Dec 112015


Today is Tango Day in Buenos Aires. The date was chosen because it is the birthday (1899) of famed tango musician, Julio de Caro (as well as of Carlos Gardel). I wouldn’t say it is a major celebration in Buenos Aires because tango is nowhere near as popular there as it once was. It’s now mostly old people and tourists who care. Shame. One of the great things about tango is that it is distinctively Argentino; it is not European. By gradually losing interest, younger generations are losing something of profound historical and cultural importance. I won’t go on a major rant nor spend a lot of time going over the history of tango – just a few key points followed by a little biography of de Caro (Gardel next year).

There are many kinds of tango. Tango as performed outside of Argentina is not tango. There is, for example, a ballroom style of dance that is called tango, but it is tango in name only. In Buenos Aires you can find roughly three styles of tango – milonga tango, street tango, and show tango. Milonga tango is the most traditional. Milongas are dance halls where people go to dance a number of classic dances, especially tango. There are often a lot of couples dancing so this is not the arena for flashy, complex moves. But the style is not necessarily simple. You have to know what you are doing. I can’t find a video of milonga tango, probably because it is not a spectator sport: you go to a milonga to dance, not to watch. But in this scene from Scent of a Woman, Pacino does a decidedly passable version of milonga tango to a well known tune.

The clip also includes this great, but false, line:

“No mistakes in the tango, darling. Not like life.” If you want to screw up royally, go to a milonga and see how quickly you can break one of a million subtle rules.

Show tango is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is largely a tourist trap, but with important elements of classic tango inherent in it. It’s expansive, athletic, and showy, requiring a large space and an audience. Here’s a typical example.

I don’t care for this style much, but I’ll watch if it is free. The whole thing is choreographed, which goes against the core value of tango. Tango is improvised (the man always leading).

Street tango is somewhere in between the two extremes of the milonga and the stage. The space is smaller and the dancers more intimate. The dancing may be partly choreographed but is looser than show tango. The dancers are performing for tips, of course, and it’s only out-of-towners (and me) who watch. But the dancers are not professionals, and have usually grown up in the milongas. This group dances regularly at the intersection of calle Florida and Lavalle — a pedestrianized area in Microcentro.

Julio de Caro was a master performer and composer in the early 20th century, playing in milongas much of his career. Julio’s father opened a conservatory in San Telmo barrio (near where I used to live), in 1913, soon becoming one of the city’s best known sources for music, instruments, parts, and lessons. Julio and his brother, Francisco, were both taught the piano and violin, respectively; though their father ultimately granted them their wish to exchange instruments (a third brother, Emilio, learned the violin). Against his father’s wishes, Julio obtained a spot as a second violinist at the Lorea Theatre for a 1915 performance of a zarzuela (music-dance performance). Despite their father’s punishment and objections, the brothers began attending Buenos Aires’ popular tango recitals. Some of these early influences included bandleaders Eduardo Arolas, Juan Carlos Cobián, and Roberto Firpo.


At his friends’ prompting, de Caro played for a tango performance at the Palais de Glace, an elegant multi-purpose venue, in 1917. His solos earned him a standing ovation, and led to a permanent spot in the orchestra, led by tango legend Eduardo Arolas. The elder de Caro (who disdained popular music generally) objected vigorously, so Julio kept it secret that he had joined the orchestra for which he wrote his first tango, Mon beguin.

Eventually, his father forced Julio, at 18 years old, to leave the house, a move that pushed Francisco to join his brother. The two traveled with Arolas’ orchestra, which was very popular in both Argentina and neighboring Uruguay. The brothers contributed greatly to its fortunes, composing – among other standards in tango: Mala pinta (Shady Look), Mi encanto (My Charm), Pura labia (All Words), Don Antonio, A palada (In Spades), Era buena la paisana (She Was a Good Country Girl), Percanta arrepentida (Lamentful girl), Bizcochito (Lil’ Biscuit), Gringuita (Blondie) and La cañada (The Brook).

A business disagreement led de Caro and pianist José María Rizzuti to leave Arolas’ group in 1919. They formed a quartet with bandoneonist Pedro Maffia and violinist José Rosito, with whom they performed regularly to acclaim at a café near the Argentine Supreme Court. The group separated in 1920, however, and de Caro and Rizzuti joined bandleader Osvaldo Fresedo, with whom they toured in the United States. De Caro relocated to Montevideo, where he married and joined Minotto Di Cicco’s orchestra (1922). He was then reunited with Maffia in Buenos Aires under Juan Carlos Cobián’s direction, in 1923. His marriage ended, shortly afterwards.

Cobián’s decision to follow a love interest to New York led to the de Caro brothers’ being reunited in need of a band, at the end of 1923. Their success at a high society New Year’s Eve ball led to lucrative contracts in popular downtown cafés and for a new medium: radio. The Julio de Caro Orchestra later received a recording contract from RCA Victor and, in April 1925, performed for Edward, the Prince of Wales. U.S. jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman introduced de Caro to the Stroh violin, later that year. The device (a violin with a cornet horn at one end) had been invented for radio performances for its ability to project sound above the rest of the orchestra, and the conductor soon found it an indispensable tool. The renowned bandleader composed numerous pieces in honor of some of the prominent figures in Argentine life that attended his performances, notably chief surgeon Enrique Finochietto and President Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear.


The orchestra toured France by invitation, in 1931. They performed at Nice’s Palais de la Méditerranée, for Prince Umberto di Savoia, for the Rothschilds’ galas, and for Paramount Studios in the making of Luces de Buenos Aires (one of several the studio made, starring Carlos Gardel). The orchestra remained successful in Argentina, debuting at the nation’s leading opera house, the Colón Theatre, in 1935, and at the Teatro Opera (1936), where they presented a comprehensive “Evolution of the Tango” – leading listeners through its development from 1870, onwards. A surprise visit by the brothers’ aging parents following one of these performances led to the family’s reconciliation.

His orchestra continued its prominence among tango fans for years, introducing young talent such as vocalist Edmundo Rivero. His audiences later declining, de Caro retired from his orchestra in 1954. He remarried in 1959 and returned to a recording studio only in 1975, collaborating with author Ernesto Sábato, composer Ben Molar, composer and arranger Luis Stazo and others to make Los 14 de Julio de Caro (Julio de Caro’s 14). He was honored by the national government with a declaration of December 11 as “National Tango Day;” on that day in 1977, he received a standing ovation at Buenos Aires’ Luna Park Arena, complete with a rousing Happy Birthday to You.

Julio de Caro died in the seaside resort city of Mar del Plata, on March 11, 1980, at age 80. He was interred at Buenos Aires’ Chacarita Cemetery, beside his brother, Francisco.


Milongas are not places to eat, and show tango joints serve flashy, overpriced meals along with expensive show tickets (hawked by shills in Microcentro). I’ve never been inclined to go to one. So the only resort I have is to fall back on classic Argentine cuisine. Here’s a recipe for chipás. Chipás are small, baked, cheese-flavored rolls, a popular snack and breakfast food Argentina, especially in the north. The original name is from Guarani but the product now is quite different from the original, made with cassava starch. Now chipás are made with tapioca starch, flour, and cheese. Use a good melting cheese such as mozzarella.



1 egg
⅔ cup milk
6 oz shredded melting cheese
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 ¾ cups tapioca starch
1 cup self-rising flour


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C). Grease a baking sheet and set aside.

Stir together the egg, milk, cheese, and butter in a large bowl. Sprinkle in the tapioca starch and flour and mix well to form a dough. Knead the dough for two minutes on a lightly floured surface, then pinch off and roll up golf ball-sized pieces. Place them on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.

Dec 102015


Today is the birthday (1830) of poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and spent all of her life there. Although part of a prominent family with strong ties to its community, Dickinson lived much of her life in seclusion. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a noted penchant for white clothing and became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.


While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson’s poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme (near rhyme) as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.

Although Dickinson’s acquaintances were most likely aware of her writing, it was not until after her death in 1886 — when Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems — that the breadth of her work became apparent to the public. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though both heavily edited the content. A complete, and mostly unaltered, collection of her poetry became available for the first time when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. Despite some unfavorable reception and skepticism over the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding her literary prowess, her work is more highly regarded nowadays.


When my son was 7 years old his teacher took his class on a field trip to Amherst, preceded by a lengthy series of talks about Dickinson and her poetry. He was captivated and learnt many of her poems by heart. Whilst in Amherst he visited famous sites and bought her complete works (which he pored over for months). I’ll have to find out if the love affair persists to this day. I, however, am less enthused. On the one hand I can see her place in the poetic world as transitional from classic Romanticism to modernism, and admire her for that. But, on the other, while her playfulness with rhyme, spelling, capitalization, and such, break the old rules, I don’t find it particularly interesting. Nor do her themes appeal much. I’m not enamored of Yankee culture in general, and don’t resonate in particular with the musings of a conscious social isolate. I can handle only so much first person poetry that seems largely devoid of human contact except when it comes to death. Its quirkiness seems almost entirely New England in spirit. I do readily admit that this is a matter of personal choice. You will at least, I hope, give me credit for celebrating her even though I care little for her work.

I’ll give you this sample to show I don’t dislike everything she wrote:

I MEANT to have but modest needs,    
Such as content, and heaven;    
Within my income these could lie,    
And life and I keep even.    
But since the last included both,            
It would suffice my prayer    
But just for one to stipulate,    
And grace would grant the pair.    
And so, upon this wise I prayed,—    
Great Spirit, give to me            
A heaven not so large as yours,    
But large enough for me.  

A smile suffused Jehovah’s face;    
The cherubim withdrew;    
Grave saints stole out to look at me,            
And showed their dimples, too.    
I left the place with all my might,—    
My prayer away I threw;    
The quiet ages picked it up,    
And Judgment twinkled, too,            
That one so honest be extant    
As take the tale for true    
That “Whatsoever you shall ask,    
Itself be given you.”    
But I, grown shrewder, scan the skies    
With a suspicious air,—    
As children, swindled for the first,    
All swindlers be, infer.


I am also given to like the fact that she loved to tend the flower garden at home. This is a solitary pleasure which I enjoyed for many decades. Judith Farr notes that Dickinson, during her lifetime, “was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet”. Dickinson studied botany from the age of nine and, along with her sister, tended the garden at Homestead. During her lifetime, she assembled a collection of pressed plants in a 66-page leather-bound herbarium. It contained 424 pressed flower specimens that she collected, classified, and labeled using the Linnaean system. The Homestead garden was well-known and admired locally in its time. It has not survived, and Dickinson kept no garden notebooks or plant lists, but a clear impression can be formed from the letters and recollections of friends and family. Her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, remembered “carpets of lily-of-the-valley and pansies, platoons of sweetpeas, hyacinths, enough in May to give all the bees of summer dyspepsia. There were ribbons of peony hedges and drifts of daffodils in season, marigolds to distraction—a butterfly utopia”. In particular, Dickinson cultivated scented exotic flowers, writing that she “could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets”. Dickinson would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached, but “they valued the posy more than the poetry”.


It is also known that Dickinson loved to bake, although precious little of that endeavor survives either. This blog gives a good description of her recipe for coconut cake.


The “recipe” is no more than a list of ingredients:

1 cup cocoanut

2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoonful soda

1 teaspoonful cream of tartar

This makes one half the rule–

I should hope that any competent baker can figure out the method. If not, consult the link above. This is not something I am ever likely to want to bake.

Dec 092015


Today is the birthday (1608) of John Milton, an English poet, polemicist, man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), written in blank verse.

The phases of Milton’s life parallel the major historical and political changes in Stuart Britain. Under the increasingly personal rule of Charles I and its breakdown in constitutional confusion and war, Milton studied, travelled, wrote poetry mostly for private circulation, and launched a career as pamphleteer and publicist. Under the Commonwealth of England, he ceased being thought dangerously radical and even heretical; the shift in accepted attitudes in government placed him in public office, and he even acted as an official spokesman in certain of his publications. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 deprived Milton, now completely blind, of his public platform, but this period saw him complete most of his major works of poetry.


Plenty has been written on Milton’s life and politics which you can read if it takes your fancy. I’m mainly interested in his theology, both in plain prose tracts and in poetry. Like many writers before him, Milton attempted to integrate Christian theology with classical modes. In his early poems, the poet narrator expresses a tension between vice and virtue, the latter invariably related to Protestantism. In his later poems, Milton’s theological concerns become more explicit.

Milton embraced many heterodox Christian theological views which in earlier centuries would have had him burnt at the stake. He rejected the Trinity, for example, in the belief that the Son was subordinate to the Father – a position related to the heretical Arianism. In his 1641 treatise, Of Reformation, Milton expressed his dislike for Catholicism and episcopacy, presenting Rome as a modern Babylon, and bishops as Egyptian taskmasters.


Through the Republic, Milton often presents England, rescued from the trappings of a worldly monarchy, as an elect nation akin to the Old Testament Israel, and shows its leader, Oliver Cromwell, as a latter-day Moses. These views were bound up in Protestant views of the Millennium, which some sects, such as the Fifth Monarchists predicted would arrive in England. Milton, however, would later criticize the “worldly” millenarian views of these and others.

The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 began a new phase in Milton’s work. In Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, Milton mourns the end of the godly Commonwealth. The Garden of Eden may allegorically reflect Milton’s view of England’s recent Fall from Grace, while Samson’s blindness and captivity—mirroring Milton’s own lost sight—may be a metaphor for England’s blind acceptance of Charles II as king.

Despite the Restoration of the monarchy, Milton did not lose his personal faith; Samson shows how the loss of national salvation did not necessarily preclude the salvation of the individual, while Paradise Regained expresses Milton’s continuing belief in the promise of Christian salvation through Jesus Christ.

Milton had come to stand apart from all sects, though apparently finding the Quakers most congenial. He never went to any religious services in his later years. When a servant brought back accounts of sermons from nonconformist meetings, Milton became so sarcastic that the man eventually resigned his position. Milton did, however, call in the Areopagitica for “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (applied, however, only to the conflicting Protestant denominations, and not to atheists, Jews, Muslims or Catholics). Milton argued for disestablishment as the only effective way of achieving broad toleration.

Milton’s understanding of humanity by itself and in relation to God are crystallized in his classic epic, Paradise Lost.


The poem is separated into twelve “books” or sections, the lengths of which vary greatly (the longest is Book IX, with 1,189 lines, and the shortest Book VII, with 640). The Arguments at the head of each book were added in subsequent imprints of the first edition. Originally published in ten books, a fully “Revised and Augmented” edition reorganized into twelve books was issued in 1674, and this is the edition generally used today.

The poem follows the epic tradition of starting in medias res (in the middle of things), the background story being recounted later.

Milton’s story has two narrative arcs, one about Satan (Lucifer) and the other following Adam and Eve. It begins after Satan and the other rebel angels have been defeated and banished to Hell, or, as it is also called in the poem, Tartarus. In Pandæmonium, Satan employs his rhetorical skill to organize his followers; he is aided by Mammon and Beelzebub. Belial and Moloch are also present. At the end of the debate, Satan volunteers to poison the newly created Earth and God’s new and most favored creation – humankind. He braves the dangers of the Abyss alone in a manner reminiscent of Odysseus or Aeneas. After an arduous crossing of the Chaos outside Hell, he enters God’s new material World, and later the Garden of Eden.


At several points in the poem, an Angelic War over Heaven is recounted from different perspectives. Satan’s rebellion follows the epic convention of large-scale warfare. The battles between the faithful angels and Satan’s forces take place over three days. At the final battle, the Son of God single-handedly defeats the entire legion of angelic rebels and banishes them from Heaven. Following this purge, God creates the World, culminating in his creation of Adam and Eve. While God gave Adam and Eve total freedom and power to rule over all creation, he gave them one explicit command: not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil on penalty of death.

The story of Adam and Eve’s temptation and fall is a fundamentally different, new kind of epic: a domestic one. Adam and Eve are presented for the first time in Christian literature as having a full physical relationship while still being without sin. They have passions and distinct personalities. Satan, disguised in the form of a serpent, successfully tempts Eve to eat from the Tree by preying on her vanity and tricking her with rhetoric. Adam, learning that Eve has sinned, knowingly commits the same sin. He declares to Eve that since she was made from his flesh, they are bound to one another ‒ if she dies, he must also die. In this manner, Milton portrays Adam as a heroic figure, but also as a greater sinner than Eve, as he is aware that what he is doing is wrong.


After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve have lustful sex. At first, Adam is convinced that Eve was right in thinking that eating the fruit would be beneficial. However, they soon fall asleep and have terrible nightmares, and after they awake, they experience guilt and shame for the first time. Realizing that they have committed a terrible act against God, they engage in mutual recrimination.

Meanwhile, Satan returns triumphantly to Hell, amidst the praise of his fellow fallen angels. He tells them about how their scheme has worked and humankind has fallen, giving them complete dominion over Paradise. As he finishes his speech, however, the fallen angels around him become hideous snakes, and soon enough, Satan himself turns into a snake, deprived of limbs and unable to talk.


Eve’s pleas to Adam reconcile the two to a degree. Her encouragement enables them both to approach God, to “bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee”, and to receive grace from God. In a vision shown to him by the angel Michael, Adam witnesses everything that will happen to humankind until the Great Flood. Adam is very upset by this vision of the future, so Michael also tells him about humankind’s potential redemption from original sin through Jesus Christ (whom Michael calls “King Messiah”).

Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, and Michael says that Adam may find “a paradise within thee, happier far”. Adam and Eve also now have a more distant relationship with God, who is omnipresent but invisible (unlike the tangible Father in the Garden of Eden).

You will have to read the whole thing to glean the poetics above this bald epitome. There are some extremely lofty moments that capture the spirit:

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n

Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.

Solitude sometimes is best society.

Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.

Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss

All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield.

Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.

Each fragment you find that resonates can leave you with a sense of the awe and wonder that Milton felt.


After that, a recipe seems rather lowly, but I found this one in The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex (1696), quite the epitome of thoughts about women in the 17th century. The title continues — From the age of sixteen to sixty, &c. Being directions, how women of all qualities and conditions, ought to behave themselves in the various circumstances of this life, for their obtaining not only present, but future happiness. I. Directions how to obtain the divine and moral virtues of piety, meekness, modesty, chastity, humility, compassion, temperance and affability, with their advantages, and how to avoyd the opposite vices. II. The duty of virgins, directing them what they ought to do, and what to avoyd, for gaining all the accomplishments required in that state. With the whole art of love, &c. 3. The whole duty of a wife, 4. The whole duty of a widow, &c. Also choice receipts in physick and chirurgery. With the whole art of cookery, preserving, candying, beautifying, &c. Written by a lady.

 I am not sure that Milton would approve of the author’s vision of the contemporary Eve, but the book gives considerable insight into the thinking of the times. You can find the whole text online in a number of places. This is a simple scan of the 1737 printing:


From it I have chosen this recipe:

A Shoulder of Mutton with Oysters.

Stuff your Mutton with strong Oysters, of a moderate size, and sweet herbs, roast it before a pretty quick Fire, basting it with Butter, and saving the Gravy which falls from it, separate from the Fat, make it into a sauce, with Claret, Pepper, and grated Nutmeg, then lay the Oysters that you pull out about the Mutton, Garnish it with Parsly, and slices of Lemon; and so serve it up.

My take on this is fairly obvious. Start with a boned shoulder of lamb – you’re not going to find mutton. Lay it out flat and spread it with freshly shucked oysters and sprinkle liberally with sweet green herbs such as savory and marjoram, plus salt and pepper to taste. Then roll it and tie it firmly with baking twine. Roast at around 400°F, basting frequently until the outside is deeply browned, about an hour, depending on size. Lamb is best when it is pink inside.

Remove the lamb from the roasting pan and cover it with foil to rest whilst you make the gravy. Add flour to the pan in equal quantity to the pan juices and cook over medium high heat to form a roux. Then, whisking vigorously, stir in a mix of claret and stock to make a thick gravy, seasoned with freshly grated nutmeg and black pepper.

Unroll the shoulder on a platter, push the oysters to one side, and slice the meat thickly. Then bathe the platter with the hot gravy and serve garnished with parsley and lemon slices. I’d recommend some boiled new potatoes and poached greens as side dishes.

Dec 082015


Today is the birthday (1894) of James Grover Thurber, cartoonist, author, journalist, playwright, and celebrated wit. Thurber was best known for his cartoons and short stories, published mainly in The New Yorker magazine and collected in his numerous books. One of the most popular humorists of his time, Thurber celebrated the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people. In collaboration with his college friend, Elliott Nugent, he wrote the Broadway comedy, “The Male Animal,” later adapted into a film, which starred Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.


Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes “Mame” (née Fisher) Thurber. Both of his parents greatly influenced his work. His father, a sporadically employed clerk and minor politician who dreamed of being a lawyer or an actor, is said to have been the inspiration for the small, timid protagonist typical of many of his stories. Thurber described his mother as a “born comedian” and “one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known.” She was a practical joker and on one occasion pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer’s revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed.


Thurber had two brothers, William and Robert. Once, while playing a game of William Tell, his brother shot James in the eye with an arrow, and Thurber lost that eye. This injury would later cause him to become almost entirely blind. Unable in his childhood to partake in sports and other physical activities because of his injury, he developed a creative mind which he then used to express himself in his writings. Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran suggests Thurber’s imagination may be partly explained by Charles Bonnet syndrome, a neurological condition that causes complex visual hallucinations in otherwise mentally healthy people who have suffered some level of visual loss.

From 1913 to 1918, Thurber attended Ohio State University, where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He never graduated from the university because his poor eyesight prevented him from taking a mandatory ROTC course. In 1995 he was posthumously awarded a degree.


From 1918 to 1920, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D.C., and then at the Embassy of the United States in Paris. On returning to Columbus, he began his career as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of this time, he reviewed current books, films, and plays in a weekly column called “Credos and Curios”, a title that later would be given to a posthumous collection of his work. Thurber returned to Paris during this period, where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.

In 1925, Thurber moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor, with the help of E.B. White, his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 after White found some of Thurber’s drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication; White inked-in some of these earlier drawings to make them reproduce better for the magazine, and years later expressed deep regret that he had done such a thing. Thurber contributed both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.


Thurber was married twice. In 1922, Thurber married Althea Adams. The marriage was troubled and ended in divorce in May 1935. They had a daughter Rosemary together, and lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut. He remarried in June 1935 to Helen Wismer (1902–1986).

Thurber was stricken with a blood clot on the brain on October 4, 1961, and underwent emergency surgery. The operation was successful, but he died, aged 66, due to complications from pneumonia which set in. His last words, aside from the repeated word “God,” were “God bless… God damn”, according to his wife, Helen. Ironically, Thurber could be the poster child for the saying “the operation was a success but the patient died.” It would be suitably Thurberesque.


As a tribute here’s a few of my favorite Thurber quotes and cartoons:

I used to wake up at 4 A.M. and start sneezing, sometimes for five hours. I tried to find out what sort of allergy I had but finally came to the conclusion that it must be an allergy to consciousness.

A drawing is always dragged down to the level of its caption.

You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward.

The nation that complacently and fearfully allows its artists and writers to become suspected rather than respected is no longer regarded as a nation possessed with humor or depth.

jt14 jt8 jt13 jt6 jt5 jt4

jt3 jt7

Thurber’s ridicule of pretentious talk about wine and cheese led me to ask – what is a reliable cheese? In what sense can one rely on one cheese versus another? In some ways I see this as asking what the most versatile cheese might be. That question in itself is hard to answer. No single cheese covers the waterfront and some, of course, serve highly specialized needs. So I pondered a kind of “desert island” cheese question. If for some reason I were limited for the rest of my life to one kind of cheese, what would it be? This took a lot of thought plus a tour around the cheese section of my local market. Finally, I settled on brie. It’s one of my favorite cheeses anyway – has been all my life.


Brie is a soft cow’s milk cheese named after Brie, the French region from which it originated (roughly corresponding to the modern département of Seine-et-Marne). It is pale in color with a slight grayish tinge under a rind of white mold. The whitish moldy rind is typically eaten, with its flavor depending largely upon the ingredients used and its manufacturing environment. It is made worldwide, but the French government officially certifies only two types of cheese to be sold under that name: Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun.

Brie de Meaux is an unpasteurized Brie, with an average weight of 2.8 kg (6.2 lb) for a diameter of 36 to 37 cm (14 to 15 in). It is manufactured at the town of Meaux in the Brie region of northern France since the 8th century, was originally known as the “King’s Cheese”, or, after the French Revolution, the “King of Cheeses,” and was enjoyed by the peasantry and nobility alike. It was granted the protection of Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) status in 1980, and it is produced primarily in the eastern part of the Parisian basin.

Brie de Melun has an average weight of 1.5 kilograms (3.3 lb) and a diameter of 27 cm (11 in).[5] It is therefore smaller than Brie de Meaux but is considered to have a stronger flavor and more pungent smell. It is made with unpasteurized milk. Brie de Melun is also available in the form of “Old Brie” or black brie. It was granted AOC status in 1980.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that these AOC bries are the best, but they are distinctive and worth a try. But I’ve had a perfectly palatable brie made locally in Argentina as well as in Italy. Smoked brie is also worth a taste, but I don’t care for those with added ingredients such as spices or fruits and nuts. I can add them myself if the need arises. Brie is, indeed, versatile; it makes a nice sandwich on its own or with other things, it can be baked, grilled, or simply melted, you can use it for pizza, stuffing vegetables and so forth, and it works well with both sweet and savory dishes. This link provides an abundance of ideas (from which I also took this amazing photo):

grilled jerked chicken with peaches on a skewer

Baked brie is a treat for me. Pop a whole wheel in a moderate oven – 350°F – for about 15 minutes until it is oozing and warm, drizzled with what you will – honey, preserves, spicy sauce – and then spread it on crusty bread. Or encase it in puff pastry and bake it until the pastry is golden.

Dec 072015


Today is Little Candles’ Day (Día de las Velitas), a very popular holiday in Colombia. December 7 is the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a public holiday in Colombia, and the unofficial start of the Christmas season in the country, as it is in much of Latin America. On this day, people place candles and paper lanterns (with candles inside) on their windows, balconies, porches, sidewalks, streets, parks and squares – everywhere they can be seen – in honor of the Virgin Mary and her immaculate conception.


The celebration of the Day of the Candles dates to December 8, 1854, when Pope Pius IX defined as dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, published in Ineffabilis Deus. In anticipation of this decision, people lit candles and paper lanterns to show their support and belief in this idea. In Colombia, as in many places all over the world, this announcement was observed by lighting candles. The Catholic Church of Colombia kept alive the celebration and made an annual tradition of lighting candles the night of December 7. El Día de las Velitas is celebrated throughout Colombia, but traditions vary in each region and city.


In the municipality of Quimbaya, in the Department of Quindío the most important cultural event is the Candles and Lanterns Festival (Fiesta Nacional del Concurso de Alumbrados con Velas y Faroles), which began in 1982 and is held each year on the 7th and 8 December. Each of the neighborhoods in the township competes to produce the most spectacular lighting arrangements, and many visitors come from throughout Colombia to admire the displays.


In Bogotá, the Christmas decorations reach their peak on this day; the city, fully decorated, plans late activities for the whole family since most Colombians would be out and about admiring the shows, many streets close to traffic and allow pedestrians to walk freely and stop to admire the light arrangements. Malls, museums, stores, and other public places have extended hours of operation. There are many shows that take place on this night, live nativity scenes, caroling events, among others.


In the Caribbean Region of Colombia, the lighting of candles and lanterns takes place on the early hours of December 8, before sunrise, instead of the night before. Devout Catholics wake up before sunrise and light candles with their family members. Many people stay up all night and party in celebration and light the candles some time before they go to bed. Naturally, there is abundant food and drink.


In Colombia, natilla is the most popular Christmas dish and is eaten along with buñuelos and manjar blanco. It’s something like a flan or pudding usually, but can be made in a sliceable form. Basic ingredients include milk, panela (blocks of brown sugar), cinnamon, and cornstarch. Occasionally people like to add grated coconut, coconut milk, or raisins, but these are optional. To garnish it, powdered cinnamon is spread on top of the finished natilla. Store-bought, natilla is common but one of the best known Christmas traditions in Colombia is making natilla over an improvised campfire in the streets or home patios.


As with so many of my recipes, you don’t need explicit directions if you have some experience as a cook. But if you have never eaten natilla you’ll need some guidelines so that you know what you are aiming for. This kind of custard is, unfortunately, not to my taste so I can’t give too many helpful hints. I will say that it uses a lot of cornstarch for thickness which has a distinctive taste if not cooked enough. I also recommend using coconut cream for flavor even though technically it is optional. Natilla is best eaten along with something else, such as Colombian buñuelos (fried doughy cheese curd), to temper the milky sweetness – in my humble opinion.

Natilla Navideña Colombiana


½ cup cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
1 cup cream
½ cup cream of coconut (optional)
½ cup grated panela or dark brown sugar
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp butter
powdered cinnamon


In a large measuring cup or small bowl, whisk the cornstarch into 1 cup of the milk. Set aside.

Put the remaining one cup of milk and the cream into a heavy saucepan. Add the cinnamon stick, a pinch of salt, the panela (or brown sugar), and the cream of coconut (optional).

Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until it almost reaches a boil. Remove from the heat , and whisk in the cornstarch mixture.

Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens and becomes shiny, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter and the vanilla.

Divide the natilla into serving dishes, or place in one large dish. Chill until ready to serve. Sprinkle with powdered cinnamon before serving.

Dec 062015


On this date in 1922 the Irish Free State was established as a dominion of the British Commonwealth of Nations under the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by British and Irish representatives exactly twelve months beforehand. As expected, Northern Ireland immediately exercised its right under the Treaty to remove itself from the new state. The Irish Free State effectively replaced both the self-proclaimed Irish Republic (founded 21 January 1919) and the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. W. T. Cosgrave, the first President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, had led both of these governments since August 1922. The Free State came to an end in 1937, when the citizens voted by plebiscite to adopt a new constitution. Under the new constitution the Irish state was named Ireland.

The Easter Rising of 1916, and particularly the execution of fifteen people by firing squad, the imprisonment or internment of hundreds more, and the imposition of martial law caused a profound shift in public opinion towards the republican cause in Ireland. Meanwhile, opposition at home increased to Ireland’s participation in World War I in Europe and the Middle East. This came about when the Irish Parliamentary Party supported the Allied cause in World War I in response to the passing of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1914. Many people had begun to doubt whether the Bill, passed by Westminster in September 1914 but suspended for the duration of the war, would ever come into effect.


Due to the war situation deteriorating badly on the Western Front in April 1918, which coincided with the publication of the final report and recommendations of the Irish Convention, the British Cabinet drafted a doomed “dual policy” of introducing Home Rule linked to compulsory military service for Ireland which it eventually had to drop. Sinn Féin, the Irish Party and all other Nationalist elements joined forces in opposition to the idea during the Conscription Crisis of 1918. Irish republicans felt further emboldened by successful anti-monarchical revolutions in the Russian Empire (1917), the German Empire (1918), and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1918). In the December 1918 General Election, Sinn Féin won a large majority of the Irish seats in the Westminster parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland: 73 of the 105 constituencies returned Sinn Féin members (25 uncontested). The Sinn Féin party, founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, had previously espoused non-violent separatism. Under Éamon de Valera’s leadership from 1917, it campaigned aggressively and militantly for an Irish republic.


On 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin MPs (who became known as Teachta Dála, TDs), refusing to sit at Westminster, assembled in Dublin and formed a single-chamber Irish parliament called Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland). It affirmed the formation of an Irish Republic and passed a Declaration of Independence,

The Irish people are resolved…to promote the common weal, to re-establish justice …with equal rights and equal opportunity for every citizen.

and calling itself Saorstát Éireann (Irish Free State). Although a small majority of Irish people accepted this course, the U.S. and Soviet Russia were expected to recognize the Irish Republic internationally. “The Message to the Free Nations of the World” called on

every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognizing Ireland’s national status…the last outpost of Europe towards the West…demanded by the Freedom of the Seas.

Cathal Brugha elected President of the Ministry Pro-Tem warned, “Deputies you understand from this that we are now done with England.”


The War of Independence (1919–21) pitted the army of the Irish Republic, the Irish Republican Army (known subsequently as the “Old IRA” to distinguish it from later organizations of that name), against the British Army, the Black and Tans, the Royal Irish Constabulary, the Auxiliary Division, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, the Ulster Special Constabulary and the Ulster Volunteer Force. On 9 July 1921 a truce came into force. By this time the Ulster Parliament had been opened, established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, presenting the republican side with a fait accompli and guaranteeing the British a permanent entanglement in Ireland. On 11 October negotiations opened between prime minister David Lloyd George and Arthur Griffith, who headed the Irish Republic’s delegation. The Irish Treaty delegation set up its headquarters in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. On 5 December 1921 at 11:15 am the delegation decided during private discussions to recommend the negotiated agreement to the Dáil Éireann; negotiations continued until 2:30 am on 6 December 1921, after which the parties signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty.


Nobody had doubted that these negotiations would produce a form of Irish government short of the independence wished for by republicans. The United Kingdom could not offer a republican form of government without losing prestige and risking demands for something similar throughout the Empire. Furthermore, as one of the negotiators, Michael Collins, later admitted (and he would have known, given his leading role in the independence war), the IRA at the time of the truce was weeks, if not days, from collapse, with a chronic shortage of ammunition. “Frankly, we thought they were mad”, Collins said of the sudden British offer of a truce – although the republicans would probably have continued the struggle in one form or another, given the level of public support. The president of the Republic, Éamon de Valera, realizing that Westminster would not accept an Irish republic, decided not to become a member of the treaty delegation (Griffith, Collins, Duggan, Barton, and Gavan Duffy) and so not to become accused by more militant republicans as a “sellout”. Yet his own proposals – published in January 1922 – fell far short of an autonomous all-Ireland republic. Sinn Féin’s abstention was unambiguous.

As expected, the Anglo-Irish Treaty explicitly ruled out a republic. It offered Ireland dominion status, as a state within the then British Empire, equal to Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Though less than expected by the Sinn Féin leadership, this deal offered substantially more than the initial form of home rule within the United Kingdom sought by Charles Stewart Parnell from 1880, and represented a serious advance on the Home Rule Bill of 1914 that the Irish nationalist leader John Redmond had achieved through parliamentary proceedings. However, it all but confirmed the partition of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. The Second Dáil in Dublin ratified the Treaty (7 January 1922), splitting Sinn Féin in the process.


The Treaty, and the legislation introduced to give that Treaty legal effect, implied that Northern Ireland would be a part of the Free State on its creation, but legally the terms of the Treaty applied only to the southern 26 counties, and the government of the Free State never had any powers—even in principle—in Northern Ireland.

The Treaty was given legal effect in the United Kingdom through the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922. That Act, which established the Free State, allowed Northern Ireland to opt out of it. Under Article 12 of the Treaty, Northern Ireland could exercise its option by presenting an address to the King requesting not to be part of the Irish Free State. Once the Treaty was ratified, the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had one month (dubbed the “Ulster month”) to exercise this option during which month the Government of Ireland Act continued to apply in Northern Ireland.


Realistically it was always certain that Northern Ireland would opt out of the Free State. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, speaking in the Parliament in October 1922 said that “when 6 December is passed the month begins in which we will have to make the choice either to vote out or remain within the Free State”. He said it was important that that choice be made as soon as possible after 6 December 1922 “in order that it may not go forth to the world that we had the slightest hesitation”. On the following day, 7 December 1922, the Parliament resolved to make the following address to the King so as to opt out of the Irish Free State:

MOST GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN, We, your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Senators and Commons of Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, having learnt of the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, being the Act of Parliament for the ratification of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, do, by this humble Address, pray your Majesty that the powers of the Parliament and Government of the Irish Free State shall no longer extend to Northern Ireland.

Discussion in the Parliament of the address was short. Prime Minister Craig left for London with the memorial embodying the address on the night boat that evening, 7 December 1922. The King received it the following day, The Times reporting:

YORK COTTAGE, SANDRINGHAM, DEC. 8. The Earl of Cromer (Lord Chamberlain) was received in audience by The King this evening and presented an Address from the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland, to which His Majesty was graciously pleased to make reply.

If the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had not made such a declaration, under Article 14 of the Treaty Northern Ireland, its Parliament and government would have continued in being but the Oireachtas would have had jurisdiction to legislate for Northern Ireland in matters not delegated to Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act. This, of course, never came to pass.

On 13 December 1922 Prime Minister Craig addressed the Parliament informing them that the King had responded to the Parliament’s address as follows:

I have received the Address presented to me by both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in pursuance of Article 12 of the Articles of Agreement set forth in the Schedule to the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act, 1922, and of Section 5 of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, and I have caused my Ministers and the Irish Free State Government to be so informed.


The Treaty established that the new Irish Free State would be a constitutional monarchy, with a Governor-General. The Constitution of the Irish Free State made more detailed provision for the state’s system of government, with a three-tier parliament, called the Oireachtas, made up of the King and two houses, Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate). Executive authority was vested in the King, and exercised by a cabinet called the Executive Council, presided over by a prime minister called the President of the Executive Council.

The King in Ireland was represented by a Governor-General of the Irish Free State. The office replaced the previous Lord Lieutenant, who had headed English and British administrations in Ireland since the Middle Ages. Governors-General were appointed by the King initially on the advice of the British Government, but with the consent of the Irish Government. From 1927 the Irish Government alone had the power to advise the King whom to appoint.

As with all dominions, provision was made for an Oath of Allegiance. Within dominions, such oaths were taken by parliamentarians personally towards the monarch. The Irish Oath of Allegiance was fundamentally different. It had two elements; the first, an oath to the Free State, as by law established, the second part a promise of fidelity, to His Majesty, King George V, his heirs and successors. That second fidelity element, however, was qualified in two ways. It was to the King in Ireland, not specifically to the King of the United Kingdom. Secondly, it was to the King explicitly in his role as part of the Treaty settlement, not in terms of pre-1922 British rule. The Oath itself came from a combination of three sources, and was largely the work of Michael Collins in the Treaty negotiations. It came in part from a draft oath suggested prior to the negotiations by president de Valera. Other sections were taken by Collins directly from the Oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), of which he was the secret head. In its structure, it was also partially based on the form and structure used for ‘Dominion status’.


Although ‘a new departure’, and notably indirect in its reference to the monarchy, it was criticized by nationalists and republicans for making any reference to the Crown, the claim being that it was a direct oath to the Crown, a fact demonstrably incorrect by an examination of its wording. But in 1922 Ireland and beyond, it was the perception, not the reality, that influenced public debate on the issue. Had its original author, Michael Collins, survived, he might have been able to clarify its actual meaning, but with his assassination in August 1922, no major negotiator to the Oath’s creation on the Irish side was still alive, available or pro-Treaty. (The leader of the Irish delegation, Arthur Griffith, had also died in August 1922). The Oath became a key issue in the resulting Irish Civil War that divided the pro- and anti-treaty sides in 1922–23.


The compromises contained in the agreement caused war in the 26 counties in June 1922 – April 1923, in which the pro-Treaty Provisional Government defeated the anti-Treaty Republican forces. The latter were led, nominally, by Éamon de Valera, who had resigned as President of the Republic on the treaty’s ratification. His resignation outraged some of his own supporters, notably Seán T. O’Kelly, the main Sinn Féin organizer. On resigning, he then sought re-election but was defeated two days later on a vote of 60–58. The pro-Treaty Arthur Griffith followed as President of the Irish Republic. Michael Collins was chosen at a meeting of the members elected to sit in the House of Commons of Southern Ireland (a body set up under the Government of Ireland Act 1920) to become Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State in accordance with the Treaty. The general election in June gave overwhelming support for the pro-Treaty parties. W. T. Cosgrave’s Crown-appointed Provisional Government effectively subsumed Griffith’s republican administration with the death of both Collins and Griffith in August 1922.


The civil war ended in 1923 with the defeat of the anti-treaty forces. The Irish Free State became a fully independent republic in 1937. Attempts to re-unite the north and south have lead to decades of bloodshed, some of which I experienced directly as a young man in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Because of English/British control of Ireland for centuries, their cultures are deeply entwined, yet separate. Nowhere is this clearer than in cooking. There is not a lot that is uniquely Irish in cooking. In the U.S., the trotting out of corned beef and cabbage on St Patrick’s Day is a tradition without real roots in Ireland. A boiled dinner of meat and vegetables, certainly has a venerable history in Irish households, but so does it in Britain and across Europe. Even so, I have often espoused dishes here that have a direct connexion with Ireland and Gaelic culture, such as Irish stew (made with mutton), colcannon, dulce, and the like. In the post-war years Irish cooking tended to be as bland and ordinary as English cooking for the same reasons – economic hardship and an impoverished farm industry. That is now rectified and Irish ingredients and cooking are, once again, superb. Nevertheless, Irish cuisine still has peasant roots reflected in offal dishes that I love.

Cork, on the southern coast of Ireland, has a long-standing association with animal produce and, from the 17th century to the end of the 19th century, was a major supplier of butter and salted (preserved) beef and pork to the British Empire, specifically the armed forces. The beef and pork industry meant a plentiful supply of offal. Offcuts were available at affordable prices for local consumption by the poor and underprivileged. An entire Cork cuisine developed based on offal – particularly pig offal. Examples include crubeens (pigs’ trotters); pigs’ tails; drisheen – a boiled blood sausage traditionally served with tripe; bodice – plain or salted pig ribs, cooked as a simple white stew, or as a salted bacon dish cooked with cabbage and turnip. In Cork, the word offal came to mean one specific dish – pig’s backbone. Now illegal to use because of BSE, it was cooked either salted or as a white stew.


For today I will highlight skirts and kidneys. The meat ingredients for skirts and kidneys can be bought generally in any pork butcher’s shop in Ireland, and you can probably do well enough anywhere where pork is prevalent. Skirts are the trimmings from the inside of the ribs and backbone. While the meat is thin, it is quite tender as it forms part of little-used muscle in the animal. It is encased in a tough white membrane which needs to be stripped off before cooking. Kidneys need to be carefully washed in copious amounts of fresh water to ensure that all traces of urine are washed away. Pork kidneys can be quite strong, and so are not as plentiful as ox kidneys.


The dish is a basic white stew for which you don’t really need a detailed recipe. Trim the skirts to remove all membranes and other inedible parts. Cut the kidneys in half and remove all the white tubing at the center. Put them in a large pot and cover with light stock. Bring to a simmer and skim the froth that rises. Then add chopped onions, thyme, and salt and white pepper to taste. Continue to cook until the meats are tender (1 to 2 hours). Then add diced potatoes. You can peel them if you like but I just scrub them and cook them with the skins on. Cook until the potatoes are soft. Some cooks add cornstarch (mixed with a little water) towards the end to thicken the sauce. It’s also possible to add a little cream if you like. You can also add a little thyme towards the end to brighten the flavor.

In some parts of Ireland they do not use thyme, but are heavy with the pepper.

Always serve this stew in deep bowls with crusty bread. It’s also traditional to drink tea with the stew.

Dec 052015


Today is Krampusnacht (Krampus Night). In Germanic folklore, Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure who punishes children during the Christmas season who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas (6 December), who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts. Regions in the Austrian diaspora feature similar figures and, more widely, Krampus is one of a number of Companions of Saint Nicholas in regions of Europe. The origins and early history of the figure are unknown. The usual nonsensical speculations about “pre-Christian traditions” gets unshipped of course, based on zero evidence. In a brief article discussing the figure, published in 1958, Maurice Bruce wrote:

There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch—apart from its phallic significance—may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to ‘bind the Devil’ but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites.

Hmmm, “little doubt” eh? I have A LOT of doubt.


Discussing his observations while in Irdning, a small town in Styria in 1975, my former professor at UNC, John J. Honigmann, wrote:

The Saint Nicholas festival we are describing incorporates cultural elements widely distributed in Europe, in some cases going back to pre-Christian times. Nicholas himself became popular in Germany around the eleventh century. The feast dedicated to this patron of children is only one winter occasion in which children are the objects of special attention, others being Martinmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and New Year’s Day. Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century while animal masked devils combining dreadful-comic (schauriglustig) antics appeared in Medieval church plays. A large literature, much of it by European folklorists, bears on these subjects. … Austrians in the community we studied are quite aware of “heathen” elements being blended with Christian elements in the Saint Nicholas customs and in other traditional winter ceremonies. They believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil.

He ought to have known better than to write such drivel. Folklorists at UNC at the time could have set him straight, but I doubt he would have listened. At the time he was completely dismissive of my credentials (an arrogant upstart). He is quite correct that children are a central feature of many winter celebrations in Germanic regions, but then takes completely at face value what 19th-century European folklorists and local villagers have to say about these customs. I despair. Honigmann was a very accomplished anthropologist in areas he knew something about.


Krampus activities in Scandinavia, Alpine Germany, and Austria are well documented from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but in the 20th century, successive Austrian governments discouraged the practice. In the aftermath of the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Krampus tradition was prohibited by the Dollfuss regime under the Fatherland’s Front (Vaterländische Front) and the Christian Social Party. In the 1950s, the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus is an Evil Man”. Towards the end of the century, a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations occurred and continues today. The Krampus tradition is being revived in Bavaria as well, along with a local artistic tradition of hand-carved wooden masks. There has been public debate in Austria in modern times about whether Krampus is appropriate for children.

Although Krampus appears in many variations, most share some common physical characteristics. He is hairy, usually brown or black, and has the cloven hooves and horns of a goat. His long-pointed tongue lolls out. He carries chains, sometimes said to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. He thrashes the chains for dramatic effect. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes. He also carries ruten, bundles of birch branches to swat children with. Sometimes Krampus appears with a sack or a washtub strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell. Some legends make mention of naughty children being put in the bag and being taken. This part of the tradition can also be found in connexion with other Companions of Saint Nicholas such as Zwarte Piet.


A Krampuslauf is a run of celebrants dressed as the beast on 5 December night, with alcohol often playing a part. It is customary to offer a Krampus schnapps or other strong drink. These runs may include perchten, similarly wild spirits of Germanic folklore, which may be male or female, although the perchten are historically associated with the period between the winter solstice and Epiphany.

Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards featuring Krampus since the 1800s. Sometimes introduced with Gruß vom Krampus (Greetings from the Krampus), the cards usually have humorous rhymes and poems. Krampus is often featured looming menacingly over children. He is also shown as having one human foot and one cloven hoof. In some, Krampus has sexual overtones; he is pictured pursuing buxom women. Over time, the representation of Krampus in the cards has changed; older versions have a more frightening Krampus, while modern versions have a cuter, more Cupid-like creature. Krampus has also been used to decorate postcards and candy containers.


In Styria, the ruten bundles are presented by Krampus to families. The twigs are painted gold and displayed year-round in the house—a reminder to any child who has temporarily forgotten Krampus. In smaller, more isolated villages, the figure has other beastly companions, such as the antlered “wild man” figures. These Styrian companions of Krampus are called Schabmänner or Rauhen.

A toned-down version of Krampus is part of the popular Christmas markets in Austrian urban centers like Salzburg. In these, more tourist-friendly interpretations, Krampus is more humorous than fearsome. In the parts of Slovenia, whose culture was affected historically by Austrian culture, Krampus is called parkelj and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian form of St. Nicholas.


Krampus festivities are mostly associated with strong drinks, but the time of year is also associated with Christmas cooking. So here’s a recipe for Bavarian lebkuchen, a favorite of mine at this time of year. They are made from a kind of gingerbread that is soft and chewy, but with the same general flavor.


Lebkuchen were reputedly invented by monks in Franconia, Germany in the 13th century. Lebkuchen bakers were recorded as early as 1296 in Ulm, and 1395 in Nürnberg (Nuremberg). The latter is the most famous exporter today of the product known as Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Local history in Nuremberg relates that emperor Friedrich III held a Reichstag there in 1487 and he invited the children of the city to a special event where he presented Lebkuchen bearing his printed portrait to almost four thousand children. Historically, and due to differences in the ingredients, Lebkuchen are also known as honey cakes (Honigkuchen) or pepper cakes (Pfefferkuchen). Traditionally, the kuchen are quite large and may be 11.5 cm (4.5 in) in diameter if round, and larger if rectangular.


Since 1808, a variety of Nürnberg Lebkuchen made without flour has been called Elisenlebkuchen. It is uncertain whether the name Elise refers to the daughter of a gingerbread baker or the wife of a margrave. Her name is associated with some of the Lebkuchen produced by members of the guild. Since 1996, Nürnberger Lebkuchen is a Protected Designation of Origin and must be produced within the boundaries of the city.




250g plain flour
85g ground almonds
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
200ml clear honey
1 lemon, finely grated zest
85g butter
½ tsp each ground cloves, grated nutmeg and black pepper (or to taste)
1 tsp baking powder


100g icing sugar
1 egg white, beaten


Put the dry ingredients in a large bowl, including the lemon zest, and mix well. Heat the honey and butter in a pan over low heat until the butter melts, stirring constantly. Pour the honey and butter mixture into the dry ingredients and mix to form an homogeneous batter. Cover and leave to cool.

Heat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Make about 30 balls (3cm wide) with your hands, then flatten each one slightly into a disk. Divide the kuchen between two baking trays lined with baking parchment, leaving room for them to expand. Bake for 15 mins, then cool on a wire rack.

You can decorate the kuchen in a number of ways, including simply dusting with icing sugar. To coat them with icing, prepare the icing by beating together the icing sugar, egg white, and 1 to 2 tablespoons of cold water. The resultant mix will be quite runny. Pour a small amount on each kuchen and spread it evenly with a cake knife. Let it dry in a warm, dry place

Dec 042015


Mary Celeste (often misreported as Marie Celeste) was a U.S. merchant brigantine that was found adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Azores Islands, on this date in 1872 by the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia. She was in a disheveled but seaworthy condition, under partial sail, with no one on board, and her lifeboat missing. The last log entry was dated ten days earlier. She had left New York for Genoa on November 7, and on discovery was still amply provisioned. Her cargo of denatured alcohol was intact, and the captain’s and crew’s personal belongings were undisturbed. None of those who had been on board were seen or heard from again.

The keel of the future Mary Celeste was laid in late 1860 at the shipyard of Joshua Dewis in the village of Spencer’s Island, on the shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. The ship was constructed of locally felled timber, with two masts, and was rigged as a brigantine. She was launched on May 18, 1861, given the name Amazon, and registered at nearby Parrsboro on June 10, 1861. For her maiden voyage in June 1861, Amazon sailed to Five Islands, to take on a cargo of timber for passage across the Atlantic to London. After supervising the ship’s loading, Captain McLellan fell ill; his condition worsened, and Amazon returned to Spencer’s Island where McLellan died on June 19. John Nutting Parker took over as captain, and resumed the voyage to London, in the course of which Amazon encountered further misadventures. She collided with fishing equipment in the narrows off Eastport, Maine, and after leaving London ran into and sank a brig in the English Channel.


Parker remained in command for two years, during which Amazon worked mainly in the West Indies trade. She crossed the Atlantic to France in November 1861, and in Marseille was the subject of a painting, possibly by Honoré de Pellegrin, a well-known maritime artist of the Marseilles School. In 1863 Parker was succeeded by William Thompson, who remaining in command until 1867. These were quiet years; Amazon‍ ’​s mate later recalled that “we went to the West Indies, England and the Mediterranean—what we call the foreign trade. Not a thing unusual happened”. However, in October 1867, at Cape Breton Island, Amazon was driven ashore in a storm, and was so badly damaged that her owners abandoned her as a wreck. On October 15 she was acquired as a derelict by Alexander McBean, of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.

Within a month, McBean sold the wreck to a local businessman, who in November 1868, sold it to Richard W. Haines, an American mariner from New York. Haines paid US$1,750 for the wreck, and then spent $8,825 restoring it. He made himself her captain, and in December 1868 registered her with the Collector of Customs in New York as an American vessel, under a new name, Mary Celeste. In October 1869, the ship was seized by Haines’s creditors, and sold to a New York consortium headed by James H. Winchester. During the next three years, the composition of this consortium changed several times, although Winchester retained at least a half-share throughout. There is no record of Mary Celeste‍ ’​s trading activities during this period. Early in 1872, the ship underwent a major refit, costing $10,000, which enlarged her considerably. On October 29, 1872, the consortium was made up of Winchester, with six-twelfths; two minor investors with one-twelfth apiece, and the remaining four-twelfths held by the ship’s new captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs.


Benjamin Briggs was born in Wareham, Massachusetts, on April 24, 1835, one of five sons of a sea captain. All but one of the sons went to sea, two becoming captains. Briggs was an observant Christian who read the Bible regularly and often bore witness to his faith at prayer meetings. In 1862 he married his cousin Sarah Elizabeth Cobb, and enjoyed a Mediterranean honeymoon on board his schooner Forest King. The couple had two children: a son, Arthur, born in September 1865, and a daughter, Sophia Matilda, born in October 1870.

By the time of Sophia’s birth, Briggs had achieved a high standing within his profession. Nevertheless, he considered retiring from the sea to go into business with his seafaring brother Oliver, who had also grown tired of the wandering life. They did not proceed with this project, but instead each invested his savings in a share of a ship: Oliver in the Julia A. Hallock, and Benjamin in the Mary Celeste. In October 1872, Benjamin took command of Mary Celeste for her first voyage following her extensive New York refit, which would take her to Genoa in Italy. He arranged for his wife and infant daughter to accompany him, while his son, who was of school age, was left at home with his grandmother.


Briggs chose the crew for this voyage with care. The first mate, Albert G. Richardson, was married to a niece of Winchester, and had sailed under Briggs before. The second mate, Andrew Gilling, aged about 25, was Danish in origin although born in New York. The steward, the newly married Edward William Head, was signed on with a personal recommendation from Winchester. The four general seaman were all Germans from the Frisian Islands: the brothers Volkert and Boz Lorenzen, Arian Martens and Gottlieb Goodschaad. A later testimonial would describe them as “peaceable and first-class sailors”. In a letter to his mother shortly before the voyage, Briggs declared himself eminently satisfied with ship and crew. Sarah Briggs informed her mother that the crew appeared to be quietly capable, “if they continue as they have begun”.

On October 20, 1872, Briggs arrived at Pier 50 on the East River, New York City, to supervise the loading of the ship’s cargo for Genoa: 1,701 barrels of poisonous denatured alcohol. A week later, Briggs was joined by his wife and baby daughter. On Sunday, November 3, Briggs wrote to his mother, telling her that he intended to leave on Tuesday, adding that “Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage”.

On Tuesday morning, November 5, Mary Celeste left Pier 50 and moved into New York Harbor. The weather was uncertain, and Briggs decided to wait for better conditions. On November 7, when the weather eased, Mary Celeste left the harbor and went out into the Atlantic.

While Mary Celeste prepared to sail, another brigantine, the Canadian Dei Gratia, lay in nearby Hoboken, New Jersey, awaiting a cargo of petroleum destined for Genoa via Gibraltar. Her captain, David Morehouse, and his first mate Oliver Deveau, were Nova Scotians, both highly experienced and respected seamen. As captains with common interests, it is likely that Morehouse and Briggs knew each other, if only casually. Some accounts assert that they were close friends who, on the evening before Mary Celeste’s departure, dined together, but the evidence for this is limited to a recollection by Morehouse’s widow, 50 years after the event. Dei Gratia departed for Gibraltar on November 15, eight days after Mary Celeste, following the same general route.


At about 1 pm on Wednesday, December 4, 1872, land time (Thursday December 5 sea time), Dei Gratia had reached a position of 38°20’N, 17°15’W, midway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. As Captain Morehouse came on deck, the helmsman reported a vessel about 6 miles (9.7 km) distant, heading unsteadily towards Dei Gratia. The ship’s erratic movements, and the odd set of her sails, led Morehouse to suspect something was wrong. As the vessels drew close, he could see no one on deck, and receiving no reply to his signals, sent Deveau and second mate John Wright to investigate. Having established from the name on her stern that she was the Mary Celeste, the pair climbed aboard, where they found the ship deserted. The sails, partly set, were in a poor condition, some missing altogether, and much of the rigging was damaged, with ropes hanging loosely over the sides. The main hatch cover was secure, but the fore and lazarette hatches were open, their covers beside them on the deck. The ship’s single lifeboat, a small yawl that had apparently been stowed across the main hatch, was missing, while the binnacle housing the ship’s compass had shifted from its place, its glass cover broken. There was about 3.5 feet (1.1 m) of water in the hold, a significant but not alarming amount for a ship this size. A makeshift sounding rod (a device for measuring the amount of water in the hold) was found abandoned on the deck.


The last entry on the ship’s daily log, found in the mate’s cabin, was dated at 8:00 am on 25 November, nine days earlier. It recorded Mary Celeste’s position then as 37°01’N, 25°01’W, off Santa Maria Island in the Azores—nearly 400 nautical miles (740 km) from the point where Dei Gratia encountered her. Deveau saw that the cabin interiors were wet and untidy from water which had entered through doorways and skylights, but were otherwise in reasonable order. In Briggs’s cabin, Deveau found personal items scattered about, including a sheathed sword under the bed, but most of the ship’s papers, together with the captain’s navigational instruments, were missing. Galley equipment was neatly stowed away; there was no food prepared or under preparation, but there were ample provisions in the stores. There were no obvious signs of fire or violence; the evidence indicated an orderly departure from the ship, by means of the missing lifeboat.

Deveau reported these findings to Morehouse, who agreed to bring the derelict into Gibraltar, 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) away. Under maritime law, a salvor could expect a substantial share of the combined value of rescued vessel and cargo, the exact award depending on the degree of danger inherent in the salvaging. Morehouse divided Dei Gratia’s crew of eight between the two vessels, sending Deveau and two experienced seamen to Mary Celeste, while he and four others remained on Dei Gratia. The weather was relatively calm for most of the way to Gibraltar, but with each ship seriously undermanned, progress was slow. Dei Gratia reached Gibraltar on 12 December 1872, and Mary Celeste, which had encountered fog, arrived on the following morning. She was immediately impounded by the vice admiralty court, preparatory to salvage hearings. Deveau wrote to his wife that the ordeal of bringing the ship in was such that “I can hardly tell what I am made of, but I do not care so long as I got in safe. I shall be well paid for the Mary Celeste”.


The salvage court hearings began in Gibraltar on December 17, 1872, under Sir James Cochrane, the chief justice of Gibraltar. The hearing was conducted by Frederick Solly Flood, Attorney General of Gibraltar who was also Advocate-General and Proctor for the Queen in Her Office of Admiralty. Flood was described by one historian of the Mary Celeste affair as a man “whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ”, and as “the sort of man who, once he had made up his mind about something, couldn’t be shifted”. The testimonies of Deveau and Wright convinced Flood unalterably that a crime had been committed, a belief picked up by the New York Shipping and Commercial List on December 21: “The inference is that there has been foul play somewhere, and that alcohol is at the bottom of it”.

On December 23, Flood ordered an examination of Mary Celeste, which was carried out by John Austin, Surveyor of Shipping, with the assistance of a diver, Ricardo Portunato. Austin noted cuts on each side of the bow, caused, he thought, by a sharp instrument, and found possible traces of blood on the captain’s sword. His report emphasized that the ship did not appear to have been struck by heavy weather, citing a phial of sewing machine oil found upright in its place; Austin did not acknowledge that the phial might have been replaced since the abandonment, nor did the court raise this point. Portunato’s report on the hull concluded that the ship had not been involved in a collision or run aground. A further inspection by a group of Royal Naval captains endorsed Austin’s opinion that the cuts on the bow had been caused deliberately. They also discovered stains on one of the ship’s rails that might have been blood, together with a deep mark possibly caused by an axe. These findings strengthened Flood’s suspicions that human wrongdoing rather than natural disaster lay behind the mystery. On January 22, 1873, he sent the reports to the Board of Trade in London, adding his own conclusion that the crew had got at the alcohol (he ignored that it was poisonous) and murdered the Briggs family and the ship’s officers in a drunken frenzy. They had cut the bows to simulate a collision, then fled in the yawl to suffer an unknown fate. Flood thought that Morehouse and his men were hiding something, specifically that Mary Celeste had been abandoned in a more easterly location, and that the log had been doctored. He could not accept that Mary Celeste could have traveled so far while unmanned (although this is now confirmed to be perfectly credible based on analysis of historic meteorological data).

James Winchester arrived in Gibraltar on January 15, to inquire when Mary Celeste might be released to deliver its cargo. Flood demanded a surety of $15,000, money which Winchester did not have. He became aware that Flood thought he might have deliberately engaged a crew that would kill Briggs and his officers, as part of some conspiracy. On January 29, during a series of sharp exchanges with Flood, Winchester testified to Briggs’s high character, and insisted that he would not have abandoned the ship except in extremity. Flood’s theories of mutiny and murder received a significant setbacks when scientific analysis of the stains found on the sword and elsewhere on the ship showed that they were not blood. A second blow to Flood followed in a report commissioned by Howard Sprague, the U.S. consul in Gibraltar, from Captain Shufeldt of the US Navy. In Shufeldt’s view the marks on the bow were not man-made, but came from the natural actions of the sea on the ship’s timbers.

With nothing concrete to support his suspicions, Flood reluctantly released Mary Celeste from the court’s jurisdiction on February 25. Two weeks later, with a locally raised crew headed by Captain George Blatchford from Massachusetts, she left Gibraltar for Genoa. The question of the salvage payment was decided on April 8, when Cochrane announced the award: £1,700, or about one-fifth of the total value of ship and cargo. This was far lower than the general expectation—one authority thought that the award should have been twice or even three times that amount, given the level of hazard in bringing the derelict into port. Cochrane’s final words were harshly critical of Morehouse for his decision, earlier in the hearing, to send Dei Gratia under Deveau to deliver its cargo of petroleum—although Morehouse had remained in Gibraltar at the disposal of the court. Cochrane’s tone carried an implication of wrongdoing which, says Hicks, ensured that Morehouse and his crew “would be under suspicion in the court of public opinion forever”.

Although the evidence in Gibraltar failed to support Flood’s theories of murder and conspiracy, the suspicion of foul play lingered. Insurance fraud on the part of Winchester was briefly suspected, on the grounds of newspaper reports that Mary Celeste had been heavily over-insured. Winchester was able to refute these allegations, and no inquiry was instituted by the insurance companies who held the policies. In 1931 an article in the Quarterly Review suggested that Morehouse could have lain in wait for Mary Celeste, then lured Briggs and his crew aboard Dei Gratia and killed them there. Paul Begg, in his account of the mystery, comments that this theory ignores undisputed facts: Dei Gratia left New York eight days after Mary Celeste, was a slower ship, and would not have caught Mary Celeste before the latter reached Gibraltar. Another theory posits that Briggs and Morehouse were partners in a conspiracy to share the salvage proceedings. The unsubstantiated friendship between the two captains has been cited by commentators as making such a plan a plausible explanation. Hicks comments that “if Morehouse and Briggs had been planning such a scam, they would not have devised such an attention-drawing mystery”, and also asks why, if Briggs was intending to disappear permanently, he left his son Arthur behind.

Other theories of foul play have suggested an attack by Riffian pirates, who were active off the coast of Morocco in the 1870s. Charles Edey Fay, in his 1942 account, observes that pirates would have looted the ship, yet the personal possessions of captain and crew, some of significant value, were left undisturbed. In 1925 the historian John Gilbert Lockhart surmised that Briggs, in a fit of a religious mania, had slaughtered all on board and then killed himself. In a later edition of his book Lockhart, who had by then spoken to Briggs’s descendants, apologized and withdrew this theory.

Commentators generally agree that, to precipitate such a course of action as abandonment of an apparently sound and seaworthy ship, with ample provisions, some extraordinary and alarming circumstance must have arisen. In his evidence to the enquiry, Deveau ventured an explanation based on the sounding rod found on the derelict’s deck. He suggested that Briggs abandoned ship after a sounding which, due to a malfunction of the pumps or other mishap, had given a false impression that the vessel was taking on water rapidly. A severe waterspout strike before the abandonment could explain the amount of water in the ship, and the ragged state of her rigging and sails. Furthermore, the low barometric pressure generated by the spout could have driven water from the bilges up into the pumps, leading the crew to assume the ship had taken on more water than she had, and was in danger of sinking.

Other proffered explanations are the appearance of a displaced iceberg; the fear of running aground while becalmed, and a sudden “seaquake”. Hydrographical evidence suggests the improbability of an iceberg drifting so far south, and had it done so it would have been spotted by other ships. Begg gives more consideration to the theory that Mary Celeste, while becalmed, began drifting towards the Dollabarat reef off Santa Maria Island. Fearing she would run aground, Briggs launched the yawl in the hopes of reaching land. The wind then picked up and blew Mary Celeste away from the reef, but in the rising seas the yawl was swamped, and sank. The weakness of this theory is that if the ship had been becalmed, all sails would have been set to catch any available breeze, yet the ship was found with many of its sails furled.

As to the seaquake theory, this disturbance–an earthquake on the sea bed–could, it is surmised, have caused sufficient turbulence on the surface to damage parts of the cargo, thus releasing noxious fumes. The displaced hatches might indicate that an inspection, or an attempted airing, took place. Rising fears of an imminent explosion could plausibly have led Briggs to order the abandonment. The New York World of January 24, 1886, drew attention to a case where a vessel carrying alcohol had exploded. The same journal’s issue of February 9, 1913, cited a seepage of alcohol through a few porous barrels as the source of gases that may have caused or threatened an explosion in the hold. Briggs’s cousin Oliver Cobb was a strong proponent of this theory as providing a sufficiently alarming scenario—rumblings from the hold, the smell of escaping fumes and possibly an actual explosion—for Briggs to have ordered the evacuation of the ship. The lack of damage from an explosion and the generally sound state of the cargo upon discovery, tend to weaken this case. In 2006 an experiment was carried out for Channel Five television by Andrea Sella of University College, London, the results of which helped to revive the “explosion” theory. Sella built a model of the hold, with paper cartons representing the barrels. Using butane gas, he created an explosion, which caused a considerable blast and ball of flame, but contrary to expectation, no fire damage within the replica hold. “What we created was a pressure-wave type of explosion. There was a spectacular wave of flame but, behind it, was relatively cool air. No soot was left behind and there was no burning or scorching”. The modern writer Macdonald Hastings asks whether Briggs, an experienced captain, would have effected a panicky abandonment of the ship when, “if the Mary Celeste had blown her timbers, she would still have been a better bet for survival than the ship’s boat”. If this is what happened, Briggs “behaved like a fool; worse, a frightened one”.

I first heard about the mystery of the Mary Celeste when I read the story in 7th grade as a class exercise. Once in a while the subject has popped up over the years, usually when a friend tells me that the mystery has been “solved.” It has not. The “solutions” tend to offer “facts” that were previously unknown – but which turn out to be fiction or fantasy. The facts are that the ship was abandoned within sight of land and then drifted with the tides until it was found. The lifeboat, crew, and navigational materials were missing, but everything else was intact aboard. The captain was sane and rational, and the crew were all reliable. Thus, the ship was abandoned because the captain had excellent reason to believe that they were in imminent danger. What the danger was is unknowable at this point. It seems plausible that the lifeboat met a tragic accident soon after the crew abandoned ship. What this accident was is also unknowable. History tells us that experienced captains, such as William Bligh, have been known to navigate small boats for weeks out of sight of land, and yet they reached shore safely. What we have, I am afraid, is an unsolvable mystery. Too much pertinent information is missing.

Mary Celeste’s intended destination was Genoa so why not imagine that if they had arrived safely, some of the crew would have dined on the Genoese specialty pasta with pesto? Pesto traditionally consists of crushed garlic, basil, and European pine nuts blended with olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese), and Fiore Sardo (cheese made from sheep’s milk). “Pesto” simply means “pounded” – from the same root as “pestle” – because traditionally it is made in a mortar and pestle. This may require time and elbow grease, but, to my mind, is still the best method.


Use a marble mortar with a wooden pestle. Place chopped garlic and pine nuts in the mortar and reduce them to a cream. Then add chopped basil leaves with coarse salt and continue to grind to a creamy consistency. Then add a mix of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Sardo. Use a little extra-virgin olive oil at this point to help blend in the cheese. There is an art to this process that comes only from experience, and that includes proportions. Here’s a suggestion, but it is a suggestion only:

1 large clove garlic, minced
3 tbsp pinenuts
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup young basil leaves, chopped
¼ cup grated Fiore di Sardo
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Pesto is commonly used on pasta, traditionally with Mandilli de Sæa (Genovese dialect – literally “silk handkerchiefs”), trofie or trenette. Potatoes and string beans are also traditionally added to the dish, boiled in the same pot in which the pasta has been cooked. It is sometimes used in minestrone. Pesto is also sometimes served with sliced beef tomatoes and sliced boiled potatoes.

Dec 032015


The Eureka Rebellion in 1854 was a rebellion of gold miners in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, who revolted against the colonial authority of the United Kingdom. The Battle of the Eureka Stockade, by which the rebellion is popularly known, was fought between miners and the colonial forces of Australia on this date in 1854 at Eureka lead mines, and named for the stockade structure erected by miners during the conflict. The rebellion lasted for less than half an hour and resulted in the deaths of at least 27 people, the majority of whom were rebels.

The event was the culmination of a period of civil disobedience in the Ballarat region during the Victorian gold rush with miners objecting to the expense of a miner’s license, taxation via the license without representation and the actions of the government, the police and military. The local rebellion grew from a Ballarat Reform League movement and culminated in the erection by the rebels of a crude battlement, and a swift and deadly siege by colonial forces.

Mass public support for the captured rebels in the colony’s capital of Melbourne when they were placed on trial resulted in the introduction of the Electoral Act 1856, which mandated full white male suffrage for elections for the lower house in the Victorian parliament, the second instituted political democracy in Australia. As such, the Eureka Rebellion is sometimes identified with the birth of democracy in Australia and interpreted by some as a political revolt.

Hiscock’s gold rush began on 12 August 1851 following the publication in the Geelong Advertiser of Thomas Hiscock’s gold findings at Hiscock’s, 3 km west of Buninyong (now Magpie, approximately 10 km south of Eureka). Just days later on 16 August 1851, Lieutenant-Governor Latrobe proclaimed in the Government Gazette crown rights for all mining proceeds and a license fee of 30 shillings per month effective from 1 September 1851.


On 26 August, a rally of 40-50 miners opposing the fee was held at Hiscock’s gully – the first of many such protests in the colony. The miners opposed government policies of oppression including the license fee and demanded rights to vote and to buy land. This first meeting was followed by dissent across the colony’s mining settlements.

In December the government announced that it intended to raise the license fee to £3 a month, from 1 January 1852. This move incited protests around the colony, including the Forest Creek Monster Meeting of December 1851. In Ballarat, historian Weston Bate noted that diggers became so agitated that they began to gather arms. The government hastily repealed its plans due to the reaction. Nevertheless, oppressive license hunts continued and increased in frequency causing general dissent among the diggers. In addition, Weston Bate noted that the Ballarat diggings were in strong opposition to the strict liquor licensing laws imposed by the government.

On 6 October 1854, Scottish miner James Scobie was murdered at the Eureka hotel. Ten days later, on 17 October 1854, between 1,000 and 10,000 miners gathered at the hotel to protest the acquittal of James Bentley, the hotel proprietor and prime suspect in Scobie’s murder, by a corrupt magistrate. The miners rioted and Bentley and his wife Catherine fled for their lives as the hotel was burnt down by the angry mob. A small group of soldiers were unable to suppress the riot.


On 22 October 1854, Ballarat Catholics met to protest the treatment of Father Smyth. The next day, the arrests of miners McIntyre and Fletcher for the Eureka Hotel fire provoked a mass meeting which attracted 4,000 miners. The meeting resolved to establish a ‘Digger’s Rights Society’, to protect their rights. On 1 November 1854, 3,000 miners met once again at Bakery Hill. They were addressed by Thomas Kennedy, Henry Holyoake, George Black and Henry Ross. The diggers were further angered by the arrest of another seven of their number for the Eureka Hotel fire.

On Saturday, 11 November 1854 a crowd estimated at more than 10,000 miners gathered at Bakery Hill, directly opposite the government encampment. At this meeting, the Ballarat Reform League was created, under the chairmanship of Chartist John Basson Humffray. Several other Reform League leaders, including Kennedy and Holyoake, had been involved with the Chartist (voting reform) movement in England. Many of the miners had past involvement in the Chartist movement and the social upheavals in Britain, Ireland, and continental Europe during the 1840s.The Ballarat Reform League sought to negotiate with Commissioner Robert Rede and the Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham.

In setting its goals, the Ballarat Reform League used the British Chartist movement’s principles. The meeting passed a resolution “that it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called on to obey, that taxation without representation is tyranny.” The meeting also resolved to secede from the United Kingdom if the situation did not improve.


Throughout the following weeks, the League sought to negotiate with Commissioner Robert Rede and the Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham, both on the specific matters relating to Bentley and the Scobie’s death, and the men being tried for the burning of the Eureka Hotel, and on the broader issues of abolition of the license, suffrage and democratic representation of the gold fields, and disbanding of the Gold Commission. Governor Hotham, on 16 November 1854, appointed a Royal Commission on goldfields problems and grievances. However, Commissioner Rede, rather than hear miner’s grievances, increased the police presence in the gold fields and summoned reinforcements from Melbourne.

On 28 November 1854, the reinforcements marching from Melbourne were attacked by a crowd of miners. A number were injured and a drummer boy was allegedly killed. The rumor of the drummer boy’s death was perpetuated, even with a memorial erected to him in Ballarat Cemetery for many years, although historical research has shown that the boy, John Egan, continued military service until dying in 1860.

At a meeting of about 12,000 ‘diggers’ on the following day, (29 November), the Reform League delegation relayed its failure to achieve any success in negotiations with the authorities. The miners resolved on open resistance to the authorities and to burn the hated licenses. Rede responded by ordering police to conduct a license search on 30 November. Eight defaulters were arrested, and most of the military resources available had to be summoned to extricate the arresting officers from the angry mob that had assembled. This raid prompted a change in the leadership of the Reform League, to people who argued in favor of ‘physical force’ rather than the ‘moral force’ championed by Humffray and the old leadership.


In the rising tide of anger and resentment amongst the miners, a more militant leader, Peter Lalor, was elected. In swift fashion, a military structure was assembled. Brigades were formed, and captains were appointed. Licenses were burned, and on 1 December at Bakery Hill, the disaffected miners held a meeting where at the Australian flag of independence was solemnly consecrated and vows made for its defense, with the ‘Eureka oath’ being sworn by Peter Lalor to the affirmation of his fellow demonstrators, who encamped themselves around the flag to resist further license hunts and harassment by the authorities: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”

The white and blue Eureka Flag, said to be designed by a Canadian miner, “Captain” Henry Ross, and bearing nothing but the Southern Cross, was then flown for the first (recorded) occasion; according to the Ballarat Times, which first mentioned the flag a week earlier on 24 November 1854, at “about eleven o’clock the ‘Southern Cross’ was hoisted, and its maiden appearance was a fascinating object to behold.” The Eureka flag was commonly referred to at the time as the “Australian flag,” and as the Southern Cross, with The Age variously reporting, on 28 November: “The Australian flag shall triumphantly wave in the sunshine of its own blue and peerless sky, over thousands of Australia’s adopted sons”


During 2 December, the peak rebel force trained in and around the stockade. A further 200 Independent Californian Rangers, under the leadership of James McGill, arrived about 4pm. They were armed with revolvers and Mexican knives, and possessed horses. In a fateful decision, McGill decided to take most of the Californian Rangers away from the stockade to intercept rumored British reinforcements coming from Melbourne. Rede’s spies observed these actions. That night many of the miners went back to their own tents after the traditional Saturday night carousing, with the assumption that the Queen’s military forces would not be sent to attack on a Sunday. A small contingent of miners remained at the stockade overnight, which the spies reported to Rede.


The stockade itself was a ramshackle affair which was hastily constructed over the following days from timber and overturned carts. The structure was never meant to be a military stockade or fortress. In the words of Lalor: “it was nothing more than an enclosure to keep our own men together, and was never erected with an eye to military defence”. Lalor had already outlined a plan whereby, “if the government forces come to attack us, we should meet them on the Gravel Pits, and if compelled, we should retreat by the heights to the old Canadian Gully, and there we shall make our final stand”.

By the beginning of December, the police contingent at Ballarat had been joined and surpassed in number by soldiers from British Army garrisons in Victoria, including detachments from the 12th (East Suffolk) Regiment of Foot and 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Regiment of Foot. At 3 am on Sunday, 3 December, a party of 276 soldiers and police, under the command of Captain John W. Thomas approached the Eureka Stockade and a battle ensued.


There is no agreement as to which side fired first, but the battle was fierce, brief, and terribly one-sided. The ramshackle army of miners was hopelessly outclassed by a military regiment and was routed in about 10 minutes. During the height of the battle, Lalor was shot in his left arm, took refuge under some timber and was smuggled out of the stockade and hidden. His arm was later amputated. Stories tell how women ran forward and threw themselves over the injured to prevent further indiscriminate killing. The Commission of Inquiry would later say that it was “a needless as well as a ruthless sacrifice of human life indiscriminate of innocent or guilty, and after all resistance had disappeared.” Early in the battle “Captain” Henry Ross was shot dead.[citation needed]

According to Lalor’s report, fourteen miners (mostly Irish) died inside the stockade and an additional eight died later from injuries they sustained. A further dozen were wounded but recovered. Three months after the Eureka Stockade, Peter Lalor wrote: “As the inhuman brutalities practiced by the troops are so well known, it is unnecessary for me to repeat them. There were 34 digger casualties of which 22 died. The unusual proportion of the killed to the wounded, is owing to the butchery of the military and troopers after the surrender.”


During the battle, trooper John King the police constable, took down the Eureka flag. By 8 am, Captain Charles Pasley, the second in command of the British forces, sickened by the carnage, saved a group of prisoners from being bayoneted and threatened to shoot any police or soldiers who continued with the slaughter. 114 diggers, some wounded, were marched off to the Government camp about 2 km away, where they were kept in an overcrowded lock-up, before being moved to a more spacious barn on Monday morning. Of the soldiers and police, six were killed, including Captain Wise. Martial law was imposed, and all armed resistance collapsed. News of the battle spread quickly to Melbourne and other gold field regions, turning a perceived Government military victory in repressing a minor insurrection into a public relations disaster. Thousands of people in Melbourne turned out to condemn the authorities, in defiance of their mayor and some Legislative Councillors, who tried to rally support for the government.

Because of massive public sympathy for the diggers, those arrested and tried for sedition were either found not guilty by juries or received light sentences if found guilty. When Hotham’s Royal Commission report, initiated before the conflict, was finally handed down it was scathing in its assessment of all aspects of the administration of the gold fields, and particularly the Eureka Stockade affair. According to Blainey, “It was perhaps the most generous concession offered by a governor to a major opponent in the history of Australia up to that time. The members of the commission were appointed before Eureka…they were men who were likely to be sympathetic to the diggers.”


The report made several major recommendations, one of which was to restrict Chinese immigration. Its recommendations were put into effect only after the Stockade. The gold licenses were then abolished, and replaced by an annual miner’s right and an export fee based on the value of the gold. Mining wardens replaced the gold commissioners, and police numbers were cut drastically. The Legislative Council was expanded to allow representation to the major goldfields, and Peter Lalor and John Basson Humffray were elected for Ballarat, although there were property qualifications with regards to eligibility to vote in upper house elections in Victoria until the 1950s. After 12 months, all but one of the demands of the Ballarat Reform League had been granted. Lalor and Humffray both enjoyed distinguished careers as politicians, with Lalor later elected as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria.

Kangaroo meat was, and is, common in the goldfields region of Victoria – once a cheap source of meat. It’s not so cheap any more, but fairly easy to find in Australia, though rare outside. Kangaroo tail soup or stew is an obvious variant of oxtail soup/stew which is an old favorite of mine. A kangaroo’s tail is extremely important for balance and support, and is big and muscular. So, as with oxtail, the meat can be very tough and requires long slow cooking. This recipe of mine can be used for either kangaroo tail or oxtail. I used to cook oxtail all the time when it was considered trash food that no one wanted, and so was dirt cheap. Then gourmets got hold of the fact that tail meat is super tasty and prices skyrocketed. You have to love market forces.


Oxtail or Kangaroo Tail Soup/Stew

The tail should be jointed in fat sections. Use a large, heavy stockpot to brown the joints thoroughly in batches. Cover the joints with stock, add carrots, onions, celery and potatoes, and simmer, covered, for 3 to 4 hours. Your aim is to cook the meat until it falls from the bone and the vegetables are mush. Refrigerate over night.

In the morning, remove the congealed fat from the top of the pot. The stock should be thick and jellified. Heat the pot gently on the stove until the stock has liquefied and warmed through. Remove the tail bones, and keep heating the stock to a gentle simmer. Strip all the meat from the tail bones. With a potato masher, mash all the vegetables in the stock until it is thick and homogenous. Keep heating, and return the meat to the pot. Flavorings are cook’s choice. I generally add nothing but freshly ground black pepper. Some cooks add pot herbs such as parsley and thyme, plus a glass of Madeira or Port. Serve with crusty bread and a fresh green salad.

Dec 022015


The first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was initiated in CP-1 on this date in 1942, under the supervision of Enrico Fermi, who described the apparatus as “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers”. Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1) was the world’s first nuclear reactor to achieve criticality. Its construction was part of the Manhattan Project, the Allied effort to create atomic bombs during World War II. It was built by the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, under the west viewing stands of the original Stagg Field.

The reactor was assembled in November 1942 under the supervision of Fermi, in collaboration with Leo Szilard, discoverer of the chain reaction, and Herbert L. Anderson, Walter Zinn, Martin D. Whitaker, and George Weil. It contained 45,000 graphite blocks weighing 400 short tons (360 t) used as a neutron moderator, and was fueled by 6 short tons (5.4 t) of uranium metal and 50 short tons (45 t) of uranium oxide. In the pile, some of the free neutrons produced by the natural decay of uranium were absorbed by other uranium atoms, causing nuclear fission of those atoms, and the release of additional free neutrons. Unlike most subsequent nuclear reactors, it had no radiation shield or cooling system as it only operated at very low power. The shape of the pile was intended to be roughly spherical, but as work proceeded Fermi calculated that critical mass could be achieved without finishing the entire pile as planned.


In 1943, CP-1 was moved to Red Gate Woods, and reconfigured to become Chicago Pile-2 (CP-2). There, it was operated until 1954, when it was dismantled and buried. The stands at Stagg Field were demolished in August 1957, but the site is now a National Historic Landmark and a Chicago Landmark.

The idea of chemical chain reactions was first put forth in 1913 by the German chemist Max Bodenstein for a situation in which two molecules react to form not just the molecules of the final reaction products, but also some unstable molecules which can further react with the parent molecules to cause more molecules to react. The concept of a nuclear chain reaction was first hypothesized by the Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard on 12 September 1933. Szilard realized that if a nuclear reaction produced neutrons or dineutrons, which then caused further nuclear reactions, the process might be self-perpetuating. Szilard proposed using mixtures of lighter known isotopes which produced neutrons in copious amounts, although he did entertain the possibility of using uranium as a fuel. He filed a patent for his idea of a simple nuclear reactor the following year. The discovery of nuclear fission by German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938, followed by its theoretical explanation (and naming) by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, opened up the possibility of creating a nuclear chain reaction with uranium or indium, but initial experiments were unsuccessful. Fermi’s experiment marked the dawn of a new era.

I could give you a lot more historical and technical details. It mostly bores me so I cannot imagine what it will do for you. Instead here’s two pieces of relatively unimportant information which amuse me.

First, Fermi christened his apparatus a “pile”. Emilio Segrè later recalled that:

I thought for a while that this term was used to refer to a source of nuclear energy in analogy with Volta’s use of the Italian term pila to denote his own great invention of a source of electrical energy [a battery]. I was disillusioned by Fermi himself, who told me that he simply used the common English word pile as synonymous with heap. To my surprise, Fermi never seemed to have thought of the relationship between his pile and Volta’s.

Pila is still the common Spanish word for a (small disposable) battery. I’m not sure about Italian (I’ll have to ask my students). I know that pila can be used in Italian for a battery, but I am not sure how common it is, or what type of battery. I do remember early on in Buenos Aires asking in a store for batteries for my camera and using batterias only to get blank stares. Batteria in Spanish is used for car batteries and such.


Anyway, Volta used the word pila for his invention for reasons that are obvious when you see a photo of it. It’s a pile of stuff. It’s amazing how dense world-class physicists can be when it comes to a simple matter of etymology.

Second, I now teach at a technical high school in Mantua named after Fermi: Istituto Superiore Enrico Fermi. I’m not sure how much the students know about Fermi; I’ll find out later when I go in.

While writing the appendix for the Italian edition of the book Fundamentals of Einstein Relativity by August Kopff in 1923, Fermi was the first to point out that hidden inside the famous Einstein equation (E = mc2) was an enormous amount of nuclear potential energy to be exploited. “It does not seem possible, at least in the near future”, he wrote, “to find a way to release these dreadful amounts of energy—which is all to the good because the first effect of an explosion of such a dreadful amount of energy would be to smash into smithereens the physicist who had the misfortune to find a way to do it.” Interesting remarks from the man who was, in fact, the first physicist to do it and was not smashed into smithereens. See

Chocolate Pudding in a Glass Dish

Apparently in March 1942 Fermi wrote a recipe for chocolate pudding. The essence is that you melt 30 grams of chocolate with ½ teaspoon of sugar per serving in a double boiler. Remove from the heat and whip the chocolate with one egg yolk per person. Pour into individual cups and chill in the refrigerator for 8 hours. Serve with toasted almonds and/or whipped cream. This recipe appeared in a newspaper article whose provenance I don’t know. No matter. It’s from Fermi and that’s good enough for me.