May 282020
 

The eclipse of Thales was a solar eclipse that was, according to Histories of Herodotus, accurately predicted by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus. If Herodotus’ account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence. Many historians believe that the predicted eclipse was the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE. How exactly Thales predicted the eclipse remains uncertain; some scholars assert the eclipse was never predicted at all. Others have argued for different dates, but only the eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE matches the conditions of visibility necessary to explain the historical event. I have mentioned this eclipse before http://www.bookofdaystales.com/solar-eclipses/ but in that post I was more interested in eclipses in general as ways of dating ancient events.

Herodotus’ Histories 1.73-74 states that a war started in the period between the Medes and the Lydians. There were two reasons for the war: the two sides had clashing interests in Anatolia, but also there was a motive of vengeance: some Scythian hunters employed by the Medes who once returned empty-handed were insulted by king Cyaxares. In revenge the hunters slaughtered one of his sons and served him to the Medes. The hunters then fled to Sardis, the capital of the Lydians. When Cyaxares asked for the Scythians to be returned to him, Alyattes refused to hand them over; in response, the Medes invaded.

Afterwards, on the refusal of Alyattes to give up his suppliants when Cyaxares sent to demand them of him, war broke out between the Lydians and the Medes, and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes. Among their other battles there was one night engagement. As, however, the balance had not inclined in favor of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on. [Histories 1:74]

As part of the terms of the peace agreement, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis was married to Cyaxares’ son Astyages, and the Halys River (now known as the Kızılırmak River) was declared to be the border of the two warring nations.

An alternate hypothesis regarding the date of the battle argues that Herodotus was carelessly recounting events that he did not personally witness, and that the solar eclipse story is a misinterpretation of his text. According to this view, what happened could have been a lunar eclipse right before moonrise, at dusk. If the warriors had planned their battle activities expecting a full moon as in the previous few days, it would have been quite a shock to have dusk fall suddenly as an occluded moon rose. If this hypothesis is correct, the battle’s date would be not 585 BCE (date given by Pliny based on the date of solar eclipse), but possibly 3 September 609 BCE or 4 July 587 BCE, dates when such dusk-time lunar eclipses did occur. Generally speaking, I find this argument unconvincing. It is hard to confuse lunar and solar eclipses, and their effects on armies would have been radically different.

While doubt has been cast on the truth of the story, there are other accounts of it besides that of Herodotus. Diogenes Laërtius says that Xenophanes, who lived in the same century as Thales, was impressed with the prediction, and he also gives additional testimonies from the pre-Socratics, Democritus and Heraclitus. At the time of Thales’ purported prediction it was not yet known that eclipses were caused by the Moon coming between the Earth and the Sun, a fact that would not be discovered until over a century later by either Anaxagoras or Empedocles.

If the account is true, it has been suggested that Thales would have had to calculate the timing of any eclipse by recognizing patterns in the periodicities of eclipses. It has been postulated that Thales may have used the Saros cycle in his determination, or that he may have had some knowledge of Babylonian astronomy. However, Babylonians were far from being able to predict the local conditions of solar eclipses at that point, which makes this hypothesis highly unlikely. In fact, there is no known cycle that can be reliably used to predict an eclipse for a given location and, therefore, any accurate prediction would have been pure luck.

The eclipse peaked over the Atlantic Ocean at 37.9°N 46.2°W and the umbral path reached south-western Anatolia in the evening hours, and the Halys River is just within the error margin for delta-T provided.

On the whole, I do not think that emulating the Scythians’ dish of serving up the king’s son on a platter would be a suitable way to celebrate the day, but there are alternatives.  One is mare’s milk cheese.  The Scythians were noted for this cheese by Herodotus:

Now the Scythians blind all their slaves, because of the milk they drink; and this is how they get it: taking tubes of bone very much like flutes, they insert these into the genitalia of the mares and blow into them, some blowing while others milk. According to them, their reason for doing this is that blowing makes the mare’s veins swell and her udder drop. When done milking, they pour the milk into deep wooden buckets, and make their slaves stand around the buckets and shake the milk; they draw off what stands on the surface and value this most; what lies at the bottom is less valued. This is why the Scythians blind all prisoners whom they take: for they do not cultivate the soil, but are nomads.

Herodotus Histories 4:2

The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the 5th century BCE or the beginning of the 4th) compares the physiological process whereby a bad humor is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese by the Scythians:

If the man is not purged, as the humor is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Mare’s milk is fairly commonly available in central Asia (even in supermarkets) and I was offered it several times when I was in Kyrgyzstan 2 years ago.  Kyrgyz nomads are also known for making cheese from mare’s milk although the process is a bit tricky because the milk will not coagulate using cow rennet.  You can use camel rennet and maybe yak rennet also.  But there are other processes that can be employed as well, as in the above quote.  I doubt you will find mare’s milk cheese outside of central Asia, but give it a try.  It is a little reminiscent of goat’s milk cheese.  If not, maybe you can find mare’s milk.  It is normally called kumis (Russian term).

May 232020
 

Today is the birthday of Sir Charles Barry FRS RA (1795 – 1860) who is not exactly a household name these days, but it ought to be if for no other reason than that he designed many landmarks in London that are now iconic (including the tower that houses Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament).  As such we can say that he rivals Christopher Wren in his legacy. He was also notable for designing numerous other buildings and gardens around England. He is applauded by cognoscenti for his major contribution to the use of Italianate architecture in Britain, especially the use of the Palazzo as the basis for the design of country houses, city mansions and public buildings. He also developed the Italian Renaissance garden style for the many gardens he designed around country houses.

Barry’s first commissions were churches in neo-Gothic style:

 

After that he was commissioned to design public buildings in urban settings:

Eventually he was involved in numerous projects in London – more than the Houses of Parliament.  He redesigned Trafalgar Square, for example, so that how it appears today is mostly attributable to Barry.

Barry was also celebrated for his designs of country houses including Cliveden which was very close to where I went to school as a teenager, and where I occasionally took walks.

Mrs Beeton is called for when it comes to a suitable recipe, and I spotted this quote as I was thumbing through (incidental homage to Trafalgar and the Houses of Parliament):

The ministers of the Crown have had a custom, for many years, of having a “whitebait dinner” just before the close of the session. It is invariably the precursor of the prorogation of Parliament, and the repast is provided by the proprietor of the “Trafalgar”

So . . . fried whitebait it is.  Mrs Beeton continues:

WHITEBAIT.—This highly-esteemed little fish appears in innumerable multitudes in the river Thames, near Greenwich and Blackwall, during the month of July, when it forms, served with lemon and brown bread and butter, a tempting dish to vast numbers of Londoners, who flock to the various taverns of these places, in order to gratify their appetites. The fish has been supposed be the fry of the shad, the sprat, the smelt, or the bleak. Mr. Yarrell, however, maintains that it is a species in itself, distinct from every other fish. When fried with flour, it is esteemed a great delicacy.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—A little flour, hot lard, seasoning of salt.

Mode.—This fish should be put into iced water as soon as bought, unless they are cooked immediately. Drain them from the water in a colander, and have ready a nice clean dry cloth, over which put 2 good handfuls of flour. Toss in the whitebait, shake them lightly in the cloth, and put them in a wicker sieve to take away the superfluous flour. Throw them into a pan of boiling lard, very few at a time, and let them fry till of a whitey-brown colour. Directly they are done, they must he taken out, and laid before the fire for a minute or two on a sieve reversed, covered with blotting-paper to absorb the fat. Dish them on a hot napkin, arrange the fish very high in the centre, and sprinkle a little salt over the whole.

May 212020
 

Today is the birthday of Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744), considered one of the greatest English poets, and the foremost poet of the early eighteenth century. He is best known for his satirical and discursive poetry, including The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, and An Essay on Criticism, as well as for his translation of Homer. After Shakespeare, Pope is the second-most quoted writer in the English language, as per The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations some of his verses having even become popular idioms in common parlance.

Pope’s poetic career testifies to his persistence in the face of disadvantages, of health and of circumstance. He and his family were Catholics and thus fell subject to the Test Acts, prohibitive measures which severely hampered the prosperity of Catholics after the abdication of James II. Catholics were banned from living within ten miles of London, and from attending public schools or universities. For this reason, except for a few spurious Catholic schools, Pope was largely self-educated. He was taught to read by his aunt and became a lover of books. He learned French, Italian, Latin, and Greek by himself, and discovered Homer at the age of six. As a child Pope survived being once trampled by a cow, but when he was 12 began struggling with tuberculosis of the spine (Pott disease), along with fits of crippling headaches which troubled him throughout his life.

In the year 1709, Pope showcased his precocious metrical skill with the publication of Pastorals, his first major poems. They earned him instant fame. By the time he was 23 he had written An Essay on Criticism, released in 1711. A kind of poetic manifesto in the vein of Horace’s Ars Poetica, the essay was met with enthusiastic attention and won Pope a wider circle of prominent friends, most notably Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who had recently started collaborating on the influential The Spectator. The critic John Dennis, having located an ironic and veiled portrait of himself, was outraged by what he considered the impudence of the younger author. Dennis hated Pope for the rest of his life, and, save for a temporary reconciliation, dedicated his efforts to insulting him in print, to which Pope retaliated in kind, making Dennis the butt of much satire.

The Rape of the Lock, perhaps the poet’s most famous poem, appeared first in 1712, followed by a revised and enlarged version in 1714. When Lord Petre forcibly snipped off a lock from Miss Arabella Fermor’s head (the “Belinda” of the poem), the incident gave rise to a high-society quarrel between the families. With the idea of allaying this, Pope treated the subject in a playful and witty mock-heroic epic. The narrative poem brings into focus the onset of acquisitive individualism and conspicuous consumption, where purchased goods assume dominance over moral agency.

A folio comprising a collection of his poems appeared in 1717, together with two new ones written about the passion of love. These were Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady and the famous proto-romantic poem Eloisa to Abelard. Though Pope never married, about this time he became strongly attached to Lady M. Montagu, whom he indirectly referenced in the popular poem Eloisa to Abelard, and to Martha Blount, with whom his friendship continued throughout his life.

In his career as a satirist, Pope made his share of enemies as the critics, politicians, and certain other prominent figures felt the sting of his sharp-witted satires. Some were so virulent, that Pope even carried pistols at one point while walking his dog. After 1738, Pope composed relatively little. He toyed with the idea of writing a patriotic epic called Brutus. He mainly revised and expanded his masterpiece The Dunciad. Book Four appeared in 1742, and a complete revision of the whole poem in the following year. In this version, he replaced Lewis Theobald with the Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, as “king of dunces”. However, his real target in the poem is the Whig politician Robert Walpole. By now Pope’s health was failing, and when told by his physician, on the morning of his death, that he was better, Pope replied: “Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms”.

Here are some memorable lines:

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

If you want to know what God thinks about money just look at the people He gives it to.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.

To err is human, to forgive, divine.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast

Man never thinks himself happy, but when he enjoys those things which others want or desire.

The more you read Pope, the more you realize how profoundly he influenced common rhetoric.

For my recipe today I have chosen Orange Fool from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse. I chose it because I like the recipe but also because a YouTube video of the recipe (below) caused great indignation from Trump supporters because they were convinced it was making fun of Trump.  Pope would be laughing his heart out at that idiocy.

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool.
But you yourself may prove to show it,
Every fool is not a poet.

A fool is a fruit dessert popular since the 16th century.  The word “fool” in this case may be a cognate of the Arabic “ful” which is made of mashed beans (an old fav of mine).  The original is as follows:

Take the Juice of six Oranges and Six Eggs well beaten, a Pint of Cream, a quarter of a Pound of Sugar, a little Cinnamon and Nutmeg; mix all together, and keep stirring over a slow Fire, till it is thick, then put in a little Piece of Butter, and keep stirring till cold, and dish it up.

Not hard to replicate.  You would be best served using a double boiler to avoid turning the mixture to scrambled eggs.  Or . . . you can follow this video:

May 202020
 

On this date in 325 the First Council of Nicaea (Νίκαια), the first of many ecumenical (lit. “the whole world”) councils of Christian bishops convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey) The council was called by Constantine I, the first nominally Christian Roman emperor, to establish doctrinal unity in the empire. Its main accomplishments were (temporary) settlement of the Christological issue of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first version of the Nicene Creed, establishing uniform observance of the date of Easter, and promulgation of early canon law.

This is the kind of theological history I have been teaching for years, and was part of my recent foray into early church history at a theological college in Phnom Penh.  Therefore, I could go on and on and on about the Council.  But I will spare you.  The Byzantine recipe for a fluffy omelet is much more interesting.  The thing is that I hate doctrine with a passion.  I was bored with it when I studied theology at Oxford in the 1970s and I am still bored with it.  It is meaningless – except to sticklers who insist on making logical sense out of pronouncements in the Greek Bible that are contradictory and simply cannot be reconciled logically.  The Christological problem is a great example.

Because John’s gospel starts by saying that Jesus of Galilee was the eternal creative word of God (the Logos) made flesh, subsequent scholars tried to make sense out of who this Jesus really was.  Mark’s gospel is a lot simpler.  He casts Jesus as the Jewish messiah, a “king” come to save the people of Judah from oppression.  The fact that he was a spiritual rather than earthly king took a little explaining, but he did not make the claim that Jesus was God – simply using the cryptic Son of Man (from the book of Daniel) as his title.  John’s claim is much more all-encompassing, and very difficult to integrate with the facts on the ground.  How can Jesus be the eternal God and a man at the same time?  This is the Christological Problem.

At the time there were two conflicting viewpoints: (1) Jesus was fully God and fully human, and was co-eternal from all time with God the Father, and (2) Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, but was created by God the Father.  The latter opinion was promulgated by Arius (Ἄρειος) a Libyan presbyter and ascetic, and priest in Baucalis in Alexandria in Egypt. His point of view – known as Arianism – was widespread in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  The Council of Nicaea spent the bulk of its time debating positions #1 and #2.  Arius was present and defended his position vigorously. At one point (so it is said), St Nicholas of Myra (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-nicholas-of-myra/ ) – yup, Santa Claus – got so enraged with Arius’s rhetoric that he got up and slapped him in the face.

The Nicene Creed that developed during the deliberations of the Council accepted position #1 and rejected Arianism.  So if you are Christian and sing carols at Christmas you will recall from O Come All Ye Faithful, the line “begotten not created” (if you pay any attention to words).  That is, Jesus (the Word), was not created: he is co-eternal with the Father.  If this kind of theology floats your boat I pity you.  I did have to assent to it at my ordination, but I do not find it significant in my Christian life.

The Council also fixed on a date for Easter to be observed through all Christendom – and, most especially, wanted to distinguish it from Passover, even though the two are indelibly related.  This they (sort of) achieved, setting up calendric problems that lasted for over 15 centuries – requiring eventually a move from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

Nicaea, and later İznik, was, and is, famous for a kind of fluffy omelet called sphongia. Here is a recipe in Byzantine Latin:

ova quattuor, lactis heminam, olei unciam in se dissolvis, ita ut unum corpus facias. in patellam subtilem adicies olei modicum, facies ut bulliat, et adicies impensam quam parasti. una parte cum fuerit coctum, in disco vertes, melle perfundis, piper adspargis et inferes.

 The Latin is a little obscure but my (very) rough translation is as follows:

Four eggs, one cup (half a pint) of milk and an ounce of oil well beaten, to make a mixture. In a pan put a little oil, heat, and add the egg mixture. When it is cooked on one side, place on a dish, pour over honey, add pepper, and serve.

The addition of honey and pepper makes for an interesting dish.  Here is a modern interpretation:

 

Feb 232020
 

Today is the birthday (1633) of Samuel Pepys PRS, an administrator of the navy of England, Member of Parliament, and president of the Royal Society, who is most famous for the diary he kept for a decade while still a relatively young man. Pepys had no maritime experience, but he rose to be the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both Charles II and James II through patronage, hard work, and his talent for administration. His influence and reforms at the Admiralty were important in the development of a professional and efficient Royal Navy. The detailed private diary that Pepys kept from 1660 until 1669 was first published in the 19th century and is one of the most important primary sources for the Restoration period. It provides personal insights and revelations as well as eyewitness accounts of famous events, such as the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London.

The diary is of rare importance because, in the days before photography, video, internet, social media, and so forth, it opens a window for us on to the way a citizen viewed life in London in the 17th century. He was, admittedly, a well-connected citizen, and was also, in many respects, an unusual man. It is a grave mistake to generalize from Pepys to all bourgeois Englishmen of the period, as it is with all diaries in all periods (a mistake that social historians are prone to repeatedly). It is also a grave mistake to believe that now that we have so many forms of documentation at our disposal, we no longer need to record events and feelings in personal diaries. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Pepys’s diary is a reasonably accurate record of his inner monologue, and there is no substitute for such. I will give you some brief biographical information and then spend the bulk of the post in quotes from the diary.

Pepys was born in Salisbury Court off Fleet Street in London. To a prosperous upper-middle class family. He was the fifth of eleven children, but because child mortality was high, he was soon the oldest survivor. He was baptized at St Bride’s Church on 3rd March 1633. He attended Huntingdon Grammar School before being educated at St Paul’s School in London, c. 1646-1650. In 1650, he went to the University of Cambridge, having received two exhibitions from St Paul’s School and a grant from the Mercers’ Company. In October, he was admitted as a sizar to Magdalene College; he moved there in March 1651 and took his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1654. Later in 1654 or early in 1655, he entered the household of one of his father’s cousins, Sir Edward Montagu, who was later created the 1st Earl of Sandwich. Pepys married fourteen-year-old Elisabeth de St Michel, a descendant of French Huguenot immigrants, first in a religious ceremony on 10th October 1655 and later in a civil ceremony on 1st December 1655 at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

On January 1st 1659/1660, Pepys began his diary. January 1st was not officially New Year’s Day in the 17th century; March 25th was. But many people, including Pepys, considered January 1st to be the beginning of a new year and Pepys decided to put pen to paper to mark a new beginning in his life and in the year. He notes in his entry that January 1st is the Feast of the Circumcision (the 8th day after the birth of Jesus when circumcision was prescribed for newborns). Otherwise, it was a pretty average Sunday:

Jan. 1st (Lord’s day). This morning (we living lately in the garret,) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts, having not lately worn any other, clothes but them. Went to Mr. Gunning’s chapel at Exeter House, where he made a very good sermon upon these words:–“That in the fulness of time God sent his Son, made of a woman,” &c.; showing, that, by “made under the law,” is meant his circumcision, which is solemnized this day. Dined at home in the garret, where my wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand. I staid at home all the afternoon, looking over my accounts; then went with my wife to my father’s, and in going observed the greatposts which the City have set up at the Conduit in Fleet-street. Supt at my father’s, where in came Mrs. The. Turner and Madam Morrice, and supt with us. After that my wife and I went home with them, and so to our own home.

Pepys wrote the diary using a version of shorthand that would make it unreadable to the casual eye, and he had no intention of making it public during his lifetime. He did, however, take care to have it bound and preserved for posterity. It was not published until the early 19th century, and even then it was heavily expurgated because of crude language and frequent references to sex. It is now available online in its entirety — http://www.limpidsoft.com/ipad8/samuelpepys.pdf   Here are some quotes I find appealing:

But Lord! To see the absurd nature of Englishmen that cannot forbear laughing and jeering at everything that looks strange.

Mighty proud I am that I am able to have a spare bed for my friends.

But it is pretty to see what money will do.

Thanks be to God, since my leaving drinking of wine, I do find myself much better, and do mind my business better, and do spend less money, and less time lost in idle company.

And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

I do still see that my nature is not to be quite conquered, but will esteem pleasure above all things, though yet in the middle of it, it has reluctances after my business, which is neglected by my following my pleasure. However musique and women I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.

Unlike God the artist does not start with nothing and make something of it. He starts with himself as nothing and makes something of the nothing with the things at hand. 

The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.

I went out to Charing Cross to see Major General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could in that condition.

Fight the good fight; and always call to mind that it is not you who are mortal, but this body of ours. For your true being is not discerned by perceiving your physical appearance. But ‘what a man’s mind is, that is what he is’ not that individual human shape that we identify through our senses.

Pepys frequently notes what he ate at meals, and it is quite evident that venison was his favorite meat, and that venison pies or pasties appealed to him greatly. He does, however, quite often note that the venison at a dinner was not up to his standards. In this case the dinner was all right, but the venison pasty was, in fact, beef:

I went home and took my wife and went to my Cosen Tho. Pepys’s and found them just sat down to dinner, which was very good; only the venison pasty was palpable beef, which was not handsome.

Venison pies and pasties are frequently mentioned in 17th century dinner menus and they were obviously popular. They were large enough to serve a whole table and were often elaborately decorated. If they were to be given as gifts, the pastry was construction grade and might not even be particularly edible. Served for a normal dinner, the pastry was more likely to be a standard mix of flour, butter, and eggs. It was common to cook the venison for many hours, and to pound it into a paste with wine and spices before filling the pie. Here is a recipe for a stew of venison from The English and French Cook of 1674. With a little imagination you could convert the stew to a pie filling and, using either slack paste or shortcrust pastry, make a finished pie. I’ll leave that part to you.

Potage of Venison.

Take a Haunch of Venison, and cut it into six pieces, and place them in the bottom of a Pan or Pot, then put in no more Water than will cover it, let it boil, then scum it, after that add to it a good quantity of whole Pepper; when it is half boiled, put in four whole Onions, Cloves, and large Mace, some sliced Ginger, Nutmeg, three or four faggots of sweet Herbs, let it boil till the Venison be very tender, and a good part of the broth be wasted; after this pour out the broth from the meat into a Pipkin, keep your Venison hot in the same Pot by adding other hot broth unto it; then take a couple of red-Beet roots, having very well parboil’d them before, cut them into square pieces as big as a shilling, and put them into the broth which is in your Pipkin, and let them boil till they are very tender, add unto the boiling four Anchovies minced, then dish up your Venison on Sippets of French-bread, then pour on your broth, so much as will near-upon fill the Dish, then take your roots by themselves, and toss them in a little drawn Butter, and lay them all over the Venison; if the Beets be good, it will make the broth red enough, which you must have visible round about the Dish sides, but if it prove pale, put to it some Saunders: This is a very savory Potage.

 

Feb 082020
 

Today is the Buddhist festival of Māgha Pūjā (also written as Makha Bucha Day), called Meak Bochea មាឃបូជា (veneration of the third lunar month) in Cambodia. It is the third most important Buddhist festival, celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka and on the full moon day of Tabaung in Myanmar. It celebrates a gathering that was held between the Buddha and 1,250 of his first disciples, which, according to tradition, preceded the custom of periodic recitation of discipline by monks. On this day, Buddhists celebrate the creation of an ideal and exemplary community, which is why it is sometimes called Saṅgha Day, the Saṅgha referring to the Buddhist community, and for some Buddhist schools this is specifically the monastic community. In Thailand, the Pāli term Māgha-pūraṇamī is also used for the celebration, meaning ‘to honor on the full moon of the third lunar month’ (same as the Khmer phrase).

In pre-modern times, Māgha Pūjā was celebrated in some Southeast Asian communities, but it became widely popular in the modern period, when it was instituted in Thailand by King Rama IV in the mid-19th century. From Thailand, it spread to other South and Southeast Asian countries. Presently, it is a public holiday in some of these countries. It is an occasion when Buddhists go to the temple to perform meritorious activities, such as alms giving, meditation and listening to teachings.

Māgha Pūjā day marks an event occurring at the Veḷuvana grove, near Rājagaha (present Rajgir) in northern India, ten months after the enlightenment of the Buddha. The traditional story goes that a meeting was held in the afternoon, that had four characteristics, known as the cāturaṅgasannipāta

1,250 disciples came to see the Buddha that evening without being summoned. They were mostly pupils from the Buddha’s recently converted disciples, such as the three Kassapa brothers, and the monks Sāriputta and Mogallāna.

All of them were Arahants, enlightened disciples.

All had been ordained by the Buddha himself, and therefore were his direct spiritual descendants.

It was the full-moon day of the third lunar month.

On this occasion, the Buddha taught those arahants a summary of Buddhism, called the Ovādapātimokkha. In these, three principles were given:

  1. Not doing evil / Being fully wholesome / The total purification of the mind.
  2. “Patience (and) forbearance are the highest austerity. The awakened ones say nibbāna (escape from reincarnation) is the highest. One is certainly not a wanderer if one injures others; one is not an ascetic if one harms another.”
  3. “Not abusing, not injuring, and restraint under the rules of discipline, and knowing moderation in eating, and secluded lodgings, and exertion in respect of higher thought, this is the teaching of the awakened ones.”

According to the traditional Pāli commentaries, the Buddha continued to teach this summary for a period of twenty years, after which the custom was replaced by the recitation of the monastic code of discipline by the Saṅgha themselves. On Māgha Pūjā today, Buddhists celebrate the creation of an ideal and exemplary community.

Māgha Pūjā is also the day that the Buddha is believed to have announced in Vesālī that he would die (parinibbāna) in three months, and after the announcement a supernatural earthquake followed. Moreover, In Sri Lanka, it is considered the day that the Buddha appointed his two main disciples, the monks Sāriputta and Moggallāna.

Little is known concerning how traditional Buddhist societies celebrated this event in pre-modern times, but Māgha Pūjā was recognized and celebrated in Lan Na, Lan Xang and Northeastern Thailand. Practices of worship probably varied considerably. The first known instance in modern times was during the reign of the Thai king Rama IV (1804–68) who instituted it as a ceremony in 1851.

In Cambodia, various celebrations are held on this day. Ceremonies are held at Preah Reach Trop Mountain, for example, joined by 30,000 to 50,000 people, as of 2020. There are also alms offerings on Oudong Hill, participated in yearly by thousands of people. On the day, devotees make merit, cook meals for elderly people or their parents, and clean up their houses. Since the late 2010s, the day has become more popular among youth, and more pagodas are organizing ceremonies. Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Ministry of Cults and Religion have promoted activities on the day, and education for youths about it. However, in August 2019, local media reported the Cambodian government removed Meak Bochea from the list of national holidays to increase the country’s competitiveness, because the number of holidays had become too high (cutting them from 29 to 22 per year – in total).

Here is a video on making a traditional Cambodian dessert of taro and rice (with coconut milk and sugar). The commentary is in Khmer, but the directions are easy to follow, and the video will give you the sense of living here (a little). It was actually made in Canada.

Jan 142020
 

Today is Maghi (or some variant), in many parts of the Indian subcontinent and SE Asia. It is an annual festival on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar, when the sun enters the sign of Makara or Capricorn. The eve of Maghi is called Lohri (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/lohri/ ). It is one of the seasonal gatherings of the Sikhs, and is celebrated at Muktsar in the memory of forty Sikh martyrs (Chalis Mukte), who once deserted the tenth and last human Guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur Sahib, but later rejoined the Guru and died while fighting the Mughal Empire army led by Wazir Khan in 1705. Sikhs make a pilgrimage to the site of this Sikh-Muslim war, and take a dip in the sacred water tanks of Muktsar. A fair (mela) called the Mela Maghi is held at Muktsar Sahib every year in memory of the forty Sikh martyrs. Before this tradition started to commemorate the Sikh martyrs, the festival was observed and mentioned by Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of Sikhism.

Makar Sankranti (or Pongal) is celebrated on this date in other parts of the Indian subcontinent by Hindus, always on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar. Hindus bathe in the Ganges or if that is not possible, in some other river, rivulet, canal or pond.

Maghi is celebrated by eating kheer such as roh di kheer which is an old dish in which rice is cooked in sugarcane juice. The dish is prepared in the evening before Maghi and is kept overnight to cool. It is served cold next morning on Maghi with red-pepper mixed curd. In some parts of Punjab, it is also traditional to eat kichdi (rice and moong beans) mixed with lentils, or raw sugarcane and jaggery.

Here’s a great video on preparing roh di kheer in a traditional Punjabi kitchen:

Jan 132020
 

Today is the festival of Lohri, celebrated by Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. It is observed the night before Makar Sankranti, also known as Maghi, which according to the solar part of the lunisolar Bikrami calendar typically falls on this date every year.  Historically, the festival has been both a winter crop season celebration, and a remembrance of the Sun deity (Surya). Lohri songs mention Surya, asking for heat and thanking him for his return. Other legends explain the celebration as a folk reverence for fire (Agni) or the goddess of Lohri.

Other Punjabi folklore links Lohri to the tale of Dulla Bhatti. The central theme of many Lohri songs is the legend of Dulla Bhatti who lived in Punjab during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar. He was regarded as a hero in Punjab, for rescuing Hindu girls from being forcibly taken to be sold in slave market of the Middle East. Amongst those he saved were two girls Sundri & Mundri, who gradually became a theme of Punjabi folklore. As a part of Lohri celebrations, children go around homes singing the traditional folk songs of Lohri with “Dulla Bhatti” name included. One person sings, while others end each line with a loud “Ho!” sung in unison. After the song ends, the adult of the home is expected to give snacks and money to the singing troupe of youngsters.

Lohri is celebrated with a bonfire. The lighting of bonfire during this winter festival is a longstanding tradition, as is true of midwinter festivals throughout the northern hemisphere.

In Punjab, the harvest festival Lohri is marked by eating sheaves of roasted corn from the new harvest. The January sugarcane harvest is also celebrated in the Lohri festival. Sugarcane products such as gurh (solidified and unrefined sugarcane juice) and gachak (recipe below) are central to Lohri celebrations, as are nuts which are harvested in January. The other important food item of Lohri is the radish which can be harvested between October and January. Mustard greens are cultivated mainly in the winter months because the crop is suitable to the agro-climatic conditions. Accordingly, mustard greens are also a winter produce. It is traditional to eat gajak, sarson da saag with makki di roti, radish, ground nuts and jaggery.  Jaggery is a solid brown sugar product made from cane sugar and toddy palm juice. It is also traditional to eat “til rice” which is made by mixing jaggery, sesame seeds and rice. In some places, this dish is called ‘tricholi.’

In various places in the Punjab, about 10 to 15 days before Lohri, groups of young and teenage boys and girls go around the neighborhood collecting logs for the Lohri bonfire. In some places, they also collect items such as grains and jaggery which are sold and the sale proceeds are divided amongst the group.

A popular activity engaged in by boys is to select a group member to smear his face with ash and tie a rope around his waist. The idea is for the selected person to act as a deterrent for people who refrain from giving Lohri items. The boys will sing Lohri songs asking for Lohri items. If not enough is given, the householder will be given an ultimatum to either give more or the rope will be loosened. If not enough is given, then the boy who has his face smeared will try to enter the house and smash clay pots or the clay stove.

During the day, children go from door to door singing traditional songs. These children are given sweets and savories, and occasionally, money. Turning them back empty-handed is regarded inauspicious. Where families are welcoming newly-weds and newborns, the requests for treats increases. The collections gathered by the children are known as Lohri and consist of til, gachak, crystal sugar, gur (jaggery), moongphali (peanuts) and phuliya or popcorn. Lohri is then distributed at night during the festival. Till, peanuts, popcorn and other food items are also thrown into the fire. For some, throwing food into the fire represents the burning of the old year and start the next year on Makar Sankranti

The bonfire ceremony differs depending on the location in Punjab. In some parts, a small image of the folk Lohri goddess is made with gobar (cattle dung) which is then decorated. A fire is lit beneath it and people chant its praises. In other parts, the Lohri fire consists of cow dung and wood with no reference to the Lohri goddess.

The bonfire is lit at sunset in the main village square. People toss sesame seeds, gur, and sugar-candy on the bonfire, sit around it, sing and dance till the fire dies out. Some people perform a prayer while they circle fire. It is traditional to offer guests til, gachchak, gur, moongphali (peanuts) and phuliya or popcorn. Milk and water mix is also poured around the bonfire by Hindus to thank the Sun God and seeking his continued protection.

Here’s a recipe for gachak.  It’s not in English, but you’ll figure it out.

Jan 082020
 

Today is the birthday (1935) of Elvis Aaron Presley, often known simply as Elvis, the king of Rock and Roll, or just the King. Elvis is one of the cultural icons of the mid-20th century, and his music marked a fundamental shift in popular music in the late 1950s from crooners and other solo artists to guitar playing rock stars fronting bands with guitars and drums.  Prior to Elvis, rock and roll in the US was the domain of African-American musicians, but Elvis brought the style into the White mainstream.

Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee with his family when he was 13 years old. His music career began there in 1954, recording at Sun Records with producer Sam Phillips, who was the key person involved in bringing the sound of African-American music to a wider audience at the time. Presley, on rhythm acoustic guitar, and accompanied by lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, was a pioneer of rockabilly, an up-tempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country music and rhythm and blues. In 1955, drummer D. J. Fontana joined to complete the lineup of Presley’s classic quartet and RCA Victor acquired his contract in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who would manage him for more than two decades. Presley’s first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was released in January 1956 and became a number-one hit in the United States. With a series of successful network television appearances and chart-topping records, he became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of rock and roll. His energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines during a transformative era in race relations, made him enormously popular—and controversial.

In November 1956, Presley made his film debut in Love Me Tender. He was drafted into military service in 1958, which the press made much about at the time, and then forgot him. He was intent on being a regular soldier rather than an entertainer in uniform, so he worked in a regular army unit, mostly in Germany.  Meanwhile his handlers issued pre-recorded singles on a regular basis so that his music would have a continued presence even though the man himself was absent. In 1960 Presley was honorably discharged and relaunched his recording career with some of his most commercially successful work such as, “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” He held few concerts however, and guided by Parker, proceeded to devote much of the 1960s to making Hollywood films and soundtrack albums, most of them critically derided. They were all completely formulaic, involving beaches, pretty women, and cookie-cutter songs.

In 1968, following a seven-year break from live performances, he returned to the stage in the acclaimed television comeback special Elvis, which led to an extended Las Vegas concert residency and a string of highly profitable tours. In 1973, Presley gave the first concert by a solo artist to be broadcast around the world, Aloha from Hawaii.

Years of prescription drug abuse severely compromised his health, and he died suddenly in 1977 at his Graceland estate at the age of 42. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest, but there is continuing controversy about how (or even whether) he died. He did have well documented cardiac problems, and he did overdose on amphetamines several times prior to his death.  So it’s probably likely that bad eating habits, drug abuse, and a weakened heart were all contributory factors in his death.

Presley is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music. He was commercially successful in many genres, including pop, country, blues, and gospel. He won three competitive Grammys, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36, and has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame.

Now let’s consider those bad eating habits.  Anyone who is my age can remember the slender, highly active Elvis of the 50s versus the overweight, sluggish Elvis of the 70s. His eating habits (and recipes) have been documented in several books.  Here I will focus on the peanut butter and banana sandwich, or peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich, sometimes referred to as an Elvis sandwich or simply the Elvis, consisting of toasted bread slices with peanut butter, sliced or mashed banana, and sometimes bacon. Presley’s fondness for peanut butter and banana sandwiches is well established; however, bacon is not mentioned in all accounts. His mother, Gladys Presley, says, however, that on one occasion he had “sandwich after sandwich of his favorite—peanut butter, sliced bananas, and crisp bacon”. Another passage describes him talking “feverishly until dawn” while “wolfing” down the sandwiches (described in this instance as being made with mashed banana).

A news report suggests that, based on renditions of sandwiches named after him, Presley ate his with caramelized bananas and crispy bacon on grilled Hawaiian bread, and grilled by his mother or his cook in bacon fat. The Good, the Bad, and the Yummy describes it as consisting of half a banana and a piece of bacon per sandwich, browning the sandwiches in a frying pan with butter, cutting the sandwiches into wedges, and piling them high.

Elvis is also well documented as loving the Fool’s Gold Loaf, a sandwich made by the Colorado Mine Company, a restaurant in Denver, Colorado. The sandwich consists of a single warmed, hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with the contents of one jar of creamy peanut butter, one jar of grape jelly, and a pound of bacon. The sandwich’s connection to the singer Elvis Presley is the source of its legend and prolonged interest. According to The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley, Presley and his friends took his private jet from Graceland, purchased 30 of the sandwiches, and spent two hours eating them and drinking Perrier and champagne before flying home. The story became legend and the sandwich became the subject of continued media interest and part of numerous cookbooks, typically focused on Presley’s love of food.

Jan 062020
 

In Italian tradition, La Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts and/or sweets to children throughout Italy on the eve of Epiphany to be opened on the morning of Epiphany (today).  This seems like a suitable way to open my “gift”of posts for 2020 (which will continue to be few and far between). The name Befana is likely some corruption of dialect for Epiphany, but you will also read the usual rubbish about it, and the custom, being a survival of some long-lost “pagan”tradition.   I am not going to spill any more ink in that direction.

In popular folklore, Befana visits all the children of Italy to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana. She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.

Christian legend has it that Befana was approached by the biblical magi (Three Wise Men) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where he, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief caused her to become mad/crazy. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Another commonly heard Christian legend of La Befana starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus. In this version, Befana spent her days cleaning and sweeping. One day the magi came to her door in search of the baby Jesus. However, Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. Feeling guilty, she eventually decides to find Jesus on her own by following a bright light in the sky which she believes points the way. She brings along a bag filled with baked goods and gifts for Jesus, and a broom to help the new mother clean. Unfortunately despite her best efforts she never finds him. According to this telling, Befana is still searching after all these centuries for the new born messiah. On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana comes to every house where there is a child and leaves a gift. Although she has been unsuccessful in her search, she still leaves gifts for good young children because the Christ Child can be found in all children.

Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn’t wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds.

Befana was never a widespread tradition among the whole Italian people, having originated in Rome and having become well known and practiced by the rest of the population during the 20th century, and is now a national icon. In the regions of the Marches, Umbria and Latium, her figure is associated with the Papal States, where Epiphany held the most importance. Urbania is thought to be her official home. Every year there is a big festival held to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befanas are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children.

Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of “coal” in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring) along with treats, since every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year.

There are poems about Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy. Here is one of the versions:

    La Befana vien di notte
    Con le scarpe tutte rotte
    Col vestito alla romana
    Viva, Viva La Befana!

    Befana comes by night
    With her shoes all tattered and torn
    She comes dressed in the Roman way
    Long live the Befana!

Since Befana is originally a Roman tradition, a Roman recipe is in order.  My fav is trippa alla Romana, but I have already given a recipe (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-peters-basilica/ ) so I’ll turn to spaghetti all carbonara which is also fundamentally Roman, and a great way to dish pasta.