Monday, February 21, 2011

Washington's birthday, 1778 -- The Winter of Red Snow

On February 22, 1778 a farmer in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania noted in his journal that it had been windy and dark all day. It was during the Revolutionary War and the Continental Army was encamped in this frozen valley. The farmer probably didn't know or care that this stormy Sunday also happened to be General George Washington's 46th birthday.

The Winter Of Red Snow (Dear America)But Martha Washington cared.

When researching The Winter of Red Snow  for Scholastic's Dear America series, I was delighted to read that she had planned a surprise for her husband. Knowing that he loved music and loved to dance, she arranged for the army's artillery band to serenade him at Headquarters, a lovely stone mansion by the Schuylkill River. After supper that evening of the 22nd, the sound of fifes and drums drew the general away from his warm hearth.

Apparently Mrs. Washington stepped outside to thank the musicians. She took fifteen shillings from a tiny silk purse tied to her waist, paid the bandleader then invited them all inside. Young Abigail writes in her diary: Through the window I saw the General with his hands on his hips and his pigtail bouncing -- he was doing a jig!

This festive evening may have been the first public celebration of his birthday. As an author, it was great fun to image this party with dancing and a scrumptious dessert. In the back of the book, there's a recipe for "Martha Washington's Great Cake" thanks to The Women's Committee of the Valley Forge Historical Society. It must've been a doozie with its 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, etc., and "fresh brandy."

Happy President's Day, everyone!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

brownies for breakfast & other research: Bronte's Book Club

Bronte's Book ClubToday I'm meeting one of my research partners for lunch. She's the friend who suggested I include a brownie recipe in Bronte's Book Club. Pourquoi? It would encourage kids to read!

Hm. The logic sounded wobbly until she explained: As a girl she fell in love with books after finding a fudge recipe in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming. Inspired by the novel and energized by the fudge, she became a voracious reader. Made perfect sense.

So I agreed. My friend offered to help "research" the situation. We wanted something simple, that kids could whip up without ruining the kitchen. Something they might like to serve to friends if they were hosting their own book club. I forget how many boxes of brownies we tried. We experimented with marshmallows, nuts, applesauce, chocolate and butterscotch chips. Some batches were gross, others launched us into a sugar orbit. We begged neighbor kids and family to be taste-testers. Thankfully no one keeled over, in fact, after a few days they finally gave two-thumbs up.

In the story Bronte bakes brownies for her friends. At first no one shows up at her book club, so she freezes the treats for the next time. Eventually however, she eats them straight out of the freezer and needs to bake more. Personal research was helpful here.

Anyway, the recipe is printed in the back of the novel along with hints for getting friends together. Suggestion #9 is my favorite: In the author's experience, dogs are a welcome addition to book clubs. They're good listeners, they clean up spilled snacks, and they don't use cell phones.