Oct 262016


The Erie Canal opened on this date in 1825 with New York governor DeWitt Clinton of New York pouring a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. Originally the canal ran about 363 miles (584 km) from Albany, on the Hudson River, to Buffalo, at Lake Erie. It was built to create a navigable water route from New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.


The men who planned and oversaw construction were novices as surveyors and as engineers. James Geddes and Benjamin Wright, who laid out the route, were judges whose experience in surveying was in settling boundary disputes. Geddes had only used a surveying instrument for a few hours before his work on the Canal.[16] Canvass White was a 27-year-old amateur engineer who persuaded New York Governor DeWitt Clinton to let him go to Britain at his own expense to study the canal system there. Nathan Roberts was a mathematics teacher and land speculator. Somehow these amateurs built a massive canal that overcame enormous obstacles of engineering, learning as they went.


Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 miles (24 km), from Rome to Utica, opened in 1819. At that rate the canal would have taken 30 years to complete. The main hold-ups were felling trees to clear a path through virgin forest and moving excavated soil, which took longer than expected, but the builders devised ways to solve these problems. To fell a tree, they threw rope over the top branches and winched it down. Soil to be moved was shoveled into large wheelbarrows that were dumped into mule-pulled carts. Using a scraper and a plow, a three-man team with oxen, horses, and mules could clear a mile in a year.

The remaining problem was finding labor, and increased immigration helped fill the need. Many of the laborers working on the canal were Scots Irish, who had recently arrived in the United States as a group of about 5,000 from Northern Ireland, most of whom were Protestants who had enough money to pay for their own transportation. However, Irish immigrants were usually assumed to be Catholic, and many laborers on the canal suffered violent assault as the result of misjudgment and xenophobia.

Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived. When the canal reached Montezuma Marsh (at the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse), it was rumored over 1,000 workers died of “swamp fever” (malaria), and construction was temporarily stopped. However, recent research has revealed the death toll was likely much lower, as no contemporary reports mention significant worker mortality, and mass graves from the period have never been found in the area. Work continued on the downhill side towards the Hudson, and when the marsh froze in winter, the crews worked to complete the section across the swamps.


The middle section from Utica to Salina (Syracuse) was completed in 1820, and traffic on that section started up immediately. Expansion to the east and west proceeded, and the whole eastern section, 250 miles (400 km) from Brockport to Albany, opened on September 10, 1823 to great fanfare. The Champlain Canal, a separate but interconnected 64-mile (103 km) north-south route from Watervliet on the Hudson to Lake Champlain, opened on the same date.

After Montezuma Marsh, the next difficulties were crossing Irondequoit Creek and the Genesee River near Rochester. The first ultimately required building the 1,320-foot (400 m) long “Great Embankment” which carried the canal at a height of 76 feet (23 m) above the level of the creek, which was carried through a 245-foot (75 m) culvert underneath. The river was crossed on a stone aqueduct 802 feet (244 m) long and 17 feet (5.2 m) wide, with 11 arches.


After the Genesee, the next obstacle was crossing the Niagara Escarpment, an 80-foot (24 m) wall of hard dolomitic limestone, to rise to the level of Lake Erie. The route followed the channel of a creek that had cut a ravine steeply down the escarpment, with two sets of five locks in a series, soon giving rise to the community of Lockport. The 12-foot (3.7 m) lift-locks had a total lift of 60 feet (18 m), exiting into a deeply cut channel. The final leg had to be cut 30 feet (9.1 m) through another limestone layer, the Onondaga ridge. Much of that section was blasted with black powder, and the inexperience of the crews often led to accidents, and sometimes rocks falling on nearby homes.


The Erie Canal had a huge economic and cultural impact from the outset. It greatly lowered the cost of shipping between the Midwest and the Northeast, bringing much lower food costs to Eastern cities and allowing the East to ship machinery and manufactured goods economically to the Midwest. The canal also made an immense contribution to the wealth and importance of New York City, Buffalo, and New York State. Its impact went much further, increasing trade throughout the nation by opening eastern and overseas markets to Midwestern farm products and by enabling migration to the West.


The Erie Canal was an immediate financial success. Tolls collected on freight had already exceeded the state’s construction debt in its first year of official operation. By 1828, import duties collected at the New York Customs House supported federal government operations and provided funds for all the expenses in Washington except the interest on the national debt. Additionally, New York state’s initial loan for the original canal had been paid by 1837. Although it had been envisioned as primarily a commercial channel for freight boats, passengers also traveled on the canal’s packet boats. In 1825 more than forty thousand passengers took advantage of the convenience and beauty of canal travel. The canal’s steady flow of tourists, business people, and settlers lent it to uses never imagined by its initial sponsors. Evangelical preachers made their circuits of the upstate region and the canal served as the last leg of the underground railroad ferrying runaway slaves to Buffalo near the Canada–US border. Aspiring merchants found that tourists proved to double as reliable customers. Vendors moved from boat to boat peddling items such as books, watches, and fruit while less scrupulous operators sold patent medicines or passed off counterfeit money. Tourists were carried along the “northern tour,” which ultimately led to Niagara Falls, just north of Buffalo, becoming a popular honeymoon destination. In fact, my wife and I spent our honeymoon there in 1986.


Two villages competed to be the terminus: Black Rock, on the Niagara River, and Buffalo, at the eastern tip of Lake Erie. Buffalo expended great energy to widen and deepen Buffalo Creek to make it navigable and to create a harbor at its mouth. Buffalo won over Black Rock, and grew into a large city, eventually encompassing its former competitor.


Since Buffalo is the terminus of the Erie, Buffalo wings have to be the celebratory dish – the first dish my wife and I had on our honeymoon. At the time we had never heard of them because they were not anywhere near as popular or as widespread as they are now. There are several different claims about how Buffalo wings were invented. One of the more prevalent claims is that Buffalo wings were first prepared at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo by Teressa Bellissimo, who owned the bar with husband Frank. Several versions of the story have been circulated by the Bellissimo family and others:

  1. Upon the unannounced, late-night arrival of their son, Dominic, with several of his friends from college, Teressa needed a fast and easy snack to present to her guests. It was then that she came up with the idea of deep frying chicken wings (normally thrown away or reserved for stock) and tossing them in cayenne hot sauce.
  2. Dominic Bellissimo told The New Yorker food writer, Calvin Trillin, in 1980, “It was Friday night in the bar and since people were buying a lot of drinks he wanted to do something nice for them at midnight when the mostly Catholic patrons would be able to eat meat again.” He said that it was his mother, Teressa, who came up with the idea of chicken wings.


Cayenne pepper, hot sauce, and melted butter are the basis of the sauce, which may be mild, medium, or hot. Typically, the wings are deep-fried in oil (although they are sometimes grilled or baked) until they are well browned. They are then drained, mixed with sauce, and shaken to coat the wings, completely covering them in the sauce. To cover the wings completely you should place the cooked wings and sauce in a lidded contained, close it up and shake vigorously until the wings are coated on all sides. Originally Buffalo wings were served with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing. This may seem like a strange combination, but the first time I had it I was a convert. Who knows what the actual story of the origin of Buffalo wings is, but putting together chicken wings, hot sauce, celery, and blue cheese sure seems like a last minute emergency dish made late at night from what odds and ends happen to be around. It’s a winner in my book.

Oct 252016


The Battle of Balaclava took place on this date in 1854 as part of the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855), in turn part of the Crimean War. Inasmuch as I consider all wars to be senseless and tragic, Crimea stands out as possibly the most senseless and tragic of the 19th century, and within that awful context the Charge of the Light Brigade is by far the most senseless and tragic event within the battle and the war. The Crimean War should never have happened in the first place. It happened because of international policy and diplomacy mistakes coupled with proud military figures who felt that they had been idle too long after the Napoleonic Wars. These were still the days when men fought in colorful uniforms using such terms as “glory” and “honor,” but they were also the days of massive canonry that could inflict bloody massacres with ease. When you combine that fact with bone-headed leadership you have the potential for disaster.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was immortalized by Tennyson soon after the news reached England, and his poem is still popular and resonates with lines such as:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

I don’t have time or space to go on at length about Crimea or Balaclava. I’ll be brief. After being successful at Alma, the British sought to capture the Russian port of Sevastopol. However insufficient resources prevented them from attacking immediately and, instead, they established base in Balaclava. Lack of troops left them open to strategic attack by the Russians who took advantage on 25th October. There were several notable engagements that day but the Charge of the Light Brigade is the one that is remembered most.

The British cavalry available was made up of the Heavy Brigade and the Light Brigade. The Light Brigade, as the name suggests, were a light cavalry force that mounted light, fast horses which were unarmored. The men were armed only with lances and sabers and had no helmets or armor. The brigade was optimized for maximum mobility and speed, and were intended for reconnaissance and skirmishing only. They were also ideal for cutting down infantry and artillery units as they attempted to retreat.


Lord Raglan, the overall commander, could view the whole battle from heights above Balaclava. He could see that the Russians were successfully withdrawing with the naval guns from the redoubts they had captured on the reverse side of the Causeway Heights, the hill forming the south side of the valley. This would have been an optimum task for the Light Brigade, as their superior speed would ensure the Russians would be forced to either quickly abandon the cumbersome guns or be cut down en masse while they attempted to flee with them

Overall command of the British cavalry brigades rested with General George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan and the Light Brigade was under General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Cardigan and Lucan were brothers-in-law who disliked each other intensely. Lucan received a written order from Lord Raglan stating: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.” However, the lay of the land around Lucan and the cavalry prevented him from seeing the Russians’ efforts to remove the guns from the redoubts and retreat, therefore the order was not clear. The order was drafted by Brigadier Richard Airey and carried by Captain Louis Edward Nolan. Nolan carried the further oral instruction that the cavalry was to attack immediately. When Lucan asked what guns were referred to, Nolan is said to have indicated with a wide sweep of his arm—not the causeway redoubts—but the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley, around a mile away.


In response to the order, Lucan instructed Cardigan to lead his command of about 670 troopers of the Light Brigade straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights. In “The Charge of the Light Brigade” Tennyson famously called this hollow “The Valley of Death.” The opposing Russian forces were commanded by Pavel Liprandi and included approximately 20 battalions of infantry supported by over 50 artillery pieces. These forces were deployed on both sides and at the opposite end of the valley.

Lucan himself was to follow with the Heavy Brigade. Although the Heavy Brigade was better armored and intended for frontal assaults on infantry positions, neither force was remotely equipped for a frontal assault on a fully dug-in and alerted artillery battery—much less one with an excellent line of sight over a mile in length and supported on two sides by artillery batteries providing enfilading fire from elevated ground. The semi-suicidal nature of this charge was surely evident to the troopers of the Light Brigade, but there is no record of any objection or resistance to the misunderstood command – such was army discipline.


The Light Brigade set off down the valley with Cardigan out in front, leading the charge. Almost at once Nolan was seen to rush across the front, passing in front of Cardigan. It may be that he then realized the charge was aimed at the wrong target and was attempting to stop or turn the brigade, but he was killed by an artillery shell, and the cavalry continued on its course.

Despite withering fire from three sides that devastated their force on the ride through the valley, the Light Brigade was able to engage the Russian forces at the end of the valley and force them back from the redoubt, but it suffered heavy casualties and was soon forced to retire. The surviving Russian artillerymen returned to their guns and opened fire once again as the Light Brigade withdrew, with grape and canister. Lucan failed to provide any support for Cardigan, and it was speculated that he was motivated by an enmity for his brother-in-law that had lasted some 30 years and had been intensified during the campaign up to that point.


Cardigan survived the battle. Although stories circulated afterwards that he was not actually present, he led the charge from the front and, never looking back, did not see what was happening to the troops behind him. He reached the Russian guns, took part in the fight, and then returned alone up the valley without bothering to rally or even find out what had happened to the survivors. He afterwards said all he could think about was his rage against Captain Nolan, who he thought had tried to take over the leadership of the charge from him. After riding back up the valley, he considered he had done all that he could and then left the field and went on board his yacht in Balaclava harbor, where he ate a champagne dinner.


The brigade was not completely destroyed, but did suffer terribly, with 118 men killed, 127 wounded, and about 60 taken prisoner. After regrouping, only 195 men were still with horses. The futility of the action and its reckless bravery prompted the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet to state: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” (“It is magnificent, but it is not war.”)

The reputation of the British cavalry was significantly enhanced as a result of the charge, though the same cannot be said for their commanders. Lucan was ultimately blamed for ordering the charge and was furious at being made a scapegoat. Raglan claimed he should have exercised his discretion, but throughout the campaign up to that date Lucan considered Raglan had allowed him no independence at all and required that his orders be followed to the letter. Cardigan, who had merely obeyed orders, blamed Lucan for giving those orders. He returned home a hero and was promoted to Inspector General of the Cavalry. After much public debate, Lucan’s name was cleared, but he never again saw active duty.


Contemporary accounts of the charge tended to focus on the bravery and glory of the cavalrymen, much more than the military blunders involved, with the perverse effect that it encouraged reckless bravery in the army over sanity that lasted all the way to the First World War.


The fate of the surviving members of the Charge was investigated by Edward James Boys, a military historian, who documented their lives from leaving the army to their deaths. His records are described as being the most definitive project of its kind ever undertaken. Edwin Hughes, who died on 14 May 1927, aged 96, was the last survivor of the charge. In October 1875, survivors of the Charge met at the Alexandra Palace in London to celebrate the 21st  anniversary of the Charge. The celebrations were fully reported in the Illustrated London News of 30 October 1875, which included the recollections of several of the survivors. Tennyson was invited, but could not attend. Lucan, the senior commander surviving, was not present, but attended a separate celebration, held later in the day, with other senior officers at the fashionable Willis’s Rooms, St James’s Square. Reunion dinners were subsequently held for a number of years.


Among those stationed at Balaclava was Lord General Paget, famous for having charged with the Light Brigade while smoking a cheroot. He sent detailed letters from Crimea which are an invaluable resource. Not least we witness the provisions available to a general. Just before the battle of Balaclava we read:

Oct. 5. — We are in great excitement to-day, having sent down to Balaclava to get stores from a ship, the arrival of which we heard of, and the envoy has returned with a goose, some sheep and potatoes as my share. Cardigan has given in, and gone on board ship, which leaves me topsawyer. Lord Raglan comes up to-day, and occupies a farmhouse.

I have just been dipping into one of my bullock-trunks to find something, and the contents of it will amuse you. On the top there were six or seven onions, wrapped up in a not over well-washed flannel shirt; next to which, in a very dirty old newspaper, are some mole candles, approaching; closely to the articles known as dips, loosely interspersed with these being broken bits of ration biscuit. Diving deeper, my hand arrived on half a loaf of bread, the crumbs of which will be somewhat annoying when I next put on the worsted sock in which it was packed. These with occasional lumps of sugar, pots of preserved meat, halfbroken cigars, a little more dirty linen, a ration of salt pork, and my other pair of boots (not cleaned) fill up a good portion of one trunk, and so unnerve me that I have not the courage to venture on the other, to find what of course I failed to find in the first.

While the generals dined well, I doubt that the rank and file sat down to champagne and roast leg of lamb. What I suspect is that after the battle many of them ate horse meat, which would have been a welcome relief from turnips and camp biscuits. The English have an aversion to horse flesh – not shared by many Europeans – but in the aftermath of the battle there would have been a great deal of dead horses that the cavalrymen had the choice of letting rot or eating.


Here in Mantua horse meat is a delicacy that is more expensive than beef. It is readily available in supermarkets and there is a butcher selling only prime cuts of horse meat. I eat it once or twice a month and generally use the same recipe ideas that I use for beef. If you can’t get horse meat my recipes won’t help you. The meat can be a tad stronger than beef, but on the whole it tastes much the same if stewed. Commonly I braise it in good beef stock with onions, leeks, cloves and allspice and serve it with potatoes and carrots.

Oct 242016


The cathedral in Chartres was consecrated on this date in 1262. I could ramble on about its architecture, stained glass etc. but I am not going to (well — maybe a little). You can look that up for yourself, or, better yet, visit the cathedral. Instead I want to do two things. First, talk about the personal view of the cathedral by my friend and colleague Eric Carlson who taught with me at Purchase college for many years, and who wrote and lectured on the cathedral. Second, talk about the current restoration efforts which have seriously polarized opinion into haters and lovers.

When I taught Freshman Studies at Purchase college in the 1980s  we had weekly plenary lectures for the entire freshman class (around 150 students) on a variety of subjects from ancient Greece to Einstein. Eric gave a slide lecture for many years on Chartres cathedral as part of our segment on Medieval Europe. He began by talking about the cathedral from the perspective of the pilgrim journeying on foot or horseback to Chartres. For miles and miles pilgrims could navigate towards Chartres because the cathedral is visible across the plains from a great distance.


As you get into the outskirts of the town it gets bigger and more magnificent.


But when you get quite close, the buildings obscure it from view.


Then suddenly you are upon it in all of its majesty.


The pride of the cathedral is the stained glass (although, of course, there’s plenty of other features to admire, including the incredibly ornate exterior). The point about the glass is that to fit such large and complex windows, the whole architecture had to be designed to allow for such large piercings in the walls. The use of a three-part elevation with external flying buttresses allowed for far larger windows than earlier designs, particularly at the clerestory level.

chartres9 chartres10

Most cathedrals of the period had a mixture of windows containing plain or grisaille glass on the one hand and windows containing dense stained glass panels on the other, with the result that the brightness of the former tended to diminish the impact of the latter. At Chartres, nearly all of the 176 windows were filled with equally dense stained glass, creating a relatively dark but richly colored interior in which the light filtering through the myriad narrative and symbolic windows was the main source of illumination, made possible because they were so large.


The majority of the windows now visible at Chartres were made and installed between 1205 and 1240, but four lancets preserve panels of Romanesque glass from the 12th century which survived a fire in 1195. Three of these are located beneath the rose in the west façade: the Passion window to the south, the Infancy of Christ in the center and a Tree of Jesse to the north. All three of these windows were originally made around 1145 but were restored in the early 13th century and again in the 19th.


The other 12th-century window, perhaps the most famous at Chartres, is the so-called « Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière », found in the first bay of the choir after the south transept. This window is actually a composite; the upper part, showing the Virgin and child surrounded by adoring angels, dates from around 1180 and was probably positioned at the centre of the apse in the earlier building. The Virgin is depicted wearing a blue robe and sitting in a frontal pose on a throne, with the Christ Child seated on her lap raising his hand in blessing. This composition, known as the Sedes sapientia (‘Throne of Wisdom’), which also appears on the Portail royal, is based on the famous cult figure kept in the crypt. The lower part of the window, showing scenes from the Infancy of Christ, dates from the main glazing campaign around 1225.

Each bay of the aisles and the choir ambulatory contains one large lancet window, most of them roughly 8.1m high by 2.2m wide. The subjects depicted in these windows, made between 1205 and 1235, include stories from the Old and New Testament and the Lives of the Saints as well as typological cycles and symbolic images such as the signs of the zodiac and labors of the months, or the Good Samaritan parable. Most windows are made up of around 25–30 individual panels showing distinct episodes within the narrative; only « Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière » includes a larger image made up of multiple panels.


Several of the windows at Chartres include images of local tradesmen or laborers in the lowest two or three panels, often with details of their equipment and working methods. Traditionally it was claimed that these images represented the guilds of the donors who paid for the windows. In recent years however this view has largely been discounted, not least because each window would have cost around as much as a large mansion house to make – while most of the laborers depicted would have been subsistence workers with little or no disposable income. Furthermore, although they became powerful and wealthy organizations in the later medieval period, none of these trade guilds had actually been founded when the glass was being made in the early 13th century. A more likely explanation is that the Cathedral clergy wanted to emphasize the universal reach of the Church, particularly at a time when their relationship with the local community was often a troubled one.


Because of their greater distance from the viewer, the windows in the clerestory generally adopt simpler, bolder designs. Most feature the standing figure of a saint or Apostle in the upper two-thirds, often with one or two simplified narrative scenes in the lower part, either to help identify the figure or else to remind the viewer of some key event in their life. Whereas the lower windows in the nave arcades and the ambulatory consist of one simple lancet per bay, the clerestory windows are each made up of a pair of lancets with a plate-traceried rose window above. The nave and transept clerestory windows mainly depict saints and Old Testament prophets. Those in the choir depict the kings of France and Castille and members of the local nobility in the straight bays, while the windows in the apse hemicycle show those Old Testament prophets who foresaw the virgin birth, flanking scenes of the Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity in the axial window.


The cathedral has three large rose windows. The western rose, made c.1215 and 12 m in diameter shows the Last Judgement – a traditional theme for west façades. A central oculus showing Christ as the Judge is surrounded by an inner ring of 12 paired roundels containing angels and the Elders of the Apocalypse and an outer ring of 12 roundels showing the dead emerging from their tombs and the angels blowing trumpets to summon them to judgment.

Enough about windows. Eric went on about them for a long time. They are magnificent but slides do not do them justice. Before electric lighting, the windows and candles were the sole source of illumination. Now there is electric lighting everywhere. Despite the stained glass, the interior can seem gloomy to the modern eye.  The question arose several years ago whether this gloominess was appropriate both architecturally and spiritually. Surely in the 13th century when it was built Chartres was a testament to light?


In 2009 the Monuments Historiques division of the French Ministry of Culture began a 18.5 million dollar program of works at the cathedral, described as a “restoration project.” Part of the project involved painting the interior masonry creamy-white, with trompe l’oeil marbling and gilded detailing. The restoration architect in charge of this painting is Frédéric Didier. The goal of the project, which is due for completion in 2017, is to make the cathedral look as it would have done when finished in the 13th century.

The goal of the project and its results has been widely condemned. Architectural critic Alexander Gorlin described the goal as a “great lie,” writing that the “idea that the 13th century interior of Chartres can be recreated is so totally absurd as to be laughable” and that it is “against every single cultural trend today that values the patina of age and the mark of time rather than the shiny bling of cheap jewelry and faux finishes.” Alasdair Palmer called the project an “ill-conceived makeover.” Architectural historian Martin Filler described the work as a “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”, an “unfolding cultural disaster,” and stated that it violates international conservation protocols, in particular the 1964 Charter of Venice of which France is a signatory.


The restoration has however received almost universal backing from French experts and from the general public. Malcolm Miller, author of a number of books on the cathedral and widely considered one of its greatest expert, dismissed the objections: “They talk about the patina of the centuries. Nonsense. Rubbish. This is not the patina of the centuries. It is the rotting remains of a whitewash from the 18th century. The people who built this cathedral intended that its interior should be light. There was nothing natural about its darkness. It was nothing to do with ageing of the stone. It was caused, first of all, by centuries of candle smoke and then by a stupid decision to install oil-fired central heating in the 1950s. More recently, there was smoke damage from a couple of fires.”

So . . . which side are you on? Do you like art and architecture as it is now after centuries of change, or do you like it restored to its original state? Obviously with Chartres there are some practical considerations. We don’t know exactly what the interior looked like. There are only the most vagrant historical clues as to the original surfacing of the walls to go on. There is no question that in one sense the modern restoration is a “lie.” But is it a “great” lie, or just a little white lie?

In the art world in general, restoration of paintings and frescoes has been both reviled and praised. When the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was brightened up some people were exalted, others alarmed. There is always going to be a group of people who likes the “patina of age.” I wonder whether Michelangelo would have liked the patina. It is not his doing. It is the doing of centuries of candle soot. When I was a student at Oxford in the 1960s and ‘70s the buildings were all scarred with a century of black soot from industry and cars. Then the colleges set to work cleaning the exteriors. Reclamation or ruination? When Rembrandt’s paintings were cleaned up they were completely changed. Obscured features emerged and the whole sensibility changed. His “Night Watch” was so called because it seemed to depict a night scene. But this was due to varnish that had darkened over time making it look like night. When it was removed in the 1940s a completely different – brighter – scene emerged, much closer to Rembrandt’s vision. How about you? Are you a “patina of the ages” type or not. I’m not. I’ll ask Eric what he thinks after I have posted this.

Here’s a recipe for souris d’agneau that is popular in the region of Chartres. “Souris” is the French for “mouse” but there are no mice involved. Souris d’agneau means lamb shank in English, one of my favorite cuts of meat (if cooked right). To do this properly you need lots of rock salt and duck fat (when you roast duck or goose ALWAYS save the fat). Traditionally cooks use a cocotte, a style of covered Dutch oven.


Souris d’agneau


4 lamb shanks
8 tbsp duck fat (or olive oil)
6 tbsp honey
4 tbsp fresh herbs, chopped (thyme, rosemary, parsley)
1 head garlic


Cover the shanks completely with rock salt (I mean bury them) and refrigerate overnight if you are squeamish.

Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F.

Pour the oil and honey in your cocotte or Dutch oven. Heat on the stove over low heat, and stir to  combine. Add the herbs. It doesn’t hurt to bruise them a little in a mortar and pestle first. If you have to use dried herbs, halve the quantity.  Add the shanks and roll them around in the oil/honey mix to coat. Break apart the head of garlic and toss in the cloves skin and all.

Cover the pot and put in the center of your oven. Check after about an hour and a half. That’s usually enough for me. The shanks should be browned and nicely falling apart. Longer usually causes the pot to dry out. Serve on a heated serving dish with the sauce poured over the shanks. Rice or potatoes and a green salad make a good accompaniment.


Oct 232016



Today is Mole Day, an unofficial holiday celebrated among chemists, chemistry students and chemistry enthusiasts on October 23, between 6:02 AM and 6:02 PM. No, it does not celebrate pesky little furry mammals who make hills that some people make into mountains. The mole is the unit of measurement in the International System of Units (SI) for the amount of a substance. You might have a tough time for a few seconds if your eyes glaze over when the subject of mathematics comes up. I promise to be quick.

The mole is widely used in chemistry as a convenient way to express relative amounts of reactants and products of chemical reactions. For example, the chemical equation 2 H2 + O2 → 2 H2O implies that 2 mol of dihydrogen (H2) and 1 mol of dioxygen (O2) react to form 2 mol of water (H2O). The mole may also be used to express the number of atoms, ions, or other elementary entities in a given sample of any substance. The concentration of a solution is commonly expressed by its molarity, defined as the number of moles of the dissolved substance per liter of solution. This takes me back to my days of quantitative analysis in chemistry lab in grammar school. I used to be all right with the experiments, but I always managed to get tripped up on the mathematics at the end. I knew my chemistry backwards, forwards, and inside out – yet I still managed to make a simple error in calculation on the quantitative analysis in the final lab exam for ‘O’- level and fretted for a month until the results were published. Crisis over. Even with one simple error in multiplication on one tiny part of the whole exam I still got the highest mark. Phew !!

The mole is based on Avogadro’s constant, which is approximately 6.02 × 1023 (actually more like 6.02214085774×1023) and which is the number of particles (usually atoms or molecules) in one mole of substance. In the US writing style today’s date is 10/23, so at 6:02 (the time I woke this morning as it happens – late for me), we can say that we have approximated Avogadro’s constant (6:02 10/23) in the same way that 10/6 (October 6 in US, 10 June in Britain) is Mad Hatter’s Day, or 22/7  (22 July in Britain) is Pi Approximation Day. Semi-officially, Mole Day runs from 6:02 am to 6:02 pm.


You can convert moles to grams by using the common isotope for carbon which is carbon-12. I mole of carbon-12 weighs 1 gram (which is also one way to define a gram – than is, 6.02 × 1023 atoms of carbon-12 = 1 gram). Carbon-12 is also the standard for all other atomic masses. Its nucleus contains 6 protons and 6 neutrons, giving a mass number of 12. Furthermore, carbon is the basic element of organic life because of its unique ability among all the elements to form long and complex chains or molecules. No other element even comes close in this ability. Without carbon there would be no life.


According to current theory, the Big Bang did not produce significant amounts of carbon or other heavy elements (heavier than lithium). Mostly the Big Bang produced hydrogen and helium (constituent elements of stars, including our sun).  The heavier elements need extremely high temperatures to fuse the lighter nuclei of hydrogen and helium to make heavier nuclei, but the Big Bang had “cooled” below that temperature after only about 10 seconds. After the Big Bang, only very dense exploding stars were capable of generating such high temperatures and pouring out heavy elements. So all the carbon in your body was once part of an exploding star (as was all the oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, potassium iron, etc). Congratulations – You Are Stardust.


If I go with molecules based on carbon-12 as today’s theme I have unlimited possibilities for recipes. Everything we eat, with the exception of salt, is organic (based on carbon). That’s not especially promising or limiting. But if we focus on Avogadro we can narrow things down. Avogadro’s full name was Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro di Quaregna e di Cerreto, Count of Quaregna and Cerreto (9 August 1776 – 9 July 1856). He was born in Turin in the Piedmont region of northern Italy – then part of the kingdom of Sardinia. Avogadro graduated in ecclesiastical law at the late age of 31 and began to practice thereafter. But he soon became attracted to physics and mathematics and in 1809 started teaching them at a liceo (high school) in Vercelli, where his family lived and had some property.

In 1811, he published an article with the title Essai d’une manière de déterminer les masses relatives des molécules élémentaires des corps, et les proportions selon lesquelles elles entrent dans ces combinaisons (“Essay on Determining the Relative Masses of the Elementary Molecules of Bodies and the Proportions by Which They Enter These Combinations”), which contains Avogadro’s central hypothesis on atomic mass. In 1820, he became a professor of physics at the University of Turin. Avogadro was active in the revolutionary movement of March 1821. As a result, he lost his chair in 1823 (or, as the university officially declared, it was “very glad to allow this interesting scientist to take a rest from heavy teaching duties, in order to be able to give better attention to his researches”). Eventually, King Charles Albert granted a Constitution (Statuto Albertino) in 1848. Well before this, Avogadro had been recalled to the university in Turin in 1833, where he taught for another twenty years.


Turin is most famous in Italy for its chocolate. Turin chocolate firms make all manner of chocolate products but are famous for Gianduiotto, named after Gianduja, a local Commedia dell’arte mask. The city is also known for bicerin, a traditional hot drink made of espresso, drinking chocolate and whole milk served layered in a small rounded glass. Every year Turin organizes CioccolaTÒ, a two-week chocolate festival run with the main Piedmontese chocolate producers, such as Caffarel, Streglio, Venchi and others.


I’m not a big fan of chocolate, and even if I were to give you a recipe you’d need to come to Italy for the right ingredients (and atmosphere). The Piedmont region does have some savory I like, however. One is paniscia, which in Italy is called “risotto” but is, in reality, a creamy version of the Hispanic staple, rice and beans. Paniscia originates in Novara, to the west of Turin, but is quite commonly found throughout Piedmont (and impossible to find elsewhere in Italy). You’ll have to make do with what you can find for meat/pork products. The whole Po Valley is famous for its regional sausages and hams. Use one or two semi-cured Italian pork sausages. Local ones in Piedmont are salam d’la duja, a somewhat soft, half-cured sausage finished submerged in pig fat, like a confit, and fidighina, with pig’s liver. Lardo is cured pork fat, for which you can substitute lard, and cotenna is cured pig skin, which you can replace with roast pork skin. Local cooks often use carnaroli rice rather than the more usual arborio rice used in risotto because it cooks up creamier.




¾ cup dried borlotti beans
½ head savoy cabbage, shredded
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 leek, cleaned well and chopped
4 oz Italian semi-cured sausage, diced
4 oz lardo or pork fat, diced
4 oz cooked pork skin, diced
¾ cup carnaroli (or arborio) rice
1 cup Italian red wine
1 tbspn butter (plus extra)
2 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
salt and pepper


Cover the beans with cold water and soak them overnight.

Drain the beans and put them in a pot with the cabbage, celery, leek and salt to taste. Cover with water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the beans are tender but not completely cooked (around 2 hours). Keep the pot warm.

Place the meats in a wide, deep, heavy skillet and warm over medium-high heat. When the lardo starts to melt, add the rice. Stir with a wooden spoon to coat the rice with the fat. Continue to cook  for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine and allow it to reduce, stirring constantly.

Now you begin the risotto-making process which takes time and experience. Place on ladle of the bean broth in the skillet and stir. Controlling the heat is crucial. The broth should not bubble vigorously nor simmer listlessly. Somewhere in between. When the broth has nearly been absorbed add another ladleful. Keep stirring as the rice cooks and add more broth as it is absorbed. After about 15 minutes check the rice. It should be close to cooked. Start adding the beans and vegetables with the broth towards the last 5 minutes. The rice should be al dente and the whole mixture will have a creamy texture.

Remove the skillet from the heat, let it rest for 5 minutes, then add the butter and cheese. Stir thoroughly until the butter and cheese melt and are incorporated. Serve immediately



Oct 222016


In the Russian Orthodox tradition today is the Saturday of Souls (or Soul Saturday), the Saturday before the feast of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (Άγιος Δημήτριος της Θεσσαλονίκης),a Christian martyr of the early 4th century. Within the Orthodox tradition in general there are several days that can be marked as Soul Saturday. Saturday is chosen because it was a Saturday when Jesus lay in the tomb after the crucifixion on Friday and before the resurrection on Sunday. Usually Soul Saturdays occur in Lent, but the Russian Orthodox one falls on the Saturday before 26th of October. Soul Saturday is especially marked as a day of prayer for the dead.

The earliest written accounts of the life of Demetrius were compiled in the 9th century, although there are earlier images of him along with the 7th century Miracles of Saint Demetrius collection. According to these early accounts, Demetrius was born to pious Christian parents in Thessaloniki in Illyricum in 270. The biographies say that Demetrius was born into a senatorial family and was run through with spears in around 306 in Thessaloniki, during the Christian persecutions of Diocletian and Galerian.


After the growth of his veneration as saint, the city of Thessaloniki suffered repeated attacks and sieges from the Slavic peoples who moved into the Balkans, and Demetrius was credited with many miraculous interventions to defend the city. Hence later traditions about Demetrius regard him as a soldier in the Roman army, and he came to be regarded as an important military martyr making him extremely popular in the Middle Ages (in parallel with the more Western Saint George).

Originally in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Saturday before the Feast of St. Demetrius was a memorial day commemorating the soldiers who fell in the Battle of Kulikovo (1380), under the leadership of St. Demetrius of the Don, and came to be known as Demetrius Saturday. Now it is a more general commemoration for all departed souls.


St. Demetrius was initially depicted in icons and mosaics as a young man in patterned robes with the distinctive tablion of the senatorial class across his chest. Miraculous military interventions were attributed to him during several attacks on Thessaloniki, and he gradually became thought of as a soldier although there is no historical evidence for this. An ivory from Constantinople of the late 10th century shows him as an infantry soldier, but an icon of the late 11th century in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai shows him as before, still a civilian.


Another Sinai icon, of the Crusader period and painted by a French artist working in the Holy Land in the second half of the 12th century, shows what then became the most common depiction. Demetrius, bearded, rather older, and on a dark horse, rides together with St George, unbearded and on a white horse. Both are dressed as cavalrymen. Also, while St. George is often shown spearing a dragon, St. Demetrius is depicted spearing the gladiator Lyaeos, who according to legend was responsible for killing many Christians. Lyaeos is commonly depicted below Demetrius and lying supine, having already been defeated. Lyaeos is traditionally drawn much smaller than Demetrius. In traditional hagiography, Demetrius did not directly kill Lyaeos, but rather through his prayers the gladiator was defeated by Demetrius’ disciple, Nestor.

A modern Greek iconographic convention depicts Demetrius with the Great White Tower in the background. The anachronistic White Tower acts as a symbolic depiction of the city of Thessaloniki, despite having been built in the 16th century, centuries after his life, and the exact architecture of the older tower that stood at the same site in earlier times is unknown.


According to hagiographic legend, as retold by Dimitry of Rostov in particular, Demetrius appeared in 1207 in the camp of Kaloyan of Bulgaria, piercing the pagan king with a lance and so killing him. This scene, known as Чудо о погибели царя Калояна (“the miracle of the destruction of tsar Kaloyan”) became a popular element in the iconography of Saint Demetrius. He is shown on horseback piercing the king with his spear, paralleling the icononography (and often shown alongside) of Saint George and the Dragon.

I’m not really all that comfortable with saints as battle heroes. Slaying pagans and persecutors of Christians does not gibe too well with the Sermon on the Mount, cornerstone of Christian belief in my worldview. It is understandable in the context of the war-torn Middle Ages, but for me is a perversion of Christian belief that has continued to the present day. I can understand calling on the saints to protect the faithful during times of attack; turning that around into a battle cry to be the attackers of pagans destroys the Christian message. I’m not confident that “Love Your Enemies” is a message that will ever fully penetrate.


In the Russian Orthodox tradition it is usual to make dishes of boiled wheat grains and offer them in church on Soul Saturday before eating them communally or as a family. I’ll probably give a recipe for wheat porridge at some point, but it’s not my favorite, even when cooked with milk and sweetened with sugar or honey. Instead I’ll turn to the cuisine of Thessaloniki. Because Thessaloniki  remained under Ottoman rule for about 100 years more than southern Greece, it has retained a lot of its Eastern character, including its culinary tastes. When you get away from the nonsense of ethnic rivalry you will see that traditional Turkish and Greek dishes have a lot in common. Thessaloniki’s Ladadika borough is a haven for foodies with most tavernas serving traditional meze which has both Greek and Turkish influences blended.


Generically meze (Turkish: meze; Greek: μεζές) is a selection of small dishes to accompany drinks which can also be used as an appetizer course. The dishes can be just about anything under the sun from hummus, falafel, and babaghanoush to ground or skewered lamb, beef stew, and marinated pork. Furthermore, meze can be rich and varied, or extremely simple. For Soul Saturday I think a simple, but delicious meze dish is in order. One that I find satisfying as a snack or appetizer is pictured here. It is common in Greek cuisine.


Serve a block of feta cheese drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with oregano along with kalamata olives accompanied with crusty bread. If you eat the cheese, olives, and bread together you have a somewhat astringent but tasty blend of flavors. Good for the soul as you reflect on the departed.

Oct 212016


Today is the birthday (1772) of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet, literary critic and philosopher (of sorts) who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and mentioned by critics as a member of the group known as the “Lake Poets” which is now a neutral term, but at the time was a rubric of disparagement. Contemporary critics thought of the Lake Poets as insipid Romantics who preferred to live blissfully in England’s Lake District and while away their time in fruitless and self-absorbed aestheticism. In Wordsworth’s case I couldn’t agree more. Coleridge I am iffy about. As a youth The Rime of the Ancient Mariner captivated me – Kubla Khan left me indifferent. Coleridge’s critical work, especially on Shakespeare, was highly influential in his day, and he helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking culture. He coined many familiar words and phrases, including “suspension of disbelief.” He was a major influence on Emerson and U.S. transcendentalism.

Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon. His father was the Reverend John Coleridge (1718–1781), well-respected vicar of St Mary’s Church in Ottery St Mary and headmaster of the King’s School, a free grammar school established by King Henry VIII in the town. He had previously been Master of Hugh Squier’s School in South Molton in Devon, and Lecturer at nearby Molland. John Coleridge had three children by his first wife. Samuel was the youngest of ten by his second wife, Anne Bowden (1726–1809), probably the daughter of John Bowden, mayor of South Molton. Coleridge notes that he “took no pleasure in boyish sports” but instead read “incessantly” and played by himself. After John Coleridge died in 1781, 8-year-old Samuel was sent to Christ’s Hospital, a charity school which was founded in the 16th century in Greyfriars in London, where he remained throughout his childhood, studying and writing poetry. At school Coleridge became friends with Charles Lamb, who was his schoolmate, and studied the works of Virgil and William Lisle Bowles. He wrote in recollections of his school days in Biographia Literaria:

I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master […] At the same time that we were studying the Greek Tragic Poets, he made us read Shakespeare and Milton as lessons: and they were the lessons too, which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure. I learnt from him, that Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. […] In our own English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words… In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? your Nurse’s daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose! […] Be this as it may, there was one custom of our master’s, which I cannot pass over in silence, because I think it … worthy of imitation. He would often permit our theme exercises, … to accumulate, till each lad had four or five to be looked over. Then placing the whole number abreast on his desk, he would ask the writer, why this or that sentence might not have found as appropriate a place under this or that other thesis: and if no satisfying answer could be returned, and two faults of the same kind were found in one exercise, the irrevocable verdict followed, the exercise was torn up, and another on the same subject to be produced, in addition to the tasks of the day.


Coleridge was rarely allowed to return home during the school term, and this distance from his family caused considerable loneliness. You see this reflected in the poem “Frost at Midnight”: “With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt/Of my sweet birthplace.”

From 1791 until 1794, Coleridge attended Jesus College, Cambridge. In 1792, he won the Browne Gold Medal for an ode that he wrote on the slave trade. In December 1793, he left the college and enlisted in the Royal Dragoons using the false name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache,” perhaps because of debt or because the girl that he loved, Mary Evans, had rejected him. His brothers arranged for his discharge a few months later under the reason of “insanity” and he was readmitted to Jesus College, though he never received a degree from the University.

At Jesus College, Coleridge was introduced to political and theological ideas then considered radical, including those of the poet Robert Southey. Coleridge joined Southey in a plan, soon abandoned, to found a utopian commune-like society, called Pantisocracy, in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. In 1795, the two friends married sisters Sarah and Edith Fricker, in St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, but Coleridge’s marriage with Sarah proved unhappy.


The years 1797 and 1798, during which he lived in what is now known as Coleridge Cottage, in Nether Stowey, Somerset, were among the most fruitful of Coleridge’s life. In 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. (Wordsworth, having visited him and being enchanted by the surroundings, rented Alfoxton Park, a little over three miles away.) Besides the Rime of The Ancient Mariner, Coleridge composed the symbolic poem Kubla Khan, written—Coleridge himself claimed—as a result of an opium dream, in “a kind of a reverie,” and the first part of the narrative poem Christabel. The writing of Kubla Khan, written about the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and his legendary palace at Xanadu, was said to have been interrupted by the arrival of a “Person from Porlock” – an event that has been embellished upon in such varied contexts as science fiction and Nabokov’s Lolita. During this period, he also produced his much-praised “conversation” poems This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, and The Nightingale.


I don’t have much interest in Coleridge. He’s a bit more palatable to me than Wordsworth and the other Lake Poets – marginally. I find Romanticism too self involved and overblown to hold my interest very long. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a small exception. When I was about 15 I bought a fat hard-bound note book and copied into it by hand everything I could find that was nautical in any way. At that time I was fully intent on becoming a Royal Navy officer as my father had been, and wanted to absorb everything available. Copying Ancient Mariner by hand (with margin glosses) was a long labor of love that took many days. In the process I remembered many key stanzas. Now all I have to do is copy and paste like this and you have the text: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43997 Nothing will ever match copying by hand.


At that time for me the central tale of shooting the albatross, the curse, and the mariner’s salvation were haunting. Now it is the frame tale that captivates me. I can understand the idea of fate – the mariner survives to tell his tale, but not in an ordinary way. He wanders the earth a broken man, and once in a while he is gripped with the urge to tell the tale to a specific person. The urge is so strong that he cannot resist. He MUST tell the tale to that person:

He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The poem speaks to the urge to tell one’s tale. I know that urge. I am not the ancient mariner by any stretch of the imagination, but I know about the compulsion, the drive, to narrate. That’s why I am a teacher, preacher, and writer.

stc9 stc8 stc7

Ottery St Mary where Coleridge was born is a pretty enough village although not dazzling enough to warrant an immediate stop as so many other Devon villages are. I’ve past through many times, but once I spent the night there at a B&B and was able to sample many Devon delights including traditional Devonshire clotted cream as part of a cream tea. It is hard to find clotted cream these days, even in England. You can make it however, and it is almost as good. It is not the real thing if you don’t use Devon cream to start with – but close. Clotted cream is dense cream that is as thick as butter, but pure white and very sweet with concentrated milk sugar.


Here is a recipe from Cornish Recipes Ancient & Modern by Edith Martin (1929):

Use new milk and strain at once, as soon as milked, into shallow pans. Allow it to stand for 24 hours in winter and 12 hours in summer. Then put the pan on the stove, or better still into a steamer containing water, and let it slowly heat until the cream begins to show a raised ring round the edge. When sufficiently cooked, place in a cool dairy and leave for 12 or 24 hours. Great care must be taken in moving the pans so that the cream is not broken, both in putting on the fire and taking off.  When required skim off the cream in layers into a glass dish for the table, taking care to have a good “crust” on the top.

You are forgiven if you are not any the wiser. The point is that clotted cream is the cream of the cream. Traditionally, clotted cream was created by straining fresh cow’s milk, letting it stand in a shallow pan in a cool place for several hours to allow the cream to rise to the surface, then heating it either over hot cinders or in a water bath, before a slow cooling. The clots that formed on the top were then skimmed off with a long-handled cream-skimmer, known in Devon as a reamer or raimer. By the mid-1930s, the traditional way of using milk brought straight from the dairy was becoming a rarity in Devon because using a cream separator actively separated the cream from the milk using centrifugal force, which produced far more clotted cream than the traditional method from the same amount of milk. As a farmer’s wife in Poundsgate said, “the separator saves a whole cow!”


Today, there are two distinct modern methods for making clotted cream. The “float cream method” includes scalding a floating layer of double cream in milk (skimmed or whole) in shallow trays. To scald, the trays are heated using steam or very hot water. After the mixture has been heated for up to an hour it is slowly cooled for 12 hours or more, before the cream is separated and packaged. The “scald cream method” is similar, but the milk layer is removed and a layer of cream which has been mechanically separated to a minimum fat level is used. This cream is then heated in a similar manner, but at a lower temperature and after a set amount of time it is then chilled and packaged.

I used to use a big, non-stick electric wok set on the lowest temperature, fill it with cream and heat gently for several hours until clots formed. Then I would skim them off with a slotted spoon, package can chill them overnight. Then use the clotted cream the next day for a cream tea. It was well worth the effort and the small amount of clotted cream never lasted long.

Oct 202016


On this date in 1873, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Rutgers universities met to draft the first code of American football rules. Longtime readers will known that I do not like using “American” as an adjective referring to the United States, but I’ll let my rule slide here because “American football” is a well-understood term. This meeting of university representatives to draft the rules that eventually led to the current game cannot be considered the main event in the history of the game, but it was a milestone. Fair warning: I don’t like the game at all. Two rules that were developed later and are hallmarks of the game – blocking and the forward pass – completely ruin the game for me. The idea that some players have no other role than to block players on the other team means that they rarely, if ever, touch the ball, and this rule seems completely ludicrous to me. It puts an emphasis on brute force and raw strength over skill in ball handling which is limited to only a small number of players. I like football games where every player has the ability, and need, to touch the ball during the game, and in which interfering with a player who is not in possession of the ball is not allowed. The forward pass does not sit well with me either. In all the classic English ball sports lingering around the goal or making forward passes to players ahead of defenders was always considered unsporting and is now illegal (the offside rule).


Forms of traditional football have been played throughout Europe and beyond since antiquity. Many of these involved handling of the ball, and scrummage-like formations. Several of the oldest examples of football-like games include the Greek game of Episkyros and the Roman game of Harpastum. Over time many countries across the world have also developed their own national football-like games. For example, New Zealand had Ki-o-rahi, Australia marn grook, Japan kemari, China cuju, Georgia lelo burti, the Scottish Borders Jeddart Ba’ and Cornwall Cornish hurling, Central Italy Calcio Fiorentino, South Wales cnapan, East Anglia Campball and Ireland had caid, which was an ancestor of Gaelic football.

Archaic forms of football in England, typically classified as mob football, were played between neighboring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would clash in a heaving mass of people struggling to drag a ball of some sort by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. By some accounts, in some such events any means could be used to move the ball towards the goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder. These antiquated games went into sharp decline in the 19th century when the Highway Act 1835 was passed banning the playing of football on public highways. What arose instead were football games at various public (i.e. private) boarding schools, notably Rugby. Football was adopted by these public schools as a way of encouraging competitiveness and keeping boys fit. Each school drafted its own rules, which varied widely between different schools and were changed over time with each new intake of pupils. Two schools of thought developed regarding rules. Some schools favored a game in which the ball could be carried (as at Rugby, Marlborough and Cheltenham), while others preferred a game where kicking and dribbling the ball was promoted (as at Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Charterhouse). The division into these two camps was partly the result of circumstances in which the games were played. For example, Charterhouse and Westminster at the time had restricted playing areas; the boys were confined to playing their ball game within the school cloisters, making it difficult for them to adopt rough and tumble running games. Out of this diversity of games and rules evolved a number of games both in England and abroad. I’ve dealt with several here:





Let’s now turn to American football which evolved in the United States from a Rugby-style of football. Early football games in the United States appear to have had much in common with the traditional mob football played in England. The games remained largely unorganized until the 19th century, when intramural games of football began to be played on college campuses. Each school played its own variety of football. Princeton University students played a game called “ballown” as early as 1820. A Harvard tradition known as “Bloody Monday” began in 1827, which consisted of a mass ballgame between the freshman and sophomore classes. In 1860, both the town police and the college authorities agreed the Bloody Monday had to go. The Harvard students responded by going into mourning for a mock figure called “Football Fightum,” for whom they conducted funeral rites. The authorities held firm and it was a dozen years before football was once again played at Harvard. Dartmouth played its own version called “Old division football,” the rules of which were first published in 1871, though the game dates to at least the 1830s. All of these games, and others, shared certain common features. They remained largely “mob” style games, with huge numbers of players attempting to advance the ball into a goal area, often by any means necessary. Rules were simple, violence and injury were common. The violence of these mob-style games led to widespread protests and a decision to abandon them. Yale, under pressure from the city of New Haven, banned the play of all forms of football in 1860.


The game began to return to college campuses by the late 1860s. Yale, Princeton, Rutgers University, and Brown University began playing the popular “kicking” game during this time. In 1867, Princeton used rules based on those of the London Football Association. A “running game,” resembling rugby football, was taken up by the Montreal Football Club in Canada in 1868. On November 6, 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey) in a game that was played with a round ball and, used a set of rules suggested by Rutgers captain William J. Leggett, based on the Football Association’s first set of rules. It is still usually regarded as the first game of intercollegiate American football even though it bore no resemblance to the modern game. The game was played at a Rutgers field. Two teams of 25 players attempted to score by kicking the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Throwing or carrying the ball was not allowed, but there was plenty of physical contact between players. The first team to reach six goals was declared the winner. Rutgers won by a score of six to four. A rematch was played at Princeton a week later under Princeton’s own set of rules (one notable difference was the awarding of a “free kick” to any player who caught the ball on the fly, which was a feature adopted from the Football Association’s rules. The fair catch kick rule has survived through to modern American game). Princeton won that game by a score of 8–0. Columbia joined the series in 1870, and by 1872 several schools were fielding intercollegiate teams, including Yale and Stevens Institute of Technology.

By 1873, the college students playing football had made significant efforts to standardize their fledgling game. Teams had been scaled down from 25 players to 20. The only way to score was still to bat or kick the ball through the opposing team’s goal, and the game was played in two 45 minute halves on fields 140 yards long and 70 yards wide. On October 20, 1873, representatives from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City to codify the first set of intercollegiate football rules. Before this meeting, each school had its own set of rules and games were usually played using the home team’s own particular code. At this meeting, a list of rules, based more on the Football Association’s rules than the rules of the recently founded Rugby Football Union, was drawn up for intercollegiate football games.

Harvard refused to attend the rules conference organized by the other schools and continued to play under its own code. While Harvard’s voluntary absence from the meeting made it hard for them to schedule games against other U.S. universities, it agreed to a challenge to play McGill University, from Montreal, in a two-game series. Inasmuch as Rugby football had been transplanted to Canada from England, the McGill team played under a set of rules which allowed a player to pick up the ball and run with it whenever he wished. Another rule, unique to McGill, was to count tries (the act of grounding the football past the opposing team’s goal line; it is important to note that there was no end zone during this time), as well as goals, in the scoring. In the Rugby rules of the time, a touchdown only provided the chance to try to kick a free goal from the field. There were no points for the touchdown which was, and still is, called in rugby a “try,” that is, a “try at goal.”

Harvard quickly took a liking to the Rugby game, and its use of the try which, until that time, was not used in American football. The try would later evolve into the score known as the touchdown. On June 4, 1875, Harvard faced Tufts University in the first game between two U.S. colleges played under rules similar to the McGill/Harvard contest, which was won by Tufts. The rules included each side fielding 11 men at any given time, the ball was advanced by kicking or carrying it, and tackles of the ball carrier stopped play. Further elated by the excitement of McGill’s version of football, Harvard challenged its closest rival, Yale. The two teams agreed to play under a set of rules called the “Concessionary Rules”, which involved Harvard conceding something to Yale’s soccer and Yale conceding a great deal to Harvard’s rugby. They decided to play with 15 players on each team. On November 13, 1875, Yale and Harvard played each other for the first time ever. Among the 2000 spectators attending the game that day, was the future “father of American football” Walter Camp. Camp, who enrolled at Yale the next year, was torn between an admiration for Harvard’s style of play and the misery of Yale’s defeat (4-0), and became determined to avenge it. Spectators from Princeton, also carried the game back home, where it quickly became the most popular version of football.


Walter Camp is widely considered to be the most important figure in the development of American football. As a youth, he excelled in sports including track athletics, baseball, and association football, and after enrolling at Yale in 1876, he earned varsity honors in every sport the school offered. Following the introduction of rugby-style rules to American football, Camp became a fixture at the Massasoit House conventions where rules were debated and changed. Dissatisfied with what seemed to him to be a disorganized mob, he proposed his first rule change at the first meeting he attended in 1878: a reduction from fifteen players to eleven. The motion was rejected at that time but passed in 1880. The effect was to open up the game and emphasize speed over strength. Camp’s most famous change, the establishment of the line of scrimmage and the snap from center to quarterback, was also passed in 1880. Originally, the snap was executed with the foot of the center. Later changes made it possible to snap the ball with the hands, either through the air or by a direct hand-to-hand pass. Rugby league followed Camp’s example, and in 1906 introduced the play-the-ball rule, which greatly resembled Camp’s early scrimmage and center-snap rules. In 1966, Rugby league introduced a four-tackle rule based on Camp’s early down-and-distance rules.

Camp’s new scrimmage rules revolutionized the game, though not always as intended. Princeton, in particular, used scrimmage play to slow the game, making incremental progress towards the end zone during each down. Rather than increase scoring, which had been Camp’s original intent, the rule was exploited to maintain control of the ball for the entire game, resulting in slow, unexciting contests. At the 1882 rules meeting, Camp proposed that a team be required to advance the ball a minimum of five yards within three downs. These down-and-distance rules, combined with the establishment of the line of scrimmage, transformed the game from a variation of rugby football into the distinct sport of American football.


Camp was central to several more significant rule changes that came to define American football. In 1881, the field was reduced in size to its modern dimensions of 120 by 53 1⁄3 yards (109.7 by 48.8 meters). Several times in 1883, Camp tinkered with the scoring rules, finally arriving at four points for a touchdown, two points for kicks after touchdowns, two points for safeties, and five for field goals. Camp’s innovations in the area of point scoring influenced rugby union’s move to point scoring in 1890. In 1887, game time was set at two halves of 45 minutes each. Also in 1887, two paid officials—a referee and an umpire—were mandated for each game. A year later, the rules were changed to allow tackling below the waist, and in 1889, the officials were given whistles and stopwatches.

The last, and arguably most important innovation, which would at last make American football uniquely “American,” was the legalization of interference, or blocking, a tactic which was highly illegal under the rugby-style rules, and remains so.  At first, U.S. players would find creative ways of aiding the runner by pretending to accidentally knock into defenders trying to tackle the runner. When Walter Camp witnessed this tactic being employed against his Yale team, he was at first appalled, but the next year had adopted the blocking tactics for his own team.

So much for history. Here’s one of my favorite monologues by a young (and largely unknown) Andy Griffith – “What it Was, Was Football” – produced in 1953. The rural North Carolina accent alone is priceless, let alone the cheerful innocence of the country bumpkin.

Eating and football are natural twins in the United States. So-called tailgate parties are legendary in most stadium parking lots, where people come hours early and set up picnic and BBQ areas around their cars. The “tailgate” part comes from the old-fashioned use of pickup trucks for transport whose tailgate can be folded down to make a table for preparing and serving food. What I like about the idea of a tailgate party is that it is an outdoor picnic in autumn or winter. Most households in the U.S. see Labor Day (beginning of September) as the end of the picnic and BBQ season and shut up shop until the following Memorial Day in May. But I love cooking and eating outdoors in the colder weather.

Tailgating Football Fans --- Image by © Don Mason/Corbis

Tailgating Football Fans — Image by © Don Mason/Corbis

October was a great month for outdoor cooking for me because in the northeastern U.S. it is normally a dry month with warm, sunny days and starry nights – perfect for gathering around a roaring fire as light fades. This is the time for pig roasts and big gatherings. One year I held a campfire birthday party for my son (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/badger/ ) where his friends got to roast hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks whilst I cooked up a giant pot of chili over the coals (supplemented with fire-roasted potatoes and apples). It wasn’t elegant, of course, but great fun for everybody. Break the mold – eat outdoors today.


One commercial food was actually created specifically for tailgate parties – Palmetto Cheese, which was developed by Sassy Henry for tailgating at Atlanta Braves games. When Sassy and her husband, Brian, moved to Pawleys Island, South Carolina, they bought the Sea View Inn where the cook, Vertrella Brown, created the original recipe – a spread made from cheddar cheese, cream cheese, mayonnaise and spices.   Brown’s image can be found on the label of Palmetto Cheese. In 2006, Sassy and Vertrella’s pimento cheese recipe made the leap from the Sea View Inn menu to the first 20 packages put for sale at Independent Seafood in Georgetown, South Carolina. Now it is widely available at major chains in the U.S. and comes in Original, Jalapeño and Bacon. I’m not a fan of pre-made spreads, but it’s your choice. Me? You’ll find me out back at the fire pit.

Oct 192016


In a document dated 19 October 1901, the “King” and Chiefs of Niue consented to “Queen Victoria taking possession of this island.” A dispatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies from the Governor of New Zealand referred to the views expressed by the Chiefs in favor of “annexation” and to this document as “the deed of cession.” A British Protectorate was declared, but it was short-lived because Niue had already been brought within the boundaries of New Zealand on 11 June 1901 by the same Order and Proclamation that annexed the Cook Islands. The Order limited the islands to which it related by reference to an area in the Pacific described by co-ordinates, and Niue (19.02 S., 169.55 W) is within that area. So here we have a colonial paradox well worth exploring more fully. Niue is a rare case of a sovereign state willing to be annexed as a colony of an imperial nation, even though that willingness was largely irrelevant to what had already taken place.


Niue was settled by Polynesians from Samoa around 900 CE. Further settlers arrived from Tonga in the 16th century. Until the beginning of the 18th century, there was no national government or national leader on the island. Chiefs and heads of families exercised authority over segments of the population. Around 1700, the concept and practice of kingship appear to have been introduced through contact with the Tongan settlers. A succession of patu-iki (kings) ruled thereafter, the first of whom was Puni-mata. Tui-toga, who reigned from 1875 to 1887, was the first Christian king.

The first European to sight Niue was Captain James Cook in 1774. He made three attempts to land but was refused permission to do so by the inhabitants. He named the island “Savage Island” because, as legend has it, the natives who “greeted” him were painted in what appeared to be blood. The coloring on their teeth was hulahula, a native red banana. For the next couple of centuries, Niue was known as Savage Island until its original name, Niuē, which translates as “behold the coconut,” regained use.

The next notable European visitors were from the London Missionary Society, who arrived in 1846 on the “Messenger of Peace.” After many years of trying to settle a European mission, a Niuean named Nukai Peniamina was taken to Samoa and trained as a Pastor at the Malua Theological College. Peniamina returned as a missionary with the help of Toimata Fakafitifonua. He was finally allowed to settle in Uluvehi Mutalau after a number of attempts in other villages had failed. The chiefs of Mutalau village allowed him to stay and assigned over 60 warriors to protect him day and night at the fort in Fupiu.


Christianity was first taught to the Mutalau people before it was spread to all the villages, many of which had originally opposed the introduction of Christianity and had sought to kill Peniamina. The people from the village of Hakupu, although the last village to receive Christianity, came and asked for a “word of god,” hence, their village was renamed “Ha Kupu Atua” meaning “any word of god”, or “Hakupu” for short.

In 1889, the chiefs and rulers of Niue, in a letter to Queen Victoria, asked her “to stretch out towards us your mighty hand, that Niue may hide herself in it and be safe.” After expressing anxiety lest some other nation should take possession of the island, the letter continued: “We leave it with you to do as seems best to you. If you send the flag of Britain that is well; or if you send a Commissioner to reside among us, that will be well.” The offer was not initially taken up by the British. In 1900 a petition by the Cook Islanders asking for annexation included Niue “if possible.” Therefore the separate petition by Niue was unnecessary and the annexation of the Cook Islands included Niue. Of course, Niue and the Cook Islands did not want to be colonies but saw the writing on the wall. All of the South Pacific was being swallowed up by colonial powers which the various islands were unable to resists. So, Niue and the Cook Islands decided to take control of the situation and choose their colonial master rather than having one chosen for them.


Self-government was granted to Nuie by the New Zealand parliament in 1974 constitution, following a referendum in 1974 whereby Niueans were given three options: independence, self-government, or continuation as a New Zealand territory. The majority selected self-government and Niue’s written constitution was promulgated as law. Robert Rex, ethnically part European, part native, was appointed the first premier, a position he held until his death 18 years later. Rex was the first Niuean to receive a knighthood, in 1984.


Niue is one of the world’s largest coral islands. The terrain consists of steep limestone cliffs along the coast with a central plateau rising to about 60 metres above sea level. A coral reef surrounds the island, with the only major break in the reef being in the central western coast, close to the capital, Alofi. A notable feature is the number of limestone caves found close to the coast.


The island is roughly oval in shape (with a diameter of about 18 kilometers), with two large bays indenting the western coast, Alofi Bay in the centre and Avatele Bay in the south. Between these is the promontory of Halagigie Point. A small peninsula, TePā Point (Blowhole Point), is close to the settlement of Avatele in the southwest. Most of the population resides close to the west coast, around the capital, and in the northwest.


Some of the soils are geochemically very unusual. They are extremely highly weathered tropical soils, with high levels of iron and aluminium oxides (oxisol) and mercury, and they contain high levels of natural radioactivity. There is almost no uranium, but the radionucleides Th-230 and Pa-231 head the decay chains. This is the same distribution of elements as found naturally on very deep seabeds, but the geochemical evidence suggests that the origin of these elements is extreme weathering of coral and brief sea submergence 120,000 years ago. Endothermal upwelling, by which mild volcanic heat draws deep seawater up through the porous coral, may also contribute.


Agriculture is very important to the Niuean economy, and around 204 square kilometers of the land area are available for agriculture. Subsistence agriculture is very much part of Niue’s culture, where nearly all the households have plantations of taro. Taro is a staple food, and the pink taro now dominant in the taro markets in New Zealand and Australia is established as an intellectual property of Niue. This is one of the naturally occurring taro varieties on Niue, and has a strong resistance to pests. The Niue taro is known in Samoa as “talo Niue” and in international markets as pink taro. Niue exports taro to New Zealand. Tapioca or cassava, yams and kumara also grow very well,[45] as do different varieties of bananas. Coconut, meat, passionfruit, and limes dominated exports in the 1970s, but by 2008 vanilla, noni and taro were the main export crops.

Most families grow their own food crops for subsistence and sell their surplus at the Niue Makete in Alofi, or export to their families in New Zealand. Coconut crab, or uga, is also part of the food chain; it lives in the forest and coastal areas. In 2003, the government made a commitment to develop and expand vanilla production with the support of NZAID. Vanilla has grown wild on Niue for a long time. Despite the setback caused by the devastating Cyclone Heta in early 2004, work on vanilla production continues. The expansion plan started with the employment of the unemployed or underemployed labor force to help clear land, plant supporting trees and plant vanilla vines. The approach to accessing land includes planning to have each household plant a small plot of around half to 1-acre (0.40 ha) to be cleared and planted with vanilla vines. There are a lot of planting materials for supporting trees to meet demand for the expansion of vanilla plantations, but a severe shortage of vanilla vines for planting stock. There are of course the existing vanilla vines, but cutting them for planting stock will reduce or stop the vanilla from producing beans. At the moment, the focus is in the areas of harvesting and marketing.

Current plantations are mostly filled with manioc, taro and breadfruit, but banana trees can be found. The wide range of exotic plants in Niue includes taros, papayas, coconuts, bananas, yams, cassavas and breadfruits, and all are intensively used in the local cuisine. The most significant ingredient in Niue’s recipes are fish and vegetables. Fish is eaten roasted, grilled, raw, and in soups or stews. Main fish species include tuna (ahi), dolphinfish (mahi mahi), parrot fish (pakati), barracuda (ono), coconut crabs and crayfish.


Nane Pia is one of the few food specialties of the island. It is a translucent porridge made from arrowroot and coconut, and has a thick slimy texture. This is exactly the kind of dish I really don’t like partly because of the bland taste and partly because of the texture. Niue arrowroot is Maranta arundinacea which grows abundantly, and the rhizome is used to make a starchy flour. Arrowroot flour is reasonably easily obtained in Western health food markets. I use it as a thickening agent, but it can be made into puddings. I don’t have a recipe for Nane Pia, but this one that I have concocted will work even though it is not authentic. It makes two or three servings, and is meant to just give you the proportions and the idea. On Niue Nane Pia is a staple eaten with fish and other vegetables. Westerners would probably like it better as a pudding which would mean adding a little sugar.

Nane Pia


2 tbsp arrowroot flour


1 tbsp grated coconut


Put the 2 tablespoons of arrowroot and 100ml of cold water in a bowl. Whisk thoroughly to form a batter and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of water over medium heat in a pan and add the coconut. Simmer and stir for a few minutes, then turn off the heat.

Boil 100ml of water in a separate pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the arrowroot batter and the coconut. Simmer the mixture very slowly, stirring constantly until it has thickened.

If it were me, the next step would be to throw it out and eat something else. If you have got this far and are still interested, serve the porridge warm in a bowl to accompany fish or vegetables. Alternatively you can sweeten with some cane sugar and serve it cold as a dessert.

Oct 182016


Today is International Necktie Day which is celebrated primarily in Croatia, but also in various cities around the world such as Dublin, Tübingen, Como, Tokyo, Sydney and other towns. The celebration is not of major importance anywhere, of course, but it has a certain resonance in Croatia because wearing the original version of ties began in military regiments in Croatia and spread outward, first to France, then to the rest of Europe and beyond – evolving along the way. The original word for a tie in many European languages, cognates of “cravat,” are also cognates of the Croatian word for a Croatian – Hrvat. Hrvat actually sounds a more like “cravat” when spoken than might appear when written because the /h/ is guttural and the /r/ contains a slight vowel sound.  Ties these days are nothing like their original Croatian version, and they are finally going out of fashion; but the trend is desperately slow. I am going to use the word “tie” here, not “necktie.” “Necktie” is American English, and even though my spelling these days is generally American English rather than British English, because I lived and worked as a writer and professor in the United States for 35 years, and my vocabulary is not British at all (I say “elevator,” “apartment,” “hood” and “trunk” (for a car)), I just can’t bring myself to say “necktie.”

Soldiers in traditional military uniforms attend a guard exchanging ceremony at St. Mark's Square in Zagreb

The modern fashion of the tie traces ultimately back to the 17th century. The passage of the tie from Croatia to France (thence beyond) is a bit murky, but common legend has it that Croatian mercenaries from the Croatian Military Frontier in French service visited Paris during the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) in celebration of a hard-fought victory over the Ottoman Empire. There, the soldiers were presented as glorious heroes to the boy king Louis XIV, and it so happened that the officers of this regiment were wearing brightly colored handkerchiefs fashioned of silk around their necks. In imitation, Louis XIV began wearing a lace cravat around 1646, when he was seven, and set a fashion for French nobility which then started a fashion craze in Europe of both men and women wearing pieces of fabric around their necks. The first lace cravats, or jabots, took time and effort to arrange stylishly. They were often tied in place by cravat strings, arranged neatly and tied in a bow. From there the tie evolved.


In 1715, another kind of neckwear, the stocks, made its appearance. The term originally referred to a leather collar, laced at the back, worn by soldiers to promote holding the head high in a military bearing. The leather stock also afforded some protection to the major blood vessels of the neck from saber or bayonet attacks.


Stock ties were initially just a small piece of muslin folded into a narrow band wound a few times round the shirt collar and secured from behind with a pin. It was fashionable for the men to wear their hair long, past shoulder length. The ends were tucked into a black silk bag worn at the nape of the neck. This was known as the bag-wig hairstyle, and the neckwear worn with it was the stock. The solitaire was a variation of the bag wig. This form had matching ribbons stitched around the bag. After the stock was in place, the ribbons would be brought forward and tied in a large bow in front of the wearer.

Some time in the late 18th century, cravats began to make an appearance again, and this fashion recall is usually attributed to a group of young men called the macaronis (of “Yankee Doodle” fame). These were young Englishmen who returned from Europe bringing with them fashion from Italy. At this time, there was also much interest in the way to tie a proper cravat and this led to a series of publications. This began with Neckclothitania,  a book that contained instructions and illustrations on how to tie 14 different cravats. Soon after, the immense skill required to tie the cravat in certain styles, quickly became a mark of a man’s elegance and wealth. It was also the first book to use the word tie in association with neckwear.


It was about this time that black stocks made their appearance. Their popularity eclipsed the white cravat, except for formal and evening wear. These remained popular through to the 1850s. At this time, the neckerchief gained in popularity. It was often held in place by slipping the ends through a finger or scarf ring at the neck instead of using a knot. This became classic sailor neckwear which is still common. It is also common for Boy Scouts, and as a teen I had a large collection of both neckerchiefs and rings (called “woggles”).

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, more people wanted neckwear that was easy to put on, was comfortable, and would last an entire workday. Hence ties were designed long and thin that were easy to knot and did not come undone over the course of a long day. This is the tie design that is still worn today. Other styles of neckware also evolved in the 19th century including the bowtie, which is a simplification of the bow of the cravat strings, and the Ascot tie worn originally during the day at the races at Ascot.

1928747_1094703208313_1277_n tie-4

Since the tie has origins in Croatia, a Croatian recipe is appropriate. The cuisine of Croatia is quite eclectic with regions varying considerably. In a broad sense it can be divided into inland cooking and coastal recipes. My travels in Croatia have focused on the Dalmatian coast and its islands so I am more familiar with those traditions than inland ones. I’ve been more than content with feasts of fried whitebait and squid along with black risotto. But the ubiquitous dish which you will be served everywhere, and which I love, is salata od hobotnice – octopus salad. To make this dish well is no small feat because octopus is notoriously hard to cook so that it is not tough and leathery.


To cook octopus well you should start with frozen octopus. The freezing begins the tenderizing process. Thaw the octopus and heat a pot of water and white wine to a bare simmer. Some cooks believe that putting the wine cork in with the liquid helps tenderizing, but I think this is just a Croatian superstition. Do it if it makes you feel good. I don’t. Simmer the octopus until it is just cooked and no longer (about 10 minutes per pound). Longer cooking makes the octopus tough and there is no recovering once this happens. Remove the octopus from the poaching liquid and when cool enough to handle rub off the skin. Chill completely and then cut into bite-sized servings. I like to cut the flesh into paper thin rounds to ensure extra tenderness. Toss the octopus with chopped greens, green onions, and tomatoes dressed with extra virgin olive oil, and serve well chilled with crusty bread.

Oct 172016


Today is the first full day of Sukkot or Succot (סֻכּוֹת), commonly translated into English as the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), a biblical Jewish holiday celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei (varies from late September to late October). During the time of the Jerusalem Temple it was one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (שלוש רגלים‎‎, shalosh regalim) on which the people of Israel were commanded to perform a pilgrimage to the Temple (the others are Passover and Shavuot). I have not covered Passover yet, but Shavuot is here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/shavuot/ Looking at these three festivals as a secular anthropologist provides a different view of them from the way they are interpreted religiously – going all the way back to Temple times. I am very reluctant to talk about the “origins” of festivals, because in doing so we strip away all of the accumulated history associated with those festivals – which is not a reasonable thing to do. Festivals evolve over time and are continuously overlaid with new meanings on top of the old ones. So, what I have to say about the history of these festivals, especially Sukkot, is not meant to suggest that the birth of them represents the one true meaning of them. Birth is one strand in the complexly layered and continuing evolution of these festivals.


When I look at the symbolism of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot I see embedded in them three separate land-based traditions, pastoral and agricultural. Passover is about lambs, Shavuot about wheat, and Sukkot about fruit. I’ll leave aside my thoughts about the merging of pastoral and agricultural traditions for the moment. Let’s just focus on the clear symbolism of Sukkot. The two most important elements of Sukkot are the building of a Sukkah and the daily waving of the Four Species. The Sukkah is meant, deliberately, to be a temporary shelter, made of natural products and with the roof open partially to the elements. The faithful are supposed to eat their meals in the Sukkah, to entertain there, and some people even sleep there for the week of the festival. In modern times this can be a challenge, first in finding the natural materials to build the Sukkah with, and second, finding a place to build it. The whole point is to be out in the open, which is not exactly easy if you live in an apartment in a high-rise building in the midst of a teeming city.


The tradition of the Four Species comes from Leviticus 23:40 –  “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” This commandment is interpreted in various ways by different sects. The four elements are 1. Fruit  2. Palm branches 3. Leafy boughs 4. Willow boughs. Contemporary Jews keep a spray of the Four Species in the Sukkah and wave them ritually each day for seven days. Talmudic tradition interprets these as a citron, a date palm frond, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch.

There are two strands to Sukkot in the Torah, one in Exodus 34:22, the other in Leviticus 23:42-43. Talking about the books of the Torah is a very long discussion indeed. This is just a quick overview of my thoughts based on decades of study. Exodus is a complex document stitched together out of old sources. It is an historical narrative based on a defining moment for Jewish identity – the departure from bondage in Egypt and subsequent wandering in the desert. Its primary focus is Passover which is clearly a pastoral (animal herding) festival. But stitched into the fabric of this narrative are laws and obligations that derive from agricultural (farming) as well as pastoral traditions because the book was written for a society where there were both pastoral and agricultural regions and ethnicities that needed to be united. The book was probably started around 600 BCE when scholars and rulers were creating a national identity for the Judeans (Jews). They used history (as they knew it) to establish the meaning of laws and rituals. Leviticus is entirely about law and is a product of the Temple priests. It too was started around 600 BCE but with a different purpose. It assumes all of the history in Exodus and so is simply a tabulation of laws governing every aspect of life, including ritual, but adds an element of holiness, explaining why certain laws and traditions exist (usually more than just “God commands it”).


Exodus gives rules for observing Sukkot which make it clear that it is a fruit harvest celebration. A Sukkah is meant to resemble the temporary lodgings that the fruit harvesters built in the fields during harvest time so that they did not have to return to their city homes at night during an intense period when every hour of daylight was precious to secure the harvest as quickly as possible. Leviticus steps in and adds a layer that seeks to bring ALL celebrations in line with the founding narrative of the exodus and desert wandering. So it says that the Sukkah is meant to be a reminder of temporary dwellings whilst wandering in the desert. On the face of it this is patently absurd. Desert pastoralists don’t live in structures – temporary or permanent – made of wood. They live in tents. People who pick fruit in orchards have spare wood, desert nomads don’t. Yet Leviticus does not care about such anomalies – it wants a united nation, so logic takes a back seat.


If you are Jewish, you know what foods to celebrate Sukkot with. Different traditions have traditional favorites. If you have a Sukkah in your garden, all that is necessary is to cook in the kitchen and bring it out to the Sukkah to eat. Since citron is one of the Four Species it is a good ingredient to work with. Citron is one of the four original citrus fruits (the others being pomelo, mandarin, and papeda), from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization. It is not always easy to find because it is difficult to work with. Unlike common modern citrus fruits, the pulp of the citron is not useful, but it has a thick rind that can be used for cooking – usually with sugar. Candied citron is its most common usage. It can be eaten as is, or incorporated into other recipes.


Candied Citron


2 citrons
3 cups sugar (600g), plus 1 cup (100g) for tossing the finished fruit
2 cups (500ml) water


Wash and dry the citrons. Cut them in half and remove the pulp, then cut them into 1/2-inch (2cm) cubes. Put the pieces in a large saucepan, cover with a sufficient amount of water so it won’t boil away, and blanch the citron pieces in barely simmering water for 30 to 40 minutes.

Drain the citron pieces. Put them back in the pot with 3 cups (600g) of sugar and 2 cups (500ml) of  water.

Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot and cook the citron until the temperature reaches 230ºF. (110ºC)

Turn off the heat and let the citron pieces sit in the syrup for one hour.

The candied citron will stay preserved in the syrup in the refrigerator for at least one year. To use the citron, let the peel sit in a strainer for a couple of hours, stirring it occasionally, to let as much of the syrup drip away as possible. The syrup should be reserved for other uses.

When drained, toss the pieces of citron in sugar and let them sit on a wire rack overnight to dry out. Shake off the excess sugar, which you can reserve for other uses and store the citron in an airtight container.