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Monday, March 28, 2011

Chicken Scrawlish

Originally published on the old VRZHU Bullets of Love Blog - January 23, 2008

Chicken Scrawlish
Why is Vrzhu blogging a recipe today?  By way of justification we offer:
“Jay Parini, a Frost scholar and professor at Middlebury College, also described the difficulty of reading Frost’s “chicken scrawlish” handwriting.” –from “Editing of Frost Notebooks in Dispute” By Motoko Rich - New York Times, Jan. 22, 2008 
We here at Vrzhu have been puzzling over the reference in the quote above to the traditional Hungarian dish, Chicken Scrawlish.  Perhaps Mr. Parini was giving a tip of the hat to Hungary as one of the great producers of world-class poets, far in excess of larger countries, with a respect for and tradition of poetry comparable to, say, Ireland? Or is he referring to the rumor that, while in England, Frost was able to employ an immigrant Hungarian as a housekeeper for about a month in the fall of 1913, and afterwards Frost would sometimes make a folksy reference to her “chicken scrawlish?.”
This is indeed a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a flour tortilla. But Vrzhu is in search of a key.
To start, here is an unpublished article from Gourmand Monthly we have obtained which sheds some light on the culinary trompe langue that is Chicken Scrawlish:
Chicken Scrawlish (Chicken Szcralís) – Originally a peasant dish from the Northern Medium Mountain region of northern Hungary, which is part of the Southern Carpathian Mountains of  southwestern Slovakia.  A dense stew that is formed into loaves for the winter, Chicken Scrawlish is undoubtedly the least popular dish in Hungary.  Georgi Mandi, a noted culinary archivist, has said that “if paprikash is considered the royalty of Hungarian cooking, then the concoction known as Chicken Scrawlish must be rated as Hungary’s failed apprentice pig herder. Famed Hungarian chef Egbert Esterhaszy concurs: “To a Hungarian, paprikash, sausage, poppy seed noodles—these all say “mother.” Chicken Scrawlish, on the other hand, says “idiot third cousin kept hidden from company in the root cellar.”

But generally, most Hungarians either deny the existence of a dish called Chicken Scrawlish, or vociferously insist that it is not Hungarian but Slovakian. At the same time Slovak citizens in the Carpathian mountains across the border from Hungary will swear that only a Hungarian would be able to eat a dish like chicken scrawlish. There are local city ordinances still extant stating that “persons found to have a loaf or block of Szcralis on their body or among their belongings will be fined 1,000 korunas.”

Old Hungarian woodcut of traveling
Scrawlish vendor, who plied his
poultry cakes from town to town.
Pictured with his companion Boglarka,
whose melismatic bleating announced
 their arrival to townsfolk.
These laws may have been an attempt to discourage “Scrawlishmen.” Because of the difficulties inherent in preparing Chicken Scrawlish, it became common for unemployed men or men who had fallen off their horses onto their heads to become itinerant Chicken Scrawlish vendors, or Scrawlishmen, going from farm to farm and village to village trying to trick the more slatternly wives into buying a jar of potted Scrawlish.  Often runners from one farm would speed ahead to the next farm to warn of the approaching Scrawlishman, so that an adequate supply of stones of sufficient heft could be gathered to throw at him.

Despite this, dedicated, perhaps foolhardy, foodies, inspired by culinary adventurers (such as Anthony Bordain) who sample puffin jerky, or warthog chitterlings, have been looking for a traditional recipe—or any recipe—for the infamous Chicken Scrawlish.

Recently, American investigatory cooks, Jack and Michelle Gurning, have interviewed several immigrants from the region, and found a recipe for the dish hidden in an old bible written in Hungarian. Curiously the recipe was on previously-used vellum and sandwiched between pages of the Book of Revelation.  The Gurnings, in their book, Into Thick Soup –  A Personal Account of Delight and Disaster Amongst the Wild Dishes of the Carpathians, provide their deciphered and translated rendition of the recipe.  Their only introductory description of Chicken Scrawlish is “a dish only H. P. Lovecraft could love. Or adequately describe.”

Chicken Scrawlish
One unplucked chicken, preferably dead.
16 oz rendered badger fat
4 oz dry-cured chicken liver
18 oz unhulled groats
2 teaspoons rock salt
2 teaspoons chopped baitfish, such as minnow
6 to 8 cups goat broth, or squirrel broth
1 cup chopped celery root
1 cup chopped sun-dried beet
1 cup chopped kohlrabi, root and leaves
1/2 cup onion grass
4 oz juniper berries
1 teaspoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon devil’s parsley
¼ cup hyssop sour wine or hyssop white vinegar.
¼ cup woodruff jam

1. First, the chicken must be “saddled.” After gutting the bird, spatchcock it*, retaining the neck and head. Press it flat, pulling to extend the wings and legs as much as possible.

2. Place the spatchcocked chicken between the saddle and the horse, feathered side down (alternatively the chicken may be pressed between two goats). After a three day ride** remove the chicken and soak in 5 gallons of water mixed with one cup of lye for at least 24 hours, making sure the neck and head of the chicken are draped over the side of the pot to vent properly.

3. Drain, rinse and dry the chicken. At this point the feathers should have formed a fused bed underneath the meat. Carefully peel back the feather bed from the chicken and discard some distance from any habitation. The chicken should be tender and malleable at this point, translucent with a gelatinous consistency.

4. Soak the groats until tender. Soak the dry cured chicken livers until al dente and then grind finely along with the rock salt and chopped baitfish.

5. Drain the groats, put them into a large mixing bowl and add badger fat, celery root, sun-dried beet, kohlrabi, onion grass, juniper berries, hot paprika and devil’s parsley. Stir in the chicken liver mixture. Beat until the mixture is slightly glutinous. Stir in the goat or squirrel broth.

6. Force the chicken through a sieve into the groat mixture, taking care not to put your face or hands directly over the bowl.

7. Cover the bowl with wire mesh and a damp cloth and allow to ferment outside for about 1 hour.

8. Stir and pour into a large dutch oven. Cook in a 325 degree oven for about 3 hours. If the Scrawlish dries out DO NOT add water! Discard immediately. Either start over or lead a Christian life.***

9. At this point the Chicken Scrawlish can be served as a stew, the so-called White Scrawlish. It is customarily served on a bed of boiled nettles as a late supper after the men have returned home drunk. But typically, much larger amounts of Chicken Scrawlish were made and some of the scrawlish was “put up” in loaves.

For Chicken Scrawlish Loaf, or Black Scrawlish

10. Let the Scrawlish settle and then pour off as much of the top fluid as possible.

11. Turn the Scrawlish out onto a floured board and knead for about 20 minutes, alternately adding the Hyssop vinegar and Woodruff jam, until it is elastic and not too lumpy. At this point the Scrawlish dough should be unpleasant to look at and touch. You can’t really get used to it. Form into a roughly loaf-shaped mass and place on a baking sheet you intend to discard afterwards. Bake at 275 degrees for 12 hours in a very well-ventilated room.

12. Remove and allow the loaf to cool completely. The loaf will keep indefinitely. Loaves were often passed down from generation to generation.

Serves all or none.
Nutritional information: unknown.

To conclude, as the dish migrated down from the Carpathians into the plains and cities of Hungary, it was considerably tamed.  However, it retained its air of mystery as a “special” dish, and throughout most the 19th century the eating of it was considered a venal sin.

To spatchcock a fowl: Place the bird breast side down on as clean a surface as you can find. Using a very sharp knife cut from the neck to the tail end along both sides of the backbone to remove. This takes some force. Make a small slit in the cartilage at the bottom end of the breast bone, then with both hands placed on the rib cage, crack open the bird by opening it, like a book, towards the cutting surface.  This will reveal the keel bone. Run you fingers up along wither side of the cartilage in between in between the breasts to loosen it from the flesh, then grab the keel bone and pull it up to remove it, along with the attached cartilage.  Flip over and smooth the skin.  The bird is now spatchcocked.
**Although a three day ride is sufficient for an authentic Chicken Scrawlish, Scrawlishes were often distinguished and rated by the length of time continuously “saddled.” In addition to this recipe of Three Day Scrawlish, there was Five Day Scrawlish, Eight Day Scrawlish, and for special occasions, Campaign Scrawlish, where the chicken was “saddled” for an entire military campaign or until the rider returned home.  This Scrawlish was also called “Funeral Scrawlish” or “Missing Limb Scrawlish.”
*** The exact meaning of this sentence in the original is in dispute. The original recipe continues: “Immediately start a novena for protection against the Unclean One. And spit thrice upon leaving or entering the house for the following week.”


Originally published on the old VRZHU Bullets of Love Blog - January 23, 2008

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kim Roberts on Capitol Hill

Kim Roberts reading from her new book of poems.

We had a wonderful reading last night on Capitol Hill.
The Capitol Hill Reading Series hosts themed readings and visiting writers on the third Tuesday of each month.  Many thanks for all the people who showed up last night to hear Kim Roberts read from her splendid new book Animal Magnetism (Pearl Books).

We had a full house and Kim graced us all with these fantastic poems about medical museums and imaginary husbands.  It was a delightful evening.
Next month we'll have Judith Valente and Cliff Bernier.  More at the reading site.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Grace Cavalieri

Great news!  The inimitable wonder that is Grace Cavalieri has created a wonderful site with audio recordings about various poets she's known and interviewed over the years.  What a trove!  

Current pieces include commentary and reflections on Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish, Donald Hall, Carl Sandburg, Stanley Kunitz, ee cummings, Richard Wilbur, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Hass. 

Find it all here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Get Well Coleman Barks

Just read over at Don Share's blog that the poet and translator Coleman Barks has suffered a stroke.  He is recovering and seems in good spirits:
I am mostly sleeping as much as I can (grace) and listening to recordings of my old voice in my kitchen and talking along (practice). I am not answering the phone or the door, or emails (only a few). Please forgive me these reclusive measures. Think of me as an old dormant bear, healing. 
Barks read at the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival in 2008 and I was profoundly moved by his powerful work and generous spirit.  Here's hoping he has a speedy recovery.

Below is a delightful recording of his interview and reading with the Paul Winter Consort, from Bill Moyers' 1995 Language of Life mini-series recorded at the Dodge Festival.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Becomes of a Book?

Holly Karapetkova at the Capitol Hill Reading Series

We had a really lovely time Tuesday night at the Capitol Hill Reading Series.  Holly Karapetkova, winner of the Washington Writers Publishing House poetry contest, read from her wonderful book, Words We Might One Day Say.  

Here's a small video of her reading a new poem titled "Dead Friends."

Next month, Kim Roberts will be the featured reader, reading from her new book Animal Magnetism.
For more information about the reading series, and to sign up for email alerts, visit the reading website.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Flat Langston Letter to Busboys & Poets

The following open letter has been published in a number of places online.
Letter and check delivered to Busboys and Poets 14th & V location.
February 14TH, 2011

Dear Mr. Shallal,

Various characterizations of Busboys and Poets, your own and others', suggest that it is a space created and named in honor of the late Langston Hughes, his work and his legacy within and beyond the District of Columbia. It is true that wonderful things happen in the Langston Room. We have all, at one point or another, been present to witness the wittiness, the bravery, the signifying and the song that characterizes Hughes’ work as it emanates from the stage and the various poets who have graced it over the years.

As poets who have sat in those chairs and booths as well as stood upon that stage, we ask you to consider the ways in which placing a cardboard cutout of Hughes within Busboys and Poets—making of him a character, a mascot, more than a presence—unfortunately does not honor his legacy.

Our objections to this display are varied. Some of us feel it is improper that Hughes be physically reduced to a gimmicky object within a space commemorating part of his experience as a young writer in Washington, D.C. Others hope that if you must have a cutout image of Hughes in the space that it be an image that aspires to communicate Hughes’ greater significance rather than the unsophisticated semantic connection to your business’ name. Even with our mélange of concerns about this matter, we all agree that it is a gesture that does not suit Busboys and Poets’ relationship to Hughes’ legacy and its relationship with the poets, local and national, who continue his work and who patronize Busboys and Poets.

The poet Ethelbert Miller this week asked the following on his blog: “POLITICS AND POETRY? What would Langston do?” Fortunately for us, Hughes’ words are still present. Your staff attempted to answer the question of how he would feel about this moment, and respond to the week’s events, by posting the following quote on the Busboys and Poets twitter feed and attributing it to Hughes: "I am glad I went to work at the Wardman Park Hotel (as a busboy), because there I met Vachel Lindsay." Firstly, the parenthetical in the quote is not Hughes’ language but an addition on the part of whoever manages the Busboys and Poets twitter feed (and should therefore be marked with brackets). Secondly, while this quote does suggest Hughes appreciated the opportunity to slip his poems to the critic Vachel Lindsay, the following excerpt from Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea makes it fairly clear that he did not appreciate being made a spectacle as a “bus boy poet”:
The widespread publicity resulting from the Vachel Lindsay incident was certainly good for my poetic career, but it was not good for my job, because from then on, very often the head waiter would call me to come and stand before some table whose curious guests wished to see what a Negro bus boy poet looked like. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed, so when pay day came, I quit. [The Big Sea, page 214]

If Busboys and Poets is in the business of honoring Langston Hughes and, of the utmost importance to a poet, his words, we suggest that you seriously consider his own words about his own life as they pertain to this matter.

Some of us saw the physical cutout. Many of us only heard about it or saw pictures before we, as a group, could come to you and ask that it be removed. As a showing of good faith, we have enclosed with this letter a check for $150.00 (the stated price of the cutout in the 02/08/2011 Washington Post column detailing its disappearance) to compensate you for your lost property. We only ask, respectfully, that this image not be replaced. It is not necessary and, for us, serves as more of a deterrence than a welcome.

In the interest of strengthening the relationship between Busboys and Poets and the local, active poetry community, we extend the offer to help initiate and sustain a dialogue between you, your management, your advisors and the poets whose work and organizations fill Busboys and Poets. To date, it has been a fruitful yet unexamined relationship. We want it to continue, but in a manner that fosters open lines of communication and a mutual mindfulness.


Kyle G. Dargan
Sandra Beasley
Reginald Dwayne Betts
Cornelius Eady
Thomas Sayers Ellis
Brian Gilmore
Michael Gushue
Laura Hartmark
Melanie Henderson
Randall Horton
Reuben Jackson
Fred Joiner
Bettina Judd
Gregory Pardlo
Joseph Ross
Myra Sklarew
Sonya Renee Taylor
Dan Vera

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Poetry Reading Map

As I mentioned in the last post, I think it'd be helpful to have a visual sense of what parts of the area are being under-served by poetry readings.  Below is a handy little Google Map that begins to give us a sense of the current poetic geography in the Washington area.  Thanks to Beltway Poetry's resources page for many of these listings.
  • The listings are by venue to give us a sense of the spaces that are currently open to poetry.  So keep in mind that many of these are sites are hosting multiple readings.
  • I've chosen to highlight curated reading series with guest poets (there are a number of open mics around town but not many more).
  • The color code is: blue for DC, red for Maryland, and green for Virginia
  • Yellow thumbtacks represent possible new venues for readings.  I'd appreciate highlighting any other spaces you think might be ideal for a reading series.
  • I kept to the metro area, by defining it as those spaces accessible by Metro.  The Soundry is an exception but it's listed on the Beltway site so I did too.
If I've left a reading off, apologies.  Let me know. There were some listings that appeared dead and no longer operational and I chose to not include those.  If you want to see the full map, it's here.

Hope this is of help. - Dan

View DC Metro Readings in a larger map

Notes After Flat Langston Gate

Note: This was originally posted on Facebook as an open statement to local DC writers.  In the hopes of being transparent and fostering continuing dialogue, I've posted it here. -Dan Vera

"Flat Langston Gate" [link, link] serves as a reminder of the continuing need to foster and support a wide range of venues in this city. Busboys has undoubtedly been an enormous boon to this city's poetic community. They should be (and do get) applauded for that. But it's neither the only story, the only ideal, or the only word.   As in biodiversity, poets thrive in complex ecologies. We have one of the most vibrant poetry communities in the country and we need to support current venues and explore the creation of multiple venues in this city. To build on the model that Busboys has successfully used or explore other models.  Everything should be on the table.  This is a great opportunity to have a conversation about venues, access, compensation for the city's poetry community.

I've tagged a few folks to this note --- DC writers as I think this is a DC conversation.  I do hope this can be the beginning of  a constructive conversation.

A few thoughts:
  • what exactly is just compensation?  We shouldn't be afraid to have this conversation. What could it look like? As some of the conversation on facebook threads noted, this is a bit of an unknown for many.  On one of the threads a writer, who is also a not-for-profit arts exec, asked the question and it still hasn't been answered.  This conversation has to be more than a demand.  It has to include a real discussion of how we raise funds for such a setup.  How does this function in private settings (a library, a community center) and commercial settings (bar, restaurant, gallery).  Grants?  Pass the hat?  Suggested entry fee?
  • Underserved areas I think it'd be helpful to see a map of the city and plot out the location of current reading series.  Are we too focused in NW?  What about the other quadrants of the city?  How could we help locate venues and seek out "pioneer hosts" for such readings.  What would it take to support these readings?
  • one example: the Palabra Pura reading series in Chicago grew out of a thoughtful conversation about what communities in Chicago were being underserved.  One of the answers was the Latino community and that bilingual poetry series was the result.  What are the communities that are underserved in DC?
  • training for hosts - I can think of a few people who would love to sponsor readings but don't know what is involved in it -- the basic mechanics involved in setting it up, publicizing it and so on.  The mystery can be overwhelming and debilitating to people wanting to host a series.  Perhaps we can find a space and time to teach folks who are interested in hosting reading series.
  • how do we coordinate information about readings that are happening in the city?  This is a conversation I've had with a few people who host readings.  We've talked about sharing a google calendar that could be posted in various places online.  This could be a very good thing.  We need to just move on it.

I can think of a number of other ideas but I hope this is a good beginning.  And while this setting may not be ideal, perhaps we could use this as a starting point for an actual non-virtual meeting about this.   Would really love to hear your ideas.

- Dan

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Poetry Mutual at AWP

Kim Roberts and Yael Flusberg signing books at the Poetry Mutual table.
We had a pretty amazing time at the AWP Conference last weekend.  In many ways it was Poetry Mutual's coming out/debutante ball.  I mean we just unveiled the new website the week before and folks are still finding out about us.

We shared a table with our good friends at Plan B Press and were happy to host book signings for Kim Roberts's Animal Magnetism, Yael Flusberg's The Last of My Village , Julie R. Enszer's Handmade Love and Robert Miltner's Canyons of Sleep.

We had a fun time playing "Trivia for Prizes" with passersby.  Trivia categories over the three days of the book fair included "Beat Poets", "WB Yeats," "Poets Laureate" and "Gertrude Stein"  and managed to give out zany prizes to a number of players.  Surprisingly not many got the Stein and Yeats trivia and our fake titles of Beat Poetry books and Yeats poem titles managed to full almost everyone.  Would certainly love hearing from any of the winners who played at AWP.