Jan 142020
 

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

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

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

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

Jan 132020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 082020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 062020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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