Great Curassow

Great Curassow
Photo: Inge Curtis

This is a species I may never see in the wild but grateful for this wonderful image of two female Great Curassows in the jungle of Costa Rica. It introduced me to a whole new family, including cracids and guans, as exotic as they sound.

Found throughout Central America and into Mexico, these wild turkey-sized birds are uncommon, not surprising considering adults carry up to 10 lb of meat. Females occur in three morphs, which can merge where they overlap, and those pictured here are the barred variety. Males are different, black with a curly crest and yellow knob on their beak, they care less for camouflage than swanky looks. They are monogamous, but that’s not necessarily characteristic of large, shy birds as we will see when the Northern Jacana appears on a post.

Green Ibis

Green Ibis
Photo: Inge Curtis

Virginia has recorded three species of ibises (surely not ‘ibi’), but never a Green Ibis as far as I know. Inge photographed this one in Costa Rica, close to the northern limit of a huge range across South America. So, it doesn’t strictly qualify as a Northern American bird except for occurring north of the equator and fossil relatives found in Kansas from a rather long time ago, in the Pliocene.

It prefers to feed at dawn and dusk, safer from predators, stabbing with its long down-curved bill in shallow water and mud for shrimp and amphibians. The green sheen on its neck is often unnoticed but I’m told it shimmers in the right light.

Mother’s fruitcake for Christmas and always

Family recipes are inherited like sepia photos of relatives who passed long ago, meant to savor the memories. None is more precious to me that a fruit cake. My last edition came out of the oven months before Christmas and has gently ripened from injections with high spirits (pictured).

But if someone calls you an ‘old fruitcake’, don’t consider it a compliment. They mean you are ‘as nutty as a fruitcake’, to coin another British expression. I plead that you don’t slur the venerable comfort food invented by an unsung hero in some baronial kitchen in the Middle Ages.

It is food with immense calorific value that nourishes the heart. If Captain Scott had not left his fruitcake behind at base camp in 1910, he might have brought his team safely home from the South Pole. The cake was rediscovered a few years ago and reburied in the ice with solemn ritual, so that others will find it when Antarctica thaws. It stands beside honey as one of the least perishable foods, owing to a high sugar and alcohol content and low moisture. NASA will surely provision it for the first manned flight to Mars.

But don’t confuse the British cake with faint-hearted European versions, called stollen and panettone. The trappist monks of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky sell a cake that’s a better imitation, but it still falls short of the original and what would qualify as a severe challenge for finalists in the Great British Baking Show.

I hear fruitcake virgins ask what’s so special in the recipe? I reply: hardly anything is left out. Flour from Canada, Sugar from the Barbados, Butter from Ireland, Oranges from Florida or Australia, Brandy from France, Eggs from New Hampshire, Raisons, Prunes, Apricots, and Walnuts from California, Cranberries from Wisconsin, Hazelnuts from Oregon or Turkey, Nutmeg and Allspice from Indonesia or Grenada, and Glace Cherries from Italy (or the Red Planet).

Not convinced? You think less is more? Then, you don’t get the point.

The cake is a model of a world as it should be at Christmas and always. Its ingredients come from everywhere—Red states and Blue, North and South, Western countries and Eastern—all blended to create a compatible whole and so innocent it might have been imagined in the Eden of Bakery. Oh, that human society was as united and proud to be called a fruitcake. Sadly, Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show was correct when he quipped, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Humanity rejects the gift.