Dec 162018

Today is the birthday (1882) of Zoltán Kodály, Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, pedagogue, linguist, and philosopher.  Kodály was born in Kecskemét and learned to play the violin as a child.

Though from a musical family, Kodály’s initial inclination was towards literary studies. Because his father was a railway official, the Kodály family wandered a lot: from 1884 until 1891 they lived in Galánta (later to be immortalized in the orchestral dances Kodály based on folk music from the area), then moving to Nagyszombat, where Kodály studied violin and piano and sang in the cathedral choir – an early introduction to the importance of choral singing. He explored the scores in the cathedral music library, and taught himself the ‘cello to make up the numbers for his father’s domestic quartet-evenings. He was also already composing: in 1897 the school orchestra played an overture of his, to be followed by a Mass for chorus and orchestra a year later.

His higher education began at the University of Sciences in Budapest in 1900, but the call of music proved too strong and in 1902 he enrolled at the Academy of Music, taking a doctorate in 1906 with a thesis entitled “Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folk Song”. He was now composing prolifically – and he had already begun his fieldtrips, collecting folksongs in the Hungarian countryside At around this time Kodály met fellow composer and compatriot Béla Bartók, whom he took under his wing and introduced to some of the methods involved in folk song collecting. The two became lifelong friends and champions of each other’s music.

Kodály (R) and Bartók

As with Bartók, Kodály’s own music was colored by the joint influence of Hungarian folk song and of Debussy and French impressionism (he spent some months in Paris, where he attended Widor’s lectures). On his return to Budapest in 1907 he was appointed teacher of theory at the Academy of Music, and a year later he began to teach composition. He was to teach there for the rest of his life: upon his retirement as a professor, he was brought back as the Director of the Academy in 1945.

Kodály’s works show originality of form and content, an unusual blend of the western European style of music, including classical, late-romantic, impressionistic and modernist traditions, and, on the other hand, a profound knowledge and respect for the folk music of Hungary (including the ethnically Hungarian parts of modern-day Slovakia and Romania, which were then part of Hungary). Partly because of the Great War and subsequent major geopolitical changes in the region, and partly because of a naturally somewhat diffident temperament in youth, Kodály had no major public success until 1923. This was the year when one of his best-known pieces, Psalmus Hungaricus, was given its first performance at a concert to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of Buda and Pest (Bartók’s Dance Suite premiered on the same occasion.)

Kodály’s first wife was Emma Gruber (née Schlesinger, later Sándor), the dedicatee of Ernő Dohnányi’s Waltz for piano with four hands, Op. 3, and Variations and Fugue on a theme by E.G., Op. 4 (1897). In November 1958, after 48 years of harmonious marriage, Emma died. In December 1959, Kodály married Sarolta Péczely, his 19-year-old student at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music with whom he lived happily until his death in 1967 at the age of 84 in Budapest.

In 1966, Kodály toured the United States and gave a special lecture at Stanford University, where some of his music was performed in his presence.

Throughout his adult life, Kodály was keenly interested in the problems of many types of music education, and he wrote a large amount of material on teaching methods as well as composing plenty of music intended for children’s use. Beginning in 1935, along with his colleague Jenő Ádám, he embarked on a long-term project to reform music teaching in Hungary’s lower and middle schools. His work resulted in the publication of several highly influential books. The Hungarian music education program that developed in the 1940s became the basis for what is called the “Kodály Method”. While Kodály himself did not write down a comprehensive method, he did establish a set of principles to follow in music education, and these principles were widely taken up by schools (mostly in Hungary, but also in many other countries) after World War II.

Pörkölt is a traditional Hungarian pork stew, flavored with paprika, of course – lots of it. Choose the Hungarian paprika you like (see ) making sure that under no circumstances you use generic paprika from the supermarket.  Kodály came from the region of Hungary that is a major producer of pork, and not far from the main paprika-producing region.



5 slices bacon, diced
2 large onions, peeled and diced
¼ cup Hungarian paprika
1 ½ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp ground black pepper
5 lb boneless pork chops, cubed
1 large yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 (14 oz) cans diced tomatoes, with liquid
⅔ cup beef broth
2 cups sour cream
2 (6 oz) packages wide egg noodles


Place the bacon in a large, deep, dry skillet, and cook over medium-high heat until evenly browned (about 10 minutes). Drain, and reserve the drippings. Add the onions to the bacon and cook together until the onion is translucent. Remove the skillet from heat and stir the paprika, garlic powder, and pepper into the bacon mixture. Transfer the mixture to a large stockpot.

Heat a small amount of the reserved bacon drippings in the skillet again over medium-high heat. Cook the pork in batches in the hot drippings until evenly browned on both sides. When browned stir into the bacon mixture.

Heat the bacon drippings in the skillet. Sauté  the bell pepper in the hot drippings until softened and fragrant. Drain and stir the cooked pepper into the bacon mixture.

Pour the tomatoes with liquid and beef broth into a stockpot and place the pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until the stew begins to thicken, stirring occasionally, about 90 minutes. Stir the sour cream into the stew just before serving.

Meanwhile, cook the egg noodles, drain, and ladle the stew over the drained noodles in a serving bowl to serve.

Dec 152018

Francesco Vincenzo Zahra, a Maltese painter who mainly painted religious works in the Neapolitan Baroque style was baptized on this date in 1710. His date of birth is unknown. His works may be found in many churches around the Maltese Islands, as well as in some private collections and museums.

Zahra was born in Senglea, the son of the stone carver Pietro Paolo Zahra and Augustina Casanova. Zahra’s career as an artist lasted for four decades, and he came to be considered as the greatest painter from Malta of the 18th century. He painted in the Baroque style and was strongly influenced from the art scene of Naples. Zahra’s works include many religious paintings, including altarpieces or other large paintings for churches, vault murals and devotional paintings for private commissions. He is also responsible for a number of portraits, drawings for reredoses, some furniture in churches, and works in marble.

He probably began to paint at a young age, and he likely trained at Gio Nicola Buhagiar’s workshop in the 1730s. By around 1740, his style began to mature and develop further than that of his tutor Buhagiar. Zahra became the most prolific Maltese painter by around 1745, being rivaled only by the French artist Antoine de Favray who at that time worked in Malta. Zahra’s style further developed over the years, and in around the mid-1750s his figures and the atmosphere of his paintings had changed, showing influences from Mattia Preti and Favray himself.

Zahra’s first significant commission came in 1732, when he painted an altarpiece depicting Three Dominican Saints Adoring the Holy Name of Jesus for the Church of Santa Maria della Grotta in Rabat. His most significant work includes the paintings on the ceiling of the Chapter Hall of the Mdina Cathedral, which were done in 1756.

Zahra moved from his hometown Senglea to the capital Valletta. He was married to Teresa Fenech from 26th February 1743 until her premature death on 27th May 1751. They had five children together, three of whom survived infancy. Zahra died on 19 August 1773 at the age of 62.

Here is your gallery:

Pie made from the fish the Maltese call lampuki is a local favorite. In the US and English-speaking world, lampuki is called mahi-mahi or, sometimes, dolphinfish or dorado. This is not your usual fish pie. It has a mix of black olives, sultanas, and capers to complement the fish.

Torta tal-lampuki


400 gm flaky pastry
800 gm lampuki fillets cut in bite-sized pieces
1 medium cauliflower, cut into florets
150 gm diced carrots
12 black olives, pitted and halved
2 tbsp capers
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp of sultanas dehydrated in warm water
2 onions, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
250 ml/1 cup fish stock
olive oil
salt and pepper
beaten egg


Preheat the oven to 350°F

Steam the fish quickly until it is barely cooked. Drain and set aside.

Heat some olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet and sauté the chopped onions and garlic until soft. Add the tomato purée, cauliflower, and carrots together with 1 cup of fish stock, and cook until the vegetables are tender.  Add the olives, capers and sultanas, and stir. Remove from the heat.

Line a pie dish with ¾ of the pastry.  Place half of the vegetable mixture into the pie dish and spread the fish evenly over it, then cover the fish with the remaining half of the vegetables.  Spread the remaining pastry over the filling and brush it with some beaten egg.  Bake for 40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown.


Dec 142018

Today is the birthday (1546) of Tyge Ottesen Brahe, known in the English-speaking world as Tycho Brahe, a Danish nobleman, astronomer, and writer known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations. He was born in the then-Danish (now Swedish) peninsula of Scania. His observations, done only with the naked eye before telescopes were available, were about five times more accurate than the best available observations at the time.

Tycho aspired to a level of accuracy in his estimated positions of celestial bodies of being consistently within a arcminute of their real celestial locations, and also claimed to have achieved this level. But, in fact, many of the stellar positions in his star catalogues were less accurate than that. To perform the huge number of multiplications needed to produce much of his astronomical data, Tycho relied heavily on a new technique called prosthaphaeresis, an algorithm for approximating products based on trigonometric identities that predated logarithms.

Although Tycho admired Copernicus and was the first to teach his theory in Denmark, he was unable to reconcile Copernican theory with the basic laws of Aristotelian physics, that he considered to be foundational. He was also critical of the observational data that Copernicus built his theory on, which he correctly considered to have a high margin of error. Instead, Tycho proposed a “geo-heliocentric” system in which the Sun and Moon orbited the Earth, while the other planets orbited the Sun. Tycho’s system had many of the same observational and computational advantages that Copernicus’ system had, and both systems could also accommodate the phases of Venus, although Galileo had yet to discover them. Tycho’s system provided a safe position for astronomers who were dissatisfied with older models but were reluctant to accept heliocentrism and the Earth’s motion. It gained a considerable following after 1616 when Rome declared that the heliocentric model was contrary to both philosophy and Scripture, and could be discussed only as a computational convenience that had no connection to fact. Tycho’s system also offered a major innovation: while both the purely geocentric model and the heliocentric model as set forth by Copernicus relied on the idea of transparent rotating crystalline spheres to carry the planets in their orbits, Tycho eliminated the spheres entirely. Kepler, as well as other Copernican astronomers, tried to persuade Tycho to adopt the heliocentric model of the solar system, but he was not persuaded. According to Tycho, the idea of a rotating and revolving Earth would be “in violation not only of all physical truth but also of the authority of Holy Scripture, which ought to be paramount.”

With respect to physics, Tycho held that the Earth was just too sluggish and heavy to be continuously in motion. According to the accepted Aristotelian physics of the time, the heavens (whose motions and cycles were continuous and unending) were made of “Aether” or “Quintessence.” This substance, not found on Earth, was light, strong, unchanging, and its natural state was circular motion. By contrast, the Earth (where objects seem to have motion only when moved) and things on it were composed of substances that were heavy and whose natural state was rest. Accordingly, Tycho said the Earth was a “lazy” body that was not readily moved. Thus while Tycho acknowledged that the daily rising and setting of the sun and stars could be explained by the Earth’s rotation, as Copernicus had said, he, nonetheless believed that, “such a fast motion could not belong to the earth, a body very heavy and dense and opaque, but rather belongs to the sky itself whose form and subtle and constant matter are better suited to a perpetual motion, however fast.”

With respect to the stars, Tycho also believed that, if the Earth orbited the Sun annually, there should be an observable stellar parallax over any period of six months, during which the angular orientation of a given star would change thanks to Earth’s changing position. (This parallax does exist, but is so small it was not detected until 1838, when Friedrich Bessel discovered a parallax of 0.314 arcseconds of the star 61 Cygni.) The Copernican explanation for this lack of parallax was that the stars were such a great distance from Earth that Earth’s orbit was almost insignificant by comparison. However, Tycho noted that this explanation introduced another problem: Stars as seen by the naked eye appear small, but of some size, with more prominent stars such as Vega appearing larger than lesser stars such as Polaris, which in turn appear larger than many others. Tycho had determined that a typical star measured approximately a minute of arc in size, with more prominent ones being two or three times as large. In writing to Christoph Rothmann, a Copernican astronomer, Tycho used basic geometry to show that, assuming a small parallax that just escaped detection, the distance to the stars in the Copernican system would have to be 700 times greater than the distance from the sun to Saturn. Moreover, the only way the stars could be so distant and still appear the sizes they do in the sky would be if even average stars were gigantic — at least as big as the orbit of the Earth, and of course vastly larger than the sun. And, Tycho said, the more prominent stars would have to be even larger still. And what if the parallax was even smaller than anyone thought, so the stars were yet more distant? Then they would all have to be even larger still. . . which, in fact, they are.

Kepler used Tycho’s records of the motion of Mars to deduce laws of planetary motion, enabling calculation of astronomical tables with unprecedented accuracy (the Rudolphine Tables) and providing powerful support for a heliocentric model of the solar system. Galileo’s 1610 telescopic discovery that Venus shows a full set of phases refuted the pure geocentric Ptolemaic model. After that it seems 17th-century astronomy mostly converted to geo-heliocentric planetary models that could explain these phases just as well as the heliocentric model could, but without the latter’s disadvantage of the failure to detect any annual stellar parallax that Tycho and others regarded as refuting it.

The three main geo-heliocentric models were the Tychonic, the Capellan with just Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun such as favored by Francis Bacon, for example, and the extended Capellan model of Riccioli with Mars also orbiting the Sun whilst Saturn and Jupiter orbit the fixed Earth. But the Tychonic model was probably the most popular, albeit probably in what was known as ‘the semi-Tychonic’ version with a daily rotating Earth. This model was advocated by Tycho’s ex-assistant and disciple Longomontanus in his 1622 Astronomia Danica that was the intended completion of Tycho’s planetary model with his observational data, and which was regarded as the canonical statement of the complete Tychonic planetary system.

The ardent anti-heliocentric French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Morin devised a Tychonic planetary model with elliptical orbits published in 1650 in a simplified, Tychonic version of the Rudolphine Tables. Some acceptance of the Tychonic system persisted through the 17th century and in places until the early 18th century; it was supported (after a 1633 decree about the Copernican controversy) by “a flood of pro-Tycho literature” of Jesuit origin. Among pro-Tycho Jesuits, Ignace Pardies declared in 1691 that it was still the commonly accepted system, and Francesco Blanchinus reiterated that as late as 1728. Persistence of the Tychonic system, especially in Catholic countries, has been attributed to its satisfaction of a need (relative to Catholic doctrine) for “a safe synthesis of ancient and modern”. After 1670, even many Jesuit writers only thinly disguised their Copernicanism. But in Germany, the Netherlands, and England, the Tychonic system vanished from scientific literature much earlier.

No dish better suits the celebration of Tycho Brahe than spettekaka or spettkaka (spiddekaga in native Scanian) a dessert that originates in the province of Scania (Skåne) where he was born.  The name means “cake on a spit” which, as you will see from the video, exactly describes its production. A mixture consisting mainly of eggs, potato starch flour and sugar is squirted slowly on to a conical spit which is being rotated over an open fire or other heat source. So, a spinning dessert for an advocate of spinning bodies in space. Spettekaka can range in size anywhere from a few inches to several feet in height and over a foot in diameter. The very large cakes are served by sawing cuboids from the cake, leaving as much standing as possible. Spettekaka is frequently served accompanied by dark coffee, vanilla ice cream and port wine.

This video shows how spettekaka is made. Sorry it is in Swedish, but you’ll get the gist:

Dec 132018

On this date in 1640 Robert Plot FRS was baptized. His date of birth is not recorder. He was an English naturalist, first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. He also hold the unique distinction of being the only seventeenth century English scientist who was wrong about absolutely every theory he proposed. I happen to know about him because he wrote about a strange English traditional custom, and his description is the oldest description of traditional dance we have.

Plot was born in Borden in Kent and educated at the Wye Free School. He entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1658 where he received his BA in 1661 and an MA in 1664. He subsequently taught and served as dean and vice principal at Magdalen Hall while preparing for his BCL and DCL, which he received in 1671 before moving to University College in 1676. By this time, Plot had already developed an interest in the systematic study of natural history and antiquities. In June 1674, with patronage from John Fell, the bishop of Oxford, and Ralph Bathhurst, vice-chancellor of the university, Plot began studying and collecting artefacts throughout the nearby countryside, publishing his findings three years later in The Natural History of Oxford-shire. In this work, he described and illustrated various rocks, minerals and fossils, including the first known illustration of a dinosaur bone which he attributed to a giant (later recognized as the femur of a Megalosaurus), but believed that most fossils were not remains of living organisms but rather crystallizations of mineral salts with a coincidental zoological form.

The favorable reception of his findings not only earned him the nickname of the “learned Dr. Plot,” but also led to his election into the Royal Society of London on 6th December 1677, where he served as the society’s secretary and joint editor of the Philosophical Transactions (144–178) from 1682 through 1684. Another consequence of his success was his appointment as the first keeper of the newly established Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1683, as well as his simultaneous appointment as the first professor of chemistry in the new well-equipped laboratory housed within the museum.

In the field of chemistry he searched for a universal solvent that could be obtained from wine spirits, and believed that alchemy was necessary for medicine. In 1684, Plot published De origine fontium, a treatise on the source of springs, which he attributed to underground channels originating from the sea. Plot shifted his focus towards archaeology in the 1686 publication of his second book, The Natural History of Staffordshire, but misinterpreted Roman remains as Saxon. He also describes a double sunset viewable from Leek, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, and, for the first time, the Polish swan, a pale morph of the Mute swan.

Here is his description of the horn dance:

  1. At Abbots, or now rather Pagets Bromley, they had al∣so within memory, a sort of sport, which they celebrated at Christmas (on New-year, and Twelft-day) call’d the Hobby-horse dance, from a person that carryed the image of a horse between his leggs, made of thin boards, and in his hand a bow and arrow, which passing through a hole in the bow, and stopping upon a sholder it had in it, he made a snapping noise as he drew it to and fro, keeping time with the Musick: with this Man danced 6 others, carrying on their shoulders as many Rain deers heads, 3 of them painted white, and 3 red, with the Armes of the cheif families (viz. of Paget, Bagot, and Wells) to whom the revenews of the Town cheifly belonged, depicted on the palms of them, with which they danced the Hays, and other Country dances. To this Hobby-horse dance there also belong’d a pot, which was kept by turnes, by 4 or 5 of the cheif of the Town, whom they call’d Reeves, who provided Cakes and Ale to put in this pot; all people who had any kindness for the good in∣tent of the Institution of the sport, giving pence a piece for themselves and families; and so forraigners too, that came to see it: with which Mony (the charge of the Cakes and Ale be∣ing defrayed) they not only repaired their Church but kept their poore too: which charges are not now perhaps so cheer∣fully boarn.

There is no telling how accurate this description is, but it is unusually detailed for the era. You can find more on the dance in this post:  It contains a full appraisal of historical sources.

In 1687, Plot was made a notary public by the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as appointed the registrar to the Norfolk Court of Chivalry. Plot resigned from his posts at Oxford in 1690, thereafter marrying Rebecca Burman of London and retiring to his property of Sutton Barne in his hometown of Borden, where he worked on The Natural History of Middlesex and Kent but never completed. The office of Mowbray Herald Extraordinary was created in January 1695 for Plot, who was made registrar of the College of Heralds just two days later. Although able to go on an archaeological tour of Anglia in September 1695, Plot was greatly suffering from urinary calculi, and succumbed to his illness on 30th April 1696. He was buried at Borden Church, where a plaque memorializes him.

Here is a 17th century recipe for an apple paste from A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1617) used to make fake plums. It reminds me a little of marzipan fruits, and also makes a sardonic comment on Plot who appeared unable to see things for what they really were. The recipe is vague as to the temperature you have to achieve with the apple and sugar mix. I’m thinking around 250°F/120°C.

To make Paste of Pippins, after the Genua fashion, some like leaves, some like Plums, with stalkes and stones.

 Take and pare faire yellow Pippins, cut them in small pieces, stew them betwixt two dishes with two or three spoonefuls of Rosewater, and when they be boiled very tender, straine them then boile the weight of the pulp in double refined Sugar vnto a Candie height, and if you please put in a graine of Muske, and a quarter of an ounce of fine white ginger searced, and so let it boile vntill you see it come from the bottome of the Posnet, then fashion it on a sheete of glasse in some prettie forme as you thinke best, and stoue it either in a Stoue, or in a warme Ouen. If you desire to haue any of it red, colour it with a spoonefull of Conserue of Damsons, before you fashion it vpon your glasse or plate, and that will make shew as though it were made of red Plums. If you put a stone betwixt two halfes, will shew like a Plum, you may keepe Cherrie stalkes drie for the same purpose.

Dec 122018

Today is the birthday (1913) of James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) who was a US track and field athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 Games. He is often remembered as the African-American athlete who embarrassed Hitler at the Berlin Games, and you frequently see movie clips of Hitler leaving the stadium, appearing to show that he was disgusted to have his Aryan race athletes defeated by a definitively non-Aryan. This is a complete misrepresentation. In fact, Hitler shook hands with Owens and congratulated him, as Owens himself recalls (and there was purportedly a photo of them shaking hands that has since disappeared). FDR, on the other hand, refused to meet with Owens after the Games, and never congratulated him. Indeed, Owens’ life in the US after the Games was extremely hard.

Owens was the youngest of ten children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens (a sharecropper) and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama. J.C., as he was called, was 9 years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for better opportunities, as part of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When his new teacher asked his name (to enter in her roll book), he said “J.C.”, but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said “Jesse”. The name stuck, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.

As a youth, Owens took different jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realized that he had a passion for running. Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior high school track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, Riley allowed him to practice before school instead.

Owens first came to national attention when he was a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland; he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yards (91 m) and long-jumped 24 feet 9 ½ inches (7.56 meters) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago. Owens attended Ohio State University after his father found employment, which ensured that the family could be supported. Under the coaching of Larry Snyder, Owens won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936. (The record of four gold medals at the NCAA was equaled only by Xavier Carter in 2006, although his many titles also included relay medals.) Though Owens enjoyed athletic success, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at “blacks-only” restaurants. Similarly, he had to stay at “blacks-only” hotels. Owens did not receive a scholarship for his efforts, so he continued to take part-time jobs to pay for school.

Owens achieved track and field immortality in a span of 45 minutes on May 25th, 1935, during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100-yards (9.4 seconds), and set world records in the long jump (26 ft 8 ¼ in or 8.13 m, a world record that would last for 25 years); 220 yards (20.3 seconds); and 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds, becoming the first to break 23 seconds).

On December 4th, 1935, NAACP Secretary Walter Francis White wrote a letter to Owens, although he never actually sent it. He wanted to dissuade Owens from taking part in the Olympics on the grounds that an African-American should not promote a racist regime after what African-Americans had suffered at the hands of white racists in his own country. In the months prior to the Games, a movement gained momentum in favor of a boycott. Owens was convinced by the NAACP to declare “If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics.” Yet he and others eventually took part after Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee branded them “un-American agitators.”

In 1936, Owens and his United States teammates sailed on the SS Manhattan and arrived in Berlin to compete at the Summer Olympics. Owens arrived at the new Olympic stadium to a throng of fans, according to fellow American sprinter James LuValle (who won the bronze in the 400 meters), many of them young girls yelling “Wo ist Jesse? Wo ist Jesse?” Owens’ success at the games did present problems for Hitler, who was using them to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories. Just before the competitions, Adi Dassler visited Owens in the Olympic village. He was the founder of the Adidas athletic shoe company, and he persuaded Owens to wear Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes. This was the first ever sponsorship for a male African American athlete.

On August 3rd Owens won the 100 meters with a time of 10.3 s, defeating teammate and college friend Ralph Metcalfe by a tenth of a second and defeating Tinus Osendarp of the Netherlands by two tenths of a second. On August 4th, he won the long jump with a jump of 8.06 m (26 ft 5 in) (3¼ inches short of his own world record). He later credited this achievement to the technical advice that he received from Luz Long, the German competitor whom he defeated. On August 5th, he won the 200 meters with a time of 20.7 s, defeating teammate Mack Robinson (the older brother of Jackie Robinson). On August 9th, he won his fourth gold medal in the 4 × 100 m sprint relay when head coach Lawson Robertson replaced Jewish-American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, who teamed with Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper to set a world record of 39.8 s in the event. Owens’ record-breaking performance of four gold medals was not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Owens set the world record in the long jump with a jump of 8.13 m (26 ft 8 in) in 1935, the year before the Berlin Olympics, and this record stood for 25 years until it was broken in 1960 by countryman Ralph Boston.

The long-jump victory is documented, along with many other 1936 events, in the 1938 film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl. On August 1st, 1936, Hitler shook hands with the German victors only and then left the stadium. International Olympic Committee president Henri de Baillet-Latour insisted that Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. On August 2nd Hitler did not publicly congratulate any of the medal winners. Even so, the communist New York City newspaper the Daily Worker claimed Hitler received all the track winners except Johnson (African-American high jumper) and left the stadium as a “deliberate snub” after watching Johnson’s winning jump. Hitler was subsequently accused of failing to acknowledge Owens (who won gold medals on August 3, 4 (two), and 8) or shake his hand. Owens responded to these claims at the time:

Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.

In an article dated August 4, 1936, the African-American newspaper editor Robert L. Vann describes witnessing Hitler “salute” Owens for having won gold in the 100m sprint (August 3):

And then … wonder of wonders … I saw Herr Adolph Hitler, salute this lad. I looked on with a heart which beat proudly as the lad who was crowned king of the 100 meters event, get an ovation the like of which I have never heard before. I saw Jesse Owens greeted by the Grand Chancellor of this country as a brilliant sun peeped out through the clouds. I saw a vast crowd of some 85,000 or 90,000 people stand up and cheer him to the echo.

Albert Speer wrote that Hitler “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.”

In a 2009 interview, German journalist Siegfried Mischner claimed that Owens carried around a photograph in his wallet of the Führer shaking his hand before the latter left the stadium. Owens, who felt that the newspapers of the day reported “unfairly” on Hitler’s attitude towards him, tried to get Mischner and his journalist colleagues to change the accepted version of history in the 1960s. Mischner claimed that Owens showed him the photograph and told him: “That was one of my most beautiful moments.” Mischner added: “(the picture) was taken behind the honour stand and so not captured by the world’s press. But I saw it, I saw him shaking Hitler’s hand!” According to Mischner, “the predominating opinion in post-war Germany was that Hitler had ignored Owens, so we therefore decided not to report on the photo. The consensus was that Hitler had to continue to be painted in a bad light in relation to Owens.” For some time, Mischner’s assertion was not confirmed independently of his own account, and Mischner himself admitted in Mail Online: “All my colleagues are dead, Owens is dead. I thought this was the last chance to set the record straight. I have no idea where the photo is or even if it exists still.”

However, in 2014, Eric Brown, British fighter pilot and test pilot, the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated living pilot, independently stated in a BBC documentary: “I actually witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved.” Additionally, an article in The Baltimore Sun in August 1936 reported that Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself.

Meanwhile . . . on October 15th, 1936, Owens repeated this allegation when he addressed an audience of African Americans at a Republican rally in Kansas City, remarking: “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” A real instance of the pot calling the kettle – er – Black. The US was just as replete with racism as Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust originated in eugenics carried out by scientists in California who instructed the Nazis in the 1930s. Joseph Mengele was taught by Americans!!!! Furthermore, the US refused to get involved in the Second World War until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. To be fair, Britain, France, and Russia did not want to get involved either until their homelands were threatened.

In Germany, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, at a time when African Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels that accommodated only Blacks. When Owens returned to the United States, he was greeted in New York City by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. During a Manhattan ticker-tape parade in his honor along Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, someone handed Owens a paper bag. Owens paid it little mind until the parade concluded. When he opened it up, he found that the bag contained $10,000 in cash. Owens’s wife Ruth later said: “And he [Owens] didn’t know who was good enough to do a thing like that. And with all the excitement around, he didn’t pick it up right away. He didn’t pick it up until he got ready to get out of the car.” After the parade, Owens was not permitted to enter through the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria New York and instead forced to travel up to the event in a freight elevator to reach the reception honoring him.[42][46] President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) never invited Jesse Owens to the White House following his triumphs at the Olympic Games. When the Democrats bid for his support, Owens rejected those overtures: as a staunch Republican, he endorsed Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1936 presidential race.

Owens joined the Republican Party after returning from Europe and was paid to campaign for African American votes for the Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election. Speaking at a Republican rally held in Baltimore on October 9, 1936, Owens said: “Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.”

After the games had ended, the entire Olympic team was invited to compete in Sweden. Owens decided to capitalize on his success by returning to the United States to take up some of the more lucrative endorsement offers. United States athletic officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, which immediately ended his career. Owens was angry, saying, “A fellow desires something for himself.” Owens argued that the racial discrimination he had faced throughout his athletic career, such as not being eligible for scholarships in college and therefore being unable to take classes between training and working to pay his way, meant he had to give up on amateur athletics in pursuit of financial gain elsewhere.

Jesse Owens returned home from the 1936 Olympics with four gold medals and international fame, but there were no guarantees for his future prosperity. Racism was still prevalent in the United States, and he had difficulty finding work. He took on menial jobs as a gas station attendant, playground janitor, and manager of a dry cleaning firm. He also raced against amateurs and horses for cash.

Owens was prohibited from making appearances at amateur sporting events to bolster his profile, and he found out that the commercial offers had all but disappeared. In 1937, he briefly toured with a twelve-piece jazz band under contract with Consolidated Artists but found it unfulfilling. He also made appearances at baseball games and other events. Finally, Willis Ward—a friend and former competitor from the University of Michigan— brought Owens to Detroit in 1942 to work at Ford Motor Company as Assistant Personnel Director. He later became a director, where he worked until 1946.

Owens helped promote the exploitation film Mom and Dad in African American neighborhoods. He tried to make a living as a sports promoter, essentially an entertainer. He would give local sprinters a ten- or twenty-yard start and beat them in the 100-yd (91-m) dash. He also challenged and defeated racehorses; as he revealed later, the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred that would be frightened by the starter’s shotgun and give him a bad jump. Owens said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.” On the lack of opportunities, Owens added, “There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway.”

Owens ran a dry cleaning business and worked as a gas station attendant to earn a living, but he eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966, he was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion. At rock bottom, he was aided in beginning his rehabilitation. The government appointed him as a US goodwill ambassador. Owens traveled the world and spoke to companies such as the Ford Motor Company and stakeholders such as the United States Olympic Committee. By this time, Civil Rights had made a mark.

Owens initially refused to support the black power salute by African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He told them:

The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.

Four years later in his 1972 book I Have Changed, he revised his opinion:

I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.

Owens traveled to Munich for the 1972 Summer Olympics as a special guest of the West German government, meeting West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and former boxer Max Schmeling.

A few months before his death, Owens had unsuccessfully tried to convince President Jimmy Carter to withdraw his demand that the United States boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He argued that the Olympic ideal was supposed to be observed as a time-out from war and that it was above politics.

Owens was a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for 35 years, having started at age 32. Beginning in December 1979, he was hospitalized on and off with an extremely aggressive and drug-resistant type of lung cancer. He died of the disease at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980, with his wife and other family members at his bedside. He was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. Although Jimmy Carter had ignored Owens’ request to cancel the Olympic boycott, the President issued a tribute to Owens after he died: “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.”

One of the great old timey recipes from Alabama is bananas and custard, which is as easy to make as it sounds. It is not to be confused with banana cream pie, or banana custard pie. You’ll need bananas, vanilla biscuits (cookies), egg custard, and toasted meringues.

Make an egg custard of your choice. I make a classic egg custard in a double boiler, which is not complicated – egg yolks, cream, and sugar. Use the whites to make meringues. Assemble by cutting bananas into a bowl and adding an equal quantity of vanilla biscuits or wafers. Pour custard over the bananas and biscuits to cover, and chill. When ready to serve, top with meringues.

Dec 112018

Today is the birthday (1918) of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, Russian dissident writer of the Soviet era. Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, in the northern Caucasus (now in Stavropol Krai). His mother, Taisiya Zakharovna (née Shcherbak), was of Ukrainian descent. Her father had risen from humble beginnings to become a wealthy landowner, acquiring a large estate in the Kuban region in the northern foothills of the Caucasus. His father was Isaakiy Semyonovich Solzhenitsyn, a young officer in the Imperial Russian Army of Cossack origin and fellow native of the Caucasus region. In 1918, Taisiya became pregnant with Aleksandr. On 15th June, shortly after her pregnancy was confirmed, Isaakiy was killed in a hunting accident. Aleksandr was raised by his widowed mother and his aunt in lowly circumstances. His earliest years coincided with the Russian Civil War. By 1930 the family property had been turned into a collective farm. Later, Solzhenitsyn recalled that his mother had fought for survival and that they had to keep his father’s background in the old Imperial Army a secret. His educated mother (who never remarried) encouraged his literary and scientific leanings and raised him in the Russian Orthodox faith. She died in 1944.

As early as 1936, Solzhenitsyn began developing the characters and concepts for a planned epic work on World War I and the Russian Revolution. This eventually led to the novel August 1914. Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University. At the same time he took correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History, heavy in Soviet ideology. As he himself makes clear, he did not question the state ideology or the superiority of the Soviet Union until he spent time in the camps.

During the Second World War, Solzhenitsyn served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Red Army, was involved in major action at the front, and was twice decorated. While serving as an artillery officer in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn witnessed war crimes against local German civilians by Soviet military personnel. The noncombatants and the elderly were robbed of their meager possessions and women and girls were gang-raped to death. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn wrote,

There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes. After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned the heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my Captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: ‘So were we any better?’

In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by Red Army Counter-Intelligence for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called “Khozyain” (“the boss”), and “Balabos” (Yiddish rendering of Hebrew baal ha-bayit for “master of the house”). Also he had talks with the same friend about the need of a new organization against the Soviet regime. He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code, and of “founding a hostile organization” under paragraph 11. Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated. On 9th May 1945, it was announced that Germany had surrendered and all of Moscow broke out in celebrations with fireworks and searchlights illuminating the sky to celebrate the victory in the Great Patriotic War as Russians call the war with Germany. From his cell in the Lubyanka, Solzhenitsyn remembered:

Above the muzzle of our window, and from all the other cells of the Lubyanka, and from all the windows of the Moscow prisons, we too, former prisoners of war and former front-line soldiers, watched the Moscow heavens, patterned with fireworks and crisscrossed with beams of searchlights. There was no rejoicing in our cells and no hugs and no kisses for us. That victory was not ours.

On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in absentia by Special Council of the NKVD to an eight-year term in a labor camp. This was the normal sentence for most crimes under Article 58 at the time. The first part of Solzhenitsyn’s sentence was served in several different work camps; the “middle phase”, as he later referred to it, was spent in a sharashka (i.e., a special scientific research facility run by Ministry of State Security), where he met Lev Kopelev, upon whom he based the character of Lev Rubin in his book The First Circle, published in a self-censored or “distorted” version in the West in 1968 (an English translation of the full version was eventually published 2009). In 1950, he was sent to a “Special Camp” for political prisoners. During his imprisonment at the camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan, he worked as a miner, bricklayer, and foundry foreman. His experiences at Ekibastuz formed the basis for the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

In March 1953, after his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn was sent to internal exile for life at Birlik, a village in Baidibek district of South Kazakhstan. His undiagnosed cancer spread until, by the end of the year, he was close to death. In 1954, he was permitted to be treated in a hospital in Tashkent, where his tumor went into remission. His experiences there became the basis of his novel Cancer Ward and also found an echo in the short story “The Right Hand”. It was during this decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and developed the philosophical and religious positions of his later life, gradually becoming a philosophically-minded Eastern Orthodox Christian as a result of his experience in prison and the camps.

After Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956, Solzhenitsyn was freed from exile and exonerated. Following his return from exile, Solzhenitsyn was, while teaching at a secondary school during the day, spending his nights secretly engaged in writing. In 1960, aged 42, he approached Aleksandr Tvardovsky, a poet and the chief editor of the Novy Mir magazine, with the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it at the presidium of the Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publication, and added: “There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil.” The book quickly sold out and became an instant hit. In the 1960s, while he was publicly known to be writing Cancer Ward, he was simultaneously writing The Gulag Archipelago. During Khrushchev’s tenure, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was studied in schools in the Soviet Union, as were three more short works of Solzhenitsyn’s, including his short story “Matryona’s Home”, published in 1963. These would be the last of his works published in the Soviet Union until 1990.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich brought the Soviet system of prison labor to the attention of the West. It caused as much of a sensation in the Soviet Union as it did in the West—not only by its striking realism and candor, but also because it was the first major piece of Soviet literature since the 1920s on a politically charged theme, written by a non-party member, in fact, a man who had been to Siberia for “libelous speech” about the leaders, and yet its publication had been officially permitted. In this sense, the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s story was an almost unheard of instance of free, unrestrained discussion of politics through literature. Most Soviet readers realized this, but after Khrushchev had been ousted from power in 1964, the time for such raw exposing works came to an end.

Solzhenitsyn made an unsuccessful attempt, with the help of Tvardovsky, to get his novel Cancer Ward legally published in the Soviet Union. This had to get the approval of the Union of Writers. Though some there appreciated it, the work ultimately was denied publication unless it was to be revised and cleaned of suspect statements and anti-Soviet insinuations. After Krushchev’s removal in 1964, the cultural climate again became more repressive. Publishing of Solzhenitsyn’s work quickly stopped; as a writer, he became a non-person, and, by 1965, the KGB had seized some of his papers, including the manuscript of The First Circle. Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn continued to secretly and feverishly work on The Gulag Archipelago. The seizing of his novel manuscript first made him desperate and frightened, but gradually he realized that it had set him free from the pretenses and trappings of being an “officially acclaimed” writer, something which had come close to second nature, but which was becoming increasingly irrelevant.

After the KGB had confiscated Solzhenitsyn’s materials in Moscow, during 1965–67, the preparatory drafts of The Gulag Archipelago were turned into finished typescript in hiding at his friends’ homes in Estonia. Solzhenitsyn had befriended Arnold Susi, a lawyer and former Estonian Minister of Education in a Lubyanka Prison cell. After completion, Solzhenitsyn’s original handwritten script was kept hidden from the KGB in Estonia by Arnold Susi’s daughter Heli Susi until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1969, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Writers. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm at that time, since he was afraid he would not be let back into the Soviet Union. Instead, it was suggested he should receive the prize in a special ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow. The Swedish government refused to accept this solution because such a ceremony and the ensuing media coverage might upset the Soviet Union and damage Swedish-Soviet relations. Instead, Solzhenitsyn received his prize at the 1974 ceremony after he had been expelled from the Soviet Union.

The Gulag Archipelago was composed from 1958 to 1967. It was a three-volume, seven part work on the Soviet prison camp system (Solzhenitsyn never had all seven parts of the work in front of him at one time). The book was based upon Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as well as the testimony of 256 former prisoners and Solzhenitsyn’s own research into the history of the Russian penal system. It discussed the system’s origins from the founding of the Communist regime, with Vladimir Lenin having responsibility, detailing interrogation procedures, prisoner transports, prison camp culture, prisoner uprisings and revolts, and the practice of internal exile.

Even though The Gulag Archipelago was not published in the Soviet Union, it was extensively criticized by the Party-controlled Soviet press. An editorial in Pravda on 14 January 1974 accused Solzhenitsyn of supporting “Hitlerites” and making “excuses for the crimes of the Vlasovites and Bandera gangs.” According to the editorial, Solzhenitsyn was “choking with pathological hatred for the country where he was born and grew up, for the socialist system, and for Soviet people.”

On 12th February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported the next day from the Soviet Union to Frankfurt, West Germany and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. The KGB had found the manuscript for the first part of The Gulag Archipelago and, less than a week later, Yevgeny Yevtushenko suffered reprisals for his support of Solzhenitsyn. In West Germany, Solzhenitsyn lived in Heinrich Böll’s house in Langenbroich. He then moved to Zürich, Switzerland before Stanford University invited him to stay in the United States. Despite spending almost two decades in the United States, Solzhenitsyn did not become fluent in spoken English. Solzhenitsyn’s warnings about the dangers of Communist aggression and the weakening of the moral fiber of the West were generally well received in Western conservative circles, but he also criticized what he saw as the ugliness and spiritual vapidity of the dominant pop culture of the US, including television and much of popular music: “…the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits… by TV stupor and by intolerable music.”

On 8 August 1971, Solzhenitsyn was poisoned with what was later determined to be ricin, but survived. On 19th September 1974, Yuri Andropov approved a large-scale operation to discredit Solzhenitsyn and his family and cut his communications with Soviet dissidents. Andropov also gave an order to create “an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion between Solzhenitsyn and the people around him” by feeding him rumors that everyone in his environment was a KGB agent and deceiving him in all possible ways.

In 1990, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and, in 1994, he returned to Russia with his wife, Natalia, who had become a United States citizen. Their sons stayed behind in the United States (later, his oldest son Yermolai returned to Russia). From then until his death, he lived with his wife in west Moscow. He was a  staunch believer in traditional Russian culture and expressed his disillusionment with post-Soviet Russia in works such as Rebuilding Russia, and called for the establishment of a strong presidential republic balanced by vigorous institutions of local self-government. Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure near Moscow on 3rd August 2008, at the age of 89. A burial service was held at Donskoy Monastery, Moscow, on Wednesday, 6th August 2008. He was buried the same day in the monastery in a spot he had chosen.

Solzhenitsyn is a mixed blessing as far as I am concerned. I read his straight semi-autobiographical novels when they came out and was impressed with their narrative quality. I was less enamored of Gulag Archipelago, and even less so with his wandering political and sociological views. He embraced both Western “freedom” and Putin’s image for post-Soviet Russia, which tells me as much as anything else that he was neither a good observer nor analyst of political landscapes. He was too easily engaged by or disappointed by superficial issues. His handling of the lived experience of Stalinist labor camps and hospitals I found much more engaging.

Here is an amusing video by a comic Russian called Boris on making chebureki, a meat filled fried pastry that is found widely in the Russian Federation as street food, but may have originated in the Caucasus and is extremely popular in the region.

Dec 102018

Today is the birthday (1588) of Isaac Beeckman, a Dutch natural philosopher who is rarely spoken of today, but in his time was well respected, and was a leading figure in the development of many modern scientific theories, especially atomism.

Beeckman was born in Middelburg, Zeeland, to a strong Calvinistic family, which had fled from the Spanish-controlled Southern Netherlands a few years before. He had his early education in his home town and went on to study theology, literature and mathematics in Leiden. Upon his return to Middelburg he could not find a position as a minister, due to his father’s clashes with the local church, and decided to follow his father in the candle-making business, setting up his own company in Zierikzee. While trying to improve on the candle making process, he also involved himself in other projects, like creating water conduits and doing meteorological observations. In 1616 he sold the business to his apprentice and went to study medicine in Caen, where he graduated in 1618. On his return, he became an assistant rector in Utrecht. On April 1620 he married Cateline de Cerf, whom he knew from Middelburg, and with whom he would have seven children. From 1620 to 1627 he taught at the Latin school in Rotterdam, where he founded a “Collegium Mechanicum”, or Technical College. From 1627 until his death at the age of 48 he was rector of the Latin school in Dordrecht.

Rene Descartes and Isaac Beeckman.

Beeckman’s most influential teachers in Leiden probably were Snellius and Simon Stevin. He himself was a teacher to Johan de Witt and a teacher and friend of René Descartes. Beeckman had met the young Descartes in November 1618 in Breda, where Beeckman then lived and Descartes was then garrisoned as a soldier. It is said that they met when both were looking at a placard that was set up in the Breda marketplace, detailing a mathematical problem to be solved. Descartes asked Beeckman to translate the problem from Dutch to French. In their following meetings Beeckman interested Descartes in his corpuscularian approach to mechanical theory, and convinced him to devote his studies to a mathematical approach to nature. In 1619, Descartes dedicated one of his first tractati to him, the Compendium Musicae. When Descartes returned to the Dutch Republic in the autumn of 1628, Beeckman also introduced him to many of Galileo’s ideas. In 1629 they fell out over a dispute concerning whether Beeckman had helped Descartes with some of his mathematical discoveries. In October 1630, Descartes wrote a long and harshly abusive letter, apparently meant to crush Beeckman psychologically, in which he declared himself never to have been influenced by Beeckman. Despite a few other such fallings-outs, they remained in contact until Beeckman’s death in 1637.

Beeckman did not publish his ideas, but he had influenced many scientists of his time. Since the beginning of his studies he did keep an extensive journal, from which his brother published some of his observations in 1644. However, this went basically unnoticed. The scope of Beeckman’s ideas did not come to light until the science historian Cornelis de Waard rediscovered the Journaal in 1905, and published it in volumes between 1939 and 1953.

The following are key points in the Journaal:

Beeckman developed, independently of Sebastian Basso, the concept that matter is composed of atoms.

Beeckman is one of the first people to describe inertia correctly, although he also assumed that a constant circular velocity is conserved.

Beeckman showed that the fundamental frequency of a vibrating string is proportional to the reciprocal of the length of the string.

In the analysis of the functioning of a pump he theorized correctly that air pressure is the cause and not the then popular theory of horror vacui (“nature abhors a vacuum”

In his time, he was considered to be one of the most educated men in Europe. For example, he had deeply impressed French polymath Marin Mersenne, despite their opposing religious views, as well as astronomer and mathematician, Pierre Gassendi, who apparently had been introduced by Beeckman to the philosophy of Epicurus and atomism. Gassendi stated in a 1629 letter that Beeckman was the greatest philosopher he had ever met.

Here is a 16th century Dutch recipe for gooseberry omelet taken from Seer excellenten gheexperimenteerden nieuwen Coc-boeck (The very excellent and tried new cookbook) by Karel Baten (Carolus Battus) published in 1593:

Om een tasey van stekelbesyen te backen.
Neempt versche boter ende smeltse in een panne. Doeter dan soo vele stekelbesyen in datse bycans twee vyngeren hooch liggen ende laetse met de boter een weynich sieden tot datse maer recht hen coleur verloren hebben. Clopt dan wel cleyn 7, 8 ofte 9 eyeren met wat gengeber ende wat rooswaters. Gietet tsamen over de besyen ende latet so over een coolvyer backen dat niet en brande. Als de tasey genoech gebacken is, so laetse properlick uut de panne in de schotel rijsen datse niet en breke. Dan stroyter suycker ende caneel op ende dientse.

To bake an omelette of gooseberries.
Take fresh butter and melt it in a pan. Add gooseberries so that they are almost two fingers high and let them simmer in the butter until they have lost their color. Then beat 7, 8 or 9 eggs with a little ginger and rosewater. Pour this mixture over the gooseberries, and let it bake over a coal fire without burning. When the omelet is done, let it glide from the pan on to a dish without breaking. Then sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on it and serve.

Dec 092018

Today is Anna’s Day in Sweden, which is both a name day celebrating people named Anna, and the day to start the preparation process of the lutefisk to be served on Christmas Eve.

OK – my sister is named Anna, so that’s a good start. I’m not going to write a post on her, but here’s her picture from facebook.

Then there’s Anna Harriette Emma Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian or Indian-born British travel writer, educator and social activist, who became well known with the publication of her memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which chronicled her experiences in Siam (modern Thailand), as teacher to the children of the Siamese King Mongkut, fictionalised in Margaret Landon’s 1944 best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam, as well as films and television series based on the book, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 hit musical The King and I.

There’s Anna May Wong, the first Hong Kong-Chinese American Hollywood movie star, as well as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition, which is actually a cheat because she was born Wong Liu Tsong.

There’s also Anna Pavlova and Anna Freud who have posts here, and an alarming number of 19th century serial killers, as well as Russian tennis players and gymnasts. Maybe they are all named after Anna Karenina?

Let’s now turn to lutefisk. Garrison Keillor has this to say about lutefisk in his memories of Minnesota:

Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, “Just have a little.” Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.

The description “fishlike” is incorrect. It is not like fish, it is fish. His sentiment about it, however, is fairly widespread, including in Scandinavia. There are Scandinavians who love it, and those who hate it. There is no middle ground. I suspect that it is more popular among ex-pats at Christmas nowadays than among those living in Scandinavia where roast pork and roast turkey are common Christmas Eve treats.

Lutefisk is dried whitefish (normally cod, but ling and burbot are also used) treated with lye. The first step is soaking the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic, with a pH of 11–12. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.

After the preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked extremely carefully so that it does not fall to pieces. To create a firm consistency in lutefisk, it is common to spread a layer of salt over the fish about half an hour before it is cooked. This will release some of the water in the fish. The salt must be rinsed off carefully before cooking. Lutefisk does not need additional water for the cooking; it is sufficient to place it in a pan, salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam cook under a very low heat for 20–25 minutes. An alternative is to wrap in aluminium foil and bake at 225 °C (435 °F) for 40–50 minutes. Another option is to parboil lutefisk; wrapped in cheesecloth and gently boiled until tender. Lutefisk can also be boiled directly in a pan of water.

When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and its residue off pans, plates, and utensils immediately. Lutefisk left overnight becomes nearly impossible to remove. Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver. Stainless steel utensils are recommended instead.

In Sweden and Finland lutefisk is a part of the Christmas tradition and is mostly eaten with boiled potatoes, green peas and white sauce. Regional variations include a sprinkle of freshly ground allspice or black pepper and the addition of coarsely ground mustard in the white sauce (in Scania). In parts of Jämtland it is served on flat bread along with whey cheese.

In the United States lutefisk is often served with a variety of side dishes, including bacon, peas, pea stew, potatoes, lefse, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, melted or clarified butter, syrup, and geitost, or “old” cheese (gammelost). It is sometimes eaten with meatballs, which is not traditional in Scandinavia. Side dishes vary greatly from family to family and region to region, and can be a source of jovial contention when eaters of different “traditions” of lutefisk dine together.

Lutefisk prepared from cod is somewhat notorious, even in Scandinavia, for its intensely offensive odor. Conversely, lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock emits almost no odor. The taste of well-prepared lutefisk is very mild, and the white sauce is often spiced with pepper or other strong-tasting spices. In Minnesota, this method (seasoned with allspice) is common among Swedish-Americans, while Norwegian-Americans often prefer to eat it unseasoned with melted butter or cream sauce.

There are many wholly apocryphal stories about the origin of lutefisk.  The one that amuses me claims that St. Patrick attempted to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with lye-soaked fish, but rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the fish and declared it a delicacy.

Dec 082018

Today is the birthday (1765) of Eli Whitney, best known for inventing the cotton gin which radically changed the economy of the Antebellum South. Few people know much more about him than that he invented the cotton gin, so time for another history lesson.

Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, the eldest child of Eli Whitney Sr., a prosperous farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Fay, also of Westborough. Whitney’s mother died in 1777, when he was 11. At age 14 he operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop during the Revolutionary War. Because his stepmother opposed his wish to attend college, Whitney worked as a farm laborer and school teacher to save money. He prepared for Yale at Leicester Academy (now Becker College) and under the tutelage of Rev. Elizur Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut, he entered in the fall of 1789 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792. Whitney wanted to study law but, because he was broke he accepted an offer to go to South Carolina as a private tutor, but ended up in Georgia instead.

In the closing years of the 18th century, Georgia was a magnet for New Englanders seeking their fortunes. When he initially sailed for South Carolina, among his shipmates were the widow and family of the Revolutionary hero Gen. Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. Mrs. Greene invited Whitney to visit her Georgia plantation, Mulberry Grove. Her plantation manager and husband-to-be was Phineas Miller, another Connecticut migrant and Yale graduate (class of 1785), who would become Whitney’s business partner.

Whitney is most famous for two innovations: the cotton gin (1793) and his advocacy of interchangeable parts. In the South, the cotton gin revolutionized the way cotton was harvested and reinvigorated slavery. In the North the adoption of interchangeable parts revolutionized the manufacturing industry, and contributed greatly to the Union victory in the Civil War. All told, therefore, Whitney was a prime, though, unwitting figure in the causes of the Civil War and its outcome.

The cotton gin is a mechanical device that removes the seeds from cotton, a process that had previously been extremely labor-intensive. The word “gin” is short for “engine.” While staying at Mulberry Grove, Whitney constructed several ingenious household devices which led Mrs Greene to introduce him to some businessmen who were discussing the desirability of a machine to separate the short staple upland cotton from its seeds, work that was then done by hand at the rate of a pound of lint a day. In a few weeks Whitney produced a model. The cotton gin was a wooden drum stuck with hooks that pulled the cotton fibers through a mesh. The cotton seeds would not fit through the mesh and fell outside. Whitney occasionally told a story about how he was pondering an improved method of seeding the cotton when he was inspired by observing a cat attempting to pull a chicken through a fence, and could only pull through some of the feathers.

A single cotton gin could generate up to 55 pounds (25 kg) of cleaned cotton daily. This contributed to the economic development of the Southern states of the United States, which became a prime cotton growing area. Whitney received a patent (later numbered as X72) for his cotton gin on March 14th, 1794, but it was not validated until 1807. Whitney and his partner, Miller, did not intend to sell the gins. Rather, like the proprietors of grist and sawmills, they expected to charge farmers for cleaning their cotton – two-fifths of the value, paid in cotton. Resentment at this scheme, the mechanical simplicity of the device and the primitive state of patent law, made infringement inevitable. Whitney and Miller could not build enough gins to meet demand, so gins from other makers found ready sale. Ultimately, patent infringement lawsuits consumed the profits (one patent, later annulled, was granted in 1796 to Hogden Holmes for a gin which substituted circular saws for the spikes) and their cotton gin company went out of business in 1797. One often-overlooked point is that there were drawbacks to Whitney’s first design. There is significant evidence that the design flaws were solved by his sponsor, Mrs. Greene, but Whitney gave her no public credit or recognition.

After validation of the patent, the legislature of South Carolina voted $50,000 for the rights for that state, while North Carolina levied a license tax for five years, from which about $30,000 was realized. There is a claim that Tennessee paid, perhaps, $10,000. While the cotton gin did not earn Whitney the fortune he had hoped for, it did give him fame. It has been argued by some historians that Whitney’s cotton gin was an important if unintended cause of the American Civil War. After Whitney’s invention, the plantation slavery industry was rejuvenated, eventually culminating in the Civil War. The cotton gin transformed Southern agriculture and the national economy. Southern cotton found ready markets in Europe and in the burgeoning textile mills of New England. Cotton exports from the U.S. boomed after the cotton gin’s appearance – from less than 500,000 pounds (230,000 kg) in 1793 to 93 million pounds (42,000,000 kg) by 1810. Cotton was a staple that could be stored for long periods and shipped long distances, unlike most agricultural products. It became the U.S.’s chief export, representing over half the value of U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860.

Paradoxically, the cotton gin, a labor-saving device, helped preserve slavery in the U.S. Before the 1790s, slave labor was primarily employed in growing rice, tobacco, and indigo, none of which were especially profitable any more. Neither was cotton, due to the difficulty of seed removal. But with the gin, growing cotton with slave labor became highly profitable – the chief source of wealth in the American South, and the basis of frontier settlement from Georgia to Texas. “King Cotton” became a dominant economic force, and slavery was sustained as a key institution of Southern society.

Eli Whitney has often been incorrectly credited with inventing the idea of interchangeable parts in manufacture (an essential component of Ford’s movable assembly line), which he championed for years as a maker of muskets. However, the idea predated Whitney, and Whitney’s role in it was one of promotion and popularizing, not invention. Successful implementation of the idea eluded Whitney until near the end of his life, occurring first in others’ armories.

The motives behind Whitney’s acceptance of a contract to manufacture muskets in 1798 were mostly monetary. By the late 1790s, Whitney was on the verge of bankruptcy and the cotton gin litigation had left him deeply in debt. His New Haven cotton gin factory had burned to the ground, and litigation sapped his remaining resources. The French Revolution had ignited new conflicts between Great Britain, France, and the United States. The new American government, realizing the need to prepare for war, began to rearm. The War Department issued contracts for the manufacture of 10,000 muskets. Whitney, who had never made a gun in his life, obtained a contract in January 1798 to deliver 10,000 to 15,000 muskets in 1800. He had not mentioned interchangeable parts at that time. Ten months later, the Treasury Secretary, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., sent him a “foreign pamphlet on arms manufacturing techniques,” after which Whitney first began to talk about interchangeability.

In May 1798, Congress voted for legislation that would $800,000 in order to pay for small arms and cannons in case war with France erupted. It offered a $5,000 incentive with an additional $5,000 once that money was exhausted for the person that was able to accurately produce arms for the government. Because the cotton gin had not brought Whitney the rewards he believed it promised, he accepted the offer. Although the contract was for one year, Whitney did not deliver the arms until 1809, using multiple excuses for the delay. Recently, historians have found that during 1801–1806, Whitney took the money and headed into South Carolina in order to profit from the cotton gin.

Although Whitney’s demonstration of 1801 appeared to show the feasibility of creating interchangeable parts, Merritt Roe Smith concludes that it was staged and duped government authorities into believing that he had been successful. The charade gained him time and resources toward achieving that goal. When the government complained that Whitney’s price per musket compared unfavorably with those produced in government armories, he was able to calculate an actual price per musket by including fixed costs such as insurance and machinery, which the government had not accounted for. He thus made early contributions to both the concepts of cost accounting, and economic efficiency in manufacturing.

Whitney died of prostate cancer on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut, just a month after his 59th birthday. He left a widow and four children. During the course of his illness, he invented and constructed several devices to mechanically ease his pain. These devices, drawings of which are in his collected papers, were effective but were never manufactured for use of others due to his heirs’ reluctance to trade in “indelicate” items.

Georgia is noted for peaches, of course, as is South Carolina (even though Georgia is officially the Peach State). I gave a recipe for Georgia peach pie here —  Here is Georgia peach crisp. It’s excellent served warm with ice cream.

Georgia Peach Crisp


5 tbsp salted butter, at room temperature, divided
4 cups peeled and sliced fresh peaches
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar, divided
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
½ tsp kosher salt


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

Heat a 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat and melt 1 tablespoon of the butter.  Add the peaches and ¼ cup of the brown sugar.  Cook, stirring, until the juices thicken into a light syrup- about 8 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat. Add the peaches in an even layer

Combine the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, the remaining ½ cup brown sugar, flour, pecans and salt in a mixing bowl and spread the mixture evenly over the peaches.  Place the skillet on the lined baking sheet.

Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes.  Serve warm.

Dec 072018

Today is probably the birthday (1805) of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, or it might have been yesterday. You never can tell with French magicians – tricky lot. His autobiography says yesterday, but birth records say today. I’ll go with today. He is widely considered the father of the modern style of conjuring. Houdini took his stage name in homage to Robert-Houdin.

Robert-Houdin was born Jean-Eugène Robert in Blois. His father, Prosper Robert, was a watchmaker in Blois. Jean-Eugene’s mother, the former Marie-Catherine Guillon, died when he was just a young child. When Jean-Eugène  was 11, Prosper sent him to school 35 miles up the Loire to the University of Orléans. At 18, he graduated and returned to Blois. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Robert-Houdin wanted to follow into his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker. His penmanship was excellent, and it landed him a job as a clerk for an attorney’s office. Instead of studying law, he tinkered with mechanical gadgets. His employer sent him back to his father. He was told that he was better suited as a watchmaker than a lawyer, but by then, Jean’s father had already retired, so he became an apprentice to his cousin who had a watch shop, and for a short time worked as a watchmaker.

In the mid-1820s, he saved up to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clockmaking called Traité de l’horlogerie (Treatise on Clockmaking) by Ferdinand Berthoud. When he got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, he had received a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the better of him, and from these relatively simple volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. Subsequently he practiced at all hours of the day. He considered the mistake to be the hand of Fate setting him on his life’s path. He was upset that the books he got only revealed how the secrets were done but did not show how to do them. He found that learning from the books available in those days was very difficult due to the lack of detailed explanations provided, but the books piqued his interest in the art. So he began taking lessons from a local amateur magician. He paid ten francs for a series of lessons from a man named Maous from Blois who was a podiatrist but also entertained at fairs and parties doing magic. He was proficient in sleight of hand, and he taught Jean how to juggle and to coordinate his eye and hand. He also taught him rudiments of the cups and balls tricks. He told him that digital dexterity came with repetition, and as a direct result, he practiced incessantly.

Magic was his pastime, but meanwhile, his studies in horology continued. When he felt he was ready, he moved to Tours and set up a watchmaking business, doing conjuring on the side. Much of what we know about Robert-Houdin comes from his memoirs—and his writings were meant more to entertain than to chronicle, rendering it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Robert-Houdin would have readers believe that a major turning point in his life came when he became apprenticed to the magician Edmund De Grisi, Count’s son and better known as Torrini. You can find key extracts from his memoirs here:

What is known is that his early performing came from joining an amateur acting troupe. Later, he performed at social parties as a professional magician in Europe and the United States. It was during this period, while at a party, that he met the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Jacques François Houdin, who had also come from Jean Robert’s native Blois. The daughter’s name was Josèphe Cecile Houdin, and he fell in love with her at their first meeting. On July 8th, 1830, they were married. He hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin. He moved to Paris and worked in his father-in-law’s wholesale shop. Jacques François was among the last of the watchmakers to use the old methods of handcrafting each piece, yet embraced his new son-in-law’s ambitions for mechanism. While M. Houdin worked in the main shop, Jean tinkered with mechanical toys and automatic figures. He and Josèphe had eight children, of whom three survived.

Quite by accident, Robert-Houdin walked into a shop on the Rue Richelieu and discovered it sold magic (lots of happy accidents in his biography). It was owned by a Père (Papa) Roujol, and there he met fellow magicians, both amateur and professional, where he engaged in talk about conjuring, and he met an aristocrat by the name of Jules de Rovère, who purportedly coined the term “prestidigitation” to describe a major misdirection technique magicians used. At Papa Roujol’s, Robert-Houdin learned the details of many of the mechanical tricks of the time as well as how to improve upon them. From there, he built his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the cups and balls. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure. He displayed this figure before king Louis Philippe and eventually sold it to P. T. Barnum.

Robert-Houdin loved to watch the big magic shows that came to Paris. He dreamed about some day opening his own theater. Meanwhile, he was hired by a friend, Comte de l’Escalopier, to perform at private parties. The income from the shop and his new inventions, which he sold, gave him enough money to experiment on new tricks using glass apparatus that would be (or at least appear to be) free of trickery. He envisioned a stage that would be as elegant as the drawing rooms in which he was hired to perform. He also thought that a magician should be dressed in traditional evening clothes. De l’Escalopier lent him 15,000 francs to make his vision into reality. He rented out a suite of rooms above the archways around the gardens of the Palais Royal, which was once owned by Cardinal Richelieu. He hired workmen to redesign the old assembly room into a theatre. They painted it white with gold trim, hung tasteful drapes and chic candelabras, and the stage furniture was set in the style of Louis XV.

On July 3rd, 1845, Robert-Houdin premiered his 200-seat theatre in what he called “Soirées Fantastiques”. No critics covered Robert-Houdin’s debut, and in his memoirs, Robert-Houdin said that the show had been a disaster. He suffered from stage fright that caused him to talk too fast and in a monotone. He said that he did not know what he was saying or doing, and everything was a blur. He believed that a magician should not present a trick until it was mechanically perfected to be certain of avoiding failure, and this caused him to over-rehearse. After the first show, he was about to have a nervous breakdown. He closed the theater and had every intention to close it for good, until a friend agreed that the venture was a silly idea. Instead of admitting defeat, Robert-Houdin, irked at the friend’s effrontery, used this insult to regain his courage, and persevered in giving the show a long run, becoming more polished and confident onstage.

With each performance, Robert-Houdin got better, and he began to receive critical acclaim. Le Charivari and L’Illustration both said that his mechanical marvels and artistic magic was comparable to those of his predecessors like Philippe and Bartolomeo Bosco. Even with all of this, still relatively few people came to the little theatre during the summer months, and he struggled to keep it opened. To meet expenses, he sold the three houses that he had inherited from his mother. The following year, he added a new trick to his program that became especially popular. Seats at the Palais Royal were at a premium. This new marvel was called Second Sight. Second Sight drew the audiences into the little theatre. He walked into the audience and touched items that the audience members held up, and his blindfolded assistant, played by his son, described each one in detail. It caused a sensation and brought throngs to see his shows. Eventually, he changed the method, so instead of asking his son what was in his hands, he simply rang a bell. This stunned those that suspected a spoken code was being used. He would even set the bell off to the side and remain silent, and his son still described every object handed to his father. At one point he made the test even more difficult. He placed a glass of water into his son’s hands, and Emile proceeded to drink from it. He was able to perceive the taste of the liquids that spectators from the audience merely thought of. Even then, the audiences were not entirely convinced, they tried to trip up Emile by bringing in books written in Greek, or odd tools such as a thread counter used by a weaver.

On one of Robert-Houdin’s side tables, he had an egg, a lemon, and an orange. He went into the audience and borrowed a lady’s handkerchief that was in style then. He rolled it into a ball. He rubbed the ball in between his hands, and the handkerchief got smaller and smaller until it disappeared, passing through to the egg on the table. He picked up the egg, and the audience expected him to crack it open and produce the spectator’s handkerchief. Instead, he made that disappear too. He told the audience that the egg went to the lemon. This was repeated with the lemon and the orange. When he made the orange disappear, all that was left was a fine powder which he placed into a silver vial. He soaked this vial with alcohol and set it on fire. A small orange tree planted in a wooden box was brought forth by one of his assistants. The audience noticed that the tree was barren of any blossoms or fruit. The blue flame from the vial was placed underneath it. The vapors from it caused the leaves to spread and sprout orange blossoms from it. Robert-Houdin then picked up his magic wand and waved it. The flowers disappeared and oranges bloomed forth. He plucked the oranges from the tree and tossed them to the audience to prove they were real. He did this until he had only one left. He waved his wand again, and the orange split open into four sections, revealing a white material of sorts inside of it. Two clockwork butterflies appeared from behind the tree. The butterflies grabbed the end of the corner of the white cloth and spread it open, revealing the spectator’s handkerchief.

When touring in Algeria, he used another famous trick to prove that French “magic” was stronger than local superstitions: he presented an empty box with an iron bottom that anyone could lift. By turning on an electromagnet hidden under the floor, he made it immovable, “proving” that through his “will power”, he could make it impossible to be lifted even by the strongest Algerian warriors. He found the trick was more impressive not when he claimed that he could make the trunk heavy, but when he claimed he could make the strong man too weak to lift a trunk that even a small child could lift. When he performed this trick the first time, the Algerian strong man he worked it on became so enraged that he left in a fury. It took a great deal of diplomacy to convince the Algerians that his actions were all trickery and not sorcery. These and other tricks are described by Robert-Houdin himself in detail in the link I gave above.

After his mission in Algeria, Robert-Houdin gave his last public performance at the Grand Théâtre in Marseille, then returned to his home in Saint-Gervais, near his native Blois, where he wrote his memoirs, Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur. He also wrote several books on the art of magic. He lived happily in retirement for about fifteen years, until the advent of the Franco Prussian War. His son Eugene was a captain in a Zouave regiment. On August 6th, 1870, Robert-Houdin heard news of his son being mortally wounded at the Battle of Worth. Meanwhile, Hessian Soldiers captured Paris, and Robert-Houdin hid his family in a cave near his property. Four days later, Robert-Houdin learned that his son had died of his wounds. With the stress from that and the war, his health deteriorated, and he contracted pneumonia. On June 13th, 1871, he died at the age of 65.

His home in Blois is open to the public as the publicly owned La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin. It is a museum and theater first opened by his grandson Paul Robert-Houdin in April 1966.

There are videos on magic tricks in the kitchen but they are pretty lame. This one on tricks with eggs is not strictly magic, but there are some fun ideas.

Or you can go with a Loire valley regional dish such as salmon with lemon sauce to celebrate Blois.