Friday, July 8, 2011

Oxford’s Inklings and Ham in Hay

For those of you who are captivated by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings

The Hobbit 1937 Edition

The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe  first edition  1950 ($17,500.)

–– who love The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Place of the Lion by Charles Williams, published 1931

–– for those lucky few who have fallen under the spell of the rare and precious  The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

or  rarer still,  Owen Barfield’s The Silver Trumpet –– well, you may not know it but they are all related and rooted in the city and University of Oxford. 


All 4 men were great friends at Oxford for most of their adult lives and joined together to become The Inklings, a club like no other. 

As I walk the streets of Oxford, whispers of their lives and writing are all around me.  I’ve loved their books most of my life and thought I’d tell you a little bit about them.  They really were a remarkable group of men.  Their imaginations have inspired generations and none of it might have happened if all the stars hadn’t aligned and put them in Oxford at just the right moment, influenced by 2 world wars.

University College, Oxford Fox Talbot, 1843 

JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Arthur Greeves, George Stewart Gordon and Nevill Coghill began their fellowship and shared love of ‘Northerness’ when they created the Kolbitars club to share their enjoyment of ancient Norse myths in the 1920’s (in Icelandic society, Kolbitars are young men who sit so close to the fire they are nearly biting the coal ––they are uncertain, dreamy outsiders, trying to find their soul’s calling). When Lewis was first up at University College, Edward Tangye-Lean (who was tutored by Lewis) began a literary group (that included Tolkien) that was created to read one another’s works and offer support and criticism with a less restricted subject matter than that of Kolbitars. That group ended but the idea was continued and Lewis appropriated the name “Inklings” and the Kolbitars members were folded into the new club.

They began to meet at Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford. In Lewis’s brother’s book, Brothers and Friends “Warnie” Lewis remembered that Tolkien thought the name was amusing because it referred to “people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink”. The name was first used in a 1936 letter from Lewis to Charles Williams inviting him to come to  “an informal club called the Inklings.”

The group spent a good deal of time at the Eagle and Child (save when the establishment ran out of beer during the war or closed for renovations).  They also met at The Lamb and Flag, The King’s Arms, The White Horse as well as the Eastgate Hotel, the Mitre and the Trout.

After the war they often met at Tolkien’s rooms at Merton College.

The club lasted from 1937-49 and grew to include Lord David Cecil, Henry Dyson, Tolkien’s son Christopher and many others.  During this time the men met, drank, ate and walked miles (to the Trout at Godstow or along Addison’s walk at Magdalen College), all the while discussing one another’s work, Christianity and myths.  These brilliant men fed off one another, bouncing ideas and refining their beliefs.
Owen Barfield 1898-1997

Owen Barfield made a name for himself as a great philosopher and teacher (although he went into law in London for many years to better support his family). Lewis thought of him as a mentor (Barfield said that Lewis “taught me how to think and I taught him what to think…” eventually convincing him to believe in “the power and truth of imagination.”
He went on to write brilliant books like History in English Words, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning and Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (and, full disclosure, Dr. Lostpast studied with him and thought he was a genius). Barfield’s fantasy contribution, The Silver Trumpet from 1925 brought out the importance of feeling in life as exemplified in a silver trumpet that awakens life when it is present and the tale sparkles with the courage of the characters as they perform their quest. Although critics at the time worried it was too much for children, Tolkien’s own children loved the story that proposed that reason laced with feeling could lead to truth… a powerful and profound notion. Lewis told Barfield the Tolkien children appreciated the strong feelings that the book inspired.  Barfield decided to write a fairytale first because he felt it was the best form to deliver his ideas… making this the first of the fantasies that predated the formation of the Inklings but influenced them nonetheless.  Inklings and their works inspired one another.

Charles Williams 1886-1945

Charles Williams had written The Place of the Lion about lions as platonic archetypes creating mayhem in an English village (with giant eagles, unicorns, snakes and butterflies) in 1931 in his very singular style of supernatural thriller that explored the physical and spiritual world of the present with special emphasis on the negative influence of power in both worlds. 

Tolkien 1892-1973

Tolkien’s Hobbit (published in 1937) evolved into the Lord of the Rings (written between 1937 and 1949).  They became the 2nd and 3rd best-selling novels ever written in the whole world with 250 million copies sold (Tale of 2 Cities is #1, The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe is 6th)!  For it, Tolkien developed a whole mythology (inspired by his love of Nordic myth) and even created working languages and alphabets (he was a master philologist) for his beautifully crafted fantasy.  It used the quest myth as its basis… an archetypal human myth that resonates with us all.  The brave little every-man Bilbo Baggins was a character the British public could identify with as the war was revving up.  The Hobbit showed them heroism came in unlikely packages and the story was influenced by Tolkien’s patriotic love of Anglo-Saxon literature… especially Beowulf. I was frankly surprised that the worldwide bestseller list is top heavy with works that celebrate heroic ordinary men that triumph in extraordinary times against all odds.
Tolkien even toyed with elements from The Hobbit using the Inklings as characters in The Notion Club Papers written in 1945.   The Notion club/Inkling members were pushed forward in time, had their names changed and moved through time and space all the while discussing the power of words and legends.  

C.S. Lewis  1898-1963

Lewis wrote of that time in Surprised by Joy, “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe was inspired by real, war-orphaned children escaping London’s Blitz to stay with Lewis at his house, The Kilns.  He was impressed by their courage and combined that story with a vision of a fawn with an umbrella carrying packages in the snow that he had been carrying around in his mind since he was 16.  In It All Began with a Picture Lewis said he decided at 40,  “Let’s try to make a story about it.”  Dreams of lions followed (inspired by Williams, perhaps?), Aslan was born and the book was finished in 1949 (and dedicated to Barfield’s daughter, and Lewis’s god-daughter, Lucy).

CS Lewis found religion thanks to his friends after the horrors of the WW1 drove him to atheism.  I read in Poe’s The Inklings at Oxford that during the dark horrible days of WW2 Lewis used his brilliance and noble spirit like a great nurturer, ladling soul-sustaining broth to the beleaguered nation frightened by the advancing madman in radio broadcasts beginning with “Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” followed by “What Christians Believe,  “Christian Behavior” and finishing with “Beyond Personality: The Christian View of God”.  He wrote science fiction that had deep moral allegories that reflected the war-ravaged times, questioning what exists in the nature of man that made him capable of performing atrocities in Out of the Silent Planet.  He wrote to Arthur C Clarke questioning our use of technology “ I agree Technology is per se neutral: but a race devoted to the increase of its power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe.  Certainly if he goes on his present course much further man can not be trusted with knowledge.”  He even wrote the delightful Screwtape Letters toward the end of WW2 that contained letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to a junior demon named Wormwood about how to damn a British man known as the Patient.  Its charming defense of the goodness of the common man was timely for war-torn England.  These were a people, exhausted by the reality of war that needed great uplifting fantasy. It was very popular and made a name for Lewis.

The time of the Inklings was also a time of physical privation in England.  These were hard times for the stomach as well as the spirit.  The country imported 70% of their food for their 50 million people.  Food rationing began in 1940 (although gas, paper ––even soap and clothing were rationed) and rationing didn’t fully end until 1954!

Meals, even at Oxford, were not richly provisioned because of the severe shortages (citrus fruit was almost non-existent) so it was good to have an American friend like Dr. Warfield Firor, a neurosurgeon from Baltimore.  He sent generous care packages of luxuries from the states to his friend CS Lewis.  His hams were the stuff of legend in those hard, rationed times.

In a letter written in September 1948, Lewis thanks Firor for his kindnesses:  “Nothing arouses so much excitement amongst my friends as the welcome news that  ‘a Firor ham’ has arrived; and we have eaten many an noble supper at your expense, not forgetting to drink your health in whatever liquour was available.”

That letter did it –– I decided ham would be my Inkling’s dish.

I looked at Constance Spry Cookery Book and a recipe caught my eye for a ham with hay –– very English.

Now hay has been much in the news lately, everyone from Noma to Alinea to meat masters like Fergus Henderson are using it for the flavor it imparts.  This hay cooking has been going on for a very long time.  In French it’s called “dans le foin” or “ au foin”.   Hannah Woolly writes of it in her Queen-like Closet in the 17th century. There she boils ham in hay with cloves and then puts it in a “gammon pie” with sausage, wine, oysters, bay and whole spice and serves it with sweet mustard. I may be out of my mind, but find that it adds a nearly kelp-like flavor... like a dashi when I used premium sweet grass from my friend Dan Gibson at Grazin Angus Acres.  He uses it in his finishing fields for his delicious beef cattle.

Elizabeth David mentions pork in an old Lincolnshire style with violet and marigold leaves.

I figured I’d put a few together for my Inkling Ham… one that would be perfect for a summer meal or on a cold winter night.

Baked Ham Lissanoure from Constance Spry (Lissanoure is an Irish Castle)

Ham (this would be for 2 1/2 lbs…. change as you will)
1 onion
2 carrots
3 stalks of celery 
(4 cups?) of hay  (it is grass, so you could cut some from your lawn and dry it out as long as there is no chemicals in the grass... just make sure you know where your hay comes from!  Ask a favorite purveyor at your local farmer's market)

a handful of marigold leaves, violet leaves, hyssop, costmary leaves (use a combination of whatever you have… substituting mint, parsley and marjoram for what you don’t have)
1 -2 T smoked salt if ham is not salty

25 cloves
¼ c brown sugar
2T apricot jam (optional)
1 bottle cider or stout
2 strips bacon, optional (if the ham has a cut face, put the bacon over the cut surface to keep it from drying out).

Line the bottom of a pot with the hay.  Sprinkle the hay with the herbs and vegetables.  Add water to cover.  Simmer gently for 25 minutes. Add the ham and bring up to a simmer (about 10 minutes) then turn off and allow to cool down.  Let rest in the water for an hour (the original called for simmering the ham 25 minutes to the pound, this was too much... I felt it dried the ham out... if you were using a salty, large country ham, this would work).

Heat oven to 300º. Drain, toss out the hay, vegetables and herbs.   Check the ham for salt, sprinkle with salt if needed Stick the ham with cloves and cover thickly with sugar, pour the cider around the ham and bake 40 minutes, basting with care.  If your ham does not have any fat, you might want to add a little bacon to keep the ham moist.  Remove the ham and tent.  Reduce the liquid by 1/2 and moisten the ham with it as you serve it.

Next week, while I'm off tromping around England,  the wonderful Laura Kelly from Silk Road Gourmet will be at the helm doing a guest post.  It is sure to be exotic and brilliant so you are in for a treat if you've never seen her blog.  I'm sure you will become a fan once you do!

Also, stop over to 12 Bottle Bar and see what they have to say about Oxford Drinks, having found a stellar drink book from the University that was packed with goodies!   You will love the Brown Betty!


pam said...

I learn so much here!

La Table De Nana said...

Enjoy your trip also..I agree I always learn a lot here..Thanks for all your research and work..

Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

I love Lewis and love when i learn something new about him. Great idea to make a ham based on the rations an American sent. :)

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Quite fond of CS Lewis. My mom read us all the Narnia stories growing up, and then I read the Space Trilogy on my own. How nice to learn about the friendship of these gentlemen. Due for a reread, and high time I checked out the Screwtape Letters.

Sarah said...

How do you know all these things! You are amazing. I have never heard of using hay but it is something I would love to try. Lots of hay where I live.

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I did not know about these author's years together at Oxford - very interesting piece, Deana! What an interesting ham recipe, too. It would be worth growing some grass from seed like I did at Easter just for this recipe.

Unknown said...

I've seen meat cooked in hay on TV before, but have never known anyone adventurous enough to try it at home. That's just one of the many reasons why I adore you!
Have a fabulous time in England daaaaaaahling, can't wait to hear of your adventures.
*kisses* HH

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Dear dear friend,

Although I am loving my summer here at Rabbit Hill (my home), I envy your stay in a 500 year old room, crooked features and all! To walk in the same footpaths with the shadows of such greats as got to be a charge like no other!!! O.K., now I have to go put on LORD OF THE RINGS for I am on a French Novel right now and need to devour that first. Dearest, THANK YOU for coming to take a tour of my little home here in Minneapolis, but now get back to your lodging in what seems to be the mecca for the great literature of our culture...and the food..I know you are in CULINARY HEAVEN my dear....big hugs across the Atlantic, Anita

Diane said...

You know more about Oxford than I do despite the fact I live there!!! Well for 6 months of the year anyway! Very interesting post.
Think I will leave the hay out, I am sure that all of it around here gets sprayed at some time or other, and due the lack of rain our grass is non existent. Looking forward to your other posts around the UK. Diane

Lazaro Cooks said...

I am a big fan of Tolkien. The looks cooked to perfection. Ham, cloves, apricot and stout. Fantastic.

Faith said...

I love both Tolkien's and Lewis' work and it was so much fun reading more about them! Another lovely post, Deana. Hope you have a wonderful time on vacation!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Well blow me over with a feather I had no idea that they all shared meals and a fellowship! Beautiful looking ham Deana and most appropriate!

Barbara said...

Amazing. We all know so much about each of them, but never made a connection. That's fascinating, Deana!
Have a great trip!

Marjie said...

I do hope you're having a wonderful tromp about England. Can you imagine how my loudmouthed menfolk would react if they found HAY in their dinner pot? To say it would be loud and funny is an understatement.

El said...

This is fascinating. I did not know you could cook with hay. Your photos are wonderful and the post is incredibly informative.

Linda said...

Some of my favorite books!
Deana have a great trip...can not wait to hear about your travels!

Tasty Trix said...

I have the Hobbit with that cover ... saw it by the check out line in a grocery store when I was 10 and that, as they say, was that - I devoured it and everything like it for years after. Such great memories of a time when I would TRULY get absolutely lost in my books. A wonderful dish with a wonderful inspiration. Have an amazing time!!!!

Jonny said...

how fun that we were rambling around the same region simultaneously! And how perfectly coincidental that many of the place names Tolkein crafted into his middle earth come straight from the Cotswolds, just to the west of Oxford - Bagendon, for instance, is just to the north west of Cirencester - the Bathurst Arms at nearby North Cirney might well have been the archetype for the Prancing Pony, coaching inn, or at least it is in my mind.

I've always been a huge tolkein fan and for my part was rather upset when the films, however well-made, were filmed in New Zealand rather than the true shire.
Some have argued that Tolkein's sauron, with his all-seeing eye and his minions who systematically pillage and destroy everything natural with fire, is at its heart not just an allegory of the ravages of war but of the advance of technology over pastoralism. Happily, technology seems to be almost entirely absent from the Cotswolds even today - we had no cellphone coverage or any access to wifi for an entire 10 days. God, it was awesome!