Oct 172017

Today is the birthday (1915) of Arthur Asher Miller, US playwright best known for Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953) which continue in revival to this day. Miller was often in the public eye, particularly during the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. During this time, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee; and was married to Marilyn Monroe. I’ll add Miller to my increasingly long list of legendary US authors that I really don’t resonate with: Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, etc. etc. Their world is not my world; I did not grow up in it, and I despised it when I lived in it. I do recognize the tragedy of Willy Loman’s failed dreams and aspirations, but they are not my aspirations, so my connexion to the character is academic, not emotional. That’s how it is between me and Miller (and the other parade of Am Lit legends). Maybe I should get a pat on the back for celebrating them anyway?

Miller was born in Harlem in New York City. His father was born in Radomyśl Wielki, Galicia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now Poland), and his mother was a native of New York whose parents had also emigrated from Radomyśl Wielki. Miller’s father ran a successful business and was well to do, but in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the family lost almost everything and moved to Gravesend, Brooklyn. As a teenager, Miller delivered bread every morning before school to help the family, and after graduating in 1932 from Abraham Lincoln High School, he worked at several unskilled jobs to pay for his college tuition.

At the University of Michigan, Miller first majored in journalism and worked for the student paper, the Michigan Daily. It was during this time that he wrote his first play, No Villain. Miller switched his major to English, and subsequently won the Avery Hopwood Award for No Villain. The award brought him his first recognition and led him to begin to consider that he could have a career as a playwright. Miller enrolled in a playwriting seminar taught by the influential professor Kenneth Rowe, who instructed him in his early efforts at playwriting. After his graduation in 1938, he joined the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal agency established to provide jobs in the theater. He chose the theater project despite the more lucrative offer to work as a scriptwriter for 20th Century Fox. However, Congress, worried about possible Communist infiltration, closed the project in 1939. Miller began working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard while continuing to write radio plays, some of which were broadcast on CBS.

In 1940, Miller married Mary Grace Slattery. They had two children, Jane and Robert. Miller was exempted from military service during World War II because of a high-school football injury to his left kneecap. 1940 was also the year his first play was produced, The Man Who Had All the Luck. It won the Theatre Guild’s National Award but closed after only four performances with disastrous reviews.

In 1947, Miller’s play All My Sons was a success on Broadway (earning him his first Tony Award, for Best Author) and his reputation as a playwright was established. In 1948, Miller built a small studio in Roxbury, Connecticut. There, in less than a day, he wrote Act I of Death of a Salesman. Within 6 weeks, he completed the rest of the play. Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway on February 10, 1949, at the Morosco Theatre, directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman (Miller’s favorite Willy), Mildred Dunnock as Linda, Arthur Kennedy as Biff, and Cameron Mitchell as Happy. The play was commercially successful and critically acclaimed, winning a Tony Award for Best Author, the New York Drama Circle Critics’ Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was the first play to win all three of these major awards.

In June 1956, Miller left his first wife, Mary Slattery, and married Marilyn Monroe. They had met in 1951, had a brief affair, and remained in contact afterwards. Monroe had just turned 30 when they married and Miller was 40. I get the definite sense that there was deep love between the two even though it could not last. Monroe had been raised an orphan and then thrust into the Hollywood spotlight without ever experiencing an intimate family life. She wrote to Miller: “I hate Hollywood. I don’t want it anymore. I want to live quietly in the country and just be there when you need me. I can’t fight for myself anymore.” Because Miller was Jewish she converted to Judaism and told her close friend, Susan Strasberg: “I can identify with the Jews. Everybody’s always out to get them, no matter what they do, like me.” Soon after she converted, Egypt banned all of her movies.

For a time their life was somewhat normalized. Monroe enjoyed cooking and domesticity and was clearly devoted to Miller. His children adored her when they came for weekend visits, and she got on well with his parents.

In 1952, Miller’s friend, Elia Kazan, appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Kazan named eight members of the Group Theatre, including Clifford Odets, Paula Strasberg, Lillian Hellman, J. Edward Bromberg, and John Garfield, who in recent years had been fellow members of the Communist Party. After speaking with Kazan about his testimony, Miller traveled to Salem, Massachusetts to research the witch trials of 1692. The Crucible, in which Miller likened the situation with the HUAC to the witch hunt in Salem in 1692, opened at the Beck Theatre on Broadway on January 22, 1953. Though widely considered only somewhat successful at the time of its release, today The Crucible is Miller’s most frequently produced work throughout the world.

Miller and Kazan were close friends throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, but after Kazan’s testimony to the HUAC, the pair’s friendship ended, and they did not speak to each other for the next ten years. The HUAC took an interest in Miller himself not long after The Crucible opened, denying him a passport to attend the play’s London opening in 1954. Kazan defended his own actions through his film On the Waterfront, in which a dockworker heroically testifies against a corrupt union boss.

When Miller applied in 1956 for a routine renewal of his passport, the HUAC used this opportunity to subpoena him to appear before the committee. Before appearing, Miller asked the committee not to ask him to name names, to which the chairman, Francis E. Walter (D-PA) agreed. Monroe accompanied him, and testified on his behalf, jeopardizing her own career. In her personal notes, she wrote about her worries during this period:

I am so concerned about protecting Arthur. I love him—and he is the only person—human being I have ever known that I could love not only as a man to which I am attracted to practically out of my senses—but he is the only person—as another human being that I trust as much as myself…

When Miller attended the hearing he gave the committee a detailed account of his political activities. Reneging on the chairman’s promise, the committee demanded the names of friends and colleagues who had participated in similar activities. Miller refused to comply, saying “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” As a result, a judge found Miller guilty of contempt of Congress in May 1957. Miller was sentenced to a fine and a prison sentence, blacklisted, and disallowed a US passport. In 1958, his conviction was overturned by the court of appeals, which ruled that Miller had been misled by the chairman of the HUAC.

Miller began work on writing the screenplay for The Misfits in 1960, directed by John Huston and starring Monroe. But it was during the filming that Miller and Monroe’s relationship hit difficulties, and he later said that the filming was one of the lowest points in his life. Monroe was taking drugs to help her sleep and more drugs to help her wake up, which caused her to arrive on the set late and then have trouble remembering her lines. Huston was unaware that Miller and Monroe were having problems in their private life. He recalled later, “I was impertinent enough to say to Arthur that to allow her to take drugs of any kind was criminal and utterly irresponsible. Shortly after that I realized that she wouldn’t listen to Arthur at all; he had no say over her actions.” Shortly before the film’s premiere in 1961, Miller and Monroe divorced. 19 months later Monroe died of a drug overdose. Miller later married photographer Inge Morath in February 1962. She had worked as a photographer documenting the production of The Misfits.

In 1964 After the Fall was produced, and is said to be a deeply personal view of Miller’s experiences during his marriage to Monroe. The play reunited Miller with his former friend Kazan: they collaborated on both the script and the direction. After the Fall opened on January 23, 1964, at the ANTA Theatre in Washington Square Park amid a flurry of publicity and outrage at putting a Monroe-like character, called Maggie, on stage. Robert Brustein, in a review in the New Republic, called After the Fall “a three and one half hour breach of taste, a confessional autobiography of embarrassing explicitness . . . there is a misogynistic strain in the play which the author does not seem to recognize. . . . He has created a shameless piece of tabloid gossip, an act of exhibitionism which makes us all voyeurs, . . . a wretched piece of dramatic writing.”

Miller died of bladder cancer and congestive heart failure in 2005, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. He had been in hospice care at his sister’s apartment in New York since his release from hospital the previous month. He died on the evening of February 10 (the 56th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Death of a Salesman), aged 89, surrounded by family and friends. He is interred at Roxbury Center Cemetery in Roxbury.

I’ll give you a bit of a strange choice in recipes today, one from Death of a Salesman and one from Miller’s third wife. In Death of a Salesman Linda has Willy make a sandwich out of “that new whipped American cheese that you like.” You might think that she meant Cheez Whiz, but Kraft did not start marketing it until 3 years after Death of a Salesman came out. Kraft was, however, marketing various flavored cheese spreads at the time that they heavily promoted via newspapers, radio, and television as economical ways to make “fancy meals” which would likely appeal to Willy’s warped sense of values. I’m not recommending it, but if you’d like a sandwich of flavored cheese spread to celebrate Miller, be my guest.

Then there’s this from “A Bird of a Different Feather” by Moira Hodgson (New York Times, November 14, 1982)

Some people consider it absolute heresy to observe Thanksgiving without turkey. But not the photographer Inge Morath, wife of the playwright Arthur Miller. She says that she became so bored with the endless round of turkeys one year that she decided to amuse herself and her friends by making a pièce montée bird out of fruits and vegetables. ‘It’s very easy’ she says in the airy kitchen of the couple’s Connecticut house as she assembles a turkey that could have earned her a job as the prop designer for a Steven Spielberg film. ‘You just go along with what you can find,’ she adds, carrying a basketful of vegetables in from the garden. ‘The trick is to get the head and tail established. Once that’s done, you just have fun.’ Using a couple of loaves of bread as the base, she puts goose feathers in the end of one of the loaves to form a tail. She slices off the end of a corn cob, sticks a toothpick in it and spears it in the other end of the loaf to make the neck. The head is made from a small eggplant nailed by toothpick to the corn (sometimes she uses a pear); the wattles are large, dried red chili peppers. The bird’s chest puffs up as red cabbage and radicchio leaves and are neatly pinned to the bread and hung with red grapes. ‘I’m very surreal,’ Miss Morath notes as she fashions the eyes from two slices of radish, then places raisins in the center. ‘I invent things on the spur of the moment.–such as using quails’ eggs to make a spine or shrimps to fan out the tail. You can make endless variations, and that’s the fun.’ Miss Morath first got the idea from looking at composite paintings of animals and birds. She was living in France at the time and decied to surprise American friends who were celebrating Thanksgiving in Paris. Miss Morath…often spent weekends in chateaus in France. ‘They would serve us exptraordinary Baroque pieces montees, and I’d send my maid down to the kitchen to spy on the cook. She wold return with all the secrets, telling me how they put them together and how they used loaves of bread underneath. To male the piece montee turkey shown here, she used apples, pears, stuffed vine leaves, little tomatoes kumquats, dates, figs, prunes, broccoli, pieces of cheese, black and green grapes, nicoise olives, and all manner of vegetables and fruit threaded on skewers or toothpicks like little shish kebabs so that guests can nibble on them. With the turkey, Miss Morath…serves chilled Montrachet or red Bordeaux. It was not until she married Arthur Miller in 1962 that she learned to cook…’he’s wonderful at grilling meat, and I’m a vegetarian.’…’You don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving to serve the bird…I often serve it at cocktail parites. It is rather like a fondue–everyone dips in, pulling off the skewers.’

Oct 162017

Today is the birthday (1758) of Noah Webster Jr., whose name is synonymous with “dictionary” in the United States, and who was a significant force both in primary education and in the development of what is now called American English. Many of the spellings now current in the US came from Webster’s crusade to simplify the complexities of British orthography, and also to distance the US from British habits.

Webster was born in the Western Division of Hartford (which became West Hartford, Connecticut), to an established family. His father Noah Sr. (1722–1813) was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster; his mother Mercy (Steele) Webster (1727–1794) was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. His father was primarily a farmer, though he was also deacon of the local Congregational church, captain of the town’s militia, and a founder of a local book society (a precursor to the public library). After US independence, he was appointed a justice of the peace.

Webster’s father never attended college, but he was intellectually curious and prized education. Webster’s mother spent long hours teaching her children spelling, mathematics, and music. At age 6, Webster began attending a dilapidated one-room primary school built by West Hartford’s Ecclesiastical Society. Years later, he described the teachers as the “dregs of humanity” and complained that the instruction was mainly in religion. Webster’s experiences there motivated him to improve the educational experience of future generations.

At age 14, his church pastor began tutoring him in Latin and Greek to prepare him for entering Yale College. Webster enrolled at Yale just before his 16th birthday, studying during his senior year with Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president. His 4 years at Yale overlapped the American Revolutionary War, and Webster served in the Connecticut Militia. His father had mortgaged the farm to send Webster to Yale, but he was now on his own and had nothing more to do with his family.

Webster lacked career plans after graduating from Yale in 1778, later writing that a liberal arts education “disqualifies a man for business.” He taught school briefly in Glastonbury, but the working conditions were harsh and the pay low. He quit to study law. While studying law under future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, Webster also taught full-time in Hartford—which was grueling, and ultimately impossible to continue. He stopped studying law for a year and lapsed into a depression. But eventually he found another practicing attorney to tutor him. He completed his studies and passed the bar examination in 1781. He could not find work as a lawyer, but after receiving a master’s degree from Yale by giving an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class, he opened a small private school in western Connecticut that was a success. Nevertheless, he soon closed it and left town, probably because of a failed romance.

Turning to literary work as a way to overcome his losses and channel his ambitions, he began writing a series of well-received articles for a prominent New England newspaper justifying and praising the Revolution and arguing that the separation from Britain had to be permanent. He then founded a private school catering to wealthy parents in Goshen, New York and, by 1785, he had written his Speller, a grammar book and a reader for elementary schools. Proceeds from continuing sales of the popular “Blue-Backed Speller” enabled Webster to spend many years working on his dictionary.

Webster saw his Speller and Dictionary as providing an intellectual foundation for American nationalism. As a teacher, he had come to dislike American elementary schools. They could be overcrowded, with up to 70 children of all ages crammed into one-room schoolhouses. They had poor, underpaid staff, no desks, and unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England. Webster thought that US students should learn from US books, so he began writing the three-volume compendium A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The work consisted of a Speller (published in 1783), a Grammar (published in 1784), and a Reader (published in 1785). His goal was to provide a uniquely “American” approach to training children. His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue “our native tongue” from “the clamour of pedantry” that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation. Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.” This meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.

The Speller was arranged so that it was easy to teach to students, and it progressed by age. From his own experiences as a teacher, Webster thought that the Speller should be simple and give an orderly presentation of words and the rules of spelling and pronunciation. He believed that students learned most readily when he broke a complex problem into its component parts and had each pupil master one part before moving to the next. It has been argued that Webster anticipated some of the insights currently associated with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, although his inspiration on the matter came from Rousseau. Webster argued that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks. Therefore, teachers must not try to teach a 3 year old how to read, but start at age 5. He organized his Speller accordingly, beginning with the alphabet and moving systematically through the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, then more complex words, then sentences.

The Speller was originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Over the course of 385 editions in his lifetime, the title was changed in 1786 to The American Spelling Book, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. Most people called it the “Blue-Backed Speller” because of its blue cover and, for the next 100 years, Webster’s book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time; by 1837, it had sold 15 million copies, and 60 million by 1890—reaching the majority of young students in the nation’s first century. Its royalty of a half-cent per copy was enough to sustain Webster in his other projects. It also helped create the popular contests known as spelling bees.

Webster’s Speller was entirely secular by design, undoubtedly based on his dissatisfaction with his own schooling. There was no mention of God, the Bible, or sacred events. “Let sacred things be appropriated for sacred purposes,” he wrote. He was intensely religious, especially later in life, but sacred and secular were different realms for him.

Webster’s educational agenda concerned as much the creation of a unified American national culture that would stave off the decline of republican virtues and solidarity, as instilling good grammar and spelling. Following theorists such as Maupertuis, Michaelis, and Herder, Webster believed that a nation’s linguistic forms, and the thoughts correlated with them, shaped individuals’ behavior. Thus, the etymological clarification and reform of American English promised to improve citizens’ manners and thereby preserve republican purity and social stability. Lofty ideals !!

In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language. It took 26 years to complete. Webster hoped to standardize US speech, since citizens in different parts of the country used different dialects and languages. Consequently they spelled, pronounced, and used English words differently.

Webster completed his dictionary during a year abroad in January 1825 in a boarding house in Cambridge in England. The book contained 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster preferred spellings that matched pronunciation. The spellings that now are characteristic of American English did not originate with Webster, but he made them standard and his dictionary became the general arbiter in the US. For example, the middle of something could be the “center” or “centre” in English; Webster made the former his preferred spelling because it emphasized pronunciation over etymology (which he considered pedantically British). He was able to make headway by replacing /-our/ with /-or/ (e.g. “color” over “colour”) and eliminating some double consonants (e.g. “traveled” for “travelled”); but he found little success with more radical changes (e.g. “tung” for “tongue”); and no luck with getting rid of silent letters whatsoever.   He once complained:

There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.

Though it now has an honored place in the history of American English, Webster’s first dictionary sold only 2,500 copies. He was forced to mortgage his home to develop a second edition, and his life from then on was plagued with debt. The work was so poorly received at first because Webster, as was his wont in everyday life, managed to annoy everyone. Culturally conservative Jeffersonian Federalists (whom he allied with much of the time) denounced the work as radical—too inclusive in its lexicon and even bordering on vulgar, while his old foes, the Republicans, attacked the man, labeling him mad for such an undertaking. Even before he published the dictionary they called him “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot,” “an incurable lunatic,” and “a deceitful newsmonger … Pedagogue and Quack.” But even Federalist rivals called him “a toad in the service of sans-cullottism,” “a prostitute wretch,” “a great fool, and a barefaced liar,” “a spiteful viper,” and “a maniacal pedant.” He certainly knew how to get up people’s noses.

On the other side of the coin, Emily Dickinson saw the 1844 Webster’s as essential reading. She once commented that the “Lexicon” was her “only companion” for years. As it happens, Webster was one of the founders of Amherst college along with Dickinson’s grandfather, and she went to college with Webster’s granddaughter.  Webster’s dictionaries helped redefine US national identity in an era of extreme cultural flexibility. Webster himself saw the dictionaries as a nationalizing device to separate the US from Britain, calling his project a “federal language” endeavor, with competing forces towards regularity on the one hand and innovation on the other.

American Cookery The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables etc (1796) by Amelia Simmons is a good source for a recipe for today’s anniversary because it was the first cookbook published in the US that deals with specifically American cooking, and because it was published in Hartford, Connecticut, Webster’s home town. Webster kept a daily diary but he does not mention food much. However, he does give this entry:

1784, September 29. Rode to West Division with Mrs. Fish to buy peaches. Returned and had dinner at Mr. Pratt’s. We ate Sea-Turtle.

I don’t know how the turtle was cooked, nor do I want to cook one myself, but here’s a recipe from Simmons.

To Dress a Turtle.

Fill a boiler or kettle, with a quantity of water sufficient to scald the callapach and Callapee, the fins, &c. and about 9 o’clock hang up your Turtle by the hind fins, cut of the head and save the blood, take a sharp pointed knife and separate the callapach from the callapee, or the back from the belly part, down to the shoulders, so as to come at the entrails which take out, and clean them, as you would those of any other animal, and throw them into a tub of clean water, taking great care not to break the gall, but to cut it off from the liver and throw it away, then separate each distinctly and put the guts into another vessel, open them with a small pen-knife end to end, wash them clean, and draw them through a woolen cloth, in warm water, to clear away the slime and then put them in clean cold water till they are used with the other part of the entrails, which must be cut up small to be mixed in the baking dishes with the meat; this done, separate the back and belly pieces, entirely cutting away the fore fins by the upper joint, which scald; peal off the loose skin and cut them into small pieces, laying them by themselves, either in another vessel, or on the table, ready to be seasoned; then cut off the meat from the belly part, and clean the back from the lungs, kidneys, &c. and that meat cut into pieces as small as a walnut, laying it likewise by itself; after this you are to scald the back, and belly pieces, pulling off the shell from the back, and the yellow skin from the belly, when all will be white and clean, and with the kitchen cleaver cut those up likewise into pieces about the bigness or breadth of a card; put those pieces into clean cold water, wash them and place them in a heap on the table, so that each part may lay by itself; the meat being thus prepared and laid separate for seasoning; mix two third parts of salt or rather more, and one third part of cyanne pepper, black pepper, and a nutmeg, and mace pounded fine, and mixt all together; the quantity, to be proportioned to the size of the Turtle, so that in each dish there may be about three spoonfuls of seasoning to every twelve pound of meat; your meat being thus seasoned, get some sweet herbs, such as thyme, savory, &c. let them be dryed an rub’d fine, and having provided some deep dishes to bake it in, which should be of the common brown ware, put in the coarsest part of the meat, put a quarter pound of butter at the bottom of each dish, and then put some of each of the several parcels of meat, so that the dishes may be all alike and have equal portions of the different parts of the Turtle, and between each laying of meat strew a little of the mixture of sweet herbs, fill your dishes within an inch an half, or two inches of the top; boil the blood of the Turtle, and put into it, then lay on forcemeat balls made of veal, highly seasoned with the same seasoning as the Turtle; put in each dish a gill of Madeira Wine, and as much water as it will conveniently hold, then break over it five or six eggs to keep the meat from scorching at the top, and over that shake a handful of shread parsley, to make it look green, when done put your dishes into an oven made hot enough to bake bread, and in an hour and half, or two hours (according to the size of the dishes) it will be sufficiently done.

Oct 152017

Today is the birthday (1844) of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who needs no introduction as a philosopher although I suspect that few people read much of what he wrote, but, instead, come up with his ideas (or their antithesis) “independently” because they are oblivious to the huge impact his philosophy has had on Western culture. I’ll give a small biography as background and then dribble on a bit about some salient points in his writing, followed by a few quotes for good measure. Nothing I can say here will be remotely comprehensive.  That’s your job to investigate.

Nietzsche grew up in the small town of Röcken, near Leipzig, in the Prussian Province of Saxony. He was named after King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who turned 49 on the day of Nietzsche’s birth. (Nietzsche later dropped his middle name, Wilhelm). Nietzsche’s father died from a brain ailment in 1849 and his younger brother, Ludwig Joseph, died six months later, at age 2. The family then moved to Naumburg, where they lived with Nietzsche’s maternal grandmother and his father’s two unmarried sisters. After the death of Nietzsche’s grandmother in 1856, the family moved into their own house, now Nietzsche-Haus, a museum and Nietzsche study center.

In 1854 Nietzsche started at Domgymnasium in Naumburg, but because his father had worked for the state (as a Lutheran pastor) the now-fatherless Nietzsche was offered a scholarship to study at the internationally recognized Schulpforta where he studied from 1858 to 1864 (the scholarship was not because he excelled at his studies, as is sometimes asserted – he did not).

While at Pforta, Nietzsche had decidedly odd tastes for the time.  For example, he favored the almost  unknown poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who was considered mad by contemporaries. He also became personally acquainted with Ernst Ortlepp, an eccentric, blasphemous, and often drunken poet who was found dead in a ditch weeks after meeting the young Nietzsche but who may have introduced Nietzsche to the music and writing of Richard Wagner.

In 1864 Nietzsche Began studies in theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn with a view to becoming a minister. After one term he lost his faith and stopped his theological studies. In June 1865, at the age of 20, Nietzsche wrote to his sister Elisabeth, who was deeply religious, a letter regarding his loss of faith. This letter contains the following:

Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire…

Nietzsche was a passionate, challenging, and complex writer. He evokes strong responses, positive and negative, many of which are fueled either by misunderstanding or a need to reduce his philosophy to simple terms.  Both are a disservice. I won’t continue such disservice, but merely point out how easy it is to go wrong in attempting to understand Nietzsche.

The idea of the Apollonian and Dionysian as philosophical, poetic, and dramatic concepts was famously expounded in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, but his favorite boyhood poet, Hölderlin, had already expounded on the idea. Nietzsche saw classical Athenian tragedy as an art form that transcended what he saw as the pessimism of its age in philosophy. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering depicted by characters on stage, passionately and joyously affirmed life, finding it worth living. A main theme in The Birth of Tragedy was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian Kunsttrieben (“artistic impulses”) forms dramatic arts, or tragedies. He goes on to argue that this fusion has not been achieved again since the ancient Greek tragedians. Apollo represents harmony, progress, clarity and logic, whereas Dionysus represents disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy.

The point of Greek tragedy, according to Nietzsche, is the complex interplay of these two forces: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order (in the Apollonian sense) of his unjust and chaotic (Dionysian) fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. Nietzsche argues that a Dionysian figure possesses knowledge to realize that his actions cannot change the eternal balance of things, and it disgusts him enough not to be able to make any act at all. Hamlet falls under this category—he has glimpsed the supernatural reality through the Ghost, he has gained true knowledge and knows that no action of his has the power to change this.

Nietzsche is adamant that the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles represent the apex of artistic creation, the true realization of tragedy. With Euripides, he believes that tragedy begins its Untergang (“going under”). Nietzsche objects to Euripides’ use of Socratic rationalism and morality in his tragedies, claiming that the infusion of ethics and reason robs tragedy of its foundation, namely the fragile balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian. Plato continued with this path in his dialogues, and the modern world eventually inherited reason at the expense of artistic impulses that could be found only in the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. This leads to his conclusion that European culture from the time of Socrates had always been only Apollonian and thus decadent and unhealthy.] He notes that whenever Apollonian culture dominates, the Dionysian lacks the structure to make a coherent art, and when Dionysian dominates, the Apollonian lacks the necessary passion.

Ruth Benedict, noted Boasian anthropologist, tried to elaborate on the Apollonian and Dionysian in her most enduring work, Patterns of Culture, where, in my very humble opinion, she rather misunderstood Nietzsche’s intent. Benedict uses the Apollonian and Dionysian as pure cultural ideals to explore bedrock values in cultures under observation. Thus, for her, traditional Puebloan cultures of the American southwest are Apollonian cultures because they value community, rules, and order, whereas the potlatch cultures of the American northwest Pacific coast are Dionysian because they value individualism, excess, and disorder. I think she’s wrong to characterize them that way at all, but also wrong to lay the analysis at Nietzsche’s doorstep. Nietzsche was interested in the Apollonian and Dionysian as intertwined and conflicting tendencies within a single culture or individuals, not as models of separate cultures. Benedict’s simplification of Nietzsche’s idea suited her need to reduce complex cultures to simple models. I won’t be too harsh on her, though. She was living in the early days of American anthropology when there was a drive towards finding the “rules” that drive culture. Hopefully, we are more mature these days.

Nietzsche was also famous for stating that God is dead, (and prelates in the Church of England eventually caught on: more accurately than most atheists, as it happens). What Nietzsche was saying was that absolutism (in the name of God) is dead. It is true that he had lost his faith in Christianity while studying theology, but that’s not what he is referring to here. Nietzsche believed that the Western world was losing its grip on any universal perspective on things, and along with it any coherent sense of objective truth. He rejected the idea of objective reality, arguing that knowledge is contingent and conditional, relative to various fluid perspectives or interests. This viewpoint meant that there had to be a constant reassessment of rules (including those of philosophy, the scientific method, etc.) according to the circumstances of individual perspectives. You can easily see how a German physicist could take this idea and come up with a theory of relativity, although Einstein challenged the orthodoxy of the scientific world of his day and not of the scientific method itself. That agenda is still in the making.

The cultural relativism of anthropology is also embedded in Nietzsche’s philosophy. According to Nietzsche, the values of one culture are no better or worse than any other culture. What makes a culture great (and unified) is not the nature of its particular values and beliefs, but in the collective will to see those values realized and achieved.

While Nietzsche attacked the principles of Judaism, he was not anti-Semitic. In On the Genealogy of Morality, he explicitly condemns antisemitism, and points out that his attack on Judaism was not an attack on contemporary Jewish people but specifically an attack upon the ancient Jewish priesthood whom he claims anti-Semitic Christians paradoxically based their views upon. Nietzsche felt that modern antisemitism was despicable and contrary to European ideals. Its cause, in his opinion, was the growth in European nationalism and the endemic “jealousy and hatred” of Jewish success.

Nietzsche held a pessimistic view on modern society and culture, especially mass/popular culture.  He believed the press and mass culture led to conformity and brought about mediocrity. Nietzsche saw a lack of intellectual progress, leading to the decline of humanity. According to Nietzsche, individuals needed to overcome this form of mass culture. He believed some people were able to become superior individuals through the use of will power. By rising above mass culture, society would produce higher, brighter and healthier human beings. The jury is still out on that one.

Here is a sprinkling of quotes to illustrate Nietzsche:

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.

The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.

Success has always been a great liar.


Nietzsche had a complex relationship with food and diet much of his life. He was something of a pig in his younger days, but later had to be more circumspect because he was subject to constant nausea and indigestion. At one point he wrote, “If only I were master of my stomach once more!” in response to his endless digestive ailments. As a young man his main meal of the day was a late lunch, avoiding the midday crowds at restaurants, usually consisting of steak and gargantuan quantities of fruit. As his stomach ailments got worse he tried vegetarianism, living on milk and eggs alone, and eating hardly anything at all. At one point, he put his faith in Liebig’s meat extract, a thick paste that could be mixed with water to produce a beef broth which he thought was very nutritious — but wasn’t.

Nietzsche wrote copious notes on diet which were not well known for a long time but were eventually collected into a book translated into English by R. J. Hollingdale under the title Fat is Dead (2004). Hollingdale summarizes Nietzsche’s diet as follows:

The basics of the Nietzschean regimen are simple. The dieter exercises a painful amount of self-honesty in order to identify the primary object of his or her deepest human dread as personified by a wide-ranging group of foodstuffs. Once the dieter’s Fear has been identified, he eats that food exclusively, in unlimited amounts, until the food no longer appetizes or frightens him. Having completed his gorge and transcended his fear, the dieter fasts for 20 days on water and Simple Salad.

There is your recipe directive du jour. Eat copious quantities of the food you dread the most because of the fear it will make you fat. Or . . . look to Nietzsche’s boyhood home: Naumburg. Naumburg holds a famous cherry festival annually. If I had a kitchen I’d opt for a cherry crumble.


Oct 142017

On this date in 1884 George Eastman (July 12, 1854 – March 14, 1932), was granted two related patents for roll film, revolutionizing photography and bringing it into the mainstream. Roll film was also the basis for the invention of motion picture film in 1888 by the world’s first film-makers Eadweard Muybridge and Louis Le Prince, and a few years later by their followers Léon Bouly, William Dickson, Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and Georges Méliès. Prior to the invention of roll film, photography required certain expert knowledge in physics and chemistry, with a strong background in practical engineering. Only the dedicated few knew how to manage it. In 1888 Eastman patented a box camera that used roll film, and completed the revolution. He was also one of a rare breed of industrialist philanthropist (as opposed to a robber baron), and, by all accounts, was a decent employer even though he hated trade unions.

Eastman was born in Waterville, New York to George Washington Eastman and Maria Eastman (née Kilbourn) on the 10-acre farm which his parents bought in 1849. He had two older sisters, Ellen Maria and Katie. He was largely self-educated, although he attended a private school in Rochester after the age of 8. In the early 1840s his father had started a business school, the Eastman Commercial College in Rochester, New York. As his father’s health started deteriorating, the family gave up the farm and moved to Rochester in 1860. His father died of a brain disorder in May 1862. To survive and afford George’s schooling, his mother took in boarders.

Eastman’s sister, Katie, had contracted polio when young and died in late 1870 when George was 15 years old. The young George left school early and started working to help support the family. As Eastman began to have success with his photography business, he vowed to repay his mother for the hardships she had endured in raising him.

Eastman’s roll film was not the first patented but it was the first that proved practicable. He tinkered at home to develop it in his spare time, not in some sophisticated lab or R&D department. The days of the home inventor are almost entirely gone, although a few linger on. Science and technology are generally too sophisticated for the talented amateur these days, but there’s still a smidge of breathing room here and there.

In 1888 Eastman perfected the Kodak Black camera and founded the Kodak company following the “razor and blades strategy” of selling inexpensive cameras and making large margins from consumables: film, chemicals, and paper. As late as 1976, Kodak commanded 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales in the U.S. I used Kodak film in my first camera (a plastic box from Woolworths); my second camera was a Kodak; and my first developing kit for black-and-white was made by Kodak. I stopped using Kodak products when I switched to digital about 10 years ago. The end of an era for me and for most photographers. I don’t lament the passing of film as some photographers do. I haven’t had a dark room in decades, and I was never particularly good at developing anyway. My skill – such as it is – lies in my eye for composition and subject matter. I do lament (slightly) the access to digital photography of the masses, but only because I am thoroughly sick of endless selfies on Facebook. Eastman’s revolution with the box camera and roll film certainly changed the world of photography, but nowhere near in the same way.

Even with a digital SLR I still maintain a certain Spartan roll-film aesthetic. What my camera captures through the viewfinder is what you get. I don’t crop images or use PhotoShop.  The technology changes what my eye sees quite enough without me adding to the manipulation. Using a camera at all changes everything you see. This stark fact was brought home to me years ago when I was attending a pig slaughter in the Catskills near my home. The actual events were quite horrifying, but when viewed through a camera’s lens and frame they were contained and manageable emotionally. My presence as a photographer, as opposed to an idle observer, was also acceptable to the participants.

George Eastman never married. He was close to his mother, and to his sister and her family. He had a long platonic relationship with Josephine Dickman, a trained singer and the wife of business associate George Dickman, becoming especially close to her after the death of his mother, Maria Eastman, in 1907. The loss of his mother, Maria, was particularly crushing to George. Almost pathologically concerned with decorum, he found himself unable for the first time to control his emotions in the presence of friends. “When my mother died I cried all day,” he explained later. “I could not have stopped to save my life.” Due to his mother’s reluctance to accept his gifts, George Eastman could never do enough for his mother during her lifetime. He opened the Eastman Theater in Rochester on September 4, 1922, which included a chamber-music hall dedicated to his mother’s memory: the Kilbourn Theater. At the Eastman House, he maintained a rose bush using a cutting from her childhood home.

Eastman was one of the outstanding philanthropists of his time, donating more than $100 million to various projects in Rochester; Cambridge, Massachusetts; at two historically black colleges in the South; and in several European cities. In 1918, he endowed the establishment of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, and in 1921 a school of medicine and dentistry there.

In his final two years, Eastman was in intense pain caused by a disorder affecting his spine. He had trouble standing, and his walk became a slow shuffle. Nobody knows the exact nature of the disorder. Eastman suffered from depression due to his pain, reduced ability to function, and also since he had witnessed his mother’s suffering from pain. On March 14, 1932, Eastman committed suicide with a single gunshot through the heart, leaving a note which read, “To my friends, my work is done – Why wait? GE.” Eastman’s ashes are buried in the grounds of the company he founded at Eastman Business Park, formerly known as Kodak Park in Rochester.

I wouldn’t call Rochester a culinary epicenter, but it does have a few specialties that are well known locally. Rochester chicken French is probably the best known among locals. It was probably around in Eastman’s day. Chicken French is a mutant form of the Italian vitello francese which migrated with Italians to New York City, thence to Rochester, with the veal being replaced with chicken somewhere along the way. The method is to coat the meat with flour and egg, fry it, and serve with a lemon and wine reduction.

Rochester Chicken French


all-purpose flour
salt and black pepper to taste
2 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp olive oil
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
¼ cup butter
2 tsp minced garlic
¼ cup dry sherry
¼ cup lemon juice
chicken stock
lemon slices
chopped parsley


Mix together some flour with salt, and pepper to taste in a wide, deep, rimmed plate. Whisk together the beaten eggs, sugar, and Parmesan cheese until the mixture is thoroughly blended and the sugar has dissolved. Pour into another wide and deep rimmed plate

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

Use the dry hand/wet hand method to dip the chicken. Use one hand (dry hand) to roll each chicken breast in the flour until completely coated. Without touching the egg, place each breast in turn in the egg. Roll the breast around with the other hand (wet hand) until it is thoroughly coated. When coated, lay each breast into the hot oil in the skillet.

Fry the breasts on each side until they are golden brown all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve on a wire rack.

Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-low. Melt the butter, and stir in the garlic, sherry, lemon juice, and a small amount (around 2 tablespoons) of chicken stock. Simmer until reduced and smooth, scraping any brown bits off the bottom of the skillet as it cooks. Return the chicken breasts to the sauce, and gently simmer until heated through (5 to 10 minutes).

Garnish with lemon slices and parsley.


Oct 132017

What later became known as the Whirlpool Galaxy was discovered on this date in 1773 by Charles Messier while hunting for objects that could confuse comet hunters (because they were diffuse). He designated it in his catalogue (still used by some people) as M51. Its companion galaxy, NGC 5195, was discovered in 1781 by Pierre Méchain, although at the time it was not known that it was interacting with M51. In 1845, William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, employing a 72-inch (1.8 m) reflecting telescope at Birr Castle in Ireland, found that the Whirlpool Galaxy possessed a spiral structure: the first of what were called “nebulae” at the time to be known to have one. These “spiral nebulae” were not recognized as galaxies until Edwin Hubble was able to observe Cepheid variables, (pulsing stars that provide benchmarks of distance), in some of these “spiral nebulae,” which provided evidence that they were so far away that they must be entirely separate galaxies.

The advent of radio astronomy and subsequent radio images of M51 unequivocally demonstrated that the Whirlpool and its companion galaxy are indeed interacting. Sometimes the designation M51 is used to refer to the pair of galaxies, in which case the individual galaxies may be referred to as M51A (NGC 5194) and M51B (NGC 5195).

With the recent SN 2005cs derived estimate of 23 million light year’s distance, and an angular diameter of roughly 11.2′, it can be inferred that M51’s bright circular disk has a radius of about 43,000 light-years. Overall the galaxy is about 35% the size of the Milky Way. Its mass is estimated to be 160 billion solar masses. A black hole, surrounded by a ring of dust, is thought to exist at the heart of the spiral. The dust ring stands almost perpendicular to the relatively flat spiral nebula. A secondary ring crosses the primary ring on a different axis, a phenomenon that is contrary to expectations. A pair of ionization cones extend from the axis of the main dust ring.

The very pronounced spiral structure of the Whirlpool Galaxy is believed to be the result of the close interaction between it and its companion galaxy NGC 5195; specifically, it passed through the main disk of M51 about 500 to 600 million years ago. In this model, NGC 5195 came from behind M51 through the disk towards us, and made another disk crossing as recently as 50 to 100 million years ago until it is where we observe it to be now, slightly behind M51.

Stars are usually formed in the center of the galaxy. The center part of M51 appears to be undergoing a period of enhanced star formation. The present efficiency of star formation, defined as the ratio of mass of new stars to the mass of star-forming gas, is only ~1%, quite comparable to the global value for the Milky Way and other galaxies. It is estimated that the current high rate of star formation can last no more than another 100 million years or so.

Significant compression of hydrogen gas occurs within the galaxy that leads to the development of star-birth regions. In pictures of M51 these show up as the bright blue ‘knots’ throughout the spiral arms. Hydrogen is the most common physical component of the interstellar medium (the vast space between stars and planetary systems in galaxies). It forms huge, very diffuse, clouds throughout the entire galaxy. When large sources of gravitational pull pass nearby, such as other galaxies, gravitational interactions produce compression waves that sweep through these hydrogen clouds. This causes some regions of the previously diffuse gas to compress into tight pockets of opaque and dense gas; these are dust lanes often seen in the spiral arms. In regions where the concentration and density of gas reaches a critical value, further collapse under its own gravitational pull occurs, and stars are born at the center of the collapse, where the gas is compressed so strongly that fusion initiates.

When this happens, these new-born stars consume huge amounts of gas causing them to expand, shine even hotter, and finally sweep away the surrounding layers of dust and gas by increasing efflux of the stellar wind. The gigantic proportions of the clouds out of which they are born means stars seldom, if ever, are created in isolation.

Talking about star formation, galaxies, interstellar distance and so forth always leaves me in awe. Just writing that the Whirlpool Galaxy contains 160 billion solar masses is staggering enough. Talking about galaxies intersecting every 100 million years or so is simply incomprehensible. It’s not something I can really get my mind around. I have enough trouble thinking about the size of the earth relative to our own star, which, in itself, is a small fry in comparison with other stars in the universe.  Then there’s light years. What a phenomenal distance: the distance it takes light to travel in a YEAR!! Astronomers such as Carl Sagan were driven by the marvels of the universe towards atheism. I’m driven in the opposite direction, but not in ways you might think. These observations lead me to reject hopelessly naïve conceptions of creation and whatnot, and instead to ponder not only the vastness of the universe but also the vastness of our ignorance of it, and the pitiful inadequacy of the tools we are using to investigate it.  We know just a little bit more than NOTHING, yet pride ourselves on how much we think we know. Hopeless arrogance. Let’s cook instead. That’s more manageable.

If you search online you’ll find hundreds of galaxy-themed desserts, most of them swirly colorful things reminiscent of the Whirlpool Galaxy. This site is typical:


Failing your own imagination (and squirt bottles full of colored icing and chocolate, there’s this video:

Oct 122017

On this date in 1915 nurse Edith Louisa Cavell (1865 – 1915) was executed by a German firing squad. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping about 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, for which she was arrested. She was accused of treason, found guilty by a court-martial and sentenced to death. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage. She is well known for her statement that “patriotism is not enough, I must have no hate in my heart.” Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed help, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” The Church of England commemorates her in their Calendar of Saints on this date.

Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in Swardeston, near Norwich, where her father was vicar for 45 years. She was educated at Norwich High School for Girls, then boarding schools in Clevedon, Somerset and Peterborough. After a period as a governess, including for a family in Brussels 1890–1895, she returned home to care for her father during a serious illness. The experience led her to become a nurse after her father’s recovery. In April 1896, at the age of 30, Cavell applied to become a nurse probationer at the London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes. She worked in various hospitals in England, including Shoreditch Infirmary (now St Leonard’s Hospital). As a private traveling nurse treating patients in their homes.

In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées, (or The Berkendael Medical Institute) on the Rue de la Culture (now Rue Franz Merjay), in Ixelles, Brussels. In 1910 she launched the nursing journal, L’infirmière” and within a year she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.

When the First World War broke out, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. She returned to Brussels, where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross. Cavell had been offered a position as the matron (head nurse) in a Brussels clinic. In November 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funneling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. Wounded British and French soldiers as well as Belgian and French civilians of military age were hidden from the Germans and provided with false papers by Prince Réginald de Croÿ at his château of Bellignies near Mons. From there, they were conducted by various guides to the houses of Cavell, Louis Séverin and others in Brussels; where their hosts would furnish them with money to reach the Dutch frontier and provide them with guides obtained through Philippe Baucq. This placed Cavell in violation of German military law. German authorities became increasingly suspicious of her actions, further fueled by her outspokenness.

She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harboring Allied soldiers. She had been betrayed by Gaston Quien, who was later convicted by a French court as a collaborator. She was held in Saint-Gilles prison for ten weeks, the last two of which were spent in solitary confinement. She made three depositions to the German police (on 8, 18 and 22 August), admitting that she had been instrumental in conveying about 60 British and 15 French soldiers as well as about 100 French and Belgian civilians of military age to the frontier and had sheltered most of them in her house.

In her court-martial she was prosecuted for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the border and eventually enter Britain. She admitted her guilt when she signed a statement the day before the trial. Cavell declared that the soldiers she had helped escape thanked her in writing when they arrived safely in Britain. This admission confirmed that Cavell had helped the soldiers navigate the Dutch frontier, but it also established that she helped them escape to a country at war with Germany.

The penalty according to German military law was death. Paragraph 58 of the German Military Code said that guilty parties; “Will be sentenced to death for treason any person who, with the intention of helping the hostile Power, or of causing harm to the German or allied troops, is guilty of one of the crimes of paragraph 90 of the German Penal Code.” The case referred to in the above-mentioned paragraph 90 consists of “Conducting soldiers to the enemy”, although this was not traditionally punishable by death.  Additionally, the penalties according to paragraph 160 of the German Code, in case of war, applied to foreigners as well as Germans.

While the First Geneva Convention ordinarily guaranteed protection of medical personnel, that protection was forfeit if used as cover for any belligerent action. This forfeiture is expressed in article 7 of the 1906 version of the Convention, which was the version in force at the time. The German authorities instead justified prosecution merely on the basis of the German law and the interests of the German state.

The British government could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, “I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless.” Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, advised that, “Any representation by us, will do her more harm than good.” The United States, however, had not yet joined the war and was in a position to apply diplomatic pressure. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the U.S. legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm Germany’s already damaged reputation. Later, he wrote:

We reminded [German civil governor Baron von der Lancken] of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania, and told him that this murder would rank with those two affairs and would stir all civilised countries with horror and disgust. Count Harrach broke in at this with the rather irrelevant remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to the humblest German soldier, and his only regret was that they had not “three or four old English women to shoot.”

Baron von der Lancken is known to have stated that Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied. However, General von Sauberzweig, the military governor of Brussels, ordered that “in the interests of the State” the implementation of the death penalty against Baucq and Cavell should be immediate, denying higher authorities an opportunity to consider clemency. Cavell was defended by lawyer Sadi Kirschen from Brussels. Of the 27 persons put on trial, five were condemned to death: Cavell, Baucq (an architect in his thirties), Louise Thuliez, Séverin and Countess Jeanne de Belleville. Of the five sentenced to death, only Cavell and Baucq were executed; the other three were granted reprieve.

When in custody, Cavell was questioned in French, but the session was minuted in German; which gave the interrogator the opportunity to misinterpret her answers. Although she may have been misrepresented, she made no attempt to defend herself. The night before her execution, she told the Reverend Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words are inscribed on her statue in St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur, were recorded as, “Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”

From his sick bed Brand Whitlock, the U.S. minister to Belgium, wrote a personal note on Cavell’s behalf to Moritz von Bissing, the governor general of Belgium. Hugh Gibson; Maitre G. de Leval, the legal adviser to the United States legation; and Rodrigo Saavedra y Vinent, 2nd Marques de Villalobar, the Spanish minister, formed a midnight deputation of appeal for mercy or at least postponement of sentence. Despite these efforts, on 11 October, Baron von der Lancken allowed the execution to proceed. Sixteen men, forming two firing squads, carried out the sentence pronounced on her, and on four Belgian men at the Tir national shooting range in Schaerbeek, at 7:00 am on 12 October 1915.

In the months and years following Cavell’s death, countless newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books publicized her story. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain, and to help increase favourable sentiment towards the Allies in the United States. She was a popular icon because she was a woman, her nursing profession, and her apparently heroic approach to death. Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity.

The Imperial German Government believed that it had acted fairly towards Cavell. In a letter, German undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Dr Alfred Zimmermann (not to be confused with Arthur Zimmermann, German Secretary for Foreign Affairs) made a statement to the press on behalf of the German government:

It was a pity that Miss Cavell had to be executed, but it was necessary. She was judged justly…It is undoubtedly a terrible thing that the woman has been executed; but consider what would happen to a State, particularly in war, if it left crimes aimed at the safety of its armies to go unpunished because committed by women.

German laws did not make distinctions between sexes, the only exception to this rule being that according to legal customs, women in a “delicate” condition (that is, pregnant), could not be executed. However, in January 1916 the Kaiser decreed that regarding women from then on, capital punishment should not be carried out without his explicit prior endorsement.

I’ve chosen a Norfolk recipe for today because of Cavell’s place of origin: Norfolk dumplings. They are sometimes known as “sinkers and swimmers” because of the habit of some of them to float and some to sink when cooked. You should really prefer the swimmers to the sinkers. Unlike other British dumplings, the Norfolk variety are traditionally made without suet or fat. Because of the lack of fat they are a bit more digestible for invalids I suspect. They can be served on their own as a side dish, but they are usually cooked in stews. This recipe is absolutely plain and basic, but you can add some flavorings such as parsley, if you prefer.

Norfolk Dumplings


½ lb plain flour
1 tsp baking powder


Sieve the flour, baking powder, and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Mix all the ingredients together with enough water to make a light dough.

Turn the dough on to a floured board, knead lightly. Then pinch off small pieces and form into round dumplings.

The dumplings can be cooked in gently boiling water for 20 minutes, or added to a stew 20 minutes before serving.

Oct 112017

Today is the birthday (1896) of Roman Osipovich Jakobson (Рома́н О́сипович Якобсо́н), Russian–American linguist and literary theorist whose work on the structural analysis of language became the dominant trend in linguistics during the first half of the 20th century and greatly influenced structural anthropology which was very much in vogue when I was a doctoral candidate in the early 1970s. The influence of structuralism in general declined during the 1970s and I gave it up for more fertile fields as I read more widely. But there are some core ideas that linger (somewhat transformed). I’ll try not to be too technical here: the danger of knowing too much about a subject. Mostly I want to talk about Jacobson’s influence, and why I moved in the opposite direction. Jakobson’s brand of linguistics is all about making the study of language into a science, and I believe that this is a misguided enterprise. Science wants to find RULES in the midst of seeming complexity – known technically as reductionism. I don’t like RULES – personally or professionally – and I don’t believe that human behavior (linguistic or otherwise) can be reduced to rules: just the opposite. Human behavior is inherently complex and is irreducible in my oh-so-humble opinion. I want the opposite of reduction: complexity. Before continuing with this, let’s have a little biographical context.

Jakobson was born in Russia a well-to-do family of Jewish descent, the industrialist Osip Jakobson and chemist Anna Volpert Jakobson, and he developed a fascination with language at a very young age. He studied at the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages and then at the Historical-Philological Faculty of Moscow University. As a student he was a leading figure of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and took part in Moscow’s active world of avant-garde art and poetry. The linguistics of the time was overwhelmingly neogrammarian and insisted that the only scientific study of language was to study the history and development of words across time (the diachronic approach, in Saussure’s terms). Jakobson, on the other hand, had come into contact with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, and developed an approach focused on the way in which language’s structure served its basic function (synchronic approach) – to communicate information between speakers. Jakobson was also well known for his critique of the emergence of sound in film.

1920 was a year of political conflict in Russia, and Jakobson relocated to Prague as a member of the Soviet diplomatic mission to continue his doctoral studies. He immersed himself both into the academic and cultural life of pre-World War II Czechoslovakia and established close relationships with a number of Czech poets and literary figures. Jakobson received his Ph.D. from Charles University in 1930. He became a professor at Masaryk University in Brno in 1933. He also made an impression on Czech academics with his studies of Czech verse. In 1926, together with Vilém Mathesius and others he became one of the founders of the “Prague school” of linguistic theory.

Jakobson escaped from Prague in early March 1939 via Berlin for Denmark, where he was associated with the Copenhagen linguistic circle, and such intellectuals as Louis Hjelmslev. He fled to Norway on 1 September 1939, and in 1940 walked across the border to Sweden, where he continued his work at the Karolinska Hospital (with works on aphasia and language competence). When Swedish colleagues feared a possible German occupation, he managed to leave on a cargo ship, together with Ernst Cassirer (the former rector of Hamburg University) to New York City in 1941 to become part of the wider community of intellectual émigrés who fled there.

In New York, he began teaching at The New School, still closely associated with the Czech émigré community during that period. At the École libre des hautes études, a sort of Francophone university-in-exile, he met and collaborated with Claude Lévi-Strauss, who became the leading light of structuralism in anthropology. He also made the acquaintance of many “American” linguists and anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Benjamin Whorf, and Leonard Bloomfield. When the US authorities considered “repatriating” him to Europe (i.e. condemning him to a concentration camp), it was Franz Boas who intervened to save his life. In 1949 Jakobson moved to Harvard University, where he remained until his retirement in 1967.

Usually historians divide Jakobson’s work into 4 stages. In the first stage, roughly the 1920s to 1930s, he helped develop the concept of the phoneme, the core of phonology. Basically, every language has a distinct set of phonemes: sounds that change the meanings of words. Thus “bin” and “pin” are different words in English, so /b/ and /p/ are distinct phonemes. Whether you pronounce the /p/ with a puff of air or not (aspirated versus unaspirated) does not make a difference to the meaning of “pin” in English. But aspirated versus unaspirated /p/ makes a difference in Burmese. So, they are different phonemes in Burmese (something I had to struggle to hear when I lived in Myanmar).

In the second stage, roughly the late 1930s to the 1940s, Jakobson developed the notion that “binary distinctive features” were the foundational element in language. This idea lies at the heart of structuralism: the notion that even complex human behavior can be broken into binary oppositions, and that human thought is the product of these binary oppositions – e.g. nature/culture, male/female, black/white . . . etc. – all nested together.

In the third stage in Jakobson’s work, from the 1950s to 1960s, he worked with the acoustician C. Gunnar Fant and Morris Halle (a student of Jakobson’s) to consider the acoustic aspects of distinctive features. The following diagram gives the basic idea. Don’t worry for the moment if it seems a bit opaque. Note you have 2 binary oppositions – compact/diffuse and grave/acute – which yield a triad of sounds. I used a similar analysis once to describe what happened on the 2nd and 3rd days of creation in Genesis. On the 2nd day God created the sky and created the binary opposition of up/down. On the 3rd day he separated sea and dry land.  Thus, you have three zones: air (up), ocean (down and wet), habitable land (down and dry).

In the 4th stage, late 1960s on, Jakobson distinguished six communication functions, each associated with a dimension or factor of the communication process. I’ll give them to you without much elaboration or explanation:

referential (contextual information)

aesthetic/poetic (auto-reflection)

emotive (self-expression)

conative (vocative or imperative addressing of receiver)

phatic (checking channel working)

metalingual (checking code working)

Just as an example, the metalingual (code checking), could be something like, “do you know what a verb is?” where you are using language to talk about language. This kind of reduction of language to six types or functions is, for me, laughably rigid and pointless. Where do you place the poetry of e.e. cummings? Is it aesthetic? metalingual? conative? emotive? or some combination? If it’s a combination, what are the percentages and how are they combined? The exercise all seems ludicrously reductive and pointless to me. Many linguistics now agree with me that structural linguistics is a dead end. It’s attempting to reduce the irreducible.

For the past 5 years I have been teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in China, Italy, and Myanmar. It’s an extremely instructive enterprise if you pay attention. Most EFL teachers just teach the “rules” of grammar, and if the students are lucky, they teach some exceptions as well. I grit my teeth when I teach the “rules” because the cascade of “exceptions” is painfully obvious to me right from the start.  Teaching English prepositions drives me bonkers. Just the other day I wrote to a former Italian student that “these days I wake up with nothing to do . . .” and he asked “is ‘with’ the correct preposition?” Yes, it is. Why? Because it is !!! I find that learning a new language is best accomplished by imitating native speakers and not worrying too much about the “rules.”

Let’s get back to binary oppositions. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss turned Jakobson’s phonological analysis into a cultural one by reducing human thought to certain basic binary oppositions. For Lévi-Strauss the nature/culture opposition was fundamental to all human societies because all humans want to distance themselves from “nature” even though they are a part of it. The quintessential opposition in this regard is natural/artificial. If animals make something it’s natural; if humans make something, it’s artificial. Bees make honey from nectar and it’s natural; humans make plastic from petrochemicals and it’s artificial. Bees live in hives and it’s natural; humans live in apartment complexes and it’s artificial. Or let me ask you a question: Is there a mammal you are especially fond of? I asked this of my students every year. No one ever said, “My mother.” Humans are mammals, but we don’t automatically think in those terms.  We want to separate nature (out there) and culture (in here). My mother is a mammal, yes, but she’s also not (in my head). Mammals are “other.”

Lévi-Strauss changed Jakobson’s phonological triangle (above) to create the culinary triangle where the nested oppositions are culture/nature and changed/unchanged to create three categories – raw, cooked, and rotten. All are foods in different cultures, with different “meanings.” Raw versus cooked is easily understood; rotten is a bit more complex. Blue cheese is one possible example of rotten: cheese that has been injected with mold and left to “rot.” Fermented foods are, by this definition, rotten also. I find this all hopelessly reductive and simplistic. Why are microbes used to make blue cheese “natural” but fire is “cultural”? They are both natural yet manipulated by culture. Even raw foods are washed and cut before being eaten. We transform everything we eat (and so do animals to varying degrees).

We can use Lévi-Strauss’ (false) culinary triangle to make a dish to celebrate Jakobson’s legacy: a salad of greens (raw) with grilled chicken breast (cooked) and blue cheese (rotten).

That appeals to me but I’ll leave you to be creative. Come up with any raw/cooked/rotten combination you fancy.

Oct 102017

Today is World Porridge Day, an international event first held in 2009 to raise funds for the charity Mary’s Meals, based in Argyll in Scotland, to aid starving children in developing countries. The organization feeds the nutrient-rich maize-based porridge Likuni Phala to about 320,000 children in Malawi each year. The 2009 day included gatherings in the United States, France, Malawi, Bosnia and Sweden. There’s a lot to say about porridge, starting with the word itself.

My father always insisted on spelling the word “porage” which is an alternate spelling that he believed was somehow more traditional or more Scottish, presumably because of the spelling – Scott’s Porage Oats – on the box of the brand we used. The spelling “porage” is, indeed, slightly older than “porridge” but it was a general word for soupy things, a variant of “pottage” from the French “potage.” In the 1530s, when the word appears in English, it was spelled “porage” and meant a soup of meat and vegetables. The word may have been a bastardized mix of “pottage” and “porray” (“leek broth”) from Old French. The spelling with -idge is first attested from c. 1600, and is first attested as specifically a dish of oats in Scotland in the 1640s. The Scots Gaelic is brochan, which my father, if he really wanted to be a Scots traditionalist should have used instead of porage.  Ah well – he frequently got adamant about things Scots that were largely pointless and often wrong. It’s generally not a good idea to argue with an ex-pat Scot about Scotland.

The World Porridge Making Championship has taken place alongside World Porridge Day since 2009. The Championship has actually been running since 1994, but became connected to World Porridge Day when it was launched. The Championship is divided into two categories: Traditional and Specialty. Traditional porridge must be made from only oats, water, and salt, and is judged on taste, look, and texture. The main prize for this category is the Golden Spurtle trophy and the title “World Porridge Making Champion.” A spurtle is the traditional tool used to stir porridge. The best Speciality Porridge must also be made with oatmeal, but contenders can add other ingredients of their choosing. The competition takes place at the village hall in Carrbridge, in the Cairngorms National Park and is run by volunteers on behalf of the Carrbridge Community Council

Porridge is certainly as old as the domestication of cereals, and was a ubiquitous staple wherever cereals were domesticated.  Porridge can be made with any cereal imaginable and goes by different names in different cultures. If you want to call it polenta or grits or congee or whatever, go ahead. It’s all porridge: boiled grains in water. Generally, the word “porridge” throughout the UK means oat porridge. It was a breakfast mainstay in my family in the winter months. I ate it with sugar added, but my father preferred some milk and salt.

The general recipe for the day is starkly obvious, but the choice of porridge is entirely up to you. Mary’s Meals, who began the observance of World Porridge Day, sponsors Likuni Phala making in Malawi. At present Mary’s Meals provides porridge to about 25% of Malawi’s primary school age children at their schools. More information can be found here – http://mamalita.org.uk/2016/09/28/focus-on-likuni-phala/

Likuni Phala


1 cup ground cooked soy beans
4 cups coarse cornmeal


Mix together the ground soy beans and cornmeal. Place in a large cooking pot with 15 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time to avoid sticking.

As with any porridge, Likuni Phala can be served as is, as a main meal or side dish, or you can add whatever ingredients you want. In Malawi peanuts and fruit are the commonest additions.

Oct 092017

Today is Leif Erikson Day in various parts of the US. Leif Erikson was one of the first Europeans known to have set foot in continental North America, well before Columbus. The book America Not Discovered by Columbus by Rasmus Anderson, first published in 1874, helped popularize the idea that Vikings were the first Europeans in the New World. During his appearance at the Norse-American Centennial in 1925, President Calvin Coolidge gave recognition to Leif Erikson as a precursor to Columbus due to research by Norwegian-American scholars such as Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen. In 1929, Wisconsin became the first U.S. state to officially adopt Leif Erikson Day as a state holiday, thanks in large part to efforts by Rasmus Anderson. In 1931, Minnesota followed suit. By 1956, Leif Erikson Day had been made an official observance in seven states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, and California) and one Canadian province (Saskatchewan).  In 2012, the day was also made official in Las Vegas, Nevada. October 9th is not associated with any particular event in Leif Erikson’s life. The date was chosen because the ship Restauration, coming from Stavanger, arrived in New York Harbor on October 9, 1825, at the start of the first organized emigration from Norway to the United States.

Leif Erikson, according to several Icelandic sagas, established a Norse settlement at Vinland, tentatively identified with the Norse L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station.

Leif was the son of Erik the Red (hence his patronymic which is not a family name), the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland and of Thjodhild (Þjóðhildur).  He was the grandson of Thorvaldr Ásvaldsson, and distant relative of Naddodd, who discovered Iceland. His year of birth is most often given as c. 970 or c. 980. Though Leif’s birthplace is not accounted for in the sagas, it is likely he was born in Iceland, where his parents met[16]—probably somewhere on the edge of Breiðafjörður, and possibly at the farm Haukadal where Thjóðhild’s family is said to have been based. Leif had two brothers, Thorsteinn and Thorvaldr, and a sister, Freydís.

Thorvald Asvaldsson was banished from Norway for manslaughter and went into exile in Iceland accompanied by young Erik. When Erik was himself banished from Iceland, he travelled further west to an area he named Greenland, where he established the first permanent settlement in 986. Leif and his crew travelled from Greenland to Norway in 999 CE. Blown off course to the Hebrides and staying for much of the summer, he arrived in Norway and became a hirdman of King Olaf Tryggvason. He also converted to Christianity and was given the mission of introducing the religion to Greenland. The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, both thought to have been written around 1200, contain different accounts of the voyages to Vinland. The only two known strictly historical (in the modern sense) accounts of Vinland are found in the work of Adam of Bremen c. 1075 and in the Book of Icelanders compiled c. 1122 by Ari the Wise. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif apparently saw Vinland for the first time after being blown off course on his way to introduce Christianity to Greenland.

According to a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen’s translation of the two sagas in Voyages to Vinland, Leif was not the first European to sight North America: he had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course. Bjarni reportedly never made landfall there, however. Later, when Leif was also blown off course to a land that he did not expect to see he supposedly found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines”. He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country and went back to Greenland (and Christianized the people there). Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see North America, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have made landfall there.

Leif then approached Bjarni, purchased his ship, gathered a crew of 35 men, and mounted an expedition towards the land Bjarni had described. His father, Erik, was set to join him but dropped out after he fell from his horse on his way to set sail, an incident he interpreted as a bad omen. Leif followed Bjarni’s route in reverse and landed first in a rocky and desolate place he named Helluland (Flat-Rock Land; possibly Baffin Island). After venturing further by sea, he landed the second time in a forested place he named Markland (Forest Land; possibly Labrador). Finally, after two more days at sea, he landed in a verdant area with a mild climate and plentiful supplies of salmon. As winter approached, he decided to encamp there and broke his party into two groups – one to remain at camp and the other to explore the country. During one of these explorations, Tyrker, one of Leif’s thralls, discovered that the land was full of vines and grapes. Leif therefore named the land Vinland. Leif and his crew built a small settlement there which was called Leifsbudir (Leif’s Booths) by later visitors from Greenland. After having wintered over in Vinland, Leif returned to Greenland in the spring with a cargo of grapes and timber. On the return voyage, he rescued an Icelandic castaway and his crew, earning him the nickname “Leif the Lucky.”

Research done in the early 1960s by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse settlement located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. It has been suggested that this site, known as L’Anse aux Meadows, is Leif’s settlement of Leifsbúðir. The Ingstads demonstrated that Norsemen had reached America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station and waypoint for voyages there. That does not necessarily contradict the identification of L’Anse aux Meadows with Leifsbúðir since the two sagas appear to describe Vinland as a wider region which included several settlements. The Saga of Erik the Red mentions two other settlements in Vinland: a settlement called Straumfjǫrðr, which lay beyond Kjalarnes promontory and the Wonderstrands, and one called Hóp, which was located even farther south.

We know what ingredients the Vikings used in their cooking but there are no extant recipes. Here, instead is a Norwegian recipe for chieftain’s soup which seems appropriate even if only in name. As is usual for my soup recipes the quantities are merely suggestions. I scrub, but do not peel, root vegetables.

Chieftain’s soup


1 shoulder of lamb, diced (plus bone)
500 gm smoked pork, diced
5 onions, peeled and chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
5 parsnips, diced
5 parsley roots, diced
2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 cups broad beans
4 Angelica stems, chopped
5 spring onions, chopped
2 cups cream


Brown the smoked pork in a heavy cooking pot over medium heat allowing the fat to run. Add the diced lamb, chopped onions and garlic and cook until translucent.

Cover with water (or stock) and add the parsnips, parsley root, broad beans, mushrooms and Angelica stems. Leave to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary. When the meat is tender season with salt to taste and add the cream.

Sprinkle with chopped spring onions and serve with crusty bread.

Oct 082017

Today is the birthday of Narapati Sithu ( နရပတိ စည်သူ) also known Sithu II or Cansu II (1138–1211), famed king of the waning Pagan dynasty of Burma/Myanmar from 1174 to 1211. I’ll give you some highlights of his reign after I dribble on a little about ethnicity, nationalism, language and whatnot – rather ironically, the day after I left Myanmar for Cambodia. At least the particulars are still fresh in my mind. Let’s look first at words such as “Burma” and “Myanmar” in the light of what they mean politically and in the context of nationalism.

Myanmar, like most other modern nations, is riven by ethnic strife that is centuries old. Whether you call the country Burma or Myanmar you are referring to the currently dominant ethnicity in a multi-ethnic nation. The military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades referred to the nation as the UNION of Myanmar, with accompanying slogans emphasizing the need for unity amidst the ethnic diversity and division that continues to this day.  Easy words when you belong to the ruling ethnicity. All nations (and empires) deal with the complexities of ethnicity: sometimes peaceably, sometimes not. Language is quite often the defining characteristic of ethnicity. For Westerners (especially my students of old), my usual illustration is to point out that what is usually called standard Spanish or French or Italian (or English for that matter), is no more than a dialect in a spectrum of dialects that came to be called “standard” because the people who spoke it had all the power: Florentine in Italy, Castilian in Spain, Parisian in France (and London English in England). Amidst those dialects of a single language (which are sometimes barely mutually intelligible) you’ve also got groups who speak completely different languages. In the contemporary UK, for example, you still have isolated pockets of speakers of both Gaelic and Norse languages dotted around the fringes, barely holding on in an ocean of standard English that floods media, government, law, and the like.  Nowadays you won’t find any native speakers of these languages who don’t also speak English, but centuries ago it was a different matter. In the 18th century in Great Britain there were plenty of people who could not speak English, but instead grew up speaking Norn or Manx, or Cornish or what have you. The situation changed considerably over the years through forced enculturation, but you can also understand how that would lead to resentment as local cultures succumbed to pressures from the dominant culture.

Thus, whether you think of the country as Burma or Myanmar you are using the name, not of a country as such, but of the currently dominant ethnicity – called Burmans in English. Narapati Sithu was largely responsible for this state of affairs, although a lot has happened since his reign. The Kingdom of Pagan (pronounced Bagan) was the first kingdom to unify the regions that came to constitute modern-day Burma/Myanmar. Pagan’s 250-year rule over the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery laid the foundation for the ascent of Burmese language and culture, the spread of Burman ethnicity in Upper Burma, and the growth of Theravada Buddhism in Burma and in mainland Southeast Asia. The kingdom grew out of a small 9th-century settlement at Pagan (Bagan) by the Mranma (Burmans), who had recently entered the Irrawaddy valley from the Kingdom of Nanzhao centered on Dali in what is now Yunnan province in China . Over the next two hundred years, the small principality gradually grew to absorb its surrounding regions until the 1050s and 1060s when King Anawrahta founded the Pagan Kingdom, for the first time unifying under one polity the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. By the late 12th century Anawrahta’s successors – especially Narapati Sithu, had extended their influence farther to the south into the upper Malay peninsula, to the east at least to the Salween river, in the farther north to below the current China border, and to the west, in northern Arakan and the Chin Hills. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Pagan, alongside the Khmer Empire, was one of two main empires in mainland Southeast Asia. The Burmese language and culture gradually became dominant in the upper Irrawaddy valley, eclipsing the Pyu, Mon and Pali norms by the late 12th century. Theravada Buddhism slowly began to spread to the village level although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched at all social strata. Pagan’s rulers built over 10,000 Buddhist temples in the Pagan capital zone of which over 2000 remain. The wealthy donated tax-free land to religious authorities, and this practice was one of the primary cause of the collapse of the Pagan dynasty because religious leaders ended up with more wealth and power than the kings.

Narapati Sithu’s reign saw many firsts in Burmese history. For the first time, the term Mranma (the Burmans) was openly used in Burmese language inscriptions. The Burmese script became the primary script of the kingdom, replacing Mon and Pyu scripts. The first Burmese customary law based on his grandfather Alaungsithu’s judgments was compiled, and used as the common system of law for the entire kingdom. He founded the Royal Palace Guards, which later evolved to become the nucleus of the Burmese army in war time. He encouraged further reforms of the Burmese Buddhism. By the efforts of his primate Shin Uttarajiva, the majority of the Burmese Buddhist monks realigned themselves with the Mahavihara school of Ceylon.

Sithu II died in 1211 and during the reign of his descendants the region fragmented into ethnic pockets. Nonetheless, the process of “Burmanization”, which continued into the 19th century and the British colonial period, and eventually blanketed the entire lowlands, was still in an early stage. The first extant Burmese language reference to “Burmans” appeared only in 1190, and the first reference to Upper Burma as “the land of the Burmans” (Myanma pyay) in 1235. The notion of ethnicity continued to be highly fluid, and closely tied to political power. While the rise of Ava kingdom (1364 to 1555) ensured the continued spread of Burman ethnicity in post-Pagan Upper Burma, the similar emergence of non-Burmese speaking kingdoms elsewhere helped develop ethnic consciousness closely tied to respective ruling classes in Lower Burma, Shan states and Arakan.  In fact, the idea of Mons, for example, as a coherent ethnicity in the region, probably emerged only in the 14th and 15th centuries following a periodic collapse of Upper Burman hegemony.

I’ve already explained the impossibility of cooking Myanmar dishes outside of Myanmar.  Here’s a video that will help you understand.  The cook is from Bago, center of Mon culture, but lives on Inle lake.