A Comic Book, Apocalypse, and Dolly the Sheep

http://jesusisland.com/

An Interview with Escape From Jesus Island creator, Shawn French.

This is an extended version of an interview I had with French that originally appeared in The Reporter, a weekly newspaper out of Waterboro, Maine.

What would happen if someone cloned Jesus?

This is the question Shawn French–(local)Limerick, Maine writer, filmmaker, stand-up comedian, and comic-book author–asked himself twenty years ago in the parking lot of a movie theater. He had just seen a film that graphically illustrated the unintended and dangerous consequences of attempting to create life from ancient DNA. The year was 1993. The movie, of course, was Jurassic Park.

Now, two decades later, French has just published a horrifically creative answer to his question in the form of a graphic comic book entitled Escape From Jesus Island.

A 1987 graduate of South Portland High School, French spent a few years after high school working as a stand-up comedian and then traveling the country for a decade before moving back to Maine in 2000 with his wife, Sue, and stepchildren, Erica, Kim and Robert. He found creative outlets in a variety of genres–writing for the Windham Independent newspaper, writing film and video-gaming scripts, and working on and acting in a dozen independent films. In 2008, French wrote and directed his own movie, The Wrong House.

He was busy, but some ideas grab hold and just don’t let go. The Jesus clone premise had sunk its claws into French, and he began to seriously research both the subject of cloning and the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Starting out as a film script, the story eventually evolved comic book series which combined French’s story and the graphic artwork of illustrator, Mortimer Glum, the finesse of letterer, Peeter Parkker, and the expertise of editor, Shawn Greenleaf. Thanks to the team, plus a successful Kickstarter campaign, the first issue of Escape From Jesus Island, was published in December 2013.

This week, French agreed to answer some questions about the comic book, the creative process, and the team of people working on the Escape From Jesus Island franchise.

Q: Okay, walk me through this slowly. I’m looking at the Escape From Jesus Island website (http://jesusisland.com). What does ‘original full-color, digitally painted comic books series’ mean for those of us who know nothing about graphic novels/comics? Are these traditional comic books? Or are they graphic novels that are more like soft-cover books?

A: Size and shape are like a traditional, old-school comic book, but comics have come a long ways. Instead of the filmsy, newspaperish stock, we print on a heavy, glossy paper in full-color. To the touch, it feels more like a magazine. I’ll drop one off so you can see.

Illustrator Mortimer Glum digitally paints EFJI. He uses a variety of techniques, most of which I don’t understand at all. I love the end result, though. He built fully poseable 3D models of every major character, as well as a full, digital 3D model of Malsum Island, the setting for Act One (Issues 1-8). We can virtually ‘walk’ through the tunnels, anywhere on the island or even inside some of the hospital. Mortimer uses these models to achieve consistency panel to panel. Like a filmmaker, he can pan the camera to the spot he wants and grab a digital snapshot of a background image as a reference. Then he digitally paints on top of that using a Cintiq tablet. It’s amazing to watch. The guy is magic.

Q: Can you give a brief synopsis of the story? What is Escape From Jesus Island about?

A: EFJI is the story of an attempt to clone Jesus by the ReGen Corporation. Years of failed attempts leave behind scores of near-Jesus mutant freaks before they succeed in creating a set of twins, Jesus and his monstrous brother Yeshua. Christ and Antichrist. The Vatican gets word of Christ’s return and sends in an extraction team just as Yeshua is leading a mutant uprising and things get all kinds of crazy. And that’s just Act One, the first eight issues in a 40-issue series.

Q: And of course the question every writer is asked: Where did this idea come from?

A: The original spark of an idea hit just after watching the first Jurassic Park film in 1993. Just, as in, still in the movie theater parking lot. At the time, I was working as a standup comedian and was always on the hunt for comedy material. I wrote a bit that was essentially Jurassic Park, but with murderous packs of Jesus clones in the place of dinosaurs. A remote island testing facility where the Bodies of Christ get loose one stormy night and wreak havoc. The first script was basically a Monty Python sketch.

The story evolved in layers over the years. Because I couldn’t get this Jesus-cloning story idea out of my head, I did a bunch of cloning research and that’s when the story we see now really started to come into shape.

Dolly, the first sheep ever cloned, was attempt number 277. The first 276 were fatally mutated. The realization hit me that if scientists were ever to acquire Christ’s DNA and try to clone him, and you KNOW they would try, they would have to make hundreds of mutant saviors before creating one you could show to the press. I find that equal parts horrifying and hysterical. This
realization was how EFJI turned from a comedy into a horror story.

The next tectonic shift in the story came while spending a full year studying Jesus and Revelation before starting on the comic book scripts. I listened to sermons about the Apocalypse around the clock. I bombarded myself with them, from every possible denomination. It was during this period that I realized EFJI is a story about the Antichrist and the End Days. That the cloning experiment in EFJI results in twins, Jesus and the monstrous Yeshua. Christ and Antichrist emerging from the same womb.

4. I noticed from your bio information that you are also a filmmaker. How do the two interests mesh?

I first wrote Escape From Jesus Island as a film script and I gave serious, serious thought to shooting it as follow-up to The Wrong House, the horror movie I released in 2008. Ultimately, the story was just too big to do it justice on an independent budget. As a comic book, though, there are no cost restraints stopping us from making this as big and bad as it needs to be.

We intend to blur the lines as much as possible between comic book and live action. Many of the primary characters are modeled after actors I trust in Maine. This will allow us to do a Jesus Island character photo shoot with Biddeford photographer Jakk Blood, and a live-action trailer for the comics.

5. Did your background in film help you plot this story? And there are some film terms being used in the marketing aspect, right?

We think of this story as a film or super intense television series. I’m credited in the comic book as director and Mortimer as cinematographer, and we include a cast page. Morty has also done film work, including storyboards, so we both come at this with a cinematic eye. We aren’t using a lot of the super exaggerated angles traditionally seen in comics. The action is framed like we’re shooting it all on camera.

6. You were supposed to be interviewed on CNN’s New Day program, but the segment was canceled. How did you happen to get on CNN’s radar to begin with and why was the segment canceled?

That whole thing was really weird. They approached me out of the blue, wanting me to discuss the comic and backlash on their Faces Of Faith series. Then two weeks in a row, they bumped me on less than a day’s notice, and were kind of nasty about it the second time. The segment had been shifted from producer to producer a couple times and I’m guessing it finally landed on the desk of someone who found it offensive. I can’t figure out any other reason why they would approach me to be on their show and then angrily cancel just hours after confirming. Twice. The funny part is, the focus of the segment was going to be the challenges of distributing an independent comic in the face of backlash from offended people. Then I got backlashed right off the air.

7. The story shares many thematic elements with the Book of Revelation in the Bible. What would you say to someone who accused you of being sacrilegious or disrespectful of Christianity?

The one thing the offended people all seem to have in common is that they haven’t read our comics. They see the title and the Antichrist crucified on the cover and decide they know everything they need to know.

EFJI is essentially the Biblical story of Revelation, using cloning as the catalyst for the prophesied return of Christ and rise of the Antichrist. Many of the things that Biblical scholars say are symbolic, we interpret literally, such as the seven-headed Beast who rises from the sea. We named him Pariah and he is one of our main antagonists.

Oddly, the people who are offended by our comic are the ones who would be most able to catch all the subtle religious references. We have a whole lot of Christians and Catholics among our fans, though. Fortunately, most grownups have the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality and know that a comic book doesn’t pose a credible threat to their belief system.

I get some nasty emails from time to time and doors get randomly slammed in our faces (like with CNN), but it isn’t my responsibility to navigate around the emotional triggers of seven billion people. My job is to tell the most compelling story I can, so I focus on doing that.

To our critics, I would say, “Give me a chance to actually offend you before you get all hot and bothered. We haven’t even gotten to the offensive stuff yet. It’s a 40-issue series. Pace yourselves.”

8. Did you always want to be a writer and filmmaker?

Absolutely. Independent filmmaking really wasn’t a valid option when I was in my 20s. The technology just wasn’t there yet, so I had kind of let that longtime dream go and focus on writing. I’ve never stopped writing stories. I wouldn’t know how to stop. It’s how I process my thoughts. There are two epic stories that I’ve been working on for more than 20 years, building enormous story worlds with the knowledge that I would one day find an outlet to bring the stories to life. Escape From Jesus Island is the first of those stories.

The massive technology leaps in the past 20 years have completely changed independent filmmaking. Now, anyone with the drive and passion to make a film, can. So I of course pounced all over that. I’ve worked on nearly a dozen independent films (mostly playing monster roles) and finally got to write/direct my own movie, 2008’s The Wrong House.

9. The artwork in EFJI is arresting, to say the least! How did you and artist, Mortimer Glum, become collaborators on this project? (And is that his real name?)

Mortimer and I met during post-production on The Wrong House. He’s part of a Portland-based FX group called The Shoggoth Assembly, that handled the practical horror effects in our movie. Morty designed our posters and DVD cover art, which is how we met. We immediately hit it off and I eventually got the courage to pitch the EFJI comics to him. Fortunately, he was hugely into it and we’ve been full-speed ahead ever since.

10. Once you wrote the story and collaborated with Mr. Glum on the artwork, how did EFJI become a published book? Can you talk a little bit about how graphic novels are designed and produced?

Printing in full color is extremely expensive, and we are starving artists, so we started with a Kickstarter campaign, where fans could pledge their financial support for the series in exchange for various perks… signed copies of issues, custom artwork, or even a chance to appear as a character in the series. More than forty of our fans will appear in EFJI in the first eight issues alone.

200 backers contributed nearly $16,000 on Kickstarter to help us get up and running. This allows us to print the first four issues.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1254797765/escape-from-jesus-island-comic-book-series

The actual production of a comic book was all new territory for our team and we made a lot of rookie mistakes as we were getting our workflow figured out. Editor Shawn Greenleaf was a life saver during this stretch. He handled all the technical details with the printers (Transcontinental in Canada)… and there are a LOT of little things that have to be exactly right or the final product will suffer.

The workflow we have settled into now is basically this…

* I write the script (generally 3-4 issues ahead)

* Mortimer breaks it down into panels on the page and sends me rough versions

* I use those roughs to rewrite the script to perfectly fit the images

* Letterer Peeter Parkker takes the new script and puts the words on the page

* Editor Shawn Greenleaf (based in Seattle) picks apart the artwork, text and anything else he can find a flaw in

* We grumble at him, then fix the stuff he suggests

* We all pick through the pages for any last changes

11. Where do you see this project going?

This is more than a comic book series to us. We’re treating this as a franchise from Day One and striking out in as many directions as possible. Portland sculptor Nicolas Genovese has already created our first two gaming miniatures and is working on a full-size action figure; Portland-based horror FX group The Shoggoth Assembly will be creating some EFJI gory goodies, including character masks; Event Screen Printers in South Portland is working on T-shirts; we have an EFJI board game in the works; and we’re in talks that could lead to EFJI as a full radio drama.

Our crew know a whole lot of amazingly talented people and we have an All Hands On Deck approach to making this series everything it can be.

12. Will you have a booth at any comic book conventions? How has the reception been so far with readers/fans?

We’ll be hitting a lot of conventions in the Northeast this first year and hopefully can expand a bit further in 2015. We first premiered our trailer at Coast City Comicon (South Portland) in 2012 and Mortimer Glum held an art workshop again there in 2013.

Reception from fans and critics has been amazing so far. Clive Barker, a hero of everyone on the Jesus Island team, even checked it out and offered us an official endorsement. http://www.facebook.com/officialclivebarker/posts/422151551226901

It has been a crazy rollercoaster ride already and we’re just getting started.

13. Is there anything else our readers should know about you or EFJI? Where can readers buy the book?

This map shows all the stores currently carrying us and our network is increasing all the time: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=ze8U5uNxcdYA.kSUrLlBpTwO8

Current options in Maine are: Coast City Comics (Portland), The Complex (Scarborough), Game Box (Topsham) and Top Shelf Comics (Bangor)

We’re also available on Amazon (www.amazon.com/Escape-Jesus-Island-Shawn-French/dp/0991186419).

And we sell subscriptions and signed artwork at our online store: http://escapefromjesusisland.bigcartel.com

Wiggling Toward A Sustainable Garden

Red worms! Red worms!

Red worms! Red worms!

When Michelle Gardner of North Waterboro ordered her first batch of red worms last July, she had no idea how quickly her interest–or her garden boxes–would grow. From a plastic baggy about the size of a cup that held 1000 dehydrated red worms cushioned in peat moss, Michelle’s worm “farm” now encompasses several large outdoor garden boxes, 18-gallon plastic tubs, and even an old canoe.

Gardner is hoping to continue to expand her army of red wigglers–which handily compost old produce, eggshells, newspaper, cardboard, and other household garbage into highly usable fertilizer–and she wants to teach others how to utilize worms in their own gardens, as well.

“They multiply very fast,” Gardner said as she walked around her Lake Arrowhead property showing visitors her various composting boxes full of worms, table scraps, and shredded newspaper and leaves. “The worms are hermaphroditic. They will lay two eggs from which hatch two to twelve babies. In less than a month, these newborns are ready to reproduce.”

According to Gardner, worms are extremely helpful for building gardening soil. They increase air flow in the soil by making tunnels. The break down organic matter into castings that act like time release capsules of nutrients into the soil. The speed up the composting process. They also add microbes and good bacteria to the soil. A study at Cornell showed that not only are worm casting good for fertilizing, but it also could help suppress plant diseases caused by pathogens. Beneficial microbes can colonize on a seed’s surface and release a substance that protects the seed from a pathogen.

Worms do not eat living plants, Gardner explains, but rather ones that are already starting to break down. She put some worms in her indoor plant pots with some compost and was amazed at the prodigious growth of the plants once the worms went to work. “I’ve become increasingly successful with them,” she said. She is hoping to start teaching classes on vermiculture, calling her venture Michelle’s Happy Worm Farm. Students will learn how to build their first tub for composting–drilling holes in simple plastic tubs, adding strips of newspaper and leaves, a little bit of soil, and the worms. Worms like coffee grounds, but Gardner warns that because of its acidity, grounds should be accompanied by some other organic matter such as fruit or veggie scraps, manure, or plant debris.

One of the most sustainable ways of using worms is to compost manure. Placing a box of worms and soil under a rabbit hutch, for example, can quickly turn something unpleasant into valuable fertilizer for your vegetable or flower gardens. Red wigglers will not outgrow their container, Gardner assures, although sometimes they seem to be crawling out of the bin. The reasons for this include too high temperatures, too much moisture, or too much acid in the mixture. Adding more air holes, opening the top of the bin, or adding ashes or lime to the soil can remediate these problems.

Getting started with red worms is as easy as creating a bin and keeping it in your cellar, adding a bit of table scraps every so often. They won’t survive freezing temperatures, but once spring comes, the worms can be added to outdoor compost bins. Vermicompost “tea,” which is worm castings steeped in liquid, is also a good liquid fertilizer for household and garden plants.

Is Winter Finally Over in Maine?

Spring!

Dear Reader:

I see bare lawn.

Normally this would not be a big announcement, but really. It is the second week of April, and still large snow patches crouch beside the rock wall, cling to the back yard, depress me with their grainy, crystalline whiteness.

I want green. Green grass. Green leaves. Green buds.

I want yellow. Yellow daffodils. Yellow dandelions. Yellow-centered daisies.

I want purple. Purple crocus. Purple lilacs. Oh, the heady purple scent of the lilacs in May.

The garden boxes are mostly free of snow, and the dog has been digging in one of them. Beech leaves left over from fall are scattered all around, gathered in front of my steps. The sky is blue today. I can almost, almost imagine that spring is here.

WordPress notified me that I had reached my five year anniversary with this blog. What? How did that happen?

It is spring. It is time to plan my goals for the year. The keyhole-shaped, apple guild garden area will finally be ready for planting this spring. I think I tossed a few tulip bulbs in there last fall (you’d think with this blog I would keep track of these things, but I get loosey-goosey come October) and planted some perennials last summer anyway. So I will be figuring out what kind of apple trees to plant. I want the kind of crab-apple that can be used for making jelly and maybe a companion tree with regular-size apples that can cross-pollinate. I’m open to suggestions.

Around the apple tree will go garlic chives (I did that last year with my miniature crab-apple tree. That was pretty cool), comfrey, yarrow, fennel, bee balm, maybe some artichokes, dill. I know I’ve been talking about this for years, but it has taken that long to build the soil there by the compost bins. This year, it will happen!

Thinning out a bunch of pines created more space for gardens. I have a hugelculture bed that needs planting this year (again, left it to rot down a bit over the winter) and I think I will try potatoes there. Not sure what else.

I will, again, grow many herbs for the bees and other beneficial insects and for cooking. Cucumbers, yes. Cherry tomatoes. Many lettuces and greens.

I also want to create some major perennial beds in keyhole gardens facing south, mixtures of flowers and food.

And then there is the back yard with all the cleanup from the tree-cutting. I have huge brush piles growing at the edge of the property. Some of this could be used for more hugelculture beds.

Pretty soon all this activity will start. I’ll get out my camera and post photos for those who are following along. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be writing this blog. It has been an instructive five years, but somehow I feel that time is drawing to a close. I’ve learned much, incorporated so much into my lifestyle that it no longer feels new or interesting, just normal. I have a few more projects I want to try. I’d like to get a clothesline now that I have more space with sunlight. I’d like to start making my own laundry detergent…

…and man! I still haven’t got that sewing machine out!

Until next time, happy spring!

My Dreams

mullein (2)

My dreams are dandelion seed-fluffs
floating
on random
breezes. Instead,

I want to be
a mullein plant.
Sturdy,
confident,
reaching
in
one
clear
direction.

Social Media as Magic Mirror

mirrormirrorI’ve been thinking so much about the whole social media universe lately. My thoughts are not all sweetness and light. In fact, I’m feeling pretty dark about social media these days. I think it is due for a shakeup!

Here is an example. Have you visited Wattpad.com? I just heard about it a couple weeks ago and decided to check it out. Wattpad is a platform that allows you to post your book or short story or other pieces of writing (read: fan fiction) from your profile. You can follow other writers. You can collect a library. You can create a reading list. It’s pretty cool. It’s also pretty young. In fact, Wattpad.com seems to be a huge collective of many, many young (ages 14-22 I’m guessing) writers, kids who are used to a dynamic of “following” and “following back” that is akin to a smile–something polite and nice to do to make the other person and yourself feel good, but not an actual indication that he or she is actually going to read your work.

Because, how many writers(bloggers/Tweeters/Instagramers/Pinners, etc.) can one person actually read/follow/interact with? Certainly not 700…or even 350 or 200!

I think it is the same with all social media, including Facebook and Instagram and the like. People may “like” you or “follow” you, but it MAY be only a feel-good,reciprocal thing with no real intention of visiting again, or a politeness thing, or maybe even a way of trying to entice you to visit their account in hopes they get one more tick on the counter. Or, less cynically, maybe they stumbled onto your account and liked what they saw enough to give you a “like” or a “follow,” but your posts then become so lost in the avalanche of notifications piling onto the erstwhile follower’s in-box or notification tab that he/she never stumbles back onto your page again.

In this way, your follower number on your social media account(s) becomes nothing more than a meaningless numeral, or at best a tally of notches on your belt. Certainly it is not an indicator of real readership.

I’m told (by young people) that this doesn’t bother them at all. This meaningless number is fine in a world of people who are interested only in self-expression. For them, social media is a magic mirror. The larger the number, the bigger the mirror, but it is still reflecting back only one image. The Self.

I post, therefore I am?

But what about actual communication/community? What about the real spread of ideas?

I’m wondering if the only way this will be sustainable will be people coming together (the way planets formed after the big bang) to create their own worlds within worlds, so to speak. Social circles. We’ve seen the big bang, the social media explosion. It has happened.

Perhaps now people will combine naturally into their smaller social media circles–communicating with each other, reading each other’s posts, commenting, adding to collective knowledge so that an individual piece becomes more of a springboard or topic sentence for the larger “work.” A collective piece of art. If this is how things end up, a blogger with 10,000 followers could not be considered more successful than one with 1000. In fact the one with 100 might be considered MORE successful, especially if those 100 actually read and comment on the work and vice versa. In fact, 100 might be too many.

How many blog posts do YOU read in one day? How many do you comment on? And do you read the comments of other followers?

I predict there will be a weeding out frenzy soon as we come to realize we are all just hanging our posts/work on a wall and gazing into the mirror 99% of the time. Or maybe I’m just getting too cynical.

And to that end, I’m going to do some housekeeping. It is time to officially pare down my “following” and “friends” and “likes” lists. If I’m not really and truly interested in investing my time in a social media site, I’m going to delete it. Please do the same here. I won’t take it personally. In fact, I’ll applaud you.

And to my real, constant readers out there…thank you. I appreciate your taking the time to read and respond in the little time you have in your day for such activities.

Fashion and Fiction at Goodwill

Take me to the flower show!

Take me to the flower show!

Dear Reader:

As Polyvore.com automatically posts my new sets to Localista, you may be wondering if I’ve forgotten my original mission: to shop local sources rather than big box retailers.

I haven’t. I’ve just been very busy and captivated by my new fiction project, 52 Flash, where I create a fashion look on Polyvore and then write a story inspired by the graphic. However, a trip into the nearby city of Biddeford gave me a chance to drop into my fave Goodwill store, and while I was there I decided to search for some pieces to recreate one of my recent fashion sets: the Flower Show look, which is an easy, casual but classic look I imagined a youngish woman donning for a meandering walk around the Portland Flower Show scheduled for later on this spring (click that link to learn more!).

photo 4

The pink J.Jill blouse jumped right out at me. I wanted something over-sized, so I went right to the rack of clothes one size up from my norm. All shirts (and sweaters and pants) are grouped on the racks first by size and then by color, making shopping for particular items pretty straight-forward. I liked the pleating on the front and the swingy cut that I believe would make this a “smock” shirt. (Check out this guide I just found on internet world called Fashion Terms and Styles for Women’s Garments from the Oregon State library! If I’m going to ever get serious writing about fashion, guess I should read up on my terminology!)

The J.Jill blouse was more than reasonably priced at $4.99 and had not one mark or stain on it. Then it was on to pants. I found only a few grey jeans and none that were skinny. I tried on the most promising pair for the photo above but decided they were too big for me. Still, I’ve found ALL my recent pairs of jeans at Goodwill–at prices much too amazing to believe–so I wasn’t too disappointed. The search for the perfect grey skinny will continue.

I was actually very excited to accidentally grab my slimmest pair of jeans this morning–the ones I couldn’t zip up right after Christmas–and had them on and zipped before I realized they weren’t my big-girl jeans. Guess the French Women Don’t Get Fat philosophy is working. More about that in a later post. I’m obsessed with all things French right now, and if I can ever carve out a workable schedule for myself, I will spend some time learning la langue Francaise. I already have the champagne at dinner thing down pat.

Colorful Rain Boots

Colorful Rain Boots

But I digress. I already had rain boots at home, thanks to an earlier trip to Goodwill a couple years back. All that was left was a grey puffy vest with a fake-fur collar. Now, I really had no hope of finding that exact item, and I didn’t. What I did find was possibly even better! An olive green puffy vest with a brown, pink-spattered velvet collar originally from Old Navy. Parfait!

photo 2 (1)

Look at this pretty detail on the vest.

photo 3

I did not find a floral bag, at least not one big enough for a tote. For me, it is nice to have something out there still, awaiting discovery. What I DID find, though, were…

photo 1 (1)

. . . Books! Janet Fitch’s Paint It Black, Jane Green’s Jemima, and Elizabeth Buchan’s Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. See, fashion and fiction DO go together (at least in my world.)

And I snapped a photo of this amazing prom dress. Only 14.99, but not the right size for my dear daughter. (Plus, I’ve brought home so many fancy dresses from this store over the past couple of years there is no way she will be able to wear them all.)

photo

Oh, Goodwill, how I do love you.

So what about you, Dear Reader? Have any luck with the local shopping lately? Drop me a line, a link, or both. I love to hear from other Localistas out there.

And check out some short stories–flash fashion fictions–at Localista’s sister blog, 52 Flash.

A Very Cranberry Christmas

Chutney in Bowl

Chutney in Bowl

(This article also appeared in the Waterboro Reporter newspaper, soon to be found online, but for now check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheWaterboroReporter)

Here we are, smack-dab in the middle of another holiday season, singing along with the carols playing non-stop on 94.9 WHOM (if you live in Maine), finishing up our shopping and wrapping of presents, and turning thoughts toward special holiday foods.

Yes, this is the season of Christmas cookies, nut bread, fruit cake, and eggnog. Peanut brittle, peppermint bark, snickerdoodles, and hot cocoa with whipped cream. Depending on our family traditions, we may enjoy turkey, ham, lasagna, baklava, corn-bread stuffing, sweet potato casserole, or those glorious Franco-American pork tourtieres.

And anything cranberry.

In my family, a traditional treat is cranberry bread. My mother serves it on a silver tray at her Christmas Eve dinner of fish chowder and crackers, jello fruit salad, and homemade sour pickles. Cranberries are fun to string together and hang as a garland on the fir tree. Frozen into an ice-ring, cranberries add a splash of color to a holiday punch bowl. Added to champagne cocktails, frozen cranberries not only keep the beverage chilled, but look very pretty rolling around in the glass. (A mint leaf provides good contrast, too!) There are cranberry sauces and jellies, cranberry pancakes, and don’t forget cranberry nut muffins with a little spread of butter to warm up chilly winter mornings.

There is something just so festive about those bright red berries that contrasts with the uber-whiteness of the snowy winter world outside!

As more and more people are coming to realize that eating locally with the seasons makes sense from a health and environmental perspective, here in New England we can feel confident about choosing cranberries in late fall and early winter. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, cranberries–along with blueberries and Concord grapes–are a native North American fruit. Native Americans used the cranberry in a sort of protein bar called pemmican which was made of crushed berries, deer meat, and melted fat. They also used the berry as a dye and as a medicine. Later, American sailors took cranberries with them on sea voyages to stave off scurvy as the cranberry has a high vitamin C content.

Cranberries are also grown commercially right here in Maine. According to the Maine Cooperative Extension, cranberry production is a new “old” industry since cranberries were grown here in the past, disappeared in the first half of the 1900’s, and then experienced a rebirth in the 1990’s when new commercial production began. Last year, I bought a ten-pound box of the ruby-red berries from a local food co-op organized by Ossipee Towns for Sustainability (check out their Facebook page). The group orders from Crown o’ Maine Organic Cooperative which markets products from Maine growers.

I had good intentions when I bought those berries, but somehow after sticking that box in my freezer I forgot about it…until last week. All of a sudden, as we rounded the corner to Christmas, it hit me. Cranberries! I decided I wanted to try making chutney to include in my Christmas dinner menu and also to give as handmade gifts. It doesn’t get much more local than your own kitchen, right?

I searched the internet for a recipe, found one I liked on the Ocean Spray website, gathered my ingredients, and set the pot to boiling. The first batch came out a little more runny than I wanted, but the flavor was tangy-sweet and spicy. Making a few modifications the following evening, I ended up with a firm, spreadable chutney with a glorious dark garnet-red color and just the right blend of spices. I can’t wait to serve this with my Christmas turkey, not to mention all the leftover turkey sandwiches!

If you would like to try it yourself, here is the recipe.

Shelley’s Second-Batch Christmas Cranberry Chutney

1 ½ cup water
1 ½ cup sugar
2 cups frozen Maine cranberries
1 cup vinegar
1 cup raisins
½ cup small dice apple
½ tsp each allspice, ginger, cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves

Put sugar and water together in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring often to avoid sticking. Pour into glass bowls and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. Stir before serving to show off all that chunky deliciousness.

If you like your chutney more saucy, reduce cooking time. The longer you cook, the more “set” your chutney will become. Happy holidays!