Potions, passions and a poetic pot-boiler

Mad science at work/Wikimedia Commons

By Laura Grimes

Dear Mr. Scatter,

We have one zany concoction brewing here.

I noticed you waxed on about prunes and mustard recently. So I’ll wax some more about prunes (figuratively) and mustard (literally). The Large Smelly Boys helped throw a few more beastly things into the pot.

First the prunes. The feral teen was less feral today. I think the large dose of sleep helped. His body clock and all his inner-workings have been out of whack since school started. We finally went over his …


The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by Nancy FarmerFelix/Martha and I have been studying up on all the books that are going to be used in his division this year for the Oregon Battle of the Books. (Last year’s competition was an unbelievable nail-biter, and I’m not just saying.) We’re excited about several titles, but especially The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer. Once we started reading her astonishing bio on her website we just couldn’t stop.

So, we have prunes, mustard, Nancy Farmer, those drat safety agreements, and a few more surprises swirling together. I hardly know where one ends and another begins.

Carry out good housekeeping practices and keep the laboratory work area neat and orderly.

I reorganized the spice cupboard. Did you know a lot of spices start with “C?” Cardamom, cayenne, celery seed, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry. We have a stupid number of spices. We have three jars of thyme. I’m not sure how that happened. I found lots of other weird stuff in the cupboard.

Like Hibiscus Flower Vinegar. Who has that in their cupboard?

It came in handy when I ran out of red wine vinegar while making Mustard Batch No. 2.

Acids must be handled with extreme care.

NANCY FARMER: Mary (her sister) also told me, when I was about five, that I had once had a twin brother called John Henry. Our parents couldn’t afford two babies, she said, so they tossed a coin. John Henry lost. Mary said that my grandmother had turned John Henry into a lampshade. She proved this by showing me a leather lampshade in grandmother’s living room.

Perform only those experiments and procedures authorized by the instructor.

Because you requested, for the first time in years, I’m trying a new mustard recipe. This one uses more of that bad wine we mistakenly attempted to drink and then realized we also had mistakenly bought more bottles. How many bad bottles did we open in one night? Three? And then we each confessed we had bought another bottle of two of the offenders? Good thing the confessions came after putting a serious dent in a fourth we’re-not-pussy-footing-around-anymore bottle of wine. At that point, in a pleasant mood-enhanced state, our misfortune was just plain funny.

Conduct yourself in a responsible manner at all times.

NANCY FARMER: I worked at my father’s hotel desk from age nine, renting rooms and listening to the stories the patrons told each other. One man, who only had one eye, told me he had lost the other eye in a fight with a grizzly bear. He had a picture of the stuffed grizzly in front of a trading post in Alaska. One of the hotel clerks painted a mural on the wall of an Aztec princess being sacrificed to the sun god. It was a great painting, but the princess was naked from the waist up and looked a lot like my sister. My mother made him paint a brassiere on the picture and my father fired him. Next to the mural was the skin of a six-foot-long rattlesnake. My father told people he had caught it in one of the rooms.

Emergency exits and aisles must be kept clear at all times.

Anthriscus cerefolium/Wikimedia CommonsThe new mustard recipe calls for a lot of spices. The largest amount is for something called chervil. Or Anthriscus cerefolium for short.

We have a lot of spices that start with “C.” We even have things called Cajun Gourmet Original Seasoning and Cream of Tartar. I don’t remember ever using Cream of Tartar. I remember loaning a jar to a neighbor a few decades ago and never getting it back, which always bugged me, so I’m certain this jar just hangs around in the cupboard to replace that one. It’s probably been here for 20 years and never been opened.

But we don’t have chervil. The only thing I know about chervil is that it sounds like gerbil. I don’t think the recipe would call for that.

Follow the instructor’s safety instructions for handling hazardous materials.

According to that all-knowing definitive resource, Wikipedia, chervil is sometimes used to repel slugs. It also says:

Chervil had various traditional uses. Pregnant women were bathed in an infusion of it; a lotion of it was used as a skin cleanser; and it was used medicinally as a blood purifier. It was also claimed to be useful as a digestive aid, for lowering high blood pressure, and, infused with vinegar, for curing hiccups.

Report potentially hazardous conditions and behaviors.

Armed with thoughts of slugs and pregnant women, I found Spices and Herbs: Lore & Cookery by Elizabeth S. Hayes on the bookshelf. It has this to say about chervil:

Only the leaves are used today but in ages past Pliny thought that hiccoughs could be stopped by drinking vinegar containing the seed of chervil. Parkinson, some of whose writings appear in Brothers of the Spade, said that “some recommend that green seeds sliced and put in a sallet of herbs and eaten with vinegar and oil, to comfort a cold stomach of the aged.”

Always work in a well-ventilated area when using volatile substances or hazardous vapors.

Armed with thoughts of hiccoughs and aged stomachs, I went to the store to find chervil, but the store didn’t have any. It didn’t even have an empty bin. The containers went from Organic Chamomile Flowers German to Chicken Flavor Broth Powder Organic.

The store even had Organic Kelp Powder and Organic Kelp Granules, but no chervil.

It even had Organic Hibiscus Flower Cut and Sifted.

I know, because I wrote it down. Even though I didn’t have a pen with me.

I had to use a pen that was on the island in the middle of the aisle. The island held gallons of Liquid Aminos and Pure Vanilla Extract. But the pen was attached to the island and the ballpoint barely poked out, which meant I had to run back and forth from the bulk herbs to the island and write with the pen sticking straight up.

Because we don’t have any chervil and the store doesn’t stock it, I might have to substitute something else. I’m thinking about adding some of that thyme that we have in surplus.

Make sure that you have the correct substance in the correct concentration.

Spices and Herbs: Lore & Cookery also says this about chervil:

This is a distinguished name, and one that will always draw the respect of the discriminating people who use chervil so wisely and delectably. … It is not widely grown in the United States as yet, but it is the type of herb that could “catch on” quickly, once more is generally known about it.

I checked the book’s copyright date to see how long ago it had been printed so I could gauge how soon I might expect chervil to “catch on” in the United States and when I could expect to find it in the store. 1961. I might have a long wait. I might have to dip into the Liquid Aminos.

Do not eat food, drink beverages, or chew gum in the laboratory area.

So it looks like it’s up to me to spread the word about chervil so that it can “catch on” in the United States so that the store will carry it so that I can make this mustard recipe. This is an overwhelming burden, and it looks like no one has carried it for 50 years. I need your help. Let’s hear it:


Cheer break over. In addition to mustard seeds and herbs that we don’t have and that the store doesn’t carry either, the recipe calls for wine, vinegar and water. After the mustard seeds plump up, all the ingredients are whirred together in a food processor. It says to add additional vinegar and water as necessary.

NEVER add water to acid.

NANCY FARMER: It occurs to me now that maybe it wasn’t a good idea for my parents to leave a small girl in charge of a hotel with a bar on one side and a liquor store on the other.

… At night I explored the roofs along Main Street. I could jump from the hotel to the top of the liquor store and go on to the movie theater. There I opened a trap door and slipped down to watch free movies. I also spied on the bowling alley and the American Legion Hall. At ground level I scampered from the Catholic church at one end of Main Street to the Brown Hotel at the other.  The Brown Hotel was a brothel. I had not the slightest idea what a brothel was, of course. A large woman in a pink slip lounged on a sofa outside. I didn’t think this was strange at all.

Never work alone in the laboratory without adult supervision.

As part of my laboratory cleaning before making mustard, I scrubbed the little black skillet (even though it’s in the marriage contract that it’s not my job). I put it on the lit stove to dry and after it was smoking hot and smelling up the house, I remembered to turn off the stove and this time managed not to set off all the smoke detectors in the house.

Know the locations of fire extinguisher, fire blanket, eyewash, safety shower, and first aid kit.

I found another giant moth. Fortunately, it wasn’t in the laboratory this time. I’m beginning to think they are placeholders for when you’re not home. Perhaps they channel you. If that’s the case, I guess it’s a shame that one went up in smoke and I dumped the other outside. If they sent a message, I didn’t get it.

This giant moth was on top of The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, which was sticking out just a sliver right in the middle of a tall stack of books near your side of the bed. I fetched a plastic tub and then tried to gingerly pull the book out from the stack without disturbing the moth or dumping over the books. The more I pulled, the more the books swayed precariously. Felix/Martha had to Twister-move around me, the bookshelf and the bedside table so he could hang onto the stacks above and below the book, while I pulled with one hand and held the plastic tub poised over the moth with the other.

Always protect the balance pans when weighing chemicals.

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, illustrations by Ernest H. ShepardFinally I pulled out the book enough to plop the tub on top. Felix/Martha stifled a squeal. “You’re not going to use that, are you?” It distressed him that one of his favorite books trapped a moth — a moth that used a nuclear reactor for a cocoon.

I carefully carried the book/tub/moth out the front door and popped off the tub. The moth just sat there unmoving and then slid off the book cover, over the railing and into the dirt.

Then I looked at the cover. The illustration of a dragon and a boy includes this quote:

“Now don’t you hit me, or bung stones, or squirt water,” said the Dragon.

Human body fluids pose potential dangers and can only be used under strict teacher supervision.

NANCY FARMER: The hotel had a library composed of the stuff people left in the rooms. First, the magazines: Argosy, True, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The American Legion Magazine, The Police Gazette and many detective and cowboy magazines whose names I don’t remember. This was the heyday of the short story.

… What is notable about these magazines is that although their covers were sleazy, the contents were often excellent. Ernest Hemingway, C.S. Forrester, Roald Dahl, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck were published in them.

… The hotel also had a good collection of paperback novels. Ah, the covers of those 1950’s novels! They lured me into more than one piece of literature. The cover of The Sun Also Rises had a Spanish girl in a low-cut blouse with her skirts pulled up around her thighs. Nowhere in that book will you find this scene, but the artist’s job was to grab your attention. Catcher in the Rye had a teenage boy and girl swimming naked. Tobacco Road had a pair of hillbillies ogling a scantily-clad girl in a pig-sty. I worked my way through Tennessee Williams, Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway on the promise of those covers.

Wear proper eye protection at all times during laboratory activity as directed by the instructor.

A few other notable facts about Nancy Farmer (among many).

  • She regularly played hooky from school … for years.
  • She graduated from Reed College in 1963.
  • She lived in a commune in Berkeley in the 1960s.
  • She spent many years studying tsetse flies in Zimbabwe.

Transport chemicals, materials and equipment properly as directed by the instructor.

It should be safe to come home soon. The mustard seeds are plumping up (minus the chervil). The moth is gone. And I’m working on a humane trap for the feral teen so if he acts up again I can drop him off outside the county limits. Like in Greenland.

Dispose of all waste materials in an appropriate manner as designated by the instructor.

I have a concoction of a different sort waiting for you. I have a good bottle chillin’ in the fridge. Wanna find out what kind of chemistry we can cook up?


Mrs. Scatter