Dec 272013
 

Portrait of Louis Pasteur

Happy birthday to Louis Pasteur, French chemist and microbiologist who is well known for his discoveries of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization. He is remembered for his remarkable breakthroughs in the causes and prevention of diseases, and his discoveries have saved countless lives ever since. Pasteur reduced mortality from puerperal fever, and created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax. His medical discoveries provided direct support for the germ theory of disease and its application in clinical medicine. Pasteur is best known to the general public for his invention of the technique of treating milk and wine to stop bacterial contamination, a process now called pasteurization. He is regarded as one of the three main founders of bacteriology, together with Ferdinand Cohn and Robert Koch, and is popularly known as the “father of microbiology.”

Pasteur also made significant discoveries in chemistry, most notably on the molecular basis for the asymmetry of certain crystals and racemization. He was the Director of the Pasteur Institute, established in 1887, until his death, and his body lies beneath the institute in a vault covered in depictions of his accomplishments in Byzantine mosaics.

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Louis Pasteur was born on December 27, 1822, in Dole, Jura, France, to a poor tanner. He was the third child of Jean-Joseph Pasteur and Jeanne-Etiennette Roqui. In 1827, the family moved to Arbois, where he entered primary school in 1831. Pasteur was an average student in his early years, and not particularly academic, as his interests were fishing and sketching. His pastels and portraits of his parents and friends, made when he was 15, were later kept in the museum of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. In 1838, he left for Paris to join the Institution Barbet, but became homesick and returned in November. In 1839, he entered the Collège Royal de Besançon and earned his BA degree in 1840. Pasteur continued there for a BSc degree with special mathematics but failed in 1841. He succeeded in 1842 from Dijon with a poor grade in chemistry. After one failed attempt for the entrance test for the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1842, he succeeded in 1844, and received his medical license the next year. In 1846, he was appointed professor of physics at the Collège de Tournon at Ardèche, but Antoine Jérome Balard (one of the discoverers of the element bromine) wanted him back at the École Normale Supérieure as a graduate assistant (préparateur) for chemistry courses. Pasteur joined Balard and simultaneously started his research in crystallography and in 1847, he submitted his two theses, one in chemistry and the other in physics. After serving briefly as professor of physics at the Dijon Lycée in 1848, he became professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg, where he met and courted Marie Laurent, daughter of the university’s rector in 1849. They were married on May 29, 1849, and together had five children, only two of whom survived to adulthood; the other three died of typhoid. These personal tragedies were his motivations for curing infectious diseases.

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Dulce de Leche

So . . . let’s boil some milk.  If you boil it slowly and constantly you will end up with a thick caramelized treat known in Argentina as dulce de leche.  It takes about 36 hours, though.  I’ve done it once.  My mum made it the quicker way.  Take a can of sweetened condensed milk.  Pierce a couple of holes in the can (my mum would tell you what happens if you don’t).  Place the can in boiling water and let it sit until the milk has thoroughly caramelized (about 3 hours).  Spread it on toast, eat it with ice cream . . . it is the taste of Argentina.

Dec 262013
 

The Demidoff Altarpiece: Saint Stephen

Today is the feast of St Stephen, first Christian martyr. Stephen, was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy, at his trial he made a long speech fiercely denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus (later renamed Paul), a Pharisee who would later convert to Christianity and become an apostle.The only primary source for information about Stephen is the Biblical book Acts of the Apostles. Stephen was one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected for a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek speaking widows in Acts 6:

1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Thus was inaugurated the office of deacon, which remains to this day in many Christian denominations a position of service to the community, especially to the poor and needy. Besides his official duties, however, Stephen also preached to the people and raised the ire of some:

8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)–Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. 11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” 12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.

Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin is reported in Acts 7; the longest speech recorded in the Greek Bible.  It’s fiery stuff not calculated to win any friends on the Sanhedrin. For example,

51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”

The consequences for Stephen were dire:

54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

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Stephen’s name is derived from the Greek, Stephanos, meaning “crown.” Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; he is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyr’s palm. In Eastern Christian iconography, he is shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.

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St Stephen’s day is a widespread holiday in Europe associated with a host of customs.  In Ireland, the day is one of nine official public holidays. In Irish, it is called Lá Fhéile Stiofán or Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Ireland, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. Boys and young men dress up in old clothes or disguises  and travel from door to door begging for money “for the wren.” At one time they carried a wren on a pole which they had killed that morning, but nowadays they carry a fake wren.  Each group had a song they sang as they walked the streets. This one was popularized by the group Steeleye Span:

The custom is not very common these days, although it is being revived in some communities.  I had the good fortune to see the traditional wren boys in Letterkenny, Co, Donegal in 1971 late at night as they paraded through the town with lighted fire brands. Fun, but just a tad scary too. Fifty or so young farm boys who have been drinking all day, disguised and carrying live fire – hmmmm. The people in the town were absolutely jubilant as they passed through.

In the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the day following Christmas is a holiday known as Boxing Day, so called because of the custom in the 19th century of service people going to their employers to receive Christmas “boxes,” that is, bonuses for good service.  Household servants had to work on Christmas Day but had Boxing Day off.  There are numerous customs associated with the day, too numerous to mention.  My favorite is the tradition of linked sword dancing which is very common in the NE of England.  Here is a sample from Grenoside in Yorkshire:

Boxing Day is typically a day for using up leftovers from Christmas dinner in creative ways.  St Stephen’s Day pie is a great recipe for this.  It’s a variant of the classic shepherd’s pie or cottage pie; ground meat and veggies in gravy topped with mashed potato and then baked.  This recipe should also teach you that you can make a pie out of just about anything topped with potatoes.  I like to make a mix of fish and shellfish in a white sauce.  The world is your oyster.

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St Stephen’s Day Pie

Ingredients:

2 lbs cold turkey meat
1 lb cold ham or bacon
4 ozs butter plus extra for the topping
1 ½ cups chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 ½ cups poultry stock
1 ¼ cups turkey gravy
8 ozs small button mushrooms
4 tsps chopped parsley
4 tsps chopped chives
2 tsps marjoram, sage, or thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper
? cup heavy cream
2 pounds mashed potato

Instructions:

Cut the turkey and ham/bacon into 1″ pieces. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet or saucepan, add the chopped onions, cover and sauté for about 10 minutes until they are soft, but not browned.

Wash and slice the mushrooms.

When the onions are soft, stir in the garlic and remove to a plate. Increase the heat and cook the sliced mushrooms. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and add to the onion and garlic.

Toss the cold turkey and ham /bacon in the hot pan, using a little extra butter if necessary. Add the mushrooms and onions. De-glaze the pan with the turkey stock. Add the cream and chopped herbs and bring to a boil. Add the gravy, meat, mushrooms and onions and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Pour the filling into a deep pie dish and top with potatoes. Dot the top with butter to ensure browning. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the potato is golden and the pie is bubbling.

Serves 6-8

Dec 252013
 

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The Christmas Truce was a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—independently ventured into No Man’s Land, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. Some held joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another.

The Christmas Truce has been widely analyzed over the years and there are numerous nuances I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. “The Open Christmas Letter” was a public message for peace addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria” signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached. Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” This attempt was officially rebuffed.

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Though there was no official truce, roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yvon (or Saint-Yves, in Plugstreet/Ploegsteert – Comines-Warneton), where Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather described the Truce.

The Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. The fraternization carried risks; some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year’s Day in others.

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Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported how the first interpreter he met from the German lines was from Suffolk where he had left his girlfriend and a 3.5 hp motorcycle. Hulse Bart went on to describe a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked !”

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An eyewitness account of one truce, by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers, with offers to hold a ceasefire for the day and to play a football match. It came to nothing, as the brigade commander threatened repercussions for the lack of discipline, and insisted on a resumption of firing in the afternoon. Another member of Griffith’s battalion, Bertie Felstead, later recalled that one man had produced a football, resulting in “a free-for-all; there could have been 50 on each side”, before they were ordered back.

The events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by the New York Times on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed, printing numerous first-hand accounts from soldiers in the field, taken from letters home to their families, and editorials on “one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war.” By 8 January pictures had made their way to the press, and both the Mirror and Sketch printed front-page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing between the lines. The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the “lack of malice” felt by both sides and the Mirror regretting that the “absurdity and the tragedy” would begin again.

Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticizing those who had taken part, and no pictures published. In France, meanwhile, the greater level of press censorship ensured that the only word that spread of the truce came from soldiers at the front or first-hand accounts told by wounded men in hospitals. The press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumors by reprinting a government notice that fraternizing with the enemy constituted treason, and in early January an official statement on the truce was published, claiming it had happened on restricted sectors of the British front, and amounted to little more than an exchange of songs which quickly degenerated into shooting.

The photos in this video are all genuine.

High commands have a great fear that if soldiers on each side like each other, or, worse, see that the “enemy” is just another human being, they won’t fight. Amen to that. Smaller truces also occurred in 1915, but, sadly, this is the last time in any conflict anywhere in the world such a joint and spontaneous truce has occurred. May it come again soon, and instead of it being for one day, may it be FOREVER!!!

People who celebrate Christmas all have their own recipes, so I won’t add to the pile.  For over 35 years my Christmas dinner had an invariant core – roast goose with sage and onion stuffing, my signature roast potatoes, roast pork sausages, and red cabbage with apples.  Christmas pudding and whipped cream followed.  There would always be additions as I saw fit – roast leeks or parsnips, mashed rutabaga, butternut squash, etc. – but the core never varied.

Now that I live in Argentina alone, where Christmas Day is not really a day of celebration (it all happens the night before – buenanoche), and where goose is hard to come by, I have shifted gears.  Here are some images from my dinner from 2012 –crisp spring rolls, braised duck with a fig glaze, buttered potatoes, and broad beans. Of course I still have a Christmas pudding as well as mincemeat empanadas and emanaditas de membrillo (quince), the latter being standard for Christmas in Argentina.

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This year I am having braised Patagonian young goat with a spicy cream sauce, homemade egg noodles, and mashed spiced yams.

Dec 242013
 

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Today is the birthday (1166) of King John, also known as John Lackland (Norman French: Johan sanz Terre), king of England from 6 April 1199 until his death in 1216. Following the battle of Bouvines, John lost the duchy of Normandy to King Philip II of France, which resulted in the collapse of most of the Angevin Empire and contributed to the subsequent growth in power of the French Capetian dynasty during the 13th century. The baronial revolt at the end of John’s reign led to the sealing of the Magna Carta, a document sometimes considered to be an early step in the evolution of the constitution of the United Kingdom.

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If this were any other day of the year I’d give you a long diatribe on why most of what you think you know about John is wrong.  Magna Carta was not, in itself, much of a milestone. The barons were not interested in justice; they wanted to replace John, they just didn’t have a good candidate, so settled on Magna Carta as a poor plan B. Afterwards neither John nor the barons paid any heed to the document. Most especially, John was not the great villain he is made out to be. That was the product of 19th century novelists such as Sir Walter Scott moralizing about his sexual habits, which were atrocious, and fanciful tales of Robin Hood that needed a convenient bad guy.  In a lot of ways John was good for England.  For one thing, he was the first king of England since before the conquest who actually spoke English.  All the others spoke French and spent more time in their French holdings than in England.  John’s brother, Richard the Lionheart, for example, spoke French and spent all but 6 months of his reign outside of England, going to war in various places, and bankrupting the country in the process — in fact, leaving John with a mess to clean up.

However, it is Christmas Eve, so I will pass over this juicy and heady stuff.  Instead I will give you an alternate view of King John courtesy of A.A. Milne (with a Christmas theme). This is an all time favorite of mine since childhood taken from Now We Are Six.

KING JOHN’S CHRISTMAS

A.A. Milne

King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air –
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon . . .
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

King John was not a good man,
Yet had his hopes and fears.
They’d given him no present now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.

King John was not a good man,
He lived his life aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
Against the chimney stack:
‘TO ALL AND SUNDRY – NEAR AND FAR –
F. CHRISTMAS IN PARTICULAR.’
And signed it not ‘Johannes R.’
But very humbly, ‘JACK.’

‘I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!’

King John was not a good man –
He wrote this message out,
And gat him to his room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
‘I think that’s him a-coming now,’
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
‘He’ll bring one present, anyhow –
The first I’ve had for years.’

‘Forget about the crackers,
And forget about the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy;
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!’

King John was not a good man –
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,
And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King John said grimly: ‘As I feared,
Nothing again for me!’

‘I did want crackers,
And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts.
I haven’t got a pocket-knife –
Not one that cuts.
And, oh! if Father Christmas had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red india-rubber ball!’

King John stood by the window,
And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all . . .
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!
AND OH, FATHER CHRISTMAS
MY BLESSINGS ON YOU FALL
FOR BRINGING HIM
A BIG, RED
INDIA-RUBBER BALL

One of the many legends about King John is that in defending his kingdom he was forced into the tidal regions of East Anglia where he first lost the crown jewels, and then, in a fit of depression, overate and died.  All hogwash of course.  He lost a couple of pack animals, and he died of dysentery (called “ague” back then) which he had contracted some weeks before (common hazard of Medieval war campaigns).

Nonetheless, as a young cook I was taken with the common story that he died of a “surfeit of peaches” and created a recipe called King John’s Surfeit.  I had not made it in years before contemplating this post. But I got out the pots and pans for the occasion.  I’ve never codified it into a recipe, so, as often, you will have to make do with my memory version with its vague notions of quantities.  It is a very sweet dish so barely sweetened whipped cream or ice cream I find are necessary accompaniments.  Making sure it is very well chilled is also important.

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©King John’s Surfeit

Slice dried peaches and marinate them in brandy for at least 24 hours, and preferably a week or more.

Take a quantity of peaches (about one per person), wash them well, and poach them in white wine and sugar flavored with cloves and allspice until they are very soft. You can use hard under ripe fruit for this.

Let the peaches cool and scrape out the cooked flesh, mashing it well in the process.

Reduce the cooking liquid to a thick syrup and let cool.  Refrigerate all the ingredients.

Assemble by mixing the mashed, cooked fruit with marinated dried slices.  Scoop into bowls and top with vanilla ice cream drizzled with the syrup.

 

 

Dec 232013
 

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The Night of the Radishes (Noche de rábanos) is celebrated every year on December 23 in the zócalo (main plaza) of Oaxaca city in Mexico.  It began in 1897 and has grown steadily in size and complexity every since, so that it is now an international attraction. Even though the event only lasts a few hours it merges seamlessly into the activities of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with their parades, fireworks, dancing, and feasting.

It is one of the most impressive vegetable festivals in the world. Mexican craftsmen and farmers carve giant radishes that are especially grown for the purpose into artistic designs, usually representing saints or other religious figures, nativity scenes, or anything else the natural shape of the radish suggests. The basic radish used is a large red radish weighing up to 3 kilos (6.6 lbs).  To grow this big they are left in the ground for months after the normal harvest, constantly watered and tended.

Other materials may be added to the radish sculptures for effect, but the basic principle is the creative incising and peeling of the red skin of the radishes to reveal the white flesh beneath.  It’s probably best just to show some images to get the idea.

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The radish was a well-established crop in Hellenistic and Roman times, suggesting it was domesticated a lot earlier, but there is almost no archeological record on which to base its earlier history.  Wild forms of the radish and its relatives, the mustards and turnip, can be found over west Asia and Europe, suggesting that their domestication took place somewhere in that area. Radishes were introduced into the New World in the sixteenth century and have been a staple crop ever since.

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Radishes can be divided into spring and autumn varieties. Spring varieties are typically small, red, and bulbous, growing very quickly, whereas autumn radishes are large and cylindrical, taking months to mature. The two commonest varieties of autumn radish are the Spanish black and the Japanese daikon.

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The spring radish has to be the easiest vegetable to grow in the world, and my garden was never complete without a succession of them from early spring to early summer.  You simply pop the seeds into loose soil (I usually used patio containers), water them, and step back.  They emerge in a few days and are ready to eat in 2 to 4 weeks. If you cannot grow radishes you really are a hopeless case. Many home gardeners companion plant them with seeds that germinate more slowly in order to mark the rows.

I am told the leafy tops are edible but I have never tried it.  For one thing you would need a lot of radish greens to make a single dish, although some varieties are leafier than others.  The recipes I have seen involve shredding the leaves and poaching them in stock much as you would turnip greens. To make the most of the sparse greens it is perhaps best to blend the cooked greens and stock with cream to make a soup flavored with a little freshly ground pepper.  Worth a try if you are looking to experiment with something new.

Radishes are normally eaten raw, of course, but they can be cooked.  With their general aversion to raw foods I imagine Medieval people cooked radishes.  Certainly they would have pickled them, and pickled radishes can still add an attractive note to salads, although these days you would probably have to pickle them yourself. Asian radishes are much more commonly found commercially pickled (shredded). You might at least try roasting radishes, perhaps the next time you have a roast in the oven.  It is simplicity itself and produces a slightly sweet dish that goes well with roasted meats.

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© Roasted Radishes

Preheat the oven to 450°F/250°C.

Wash and then top and tail 1 lb (or whatever quantity you want) of very fresh radishes.

Toss the radishes in a bowl with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. You can also add some dried herbs to the mix.  Rosemary is especially good.

Place the oiled radishes in one layer on a baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes.

Every few minutes shake the baking sheet to make sure the radishes brown evenly, and if necessary stir them around with a wooden spoon so that all get even heat.

Serve piping hot as a side dish.

[Small hint: you can use this method with just about every vegetable I know.  If you are not roasting leeks or carrots or parsnips you are not living right.]

Dec 222013
 

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On this date in 1808 Ludwig van Beethoven held a mammoth concert at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. The program consisted entirely of pieces by Beethoven, which he conducted, and featured the premieres of his Fifth Symphony, Sixth Symphony, and Choral Fantasy (with Beethoven at the piano). The concert was over four hours long and was quite the event in a number of ways.  Let me take you through the events beginning with the enormous struggle Beethoven had to get the concert organized at all.

The concert was designed as a benefit to provide Beethoven with money to live on. He had been struggling financially for years.  Many musicians found comfortable lives with wealthy patrons, but not all.  Even Mozart, who had many patrons over his life, had financial troubles and did not die a rich man despite his enormous output of work.  This was a mere 17 years before Beethoven’s concert.  Beethoven might have had more patrons were it not for the fact that he refused to ingratiate himself with the rich and famous.  Rather, he quite willfully shunned and embarrassed them even though they sought him out.  He was definitely a celebrity in his day, but a difficult one.

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It took Beethoven almost two years to get the necessary permissions to go ahead with the concert.  In order to get them he had to offer his services for free to the producers of other concerts, primarily organized to benefit the poor.  He also had to navigate the treacherous waters of concert hall and orchestra scheduling.  His letters concerning his efforts to book the Theater an der Wien are preserved and reveal the problems he had.  In them Beethoven shifts from polite requests to threats and abusive language, using friends as intermediaries and complaining of his frustrations to them. To some extent his frustrations were understandable; he had given the necessary services for free in order to secure a promise of the hall and orchestra in return.  But in doing so he frequently alienated people with his erratic behavior and irascible personality.   So he would find himself being made an offer one day only to have it withdrawn the next.  One of the most often quoted passages from these letters is this from a letter to court secretary Heinrich Joseph von Collin in March 1808 venting his wrath over continual postponements by theater director Joseph Hartl:

Tomorrow I’ll go see Hartl myself.  I was there once but he wasn’t home – I am so vexed that all I want is to be a bear so that every time I lifted my paw I could knock down one of the so-called great — — asses.

Beethoven continued his correspondence well into autumn 1808 and did not get a firm answer until the beginning of December 1808, leaving him very little time for rehearsal.  Not only that, he was not in good odor with the theater orchestra following a benefit concert of November 15, 1808.  His biographer and friend Ferdinand Ries tells us that the rank and file of the orchestra got so furious at Beethoven’s behavior in rehearsal at that time that they refused to play for him.  Instead he had to listen in an anteroom, and the substitute conductor would go back there to get rehearsal notes from Beethoven every so often.  Furthermore, despite seemingly ingratiating efforts he could not get the theater’s soprano Pauline Anna Milder to sing for him. Beethoven had had an argument with her husband previously.  In a letter to the tenor Joseph August Röckel he writes:

Dear Röckel,  do your job well with Milder – tell her merely that already today, you are asking her in my name that she will not sing elsewhere.  Tomorrow, I will come, myself, to kiss the hem of her garment . . .

This was all to no avail, requiring Beethoven to find an alternate who was not up to the task, as we shall see.

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In general, therefore, the setting was not good.  The hall was unheated, hence freezing cold, the orchestra was under-rehearsed and barely on speaking terms with Beethoven, and, in the case of the final piece, the Choral Fantasy, the orchestra members were receiving some of their parts on the morning of the performance (folklore has it that the ink was still wet).  Here is the original program:

The Sixth Symphony

Aria: “Ah, perfido”

The Gloria movement of the Mass in C major

The Fourth Piano Concerto (Beethoven as soloist)

(Intermission)

The Fifth Symphony

The Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the Mass in C major

A solo piano improvisation played by Beethoven

The Choral Fantasy (Beethoven as soloist)

On paper it sounds like a musician’s dream come true. Three of the pieces – the two symphonies and the choral fantasy – were premieres, the latter being a piece that evolved into the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But, in reality, it was undoubtedly exhausting.  Not much is noted about the initial reception of these pieces, but eyewitness accounts note some of the failings of the concert.  The chief newspaper review of the time reported:

To judge all these executed pieces is, after the first and only hearing, particularly since these are works by Beethoven, of which so many have been performed in one session and most of which are great and long–nearly impossible. However, all the more, I will refrain from brief, inconsequential remarks that could well be made, since we hope that you soon will be able to hear them yourself and will convey to the readers of the Musical. Zeit. your opinion of them, and since many of them will soon be published.  However, as far as the execution of this academy concert is concerned, it could be considered lacking in all respects.  While Dem. Killitzky [the substitute soprano] has a very pleasant voice, she did not let us hear many secure notes, and often even false ones.  However, this seemed to be more a result of her shyness that, with time, she will lose.  Most noticeable, however, was the error that occurred in the last Fantasy. The wind instruments varied the theme, which before, Beethoven had played on the piano.  Now it was the oboes’ turn.  The clarinets–if I am not mistaken!–miscounted and set in at the same time.  A peculiar mix of tones emerged; B. jumped up and tried to silence the clarinets, however, he did not succeed until he called out quite loudly and rather angrily to the orchestra:  Silence!  This will not do!  Once more–once more! and the praised orchestra had to accommodate him and play the unfortunate Fantasy again, from the beginning–!   The effect of all of these pieces on the mixed audience, and particularly of the pieces of the second section, obviously suffered from the amount and the length of the music.  Moreover, it is known that, with respect to Vienna, it holds even more true than with respect to most other cities, what is written in the scriptures, namely that the prophet does not count for anything in his own country.

After the concert the orchestra refused to play for Beethoven any more, but, as ever, was eventually persuaded to relent.

On the 200th anniversary in 2008 there were some attempts to re-create the concert, usually by radio stations using recordings, but though this seems like an obvious and reverent homage, as an anthropologist it seems to me like a merely mechanical exercise robbed of all relevant context.  What was it like to be huddled in furs for four hours listening to masterpieces for the first time? What in blazes was Beethoven thinking when he conceived of such a monster performance? What was the atmosphere like in the theater (remember that Viennese audiences of the time were not always quiet – Beethoven is on record as stopping performances on several occasions to hush the audience)?  What was it like to see Beethoven in action? Audiences sometimes treated Beethoven as a clown of sorts, amused by his antics, especially when playing the piano. It is an impossible scene to imagine now.

As it turns out, coming up with a recipe for today’s celebration was easier than I thought.  Beethoven had a favorite dish.  But I’ll get to that.  His eating habits were commensurate with his behavior in all other aspects of his life.  He usually ate his main meal of the day at lunch time – quite common in those days – and rarely ate much afterwards because he was preoccupied with his work.  One restaurant incident is recorded by Ries:

One day we were dining at the Swan; the waiter brought him the wrong dish. Beethoven had scarcely said a few choice words about it, which the waiter had answered perhaps not quite so politely as he should, when Beethoven laid hold of the dish (it was so-called “Lugenbratel” {a type of Roast beef} with lots of sauce) and flung it at the waiter’s head. The poor fellow still had on his arms a large number of plates containing various dishes (a dexterity which Viennese waiters possess to a high degree) and could do nothing to help himself; the sauce ran down his face. He and Beethoven shouted and cursed at each other, while all the other guests laughed out loud. Finally Beethoven began laughing at the sight of the waiter, who lapped up with his tongue the sauce that was running down his face, tried to go on hurling insults, but had to go on lapping instead, pulling the most ludicrous faces the while, a picture worthy of Hogarth.

On another occasion:

Once Beethoven dropped in to a restaurant to have dinner, but as he was very absent-minded he forgot what he actually came there for. He was asked by a waiter a few times what he would like to order but he didn’t pay any attention to that. After an hour Beethoven called the waiter and asked him:

– How much do I pay?

– Sir, you haven’t ordered anything yet and I would like to ask you what I can do for you?

– O, just bring whatever you want and leave me alone!

Ries also reports that in general Beethoven favored fish over meat and was partial to pollock and potatoes. But his favorite dish of all time was macaroni and cheese.  At first this may strike you as incongruous, but baked macaroni (or pasta) and cheese has a very long history going back at least to the 14th century.  The famous medieval French cookbook, The Forme of Cury, gives the following:

Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. and serue forth.

[Take and make a thin layer of dough and cut it in pieces and put them in boiling water and boil it well. Take cheese and grate it and butter placed beneath and above in layers and serve it forth]

This would be rather like a layered pasta, butter, and cheese casserole, and is the basis for most recipes since.  The only main variation is to make a cheese béchamel instead of simply butter and cheese.  Ries specifically notes that Beethoven liked his pasta with Italian cheese, which would mean Parmesan. Beethoven’s dish would have been oven baked.

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I am not sure what else to say except make mac and cheese today.  I don’t see one recipe as being much different from another. I would, however, recommend that you do it properly, that is cook the macaroni to almost al dente, mix it with a rich cheese béchamel, and bake it in an earthenware casserole uncovered until the top is crusty and golden.

Perhaps I should also add that Beethoven preferred expensive Hungarian red wines with his meals.

Dec 212013
 

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Today is the birthday (1401) of Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, commonly called Masaccio, the first great painter of the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance.  According to the 16th century historian of art, Giorgio Vasari, Masaccio was the best painter of his generation because of his skill at recreating lifelike figures and movements as well as a convincing sense of three-dimensionality. Despite his brief career (barely 7 years), he had a profound influence on other artists, such as Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Raphael. He was one of the first to use linear perspective in his painting (Donatello and Brunelleschi were his contemporaries), employing techniques such as the vanishing point in art for the first time. He also moved away from the International Gothic style of elaborate ornamentation of artists like Gentile da Fabriano, to a more naturalistic mode that employed perspective and chiaroscuro (light and dark) for greater realism.  What absolutely staggers me is that if you mention the giants of the Italian Renaissance, everyone immediately recognizes their names, but if you say “Masaccio” a great percentage say “who?”  The man who started it all lives in relative obscurity whilst his followers receive all the praise.  Doesn’t seem fair.  I do believe, though, that many people who do not know his name, recognize his work – some of it, at least.  The greats all studied his work intensively; we can do no better than to follow in their footsteps.

His common name, Masaccio, is a comic variant of Maso (diminutive of Tommaso), meaning “clumsy” or “messy” Tom. Some art historians suggest that the name was created to distinguish him from his principal collaborator, also called Maso, who came to be known as Masolino (“little Maso”), or it may, more likely in my opinion, simply have been his usual nickname.

Masaccio was born to Giovanni di Simone Cassai and Jacopa di Martinozzo in Castel San Giovanni di Altura, now San Giovanni Valdarno (today part of the province of Arezzo in Tuscany). His father was a notary and his mother the daughter of an innkeeper of Barberino di Mugello, a town a few miles south of Florence. His family name, Cassai, comes from the trade of his paternal grandfather Simone and granduncle Lorenzo, who were carpenters/cabinet makers (“casse” makers). His father died in 1406, when Tommaso was only five. In that same year his mother gave birth to his brother, Giovanni (1406–1486), named after the dead father. Giovanni also was to become a painter, with the nickname of lo Scheggia meaning “the splinter.” In 1412 his mother married an elderly apothecary, Tedesco di maestro Feo, who already had several daughters, one of whom grew up to marry the only other documented painter from Castel San Giovanni, Mariotto di Cristofano (1393–1457).

There is no evidence for Masaccio’s artistic education. Renaissance painters traditionally began an apprenticeship with an established master at about the age of 12; Masaccio would likely have had to move to Florence to receive his training, but he was not documented in the city until he joined the guild of painters (Arte de’ Medici e Speziali) as an independent master on January 7, 1422, signing as “Masus S. Johannis Simonis pictor populi S. Nicholae de Florentia.”

The first works attributed to Masaccio are the San Giovenale Triptych (1422), now in the Museum of Cascia di Reggello, near Florence, and the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Sant’Anna Metterza) (c. 1424) at the Uffizi.

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The San Giovenale altarpiece was not discovered until 1961, in the church of San Giovenale at Cascia di Reggello, which is very close to Masaccio’s hometown. It represents the Virgin and Child with angels in the central panel, SS Bartholomew and Blaise on the left panel, and SS Juvenal (i.e. San Giovenale) and Anthony Abbot in the right panel. The painting has lost much of its original framing, and its surface is badly abraded. Nevertheless, Masaccio’s concern to suggest three-dimensionality through volumetric figures and foreshortened forms is already apparent.

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The second work was perhaps Masaccio’s first collaboration with the older and already renowned artist, Masolino da Panicale (1383/4-c. 1436). The circumstances of the 2 artists’ collaboration are unclear. Since Masolino was considerably older, it seems likely that he brought Masaccio under his wing, but the division of hands in the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is so marked – Masolino is believed to have painted the figure of St. Anne and the angels that hold the cloth of honor behind her, while Masaccio painted the more significant Virgin and Child on their throne. Given that Masaccio played the dominant role in this painting it is difficult not to see him as the one holding the commission despite his junior status.  Masolino’s figures are delicate, graceful, and rather flat, while Masaccio’s are solid and bulky.

In Florence, Masaccio could study the works of Giotto and become friends with Brunelleschi and Donatello. According to Vasari, at their prompting in 1423 Masaccio travelled to Rome with Masolino. From that point he was freed of all Gothic and Byzantine influence, as may be seen in his altarpiece for the Carmelite Church in Pisa. The traces of influences from ancient Roman and Greek art that are present in some of Masaccio’s works presumably originated from this trip: they should also have been present in a lost Sagra, (today known through some drawings, including one by Michelangelo), a fresco commissioned for the consecration ceremony of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence (April 19, 1422). It was destroyed when the church’s cloister was rebuilt at the end of the 16th century.

In 1424 the “duo preciso e noto” (“well known duo”) of Masaccio and Masolino was commissioned by the powerful and rich Felice Brancacci to execute a cycle of frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Painting began around 1425 with the two artists probably working simultaneously. For reasons that are unclear they left the chapel unfinished, and it was completed by Filippino Lippi in the 1480s. The iconography of the fresco decoration is somewhat unusual; while the majority of the frescoes represent the life of St. Peter, 2 scenes, on either side of the threshold of the chapel space, depict the temptation and expulsion of Adam and Eve. As a whole the frescoes represent human sin and its redemption through the actions of Peter, the first pope. The style of Masaccio’s scenes shows the influence of Giotto especially. Figures are large, heavy, and solid; emotions are expressed through faces and gestures; and there is a strong impression of naturalism throughout the paintings. Unlike Giotto, however, Masaccio uses linear and atmospheric perspective, directional light, and chiaroscuro, the representation of form through light and color without outlines. As a result his frescoes are even more convincingly lifelike than those of Giotto.

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, depicts a distressed Adam and Eve, chased from the garden by a threatening angel. Adam covers his entire face to express his shame, while Eve’s shame requires her to cover certain areas of her body. The fresco had a huge influence on Michelangelo, as evidenced by his many drawings of it.

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Another major work is The Tribute Money in which Jesus and the Apostles are depicted as neo-classical archetypes. Scholars have often noted that the shadows of the figures all fall away from the chapel window, as if the figures are lit by it; this is an added stroke of verisimilitude and further tribute to Masaccio’s innovative genius.

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In the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus he painted a pavement in perspective, framed by large buildings to obtain a three-dimensional space in which the figures are placed proportionate to their surroundings. In this he was a pioneer in applying the newly discovered rules of perspective.

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On September 1425 Masolino left the work and went to Hungary. It is not known if this was because of money quarrels with Felice or even if there was an artistic divergence with Masaccio. It has also been supposed that Masolino planned this trip from the very beginning, and needed a close collaborator who could continue the work after his departure. But Masaccio left the frescoes unfinished in 1426 in order to respond to other commissions, probably coming from the same patron. However, it has also been suggested that the declining finances of Felice Brancacci were insufficient to pay for any more work, so the painter therefore sought work elsewhere.

Masaccio returned in 1427 to work again in the Carmine, beginning the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus, but apparently left it, too, unfinished, though it has also been suggested that the painting was severely damaged later in the century because it contained portraits of the Brancacci family, at that time excoriated as enemies of the Medici. This painting was either restored or completed more than fifty years later by Filippino Lippi. Some of the scenes completed by Masaccio and Masolino were lost in a fire in 1771; we know about them only through Vasari’s biography. The surviving parts were extensively blackened by smoke. In the twentieth century, the removal of marble slabs covering two areas of the paintings revealed the original appearance of the work.

On February 19, 1426 Masaccio was commissioned by Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi da San Giusto, for the sum of 80 florins, to paint a major altarpiece, the Pisa Altarpiece, for his chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa. The work was dismantled and dispersed in the 18th century, and only eleven of about twenty original panels have been rediscovered in various collections around the world. The central panel of the altarpiece (The Madonna and Child) is now in the National Gallery, London. Although it is very damaged, the work features a sculptural and human Madonna as well as a convincing perspectival depiction of her throne. Masaccio probably worked on it entirely in Pisa, shuttling back and forth to Florence, where he was still working on the Brancacci Chapel. In these years Donatello was also working in Pisa at a monument for Cardinal Rinaldo Brancacci, to be sent to Naples. It has been suggested that Masaccio’s first ventures in plasticity and perspective were based on Donatello’s sculpture, before he could study Brunelleschi’s more scientific approach to perspective.

Around 1427 Masaccio won a prestigious commission to produce a Holy Trinity for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. No contemporary documents record the patron of the fresco, but recently references to ownership of a tomb at the foot of the fresco have been found in the records of the Berti family of the Santa Maria Novella Quarter of Florence; this working-class family expressed a long-standing devotion to the Trinity, and may well have commissioned Masaccio’s painting. Probably it is the male patron who is represented to the left of the Virgin in the painting, while his wife is right of St John the Evangelist. The fresco, considered by many to be Masaccio’s masterwork, is the earliest surviving painting to use systematic linear perspective, possibly devised by Masaccio with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself.

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The sacred figures and the donors are represented above an image of a skeleton lying on a sarcophagus. An inscription seemingly carved into the wall above the skeleton reads: “IO FUI GIA QUEL CHE VOI SIETE E QUEL CH’IO SONO VOI ANCO SARETE” (I once was what now you are and what I am, you shall yet be). This skeleton is at once a reference to Adam, whose sin brought humans to death and a reminder to viewers that their time on earth is transitory. It is only through faith in the Trinity, the fresco suggests, that one overcomes this death. The Holy Spirit is seen in the form of a dove, above Jesus.

Masaccio produced two other works, a Nativity and an Annunciation, now lost, before leaving for Rome, where his companion Masolino was frescoing a chapel with scenes from the life of St. Catherine in the Basilica di San Clemente. It has never been confirmed that Masaccio collaborated on that work, even though it is possible that he contributed to Masolino’s polyptych for the altar of Santa Maria Maggiore with his panel portraying St. Jerome and St. John the Baptist, now in the National Gallery of London.

Masaccio died at the end of 1428. According to a legend, he was poisoned by a jealous rival painter.

To celebrate Masaccio I have chosen a recipe from the cookbook Registrum coquina published first in 1430 by Johannes Bockenheim (or Buckehen), cook to Pope Martin V. The book, in Latin, is very brief, and the recipes are short and to the point, presumably written for professionals.  The curiosity of the volume is that each recipe is designated according to who was to consume the dish by social class, or by its national origin.  I chose “orange omelet for harlots and ruffians.”  The original recipe is typically terse:

Take eggs and break them, with oranges, as many as you like; squeeze their juice and add to it the eggs with sugar; then take olive oil or fat, and heat it in the pan and add the eggs.

I had to use sweet oranges but I recommend trying bitter orange to create something more akin to 15th century cooking.  For the general proportions use 2 eggs, ½ orange, and 1 tbsp sugar per person. I found this suitable as a dessert dish for the modern table. It was delicious both hot and cold. I used the orange zest instinctively; I think the dish would be rather bland without it because the juice alone does not contribute a lot of flavor.

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© Orange Omelet for Harlots and Ruffians

Ingredients:

8 eggs
2 oranges
4 tbsps sugar
1 tbsp butter

Instructions:

Grate the zest of the oranges and juice them.  Beat the orange zest and juice with the eggs and sugar.

Place a heavy skillet with a lid on very low heat and melt the butter in it.  Add the egg mixture.

Cover and let cook very gently for about 20 minutes or until the eggs are set. Towards the end of the process the eggs will rise a little indicating they are cooked.  The bottom should be nicely browned.

You can serve this plain as a dessert or with whipped cream with a little extra grated zest for garnish.

Serves 4

Dec 202013
 

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Today is the birthday (1917) of David Joseph Bohm FRS, U.S. born theoretical physicist who contributed innovative and unorthodox ideas to quantum theory, philosophy of mind, and neuropsychology. He is not one of the popular geniuses, such as Einstein, whose names are household words, but he stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them.  I stand in awe of his genius (and let me add that I rarely use the word “awe” about anyone or anything).  Unfortunately, his ideas are difficult to comprehend, but I will do my best to break down some of his key ideas in a few words.

Bohm was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, United States, to a Hungarian Jewish immigrant father and a Lithuanian Jewish mother. He was raised mainly by his father, a furniture store owner and assistant of the local rabbi. Despite being raised in a Jewish family, he became an agnostic in his teenage years. Bohm attended Pennsylvania State College (now Pennsylvania State University), graduating in 1939, then attended the California Institute of Technology for a year, before transferring to the theoretical physics group directed by Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley, where he eventually obtained his doctorate degree.

Bohm lived in the same neighborhood as some of Oppenheimer’s other graduate students (Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, Joseph Weinberg, and Max Friedman) and with them became increasingly involved not only with physics, but with radical politics. Bohm became active in Communist and Communist-backed organizations including the Young Communist League, the Campus Committee to Fight Conscription, and the Committee for Peace Mobilization.

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During World War II, the Manhattan Project mobilized much of Berkeley’s physics research in the effort to produce the first atomic bomb. Though Oppenheimer had asked Bohm to work with him at Los Alamos (the top-secret laboratory established in 1942 to design the atom bomb), the director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, would not approve Bohm’s security clearance, after evidence about his politics.

Bohm remained in Berkeley, teaching physics, until he completed his Ph.D. in 1943, by an unusual circumstance. The thesis work he had completed proved useful to the Manhattan Project and was immediately classified. Without security clearance, Bohm was denied access to his own work; not only was he barred from defending his thesis, he was not even allowed to write his own thesis in the first place. To satisfy the university, Oppenheimer certified that Bohm had successfully completed the research. Lucky devil – he got a Ph.D. without having to write anything nor defend anything.

After the war, Bohm became an assistant professor at Princeton University, where he worked closely with Albert Einstein. In May, 1949, the House Un-American Activities Committee called upon Bohm to testify before it— because of his previous ties to suspected Communists. Bohm, however, pleaded his Fifth amendment right to refuse to testify, and refused to give evidence against his colleagues.

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In 1950, Bohm was charged for refusing to answer the questions of the Committee and was arrested. He was acquitted in May, 1951, but Princeton University had already suspended him. After the acquittal, Bohm’s colleagues sought to have him re-instated to Princeton, and Einstein reportedly wanted Bohm to serve as his assistant. The university, however, did not renew his contract. His request to go to Manchester found support with Einstein, yet was unsuccessful. He then left for Brazil to assume a professorship of Physics at the University of São Paulo at the invitation of Jayme Tiomno and through the recommendations of Einstein and Oppenheimer.

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I can’t really say too much about Bohm’s contributions to quantum theory in a paragraph, but I can start by saying that his unorthodox approach to the field ultimately spilled over into all of his other work.  Quantum theory deals with the behavior of sub-atomic particles, the trick being that they behave in ways that challenge age-old notions of the fundamentals of how things work, hence of reality itself.   Although physicists use mathematical systems that are way beyond the reach of most people – I certainly make no pretense to understand them – they are still ultimately asking questions that most of us can grasp. For example, in the physical world if you always perform the same actions in the same way will you always get the same outcome?  Most people would say yes. But actions in the quantum mechanical world seem to muddy the waters because sub-atomic particles act in “weird” ways, and if you ask the same question there you are left with some physicists saying yes, some saying no, and an awful lot saying maybe.  Being overly simplistic, Bohm’s response to many such questions was that we need to rethink our whole grasp on reality.

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Because physicists are ultimately asking questions about the fundamental nature of the world and the limitations of our perception of it, they frequently edge into philosophy and allied fields, or even into realms that seem mystical.  Such was the case with Bohm.  I fear that in even attempting to encapsulate Bohm’s grand vision I will do him a grave injustice. Best perhaps to start with a famous quote from the great man himself:

In some sense man is a microcosm of the universe; therefore what man is, is a clue to the universe. We are enfolded in the universe.

Bohm’s concept of “wholeness” lies at the heart of all his thinking.  His deep insight was to abandon ways of thinking that assume that the world is made up of individual things that interact with one another, and instead to conceive of the world as a vast whole, each part of which contains all the other parts.  I know, heavy stuff. But there is a model that helps explain his thinking: the hologram.

Hologram of a mouse from different angles.

Hologram of a mouse from different angles.

A hologram is an image that may look like a 3-D photograph, but it is conceptually very different. A photograph is made up of distinct bits, so if you cut a piece out, that piece is missing.  But if you take away a bit from a holographic image, you do NOT get a missing piece. Instead the whole is a little less distinct.  That is because with a hologram EVERY PART CONTAINS THE WHOLE. There are no distinct bits. That’s how Bohm conceived of the universe.  Mystical, eh? You contain the universe and the universe contains you.

I have no space to go into detail – look him up.  I will, however, talk briefly about how Bohm saw his ideas penetrate human relations.  Bohm was horrified by what he saw as a general degeneration of human society into camps, each staking out its claims to its own territory and then defending it.  If you conceive of the world being made of bits that contain all the other bits, this is foolishness – at best. He proposed many solutions which I find magnificent.  One was the Bohmian Dialogue.

Let’s start with a quote:

“. . . dialogue can be considered as a free flow of meaning between people in communication, in the sense of a stream that flows between banks.”

These “banks” can be conceived of representing the various points of view of the participants. The goal of a Bohmian Dialogue is to get rid of the “banks” so that the flow of meaning is unrestricted.

The idea of a Bohmian Dialogue, which may involve any number of people, but must be large enough for there to be a variety of ideas, is for each to enter into it willing to listen to, and to accept, any and all points of view.  The ultimate goal is for all participants to come to a common understanding of one another, such that what they are left with is a grand vision in which everything each has to offer is unified into a whole that has no distinct parts.  A bit abstract I know.  Here are the “rules” of a Bohmian Dialogue:

1. The group agrees that no group-level decisions will be made in the conversation. “…In the dialogue group we are not going to decide what to do about anything. This is crucial. Otherwise we are not free. We must have an empty space where we are not obliged to anything, nor to come to any conclusions, nor to say anything or not say anything. It’s open and free”

2.    Each individual agrees to suspend judgment in the conversation. (Specifically, if individuals hear an idea they do not like, they do not attack that idea.) “…people in any group will bring to it assumptions, and as the group continues meeting, those assumptions will come up. What is called for is to suspend those assumptions, so that you neither carry them out nor suppress them. You don’t believe them, nor do you disbelieve them; you don’t judge them as good or bad.”

3. As these individuals “suspend judgment” they also simultaneously are as honest and transparent as possible. (Specifically, if the individual has a “good idea” that he/she might otherwise hold back from the group because it is too controversial, he/she will share that idea in this conversation.)

4.   Individuals in the conversation try to build on other individuals’ ideas in the conversation. (The group often comes up with ideas that are far beyond what any of the individuals thought possible before the conversation began.)

Bohm conducted sessions organized according to these principles using groups of between 20 and 40 people. You can find the outcomes in On Dialogue. Bohm saw this method as liberating in general, so that people had a greater sense of unity with others, and less of a sense of isolation.  But his goals were quite abstract. Bohmian dialogues have no inherent sense of purpose other than understanding the nature of thinking itself. However, others have adopted/adapted the strategy in a number of environments in which people meet to work out problems – political, business, therapeutic, etc.  For me, the inherent catch is that you have to enter the dialog willing to suspend your own beliefs, and to be willing to revise your own preconceptions.  Most people are not willing to do that.  I imagine I will see four horsemen riding by my building before I will see politicians meeting in conference willing to suspend their beliefs.

Here’s my “recipe” for the day in honor of David Bohm – A Bohmian dinner party.  I just thought this up, so the ideas are a bit sketchy.  What I would love is for someone to actually do this and report back.  If all else fails, I’ll do it myself!

A Bohmian Dinner Party

For this to work you might need an initial meeting of participants to explain the principles, or, at the very least, send out a notice explaining the principles.

Invite a reasonably large group of people – 12 or more.

Ask each to bring something, or many things, (uncooked) to contribute to the meal – no limit.

Come with no preconceptions as to what to cook, or even what a “meal” is.

Come with no preconceptions as to what you like or do not like.

Come with no preconceptions as to what you are or are not capable of in the way of food preparation.

First order of business is to meet and be open to everyone’s ideas about what to prepare/do without judgment. Especially be open to abandoning conventional concepts of what goes with what. (As I reflect on this, this is my favorite part – e.g. don’t rule out chicken livers with blueberries). Also, do not think in terms of dishes or other culinary norms.

Second order of business is working as a unity to prepare the food.  There should be no sense of MY dish, or MY job, or MY anything. This part is still a bit vague in my thinking, and probably would not be clearer until put into practice.  But, for example, there is no reason that if I start chopping an onion, I have to be the one who finishes.  There should be a sense of unity in process, rather than of individuals working together. The best phrase I can come up with is “organized chaos.”

Third order of business is unity in eating.  Maybe there is no “meal” as such. Maybe everyone eats things in the kitchen whilst preparing other things, so that there is no finished “thing” you all sit down to eat.

The key idea is that there is no preconceived notion of an outcome – making a meal.  Just think of it as a group of hungry people with ingredients who need to eat and see what happens.

Remember Bohm’s words: “The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.

Dec 192013
 

Today is the birthday (1915) of Édith Piaf, famed French singer who became a national icon in France, and still has an ardent following worldwide (myself included). I decided to start the post with a recording of one her most famous songs, rather than the usual portrait or icon, so that you could see her in action right from the start, or listen along as you read, or, of course, you can just glide by it.  In fact, throughout this post I am going to give you clips in place of images. This clip is a rare version of her filmed singing live. The rest are studio performances.

Most fans know the basics of Piaf’s life already, especially because there are several films about her life, most notably the 2007 “La Vie en Rose,” which was in large based on Piaf: A biography by Simone Berteaut. Berteaut and Piaf claimed to be half-sisters, but there is really no telling. Berteaut and Piaf met when Piaf was 15, and they remained close companions for many years thereafter. Her telling of the story of Piaf’s life is undoubtedly not wholly to be believed but she paints an extraordinary picture of her life and thoughts, especially concerning the years before she became famous. Worth a read. You’ll find it a bit odd at first until you catch on that often Berteaut is speaking as if she were Piaf.

Piaf was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Belleville, Paris. Legend has it that she was born on the pavement of Rue de Belleville 72, but her birth certificate cites the Hôpital Tenon as her birthplace, the hospital for the 20th arrondissement, of which Belleville is part. Her father Louis-Alphonse Gassion (1881–1944), was a street acrobat performer from Normandy with a past in the theatre. He was the son of Victor Alphonse Gassion (1850–1928) and Léontine Louise Descamps (1860–1937), known as Maman Tine, who ran a brothel in Normandy.

Her mother, Annetta Giovanna Maillard (1895–1945), was of French descent on her father’s side and of Italian and Berber origin on her mother’s. She was a native of Livorno, a port city on the western edge of Tuscany. She worked as a café singer under the name Line Marsa. Édith’s mother abandoned her at birth, and she lived for a short time with her maternal grandmother, Emma (Aïcha). Before he enlisted with the French Army in 1916 to fight in World War I, her father took her to his mother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. There, prostitutes helped look after Piaf for several years.

In 1929, at 14, she joined her father in his acrobatic street performances all over France, where she first sang in public. A year later she met Simone “Mômone” Berteaut, and together they toured the streets singing and earning money for themselves for the first time. With the additional money earned with Mômone, and as part of an acrobatic trio with her father, Edith and Mômone were able to rent their own living space. She separated from her father and took a room at Grand Hôtel de Clermont (18 rue Veron, Paris 18ème), working with Mômone as a street singer in Pigalle, Ménilmontant, and the Paris suburbs (inspiration of the song “Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle”).

In 1932 she met and fell in love with Louis Dupont. Within a very short time he moved into their small room, where the three lived despite Louis and Mômone’s dislike for each other. Louis was never happy with the idea of Edith’s roaming the streets, and continually persuaded her to take jobs he found for her. She resisted his persuasions whenever possible, until she became pregnant and worked for a short while making wreaths in a factory.

In February 1933, when Edith was 17 years old she gave birth to her daughter, Marcelle. Like her own mother, Piaf found it difficult to care for a child while living a life on the streets; she had little maternal instinct, parenting knowledge, or domestic skills. She rapidly returned to street singing, until the summer of 1933, when she opened at Juan-les-Pins, Rue Pigalle. Marcelle’s father, Louis, whom Edith never married, was incensed. They quarreled and Edith left, taking Mômone and Marcelle. The three of them stayed at the Hôtel Au Clair de Lune, Rue André-Antoine. Marcelle was often left alone in the room while Edith and Mômone were out on the streets or at the club singing, and died of meningitis at age two.

In 1935 Piaf was discovered in the Pigalle area by nightclub owner Louis Leplée, whose club Le Gerny off the Champs-Élysées was frequented by the upper and lower classes alike. He persuaded her to sing despite her extreme nervousness, which, combined with her height of only 142 cm (4 ft 8 in), inspired him to give her the nickname that would stay with her for the rest of her life and serve as her stage name, La Môme Piaf (Paris slang meaning “The Waif Sparrow”). Leplée taught her the basics of stage presence and told her to wear a black dress, which became her trademark apparel. Later, she would always appear in black. Leplée ran an intense publicity campaign leading up to her opening night, attracting the presence of many celebrities, including actor Maurice Chevalier. Her nightclub gigs led to her first two records produced that same year, with one of them penned by Marguerite Monnot, a collaborator throughout Piaf’s life and one of her favorite writers.

On 6 April 1936, Leplée was murdered. Piaf was questioned and accused as an accessory, but acquitted. Leplée had been killed by gangsters with previous ties to Piaf. A barrage of negative media attention now threatened her career. To rehabilitate her image, she recruited Raymond Asso, with whom she would become romantically involved. He changed her stage name to “Édith Piaf,” barred shady acquaintances from seeing her, and commissioned Monnot to write songs that reflected or alluded to Piaf’s previous life on the streets.

In 1940, Édith co-starred in Jean Cocteau’s successful one-act play Le Bel Indifférent. She began forming friendships with prominent people, including Chevalier and poet Jacques Borgeat. She wrote the lyrics of many of her songs and collaborated with composers on the tunes. In 1944, she discovered Yves Montand in Paris, made him part of her act, and became his mentor and lover. Within a year, he became one of the most famous singers in France.

After the war, she became known internationally, touring Europe, the United States, and South America. In Paris, she gave Atahualpa Yupanqui (Héctor Roberto Chavero) – prominent Argentine folk musician – the opportunity to share her stage, making his debut in July 1950. She helped launch the career of Charles Aznavour in the early 1950s, taking him on tour with her in France and the United States and recording some of his songs. At first she met with little success with U.S. audiences, who regarded her as downcast. After a glowing review by a prominent New York critic, however, her popularity grew, to the point where she eventually appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show eight times and at Carnegie Hall twice. In modern terms, she was a superstar. And so it goes . . .

Piaf’s personal life – her addictions, her love affairs – are the stuff of tabloids, and if you want to know about them, go and read somewhere else.

Piaf died of liver cancer at age 47 at her villa in Plascassier (Grasse), on the French Riviera, on 10 October 1963. She had been drifting in and out of consciousness for several months. Her last words were reported as: “Every damn fool thing you do in this life, you pay for.” Although she was denied a funeral mass by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris because of her lifestyle, her funeral procession drew tens of thousands of mourners on to the streets of Paris and the ceremony at the cemetery was attended by more than 100,000 fans. Charles Aznavour recalled that Piaf’s funeral procession was the only time since the end of World War II that he saw Parisian traffic come to a complete stop.

Piaf is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris next to her daughter Marcelle, where her grave is among the most visited. Buried in the same grave are her father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion, and Thèo (Lamboukas) Sarapo. The name inscribed at the foot of the tombstone is ‘Famille Gassion-Piaf.’ Her name is engraved on the side as ‘Madame Lamboukas dite Edith Piaf.’

I fell in love with Piaf in 1966 at the age of 15 – sadly, just a little too late.  I used my meager pocket money to buy all her records I could find.  I suppose I’ve always been a bit of an odd one (I was in love with Marlene Dietrich at the same time). This was the great heyday of British rock; for my friends Piaf was old news, if they had even heard of her. It’s not that I didn’t like The Who or The Animals, I did. But Piaf’s singing drove right into my heart.

My last offering is “Autumn Leaves,” symptom of an eternal love affair of my own.

To honor Piaf I have chosen a well known French dish, quail with white grapes. Quail are not as small as sparrows, but they are certainly diminutive in the poultry world.  This recipe is taken from Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World, 1963 edition (year of Piaf’s death).  It was my first cookbook and my constant kitchen companion for decades. Carrier’s recipes are a bit terse by contemporary standards, but you’ll get the gist. I’ve kept the exact wording, just altered the format a little.

QUAIL WITH WHITE GRAPES

4 quail
salt and white pepper
2 tbsps flour
4 tbsps butter
¼ pint dry white wine
2 tbsps lemon juice
3 ozs seedless grapes
2 tbsps blanched almonds, sliced

Clean quail, rub with a mixture of salt, pepper and flour.

Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed casserole and sauté the birds in it until they are golden on all sides.

Add wine and lemon juice; cover and cook over a low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.

Add seedless grapes and sliced blanched almonds and cook for 5 to 10 minutes more, or until the birds are tender.

Serves 4

 

Dec 182013
 

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Today is the birthday (1707) of Charles Wesley, English leader of the Methodist movement, son of Anglican clergyman and poet Samuel Wesley, the younger brother of Anglican clergyman John Wesley and Anglican clergyman Samuel Wesley. He was father of musician Samuel Wesley and grandfather of musician Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Despite their closeness, Charles and his brother John did not always agree on questions relating to their beliefs. In particular, Charles was strongly opposed to the idea of a breach with the Church of England into which they had both been ordained. John Wesley was the principle founder of the principles of the Methodist church, Charles is now more known for the hymns he wrote.

Charles Wesley was the son of Susanna Wesley and Samuel Wesley. He was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, where his father was rector. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. At Oxford Charles formed a prayer group among his fellow students in 1727 which his elder brother, John, joined in 1729 soon becoming its leader and shaping it to his own notions. They focused on Bible study, methodical study of scripture and living a holy life. Other students mocked them, saying they were the “Holy Club,” “Sacramentarians,” and “the Methodists,” being methodical and exceptionally detailed in their Bible study, opinions and disciplined lifestyle. George Whitefield, renowned field preacher, also joined this group. After taking a degree in classical languages and literature, Charles followed his father and brother into the church in 1735.

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Charles Wesley experienced some form of spiritual revelation on 21 May 1738 – John Wesley had a similar experience in Aldersgate Street just three days later. A City of London blue plaque at 13, Little Britain, near the church of St Botolph’s-without-Alders, off St. Martin’s Le Grand, marks the site of the former house of John Bray, reputed to be the scene of Wesley’s spiritual awakening. It reads, “Adjoining this site stood the house of John Bray. Scene of Charles Wesley’s evangelical conversion May 21st 1738.”

Wesley felt renewed strength to spread the Gospel to the public at large, and it was around then that he began to write the poetic hymns for which he would become known. It wasn’t until 1739 that the brothers took to field preaching, under the influence of George Whitefield, whose open-air preaching was already reaching great numbers of Bristol coal miners.

After ceasing field preaching and frequent travel due to illness, Wesley settled and worked in the area around St Marylebone Parish Church. On his deathbed he sent for the church’s rector John Harley and told him “Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard.” On his death, his body was carried to the church by six clergymen of the Church of England, and a memorial stone to him stands in the gardens in Marylebone High Street, close to his burial spot. One of his sons, Samuel, became organist of the church.

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Apart from his (unwilling) co-founding of the Methodist Church, Wesley is remembered for the over 6,000 hymns he wrote, which embody his theology. That is to say, he wrote the words, others wrote the tunes. Many of his hymns are still very popular favorites. The one that seems fitting to play at this time of year is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

My wife (who was raised Methodist in Kentucky) and I used the term “Methodist food” for anything that was bland and made “creative” use lime jello or tiny marshmallows.  I think this was probably more a comment on southern church potluck suppers in the 60’s than on anything Methodists, in particular, cooked. There is no dish that could be termed “Methodist.” So, instead, I am turning to an 18th century cookbook I just discovered with a marvelously Methodist ring to the title: The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or, an infallible Guide to the Fair Sex containing Rules, Directions, and Observations, for their Conduct and Behavior through all Ages and Circumstances of Life, as Virgins, Wives, or Widows (1737).  It’s a great read.  The full text is here:

http://books.google.com.ar/books?id=SncEAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP7&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

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I found in there a suitably seasonal recipe “Plumb-Pottage for Christmas,” a dish I have known about for decades but never seen a recipe for.  It is a Christmas dish that goes back to the Middle Ages and was on its last legs by the 18th century, when it was replaced by Christmas pudding.  If you look at the ingredients for this plum porridge you will see they are virtually identical with Christmas pudding (assuming, that is, you know how to make Christmas pudding). So . . . the great debate nowadays is whether plum porridge evolved into Christmas pudding by taking plum porridge and boiling it in a bag, or was plum porridge replaced by Christmas pudding, which some claim was a French innovation. I suppose your answer will depend on what side of the English Channel your sympathies lies.

Plumb-Pottage for Christmas

To ten Gallons of Water, take a Leg and Shin of Beef, boil it very tender, and when the Broth is strong enough, strain it out, wipe your Pot, and put the Broth in again; slice six French Rolls, the Crumb only, and mittony it, that is, soak it in some of the Fat of the Broth over a Stove a Quarter of an Hour, then put in five Pounds of Currants well washed, five Pounds of Raisins, and two Pounds of Prunes; let them boil ‘till they swell; then put in three Quarters of an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Cloves, two Nutmegs, all of them beat fine, and mix it with a little Liquor cold, and put them in a very little while. Take off the Pot, and put in three Pounds of Sugar, a little Salt, a Quart of Sack, and a Quart of Claret, the Juice of two or three Lemons. You may put in a little Sagoe if you like it.  Pour this into earthen Pans to keep it for Use.

Some comment is in order. First, the quantity is huge. You might think that this is a recipe for a large household, but even in that circumstance the amount is excessive if you are thinking about one meal.  Instead you must think of this as akin to a recipe for mincemeat, that is, a recipe for something you can keep and store for months and use as needed.  The “liquor” the author mentions is not alcohol, but beef broth – there is plenty of alcohol later.  With suitable adjustments in quantities I might give this a whirl this Christmas.