Ryden for a Fall

Author: Kirsten K., Modern Art, Pop Culture, The Arts

I was first introduced to the artwork of Mark Ryden 20 years ago this month when My Crazy Friend Marianne™ attended The Meat Show at the Mendenhall Gallery and brought me back a copy of the companion book. I was completely captivated by his Pop Surrealist paintings of doe-eyed children and animals amid a bizarre jumble of vintage toys, flea market finds, and slabs of raw meat with macabre images hidden among the marbling.

Wanting to share this fortuitous find with Kirsti, I took the book with me to a Halloween party at her house and left it behind for her to peruse. The next day, I learned that one of the guests had laid the book on top of a lit candle, and the flame had burned a mark into the back cover and through several pages.

Kirsti offered to replace it, of course, but I declined, since the mark hadn’t appeared on any of the pictures. However, she more than made up for it years later by jumping through hoops to get me a signed copy of Ryden’s Anima Mundi.

Having become a fan herself, Kirsti attended the Blood exhibit at the Earl McGrath Gallery in 2003, where she saw the haunting image of “Rose,” with her large, woeful eyes and crimson tears. When the painting became available as a limited edition pendant, Kirsti got it for me as a gift, and while I occasionally wear the pendant during the year, I always pull it out each October to celebrate the season. Now it’s become as much a harbinger of Halloween as PSLs and pumpkin carving patterns.

Last year, Kirsti and I attended the Mark Ryden-designed Whipped Cream ballet with our friend Bryan, who later surprised and delighted each of us with a Lover’s Eye brooch. Featuring a likeness of the large, wandering eye that had been projected on one of the stage curtains, its graphic gaze has joined Rose’s blood-streaked face as one of my eerie embellishments during the month of October.

If you are new to the art of Mark Ryden, you’re in for a treat (no trick!). Each time I flip through one of my books or view his work online, I encounter something fresh and am amazed anew by his attention to detail and boundless imagination. Some themes may be disquieting, but they are always served up with a soothing palette and a healthy dose of whimsy. Every autumn I fall for them all over again.


Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:

Mark Ryden

 

The “Rose” pendant is no longer available for sale, but can be found on eBay and various online marketplaces. The Lover’s Eye brooch can be purchased from Porterhouse Fine Art Editions, along with special edition Mark Ryden books and merchandise.

 

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Royal Tea

Author: Kirsti Kay, Food & Drink, History, Hot Drinks, Nostalgia, Pop Culture, Tea

I remember when Princess Diana married Prince Charles. I got up in the middle of the night to watch the wedding on TV. It was the most spectacular wedding I had ever seen. That giant dress, the huge church filled with people, Diana’s perfectly feathered hair…I swooned and wondered what it would be like to be a princess.

Years later, I watched the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, also so lovely, with William in his red splendor, Kate in her modest, yet elegant, dress, and Pippa minding the train. The wedding was like a tasty British fairytale.

In 2011, master tea blenders Harney & Sons were commissioned to create a bespoke tea for the wedding of William and Kate. Now, with the impending nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19th, the tea is back!

Royal Wedding Tea is a white tea blended with pink rosebuds, cornflowers, marigold petals, and coconut and vanilla flavors. It is as beautiful as it is delicious. Flecks of pink rose petals are offset by the blue of the cornflowers and specks of marigold. The mild taste of the white tea is enhanced by the floral notes, and the addition of the vanilla and coconut give it a unique flavor that is fit for a princess, a duchess (Meghan Markle will be given the title Duchess of Sussex after the wedding), or even a girl from the Valley (me!).*

Come May 19th, I look forward to getting up in the middle of the night wearing my most regal pajamas, brewing a pot of Royal Wedding Tea, and shoving my face with scones, jam, and clotted cream. I might never be a princess or a duchess, but now I can drink tea like one, and that’s good enough for me.


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Harney & Sons Royal Wedding Tea

 

The tin of sachets featured in this post is currently out of stock on the Harney & Sons website, but the loose tea is still available for purchase, so grab your share and a spare, or you may have to abdicate your chance to try this tea until the next royal wedding.

 

*I just found out that the future Duchess of Sussex is also a Valley girl, having grown up in Kirsten’s and my hometown of Woodland Hills. Like, OMG!

 

Three Is a Magic Number

Author: Kirsten K., Author: Kirsti Kay, Nostalgia, Pop Culture

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♪ ♫ Three is a magic number.
Yes it is, it’s a magic number.
On this day it’s our third anniversary.
We turn three—it’s a magic number.

The posts and the comments and the pictures
That form The Swoon Society,
The art and the puns and the stories
Give you three as a magic number. ♩ ♬


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Happy Swooniversary from

 

 

Three Is a Magic Number from the Schoolhouse Rock! series was written and sung by Bob Dorough.

 

Killer Shrimp – A Love Story

Author: Kirsti Kay, Dinner, Entertaining, Food, Food & Drink, Nostalgia, Pop Culture, Recipes, Savories

Original Killer Shrimp menu.

Shrimp and bread, shrimp and rice, shrimp and pasta. Along with sweet potato pecan pie, those were the only items on the menu at Killer Shrimp, a restaurant that opened over 20 years ago in Marina del Rey, CA. The shrimp was thrown, to order, into a spicy sauce that the restaurant says is simmered for 10 hours, and comes with fresh French bread to dip into the magical elixir. To say this dish is thrilling is no exaggeration.

I lived in the San Fernando Valley and would often make the hour-long drive to eat at this punk rock homage to shrimp. The restaurant in the Marina was on the 2nd floor of an ugly 1980’s mini mall, but inside it was dark and cool and they played rad music—the kind you played in your room on vinyl after riffing through the import section at Moby Disc. No one played music like this in restaurants back in those days. Then again, no restaurant had only three things on the menu either. Killer Shrimp was more like a club than a restaurant. We even waited in line to get in. It felt a little dangerous, but exciting. Kind of like the way it felt to go to Melrose Ave. in the early ’80s when it really WAS wild to see someone with pink hair and a nose ring.

The original Killer Shrimp in Marina del Rey, CA.

Then, as if my dreams became real, they opened a Killer Shrimp in the Valley. The Valley restaurant was also very dark, but much bigger, and all the servers could have been in fashion spreads for The Face. They all wore black and, according to my friend Christy who worked there, the girls were required to wear Viva Glam red lipstick from MAC (the very first Viva Glam). It was a microcosm of cool in the Valley that hadn’t existed before or since. What all self-consciously cool restaurants these days aspire to be, Killer Shrimp simply was.

Even though there were three items on the menu, the ONLY acceptable order was shrimp and bread. Seeing the oversized bowl before you—hot, scented with rosemary and cayenne, and swimming with colossal-sized shrimp—was, in a word, exquisite. The bread that accompanied the shrimp was fresh and chewy and perfectly soaked up the sauce without becoming soggy, but we have to talk about this sauce for a minute.

The flavor was so complex, with layers of richness and spiciness and herbiness…you would have to resist the bowl-licking urge with all of your might. There are many ingredients in the sauce, including butter (a lot of butter—just deal with it), Worcestershire, lemon juice, and beer, but even though the restaurant simmers their sauce for 10 hours, you can whip this recipe up in about 15 minutes with the same glorious results. I truly cannot overstate the majesty of this dish. It makes every annoyance in life tolerable. It makes me believe in a Higher Power. It proves, without a doubt, that food is more than fuel. It is the meaning of life in a bowl.

Killer Shrimp eventually closed all of its restaurants. There was a hole in my heart the size of a giant crustacean. I searched many times online for the recipe to no avail. Several years ago, they opened a new Killer Shrimp back in Marina Del Rey, but it is not the same. It’s more of a sports bar with a huge menu and no MAC red lipstick in sight. I can’t go there. Then, one day, my sister-in-law Stacey invited my husband and me over for dinner. She had found a recipe online claiming to be as good as Killer Shrimp and was going to make it for us. I was excited, but I didn’t have much hope that it would come close to the singular deliciousness of the original. Luckily, I was wrong. It tasted, well, KILLER.

And now, for those of you that have missed Killer Shrimp for all of these years, the recipe is now yours. And for those who have never tried it, I wish I could be with each and every one of you as you taste your first bite. Maybe when your mouth explodes with fireworks of pure umami and your brain recognizes the profoundness of the moment, you will think of me.

I may just have a tube of the original Viva Glam lipstick still in my makeup bag. I’m going to turn off all the lights, blast The Clash (on import vinyl) and and serve my husband some shrimp—dressed all in black, of course—and pretend that all is right with the world.


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KILLER SHRIMP

Adapted from a recipe found on the Internet many years ago
Serves 2 (can be doubled)

¼ lb. plus 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1½ tsp. finely chopped garlic
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp. ground cayenne pepper (can be doubled if you like it really spicy)
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. dried rosemary
1/8 tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground pepper
1 lb. colossal shrimp in the shell (known as Original), or peeled and deveined
½ cup shrimp, chicken, or vegetable stock
¼ cup beer at room temperature
French baguette

Combine ¼ lb. butter, garlic, Worcestershire, lemon juice, and dried herbs in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook for about 4-5 minutes to soften garlic, but be very careful not to brown or burn garlic and butter. Add shrimp and cook about two minutes (it is important not to overcook the shrimp in this dish). Add the last 2 Tbsp. butter and stock. Shake pan back and forth for two minutes. DO NOT STIR, only shake skillet, which breaks down the butter and liquid and emulsifies the sauce. Add beer and cook for one minute more, until shrimp are just cooked through.

Pour into two large bowls and serve sliced baguette on the side.

Cue The Clash and shove your face in that bowl.

You’re welcome.

 

And the Oscar for Best Snack Goes To…

Author: Kirsti Kay, Entertainment, Food, Food & Drink, Movies, Pop Culture, Recipes, Snacks, Television

Oscar night is my favorite night of television. For as long as I can remember, Kirsten has come over and we settle in on the couch for a long night of eating, drinking, and yelling at the television.

I love seeing all the beautiful dresses on the red carpet while I’m in comfy clothes on the couch with my dog in my lap. I was lucky enough to go to the Oscars once and, while it was a spectacular evening (Faye Dunaway cut in front of me in the bathroom line), it was super stressful.

As much as I love watching the show, (The monologue! The winners! The montage!) I look forward to our snacking tradition just as much. Every year it is the same: champagne (natch) and popcorn. And not just ANY popcorn…Oscar-worthy popcorn! Yes, friends, this snack should be on every table at the Governor’s Ball. Heck, if they gave out this popcorn in a gold-plated bowl instead of the Oscar, I think there would be zero no-shows.

So, set your DVR for Live from the Red Carpet, chill your champagne, and make yourself a big bowl of this game-changing snack that will make your microwave* variety popcorn as boring as the Price Waterhouse portion of the Oscars ceremony.


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TABASCO PARMESAN POPCORN

½ cup unpopped popcorn kernels
2 Tbsp. canola oil
½ stick salted butter, melted
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tsp. (or to taste) Tabasco sauce
salt
pepper

Get out your big pasta pot and heat canola oil on high heat until shimmering. Swirl it around so it coats the bottom of the pan. Add popcorn and put the lid on the pan. Once you hear the popcorn start to pop (this will take a few minutes), turn heat down to medium high and shake the pan a few times. When there are several seconds between pops, remove from heat. There are usually some kernels that don’t pop. That is O.K.

While popcorn is popping, melt the butter and mix in the Tabasco.

Put the popcorn in a big bowl and toss with the butter/Tabasco mixture. Add the parmesan cheese and salt & pepper to taste, then toss again until mixed well.

Immediately start the second batch of popcorn, because the first bowl will be gone before Giuliana Rancic asks Greta Gerwig who designed her dress.

 

*Note from Kirsten: Kirsti has always insisted on making stovetop popcorn, which takes a little more time and effort than using the microwave, but which makes a HUGE difference. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried popcorn popped in hot oil on the stove. Don’t take shortcuts with pre-Oscars popcorn!

Second note from Kirsten: for those who don’t like spicy foods or want to put a different spin on this recipe, replace the Tabasco with 5-10 drops of liquid smoke.

 

Na Nanaimo, Na Nanaimo, Hey Hey Hey, Good Bar

Author: Kirsten K., Dessert, Food, Food & Drink, Pop Culture, Recipes, Sweets

For the past two weeks, I have vicariously skated, skied, and slid across the ice and snow in PyeongChang from the comfort of my couch. Over the years, my Olympic training has given me the ability to get through a 5-hour telecast in 1-2 hours (I could medal in speed watching), and I like to reward myself for this feat with a sweet treat. In the spirit of the games, I decided to go for the gold and seek inspiration among the top medalists, but while the Norwegians may have set the bar, the Canadians have perfected it.

There is much debate about exactly when the Nanaimo bar made its debut (likely sometime in the early 1950s), but in the years since, this no-bake dessert has achieved cult status in Canada. Named for the city of Nanaimo in British Columbia, there are many variations on the recipe, but all involve three basic things: a brownie-like crumb base, creamy custard filling, and chocolate icing. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!

I first heard of these bars from my boss, who makes them each Christmas. When she was a showgirl in the ’70s, one of her fellow dancers shared the handwritten recipe, which she labeled “Nanimo Bars,” and which my dyslexic boss calls Namino bars(!). Despite the confusion, I was able to find various recipes and information about Nanaimo bars online, but since I’ve only tasted my boss’s version, hers has qualified for this post.

In her recipe, vanilla pudding powder is used in place of the traditional custard powder, which can be more difficult to find,* but they can be used interchangeably. If I’m to be the judge, the custard is what sets these bars apart, but the combination of chewy base, creamy filling, and rich topping makes them a 1-2-3 sweep.

The XXIII Olympic Winter Games will come to an end this weekend, but you can whip up these bars in record time, so take a break from sofa spectating and go all “oot” to celebrate the world’s greatest athletes—and sweets!


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Illustration by Melissa Elliott

NANAIMO BARS

Base:
1 cup butter
½ cup sugar
10 Tbsp. cocoa powder
2 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
4 cups graham crackers, crumbled
2 cups coconut, chopped fine
1 cup chopped nuts

Place butter, sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla, and eggs in a bowl that is set in boiling water (i.e. double boiler). Stir until mixture resembles custard. Blend in graham crackers, coconut, and nuts. Press evenly into a greased 8×8” or 9×9” pan.

Filling:
½ cup butter
6 Tbsp. milk
4 Tbsp. custard powder or vanilla pudding powder
4 cups sifted powdered sugar

In a small bowl, combine milk and custard (or vanilla pudding) powder until powder is dissolved. In a larger bowl, cream butter, milk/custard mixture, and powdered sugar. Spread filling on top of base and place in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Icing:
8 baking squares of semi-sweet chocolate, OR
1¼ cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 Tbsp. butter

In a medium sauce pan, melt chocolate and butter together over a low flame. Pour the warm mixture evenly over the filling and return bars to fridge. Once the icing has hardened, cut into squares. Makes 1-2 dozen, depending on size of squares.

 

*Custard powder can be found at World Market and many high-end markets and specialty foods stores.

Variation: replace semi-sweet chocolate chips with milk chocolate chips for the icing, as in the top right picture above.

 

Note: Kirsti went to see Bananarama in concert this week, and I couldn’t resist riffing on the chorus from one of their hits for the title of this post. 😊

 

Poppin’ Mad

Author: Kirsten K., Food, Food & Drink, Pop Culture, Savories, Snacks, Sweets

When popcorn lover Josh Chaney mastered his great grandmother’s secret 100-year-old vegan caramel recipe, he got a crazy idea: what if you made caramel corn…and froze it? The result was an extra crispy treat that could be stored in the freezer and remain fresh-tasting indefinitely. Along with his partner Sulmaz Rahimpour, the “Mad Popper” began experimenting with a variety of sweet and savory combinations, which culminated in the opening of California Frozen Poppers.

california-frozen-poppers

shabang

The whole ShaBang: cheddar, chile and lime.

The first thing you notice upon entering is the large chalkboard that lists the shop’s profusion of popcorn choices. I was given a chilly reception—in this instance, a good thing—with samples taken from a case typically used to serve ice cream. Spicy flavors like ShaBang, featuring cheddar cheese with chili and lime, are equally enticing frozen as candy-coated versions like Caked, a colorful confection that lets you freeze your cake and eat it too.

caked

“Let them eat Caked!”

Josh told me that his corn is air-popped and contains no oil or water, so only the topping freezes when it’s put in cold storage. This means that the popcorn can be thawed and refrozen a virtually unlimited number of times and will still taste crisp and delicious. When I asked how long the popcorn would last in the freezer, he didn’t know, because he’s had a batch on ice for six years and counting that continues to taste as fresh as the day he made it.

omg

“Like, OMG!” You’ll like OMG!

California Frozen Poppers sends its popcorn all over the country, but no special shipping or cold packs are required. It can be enjoyed at room temperature, or frozen upon arrival for an icy indulgence that will—theoretically—far outlast your restraint. In fact, your primary predicament will be choosing from their overabundance of offerings, including sweet, cheesey, nutty, and seasonal flavors. Standouts are Hefty Melons, which tastes like a spicy watermelon Jolly Rancher, and OMG!, a jaw-dropping medley of chocolate, caramel, sea salt, and peanut butter M&Ms that is NSFW (Not Safe For Waistline).

With specials and samplers, vegan and gluten-free options, and a constantly evolving lineup of flavors, you’d have to be mad not to pop over to California Frozen Poppers and get a taste of this cool concept.

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California Frozen Poppers

 

 

Grapefruit Loop

Author: Kirsten K., Cocktails, Drinks, Food & Drink, Pop Culture, Recipes, Spirits, Wine

rose-pamplemousseToday is officially the last day of summer, and even though I view the hottest season of the year with dread, I find myself wondering where the time went. Back in April, Kirsti sent me a link to an article about grapefruit wine and how this rosé pamplemousse was all the rage in France. Envisioning the two of us enjoying summer sunsets on her balcony with a bottle of the citrusy spirits, I bookmarked it as something to explore—and possibly post about—in early summer.

On the day the season arrived, I saw a segment on Nightline about the “rosé lifestyle,” a craze primarily among millennials that has spawned the hashtags #yeswayrose and #roseallday. Deciding to blend the trend of those who #drinkpink with the French penchant for grape juice and pamplemousse, I scoured wine shops and liquor stores for grapefruit rosé, but couldn’t find a single bottle. An online search uncovered a few brands for sale from a handful of retailers, but the shipping was two-to-three times the price of the wine. When I contacted two local wine shops about ordering rosé pamplemousse in the States, neither was able to do it, so I shelved the idea.

very-pamp-rose-pamplemousseIn late summer, it suddenly occurred to me: I have a friend living in France! I’ve written a number of times about Mika, who currently calls Lyon home, so I contacted her and asked if she’d seen any grapefruit wine around town. Despite everything I’d read about the French passion for pamplemousse, she hadn’t heard of it, but she returned mere hours later with two bottles of Very Pamp from Maison Castel. She drank each “without fanfare” (her words) and didn’t seem too impressed, but the next day she found three more brands and reported back:oh-my-pamp-rose-pamplemousse

“I am having the Oh My Pamp. It is really good! Very interesting notes all around. Lots of play on the palate and much more in the nose. Yes, it’s sweet, but not too sweet and not flat at all. It actually has a small hint of ROSE flavor to it! I don’t know why, but it TOTALLY works. Super low alcohol, so after I enjoyed half a glass I added a tiny bit of vodka and it’s still smooth and delish. Rosé and grapefruit might be my new flavor combo this year!”

summer-water-rose-wineThree bottles later, what may have started without fanfare had ended with a fan there, but that didn’t help me at all. Unwilling to put her to the trouble of shipping me a bottle of alcohol, but wanting to stay in the grapefruit loop, I decided to take the advice of one blogger and simply mix grapefruit juice with grape fruit juice, so to speak. Since both grapefruit wine and rosé have become synonymous with summertime, I purchased a bottle of Summer Water rosé for this experiment.

Pink grapefruit juice and rosé wine make such an obvious pairing that it’s difficult to believe this marriage has only been recognized for the past few years. With each displaying a shy blush and demure sweetness that tempers a tart acidity on the tongue, this fun and and flirty couple captures the “spirit” of the season. It may have taken me until the end of summer to figure this out, but with local temps predicted to reach over 100° by the weekend, it’s refreshing to know that there’s still time to fall for this fad.

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grapefruit-rose-wineGRAPEFRUIT ROSÉ (adapted from Martha Stewart)

1 cup rosé wine
½ cup fresh pink or Ruby Red grapefruit juice
Ice (optional)

Mix wine and grapefruit juice in a small pitcher. Serve straight or over ice. Garnish with a slice of grapefruit, if desired. Serves two.

Variation: omit the grapefruit juice (or not) and add Monin Ruby Red Grapefruit Syrup, to taste.

 

You can purchase Meadowsweet Rosé Wine with Grapefruit (from Arlington, Binny’s, and Jericho), Ruby Red Rosé Wine with Natural Grapefruit Flavor (from Amity, Shop Rite, and We Speak Wine), and Pulse Rosé with Grapefruit & Peach online, but be prepared to pay around $20 to ship a $5-10 bottle of wine.

 

When a Costume Comes Along, You Must Whip It

Author: Kirsti Kay, Entertainment, Music, Nostalgia, Pop Culture

DEVO 1I think most of us have a pivotal moment where we are living our young lives, oblivious to everything except Saturday morning cartoons and making sure your mom bought Hostess Fruit Pies for your school lunches. And then one day it happens. You realize there is something more out there, that there is a whole world filled with movies and music, art and culture (and, better yet, counter-culture). For me, music was the thing that woke me up, made me take notice and understand there was something great and magical outside of my Valley suburb. Music made me realize I was alive.

I remember the day it happened for me. The year was 1980. MTV had not launched yet. I was listening to KROQ (back when they really played alternative music) and “Whip It” by DEVO came on. I stopped what I was doing and stared at the radio, unable to move or breathe. I’d never heard music like this before. I felt crazy excitement—a buzzing inside my body that made me want to run through the streets and be wild. I felt free. I felt like I had found my tribe. I also felt a little afraid, as if, in this very moment, my life was changed forever and I could never go back to the way it was.

DEVO 2

The first time I actually saw what DEVO looked like, I was babysitting and they were on The Merv Griffin Show. I knew I liked their music, but when I saw them, my jaw dropped and I gasped. What was going on with the weird red hats (called Energy Domes) and the jerky dance moves? Why are they all wearing the same outfits? What are those noises they are creating that I’ve never heard before? And—holy crap!—is that guy playing a keyboard like a guitar? I was swirling with questions, but there was no Internet to ask. I was giddy with delight, but there was no Instagram to document my happiness. I was alone in a strange living room with all this excited emotion and I didn’t know a soul who would understand how wonderful and important this moment was to me.

DEVO 3

“Whip It” good in this DEVO costume from Atom Age Industries.

These days, I have a DEVO poster framed in my office and a DEVO action figure on my desk, and when I wear my DEVO t-shirt, I can’t help but feel happy. Recently, I found out that Atom Age Industries is making a fully licensed “Whip It Outfit and Energy Dome.” Not only can I be the uncontested darling of ANY Halloween soirée, I can look incredibly cool walking my dog and freaking out my neighbors. If they ask me what’s up with my outfit, I’ll just say, “We are DEVO. D-E-V-O.” That should put them right at ease. And the entire delicious ensemble comes in a super cool retro box that you are going to want to keep out in plain view for others to covet. At $40 for the whole shebang, I’m going to stock up. If there is ever a zombie apocalypse, I’m sure they will pass me over, because they will understand that I’m just way too awesome to gorge on, and they will probably want to come over and listen to some of my records. Atom Age Industries also has a RAD Booji Boy mask and many other trinkets and baubles to help you Devolutionize.

I still feel that buzzing inside whenever I hear a DEVO song. It is a good reminder that I am alive. If you need me, I’ll be the one in the red Energy Dome running wild through the streets.

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DEVO “Whip It” Costume

 

 

Tie Yourself Up in Scots

Author: Kirsten K., Books, Entertainment, History, Literature, Pop Culture, Television, Travel

Outlander 1As I mentioned in our Holiday G.I.F.T. Guide (that thing keeps coming up again and again and again), I went to Scotland in 1997 with Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, which has been developed into a popular television show on Starz that will begin its second season this Saturday, April 9th.

At the time of my Highland fling, I worked for an audiobook company that did business with Romantic Times magazine (now RT Book Reviews). I was already a huge fan of the Outlander books—a genre-bending series that defies categorization—when the magazine announced that it was organizing a trip to Scotland led by Diana Gabaldon in which the author would take readers to the places she’d written about in her books. So, 19 years ago today, I hopped on a plane to spend a week in the land of kilts and bagpipes with one of my favorite authors.*

Outlander 2

Flushed from too much Scotch whiskey with Diana at the Stakis Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh.

Looking back, I’m not sure why Diana agreed to do it. If I was an author, being trapped in a foreign country with a bunch of fangirls would be my worst nightmare, but she was gracious and accommodating, making herself available to sign our books and answer our endless questions about the series. Her fourth novel, Drums of Autumn, had just been released, so the trip doubled as a book tour of sorts. Walking into one store, we were amused to see Diana’s novels displayed with other “Books by Scottish Authors,” since she is an American who had never set foot in Scotland prior to writing the first book in the series.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Outlander, the novel is told from the perspective of Claire Randall, a British World War II combat nurse who, while vacationing in the Highlands of Scotland with her husband after the war, is transported through a circle of standing stones to 1743. There, she encounters her husband’s ancestor—a sadistic Redcoat—and a band of Scottish clansmen that includes Jamie Fraser, a man who will force her to choose between two different lives and two distant centuries. The series is enthralling, with its combination of historical realism, eloquent prose, pulse-pounding adventure, and passionate romance.

Outlander 3

With Diana at Clava Cairns near Inverness, April 14, 1997

***BOOK/SEASON TWO SPOILER AHEAD***

Back in 1997, Diana accompanied us to Clava Cairns, a prehistoric burial site near Inverness surrounded by stone circles that inspired Craigh na Dun, the fictional circle through which Claire travels back in time. We also visited Culloden field, site of the definitive battle between Scottish clans and British troops that, within the space of an hour, brought an end to the clan system and changed the course of Scotland’s history. There was a tangible sense of grief pervading the area, making us aware that the characters Diana wrote about in her books had flesh-and-blood counterparts who shed that blood on the very field beneath our feet.

***BOOK ONE SPOILER AHEAD***

Outlander 4During the trip, a few of us formed a group of friends, one of whom let us in on a little secret. Back in the states, she had done research on contemporary silversmiths in Scotland, trying to locate someone who could recreate the wedding ring that Jamie gives to Claire in Outlander, described as “a wide silver band, decorated in the Highland interlace style, a small and delicate Jacobean thistle bloom carved in the center of each link.” She found a woman in Stirling who employed 18th-century techniques to fashion silver jewelry with Scottish motifs. On one of our free days, we met with this woman to discuss the ring and place our orders. Her final design was more rustic and had larger elements than the ring described in the book, but I still treasure it as a memento of the trip and an authentic piece of Scottish artistry.

***END OF SPOILER***

Outlander 5Twenty-three years after its publication, I was thrilled to see that Outlander was being made into a series for television. Like most fans, I worried about casting and changes to the story, but everyone involved in the production did a fantastic job of bringing Diana’s first novel to life. Season One is out on DVD (in Volumes One and Two) and available for streaming, so there’s still time to tie yourself up in Scots by setting your DVR to record the new season as you catch up on the previous one.

With the series currently standing at eight full-length novels (a ninth is in progress), two novellas, one short story, a graphic novel, and a spin-off series (more of a “sub-series”), the producers should have plenty of material to keep the show going for years. And with some of the highest viewership in the history of Starz, that’s not an outlandish assumption.

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Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:

Outlander – Books
Outlander – Television

 

*Technically, I hopped on a plane to New York City on April 7th in order to meet up with part of the RT group on the 8th. We flew to Iceland for a two-day pre-tour in Reykjavík before flying to Scotland on the 11th to join the rest of the group.

 

***SEASON ONE SPOILER BELOW***

In the Starz adaptation, Jamie gives Claire a wedding ring made from the iron key to the front door of his home, Lallybroch. It may have been a sentimental choice, but it is not a particularly attractive one.