Dinner Time In Picture Books

What does dinner time look like in your house? Do you see your own family tradition reflected in children’s books?

I remember hearing once — perhaps on the yak track of Downton Abbey — that, for film makers, table scenes are the most difficult to shoot and edit. Unlike in any other scene, the characters sit close together, side-by-side, talking in what’s basically a huddle. More than that, camerawork has to create the illusion that characters are speaking to the right characters, so they have to be looking in the right direction.

Illustrators of static table scenes have it a bit easier — there’s no need to fit a massive camera into tight spaces, for one thing. But illustrators still have the problem of staging. And tables say so much.

The long table, with one character at each end, is often used to depict a cold, stand-offish, antogonistic character web. You can see this in films such as American Beauty. Fighting parents at one end, child stuck in the middle as reluctant piggy-in-the-middle.

In picture books, with their bustling, happier atmospheres, illustrators want to avoid anything like the asparagus scene of American Beauty.

Joyce Lankester Brisley’s hygge, happy scenes also feature a long table with Mother at one end, Father at the other, but there’s no coldness whatsoever. There’s the expanded cast, for one thing, but there’s also Milly Molly Mandy in action, about to get out of her chair, and the pets in the foreground, also looked after. The house itself is cosy, with its patterned curtains and view to the hint of nature outside.

Milly Molly Mandy table scene

FICTIONAL FAMILIES WHO DON’T EAT AT THE TABLE

This is still rare, from my own observations. In broader pop culture, the fictional family who eats with the TV on, or in front of the TV, is portrayed in that way because they are dysfunctional. Picture books teach a clear lesson: Good families eat together, sitting on Western chairs, at a Western table.

  • Mog’s family sits at the table, though Judith Kerr wrote those in an era where more families did sit at the table. In fact, the formality of eating came in handy for Kerr when writing The Tiger Who Came To Tea, in which a carnivalesque visitor upturns social conventions. The more formal that convention, the more fun it is to subvert it. Admittedly, this is part of the reason why table dinners are so popular with picture book creators.
  • Another reason animals might sit around a table: To make them more human. This explains why Olivia the Pig has to sit at a table. Olivia the Pig sits at a round table, which admittedly is less formal than a long, rectangle.

PHOTOGRAPHS OF FAMILIES EATING DINNER

This photo series shows how many cultures around the world sit on the floor to eat dinner. This could be reflected in picture books, but largely is not.

Here’s a photo series of Americans eating dinner — a significant proportion are in the sitting room rather than at a table, though does skew towards table when people eat as a family rather than as a couple or alone. (Kids are messy, which is one good reason to eat in the kitchen, or on a hard floor.)

And here’s a series of Brits eating dinner, which includes a tea trolley. I did actually see that in use when I worked at a high school in England. Each morning the principal ordered breakfast which was delivered to him on a trolley. Coming from New Zealand, this struck me as foreign.

In Australia, Annabel Crabb made a series about the history of Australian life, with emphasis on food. The images look more staged than you’d want in a typical picture book, but a lot of thought has gone into the colour palette, which can be inspiring for illustrators.

What The World Eats is a photo series in the same vein, and sobering. I doubt I could personally survive on some of those weekly rations.

DADS COOKING IN PICTURE BOOKS

There is a tendency across all fiction to idealise the 1950s and 1960s middle class of America, in which mothers stayed in the home, happily raising the children and preparing elaborate meals. There remains a tendency in picture books to replicate that hygge imagery.

Here’s what we need to see more of in picture books:

  • Dads doing the cooking
  • Dads actively involved in helping children eat their food (rather than, say, reading the newspaper)
  • Happy, active families who aren’t necessarily eating dinner at the dinner table. There’s nothing especially magical about the dinner table. Families can eat happily outside around a BBQ, on the floor, and even as they watch TV together, especially if they’re talking about it as they eat.

RELATED AND INTERESTING

SNACKS HAVEN’T ALWAYS BEEN A THING

Search and destroy, kids!...The mad rush for an after-school snack. ~ 1955
Search and destroy, kids!…The mad rush for an after-school snack. ~ 1955

How Snacking Became Respectable: Before they became standard fare in American life, snacks drew suspicion and even scorn from WSJ

Fairytales and Modern Storytelling

fairytale study

This is my collection of fairytale links. I’m interested in fairytales from a writing perspective — how do fairytales help us to create new, contemporary stories?

TWO OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF FAIRYTALES

  1. the “serene, anonymous” voice in which it’s told
  2. the “conventional, stock figures” who inhabit it.

This is according to American poet James Merrill , as described at the opening of “The Book of Ephraim”.

FAIRYTALE ANALYSIS AT THIS BLOG

 

MODERN FAIRYTALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

–Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

What is a fractured fairytale?

Maleficent film poster fractured fairy tale

A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience.

Sometimes called parodies or transformed tales, fractured tales are humorous or exaggerated imitations of an author, a particular traditional tale, or a style. Fractured tales are currently popular in picture book format. Beginning with The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith began a trend that shows no sign of abating. Traditional tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to the “Three Little Pigs” to “The House That Jack Built” have been retold in a humorous vein in picture book format. Picture book examples are The Dinosaur’s New Clothes (1999), illustrated by Diane Goode; Little Red Riding Hood: A New Fangled Prairie Tale (1995), illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst; The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza (1999), illustrated by Amy Walrod: and Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale (2007), illustrated by Mary Jane Auch. — A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka
Bear in mind that classic tales are always, forever undergoing evolution, even when the re-teller doesn’t intend any changes:
Retelling stories is about as old as storytelling itself. Each generation’s storytellers takes elements from stories they heard as children. They’ll mash those elements with their own ideas and suddenly the story becomes something completely new. No story has survived untouched throughout the ages – even the so-called “classic” fairy tales do this. If you’re familiar with the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche there are an awful lot of similar elements from that tale in the French story “Beauty and the Beast” as well as in “Cinderella.” And elements of “Beauty and the Beast” also turn up in the Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Storytellers love to take familiar plots and give them a twist. When you take an existing story and adapt it for your own you are making a connection – a connection with every storyteller who told their own version of that story, and a connection with every audience that has loved some variation of that story. It allows the writer to create a kind of shorthand with the audience – if you like “x,” then you’ll find familiar things in this new version of the story. We take comfort in the familiar and relish the new that’s mixed in, and something fresh and original is created from that mixture. — Christina Henry
Fractured fairy tales can be of any genre, written for any demographic:
  • Fantasy — Most recently we’ve had a lot of dark fantasy
  • Horror — Horror has gone hand-in-hand with the dark fantasy. In horrors, villains such as witches don’t tend to have a back story — they serve as the evil force.
  • Dramatic musical
  • Thriller
  • Comedy
Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment, for YA and adults. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.
  • Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Grimm
  • Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
  • Descendents
  • Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
  • Maleficent —  a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
  • Hansel and Gretel — horror
  • Witch Hunters — horror
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
  • Half Baked — horror

Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale

The Cross-over Narrative

Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The Subversive

Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective. Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:
  • Youth is beauty
  • Age is ugly and to be avoided
  • It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)
Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes. A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.
Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency. — Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on. Subversive tales can be juxtaposed against another type of ‘re-visioning’, described by Jack Zipes:
There are literally hundreds of publishers who produce and market cheap versions of the Grimms’ tales as pretexts to conceal their profit-making motives. These duplications merely reinforce static nations of the nineteenth-century fairy tales and leave anachronistic values and tastes unquestioned. Whatever changes are made in these duplications–and changes are always made–they tend to be in the name of an ignorant conservatism that upholds arbitrary notions of propriety, for many people believe that there is such a thing as a “proper” Grimms’ fairy tale. In contrast, the reversions of the Grimms’ pre-texts, to use the terms coined by Stephens and McCallum, adulterate the Grimms’ tales by adding ingredients, taking away some elements, and reconstructing them to speak to contemporary audiences in different sociocultural contexts. – Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

The Inspired

Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel (the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman. 

About A Boy Film Study

About a Boy

About A Boy is a 2002 British transgression comedy based on a Nick Hornby novel of the same name. In its own way, About A Boy is also a kind of buddy comedy, though the buddies are vastly different in age.

ABOUT A BOY SYMBOLIC TITLE

The boy in this title refers to not one but two boys — one is young but the other is 38 years old and still behaving like a child. The title tells us there’s a boy, singular, and at first tricks us into thinking it’s about the young boy. We will soon realise that the young boy is mature beyond his years and that the boy in the title refers to the grown man. Continue reading “About A Boy Film Study”

Tiny Books For Kids Who Love Cute Things

tiny books

My daughter is not a wide reader. But she will read the same illustrated series over and over again, and also anything tiny. She loves Sylvanian Families, bugs and tiny books. In an effort to get her reading more widely I asked for recommendations from people who know kids’ books.

Here’s what they suggested:

THE BEATRIX POTTER BOX SET

It’s easy to forget about this one. Because they’re out of copyright, these books are relatively cheap, per book, if you buy them all at once. I found the cheapest place to get them here in Australia is at Big W (for $50). I’ve also seen them at Costco.

Definitely avoid buying the big anthology of the Beatrix Potter stories. Beatrix would be horrified to know they’d ever been printed like that. Those little books were only meant to be read as little books.

Each book is about 166.9 x 231.9 x 28.2mm.

ANNIKIN EDITIONS

Annick Press published an imprint of tiny books featuring authors such as Robert Munsch. In fact, it was one of these which got my daughter hooked on tiny books. I bought it online thinking it was a regular sized picture book, mainly because it was the cost of a regular sized picture book. I was disappointed to see how tiny it was when it turned up, but perked up when my daughter loved the tiny size of it. The Paper Bag Princess is the most famous book in this series. (We already have the regular size.)

If you’re in America you’ll be able to buy these second hand for a buck each, but in Australia we’d be paying an extra ten dollars per book to get it sent over.

204 x 204mm, with stiff but paperback covers

THE NUTSHELL LIBRARY: MAURICE SENDAK

Four Maurice Sendak books in tiny version, in their own little box. Aww. (And ‘aww’ isn’t normally a word I’d use with Sendak’s dark work.)

It includes Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup With Rice, One Was Johnny and Pierre.

71.12 x 101.6 x 43.18mm | 249.47g

 

FANCY NANCY PETITE LIBRARY

HarperChildren’s have realised that there are girls (especially?) who love small books, so they’ve published a few of their girly series as tiny versions, including Fancy Nancy and also Pinkalicious.

Fancy Nancy is 76.2 x 109.22 x 38.1mm in its box.

 

POCKET GENIUS BOOKS FROM DK

Dogs, bugs, horses, Ancient Rome… If you’re after tiny non-fiction, this is your series.

Each book in the series is 97 x 127 x 10mm.

 

ELSIE PIDDICK SKIPS IN HER SLEEP BY ELEANOR FARJON

Though not published specifically as part of a tiny edition of anything, the 1997 edition of this book is in itself unusually small, though not quite as small as ‘nutshell editions’ of things.

123 x 180 x 10mm

 

GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU: LITTLE LIBRARY

“The adorable hares from the classic Guess How Much I Love You are back in a gorgeous miniature slipcase gift collection containing four short stories.Big and Little Nutbrown Hare, from the multi-million-selling picture book Guess How Much I Love You, return in these four seasonal picture books: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each captivating story is seasonally themed and beautifully illustrated, and the four books are collected in a covetable miniature slipcase”

92 x 94 x 52mm

 

LITTLE CHICK: THREE STORIES

These are board books, so obviously designed for the book-chewing toddler market, but the stories work for an older audience.

91.44 x 96.52 x 38.1mm

LITTLE FUR FAMILY

These small board books have fur on the front, great for sensory seekers. They’re by Margaret Wise Brown.

There was a little fur family
warm as toast
smaller than most
in little fur coats
and they lived in a warm wooden tree.

Published 1946, the layout is similar to Beatrix Potter.

BRAMBLY HEDGE BOX SET

The set of A Year In Brambly Hedge are reasonably small, which makes sense because the main characters are mice.

154 x 178 x 52mm

 

Small editions of books tend to come out before Christmas, because they’re considered ‘stocking stuffers’.

Though they are hard to find if you’re looking for them, I’ve also noticed a disproportionate number of tiny books in secondhand stores. I have a theory about why this is: They’re a pain to keep on a shelf. Mainly because you can’t shelve them. You need a little box for them. I think parents get sick of them lying around and send them to the thrift store. Also, if little books are considered stocking stuffers, it’s easy come, easy go.

Anyhow, keep your eye out in thrift stores if you have a little lover of tiny books! One day you may stumble upon a collector’s item. Four Frogs In A Box by Mercer Meyer is out of print and goes for about $50 second hand.

Which makes me think small, limited editions of books may be especially valuable. It’s far cheaper for publishers to produce regular sized books, and they don’t put them out that often.

I haven’t added the Mr Men books here because I think they are terrible. But I am sure their nice, small size contributed to their wide appeal.

Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Terminology

NARRATOLOGY INTRODUCTION

Writers  think in terms of point of view: omniscient, third person, first person, second person. Close third person, universal first person and so on. For most purposes, point of view as a concept does fine. But it’s worth taking a brief look at terminology used by narratologists. Diegesis is one such term.

Narratology is especially worth a look if:

  • You are almost ready to start writing but can’t decide which point of view would be best for this particular story, and no amount of POV articles are helping out.
  • Or maybe you’re self-editing and you suspect your narration is patchy, e.g. too intrusive in places
  • Or if you would like to parody novels from an earlier era, in which narration was handled quite differently
  • Or if you’re writing experimental fiction
  • Or someone in your writing group keeps pointing out head-hopping, but you know t’s not head-hopping at all, but you don’t know how to explain it’s not (tl;dr: it’s probably psycho narration by an overt narrator).

 

THE MEANING OF DIEGESIS

Continue reading “Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Terminology”

Animal Characters Can Still Be White Dudes

Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.

animal white dude default from Bojack Horseman

The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:

In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.

My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”

I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.

The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.

Boring Old Raphael, Tumblr

Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere.

White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories

It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.

The LEGO Movie was my favorite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.

That’s why Jon Klassen’s characters are male. That’s why Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug characters are male. The main guy in Pig The Pug is even called ‘Trevor’ — the most non-descript, white, male Australian name possible. That’s why Oliver Jeffers writes a story about a boy called Wilfred and not a girl called Wilhelmina.

Bojack Horseman isn’t entirely problem free. It’s still about the problems of a white dude, as clearly explained by Eleanor Robertson at The Guardian.

But I have seen interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we do not have a gender free pronoun in English.)

It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.

double spread from This Moose Belongs To Me

That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis.

White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction

Alongside comedy,  the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy and has to work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:

a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world

b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.

That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works.  We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.

(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)

 

This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.

For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default is with picture books. Don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.

The Mud Below by Annie Proulx

“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.

Wyoming is central to a story such as The Mud Below
The cowboy is so central to Wyoming identity that a bucking bronco features on its licence plate.

It was the super popular S-Town podcast that made me return to this collection of Wyoming stories by Annie Proulx. I read Close Range about 10 years ago and had forgotten all but the most brutal scenes. But I was moved to revisit after learning our real-life tragic hero of S-Town, John McLemore, calls this collection “the grief manual” and was in the habit of reading the entire collection over and over.

As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. They are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.

Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.

 

The Mud Below as it appeared in The New Yorker

STORYWORLD

Continue reading “The Mud Below by Annie Proulx”

The Secret To Russian Fudge

How to make Russian Fudge — a step-by-step guide for cooks with no sweet thermometer and no Edmonds Cookbook (which is only of limited help anyway).

Googling has so far not helped me out on this one, so while Mum was staying at our place this week I had an extended lesson in how to make it set every time, and now I feel obliged to put this up on the internet, because I can’t find anybody else who has adequately described what a ‘soft ball’ is, nor explain all the secrets to getting it right, though this description is a very good start. It really is all in the beating. Some of us noobs need a little more help, so for my own future reference as much as anything, I have taken some (relevant!) progress pictures. I’ve since made five successful batches without help, so I think I’ve got it now.

FROM THE EDMONDS COOKERY BOOK

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 125g butter
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup

Put sugar and milk into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Add condensed milk, butter, salt and golden syrup. Stir until butter has melted. Bring to the boil and continue boiling to the soft ball stage, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Remove from heat. Cool slightly. Beat until thick. Pour into a buttered tin. Mark into squares. Cut when cold. Vanilla essence or chopped buts may be added to fudge before beating if desired.

EXTRA NOTES ON HOW TO MAKE RUSSIAN FUDGE

This is from a New Zealand cookbook (though I’m to assume it comes originally from Russia?) so be sure to use Australian/NZ/British sized measuring cups, which are larger than American. I don’t know if this works if you use American sizes — I guess it’s all relative, but what I had been doing is using the Pyrex jug to measure the liquids (American) and a local measurements for the dry ingredients. Don’t do that.

It takes a longish time to dissolve the sugar and milk properly over a gentle heat. When bubbles start to rise, that generally means it’s dissolved enough. This part can be made faster by using castor sugar, in which case it dissolves pretty much instantly, and you can start adding the rest of the ingredients.

BOILING IT UP

The colour in this photo isn’t true to life (too yellow) but this is basically what the mixture will look like once you’ve got it to the ‘soft ball’ stage.

Russian Fudge bringing to the boil

WHAT ON DOG’S GREEN EARTH IS A ‘SOFT BALL’?

To check whether the mixture is at the ‘soft ball’ stage, drop a bit of it into a glass of cold water.

 Russian Fudge soft ball test

This is what a ‘soft ball’ looks like when dribbled off a spatula into a glass of cold water. Next, tip out the water and scoop out the fudge mixture. It should look like this once you’ve rolled it between your fingers:

 Russian fudge soft ball

 

It’s hard to describe the feel of a soft ball in pictures, but you should be able to hold it briefly between your fingers like this:

 Russian fudge soft ball squish

A MOTHER OF A BEATING

The secret to good fudge lies partly in the length of time beating, but then again, at other times I have made this fudge successfully without much beating at all.

A stick mixer won’t do the job.

Then again, if you’re a pioneer, you’ll get by with a wooden spoon and a sweaty brow. As for me, I have to use an electric hand beater, and it usually takes longer than I think it should, on a medium speed.

This is what it looks like before any beating, and just cooled enough for it to stop bubbling. I’ve transferred the mixture into a plastic bowl so I don’t damage the non-stick saucepan with the beaters.

 Russian fudge pre beating

It takes about as long to whip fudge as to whip cream. Something I’ve never measured. The process is similar. Soon you’ll start to see it ripple a little bit.

 Russian fudge beating

 

Continue to beat. A few minutes later, the ripples will be more pronounced and the texture will have changed to something lighter in colour and heavier:

 Russian fudge thickening

What you really want to see is the Russian fudge starting to set around the edges:

 Russian fudge enough beating
As you can see from the electric beaters, the Russian fudge has set into stalactites.
 Russian fudge beaters

You know you’ve beaten enough when the mixture really starts to feel heavy on the beaters. (A good reason to use the medium setting on the beater — it’s easier to feel the texture changing.)

Here is the mixture poured into the pan ready for setting. As you can see, the mixture keeps its shape. The folds and peaks remain, unless I smooth them down with a wooden spoon. Be sure to grease the pan really well so that you can tip the whole thing out as a block later ready for cutting into squares, maybe on a chopping board.

 Russian fudge setting
Mark it into lots of small squares with a knife once it’s cooled a bit. Then put it in the fridge. When it comes time to cut it, use a hot, wet knife to avoid making so many tiny crumbs.
Post Script

I cut up the fudge and put it into Glad bags, ready for the freezer. I’ve never frozen fudge before, but apparently it’s fine, as long as you seal the container properly. My husband came into the kitchen and said, ‘What are you doing?’

‘Freezing fudge,’ I replied.

After a short pause he said, ‘You can say it, you know.’

‘What?’

‘You’re packing fudge.’
And in case you think I planned on eating all of these batches of fudge myself, I gave a large portion to my husband, with strict instructions to share it around at work. According to his Indian workmates, this fudge is almost exactly the same as barfi. I’ve seen better phonetic correspondences. (Here’s Breaking Barfi, a Breaking Bad parody. Hell, why not.)

There can’t have been much work on at the office either, because it was agreed that Russian fudge is actually Scottish.

Enjoy!

A Rumour Of Otters

A Rumour Of Otters_1000x763

This is an out-of-print New Zealand book, published 1984, written by an author from Pennsylvania. I remember there was a class set of this book in my high school, studied by Year 9 students. I wonder if there’s still a box of them in the Burnside High School resource room?

There’s something about the cover art that makes me want to scan it and put the whole double spread somewhere on the Internet.

This book is interesting for:

  • Its second wave feminist ideas, not fully realised in my opinion
  • Animal symbolism (there are no otters in New Zealand — the American author blended Maori mythology with Native American otter symbolism)
  • Evocative descriptions of the South Island high country landscape

I put my full review on Goodreads.

A Rumour Of Otters