April 13, 2020

N is for Nut(meg)

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear.
The king of Spain’s daughter came to visit me,
And all for the sake of my little nut tree.
      I skipped over water, I danced over sea,
      And all the birds of the air couldn’t catch me.

        The princess was a gardener, too, and understood the exhilaration of growing something special.
        As a child I remember only the first quatrain, but when I was older and encountered the final couplet, I was quite delighted by the idea.  Most illustrations focus, understandably, on the princess and the fancy tree, but I wanted to focus instead on that wonderful image of dancing on the sea.  For me it evokes the exhilaration children feel when running down a hill, or swinging as high as the swing-set will go, almost - but not quite - out of control.  Interestingly, the narrator of the poem is sometimes depicted as a boy and sometimes a girl, so there’s no clear consensus as to who it might be, and each illustrator gets to pick how they imagine it.  I love the thought of dancing across the wave crests, faster than the birds, so my illustration is something of a self-portrait.  (I put in portraits of various species of birds, too.  Can you identify them?)
        We don’t know much more about the Spanish princess, really.  Did she come to see the tree because she was interested in wealth, or in bling, or in novelties, or in botany?  (I’ve decided to assume botany.)  Did she bestow gifts on the gardener, or did she expect to be given tribute?
        Being able to dance over the sea is obviously magic, and the tree itself it must be magic, as well.  You could possibly grow a nutmeg and a pear on one tree with some kind of grafting, but it would still take magic to make them silver and gold.  Many myths and fairy tales mention golden apples, but this is the only golden pear I know of.  This rhyme dates back to the time when nutmeg was grown nowhere on earth but a small group of islands (the “Spice Islands”) in Indonesia, so the idea of an English person growing a nutmeg tree even of the ordinary non-silver variety must have been considered pretty fantastical.  Nutmeg was also thought to help ward off the plague, making it even more precious and sought-after.  Maybe that’s why the princess was so eager to visit.  However, I am not trying to start any rumors that nutmeg cures COVID-19, so don’t go rushing off to the store to buy everything off the spice shelves.
        Just yesterday I made a batch of cinnamon rolls with a little nutmeg added, as well.  What’s your favorite recipe with nutmeg or pear?  Or both?
        A final note for impressionable children: Eating too much nutmeg (more than just a
reasonable amount for seasoning) can be toxic.

[Pictures: Little Nut Tree, rubber block print by AEGN, 2005;
Wood block print from A Book of Nursery Songs and Rhymes with illustrations by members of the Birmingham Art School under the direction of A.J. Gaskin, 1895 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Color wood engraving by Philip Reed from Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes, 1963.]


Kathe W. said...

Nutmeg...wonderful spice. I've never seen a nutmeg tree...and I did not realize that the spice mace comes from the outside of the nutmeg and the nutmeg comes from the seed inside! Have a great day and I'll drop by tomorrow!

Rob Z Tobor said...

I must admit I have never been a fan of Nutmeg . . . . I like your art however. Glad to see the A to Z is going OK, I started a few days ahead but as time passes it is sneaking up on me and my buffer is just a couple of days now.

Lisa said...

Yours is the first time I've read that last part. I wonder why it's usually left off? Nutmeg is one of the spices I make sure to have on hand. I love your artwork.

Bridgina Molloy said...

You can't beat a bit of nutmeg, especially around Yule. Loving these.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I add nutmeg to a chicken dish: chicken breast, heavy cream, corn, mushrooms, and nutmeg. Pretty good food :)
I didn't know this rhyme either! And I agree, dancing on the sea is the best part.

The Multicolored Diary

Jade Li said...

First time hearing this rhyme. I covered nutmeg today also in A2Z. Favorite recipe is custard with nutmeg. So many cool birds. My guess at ID: woodpecker, dove, egret, blackbird, hawk, pelican, duck, gull, swallow, and oriole.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

So interesting to see your various recipes! I pretty much only use nutmeg in sweet baked goods, so it's fun to see its use in other ways. (My grandmother used to put it in scalloped potatoes, I think, which must be a flavor profile a little closer to Zalka's.)

Jade, you got a good score on the birds! Starting on the tree branch is a red-winged blackbird, then I actually don't remember the next two - they're not so distinctive. Then a mourning dove, sandpiper, pelican, mallard duck, red-tailed hawk, tern, and swallow. =)

Deborah Weber said...

This is another rhyme I'd not heard before - I'm beginning to think I've been quite deprived! I so look forward to seeing your illustrations and this one is no exception. Pure exuberance in this one!

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Such a cute rhyme!

An A-Z of Faerie: Dragons