Shenny: How the Sausage Was Made
My Fellow Shennyer:
Hectic days. N & I leave this week for holiday travels, and as always it feels like there’s not enough time to plan, to pack, to get fruitcakes baked and shipped to family, gifts ordered, movies watched (we’re like 17 Hallmark movies behind), etc., etc. This time of year delivers me everything I love: family, friends, delicious food and drink (see this week’s Endorsements), over-the-top decor, the giving of gifts, time off from teaching.
It can be hard during the holidays to find time for yourself. (A toast to anyone reading this issue on the toilet.) I’ll try to make this Shenny brief. Below you’ll find some recipes to take to any holiday parties you’ve got coming up, or just make at home and scarf down yourself. And our Main Matter this week is a How It’s Made–style story of how a new essay I wrote for this Advent season came together.
My love and best wishes to every one of you reading this newsletter.
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Endorsements: Party Recipe Edition
1. Chex Mix (The Lost 1980’s Recipe) for the Holidays
Sometime in the Nineties, perhaps when Ralston Purina sold the brand to General Mills, Chex Mix lost its way. The recipe added additional spices, reduced the butter (!), messed up the proportions of everything. I’ve made what they try to call ‘The Original Recipe’ and it takes fakey and sharp. The recipe I use is from an ad my mom cut out from a magazine in the 1980’s:
…and it turns out this was maybe the fifth incarnation of the recipe (which once had soy sauce!). But it is the best recipe, the best balance of salt and fat on the tongue—with, that is, a few modifications:
1980's Chex Mix Recipe Preheat oven to 250° 8 total cups of Chex 1 cup salted mixed *peanutless* nuts 1 cup halved thin pretzel sticks 1 stick salted butter 4 1/2 tsp Worcestershire 1 1/4 tsp seasoned salt Melt butter in a big roasting pan while preheating. Mix Worcestershire and seasoned salt well in small bowl. When butter is melted, dump seasonings in roasting pan, scraping with silicone spatula to get every drop, and with same spatula mix it all very well. You should have a thin pool of even brown liquid in the pan. Dump in Chex, then nuts and pretzels. Stir generously and thoroughly until everything's evenly coated (3-4 minutes). Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Let cool in roasting pan.
I usually do half Corn, half Rice, but bring Wheat into the mix if you like. Peanuts will overpower the flavor so don’t go cheap on the mixed nuts. And you want to snap the pretzel sticks in half to keep the sizes of things consistent, for easy varied handfuls. Vegans can swap in vegan butter without much change in flavor. You’ll want two batches.
2. Alton Brown’s Aged Egg Nog
‘Aged egg nog?’ is how people say it when I offer it at a party. I get it: we don’t like the idea of old dairy. Rest assured: Alton put enough booze in this recipe to pickle that bacteria in perpetuity. The beauty of this recipe is that it’s easy, and if you give it at least 2 weeks chilling in the fridge (I like 6), everything blends and mellows out together so that you can’t really taste the alcohol. Oh, but it’s there. If you’re in a rush with no time to age, you can drink this immediately—the booze’ll hit you like a punch.
Alton Brown's Aged Egg Nog 12 egg yolks 1 lb sugar 1 tsp fresh nutmeg Beat those together with mixer until light in color and it falls off the beater in a smooth ribbon. 1 pint each of heavy cream, half-and-half, and whole milk 1 cup each of bourbon, cognac, and Jamaican rum 1/4 tsp salt (confusingly) Mix those all together in another bowl, and gradually stir into egg mixture. Pour into a gallon jug (it'll make somewhat less than a gallon) or other large jar and store in the fridge. Give it a shake every 3 or 4 days. When it's a beautiful cafe au lait color, it's time.
You might think you can save on the dairy because half-and-half is just half cream and half milk. I thought that too one year, but I was wrong. Half-and-half is a misnomer, lying fatwise somewhere toward the cream end of things. Skipping it is like playing a fifth on the piano and hoping it sounds like a triad.
How the Sausage Was Made
On Monday, the good folks at Essay Daily published a new essay of mine, ‘On Ending and Unending’. I didn’t know I was going to write this essay until two weeks ago. Here’s the story of how it came about, and how it all came together.
One of E. Daily’s editors is the writer Ander Monson, whom I’ve known professionally for a number of years. Ander is a stellar writer of (among other things) essays, a few of which I’ve taught in classes before. He’s an inspiring editor of multiple publications, including DIAGRAM, one of the first and longest running online magazines, which published my ‘A Rap I Wrote’ many years ago. I’ve also contributed (in 2018 and 2019) to his March Xness annual bracket of essays about songs. (I don’t know where he gets his energy, but I’ll always admire him for how much he does for writers.)
Essay Daily is a blog of essays about the essay, or about essayists, which I’ve been very glad exists and wanted to contribute to for a while. When Ander reached out at the end of November about contributing to its advent calendar, I wanted to say yes, but I didn’t have any ideas of what I could write about.
I said yes. I trusted an idea would manifest itself, like a star in the western sky.
I’d read a couple advent essays in past years, but started clicking around past years’ posts to get a sense of length, approach, ideas that had already been covered, etc. I found, in the 2020 advent, an essay by my friend and former colleague Michael Martone on the children’s picture book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. What struck me was this passage:
When it comes to memoir I always return to my misremembered reading of St. Thomas Aquinas. Somewhere in there he was trying to answer the big question of death. Why do we die? His answer, I think, or the one I made up and attribute to him, is that without death life has no meaning. Without death, life is just a bunch of stuff that happened. Life is melodrama. Death defines, shapes incident into a shaped charge of meaning. But if death (a real death) defines, it also renders the writer mute, of course. So the memoirist’s first move is to simulate that death, to draw a curtain down, to hit a bottom, to stop digging and now examine the spoil, the filings and tailings, the chaff and debris, finding the ore and reward. One needs to create an artificial parenthesis, a cyst of sorts to sort it out.
This notion of ‘without death, life is just a bunch of stuff that happened’ connected in my mind to an idea I’d read months back by the writer Kevin Brazil (endorsed in a previous Shenny), about the question of whether happiness (specifically queer happiness) can be the stuff of great literature:
Maybe it isn’t possible to write about happiness at all. ‘Le bonheur écrit à l’encre blanche sur des pages blanches,’ wrote Henri de Montherlandt. ‘Happiness writes in white ink on a white page’. Happiness leaves no trace on a state of blankness, and it is happiness because it leaves no trace. In moments of happiness, we are not recording, we are not transcribing. We have not split our self between past and future, the split that takes place with every act of writing.
That’s it. That’s the idea I had: make something of this.
I’m not a Catholic, but I’m Catholicky. I teach at a Catholic university, and I took part in a yearlong exercise of spiritual study of Jesuit principles. But I’m a homosexual, so I’m not Catholic. But my spiritual director was a gay priest, so I’m Catholicky.
Where to go from what I had? I needed raw materials, stuff-y thing-y stuff to grab and put together, like blocks in kindergarten. I had death, endings, happiness. What else? Being Catholicky, I wasn’t 100% on what Advent was about, so I Wikipedia’d it, and got comings, arrivals, messiahs. Advent is the season of waiting for something big to happen, something good to come.
The first idea this gave me was the story I tell in the essay about my mother waiting for boyfriends to pick her up. She’s told it to us a number of times, and I knew after opening with some thinking and arguing and essaying that I should tell a story or two. People like stories (whether or not they should). I wanted, for them, to mix up my modes.
Also, Mom’s story gave me a link to my own, which gave me a link to write, again, about sex and shame. My beat. So now I had death, (un)happiness, waiting, sex. Essay Daily is a place for writing about the essay, and while technically I’d covered two other essays, I had nothing else to say about them. I needed an essay that depicted waiting, or anxiety about what’s coming up. Bonus points if it, too, was about queer sex.
I found it in Samuel R. Delany’s ‘Ash Wednesday’.
Immediately, some problems:
‘Ash Wednesday’ is ‘about’ (or at least set during) a Catholic holy day very different from Advent, making it kind of a mixed metaphor.
I’d written/spoken about ‘Ash Wednesday’ twice already. Once in my panel presentation at the 2017 NonfictioNow conference, and again on an episode of I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead, a podcast about essays.
As a guy who writes and teaches essays, did I really have no other essays to talk about? I didn’t. At least, not this time. Because not only is ‘Ash Wednesday’ in part about being nervous about the future, it ends this way:
I think of myself as somebody who is interested in the differences, the differences between straight society and gay, the differences between male and female, but all of those presuppose a set of similarities on which those differences have to be marked out. Beginnings and endings are the hardest parts for thinkers who utilize such structures. Perhaps that means the best way to end this essay is to say, as of yet, it is not finished.
‘Ash Wednesday’ is about queer happiness, or at least queer contentment, queers finding stability in an unstable world, and this is its ending, and so it helped me illustrate some of the questions Martone and Brazil were asking. I didn’t want to return to it again, but when I saw where it could take me, I was happy to.
And now I’ll never write about it again. (Never say never.)
The hardest part of every essay is ending it. In this essay about endings, and about not ending, I wanted to leave the essay without ending it. An Irish Goodbye of an ending. If there’s one thing I’m proudest of in this piece, it’s how I got out of it.
The anecdote I tell, from when I was 26, was originally in the past tense. (Naturally, it happened years ago.) But using the past tense to tell a story of waiting for a man to appear fixed the scene at a distance, and if I chose not to reveal whether he did or did not appear, which is what I wanted to do, that choice would spotlight my manipulation of the reader/past.
Sometimes I forget you can change tenses whenever you want, and that there’s always effects that open up when you do so. So I did so. What I liked the most about writing this piece for Essay Daily, is what I like about writing Shenny: open play and experimentation.
Writing online is charged by its ephemerality, and writing in print is charged by the canon. What a drag to have to live forever, people poring for years over your choices and the meanings they make possible. Of course, that’s all I’ve ever wanted, but writing to be eventually forgotten is so much more fun.
This week’s natatorium is the pool at Santa’s Hotel Holiday Club in Lapland.
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