Jan 222019
 

Today is the birthday (1572) of John Donne, an English poet and cleric in the Church of England. He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are noted for their strong, sensual style and include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons.  I have known of Donne since I was around 10 and my father showed me a copy of this famous piece in a collection he had (with original spelling):

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

This was all I knew of Donne for many years. I put him down as an insightful preacher and left it at that. Discovering all the phases he went through in life was an eyeopener.

Donne was born into a recusant Catholic family in Elizabethan England at a time when practicing Catholicism was illegal. His mother was the great niece of Thomas More, and a number of his close relatives were executed for their faith. In 1583, the 11-year-old Donne began studies at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford. After three years of studies there, Donne was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years. However, Donne could not obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. In 1591 Donne was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court. In 1593, five years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and during the intermittent Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604), queen Elizabeth issued the first English statute against sectarian dissent from the Church of England, titled “An Act for restraining Popish recusants”. Donne’s brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in 1593 for harboring a Catholic priest, William Harrington, whom he betrayed under torture. Harrington was tortured on the rack and executed. Henry Donne died in Newgate Prison of bubonic plague, leading Donne to wonder about the value of his Catholic faith.

During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel. Although no record details precisely where Donne traveled, he did cross Europe and later fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz (1596) and the Azores (1597), and witnessed the loss of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe.

By the age of 25, Donne was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, and was established at Egerton’s London home, York House, Strand close to the palace of Whitehall, then the most influential social center in England. During the next four years Donne fell in love with Egerton’s niece Anne More, and they were secretly married just before Christmas in 1601, against the wishes of both Egerton and George More, who was Lieutenant of the Tower and Anne’s father. Upon discovery, this wedding ruined Donne’s career, getting him dismissed and put in Fleet Prison, along with the Church of England priest Samuel Brooke, who married them, and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. Donne was released shortly thereafter when the marriage was proven valid, and he soon secured the release of the other two.

After his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in a small house in Pyrford, Surrey, owned by Anne’s cousin, Sir Francis Wooley, where they resided until the end of 1604. In spring 1605 they moved to another small house in Mitcham, London, where he scraped a meager living as a lawyer, while Anne Donne bore a new baby almost every year. Though he also worked as an assistant pamphleteer to Thomas Morton writing anti-Catholic pamphlets, Donne was in a constant state of financial insecurity.

Anne gave birth to 12 children in 16 years of marriage, (including two stillbirths—their eighth and then, in 1617, their last child). She spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing. She died on 15th August 1617, five days after giving birth to their 12th child, a still-born baby. Donne mourned her deeply, and wrote of his love and loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.

In 1602 John Donne was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Brackley, but membership was not a paid position. Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, being succeeded by James VI of Scotland as James I of England. The fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave Donne a means to seek patronage, and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends or patrons, especially MP Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted (1575–1615), whom he met in 1610 and became Donne’s chief patron, furnishing him and his family an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane.

In 1610 and 1611 Donne wrote two anti-Catholic polemics: Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave for Morton. He then wrote two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612).

Donne sat as an MP again, for Taunton, in the Addled Parliament of 1614. Although James was pleased with Donne’s work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders. At length, Donne acceded to the king’s wishes, and in 1615 was ordained priest in the Church of England. In 1615 Donne was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from Cambridge University, and became a Royal Chaplain in the same year, and a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn in 1616, where he served in the chapel as minister until 1622. In 1618 he became chaplain to viscount Doncaster, who was on an embassy to the princes of Germany. Donne did not return to England until 1620. In 1621 Donne was made dean of St Paul’s, a leading and well-paid position in the Church of England, which he held until his death in 1631. In late November and early December 1623 he suffered a nearly fatal illness, thought to be either typhus or a combination of a cold followed by a period of fever. During his convalescence he wrote a series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness that were published as a book in 1624 under the title of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. One of these meditations, Meditation XVII, is “No man is an Iland”. In 1624 he became vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, and 1625 a prolocutor to Charles I. He earned a reputation as an eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived, including Death’s Duel, his famous sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631.

Donne died on 31 March 1631 and was buried in old St Paul’s Cathedral, where a memorial statue of him by Nicholas Stone was erected with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself. The memorial was one of the few to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 and is now in St Paul’s Cathedral. The statue was claimed by Izaac Walton in his biography to have been modeled from the life by Donne in order to suggest his appearance at the resurrection. This was to start a vogue in such monuments during the course of the 17th century.

Here is a recipe from the 1596 edition of THE good huswifes Jewell. Wherein is to be found most excellend and rare Deuises for conceites in Cookery, found out by the practise of Thomas Dawson.&c. The spelling and tone will remind you of Donne, and the recipe is quite extraordinary. It seems that the resultant broth is meant to be medicinal. I am sure it would have had a complex flavor, although the gold would not have added anything.

To stewe a Cocke.

You must cutte him in sixe peeces, and washe hym cleane, and take prumes, Currantes and Dates cutte verye small, and Reasons of the Sunne, and Suger beaten verye small, Cinamone, Gynger and Nutmegs likewise beaten, and a litle Maydens hayre cutte verye small, and you must put him in a Pipkin, & put in almost a pinte of Muscadine, and then your spice and Suger vppon your Cocke, and put in your fruite betweene euery quarter, and a peece of Golde betweene euery peece of your cocke, then you must make a Lidde of Wood fit for your pipkyn, and close it as close as you can with paste, that no ayre come out, nor water can come in, and then you must fill two brasse pots full of water, and set on the fire, and make fast the pipkin in one of the Brasse pottes, so that the pipkins feete touch not the brasse pot bottom, nor the pot sides, and so let them boyle foure and twentie howres, and fill vp the pot still as it boyles away, with the other pot that standes by, and when it is boyled take out your Golde, and let him drinke it fasting, and it shall helpe him, this is approoued.

Jan 212019
 

Today is the birthday (1869) of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (Григо́рий Ефи́мович Распу́тин), now usually simply referred to as Rasputin, a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia, and gained considerable influence in late imperial Russia before being murdered by Russian nobles.

Rasputin was born a peasant in the small village of Pokrovskoye, along the Tura River in the Tobolsk Governorate (now Tyumen Oblast) in Siberia. There are few records of Rasputin’s parents. His father, Efim (sometimes spelled Yefim), was a peasant farmer and church elder who had been born in Pokrovskoye in 1842, and married Rasputin’s mother, Anna Parshukova, in 1863. Efim also worked as a government courier, ferrying people and goods between Tobolsk and Tyumen. The couple had seven other children, all of whom died in infancy and early childhood; there may have been a ninth child, Feodosiya.

Almost nothing is known about Rasputin’s childhood. Historians agree, however, that like most Siberian peasants, including his mother and father, Rasputin was never formally educated, and he remained illiterate well into his early adulthood. Local archival records suggest that he had a somewhat unruly youth – possibly involving drinking, small thefts, and disrespect for local authorities – but contain no evidence of his being charged with stealing horses, blasphemy, or bearing false witness, all major crimes that he was later rumored to have committed as a young man.

In 1886, Rasputin traveled to Abalak, where he met a peasant girl named Praskovya Dubrovina. After a courtship of several months, they married in February 1887. Praskovya remained in Pokrovskoye throughout Rasputin’s later travels and rise to prominence, and remained devoted to him until his death. The couple had seven children, though only three survived to adulthood: Dmitry (b. 1895), Maria (b. 1898) and Varvara (b. 1900).

In 1897, Rasputin developed a passion for religion and left Pokrovskoye to go on a pilgrimage. His reasons for doing so are unclear, but whatever his reasons, Rasputin’s departure was a radical life change: he was 28, had been married ten years, and had an infant son with another child on the way. Rasputin had undertaken earlier, shorter pilgrimages to the Holy Znamensky Monastery at Abalak and to Tobolsk’s cathedral, but his visit to the St. Nicholas Monastery at Verkhoturye in 1897 was transformative. There, he met and was “profoundly humbled” by a starets (elder) known as Makary. Rasputin may have spent several months at Verkhoturye, and it was perhaps here that he learned to read and write, but he later complained about the monastery itself, claiming that some of the monks engaged in homosexuality and criticizing monastic life as too coercive. He returned to Pokrovskoye a changed man, looking disheveled and behaving differently from previously. He became a vegetarian, swore off alcohol, and prayed and sang much more fervently than he had in the past. Rasputin spent the years that followed living as a Strannik, (a holy wanderer, or pilgrim), leaving Pokrovskoye for months or even years at a time to wander the country and visit a variety of different holy sites. It is possible that Rasputin wandered as far as Athos in Greece – the center of Orthodox monastic life – in 1900.

By the early 1900s, Rasputin had developed a small circle of acolytes, primarily family members and other local peasants, who prayed with him on Sundays and other holy days when he was in Pokrovskoye. Building a makeshift chapel in Efim’s root cellar – Rasputin was still living within his father’s household at the time – the group held secret prayer meetings there. These meetings were the subject of some suspicion and hostility from the village priest and other villagers. It was rumored that female followers were ceremonially washing him before each meeting, that the group sang strange songs that the villagers had not heard before, and even that Rasputin had joined the Khlysty, a religious sect whose ecstatic rituals were rumored to included self-flagellation and sexual orgies.

Word of Rasputin’s activity and charisma began to spread in Siberia during the early 1900s. Some time between 1902 and 1904, he traveled to the city of Kazan on the Volga river, where he acquired a reputation as a wise and perceptive starets, who could help people resolve their spiritual crises and anxieties. Despite rumors that Rasputin was having sex with some of his female followers, he won over the father superior of the Seven Lakes monastery outside Kazan, as well as a local church officials archimandrite Andrei and bishop Chrysthanos, who gave him a letter of recommendation to bishop Sergei, the rector of the St. Petersburg Theological Seminary at the Alexander Nevsky monastery, and arranged for him to travel to St. Petersburg, either in 1903 or in the winter of 1904–1905.

Upon meeting Sergei at the Nevsky Monastery, Rasputin was introduced to a number of different church leaders, including archimandrite Feofan, who was the inspector of the theological seminary, was well-connected in St. Petersburg society, and later served as confessor to the Tsar and his wife. Feofan was so impressed with Rasputin that he invited him to stay in his home, and became one of Rasputin’s most important and influential friends in St. Petersburg. By 1905 Rasputin had formed friendships with several members of the aristocracy, including the “Black Princesses,” Militsa and Anatasia of Montenegro, who had married the Tsar’s cousins (Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich), and were instrumental in introducing Rasputin to the tsar and his family.

Rasputin first met the Tsar on November 1st, 1905, at the Peterhof Palace. The tsar recorded the event in his diary, writing that he and Alexandra had “made the acquaintance of a man of God – Grigory, from Tobolsk province.” Rasputin did not meet the Tsar and his wife again for some months: he returned to Prokovskoye shortly after their first meeting and did not return to St. Petersburg until July 1906. On his return, Rasputin sent Nicholas a telegram asking to present the tsar with an icon of Simeon of Verkhoturye. He met with Nicholas and Alexandra on July 18th  and again in October, when he first met their children. At some point, the royal family became convinced that Rasputin possessed the power to heal Alexei of his hemophilia, but historians disagree over when. Much of Rasputin’s influence with the royal family stemmed from the belief by Alexandra and others that he had eased the pain and stopped the bleeding of the tsarevich on several occasions.

During the summer of 1912, Alexei developed a hemorrhage in his thigh and groin after a jolting carriage ride near the royal hunting grounds at Spala, which caused a large hematoma. In severe pain and delirious with fever, the tsarevich appeared to be close to death. In desperation, the Tsarina asked Vyrubova to send Rasputin (who was in Siberia) a telegram, asking him to pray for Alexei. Rasputin wrote back quickly, telling the Tsarina that “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” The next morning, Alexei’s condition was unchanged, but Alexandra was encouraged by the message and regained some hope that Alexei would survive. Alexei’s bleeding stopped the following day. Alexandra believed that Rasputin had performed a miracle, and concluded that he was essential to Alexei’s survival.

The royal family’s – and especially Alexandra’s – belief that Rasputin possessed the power to heal Alexei brought him considerable status and power at court. The tsar appointed Rasputin his lampadnik, or lamplighter, who was charged with keeping the lamps that burned in front of religious icons in the palace lit and thus had regular access to the palace and royal family. By December 1906, Rasputin had become close enough to the royal family to ask a special favor of the Tsar – that he be permitted to change his surname to Rasputin-Novyi (Rasputin-New). Nicholas granted the request and the name change was speedily processed, suggesting that the Tsar viewed – and treated – Rasputin favorably at that time. Rasputin used his status and power to full effect, accepting bribes and sexual favors from admirers and working diligently to expand his influence. He soon became a controversial figure; he was accused by his enemies of religious heresy and rape, was suspected of exerting undue political influence over the tsar, and was even rumored to be having an affair with the tsarina.

Even before Rasputin’s arrival in St. Petersburg in 1903, alternative religious movements such as spiritualism and theosophy had become increasingly popular among the city’s aristocracy, and many of them were intensely curious about the occult and the supernatural more generally. While fascinated by him, the Saint Petersburg elite did not widely accept Rasputin. He did not fit in with the royal family, and he and the Russian Orthodox Church had a very strained relationship. The Holy Synod frequently attacked Rasputin, accusing him of a variety of immoral or evil practices. Because Rasputin was a court official, though, he and his apartment were under 24-hour surveillance, and, accordingly, there exists some credible evidence about his lifestyle in the form of the famous “staircase notes” – reports from police spies, which were not given only to the tsar but also published in newspapers.

Like many spiritually minded Russians, Rasputin spoke of salvation as depending less on the clergy and the church than on seeking the spirit of God within. He also maintained that sin and repentance were interdependent and necessary to salvation. Thus, he claimed that yielding to temptation (and, for him personally, this meant sex and alcohol), even for the purposes of humiliation (so as to dispel the sin of vanity), was needed to proceed to repentance and salvation. Rasputin was deeply opposed to war, both from a moral point of view and as something which was likely to lead to political catastrophe. During the years of World War I, Rasputin’s increasing drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and willingness to accept bribes (in return for helping petitioners who flocked to his apartment), as well as his efforts to have his critics dismissed from their posts, made him appear increasingly cynical. Attaining divine grace through sin seems to have been one of the central secret doctrines which Rasputin preached to (and practiced with) his inner circle of society ladies.

During World War I, Rasputin became the focus of accusations of unpatriotic influence at court. The unpopular tsarina, meanwhile, who was of Anglo-German descent, was accused of acting as a spy in German employ. When Rasputin expressed an interest in going to the front to bless the troops early in the war, the commander-in-chief, grand duke Nicholas, promised to hang him if he dared to show up there. Rasputin then claimed that he had a revelation that the Russian armies would not be successful until the tsar personally took command. With this, the ill-prepared tsar proceeded to take personal command of the Russian army, with dire consequences for himself as well as for Russia. While Nicholas was away at war, Rasputin’s influence over Alexandra increased. He soon became her confidant and personal adviser, and he convinced her to fill some governmental offices with his own handpicked candidates. To advance his power further in the highest circles of Russian society, Rasputin cohabited with upper-class women in exchange for granting political favors.

World War I, the ossifying effects of feudalism, and a meddling government bureaucracy all contributed to Russia’s declining economy at a very rapid rate. Many at the time laid the blame with Alexandra and with Rasputin, because of his influence over her.

Rasputin’s influence over the royal family was used against him and the Romanovs by politicians and journalists who wanted to weaken the integrity of the dynasty, force the tsar to give up his absolute political power and separate the Russian Orthodox Church from the state. Rasputin unintentionally contributed to their propaganda by having public disputes with clergy members, bragging about his ability to influence both the tsar and tsarina, and also by his dissolute and very public lifestyle. Nobles in influential positions around the Tsar, as well as some parties of the Duma, clamored for Rasputin’s removal from the court.

On 12th July [O.S. 29th June] 1914 a 33-year-old peasant woman named Chionya Guseva attempted to assassinate Rasputin by stabbing him in the stomach outside his home in Pokrovskoye. Rasputin was seriously wounded, and for a time it was not clear that he would survive. After surgery and some time in a hospital in Tyumen, however, he did recover.

Having decided that Rasputin’s influence over the Tsarina had made him a threat to the empire, a group of nobles led by prince Felix Yusupov, the grand duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and the right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich concocted a plan to kill Rasputin in December 1916, apparently by luring Rasputin to the Yusupovs’ Moika Palace. Rasputin was murdered during the early morning on 30th December [O.S. 17th December] 1916, at the home of Felix Yusupov. The circumstances of Rasputin’s death have been the subject of considerable speculation and have led to wild stories concerning his invulnerability.

Yusupov

According to Yusupov written account, he invited Rasputin to his home shortly after midnight and ushered him into the basement. Yusupov offered Rasputin tea and cakes which had been laced with cyanide. At first, Rasputin refused the cakes, but then began to eat them. To Yusupov’s surprise, Rasputin did not appear to be affected by the poison. Rasputin then asked for some Madeira wine (which had also been poisoned) and drank three glasses, but still showed no sign of distress. At around 2:30 am, Yusupov excused himself to go upstairs, where his fellow conspirators were waiting. Taking a revolver from Dmitry Pavlovich, Yusupov returned to the basement and, referring to a crucifix that was in the room, told Rasputin that he’d “better look at the crucifix and say a prayer,” then shot him once in the chest. Believing him to be dead, they then drove to Rasputin’s apartment, with Sukhotin wearing Rasputin’s coat and hat, in an attempt to make it look as though Rasputin had returned home that night. Upon returning to the Moika Palace, Yusupov went back to the basement to ensure that Rasputin was dead. Suddenly, Rasputin leapt up and attacked Yusupov, who – with some effort – freed himself and fled upstairs. Rasputin followed and made it into the palace’s courtyard before being shot by Purishkevich and collapsing into a snowbank. The conspirators then beat Rasputin with a club, wrapped his body in cloth, drove it to the Petrovsky Bridge and dropped it into the Malaya Nevka River. They claim that Rasputin was seen to be struggling as he floated down the river but that the cold water finally killed him.

The coroner’s report of the autopsy does not confirm this story. It says that there was undigested alcohol, but no cyanide in his stomach. So, either the doctor’s technique was flawed or Yusupov did not have genuine cyanide (which I suspect is the case). The report does not indicate any signs of the body having been beaten, nor was there any water in the lungs, meaning Rasputin was already dead when his body was thrown in the river. The body had three bullet wounds, two in the back that were not fatal, and one in the forehead delivered at point-blank range when Rasputin was supine. All of this suggests that Yusupov was weaving a detailed fantasy in his written testimony and that he shot Rasputin in the back and then, when he still showed signs of life while on the ground, shot him in the head, and then dumped the body in the river: less dramatic, but more believable.

It might be morbid to give a recipe for a favorite 19th century Russian cake to celebrate Rasputin, but I would not be the first. Here is a detailed video recipe for medovik – Russian honey cake. Note that there is no cyanide in the recipe.

Jan 202019
 

Today is the birthday (1896) of legendary US comedian George Burns who made it to his 100th birthday and a few months more before handing in his lunch pail. He was one of the few performers in the US who made the transition from vaudeville, to radio, and on to film and television. His arched eyebrow and cigar-smoke punctuation became familiar trademarks for over three quarters of a century. He and his wife, Gracie Allen, appeared on radio, television, and film for decades as the comedy duo Burns and Allen. These days their gender roles of the cool, sophisticated man of the house and his ditzy housewife companion might not play so well, but it worked in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond.

Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City, the ninth of 12 children born to Hadassah “Dorah” (née Bluth; 1857–1927) and Eliezer Birnbaum (1855–1903), known as Louis or Lippe, Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States from Kolbuszowa in what is now Poland. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue but usually worked as a coat presser. During the influenza epidemic of 1903, Lippe Birnbaum contracted the flu and died at the age of 47. Burns went to work to help support the family, shining shoes, running errands and selling newspapers. When he landed a job as a syrup maker in a local candy shop at age seven, “Nate” as he was known, was “discovered”, as he recalled long after:

We were all about the same age, six and seven, and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with: no more chocolate syrup. It’s show business from now on. We called ourselves the Pee-Wee Quartet. We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons, in brothels, and on street corners. We’d put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats.

Burns was drafted into the United States Army when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, but he failed the physical because he was extremely nearsighted. In order to try to hide his Jewish heritage, he adopted the stage name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. He claimed in a few interviews that the idea of the name originated from the fact that two star major league players (George H. Burns and George J. Burns, unrelated) were playing major league baseball at the time. Both men achieved over 2000 major league hits and hold some major league records. Burns also was reported to have taken the name “George” from his brother Izzy (who hated his own name so he changed it to “George”), and the Burns from the Burns Brothers Coal Company (he used to steal coal from their truck).

He normally partnered with a girl, sometimes in an adagio dance routine, sometimes comic patter. Though he had an apparent flair for comedy, he never quite clicked with any of his partners, until he met a young Irish Catholic in 1923. “And all of a sudden,” he said famously in later years, “the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent—and I was married to her for 38 years.” His first wife was Hannah Siegel (stage name: Hermosa Jose), one of his dance partners. The marriage, never consummated, lasted 26 weeks and happened because her family would not let them go on tour unless they were married. They divorced at the end of the tour.

Burn’s second wife and famous partner in their entertainment routines was Gracie Allen. Burns and Allen got a start in motion pictures with a series of comic short films in the late 1930s. Their feature credits in the mid- to late-1930s included The Big Broadcast; International House (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), (the latter two films with W.C. Fields), The Big Broadcast of 1936, The Big Broadcast of 1937, A Damsel in Distress (1937) in which they danced step-for-step with Fred Astaire, and College Swing (1938) in which Bob Hope made one of his early film appearances. Honolulu would be Burns’s last movie for nearly 40 years.

Burns and Allen were indirectly responsible for the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby series of “Road” pictures. In 1938, William LeBaron, producer and managing director at Paramount, had a script prepared by Don Hartman and Frank Butler. It was to star Burns and Allen with Bing Crosby, who was then already an established star of radio, recordings and the movies. The story did not seem to fit the comedy team’s style, so LeBaron ordered Hartman and Butler to rewrite the script to fit two male co-stars: Hope and Crosby. The script was titled Road to Singapore, and it made motion picture history when it was released in 1940.

Burns and Allen first made it to radio as the comedy relief for bandleader Guy Lombardo, which did not always sit well with Lombardo’s home audience. In his later memoir, The Third Time Around, Burns revealed a college fraternity’s protest letter, complaining that they resented their weekly dance parties with their girlfriends listening to “Thirty Minutes of the Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven” had to be broken into by a vaudeville team.

In time, though, Burns and Allen found their own show and radio audience, first airing on February 15th, 1932 and concentrating on their classic stage routines plus sketch comedy in which the Burns and Allen style was woven into different little scenes, not unlike the short films they made in Hollywood. They were also good for a clever publicity stunt, none more so than the hunt for Gracie’s missing brother, a hunt that included Gracie turning up on other radio shows searching for him as well.

The couple was portrayed at first as younger singles, with Allen the object of both Burns’ and other cast members’ affections. Most notably, bandleaders Ray Noble (known for his phrase, “Gracie, this is the first time we’ve ever been alone”) and Artie Shaw played “love” interests to Gracie. In addition, singer Tony Martin played an unwilling love interest of Gracie’s, in which Gracie “sexually harassed” him, by threatening to fire him if the romantic interest was not reciprocated.

In time, however, due to slipping ratings and the difficulty of being portrayed as singles in light of the audience’s close familiarity with their real-life marriage, the show adapted in the fall of 1941 to present them as the married couple they actually were. For a time, Burns and Allen had a rather distinguished and popular musical director: Artie Shaw, who also appeared as a character in some of the show’s sketches. A somewhat different Gracie also marked this era, as the Gracie character could often be mean to George.

As this format grew stale over the years, Burns and his fellow writers redeveloped the show as a situation comedy in the fall of 1941. The reformat focused on the couple’s married life and life among various friends, including Elvia Allman as “Tootsie Sagwell,” a man-hungry spinster in love with Bill Goodwin, and neighbors, until the characters of Harry and Blanche Morton entered the picture to stay.

Like The Jack Benny Program, the new George Burns & Gracie Allen Show portrayed George and Gracie as entertainers with their own weekly radio show. Goodwin remained, his character as “girl-crazy” as ever, and the music was now handled by Meredith Willson (later to be better known for composing the Broadway musical The Music Man). Willson also played himself on the show as a naive, friendly, girl-shy fellow. The new format’s success made it one of the few classic radio comedies to completely re-invent itself and regain major fame.

In the fall of 1949, after twelve years at NBC, the couple took the show back to its original network CBS, where they had risen to fame from 1932 to 1937. Their good friend Jack Benny reached a negotiating impasse with NBC over the corporation he set up (“Amusement Enterprises”) to package his show, the better to put more of his earnings on a capital-gains basis and avoid the 80% taxes slapped on very high earners in the World War II period. When CBS executive William S. Paley convinced Benny to move to CBS (Paley, among other things, impressed Benny with his attitude that the performers make the network, not the other way around as NBC chief David Sarnoff reputedly believed), Benny in turn convinced several NBC stars to join him, including Burns and Allen. Thus CBS reaped the benefits when Burns and Allen moved to television in 1950. On television, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show put faces to the radio characters audiences had come to love.

To ring the changes, instead of a recipe I give you one of their shows in which Gracie tries to adopt a vegetarian diet. Typical stuff for the era:

Jan 192019
 

Today is the birthday (1736) of James Watt whose improvements of the steam engine were critical in the development of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. He did not, as many believe, invent the steam engine, but his  (many) improvements were monumentally important. He also had a hand in other, less well known, inventions. He was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire on the Firth of Clyde. His father was a shipwright, ship owner and contractor, and served as the town’s chief baillie, while his mother, Agnes Muirhead, came from a distinguished family and was well educated. Watt’s grandfather, Thomas Watt, was a mathematics teacher and baillie to the Baron of Cartsburn.

Watt did not attend school regularly; initially he was mostly schooled at home by his mother but later he attended Greenock Grammar School. He exhibited great manual dexterity, engineering skills and an aptitude for mathematics, while Latin and Greek failed to interest him. He is said to have suffered prolonged bouts of ill-health as a child. When he was 18, his mother died and his father’s health began to fail. Watt travelled to London to study instrument-making for a year, then returned to Scotland, settling in Glasgow intent on setting up his own instrument-making business. He made and repaired brass reflecting quadrants, parallel rulers, scales, parts for telescopes, and barometers, among other things. Because he had not served at least seven years as an apprentice, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen (which had jurisdiction over any artisans using hammers) blocked his application, despite there being no other mathematical instrument makers in Scotland.

Watt was saved from this impasse by the arrival from Jamaica of astronomical instruments bequeathed by Alexander Macfarlane to the University of Glasgow, instruments that required expert attention. Watt restored them to working order and was remunerated. Subsequently three faculty members offered him the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university in 1757.

At first Watt worked on maintaining and repairing scientific instruments used in the university, helping with demonstrations, and expanding the production of quadrants. In 1759 he formed a partnership with John Craig, an architect and businessman, to manufacture and sell a line of products including musical instruments and toys. This partnership lasted for the next 6 years, and employed up to 16 workers. Craig died in 1765. One employee, Alex Gardner, eventually took over the business, which lasted into the 20th century.

There is a popular story that Watt was inspired to invent the steam engine by seeing a kettle boiling, the steam forcing the lid to rise and thus showing Watt the power of steam. This story is told in many forms; in some Watt is a young lad, in others he is older, sometimes it’s his mother’s kettle, sometimes his aunt’s. James Watt of course did not actually invent the steam engine, as the story implies, but dramatically improved the efficiency of the existing Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser. It appears that the story of Watt and the kettle was created, possibly by Watt’s son, and persists because it is easy for children to understand and remember. In this light it can be seen as akin to the story of Isaac Newton, the falling apple and his discovery of gravity.

Although it is often dismissed as a fable, the story of James Watt and the kettle has a basis in fact. In trying to understand the thermodynamics of heat and steam James Watt carried out many laboratory experiments and his diaries record that in conducting these he used a kettle as a boiler to generate steam. In 1759 Watt’s friend, John Robison, called his attention to the use of steam as a source of motive power. The design of the Newcomen engine, in use for almost 50 years for pumping water from mines, had hardly changed from its first implementation. Watt began to experiment with steam, though he had never seen an operating steam engine. He tried constructing a model; it failed to work satisfactorily, but he continued his experiments and began to read everything he could about the subject. He came to realize the importance of latent heat—the thermal energy released or absorbed during a constant-temperature process—in understanding the engine, which, unknown to Watt, his friend Joseph Black had previously discovered some years before. Understanding of the steam engine was in a very primitive state, because the science of thermodynamics would not be formalized for nearly another 100 years.

In 1763, Watt was asked to repair a model Newcomen engine belonging to the university. Even after repair, the engine barely worked. After much experimentation, Watt demonstrated that about three-quarters of the thermal energy of the steam was being consumed in heating the engine cylinder on every cycle. This energy was wasted because later in the cycle cold water was injected into the cylinder to condense the steam to reduce its pressure. Thus, by repeatedly heating and cooling the cylinder, the engine wasted most of its thermal energy rather than converting it into mechanical energy.

Watt’s critical insight, arrived at in May 1765, was to cause the steam to condense in a separate chamber apart from the piston, and to maintain the temperature of the cylinder at the same temperature as the injected steam by surrounding it with a steam jacket. Thus very little energy was absorbed by the cylinder on each cycle, making more available to perform useful work. Watt had a working model later that same year.

Despite a potentially workable design, there were still substantial difficulties in constructing a full-scale engine. This required more capital, some of which came from Black. More substantial backing came from John Roebuck, the founder of the celebrated Carron Iron Works near Falkirk, with whom he now formed a partnership. Roebuck lived at Kinneil House in Bo’ness, during which time Watt worked at perfecting his steam engine in a cottage adjacent to the house. The shell of the cottage, and a very large part of one of his projects, still exist to the rear. The principal difficulty was in machining the piston and cylinder. Iron workers of the day were more like blacksmiths than modern machinists, and were unable to produce the components with sufficient precision. Considerable capital was spent in pursuing a patent on Watt’s invention. Strapped for resources, Watt was forced to take up employment—first as a surveyor, then as a civil engineer—for eight years. Roebuck went bankrupt, and Matthew Boulton, who owned the Soho Manufactory works near Birmingham, acquired his patent rights. An extension of the patent to 1800 was successfully obtained in 1775. Through Boulton, Watt finally had access to some of the best iron workers in the world. The difficulty of the manufacture of a large cylinder with a tightly fitting piston was solved by John Wilkinson, who had developed precision boring techniques for cannon making at Bersham, near Wrexham, North Wales. Watt and Boulton formed a hugely successful partnership, Boulton and Watt, which lasted for the next 25 years.

In 1776, the first engines were installed and working in commercial enterprises. These first engines were used to power pumps and produced only reciprocating motion to move the pump rods at the bottom of the shaft. The design was commercially successful, and for the next 5 years Watt was busy installing more engines, mostly in Cornwall for pumping water out of mines. These early engines were not manufactured by Boulton and Watt, but were made by others according to drawings made by Watt, who served in the role of consulting engineer. The installation of the engine and its shakedown was supervised by Watt, at first, and then by men in the firm’s employ. These were large machines. The first, for example, had a cylinder with a diameter of 50 inches and an overall height of about 24 feet, and required the construction of a dedicated building to house it. Boulton and Watt charged an annual payment, equal to one third of the value of the coal saved in comparison to a Newcomen engine performing the same work.

The field of application for the invention was greatly widened when Boulton urged Watt to convert the reciprocating motion of the piston to produce rotational power for grinding, weaving and milling. Although a crank seemed the obvious solution to the conversion Watt and Boulton were stymied by a patent for this, whose holder, James Pickard, and associates proposed to cross-license with the external condenser. Watt adamantly opposed this and they circumvented the patent by their sun and planet gear in 1781.

Over the next 6 years, Watt made a number of other improvements and modifications to the steam engine. A double acting engine, in which the steam acted alternately on the two sides of the piston was one. He described methods for working the steam “expansively” (i.e., using steam at pressures well above atmospheric). He also developed a compound engine, which connected two or more engines. Two more patents were granted for these in 1781 and 1782. Numerous other improvements that made for easier manufacture and installation were continually implemented. One of these included the use of the steam indicator which produced an informative plot of the pressure in the cylinder against its volume, which he kept as a trade secret. Another important invention, one which Watt was most proud of, was the parallel motion which was essential in double-acting engines as it produced the straight line motion required for the cylinder rod and pump, from the connected rocking beam, whose end moves in a circular arc. This was patented in 1784. A throttle valve to control the power of the engine, and a centrifugal governor, patented in 1788, to keep it from “running away” were very important. These improvements taken together produced an engine which was up to five times as efficient in its use of fuel as the Newcomen engine. Because of the danger of exploding boilers, which were in a very primitive stage of development, and the ongoing issues with leaks, Watt restricted his use of high pressure steam – all of his engines used steam at near atmospheric pressure.

Edward Bull started constructing engines for Boulton and Watt in Cornwall in 1781. By 1792 he had started making engines of his own design, but which contained a separate condenser, and so infringed Watt’s patents. Two brothers, Jabez Carter Hornblower and Jonathan Hornblower also started to build engines about the same time. Others began to modify Newcomen engines by adding a condenser, and the mine owners in Cornwall became convinced that Watt’s patent could not be enforced. They started to withhold payments due to Boulton and Watt, which by 1795 had fallen. Of the total £21,000 (equivalent to £1,990,000 as of 2016) owed, only £2,500 had been received. Watt was forced to go to court to enforce his claims.

He first sued Bull in 1793. The jury found for Watt, but the question of whether or not the original specification of the patent was valid was left to another trial. In the meantime, injunctions were issued against the infringers, forcing their payments of the royalties to be placed in escrow. The trial on determining the validity of the specifications which was held in the following year was inconclusive, but the injunctions remained in force and the infringers, except for Jonathan Hornblower, all began to settle their cases. Hornblower was soon brought to trial and the verdict of the four judges (in 1799) was decisively in favor of Watt. Their friend John Wilkinson, who had solved the problem of boring an accurate cylinder, was a particularly grievous case. He had built about 20 engines without Boulton’s and Watts’ knowledge. They finally agreed to settle the infringement in 1796. Boulton and Watt never collected all that was owed them, but the disputes were all settled directly between the parties or through arbitration. These trials were extremely costly in both money and time, but ultimately were successful for the firm.

Before 1780 there was no good method for making copies of letters or drawings. The only method sometimes used was a mechanical one using linked multiple pens. Watt at first experimented with improving this method, but soon gave up on this approach because it was so cumbersome. He instead decided to try to physically transfer some ink from the front of the original to the back of another sheet, moistened with a solvent, and pressed to the original. The second sheet had to be thin, so that the ink could be seen through it when the copy was held up to the light, thus reproducing the original exactly.

Watt started to develop the process in 1779, and made many experiments to formulate the ink, select the thin paper, to devise a method for wetting the special thin paper, and to make a press suitable for applying the correct pressure to effect the transfer. All of these required much experimentation, but he soon had enough success to patent the process a year later. Watt formed another partnership with Boulton (who provided financing) and James Keir (to manage the business) in a firm called James Watt and Co. The perfection of the invention required much more development work before it could be routinely used by others, but this was carried out over the next few years. Boulton and Watt gave up their shares to their sons in 1794. It became a commercial success and was widely used in offices even into the twentieth century.

From an early age Watt was very interested in chemistry. In late 1786, while in Paris, he witnessed an experiment by Berthollet in which he reacted hydrochloric acid with manganese dioxide to produce chlorine. He had already found that an aqueous solution of chlorine could bleach textiles, and had published his findings, which aroused great interest among many potential rivals. When Watt returned to Britain, he began experiments along these lines with hopes of finding a commercially viable process. He discovered that a mixture of salt, manganese dioxide and sulphuric acid could produce chlorine, which Watt believed might be a cheaper method. He passed the chlorine into a weak solution of alkali, and obtained a turbid solution that appeared to have good bleaching properties. He soon communicated these results to James McGrigor, his father-in-law, who was a bleacher in Glasgow. Otherwise he tried to keep his method a secret.

With McGrigor and his wife Annie, he started to scale up the process, and in March 1788, McGrigor was able to bleach 1500 yards of cloth to his satisfaction. About this time Berthollet discovered the salt and sulphuric acid process, and published it so it became public knowledge. Many others began to experiment with improving the process, which still had many shortcomings, not the least of which was the problem of transporting the liquid product. Watt’s rivals soon overtook him in developing the process, and he dropped out of the race. It was not until 1799, when Charles Tennant patented a process for producing solid bleaching powder (calcium hypochlorite) that it became a commercial success.

Watt did most of his work at his home in Harper’s Hill in Birmingham, while Boulton worked at the Soho Manufactory. Gradually the partners began to actually manufacture more and more of the parts, and by 1795 they purchased a property about a mile away from the Soho manufactory, on the banks of the Birmingham Canal, to establish a new foundry for the manufacture of the engines. The Soho Foundry formally opened in 1796 at a time when Watt’s sons, Gregory and James  were heavily involved in the management of the enterprise. In 1800, the year of Watt’s retirement, the firm made a total of 41 engines.

Watt retired in 1800, the same year that his fundamental patent and partnership with Boulton expired. The famous partnership was transferred to the men’s sons, Matthew Robinson Boulton and James Watt. Longtime firm engineer William Murdoch was soon made a partner and the firm prospered.

Watt continued to invent other things before and during his semi-retirement. Within his home in Handsworth, Staffordshire, Watt made use of a garret room as a workshop, and it was here that he worked on many of his inventions. Among other things, he invented and constructed several machines for copying sculptures and medallions which worked very well, but which he never patented. One of the first sculptures he produced with the machine was a small head of his old Glasgow university friend Adam Smith. He maintained his interest in civil engineering and was a consultant on several significant projects. He proposed, for example, a method for constructing a flexible pipe to be used for pumping water under the Clyde at Glasgow.

Watt died on 25th August 1819 at his home “Heathfield” in Handsworth, Staffordshire (now part of Birmingham) at the age of 83. He was buried on 2nd September in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Handsworth. The church has since been extended and his grave is now inside the church.

Given the fable about Watt and the kettle, I though I’d give some hints about cooking in an electric kettle. I’ve had to do this when I lived in hotels/hostels in China and Myanmar when I wanted quick cheap meals. Obviously, you can use an electric kettle simply to boil water for instant noodles and the like, and I’ve certainly done that, but that is not what I am talking about – I am talking about cooking in the kettle. If your imagination does not stretch beyond boiling water in the kettle you can at least dress up instant noodle soups with items you can get at any local store (in Asia, that is), such as packaged sausages, dried shrimp, preserved vegetables, and quail eggs.

If you are going to cook in the kettle itself you need a place to wash it out, and, preferably, two kettles – one for cooking and one for boiling water. Residual spices in the kettle, even washed out, do not go well with your morning tea – or in my case yerba mate. If you can find one, the best kettles for cooking in do not have an automatic off switch when the kettle boils. Off switches constantly interrupt the boiling process, especially because you cannot immediately turn the kettle back on when it clicks off. You have to wait for the thermostat to cool enough to click it back on, so your cooking temperature is always going up and down.

Unless you have a lot more patience than I do, you are not going to want to cook dried beans or lentils in an electric kettle. But vegetables are just fine, and you can easily make a wonderful vegetable soup by chopping up your choice – Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, leeks, bell peppers . . . whatever, using some stock powder as a base. Throw in some dried shrimp or pickled vegetables for added flavor if you want. You can also make decent pasta dishes, as long as you cook the smaller kinds – penne, farfalle, elbow macaroni, etc. When the pasta is cooked, drain off the water, and dump in your sauce, give it a good stir and heat for a minute or two. Anything you can cook in a small saucepan in about 20 to 25 minutes, you can cook in an electric kettle. Trust me – I have a lot of experience. I lived in Asian hostels for 2 years.

Jan 182019
 

Today is the birthday (1932) of Robert Anton Wilson, a US author, novelist, essayist, editor, playwright, poet, futurist, and self-described agnostic mystic. Recognized by Discordianism as an episkopos, pope, and saint, Wilson helped publicize the group through his writings and interviews.

Wilson, born Robert Edward Wilson, spent his first years in Flatbush, and moved with his family to Gerritsen Beach around the age of four, where they stayed until relocating to Bay Ridge when Wilson was thirteen. He suffered from polio as a child, and found generally effective treatment with the Kenny Method (created by Elizabeth Kenny) which the American Medical Association repudiated at that time. Polio’s effects remained with Wilson throughout his life, usually manifesting as minor muscle spasms causing him to use a cane occasionally until 2000, when he experienced a major bout with post-polio syndrome that continued until his death.

Wilson attended Catholic grammar school, likely the school associated with Gerritsen Beach’s Resurrection Church, and attended Brooklyn Technical High School (a selective public institution) to escape Catholic influence. At “Brooklyn Tech,” Wilson was influenced by literary modernism (particularly Ezra Pound and James Joyce), the Western philosophical tradition, then-innovative historians such as Charles A. Beard, science fiction (including the works of Olaf Stapledon, Robert A. Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon) and Alfred Korzybski’s interdisciplinary theory of general semantics. He later said that the family was “living so well … compared to the Depression” during this period “that I imagined we were lace-curtain Irish at last.”

Following his graduation in 1950, Wilson was employed in a succession of jobs (including ambulance driver, engineering aide, salesman and medical orderly) and absorbed various academic perspectives (Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Leon Trotsky and Ayn Rand, whom he later repudiated) while writing in his spare time. He studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute from 1952 to 1957 and English education at New York University from 1957 to 1958 but failed to take a degree from either. Wilson began to work as a freelance journalist and advertising copywriter in the late 1950s. He adopted his maternal grandfather’s name, Anton, for his writings, telling himself that he would save the “Edward” for when he wrote the Great American Novel and later finding that “Robert Anton Wilson” had become an established identity.

He assumed co-editorship of the School for Living’s Brookville, Ohio-based Balanced Living magazine in 1962 and briefly returned to New York as associate editor of Ralph Ginzburg’s quarterly Fact: before leaving for Playboy, where he served as an associate editor from 1965 to 1971. According to Wilson, Playboy “paid me a higher salary than any other magazine at which I had worked and never expected me to become a conformist or sell my soul in return. I enjoyed my years in the Bunny Empire. I only resigned when I reached 40 and felt I could not live with myself if I didn’t make an effort to write full-time at last.” Along with frequent collaborator Robert Shea, Wilson edited the magazine’s Playboy Forum, a letters section consisting of responses to the Playboy Philosophy editorial column. During this period, he covered Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s Millbrook, New York-based Castalia Foundation at the instigation of Alan Watts in The Realist, cultivated important friendships with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and lectured at the Free University of New York on ‘Anarchist and Synergetic Politics’ in 1965. Wilson received a B.A., M.A. (1978) and Ph.D. (1981) in psychology from Paideia University, an unaccredited institution that has since closed. Wilson reworked his dissertation, and published it in 1983 as Prometheus Rising.

Wilson married freelance writer and poet Arlen Riley in 1958. They had four children, including Christina Wilson Pearson and Patricia Luna Wilson. Luna was beaten to death in an apparent robbery in the store where she worked in 1976 at the age of 15, and became the first person to have her brain preserved by the Bay Area Cryonics Society. Arlen Riley Wilson died in 1999 following a series of strokes.

Among Wilson’s 35 books, and many other works, perhaps his best-known volumes remain the cult classic series The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), co-authored with Shea. Advertised as “a fairy tale for paranoids,” the three books—The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan, soon offered as a single volume—philosophically and humorously examined, among many other themes, occult and magical symbolism and history, the counterculture of the 1960s, secret societies, data concerning H.P. Lovecraft and Aleister Crowley, and American paranoia about conspiracies and conspiracy theories. The book was intended to poke fun at the conspiratorial mindset.

Wilson and Shea derived much of the odder material from letters sent to Playboy magazine while they worked as the editors of its Forum. The books mixed verifiable information with imaginative fiction to engage the reader in what Wilson called “guerrilla ontology”, which he apparently referred to as “Operation Mindfuck” in Illuminatus! The trilogy also outlined a set of libertarian and anarchist axioms known as Celine’s Laws (named after Hagbard Celine, a character in Illuminatus!), concepts Wilson revisited several times in other writings. Among the many subplots of Illuminatus! one addresses biological warfare and the overriding of the United States Bill of Rights, another gives a detailed account of the John F. Kennedy assassination (in which no fewer than five snipers, all working for different causes, prepare to shoot Kennedy), and the book’s climax occurs at a rock concert where the audience collectively faces the danger of becoming a mass human sacrifice.

Illuminatus! popularized Discordianism and the use of the term “fnord”. It incorporates experimental prose styles influenced by writers such as William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. Although Shea and Wilson never co-operated on such a scale again, Wilson continued to expand upon the themes of the Illuminatus! books throughout his writing career. Most of his later fiction contains cross-over characters from “The Sex Magicians” (Wilson’s first novel, written before the release of Illuminatus!, which includes many of his same characters) and The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

Illuminatus! won the Prometheus Hall of Fame award for science fiction in 1986, has many international editions, and found adaptation for the stage when Ken Campbell produced it as a ten-hour drama. It also appeared as two card based games from Steve Jackson Games, one a trading-card game (Illuminati: New World Order). Eye N Apple Productions and Rip Off Press produced a comic book version of the trilogy.

Wilson wrote two more popular fiction series. The first, Schrödinger’s Cat, a trilogy later published as a single volume. The second, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, appeared as three books. In between publishing the two trilogies Wilson released a stand-alone novel, Masks of the Illuminati (1981), which fits into, due to the main character’s ancestry, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles’ timeline and, while published earlier, could qualify as the fourth volume in that series.

Wilson also criticized certain “scientific” types with overly rigid belief systems, equating them with religious fundamentalists in their fanaticism. In a 1988 interview, when asked about his newly published book The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science, Wilson commented:

I coined the term irrational rationalism because those people claim to be rationalists, but they’re governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They’re so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic … I wrote this book because I got tired satirizing fundamentalist Christianity … I decided to satirize fundamentalist materialism for a change, because the two are equally comical … The materialist fundamentalists are funnier than the Christian fundamentalists, because they think they’re rational! … They’re never skeptical about anything except the things they have a prejudice against. None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma. They’re only skeptical about new ideas that frighten them. They’re actually dogmatically committed to what they were taught when they were in college.

On June 22nd, 2006, Huffington Post blogger Paul Krassner reported that Wilson was under hospice care at home with friends and family. On October 2nd, Douglas Rushkoff reported that Wilson was in severe financial trouble. Slashdot, Boing Boing, and the Church of the SubGenius also picked up on the story, linking to Rushkoff’s appeal. As his webpage reported on October 10th, these efforts succeeded beyond expectation and raised a sum which would have supported him for at least six months. Obviously touched by the great outpouring of support, on October 5th, 2006, Wilson left the following comment on his personal website, expressing his gratitude:

Dear Friends, my God, what can I say. I am dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and totally stunned by the charity and compassion that has poured in here the last three days. To steal from Jack Benny, “I do not deserve this, but I also have severe leg problems and I don’t deserve them either.” Because he was a kind man as well as a funny one, Benny was beloved. I find it hard to believe that I am equally beloved and especially that I deserve such love.    Whoever you are, wherever you are, know that my love is with you. You have all reminded me that despite George W. Bush and all his cohorts, there is still a lot of beautiful kindness in the world.

Blessings,

Robert Anton Wilson

On January 6, 2007, Wilson wrote on his blog that according to several medical authorities, he would likely only have between two days and two months left to live. He closed this message with “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.” Wilson died peacefully five days later, on January 11 at 4:50 a.m. Pacific time, just a week short of his 75th birthday. After his cremation on January 18th (his 75th birthday), his family held a memorial service on February 18 and then scattered most of his ashes at the same spot as his wife’s—off the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Long-time friend Scott Apel wrote this concerning Wilson:

(Bob and Arlen loved Red Lobster. When they lived on Brommer St. in Capitola in the early ‘90s, they lived within walking distance of a Red Lobster in the Capitola Mall, and dined there at least once a week. In the final years of his life, when Cathy and I spent every Saturday night with Bob, the SOP was to stop at a Red Lobster in San Jose and order up several carry-out meals for him on our way to Capitola. We became close with the manager who took our order, and when she found out the food was for Robert Anton Wilson, we discovered she was a fan and started adding extra food to our take-out order, free of charge. Bob inspired that kind of love and generosity.) In the years since then, Cathy and I have always referred to the chain as “Red Bobster.”

I suppose you could make a trip to Red Lobster if you wanted an authentic Robert Anton Wilson experience to celebrate his birthday, but that would not be my first choice for several reasons. First is that I rarely eat out, and food chains are never my choice when I do. Food chains, and Red Lobster is no exception, get a bit secretive if you probe too deeply where their ingredients come from (and what they really are).  Chains that have surprisingly low prices must be cutting corners somewhere. DNA analysis of Red Lobster’s lobster bisque showed that it had mostly langoustine in it, which is called Norway lobster, so technically they are on safe ground, and langoustines are grouped in a family of genuses Nephrops and Metanephrops that all have “lobster” in their names. But they are usually called “scampi” in Europe and are a lot cheaper than their cousins in the Homarus genus, which people typically think of when they use the term “lobster.” All right, that’s just marketing sleight of hand. Red Lobster remains a bit closed mouthed about where it sources its ingredients, which raises a red flag for me.

I’m much happier making my seafood feasts at home, and I expect Wilson would have been happy with my seafood lasagna – flying or otherwise. Chameleon cook fashion, I’ll give you the basic idea and leave you to figure out the details. Standard lasagna requires a meat sauce, several cheeses, and lasagna pasta layered in a dish and baked. Seafood lasagna is a lot simpler (and potentially more expensive). I have seen recipes for seafood lasagna with cheese in them, but I do not like the combination of seafood, pasta, and cheese (nor do many Italians), so I leave out the cheese. You’ll need a good béchamel sauce and a variety of seafood. You can just use a medley of fish if you are hard up, but if the pocket allows, you can add shellfish of choice. Lightly poach your seafood mix and mix it with your béchamel. Cook lasagna pasta barely al dente. Grease a casserole, spread a thin layer of béchamel in the bottom, and line the bottom with pasta, then layer the dish – seafood mix, pasta – finishing with a pasta top brushed with a little béchamel. Bake at 375°F for about 30 minutes, or until the dish is bubbling and the top is golden. Serve in squares with a green salad.

Jan 172019
 

Today is the opening day of the Patras carnival, in Greece, the largest of its kind in Greece, and rivaling carnivals worldwide. So . . . when people feel the blues because Christmas is over and Lent is looming, they get into the party spirit with carnival. Of course, if Lent is not a big deal for you, then carnival will not be important either. But in largely Catholic countries, or enclaves, there is always at least one city – Rio, New Orleans, Venice – where they pull out all the stops. Such places attract huge numbers of tourists these days, but there is still very much a local presence under the schlock if you know where to look. Patras is unusual in that it occurs in a predominantly Orthodox country.

You might hear the usual rubbish about how Patras carnival has roots in ancient pagan rituals, such as those to honor Dionysus, but there is general agreement that the starting event of the current Patras Carnival was a ball given at the residence of the merchant Moretis in 1829. French troops of general Maison stationed in the city after its liberation from the Turks were a major influence on the carnival, bringing their own (Catholic) culture and traditions to the festivities. During the 19th century, new arrivals from the newly joined Heptanese, the seven islands (plus smaller ones) in the Ionian sea that became part of Greece in 1864 also added their own regional culture and music. Later on, and as a consequence of the prosperity of the city at the end of the 19th century, the carnival festivities took on a more regular nature. The geographical location of the town and the ever-increasing dominance of the port ensured constant communication with Italy and the rest of Western Europe. Their grand carnivals and the Venetian carnival in particular were especially influential in shaping the festivities, giving the carnival its Western characteristics.

The first carnival floats appeared in the 1870s. At that time the floats were exclusively the creations of individuals. Later the Municipality of Patras constructed a large number of them. In 1872, with contributions from the town’s wealthy raisin merchants, the celebrated Apollon Theatre was built by Ernst Ziller in George square. Carnival dances were hosted there, and they continue to be hosted to this day. George square is the central location in carnival celebrations and the Apollon theatre serves as a backdrop to most major carnival events, including today’s opening ceremony, making it emblematic not only of the carnival but of the town itself.

In 1880 on Saint Anthony the Great’s day (today), the first “mpoules” appeared. These were groups who were disguised and anonymously poked fun at friends and other people in the neighborhood. This custom has now disappeared. As the historian of the Patras Carnival, Nikos Politis, points out, beautiful carnivals were organized during the belle époque in the years 1900, 1907, 1909 with attendance for the first time of individuals from all social classes and origins. This period also gave birth to the egg-war custom. Wax eggs were made stuffed with confetti using specially designed machines which the carnival participants threw from balconies. Although this custom has disappeared, it is considered to be the precursor of the chocolate war which still persists. Bars of chocolates are thrown by revelers on floats or amongst groups at parties.

The developments of the following decade were not favorable for the carnival; the continuous wars and conflicts (Balkan wars, World War I, Asia Minor campaign) economic crisis and desolation to the city. In the first postwar years the situation did not improve perceptibly, but the years 1938 and 1939 saw revivals. Nevertheless, World War II and the subsequent Greek Civil War brought interruption. In the 1950s the carnival returned. In the same period the Greek cinema showed scenes of the carnival in its films. Other historic scenes can be seen in prewar films.

In 1966 the carnival was reorganized. The journalist Nikos Mastorakis introduced the Hidden Treasure Hunt, a game in which 94 citizens of Patras and visitors try to find a list of sometimes obscure objects. The first prize was won by a team led by a friend of the carnival from Thessalonica, Alkis Steas, and he started the game the following year, and for decades thereafter, becoming a carnival legend in person and on television. His expressions such as “the Carnival city of Greece”, when he referred to Patras and “be happy” and “keep dancing!” when he referred to the carnival groups, remain catch phrases. In 1974 the modern phase of the carnival began when revelers were convinced to abandon their cars and parade on foot in the streets (until then only floats paraded). Since then each year the spectacle has grown and the carnival has become enormous with thousands of revelers taking part in the parade as hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Patras to witness the proceedings.

Irrespective of when the Triodion falls, the three-week period preceding the first Sunday of Lent, it is customary for the Carnival of Patras to start on the feast day of St. Anthony the Great (17 January). A town crier appears on the streets of Patras; in recent years this has been a specially constructed float with music. The crier announces the opening with a satirical message and invites the town’s residents to assemble that evening for the opening ceremony in George square. During a spectacular celebration with elements of surprise, as the program is kept secret till the last moment, the start of the Patras Carnival is declared by the town’s mayor from the first-floor balcony of the Apollon theatre. The program usually includes pantomimes, dances, music and fireworks.

Patras is a port city that owes much of its growth and wealth to the import and export of raisins. Greece has been growing raisins since antiquity and Patras was one of the first areas where they were grown. The 19th century, when the Patras carnival was expanding, was a boom time for raisin production and export, reaching 80% of all Greek at one point. So, raisins it is. Here is a recipe for Greek raisin cake.

Greek Raisin Cake

Ingredients:

4 cups flour
5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
1 cup butter
1 ½ cups sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups milk
2 cups raisins
powdered sugar

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Grease a 9 x 13 inch loaf pan.

Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, and salt together into a bowl.

Put the butter and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed until well combined. Turn the mixer to low speed and add the eggs a little at a time until they are well mixed in. Still on low speed, beat 2 cups of the dry ingredients into the egg mixture. Add ½ cup of milk and beat together. Add the rest of the dry ingredients and beat for 1 minute, then add the rest of the milk and beat again. Turn off the mixer and stir in the raisins using a wooden spoon, making sure they are mixed in well.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and let the pan cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out on to a serving plate and dust the top with confectioners’ sugar when the cake has completely cooled.

Jan 162019
 

Today is the birthday (1691) of Peter Scheemakers or Pieter Scheemaeckers the Younger, a Flemish sculptor who worked for most of his life in London where his public and church sculptures in a classicist style had a significant influence on the development of sculpture. Scheemakers is perhaps best known for executing the William Kent-designed memorial to William Shakespeare which was erected in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in 1740.

Scheemakers learned his art from his father, the Antwerp sculptor Pieter Scheemaeckers the Elder. He visited Denmark where he studied for four years with the court sculptor Johann Adam Sturmberg (1683–1741). He walked to Rome where he and Laurent Delvaux studied both classical and baroque styles of sculpture before settling in London in 1716. He and Delvaux worked there with another Flemish sculptor Pieter-Denis Plumier on a funeral monument to John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, which they delivered in 1722 after the death of Plumier.

In 1723, Scheemakers and Delvaux entered into a formal partnership and set up a workshop in Millbank in Westminster. Their workshop produced many sober classical monuments and garden statuary. The partners sold their stock in the partnership and travelled to Rome in 1728. Scheemakers stayed here for two years to study both classical and contemporary masterpieces. Upon his return to England in 1730 Scheemakers restarted the Milbank workshop on his own. His ‘ideal’ classical sculptures became very popular with the landowning class and the city merchants. He moved his workshop a few times: first to Old Palace Yard in 1736 and then to Vine Street in 1740 where he was active until his retirement in 1771. He returned to Antwerp where he died at the age of 90.

Fifteen of Scheemakers’ works – monuments, figures and busts – are in Westminster Abbey; two were executed in collaboration with Delvaux: the “Hugh Chamberlen” (d. 1728, and therefore perhaps produced during his first visit to London) and “Catherine, duchess of Buckinghamshire.” He is best known for his monument to Shakespeare (1740), but as this work was designed by Kent the credit is not all Scheemakers’. In addition to these, there are the monuments to Admiral Sir Charles Wager, Vice-Admiral Watson, Lieut.-General Percy Kirk, George Lord Viscount Howe, General Monck, and Sir Henry Belasye. His busts of John Dryden (1720) and Dr Richard Mead (1754), also in the Abbey, are noted examples of his smaller works.

Works outside of Westminster Abbey are memorials to the 1st and 2nd Dukes of Ancaster at Edenham, Lincolnshire; Lord Chancellor Hardwicke at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire; the Duke of Kent, his wives and daughters, at Fletton, Bedfordshire; the Earl of Shelburne, at Wycombe, Bucks; and the figure on the sarcophagus to Montague Sherrard Drake, at Amersham. Another example of his work is the memorial to Topham Foote (or Foot) in the parish church of St John the Baptist, Windsor. This burial monument, which includes the young man’s bust and the Foote family crest, greets visitors in the main High Street entrance, just 300 feet (90 m) from the Henry VIII gate to Windsor Castle. He also sculpted a memorial for the Petty family, marking the family burial place in All Saints’ Parish Church, High Wycombe, which depicts the family in Roman dress, and designed the gilded equestrian statue of King William III erected at Kingston upon Hull (1734).

In 1743, Mary Coghill erected the parish church of Clonturk (now Drumcondra Church) in memory of her brother Marmaduke Coghill, and placed in it a statue of her brother by Scheemakers. He also sculpted fourteen of the busts in the Long Room of the Trinity College Library in Dublin, including Homer, Aristotle and Socrates.

Between 1970 and 1993, an image of Scheemakers’ Shakespeare statue appeared on the reverse of Series D £20 notes issued by the Bank of England.

Scheemakers is credited with introducing broccoli to England in the 18th century. I have not done an exhaustive review of sources to check this claim, so you will have to do as I do and trust repetition on the internet. Broccoli resulted from breeding of cultivated Brassica crops in the northern Mediterranean starting around the 6th century BCE and since the time of the Roman Empire, broccoli has been popular in Italy.  A common way to cook broccoli in Italy is one of my favorites and would honor the memory of Scheemakers: broccoli in oil and garlic. Steam the broccoli until it is al dente. Meanwhile gently heat extra virgin olive oil in a wide skillet and add sliced garlic to your taste. I like to add several cloves. Do not allow the garlic to brown, but let it infuse the oil. Drain the broccoli, let it air dry, then toss it in the oil and garlic. Serve immediately. In Italy it is quite common to serve this style of broccoli with macaroni or pasta of your choice.

Jan 152019
 

On this date in 1919 in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. A large molasses storage tank burst and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph, killing 21 and injuring 150. The event is known as the Great Molasses Flood, also known as the Boston Molasses Disaster or the Great Boston Molasses Flood. The disaster occurred at the Purity Distilling Company facility (although a Washington Post article names U.S. Industrial Alcohol as the tank’s owner). The stored molasses was awaiting transfer to the Purity plant situated between Willow Street and what is now named Evereteze Way, in Cambridge.

At about 12:30 in the afternoon near Keany Square, at 529 Commercial Street, a molasses tank 50 ft tall, 90 ft in diameter, and containing as much as 2,300,000 US gallons, collapsed. Witnesses variously reported that as it collapsed they felt the ground shake and heard a roar, a long rumble similar to the passing of an elevated train, a tremendous crashing, a deep growling, or “a thunderclap-like bang!”, and as the rivets shot out of the tank, a machine gun-like sound.

The collapse unleashed a wave of molasses 25 ft high at its peak, moving at 35 mph. The molasses wave was of sufficient force to damage the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway’s Atlantic Avenue structure and tip a railroad car momentarily off the tracks. Nearby buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. Several blocks were flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 ft. The Boston Post reported:

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage  … Here and there struggled a form‍—‌whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was  … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings‍—‌men and women‍—‌suffered likewise.

The Boston Globe reported that people “were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet.” Others had debris hurled at them from the rush of sweet-smelling air. A truck was picked up and hurled into Boston Harbor. About 150 people were injured; 21 people and several horses were killed. Some were crushed and drowned by the molasses, or the debris it carried within. The wounded included people, horses, and dogs; coughing fits became one of the most common ailments after the initial blast. In a 1983 article for Smithsonian, Edwards Park wrote of one child’s experience:

Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him.

 

1. Purity Distilling molasses tank 2. Firehouse 31 (heavy damage) 3. Paving department and police station 4. Purity offices (flattened) 5. Copps Hill Terrace 6. Boston Gas Light building (damaged) 7. Purity warehouse (mostly intact) 8. Residential area (site of flattened Clougherty house)

First to the scene were 116 cadets under the direction of Lieutenant Commander H. J. Copeland from USS Nantucket, a training ship of the Massachusetts Nautical School (which is now the Massachusetts Maritime Academy), that was docked nearby at the playground pier. They ran several blocks toward the accident. They worked to keep the curious from getting in the way of the rescuers, while others entered into the knee-deep, sticky mess to pull out the survivors. Soon, the Boston Police, Red Cross, Army, and other Navy personnel arrived. Some nurses from the Red Cross dove into the molasses, while others tended to the injured, keeping them warm and keeping the exhausted workers fed. Many of these people worked through the night. The injured were so numerous that doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby building. Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup to help the victims. Four days elapsed before they stopped searching for victims; many of the dead were so glazed over in molasses, they were hard to recognize. Other victims were swept into Boston Harbor and were only found three to four months after the disaster.

Local residents brought a class-action lawsuit, one of the first held in Massachusetts, against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA), which had bought Purity Distilling in 1917. The lawsuit is considered a milestone in paving the way for modern corporate regulation. In spite of the company’s attempts to claim that the tank had been blown up by anarchists (because some of the alcohol produced was to be used in making munitions), a court-appointed auditor found USIA responsible after three years of hearings. United States Industrial Alcohol Company ultimately paid out $628,000 in damages ($9.08 million in 2018, adjusted for inflation). Relatives of those killed reportedly received around $7,000 per victim (equivalent to $101,000 in 2018).

Cleanup crews used salt water from a fireboat to wash the molasses away, and used sand to try to absorb it. The harbor was brown with molasses until summer. The cleanup in the immediate area took weeks, with somewhere between 300 to 400 workers involved. The cleanup in the rest of Greater Boston and its suburbs would take an indefinably longer time. Rescue workers, cleanup crews, and sight-seers had tracked molasses through the streets and spread it to subway platforms, to the seats inside trains and streetcars, to pay telephone handsets, into homes, and to countless other places. “Everything a Bostonian touched was sticky.”

Several factors that occurred on that day and the previous days might have contributed to the disaster. The tank was constructed poorly and tested insufficiently. Due to fermentation occurring within the tank, carbon dioxide production might have raised the internal pressure. The rise in local temperatures that occurred over the previous day also would have assisted in building this pressure. Records show that the air temperature rose from 2 to 41 °F (−17 to 5.0 °C) over that period. The failure occurred from a manhole cover near the base of the tank, and a fatigue crack there possibly grew to the point of criticality. The hoop stress is greatest near the base of a filled cylindrical tank.The tank had been filled to capacity only eight times since it was built a few years previously, putting the walls under an intermittent, cyclical load. Several authors say that the Purity Distilling Company was (or may have been) trying to outrace prohibition in the United States. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified the next day (January 16, 1919), and took effect one year later.

An inquiry after the disaster revealed that Arthur Jell, who oversaw the construction, neglected basic safety tests, such as filling the tank with water to check for leaks. When filled with molasses, the tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks. Local residents collected leaked molasses for their homes. An investigation first published in 2014, applying modern engineering analysis, found that the steel was not only half as thick as it should have been for a tank of its size, even with the lax standards of the day, but it also lacked manganese and was made more brittle as a result. Two days before the disaster, warmer molasses had been added to the tank, reducing the viscosity of the fluid. When the tank collapsed the fluid cooled quickly as it spread, until it reached Boston’s winter evening temperatures and the viscosity increased dramatically, trapping victims and hampering rescue efforts.

No prizes for guessing today’s recipe ingredient. Cane molasses is an ingredient used in baking and cooking that was popular in the Americas and Britain prior to the 20th century, when it used to be a common sweetener. To make molasses, sugar cane is harvested and stripped of leaves. Its juice is extracted, usually by cutting, crushing, or mashing. The juice is boiled to concentrate it, promoting sugar crystallization. The result of this first boiling is called first syrup, and it has the highest sugar content. First syrup is usually referred to in the Southern states of the United States as cane syrup, as opposed to molasses. Second molasses is created from a second boiling and sugar extraction, and has a slightly bitter taste. The third boiling of the sugar syrup yields dark, viscous blackstrap molasses, known for its robust flavor. The majority of sucrose from the original juice has crystallized and been removed. The caloric content of blackstrap molasses is mostly due to the small remaining sugar content. In Britain this third boiling produces black treacle.

In the 1950s I enjoyed treacle tarts made with black treacle, but in the 1960s in Britain, Golden Syrup became much more popular because it is sweeter and milder. In the US in the 1970s, however, I discovered that molasses was alive and well, and used in tart recipes in the South when I lived in North Carolina. Here is a serviceable recipe for molasses tarts with nuts.

Molasses Tarts

Ingredients

¾ cup brown sugar, packed
½ cup molasses
⅓ cup butter, melted
2 large eggs
1 tsp cider vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup chopped walnuts
1 recipe pie pastry (see HINTS)

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Grease a 12-cup tart (or muffin) tin. Cut out 12 circles of pastry to line each cup.

Beat the brown sugar, molasses and butter together in a stand mixer until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the vinegar and vanilla.

Pour the mixture into the pastry cups until they are ¾ full and top them with the chopped walnuts.

Bake the tarts for 20-25 minutes until the  filling starts to dome and set, and the pastry is golden.

Cool the tarts in the tin. When they are close to room temperature, remove them from the tin and serve.

Jan 142019
 

The Feast of the Ass was observed on this date primarily in medieval France as a by-product of the Feast of Fools which celebrated all donkey related stories in the Bible. The 14th January celebration focused on the Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13–23), in particular the donkey bearing the Holy Family into Egypt after Jesus’ birth. So, if you want to keep the Christmas story going a little longer, here is your opportunity. The feast was first celebrated in the 11th century, inspired by the pseudo-Augustinian “Sermo contra Judaeos” c. 6th century. In the second half of the 15th century, the feast disappeared gradually, along with the Feast of Fools, which was suppressed around the same time as being irreverent. Feast of the Ass was not considered as objectionable as the Feast of Fools, but it did encourage a kind of mockery of the liturgy. Typically, a girl and a child on a donkey would be led through town to the church, where the donkey would stand beside the altar during the sermon, and the congregation would “hee-haw” their responses to the priest.

In the 11th century “Sermo contra Judaeos” had taken the form of a metrical dramatic dialogue with a stage-arrangement adhering closely to the original text. Additions and adaptations were gradually introduced. A Rouen manuscript of the 13th century represents 28 prophets as taking part in the play. After Terce, the rubric directs, “let the procession move to the church, in the centre of which let there be a furnace and an idol for the brethren to refuse to worship.” The procession filed into the choir. On the one side were seated Moses, Amos, Isaias, Aaron, Balaam and his Ass, Zachary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist and Simeon. The three Gentile prophets sat opposite. The proceedings were conducted under the auspices of Saint Augustine. The presiding dignitary called on each of the prophets, who successively testified to the birth of the Messiah. When the Sibyl had recited her acrostic lines on the Signs of Judgment, all the prophets sang in unison a hymn of praise to the long-sought Savior. Mass immediately followed. The part that pleased the congregation was the role of Balaam and the Ass; hence the popular designation of the Processus Prophetarum as the Feast of the Ass. The part of Balaam was soon dissociated from its surroundings and expanded into an independent drama. The Rouen rubrics direct that two messengers be sent by king Balaak to bring forth the prophet. Balaam advances riding on a gorgeously caparisoned ass (a wooden, or hobby, ass with a person concealed inside). From the Chester pageant it is clear that the prophet rode on a wooden animal, since the rubric supposes that the speaker for the beast is “in asina”. Then follows the scene in which the ass meets the angered angel and protests at length against the cruelty of the rider. Once detached from the parent stem, the Festum Asinorum branched in various directions. In the Beauvais 13th century document the Feast of Asses is already an independent trope with the date and purpose of its celebration changed.

At Beauvais the Ass may have continued his minor role of enlivening the long procession of Prophets. On January 14, however, he discharged an important function in that city’s festivities. On the feast of the Flight into Egypt the most beautiful girl in the town, with a pretty child in her arms, was placed on a richly draped ass, and conducted with religious gravity to St Stephen’s Church. The ass (possibly a wooden figure) was stationed at the right of the altar, and the Mass was begun. After the Introit a Latin prose verse was sung.

The first stanza and its French refrain may serve as a specimen of the nine that follow:

Orientis partibus
Adventavit Asinus
Pulcher et fortissimus
Sarcinis aptissimus.

Hez, Sire Asnes, car chantez,
Belle bouche rechignez,
Vous aurez du foin assez
Et de l’avoine a plantez.

(From the Eastern lands the Ass is come, beautiful and very brave, well fitted to bear burdens. Up! Sir Ass, and sing. Open your pretty mouth. Hay will be yours in plenty, and oats in abundance.)

Mass was continued, and at its end, apparently without a sense of impropriety, the following direction (in Latin) was observed:

In fine Missae sacerdos, versus ad populum, vice ‘Ite, Missa est’, ter hinhannabit: populus vero, vice ‘Deo Gratias’, ter respondebit, ‘Hinham, hinham, hinham.’

(At the end of Mass, the priest, facing the people, in place of  ‘Ite missa est’, will bray three times: the people instead of replying ‘Deo Gratias’ say, ‘Hinham, hinham, hinham.’)

This is the sole instance of a service of this nature in connection with the Feast of Ass. The Festum Asinorum gradually lost its identity, and became incorporated in the ceremonies of the Deposuit or united in the general merry-making on the Feast of Fools. The Processus Prophetarum, whence it drew its origin, survived in the Corpus Christi and Whitsun play cycles in England.

I have mentioned the impropriety of reindeer for Christmas dinner (even though it is common in parts of Scandinavia), or rabbit for Easter dinner. A donkey stew for this feast is irresistible, however. Stracotto d’asino (stewed ass), is a specialty of Mantua where I lived for two years. It took some time to find a restaurant that served it because it is not a popular dish any more, and when I first tasted it, I was not impressed. It was all right, but not great. There was a horse butcher near my home that sold donkey on order so I bought some and experimented. Eventually I produced a stracotto that Mantovani all claimed was the best they had eaten – better than any in a local restaurant. Well – so much for humility. My “secret” was to add cloves and allspice to the dish’s aromatics.  Allspice (pepe de Giamaica in Italian) is not easy to find because it is not used in Italian dishes, but I had some left from Christmas cooking, and it was a big hit with my Italian guests. If cooking donkey offends you, you could substitute beef, I suppose.

Stracotto D’Asino

Ingredients

600 gm donkey meat, cut in chunks
1 slice of bacon, cut in pieces
1 white onion, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 cup red wine
200 gm tomato pulp
butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced thin
salt
bay leaves
ground nutmeg, pepper, cloves, allspice and cinnamon

Instructions

Put the meat in a bowl with the onion, garlic, bay leaves and spices (to taste). Add the red wine, stir and let marinate overnight in the refrigerator. See the HINTS tab for marinating techniques.

Next day, strain off the marinade and keep it separate. In a heavy, deep skilled over medium heat fry the bacon. Add a little butter to the bacon fat and brown the meat and vegetables. Add back the marinade plus the tomato pulp, cover and simmer very slowly for at least 5 hours. Check the liquid level from time to time and add hot broth if needed. Cook until the meat is very tender and the broth is thick.

The stracotto can be served with macaroni, or as a second course with grilled polenta.

Jan 132019
 

Today is the feast day of St Kentigern familiarly known as Mungo, an apostle of the Scottish kingdom of Strathclyde in the late 6th century, and the founder and patron saint of the city of Glasgow. In Wales and England, he is known by his birth and baptismal name Kentigern, but in Scotland, he is known by the pet name Mungo, possibly derived from the Cumbric equivalent of the Welsh: fy nghu ‘my dear (one)’. An ancient church in Bromfield is named after him, as are Crosthwaite Parish Church and some other churches in the northern part of Cumberland.

The Life of Saint Mungo was written by the monastic hagiographer Jocelyn of Furness in about 1185. Jocelin states that he rewrote the ‘life’ from an earlier Glasgow legend and an Old Irish document. There are two other medieval lives: the earlier partial life in the Cottonian manuscript now in the British Library, and the later Life, based on Jocelyn, by John of Tynemouth.

Mungo’s mother Teneu was a princess, the daughter of King Lleuddun (Latin: Leudonus) who ruled a territory around what is now Lothian in Scotland, perhaps the kingdom of Gododdin in the Old North. She became pregnant after being raped by Owain mab Urien according to the British Library manuscript. However, other historic accounts claim Owain and Teneu (also known as Thaney) had a love affair whilst he was still married to his wife Penarwen and that her father, king Lot, separated the pair after she became pregnant. Later, allegedly, after Penarwen died, Tenue/Thaney returned to king Owain and the pair were able to marry before King Owain met his death battling Bernicia in 597. Her furious father had her thrown from the heights of Traprain Law. She survived and then was abandoned in a coracle in which she drifted across the River Forth to Culross in Fife where Mungo was born.

Mungo was brought up by Saint Serf who was ministering to the Picts in that area. It was Serf who gave him his popular pet-name. At the age of 25, Mungo began his missionary work on the Clyde, on the site of modern Glasgow. He built his church across the water from an extinct volcano, next to the Molendinar Burn, where the present medieval cathedral now stands. For 13 years, he worked in the district, living a most austere life in a small cell and making many converts by his holy example and his preaching.

A strong anti-Christian movement in Strathclyde, headed by a king Morken, compelled Mungo to leave the district, and he retired to Wales, via Cumbria, staying for a time with Saint David at St David’s, and afterwards moving on to Gwynedd where he founded a cathedral at Llanelwy (St Asaph in English). While there, he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. However, the new king of Strathclyde, Riderch Hael, invited Mungo to return to his kingdom. He decided to go and appointed Saint Asaph/Asaff as Bishop of Llanelwy in his place.

For some years, Mungo fixed his episcopal seat at Hoddom in Dumfriesshire, evangelizing from there the district of Galloway. He eventually returned to Glasgow where a large community grew up around him. It was nearby, in Kilmacolm, that he was visited by St Columba, who was at that time working in Strathtay. The two saints embraced, held a long converse, and exchanged their pastoral staves. In old age, Mungo became very feeble and his chin had to be set in place with a bandage. He is said to have died in his bath, on Sunday 13th January.

In the Life of Saint Mungo, he is said to have performed four miracles in Glasgow. The following verse is used to remember Mungo’s four miracles:

    Here is the bird that never flew
    Here is the tree that never grew
    Here is the bell that never rang
    Here is the fish that never swam

The verses refer to the following:

The Bird: Mungo restored life to a robin, that had been killed by some of his classmates.

The Tree: Mungo had been left in charge of a fire in Saint Serf’s monastery. He fell asleep and the fire went out. Taking a hazel branch, he restarted the fire.

The Bell: the bell is thought to have been brought by Mungo from Rome. It was said to have been used in services and to mourn the deceased. The original bell no longer exists, and a replacement, created in the 1640s, is now on display in Glasgow.

The Fish: refers to the story about Queen Languoreth of Strathclyde who was suspected of infidelity by her husband. King Riderch demanded to see her ring, which he claimed she had given to her lover. In reality the king had thrown it into the river Clyde. Faced with execution she appealed for help to Mungo, who ordered a messenger to catch a fish in the river. On opening the fish, the ring was miraculously found inside, which allowed the Queen to clear her name. (This story may be confused with an almost identical one concerning king Maelgwn of Gwynedd and Saint Asaph.)

Mungo’s ancestry is recorded in the Bonedd y Saint. His father, Owain was a King of Rheged. His maternal grandfather, Lleuddun, was probably a King of the Gododdin; Lothian was named after him. There seems little reason to doubt that Mungo was one of the first evangelists of Strathclyde, under the patronage of king Rhiderch Hael, and probably became the first bishop of Glasgow.

Jocelin seems to have altered parts of the original life that he did not understand; while adding others, like the trip to Rome, that served his own purposes, largely the promotion of the bishopric of Glasgow. Some new parts may have been collected from genuine local stories, particularly those of Mungo’s work in Cumbria. Mungo’s associations with St Asaph were a Norman invention. However, in Scotland, excavations at Hoddom have brought confirmation of early Christian activity there, uncovering a late 6th-century stone baptistery.

Details of Mungo’s infirmity have a ring of authenticity about them. The year of Mungo’s death is sometimes given as 603, but is recorded in the Annales Cambriae as 612. 13th January was a Sunday in both 603 and 614. David McRoberts has argued that his death in the bath is a garbled version of his collapse during a baptismal service.

In a late 15th-century fragmentary manuscript generally called ‘Lailoken and Kentigern’, Mungo appears in conflict with the mad prophet, Lailoken alias Merlin. Lailoken’s appearance at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 has led to a connection being made between this battle, the rise of Riderch Hael and the return of Mungo to Strathclyde.

On the spot where Mungo was buried now stands the cathedral dedicated in his honor. His shrine was a great center of Christian pilgrimage until the Scottish Reformation. His remains are said to still rest in the crypt. A spring called “St. Mungo’s Well” lay eastwards from the apse.

Mungo’s four religious miracles in Glasgow are represented in the city’s coat of arms. Glasgow’s current motto “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of His word and the praising of His name” and the more secular, shortened, “Let Glasgow flourish,” are both inspired by Mungo’s original call “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the word”.

There is a beer called St Mungo brewed by West Brewing Co. in Glasgow, which, despite the name, is a Munich style lager. I suppose you could do something with this in a recipe to celebrate the day. I’m going to go with Dunfillan bramble pudding, which I have had in Glasgow once when visiting relatives. Brambles are any fruit from thorny bramble bushes, but blackberries are the usual ones. Wild picked are best.

Dunfillan Bramble Pudding

Filling:

450 gm brambles
110 gm sugar

Paste:

50 gm Butter
50 gm caster sugar
1 egg, beaten
110 grams Plain Flour, sifted
salt
2 tbsp milk
¼ tsp Baking Powder
1 lemon rind, grated fine

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 180˚C.

Place the fruit in a pie dish with a little water, and bake for 25 minutes.

Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer. Add the egg and milk and continue to beat. Stir in the flour, a pinch of salt and the baking powder.  Beat on low to make a smooth batter. Add the lemon rind.

Take the fruit from the oven. Pour the batter evenly over the fruit and spread it smoothly and evenly. Some paste will sink into the fruit.

Bake in the oven for 35 minutes until golden. Serve warm.