foster’s song and each year they sing that song, I think of the small scrap of paper found in Stephen Foster’s pocket after he died. On it, he had scribbled five touching words: Dear friends and gentle hearts. That’s exactly how I feel each year on this night.

The Mass ends with the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament to the chapel while the congregation sings the Pange Lingua, acapella. Its more proper name is Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, an old hymn written in Latin by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. “Mysterium” is very appropriate, for this is a night wrapped in mystery and beauty, both of which truly begin once the Pange Lingua is done. There is no real end to the Mass. A small bit of chaos ensues as church workers begin to prepare for the Good Friday services the next day. People get up and leave, others mill about, and it’s noisy hustle and hubbub for a good 20 minutes until, eventually, the noise fades away as the church empties to just a few hardy souls who are there to sit. Some are in prayer, some are in reflection. Most, perhaps, are like me: doing some of all those things but also just being part of something bigger than ourselves, as it should be, in the company of others.

The tradition varies, apparently. The one that Grandma passed down to us is to visit three churches on this night. But I’ve heard of some people visiting seven churches. Both are magical numbers: 3 for the Trinity, of course, and for the three aspects of the Goddess (virgin, mother, crone), amongst other things, and 7 for more things than you might imagine: the seven sacraments, the seven days of creation, the seven sorrows of Mary, seven loaves and fishes… Still, three churches is plenty. Grandma may have been pious but she was not a martyr.

So this year, three years into Covid, we will skip the Mass but Seth and I will return again to our pilgrimage. It will take us first to St. Anne’s, the small old church surrounded by the tall buildings of Downtown West Palm Beach, and then across the lagoon to the much grander St. Edward’s in Palm Beach, which rivals the Vatican, and finally down the road to Bethesda by the Sea, where each year we wander the grounds, looking at the gargoyles and the crypts and the fountain, and we look for the boar in the stained glass window that shines onto the courtyard. We will sit, we will kneel, we will wander and wonder in the still and dark candlelit night, and me, I will have in mind all those who have gone before us doing this very same thing. This is the value of ceremony and tradition to me: this connexion across time and space. And no matter where we go this night, the moon is there, too: tagging along, trusted companion, never tiring, illuminating the night and the trees as much as the churches themselves illuminate their stained glass windows shining out from within. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.

So, I’m not the best example of a good Catholic and perhaps not the best example of a good writer, for this is a re-worked version of an essay I’ve written many times before, and one would think I would just call it good at some point, but instead, I keep rehashing it and maybe someday I’ll have it down pat. I beg your patience. Our image for today is also one I’ve used before: it is “Christ on the Mount of Olives” by Paul Gauguin. Oil on canvas, 1889 [Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]. It is one of my favorite paintings that resides at the Norton Museum here in West Palm Beach, which still to this day I refer to as the Norton Gallery, which was its name before the gallery graduated to museum status. It is the same place I’ve written about in the past––usually for All Hallow’s Eve––when I tell you about the Lake Worth pioneers who are long gone, and whose graves are beneath a trap door under the stage of the auditorium of the Norton (if the stage even exists anymore). I suppose when you get right down to it, I am a person who does his best to keep the channels open: channels across time and space, spaces between trap doors and sunlight. I don’t want people forgotten once they leave this world. It’s a mighty responsibility to keep them all in mind, but this is what I do. And this is a big part of what I love about this holiest of weeks.